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Why learn about information systems?

Stefan sat in the Gilbert living room, agreeing politely with whatever it was Aunt Judith was saying. The older woman was uncomfortable having him here; you didn't need to be a mind reader to know that. But she was trying, and so Stefan was trying, too. He wanted Elena to be happy.

Elena. Even when he wasn't looking at her, he was aware of her more than of anything else in the room. Her living presence beat against his skin like sunlight against closed eyelids. When he actually let himself turn to face her, it was a sweet shock to all his senses.

He loved her so much. He never saw her as Katherine any more; he had almost forgotten how much she looked like the dead girl. In any case, there were so many differences. Elena had the same pale gold hair and creamy skin, the same delicate features as Katherine, but there the resemblance ended. Her eyes, looking violet in the firelight just now but normally a blue as dark as lapis lazuli, were neither timid nor childlike as Katherine's had been. On the contrary, they were windows to her soul, which shone like an eager flame behind them. Elena was Elena, and her image had replaced Katherine's gentle ghost in his heart.

But her very strength made their love dangerous. He hadn't been able to resist her last week when she'd offered him her blood. Granted, he might have died without it, but it had been far too soon for Elena's own safety. For the hundredth time, his eyes moved over Elena's face, searching for the telltale signs of change. Was that creamy skin a little paler? Was her expression slightly more remote?

They would have to be careful from now on. He would have to be more careful. Make sure to feed often, satisfy himself with animals, so he wouldn't be tempted. Never let the need get too strong. Now that he thought of it, he was hungry right now. The dry ache, the burning, was spreading along his upper jaw, whispering through his veins and capillaries. He should be out in the woods—senses alert to catch the slightest crackle of dry twigs, muscles ready for the chase—not here by a fire watching the tracery of pale blue veins in Elena's throat.

That slim throat turned as Elena looked at him.

"Do you want to go to that party tonight? We can take Aunt Judith's car," she said.

"But you ought to stay for dinner first," said Aunt Judith quickly.

"We can pick up something on the way." Elena meant they could pick up something for her, Stefan thought. He himself could chew and swallow ordinary food if he had to, though it did him no good, and he had long since lost any taste for it. No, his… appetites… were more particular now, he thought. And if they went to this party, it would mean hours more before he could feed. But he nodded agreement to Elena.

"If you want to," he said.

She did want to; she was set on it. He'd seen that from the beginning. "All right then, I'd better change."

He followed her to the base of the stairway. "Wear something with a high neck. A sweater," he told her in a voice too low to carry.



She glanced through the doorway, to the empty living room, and said, "It's all right. They're almost healed already. See?" She tugged her lacy collar down, twisting her head to one side.

Stefan stared, mesmerized, at the two round marks on the fine-grained skin. They were a very light, translucent burgundy color, like much-watered wine. He set his teeth and forced his eyes away. Looking much longer at that would drive him crazy.

"That wasn't what I meant," he said brusquely.

The shining veil of her hair fell over the marks again, hiding them. "Oh."

 

"Come in!"

As they did, walking into the room, conversations stopped. Elena looked at the faces turned toward them, at the curious, furtive eyes and the wary expressions. Not the kind of looks she was used to getting when she made an entrance.

It was another student who'd opened the door for them; Alaric Saltzman was nowhere in sight. But Caroline was, seated on a bar stool, which showed off her legs to their best advantage. She gave Elena a mocking look and then made some remark to a boy on her right. He laughed.

Elena could feel her smile start to go painful, while a flush crept up toward her face. Then a familiar voice came to her.

"Elena, Stefan! Over here."

Gratefully, she spotted Bonnie sitting with Meredith and Ed Goff on a loveseat in the corner. She and Stefan settled on a large ottoman opposite them, and she heard conversations start to pick up again around the room.

By tacit agreement, no one mentioned the awkwardness of Elena and Stefan's arrival. Elena was determined to pretend that everything was as usual.

And Bonnie and Meredith were backing her. "You look great," said Bonnie warmly. "I just love that red sweater."

"She does look nice. Doesn't she, Ed?" said Meredith, and Ed, looking vaguely startled, agreed.

"So your class was invited to this, too," Elena said to Meredith. "I thought maybe it was just seventh period."

"I don't know if invited is the word." replied Meredith dryly. "Considering that participation is half our grade."

"Do you think he was serious about that? He couldn't be serious," put in Ed.

Elena shrugged. "He sounded serious to me. Where's Ray?" she asked Bonnie.

"Ray? Oh, Ray. I don't know, around somewhere, I suppose. There's a lot of people here."

That was true. The Ramsey living room was packed, and from what Elena could see the crowd flowed into the dining room, the front parlor, and probably the kitchen as well. Elbows kept brushing Elena's hair as people circulated behind her.

"What did Saltzman want with you after class?" Stefan was saying.

"Alaric," Bonnie corrected primly. "He wants us to call him Alaric. Oh, he was just being nice. He felt awful for making me relive such an agonizing experience. He didn't know exactly how Mr. Tanner died, and he hadn't realized I was so sensitive. Of course, he's incredibly sensitive himself, so he understands what it's like. He's an Aquarius."

"With a moon rising in pickup lines," said Meredith under her breath. "Bonnie you don't believe that garbage, do you? He's a teacher; he shouldn't be trying that out on students."

"He wasn't trying anything out! He said exactly the same thing to Tyler and Sue Carson. He said we should form a support group for each other or write an essay about that night to get our feelings out. He said teenagers are all very impressionable and he didn't want the tragedy to have a lasting impact on our lives."

"Oh, brother," said Ed, and Stefan turned a laugh into a cough. He wasn't amused, though, and his question to Bonnie hadn't been just idle curiosity. Elena could tell; she could feel it radiating from him. Stefan felt about Alaric Saltzman the way that most of the people in this room felt about Stefan. Wary and mistrustful.

"It was strange, him acting as if the party was a spontaneous idea in our class," she said, responding unconsciously to Stefan's unspoken words, "when obviously it had been planned."

"What's even stranger is the idea that the school would hire a teacher without telling him how the previous teacher died," said Stefan. "Everyone was talking about it; it must have been in the papers."

