Bonnie winced at the nasty metalic taste in her mouth and blinked several times, until the room around her came back into focus. "Ugh," she said. "I hate doing that."
Everyone was staring at her, their faces white and shocked.
"What?" she said uneasily. "What'd I say?"
Elena was sitting very still . "You said it was my fault," she said slowly. "Whatever is coming after us, I brought it here."
Stefan reached out to cover her hand with his own. Unbidden, the meanest, narrowest part of Bonnie's mind thought wearily, Of course. It's always about Elena, isn't it?
Meredith and Matt filled Bonnie in on the rest of what she'd said in her trance, but their eyes kept returning to Elena's stricken face, and as soon as they finished telling her what she'd missed, they turned away from Bonnie, back to Elena.
"We need to make a plan," Meredith said to her softly.
"We'll all want some refreshment," Mrs. Flowers said, rising to her feet, and Bonnie followed her into the kitchen, eager to escape the tension of the room.
She wasn't really a plan girl, anyway, she told herself. She'd made her contribution just by being the vision girl. Elena and Meredith were the ones everyone looked to for making the decisions.
But it wasn't fair, was it? She wasn't a fool, despite the fact that her friends al treated her like the baby of the group. Everyone thought Elena and Meredith were so clever and so strong, but Bonnie had saved the day again and again - not that anyone ever remembered that. She ran her tongue along the edges of her teeth, trying to scrape off the nasty sour taste still in her mouth.
Mrs. Flowers had decided that what the group needed to soothe them was some of her special elder-flower lemonade. While she filled the glasses with ice, poured the drinks, and set them out on a tray, Bonnie watched her restlessly. There was a rough, empty feeling inside Bonnie, like something was missing. It wasn't fair, she thought again. None of them appreciated her or realized al she'd done for them.
"Mrs. Flowers," she said suddenly. "How do you talk to your mother?"
Mrs. Flowers turned to her, surprised. "Why, my dear,"
she said, "it's very easy to speak to ghosts, if they want to speak to you, or if they are the spirits of someone you loved. Ghosts, you see, have not left our plane but stay close to us."
"But still ," Bonnie pressed on, "you can do more than that, a lot more." She pictured Mrs. Flowers, young again, eyes flashing, hair flying, fighting the kitsune's malevolent Power with an equal Power of her own. "You're a very powerful witch."
Mrs. Flowers's expression was reserved. "It's kind of you to say so, dear."
Bonnie twirled a ringlet of her hair around one finger anxiously, weighing her next words. "Well... if you would, of course - only if you have time - I'd like you to train me. Whatever you'd be willing to teach me. I can see things and I've gotten better at that, but I'd like to learn everything, anything else you can show me. Divining, and about herbs. Protection spells. The works, I guess. I feel like there's so much I don't know, and I think I might have talent, you know?
I hope so, anyway."
Mrs. Flowers looked at her appraisingly for one long moment and then nodded once more.
"I wil teach you," she said. "With pleasure. You possess great natural talent."
"Really?" Bonnie said shyly. A warm bubble of happiness rose inside her, filling the emptiness that had engulfed her just moments ago.
Then she cleared her throat and added, as casual y as she could manage, "And I was wondering... can you talk to anyone who's dead? Or just your mother?"
Mrs. Flowers didn't answer for a few moments. Bonnie felt like the older woman's sharp blue gaze was looking straight through her and analyzing the mind and heart inside. When Mrs. Flowers did speak, her voice was gentle.
"Who is it you want to contact, dear?"
Bonnie flinched. "No one in particular," she said quickly, erasing an image of Damon's black-on-black eyes from her mind. "It just seems like something that would be useful. And interesting, too. Like, I could learn all about Fell's Church's history." She turned away from Mrs. Flowers and busied herself with the lemonade glasses, leaving the subject behind for now.
There would be time to ask again, she thought. Soon.
"The most important thing," Elena was saying earnestly, "is to protect Meredith. We've gotten a warning, and we need to take advantage of it, not sit around worrying about where it came from. If something terrible - something I brought somehow - is coming, we'll deal with it when it gets here. Right now, we look out for Meredith."
She was so beautiful, she made Stefan dizzy. Quite literally: Sometimes he would look at her, catch her at a certain angle, and would see, as if for the first time, the delicate curve of her cheek, the lightest rose-petal blush in her creamy skin, the soft seriousness of her mouth. In those moments, every time, his head and stomach would swoop as if he'd just gotten off a roller coaster. Elena. He belonged to her; it was as simple as that. As if for hundreds of years he had been journeying toward this one mortal girl, and now that he had found her, his long, long life finally had found its purpose.
