"Who-? Oh, it's you!" Bonnie said, starting at the touch on her elbow. "You scared me. I didn't hear you come up."
He'd have to be more careful, Stefan realized. In the few days he'd been away from school, he'd gotten out of the habit of walking and moving like a human and fallen back into the noiseless, perfectly controlled stride of the hunter. "Sorry," he said, as they walked side by side down the corridor.
"S'okay," said Bonnie with a brave attempt at nonchalance. But her brown eyes were wide and rather fixed. "So what are you doing here today? Meredith and I came by the boardinghouse this morning to check on Mrs. Flowers, but nobody answered the door. And I didn't see you in biology."
"I came this afternoon. I'm back at school. For as long as it takes to find what we're looking for anyway."
"To spy on Alaric, you mean," Bonnie muttered. "I told Elena yesterday just to leave him to me. Oops," she added, as a couple of passing juniors stared at her. She rolled her eyes at Stefan. By mutual consent, they turned off into a side corridor and made for an empty stairwell. Bonnie leaned against the wall with a groan of relief.
"I've got to remember not to say her name," she said pathetically, "but it's so hard. My mother asked me how I felt this morning and I almost told her, 'fine,' since I saw Elena last night. I don't know how you two kept-you know what-a secret so long."
Stefan felt a grin tugging at his lips in spite of himself. Bonnie was like a six-week-old kitten, all charm and no inhibitions. She always said exactly what she was thinking at the moment, even if it completely contradicted what she'd just said the moment before, but everything she did came from the heart. "You're standing in a deserted hallway with a you know what right now," he reminded her devilishly.
"Ohhh." Her eyes widened again. "But you wouldn't, would you?" she added, relieved. "Because Elena would kill you... Oh, dear." Searching for another topic, she gulped and said, "So-so how did things go last night?"
Stefan's mood darkened immediately. "Not so good. Oh, Elena's all right; she's sleeping safely." Before he could go on, his ears picked up footfalls at the end of the corridor. Three senior girls were passing by, and one broke away from the group at the sight of Stefan and Bonnie. Sue Carson's face was pale and her eyes were red-rimmed, but she smiled at them.
Bonnie was full of concern. "Sue, how are you? How's Doug?"
"I'm okay. He's okay, too, or at least he's going to be. Stefan, I wanted to talk to you," she added in a rush. "I know my dad thanked you yesterday for helping Doug the way you did, but I wanted to thank you, too. I mean, I know that people in town have been pretty horrible to you and-well, I'm just surprised you cared enough to help at all. But I'm glad. My mom says you saved Doug's life. And so, I just wanted to thank you, and to say I'm sorry-about everything."
"That's all right," he said. "How's Chelsea today?"
"She's at the pound. They're holding the dogs in quarantine there, all the ones they could round up." Sue blotted her eyes and straightened, and Stefan relaxed, seeing that the danger was over. An awkward silence descended.
"Well," said Bonnie to Sue at last, "have you heard what the school board decided about the Snow Dance?"
"I heard they met this morning and they've pretty much decided to let us have it. Somebody said they were talking about a police guard, though. Oh, there's the late bell. We'd better get to history before Alaric hands us all demerits."
"We're coming in a minute," Stefan said. He added casually, "When is this Snow Dance?"
"It's the thirteenth; Friday night, you know," Sue said, and then winced. "Oh my God, Friday the thirteenth. I didn't even think about that. But it reminds me that there was one other thing I wanted to tell you. This morning I took my name out of the running for snow queen. It-it just seemed right, somehow. That's all." Sue hurried away, almost running.
Stefan's mind was racing. "Bonnie, what is this Snow Dance?"
"Well, it's the Christmas dance really, only we have a snow queen instead of a Christmas queen. After what happened at Founders' Day, they were thinking of canceling it, and then with the dogs yesterday-but it sounds like they're going to have it after all."
"On Friday the thirteenth," Stefan said grimly.
"Yes." Bonnie was looking scared again, making herself small and inconspicuous.
"Stefan, don't look that way; you're frightening me. What's wrong? What do you think will happen at the dance?"
"I don't know." But something would, Stefan was thinking. Fell's Church hadn't had one public celebration that had escaped being visited by the Other Power, and this would probably be the last festivity of the year. But there was no point in talking about it now. "Come on," he said. "We're really late."
