He woke into dusky light, slowly. The curtains were drawn. He had tossed off the covers in his sleep and the room was warm, close. He didn't know what time it was, and that felt decadent.
He took a deep breath, and the smell--
"Good morning," Katherine said, settling her body next to his, so they were both lying down together. She was naked as he was, uncovered, but her eyes drew him, not her soft whiteness.
They breathed together for a moment. The pillowcase was damp beneath his cheek. It was--it had been a hot night, he was sweating. Katherine stroked his face, and smiled her small smile. There was something glass-like about her smile.
"What time is it?" Stefan asked. The light glowing through the curtains was indecipherable, but it must be late to be this warm. The air was practically thick.
"Mmm, noon," Katherine said, "about noon."
"That late?" He felt wicked, pleasantly so. When she chuckled it reminded him of the clatter of silverware in the kitchen, when he was very young and Lizzie would set him on the table by the sink while she washed.
"It's my fault," she said, though she didn't sound repentant. "John came to wake you but I sent him away." She sat up, as unmindful of her nakedness as a child. Sinless, and why should that make him feel all the more wicked? When he cupped her breast--it fit exactly in his hand, as if she were sculpted for him--she sighed, and closed her eyes, and said his name softly.
He made love to her again, in the narrow lines of light that broke around the edges of the curtains and scattered over her, golden. Without even getting up.
Stefan had lost track of the time as he read--Shakespeare, his father's old dusty tome, like the rest of the library--but when he heard the footsteps outside his door, it pulled him from his reverie, and he realized it was nearly midnight. He took up the candle and went to see who it was.
Katherine was waiting for him in the parlor, wearing a skirt or two less than when they'd said goodnight that evening, though she still seemed to float on a cloud of fabric and lace. "I'm going for a walk in the woods," she said, brightly. "Would you like to come along?"
"But it's not safe," Stefan said. "Those animal attacks--Hephaestia Forbes was killed not even a mile from here, just last week. I'd never forgive myself if I let something happen to you."
She smiled. "You're such a dutiful host, Stefan. And a gentleman, too. Why don't you come with me? I'm sure no harm could come to me in your company."
He hesitated, but he could already feel the way her small hand would pull gently, but firmly, at his, and the laughter that would be in her eyes when he gave in. "I appreciate your confidence in me, but I don't think I could fight off a wild dog with my bare hands."
"But I know you'd try," she said, "for me. I know, let's bring Damon. And the two of you can bring a pistol, or that rifle he's so fond of. A lady couldn't ask for a safer escort."
Stefan knew she was toying with him; knew she was perfectly aware of his—competition, with his brother, over her affections. She seemed sometimes to enjoy their jousting more than their actual company. But she was right—it would be safer, and God knew there would be no dissuading Katherine from going out tonight, now that she'd set her mind on it. Besides, he found he didn't mind the idea so much, of sharing her company with Damon for a midnight stroll. He'd been spending so much time alone with Katherine these past few weeks, he'd hardly found a moment to spare for Damon—when Katherine wasn't keeping him busy as well—and Stefan found, to his surprise, that he missed his brother's company.
"Why don't you go and wake him," he said. "I'm sure he'll be happier to see your face than mine first thing on awaking."
"Do you think he'll be asleep? I'd be disappointed." Katherine smiled again, wide and bright, and went upstairs, seeming almost to float. He watched her feet peek out from underneath her skirts.
Damon was asleep, it turned out, and he was still buttoning his trousers as he came down the stairs, Katherine pulling him along. "What do you say, brother," he said, "should I fetch my rifle? To aid in the defense of our dear lady."
"Go on and get it," Stefan said, half-smiling. "We all know you want to."
Their walk, as it turned out, was entirely peaceful; whatever beasts or monsters had been feeding on Fell's Church, they were quiet tonight. Katherine walked with Stefan at one side and Damon on the other, pointing out the stars and letting them push aside the bramble for her. They came to a clearing in the woods, where the ground was trod down and the trees parted above to let the sky through.
"Let's stop here," Katherine said, and sat down. Her skirts billowed out underneath her. Stefan glanced at Damon, and found his brother looking at him as well, and looking much the same mixture of shocked and amused.
