|Модератор форума: Вампир
|Вампир||Дата: Суббота, 31-Октября-2009, 18:47:06 | Сообщение # 1|
|THE FURY |
The Vampire Diaries Book 3
L. J. Smith
Elena stepped into the clearing.
Beneath her feet tatters of autumn leaves were freezing into the slush. Dusk had fallen, and although the storm was dying away the woods were getting colder. Elena didn't feel the cold.
Neither did she mind the dark. Her pupils opened wide, gathering up tiny particles of light that would have been invisible to a human. She could see the two figures struggling beneath the great oak tree quite clearly.
One had thick dark hair, which the wind had churned into a tumbled sea of waves. He was slightly taller than the other, and although Elena couldn't see his face she somehow knew his eyes were green.
The other had a shock of dark hair as well, but his was fine and straight, almost like the pelt of an animal. His lips were drawn back from his teeth in fury, and the lounging grace of his body was gathered into a predator's crouch. His eyes were black.
Elena watched them for several minutes without moving. She'd forgotten why she had come here, why she'd been pulled here by the echoes of their battle in her mind. This close the clamor of their anger and hatred and pain was almost deafening, like silent shouts coming from the fighters. They were locked in a death match.
I wonder which of them will win, she thought. They were both wounded and bleeding, and the taller one's left arm hung at an unnatural angle. Still, he had just slammed the other against the gnarled trunk of an oak tree. His fury was so strong that Elena could feel and taste it as well as hear it, and she knew it was giving him impossible strength.
And then Elena remembered why she had come. How could she have forgotten? He was hurt. His mind had summoned her here, battering her with shock waves of rage and pain. She had come to help him because she belonged to him.
The two figures were down on the icy ground now, righting like wolves, snarling. Swiftly and silently Elena went to them. The one with the wavy hair and green eyes—Stefan, a voice in her mind whispered—was on top, fingers scrabbling at the other's throat. Anger washed through Elena, anger and protectiveness. She reached between the two of them to grab that choking hand, to pry the fingers up.
It didn't occur to her that she shouldn't be strong enough to do this. She was strong enough; that was all. She threw her weight to the side, wrenching her captive away from his opponent. For good measure, she bore down hard on his wounded arm, knocking him flat on his face in the leaf-strewn slush. Then she began to choke him from behind.
Her attack had taken him by surprise, but he was far from beaten. He struck back at her, his good hand fumbling for her throat. His thumb dug into her windpipe.
Elena found herself lunging at the hand, going for it with her teeth. Her mind could not understand it, but her body knew what to do. Her teeth were a weapon, and they slashed into flesh, drawing blood.
But he was stronger than she was. With a jerk of his shoulders, he broke her hold on him and twisted in her grasp, flinging her down. And then he was above her, his face contorted with animal fury. She hissed at him and went for his eyes with her nails, but he knocked her hand away.
He was going to kill her. Even wounded, he was by far the stronger. His lips had drawn back to show teeth already stained with scarlet. Like a cobra, he was ready to strike.
Then he stopped, hovering over her, his face changing.
Elena saw the green eyes widen. The pupils, which had been contracted to vicious dots, sprang open. He was staring down at her as if truly seeing her for the first time.
Why was he looking at her that way? Why didn't he just get it over with? But now the iron hand on her shoulder was releasing her. The animal snarl had disappeared, replaced by a look of bewilderment and wonder. He sat back, helping her to sit up, all the while gazing into her face.
"Elena," he whispered. His voice was cracked. "Elena, it's you."
Is that who I am? she thought. Elena?
It didn't really matter. She cast a glance toward the old oak tree. He was still there, standing between the upthrust roots, panting, supporting himself against it with one hand. He was looking at her with his endlessly black eyes, his brows drawn together in a frown.
Don't worry, she thought. I can take care of this one. He's stupid. Then she flung herself on the green-eyed one again.
"Elena!" he cried as she knocked him backward. His good hand pushed at her shoulder, holding her up. "Elena, it's me, Stefan! Elena, look at me!"
She was looking. All she could see was the exposed patch of skin at his neck. She hissed again, upper lip drawing back, showing him her teeth.
She felt the shock reverberate through his body, saw his gaze shatter. His face went as white as if someone had struck him a blow in the stomach. He shook his head slightly on the muddy ground.
"No," he whispered. "Oh, no…"
He seemed to be saying it to himself, as if he didn't expect her to hear him. He reached a hand toward her cheek, and she snapped at it.
"Oh, Elena…" he whispered.
The last traces of fury, of animal bloodlust, had disappeared from his face. His eyes were dazed and stricken and grieving.
And vulnerable. Elena took advantage of the moment to dive for the bare skin at his neck. His arm came up to fend her off, to push her away, but then it dropped again.
He stared at her a moment, the pain in his eyes reaching a peak, and then he simply gave up. He stopped fighting completely.
She could feel it happen, feel the resistance leave his body. He lay on the icy ground with scraps of oak leaves in his hair, staring up past her at the black and clouded sky.
Finish it, his weary voice said in her mind.
Elena hesitated for an instant. There was something about those eyes that called up memories inside her. Standing in the moonlight, sitting in an attic room… But the memories were too vague. She couldn't get a grasp on them, and the effort made her dizzy and sick.
And this one had to die, this green-eyed one called Stefan. Because he'd hurt him, the other one, the one Elena had been born to be with. No one could hurt him and live.
She clamped her teeth into his throat and bit deep.
She realized at once that she wasn't doing it quite right. She hadn't hit an artery or vein. She worried at the throat, angry at her own inexperience. It felt good to bite something, but not much blood was coming. Frustrated, she lifted up and bit again, feeling his body jerk in pain.
Much better. She'd found a vein this time, but she hadn't torn it deeply enough. A little scratch like that wouldn't do. What she needed was to rip it right across, to let the rich hot blood stream out.
Her victim shuddered as she worked to do this, teeth raking and gnawing. She was just feeling the flesh give way when hands pulled at her, lifting her from behind.
Elena snarled without letting go of the throat. The hands were insistent though. An arm looped about her waist, fingers twined in her hair. She fought, clinging with teeth and nails to her prey.
Let go of him. Leave him!
The voice was sharp and commanding, like a blast from a cold wind. Elena recognized it and stopped struggling with the hands that pulled her away. As they deposited her on the ground and she looked up to see him, a name came into her mind. Damon. His name was Damon. She stared at him sulkily, resentful of being yanked away from her kill, but obedient.
Stefan was sitting up, his neck red with blood. It was running onto his shirt. Elena licked her lips, feeling a throb like a hunger pang that seemed to come from every fiber of her being. She was dizzy again.
"I thought," Damon said aloud, "that you said she was dead."
He was looking at Stefan, who was even paler than before, if that was possible. That white face filled with infinite hopelessness.
"Look at her" was all he said.
A hand cupped Elena's chin, tilting her face up. She met Damon's narrowed dark eyes directly. Then long, slender fingers touched her lips, probing between them. Instinctively Elena tried to bite, but not very hard. Damon's finger found the sharp curve of a canine tooth, and Elena did bite now, giving it a nip like a kitten's.
Damon's face was expressionless, his eyes hard.
"Do you know where you are?" he said.
Elena glanced around. Trees. "In the woods," she said craftily, looking back at him.
"And who is that?"
She followed his pointing finger. "Stefan," she said indifferently. "Your brother."
"And who am I? Do you know who I am?" She smiled up at him, showing him her pointed teeth. "Of course I do. You're Damon, and I love you."
Stefan's voice was quietly savage. "That's what you wanted, wasn't it, Damon? And now you've got it. You had to make her like us, like you. It wasn't enough just to kill her."
Damon didn't glance back at him. He was looking at Elena intently through those hooded eyes, still kneeling there holding her chin. "That's the third time you've said that, and I'm getting a little tired of it," he commented softly. Disheveled, still slightly out of breath, he was yet self-composed, in control. "Elena, did I kill you?"
"Of course not," Elena said, winding her fingers in those of his free hand. She was getting impatient. What were they talking about anyway? Nobody had been killed.
"I never thought you were a liar," Stefan said to Damon, the bitterness in his voice unchanged. "Just about everything else, but not that. I've never heard you try to cover up for yourself before."
"In another minute," said Damon, "I'm going to lose my temper."
What more can you possibly do to me? Stefan returned. Killing me would be a mercy.
"I ran out of mercy for you a century ago," Damon said aloud. He let go, finally, of Elena's chin. "What do you remember about today?" he asked her.
Elena spoke tiredly, like a child reciting a hated lesson. "Today was the Founders' Day celebration." Flexing her fingers in his, she looked up at Damon. That was as far as she could get on her own, but it wasn't enough. Nettled, she tried to remember something else.
"There was someone in the cafeteria… Caroline." She offered the name to him, pleased. "She was going to read my diary in front of everyone, and that was bad because…" Elena fumbled with the memory and lost it. "I don't remember why. But we tricked her." She smiled at him warmly, conspiratorially.
"Oh, 'we' did, did we?"
"Yes. You got it away from her. You did it for me." The fingers of her free hand crept under his jacket, searching for the square-cornered hardness of the little book. "Because you love me," she said, finding it and scratching at it lightly. "You do love me, don't you?"
There was a faint sound from the center of the clearing. Elena looked and saw that Stefan had turned his face away.
"Elena. What happened next?" Damon's voice called her back.
"Next? Next Aunt Judith started arguing with me." Elena pondered this a moment and at last shrugged. "Over… something. I got angry. She's not my mother. She can't tell me what to do."
Damon's voice was dry. "I don't think that's going to be a problem anymore. What next?"
Elena sighed heavily. "Next I went and got Matt's car. Matt." She said the name reflectively, flicking her tongue over her canine teeth. In her mind's eye, she saw a handsome face, blond hair, sturdy shoulders. "Matt."
"And where did you go in Matt's car?"
"To Wickery Bridge," Stefan said, turning back toward them. His eyes were desolate.
"No, to the boardinghouse," Elena corrected, irritated. "To wait for… mm… I forget. Anyway, I waited there. Then… then the storm started. Wind, rain, all that. I didn't like it. I got in the car. But something came after me."
"Someone came after you," said Stefan, looking at Damon.
"Some thing," Elena insisted. She had had enough of his interruptions. "Let's go away somewhere, just us," she said to Damon, kneeling up so that her face was close to his.
"In a minute," he said. "What kind of thing came after you?"
She settled back, exasperated. "I don't know what kind of thing! It was like nothing I've ever seen. Not like you and Stefan. It was…" Images rippled through her mind. Mist flowing along the ground. The wind shrieking. A shape, white, enormous, looking as if it were made out of mist itself. Gaining on her like a wind-driven cloud.
"Maybe it was just part of the storm," she said. "But I thought it wanted to hurt me. I got away though." Fiddling with the zipper to Damon's leather jacket, she smiled secretly and looked up at him through her lashes.
For the first time, Damon's face showed emotion. His lips twisted in a grimace. "You got away."
"Yes. I remembered what… someone… told me about running water. Evil things can't cross it. So I drove toward Drowning Creek, toward the bridge. And then…" She hesitated, frowning, trying to find a solid memory in the new confusion. Water. She remembered water. And someone screaming. But nothing else. "And then I crossed it," she concluded finally, brightly. "I must have, because here I am. And that's all. Can we go now?"
