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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 5)

Elena got into the backseat of the Jaguar and put on a plush aquamarine T-shirt and jeans underneath her nightgown, just in case a police officer – or even someone trying to help the owners of a car apparently stalled by a deserted highway – stopped by. And then she lay down in the Jag's backseat.

But although she was now warm and comfortable, sleep wouldn't come.

What do I want? Really want right now? she asked herself. And the answer came to her immediately.

I want to see Stefan. I want to feel his arms around me. I want to just look at his face – at his green eyes with that special look that he only ever shows to me. I want him to forgive me and tell me that he knows I'll always love him.

And I want…Elena felt herself flush as a warmth went through her body, I want Stefan to kiss me. I want Stefan's kisses…warm and sweet and comforting….

Elena was thinking this as for the second or third time she shut her eyes and shifted position, tears once again welling up. If only she could cry, really cry, for Stefan. But something stopped her. She found it hard to squeeze out a tear.

God, she was exhausted….

Elena tried. She kept her eyes shut and turned back and forth, trying not to think about Stefan for just a few minutes. She had to sleep. Desperate, she gave a mighty heave to try to find a better position – when everything suddenly changed.

Elena was comfortable. Too comfortable. She couldn't feel the seat at all. She bolted upright and froze, sitting on air. She was almost hitting her head against the Jag's top.

I've lost gravity again! she thought, horrified. But, no – this was different than what had happened when she had first returned from the afterlife, and had floated around like a balloon. She couldn't explain why, but she was sure.

She was afraid to move in any direction. She wasn't sure of the cause of her distress – but she didn't dare move.

And then she saw it.

She saw herself, with her head back and her eyes closed in the backseat of the car. She could make out every tiny detail, from the wrinkles in her plush aquamarine shirt to the braid she'd made from her pale golden hair, which, for the lack of a hair tie, was coming unbraided already. She looked as if she were serenely sleeping.

So this was how it all ended. This is what they'll say, that Elena Gilbert, one summer day, died peacefully in her sleep. No cause of death was ever found….

Because they could never see heartbreak as a cause of death, Elena thought, and in a gesture even more melodramatic than her usual melodramatic gestures, she tried to fling herself down on her own body with one arm covering her face.

It didn't work. As soon as she reached out to begin to fling herself, she found herself outside the Jaguar.

She'd gone right through the ceiling without feeling anything. I suppose that's what happens when you're a ghost, she thought. But this is nothing like the last time. Then I saw the tunnel, I went into the Light.

Maybe I'm not a ghost.

Suddenly Elena felt a rush of exhilaration. I know what this is, she thought triumphantly. This is an out of body experience!

She looked down at her sleeping self again, searching carefully. Yes! Yes! There was a cord attaching her sleeping body – her real body – to her spiritual self. She was tethered! Wherever she went, she could find her way home.

There were only two possible destinations. One was back to Fell's Church. She knew the general direction from the sun, and she was sure that someone having an O.O.B. (as Bonnie, who had once gone through a spiritualist fad and had read lots of books about the subject, familiarly called them) would be able to recognize the crossing of all those ley lines.

The other destination, of course, was to Stefan.

Damon might think she didn't know where to go, and it was true that she could only vaguely sense from the rising sun that Stefan was in the other direction – to the west of her. But she'd always heard that the souls of true lovers were connected somehow…by a silver string from heart to heart or a red cord from pinky to pinky.

To her delight, she found it almost immediately.

A thin cord the color of moonlight, that seemed to be stretched taut between the sleeping Elena's heart, and…yes. When she touched the cord, it resonated so clearly to her of Stefan that she knew it would take her to him.

There was never a doubt in her mind as to which direction she would take. She'd been in Fell's Church. Bonnie was a psychic of some impressive powers, and so was Stefan's old landlady, Mrs. Theophilia Flowers. They were there, along with Meredith and her brilliant intellect, to protect the town.

And they would all understand, she told herself somewhat desperately. She might not ever have this chance again.

Without another moment's hesitation, Elena turned toward Stefan and let herself go.

Immediately she found herself rushing through the air, far too quickly to take note of her surroundings. Everything she passed was a blur, differing only in color and texture as Elena realized with a catch in her throat that she was going through objects.

