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An Untold Tale: Blood Will Tell

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An Untold Tale: Blood Will Tell is a short story found on L. J. Smith's official website. Taking place at the end of Dark Reunion.

Official SynopsisEdit

"This is a fantasy of a fantasy. The idea is: what might have happened at the end of Dark Reunion if Stefan had been persuaded to drink the blood of his three friends in order to be more powerful when he fought that night. It might have happened something like this..."

CharactersEdit

Excerpt from Blood Will TellEdit

Bonnie

Stefan picked up the branch of white ash, took the knife out of his pocket, and began to strip the smaller branches off, making it into a spear.Terrific! The knight is going off to combat, Matt said. don't you see that youre walking right into that monsters trap? He took a step toward Stefan. Right. Youre the vampire, but you don't drink human blood, so youre almost as weak as a human . . .

Stefan gave him a bleak smile. You think so? Are you sure? Well, I know that there are three of us and only one of you Stop it, Matt, Meredith said quietly. We cant stop him from fighting this murderer. All we can do is help him. And without another word, she began unbuttoning the top button of her shirt.

Bonnie was shocked for an instantalthough shed had the same idea when Stefan had first arrived in Fells Church. She hadnt been thinking of all three of them . . . but what did it matter? She nodded and unzipped her windbreaker. Matt hesitated a moment and then took off his Tshirt. All for one; one for all, he said.

Stefan

That was how it had started. The three of them so determined, united, against him. Insistent that he break his vow and take human blood. And Stefan had been walking out on it, despite the knowledge that it would help him to kill the monster preying on Fells Church, despite the danger to all of them if he failed. He had actually walked out the door when something else had sparked in his brain. Wait, Bonnie had said authoritatively. Cant you feel it? Its Elena. She wants you to do this. Cant you tell?

Stefan had looked at her blankly. If this was some new way of manipulating him. . . . But Bonnie had been serious, her small head tilted as if listening to faraway music; her expression almost beatific.

And then he had felt it too. Like a benison from the heavens, a whisper from his goldenhaired angel. Do it, Stefan. Let them make their sacrifice for Fells Church, let them give what they can. As you are. It will be to their credit afterward, even if they don't survive. As for breaking your vow; well, let the condemnation for that be weighed against the merit youve gained by staying to protect these humans whomany of themhate and fear you. Beloved, you are very brave, but sometimes a little too stubborn to be practical. Voices from beyond? But that was Elena; that was the way she spoke, and that was the way he felt when she spoke. The next words were not just for him, and something inside him watched Matt and Meredith as they heard the voice too, Matt astonished; Meredith with her usual composure.

This is our reunion and I give you to each other. I give my friends to you, Stefan, so that you can fight with all your combined strength. And to you, my friends, I give Stefan . . . who may be able to keep you alive. Take each other. . . and trust. And then trust. Aye, there was the rub. How to trust even the beneficence of heaven after what that monsterinhumanform had done to this innocent little town. But when Elena commanded, he listened. When Elena spoke, even from the afterlife, he obeyed. Hed promised her that in his heart, long ago.

And so he had agreed, his only condition being that they do this one at a time, with the other two waiting in the car. He, Stefan Salvatore, who had given up drinking human blood so long ago, and bound himself with fearsome oaths not to do it, was going to do it. The only thing left was to determine the order, which Meredith did with three twigs from the white ash branch. Meredith. Bonnie. Then Matt.

Stefan was glad that Meredith was going to be first. Meredith would remain calm during The Last Judgment. She was a rock. He was relying on her to help steady him a little as he broke this pledge that had been his one guidance since becoming a vampire nearly half a millennium ago.

Bonnie and Matt headed for the car. Stefan looked around the landing for Mrs. Flowers, but the landlady had disappeared. Together, he and Meredith went back upstairs. If Bonnie were here, Meredith said, shed be sure it was a good omen that Mrs. Flowers was gone.

Fortunately, the door has a good sturdy lock. We don't have any need for good omens; it can make sure nothing human gets in, and I can keep anything inhuman out. I don't suppose I can talk you out of this right now? Stefan spoke without changing his tone in the slightest on the last sentence.

Meredith smiled. And flout an edict of Elenas? I'm not that dumb. Thats what all three of you think it was? An edict? Stefan looked at Meredith pleadingly. I was hoping to get you to talk some sense into Matt. Youll be alone with him while I'm with Bonnie.

Sense? Matt? Now? In the same sentence? Yes. We have to get him to give this up. You have to, Meredith, because I don't think hell listen to a word I say. Its all very fine and noble, offering your blood to make me stronger so I can fight that . . . thing. But Matt cant handle it. Merediths bright dark eyes were as sad as he had ever seen them, like still water in deep pools. "You don't know Matt well enough by now? He wants to save Fells Church even if it kills him. And do you have any idea how hed feel if you said youd take blood from Bonnie and me, but not him?"

I thought we could fob him off with something about the two of you being girls. Meredith laughed shortly. Nyet, Yvette. He knows Damon takes blood from guys. He knows about Mr. Tanner. He knows its not a sexual thing. Stefan groaned. Its not. Buthow do I explain?

He studied Meredith, the quiet elegance of line of her body, the timeless beauty of her high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, and the striking features that had been the downfall of countless males in Fells Church. He studied the way her eyelashes tangled together when she shut her eyes. And even as he looked at her he was aware that she was studying him from under those seemingly demure eyelashes. Meredith was like the abyss that looked back at you when you looked into it.

He sighed. Meredith can I try to explain something to you? I know theres no time, but we have to make time for it. Unless you want one of your friends ending up in a psychiatric hospital do you remember Vicky?

She didn't snap off a superficial answer, pointing out that of course she knew a girl shed gone to school for years with. He watched her face as her mind roved back over the seasons until she could picture what he wanted her to picture: Vicky, a splash of white as she stumbled down a dark country road, wearing nothing but a thin torn slip; her hair disarrayed; her eyes like two black holes to some other dreadful dimension; her mouth one long silent scream.

I remember, Meredith whispered. Stefan could feel her shock. But Vicky wasshe was attacked and forced, and God only knows what horrible things she saw oror felt. This is totally different

Tell me that again after youve taken your turn. Stefan deliberately spoke in harsh, clipped tones, and hardly glanced at Meredith as he continued. Vicky was forced. He stared off into a middle distance. Matts forcing himself. Vicky was attacked. Matt has the selfdiscipline to hold himself down. Vicky saw or experienced things that, to put it crudely, drove her crazy. And whether those things were in the mind of a supernatural creature, or in her mind, or in the world around them, I don't know and Vicky isnt saying.

He swung back toward her, letting the harshness drain out of his voice, his eyes pleading with her to understand. Meredith, if vampire and donor are, well, friends, with no need to overcome mental or physical resistanceeither by mind control or by physical force, then everything should be fine. But it isnt, always. There are monsters lurking in human minds scarier than anything Ive ever imagined in my own nightmares. And vampires are just the sort of things likely to make them pop up.

And you think one could pop up with Matt? I'm afraid of it. I'm afraid of a lot of things, if he makes himself do this. Meredith cocked her silky dark head, highlights running up and down the length of her hair. Then she met his eyes and nodded, once. Ill try to talk him out of it. Ill . . . lets see . . . Ill help try to make him believe that by the time his turn comes around that youre as full as a tick and ready to burst. That will be Plan T.

Thank you. I don't think Ill be quite as full as a tick, but I may not exactly be myself by that time. Itll be good to feel that youre backing me up. Oh, I'm a famous backupper.

Elena wasnt just a Big Picture Person; she loved figuring out all the grungy little details, but I was her number one backer. Meredith spoke, not with bitterness or sarcasm, nor even with the tolerance usually accorded to the faults of the recently dead, but with love. Just love. The absent love of a true friend, who has had time to learn all, know all, and forgive all. Watching her, thinking about all the years that she had known Elena while he had notall the simple daytoday fun they had hadStefan felt a hand clutch at his heart. He had only loved Elena a few short months because he had only known her that long.

Meredith? He sat down and tried to keep envy, like a haggard shrieking banshee, out of his voice. He wasnt quite sure if he succeeded. Meredith was perceptive and she was watching him. Yes, Stefan. Meredith, when this starts, Id appreciate it so much if you could . . . well . . . think about Elena. About things you did together. Stuff like the night you tried to make toffee.

You did that, didn't you? They had. He knew. Hed read Elenas diaries before theyd been enshrined in the library. And he had an eidetic memory.

June 18: ohmygodinthemorning: Bonnies house.

Bonnies greatgrandmother must have been a witch. I am NOT kidding. If she could make something edible out of the toffee recipe in her Simple Home Cookery Book. I'm ot even saying delicious, I'm saying simply something that a person could choke down without ruining the kitchen, setting fire to the curtains, and scalding both hands and the inside of her mouth, then she definitely had supernatural powers. We are going to need a jackhammer to get all that $% ^*!! sugar concrete out of the stove burners . . . And yet it never hardened when we tried to pull it, oh, no . . . This is the end of Bonnies candy making craze, and if she doesnt agree, the world is going to see its first Homicide By Toffee case . . . OH, GOD, WE HAD FUN.

But knowing the words by heart wasnt the same as being there, as seeing Elenas face flushed with the heat of the stove, as counting the wisps of damp gold hair curling on her forehead; as watching her laugh and snap out orders and apologize by turn. He wanted to see that.

I vaguely remember. Bonnie had to have it cut out of her hair, Meredith was saying. Her eyes were mildly curious. Id like to see that. Little things like that, if you can remember them. Just any little thing

He was repeating himselfand he was starting to break down. Meredith put a hand on his elbow, guiding him to the threadbare brokenspringed couch in this room that had been his home for the happiest days of his life.