Damon didn't answer her.
"The car's still in the river," said Stefan. He and Damon were looking at each other like two adults having a discussion over the head of an uncomprehending child, their hostilities suspended for the moment. Elena felt a surge of annoyance. She opened her mouth, but Stefan was continuing. "Bonnie and Meredith and I found it. I went underwater and got her, but by then…"
By then, what? Elena frowned.
Damon's lips were curved mockingly. "And you gave up on her? You, of all people, should have suspected what might happen. Or was the idea so repugnant to you that you couldn't even consider it? Would you rather she were really dead?"
"She had no pulse, no respiration!" Stefan flared. "And she'd never had enough blood to change her!" His eyes hardened. "Not from me anyway."
Elena opened her mouth again, but Damon laid two fingers on it to keep her quiet. He said smoothly, "And that's the problem now—or are you too blind to see that, too? You told me to look at her; look at her yourself. She's in shock, irrational. Oh, yes, even I admit that." He paused for a blinding smile before going on. "It's more than just the normal confusion after changing. She'll need blood, human blood, or her body won't have the strength to finish the change. She'll die."
What do you mean irrational? Elena thought indignantly. "I'm fine," she said around Damon's fingers. "I'm tired, that's all. I was going to sleep when I heard you two fighting, and I came to help you. And then you wouldn't even let me kill him," she finished, disgusted.
"Yes, why didn't you?" said Stefan. He was staring at Damon as if he could bore holes through him with his eyes. Any trace of cooperation on his part was gone. "It would have been the easiest thing to do."
Damon stared back at him, suddenly furious, his own animosity flooding up to meet Stefan's. He was breathing quickly and lightly. "Maybe I don't like things easy," he hissed. Then he seemed to regain control of himself once more. His lips curled in mockery, and he added, "Put it this way, dear brother: if anyone's going to have the satisfaction of killing you, it will be me. No one else. I plan to take care of the job personally. And it's something I'm very good at; I promise you."
"You've shown us that," Stefan said quietly, as if each word sickened him.
"But this one," Damon said, turning to Elena with glittering eyes, "I didn't kill. Why should I? I could have changed her any time I liked."
"Maybe because she had just gotten engaged to marry someone else."
Damon lifted Elena's hand, still twined with his. On the third finger a gold ring glittered, set with one deep blue stone. Elena frowned at it, vaguely remembering having seen it before. Then she shrugged and leaned against Damon wearily.
"Well, now," Damon said, looking down at her, "that doesn't seem to be much of a problem, does it? I think she may have been glad to forget you." He looked up at Stefan with an unpleasant smile. "But we'll find out once she's herself again. We can ask her then which of us she chooses. Agreed?"
Stefan shook his head. "How can you even suggest that? After what happened…" His voice trailed off.
"With Katherine? I can say it, if you can't. Katherine made a foolish choice, and she paid the price for it. Elena is different; she knows her own mind. But it doesn't matter if you agree," he added, overriding Stefan's new protests. "The fact is that she's weak now, and she needs blood. I'm going to see that she gets it, and then I'm going to find who did this to her. You can come or not. Suit yourself."
He stood, drawing Elena up with him. Let's go.
Elena came willingly, pleased to be moving. The woods were interesting at night; she'd never noticed that before. Owls were sending their mournful, haunting cries through the trees, and deer mice scuttled away from her gliding feet. The air was colder in patches, as it froze first in the hollows and dips of the wood. She found it was easy to move silently beside Damon through the leaf litter; it was just a matter of being careful where she stepped. She didn't look back to see if Stefan was following them.
She recognized the place where they left the wood. She had been there earlier today. Now, however, there was some sort of frenzied activity going on: red and blue lights flashing on cars, spotlights framing the dark huddled shapes of people. Elena looked at them curiously. Several were familiar. That woman, for instance, with the thin harrowed face and the anxious eyes—Aunt Judith? And the tall man beside her—Aunt Judith's fiancé, Robert?
There should be someone else with them, Elena thought. A child with hair as pale as Elena's own. But try as she might, she could not conjure up a name.
The two girls with their arms around each other, standing in a circle of officials, those two she remembered though. The little red-haired one who was crying was Bonnie. The taller one with the sweep of dark hair, Meredith.
"But she's not in the water," Bonnie was saying to a man in a uniform. Her voice trembled on the edge of hysteria. "We saw Stefan get her out. I've told you and told you."
"And you left him here with her?"
"We had to. The storm was getting worse, and there was something coming—"
"Never mind that," Meredith broke in. She sounded only slightly calmer than Bonnie. "Stefan said that if he—had to leave her, he'd leave her lying under the willow trees."
"And just where is Stefan now?" another uniformed man asked.
"We don't know. We went back to get help. He probably followed us. But as for what happened to—to Elena…" Bonnie turned back and buried her face in Meredith's shoulder.
They're upset about me, Elena realized. How silly of them. I can clear that up, anyway. She started forward into the light, but Damon pulled her back. She looked at him, wounded.
"Not like that. Pick the ones you want, and we'll draw them out," he said.
"Want for what?"
"For feeding, Elena. You're a hunter now. Those are your prey."
Elena pushed her tongue against a canine tooth doubtfully. Nothing out there looked like food to her. Still, because Damon said so, she was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. "Whichever you think," she said obligingly.
Damon tilted his head back, eyes narrowed, scanning the scene like an expert evaluating a famous painting. "Well, how about a couple of nice paramedics?"
"No," said a voice behind them.
Damon barely glanced over his shoulder at Stefan. "Why not?"
"Because there've been enough attacks. She may need human blood, but she doesn't have to hunt for it." Stefan's face was shut and hostile, but there was an air of grim determination about him.
"There's another way?" Damon asked ironically.
"You know there is. Find someone who's willing—or who can be influenced to be willing. Someone who would do it for Elena and who is strong enough to deal with this, mentally."
"And I suppose you know where we can find such a paragon of virtue?"
"Bring her to the school. I'll meet you there," Stefan said, and disappeared.
They left the activity still bustling, lights flashing, people milling. As they went, Elena noticed a strange thing. In the middle of the river, illuminated by the spotlights, was an automobile. It was completely submerged except for the front fender, which stuck out of the water.
What a stupid place to park a car, she thought, and followed Damon back into the woods.
Stefan was beginning to feel again.
It hurt. He'd thought he was through with hurting, through with feeling anything. When he'd pulled Elena's lifeless body out of the dark water, he'd thought that nothing could ever hurt again because nothing could match that moment.
He'd been wrong.
He stopped and stood with his good hand braced against a tree, head down, breathing deeply. When the red mists cleared and he could see again, he went on, but the burning ache in his chest continued undiminished. Stop thinking about her, he told himself, knowing that it was useless.
But she wasn't truly dead. Didn't that count for something? He'd thought he would never hear her voice again, never feel her touch…
And now, when she touched him, she wanted to kill him.
He stopped again, doubling over, afraid he was going to be sick.
Seeing her like this was worse torture than seeing her lying cold and dead. Maybe that was why Damon had let him live. Maybe this was Damon's revenge.
And maybe Stefan should just do what he'd planned to do after killing Damon. Wait until dawn and take off the silver ring that protected him from sunlight. Stand bathing in the fiery embrace of those rays until they burned the flesh from his bones and stopped the pain once and for all.
But he knew he wouldn't. As long as Elena walked the earth, he would never leave her. Even if she hated him, even if she hunted him. He would do anything he could to keep her safe.
Stefan detoured toward the boardinghouse. He needed to clean up before he could let humans see him. In his room, he washed the blood from his face and neck and examined his arm. The healing process had already begun, and with concentration he could accelerate it still further. He was burning up his Powers fast; the fight with his brother had already weakened him. But this was important. Not because of the pain—he scarcely noticed that—but because he needed to be fit.
Damon and Elena were waiting outside the school. He could feel his brother's impatience and Elena's wild new presence there in the dark.
"This had better work," Damon said.
Stefan said nothing. The school auditorium was another center of commotion. People ought to have been enjoying the Founders' Day dance; in fact, those who had remained through the storm were pacing around or gathered in small groups talking. Stefan looked in the open door, searching with his mind for one particular presence.
He found it. A blond head was bent over a table in the corner.
Matt straightened and looked around, puzzled. Stefan willed him to come outside. You need some fresh air, he thought, insinuating the suggestion into Matt's subconscious. You feel like just stepping out for a moment.
To Damon, standing invisible just beyond the light, he said, Take her into the school, to the photography room. She knows where it is. Don't show yourselves until I say. Then he backed away and waited for Matt to appear.
Matt came out, his drawn face turned up to the moonless sky. He started violently when Stefan spoke to him.
"Stefan! You're here!" Desperation, hope, and horror struggled for dominance on his face. He hurried over to Stefan. "Did they—bring her back yet? Is there any news?"
"What have you heard?"
Matt stared at him a moment before answering. "Bonnie and Meredith came in saying that Elena had gone off of Wickery Bridge in my car. They said that she…" He paused and swallowed. "Stefan, it's not true, is it?" His eyes were pleading.
Stefan looked away.
"Oh, God," Matt said hoarsely. He turned his back on Stefan, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I don't believe it; I don't. It can't be true."
"Matt…" He touched the other boy's shoulder.
"I'm sorry." Matt's voice was rough and ragged. "You must be going through hell, and here I am making it worse."
More than you know, thought Stefan, his hand falling away. He'd come with the intention of using his Powers to persuade Matt. Now that seemed an impossibility. He couldn't do it, not to the first—and only—human friend he'd had in this place.
His only other option was to tell Matt the truth. Let Matt make his own choice, knowing everything.
"If there were something you could do for Elena right now," he said, "would you do it?"
Matt was too lost in emotion to ask what kind of idiotic question that was. "Anything," he said almost angrily, rubbing a sleeve over his eyes. "I'd do anything for her." He looked at Stefan with something like defiance, his breathing shaky.
Congratulations', Stefan thought, feeling the sudden yawning pit in his stomach. You've just won yourself a trip to the Twilight Zone.
"Come with me," he said. "I've got something to show you."
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|Вампир||Дата: Суббота, 31-Октября-2009, 18:50:19 | Сообщение # 2|
Elena and Damon were waiting in the darkroom. Stefan could sense their presence in the small annex as he pushed the door to the photography room open and led Matt inside.
"These doors are supposed to be locked," Matt said as Stefan flipped on the light switch.
"They were," said Stefan. He didn't know what else to say to prepare Matt for what was coming. He'd never deliberately revealed himself to a human before.
He stood, quietly, until Matt turned and looked at him. The classroom was cold and silent, and the air seemed to hang heavily. As the moment stretched out, he saw Matt's expression slowly change from grief-numbed bewilderment to uneasiness.
"I don't understand," Matt said.
"I know you don't." He went on looking at Matt, purposefully dropping the barriers that concealed his Powers from human perception. He saw the reaction in Matt's face as uneasiness coalesced into fear. Matt blinked and shook his head, his breath coming quicker.