And so, in just a few instants, she found herself looking at a heart-wrenching scene: Stefan on a worn and broken pallet, looking gray-faced and thin. Stefan in a hideous, rush-strewn, lice-infested cell with its damned bars of iron from which no vampire could escape.

Elena turned away for a moment so that when she woke him he wouldn't see her anguish and her tears. She was just composing herself, when Stefan's voice jolted through her. He was awake already.

"You try and try, don't you?" he said, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "I guess you should get points for that. But you always get something wrong. Last time it was the little pointed ears. This time it's the clothes. Elena wouldn't wear a wrinkled shirt like that and have dirty, bare feet if her life depended on it. Go away." Shrugging his shoulders under the threadbare blanket, he turned from her.

Elena stared. She was in too many kinds of distress to choose her words: they burst from her like a geyser. "Oh, Stefan! I was just trying to fall asleep in my clothes in case a police officer stopped by while I was in the backseat of the Jag. The Jag you bought me. But I didn't think you'd care! My clothes are wrinkled because I'm living out of my duffel bag and my feet got dirty when Damon – well – well – never mind that. I have a real nightgown, but I didn't have it on when I came out of my body and I guess when you come out you still look like yourself in your body…."

Then she threw up her hands in alarm as Stefan swung around. But – marvel of marvels – there was now a tinge of blood in his cheeks. Moreover, he was no longer looking disdainful.

He was looking deadly, his green eyes flashing with menace.

"Your feet got dirty – when Damon did what?" he demanded, enunciating carefully.

"It doesn't matter – "

"It damn well does matter – " Stefan stopped short. "Elena?" he whispered, staring at her as if she had only just appeared.

"Stefan!" She couldn't help holding out her arms to him. She couldn't control anything. "Stefan, I don't know how, but I'm here. It's me! I'm not a dream or a ghost. I was thinking about you and falling asleep –  and here I am!" She tried to touch him with ghostlike hands. "Do you believe me?"

"I believe you…because I was thinking about you. Somehow – somehow that brought you here. Because of love. Because we love each other!" And he spoke the words as if they were a revelation.

Elena shut her eyes. If only she could be here in her body, she would show Stefan how much she loved him. As it was, they had to use clumsy words – clich��s that just happened to be uniquely true.

"I will always love you, Elena," Stefan said, whispering again. "But I don't want you near Damon. He'll find a way to hurt you – "

"I can't help it," Elena interrupted him.

"You have to help it!"

" – because he's my only hope, Stefan! He's not going to hurt me. He's already killed to protect me. Oh, God, so much has happened! We're on our way to – " Elena hesitated, her eyes flicking around warily.

Stefan's eyes widened for an instant. But when he spoke his face was deadpan. "Someplace where you'll be safe."

"Yes," she said, just as seriously, knowing that phantom tears were now racing down her bodiless cheeks. "And…oh, Stefan, there's so much you don't know. Caroline accused Matt of attacking her while they were on a date because she's pregnant. But it wasn't Matt!"

"Of course not!" Stefan said indignantly, and would have said more, but Elena was racing on.

"And I think that the – the litter is really Tyler Smallwood's because of the timing, and because Caroline's changing. Damon said that – "

"A werewolf baby will always turn its mother into a werewolf – "

"Yes! But the werewolf part is going to have to fight the malach that's already inside her. Bonnie and Meredith told me things about Caroline – like how she was scuttling on the floor like a lizard – that just terrified me. But I had to leave them to deal with that so that I could – could get to that safe place."

"Werewolves and were-foxes," Stefan said, shaking his head. "Of course, the kitsune, the foxes, are much more powerful magically, but werewolves tend to kill before they think." He struck his knee with his fist. "I wish I could be there!"

Elena burst out with mixed wonder and despair, "And instead here I am – with you! I never knew I could do this. But I haven't been able to bring you anything this way, not even myself. My blood." She made a helpless gesture and saw the smugness in Stefan's eyes.

He still had the Clarion Loess Black Magic wine she'd smuggled to him! She knew it! It was the only liquid that would – in a pinch – help keep a vampire alive when no blood was available.