Meredith

Meredith was worried about Stefan. Those haunted green eyes . . . theyd used to be a brighter leaf green. Now they were dark as emerald. The tightly molded planes of his face, the beauty of his features, the soft promise of his mouth were all there . . . but still, somehow, these days Stefan managed to look like a condemned man. It wasnt just since the monster had started attacking Fells Church. It was since losing Elena. Stefan had become the most beautiful walking shadow of his former self. Fear assailed her suddenly, and she had to know about their champion. Stefan? With human blood in your veins, and White Ash in your hands, how do you rate your chances? she asked him.

How can I know? All I do know is that Ill fight him with everything I have; with everything youre giving me.

With what they were giving him. A wry, mocking voice started in Merediths head. Making a bargain with the devil? Youre going to let this lesser fiend have his way with you, breech your veins, just so he can go into a hopeless battle with a greater devil? Yes. Oh, yes, indeed. Shed do much more than give her blood to a halfbroken lost soul like Stefan if it would allow her a chance to save Fells Church. Revenge . . . even revenge for her grandfather and Sue Carson . . . was pointless. If everyone insisted on revenge then the world would be full of maimed things: widows and orphans and gibbering phantoms. But if Stefan wasnt able to stop that monster tonight, the monster would blaze through Fells Church, and leave it ruined in his wake. Hundreds of gibbering phantoms . . . Grandfather . . .

Grandfather, theres a real devil loose and nobody fit to stand up to him. And Damon may havehow would Stefan put it?already played us false. Hes not a very good choice of ally. But what I know is that Stefan wont. Stefan will hang in there until he stops that thing, even if it means he has to die.

I have to help him in any way I can.

She wondered why she was telling herself this, why she was so vehement. But the answer was too obvious. She was facing an old fear now with Stefan. Since her grandfathersbreakdownshe had a terror and a disgust for vampires. Shed been young enough to believe him and develop that. Now, was she woman enough to hold herself still and face those translucent needlelike fangs when they were hovering over her throat? It was time to see.


Stefan

Stefan thought, God help me, don't let me let her downor Bonnie, either. If it hadnt been that Elena was in every atom of his body, every breath of air he did not take; that she was in the marrow of his bones, and in his vision, somehow always there in his sidesight no matter what desperate situation was in front, he would have mistrusted himself. The gallantry of these two girls in facing a horror all humans shared made him admire them almost too much. He had no fears of forgetting Elena for a millisecond, but both Bonnie and Meredith, in their own ways, were so dear to him, so fine in their characters and in their graceful bodies, that tonight he was close to loving them.

And what that could lead to, while he was drinking their blood . . . Were your friends, Meredith said, still helping him, as they sat. Friends pooling their strengthout of lovingkindnessfor the sake of all the ignorant people who don't even know theyre in danger.

Lovingkindness, now there was an apt word. Had it been used since the days of long skirts and governesses? But it was exactly right. Meredith and Bonnie both knew the value of lovingkindness.

Then Meredith did something that would seem to offset what she had just said. Deliberately, she snapped the lamp beside her on. This brightened the room so much that Stefan found it almost painful; Mrs. Flowers had changed his lowwattage bulb for a slightly higher one. But it also seemed to bring the matter into the sane, level ground of the daylight world. It acted as a shock and a restorative for both of them. I want this in the light, she said. No vampire mind controlI wont need it. Ive made up my own mind, and Ill stick to my decision; if you can believe that. Yes, Stefan said simply. He added, Ill do my best without controlling your mind. I know howuneasyyou are about anything interfering with your thoughts. Meredith smiled, a little sadly. Thats not the only issue, my friend, and I think you know it. But if you don't mind . . . I don't mind.

And then for a moment they both just sat, looking at each other in the toobright light, searching each others eyes, and neither of them able to think of a thing to say. Finally Stefan said, somewhat huskily, We should really . . . get started. Meredith nodded. She unbuttoned her blouse again. Just . . . tell me what to do . . . Terrified. She was terrified. Stefan made himself smile warmly, and he held out an arm wide for her to rest against, but all the time his mind was racing wildly through options. Terrified meant that she would rebel. He had promised not to use mind control. She would experience agonizing pain; she might even lose her balanced, diamondbright mind.

He was about to put her through hell. What could he do to help her? How could he get her past the fear that was making her rigid in his arm, with little tremors running through her? He knew what she was thinking about: the crystalline fangs with their double sting and the long, frozen moments after as her life substance leaked away.

And then he thought of something. A Plan C, as Elena might have said. Meredith, could you shut your eyes for a moment? he asked, his voice still husky. I wanted to ask you something and its a little embarrassing. I remember one thing Elena told me, and that was that you used towell, to take on her discarded boyfriends for a little while, to comfort them, before turning them lose in the world again. And I was wondering could you think of me that way?

Merediths eyes flew open and her held breath exploded in laughter. You! I fulfill all the requirements, I'm sure. Low selfesteem. Cant sleep, cant eat. I think about Elena night and day. I cant picture myselfeverwanting another girl Meredith laughed and laughed and the tension that had been holding her rigid broke. All right, all right. Youre an Elenasex. Join the very large club. But what can I do for you?

Meredith, my friend, my sane, levelheaded friend . . . for a few minutes, will you pretend with me? Just for a few minutes will you pretend that everything were doing here is not for a desperate cause? Merediths eyes were dark and unreadable. What are you saying, Stefan? What is it you want?

Always so forthright. Stefan felt a wave of relief. Meredith was very close to full womanhoodalthough she had probably been that way since she was twelve or thirteen. She was not a tightly closed blossom, but a fragrant, soft rose in full bloom. He could treat her as an adult.

Would you would you let me kiss you? I He stopped, surprised, because Meredith was laughing again, her dark eyes flashing and sparkling in a rainbow of colors. And then he realized that Meredith was actually closer to crying than merriment. The rainbow glittering was tears. Would I let you? Meredith repeated. Oh, my dear dimwitted friend. Youre serious, arent you? You don't know your own power, do you?

Stefan felt himself flush a little. I don't know what youre talking about. Stefan, let me tell you something. I may be fond of Alaric Saltzmanand someday, someday I may marry him, truebut you can kiss me anytime you like. Yes, Ill pretend with you, Stefan. If I'm going to die tonight or tomorrow, I would be glad to go having a memory of comfort instead of fear.

She understood that it could be either. That was the important point. And when she rested back into the crook of Stefans arm, her body was relaxed. Stefan didn't wait for new doubts or fears to overtake her. He put a gentle hand to her cheek and shut his eyes. Then he bent to his first real kissnot dream, not reveriesince Elena had died. He noted that Merediths lips were soft and surprisingly warmand then there was a sort of silken explosion in his mind. Meredith was opening to him, giving of herself, showing him that Elena was not the only one who could turn a kiss into a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. Or into the garden of Eden; the garden of green valleys which Stefan could glimpse, but never again enter. Heartstricken, he clung to her, and the kiss stretched on far longer than he had ever meant it to. It resonated like a chord so pure and beautiful that it builds and builds until everything is vibrating to its tone, until Stefan felt it in his bones and in his aching body . . . and his aching fangs.

Hazily, he sensed the thoughts of logical, practical Meredithand found them too hazy themselves, with too great a generosity in her, too much willingness to give of herself. They mustnt go straight from this into the bloodfeast.

Even in the daze of Stefans desire for it he knew that much. They had to tune this down. Stefan broke from the kiss.

Meredith made a faint, longing noise and tried to cup his head back down, only to meet in her fingers the steel of a stubborn vampires neck. She sighed, her breath slowing. Then she opened her eyes and he saw the rainbow sheen of tears in their darkness and the dampness on her face.

You cannot do that to Bonnie, she said, with a tremor in her voice. You cant. Bonnies a little girl. You think? Youll find out. Bonnie was born a womanin certain areas. Yes, she dots her is with little hearts. But, maybe because shes psychic, or a witch, or whatever, shes grown up in that one matter.

Stefan laughed, glad to see that they were both calming down. As for Bonnie, it wasnt even worth arguing over: giddy Bonnie of the flashflood emotions; Bonnie who was a sweet bubbly child, nothing more. All right, he said amiably. I wont. But before I forgethe held Merediths eyes and waited a beat and then saidthank you. Thank you, Meredith returned and for one moment her eyes misted over. But she had regained her composure, although her olive skin was still flushed and her breathing still slightly unsteady. Now I know that Elena wasnt just bragging on you. And now I'm embarrassed.

Youre not. You must have heard it, in all sorts of ways, from all sorts of girls. Over all sorts of centuries. Stefan, with those dark eyes on him, felt his own skin flush. He met Merediths gaze squarely. I wont lie to you. Its atoolin the repertoire of vampire tricks. Usually. But that was . . . the meeting of two kindred souls in lovingkindness,

I think. And I thank you. Meredith gave a longer sigh. Sometimes I wonder if anyone can catch a vampire unawares without a snappy answer.

Ive been playing this particular game forhe smiledall sorts of centuries. And thats usually how its started, is it? Getting the blood you need. Under the guise of romance? Or straightout mind control. He wasnt happy talking about this, but Meredith had the right to ask whatever she liked of him, as long as they got on with it soon. And sometimes you feel things strongly, like just now, just like a human Almost just like a human. Stefan could hear the undercurrent of savagery in his own voice.

Meredith ignored it. And when youre drinking blood and youretempted to go too faryoure able to keep your head? The way you did a few minutes ago when I wanted to go on kissing and you wouldnt let me? Stefan stared at her.