He was right. Alaric Saltzman was at the chalkboard when they walked in, as he had been the first day he'd appeared in the history classroom. If he was surprised at seeing them late, or at all, he covered it faultlessly, giving one of his friendliest smiles.
So you're the one who's hunting the hunter, Stefan thought, taking his seat and studying the man before him. But are you anything more than that? Elena's Other Power maybe?
Elena. Stefan's hand clenched under his desk, and a slow ache woke in his chest. He hadn't meant to think about her. The only way he had gotten through the last five days was by keeping her at the edge of his mind, not letting her image any closer. But then of course the effort of holding her away at a safe distance took up most of his time and energy. And this was the worst place of all to be, in a classroom where he couldn't care less about what was being taught. There was nothing to do but think here.
He made himself breathe slowly, calmly. She was well; that was the important thing. Nothing else really mattered. But even as he told himself this, jealousy bit into him like the thongs of a whip. Because whenever he thought about Elena now, he had to think about him.
About Damon, who was free to come and go as he liked. Who might even be with Elena this minute.
Anger burned in Stefan's mind, bright and cold, mingling with the hot ache in his chest. He still wasn't convinced that Damon wasn't the one who had casually thrown him, bleeding and unconscious, into an abandoned well shaft to die. And he would take Elena's idea about the Other Power much more seriously if he was completely sure that Damon hadn't chased Elena to her death. Damon was evil; he had no mercy and no scruples...
And what's he done that I haven't done? Stefan asked himself heavily, for the hundredth time. Nothing.
Stefan had tried to kill. He'd meant to kill Tyler. At the memory, the cold fire of his anger toward Damon was doused, and he glanced instead toward a desk at the back of the room.
It was empty. Though Tyler had gotten out of the hospital the day before, he hadn't returned to school. Still, there should be no danger of his remembering anything from that grisly afternoon. The subliminal suggestion to forget should hold for quite a while, as long as no one messed with Tyler's mind.
He suddenly became aware that he was staring at Tyler's empty desk with narrow, brooding eyes. As he looked away, he caught the glance of someone who'd been watching him do it.
Matt turned quickly and bent over his history book, but not before Stefan saw his expression.
December 5-I don't know what time, probably early afternoon.
Damon got you back for me this morning. Stefan said he didn't want me going into Alaric's attic again. This is Stefan's pen I'm using. I don't own anything anymore, or at least I can't get at any of my own things, and most of them Aunt Judith would miss if I took them. I'm sitting right now in a barn behind the boardinghouse. I can't go where people sleep, you know, unless I've been invited in. I guess animals don't count, because there are some rats sleeping here under the hay and an owl in the rafters. At the moment, we're ignoring each other.
I'm trying very hard not to have hysterics.
I thought writing might help. Something normal, something familiar. Except that nothing in my life is normal anymore.
Damon says I'll get used to it faster if I throw my old life away and embrace the new one. He seems to think it's inevitable that I turn out like him. He says I was born to be a hunter and there's no point in doing things halfway.
I hunted a deer last night. A stag, because it was making the most noise, clashing its antlers against tree branches, challenging other males. I drank its blood.
When I look over this diary, all I can see is that I was searching for something, for someplace to belong. But this isn't it. This new life isn't it. I'm afraid of what I'll become if I do start to belong here.
Oh, God, I'm frightened.
The barn owl is almost pure white, especially when it spreads its wings so you can see the underside. From the back it looks more gold. It has just a little gold around the face. It's staring at me right now because I'm making noises, trying not to cry.
It's funny that I can still cry. I guess it's witches that can't.
It's started snowing outside. I'm pulling my cloak up around me.
Elena tucked the little book close to her body and drew the soft dark velvet of the cloak up to her chin. The barn was utterly silent, except for the minute breathing of the animals that slept there. Outside the snow drifted down just as soundlessly, blanketing the world in muffling stillness. Elena stared at it with unseeing eyes, scarcely noticing the tears that ran down her cheeks.
"And could Bonnie McCullough and Caroline Forbes please stay after class a moment," Alaric said as the last bell rang.