"But not all the details," said Bonnie firmly. "In fact, there are things the police still haven't let out, because they think it might help them catch the killer. For instance," she dropped her voice, "do you know what Mary said? Dr. Feinberg was talking to the guy who did the autopsy, the medical examiner. And he said that there was no blood left in the body at all. Not a drop."

Elena felt an icy wind blow through her, as if she stood once again in the graveyard. She couldn't speak. But Ed said, "Where'd it go?"

"Well, all over the floor, I suppose," said Bonnie calmly. "All over the altar and everything. That's what the police are investigating now. But it's unusual for a corpse not to have any blood left; usually there's some that settles down on the underside of the body. Postmortem lividity, it's called. It looks like big purple bruises. What's wrong?"

"Your incredible sensitivity has me ready to throw up," said Meredith in a strangled voice. "Could we possibly talk about something else?"

"You weren't the one with blood all over you," Bonnie began, but Stefan interrupted her.

"Have the investigators come to any conclusions from what they've learned? Are they any closer to finding the killer?"

"I don't know," said Bonnie, and then she brightened. "That's right, Elena, you said you knew—"

"Shut up, Bonnie," said Elena desperately. If there ever were a place not to discuss this, it was in a crowded room surrounded by people who hated Stefan. Bonnie's eyes widened, and then she nodded, subsiding.

Elena could not relax, though. Stefan hadn't killed Mr. Tanner, and yet the same evidence that would lead to Damon could as easily lead to him. And would lead to him, because no one but she and Stefan knew of Damon's existence. He was out there, somewhere, in the shadows. Waiting for his next victim. Maybe waiting for Stefan—or for her.

"I'm hot," she said abruptly. "I think I'll go see what kinds of refreshments Alaric has provided."

Stefan started to rise, but Elena waved him back down. He wouldn't have any use for potato chips and punch. And she wanted to be alone for a few minutes, to be moving instead of sitting, to calm herself.

Being with Meredith and Bonnie had given her a false sense of security. Leaving them, she was once again confronted by sidelong glances and suddenly turned backs. This time it made her angry. She moved through the crowd with deliberate insolence, holding any eye she accidentally caught. I'm already notorious, she thought. I might as well be brazen, too.

She was hungry. In the Ramsey dining room someone had set up an assortment of finger foods that looked surprisingly good. Elena took a paper plate and dropped a few carrot sticks on it, ignoring the people around the bleached oak table. She wasn't going to speak to them unless they spoke first. She gave her full attention to the refreshments, leaning past people to select cheese wedges and Ritz crackers, reaching in front of them to pluck grapes, ostentatiously looking up and down the whole array to see if there was anything she'd missed.

She'd succeeded in riveting everyone's attention, something she knew without raising her eyes. She bit delicately down on a bread stick, holding it between her teeth like a pencil, and turned from the table.

"Mind if I have a bite?"

Shock snapped her eyes wide open and froze her breath. Her mind jammed, refusing to acknowledge what was going on, and leaving her helpless, vulnerable, in the face of it. But though rational thought had disappeared, her senses went right on recording mercilessly: dark eyes dominating her field of vision, a whiff of some kind of cologne in her nostrils, two long fingers tilting her chin up. Damon leaned in, and, neatly and precisely, bit off the other end of the bread stick.

In that moment, their lips were only inches apart. He was leaning in for a second bite before Elena's wits revived enough to throw her backward, her hand grabbing the bit of crisp bread and tossing it away. He caught it in midair, a virtuoso display of reflex.

His eyes were still on hers. Elena got in a breath at last and opened her mouth; she wasn't sure what for. To scream, probably. To warn all these people to run out into the night. Her heart was pounding like a triphammer, her vision blurred.

"Easy, easy." He took the plate from her and then somehow got hold of her wrist. He was holding it lightly, the way Mary had felt for Stefan's pulse. As she continued to stare and gasp, he stroked it with his thumb, as if comforting her. "Easy. It's all right."

What are you doing here? she thought. The scene around her seemed eerily bright and unnatural. It was like one of those nightmares when everything is ordinary, just like waking life, and then suddenly something grotesque happens. He was going to kill them all.

"Elena? Are you okay?" Sue Carson was talking to her, gripping her shoulder.

"I think she choked on something," Damon said, releasing Elena's wrist. "But she's all right now. Why don't you introduce us?"

He was going to kill them all…

"Elena, this is Damon, um…" Sue spread an apologetic hand, and Damon finished for her.

"Smith." He lifted a paper cup toward Elena. "La vita."

"What are you doing here?" she whispered.

"He's a college student," Sue volunteered, when it became apparent that Damon wasn't going to answer. "From—University of Virginia, was it? William and Mary?"

"Among other places," Damon said, still looking at Elena. He hadn't glanced at Sue once. "I like to travel."

The world had snapped into place again around Elena, but it was a chilling world. There were people on every side, watching this exchange with fascination, keeping her from speaking freely. But they were also keeping her safe. For whatever reason, Damon was playing a game, pretending to be one of them. And while the masquerade went on, he wouldn't do anything to her in front of a crowd… she hoped.

A game. But he was making up the rules. He was standing here in the Ramseys' dining room playing with her.

"He's just down for a few days," Sue was continuing helpfully. "Visiting—friends, did you say? Or relatives?"

"Yes," said Damon.

"You're lucky to be able to take off whenever you want," Elena said. She didn't know what was possessing her, to make her try and unmask him.

"Luck has very little to do with it," said Damon. "Do you like dancing?"

"What's your major?"

He smiled at her. "American folklore. Did you know, for instance, that a mole on the neck means you'll be wealthy? Do you mind if I check?"

"I mind." The voice came from behind Elena. It was clear and cold and quiet. Elena had heard Stefan speak in that tone only once: when he had found Tyler trying to assault her in the graveyard. Damon's fingers stilled on her throat, and, released from his spell, she stepped back.

"But do you matter?" he said.

The two of them faced each other under the faintly flickering yellow light of the brass chandelier.

Elena was aware of layers of her own thoughts, like a parfait. Everyone's staring; this must be better than the movies… I didn't realize Stefan was taller… There's Bonnie and Meredith wondering what's going on… Stefan's angry but he's still weak, still hurting… If he goes for Damon now, he'll lose…

And in front of all these people. Her thoughts came to a clattering halt as everything fell into place. That was what Damon was here for, to make Stefan attack him, apparently unprovoked. No matter what happened after that, he won. If Stefan drove him away, it would just be more proof of Stefan's "tendency toward violence." More evidence for Stefan's accusers. And if Stefan lost the fight…

It would mean his life, thought Elena. Oh, Stefan, he's so much stronger right now; please don't do it. Don't play into his hands.

