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Dark Reunion (Chapter Eleven)

The car skidded in behind one of the police cars that was parked crookedly in the street. There were lights everywhere, lights flashing blue and red and amber, lights blazing from the Bennett house.

"Stay here," Matt snapped, and he plunged outside, following Stefan.

"No!" Bonnie's head jerked up; she wanted to grab him and drag him back. The dizzy nausea she'd felt ever since Tyler had mentioned Vickie was overwhelming her. It was too late; she'd known in the first instant that it was too late. Matt was only going to get himself killed too.

"You stay, Bonnie-keep the doors locked. I'll go after them." That was Meredith.

"No! I'm sick of having everybody tell me to stay!" Bonnie cried, struggling with the seat belt, finally getting it unlocked. She was still crying, but she could see well enough to get out of the car and start toward Vickie's house. She heard Meredith right behind her.

The activity all seemed concentrated at the front: people shouting, a woman screaming, the crackling voices of police radios. Bonnie and Meredith headed straight for the back, for Vickie's window. What is wrong with this picture? Bonnie thought wildly as they approached. The wrongness of what she was looking at was undeniable, yet hard to put a finger on. Vickie's window was open-but it couldn't be open; the middle pane of a bay window never opens, Bonnie thought. But then how could the curtains be fluttering out like shirttails?

Not open, broken. Glass was all over the gravel pathway, grinding underfoot. There were shards like grinning teeth left in the bare frame. Vickie's house had been broken into.

"She asked him in," Bonnie cried in agonized fury. "Why did she do that? Why?"

"Stay here," Meredith said, trying to moisten dry lips.

"Stop telling me that. I can take it, Meredith. I'm mad, that's all. I hate him." She gripped Meredith's arm and went forward.

The gaping hole got closer and closer. The curtains rippled. There was enough space between them to see inside.

At the last moment, Meredith pushed Bonnie away and looked through first herself. It didn't matter. Bonnie's psychic senses were awake and already telling her about this place. It was like the crater left in the ground after a meteor has hit and exploded, or like the charred skeleton of a forest after a wildfire. Power and violence were still thrumming in the air, but the main event was over. This place had been violated.

Meredith spun away from the window, doubling over, retching. Clenching her fists so that the nails bit into her palms, Bonnie leaned forward and looked in.

The smell was what struck her first. A wet smell, meaty and coppery. She could almost taste it, and it tasted like an accidentally bitten tongue. The stereo was playing something she couldn't hear over the screaming out front and the drumming-surf sound in her own ears. Her eyes, adjusting from the darkness outside, could see only red. Just red.

The record player clicked and the stylus swung back to the beginning. With a shock, Bonnie recognized the song as it started over.

It was "Goodnight Sweetheart."

"You monster," Bonnie gasped. Pain shot through her stomach. Her hand gripped the window frame, tighter, tighter. "You monster, I hate you! I hate you!" Meredith heard and straightened up, turning. She shakily pushed back her hair and managed a few deep breaths, trying to look as if she could cope. "You're cutting your hand," she said. "Here, let me see it."

Bonnie hadn't even realized she was gripping broken glass. She let Meredith take the hand, but instead of letting her examine it, she turned it over and clasped Meredith's own cold hand tightly. Meredith looked terrible: dark eyes glazed, lips blue-white and shaking. But Meredith was still trying to take care of her, still trying to keep it together.

"Go on," she said, looking at her friend intently. "Cry, Meredith. Scream if you want to. But get it out somehow. You don't have to be cool now and keep it all inside. You have every right to lose it today."

For a moment Meredith just stood there, trembling, but then she shook her head with a ghastly attempt at a smile. "I can't. I'm just not made that way. Come on, let me look at the hand."

Bonnie might have argued, but just then Matt came around the corner. He started violently to see the girls standing there.

"What are you doing-?" he began. Then he saw the window.

"She's dead," Meredith said flatly.