Black Magic "wine" – nonalcoholic and never made for humans in the first place, was the only drink that vampires really enjoyed aside from blood. Damon had told Elena that it was magically made from special grapes that were grown in the soil at the edges of glaciers, loess, and that they were always kept in complete darkness. That was what gave it its velvety dark taste, he'd said.

"It doesn't matter," Stefan said, undoubtedly for the benefit of anyone who might be spying. "Exactly how did it happen?" he asked then. "This out of body thing? Why don't you come down here and tell me about it?" He lay back on his pallet, turning aching eyes on her. "I'm sorry that I don't have a better bed to offer you." For a moment the humiliation showed clearly in his face. All this time he'd managed to hide it from her: the shame he felt in appearing before her in this way – in a filthy cell, with rags for clothes, and infested with God knew what. He – Stefan Salvatore, who had once been – had once been –

Elena's heart truly broke then. She knew it was breaking, because she could feel it inside shattering like glass, with each needle-like shard skewering flesh inside her chest. She knew it was breaking, too, because she was weeping, huge spirit tears that dropped on Stefan's face like blood, translucent in the air as they fell, but turning deep red when they touched Stefan's face.

Blood? Of course, it wasn't blood, she thought. She couldn't even bring anything so useful to him in this form. She was really sobbing now; her shoulders shaking as the tears continued to fall onto Stefan, who now had one hand held up as if to catch one…

"Elena – " There was wonder in his voice.

"Wha – what?" she keened.

"Your tears. Your tears make me feel…" He was staring up at her with something like awe.

Elena still couldn't stop weeping, although she knew that she had soothed his proud heart – and done something else.

"I d-don't understand."

He caught one of her tears and kissed it. Then he looked at her with a sheen in his own eyes. "It's hard to talk about, lovely little love…."

Then why use words? she thought, still weeping, but coming down to his level so she could snuffle just above his throat.

It's just…they're not too free with the refreshments around here, he told her. As you guessed. If you hadn't – helped me – I'd've been dead by now. They can't figure out why I'm not. So they – well they run out before they get to me, sometimes, you see –

Elena lifted her head, and this time tears of pure rage fell right onto his face. Where are they? I'll kill them. Don't tell me I can't because I'll find a way. I'll find a way to kill them even though I'm in this state –

He shook his head at her. Angel, angel, don't you see? You don't have to kill them. Because your tears, the phantom tears of a pure maiden –

She shook her head back at him. Stefan, if anyone knows I'm not a pure maiden, it's you –

– of a pure maiden, Stefan continued, not even disturbed by her interruption, can cure all ills. And I was ill tonight, Elena, even though I tried to hide it. But I'm cured now! As good as new! They'll never be able to understand how it could happen.

Are you sure?

Look at me!

Elena looked at him. Stefan's face, which had been gray and drawn before, was different now. He was usually pale, but now his fine features looked flushed – as if he had been standing in front of a bonfire and the light was still reflecting off the pure lines and elegant planes of his beloved face.

I…did that? She remembered the first tear droplets falling, and how they had looked like blood on his face. Not like blood, she realized, but like natural color, sinking into him, refreshing him.

She couldn't help but hide her face again in his throat as she thought, I'm glad. Oh, I'm so glad. But I wish we could touch each other. I want to feel your arms around me.

"At least I can look at you," Stefan whispered, and Elena knew that even this is like water in the wasteland to him. "And if we could touch, I'd put my arm around your waist here, and kiss you here and here…."

They spoke to each other this way for a while – just exchanging lovers' nonsense, each sustained by the sight and sound of the other. And then, softly but firmly, Stefan asked her to tell him all about Damon – everything since they'd started. By now Elena was cool-headed enough to tell him about the incident with Matt without making Damon sound too much like a villain.

"And Stefan, Damon really is protecting us as best he can." She told him about the two possessed vampires who had been tracking them and what Damon had done.

Stefan merely shrugged and said wryly, "Most people write with pencils; Damon writes people off with them." He added, "And your clothes got dirty?"

"Because I heard a great big crash – which ended up being Matt on top of the car," she said. "But, to be fair, he was trying to stake Damon at the time. I made him get rid of the stake." She added, in the barest of whispers: "Stefan, please don't mind that Damon and I have to – to be together a lot right now. It doesn't change anything between us."