He wants to kill you; he's just looking for a chance.

She made her limbs move, though they were stiff and awkward as a marionette's. "Stefan," she said, taking his cold hand in hers, "let's go home."

She could feel the tension in his body, like an electric current running underneath his skin. At this moment, he was completely focused on Damon, and the light in his eyes was like fire reflecting off a dagger blade. She didn't recognize him in this mood, didn't know him. He frightened her.

"Stefan," she said, calling to him as if she were lost in fog and couldn't find him. "Stefan, please."

And slowly, slowly, she felt him respond. She heard him breathe and felt his body go off alert, clicking down to some lower energy level. The deadly concentration of his mind was diverted and he looked at her, and saw her.

"All right," he said softly, looking into her eyes. "Let's go."

She kept her hands on him as they turned away, one clasping his hand, the other tucked inside his arm. By sheer force of will, she managed not to look over her shoulder as they walked away, but the skin on her back tingled and crawled as if expecting the stab of a knife.

Instead, she heard Damon's low ironical voice: "And have you heard that kissing a red-haired girl cures fever blisters?" And then Bonnie's outrageous, flattered laughter.

On the way out, they finally ran into their host.

"Leaving so soon?" Alaric said. "But I haven't even had a chance to talk to you yet."

He looked both eager and reproachful, like a dog that knows perfectly well it's not going to be taken on a walk but wags anyway. Elena felt worry blossom in her stomach for him and everyone else in the house. She and Stefan were leaving them to Damon.

She'd just have to hope her earlier assessment was right and he wanted to continue the masquerade. Right now she had enough to do getting Stefan out of here before he changed his mind.

"I'm not feeling very well," she said as she picked up her purse where it lay by the ottoman. "Sorry." She increased the pressure on Stefan's arm. It would take very little to get him to turn back and head for the dining room right now.

"I'm sorry," said Alaric. "Good-bye."

They were on the threshold before she saw the little slip of violet paper stuck into the side pocket of her purse. She pulled it out and unfolded it almost by reflex, her mind on other things.

There was writing on it, plain and bold and unfamiliar. Just three lines. She read them and felt the world rock. This was too much; she couldn't deal with anything more.

"What is it?" said Stefan.

"Nothing." She thrust the bit of paper back into the side pocket, pushing it down with her fingers. "It's nothing, Stefan. Let's get outside."

They stepped out into driving needles of rain.

Seven

"Next time," Stefan said quietly, "I won't leave."

Elena knew he meant it, and it terrified her. But just now her emotions were quietly coasting in neutral, and she didn't want to argue.

"He was there," she said. "Inside an ordinary house full of ordinary people, just as if he had every right to be. I wouldn't have thought he would dare."

"Why not?" Stefan said briefly, bitterly. "I was there in a ordinary house full of ordinary people, just as if I had every right to be."

"I didn't mean that the way it sounded. It's just that the only other time I've seen him in public was at the Haunted House when he was wearing a mask and costume, and it was dark. Before that it was always somewhere deserted, like the gym that night I was there alone, or the graveyard…"

She knew as soon as she said that last part that it was a mistake. She still hadn't told Stefan about going to find Damon three days ago. In the driver's seat, he stiffened.

"Or the graveyard?"

"Yes… I meant that day Bonnie and Meredith and I got chased out. I'm assuming it must have been Damon who chased us. And the place was deserted except for the three of us."

Why was she lying to him? Because, a small voice in her head answered grimly, otherwise he might snap. Knowing what Damon had said to her, what he had promised was in store, might be all that was needed to send Stefan over the edge.

I can never tell him, she realized with a sick jolt. Not about that time or about anything Damon does in the future. If he fights Damon, he dies.

Then he'll never know, she promised herself. No matter what I have to do, I'll keep them from fighting each other over me. No matter what.

For a moment, apprehension chilled her.

Five hundred years ago, Katherine had tried to keep them from fighting, and had succeeded only in forcing them into a death match. But she wouldn't make the same mistake, Elena told herself fiercely. Katherine's methods had been stupid and childish. Who else but a stupid child would kill herself in the hope that the two rivals for her hand would become friends? It had been the worst mistake of the whole sorry affair. Because of it, the rivalry between Stefan and Damon had turned into implacable hatred. And what's more, Stefan had lived with the guilt of it ever since; he blamed himself for Katherine's stupidity and weakness.

Groping for another subject, she said, "Do you think someone invited him in?"

"Obviously, since he was in."

"Then it's true about—people like you. You have to be invited in. But Damon got into the gym without an invitation."

"That's because the gym isn't a dwelling place for the living. That's the one criterion. It doesn't matter if it's a house or a tent or an apartment above a store. If living humans eat and sleep there, we need to be invited inside."

"But I didn't invite you into my house."

"Yes, you did. That first night, when I drove you home, you pushed the door open and nodded to me. It doesn't have to be a verbal invitation. If the intent is there, that's enough. And the person inviting you doesn't have to be someone who actually lives in the house. Any human will do."

Elena was thinking. "What about a houseboat?"

"Same thing. Although running water can be a barrier in itself. For some of us, it's almost impossible to cross."

Elena had a sudden vision of herself and Meredith and Bonnie racing for Wickery Bridge. Because somehow she had known that if they got to the other side of the river they'd be safe from whatever was after them.

"So that's why," she whispered. It still didn't explain how she'd known, though. It was as if the knowledge had been put into her head from some outside source. Then she realized something else.

"You took me across the bridge. You can cross running water."

"That's because I'm weak." It was said flatly, with no emotion behind it. "It's ironic, but the stronger your Powers are, the more you're affected by certain limitations. The more you belong to the dark, the more the rules of the dark bind you."

"What other rules are there?" said Elena. She was beginning to see the glimmer of a plan. Or at least of the hope of a plan.

Stefan looked at her. "Yes," he said, "I think it's time you knew. The more you know about Damon, the more chance you'll have of protecting yourself."

