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The Struggle (Chapter Eleven)

"The nameis Salvatore. As in savior," he said. There was a brief flash of white teeth in the darkness.

Elena looked down. The overhang of the roof obscured the balcony, but she could hear shuffling sounds down there. But they were not the sounds of pursuit, and there was no sign that her companion's words had been overheard. A minute later, she heard the french windows close.

"I thought it was Smith," she said, still looking down into the darkness.

Damon laughed. It was a terribly engaging laugh, without the bitter edge of Stefan's. It made her think of the rainbow lights on the crow's feathers.

Nevertheless, she was not fooled. Charming as he seemed, Damon was dangerous almost beyond imagination. That graceful, lounging body was ten times stronger than a human's. Those lazy dark eyes were adapted to seeing perfectly at night. The long-fingered hand that had pulled her up to the roof could move with impossible quickness. And, most disturbing of all, his mind was the mind of a killer. A predator.

She could feel it just beneath his surface. He wasdifferent from a human. He had lived so long by hunting and killing that he'd forgotten any other way. And he enjoyed it, not fighting his nature as Stefan did, but glorying in it. He had no morals and no conscience, and she was trapped here with him in the middle of the night.

She settled back on one heel, ready to jump into action at any minute. She ought to be angry with him now, after what he'd done to her in the dream. She was, but there was no point in expressing it. He knew how furious she must be, and he would only laugh at her if she told him.

She watched him quietly, intently, waiting for his next move.

But he didn't move. Those hands that could dart as quickly as striking snakes rested motionlessly on his knees. His expression reminded her of the way he'd looked at her once before. The first time they'd met she'd seen the same guarded, reluctant respect in his eyes – except that then there had also been surprise.

"You're not going to scream at me? Or faint?" he said, as if offering her the standard options.

Elena was still watching him. He was much stronger than she was, and faster, but if she needed to she thought she could get to the edge of the roof before he reached her. It was a thirty foot drop if she missed the balcony, but she might decide to risk it. It all depended on Damon.

"I don't faint," she said shortly. "And why should I scream at you? We were playing a game. I was stupid that night and so I lost. You warned me in the graveyard about the consequences."

His lips parted in a quick breath and he looked away. "I may just have to make you my Queen of Shadows," he said, and, speaking almost to himself, he continued: "I've had many companions, girls as young as you and women who were the beauties of Europe. Butyou're the one I want at my side. Ruling, taking what we want when we want it. Feared and worshipped by all the weaker souls. Would that be so bad?"

"Iam one of the weaker souls," Elena said. "And you and I are enemies, Damon. We can never be anything else."

"Are you sure?" He looked at her, and she could feel the power of his mind as it touched hers, like the brush of those long fingers. But there was no dizziness, no feeling of weakness or succumbing. That afternoon she'd had a long soak, as she always did these days, in a hot bath sprinkled with dried vervain.

Damon's eyes flashed with understanding, but he took the setback with good grace. "What are you doing here?" he said casually.

It was strange, but she felt no need to lie to him. "Caroline took something that belonged to me. A diary. I came to get it back."

A new look flickered in the dark eyes. "Undoubtedly to protect my worthless brother somehow," he said, annoyed.

"Stefan isn't involved in this!"

"Oh, isn't he?" She was afraid he understood more than she meant him to. "Strange, he always seems to be involved when there's trouble. Hecreates problems. Now, if he were out of the picture…"

Elena spoke steadily. "If you hurt Stefan again I'll make you sorry. I'll find some way to make you wish you hadn't, Damon. I mean it."

"I see. Well, then, I'll just have to work onyou , won't I?"

Elena said nothing. She'd talked herself into a corner, agreeing to play this deadly game of his again. She looked away.

"I'm going to have you in the end, you know," he said softly. It was the voice he'd used at the party, when he'd said, "Easy, easy." There was no mockery or malice now; he was simply stating a fact. "By hook or by crook, as you people say – that's a nice phrase – you'll be mine before the next snow flies."