"I know."

And the amazing thing was that he did know. Elena was bathed in the deep glow of his trust for her.

After that they "held" each other, Elena snuggling weightlessly above the curve of Stefan's arm…and it was bliss.

And then abruptly the world – the entire universe – shuddered at the sound of a gigantic slamming sound. It jerked at Elena. It didn't belong in here with love and trust and the sweetness of sharing every part of her self with Stefan.

It began again – a monstrous booming that terrified Elena. She clutched uselessly at Stefan, who was looking at her with concern. He didn't hear the clanging that was defeaning her, she realized.

And then something even worse happened. She was torn out of Stefan's arms bodily, and she was rushing backward, back through objects, back faster and faster until with a jar she landed in her body.

For all her reluctance she landed perfectly on the solid body that until now had been the only one she'd known. She landed on it and melded into it and then she was sitting up and the sounds were the sounds of Matt rapping at the window.

"It's been over two hours since you went to sleep," he said as she opened the door. "But I figured you needed it. Are you all right?"

"Oh, Matt," Elena said. For a moment it seemed impossible that she was going to be able to keep from crying. But then she remembered Stefan's smile.

Elena blinked, forcing herself to deal with her new situation. She hadn't seen Stefan for nearly long enough. But her memories of their short, sweet time together were wrapped in jonquils and lavender and nothing could ever take them away from her.

Damon was irritated. As he flew higher on his wide, black crow's wings, the landscape beneath him unfolded like a magnificent carpet, the breaking day making the grasslands and rolling hills glow like emerald.

Damon ignored it. He'd seen it too many times. What he was looking for was una donna splendida.

But his mind kept drifting. Mutt and his stake…Damon still didn't see why Elena wanted to take a fugitive from justice along with them. Elena…Damon tried to conjure up the same irritated feelings for her as he had for Mutt, but just couldn't manage it.

He circled down toward the town below, keeping to the residential district, searching for auras. He wanted a strong aura as much as a beautiful one. And he'd been in America long enough to know that this early in the morning you could find three sorts of people up and outdoors. Students were the first, but this was summer, so there were fewer to pick from. Despite Mutt's assumptions, Damon seldom sank to high school girls. Joggers were the second. And the third, thinking beautiful thoughts, just like…that one down there…were home gardeners.

The young woman with the pruning shears looked up as Damon turned the corner and approached her house, deliberately hurrying and then slowing his stride. His very footsteps made it clear that he was delighted to take in the floral extravaganza in front of the charming Victorian house. For a moment the girl looked startled, almost afraid. That was normal. Damon was wearing black boots, black jeans, a black T-shirt, and black leather jacket, in addition to his Ray-Bans. But then he smiled and at the same moment began the first delicate infiltration of la bella donna's mind.

One thing was clear even before that. She liked roses.

"A full flush of Dreamweavers," he said, shaking his head in admiration as he looked at the bushes covered with brilliant pink bloom. "And those White Icebergs climbing the trellis…. Ah, but your Moonstones!" He lightly touched an open rose, its petals moonlight-colored but shading to palest pink at the edges.

The young woman – Krysta – couldn't help smiling. Damon felt the information flow effortlessly from her mind to his. She was just twenty-two, not married, still living at home. She had precisely the kind of aura he was looking for, and only a sleeping father in the house.

"You don't look like the type to know so much about roses," Krysta said frankly, and then gave a self-conscious laugh. "I'm sorry. I've met all sorts at the Creekville Rose Shows."

"My mother is an avid gardener," Damon lied fluently and without a trace of misgiving. "I guess I got my passion from her. Now I don't stay in one place long enough to grow them, but I can still dream. Would you like to know what my ultimate dream is?"

By this time Krysta felt as if she were floating on a delicious rose-scented cloud. Damon felt every delicate nuance with her, enjoyed seeing her flush, enjoyed the slight tremor that shook her body.

"Yes," Krysta said simply. "I'd love to know your dream."

Damon leaned forward, lowered his voice. "I want to breed a true black rose."

Krysta looked startled and something flashed through her mind too quickly for Damon to catch. But then she said in an equally hushed voice, "Then there's something I'd like to show you. If – if you have time to come with me."