Stefan frowned, a frown that deepened as he saw Vickie Bennett hovering outside the open door of the history room, her eyes shy and frightened. "I'll be right outside," he said meaningfully to Bonnie, who nodded. He added a warning lift of his eyebrows, and she responded with a virtuous look. Catch me saying anything I'm not supposed to, the look said.
Vickie Bennett was entering as he exited, and he had to step out of her way. But that took him right into the path of Matt, who'd come out the other door and was trying to get down the corridor as fast as possible.
Stefan grabbed his arm without thinking. "Matt, wait."
"Let go of me." Matt's fist came up. He looked at it in apparent surprise, as if not sure what he should be so mad about. But every muscle in his body was fighting Stefan's grip.
"I just want to talk to you. Just for a minute, all right?"
"I don't have a minute," Matt said, and at last his eyes, a lighter, less complicated blue than Elena's, met Stefan's. But there was a blankness in the depths of them that reminded Stefan of the look of someone who'd been hypnotized, or who was under the influence of some Power.
Only it was no Power except Matt's own mind, he realized abruptly. This was what the human brain did to itself when faced with something it simply couldn't deal with. Matt had shut down, turned off.
Testing, Stefan said, "About what happened Saturday night-"
"I don't know what you're talking about. Look, I said I had to go, damn it." Denial was like a fortress behind Matt's eyes. But Stefan had to try again.
"I don't blame you for being mad. If I were you, I'd be furious. And I know what it's like not to want to think, especially when thinking can drive you crazy." Matt was shaking his head, and Stefan looked around the hallway. It was almost empty, and desperation made him willing to take a risk. He lowered his voice. "But maybe you'd at least like to know that Elena's awake, and she's much-"
"Elena's dead!" Matt shouted, drawing the attention of everyone in the corridor. "And I told you to let go of me!" he added, oblivious of their audience, and shoved Stefan hard. It was so unexpected that Stefan stumbled back against the lockers, almost ending up sprawled on the ground. He stared at Matt, but Matt never even glanced back as he took off down the hallway.
Stefan spent the rest of the time until Bonnie emerged just staring at the wall. There was a poster there for the Snow Dance, and he knew every inch of it by the time the girls came out.
Despite everything Caroline had tried to do to him and Elena, Stefan found he couldn't summon up any hatred of her. Her auburn hair looked faded, her face pinched. Instead of being willowy, her posture just looked wilted, he thought, watching her go.
"Yes, of course. Alaric just knows we three-Vickie, Caroline, and I-have been through a lot, and he wants us to know that he supports us," Bonnie said, but even her dogged optimism about the history teacher sounded a little forced. "None of us told him about anything, though. He's having another get-together at his house next week," she added brightly.
Wonderful, thought Stefan. Normally he might have said something about it, but at that moment he was distracted. "There's Meredith," he said.
"She must be waiting for us-no, she's going down the history wing," Bonnie said. "That's funny, I told her I'd meet her out here."
It was more than funny, thought Stefan. He'd caught only a glimpse of her as she turned the corner, but that glimpse stuck in his mind. The expression on Meredith's face had been calculating, watchful, and her step had been stealthy. As if she were trying to do something without being seen.
"She'll come back in a minute when she sees we're not down there," Bonnie said, but Meredith didn't come back in a minute, or two, or three. In fact, it was almost ten minutes before she appeared, and then she looked startled to see Stefan and Bonnie waiting for her.
"Sorry, I got held up," she said coolly, and Stefan had to admire her self-possession. But he wondered what was behind it, and only Bonnie was in a mood to chat as the three of them left school.
"But last time you used fire," Elena said.
"That was because we were looking for Stefan, for a specific person," Bonnie replied. "This time we're trying to predict the future. If it was just your personal future I was trying to predict, I'd look in your palm, but we're trying to find out something general."
Meredith entered the room, carefully balancing a china bowl full to the brim with water. In her other hand, she held a candle. "I've got the stuff," she said.
"Water was sacred to the Druids," Bonnie explained, as Meredith placed the dish on the floor and the three girls sat around it.
"Apparently, everything was sacred to the Druids," said Meredith.