Elena tried to conceal the chill she felt, but she knew he saw anyway.

"Abusiness proposition?"

"Exactly. You came here to get a diary. But you haven't got it." He indicated her empty hands. "You failed, didn't you?" When Elena made no reply he went on. "And since you don't want my brother involved , he can't help you. But I can. And I will."

"You will?"

"Of course. For a price."

Elena stared at him. Blood flamed in her face. When she managed to get words out, they would come only in a whisper.

"What – price?"

A smile gleamed out of the darkness. "A few minutes of your time, Elena. A few drops of your blood. An hour or so spent with me, alone."

"You…" Elena couldn't find the right word. Every epithet she knew was too mild.

"I'll have it anyway, eventually," he said in a reasonable tone. "If you're honest, you'll admit that to yourself. Last time wasn't the last. Why not accept that?" His voice dropped to a warm, intimate timbre. "Remember…"

"I'd rather cut my throat," she said.

"An intriguing thought. But I can do it so much more enjoyably."

He was laughing at her. Somehow, on top of everything else today, this was too much. "You're disgusting; you know that," she said. "You're sickening." She was shaking now, and she couldn't breathe. "I'd die before I'd give in to you. I'd rather – "

She wasn't sure what made her do it. When she was with Damon a sort of instinct took over her. And at that moment, she did feel that she'd rather risk anything than let him win this time. She noticed, with half her mind, that he was sitting back, relaxed, enjoying the turn his game was taking. The other half of her mind was calculating how far the roof overhung the balcony.

"I'd rather do this," she said, and flung herself sideways.

She was right; he was off guard and couldn't move fast enough to stop her. She felt free space below her feet and spinning terror as she realized the balcony was farther back than she'd thought. She was going to miss it.

But she hadn't reckoned on Damon. His hand shot out, not quick enough to keep her on the roof, but keeping her from falling any farther. It was as if her weight was nothing to him. Reflexively, Elena grasped the shingled edge of the roof and tried to get a knee up.

"Let go of me," said Elena through her teeth. Someone was going to come out on that balcony at any second, she was sure of it. "Let go of me."

"Here and now?" Looking into those unfathomable black eyes, she realized he was serious. If she said yes he would drop her.

"It would be a fast way to end things, wouldn't it?" she said. Her heart was pounding in fear, but she refused to let him see that.

"But such a waste." With one motion, he jerked her to safety. To himself. His arms tightened around her, pressing her to the lean hardness of his body, and suddenly Elena could see nothing. She was enveloped.

Then she felt those flat muscles gathering themselves like some great cat's, and the two of them launched into space.

She was falling. She couldn't help but cling to him as the only solid thing in the rushing world around her.

Then he landed, catlike, taking the impact easily.

Stefan had done something similar once. But Stefan had not held her this way afterward, bruisingly close, with his lips almost in contact with hers.

"Think about my proposition," he said.

She could not move or look away. And this time she knew that it was no Power that he was using, but simply the wildfire attraction between them. It was useless to deny it; her body responded to his. She could feel his breath on her lips.

"I don't need you for anything," she told him.

She thought he was going to kiss her then, but he didn't. Above them there was the sound of french windows opening and an angry voice on the balcony. "Hey! What's going on? Is somebody out there?"

"This time I did you a favor," Damon said, very softly, still holding her. "Next time I'm going to collect."

She couldn't have turned her head away. If he'd kissed her then, she would have let him. But suddenly the hardness of his arms melted around her and his face seemed to blur. It was as if the darkness was taking him back into itself. Then black wings caught and beat the air and a huge crow was soaring away.

Something, a book or shoe, was hurled after it from the balcony. It missed by a yard.

"Damn birds!" said Mr. Forbes's voice from above. "They must be nesting on the roof."

Shivering, with her arms locked around her, Elena huddled in the darkness below until he went back inside.

She found Meredith and Bonnie crouching by the gate. "What took you so long?" Bonnie whispered. "We thought you were caught!"

