Matt had to find his own way up to Stefans crows nest room. The room was dim, and it was hard to see more of Stefan than a silhouette in profile. He seemed to be looking at the dusty window. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to know that Stefan could see perfectly in this semidarkness.
It was even more disconcerting when Stefan spoke.
" Ave, Matt! Morituri te salutant," Stefan said cheerfully.
"S'joke. A joke," Stefan said, enunciating more carefully. "Latin. Hail, Matt. We who are about to die salute you. Salude!" Matt stared.
"Mer'dith thought it ws funny."
"Meredith knows Latin?"
"Yeah. Merdith"Stefan held up one finger. It was hard to know whether it meant
"don't interrupt" or "let me tell you a few things, starting with . . . " and Matt didn't think he could stand still for a long speech. His heart was already pounding. Damn. Stefan could probably hear that. Probably? What would a vampire be more attuned to hearing than the muscle that pushed around the blood of its prey? Does he know my mouth is dry, too? And that I want to run? Probably, Matt thought, bitterly. They've got senses that make humans look like those worm things that can only tell light from dark. Does he know what that makes humans feel like doing to vampires?
Vaguely shocked, he thought, how long have I wanted to punch him in the mouth? Just once. Just once to see a fist and a vampire falling flat on his ass. Because of a real human person. Not me. Any real human.
But Matt could feel the tingling in his own fist clenched tightly. Stefan had been talking for a while and Matt's brain helped him catch up by providing echoes of what he'd missed.
"Mer'dith knows a lotta things. Very smart. Bright. Ha. That's a joke, too. Ssee? Because she's dark. You know? You don't wanna know. She's dark 'but comely.' Humanss"again that exaggerated hiss on the sibilant"have so many prejudishes. Back in . . . not long ago, you know . . . your basic beautiful woman hadda be fair. Blond. All your lingwylingwalanguage stuff showss how" Matt's hand unclenched. His mind trolled blindly.
"Of coursse not." The silhouette straightened and tipped its chin up aggressively. Stefan spoke with the exaggerated dignity and precision of the truly smashed. "Vampiress don't get drunk. It's just a brief physifizzyfizheo" The silhouette began shaking with silent laughter. Amazement and anger gave Matt all the excuses he needed to do what he was already doing. He grabbed Stefan's dim arm and shook him, then bounced him off the dimmer wall.
"What's wrong with you? Are you crazy? You're supposed to be fighting the fight of your life"
"How did you even?"
"What kind of"
"Matt. Stop it." There was something in the voice that spoke directly to the human brainstem, like a dark shadow overhead telling a baby chick to freeze.
Vaguely, Matt looked down at his hands. He had Stefan by the shirt and upper arm and he'd been banging him against the wall. His right hand was gripping Stefan's bicep. It practically went all the way around it. Vampire muscles were flat and lean, their strength was of the slight and wiry sort. It gave the illusion almost of delicacy, sometimes, but now that Stefan had decided not to be bounced against a wall anymore, he was as still as a marble statue and Matt knew that a human would have about as much luck trying to move him. Hazily, he made his fists unclench and dropped his arms. His brain was trying to process too many things at once, but on the top level was shame that made his face burn. That was panic, he thought. I just attacked a vampire because I was scared. And while another part of his mind said, "A vampire? Your friend," a bigger part was asking, "Am I dead now?"
"It's aphysiological reaction." Stefan was making an effort, but he still didn't sound quite right. "It hits right after feeding, and it goes away, but the energy stays." Matt stared at the floor. His eyes were adjusting a little.
"It happens more often when different types of blood are mixed. Every human has a different kind of lifeenergy. Sometimes vampires do it deliberately just for the buzz."
"Yeah? Oh. Humans do that with alcohol."
"Yeah." He's trying to not embarrass me. Matt's teeth were clenched. He still couldn't look up from the floor.
"But I probably should have warned you about it. I wasn't thinking. And it's been . . . a long time since . . . " Matt looked up, and then down again. A long timesince Elena basically, in other words. Stefan sounded normal now. Normal for Stefan, anyway, especially these days when every sentence echoed as if it were coming from miles away, from somewhere where Stefan was alone in a white room with nothing but his memories. And he was practically giggling before. How many times have I ever heard him laugh? In my whole life?
"Matt." Stefan just sounded tired now. "I told you before. This isn't a good idea."
"I remember." Matt made an effort. "Yeah? It's not just your fight, you know. It's everybody's."
"I do actually realize that." The edge to Stefan's voice was a little promising. "I'm breaking . . . a promise, you know, by taking human blood at all. It wasn't my idea. And the girls are both strong." Matt's head jerked up. "What?"
"Meredith has a strong personality, a very strong lifeenergy. And Bonnie's psychic abilities give her"
"No. I know that. But you're saying what?"
"I'm saying it's enough. As you pointed out, I'm already . . . affected."
"You're telling me to fuck off?"