It was one of the most courageous things hed ever heard done in cold blood, Meredith asking that question. He knew Meredith would rather not think about the bloodfeast at all, and certainly would rather not talk about it. And he knew she didn't want to think about the consequences of this particular feeding.

He shook his head slightly. Hed underestimated her again. And now he had to face the question, too, and it didn't matter that the situation had been forced on him, against his most violent objections. Meredith was right: he had been tempted a few minutes ago.

He was tempted now. The memory of Merediths blood, pulsing in the thin, soft skin of her lips; the warmth of it pulsing against his moutheven now pulsing in the graceful olive column of her throat . . . Dear God, did she even know how she tempted him? Her dark eyes said she did and that she was sorry . . . and frightened. Almost against his will, Stefan put up a hand to touch her cheek again. It was wet, and that was his fault. He shut his eyes in pain, then spoke between set teeth. Meredith, Ive been doing this for a long time. And as you said, I was able to control myself before. I think I can promise you safety, or we wouldnt even be here having this discussion. II never took enough to truly endanger Elena under normal conditions, and He winced and stopped. And I'm not Elena, however tempting. No

I understand, Stefan. I wasnt being catty. Youve comforted me. And I think wed better start now, while I'm comforted. Meredith . . . I remember what you wanted. To think of Elena, just in daytoday situations from the years you never saw her. And theres something I want, if I'm allowed to ask. Of course. Let me hold you, Stefan. Let me think aboutlovingkindnessand banish any thoughts about Grandfather from my head. I know, I can see what youre going to say It would be so easy if you would let me nudge your mind first. I could lock out any thoughts like that.

Meredith shook her head slowly but decisively. No fiddling with my mind. You can read whatever I'm thinking about Elena Then youll have to call to me. It should be easy enough once Ive taken a little of your blood. Our minds will be separate, but close, and if you call Stefan! I should hear you. Other than that, I swear, I wont even sense your thoughts. Ill put all my energy into it. Thank you. Truly. Ill trust to your . . . talents and to our love for Elena. This minds the only one Ive got and I don't want to mess with it.

Stefan groaned inwardly, made himself smile wanly for Merediths sake. And then he took her into his arms. He held her tightly. Elena had liked this, sometimes, feeling the ghost of his true strength, knowing that it could be increased a hundredfold to crush her, and that it never would.

Meredith had said she would trust to his talents. Well, given the earlier conversation, that couldnt have been plainer. Elena, help me, Stefan prayed. This young woman was your closest living confidante. Help me not to hurt her, help me to give her what she deserves: a few minutes of safety and happiness in the middle of a nightmare.

Then he trusted to instinct. With sudden boldness, he kissed Meredith, but so lightly and so briefly that it left her with her neck stretched, her lips parted to make a sound of disappointment. . .

Which never came. Since that first kiss his canines had been aching fiercely in his jaw, and hed been ashamed and afraid that they were distorting his speech. Now he simply let a tiny part of his instinctive desire slip the leash, and he struck once, teeth biting deeply into the arch of Merediths tanned throat. Meredith gasped once in painand then gasped once more.


Meredith

Meredith had feared, after that kiss, that the next part would be altogether too much for her. But it was a different kind of experience entirely, and Meredith understood that she had been wrong in trying to force a romantic aspect onto the bloodfeast. For these few momentsfew hours or days, as far as she could tellshe was not Stefans sweetheart, she was not even Stefans friend joined in lovingkindness.

She was prey. Stefan was the predator and she was his victim. Of course, Stefan was a thinking predator, and as gentle a soul as had ever had to develop a hard shell in selfdefense, but he was a predator just the same.

He had successfully fought his genes so that he was not simply a graceful, expert killing machine every time hunger drove him to appease it. But just the samethe romance that had made him and Elena a sort of legendary modernday

Romeo and Juliet had come from another part of their selves entirely, Meredith thought. Elena had fallen in love with the beast despite the fact that he was, and would forever remain, a beast: a hunter, sniffing the wind, evaluating the odds, looking for the weak members of the herd. He was a different sort of being altogether than a human, and Meredith knew then that she could never do what Elena had done. She could never entirely trust; could never entirely relax with; and she could certainly never fall in love with a being like Stefan Salvatore. And now it was Merediths job to submit to this creature: to an intelligent being, a person, but not a human.

To try and distract herself, she wondered what name the scientists might give this variation on humanity, on homo sapiens sapiens. Homo sapiens vampiris? Oh, come on, Meredith, what was the Latin for vampire? Homo sapiens lamius? Maybe they wouldnt bother with tradition and would go for a word that simply denoted what the new beings were: homo sapiens raptoror homo sapiens superioris. They would undoubtedly take over the world if they could find a way to reproduce fast enough, and to cooperate with each other. For that matter, Meredith wondered that they hadnt already taken over. There was no question that the creatures were more intelligent than humans, quicker, stronger, higher on the food chainoh, that was funny if you thought about it. Anything was funny if you had to think about it in this situation. What was being demanded was perhaps the ultimate submission, that she give her very blood to one of these creatures; that she remain still while skewered like a grub on the toosharp canines of an insectivore.

She could feel the flow of blood, yes, and she could feel a sort of pleasure in being rid of it, as if medieval theories about leaches and cupping were true and she was overbloated with it. The warm flow was almost pleasant, relaxing. But she was far too aware of her own entire powerlessness, as if she were bound hand and foot, unable to have any say in the control of her own body. And she was far too aware of theinhuman humanwho held her. He was drinking her blood, for Gods sake! She had been relegated to the ranks of FDA products. They could measure her blood donation in terms of nutritional valuehow did you decide what made up a single serving . . . ?

I gave my word, she thought, using the last of her discipline to keep herself from screaming. I gave my word. To save Fells Church. To save other girls from just this kind of . . . rape of their veins. Tears rolled down the sides of her face and fell into her hair, unheeded. And still she lay in Stefans arms, unmoving.

There was no rending pain, at least, so she supposed she was not resisting enough to merit that. But the only thing remotely like pleasure was the desperate thought that soon . . . it must be soon . . . this would end.

And then . . . oh God, she would have enough to think about. Starting with how to look Stefan in the face. Maybe you shouldnt look at him. Maybe you should just pack up your things and run from this town . . .


Stefan

Merediths blood was as complicated a flavor as the color of Merediths eyes. Blackberry wine was Stefans first thought. But it lingered and changed on the palate, becoming dryer, less sweet, more smoky with a hint of bramble. It ended with an aged, mature taste that was entirely individual, entirely indescribable because it was Meredithflavoredand it left him yearning for more.

And it packed quite a kick. Merediths life force was strong. As strong, in its own way, as Elenas had been, because Meredith herself was so strong in both body and mind. She also had something vampires loved in donors, a wisdom that had nothing to do with age. All that combined in the blood to make a heady wine indeed, and tempted Stefan to drink more than he should. He tried not to give in to temptation, but instead to make this last, this bliss that could only be given by those strong in nature, but ready, for whatever reason, to lend their strength and sweetness for a few moments to the hunter.

Elena had been one of the elect. Fearless, adventurous, trusting: she had loved to love, and to romp in Cupids sunny grove as one of his own dreadful adolescent poems had put it. She had liked to tease him; to taunt his canines with featherlight touches until he was half out of his mind with need, before allowing him to breach her veins. Then she would give herself entirely to him, to the experience, glorying in giving all she could give to him, as if she could pour herself out entirely into his veins, so that they were completely intermingled together: one. She had been an artiste; but not out of experience. It was entirely out of love that she had gained her inspiration. She could have made Stefan grovel before her, worship her, abase himself. Instead she had joined her strength to his strength and suffused them both with joy. Elena. . .

. . .was not Meredith. And Meredith had not called for him.

Later, thinking about it, Stefan would count it as one of the few times in his life when he had showed good sense, when he had resisted although every nerve and muscle and sinew inside him was begging him to ignore the gadfly of a thought that told him that something was wrong. That he was failing Meredith.

Meredith was supremely disciplined and compassionate. Perhaps no one else could have remained in the inhuman clutches of a fairytale monster for so long and given so much, without panicking and attacking the monster. Elena had, of course. But Meredith was not madly in love with him, in love with the idea that she could give herself to him with every drop of her blood. And Elenahad thought of him as human. Cursed, but human. Shed been wrong, of course. Damons desire to make her his consort, half of a mated pair of inhuman hunterassassins, had been much more logical. But when had Elena ever been logical? And now he was torturing Elenas best friend.

The thought came to him quite simply and, if not quite in words of one syllable, it was very simple to understand. Meredith was too smart and too disciplined and too logical to struggle, and so he wasnt causing her agony, but it certainly was nothing like the kiss. Meredith was experiencing, in all its raw ugliness, the truth behind the mindillusions that vampires usually used to seduce their victims.

He broke his promise about not reading her mind. He allowed himself to sense just a little of what she was experiencing. She didn't like it.

Panting, stunned, Stefan pulled his head up. Oh, God. I'm so sorry. Meredithoh, my friend, my dear, dear friend . . . The tie of blood was strong enough to allow him to speak without words. But, of course, that was because he was a monster.

He stared down at her, and then, in one motion, he rolled away and was on his feet, frantically licking the evidence of what hed been doing from his lips and teeth. His canines would not retract immediately, but he put all his energy into blunting those razorsharp tips and drawing some of their length back into his jaws. He couldnt remember feeling so ashamed, so caught, since Elena had innocently stumbled upon him feeding.