Of protecting herself? Perhaps Stefan knew more than she thought. But as he turned the car onto a side street and parked, she just said, "Okay. Should I be stocking up on garlic?"

He laughed. "Only if you want to be unpopular. There are certain plants, though, that might help you. Like vervain. That's an herb that's supposed to protect you against bewitchment, and it can keep your mind clear even if someone is using Powers against you. People used to wear it around their necks. Bonnie would love it; it was sacred to the Druids."

"Vervain," said Elena, tasting the unfamiliar word. "What else?"

"Strong light, or direct sunlight, can be very painful. You'll notice the weather's changed."

"I've noticed," said Elena after a beat. "You mean Damon's doing that?"

"He must be. It takes enormous power to control the elements, but it makes it easy for him to travel in daylight. As long as he keeps it cloudy, he doesn't even need to protect his eyes."

"And neither do you," Elena said. "What about—well, crosses and things?"

"No effect," said Stefan. "Except that if the person holding one believes it's a protection, it can strengthen their will to resist tremendously."

"Uh… silver bullets?"

Stefan laughed again shortly. "That's for werewolves. From what I've heard they don't like silver in any form. A wooden stake through the heart is still the approved method for my kind. There are other ways that are more or less effective, though: burning, beheading, driving nails through the temples. Or, best of all—"

"Stefan!" The lonely, bitter smile on his face dismayed her. "What about changing into animals?" she said. "Before, you said that with enough Power you could do that. If Damon can be any animal he likes, how will we ever recognize him?"

"Not any animal he likes. He's limited to one animal, or at the most two. Even with his Powers I don't think he could sustain any more than that."

"So we keep looking out for a crow."

"Right. You may be able to tell if he's around, too, by looking at regular animals. They usually don't react very well to us; they sense that we're hunters."

"Yangtze kept barking at that crow. It was as if he knew there was something wrong about it," Elena remembered. "Ah… Stefan," she added in a changed tone as a new thought struck her, "what about mirrors? I don't remember ever seeing you in one."

For a moment, he didn't answer. Then he said, "Legend has it that mirrors reflect the soul of the person who looks into them. That's why primitive people are afraid of mirrors; they're afraid that their souls will be trapped and stolen. My kind is supposed to have no reflection—because we have no souls." Slowly, he reached up to the rearview mirror and tilted it downward, adjusting it so that Elena could look into it. In the silvered glass, she saw his eyes, lost, haunted, and infinitely sad.

There was nothing to do but hold on to him, and Elena did. "I love you," she whispered. It was the only comfort she could give him. It was all they had.

His arms tightened around her; his face was buried in her hair. "You're the mirror," he whispered back.

It was good to feel him relax, tension flowing out of his body as warmth and comfort flowed in. She was comforted, too, a sense of peace infusing her, surrounding her. It was so good that she forgot to ask him what he meant until they were at her front door, saying good-bye.

"I'm the mirror?" she said then, looking up at him.

"You've stolen my soul," he said. "Lock the door behind you, and don't open it again tonight." Then he was gone.

 

"Elena, thank heavens," said Aunt Judith. When Elena stared at her, she added, "Bonnie called from the party. She said you'd left unexpectedly, and when you didn't come home I was worried."

"Stefan and I went for a ride." Elena didn't like the expression on her aunt's face when she said that. "Is there a problem?"

"No, no. It's just…" Aunt Judith didn't seem to know how to finish her sentence. "Elena, I wonder if it might be a good idea to… not see quite so much of Stefan."

Elena went still. "You, too?"

"It isn't that I believe the gossip," Aunt Judith assured her. "But, for your own sake, it might be best to get a little distance from him, to—"

"To dump him? To abandon him because people are spreading rumors about him? To keep myself away from the mudslinging in case any of it sticks on me?" Anger was a welcome release, and the words crowded in Elena's throat, all trying to get out at once. "No, I don't think that's a good idea, Aunt Judith. And if it were Robert we were talking about, you wouldn't either. Or maybe you would!"

"Elena, I will not have you speaking to me in that tone—"

"I'm finished anyway!" Elena cried, and whirled blindly for the stairs. She managed to keep the tears back until she was in her own room with the door locked. Then she threw herself on the bed and sobbed.

She dragged herself up a while later to call Bonnie. Bonnie was excited and voluble. What on earth did Elena mean, had anything unusual happened after she and Stefan left? The unusual thing was their leaving! No, that new guy Damon hadn't said anything about Stefan afterward; he'd just hung around for a while and then disappeared. No, Bonnie hadn't seen if he left with anybody. Why? Was Elena jealous? Yes, that was meant to be a joke. But, really, he was gorgeous, wasn't he? Almost more gorgeous than Stefan, that is assuming you liked dark hair and eyes. Of course, if you liked lighter hair and hazel eyes…

Elena immediately deduced that Alaric Saltzman's eyes were hazel.

She got off the phone at last and only then remembered the note she'd found in her purse. She should have asked Bonnie if anyone had gone near her purse while she was in the dining room. But then, Bonnie and Meredith had been in the dining room part of the time themselves. Someone might have done it then.

The very sight of the violet paper made her taste tin at the back of her mouth. She could hardly bear to look at it. But now that she was alone she had to unfold it and read it again, all the time hoping that somehow this time the words might be different, that she might have been mistaken before.

But they weren't different. The sharp, clean block letters stood out against the pale background as if they were ten feet high.

I want to touch him. More than any boy I've ever known. And I know he wants it, too, but he's holding back on me.

Her words. From her diary. The one that had been stolen.

 

The next day Meredith and Bonnie rang her doorbell.

"Stefan called me last night," said Meredith. "He said he wanted to make sure you weren't walking to school alone. He's not going to be at school today, so he asked if Bonnie and I could come over and walk with you.

"Escort you," said Bonnie, who was clearly in a good mood. "Chaperone you. I think it's terribly sweet of him to be so protective."

"He's probably an Aquarius, too," said Meredith. "Come on, Elena, before I kill her to shut her up about Alaric."

Elena walked in silence, wondering what Stefan was doing that kept him from school. She felt vulnerable and exposed today, as if her skin were on inside out. One of those days when she was ready to cry at the drop of a hat.

On the office bulletin board was tacked a piece of violet paper.

She should have known. She had known somewhere deep inside. The thief wasn't satisfied with letting her know her private words had been read. He was showing her they could be made public.

