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The Struggle (Chapter Ten)

The bell rang. There was no time to go back to the cafeteria and tell Bonnie and Meredith. Elena set off for her next class, past the averted faces and hostile eyes that were becoming all too familiar these days. It was hard, in history class, not to stare at Caroline, not to let Caroline know she knew. Alaric asked about Matt and Stefan being absent for the second day in a row, and Elena shrugged, feeling exposed and on display. She didn't trust this man with the boyish smile and the hazel eyes and the thirst for knowledge about Mr. Tanner's death. And Bonnie, who simply gazed at Alaric soulfully, was no help at all.

After class she caught a scrap of Sue Carson's conversation. "… he's on vacation from college – I forget exactly where…"

Elena had had enough of discreet silence. She spun around and spoke directly to Sue and the girl Sue was talking to, bursting uninvited into their discussion.

"If I were you," she said to Sue, "I would keep away from Damon. I mean that."

There was startled, embarrassed laughter. Sue was one of the few people at school who hadn't shunned Elena, and now she was looking as if she wished she had.

"You mean," said the other girl hesitantly, "because he's yours, too? Or – "

Elena's own laughter was harsh. "I mean because he'sdangerous ," she said. "And I'm not joking."

They just looked at her. Elena saved them the further embarrassment of having to reply or to get tactfully groupies and headed for Meredith's locker.

"Where are we going? I thought we were going to talk to Caroline."

"Not anymore," Elena said. "Wait until we get home. Then I'll tell you why."

"I can't believe it," said Bonnie an hour later. "I mean, I believe it, but I can'tbelieve it. Not even of Caroline."

"It's Tyler," Elena said. "He's the one with the big plans. So much for men not being interested in diaries." "Actually, we should thank him," said Meredith. "Because of him at least we have until Founders' Day to do something about it.Why did you say it was supposed to be on Founders' Day, Elena?"

"Tyler has something against the Fells."

"But they're all dead," said Bonnie.

"Well, that doesn't seem to matter to Tyler. I remember him talking about it in the graveyard, too, when we were looking at their tomb. He thinks they stole his ancestors' rightful place as the town's founders or something."

"Elena," Meredith said seriously, "is there anything else in the diary that could hurt Stefan? Besides the thing about the old man, I mean."

"Isn't that enough?" With those steady, dark eyes on her, Elena felt discomfort flutter between her ribs. What was Meredith asking?

"Enough to get Stefan run out of town like they said," agreed Bonnie.

"Enough that we have to get the diary back from Caroline," Elena said. "The only question is, how?"

"Caroline said she had it hidden somewhere safe. That probably means her house." Meredith chewed her lip thoughtfully. "She's got just the one brother in eighth grade, right? And her mom doesn't work, but she goes shopping in Roanoke a lot. Do they still have a maid?"

"Why?" said Bonnie. "What difference does it make?"

"Well, we don't want anybody walking in while we're burglarizing the house."

"While we'rewhat ?" Bonnie's voice rose to a squeak. "You can't be serious!"

"What are we supposed to do, just sit back and wait until Founders' Day, and let her read Elena's diary in front of the town?She stole it from your house. We've just got to steal it back," Meredith said, maddeningly calm.

"We'll get caught. We'll get expelled from school – if we don't end up going to jail." Bonnie turned to Elena in appeal. "Tell her, Elena."

Besides, it seemed such a… aviolation , to go into someone's house when they were not there, to search their possessions. She would hate it if someone did that to her.

But, of course, someone had. Caroline had violated Bonnie's house, and right now had Elena's most private possession in her hands.

"Let's do it," Elena said quietly. "But let's be careful."

"Can't we talk about this?" said Bonnie weakly, looking from Meredith's determined face to Elena's.

"There's nothing to talk about. You're coming," Meredith told her. "You promised," she added, as Bonnie took a breath to object afresh. And she held up her index finger.

"The blood oath was only to help Elenaget Stefan!" Bonnie cried.