He was pacing without thinking, the way that a distraught panther paces its cage. He could feel the sting of tears inside his nose and behind his eyes, but what good would it do to cry? He paced, shuddering, until Meredith had finished buttoning up her blouse. And as he did, involuntarily, from the sweetdry aftertaste of Merediths blood dissolving into his body, he unwillingly saw more of her thoughts. He really couldnt help it. As the molecules from her donation fitted into place in his own oxygen receptors, random phrases bubbled up in his mind. Homo sapiens raptor. Top of the feeding chain. Why hadnt they taken over the world already?

She could never entirely trust; could never entirely relax with; and she could certainly never fall in love with a being like Stefan Salvatore. He stopped his pacing; Meredith had finished with her blouse. He was conveniently near the door. He looked at her. His thoughts were tangled in such loops and knots that the only words he could force out were, God, and So sorry.

Merediths cool, incisive intelligence had stripped him bare. She had put him in his place, along with the fox, the cobra, the tiger, and the shark. He knew now that she would never look at him without seeing a deadly snake in the grass and feeling, along with Emily Dickinson, zero at the bone.

He fumbled with the lock as he heard Merediths footsteps on the wooden floor. He had lost Elena, and now he had lost his only links to Elena; because of course he couldnt face Bonnie or Matt ever again. He opened the door for Meredith with a feeling that as he saw her back retreating from him he would see all three . . . Wait. It was just one word, spoken hoarsely, but it froze Stefan like a troll caught by sunlight. It took him a moment before he could compose himself enough to look back into the room.

Meredith was standing up, but she was farther from the door than before. She was standing by the window, looking out as if she were seeking answers in Mrs. Flowers kitchen garden.

Wait, she said again, as if to herself. Stefan, do you thinkthat he can get into our thoughts as well as our dreams? Stefan felt a bound of hope in his chest, followed by the inevitable fall. I don't know. He would have to be very powerful. And we would have to be very vulnerable such as when I'm concentrating all my energies on relaxing and letting myself be controlled by something from the outside?

Stefan studied Meredith for longer this time. He noticed that her eyes did not skitter away from his gaze. She wasnt afraid to look at him.

Is it all right if I come back in? he asked, as if it wasnt his own room and she nodded without hesitation. She wasnt afraid to be alone with him. But despite the warmth that kindled inside him at such signs he had to be rational. Meredith, what you were thinkingI caught some of it. I couldnt help it. And you were right. I'm not human. I'm not the same species as you are. I'm a carnivore that would live only off humans if . . . if I could live with myself that way.

And I am a . . . a xenophobe. She glanced at him as if to see if he knew the English word. Someone afraid of aliens, thats the dictionary definition. But it really means someone afraid of humans from other countries, or people who are just too different. Very suddenly, she put her hands to her face, which wasnt like Meredith at all. Meredith was always in control. Her voice, muffled, went on, I'm ashamed of myself. I know you, and yet I could think all that . . . crap.

And she didn't swear, not even mildly. Stefan began to speak to her to explain that she was the one who was right, and that he was just as alien and dangerous as she had thought, when she took her hands away from her face. I know you, Stefan Salvatore. And if you say that everything I was thinking is true then I have some thinking to do. I cant help but be prejudiced on the side of ordinary humans. But I also owe an apology to the one of your . . . species . . . who is willing to die to save mine.

She walked toward him, her hand held out. Stefan stood mute. Then he took her hand, but instead of shaking it, bent and kissed it. But he was thinking about Elena, and about just how rare she had been. Without him controlling her mind, she had accepted him. Without him controlling her mind, she had seduced himfor that had been, in truth, what had happened. Without the slightest fetter around her mind or body, she had given him her blood, and had delighted in it. Elena had been like a force of nature: take her or leave her for the passionate, cynical, idealistic, selfcentered, generous to a fault, girl that had been her mortal self. A wild tropical storm in rising in a millpond. An orchid in a field of daisies; a gryphon in a herd of sheep. Elena had never been like anyone but herself. And she had absolutely gloried in the moment when she could drop all her defenses and submit entirely to the fate of the quarry caught by the hunterbecause the hunter had been her hearts desire, and because in all other things he was her slave, to cherish or spurn or destroy as she pleased. And Stefan had gloried in that.

They had been a pair of mad little things, in love in a way that was senseless and probably hopeless from the start. First lovefor he now realized that before Elena he had only experienced infatuationon a planetary scale. But it had changed him, he would swear, from a creature who gloomily enjoyed his doom; a zombie that could only remember and remember the time of his humanity, into an approximation of a human beingfor the little time that he had had her.

Maybe I'm insane, he thought, shame always ready to leap for his throat. I helped herafter the first time when she had it all her own wayto do those things. If what they had done equated to madness, as it would seem to, then he had aided and abetted her . . .

Stop it, Stefan! The voice was so sharp it was almost like having Damon mock him, urging him to renounce the role of martyr. Stefan flushed, full of new blood, full of anger And then in shock, glanced upward.

There was no mistaking that voiceor that indignation. Bonnie had been right, his inamorata was here, watching over him. He looked at Meredith to see if she had heard anything and saw that she hadnt.

Who was he to flout one of Elenas edicts? Merediths dark eyes were on him. He said, apropos of nothing, You rigged the drawing of the twigs. You made sure youd be first. She didn't admit it aloud, but he could still pick up thoughts from her mind. Rigorously, he tried to shut his own mind to it. You wanted to see if it was bearable.

This time she answered him. If it would be bearable for anybody except Elena. I think Bonnie will be fine, if you control her mind, and keep it light and romantic. Like the kiss?

She flinched, making him flinch. Then she straightened herself and met his eyes again directly, sparing him nothing. A little lighter than the kiss, she suggested. He wasnt hurt by her reaction; his mind was elsewhere. And Matt? If I can stand itbut, no, Matt isnt sensible. Youre absolutely right. Ive got to stop Matt even if it means hitting him over the head. Hell try to giveand hell be humiliated and mortified when he cant.

Stefan looked away. You were humiliated and mortified? Were being completely honest with each other, arent we? He nodded. Stefanit isnt flattering. Tell me.

I feltwelldisposable. As if, when you were done with me, you would crush me like an aluminum can and toss me in the waste basket. I kept wondering if Id be evaluated by the FDA. I didn't feel like a person anymore.

Stefan could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He wanted to cry. But that was as unfair to Meredith as anything else that had happened. She would end up comforting him, the perpetrator.

don't Stefan, its not that bad. We did it for a reason, a reason wed both agreed on beforehand. So just saying food is all wrong. I guess I was thinking of the other girlsand boysout there who saw a sudden dark shadow in the night And then found themselves being served raw. We do what we do, Meredith. We prey on your species. To usto most of usyou are meat. And for a lot of vampires, youre disposable, a lot of them kill when they feed But youve known that all along, Meredith. You knew how different we were. You knew we were that bad. How could it have come as such a surprise?


Meredith

Meredith thought, partly because knowing something is not the same as experiencing it. And then she thought, because I was hoping I was wrong.

Stefanplease. Whatever your race is, you are not. And some of what I felt was sheer fear and unfamiliarity. No, you were right the first time. Its not something you should have to get used to. Under any circumstances. I'm a Merediths cell phone chimed.

Like an automaton she picked up. Yes? Matt? Yes, were just finishing up here. I know time is running out. Well hurry. She put the phone down and looked at Stefan. The rest of my dinner getting impatient? Meredith just couldnt deal with the selfhatred behind that comment. She turned away. Then, without looking at Stefan, she said, Matt was right, you know. Time is running out. Meredith brushed her hands together to show that she was done. Then she picked up her purse. I have to think a little, Stefan. Then maybe we can talk again. Right, Stefan said dully. She knew he knew without either of them having to say it, that their relationship would never be the same. That they might not have any relationship even if somehow they both survived this night.

He reached to help her into her windbreaker, but she took it from his hands and put it on herself. Her eyes were ashamed and apologetic, but she did it anyway. Somehow she didn't want to be catered to by homo sapiens superioris right now. Stefan, I'm sorry. But no matter what, Ive got to turn Bonnie over to you now.

Bonnie, the smallest, youngest, most fragile of any of them. Stefan opened his mouth, but Meredith was already turning to unlock and open the door by herself. She turned back to say only one thing.

Its the biggest clich in the human world, Stefan, but please be gentle with her. And its not such a big clich, but if you arent, and we survive tonightîówell, then its going to be me coming after you. The meat bites back!

Stefan didn't smile. Silently, he nodded. He could never have guessed what he was promising with that one small gesture.


Bonnie

Bonnie was excited. She was devoured by curiosity, prickling with fear, too impatient to stay in the car, and . . . well, just excited.

She and Elena had taken up boys before Meredith or even Caroline had. Bonnie had been a flirt since kindergarten. And by the time they had hit pubertywell, it was Elenanot Bonniethat got nicknamed Ice Princess for throwing away her boyfriends just before they proposed marriage. (Or, if not marriage, eternal devotion.) Bonnie wasnt an ice princess, she was a firebrand.

And shed had been hearing Elena boast about Stefan for what seemed like years. And now Bonnie was going to get to experience what Elena had said was the ultimate, and she was going to do it safely, for of course Stefan was safe. Stefan was safe as . . . as a deer. Sometimes he was like a deer caught in the headlights, sometimes he was like the rare wild fawns that would let you feed them because they didn't know what you were. She couldnt wait.

She was tramping around the car for the sixtysixth time (oh, surely theyd be done soon! Elena said it was just a matter of teaspoonsfull, and Meredith wasnt the romantic kind to stretch things out!) when she ran into something.