She ripped the note off the board and crumpled it, but not before she glimpsed the words. In one glance they were seared onto her brain.

I feel as if someone has hurt him terribly in the past and he's never gotten over it. But I also think there's something he's afraid of, some secret he's afraid I'll find out.

"Elena, what is that? What's the matter? Elena, come back here!"

Bonnie and Meredith followed her to the nearest girls' bathroom, where she stood over the wastebasket shredding the note into microscopic pieces, breathing as if she'd just run a race. They looked at each other and then turned to survey the bathroom stalls.

"Okay," said Meredith loudly, "senior privilege. You!" She rapped on the only closed door. "Come out."

Some rustling, then a bewildered freshman emerged. "But I didn't even—"

"Out. Outside," Bonnie ordered. "And you," she said to the girl washing her hands, "stand out there and make sure nobody comes in."

"But why? What are you—"

"Move, chick. If anybody comes through that door we're holding you responsible."

When the door was closed again, they rounded on Elena.

"Okay, this is a stickup," said Meredith. "Come on, Elena, give."

Elena ripped the last tiny shred of paper, caught between laughter and tears. She wanted to tell them everything, but she couldn't. She settled for telling them about the diary.

They were as angry, as indignant, as she was.

"It had to be someone at the party," Meredith said at last, once they had each expressed their opinion of the thief's character, morals, and probable destination in the afterlife. "But anybody there could have done it. I don't remember anyone in particular going near your purse, but that room was wall-to-wall people, and it could have happened without my noticing."

"But why would anyone want to do this?" Bonnie put in. "Unless… Elena, the night we found Stefan you were hinting around at some things. You said you thought you knew who the killer was."

"I don't think I know; I know. But if you're wondering if this might be connected, I'm not sure. I suppose it could be. The same person might have done it."

Bonnie was horrified. "But that means the killer is a student at this school!" When Elena shook her head, she went on. "The only people at that party who weren't students were that new guy and Alaric." Her expression changed. "Alaric didn't kill Mr. Tanner! He wasn't even in Fell's Church then."

"I know. Alaric didn't do it." She'd gone too far to stop now; Bonnie and Meredith already knew too much. "Damon did."

"That guy was the killer? The guy that kissed me?"

"Bonnie, calm down." As always, other people's hysteria made Elena feel more in control. "Yes, he's the killer, and we all three have to be on guard against him. That's why I'm telling you. Never, never ask him into your house."

Elena stopped, regarding the faces of her friends. They were staring at her, and for a moment she had the sickening feeling that they didn't believe her. That they were going to question her sanity.

But all Meredith asked, in an even, detached voice, was: "Are you sure about this?"

"Yes. I'm sure. He's the murderer and the one who put Stefan in the well, and he might be after one of us next. And I don't know if there's any way to stop him."

"Well, then," said Meredith, lifting her eyebrows. "No wonder you and Stefan were in such a hurry to leave the party."

 

Caroline gave Elena a vicious smirk as Elena walked into the cafeteria. But Elena was almost beyond noticing.

One thing she noticed right away, though. Vickie Bennett was there.

Vickie hadn't been to school since the night Matt and Bonnie and Meredith had found her wandering on the road, raving about mist and eyes and something terrible in the graveyard. The doctors who checked her afterward said there was nothing much wrong with her physically, but she still hadn't returned to Robert E. Lee. People whispered about psychologists and the drug treatments they were trying.

She didn't look crazy, though, Elena thought. She looked pale and subdued and sort of crumpled into her clothing. And when Elena passed her and she looked up, her eyes were like a startled fawn's.

It was strange to sit at a half-empty table with only Bonnie and Meredith for company. Usually people were crowding to get seats around the three of them.

"We didn't finish talking this morning," Meredith said. "Get something to eat, and then we'll figure out what to do about those notes."

"I'm not hungry," said Elena flatly. "And what can we do? If it's Damon, there's no way we can stop him. Trust me, it's not a matter for the police. That's why I haven't told them he's the killer. There isn't any proof, and besides, they would never… Bonnie, you're not listening."

"Sorry," said Bonnie, who was staring past Elena's left ear. "But something weird is going on up there."

Elena turned. Vickie Bennett was standing at the front of the cafeteria, but she no longer seemed crumpled and subdued. She was looking around the room in a sly and assessing manner, smiling.

"Well, she doesn't look normal, but I wouldn't say she was being weird, exactly," Meredith said. Then she added, "Wait a minute."

Vickie was unbuttoning her cardigan. But it was the way she was doing it—with deliberate little flicks of her fingers, all the while looking around with that secretive smile— that was odd. When the last button was undone, she took the sweater daintily between forefinger and thumb and slid it down over first one arm and then the other. She dropped the sweater on the floor.

"Weird is the word," confirmed Meredith.

Students crossing in front of Vickie with laden trays glanced at her curiously and then looked back over their shoulders when they had passed. They didn't actually stop walking, though, until she took off her shoes.

She did it gracefully, catching the heel of one pump on the toe of the other and pushing it off. Then she kicked off the second pump.

"She can't keep going," murmured Bonnie, as Vickie's fingers moved to the simulated pearl buttons on her white silk blouse.

Heads were turning; people were poking one another and gesturing. Around Vickie a small group had gathered, standing far enough back that they didn't interfere with everyone else's view.

The white silk blouse rippled off, fluttering like a wounded ghost to the floor. Vickie was wearing a lacy off-white slip underneath.

There was no longer any sound in the cafeteria except the sibilance of whispers. No one was eating. The group around Vickie had gotten larger.

Vickie smiled demurely and began to unfasten clasps at her waist. Her pleated skirt fell to the floor. She stepped out of it and pushed it to one side with her foot.

Somebody stood up at the back of the cafeteria and chanted, "Take it off! Take it off!" Other voices joined in.

"Isn't anybody going to stop her?" fumed Bonnie.

Elena got up. The last time she'd gone near Vickie the other girl had screamed and struck out at her. But now, as she got close, Vickie gave her the smile of a conspirator. Her lips moved, but Elena couldn't make out what she was saying over the chanting.

"Come on, Vickie. Let's go," she said.

Vickie's light brown hair tossed and she plucked at the strap of her slip.

