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When Matt, Meredith, and Bonnie were all on their way, Stefan was left with Elena, now decently attired by Bonnie in her “Night Gown.” The darkness outside was comforting to his sore eyes – not sore from daylight, but from telling good friends the sad news. Worse than the sore eyes was the slightly breathless feeling of a vampire who hasn’t fed. But he’d remedy that soon, he told himself. Once Elena was asleep, he’d slip out into the woods and find a white-tailed deer. No one could stalk like a vampire; no one could compete with Stefan at hunting. And even if it took several deer to assuage the hunger inside him, not one ofthem would be permanently injured.
But Elena had other plans. She wasn’t sleepy, and she was never bored being alone with him. As soon as the sounds of their visitors’ car were decently out of hearing, she did what she always did in this mood. She floated to him and tipped her face up, eyes closed, lips just slightly pursed. Then she waited.
Stefan hurried to the one unshuttered window, pulled the shade down against unwanted peeping crows, and returned. Elena was in exactly the same position, blushing slightly, eyes still shut. Stefan sometimes thought that she would wait forever that way, if she wanted a kiss.
“I’m really taking advantage of you, love,” he said, and sighed. He leaned over and kissed her gently, chastely.
Elena made a noise of disappointment that sounded exactly like apurruping kitten, ending on a note of inquiry. She bumped his chin with her nose.
“Lovely love,” Stefan said, stroking her hair. “Bonnie got all the knots out without pulling?” But he was leaning into her warmth now, helpless. A distant ache in his upper jaw was already beginning.
Elena bumped again, demanding. He kissed her for slightly longer. Logically, he knew she was a grown-up. She was older and vastly more experienced than she had been nine months ago, when they’d lost themselves in adoration kissing. But guilt was never far from his thoughts, and he couldn’t help but worry about having her competent consent.
This time thepurrup was one of exasperation. Elena had had enough. All at once, she gave her weight to him, forcing him to suddenly support a warm, substantial bundle of femininity in his arms, and at the same time, herPlease? chiming clear as a finger swirling on a crystal glass.
It was one of the first words she had learned to think to him when she’d woken up mute and weightless. And, angel or no, she knew exactly what it did to him – inside.
“Oh, little love,” he groaned. “Little lovely love…”
He kissed her.
There was a long time of silence, while he felt his heart beat faster and faster. Elena, his Elena, who had once given her very life for him, was warm and drowsily heavy in his arms. She was his alone, and they belonged just like this, and he never wanted anything to change from this moment. Even the quickly growing ache in his upper jaw was something to be enjoyed. The pain of it changed to pleasure with Elena’s warm mouth under his, her lips forming little butterfly kisses, teasing him.
He sometimes thought she was most awake when she seemed half-asleep like this. She was always the instigator, but he followed helplessly wherever she wanted him to go. The one time he had refused, had stopped in mid-kiss, she had broken off speaking to him with her mind and floated to a corner, where she then sat among the dust and spiderwebs…andwept . Nothing he could do would console her, although he knelt on the hard wooden floorboards and begged and coaxed and almost wept himself – until he took her back into his arms.
He had promised himself never to make that mistake again. But still, his guilt nagged at him, although it was growing more and more distant – and more confused as Elena changed the pressure of her lips suddenly and the world rocked and he had to back up until they were sitting on his bed. His thoughts fragmented. He could only think that Elena was back with him, sitting on his lap, so excited, so vibrant, until there was a sort of silken explosion inside him and he didn’t need to be forced anymore.
He knew that she was enjoying the pleasure-pain of his aching jaw as much as he was.
There was no more time or reason to think. Elena was melting into his arms, her hair under his stroking fingers a liquid softness. Mentally, they had already melted together. The aching in his canines had finally produced the inevitable result, his teeth lengthening, sharpening; the touch of them against Elena’s lower lip causing a bright flicker of pleasure-pain that almost made him gasp.
And then Elena did something she never had done before. Delicately, carefully, she took one of Stefan’s fangs and captured it between her upper and lower lips. And then, delicately, deliberately, she just held on.
The whole world reeled around Stefan.
It was only by the grace of his love for her, and their connected minds, that he didn’t bite down and pierce her lip. Ancient vampire urges that could never be tamed out of his blood were screaming at him to do just that.