"What—?" he began, his voice gravelly.
"There are probably a lot of things you've wondered about me," Stefan said. "Why I wear sunglasses in strong light. Why I don't eat. Why my reflexes are so fast."
Matt had his back to the darkroom now. His throat jerked as if he were trying to swallow. Stefan, with his predator's senses, could hear Matt's heart thudding dully.
"No," Matt said.
"You must have wondered, must have asked yourself what makes me so different from everybody else."
"No. I mean—I don't care. I keep out of things that aren't my business." Matt was edging toward the door, his eyes darting toward it in a barely perceptible movement.
"Don't, Matt. I don't want to hurt you, but I can't let you leave now." He could feel barely leashed need emanating from Elena in her concealment. Wait, he told her.
Matt went still, giving up any attempt to move away. "If you want to scare me, you have," he said in a low voice. "What else do you want?"
Now, Stefan told Elena. He said to Matt, "Turn around."
Matt turned. And stifled a cry.
Elena stood there, but not the Elena of that afternoon, when Matt had last seen her. Now her feet were bare beneath the hem of her long dress. The thin folds of white muslin that clung to her were caked with ice crystals that sparkled in the light. Her skin, always fair, had a strange wintry luster to it, and her pale gold hair seemed overlaid with a silvery sheen. But the real difference was in her face. Those deep blue eyes were heavy-lidded, almost sleepy looking, and yet unnaturally awake. And a look of sensual anticipation and hunger curled about her lips. She was more beautiful than she had been in life, but it was a frightening beauty.
As Matt stared, paralyzed, Elena's pink tongue came out and licked her lips.
"Matt," she said, lingering over the first consonant of the name. Then she smiled.
Stefan heard Matt's indrawn breath of disbelief, and the near sob he gave as he finally backed away from her.
It's all right, he said, sending the thought to Matt on a surge of Power. As Matt jerked toward him, eyes wide with shock, he added, "So now you know."
Matt's expression said that he didn't want to know, and Stefan could see the denial in his face. But Damon stepped out beside Elena and moved a little to the right, adding his presence to the charged atmosphere of the room.
Matt was surrounded. The three of them closed in on him, inhumanly beautiful, innately menacing.
Stefan could smell Matt's fear. It was the helpless fear of the rabbit for the fox, the mouse for the owl. And Matt was right to be afraid. They were the hunting species; he was the hunted. Their job in life was to kill him.
And just now instincts were getting out of control. Matt's instinct was to panic and run, and it was triggering reflexes in Stefan's head. When the prey ran, the predator gave chase; it was as simple as that. All three of the predators here were keyed up, on edge, and Stefan felt he couldn't be responsible for the consequences if Matt bolted.
We don't want to harm you, he told Matt. It's Elena who needs you, and what she needs won't leave you permanently damaged. It doesn't even have to hurt, Matt. But Matt's muscles were still tensed to flee, and Stefan realized that the three of them were stalking him, moving closer, ready to cut off any escape.
You said you would do anything for Elena, he reminded Matt desperately and saw him make his choice.
Matt released his breath, the tension draining from his body. "You're right; I did," he whispered. He visibly braced himself before he continued. "What does she need?"
Elena leaned forward and put a finger on Matt's neck, tracing the yielding ridge of an artery.
"Not that one," Stefan said quickly. "You don't want to kill him. Tell her, Damon." He added, when Damon made no effort to do so, Tell her.
"Try here, or here." Damon pointed with clinical efficiency, holding Matt's chin up. He was strong enough that Matt couldn't break the grip, and Stefan felt Matt's panic surge up again.
Trust me, Matt. He moved in behind the human boy. But it has to be your choice, he finished, suddenly washed with compassion. You can change your mind.
Matt hesitated and then spoke through clenched teeth. "No. I still want to help. I want to help you, Elena."
"Matt," she whispered, her heavy-lashed jewel blue eyes fixed on his. Then they trailed down to his throat and her lips parted hungrily. There was no sign of the uncertainty she'd shown when Damon suggested feeding off the paramedics. "Matt." She smiled again, and then she struck, swift as a hunting bird.
Stefan put a flattened hand against Matt's back to give him support. For a moment, as Elena's teeth pierced his skin, Matt tried to recoil, but Stefan thought swiftly, Don't fight it; that's what causes the pain.
As Matt tried to relax, unexpected help came from Elena, who was radiating the warm happy thoughts of a wolf cub being fed. She had gotten the biting technique right on the first try this time, and she was filled with innocent pride and growing satisfaction as the sharp pangs of hunger eased. And with appreciation for Matt, Stefan realized, with a sudden shock of jealousy. She didn't hate Matt or want to kill him, because he posed no threat to Damon. She was fond of Matt.
Stefan let her take as much as was safe and then intervened. That's enough, Elena. You don't want to injure him. But it took the combined efforts of him, Damon, and a rather groggy Matt to pry her off.
"She needs to rest now," Damon said. "I'm taking her someplace where she can do it safely." He wasn't asking Stefan; he was telling him.
As they left, his mental voice added, for Stefan's ears alone, I haven't forgotten the way you attacked me, brother. We'll talk about that later.
Stefan stared after them. He'd noted how Elena's eyes remained locked on Damon, how she followed him without question. But she was out of danger now; Matt's blood had given her the strength she needed. That was all Stefan had to hang on to, and he told himself it was all that mattered.
He turned to take in Matt's dazed expression. The human boy had sunk into one of the plastic chairs and was gazing straight ahead.
Then his eyes lifted to Stefan's, and they regarded each other grimly.
"So," Matt said. "Now I know." He shook his head, turning away slightly. "But I still can't believe it," he muttered. His fingers pressed gingerly at the side of his neck, and he winced. "Except for this." Then he frowned. "That guy—Damon. Who is he?"
"My older brother," Stefan said without emotion. "How do you know his name?"
"He was at Elena's house last week. The kitten spat at him." Matt paused, clearly remembering something else. "And Bonnie had some kind of psychic fit."
"She had a precognition? What did she say?
"She said—she said that Death was in the house."
Stefan looked at the door Damon and Elena had passed through. "She was right."
"Stefan, what's going on?" A note of appeal had entered Matt's voice. "I still don't understand. What's happened to Elena? Is she going to be like this forever? Isn't there anything we can do?"
"Be like what?" Stefan said brutally. "Disoriented? A vampire?"
Matt looked away. "Both."
"As for the first, she may become more rational now that she's fed. That's what Damon thinks anyway. As for the other, there's only one thing you can do to change her condition." As Matt's eyes lit with hope, Stefan continued. "You can get a wooden stake and hammer it through her heart. Then she won't be a vampire anymore. She'll just be dead."
Matt got up and went to the window.
"You wouldn't be killing her, though, because that's already been done. She drowned in the river, Matt. But because she'd had enough blood from me"—he paused to steady his voice—"and, it seems, from my brother, she changed instead of simply dying. She woke up a hunter, like us. That's what she'll be from now on."
With his back still turned, Matt answered. "I always knew there was something about you. I told myself it was just because you were from another country." He shook his head again self-deprecatingly. "But deep down I knew it was more than that. And something still kept telling me I could trust you, and I did."
"Like when you went with me to get the vervain."
"Yeah. Like that." He added, "Can you tell me what the hell it was for, now?"
"For Elena's protection. I wanted to keep Damon away from her. But it looks as if that's not what she wanted after all." He couldn't help the bitterness, the raw betrayal, in his voice.
Matt turned. "Don't judge her before you know all the facts, Stefan. That's one thing I've learned."
Stefan was startled; then, he gave a small humorless smile. As Elena's exes, he and Matt were in the same position now. He wondered if he would be as gracious about it as Matt had been. Take his defeat like a gentleman.
He didn't think so.
Outside, a noise had begun. It was inaudible to human ears, and Stefan almost ignored it—until the words penetrated his consciousness.
Then he remembered what he had done in this very school only a few hours ago. Until that moment, he'd forgotten all about Tyler Smallwood and his tough friends.
Now that memory had returned; shame and horror closed his throat. He'd been out of his mind with grief over Elena, and his reason had snapped under the pressure. But that was no excuse for what he had done. Were they all dead? Had he, who had sworn so long ago never to kill, killed six people today?
"Stefan, wait. Where are you going?" When he didn't answer, Matt followed him, half running to keep up, out of the main school building and onto the blacktop. On the far side of the field, Mr. Shelby stood by the Quonset hut.
The janitor's face was gray and furrowed with lines of horror. He seemed to be trying to shout, but only small hoarse gasps came out of his mouth. Elbowing past him, Stefan looked into the room and felt a curious sense of dejà vu.
It looked like the Mad Slasher room from the Haunted House fundraiser. Except that this was no tableau set up for visitors. This was real.
Bodies were sprawled everywhere, amid shards of wood and glass from the shattered window. Every visible surface was spattered with blood, red-brown and sinister as it dried. And one look at the bodies revealed why: each one had a pair of livid purple wounds in the neck. Except Caroline's: her neck was unmarked, but her eyes were blank and staring.
Behind Stefan, Matt was hyperventilating. "Stefan, Elena didn't—she didn't—"
"Be quiet," Stefan answered tersely. He glanced back at Mr. Shelby, but the janitor had stumbled over to his cart of brooms and mops and was leaning against it. Glass grated under Stefan's feet as he crossed the floor to kneel by Tyler.
Not dead. Relief exploded over Stefan at the realization. Tyler's chest moved feebly, and when Stefan lifted the boy's head his eyes opened a slit, glazed and unfocused.
You don't remember anything, Stefan told him mentally. Even as he did it, he wondered why he was bothering. He should just leave Fell's Church, cut out now and never come back.
But he wouldn't. Not as long as Elena was here.
He gathered the unconscious minds of the other victims into his mental grasp and told them the same thing, feeding it deep into their brains. You don't remember who attacked you. The whole afternoon is a blank.
As he did, he felt his mental Powers tremble like overfatigued muscles. He was close to burnout.
Outside, Mr. Shelby had found his voice at last and was shouting. Wearily, Stefan let Tyler's head slip back through his fingers to the floor and turned around.
Matt's lips were peeled back, his nostrils flared, as if he had just smelled something disgusting. His eyes were the eyes of a stranger. "Elena didn't," he whispered. "You did."
Be quiet! Stefan pushed past him into the thankful coolness of the night, putting distance between him and that room, feeling the icy air on his hot skin. Running footsteps from the vicinity of the cafeteria told him that some humans had heard the janitor's cries at last.
"You did it, didn't you?" Matt had followed Stefan out to the field. His voice said he was trying to understand.
Stefan rounded on him. "Yes, I did it," he snarled. He stared Matt down, concealing none of the angry menace in his face. "I told you, Matt, we're hunters. Killers. You're the sheep; we're the wolves. And Tyler has been asking for it every day since I came here."
"Asking for a punch in the nose, sure. Like you gave him before. But—that?" Matt closed in on him, standing eye to eye, unafraid. He had physical courage; Stefan had to give him that. "And you're not even sorry? You don't even regret it?"