"I almost was. I had to stay until it was safe." Elena was so used to lying about Damon that she did it now without conscious effort. "Let's go home," she whispered. "There's nothing more we can do."

"I know." For a moment Damon's proposition swam in Elena's mind. But she shook her head to clear it. "I'll think of something," she said.

She hadn't thought of anything by the next day of school. The one encouraging fact was that Caroline didn't seem to have noticed anything amiss in her room – but that wasall Elena could find to be encouraged about. There was an assembly that morning, at which it was announced that the school board had chosen Elena as the student to represent "The Spirit of Fell's Church." All through the principal's speech about it, Caroline's smile had blazed forth, triumphant and malicious.

Elena tried to ignore it. She did her best to ignore the slights and snubs that came even in the wake of the assembly, but it wasn't easy. It was never easy, and there were days when she thought she would hit someone or just start screaming, but so far she'd managed.

That afternoon, waiting for the sixth-period history class to be let out, Elena studied Tyler Smallwood. Since coming back to school, he had not addressed one word to her directly. He'd smiled as nastily as Caroline during the principal's announcement. Now, as he caught sight of Elena standing alone, he jostled Dick Carter with his elbow.

"What's that there?" he said. "A wallflower?"

Stefan, where are you? thought Elena. But she knew the answer to that. Halfway across school, in astronomy class.

Dick opened his mouth to say something, but then his expression changed. He was looking beyond Elena, down the hall. Elena turned and saw Vickie.

Vickie and Dick had been together before the Homecoming Dance. Elena supposed they still were. But Dick looked uncertain, as if he wasn't sure what to expect from the girl who was moving toward him.

There was something odd about Vickie's face, about her walk. She was moving as if her feet didn't touch the floor. Her eyes were dilated and dreamy.

"Hi there," Dick said tentatively, and he stepped in front of her. Vickie passed him without a glance and went on to Tyler. Elena watched what happened next with growing uneasiness. It should have been funny, but it wasn't.

It started with Tyler looking somewhat taken aback. Then Vickie put a hand on his chest. Tyler smiled, but there was a forced look about it. Vickie slid her hand under his jacket. Tyler's smile wavered. Vickie put her other hand on his chest. Tyler looked at Dick.

"Hey, Vickie, lighten up," said Dick hastily, but he didn't move any closer.

Vickie slid her two hands upwards, pushing Tyler's jacket off his shoulders. He tried to shrug it back on without letting go of his books or seeming too concerned. He couldn't. Vickie's fingers crept under his shirt.

"Hey, Vickie, leggo. Don't do that." But Dick remained at a safe distance. Tyler shot him an enraged glare and tried to shove Vickie away.

A noise had begun. At first it seemed to be at a frequency almost too low for human hearing, but it grew louder and louder. A growl, eerily menacing, that sent ice down Elena's spine. Tyler was looking pop-eyed with disbelief, and she soon realized why. The sound was coming from Vickie.

Then everything happened at once. Tyler was on the ground with Vickie's teeth snapping inches from his throat. Elena, all quarrels forgotten, was trying to help Dick pull her off. Tyler was howling. The history room door was open and Alaric was shouting.

"Don't hurt her! Be careful! It's epilepsy, we just need to get her lying down!"

Vickie's teeth snapped again as he reached a helpful hand into the melee. The slender girl was stronger than all of them together, and they were losing control of her. They weren't going to be able to hold her much longer. It was with intense relief that Elena heard a familiar voice at her shoulder.

"Vickie, calm down. It's all right. Just relax now.

With Stefan grasping Vickie's arm and talking to her soothingly, Elena dared to slacken her own grip. And it seemed, at first, that Stefan's strategy was working. Vickie's clawing fingers loosened, and they were able to lift her off Tyler. As Stefan kept speaking to her, she went limp and her eyes shut.

"That's good. You're feeling tired now. It's all right to go to sleep."