But he loved her, and they were one – and besides,he couldn’t move an inch. He was frozen in pleasure. His fangs had never extended so far or become quite as sharp, and without him doing a thing the razor edge of his tooth had cut into Elena’s full lower lip. Blood was trickling very slowly down his throat. Elena’s blood, which had changed since she had come back from the spirit world. It had once been wonderful, full of youthful vitality and the essence of Elena’s living self.
Now…it was simply in a class of its own. Indescribable. He’d never experienced anything like the blood of a returned spirit. It was charged with a Power that was as different from human blood as human was from animal blood.
To a vampire, blood flowing down the throat was a pleasure as sharp as anything imaginable to a human.
Stefan’s heart was pounding out of his chest.
Elena daintily worried the fang she had captured.
He couldfeel her satisfaction as the tiny sacrificial pain turned to pleasure, because she was linked to him, and because she was one of the rarest of all breeds of humans: one who actually enjoyed nurturing a vampire, loved the feeling of feeding him, of him needing her. She was one of the elite.
Hot shivers traveled down his spine, Elena’s blood still making the world spin.
Elena let go of his fang, sucking on her lower lip. She let her head drop back, exposing her neck.
The head-drop was really too much to resist, even for him. He knew the traceries of Elena’s veins as well as he knew her face. And yet…
All’s right. All’s well…Elena chimed telepathically.
He sank twin aching fangs into a small vein. His canines were so razor-sharp by then that there was nearly no pain for Elena, who was used to the snakebite sensation. And for him, for both of them, there was the feeding at last, as the indescribable sweetness of Elena’s new blood filled Stefan’s mouth, and an outpouring of giving swept Elena into incoherency.
There was always a danger of taking too much, or of not giving her enough of his own blood to keep her – well, frankly, to keep her from dying. Not that he needed more than a small amount, but there would always be that danger in trafficking with vampires. In the end, though, dark thoughts swam away in the sheer bliss that had overcome them both.
Matt fished for keys as he and Bonnie and Meredith all crowded into the wide front seat of his rattletrap car. Embarrassing to have to park that next to Stefan’s Porsche. The upholstery in back was in shreds that tended to stick to the derriere of whoever sat on it, and Bonnie easily fit on the jump seat, which had a jerry-rigged seat belt, between Matt and Meredith. Matt kept an eye on her, since when she was excited she tended not to use the belt. The road back through the Old Wood had too many difficult turns to be taken lightly, even if they were going to be the only travelers on it.
No more deaths, Matt thought as he pulled away from the boardinghouse. No more miraculous resurrections, even. Matt had seen enough of the supernatural to last him the rest of his life. He was just like Bonnie; he wanted things to settle down to normal so he could get on with living the plain old ordinary way.
Without Elena, something inside him whispered mockingly. Giving up without even a fight?
Hey, I couldn’t beat Stefan in any kind of fight if he had both arms tied behind his back and a bag over his head. Forget it. That’s finished, however she kissed me. She’s a friend, now.
But he could still feel Elena’s warm lips on his mouth from yesterday, the light touches that she didn’t know yet weren’t socially acceptable between just-friends. And he could feel the warmth and the swaying, dancing slenderness of her body.
Damn, she came back perfect – physically, at least, he thought.
Bonnie’s plaintive voice cut into his pleasant reminiscences.
“Just when I thought everything was going to be all right,” she was wailing, almost weeping. “Just when I thought it’s all going to work out after all. It’s going to be the way it wassupposed to be.”
Meredith said, very gently, “It’s difficult, I know. We seem to keep on losing her. But we can’t be selfish.”
“Ican,” Bonnie said flatly.
I can, too, Matt’s inner voice whispered. At least inside, where nobody can see my selfishness. Good old Matt; Matt won’t mind – what a good sport Matt is. Well, this is one time when good old Matt does mind. But she chose the other guy, and what can I do? Kidnap her? Keep her locked up? Try to take her by force?
The thought was like a dash of cold water, and Matt woke up and paid more attention to his driving. Somehow he’d already automatically navigated several curves of the pitted, one-lane road that ran through the Old Wood.
“We were supposed to go to college together,” Bonnie persisted. “And then we were supposed to come back here to Fell’s Church. Backhome . We had it all planned out – since kindergarten, practically – and now Elena’s human again, and I thought that meant that everything was going to go back to the way it wassupposed to be. And it’snever going to be the same again,ever , is it?” She finished more quietly and with a little gulping sigh, “Is it?” It wasn’t even really a question.
Matt and Meredith found themselves glancing at each other, surprised by the sharpness of their pity, and helpless to comfort Bonnie, who now had her arms folded around herself, shrugging off Meredith’s touch.
