The Craving (Chapter 29)

Her name was the Mina M. She was a speedy ship and a thing of beauty, with sleek lines and white sails. Her wooden mast was oiled to a sheen, boasting smart red flags that snapped in the breeze.

I stood at the prow and closed my eyes, imagining our journey. The stinging salt air and the bright yellow sun would whip my cheeks red as the Mina cut through waves, leaving white foam and spray in her wake. Little silver fish would glint in the water below in their hurry to get out of the way.

On our travels we would see tiny skiffs cross the water loaded up with bananas and rum in the West Indies. We'd trade for spices in India. I'd finally see Italy, walk through the Sistine Chapel, marvel in front of the Duomo, and drink Chianti straight from the vineyard.

Maybe… maybe this would be a new way of life for me. Traveling at the speed of water rather than confining myself to the shadows. I'd never stay in one port for too long, outrunning death and my curse. Sailors usually had no friends but the men they crewed with – I would fit right in.

But then I opened my eyes, my fantasy evaporating into the heavy midnight that surrounded me. A dense cloud cover obscured the sky and any stars embedded there failed to shine through. The Mina slipped silently out to sea, cutting the oily water with barely a hiss.

This was the vampire's realm. Though my ring allowed me to walk in the daylight, my world existed in darkness. It was then, while the sun slumbered, that I hunted, evaded enemies, spewed curses, broke promises, and gave myself over to hate. We had escaped Klaus's minion, but we hadn't defeated him. He and his master were still out there, somewhere, planning on future torture and death for me and Damon.

Lexi came up on deck behind me and touched my shoulder.

"We're en route to San Francisco," she said quietly. "I've not been there… in a while. But you'll love the fog and dismal weather. Great for brooding." She gave me a thin smile. "And I can tell you're going to be quite the brooder."

I leaned against the deck rail. I didn't have the heart to tell her that there would never be a place for me, that I would never fit. And I didn't deserve to, after all the lives I'd ended.

The night wind tousled my thick brown hair and Lexi tucked it behind my ear.

"He said an eye for an eye," I began.

"Yes. Well." Lexi took a deep sigh and looked serious for a moment, eyes narrowing. "This is a fast ship and it will take him time to figure out our manifest. Besides the legal cargo of tea and coffee, there's a sizable shipment of opium they're planning to pick up in Frisco. The captain failed to register with the dock master, so it will be a while before anyone figures out where we turn tail to."

"No. I mean yes, that's good." I rubbed a sudden spray of water from my eyes. "But I meant… he killed the people that were supposed to be our wives, because his Katherine was killed."

Lexi nodded, shivering.

"And then he grabbed you… and was going to kill you and me, and probably Damon, in a church, just like Katherine was killed."

Lexi narrowed her eyes. "I'm not sure I understand where you're going with this."

"If he was being so particular about whom he killed and in what manner, why didn't he set the place on fire?"

Lexi blinked. I saw her work through the logic. She stayed silent for a long time. I couldn't read her eyes, but still I felt embarrassed to be thinking of Katherine at a time like this.

"Stefan," she began. "Please listen to me. There are all levels of evil among our kind. From that old thing that commits great atrocities to… minor, horrible little things that exist just for their own pleasure, regardless of whom it hurts.

"Katherine wanted you to become a vampire. And look at the results. Do not weep overmuch for her, Stefan, or search for clues to her death or existence. Let her go. It is truly the best thing you can do."

I turned my head away from her and looked toward the only star bright enough to shine through the cloud cover – the North Star. Katherine was like that star: fixed in place, a silent specter hanging above me, a benchmark against which to measure my progress. No matter my feelings toward her, she had made me, and she would be with me always.

"We're not all evil," I said, putting my arm around her. "You're not."

"I'm a lot older than you," she said gently. "And who I am now isn't who I've always been. You're not the only one with things to atone for, Stefan. But I've made a vow to myself to be different."

"Oh, ugh. Vows." Damon stumbled onto deck loudly. "By Our Lord, haven't we made enough vows for a lifetime?"

"The marriages were your idea, not mine," I pointed out.

"Waah, wahh, I'm a vampire, I had a really great wedding, great champagne, my brother rescued me, and I'm still tortured."

He bounced off the deck rails, palming the smooth wood and propelling himself back to the other side, port to starboard back and forth until he reached us. The untrained eye would have marked him as drunk, but there was a telltale crimson smear in the corner of his lips. He was drunk with our escape, with our rescue, with the lifeblood of some poor cabin boy – but not with drink. Not yet, at least.

"Yes, and speaking of rescues, Margaret…" I prompted.

Damon sighed. "When I confronted her about being able to withstand compulsion, Margaret admitted she was a witch and said she would help me."

"Just like that?" I asked skeptically.

Damon rolled his eyes. "In return for us leaving New York and never coming back – in her lifetime, at least. And, this is the part that kills me, returning the dowries."

"Aw, Damon. I'm so sorry," Lexi said, her sparkling eyes belying her serious tone. "Your plan to fleece the rich didn't work out. Better luck next time." She punched him lightly in the shoulder.

"We owe her our lives," I said seriously. "She didn't have to help us at all. By all rights, she shouldn't have. The protection spell she cast around her and her husband – do you think it will really keep them safe?"

"I have to believe. Either way, she's a better soul than you lot," Lexi pronounced.

"And speaking of better souls…" I said, barely suppressing a smile, "what made you come back and rescue me? I thought you were hell-bent on 'never forgiving me' and 'punishing me until the end of my days.'"

Damon's blue eyes were veiled. "Yes. Well, I meant every word. I will never forgive you. I will torture your every living moment."

I shook my head, tamping down the stirring of black rage inside me that wanted to shout to Damon that he may have lost the love of his life, but I lost a life that I loved. And a father, and a home.

And a brother.

But as quickly as the rage flowed in, it ebbed back out again, leaving me hollow. How could I expect my brother to forgive me for turning him into a vampire when I couldn't forgive myself for it? He had once loved me, as I had once loved Katherine, but I would never, ever forgive her for making me what I was now.

Damon took me by the shoulders. "Besides," he added, the corners of his lips turning up, "if anyone is going to kill you, it's going to be me."

Then, without another word, he leaped with vampiric speed to the deck rail itself, balancing without moving a muscle as the boat dipped and rocked in the water, as though he were the ship's figurehead, carved in cold marble.

He lifted his hand in salute. "I'll be seeing you, brother."

Then, before I could even utter his name, he stepped off the rail and plunged into the dark water below.

I raced to the edge of the boat and looked at the churning water. But my brother didn't resurface. Lexi and I stood there for what felt like an eternity, until we were so far from shore and sky that it felt as though we were suspended in blackness.

Then, when the sun finally peeked its red head over the watery horizon, we went inside the dimly lit cabin to face our future.