"Why should I?" said Stefan coldly, emptily. "Do you regret it when you eat too much steak? Feel sorry for the cow?" He saw Matt's look of sick disbelief and pressed on, driving the pain in his chest deeper. It was better that Matt stay away from him from now on, far away. Or Matt might end up like those bodies in the Quonset hut. "I am what I am, Matt. And if you can't handle it, you'd better steer clear of me."
Matt stared at him a moment longer, the sick disbelief transforming slowly into sick disillusionment. The muscles around his jaw stood out. Then, without a word, he turned on his heel and walked away.
Elena was in the graveyard.
Damon had left her there, exhorting her to stay until he came back. She didn't want to sit still, though. She felt tired but not really sleepy, and the new blood was affecting her like a jolt of caffeine. She wanted to go exploring.
The graveyard was full of activity although there wasn't a human in sight. A fox slunk through the shadows toward the river path. Small rodents tunneled under the long lank grass around the headstones, squeaking and scurrying. A barn owl flew almost silently toward the ruined church, where it alighted on the belfry with an eerie cry.
Elena got up and followed it. This was much better than hiding in the grass like a mouse or vole. She looked around the ruined church interestedly, using her sharpened senses to examine it. Most of the roof had fallen in, and only three walls were standing, but the belfry stood up like a lonely monument in the rubble.
At one side was the tomb of Thomas and Honoria Fell, like a large stone box or coffin. Elena gazed earnestly down into the white marble faces of their statues on the lid. They lay in tranquil repose, their eyes shut, their hands folded on their breasts. Thomas Fell looked serious and a little stern, but Honoria looked merely sad. Elena thought absently of her own parents, lying side by side down in the modern cemetery.
I'll go home; that's where I'll go, she thought. She had just remembered about home. She could picture it now: her pretty bedroom with blue curtains and cherrywood furniture and her little fireplace. And something important under the floorboards in the closet.
She found her way to Maple Street by instincts that ran deeper than memory, letting her feet guide her there. It was an old, old house, with a big front porch and floor-to-ceiling windows in front. Robert's car was parked in the driveway.
Elena started for the front door and then stopped. There was a reason people shouldn't see her, although she couldn't remember what it was right now. She hesitated and then nimbly climbed the quince tree up to her bedroom window.
But she wasn't going to be able to get in here without being noticed. A woman was sitting on the bed with Elena's red silk kimono in her lap, staring down at it. Aunt Judith. Robert was standing by the dresser, talking to her. Elena found that she could pick up the murmur of his voice even through the glass.
"… out again tomorrow," he was saying. "As long as it doesn't storm. They'll go over every inch of those woods, and they'll find her, Judith. You'll see." Aunt Judith said nothing, and he went on, sounding more desperate. "We can't give up hope, no matter what the girls say—"
"It's no good, Bob." Aunt Judith had raised her head at last, and her eyes were red-rimmed but dry. "It's no use."
"The rescue effort? I won't have you talking that way." He came over to stand beside her.
"No, not just that… although I know, in my heart, that we're not going to find her alive. I mean… everything. Us. What happened today is our fault—"
"That's not true. It was a freak accident."
"Yes, but we made it happen. If we hadn't been so harsh with her, she would never have driven off alone and been caught in the storm. No, Bob, don't try to shut me up; I want you to listen." Aunt Judith took a deep breath and continued. "It wasn't just today, either. Elena's been having problems for a long time, ever since school started, and somehow I've let the signs slip right past me. Because I've been too involved with myself—with us—to pay attention to them. I can see that now. And now that Elena's… gone… I don't want the same thing to happen with Margaret."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that I can't marry you, not as soon as we planned. Maybe not ever." Without looking at him, she spoke softly.
"Margaret has lost too much already. I don't want her to feel she's losing me, too."
"She won't be losing you. If anything, she'll be gaining someone, because I'll be here more often. You know how I feel about her."
"I'm sorry, Bob; I just don't see it that way."
"You can't be serious. After all the time I've spent here—after all I've done…"
Aunt Judith's voice was drained and implacable. "I am serious."
From her perch outside the window, Elena eyed Robert curiously. A vein throbbed in his forehead, and his face had flushed red.
"You'll feel differently tomorrow," he said.
"No, I won't."
"You don't mean it—"
"I do mean it. Don't tell me that I'm going to change my mind, because I'm not."
For an instant, Robert looked around in helpless frustration; then, his expression darkened. When he spoke, his voice was flat and cold. "I see. Well, if that's your final answer, I'd better leave right now."
"Bob." Aunt Judith turned, startled, but he was already outside the door. She stood up, wavering, as if she were unsure whether or not to go after him. Her fingers kneaded at the red material she was holding. "Bob!" she called again, more urgently, and she turned to drop the kimono on Elena's bed before following him.
But as she turned she gasped, a hand flying to her mouth. Her whole body stiffened. Her eyes stared into Elena's through the silvery pane of glass. For a long moment, they stared at each other that way, neither moving. Then Aunt Judith's hand came away from her mouth, and she began to shriek.
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|Вампир||Дата: Суббота, 31-Октября-2009, 18:51:10 | Сообщение # 3|
Something yanked Elena out of the tree and, yowling a protest, she fell and landed on her feet like a cat. Her knees hit the ground a second later and got bruised.
She reared back, fingers hooked into claws to attack whoever had done it. Damon slapped her hand away.
"Why did you grab me?" she demanded.
"Why didn't you stay where I put you?" he snapped.
They glared at each other, equally furious. Then Elena was distracted. The shrieking was still going on upstairs, augmented now by rattling and banging at the window. Damon nudged her against the house, where they couldn't be seen from above.
"Let's get away from this noise," he said fastidiously, looking up. Without waiting for a response, he caught her arm. Elena resisted.
"I have to go in there!"
"You can't." He gave her a wolfish smile. "I mean that literally. You can't go in that house. You haven't been invited."
Momentarily nonplussed, Elena let him tow her a few steps. Then she dug her heels in again.
"But I need my diary!"
"It's in the closet, under the floorboards. And I need it. I can't go to sleep without my diary." Elena didn't know why she was making such a fuss, but it seemed important.
Damon looked exasperated; then, his face cleared. "Here," he said calmly, eyes glinting. He withdrew something from his jacket. "Take it."
Elena eyed his offering doubtfully.
"It's your diary, isn't it?"
"Yes, but it's my old one. I want my new one."
"This one will have to do, because this one is all you're getting. Come on before they wake up the whole neighborhood." His voice had turned cold and commanding again.
Elena considered the book he held. It was small, with a blue velvet cover and a brass lock. Not the newest edition perhaps, but it was familiar to her. She decided it was acceptable.
She let Damon lead her out into the night.
She didn't ask where they were going. She didn't much care. But she recognized the house on Magnolia Avenue; it was where Alaric Saltzman was staying.
And it was Alaric who opened the front door, beckoning Elena and Damon inside. The history teacher looked strange, though, and didn't really seem to see them. His eyes were glassy and he moved like an automaton.
Elena licked her lips.
"No," Damon said shortly. "This one's not for biting. There's something fishy about him, but you should be safe enough in the house. I've slept here before. Up here." He led her up a flight of stairs to an attic with one small window. It was crowded with stored objects: sleds, skis, a hammock. At the far end, an old mattress lay on the floor.
"He won't even know you're here in the morning. Lie down." Elena obeyed, assuming a position that seemed natural to her. She lay on her back, hands folded over the diary that she held to her breast.
Damon dropped a piece of oilcloth over her, covering her bare feet.
"Go to sleep, Elena," he said.
He bent over her, and for a moment she thought he was going to… do something. Her thoughts were too muddled. But his night black eyes filled her vision. Then he pulled back, and she could breathe again. The gloom of the attic settled in on her. Her eyes drifted shut and she slept.
She woke slowly, assembling information about where she was, piece by piece. Somebody's attic from the looks of it. What was she doing here?
Rats or mice were scuffling somewhere among the piles of oilcloth-draped objects, but the sound didn't bother her. The faintest trace of pale light showed around the edges of the shuttered window. Elena pushed her makeshift blanket off and got up to investigate.
It was definitely someone's attic, and not that of anyone she knew. She felt as if she had been sick for a long time and had just woken up from her illness. What day is it? she wondered.
She could hear voices below her. Downstairs. Something told her to be careful and quiet. She felt afraid of making any kind of disturbance. She eased the attic door open without a sound and cautiously descended to the landing. Looking down, she could see a living room. She recognized it; she'd sat on that ottoman when Alaric Saltzman had given a party. She was in the Ramsey house.
And Alaric Saltzman was down there; she could see the top of his sandy head. His voice puzzled her. After a moment she realized it was because he didn't sound fatuous or inane or any of the ways Alaric usually sounded in class. He wasn't spouting psycho-babble, either. He was speaking coolly and decisively to two other men.
"She might be anywhere, even right under our noses. More likely outside town, though. Maybe in the woods."
"Why the woods?" said one of the men. Elena knew that voice, too, and that bald head. It was Mr. Newcastle, the high school principal.
"Remember, the first two victims were found near the woods," said the other man. Is that Dr. Feinberg? Elena thought. What's he doing here? What am I doing here?
"No, it's more than that," Alaric was saying. The other men were listening to him with respect, even with deference. "The woods are tied up in this. They may have a hiding place out there, a lair where they can go to earth if they're discovered. If there is one, I'll find it."
"Are you sure?" said Dr. Feinberg.
"I'm sure," Alaric said briefly.
"And that's where you think Elena is," said the principal. "But will she stay there? Or will she come back into town?"
"I don't know." Alaric paced a few steps and picked up a book from the coffee table, running his thumbs over it absently. "One way to find out is to watch her friends. Bonnie McCullough and that dark-haired girl, Meredith. Chances are they'll be the first ones to see her. That's how it usually happens."
"And once we do track her down?" Dr. Feinberg asked.
"Leave that to me," Alaric said quietly and grimly. He shut the book and dropped it on the coffee table with a disturbingly conclusive sound.
The principal glanced at his watch. "I'd better get moving; the service starts at ten o'clock. I presume you'll both be there?" He paused on his way to the door and looked back, his manner irresolute. "Alaric, I hope you can take care of this. When I called you in, things hadn't gone this far. Now I'm beginning to wonder—"
"I can take care of it, Brian. I told you; leave it to me. Would you rather have Robert E. Lee in all the papers, not just as the scene of a tragedy but also as 'The Haunted High School of Boone County'? A gathering place for ghouls? The school where the undead walk? Is that the kind of publicity you want?"
Mr. Newcastle hesitated, chewing his lip, then nodded, still looking unhappy. "All right, Alaric. But make it quick and clean. I'll see you at the church." He left and Dr. Fein-berg followed him.
Alaric stood there for some time, apparently staring into space. At last he nodded once and went out the front door himself.
Elena slowly trailed back up the stairs.
Now what had all that been about? She felt confused, as if she were floating loose in time and space. She needed to know what day it was, why she was here, and why she felt so frightened. Why she felt so intensely that no one must see her or hear her or notice her at all.
Looking around the attic, she saw nothing that would give her any help. Where she had been lying there were only the mattress and the oilcloth—and a little blue book.
