The Kiss is Thirst
By for Christina.

Stefan didn't know he had felt compelled to gather Katherine's ashes. He hadn't the first time he thought she had died, but his mind had been a tempest then, worrying about Damon, about how both of them would survive as vampires without their sire to guide them. Maybe, after saying goodbye to Elena, he had finally realized he had to let his memories of Katherine go too.

It had taken him days to collect Katherine's ashes, what with so many people going in and out of the crypt in the days after Elena's second death and service. He had to console himself with a small urn's worth, knowing most of her was scattered beyond his reach. The urn, lapis lazuli blue and decorated with golden scrollwork, barely filled his hand as he sat across the café table from his brother. "I'm going to Germany to scatter her ashes," Stefan said softly, the steam from his coffee veiling his face.

"For her or for you?" Damon's dark eyes were inscrutable, had been ever since Elena had killed Katherine and made the brothers swear to protect each other.

Stefan simply shrugged, running his thumb over the scrollwork on the urn. It was nothing compared to the craftsmanship of his day, but he thought Katherine would have liked it. She'd always had a weakness for shiny little trinkets. "She gave us eternity, Damon. We'd be nothing but dust now if not for her. I'm not saying she was perfect, but Klaus warped her—"

"Enough." Damon stood, tossing a few bills down on the table before he slid his sunglasses in place. "No more ghosts for me, little brother. She let us live a lie for over five hundred years. We owe her nothing. But by all means, enjoy Germany. The Black Forest region is particularly full of . . . delicacies." He gripped Stefan's shoulder for a moment. "The realm of monsters cruel and maidens fair." A moment later, the bell above the door sounded, and Damon was gone.

Stefan didn't let his brother's bitterness dissuade him, nor did he let Elena's friends' entreaties to stay in Fell's Church distract him. He contacted a travel agent that afternoon and, late that night he flew to Germany. After having his luggage sent ahead to the bed and breakfast the agent had recommended, he drove around for a few hours, hoping to get a sense of what type of spot would be best to scatter Katherine's ashes. The country had changed much since Katherine was human; it was impossible to say where her home village had been, given how borders had been endlessly redrawn in the region. But she had always had a love of the Black Forest, he knew—and as Damon said, it was the realm of monsters cruel and maidens fair. Katherine had been each and, at times, both. It seemed only fitting to set her free in a land of fairy tales, since she had been a living fable for him.

I was so foolish then, Stefan thought as he parked in the bed and breakfast's small lot. His was the only car there, and he was grateful for the solitude. He may have come to terms with losing Katherine long ago, but he hadn't been looking forward to the prospect of small talk with strangers, especially tourists. The owner hadn't seemed annoyingly chatty on the phone, so the vampire was hoping his visit would be peaceful. He stepped into the front hall of the house and dinged the small desk bell just once, cupping it with his hand to muffle the sound.

"Stefan." Just that one word, just his name. Not You must be Stefan or Welcome, Mr. Salvatore. Just his first name, warm and intimate and so startling that Stefan couldn't help but look up—into impossibly blue eyes. "Did you have a good journey?" The voice was softer than shadow and more insidious than a cat, a power in itself.

"I—yes. Thank you," Stefan murmured, remembering his manners. "Am I the only guest?" He just realized that he hadn't heard the owner approach.

"Indeed." The owner handed him a key, his hand almost as pale as Stefan's. "Our busy season is Oktoberfest, as you might expect, even though we're off the main route. Other than some business retreats, it's usually quite quiet here. I'm Julian. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Stefan shook Julian's hand in a daze. "Thank you for being so accommodating."

"My pleasure." Julian had said the word twice now, pleasure, with a slight inflection, like the rasp of ribbon being curled along a blade. "I took the liberty of putting your things in your room. Would you care for a drink?" He gestured across to the lounge, decorated in deep, lush red, lit by candles in what appeared to be genuinely antique holders.

Stefan didn't remember sitting, but he did. He didn't remember the man pouring him a drink, but he had. What looked like wine in the glass turned to blood on his tongue, and he blinked out of his reverie. "What is this?" Each time he tried to make sense of a sensation, his mind turned into a labyrinth of blind turns and dead ends.

"A dream. A wish. An in between." Julian leaned back in his chair, the candlelight in the room making his impossibly white hair ripple with orange and gold. "I knew her, your Katherine. In the time before."

Of course. There was no way the man in front of him was mortal, not with those glacial eyes and that nearly colourless hair. "You are not a vampire." Even Stefan wasn't certain if he was asking or insisting. He watched how the light curved around Julian, dancing and darting and defying any science Stefan knew. "A Shadow?" He had heard whispers down the ages of Shadow Men, but little more.

"A shadow of a Shadow, now" Julian agreed softly, swirling his drink in his glass. When he met Stefan's gaze, the very air seemed to still, tiny motes of dust caught mid-twirl. "Your brother once sought a queen of shadows."

Of course a man like Julian would know about Damon. And, Stefan thought, with a tinge of vicious jealousy, naturally Damon would know about men such as him. "He sought in vain." Although Julian had caught him off guard with his knowledge of Katherine, Stefan found the Shadow Man's company oddly restful. It was a relief not to have to hide his nature, the weight of his age.

One corner of Julian's mouth quirked up. "Indeed. Queens are only truly useful in chess. Why else have a queen when you can have a king?"

Stefan drained his glass and set it down, noting how Julian watched his every move. "You are no king." It was a guess on the vampire's part, but he had nothing left in his arsenal but his instincts.

"I am not. Nor are you seeking one." Katherine's urn appeared in Julian's outstretched hand in a swirl of mist. "You're seeking forgiveness. Understanding." Ashes spiralled out of the urn, taking Katherine's form at first, then Elena's, then Damon's. "Love." The ashes rose into the air, almost sparkling as they spiralled back down into the urn. "Those things come from the sting of fire."

"Shadows don't like fire," Stefan said softly, the challenge in his words muted by the odd heaviness in his head. He didn't know what the Shadow Man was up to, what he would do next, and the unpredictability intrigued him, drew him out of his despair.

"Without light," Julian countered, rising to his feet, "there are no shadows." He held out the urn, his eyes locking with Stefan's as the vampire took it from him. "I can give you neither forgiveness nor love, for I have none to spare. But the shadows hold many other things."

A hand was offered, and a hand was taken. The candle flames sputtered and died, and the darkness grew. And in the realm of monsters cruel and maidens fair, like his brother before him, Stefan sought one of the shadows.
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