Shed been staring at her feet, so she had to look up to see what it was. And then she had to look up some more. And then she had to decide whether to scream or not. Tracking a woozle? Damon asked her. He seemed perfectly serious. The next time we go around, there will be seventy of them. Bonnie was not about to be distractedespecially by WinniethePooh.

You you Yes, it is I. You left us. I think it was more the other way round. Call it a mutual dissolution of our partnership, anyway.

don't try to confuse me with big words. Youre a traitor; thats what you are. And because of you a girl is dead. And that makes me feel likelike Yes? He looked curious and amused.

Like doing this! Bonnie stepped hard on his insole, wishing she was wearing her party shoes; then backed up and took a running kick at his shin and added an elbow to the ribs.

It was true that this was her method, or her opening method anyway, when she was on dates and boys misbehaved. From here on it went to broken noses, blackened eyes, and . . . well, serious dislocations of the groinal regions. When Bonnie didn't want to play Bonnie didn't play.

Unlike most of her combatants, however, Damon did not scream. He didn't even blink. And he certainly wasnt hopping around cursing, or doubled up moaning in pain. He simply stood exactly as he had been standing and looked at her as he had been looking, curious and hopeful of amusement.

Then he flashed one of his inimitable smiles, onethirtysecondth of a second on, and then instantly off again, and said, And what are you planning to do now? She looked up at him. Matt was in the car, his back to them, probably listening to music if he wasnt under some spell of Damons. Stefan and Meredith were even farther away, andpreoccupied.

Vampires. You just couldnt trust them to feel pain like real people. Even her patented kneetothefamilyjewelspatented because of its speed, force, and a secret second bounce she wasnt demonstrating for anyoneprobably would have no effect. She started to look at Damon again, but suddenly her pointofview was whirling. He had picked her up as if she weighed no more than a kitten and put her down again, facing away from Matt and the house. She felt the whiplash of a bramble. When she looked back at Damon her bravado had undergone a serious change for the worse. She found herself thinking how fortunate but unlikely it would be for Stefan and Meredith to come out on the porch right this very minute. She blinked and found that she was blinking back tears. IllIll put a spell on you, she said in a small voice.

A spell to do what? He reached out and touched her jaw where a jutting tree branch had caught her. Youre bleeding. Bonnie felt her heart begin to gallop. Its nothing. It ought to be taken care of.

Not your way, Bonnie said, and she heard the oddest thinga sort of faint echo to her voice, saying, Not your way. In any case, Damon looked around. So the hero has admitted hes just like the rest of us raptors at last, he said, eyeing the window to Stefans attic room from which surely, any minute now, Stefan and Meredith would be starting downstairs. I don't know what you mean.

Neither do I really. Except that Stefan couldnt keep his vow, could he? He knows he needs to have human blood. We made him do it, Bonnie said fiercely. Matt and Meredith, and, yes, even Elena told him that he had to. And me. Something sparked in Damons eyes. So the lovebirds are having conversations at will now?

Elena talked to him, to order him to do it, Bonnie said, stretching a point. Again, the feeling of rushing through the air, being lifted like a doll, and this time, ending up pinned against a tree. Her arms and legs were much too heavy to try any of the usual selfdefense in her repertoire. And of course there was no chance of screaming. Damons face was close to her. There floated back to her a memory of a much more immature Bonnie saying that it would be so romantic to be killed by someone this handsome. Shed been a little idiot, thats what she had been. God, if she could get her hands on that younger self of hers now . . .

So you made Stefan take your blood, he said, but I'm still just a poor outsider, forced to stalk you for your own good. I havent done it yet, Bonnie said, knowing that she sounded like a kitten spitting rage with all its fur fluffed up. But then she thought of something else. Elena is watching you, she said, combining what she was sure was the truth with the guess of the next question. Elena wants to know what youre going to do tonight. You said you were watching us for our own good. Are you going to help us? Help him? Or just watch?

I really havent decided, Damon said, and Bonnie, looking into those blackasobsidian eyes, felt that this was the simple truth and all bets were truly off with him. And, although tears flooded her eyes and down her cheeks, she wouldnt look away from him. She wouldnt give him the satisfaction of seeing her break down entirely and whisper, But were goners without you . . .

Youd be goners with me, too. He plucked her thought out of the air. You must know that. What youre challenging isnt beatable. Thats the truth, maybe not in words of one syllable but as simply as I can put it without resorting to sockpuppets. Do we understand?

Bonnie was beyond being distressed over personal things. Its the town I'm worried about. Fells Church Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. When youve seen enough of them as I have you develop an indifference. And this miserable place is hardly a dot on the map, anyway. Bonnie looked up angrily but he had already turned on his bland face and his purring, persuasive voice.

If you have blood to give to little brother, then you have blood to give to me, he said, looking at her with lastpuppyintheshopeyes. It doesnt take much, you know. And maybe it will persuade me . . .

There was a word for this kind of exchange, or at least for the closest human equivalent, but Bonnie didn't care. Despite the sharp thought, No!, that flashed across her mind, she looked up at Damon with eyes that were just as round and innocent as hed made his, and cornflower blue to boot. Really? It might persuade you to stay and fight on our side?

It certainly would provide incentive, even if I don't think wed have a chance. And youd truly stay? You wouldnt break your word a Little human, I have never broken my word. Bonnie didn't take time to puzzle over this. She looked into Damons eyesendless darkness there, unpierced by any ray of lightand she told herself firmly that she wasnt going to faint. Damon was very different from Stefan, but what did it matter? Then do it, she said hastily. But do it quick, and somewhere Stefan wont see it. The back of my neck, maybe?

She caught Damon staring at her. Youd Id do anything to help Fells Church. The people here are like my family. Ive grown up with them. And this seems to be the only way I can try to help them. Damon lifted her in his arms and turned her so that she faced away from him. But he did it slowly, as if fighting his way through molasses.

Youre sure? He seemed unable to believe, that after years of wooing Elena and her friends; after courting them and terrorizing them in turn, he had actually won the game. Yes, Bonnie said. Just be quick. Please. What Bonnie was afraid of now was that Stefan and Meredith would finish too soon. Damon had hauled them into a little private clearing, so maybe there might be come excuse to makebut the whole thing would look bad. Boys made things so complicated.

All right. Ill make it quick, Damon said in a dazed way. Then: This will sting at first. I know, I know. Bonnie felt Damons breath on the back of her neck. He was holding up her hair, exposing her neck to the darkness. She shuddered, not because it was cold. Then she felt the touch of his lips there on her spinal cord, cooler than she would have imagined. He kissed her lightly and a wave of feeling went through her. Damon, you let that girl go right now!

It was a voice from above like all the clichs for heavenly voices. It was otherworldly, like faraway bells, like silver. But its command was unnecessary. Damon had already dropped Bonnie and caught her, still falling, this time facing him. Elena didnîít want them to.

Bonnie . . . over to . . . house . . . Damon . . . be ashamed! Elena was fading but her meaning was clear. Damon however, did not look in the slightest ashamed.

Youre still a baby, baby, he told Bonnie lightly, and flicked her nose with his finger in a most insulting way. Actually, he went on, I had already decided not to before she even spoke.. Youre not ripe yet. Blood always tells, and I can tell youre not ready from here. Still He leaned over and graceful as a cat, licked the tiny wound on Bonnies chin. She felt his tongue as a strong silkiness, not at all raspy like a cats tongue, leaving a coolness behind it that turned to warmth.

Bonnie groped for some response. It had to be a good one, since shed just been rejected. But while she was still fumbling for swear words bad enough, Damon winked and said, don't burst a blood vessel trying to make me too mad. After all, some day you will be ripe. And Ive got a good memory. And then, while Bonnie was still groping for some response, he took a step back and was gone, blending in with the darkness.


Stefan

Bonnie? Bonnie! She appeared almost immediately, on her own two feet, and looking entirely unharmed. Well, maybe not entirely. Shed been crying.

Where is he? Stefan caught her shoulders and almost shook them. Damon! He appeared, made some scary noises and then he left. Elenas voice shooed him away.

I don't believe you. Youve been crying. Oh, wellyou know Damon. He always manages to say the exact thing that hurts most.

Stefan gritted his teeth. Why did I let him come over here? I could have stopped him on the other side of the Atlantic Thats all past, came Merediths voice from behind Stefan, and when Bonnie heard it she got a shock. Merediths voice was . . . different. Merediths aura, when she stepped into Bonnies view, was different, too.

He didn'the couldnt have made her a vampire in that short a time, Bonnie thoughtcould he? But that wasnt it. Merediths aura wasnt at all like Stefans, or Damons, either, it was still human. But it had changed in some fundamental way. Meredith was even cooler, more rationalmore distant than she had ever been before. Shed received a shock, Bonnie could tell that. And she was thinking about it. Bonnie wanted to run to her and hug her and hug her until her warmth made its way through the thin layer of ice that seemed to coat Merediths body. Had Stefan done this to her? Stefans aura was certainly sorrowful, but Meredith wasnt angry with Stefan. What had happened between them?

Next shift, she said, in the high light voice of someone trying to distract them all. She took Stefans arm in hers and started toward the light of the door, almost dragging him along. She couldnt help being playful and ditzy, but she allowed her personality full rein. And her anatomy only helped: diminutive stature, that mop of strawberryblond hair; not to mention her heartshaped face with its delicate features and those huge cornflower colored eyes. And she seemed younger than the restor she could seem young. If she wore lose sweaters to cover her blossoming young femininity, and chattered in a quick, high voice without ever censoring a thing that came into her head, people forgot how old she really was and were tempted to muss up her curls while saying that she really was charming or adorableand entirely forgetting that she was over eighteen.