Her diary! Eagerly, she snatched it up and opened it, skipping through the entries. They stopped with October 17; they were no help to discovering today's date. But as she looked at the writing, images formed in her mind, stringing up like pearls to make memories. Fascinated, she slowly sat down on the mattress. She leafed back to the beginning and began to read about the life of Elena Gilbert.
When she finished, she was weak with fear and horror. Bright spots danced and shimmered before her eyes. There was so much pain in these pages. So many schemes, so many secrets, so much need. It was the story of a girl who'd felt lost in her own hometown, in her own family. Who'd been looking for… something, something she could never quite reach. But that wasn't what caused this throbbing panic in her chest that drained all the energy from her body. That wasn't why she felt as if she were falling even when she sat as still as she could get. What caused the panic was that she remembered.
She remembered everything now.
The bridge, the rushing water. The terror as the air left her lungs and there was nothing but liquid to breathe. The way it had hurt. And the final instant when it had stopped hurting, when everything had stopped. When everything… stopped.
Oh, Stefan, I was so frightened, she thought. And the same fear was inside her now. In the woods, how could she have behaved like that to Stefan? How could she have forgotten him, everything he meant to her? What had made her act that way?
But she knew. At the center of her consciousness, she knew. Nobody got up and walked away from a drowning like that. Nobody got up and walked away alive.
Slowly, she rose and went to look at the shuttered window. The darkened pane of glass acted as a mirror, throwing her reflection back at her.
It was not the reflection she'd seen in her dream, where she had run down a hall of mirrors that seemed to have a life of their own. There was nothing sly or cruel about this face. Just the same, it was subtly different from what she was used to seeing. There was a pale glow to her skin and a telling hollowness about the eyes. Elena touched fingertips to her neck, on either side. This was where Stefan and Damon had each taken her blood. Had it really been enough times, and had she really taken enough of theirs in return?
It must have been. And now, for the rest of her life, for the rest of her existence, she would have to feed as Stefan did. She would have to…
She sank to her knees, pressing her forehead against the bare wood of a wall. I can't, she thought. Oh, please, I can't; I can't.
She had never been very religious. But from that deep place inside, her terror was welling up, and every particle of her being joined in the cry for aid. Oh, please, she thought. Oh, please, please, help me. She didn't ask for anything specific; she couldn't gather her thoughts that far. Only: Oh, please help me, oh please, please.
After a while she got up again.
Her face was still pale but eerily beautiful, like fine porcelain lit from within. Her eyes were still smudged with shadows. But there was a resolve in them.
She had to find Stefan. If there was any help for her, he would know of it. And if there wasn't… well, she needed him all the more. There was nowhere else she wanted to be except with him.
She shut the door of the attic carefully behind her as she went out. Alaric Saltzman mustn't discover her hiding place. On the wall, she saw a calendar with the days up to December 4 crossed off. Four days since last Saturday night. She'd slept for four days.
When she reached the front door, she cringed from the daylight outside. It hurt. Even though the sky was so overcast that rain or snow looked imminent, it hurt her eyes. She had to force herself to leave the safety of the house, and then she felt a gnawing paranoia about being out in the open. She slunk along beside fences, staying close to trees, ready to melt into the shadows. She felt like a shadow herself—or a ghost, in Honoria Fell's long white gown. She would frighten the wits out of anyone who saw her.
But all her circumspection seemed to be wasted. There was no one on the streets to see her; the town might have been abandoned. She went by seemingly deserted houses, forsaken yards, closed stores. Presently she saw parked cars lining the street, but they were empty, too.
And then she saw a shape against the sky that stopped her in her tracks. A steeple, white against the thick dark clouds. Elena's legs trembled as she made herself creep closer to the building. She'd known this church all her life; she'd seen the cross inscribed on that wall a thousand times. But now she edged toward it as if it were a caged animal that might break loose and bite her. She pressed one hand to the stone wall and slid it nearer and nearer to the carved symbol.
When her outspread fingers touched the arm of the cross, her eyes filled and her throat ached. She let her hand glide along it until it gently covered the engraving. Then she leaned against the wall and let the tears come.
I'm not evil, she thought. I did things I shouldn't have. I thought about myself too much; I never thanked Matt and Bonnie and Meredith for all they did for me. I should have played more with Margaret and been nicer to Aunt Judith. But I'm not evil. I'm not damned.
When she could see again, she looked up at the building. Mr. Newcastle had said something about the church. Was it this one he meant?
She avoided the front of the church and the main doorway. There was a side door that led to the choir loft, and she slipped up the stairs noiselessly and looked down from the gallery.
She saw at once why the streets had been so empty. It seemed as if everyone in Fell's Church was here, every seat in every pew filled, and the back of the church packed solid with people standing. Staring at the front rows, Elena realized that she recognized every face; they were members of the senior class, and neighbors, and friends of Aunt Judith. Aunt Judith was there, too, wearing the black dress she'd worn to Elena's parents' funeral.
Oh, my God, Elena thought. Her fingers gripped the railing. Until now she'd been too busy looking to listen, but the quiet monotone of Reverend Bethea's voice suddenly resolved into words.
"… share our remembrances of this very special girl," he said, and he moved aside.
Elena watched what happened after with the unearthly feeling that she had a loge seat at a play. She was not at all involved in the events down there on stage; she was only a spectator, but it was her life she was watching.
Mr. Carson, Sue Carson's father, came up and talked about her. The Carsons had known her since she was born, and he talked about the days she and Sue had played in their front yard in the summer. He talked about the beautiful and accomplished young lady she had become. He got a frog in his throat and had to stop and take off his glasses.
Sue Carson went up. She and Elena hadn't been close friends since elementary school, but they'd remained on good terms. Sue had been one of the few girls who'd stayed on Elena's side after Stefan had come under suspicion for Mr. Tanner's murder. But now Sue was crying as if she'd lost a sister.
"A lot of people weren't nice to Elena after Halloween," she said, wiping her eyes and going on. "And I know that hurt her. But Elena was strong. She never changed just to conform to what other people thought she should be. And I respected her for that, so much…" Sue's voice wobbled. "When I was up for Homecoming Queen, I wanted to be chosen, but I knew I wouldn't be and that was all right. Because if Robert E. Lee ever had a queen, it was Elena. And I think she always will be now, because that's how we'll all remember her. And I think that for years to come the girls who will go to our school might remember her and think about how she stuck by what she thought was right…" This time Sue couldn't steady her voice and the reverend helped her back to her seat.
The girls in the senior class, even the ones that had been nastiest and most spiteful, were crying and holding hands. Girls Elena knew for a fact hated her were sniffling. Suddenly she was everybody's best friend.
There were boys crying, too. Shocked, Elena huddled closer to the railing. She couldn't stop watching, even though it was the most horrible thing she had ever seen.
Frances Decatur got up, her plain face plainer than ever with grief. "She went out of her way to be nice to me," she said huskily. "She let me eat lunch with her." Rubbish, Elena thought. I only spoke to you in the first place because you were useful in finding out information about Stefan. But it was the same with each person who went up to the pulpit; no one could find enough words to praise Elena.
"I always admired her…"
"She was a role model to me…"
"One of my favorite students…"
When Meredith rose, Elena's whole body stiffened. She didn't know if she could deal with this. But the dark-haired girl was one of the few people in the church who wasn't crying, although her face had a grave, sad look that reminded Elena of Honoria Fell as she looked on her tomb.
"When I think about Elena, I think about the good times we had together," she said, speaking quietly and with her customary self-control. "Elena always had ideas, and she could make the most boring work into fun. I never told her that, and now I wish I had. I wish that I could talk to her one more time, just so she would know. And if Elena could hear me now"—Meredith looked around the church and drew a long breath, apparently to calm herself—"if she could hear me now, I would tell her how much those good times meant to me, and how much I wish that we could still have them. Like the Thursday nights we used to sit together in her room, practicing for the debate team. I wish we could do that just once more like we used to." Meredith took another long breath and shook her head. "But I know we can't, and that hurts."
What are you talking about? Elena thought, her misery interrupted by bewilderment. We used to practice for the debate team on Wednesday nights, not Thursdays. And it wasn't in my bedroom; it was in yours. And it was no fun at all; in fact, we ended up quitting because we both hated it…
Suddenly, watching Meredith's carefully composed face, so calm on the outside to conceal the tension within, Elena felt her heart begin to pound.
Meredith was sending a message, a message only Elena could be expected to understand. Which meant that Meredith expected Elena to be able to hear it.
Had Stefan told her? Elena scanned the rows of mourners below, realizing for the first time that Stefan wasn't among them. Neither was Matt. No, it didn't seem likely that Stefan would have told Meredith, or that Meredith would choose this way of getting a message to her if he had. Then Elena remembered the way Meredith had looked at her the night they had rescued Stefan from the well, when Elena had asked to be left alone with Stefan.
She remembered those keen dark eyes studying her face more than once in the last months, and the way Meredith had seemed to grow quieter and more thoughtful each time Elena came up with some odd request.
Meredith had guessed then. Elena wondered just how much of the truth she'd put together.
Bonnie was coming up now, crying in earnest. That was surprising; if Meredith knew, why hadn't she told Bonnie? But maybe Meredith had only a suspicion, something she didn't want to share with Bonnie in case it turned out to be a false hope.
Bonnie's speech was as emotional as Meredith's had been collected. Her voice kept breaking and she kept having to brush tears off her cheeks. Finally Reverend Bethea crossed over and gave her something white, a handkerchief or some tissue.
"Thank you," Bonnie said, wiping her streaming eyes. She tilted her head back to look at the ceiling, either to regain her poise or to get inspiration. As she did, Elena saw something that no one else could see: she saw Bonnie's face drain of color and of expression, not like somebody about to faint, but in a way that was all too familiar.
A chill crawled up Elena's backbone. Not here. Oh, God, of all times and places, not here.
But it was already happening. Bonnie's chin had lowered; she was looking at the congregation again. Except that this time she didn't seem to see them at all, and the voice that came from Bonnie's throat was not Bonnie's voice.
"No one is what they appear. Remember that. No one is what they appear." Then she just stood there, unmoving, staring straight ahead with blank eyes.
People began to shuffle and look at one another. There was a murmur of worry.
"Remember that—remember—no one is what they seem…" Bonnie swayed suddenly, and Reverend Bethea ran to her while another man hastened up from the other side. The second man had a bald head that was now shining with sweat—Mr. Newcastle, Elena realized. And there at the back of the church, striding up the nave, was Alaric Saltzman. He reached Bonnie just as she fainted, and Elena heard a step behind her on the stair.
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|Вампир||Дата: Суббота, 31-Октября-2009, 18:51:32 | Сообщение # 4|
Dr. Feinberg, Elena thought wildly, trying to twist around to look and simultaneously press herself into the shadows. But it wasn't the small, hawk-nosed visage of the doctor that met her eyes. It was a face with features as fine as those on a Roman coin or medallion, and haunted green eyes. Time caught for a moment, and then Elena was in his arms.
"Oh, Stefan. Stefan…"
She felt his body go still with shock. He was holding her mechanically, lightly, as if she were a stranger who'd mistaken him for someone else.