"I know." Matt looked like a bad photograph of himself, an overexposed one. "They told me up front. They're bringing out…" He stopped.

"We blew it. Even after we promised her…" Meredith stopped too. There was nothing more to say.

"But the police will have to believe us now," Bonnie said, looking at Matt, then Meredith, finding one thing to be grateful for. "They'll have to."

"No," Matt said, "they won't, Bonnie. Because they're saying it's a suicide."

"A suicide?. Have they seen that room? They call that a suicide?" Bonnie cried, her voice rising.

"Oh, my God," Meredith said, turning away.

"They think maybe she was feeling guilty for having killed Sue."

"Somebody broke into this house," Bonnie said fiercely. "They've got to admit that!"

"No." Meredith's voice was soft, as if she were very tired. "Look at the window here. The glass is all outside. Somebody from the inside broke it." And that's the rest of what's wrong with the picture, Bonnie thought.

"He probably did, getting out," Matt said. They looked at each other silently, in defeat.

"Where's Stefan?" Meredith asked Matt quietly. "Is he out front where everyone can see him?"

"No, once we found out she was dead he headed back this way. I was coming to look for him. He must be around somewhere…"

"Sh!" said Bonnie. The shouting from the front had stopped. So had the woman's screaming. In the relative stillness they could hear a faint voice from beyond the black walnut trees in the back of the yard.

"-while you were supposed to be watching her!"

The tone made Bonnie's skin break out in gooseflesh. "That's him!" Matt said. "And he's with Damon. Come on!"

Once they were among the trees Bonnie could hear Stefan's voice clearly. The two brothers were facing each other in the moonlight.

"I trusted you, Damon. I trusted you!" Stefan was saying. Bonnie had never seen him so angry, not even with Tyler in the graveyard. But it was more than anger.

"And you just let it happen," Stefan went on, without glancing at Bonnie and the others as they appeared, without giving Damon a chance to reply. "Why didn't you do something? If you were too much of a coward to fight him, you could at least have called for me. But you just stood there!"

Damon's face was hard, closed. His black eyes glittered, and there was nothing lazy or casual about his posture now. He looked as unbending and brittle as a pane of glass. He opened his mouth, but Stefan interrupted.

"It's my own fault. I should have known better. I did know better. They all knew, they warned me, but I wouldn't listen."

"Oh, did they?" Damon snapped a glance toward Bonnie on the sidelines. A chill went through her.

"Stefan, wait," Matt said. "I think-"

"I should have listened!" Stefan was raging on. He didn't even seem to hear Matt.

"I should have stayed with her myself. I promised her she would be safe-and I lied!

She died thinking I betrayed her." Bonnie could see it in his face now, the guilt eating into him like acid. "If I had stayed here-"

"And that would have been better!" Stefan cried. His chest was heaving. "I would rather have died with her than stood by and watched it! What happened, Damon?" He had gotten hold of himself now, and he was calm, too calm; his green eyes were burning feverishly in his pale face, his voice vicious, poisonous, as he spoke. "Were you too busy chasing some other girl through the bushes? Or just too uninterested to interfere?"

Damon said nothing. He was just as pale as his brother, every muscle tense and rigid. Waves of black fury were rising from him as he watched Stefan.

"Or maybe you enjoyed it," Stefan was continuing, moving another half step forward so that he was right in Damon's face. "Yes, that was probably it; you liked it, being with another killer. Was it good, Damon? Did he let you watch?"

Damon's fist jerked back and he hit Stefan.

It happened too fast for Bonnie's eye to follow. Stefan fell backward onto the soft ground, long legs sprawling. Meredith cried out something, and Matt jumped in front of Damon.

Brave, Bonnie thought dazedly, but stupid. The air was crackling with electricity. Stefan raised a hand to his mouth and found blood, black in the moonlight. Bonnie lurched over to his side and grabbed his arm.