But there was another Bonnie beneath that one, and even another still beneath the Bonnie that liked fast cars and fast boys, and that was the one her friends would recognize the most easily. It was this deepest Bonnie who had envied Elena and Stefan, not for their fairytale relationship, but for the stability that she could sense in it. A Bonnie who was, at heart, a woman, and who had been one for a long time.

And Damon had just thrown a challenge to the womanly Bonnie. She could feel the hurt, hot rage burning inside her as she walked with Stefan up the staircase, his arm in hers. Elena? she called. She was furiously calculating if the plan that had just occurred to her might possibly hurt anyone.

Elena? Silence. Can you hear me? Silence. Elena theres a Plan B I want to try with Stefan, but I don't know if youll be mad. Ill forget about it right now if youll be mad. Nothing. Bonnie tried to think other colors and forms in her mind, to change channels. Sometimes it worked.

Elena, if I don't hear from you I'm going to try it. I cant think of anyone else that it might hurt, and it might do Stefan some good. Still no presence from Elena. Bonnies heart sank suddenly. Are you leaving this entirely up to me? That would be just like you and Meredith. You would say it would help me grow up to know what I want.

Silence all around her. No one present except herself and Stefanalone together, as they said. All right, then. I'm taking you all on. This is my responsibility, and only mine. Which was all part of being a woman. Stefan was watching her. He had seemed startled by her eagerness from the beginning, but probably putting it down to wanting to get it over with. But now, with the door shut and locked behind him, he was watching her, with distinctly worried eyes. As she walked around the room and ended up on the worn, creaky old couch, his aura was burning a puzzled yellow. She wondered whether to feign nervousness, and then decided she didn't have to feign it. She looked up at him, with her stillwet, stillcornflowerblue eyes at their widest.

Plan B was what the girls called a blitzkrieg plan. I tangled the tie of my windbreaker before, and now I cant see to untie it, she said. And thats the absolute truth! she thought. Yes, if you don't ask exactly when before was. He untangled it, necessarily standing close to her. All boys were tall compared to Bonnie, but Stefan was just the right height for leaning her head against his shoulder, and so straight and slim and somehow pliantlike a ninja or a panther or something that had to be ready to move in any direction at once. And he smelled wonderfully good. That was one of the most important things to the deepest Bonnie: smell. And another, which he also had, was voice. Stefan was a virtuous knight, faithful to the memory of his Elenabut he also had a voice that could melt butter right out of the refrigerator. Yes, we have no problems here. I'm attracted to him. Butcould he ever be attracted to me?

Bonnie slid off her windbreaker, and then, watching Stefan under her eyelashes, undid the one big button of her jade green sweater, and began to pull it over her head. Stefanas expectedmade an incoherent noise of protest. That was one advantage she had. She was a gabbler. She could talk the hind leg off an elephant given the chance, and Stefan was a polite listener who didn't like to interrupt. Its okay, silly, Ive got another top on underneath it, she said and finished shrugging the sweater off.

This was technically true. She had a camisole on underneath it; a very pretty cream colored one, with knots of ribbon and lace decorating the bodice. She usually wore it with a sweater when the weather could change suddenly and she could whip on a lighter top over it. She just hoped that Stefan didn't know enough about modern womens underwear to recognize it as notexactlyoutdoorwear.

Especially when the only thing under the camisole was Bonnie. It seemed that Elena had neglected this area of his education. Bonnie mentally wiped sweat off her forehead. Its a pretty top, Stefan said. But the evenings are chilly up here It shouldnt take long. And well keep each other warm, Bonnie said. Oh, Lord, had she just said that? From Stefans expression she had. Bonnieit isnt

He didn't even stand a chance against lips that had kissed the Blarney Stone. I know it isnt, she said. But before webefore you take my bloodit was good to get that in here at the beginning, to remind him of the debt he owed herI was wondering if we couldjust sit together for a minute or two. So I could get used to you. Thats the problem with Damon. He just looms and then grabs, and theres no question about what he wants and when he wants it. Thats it! she cheered herself mentally. Youve got him on the ropes; keep socking him!

The last thing Stefan wanted to be was to be like Damon. Of course, he said, switching off the toobright lamp, and sitting down beside her. The memory of Damons Don Juan maneuvers at the pensione, bringing in a new girl every night, sitting close to her on a soft, deeplyupholstered couch, and looking deeply into her eyes, while talking in a catvelvety voice about this and that, all slid right out of his mind. He was with Bonnie, little Bonnie, and he was making her comfortable before she did him the greatest favor a human could do a vampire.

Bonnie was looking up at him with eyeswhile not Elenas bluevioletwere a marvelous color all of their own. Pure, innocent eyes. She edged a little closer to him, still looking up. She seemed to find something fascinating about his face. Stefan? she said softly. While werewhile youreyou knowthen well be able to talk with our minds, wont we?

We should. But I understand perfectly if you don't want me to read your mind at all. But I dofor a special reason. She was wearing some scentor maybe it was just the scent of her skin. And that skin! Even more transparent than Elenas; even less tanned. Stefan could spend all night tracing the blue, pale and darker of the veins that wandered beneath her skin. He was especially mesmerized by the veins in her throat; but he also found somehow that it struck him to the heart to see the blue lines at her temples, throbbing in rhythm with her heart. He knew he would never forget this moment, watching the utter vulnerability and utter trust he was being shown.

Having been a telepath forwell, probably all my eighteen years, Bonnie was saying (and chalking up another point to herself for having gotten her age in so neatly and unforgettably), Ive learned one or two things. And one is that I'm very good at visualizing. I was thinking that while we were joined by sharing blood, I might think of some pictures of Elena, some things we did, things that happened before you came along. He hadnt responded. Bonnie felt an awful plunge from her heart literally to the soles of her feet. Her pulse was suddenly hammering. What if he already had all he needed of Elena? What if old memories would only bring him pain?

But then she looked at his face. He was gazing down at her as if he were about to kneel on the ground before her. He lifted fingers to his lips, and she realized, tears rushing to her eyes, that it was to keep his upper lip from trembling. He probably doesnt want me to look at his face just now, Bonnie thought. She looked at her own lap instead, and at the four or five dark splotches teardrops had made on her jeans. She sniffled.

And then she felt pain, a crushing pain in each arm, as Stefan took hold of her arms. Youd do that for me? Youd let me read your mindmaybe even go a little deeper and watch the pictures like movies? I swear I wouldnt be reading your mind. Id be looking through your eyes and your ears at Elena. Shes the only thing I Stefan broke off and said something in Italian.

Sorry? I said . . . I was a clod. Only I cant repeat a more exact translation. Bonnie, please tell me you know what I mean. Tell me its all right. Its all rightI suppose, Bonnie said slowly. Stefan stared at her, obviously wanting desperately to fix things, not knowing how to begin to go about it.

Id like, Bonnie said, feeding him his lines, to think that you cared something about me. And not just as Elenas friend, either. As Bonnieas myself. No one could have mistaken Stefans fervor. I do, I do care about you. His voice was muffled against the top of her head. You are one of the few, the dearest friends that I have, and I love you.

Not really. Yes, really. Youre hurting my arms. Oh, God, I'm so sorry. She was taking a chance here: he might try to rub the pain away, or he might even have run off to find some homemade cure for achesnpainsntherheumatiz. But instead he took her into his arms, exactly on cue, and Bonnie did the rest by shifting her weight so that she was sitting on his lap instead of beside him.


Stefan

What a cuddly bunny she was, this little lass that he could pick up with one hand. And how kind. And what a witch. He knew that Meredith could not have told Bonnie what it was he wanted. Damon couldnteven if Damon could somehow find out, the last thing he would want was for Stefan to get ahead of him that way, to have even more intimate memories of Elena than he did.

That left Elena, and Bonnie would have told him if it had been Elenas idea. Scratch that, if Bonnie had known it was Elenas idea. There was a core of bright warmth at Bonnies center that burned away any kind of black falsehood. Maybe that was what kept her so warm. Here she was, dressed in less than he was, really, but radiating heat like a contented, purring cat. That last thought gave Stefan pause. It didn't seem right, for him to be dressed in his Tshirt while she was wearing only a camisole.

He had been startled when shed taken off her sweater. But the next moment he had seen the gesture for what it was, a sign to convey familiarity and trust. The girls wore them all the time outside in the summer, it surely couldnt be improper here. He could never be sure whether his next move was the kind of noble gesture like that of the Victorian host throwing down knife and fork as a savage guest began eating with greasy fingers, or whether it was from far more human needs. He pulled back slightly and stripped off his own Tshirt.

Bonnie looked at him with wet, wondering eyes. He smiled a little and said, It seemed I was overdressed with you just in the camisole. I can get an undershirt if you like but I promise you, in the name of all I hold dearthat nothing else is going to come off. She nodded and shut her eyes, putting her head against his shoulder. Then she reached up and lightly ruffled his hair. I always wanted to do that, from the first day I saw you, she said. Andthis, too. She stretched herself tall in his lap and lightly, softly kissed him on the mouth.

It took him a little by surprise. She was flushed, the blood glowing in her skin, radiating warmth, soaking from her into him. When she shut her eyes and tilted her head back he didn't need anyone to prompt him. He found that this cuddly kitten was also a very kissable young woman. Moments flowed and floated. And then Bonnie said, rather short of breath, Do it now. don't ask if I'm sure. Right here, now.