Elena stooped to pick up the cardigan and wrap it around the girl's slender shoulders. As she did, as she touched Vickie, those half-closed eyes opened wide like a startled fawn's again. Vickie stared about her wildly, as if she'd just been awakened from a dream. She looked down at herself and her expression turned to disbelief. Pulling the cardigan around her more tightly, she backed away, shivering.

The room was quiet again.

"It's okay," said Elena soothingly. "Come on."

At the sound of her voice, Vickie jumped as if touched by a live wire. She stared at Elena, and then she exploded into action.

"You're one of them! I saw you! You're evil!"

She turned and ran barefoot out of the cafeteria, leaving Elena stunned.

Eight

"Do you know what's strange about what Vickie did at school? I mean aside from all the obvious things," Bonnie said, licking chocolate frosting off her fingers.

"What?" said Elena dully.

"Well, the way she ended up, in her slip. She looked just like she did when we found her on the road, only then she was all scratched up, too."

"Cat scratches, we thought," said Meredith, finishing the last bite of her cake. She seemed to be in one of her quiet, thoughtful moods; right now she was watching Elena closely. "But that doesn't seem very likely."

Elena looked straight back at her. "Maybe she fell in some brambles," she said. "Now, if you guys are finished eating, do you want to see that first note?"

They left their dishes in the sink and climbed the stairs to Elena's room. Elena felt herself flush as the other girls read the note. Bonnie and Meredith were her best friends, maybe her only friends now. She'd read them passages from her diary before. But this was different. It was the most humiliating feeling she'd ever had. "Well?" she said to Meredith.

"The person who wrote this is five feet eleven inches tall, walks with a slight limp, and wears a false mustache," Meredith intoned. "Sorry," she added, seeing Elena's face. "Not funny. Actually, there's not much to go on, is there? The writing looks like a guy's, but the paper looks feminine."

"And the whole thing has sort of a feminine touch," put in Bonnie, bouncing slightly on Elena's bed. "Well, it does," she said defensively. "Quoting bits of your diary back at you is the kind of thing a woman would think of. Men don't care about diaries."

"You just don't want it to be Damon," said Meredith. "I would think you'd be more worried about him being a psycho killer than a diary thief."

"I don't know; killers are sort of romantic. Imagine your dying with his hands around your throat. He'd strangle the life out of you, and the last thing you'd see would be his face." Putting her own hands to her throat, Bonnie gasped and expired tragically, ending up draped across the bed. "He can have me anytime," she said, eyes still closed.

It was on Elena's lips to say, "Don't you understand, this is serious," but instead she hissed in a breath. "Oh, God," she said, and ran to the window. The day was humid and stifling, and the window had been opened. Outside on the skeletal branches of the quince tree was a crow.

Elena threw the sash down so hard that the glass rattled and tinkled. The crow gazed at her through the trembling panes with eyes like obsidian. Rainbows glimmered in its sleek black plumage.

"Why did you say that?" she said, turning to Bonnie.

"Hey, there's nobody out there," said Meredith gently. "Unless you count the birds."

Elena turned away from them. The tree was empty now.

"I'm sorry," said Bonnie in a small voice, after a moment. "It's just that it all doesn't seem real sometimes, even Mr. Tanner's being dead doesn't seem real. And Damon did look… well, exciting. But dangerous. I can believe he's dangerous."

"And besides, he wouldn't squeeze your throat; he'd cut it," Meredith said. "Or at least that was what he did to Tanner. But the old man under the bridge had his throat ripped open, as if some animal had done it." Meredith looked to Elena for clarification. "Damon doesn't have an animal, does he?"

"No. I don't know." Suddenly, Elena felt very tired. She was worried about Bonnie, about the consequences of those foolish words.

"I can do anything to you, to you and the ones you love," she remembered. What might Damon do now? She didn't understand him. He was different every time they met. In the gym he'd been taunting, laughing at her. But the next time she would swear that he'd been serious, quoting poetry to her, trying to get her to come away with him. Last week, with the icy graveyard wind lashing around him, he'd been menacing, cruel. And underneath his mocking words last night, she'd felt the same menace. She couldn't predict what he'd do next.

But, whatever happened, she had to protect Bonnie and Meredith from him. Especially since she couldn't warn them properly. And what was Stefan up to? She needed him right now, more than anything. Where was he?

 

It started that morning.

"Let me get this straight," Matt said, leaning against the scarred body of his ancient Ford sedan when Stefan approached him before school. "You want to borrow my car."

"Yes," Stefan said.

"And the reason you want to borrow it is flowers. You want to get some flowers for Elena."

"Yes."

"And these particular flowers, these flowers you've just got to get, don't grow around here."

"They might. But their blooming season is over this far north. And the frost would have finished them off anyway."

"So you want to go down south—how far south you don't know—to find some of these flowers that you've just got to give to Elena."

"Or at least some of the plants," Stefan said. "I'd rather have the actual flowers though."

"And since the police still have your car, you want to borrow mine, for however long it takes you to go down south and find these flowers that you've just got to give to Elena."

"I figure driving is the least conspicuous way to leave town," Stefan explained. "I don't want the police to follow me."

"Uh huh. And that's why you want my car."

"Yes. Are you going to give it to me?"

"Am I going to give my car to the guy who stole my girlfriend and now wants to take a jaunt down south to get her some kind of special flowers she's just got to have? Are you crazy?" Matt, who had been staring out over the roofs of the frame houses across the street, turned at last to look at Stefan. His blue eyes, usually cheerful and straightforward, were full of utter disbelief, and surmounted by twisted, puckered brows.

Stefan looked away. He should have known better. After everything Matt had already done for him, to expect more was ridiculous. Especially these days, when people flinched from the sound of his step and avoided his eyes when he came near. To expect Matt, who had the best of reasons to resent him, to do him such a favor with no explanation, on the basis of faith alone, really was insane.

"No, I'm not crazy," he said quietly, and turned to go.

"Neither am I," Matt had said. "And I'd have to be crazy to turn my car over to you. Hell, no. I'm going with you."

By the time Stefan had turned back around, Matt was looking at the car instead of him, lower lip thrust forward in a wary, judicious pout.

"After all," he'd said, rubbing at the flaking vinyl of the roof, "you might scratch the paint or something."