You don't have her, though, something inside him said. Not all of her. Not really.
Stefan shook off the traitorous thought. Elena loved him. She loved him bravely and desperately and passionately and far more than he deserved. And he loved her. That was what mattered.
And right now, this sweet mortal girl he loved was efficiently organizing a schedule for guarding Meredith, assigning duties with the calm expectation that she would be obeyed. "Matt," she said, "if you're working tomorrow night, you and Alaric can take the daytime shift. Stefan will take over at night, and Bonnie and I will pick up in the morning."
"You should have been a general," Stefan murmured to her, earning himself a quick smile.
"I don't need guards," Meredith said irritably. "I've been trained in martial arts and I've faced the supernatural before." It seemed to Stefan that her eye rested speculatively on him for a second, and he forced himself not to bristle under her scrutiny. "My stave is all the protection I need."
"A stave like yours couldn't have protected Celia," Elena argued. "Without Stefan there to intervene, she would have been killed." On the couch, Celia closed her eyes and rested her head against Alaric's arm.
"Fine, then." Meredith spoke in a clipped tone, her eyes on Celia. "It's true, out of all of us, only Stefan could have saved her. And that's the other reason this whole team effort to protect me is ridiculous. Do you have the strength and speed these days to save me from a moving train, Elena? Does Bonnie?" Stefan saw Bonnie, coming in with a tray of lemonade glasses, pause and frown as she heard Meredith's words.
He had known, of course, that with Damon dead and Elena's Powers gone, he was the only one left to protect the group. Well , Mrs. Flowers and Bonnie had some limited magical ability. Then Stefan amended the thought further. Mrs. Flowers was actual y quite powerful, but her powers were still depleted from fighting the kitsune. It came to the same thing, then: Stefan was the only one who could protect them now. Meredith might talk about her responsibilities as a vampire hunter, but in the end, despite her training and heritage, she was just another mortal. His eyes scanned the group, all the mortals, his mortals. Meredith, serious gray eyes and a steely resolve. Matt, eager and boyish and decent down to the bone. Bonnie, sunny and sweet, and with a core of strength perhaps even she didn't know she had. Mrs. Flowers, a wise matriarch. Alaric and Celia... well , they weren't his mortals the way the others were, but they fell under his protection while they were here. He had sworn to protect humans, when he could. If he could.
He remembered Damon saying to him once, laughing in one of his fits of dangerous good humor, his face gleeful,
"They're just so fragile, Stefan! You can break them without even meaning to!"
And Elena, his Elena. She was as vulnerable as the rest of them now. He flinched. If anything ever happened to her, Stefan knew beyond a doubt that he would take off the ring that let him walk in the day, lie down in the grass above her grave, and wait for the sun.
But the same hollow voice inside that questioned Elena's love for him whispered darkly in his ear: She would not do the same for you. You are not her everything. As Elena and Meredith, with occasional interjections from Matt and Bonnie, continued to argue about whether Meredith needed the efforts of the group to guard her, Stefan closed his eyes and slipped into his memories of Damon's death.
Stefan watched, foolish and uncomprehending and just not fast enough, as Damon, quicker than him till the last, dashed toward the huge tree and flung Bonnie, light as dandelion fluff, out of the reach of the barbed branches already plummeting toward her.
As he threw her, a branch caught Damon through his chest, pinning him to the ground. Stefan saw the moment of shock in his brother's eyes before they rolled backward. A single drop of blood ran from his mouth down his chin.
"Damon, open your eyes!" Elena was screaming. There was a rough tone in her voice, an agony Stefan had never heard from her before. Her hands jerked at Damon's shoulders, as if she wanted to shake him hard, and Stefan pulled her away. "He can't, Elena, he can't," he said, half sobbing.
Couldn't she see that Damon was dying? The branch had stopped his heart and the tree's poison was spreading through his veins and arteries. He was gone. Stefan had gently lowered Damon's head to the ground. He would let his brother go.
But Elena wouldn't.
Turning to take her in his arms and comfort her, Stefan saw that she had forgotten him. Her eyes were closed and her lips were moving soundlessly. All her muscles were taut, straining toward Damon, and Stefan realized with a dull shock that she and Damon were connected still, that a last conversation was being carried on along some private frequency that excluded him.