Damon was coming after him again. Matt fell back before him, but not all the way. He dropped to his knees beside Stefan, sitting on his heels, one hand upraised.

"Enough, you guys! Enough, all right?" he shouted.

Stefan was trying to get up. Bonnie held on to his arm more firmly. "No! Stefan, don't! Don't!" she begged. Meredith grabbed his other arm.

"Damon, leave it alone! Just leave it!" Matt was saying sharply.

We're all crazy, getting in the middle of this, Bonnie thought. Trying to break up a fight between two angry vampires. They're going to kill us just to shut us up. Damon's going to swat Matt like a fly.

But Damon had stopped, with Matt blocking his way. For a long moment the scene remained frozen, nobody moving, everybody rigid with strain. Then, slowly, Damon's stance relaxed.

His hands lowered and unclenched. He drew a slow breath. Bonnie realized she'd been holding her own breath, and she let it out.

Damon's face was cold as a statue carved in ice. "All right, have it your way," he said, and his voice was cold too. "But I'm through here. I'm leaving. And this time, brother, if you follow me, I'll kill you. Promise or no promise."

Damon hitched up his jacket, straightening it. With a glance at Bonnie that scarcely seemed to see her, he turned to go. Then he turned back and spoke clearly and precisely, each word an arrow aimed at Stefan.

"I warned you," he said. "About what I am, and about which side would win. You should have listened to me, little brother. Maybe you'll learn something from tonight."

"I've learned what trusting you is worth," Stefan said. "Get out of here, Damon. I never want to see you again."

Without another word, Damon turned and walked away into the darkness.

Bonnie let go of Stefan's arm and put her head in her hands.

Stefan got up, shaking himself like a cat that had been held against its will. He walked a little distance from the others, his face averted from them. Then he simply stood there. The rage seemed to have left him as quickly as it had come.

What do we say now? Bonnie wondered, looking up. What can we say? Stefan was right about one thing: they had warned him about Damon and he hadn't listened. He'd truly seemed to believe that his brother could be trusted. And then they'd all gotten careless, relying on Damon because it was easy and because they needed the help. No one had argued against letting Damon watch Vickie tonight.

They were all to blame. But it was Stefan who would tear himself apart with guilt over this. She knew that was behind his out-of-control fury at Damon: his own shame and remorse. She wondered if Damon knew that, or cared. And she wondered what had really happened tonight. Now that Damon had left, they would probably never know.

No matter what, she thought, it was better he was gone.

Outside noises were reasserting themselves: cars being started in the street, the short burst of a siren, doors slamming. They were safe in the little grove of trees for the moment, but they couldn't stay here.

Meredith had one hand pressed to her forehead, her eyes shut. Bonnie looked from her to Stefan, to the lights of Vickie's silent home beyond the trees. A wave of sheer exhaustion passed through her body. All the adrenaline that had been supporting her throughout this evening seemed to have drained away. She didn't even feel angry anymore at Vickie's death; only depressed and sick and very, very tired. She wished she could crawl into her bed at home and. pull the blankets over her head.

"Tyler," she said aloud. And when they all turned to look at her, she said, "We left him in the ruined church. And he's our last hope now. We've got to make him help us."

That roused everyone. Stefan turned around silently, not speaking and not meeting anyone's eyes as he followed them back to the street. The police cars and ambulance were gone, and they drove to the cemetery without incident.

"We left his feet untied," Matt said heavily, with a grimace of self-disgust. "He must have walked away since his car's still down there." Or he could have been taken, Bonnie thought. There was no mark on the stone floor to show which.

Meredith went to the knee-high wall and sat down, one hand pinching the bridge of her nose.

Bonnie sagged against the belfry.

They'd failed completely. That was the long and short of it tonight. They'd lost and he had won. Everything they'd done today had ended in defeat.

And Stefan, she could tell, was taking the whole responsibility on his own shoulders.