"Don't try to make me angry, Matt. I'm tired"
"That proves you're not strong enough"
"I am tired of dealing with human emotions," Stefan said raggedly. "I've got enough of my own to deal with, especially here. In this town. With her friends." He turned away, leaning against the wall and added almost inaudibly. "I'm tired of having people wonder if I'm going to rip their throats out."
Her friends. People. No mention of the fact that Elena's friends had once been his friends, that he and Matt had been friends. That once he'd asked favors of Matt, things that didn't make any sense at the time, like "Can you drive me to find this particular kind of flower?" That Matt had risked his own life to help Stefan when everyone else thought he was a monster. And Stefan was still trying to be kind; Matt could hear it. The way you're kind to a kid.
"I didn't know," Stefan went on, even more indistinctly, "how much you hated me." Oh hell, oh hell, oh hell. "So now you're reading minds?"
"That's what human blood doesbut, no, in fact. Even before you hit me all I was reading was your bodylanguage." I hit you? Matt squeezed his eyes shut hard. It didn't do any good; he could feel wetness on his eyelids. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry, all right? I was scared. You used to understand 'scared.'" Before you lost everything. With a sound like letting out breath, Stefan turned. There was another moment or two, as if he were thinkingor listening. "I still understand it, Matt. I still remember everything that happened here. Thank you." Matt had turned away so he could rub at his eyes angrilynot that it made any difference which way he turned, probably. "Can you understand how humans feel around you people? Is there anything you can't do? Is there anything we're better at?"
"We're not people." Matt opened his mouth, shut it again. A little while ago we were all ready to fight the monster that's killing the girls I went to school with. Could I have screwed this up any worse if Id planned it? He plucked at his Tshirt wearily. "Can we just . . . get this over with?"
"I told you, it was enough."
"If you think I'm gonna let Bonnie do something and then run away from it . . . think again."
"Bonnie wasn't as scared." Before Matt could unfreeze long enough to really hit him, Stefan added, "And I don't care as much about what Bonnie thinks of me. Bonnie was Elena's friend."
"Just suck up my blood, all right?"
"I don't want to hurt you."
"Damn!" Matt waved a hand, his brain stalling. He knew Stefan knew how many times he'd been injured; that was part of the game. "Do I have to tell you about how I broke my arm when I was five and nobody knew for about a week because"
"You really don't understand, do you? At least, not consciously. Taking somebody's blood when they're resisting hurts. More than anything you can think of."
"I'm not resisting."
"You will be."
"Just quit with the mindreading or the psychoanalysis or whatever. This could've been over by now."
Matt's eyes had adjusted enough by now that he could make out some features in the dim figure that faced him. He could see Stefan's mouth twist grimly as well as hear the little sound of exasperation.
"Fine. You don't have to take that off. There's a vein in the wrist that works just as well."
Meredith and Bonnie had both been holding a hand to the side of their necks; Bonnie a trifle absently. Matt looked at his dim arms.
"If there's any kind of fighting tonight I'm going to need these."
"Fine. Sit." Matt looked at the bed, then the chair. "I have to sit?"
"No. You can fall if you want. Your choice."
"You really are a bastard, you know? You're trying to scare me."
"Yes," Stefan said, with a terrifying lack of expression. He leaned in. "I am trying to scare you because I would rather scare you than hurt you."
"I don't care if you hurt me!" This was crazy. Matt sat on the bed, tipped his chin back, and shut his eyes like someone awaiting lethal injection. He made his mind as blank as possible.
It seemed a long time before Stefan said, in that same clipped, expressionless voice,
"Fine. Your funeral."
"You know something? From a vampire, that isn't funny."
"I wasn't trying to be funny."
Matt felt him sit on the bed. And then cool fingertips were gripping his jaw, adjusting the angle of his head with the precision and unemotional professionalism of a surgeon. Blank, blank, blank, he thought. His hands were clenched into fists by his sides. How did Bonnie and Meredith do this? How do you hold still and wait for the snake to bite? Bonnie's frightened of thunderstorms; she cries if she cuts her finger. How could they possibly have been better, stronger, more courageous about this? God, you're dumb, something in his brain informed him, and then turned its back on him and refused to say anything else.
The pain wasn't nearly as bad as he'd been imagining. Vampire canines were sharp. And, after all, Stefan knew what he was doing; he did this all the time. Damn, that's it? I got myself all worked up over that? The last time I had bloodwork it hurt way more than that; that idiot doctor couldn't even find a vein. No wonder . . . He felt coolwarmth on the side of his neck and the world exploded in agony. He couldn't breathe. His soul was being ripped out of his body while it was still alive. It stopped.
Matt's mind caught up with the fact that he wasn't dying anymore a few minutes later. He was doubled over, arms wrapped around himself, trying not to sob.
"I . . . told you," Stefan's voice said. Stefan's voice was shaking with anger; he could feel Stefan shaking with anger, and strainand something else. Grief, maybe. Selfhatred. But Stefan's hand was still locked in Matt's hair.