The backyard was even more splendid than the front and there was a hammock gently swinging, Damon noted with approval. After all, he would soon need a place to put Krysta…while she slept it off.

But at the rear of the bower was something that caused his pace to quicken involuntarily.

"Black Magic roses!" he exclaimed, eyeing the wine-dark, almost burgundy-colored blooms.

"Yes," Krysta said softly. "Black Magics. The closest anyone has ever gotten to a black rose. I get three flushes a year," she whispered tremulously, no longer questioning who this young man might be, overwhelmed by her feelings which almost took Damon with her.

"They're magnificent," he said. "The deepest red I've ever seen. The closest to black ever bred."

Krysta was still trembling with joy. "You're welcome to one, if you like. I'm taking them to the Creekville show next week but I can give you one in full bloom now. Maybe you'll be able to smell it."

"I'd…like that," Damon said.

"You can give it to your girlfriend."

"No girlfriend," Damon said, glad to get back to lying. Krysta's hands shook slightly as she cut one of the longest, straightest stems for him.

Damon reached out to take it and their fingers touched.

Damon smiled at her.

When Krysta's knees went boneless with pleasure, Damon caught her easily and went on with what he was doing.

Meredith was right behind Bonnie as she stepped into Caroline's room.

"I said, shut the damn door!" Caroline said – no, snarled.

It was only natural to look to see where the voice was coming from. Just before Meredith cut off the only sliver of light by shutting the door Bonnie saw Caroline's corner desk. The chair that used to sit in front of it was gone.

Caroline was underneath.

It might have been a good hiding space for a ten-year-old, but as an eighteen-year-old Caroline had curled into an impossible position in order to fit there. She was sitting on a pile of what looked like shreds of clothing. Her best clothes, Bonnie thought suddenly, as a twinkle of gold lam�� flashed and was gone when the door shut.

Then it was just the three of them together in the darkness. No illumination came from above or below the door to the hall.

It's because the hall is in another world, Bonnie thought wildly.

"What's wrong with a little light, Caroline?" Meredith asked quietly. Her voice was steady, comforting. "You asked us to come and see you – but we can't see you."

"I said come and talk to me," Caroline corrected instantly, exactly as she always had in the old days. That should have been comforting, too. Except – except that now that Bonnie could hear her voice sort of reverberating under the desk, she could tell it had a new quality. Not so much husky as –

You really don't want to be thinking this. Not in the midnight darkness of this room, Bonnie's mind told her.

Not so much husky as snarly, Bonnie thought helplessly. You could almost say Caroline growled her answers.

Little sounds told Bonnie that the girl under the desk was moving. Bonnie's own breathing quickened.

"But we want to see you," Meredith said quietly. "And you know that Bonnie's scared of the dark. Can I just turn on your bedside lamp?"

Bonnie could feel herself trembling. That wasn't good. It wasn't smart to show Caroline you were afraid of her. But the pitch-blackness was making her tremble. She could feel that this room was wrong in its angles – or maybe it was only her imagination. She could also hear things that made her jump – like that loud double clicking noise directly behind her. What had made that?

"All rrright then! Turrn on the one by the bed." Caroline was definitely snarling. And she was moving toward them; Bonnie could hear rustling and breathing getting closer.

Don't let her get to me in the dark!

It was a panicked, irrational thought, but Bonnie couldn't help thinking it any more than she could help stumbling blindly sideways into…

Something tall – and warm.

Not Meredith. Never since Bonnie had known her had Meredith smelled like rancid sweat and rotten eggs. But the warm something took hold of both Bonnie's upraised hands, and there were strange little clicking noises as they clenched.

The hands weren't just warm; they were hot and dry. And the ends poked oddly into Bonnie's skin.

Then, as a light by the bedside went on, they were gone. The lamp Meredith had found put out a very, very dim ruby light – and it was easy to see why. A ruby negligee and peignoir had been tied around the shade.

"This is a fire hazard," Meredith said, but even her level voice sounded shaken.

Caroline stood before them in the red light. She seemed taller than ever to Bonnie, tall and sinewy, except for the slight bulge of her belly. She was dressed normally, in jeans and a tight T-shirt. She was holding her hands playfully hidden behind her back, and smiling her old insolent, sly smile.