She glanced at the dark, bowed head in the front seat as they drove back to the boarding house. Another thought occurred to her, one that sent thrills of alarm down her nerves. Stefan was all they had to protect them now that Damon was gone. And if Stefan himself was weak and exhausted…

Bonnie bit her lip as Meredith pulled up to the barn. An idea was forming in her mind. It made her uneasy, even frightened, but another look at Stefan put steel in her resolve.

The Ferrari was still parked behind the barn-apparently Damon had abandoned it. Bonnie wondered how he planned to get about the countryside, and then thought of wings. Velvety soft, strong black crow's wings that reflected rainbows in their feathers. Damon didn't need a car.

They went into the boarding house just long enough for Bonnie to call her parents and say she was spending the night at Meredith's. This was her idea. But after Stefan had climbed the stairs to his attic room, Bonnie stopped Matt on the front porch.

"Matt? Can I ask you a favor?"

He swung around, blue eyes widening. "That's a loaded phrase. Every time Elena said those particular words…"

"No, no, this is nothing terrible. I just want you to take care of Meredith, see she's okay once she gets home and all." She gestured toward the other girl, who was already walking toward the car.

"But you're coming with us."

Bonnie glanced at the stairs through the open door. "No. I think I'll stay a few minutes. Stefan can drive me home. I just want to talk to him about something."

Matt looked bewildered. "Talk to him about what?"

"Just something. I can't explain now. Will you, Matt?"

"But… oh, all right. I'm too tired to care. Do what you want. I'll see you tomorrow." He walked off, seeming baffled and a little angry.

The bulb in the attic ceiling lamp was missing, and Stefan had lighted a candle. He was lying haphazardly on the bed, one leg off and one leg on, his eyes shut. Maybe asleep. Bonnie tiptoed up and fortified herself with a deep breath.

"Stefan?"

His eyes opened. "I thought you'd left."

"They did. I didn't." God, he's pale, thought Bonnie. Impulsively, she plunged right in.

"Stefan, I've been thinking. With Damon gone, you're the only thing between us and the killer. That means you've got to be strong, as strong as you can be. And, well, it occurred to me that maybe… you know… you might need…" Her voice faltered. Unconsciously she'd begun fiddling with the wad of tissues forming a makeshift bandage on her palm. It was still bleeding sluggishly from where she'd cut it on the glass.

His gaze followed hers down to it. Then his eyes lifted quickly to her face, reading the confirmation there. There was a long moment of silence.

Then he shook his head.

"But why? Stefan, I don't want to get personal, but frankly you don't look so good. You're not going to be much help to anybody if you collapse on us. And… I don't mind, if you only take a little. I mean, I'm never going to miss it, right? And it can't hurt all that much. And…" Once again her voice trailed off. He was just looking at her, which was very disconcerting. "Well, why not?" she demanded, feeling slightly let down.

"Because," he said softly, "I made a promise. Maybe not in so many words, but -a promise just the same. I won't take human blood as food, because that means using a person, like livestock. And I won't exchange it with anyone, because that means love, and-" This time he was the one who couldn't finish. But Bonnie understood.

"There won't ever be anyone else, will there?" she said.

"No. Not for me." Stefan was so tired that his control was slipping and Bonnie could see behind the mask. And again she saw that pain and need, so great that she had to look away from him.

A strange little chill of premonition and dismay trickled through her heart. Before, she had wondered if Matt would ever get over Elena, and he had, it seemed. But Stefan-

Stefan, she realized, the chill deepening, was different. No matter how much time passed, no matter what he did, he would never truly heal. Without Elena he would always be half himself, only half alive.

She'd come up here to give Stefan a gift that he didn't want. But there was something else he did want, she realized, and only she had the power to give it to him.

Without looking at him, her voice husky, she said, "Would you like to see Elena?"

Dead silence from the bed. Bonnie sat, watching the shadows in the room sway and flicker. At last, she chanced a look at him out of the corner of her eye.