And then there was a long time of pure rapture. Bonnies blood was sweet as honey and strawberries, and she wasnt afraid or controlling herself, or holding anything back. She was giving the blood he needed for life itself without any confusion or doubt or anger. She even rememberedhow could she remember anything?to think about Elena, horseback riding, at a birthday party, gliding gracefully up to become Queen of some or other school function. More, she gave him the key; the mental combination, to her master memories about Elena. Now, whenever the two of them agreed, she could enter trance and he could rummage through her memories of Elena as he liked.

It was almost too much. It was too much. It enticed him to linger and linger, to let the strawberryhoney liqueur he was lapping, tippling, keep running down his throat. Sstefan? Dearheart. Bonniedearheart, he qualified, as if to show that he knew her. Stefandearheart . . .

How can I ever thank you enough? Bonnie, Ill go to my death happily tonight. I can never make it up to you, but I can certify that youre already an angel. I made you happy, then. Can you have any doubt? This is what it can be when two . . . well, I wont say lovers because we arent, not in the conventional sense. But this is what it can be when theres no fear, only love.

Andyou don't think I'm just a little girl? If Id thought that youd never have gotten your sweater off. Youre a woman, even if youre still a girl. Some girls are. And some women of fifty are still girls. She sighed and lapsed back. I'm glad, she whispered. And you be sure that Damon knows it, too.

What does Damon have to dohe began and then sensed something more urgent. He felt wonderful, yes, but when he calculated how much of her blood he had taken he nearly panicked.

Bonnie? Lets not talk just now, Stefan. Bonnie, my titianhaired angel, we have to. Ive done something awful. I took far too much of your blood. It can make you seriously ill, and theres only one thing I can do to help youif you consider it help. There was a sluggish response.

He shook her. Bonnie, Bonnie dearest, don't go to sleep! Stefan kissed her on the mouth, hard, hoping that indignation or some other emotion would wake her. But Bonnies lips were soft and warmand partedunder his. Oh, nonot now. He had to wake her up Or maybe not.

Maybe it would be easier while she was still halfasleep. Stefan used the fastest means of opening one of his own veins; a stillrazor sharp canine drawn up his forearm. Blood trickled from the wrist and he held it to Bonnies lips while her eyes were closed. Bonnie swallowed, and then her hands came up like a babys and she held his arm herself, drinking the only remedy Stefan knew for what hed done, other than a fullscale human hospitals transfusion.

Bonnie swallowed again, greedily. Stefan, in trying to calculate how much she needed, realized he had perhaps panicked unnecessarily. He hadnt taken enough to really put her in danger. And Bonnie didn't need all that much. Her blue eyes opened, then opened wide. There was surprise in them, but not thanks to any gods that wererevulsion. After another moment he began the gentle struggle to get his wrist back. Elena had described to him once what vampire blood did to humans after their first prejudice had been overcome, and he was able to understand why it was a struggle to get his arm back from Bonnie. But she was no match for his strength. He stopped the bleeding with a thought and turned back to her. Bonnie? I'm so sorry that was necessary. I took too muchI think. I'm pretty sure. I'm a little confused right now don't worry about it, Bonnie answered simply, and he was astounded to hear triumph in her voice. If you did, well, then I win.

You win? Win what? A bet I made with myself. Sanctioned by ElenaI think. I bet myself that I could make you forgetjust for tonight. Since it may be the last night. Damon told me I was a baby So I became a bet between Damon and you? No! Stefandearheart, no, no, no, never! I told you it was a bet I made with myself. I bet that I was a woman, and that you would treat me like one. Please don't be angry.

I don't know whether to be angry, or . . . oh, Bonnie what you gave me! Those memories . . . And you gave me the knowledge that I'm not a baby. Plus all the fireworks that Elena promised. She said that no one would be afraid if theyd never shared blood with a vampire before. She told the truth. So if I you did take too much, I win, and if you didn't . . . well, I still win. Bonnie hugged herself for pure ecstasy. But how did you know? What a vampire does when he miscalculates? Shocked? Girls talk. Maybe more than guys do; I don't know. I don't either. Are you shocked?

Its quite an experience, waking up to find youre drinking blood. But I was half prepared for it. And now I feel like wrestling elephants. He couldnt help but smile. She was amazing, but telling her that, here, now, was not a good idea.


Matt

Matt had to find his own way up to Stefans crows nest room. The room was dim, and it was hard to see more of Stefan than a silhouette in profile. He seemed to be looking at the dusty window. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to know that Stefan could see perfectly in this semidarkness.

It was even more disconcerting when Stefan spoke.

" Ave, Matt! Morituri te salutant," Stefan said cheerfully.

"Huh?"

"S'joke. A joke," Stefan said, enunciating more carefully. "Latin. Hail, Matt. We who are about to die salute you. Salude!" Matt stared.

"Mer'dith thought it ws funny."

"Meredith knows Latin?"

"Yeah. Merdith"Stefan held up one finger. It was hard to know whether it meant

"don't interrupt" or "let me tell you a few things, starting with . . . " and Matt didn't think he could stand still for a long speech. His heart was already pounding. Damn. Stefan could probably hear that. Probably? What would a vampire be more attuned to hearing than the muscle that pushed around the blood of its prey? Does he know my mouth is dry, too? And that I want to run? Probably, Matt thought, bitterly. They've got senses that make humans look like those worm things that can only tell light from dark. Does he know what that makes humans feel like doing to vampires?

Vaguely shocked, he thought, how long have I wanted to punch him in the mouth? Just once. Just once to see a fist and a vampire falling flat on his ass. Because of a real human person. Not me. Any real human.

But Matt could feel the tingling in his own fist clenched tightly. Stefan had been talking for a while and Matt's brain helped him catch up by providing echoes of what he'd missed.

"Mer'dith knows a lotta things. Very smart. Bright. Ha. That's a joke, too. Ssee? Because she's dark. You know? You don't wanna know. She's dark 'but comely.' Humanss"again that exaggerated hiss on the sibilant"have so many prejudishes. Back in . . . not long ago, you know . . . your basic beautiful woman hadda be fair. Blond. All your lingwylingwalanguage stuff showss how" Matt's hand unclenched. His mind trolled blindly.

"You're drunk!"

"Of coursse not." The silhouette straightened and tipped its chin up aggressively. Stefan spoke with the exaggerated dignity and precision of the truly smashed. "Vampiress don't get drunk. It's just a brief physifizzyfizheo" The silhouette began shaking with silent laughter. Amazement and anger gave Matt all the excuses he needed to do what he was already doing. He grabbed Stefan's dim arm and shook him, then bounced him off the dimmer wall.

"What's wrong with you? Are you crazy? You're supposed to be fighting the fight of your life"

"Stop it."

"How did you even?"

"Stop it."

"What kind of"

"Matt. Stop it." There was something in the voice that spoke directly to the human brainstem, like a dark shadow overhead telling a baby chick to freeze.

Vaguely, Matt looked down at his hands. He had Stefan by the shirt and upper arm and he'd been banging him against the wall. His right hand was gripping Stefan's bicep. It practically went all the way around it. Vampire muscles were flat and lean, their strength was of the slight and wiry sort. It gave the illusion almost of delicacy, sometimes, but now that Stefan had decided not to be bounced against a wall anymore, he was as still as a marble statue and Matt knew that a human would have about as much luck trying to move him. Hazily, he made his fists unclench and dropped his arms. His brain was trying to process too many things at once, but on the top level was shame that made his face burn. That was panic, he thought. I just attacked a vampire because I was scared. And while another part of his mind said, "A vampire? Your friend," a bigger part was asking, "Am I dead now?"

"It's aphysiological reaction." Stefan was making an effort, but he still didn't sound quite right. "It hits right after feeding, and it goes away, but the energy stays." Matt stared at the floor. His eyes were adjusting a little.

"It happens more often when different types of blood are mixed. Every human has a different kind of lifeenergy. Sometimes vampires do it deliberately just for the buzz."

"Yeah? Oh. Humans do that with alcohol."

"Yeah." He's trying to not embarrass me. Matt's teeth were clenched. He still couldn't look up from the floor.

"But I probably should have warned you about it. I wasn't thinking. And it's been . . . a long time since . . . " Matt looked up, and then down again. A long timesince Elena basically, in other words. Stefan sounded normal now. Normal for Stefan, anyway, especially these days when every sentence echoed as if it were coming from miles away, from somewhere where Stefan was alone in a white room with nothing but his memories. And he was practically giggling before. How many times have I ever heard him laugh? In my whole life?

"Matt." Stefan just sounded tired now. "I told you before. This isn't a good idea."

"I remember." Matt made an effort. "Yeah? It's not just your fight, you know. It's everybody's."

"I do actually realize that." The edge to Stefan's voice was a little promising. "I'm breaking . . . a promise, you know, by taking human blood at all. It wasn't my idea. And the girls are both strong." Matt's head jerked up. "What?"

"Meredith has a strong personality, a very strong lifeenergy. And Bonnie's psychic abilities give her"

"No. I know that. But you're saying what?"

"I'm saying it's enough. As you pointed out, I'm already . . . affected."

"You're telling me to fuck off?"

"Don't try to make me angry, Matt. I'm tired"

"That proves you're not strong enough"

"I am tired of dealing with human emotions," Stefan said raggedly. "I've got enough of my own to deal with, especially here. In this town. With her friends." He turned away, leaning against the wall and added almost inaudibly. "I'm tired of having people wonder if I'm going to rip their throats out."