"Stefan," she said desperately, burrowing her face into his shoulder, trying to get some response. She couldn't bear it if he rejected her; if he hated her now she would die…
With a moan, she tried to get even closer to him, wanting to merge with him completely, to disappear inside him. Oh, please, she thought, oh, please, oh, please…
"Elena. Elena, it's all right; I've got you." He went on talking to her, repeating silly nonsense meant to soothe, stroking her hair. And she could feel the change as his arms tightened around her. He knew who he was holding now. For the first time since she'd awakened that day, she felt safe. Still, it was a long while before she could relax her grip on him even slightly. She wasn't crying; she was gasping in panic.
At last she felt the world start to settle into place around her. She didn't let go, though, not yet. She simply stood for endless minutes with her head on his shoulder, drinking in the comfort and security of his nearness.
Then she raised her head to look into his eyes.
When she'd thought of Stefan earlier that day, she'd thought of how he might help her. She'd meant to ask him, to beg him, to save her from this nightmare, to make her the way she had been before. But now, as she looked at him, she felt a strange despairing resignation flow through her.
"There's nothing to be done about it, is there?" she said very softly.
He didn't pretend to misunderstand. "No," he said, equally soft.
Elena felt as if she had taken some final step over an invisible line and that there was no returning. When she could speak again, she said, "I'm sorry for the way I acted toward you in the woods. I don't know why I did those things. I remember doing them, but I can't remember why."
"You're sorry?" His voice shook. "Elena, after all I've done to you, all that's happened to you because of me…" He couldn't finish, and they clung to each other.
"Very touching," said a voice from the stairway. "Do you want me to imitate a violin?"
Elena's calm shattered, and fear snaked through her bloodstream. She'd forgotten Damon's hypnotic intensity and his burning dark eyes.
"How did you get here?" said Stefan.
"The same way you did, I presume. Attracted by the blazing beacon of the fair Elena's distress." Damon was really angry; Elena could tell. Not just annoyed or discommoded but in a white heat of rage and hostility.
But he'd been decent to her when she'd been confused and irrational. He'd taken her to shelter; he'd kept her safe. And he hadn't kissed her while she'd been in that horrifyingly vulnerable state. He'd been… kind to her.
"Incidentally, there's something going on down there," Damon said.
"I know; it's Bonnie again," said Elena, releasing Stefan and moving back.
"That's not what I meant. This is outside."
Startled, Elena followed him down to the first bend in the stairs, where there was a window overlooking the parking lot. She felt Stefan behind her as she looked down at the scene below.
A crowd of people had come out of the church, but they were standing in a solid phalanx at the edge of the lot, not going any farther. Opposite them, in the parking lot itself, was an equally large assembly of dogs.
It looked like two armies facing each other. What was eerie, though, was that both groups were absolutely motionless. The people seemed to be paralyzed by uneasiness, and the dogs seemed to be waiting for something.
Elena saw the dogs first as different breeds. There were small dogs like sharp-faced corgis and brown-and-black silky terriers and a Lhasa apso with long golden hair. There were medium-sized dogs like springer spaniels and Airedales and one beautiful snow white Samoyed. And there were the big dogs: a barrel-chested rottweiler with a cropped tail, a panting gray wolfhound, and a giant schnauzer, pure black. Then Elena began to recognize individuals.
"That's Mr. Grunbaum's boxer and the Sullivans' German shepherd. But what's going on with them?"
The people, originally uneasy, now looked frightened. They stood shoulder to shoulder, no one wanting to break out of the front line and move any closer to the animals.
And yet the dogs weren't doing anything, just sitting or standing, some with their tongues lolling gently out. Strange, though, how still they were, Elena thought. Every tiny motion, such as the slightest twitch of tail or ears, seemed vastly exaggerated. And there were no wagging tails, no signs of friendliness. Just… waiting.
Robert was toward the back of the crowd. Elena was surprised at seeing him, but for a moment she couldn't think of why. Then she realized it was because he hadn't been in the church. As she watched, he drew farther apart from the group, disappearing under the overhang below Elena.
Someone had moved out of the front line at last. It was Douglas Carson, Elena realized, Sue Carson's married older brother. He'd stepped into the no-man's-land between the dogs and the people, one hand slightly extended.
A springer spaniel with long ears like brown satin turned her head. Her white stump of a tail quivered slightly, questioningly, and her brown-and-white muzzle lifted. But she didn't come to the young man.
Doug Carson took another step. "Chelsea… good girl. Come here, Chelsea. Come!" He snapped his fingers.
"What do you sense from those dogs down there?" Damon murmured.
Stefan shook his head without looking away from the window. "Nothing," he said shortly.
"Neither do I." Damon's eyes were narrowed, his head tilted back appraisingly, but his slightly bared teeth reminded Elena of the wolfhound. "But we should be able to, you know. They ought to have some emotions we can pick up on. Instead, every time I try to probe them it's like running into a blank white wall."
Elena wished she knew what they were talking about. "What do you mean 'probe them'?" she said. "They're animals."
"Appearances can be deceiving," Damon said ironically, and Elena thought about the rainbow lights in the feathers of the crow that had followed her since the first day of school. If she looked closely, she could see those same rainbow lights in Damon's silky hair. "But animals have emotions, in any case. If your Powers are strong enough, you can examine their minds."
And my Powers aren't, thought Elena. She was startled by the twinge of envy that went through her. Just a few minutes ago she'd been clinging to Stefan, frantic to get rid of any Powers she had, to change herself back. And now, she wished she were stronger. Damon always had an odd effect on her.
"I may not be able to probe Chelsea, but I don't think Doug should go any closer," she said aloud.
Stefan had been staring fixedly out the window, his eyebrows drawn together. Now he nodded fractionally, but with a sudden sense of urgency. "I don't either," he said.
"C'mon, Chelsea, be a good girl. Come here." Doug Carson had almost reached the first row of dogs. All eyes, human and canine, were fixed on him, and even such tiny movements as twitches had stopped. If Elena hadn't seen the sides of one or two dogs hollow and fill with their breathing, she might have thought the whole group was some giant museum display.
Doug had come to a halt. Chelsea was watching him from behind the corgi and the Samoyed. Doug clucked his tongue. He stretched out his hand, hesitated, and then stretched it out farther.
"No," Elena said. She was staring at the rottweiler's glossy flanks. Hollow and fill, hollow and fill. "Stefan, influence him. Get him out of there."
"Yes." She could see his gaze unfocus with concentration; then, he shook his head, exhaling like a person who's tried to lift some-thing too heavy. "It's no good; I'm burnt out. I can't do it from here."
Below, Chelsea's lips skinned back from her teeth. The red-gold Airedale rose to her feet in one beautifully smooth movement, as if pulled by strings. The hindquarters of the rottweiler bunched.
And then they sprang. Elena couldn't see which of the dogs was the first; they seemed to move together like a great wave. Half a dozen hit Doug Carson with enough force to knock him backward, and he disappeared under their massed bodies.
The air was full of hellish noise, from a metallic baying that set the church rafters ringing and gave Elena an instant headache, to a deep-throated continuous growl that she felt rather than heard. Dogs were tearing at clothing, snarling, lunging, while the crowd scattered and screamed.
Elena caught sight of Alaric Saltzman at the edge of the parking lot, the only one who wasn't running. He was standing stiffly, and she thought she could see his lips moving, and his hands.
Everywhere else was pandemonium. Someone had gotten a hose and was turning it into the thick of the pack, but it was having no effect. The dogs seemed to have gone mad. When Chelsea raised her brown-and-white muzzle from her master's body, it was tinged with red.
Elena's heart was pounding so that she could barely breathe. "They need help!" she said, just as Stefan broke away from the window and went down the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. Elena was halfway down the stairs herself when she realized two things: Damon wasn't following her, and she couldn't let herself be seen.
She couldn't. The hysteria it would cause, the questions, the fear and hatred once the questions were answered. Something that ran deeper than compassion or sympathy or the need to help wrenched her back, flattening her against the wall.
In the dim, cool interior of the church, she glimpsed a boiling pocket of activity. People were dashing back and forth, shouting. Dr. Feinberg, Mr. McCullough, Reverend Bethea. The still point of the circle was Bonnie lying on a pew with Meredith and Aunt Judith and Mrs. McCullough bent over her. "Something evil," she was moaning, and then Aunt Judith's head came up, turning in Elena's direction.
Elena scuttled up the stairs as quickly as she could, praying Aunt Judith hadn't seen her. Damon was at the window.
"I can't go down there. They think I'm dead!"
"Oh, you've remembered that. Good for you."
"If Dr. Feinberg examines me, he'll know something's wrong. Well, won't he?" she demanded fiercely.
"He'll think you're an interesting specimen, all right."
"Then I can't go. But you can. Why don't you do something?"
Damon continued to look out the window, eyebrows hiking up. "Why?"
"Why?" Elena's alarm and overexcitement reached flash point and she almost slapped him. "Because they need help! Because you can help. Don't you care about anything besides yourself?"
Damon was wearing his most impenetrable mask, the expression of polite inquiry he'd worn when he invited himself to her house for dinner. But she knew that beneath it he was angry, angry at finding her and Stefan together. He was baiting her on purpose and with savage enjoyment.
And she couldn't help her reaction, her frustrated, impotent rage. She started for him, and he caught her wrists and held her off, his eyes boring into hers. She was startled to hear the sound that came from her lips then; it was a hiss that sounded more feline than human. She realized her fingers were hooked into claws.
What am I doing? Attacking him because he won't defend people against the dogs that are attacking them? What kind of sense does that make? Breathing hard, she relaxed her hands and wet her lips. She stepped back and he let her.
There was a long moment while they stared at each other.
"I'm going down," Elena said quietly and turned.
"They need help."
"All right, then, damn you." She'd never heard Damon's voice so low, or so furious. "I'll—" he broke off and Elena, turning back quickly, saw him slam a fist into the window-sill, rattling the glass. But his attention was outside and his voice perfectly composed again when he said dryly, "Help has arrived."
It was the fire department. Their hoses were much more powerful than the garden hose, and the jet streams of water drove the lunging dogs off with sheer force. Elena saw a sheriff with a gun and bit the inside of her cheek as he aimed and sighted. There was a crack, and the giant schnauzer went down. The sheriff aimed again.
It ended quickly after that. Several dogs were already running from the barrage of water, and with the second crack of the pistol more broke from the pack and headed for the edges of the parking lot. It was as if the purpose that had driven them had released them all at once. Elena felt a rush of relief as she saw Stefan standing unharmed in the middle of the rout, shoving a dazed-looking golden retriever away from Doug Carson's form. Chelsea took a skulking step toward her master and looked into his face, head and tail drooping.
"It's all over," Damon said. He sounded only mildly interested, but Elena glanced at him sharply. All right then, damn you, I'll what? she thought. What had he been about to say? He wasn't in any mood to tell her, but she was in a mood to push.
"Damon…" She put a hand on his arm.
He stiffened, then turned. "Well?"
For a second they stood looking at each other, and then there was a step on the stair. Stefan had returned.
"Stefan… you're hurt," she said, blinking, suddenly disoriented.
"I'm all right." He wiped blood off his cheek with a tattered sleeve.
"What about Doug?" Elena asked, swallowing.