He was breathing hard, eyes shut, body taut as a bowstring. Trying, Bonnie diagnosed, to work up the strength to resist temptation.

And losing. Bonnie saw that.

Elena always had been too much for him.

When his eyes met hers again, they were grim, and his mouth was a tight line. His skin wasn't pale anymore but flushed with color. His body was still trembling-taut and keyed up with anticipation.

"You might get hurt, Bonnie."

"I know."

"You'd be opening yourself up to forces beyond your control. I can't guarantee that I can protect you from them."

"I know. How do you want to do it?"

Fiercely, he took her hand. "Thank you, Bonnie," he whispered.

She felt the blood rise to her face. "That's all right," she said. Good grief, he was gorgeous. Those eyes… in a minute she was either going to jump him or melt into a puddle on his bed. With a pleasurably agonizing feeling of virtue she removed her hand from his and turned to the candle.

"How about if I go into a trance and try to reach her, and then, once I make contact, try to find you and draw you in? Do you think that would work?"

"It might, if I'm reaching for you too," he said, withdrawing that intensity from her and focusing it on the candle. "I can touch your mind… when you're ready, I'll feel it."

"Right." The candle was white, its wax sides smooth and shining. The flame drew itself up and then fell back. Bonnie stared until she became lost in it, until the rest of the room blacked out around her. There was only the flame, herself and the flame. She was going into the flame.

Unbearable brightness surrounded her. Then she passed through it into the dark.

The funeral home was cold. Bonnie glanced around uneasily, wondering how she had gotten here, trying to gather her thoughts. She was all alone, and for some reason that bothered her. Wasn't somebody else supposed to be here too? She was looking for someone.

Step by step, as if something were pulling her, Bonnie approached the casket. She didn't want to look in. She had to. There was something in that coffin waiting for her.

The whole room was suffused with the soft white light of the candles. It was like floating in an island of radiance. But she didn't want to look…

Moving as if in slow motion, she reached the coffin, stared at the white satin lining inside. It was empty.

Bonnie closed it and leaned against it, sighing.

Then she caught motion in her peripheral vision and whirled.

It was Elena.

"Oh, God, you scared me," Bonnie said.

"I thought I told you not to come here," Elena answered.

This time her hair was loose, flowing over her shoulders and down her back, the pale golden white of a flame. She was wearing a thin white dress that glowed softly in the candlelight. She looked like a candle herself, luminous, radiant. Her feet were bare.

"I came here to…" Bonnie floundered, some concept teasing around the edges of her mind. This was her dream, her trance. She had to remember. "I came here to let you see Stefan," she said.

Elena's eyes widened, her lips parting. Bonnie recognized the look of yearning, of almost irresistible longing. Not fifteen minutes ago she'd seen it on Stefan's face.

"Oh," Elena whispered. She swallowed, her eyes clouding. "Oh, Bonnie… but I can't."

"Why not?"

Tears were shining in Elena's eyes now, and her lips were trembling. "What if things start to change? What if he comes, and…" She put a hand to her mouth and Bonnie remembered the last dream, with teeth falling like rain. Bonnie met Elena's eyes with understanding horror.

"Don't you see? I couldn't stand it if something like that happened," Elena whispered. "If he saw me like that… And I can't control things here; I'm not strong enough. Bonnie, please don't let him through. Tell him how sorry I am. Tell him-" She shut her eyes, tears spilling.

"Stefan, no! Elena says-" It didn't matter. His mind was stronger than hers, and the instant she'd made contact he had taken over. He'd sensed the gist of her conversation with Elena, but he wasn't going to take no for an answer. Helplessly, Bonnie felt herself being overridden, felt his mind come closer, closer to the circle of light formed by the candelabras. She felt his presence there, felt it taking shape. She turned and saw him, dark hair, tense face, green eyes fierce as a falcon's. And then, knowing there was nothing more she could do, she stepped back to allow them to be alone.

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