"Think again," said Meredith. "You swore you would do whatever Elena asked in relation to Stefan.

There wasn't anything about a time limit or about 'only until Elena gets him.' "

Bonnie's mouth dropped open. She looked at Elena, who was almost laughing in spite of herself. "It's true," Elena said solemnly. "And you said it yourself: 'Swearing with blood means you have to stick to your oath no matter what happens.' "

Bonnie shut her mouth and thrust her chin out. "Right," she said grimly. "Now I'm stuck for the rest of my life doing whatever Elena wants me to do about Stefan. Wonderful."

"This is the last thing I'll ever ask," Elena said. "And I promise that. I swear – "

"Don't!" said Meredith, suddenly serious. "Don't, Elena. You might be sorry later."

"Now you're taking up prophecy, too?" Elena said. And then she asked, "So how are we going to get hold of Caroline's house key for an hour or so?"

November9,Saturday

Dear Diary,

I'm sorry it's been so long. Lately I've been too busy or too depressed – or both – to write you.

Besides, with everything that's happened I'm almost afraid to keep a diary at all anymore. But I need someone to turn to, because right now there's not a single human being, not a single person on earth, that I'm not keeping something from.

Bonnie and Meredith can't know the truth about Stefan. Stefan can't know the truth about Damon. Aunt Judith can't know about anything. Bonnie and Meredith know about Caroline and the diary; Stefan doesn't.Stefan knows about the vervain I use every day now, Bonnie and Meredith don't. Even My life is full of lies right now, and I need someoneto be completely honest with. I'm going to hide this diary under the loose floorboard in the closet, so that no one will find it even if I drop dead and they clean out my room. Maybe one of Margaret's grandchildren will be playing in there someday, and will pry up the board and pull it out, but until then, nobody. This diary is my last secret.

I don't know why I'm thinking about death and dying. That's Bonnie's craze; she's the one who thinks it would be so romantic. I know what it's really like; there was nothing romantic about it when Mom and Dad died. Just the worst feelings in the world. I want to live for a good long time, marry Stefan, and be happy. And there's no reason why I can't, once all these problems are behind us.

Except that there are times when I get scared and I don't believe that. And there are little things that shouldn't matter, but they bother me. Like why Stefan still wears Catherine's ring around his neck, even though I know he loves me. Like why he's never said he loves me, even though I know it's true.

It doesn't matter. Everything will work out. It has to work out. And then we'll be together and be happy. There's no reason why we can't. There's no reason why we can't. There's no reason.

Elena stopped writing, trying to keep the letters on the page in focus. But they only blurred further, and she shut the book before a betraying teardrop could fall on the ink. Then she went over to the closet, pried up the loose board with a nail file, and put the diary there.

She had the nail file in her pocket a week later as the three of them, she and Bonnie and Meredith, stood outside Caroline's back door.

"Hurry up," hissed Bonnie in agony, looking around the yard as if she expected something to jump out at them. "Come on, Meredith!"

"There," said Meredith, as the key finally went the right way into the dead bolt lock and the doorknob yielded to her turning fingers. "We're in."

"Are you surethey're not in? Elena, what if they come back early? Why couldn't we do this in the daytime, at least?"

"Bonnie, will you getinside ? We've been through all this. The maid's always here in the daytime. And they won't be back early tonight unless somebody gets sick at Chez Louis. Now, come on!" said Elena.

"Nobody would dare to get sick at Mr. Forbes's birthday dinner," Meredith said comfortingly to Bonnie as the smaller girl stepped in. "We're safe."

"If they've got enough money to go to expensive restaurants, you'd think they could afford to leave a few lights on," said Bonnie, refusing to be comforted.

Privately, Elena agreed with this. It was strange and disconcerting to be wandering through someone else's house in the dark, and her heart pounded chokingly as they went up the stairs. Her palm, clutching "It's got to be in her bedroom," she said.