I want to go home, Bonnie thought.

Meredith said, "Well?"

Caroline just kept smiling. "Well, what?"

Meredith lost her temper. "What do you want?"

Caroline just looked arch. "Have you visited your friend Isobel today? Had a little talk with her?"

Bonnie had a powerful urge to slap that smug smile off Caroline's face. She didn't. It was just a trick of the lamplight – she knew it had to be – but it looked almost as if there was a red dot shining in the center of each of Caroline's eyes.

"We visited Isobel at the hospital, yes," Meredith said expressionlessly. Then, with unmistakable anger in her voice, she added, "And you know very well that she can't talk yet. But" – with a triumphant little pounce – "the doctors say she will be able to. Her tongue will heal, Caroline. She may have scars from all the places she pierced herself, but she's going to be able to talk again just fine."

Caroline's smile had faded, leaving her face looking haggard and full of dull fury. At what? Bonnie wondered.

"It would do you some good to get out of this house," Meredith told the copper-haired girl. "You can't live in the dark – "

"I won't forever," Caroline said sharply. "Just until the twins are born." She stood, hands still behind her, and arched her back so that her stomach protruded more than ever.

"The – twins?" Bonnie was startled into speaking.

"Matt Junior and Mattie. That's what I'm going to call them."

Caroline's gloating smile and impudent eyes were almost too much for Bonnie to stand. "You can't do that!" she heard herself shouting.

"Or maybe I'll call the girl Honey. Matthew and Honey, for their daddy, Matthew Honeycutt."

"You can't do it," Bonnie shouted, more shrilly. "Especially with Matt not even here to defend himself – "

"Yes, he did run away very suddenly, didn't he? The police are wondering why he had to run. Of course" – Caroline lowered her voice to a meaningful whisper – "he wasn't alone. Elena was with him. I wonder what the two of them do in their spare time?" She giggled, a high, fatuous giggle.

"Elena isn't the only person with Matt," Meredith said, and now her voice was low and dangerous. "Someone else is, too. Do you remember an agreement you signed? About not telling anyone about Elena or bringing publicity around her?"

Caroline blinked slowly, like a lizard. "A long time ago. In a different lifetime, for me."

"Caroline, you're not going to have a lifetime if you break that oath! Damon would kill you. Or – have you already – ?" Meredith stopped.

Caroline was still giggling in that childish way, as if she were a little girl and someone had just told her a naughty joke.

Bonnie felt cold sweat break out all over her body at once. Fine hairs lifted on her arms.

"What are you hearing, Caroline?" Meredith wet her lips. Bonnie could see that she was trying to hold Caroline's eyes, but the copper-haired girl turned away. "Is it…Shinichi?" Meredith moved forward suddenly and grasped Caroline's arms. "You used to see and hear him when you looked in the mirror. Do you hear him all the time now, Caroline?"

Bonnie wanted to help Meredith. She did. But she couldn't have moved or spoken for anything.

There were – gray threads – in Caroline's hair. Gray hairs, Bonnie thought. They shone dully, much lighter than the flaming auburn Caroline was so proud of. And there were…other hairs that didn't shine at all. Bonnie had seen this brindled coloration on dogs; she knew vaguely that some wolves must look the same. But it was really something else to see them in your girlfriend's hair. Especially when they seemed to bristle and quiver, lifting like the hackles of a dog….

She's mad. Not angry mad; insane mad, Bonnie realized.

Caroline looked up, not at Meredith, but straight into Bonnie's eyes. Bonnie flinched. Caroline was gazing at her as if considering whether or not Bonnie were dinner or just garbage.

Meredith stepped to stand beside Bonnie. Her fists were clenched.

"Don't starrre," Caroline said abruptly, and turned away. Yes, that was definitely a snarl.

"You really wanted us to see you, didn't you?" Meredith said softly. "You're – flaunting yourself in front of us. But I think that maybe this is your way of asking for help – "

"Harrrrdly!"

"Caroline," Bonnie said suddenly, amazed by a wave of pity that swamped her, "please try to think. Remember back when you said you needed a husband? I – " She broke off and swallowed. Who was going to marry this monster, who a few weeks ago had looked like a normal teenage girl?