 

Elena put the phone back on the hook. Somebody was at the boarding house, because somebody kept picking up the phone when it rang, but after that there was only silence and then the click of disconnection. She suspected it was Mrs. Flowers, but that didn't tell her anything about where Stefan was. Instinctively, she wanted to go to him. But it was dark outside, and Stefan had warned her specifically not to go out in the dark, especially not anywhere near the cemetery or the woods. The boarding house was near both.

"No answer?" said Meredith as Elena came back and sat down on the bed.

"She keeps hanging up on me," Elena said, and muttered something under her breath.

"Did you say she was a witch?"

"No, but it rhymes with that," said Elena.

"Look," said Bonnie, sitting up. "If Stefan's going to call, he'll call here. There's no reason for you to come and stay the night with me."

There was a reason, although Elena couldn't quite explain it even to herself. After all, Damon had kissed Bonnie at Alaric Saltzman's party. It was Elena's fault that Bonnie was in danger in the first place. Somehow she felt that if she were at least on the scene, she might be able to protect Bonnie.

"My mom and dad and Mary are all home," Bonnie persisted. "And we lock all our doors and windows and everything since Mr. Tanner was murdered. This weekend Dad even put on extra locks. I don't see what you can do."

Elena didn't either. But she was going just the same.

She left a message for Stefan with Aunt Judith, telling him where she was. There was still a lingering constraint between her and her aunt. And there would be, Elena thought, until Aunt Judith changed her mind about Stefan.

At Bonnie's house, she was given a room that had belonged to one of Bonnie's sisters who was now in college. The first thing she did was check the window. It was closed and locked, and there was nothing outside that someone could climb, like a drainpipe or tree. As inconspicuously as possible, she also checked Bonnie's room and any others she could get into. Bonnie was right; they were all sealed up tight from the inside. Nothing from the outside could get in.

She lay in bed a long time that night, staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. She kept remembering Vickie dreamily doing a striptease in the cafeteria. What was wrong with the girl? She would remember to ask Stefan that next time she saw him.

Thoughts of Stefan were pleasant, even with all the terrible things that had happened recently. Elena smiled in the darkness, letting her mind wander. Someday all this harassment would be over, and she and Stefan could plan a life together. Of course, he hadn't actually said anything about that, but Elena herself was sure. She was going to marry Stefan, or no one. And Stefan was going to marry no one but her…

The transition into dreaming was so smooth and gradual that she scarcely noticed it. But she knew, somehow, that she was dreaming. It was as if a little part of her was standing aside and watching the dream like a play.

She was sitting in a long hallway, which was covered with mirrors on one side and windows on the other. She was waiting for something. Then she saw a flicker of movement, and Stefan was standing outside the window. His face was pale and his eyes were hurt and angry. She went over to the window, but she couldn't hear what he was saying because of the glass. In one hand, he was holding a book with a blue velvet cover, and he kept gesturing to it and asking her something. Then he dropped the book and turned away.

"Stefan, don't go! Don't leave me!" she cried. Her fingers flattened whitely on the glass. Then she noticed that there was a latch on one side of the window and she opened it, calling to him. But he had disappeared and outside she saw only swirling white mist.

Disconsolately, she turned away from the window and began walking down the hall.

Her own image glimmered in mirror after mirror as she went by them. Then something about one of the reflections caught her eye. The eyes were her eyes, but there was a new look in them, a predatory, sly look. Vickie's eyes had looked that way when she was undressing. And there was something disturbing and hungry about her smile.

As she watched, standing still, the image suddenly whirled around and around, as if dancing. Horror swept over Elena. She began to run down the hall, but now all the reflections had a life of their own, dancing, beckoning to her, laughing at her. Just when she thought her heart and lungs would burst with terror, she reached the end of the corridor and flung open a door.

She was standing in a large and beautiful room. The lofty ceiling was intricately carved and inlaid with gold; the doorways were faced with white marble. Classical statues stood in niches along the walls. Elena had never seen a room of such splendor, but she knew where she was. In Renaissance Italy, when Stefan had been alive.

She looked down at herself and saw she was wearing a dress like the one she'd had made for Halloween, the ice blue Renaissance ball gown. But this dress was a deep ruby red, and around her waist she wore a thin chain set with brilliant red stones. The same stones were in her hair. When she moved, the silk shimmered like flames in the light of hundreds of torches.

At the far end of the room, two huge doors swung inward. A figure appeared between them. It walked toward her, and she saw that it was a young man dressed in Renaissance clothing, doublet and hose and fur-trimmed jerkin.

Stefan! She started toward him eagerly, feeling the weight of her dress swing from the waist. But when she got closer she stopped, drawing in a sharp breath. It was Damon.

He kept on walking toward her, confident, casual. He was smiling, a smile of challenge. Reaching her, he put one hand over his heart and bowed. Then he held out the hand to her as if daring her to take it.

"Do you like dancing?" he said. Except that his lips didn't move. The voice was in her mind.

Her fear drained away, and she laughed. What was wrong with her, to have ever been afraid of him? They understood each other very well. But instead of taking his hand, she turned away, the silk of the dress turning after her. She moved lightly toward one of the statues along the wall, not glancing back to see if he was following her. She knew he would. She pretended to be absorbed in the statue, moving away again just as he reached her, biting her lip to hold in the laughter. She felt wonderful right now, so alive, so beautiful. Dangerous? Of course, this game was dangerous. But she had always enjoyed danger.

The next time he drew near her, she glanced at him teasingly as she turned. He reached out, but caught only the jeweled chain at her waist. He let go quickly, and, looking back, she saw that the pronged setting on one of the gems had cut him.

The drop of blood on his finger was just the color of her dress. His eyes flashed at her sideways, and his lips curved in a taunting smile as he held the wounded finger up. You wouldn't dare, those eyes said.

Oh, wouldn't I? Elena told him with her own eyes. Boldly, she took his hand and held it a moment, teasing him. Then she brought the finger to her lips.

After a few moments, she released it and looked up at him. "I do like dancing," she said, and found that, like him, she could speak with her mind. It was a thrilling sensation. She moved to the center of the room and waited.

He followed her, graceful as a stalking beast. His fingers were warm and hard when they clasped hers.

There was music, although it faded in and out and sounded far away. Damon placed his other hand on her waist. She could feel the warmth of his fingers there, the pressure. She picked up her skirts, and they began dancing.