Caroline's window faced the street, which meant they had to be even more careful not to show a light there. Elena swung the tiny beam of the flashlight around with a feeling of dismay. It was one thing to plan to search someone's room, to picture efficiently and methodically going through drawers. It was another thing actually to be standing here, surrounded by what seemed like thousands of places to hide something, and feeling afraid to touch anything in case Caroline noticed it had been disturbed.

The other two girls were also standing still.

"Maybe we should just go home," Bonnie said quietly. And Meredith did not contradict her.

"We have to try. At least try," said Elena, hearing how tinny and hollow her voice sounded. She eased open a drawer on the highboy and shone the light onto dainty piles of lacy underwear. A moment's poking through them assured her there was nothing like a book there. She straightened the piles and shut the drawer again. Then she let out her breath.

"It's not that hard," she said. "What we need to do is divide up the room and then searcheverything in our section, every drawer, every piece of furniture, every object big enough to hide a diary in."

She assigned herself the closet, and the first thing she did was prod at the floorboards with her nail file. But Caroline's boards all seemed to be secure and the walls of the closet sounded solid. Rummaging through Caroline's clothes she found several things she'd lent the other girl last year. She was tempted to take them back, but of course she couldn't. A search of Caroline's shoes and purses revealed nothing, even when she dragged a chair over so that she could investigate the top shelf of the closet thoroughly.

Meredith was sitting on the floor examining a pile of stuffed animals that had been relegated to a chest with other childish mementos. She ran her long sensitive fingers over each, checking for slits in the material. When she reached a fluffy poodle, she paused.

"I gave this to her," she whispered. "I think for her tenth birthday. I thought she'd thrown it away."

Elena couldn't see her eyes; Meredith's own flashlight was turned on the poodle. But she knew how Meredith was feeling.

"I tried to make up with her," she said softly. "I did, Meredith, at the Haunted House. But she as good as told me she would never forgive me for taking Stefan from her. I wish things could be different, but she won't let them be."

"So now it's war."

"So now it's war," said Elena, flat and final. She watched as Meredith put the poodle aside and picked up the next animal. Then she turned back to her own search.

But she had no better luck with the dresser than she had with the closet. And with every moment that passed she felt more uneasy, more certain that they were about to hear a car pulling into the Forbes' driveway.

"I've got it. Elena, it's a diary!" Relief swooped through Elena then, and she felt like a crumpled piece of paper being straightened and smoothed. She could move again. Breathing was wonderful. She'd known, she'd known all along that nothingreally terrible could happen to Stefan. Life couldn't be that cruel, not to Elena Gilbert. They were all safe now.

But Meredith's voice was puzzled. "It's a diary. But it's green, not blue. It's the wrong one."

"What?" Elena snatched the little book, shining her light on it, trying to make the emerald green of the cover change into sapphire blue. It didn't work. This diary was almost exactly like hers, but it wasn't hers. "It's Caroline's," she said stupidly, still not wanting to believe it.

Bonnie and Meredith crowded close. They all looked at the closed book, and then at one another.

"There might be clues," said Elena slowly.

"It's only fair," agreed Meredith. But it was Bonnie who actually took the diary and opened it.

Elena peered over her shoulder at Caroline's spiky back-slanted writing, so different from the block letters of the purple notes. At first her eyes wouldn't focus, but then a name leapt out at her.Elena. "Wait, what's that?"

Bonnie, who was the only one actually in a position to read more than one or two words, was silent a moment, her lips moving. Then she snorted.

"Listen to this," she said, and read: " 'Elena's the most selfish person I've ever known. Everyone thinks she's so together, but it's really just coldness. It's sickening the way people suck up to her, never realizing that she doesn't give a damn about anyone or anything except Elena.' "

"Carolinesays that? She should talk!" But Elena could feel heat in her face. It was, practically, what Matt had said about her when she was after Stefan.

"Go on, there's more," said Meredith, poking at Bonnie, who continued in an offended voice.