"I understood you back then," Bonnie finished lamely. "But, honestly, it won't do any good to keep on saying Matt attacked you! No one…" She couldn't bring herself to say the obvious.

No one will believe something like you.

"Oh, I clean up rrrreal prrretty," Caroline growled and then giggled. "You'd be surprrrised."

In her mind's eye, Bonnie saw the old insolent flash of Caroline's emerald gaze, the sly and secretive expression on her face, and the shimmering of her auburn hair.

"Why pick on Matt?" Meredith demanded. "How did you know he was attacked by a malach that night? Did Shinichi send it after him just for you?"

"Or did Misao?" Bonnie said, remembering that it was the female of the twin kitsune, the fox spirits, who had spoken the most to Caroline.

"I went out on a date with Matt that night." Suddenly Caroline's voice was a singsong, as if she were reciting poetry – badly. "I didn't mind kissing him – he's so cute. I guess that's when he got the hickey on his neck. I guess I might have bitten his lip a little."

Bonnie opened her mouth, felt Meredith's restraining hand on her shoulder, and shut it again.

"But then he just went crazy," Caroline lilted on. "He attacked me! I scratched him with my fingernails, all up and down one arm. But Matt was too strong. Much too strong. And now – "

And now you're going to have puppies, Bonnie wanted to say, but Meredith squeezed her shoulder and she stopped herself again. Besides, Bonnie thought with a sudden twinge of alarm, the babies might look human, and there might only be twins, as Caroline herself had said. Then what would they do?

Bonnie knew the way adult minds worked. Even if Caroline couldn't dye her hair back to auburn, they would say, look what stress she's been under: she's actually going prematurely gray!

And even if the adults saw Caroline's bizarre appearance and strange behavior, as Bonnie and Meredith just had, they would dismiss it as being due to shock. Oh, poor Caroline, her whole personality has changed since that day. She's so frightened of Matt that she hides under her desk. She won't wash herself – maybe that's a common symptom after what she's been through.

Besides who knew how long it would take these werewolf babies to be born? Maybe the malach inside Caroline could control that, make it seem to be like a normal pregnancy.

And then suddenly Bonnie was snatched away from her own thoughts to tune into Caroline's words. Caroline was through growling for the moment. She sounded almost like the old Caroline, offended and nasty, as she said, "I just don't understand why you should take his word over mine."

"Because," Meredith said flatly, "we know both of you. We would have known if Matt had been dating you – and he wasn't. And he's hardly the kind of guy to just show up at your front door, especially when you consider how he felt about you."

"But you've already said that this monster that attacked him – "

"Malach, Caroline. Learn the word. You've got one inside you!"

Caroline smirked and waved a hand, dismissing this. "You said these things can possess you and make you do things out of character, right?"

There was a silence. Bonnie thought, if we have said it, we've never said it in front of you.

"Well, what if I admitted that Matt and I weren't dating? What if I said that I found him driving around our neighborhood at about five miles an hour, just looking lost. His sleeve was torn to pieces and his arm was all chewed up. So I took him inside my house and tried to bandage his arm – but suddenly he went crazy. And I did try to scratch him, but the bandages were in the way. I scratched them off him. I even still have them, all covered in blood. If I told you that, what would you say?"

I'd say that you were using us as a dry run before telling Sheriff Mossberg, Bonnie thought, chilled. And I'd say that you were right, you probably can clean up pretty normal looking when you make an effort. If you'd just stop that childish giggling and get rid of the crafty look, you'd be even more convincing.

But Meredith was speaking. "Caroline – they've got DNA tests for blood."

"Of course I know that!" Caroline looked so indignant that for a moment she forgot to look sly.

Meredith was staring at her. "That means they can tell if the bandages you've got have Matt's blood on them or not," she said. "And if it flows in the right pattern to match your story."

"There isn't any pattern. The bandages are just soaked." Abruptly, Caroline strode over to a dresser and opened it, plucking out a length of what might have originally been athletic bandage. Now it shone reddish in the faint light.