It was lovely, like flying, and her body knew every move to make. They danced around and around that empty room, in perfect timing, together.

He was laughing down at her, his dark eyes glittering with enjoyment. She felt so beautiful; so poised and alert and ready for anything. She couldn't remember when she'd had this much fun.

Gradually, though, his smile faded, and their dancing slowed. At last she stood unmoving in the circle of his arms. His dark eyes were not amused any longer, but fierce and heated. She looked up at him soberly, unafraid. And then for the first time she felt as if she were dreaming; she felt slightly dizzy and very languid and weak.

The room around her was blurring. She could see only his eyes, and they were making her feel more and more sleepy. She allowed her own eyes to half close, her head to fall back. She sighed.

She could feel his gaze now, on her lips, on her throat. She smiled to herself and let her eyes close completely.

He was supporting her weight now, keeping her from falling down. She felt his lips on the skin of her neck, burning hot as if he had a fever. Then she felt the sting, like the jabs of two needles. It was over quickly, though, and she relaxed to the pleasure of having her blood drawn out.

She remembered this feeling, the feeling of floating on a bed of golden light. A delicious languor stole through all her limbs. She felt drowsy, as if it were too much trouble to move. She didn't want to move anyway; she felt too good.

Her fingers were resting on his hair, clasping his head to her. Idly, she threaded them through the soft dark strands. His hair was like silk, warm and alive under her fingers. When she opened her eyes a slit, she saw that it reflected rainbows in the candlelight. Red and blue and purple, just like—just like the feathers…

And then everything shattered. There was pain at her throat suddenly, as if her soul was being torn out of her. She was pushing at Damon, clawing at him, trying to force him away. Screams rang in her ears. Damon was fighting her, but it wasn't Damon; it was a crow. Huge wings beat against her, thrashing in the air.

Her eyes were open. She was awake and screaming. The ballroom was gone, and she was in a darkened bedroom. But the nightmare had followed her. Even as she reached for the light, it came at her again, wings thrashing in her face, sharp beak diving for her.

Elena struck out at it, one hand flung up to protect her eyes. She was still screaming. She couldn't get away from it, those terrible wings kept flailing frantically, with a sound like a thousand decks of cards being shuffled at once.

The door burst open, and she heard shouts. The warm, heavy body of the crow struck her and her screams went higher. Then someone was pulling her off the bed, and she was standing protected behind Bonnie's father. He had a broom and he was beating at the bird with it.

Bonnie was standing in the doorway. Elena ran into her arms. Bonnie's father was shouting, and then came the slam of a window.

"It's out," Mr. McCullough said, breathing hard.

Mary and Mrs. McCullough were just outside in the hallway, clad in bathrobes. "You're hurt," Mrs. McCullough said to Elena in amazement. "The nasty thing's pecked you."

"I'm okay," Elena said, brushing at a spot of blood on her face. She was so shaken that her knees were about to give out.

"How did it get in?" said Bonnie.

Mr. McCullough was inspecting the window. "You shouldn't have left this open," he said. "And what did you want to take the locks off for?"

"I didn't," Elena cried.

"It was unlocked and open when I heard you screaming and came in," Bonnie's father said. "I don't know who else could have opened it but you."

Elena choked back her protests. Hesitantly, cautiously, she moved to the window. He was right; the locks had been unscrewed. And it could have been done only from the inside.

"Maybe you were sleepwalking," said Bonnie, leading Elena away from the window as Mr. McCullough began putting the locks back on. "We'd better get you cleaned up."

Sleepwalking. Suddenly the entire dream flooded back to Elena. The hall of mirrors, and the ballroom, and Damon. Dancing with Damon. She pulled out of Bonnie's grasp.

"I'll do it myself," she said, hearing her own voice quaver on the edge of hysteria. "No—really—I want to." She escaped into the bathroom and stood with her back to the locked door, trying to breathe.

The last thing she wanted to do was look in a mirror. But at last, slowly, she approached the one over the sink, trembling as she saw the edge of her reflection, moving inch by inch until she was framed in the silvery surface.

Her image stared back, ghastly pale, with eyes that looked bruised and frightened. There were deep shadows under them and smears of blood on her face.

Slowly, she turned her head slightly and lifted up her hair. She almost cried out loud when she saw what was underneath.

Two little wounds, fresh and open on the skin of her neck.

Nine

"I know I'm going to be sorry I asked this," Matt said, turning red-rimmed eyes from their contemplation of I-95 to Stefan in the passenger seat beside him. "But can you tell me why we want these extra-special, not-available-locally, semi-tropical weeds for Elena?"

Stefan looked into the back seat at the results of their search through hedgerows and rough grass. The plants, with their branching green stems and their small-toothed leaves, did look more like weeds than anything else. The dried remains of blossoms at the ends of the shoots were almost invisible, and no one could pretend the shoots themselves were decorative.

"What if I said they could be used to make an all-natural eyewash?" he offered, after a moment's thought. "Or an herbal tea?"

"Why? Were you thinking of saying something like that?"

"Not really."

"Good. Because if you did I'd probably deck you."

Without actually looking at Matt, Stefan smiled. There was something new stirring inside him, something he hadn't felt for nearly five centuries, except with Elena. Acceptance. Warmth and friendship shared with a fellow being, who did not know the truth about him, but who trusted him anyway. Who was willing to take him on faith. He wasn't sure he deserved it, but he couldn't deny what it meant to him. It almost made him feel… human again.

 

Elena stared at her image in the mirror. It hadn't been a dream. Not entirely. The wounds in her neck proved that. And now that she'd seen them, she noticed the feeling of light-headedness, of lethargy.

It was her own fault. She'd taken so much trouble to warn Bonnie and Meredith not to invite any strangers into their houses. And all the time she'd forgotten that she herself had invited Damon into Bonnie's house. She'd done it that night she had set up the dumb supper in Bonnie's dining room and called out into the darkness, "Come in."

And the invitation was good forever. He could return any time he liked, even now. Especially now, while she was weak and might easily be hypnotized into unlocking a window again.

Elena stumbled out of the bathroom, past Bonnie, and into the guest bedroom. She grabbed her tote bag and began stuffing things into it.

"Elena, you can't go home


Date: 2014-12-29; view: 65


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