It’s Bonnie – just Bonnie being theatrical, Matt thought, but his own native honesty rose to mock him.
“I guess,” he said slowly, “that’s what we were all sort of thinking, really, when she first came back.” When we were dancing around in the woods like crazy people, he thought. “I guess we sort of thought that they could live quietly somewhere near Fell’s Church, and that things would go back to the way they were before. Before Stefan – “
Meredith shook her head, looking off into the distance beyond the windshield. “Not Stefan.”
Matt realized what she meant. Stefan had come to Fell’s Church to rejoin humanity, not to take a human girl away from it into the unknown.
“You’re right,” Matt said. “I was just thinking about something like that. She and Stefan could have probably worked out some way to live here quietly. Or at least to stay close to us, you know. It was Damon. He came to take Elena against her will, and that changed everything.”
“And now Elena and Stefan are leaving. And once they leave, they’ll never come back,” Bonnie wailed. “Why? Why did Damon start all this?”
“He likes to change things out of sheer boredom, Stefan once told me. This time it probably started out of hatred for Stefan,” Meredith said. “But I wish that for once he could have just left us alone.”
“What difference does it make?” Bonniewas crying now. “So it was Damon’s fault. I don’t even care anymore. What I don’t understand is why things have to change!”
“¡®You can never cross the same river twice.’ Or even once if you’re a strong enough vampire,” Meredith said wryly. Nobody laughed. And then, very gently: “Maybe you’re asking the wrong person. Maybe Elena’s the one who could tell you why things have to change, if she remembers what happened to her – in the Other Place.”
“I didn’tmean that theydo have to change – “
“But they do,” Meredith said, even more gently and wistfully. “Don’t you see? It’s not supernatural; it’s – life. Everybody has to grow up – “
“I know! Matt has a football scholarship and you’re going away to college and then you’re going to get married ! And probably have babies!” Bonnie managed to make this sound like some indecent activity. “I’m going to be stuck in junior collegeforever . And you’ll both be all grown up and you’ll forget about Elena and Stefan…and me,” Bonnie finished in a very small voice.
“Hey.” Matt had always been very protective of the injured and ignored. Right now, even with Elena so recently on his mind – he wondered if he wouldever get rid of the feeling of that kiss – he was drawn to Bonnie, who seemed so small and fragile. “What are you talking about? I’m coming back after college to live. I’ll probably die right here in Fell’s Church.I’ll be thinking about you. I mean, if you want me to.”
He patted Bonnie’s arm, and she didn’t shy away from his touch as she had from Meredith’s. She leaned into him, her forehead against his shoulder. When she shivered once, slightly, he put his arm around her without even thinking.
“I’m not cold,” Bonnie said, although she didn’t try to shrug off his arm. “It’s warm tonight. I just – I don’t like it when you say things like ¡®I’ll probably die right’ – watch out!”
“Matt, look out!”
“Whoa – !” Matt pumped the brakes, cursing, both hands wrestling with the steering wheel as Bonnie ducked and Meredith braced herself. Matt’s replacement for the first beat-up old car he’d lost was just about as old and didn’t have airbags. It was a miscellany of junkyard cars pieced together.
“Hang on!”Matt yelled as the car skidded, tires screaming, and then they were all flung around as the back end swerved into a ditch and the front bumper hit a tree.
When everything stopped moving, Matt let out his breath, easing his death-grip on the steering wheel. He started to turn toward the girls and then froze. He scrabbled to switch on the map light, and what he saw held him frozen again.
Bonnie had turned, as always in moments of deepest distress, to Meredith. She was lying with her head on Meredith’s lap, hands locked onto her friend’s arm and shirt. Meredith herself was sitting, braced, leaning as far as possible backward, her feet stretched to push against the floor beneath the dashboard; her body bowed back in the seat, head flung backward, arms holding Bonnie down tightly.
Thrusting straight through the open window – like a knobby, shaggy green spear or the grasping arm of some savage earthen giant – was the branch of a tree. It just cleared the base of Meredith’s arched neck, and its lower branches passed over Bonnie’s small body. If Bonnie’s seat belt hadn’t let her turn; if Bonnie hadn’t flung herself down like that; if Meredith hadn’t held onto her…
Matt found himself staring directly into the splintered but very sharp end of the lance. If his own seat belt hadn’t kept him from leaning that way…
Matt could hear his own hard breathing. The smell of evergreen was overpowering within the car. He could even smell the places where smaller branches had broken off and were oozing sap.