Looking at the stiff fabric in the ruby light, Bonnie knew two things. It wasn't any part of the poultice that Mrs. Flowers had put on Matt's arm the morning after he'd been attacked. And it was soaked with genuine blood, right to the stiff tips of the cloth.

The world seemed to be spinning around. Because even though Bonnie believed in Matt, this new story scared her. This new story might even work – provided that no one could find Matt and test his blood.

Even Matt admitted that there was time unaccounted for that night…time he couldn't remember.

But that didn't mean Caroline was telling the truth! Why would she start out with a lie, and only change it when the facts got in the way?

Caroline's eyes were the color of a cat's. Cats play with mice, just for amusement. Just to see them run.

Matt had run….

Bonnie shook her head. All at once she couldn't stand this house any longer. It had somehow settled into her mind, making her accept all the impossible angles of the distorted walls. She had even grown accustomed to the awful smell and the red light. But now, with Caroline holding out a blood-soaked bandage and telling her that it was Matt who had bled all over it…

"I'm going home," Bonnie announced suddenly. "And Matt didn't do it, and – and I'm never coming back!" Accompanied by the sound of Caroline's giggling, she whirled, trying not to look at the nest Caroline had made under her corner desk. There were empty bottles and half-empty plates of food piled in there with the clothes. Anything could be under them – even a malach.

But as Bonnie moved, the room seemed to move with her, accelerating her spin, until she had gone twice around before she could put out a foot to stop herself.

"Wait, Bonnie – wait, Caroline," Meredith said, sounding almost frantic. Caroline was folding her body like a contortionist, getting back under the desk. "Caroline, what about Tyler Smallwood? Don't you care that he's the real father of your – your kids? How long were you dating him before he joined up with Klaus? Where is he now?"

"Forrr all I know he's dead. You and yourrr friends killed him." The snarl was back, but it wasn't vicious. It was more of a triumphant purr. "But I don't miss him, so I hope he stays dead," Caroline added, with a muffled giggle. "He wouldn't marrrry me."

Bonnie had to get away. She fumbled for the doorknob, found it, and was blinded. She had spent so long in ruby dimness that the hall light was like the midday sun on the desert.

"Turrn off the lamp!" Caroline snapped from under the desk. But as Meredith moved to do it Bonnie heard a surprisingly loud explosion and saw the red-swathed shade go dark by itself.

And one thing more.

The hallway light swept across Caroline's room like a beacon as the door swung shut. Caroline was already tearing at something with her teeth. Something with the texture of meat, but not cooked meat.

Bonnie jerked back to run and almost knocked over Mrs. Forbes.

The woman was still standing in the hall where she had been when they went into Caroline's room. She didn't even look as if she'd been listening at the door. She was just standing, staring at nothing.

"I have to show you out," she said in her soft, gray voice. She didn't lift her head to meet Bonnie's or Meredith's eyes. "You might get lost otherwise. I do."

It was a straight shot to the stairs and down and four steps to the front door. But as they walked, Meredith didn't say anything, and Bonnie couldn't.

Once outside, Meredith turned to look at Bonnie.

"Well? Is she more possessed by the malach or the werewolf part of her? Or could you tell anything from her aura?"

Bonnie heard herself laugh, a sound that was like crying.

"Meredith, her aura isn't human – and I don't know what to make of it. And her mother doesn't seem to have an aura at all. They're just – that house is just – "

"Never mind, Bonnie. You don't have to go there ever again."

"It's like…" But Bonnie didn't know how to explain the fun-house look of the walls or the way the stairs went down instead of up.

"I think," she said finally, "that you'd better do some more research. On things like – like possession of the American kind."

"You mean like possession by demons?" Meredith shot her a sharp look.

"Yes. I guess so. Only I don't know where to start listing what's wrong with her."

"I have a few ideas of my own," Meredith said quietly. "Like – did you notice that she never showed us her hands? That was very strange, I thought."

"I know why," Bonnie whispered, trying not to let the sobbing laughter out. "It's because – she doesn't have fingernails anymore."

"What did you say?"

"She put her hands around my wrists. I could feel them."

"Bonnie, you're not making any sense."

Bonnie made herself speak. "Caroline has claws now, Meredith. Real claws. Like a wolf."

"Or maybe," Meredith said in a whisper, "like a fox."

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