"Yes," Damon said, "let's," and lay down crosswise to her with his head in her lap. Stefan felt a stab of jealousy and a pulse of warmth, and couldn't quite understand himself—but then, he rarely could, around Katherine. He settled next to the pair of them.
Damon looked up at him, smiling. "Don't look so grim, Stefan. Did you think I meant country matters?"
Katherine laughed. "I think nothing, my lord."
Stefan waited for Damon to answer back, then realized Damon was waiting for him. "That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs," he said, feeling a smile spread over his face. He crossed his legs and shifted, turning to sit facing them, so that Damon's face was straight below him, smiling that tooth-flashing smile Stefan had watched him practice on all the girls in town.
Damon said, "What is, my lord?"
"Nothing," Katherine said. "And here I wasn't certain the two of you were fit to wait upon a lady." She stroked Damon's cheek. "Such pretty scholars you make."
The night air was warm and humid; it clung to Stefan's skin like kisses. He felt suddenly as though they were entirely alone, the three of them, the only people alive in the world. It was like the way he felt mornings with Katherine, when they woke up alone and shamelessly late in the day and made love like Roman emperors, French aristocrats, some decadent European race of people who gloried in their own obscenity. That was how he felt now, in the half-moon light, silvering off their skins and making them all glow. He touched his hand to Katherine's, where it rested on Damon's cheek.
Damon's eyes had been closed; they opened now, curious. Stefan met his gaze but said nothing, instead turning to look at Katherine, who was watching them both with thinly-veiled catlike pleasure.
"You told me..." It was a struggle to remember, for some reason. "You told me you had plans for us," Stefan said. "The three of us. Tell me about them."
It was the first time he'd ever seen Katherine look surprised—he only realized that seeing it now, that he'd never, not once, caught her off her guard before.
Damon sat up, looking struck. "You told me too," he said. "I remember now, that first night we--" He paused, whether out of deference to Stefan or Katherine it was impossible to tell. And though Stefan had known—of course he'd known, he wasn't a fool, and anyway he'd been able to smell Damon on her the first time she came to his bedroom, as soon as she'd stepped in the door—hearing Damon say it, or almost say it, sent a dreadful thrill down his spine. Of jealousy, or wanting, or the confused mix of both that he always felt when he imagined the two of them together.
Katherine looked back and forth between the two of them, and Stefan watched her face compose itself. Even when Damon grabbed her wrist, she didn't flinch, though his hand was big enough to swallow hers up almost whole.
"You've been playing us for fools," Damon said, "and we've been letting you—haven't we, Stefan, because we liked it, God knows I did, the play of it and the fucking and the little games, but it's time for it to stop."
"Damon..." Stefan had no idea what he meant to say next. Stop? Let her go? Katherine had made no move to free herself from Damon's grip, and she looked not in the least perturbed by his sudden (but it wasn't, was it?) roughness.
"It's all right, Stefan," Katherine said. Then to Damon, or perhaps both of them—"Yes, it's time. I knew you were clever boys, but you surprised me—but it's time. Though I have enjoyed watching the two of you try to fight it out like gentlemen, your darling silent war, but you see, there was never any need." She looked them straight in the eye, and Stefan felt a strange yet familiar coolness start to cloak his mind. Beside him he felt Damon fall into stillness, strange in itself—when had he ever known his brother to be still? But then, so much had changed since she arrived.
"I want you both," Katherine said. Her voice sounded like honey, thick and sweet. "In my bed, traveling with me, hunting with me. You'll be mine forever, my beautiful Salvatore brothers. Won't you?"
"Yes," Stefan said, without hesitation, and Damon echoed him a moment later. A faint breeze stirred up suddenly, like ghostly fingers tracing across the back of his neck.
She laughed. "Then kiss me." And leaned back on her palms, waiting.
They both moved for her at once, and somehow no one got knocked on the head or shoved with an elbow; they kissed her mouth together, their cheeks pressed against each other. Stefan felt her small arm wrap around him, knowing that her other arm was pulling Damon closer, as she lay back on the chill earth. They kissed, the three of them, and Stefan closed his eyes and let himself get lost in the feel of her mouth, Damon's stubble-rough chin against his, her tongue darting back and forth between them. And then she laid her head back on the ground and he found himself kissing his brother. He froze, and opened his eyes, to find Damon's eyes closed. His brother's face was paler in the moonlight, and a flush rose on his cheekbones, and he didn't open his eyes, and he was breathing quickly, like a caught rabbit.
