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The Struggle (Chapter 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.

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. Butshe 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 hewas 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 intomy 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.

"Sothat'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."

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 onebelieves 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."

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, Idon'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, 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 shehad 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. Shehad 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!"

"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. "Andyou ," 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 anyonewant 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; Iknow. 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 thekiller ? The guy thatkissed 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.

"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 whatcan 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 beingweird , exactly," Meredith said. Then she added, "Wait a minute."

Vickie was unbuttoning her cardigan. But it was theway 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

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 itoff! Take itoff!" 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 shou lders. 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.

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