But then, abruptly, it stopped working, and whatever Power Stefan had been exercising over her was broken. Vickie's eyes flew open, and they bore no resemblance to the startled fawn's eyes Elena had seen in the cafeteria. They were blazing with red fury. She snarled at Stefan and burst out fighting with fresh strength.

It took five or six of them to hold her down while somebody called the police. Elena stayed where she was, talking to Vickie, sometimes yelling at her, until the police got there. None of it did any good.

Then she stepped back and saw the crowd of onlookers for the first time. Bonnie was in the front row, staring open-mouthed. So was Caroline.

"Whathappened !" said Bonnie as the officials carried Vickie away.

Elena, panting gently, pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "She went crazy and tried to undress Tyler."

Bonnie pursed her lips. "Well, she'd have to be crazy towant to, wouldn't she?" And she threw a smirk over her shoulder directly at Caroline.

Elena's knees were rubbery and her hands were shaking. She felt an arm go around her, and she leaned against Stefan gratefully. Then she looked up at him.

"Epilepsy?" she said with disbelieving scorn.

"I think class was just dismissed," Stefan said. "Let's go."

They walked toward the boarding house in silence, each lost in thought. Elena frowned, and several times glanced over at Stefan, but it wasn't until they were alone in his room that she spoke.

"Stefan, what is all this? What's happening to Vickie?" "That's what I've been wondering. There's only one explanation I can think of, and it's that she's still under attack."

"You mean Damon's still – oh, my God! Oh, Stefan, I should have given her some of the vervain. I should have realized…"

"It wouldn't have made any difference. Believe me." She had turned toward the door as if to go after Vickie that minute, but he pulled her gently back. "Some people are more easily influenced than others, Elena. Vickie's will was never very strong. It belongs to him, now."

Slowly, Elena sat down. "Then there's nothing anyone can do? But, Stefan, will she become – like you and Damon?"

"It depends." His tone was bleak. "It's not just a matter of how much blood she loses. She needshis blood in her veins to make the change complete. Otherwise, she'll just end up like Mr. Tanner. Drained, used up. Dead."

Elena took a long breath. There was something else she wanted to ask him about, something she'd wanted to ask him for a long time. "Stefan, when you spoke to Vickie back there, I thought it was working. You were using your Powers on her, weren't you?"

"Yes."

"But then she just went crazy again. What I mean is… Stefan, youare okay, aren't you? Your Powers have come back?"

He didn't answer. But that was answer enough for her. "Stefan, why didn't you tell me? What's wrong?"

She went around and knelt by him so that he had to look at her.

"It's taking me a while to recover, that's all. Don't worry about it."

"Iam worried. Isn't there anything we can do?"

"No," he said. But his eyes dropped.

Comprehension swept through Elena. "Oh," she whispered, sitting back. Then she reached for him again, trying to get hold of his hands. "Stefan, listen to me – "

"Elena,no. Don't you see? It's dangerous, dangerous for both of us, but especially for you. It could kill

"Only if you lose control," she said. "And you won't. Kiss me."

"No," said Stefan again. He added, less harshly, "I'll go out hunting tonight as soon as it's dark."

"Is that the same?" she said. She knew it wasn't. It was human blood that gave Power. "Oh, Stefan, please; don't you see I want to? Don'tyou want to?"

"That isn't fair," he said, his eyes tortured. "You know it isn't, Elena. You know how much – " He turned away from her again, his hands clenched into fists.

"Then why not? Stefan, I need…" She couldn't finish. She couldn't explain to him what she needed; it was a need for connection to him, for closeness. She needed to remember what it was like with him, to wipe out the memory of dancing in her dream and of Damon's arms locked around her. "I need us to be together again," she whispered.

Stefan was still turned away, and he shook his head.

"All right," Elena whispered, but she felt a wash of grief and fear as defeat seeped into her bones. Most of the fear was for Stefan, who was vulnerable without his Powers, vulnerable enough that he might be hurt by the ordinary citizens of Fell's Church. But some of it was for herself.

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