Stefan thought: we are the only people alive in the world.
He held on to Damon's face and kissed him, letting him in as deep as he had ever let Katherine. Together they sank down on top of her, as her slender arms encircled them tight.
They came in from the woods, eventually, but they spent the next week in their own world just the same. Every encounter, in his memory, was hazy yet crystalline, like the way air flickered over a fire. Sucking at her nipples until they came to tight points in his mouth; stroking his hand firm down Damon's arched back as he pushed inside of him--so much like being inside Katherine yet so entirely different; being pressed between the two of them, Damon behind and Katherine before, Damon's voice low and urgent in his ear while Katherine's mouth stretched around his prick and her fingernails scratched at the sore red bite marks that spotted his thighs. He remembered drinking her blood, but he also remembered not remembering it. And Damon's blood, how Stefan sucked at his neck while pumping him with his hand and licked his fingers clean with bloody lips. The two of them drinking from Stefan, both at once, while he panted and begged and finally blacked out.
They spent the week in bed, cocooned in bloody sheets, the servants banished except to leave trays of food at the door. And then not even that.
When they finally ventured out—when their hunger pushed them out, Katherine following gleefully after—it was night again, damp and thick. They ranged the night like wild cats, not speaking to each other, not needing to. Katherine seemed—larger, at night, outside. Taller, or bigger somehow, a coiled violent presence he could feel at his back, as though, if he turned around, he might see a tiger crouching to spring. He felt so alive in the night air, like he had just woken up from a long, strange, sweet dream. And Damon was hunting beside him, and that felt right, too. They found a pair of boys walking home who'd strayed from the path, and they drank their fill. It felt as though Stefan had been starving for years, as though he would never have enough, but finally he did, and he dropped the limp body to the ground. It sprawled at the foot of an oak tree; Damon tossed the other body on top of it.
"My beautiful hunters," Katherine murmured, the first words any of them had spoken since they stepped outside. She took them by the wrists and pulled them deeper into the woods, away from the path. As the hot blood made its way through his body, Stefan felt the fog of hunger clear from his head. He stumbled, suddenly, and it wasn't Katherine's name but his brother's he called out as he thought, oh God, oh Jesus, what did she make of us?
Damon held him up; he felt like his legs had no bones. "Damon. Damon, my God, we killed them—we killed those boys. We killed them." He couldn't stop saying it, he couldn't say it enough, because it still felt unreal, like something he'd seen from a long way away. Katherine started to say something to him but he shoved her away.
"Don't be an idiot," Damon said, though his face was drawn and tight. "It isn't killing. We had to eat."
"But we did. You know we did." He felt as though he were about to shake apart.
"Yes, you did," Katherine said, sitting on the ground where she'd fallen. "It was magnificent."
Stefan whirled to face her. "How could you do this to us? How could you turn us into--into monsters?"
"Not monsters," she said, sticking out her hand to be pulled up. When Stefan didn't take it, she shrugged and leapt to her feet in one fluid motion, like a dancer. "I've made you better. Stronger. Immortal, Stefan. I've given you a great gift, you and your brother."
"Shut up," Damon said abruptly. They both looked at him; Stefan could see the surprise on Katherine's face. "Just...both of you, stop it. Let's go back to the house."
To Stefan's surprise, Katherine only nodded, and let Damon lead the way out of the woods. He followed them, several steps behind, trying not to think about how good he felt, how warm and bright inside.
They went their separate ways when they returned to the house, Katherine vanishing into her bedroom where Emily was waiting for her, her eyes as impossible to read as they ever had been. But Stefan didn't sleep (did he need sleep now? Was he still human in that, at least? He couldn't tell, his body was too hot and fiery with the stolen blood rushing through his veins); he lay in bed, trying not to think about the weight of the boy's body in his arms, the way his struggling had faded away and then abruptly stopped and the body had seemed to get heavier, suddenly. Dead weight, he thought, and it echoed in his mind like a refrain. He couldn't stop it. It was a relief and not even, really, a surprise when Damon came in.