Her face was wet with tears, and she suddenly fumbled for her knife and with one swift, sure movement, nicked her own jugular vein, starting blood flowing across her neck. "Drink, Damon," she said in a desperate, prayerlike voice, prying his mouth open with her hands and angling her neck above it.
The smell of Elena's blood was rich and tangy, making Stefan's canines itch with desire even in his horror at her carelessness in cutting her own throat. Damon did not drink. The blood ran out of his mouth and down his neck, soaking his shirt and pooling on his black leather jacket. Elena sobbed and threw herself on top of Damon, kissing his cold lips, her eyes clenched shut. Stefan could tell she was still in communion with Damon's spirit, a telepathic exchange of love and secrets private between them, the two people he loved most. The only people he loved.
A cold tendril of envy, the feeling of being the outsider looking in, the one who was left all alone, curled along Stefan's spine even as tears of grief ran down his face. A phone rang, and Stefan snapped back to the present. Elena glanced at her cell and then answered, "Hi, Aunt Judith." She paused. "At the boarding house with everybody. We picked up Alaric and his friend from the train." Another pause and she grimaced. "I'm sorry, I forgot. Yes, I will . In just a few minutes, all right? Okay. Bye."
She hung up and got to her feet. "Apparently at some point I promised Aunt Judith I would be home for dinner tonight. Robert's getting out the fondue set and Margaret wants me to show her how to dip bread in cheese." She rolled her eyes, but Stefan wasn't fooled. He could see how delighted Elena was to have her baby sister idolizing her again.
Elena went on, frowning, "I'm not sure I'll be able to get out again tonight, but someone needs to be with Meredith at all times. Can you stay here tonight, Meredith, instead of at home?"
Meredith nodded slowly, her long legs drawn up under her on the couch. She looked tired and apprehensive, despite her earlier bravado. Elena touched her hand in farewell , and Meredith smiled at her. "I'm sure your minions will take good care of me, Queen Elena," she said lightly.
"I'd expect nothing less," Elena answered in the same tone, turning her smile on the rest of the room. Stefan got to his feet. "I'll walk you home," he said. Matt rose, too. "I can drive you," he offered, and Stefan was surprised to find that he had to suppress the urge to shove Matt back into his seat. Stefan would take care of Elena. She was his responsibility.
"No, stay here, both of you," Elena said firmly. "It's only a few blocks, and it's still broad daylight out. You look after Meredith."
Stefan settled back in his chair, eyeing Matt. With a wave, Elena was gone, and Stefan stretched out his senses to follow her as far as he could, pushing his Power to sense whether anything dangerous, anything at all , lurked nearby. His Powers weren't strong enough, though, to reach all the way to Elena's house. He curled his hands into tight, frustrated fists. He had been so much more powerful when he allowed himself to drink human blood. Meredith was watching him, gray eyes sympathetic.
"She'll be okay," she said. "You can't watch her all the time."
But I can try, thought Stefan.
When Elena strolled up her walk, Caleb was clipping the glossy green leaves of the flowering camel ia bushes in front of the house.
"Hi," she said, surprised. "Have you been here all day?"
He stopped trimming and wiped the sweat off his forehead. With his blond hair and healthy tan, he looked like a California surfer transplanted to a Virginia lawn. Elena thought Caleb seemed just right on a perfect summer day like this one, a lawn mower humming in the distance somewhere, the sky blue and high above them.
"Sure," he said cheerfully. "Lots to do. It looks good, right?"
"It really does," she said. And it did. The grass was mowed, the hedges were perfectly trimmed, and he had set out some daisies in the flower beds near the house.
"What've you been up to today?" Caleb asked.
"Nothing as energetic as this," Elena said, suppressing the memory of the desperate race to save Celia. "My friends and I just picked someone up at the train station and hung out inside for the rest of the day. I hope the weather holds, though. We want to take a picnic up to Hot Springs tomorrow."
"Sounds like fun," Caleb said agreeably. Elena was tempted for a moment to invite him along. Despite Stefan's reservations, he seemed like a nice guy, and he probably didn't know many people in town. Maybe Bonnie would hit it off with him. He was pretty cute, after all . And Bonnie hadn't really been interested in anyone for a while. Anyone other than Damon, a secret little voice said in the back of her mind.
But of course she couldn't invite Caleb. What was she thinking? She and her friends couldn't have outsiders around while they talked about what supernatural entity had it in for them now.
A little pang of longing hit her. Would she ever be a girl who could have a picnic and swim and flirt and be able to talk to anyone she liked, because she had no dark secrets to conceal?
"Aren't you exhausted?" she asked, quickly changing the subject.