" 'Bonnie's almost as bad these days, always trying to make herself important. The newest thing is pretending she's psychic so people will pay attention to her. If she wasreally psychic she'd figure out that Elena is just using her.

There was a heavy pause, and then Elena said, "Is that all?" "No, there's a bit about Meredith. 'Meredith doesn't do anything to stop it. In fact, Meredith doesn'tdo anything; she just watches. It's as if she can't act; she can onlyreact to things. Besides, I've heard my parents talking about her family – no wonder she never mentions them.' What's that supposed to mean?"

"Try around October eighteenth. That was when it was stolen," said Elena, putting her questions aside. She'd ask Meredith about it later.

There was no entry for October eighteenth or the weekend after; in fact, there were only a few entries for the following weeks. None of them mentioned the diary.

"Well, that's it then," said Meredith, sitting back. "This book is useless. Unless we want to blackmailher with it. You know, like we won't show hers if she won't show yours."

It was a tempting idea, but Bonnie spotted the flaw. "There's nothing bad about Caroline in here; it's all just complaints about other people. Mostly us. I'll bet Caroline wouldlove to have it read out loud in front of the whole school. It'd make her day."

"So what do we do with it?"

"Put it back," said Elena tiredly. She swung her light around the room, which seemed to her eyes to be filled with subtle differences from when they'd come in. "We'll just have to keep on pretending we don't know she has my diary, and hope for another chance."

"All right," said Bonnie, but she went on thumbing through the little book, occasionally giving vent to an indignant snort or hiss. "Will you listen to this!" she exclaimed.

"There isn't time," Elena said. She would have said something else, but at that moment Meredith spoke, her tone commanding everyone's immediate attention.

"A car."

It took only a second to ascertain that the vehicle was pulling up into the Forbes' driveway. Bonnie's eyes and mouth were wide and round and she seemed to be paralyzed, kneeling by the bed.

"Go! Go on," said Elena, snatching the di-ary from her. "Turn the flashlights off and get out the back door."

They were already moving, Meredith urging Bonnie forward. Elena dropped to her knees and lifted the bedspread, pulling up at Caroline's mattress. With her other hand she pushed the diary forward, wedging it between the mattress and the dust ruffle. The thinly covered box springs bit into her arm from below, but even worse was the weight of the queen-size mattress bearing down from above. She gave the book a few more nudges with her fingertips and then pulled her arm out, tugging the bedspread back in place.

She gave one wild glance back at the room as she left; there was no time to fix anything more now. As she moved swiftly and silently toward the stairs, she heard a key in the front door.

What followed was a sort of dreadful game of tag. Elena knew they were not deliberately chasing her, but the Forbes family seemed determined to corner her in their house. She turned back the way she had come as voices and lights materialized in the hall as they headed up the stairs. She fled from them into the last doorway down the hall, and they seemed to follow. They moved across the landing; they were right outside the master bedroom. She turned toward the adjoining bathroom, but then saw lights spring to life She was trapped. At any moment Caroline's parents might come in. She saw the french windows leading to a balcony and made her decision in that same instant.

Outside, the air was cool, and her panting breath showed faintly. Yellow light burst forth from the room beside her, and she huddled even farther to the left, keeping out of its path. Then, the sound she had been dreading came with terrible clarity: the snick of a door handle, followed by a billowing of curtains inward as the french windows opened.

She looked around frantically. It was too far to jump to the ground, and there was nothing to grab hold of to climb down. That left only the roof, but there was nothing to climb up, either. Still, some instinct made her try, and she was on the balcony railing and groping for a handhold above even as a shadow appeared on the filmy curtains. A hand parted them, a figure began to emerge, and then Elena felt something clasping her own hand, locking on her wrist and hauling her upwards. Automatically, she boosted with her feet and felt herself scrambling onto the shingled roof. Trying to calm her ragged breath, she looked over gratefully to see who her rescuer was – and froze.

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