"What?" Stefan said, not looking at him.
"We aren't monsters," Damon said.
"What would you call it, then? Animals? Murderers? We must be one or the other, after all."
"Don't hate her," he said. "She did this for us."
"She killed us," Stefan said. "Killed us and brought us back as demons. Do you remember dying, Damon?" He sat up and looked at his brother, who met his gaze without flinching. "I don't remember it, quite. It's hazy. Like a memory of something I read. But maybe you remember."
"I remember how it felt," Damon said. Katherine had snapped his neck, reached down from on top of him and squeezed it with one hand. He'd been first, and Stefan hadn't known what would happen. He hadn't been able to breathe, until Katherine grabbed his chin and turned him to face her and talked to him--he understood now, what she'd been doing to them, but it still worked on him. Made the world soft and cottony and unimportant, outside of her voice and her dark eyes. And then when Damon had woken up there was that new light inside him, and all Stefan wanted--could want--was to join them.
He still wanted it, and hated himself for it. "We're dead," he said. "What would you call us? Walking dead men, blood drinkers--"
"Christ, you don't stop," Damon said, and suddenly he was standing in front of Stefan, moving with that ungodly speed. "We can be together, now. The three of us. You know we wouldn't be able to, not if we were still--ordinary. You know the things people are already saying about her, don't you? But she doesn't care, and now we don't have to either. We can be with her forever. We can do anything."
"We're like toys to her, Damon. Little toy soldiers that she plays with. She'll probably get tired of us before the year is out--"
Damon's weight knocked him back before Stefan saw him move, and the hand on his throat had to be pure instinct, since it meant nothing now. "Don't say that," Damon said, his voice low and animal. "She wants us. She wants me, don't you tell me that she doesn't."
"Yes," Stefan said. He felt suddenly tired. "All right."
"You don't believe it," Damon said. "But that's all right. You will." And then--not loosening his grip on Stefan's throat--Damon bit his lip, hard enough to draw blood. His tongue stabbed at the wound, nursing it, and they had never been together without Katherine at their side, not in all those days of debauchery--but why not, Stefan thought, Christ, why not? They had nothing left to care about, just like Damon had said. And Katherine was in her bedroom making plans for the rest of their endless lives, not here. They were alone here. Stefan opened his mouth wider, and turned it into a kiss.
Damon kissed him back, hard, his body still tight with anger or God knew what else that had driven him to Stefan's room. Stefan tasted his own blood in Damon's mouth and he wanted more, wanted to taste Damon's blood again. He remembered the taste so clearly, suddenly, that it made him flush with heat. He pushed his brother off of him, onto his back, and rolled on top of him and bit his neck before Damon could fight back. The blood ran hot and quick, spilling onto the sheets, and Stefan swallowed it up as fast as he could, feeling himself grow aroused. It was like the heat from the blood was drowning him, caressing him all over. Damon was panting and laughing beneath him.
"Greedy," he said, when Stefan tore himself away, his mouth dripping. "Greedy little pig. My turn now." He stroked his palm between Stefan's thighs, over the ghosts of a dozen little bites. All healed now, of course, leaving only pale flesh and the deep purple of the blood under the skin, where Damon wanted to bite him. He felt himself get harder at the thought and turned over willingly, easily, his hands moving to the buttons of his trousers.
Damon bit him and drank fast, taking almost too much, until Stefan felt light and dazed. He moved his mouth to Stefan's erection without a pause, sinking down on it then pulling up and leaving a bright red trail that made Stefan moan. Damon sucked him and Stefan watched as long as he could before he had to throw his head back and come, hissing out his pleasure between clenched teeth. He shuddered as he felt Damon swallow around him, then slide off and back to the wound on his thigh, nursing the blood back to the surface.
He did the same for Damon, stroking his brother's prick as he sucked on the stolen blood--they could do this forever, trading back and forth--feeling the pulse in his mouth and his hand, so impossibly alive despite everything he knew they no longer were. When he licked Damon's come from his fingers, it almost tasted like blood.
Monsters did sleep, it turned out, or at least Stefan did; he fell into a doze sprawled next to Damon in the damp mess they'd made of the bedsheets. He didn't dream of anything or anyone, and when he woke Damon was gone.