She thought she saw a flicker of disappointment in his eyes. Had he realized she was thinking of inviting him along on the picnic and then changed her mind? But he answered readily enough. "Oh, your aunt ran me out a couple of glasses of lemonade, and I had a sandwich with your sister at lunchtime." He grinned. "She's a cutie. And an excellent conversationalist. She told me all about tigers."
"She talked to you?" Elena said with surprise. "She's usually really shy around new people. She wouldn't talk to my boyfriend, Stefan, until he'd been around for months."
"Oh, well ," he said, and shrugged. "Once I showed her a couple of magic tricks, she was so fascinated she forgot to be shy. She's going to be a master magician by the time she starts first grade. She's a natural."
"Really?" said Elena. She felt a sharp shift in her stomach, a sense of loss. She had missed so much of her little sister's life. She'd noticed at breakfast that she looked and sounded older. It was like Margaret had grown into a different person without her. Elena gave herself a mental shake: She needed to stop being such a whiner. She was unbelievably lucky just to be here now.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Look, I taught her this." He held out a tanned fist, turned it over, and opened his hand to reveal a camel ia blossom, waxy and white, closed his hand, then opened it again to reveal a tightly furled bud.
"Wow," said Elena, intrigued. "Do it again."
She watched intently as he opened and closed his hand several times, revealing flower then bud, flower then bud.
"I showed Margaret how to do it with coins, switching between a quarter and a penny," he said, "but it's the same principle."
"I've seen tricks like that before," she said, "but I can't figure out where you're hiding the one that isn't showing. How do you do it?"
"Magic, of course," he said, smiling, and opened his hand to let the camel ia blossom fall at Elena's feet.
"Do you believe in magic?" she said, looking up into his warm blue eyes. He was flirting with her, she knew - guys always flirted with Elena if she let them.
"Well , I ought to," he said softly. "I'm from New Orleans, you know, the home of voodoo."
"Voodoo?" she said, a cold shiver going down her spine. Caleb laughed. "I'm just playing with you," he said.
"Voodoo. Jeez, what a load of crap."
"Oh, right. Totally," Elena said, forcing a giggle.
"One time, though," Caleb continued, "back before my parents died, Tyler was visiting, and the two of us went to the French Quarter to get our fortunes told by this old voudon priestess."
"Your parents died?" Elena asked, surprised. Caleb lowered his head for a moment, and Elena reached out to touch him, her hand lingering on his. "Mine did, too," she said.
Caleb was very still. "I know," he said.
Their eyes met, and Elena winced in sympathy. There was such pain in Caleb's warm blue eyes when she looked for it, despite his easy smile.
"It was years ago," he said softly. "I still miss them sometimes, though, you know."
She squeezed his hand. "I know," she said quietly. Then Caleb smiled and shook his head a little, and the moment between them was over. "This was before that, though," he said. "We were maybe twelve years old when Tyler visited." Caleb's slight Southern accent got stronger as he went on, his tone lazy and rich. "I didn't believe in that stuff back then, either, and I don't think Tyler did, but we thought it might be kind of fun. You know how it's fun to scare yourself a little sometimes." He paused. "It was pretty creepy, actually. She had all these black candles burning and weird charms everywhere, stuff made of bones and hair. She threw some powder on the floor around us and looked at the different patterns. She told Tyler she saw a big change coming for him and that he needed to think carefully before he put himself in someone else's power."
Elena flinched involuntarily. A big change had certainly come for Tyler, and he had put himself in the vampire Klaus's power. Wherever Tyler was now, things hadn't turned out the way he'd planned.
"And what did she tell you?" she asked.
"Nothing much, really," he answered. "Mostly just to be good. Stay out of trouble, look out for my family. That kind of thing. Stuff I try to do. My aunt and uncle need me here now, with Tyler missing." He looked down at her again, shrugged, and smiled. "Like I said, though, it was mostly just a load of crap. Magic and all that nutty stuff."
"Yeah," Elena said hollowly. "All that nutty stuff."
The sun went behind a cloud and Elena shivered once more. Caleb moved closer to her.
"Are you cold?" he said, and reached a hand out toward her shoulder.
At that moment a raucous caw burst from the trees by the house, and a big black crow flew toward them, low and fast. Caleb dropped his hand and ducked, covering his face, but the crow angled up at the last minute, flapping furiously, and soared away over their heads.
"Did you see that?" Caleb cried. "It almost hit us."
"I did," Elena answered, watching as the graceful winged silhouette disappeared into the sky. "I did."