Very slowly, Meredith reached out to break off one of the twigs that was pointed at her throat like an arrow. It wouldn’t break. Numb, Matt reached over to try it himself. But although the wood wasn’t much thicker than his finger, it was tough and wouldn’t even bend.
As if it’s been fire-hardened, he thought dazedly. But that’s ridiculous. It’s a living tree; I can feel the splinters.
“Can I please get up now?” Bonnie said quietly, her voice muffled against Meredith’s leg. “Please. Before it grabs me. It wants to.”
Matt glanced at her, startled, and scratched his cheek against the splintered end of the big branch.
“It’s not going to grab you.” But his stomach was churning as he fumbled blindly for his seat belt fastening. Why should Bonnie have the same thought as he had: that the thing was like a huge, crooked, shaggy arm? She couldn’t even see it.
“You know it wants to,” Bonnie whispered, and now the slight shivering seemed to be taking over her whole body. She reached backward to undo her seat belt.
“Matt, we need to slide,” Meredith said. She had carefully maintained her painful-looking bowed-backward position, but Matt could hear her breathing harder. “We need to slide toward you. It’s trying to get around my throat.”
“That’s impossible….” But he could see it, too. The freshly splintered ends of the smaller branch had moved only infinitesimally, but there was a curve to them now, and the splinters were pressing into Meredith’s throat.
“It’s probably just that nobody can stay bent backward like that forever,” he said, knowing that this was nonsense. “There’s a flashlight in the glove compartment….”
“The glove compartment is completely blocked by branches. Bonnie, can you reach to unfasten my seat belt?”
“I’ll try.” Bonnie slid forward without raising her head, fumbling to find the release button.
To Matt it looked as if the shaggy, aromatic evergreen branches were engulfing her. Pulling her into their needles.
“We’ve got a whole freakin’ Christmas tree in here.” He looked away, out through the glass of the window on his side. Cupping his hands to see better into the darkness, he leaned his forehead against the surprisingly cool glass.
There was a touch on the back of his neck. He jumped, then froze. It was neither cool nor warm, like a girl’s fingernail.
“Damn it, Meredith – “
“Matt – “
Matt was furious with himself for jumping. But the touch was…scratchy.
“Meredith?” He slowly moved his hands away until he could see in the dark window’s reflection. Meredith wasn’t touching him.
“Don’t…move…left, Matt. There’s a long sharp bit there.” Meredith’s voice, normally cool and a bit remote, usually made Matt think of those calendar pictures of blue lakes surrounded by snow. Now it just sounded choked and strained.
“Meredith!” Bonnie said before Matt could speak. Bonnie’s voice sounded as if it were coming from underneath a featherbed.
“It’s all right. I just have to…hold it away,” Meredith said. “Don’t worry. I won’t let go of you, either.”
Matt felt a sharper prickle of splinters. Something touched his neck on the right side, delicately. “Bonnie, stop it! You’re pulling the treein ! You’re pulling it on Meredith and me!”
“Matt,shut up !”
Matt shut up. His heart was pounding. The last thing he felt like doing was reaching behind him. But that’s stupid, he thought, because if Bonnie really is moving the tree, I can at least hold it still for her.
He reached behind him, flinching, trying to watch what he was doing in the window’s reflection. His hand closed over a thick knot of bark and splinters.
He thought, I don’t remember seeing a knot when it was pointed at my throat….
“Got it!” a muffled voice said, and there was the click of a seat belt coming undone. Then, much more shakily, the voice said, “Meredith? There are needles shoved all into my back.”
“Okay, Bonnie. Matt,” Meredith was speaking with effort, but great patience, the way they’d all been talking to Elena. “Matt, you have to open your door now.”
Bonnie said in a voice of terror, “It isn’t just needles. It’s little branches. Sort of like barbed wire. I’m…stuck….”
“Matt! You need to open your doornow – “
Matt was bracing himself, pushing with his feet, both hands locked around the scaly bark now. He thrust backward with all his strength.
“Matt!” Meredith almost screamed. “It’s cutting into my throat!”
“I can’t get my door open! There’s a tree on that side, too!”
“How can there be a tree there?That’s the road!”
“How can there be a treegrowing in here?”
Another silence. Matt could feel the splinters – the slivers of broken branch – biting deeper into the back of his neck. If he didn’t move soon, he would never be able to.
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