"Shh. Now, put the candle in the candlestick and light it. Then I'm going to pour melted wax into the water, and the shapes it makes will tell me the answers to your questions. My grandmother used melted lead, and she said her grandmother used melted silver, but she told me wax would do." When Meredith had lit the candle, Bonnie glanced at it sideways and took a deep breath. "I'm getting scareder and scareder to do this," she said.
"You don't have to," Elena said softly.
"I know. But I want to-this once. Besides, it's not these kind of rituals that scare me; it's getting taken over that's so awful. I hate it. It's like somebody else getting into my body."
"Anyway, here goes. Turn down the lights, Meredith. Give me a minute to get attuned and then ask your questions."
In the silence of the dim room Elena watched the candlelight flickering over Bonnie's lowered eyelashes and Meredith's sober face. She looked down at her own hands in her lap, pale against the blackness of the sweater and leggings Meredith had
lent her. Then she looked at the dancing flame.
"All right," Bonnie said softly and took the candle.
Elena's fingers twined together, clenching hard, but she spoke in a low voice so as not to break the atmosphere. "Who is the Other Power in Fell's Church?"
Bonnie tilted the candle so that the flame licked up its sides. Hot wax streamed down like water into the bowl and formed round globules there.
"I was afraid of that," Bonnie murmured. "That's no answer, nothing. Try a different question."
Disappointed, Elena sat back, fingernails biting into her palms. It was Meredith who spoke.
"Can we find this Other Power if we look? And can we defeat it?"
"That's two questions," Bonnie said under her breath as she tilted the candle again. This time the wax formed a circle, a lumpy white ring.
"That's unity! The symbol for people joining hands. It means we can do it if we stick together."
Elena's head jerked up. Those were almost the same words she'd said to Stefan and Damon. Bonnie's eyes were shining with excitement, and they smiled at each other.
"Watch out! You're still pouring," Meredith said.
Bonnie quickly righted the candle, looking into the bowl again. The last spill of wax had formed a thin, straight line.
"That's a sword," she said slowly. "It means sacrifice. We can do it if we stick together, but not without sacrifice."
"What kind of sacrifice?" asked Elena.
"I don't know," Bonnie said, her face troubled. "That's all I can tell you this time." She stuck the candle back in the candleholder.
"Whew," said Meredith, as she got up to turn on the lights. Elena stood, too.
"Well, at least we know we can beat it," she said, tugging up the leggings, which were too long for her. She caught a glimpse of herself in Meredith's mirror. She certainly didn't look like Elena Gilbert the high school fashion plate anymore.
Dressed all in black like this, she looked pale and dangerous, like a sheathed sword. Her hair fell haphazardly around her shoulders.
certainly didn't look like Elena Gilbert the high school fashion plate anymore. Dressed all in black like this, she looked pale and dangerous, like a sheathed sword. Her hair fell haphazardly around her shoulders.
"You could go somewhere else," Bonnie suggested. "I mean, after this is all over, you could finish the school year someplace where nobody knows you. Like Stefan did."
"No, I don't think so." Elena was in a strange mood tonight, after spending the day alone in the barn watching the snow. "Bonnie," she said abruptly, "would you look at my palm again? I want you to tell my future, my personal future."
"I don't even know if I remember all the stuff my grandmother taught me... but, all right, I'll try," Bonnie relented. "There'd just better be no more dark strangers on the way, that's all. You've already got all you can handle." She giggled as she took Elena's outstretched hand. "Remember when Caroline asked what you could do with two? I guess you're finding out now, huh?"
"Just read my palm, will you?"
"All right, this is your life line-" Bonnie's stream of patter broke off almost before it was started. She stared at Elena's hand, fear and apprehension in her face. "It should go all the way down to here," she said. "But it's cut off so short..."
She and Elena looked at each other without speaking for a moment, while Elena felt that same apprehension solidify inside herself. Then Meredith broke in.
"Well, naturally it's short," she said. "It just means what happened already, when Elena drowned."
"Yes, of course, that must be it," Bonnie murmured. She let go of Elena's hand and Elena slowly drew back. "That's it, all right," Bonnie said in a stronger voice.
Elena was gazing into the mirror again. The girl who gazed back was beautiful, but there was a sad wisdom about her eyes that the old Elena Gilbert had never had. She realized that Bonnie and Meredith were looking at her.
"That must be it," she said lightly, but her smile didn't touch her eyes.