"I'll tell you . . . something else," Stefan said, and Matt could hear the diamondbright edge of fury twisted back on itself in his voice. Stefan leaned down to speak directly into Matt's ear, softly and with a venom Matt had never heard before. "It's . . . not good to offer your blood to a vampire and then expect to back out. We are not . . . nice creatures. We get a certain desire to rip your arms and legs off and" He stopped. Matt felt the fingers in his hair unclench and let go. Stefan stood. Stefan was walking away.
"Wait." It was only one syllable, but Matt impressed himself by getting it out.
"I'm leaving now," Stefan said distantly. It was still a voice designed to raise the fine hairs on the back of a human neck.
"Wait." Matt scrubbed his cheeks with a shrug of both shoulders. It didn't hurt to do that. The wound in his neck was barely trickling. I was right. It's not the snake thing, the needle thing.
"Listen to me, youhuman," Stefan said. It was as if he couldn't find a stronger expletive. He came back and leaned down, deliberately putting one hand on the bed on either side of Matt, invading Matt's personal space. Matt couldn't look up without looking directly into that shadowed face. "You have pushed me . . . far enough. If you push me any farther . . . "
"I know! I'm dumb, all right, but I figured it out. I didn't understand." He shook off what was going to be Stefan pointing out that he had told him and told him. "I didn't get it. I do now. I can do better than that."
"You are really pushing it, Matt. Take my advice, will you? If you are unlucky enough to run into another vampire, do not use this tactic. Ever."
"Try it again."
"How can you be so stubborn? Is it really worth it to prove that you're braver than Bonnie?"
"I know what I was doing wrong."
"You're not going to like it any better if you do it right."
"Just stop talking." Stefan whirled and sat down heavily. He sounded dazed. "I give up. Some people have to learn the hard way." Matt straightened up, hands open on his knees, and tilted his head. He felt again the precise, unemotional fingers on his jaw, but they weren't as cool as before. And he could feel the almost imperceptible shaking. Matt's thoughts, already, confused and in conflict, were now jumping from idea to idea like a frog in a redhot frying pan.
I was right. I knew I hurt him. More than it hurt me, maybe. And I don't know any way to make him understand about humans . . . why doesn't he already know that? I bet Damon knows it. No, I'm stupid. Human blood; he doesn't drink human blood. And maybe a vampire wouldn't get it anyway. To them it's feeding, it's eating. How are they supposed to understand the stuff it gets mixed up with in a human brain? Or that it's different with a guy than a girl, that the whole thing sets off some kind of panic impulse with guys? Here he's trying to save Bonnie and Meredith and everybody, when I'm completely useless, and the only way I can help him is to make him stronger so he has a chance. Not even a chance of living, but a chance of stopping that monster. And what do I do? I hit him. All I needed to do was relax and not hate him, but I couldn't even do that. The girls could do that, but not me.
He opened his eyes. Had he missed it? No, Stefan was just sitting there.
"What now? I told you I was sorry. You still think I'm gonna back out and make you rip my arms off?" Stefan let go. "No, but . . . "
"I told you, I get it. Come on; it's getting late." He could hear the difference in his own voice; he was still embarrassed, but he was talking to a friend, not a demon. Stefan was shaking his head. "Humans . . . "
"Will you just" This time, when he felt the doubleneedle sting, he pushed away thoughts of snakes and scorpions. He thought about the first time he'd seen Stefan, standing up to old Tanner to defend Bonnie. He thought about the alwaysshadowed, always lost look in Stefan's eyes back when Matt had invited him to join a team of humans, and the doubt and confusion turning slowly into belief there. Stefan had wanted to join the human race, but he hadn't expected anybody to welcome him into it. Matt had been the first one to do that.
He kept thinking the same way when he felt Stefan's mouth on his neck, drawing out his blood. He tried not to think of Elena because that was something that hurt uniquelyhis own pain was bad enough, but seeing Stefan's eyes afterward . . . God, nobody should be hurt like that. Matt didn't want to imagine what it took to make somebody's eyes look like that. Back in the days when they tortured people, maybe, there were lots of eyes, on the rack, on the Wheelno, don't think about that. But to see that in somebody you cared about . . . and not to be able to do anything . . .
He heard his own breath break. What was . . . This wasn't . . . He was breathing as if he'd been running hard. He could feel his heart, too, but it wasn't from the fear that had made him so angry when he'd walked in here. Wait . . .
You won't like it any better if you do it right. The world exploded differently. There was still pain, sharper pain in a way, but it was mixed with an even sharper feeling, that was totally unfamiliar. Stefan was sucking his blood out hard, and holding him in place, too, or Matt might have fallen right off the bed. He was pierced to the soul. But somehow that was what he wanted, and all he could think was that he wanted to give more even than he was giving. He didn't want to stop giving and he was aware, vaguely, of the feeling of not being able to breathe. He knew he was flying, and then soaring, and then everything went still, and he writhed like a victim on a sacrificial altar, pierced by a thousand little vampire teeth. And then a single ray of light pierced him body and soul, and he was giving everything he could, everything he was, pouring himself in a greedy frenzy into the darkness of the vampire. And then darkness took his vision.