~2~

Tracks of tears stained his cheeks, for her hand had not been there to wipe them away, and he felt the more helpless for the salty stickiness they left behind. The echoes of her screams rang in his ears; they had tormented him far more than could any shadow in the night, and he could not quite reconcile his mother's soft, kind face with her cries that had torn the night apart.

The house was silent now. Lettie and Dinah had restrained him in the nursery, insisting he could not see his mother "until it was over". How could they be so calm when something had so clearly gone wrong? He could not fathom what could have hurt his mother so, or how anyone could allow it to persist for hours on end.

Dinah, who had left just minutes ago while Lettie cradled him, returned.

"You go now to your mother, little master," she said softly. "She ready to see you now."

Damon leapt from Lettie's arms and threw himself out into the hallway. His father would approve of neither his crying nor his undignified dash down the corridor, but Damon found that he could not care about anything but seeing his mother with his own two eyes.

He ground to a halt in front of the door to his parents' quarters, which had been left ajar. Cautiously he pushed it open, and an early dawn light spilled out into the dark hall, illuminating his pale hand on the knob. His mother lay utterly still in the large bed; she looked so small that the wilted bedclothes might at any moment swallow her whole. At the creak of the door, though, she opened her eyes and smiled briefly, as though her face could not hold it for long.

"My angel," she breathed.

Damon found his legs and ran to her, catapulting himself onto the bed. Dinah made a noise of protest behind him - he hadn't realized that she had followed him from the nursery - but his mother whispered, "It's all right. Let him."

He crawled across the damp sheets and buried his head under her arm. He felt strangely too large, too active for this still figure cradling him, but she was home to him, and he let his worry bide. She smelled different, peculiar almost, as though some great change had occurred in his absence, and a new worry crossed his mind. Resurfacing, he saw that her belly, so round and protuberant the day before, was now much reduced in size beneath the linen.

With her uncanny ability to answer his questions before he could ask them, she said, "Would you like to meet your brother, Damon?"

Movement from the corner of the room caught his eye, and for the first time he noticed an unfamiliar woman sitting in the chair there, a small bundle in her arms. She arose then, and slowly made her way to the bed. His mother lifted her arms to receive the precious cargo, and Damon saw the contents within the swaddled cloth begin to move.

Entranced, he leaned closer, and there he saw the absolute smallest person he had ever laid eyes upon. He was miniature in every way: his strange wrinkled fingers flexed and closed in a constant hypnotic motion, while his tiny hole of a mouth gaped open. His closed eyes completed the impression that this small creature sought to experience the world around him by feeling and tasting the air, rather than seeing it.

Damon instinctively lifted his hand to touch him, but caught himself and froze before turning to his mother for approval. She smiled, took his hand in her free one, and brought them to rest lightly against the downy-haired infant's head.

It was softer even than his mother's finest silk gown. He could summon no comparison for the delicate, feathery texture except for the memory of once successfully catching a butterfly. Its wings had beat against the cage of his hands, and he had sensed then that one false move would mark the creature's demise. It was so now that Damon, feeling a quick pulse just beneath the skin of his brother's fragile skull, felt an almost overwhelming sense of power that frightened him as much as it drove him to continue stroking the little head. Always he felt what he knew in his mind push back against the pull of some deeper desire, and always his turmoil was calmed by a mothering touch on his face, or a soothing hand on his shoulder.

"Did he hurt you?" The question felt even more absurd on his tongue than it had seemed in his thoughts, but it burst out of him as he remembered the long screams that preceded his brother's debut.

"No, my own," she murmured. "A child brings life with him to the world. Any pain attending his arrival is incidental. You need not worry yourself about it, mm?"

Gazing at his brother's guileless face, the unwanted doubt dissipated. Damon rested his head against his mother's breast, feeling the weight of a sleepless night pull at his eyelids. He fought against it, but knew it would take him unwillingly at any moment. Wanting one last question answered, his voice was muffled by his mother's dressing gown as he asked, "What do we call him?"

Balancing on the precipice between sleep and wakefulness, he heard his mother say, "Let us call him Stefan," before he slipped over the edge to blissful unknowing.