"I don't know. He is hurt. A lot of people are. That was the strangest thing I've ever seen."
Elena moved away from Damon, up the stairs into the choir loft. She felt that she had to think, but her head was pounding. The strangest thing Stefan had ever seen… that was saying a lot. Something strange in Fell's Church.
She reached the wall behind the last row of seats and put a hand against it, sliding down to sit on the floor. Things seemed at once confused and frighteningly clear. Something strange in Fell's Church. The day of the founders' celebration she would have sworn she didn't care anything about Fell's Church or the people in it. But now she knew differently. Looking down on the memorial service, she had begun to think perhaps she did care.
And then, when the dogs had attacked outside, she'd known it. She felt somehow responsible for the town, in a way she had never felt before.
Her earlier sense of desolation and loneliness had been pushed aside for the moment. There was something more important than her own problems now. And she clung to that something, because the truth was that she really couldn't deal with her own situation, no, she really, really couldn't…
She heard the gasping half sob she gave then and looked up to see both Stefan and Damon in the choir loft, looking at her. She shook her head slightly, putting a hand to it, feeling as if she were coming out of a dream.
It was Stefan who spoke, but Elena addressed herself to the other one.
"Damon," she said shakily, "if I ask you something, will you tell me the truth? I know you didn't chase me off Wickery Bridge. I could feel whatever it was, and it was different. But I want to ask you this: was it you who dumped Stefan in the old Francher well a month ago?"
"In a well?" Damon leaned back against the opposite wall, arms crossed over his chest. He looked politely incredulous.
"On Halloween night, the night Mr. Tanner was killed. After you showed yourself for the first time to Stefan in the woods. He told me he left you in the clearing and started to walk to his car but that someone attacked him before he reached it. When he woke up, he was trapped in the well, and he would have died there if Bonnie hadn't led us to him. I always assumed you were the one who attacked him. He always assumed you were the one. But were you?"
Damon's lip curled, as if he didn't like the demanding intensity of her question. He looked from her to Stefan with hooded, deriding eyes. The moment stretched out until Elena had to dig her fingernails into her palms with tension. Then Damon gave a small shrug and looked off at a middle distance.
"As a matter of fact, no," he said.
Elena let out her breath.
"You can't believe that!" Stefan exploded. "You can't believe anything he says."
"Why should I lie?" Damon returned, clearly enjoying Stefan's loss of control. "I admit freely to killing Tanner. I drank his blood until he shriveled like a prune. And I wouldn't mind doing the same thing to you, brother. But a well? It's hardly my style."
"I believe you," Elena said. Her mind was rushing ahead. She turned to Stefan. "Don't you feel it? There's something else here in Fell's Church, something that may not even be human—may never have been human, I mean. Something that chased me, forced my car off the bridge. Something that made those dogs attack people. Some terrible force that's here, something evil…" Her voice trailed off, and she looked over toward the interior of the church where she had seen Bonnie lying. "Something evil…" she repeated softly. A cold wind seemed to blow inside her, and she huddled into herself, feeling vulnerable and alone.
"If you're looking for evil," Stefan said harshly, "you don't have to look far."
"Don't be any more stupid than you can help," said Damon. "I told you four days ago that someone else had killed Elena. And I said that I was going to find that someone and deal with him. And I am." He uncrossed his arms and straightened up. "You two can continue that private conversation you were having when I interrupted."
"Damon, wait." Elena hadn't been able to help the shudder that tore through her when he said killed. I can't have been killed; I'm still here, she thought wildly, feeling panic swell up in her again. But now she pushed the panic aside to speak to Damon.
"Whatever this thing is, it's strong," she said. "I felt it when it was after me, and it seemed to fill the whole sky. I don't think any of us would stand a chance against it alone."
"So…" Elena hadn't had time to gather her thoughts this far. She was running purely on instinct, on intuition. And intuition told her not to let Damon go. "So… I think we three ought to stick together. I think we have a much better chance of finding it and dealing with it together than separately. And maybe we can stop it before it hurts or—or kills—anyone else."
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn about anyone else," Damon said charmingly. Then he gave one of his ice-cold lightning smiles. "But are you suggesting that this is your choice? Remember, we agreed that when you were more rational you would make one.
Elena stared at him. Of course it wasn't her choice, if he meant romantically. She was wearing the ring Stefan had given her; she and Stefan belonged together.
But then she remembered something else, just a flash: looking up at Damon's face in the woods and feeling such—such excitement, such affinity with him. As if he understood the flame that burned inside her as nobody else ever could. As if together they could do anything they liked, conquer the world or destroy it; as if they were better than anyone else who had ever lived.
I was out of my mind, irrational, she told herself, but that little flash of memory wouldn't go away.
And then she remembered something else: how Damon had acted later that night, how he'd kept her safe, even been gentle with her.
Stefan was looking at her, and his expression had changed from belligerence to bitter anger and fear. Part of her wanted to reassure him completely, to throw her arms around him and tell him that she was his and always would be and that nothing else mattered. Not the town, not Damon, not anything.
But she wasn't doing it. Because another part of her was saying that the town did matter. And because still another part was just terribly, terribly confused. So confused…
She felt a trembling begin deep inside her, and then she found she couldn't make it stop. Emotional overload, she thought, and put her head in her hands.
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|Вампир||Дата: Суббота, 31-Октября-2009, 18:52:01 | Сообщение # 5|
"She's already made her choice. You saw it yourself when you 'interrupted' us. You've already chosen, haven't you, Elena?" Stefan said it not smugly, or as a demand, but with a kind of desperate bravado.
"I…" Elena looked up. "Stefan, I love you. But don't you understand, if I have a choice right now I have to choose for all of us to stay together. Just for now. Do you understand?" Seeing only stoniness in Stefan's face, she turned to Damon. "Do you?"
"I think so." He gave her a secret, possessive smile. "I told Stefan from the beginning that he was selfish not to share you. Brothers should share things, you know."
"That's not what I meant."
"Isn't it?" Damon smiled again.
"No," Stefan said. "I don't understand, and I don't see how you can ask me to work with him. He's evil, Elena. He kills for pleasure; he has no conscience at all. He doesn't care about Fell's Church; he said that himself. He's a monster—"
"Right now he's being more cooperative than you are," Elena said. She reached for Stefan's hand, searching for some way to get through to him. "Stefan, I need you. And we both need him. Can't you try to accept that?" When he didn't answer she added, "Stefan, do you really want to be mortal enemies with your brother forever?"
"Do you really think he wants anything else?"
Elena stared down at their joined hands, looking at the planes and curves and shadows. She didn't answer for a minute, and when she did it was very quietly.
"He stopped me from killing you," she said.
She felt the flare of Stefan's defensive anger, then felt it slowly fade. Something like defeat crept through him, and he bowed his head.
"That's true," he said. "And, anyway, who am I to call him evil? What's he done that I haven't done myself?"
We need to talk, Elena thought, hating this self-hatred of his. But this wasn't the time or place.
"Then you do agree?" she said hesitantly. "Stefan, tell me what you're thinking."
"Right now I'm thinking that you always get your way. Because you always do, don't you, Elena?"
Elena looked into his eyes, noticing how the pupils were dilated, so that only a ring of green iris showed around the edge. There was no longer anger there, but the tiredness and the bitterness remained.
But I'm not just doing it for myself, she thought, thrusting out of her mind the sudden surge of self-doubt. I'll prove that to you, Stefan; you'll see. For once I'm not doing something for my own convenience.
"Then you agree?" she said quietly.
"Yes. I… agree."
"And I agree," said Damon, extending his own hand with exaggerated courtesy. He captured Elena's before she could say anything. "In fact, we all seem to be in a frenzy of pure agreement."
Don't, Elena thought, but at that moment, standing in the cool twilight of the choir loft, she felt that it was true, that they were all three connected, and in accord, and strong.
Then Stefan pulled his hand away. In the silence that followed, Elena could hear the sounds outside and in the church below. There was still crying and the occasional shout, but the overall urgency was gone. Looking out the window, she saw people picking their way across the wet parking lot between the little groups that huddled over wounded victims. Dr. Feinberg was moving from island to island, apparently dispensing medical advice. The victims looked like survivors of a hurricane or earthquake.
"No one is what they seem," Elena said.
"That's what Bonnie said during the memorial service. She had another one of her fits. I think it might be important." She tried to put her thoughts in order. "I think there are people in town that we ought to look out for. Like Alaric Saltzman." She told them, briefly, what she had overheard earlier that day in Alaric's house. "He's not what he seems, but I don't know exactly what he is. I think we should watch him. And since I obviously can't appear in public, you two are going to have to do it. But you can't let him suspect you know—" Elena broke off as Damon held up a hand swiftly.
Down at the base of the stairs, a voice was calling. "Stefan? Are you up there?" And then, to someone else, "I thought I saw him go up here."
It sounded like Mr. Carson. "Go," Elena hissed almost inaudibly to Stefan, "You have to be as normal as possible so you can stay here in Fell's Church. I'll be all right."
"But where will you go?"
"To Meredith's. I'll explain later. Go on."
Stefan hesitated, and then started down the stairs, calling, "I'm coming." Then he pulled back. "I'm not leaving you with him," he said flatly.
Elena threw her hands up in exasperation. "Then both of you go. You just agreed to work together; are you going to go back on your word now?" she added to Damon, who was looking unyielding himself.
He gave another of his little shrugs. "All right. Just one thing—are you hungry?"
"I—no." Stomach lurching, Elena realized what he was asking. "No, not at all."
"That's good. But later on, you will be. Remember that." He crowded Stefan down the stairs, earning himself a searing look. But Elena heard Stefan's voice in her mind as they both disappeared.
I'll come for you later. Wait for me.
She wished she could answer with her own thoughts. She also noticed something. Stefan's mental voice was much weaker than it had been four days ago when he had been fighting his brother. Come to think of it, he hadn't been able to speak with his mind at all before the Founders' Day celebration. She'd been so confused when she woke up by the river that it hadn't occurred to her, but now she wondered. What had happened to make him so strong? And why was his strength fading now?
Elena had time to think about it as she sat there in the deserted choir loft, while below the people left the church and outside the overcast skies slowly grew darker. She thought about Stefan, and about Damon, and she wondered if she had made the right choice. She'd vowed never to let them fight over her, but that vow was broken already. Was she crazy to try and make them live under a truce, even a temporary one?
When the sky outside was uniformly black, she ventured down the stairs. The church was empty and echoing. She hadn't thought about how she would get out, but fortunately the side door was bolted only from the inside. She slipped out into the night gratefully.
She hadn't realized how good it was to be outside and in the dark. Being inside buildings made her feel trapped, and daylight hurt her eyes. This was best, free and unfettered—and unseen. Her own senses rejoiced at the lush world around her. With the air so still, scents hung in the air for a long time, and she could smell a whole plethora of nocturnal creatures. A fox was scavenging in somebody's trash. Brown rats were chewing something in the bushes. Night moths were calling to one another with scent.
She found it wasn't hard to get to Meredith's house undetected; people seemed to be staying inside. But once she got there, she stood looking up at the graceful farmhouse with the screened porch in dismay. She couldn't just walk up to the front door and knock. Was Meredith really expecting her? Wouldn't she be waiting outside if she were?
Meredith was about to get a terrible shock if she weren't, Elena reflected, eyeing the distance to the roof of the porch. Meredith's bedroom window was above it and just around the corner. It would be a bit of a reach, but Elena thought she could make it.
Getting onto the roof was easy; her fingers and bare toes found holds between the bricks and sent her sailing up. But leaning around the corner to look into Meredith's window was a strain. She blinked against the light that flooded out.
Meredith was sitting on the edge of her bed, elbows on knees, staring at nothing. Every so often she ran a hand through her dark hair. A clock on the nightstand said 6:43.
Elena tapped on the window glass with her fingernails.
Meredith jumped and looked the wrong way, toward the door. She stood up in a defensive crouch, clutching a throw pillow in one hand. When the door didn't open, she sidled a pace or two toward it, still in a defensive posture. "Who is it?" she said.
Elena tapped on the glass again.
Meredith spun to face the window, her breath coming fast.
"Let me in," said Elena. She didn't know if Meredith could hear her, so she mouthed it clearly. "Open the window."
Meredith, panting, looked around the room as if she expected someone to appear and help her. When no one did, she approached the window as if it were a dangerous animal. But she didn't open it.
"Let me in," Elena said again. Then she added impatiently, "If you didn't want me to come, why did you make an appointment with me?"
She saw the change as Meredith's shoulders relaxed slightly. Slowly, with fingers that were unusually clumsy, Meredith opened the window and stood back.
"Now ask me to come inside. Otherwise I can't.
"Come…" Meredith's voice failed and she had to try again. "Come in," she said. When Elena, wincing, had boosted herself over the sill and was flexing her cramped fingers, Meredith added almost dazedly, "It's got to be you. Nobody else gives orders like that."
"It's me," Elena said. She stopped wringing out the cramps and looked into the eyes of her friend. "It really is me, Meredith," she said.
Meredith nodded and swallowed visibly. Right then what Elena would have liked most in the world would have been for the other girl to give her a hug. But Meredith wasn't much of the hugging type, and right now she was backing slowly away to sit on the bed again.
"Sit down," she said in an artificially calm voice. Elena pulled out the desk chair and unthinkingly took up the same position Meredith had been in before, elbows on knees, head down. Then she looked up. "How did you know?"
"I…" Meredith just stared at her for a moment, then shook herself. "Well. You—your body was never found, of course. That was strange. And then those attacks on the old man and Vickie and Tanner—and Stefan and little things I'd put together about him—but I didn't know. Not for sure. Not until now." She ended almost in a whisper.
"Well, it was a good guess," Elena said. She was trying to behave normally, but what was normal in this situation? Meredith was acting as if she could scarcely bear to look at her. It made Elena feel more lonely, more alone, than she could ever remember being in her life.
A doorbell rang downstairs. Elena heard it, but she could tell Meredith didn't. "Who's coming?" she said. "There's someone at the door."
"I asked Bonnie to come over at seven o'clock, if her mother would let her. It's probably her. I'll go see." Meredith seemed almost indecently eager to get away.
"Wait. Does she know?"
"No… Oh, you mean I should break it to her gently." Meredith looked around the room again uncertainly, and Elena snapped on the little reading light by the bed.
"Turn the room light off. It hurts my eyes anyway," she said quietly. When Meredith did, the bedroom was dim enough that she could conceal herself in the shadows.
Waiting for Meredith to return with Bonnie, she stood in a corner, hugging her elbows with her hands. Maybe it was a bad idea trying to get Meredith and Bonnie involved. If imperturbable Meredith couldn't handle the situation, what would Bonnie do?
Meredith heralded their arrival by muttering over and over, "Don't scream now; don't scream," as she bundled Bonnie across the threshold.
"What's wrong with you? What are you doing?" Bonnie was gasping in return. "Let go of me. Do you know what I had to do to get my mother to let me out of the house tonight? She wants to take me to the hospital at Roanoke."
Meredith kicked the door shut. "Okay," she said to Bonnie. "Now, you're going to see something that will… well, it's going to be a shock. But you can't scream, do you understand me? I'll let go of you if you promise."
"It's too dark to see anything, and you're scaring me. What's wrong with you, Meredith? Oh, all right, I promise, but what are you talking—"
"Elena," said Meredith. Elena took it as an invitation and stepped forward.
Bonnie's reaction wasn't what she expected. She frowned and leaned forward, peering in the dim light. When she saw Elena's form, she gasped. But then, as she stared at Elena's face, she clapped her hands together with a shriek of joy.
"I knew it! I knew they were wrong! So there, Meredith—and you and Stefan thought you knew so much about drowning and all that. But I knew you were wrong! Oh, Elena, I missed you! Everyone's going to be so—"
"Be quiet, Bonnie! Be quiet!" Meredith said urgently. "I told you not to scream. Listen, you idiot, do you think if Elena were really all right she'd be here in the middle of the night without anybody knowing about it?"
"But she is all right; look at her. She's standing there. It is you, isn't it, Elena?" Bonnie started toward her, but Meredith grabbed her again.
"Yes, it's me." Elena had the strange feeling she'd wandered into a surreal comedy, maybe one written by Kafka, only she didn't know her lines. She didn't know what to say to Bonnie, who was looking rapturous.
"It's me, but… I'm not exactly all right," she said awkwardly, sitting down again. Meredith nudged Bonnie to sit down on the bed.
"What are you two being so mysterious for? She's here, but she's not all right. What's that supposed to mean?"
Elena didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Look, Bonnie… oh, I don't know how to say this. Bonnie, did your psychic grandmother ever talk to you about vampires?"
Silence fell, heavy as an ax. The minutes ticked by. Impossibly, Bonnie's eyes widened still further; then, they slid toward Meredith. There were several more minutes of silence, and then Bonnie shifted her weight toward the door. "Uh, look, you guys," she said softly, "this is getting really weird. I mean, really, really, really…"
Elena cast about in her mind. "You can look at my teeth," she said. She pulled her upper lip back, poking at a canine with her finger. She felt the reflexive lengthening and sharpening, like a cat's claw lazily extending.
Meredith came forward and looked and then looked away quickly. "I get the point," she said, but in her voice there was none of the old wry pleasure in her own wit. "Bonnie, look," she said.
All the elation, all the excitement had drained out of Bonnie. She looked as if she were going to be sick. "No. I don't want to."
"You have to. You have to believe it, or we'll never get anywhere." Meredith grappled a stiff and resisting Bonnie forward. "Open your eyes, you little twit. You're the one who loves all this supernatural stuff."
"I've changed my mind," Bonnie said, almost sobbing. There was genuine hysteria in her tone. "Leave me alone, Meredith; I don't want to look." She wrenched herself away.
"You don't have to," Elena whispered, stunned. Dismay pooled inside her, and tears flooded her eyes. "This was a bad idea, Meredith. I'll go away."
"No. Oh, don't." Bonnie turned back as quickly as she'd whirled away and precipitated herself into Elena's arms. "I'm sorry, Elena; I'm sorry. I don't care what you are; I'm just glad you're back. It's been terrible without you." She was sobbing now in earnest.
The tears that wouldn't come when Elena had been with Stefan came now. She cried, holding on to Bonnie, feeling Meredith's arms go around both of them. They were all crying—Meredith silently, Bonnie noisily, and Elena herself with passionate intensity. She felt as if she were crying for everything that had happened to her, for everything she had lost, for all the loneliness and the fear and the pain.
Eventually, they all ended up sitting on the floor, knee to knee, the way they had when they were kids at a sleepover making secret plans.
"You're so brave," Bonnie said to Elena, sniffling. "I don't see how you can be so brave about it."
"You don't know how I'm feeling inside. I'm not brave at all. But I've got to deal with it somehow, because I don't know what else to do."
"Your hands aren't cold." Meredith squeezed Elena's fingers. "Just sort of cool. I thought they'd be colder."
"Stefan's hands aren't cold either," Elena said, and she was about to go on, but Bonnie squeaked: "Stefan?"
Meredith and Elena looked at her.
"Be sensible, Bonnie. You don't get to be a vampire by yourself. Somebody has to make you one."
"But you mean Stefan . . . ? You mean he's a… ?" Bonnie's voice choked off.
"I think," said Meredith, "that maybe this is the time to tell us the whole story, Elena. Like all those minor details you left out the last time we asked you for the whole story."
Elena nodded. "You're right. It's hard to explain, but I'll try." She took a deep breath. "Bonnie, do you remember the first day of school? It was the first time I ever heard you make a prophecy. You looked into my palm and said I'd meet a boy, a dark boy, a stranger. And that he wasn't tall but that he had been once. Well"—she looked at Bonnie and then at Meredith—"Stefan's not really tall now. But he was once… compared to other people in the fifteenth century."
Meredith nodded, but Bonnie made a faint sound and swayed backward, looking shell-shocked. "You mean—"
"I mean he lived in Renaissance Italy, and the average person was shorter then. So Stefan looked taller by comparison. And, wait, before you pass out, here's something else you should know. Damon's his brother."
Meredith nodded again. "I figured something like that. But then why has Damon been saying he's a college student?"
"They don't get along very well. For a long time, Stefan didn't even know Damon was in Fell's Church." Elena faltered. She was verging on Stefan's private history, which she'd always felt was his secret to tell. But Meredith had been right; it was time to come out with the whole story. "Listen, it was like this," she said. "Stefan and Damon were both in love with the same girl back in Renaissance Italy. She was from Germany, and her name was Katherine. The reason Stefan was avoiding me at the beginning of school was that I reminded him of her; she had blond hair and blue eyes, too. Oh, and this was her ring." Elena let go of Meredith's hand and showed them the intricately carved golden circlet set with a single stone of lapis lazuli.
"And the thing was that Katherine was a vampire. A guy named Klaus had made her one back in her village in Germany to save her from dying of her last illness. Stefan and Damon both knew this, but they didn't care. They asked her to choose between them the one she wanted to marry." Elena stopped and gave a lopsided smile, thinking that Mr. Tanner had been right; history did repeat itself. She only hoped her story didn't end like Katherine's. "But she chose both of them. She exchanged blood with both of them, and she said they could all three be companions through eternity."
"Sounds kinky," murmured Bonnie.
"Sounds dumb," said Meredith.
"You got it," Elena told her. "Katherine was sweet but not very bright. Stefan and Damon already didn't like each other. They told her she had to choose, that they wouldn't even think of sharing her. And she ran off crying. The next day—well, they found her body, or what was left of it. See, a vampire needs a talisman like this ring to go out in the sun without being killed. And Katherine went out in the sun and took hers off. She thought if she were out of the way, Damon and Stefan would be reconciled."
"Oh, my God, how ro—"
"No, it isn't," Elena cut Bonnie off savagely. "It's not romantic at all. Stefan's been living with the guilt ever since, and I think Damon has, too, although you'd never get him to admit it. And the immediate result was that they got a couple of swords and killed each other. Yes, killed. That's why they're vampires now, and that's why they hate each other so much. And that's why I'm probably crazy trying to get them to cooperate now."
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