Her friends. People. No mention of the fact that Elena's friends had once been his friends, that he and Matt had been friends. That once he'd asked favors of Matt, things that didn't make any sense at the time, like "Can you drive me to find this particular kind of flower?" That Matt had risked his own life to help Stefan when everyone else thought he was a monster. And Stefan was still trying to be kind; Matt could hear it. The way you're kind to a kid.

"I didn't know," Stefan went on, even more indistinctly, "how much you hated me." Oh hell, oh hell, oh hell. "So now you're reading minds?"

"That's what human blood doesbut, no, in fact. Even before you hit me all I was reading was your bodylanguage." I hit you? Matt squeezed his eyes shut hard. It didn't do any good; he could feel wetness on his eyelids. "I'm sorry."

Silence.

"I'm sorry, all right? I was scared. You used to understand 'scared.'" Before you lost everything. With a sound like letting out breath, Stefan turned. There was another moment or two, as if he were thinkingor listening. "I still understand it, Matt. I still remember everything that happened here. Thank you." Matt had turned away so he could rub at his eyes angrilynot that it made any difference which way he turned, probably. "Can you understand how humans feel around you people? Is there anything you can't do? Is there anything we're better at?"

"We're not people." Matt opened his mouth, shut it again. A little while ago we were all ready to fight the monster that's killing the girls I went to school with. Could I have screwed this up any worse if Id planned it? He plucked at his Tshirt wearily. "Can we just . . . get this over with?"

"I told you, it was enough."

"If you think I'm gonna let Bonnie do something and then run away from it . . . think again."

"Bonnie wasn't as scared." Before Matt could unfreeze long enough to really hit him, Stefan added, "And I don't care as much about what Bonnie thinks of me. Bonnie was Elena's friend."

"Just suck up my blood, all right?"

"I don't want to hurt you."

"Damn!" Matt waved a hand, his brain stalling. He knew Stefan knew how many times he'd been injured; that was part of the game. "Do I have to tell you about how I broke my arm when I was five and nobody knew for about a week because"

"You really don't understand, do you? At least, not consciously. Taking somebody's blood when they're resisting hurts. More than anything you can think of."

"I'm not resisting."

"You will be."

"Just quit with the mindreading or the psychoanalysis or whatever. This could've been over by now."

Matt's eyes had adjusted enough by now that he could make out some features in the dim figure that faced him. He could see Stefan's mouth twist grimly as well as hear the little sound of exasperation.

"Fine. You don't have to take that off. There's a vein in the wrist that works just as well."

Meredith and Bonnie had both been holding a hand to the side of their necks; Bonnie a trifle absently. Matt looked at his dim arms.

"If there's any kind of fighting tonight I'm going to need these."

"Fine. Sit." Matt looked at the bed, then the chair. "I have to sit?"

"No. You can fall if you want. Your choice."

"You really are a bastard, you know? You're trying to scare me."

"Yes," Stefan said, with a terrifying lack of expression. He leaned in. "I am trying to scare you because I would rather scare you than hurt you."

"I don't care if you hurt me!" This was crazy. Matt sat on the bed, tipped his chin back, and shut his eyes like someone awaiting lethal injection. He made his mind as blank as possible.

It seemed a long time before Stefan said, in that same clipped, expressionless voice,

"Fine. Your funeral."

"You know something? From a vampire, that isn't funny."

"I wasn't trying to be funny."

Matt felt him sit on the bed. And then cool fingertips were gripping his jaw, adjusting the angle of his head with the precision and unemotional professionalism of a surgeon. Blank, blank, blank, he thought. His hands were clenched into fists by his sides. How did Bonnie and Meredith do this? How do you hold still and wait for the snake to bite? Bonnie's frightened of thunderstorms; she cries if she cuts her finger. How could they possibly have been better, stronger, more courageous about this? God, you're dumb, something in his brain informed him, and then turned its back on him and refused to say anything else.

The pain wasn't nearly as bad as he'd been imagining. Vampire canines were sharp. And, after all, Stefan knew what he was doing; he did this all the time. Damn, that's it? I got myself all worked up over that? The last time I had bloodwork it hurt way more than that; that idiot doctor couldn't even find a vein. No wonder . . . He felt coolwarmth on the side of his neck and the world exploded in agony. He couldn't breathe. His soul was being ripped out of his body while it was still alive. It stopped.

Matt's mind caught up with the fact that he wasn't dying anymore a few minutes later. He was doubled over, arms wrapped around himself, trying not to sob.

"I . . . told you," Stefan's voice said. Stefan's voice was shaking with anger; he could feel Stefan shaking with anger, and strainand something else. Grief, maybe. Selfhatred. But Stefan's hand was still locked in Matt's hair.

"I'll tell you . . . something else," Stefan said, and Matt could hear the diamondbright edge of fury twisted back on itself in his voice. Stefan leaned down to speak directly into Matt's ear, softly and with a venom Matt had never heard before. "It's . . . not good to offer your blood to a vampire and then expect to back out. We are not . . . nice creatures. We get a certain desire to rip your arms and legs off and" He stopped. Matt felt the fingers in his hair unclench and let go. Stefan stood. Stefan was walking away.

"Wait." It was only one syllable, but Matt impressed himself by getting it out.

"I'm leaving now," Stefan said distantly. It was still a voice designed to raise the fine hairs on the back of a human neck.

"Wait." Matt scrubbed his cheeks with a shrug of both shoulders. It didn't hurt to do that. The wound in his neck was barely trickling. I was right. It's not the snake thing, the needle thing.

"Listen to me, youhuman," Stefan said. It was as if he couldn't find a stronger expletive. He came back and leaned down, deliberately putting one hand on the bed on either side of Matt, invading Matt's personal space. Matt couldn't look up without looking directly into that shadowed face. "You have pushed me . . . far enough. If you push me any farther . . . "

"I know! I'm dumb, all right, but I figured it out. I didn't understand." He shook off what was going to be Stefan pointing out that he had told him and told him. "I didn't get it. I do now. I can do better than that."

"You are really pushing it, Matt. Take my advice, will you? If you are unlucky enough to run into another vampire, do not use this tactic. Ever."

"Try it again."

"How can you be so stubborn? Is it really worth it to prove that you're braver than Bonnie?"

"I know what I was doing wrong."

"You're not going to like it any better if you do it right."

"Just stop talking." Stefan whirled and sat down heavily. He sounded dazed. "I give up. Some people have to learn the hard way." Matt straightened up, hands open on his knees, and tilted his head. He felt again the precise, unemotional fingers on his jaw, but they weren't as cool as before. And he could feel the almost imperceptible shaking. Matt's thoughts, already, confused and in conflict, were now jumping from idea to idea like a frog in a redhot frying pan.

I was right. I knew I hurt him. More than it hurt me, maybe. And I don't know any way to make him understand about humans . . . why doesn't he already know that? I bet Damon knows it. No, I'm stupid. Human blood; he doesn't drink human blood. And maybe a vampire wouldn't get it anyway. To them it's feeding, it's eating. How are they supposed to understand the stuff it gets mixed up with in a human brain? Or that it's different with a guy than a girl, that the whole thing sets off some kind of panic impulse with guys? Here he's trying to save Bonnie and Meredith and everybody, when I'm completely useless, and the only way I can help him is to make him stronger so he has a chance. Not even a chance of living, but a chance of stopping that monster. And what do I do? I hit him. All I needed to do was relax and not hate him, but I couldn't even do that. The girls could do that, but not me.

He opened his eyes. Had he missed it? No, Stefan was just sitting there.

"What now? I told you I was sorry. You still think I'm gonna back out and make you rip my arms off?" Stefan let go. "No, but . . . "

"I told you, I get it. Come on; it's getting late." He could hear the difference in his own voice; he was still embarrassed, but he was talking to a friend, not a demon. Stefan was shaking his head. "Humans . . . "

"Will you just" This time, when he felt the doubleneedle sting, he pushed away thoughts of snakes and scorpions. He thought about the first time he'd seen Stefan, standing up to old Tanner to defend Bonnie. He thought about the alwaysshadowed, always lost look in Stefan's eyes back when Matt had invited him to join a team of humans, and the doubt and confusion turning slowly into belief there. Stefan had wanted to join the human race, but he hadn't expected anybody to welcome him into it. Matt had been the first one to do that.

He kept thinking the same way when he felt Stefan's mouth on his neck, drawing out his blood. He tried not to think of Elena because that was something that hurt uniquelyhis own pain was bad enough, but seeing Stefan's eyes afterward . . . God, nobody should be hurt like that. Matt didn't want to imagine what it took to make somebody's eyes look like that. Back in the days when they tortured people, maybe, there were lots of eyes, on the rack, on the Wheelno, don't think about that. But to see that in somebody you cared about . . . and not to be able to do anything . . .

He heard his own breath break. What was . . . This wasn't . . . He was breathing as if he'd been running hard. He could feel his heart, too, but it wasn't from the fear that had made him so angry when he'd walked in here. Wait . . .

You won't like it any better if you do it right. The world exploded differently. There was still pain, sharper pain in a way, but it was mixed with an even sharper feeling, that was totally unfamiliar. Stefan was sucking his blood out hard, and holding him in place, too, or Matt might have fallen right off the bed. He was pierced to the soul. But somehow that was what he wanted, and all he could think was that he wanted to give more even than he was giving. He didn't want to stop giving and he was aware, vaguely, of the feeling of not being able to breathe. He knew he was flying, and then soaring, and then everything went still, and he writhed like a victim on a sacrificial altar, pierced by a thousand little vampire teeth. And then a single ray of light pierced him body and soul, and he was giving everything he could, everything he was, pouring himself in a greedy frenzy into the darkness of the vampire. And then darkness took his vision.


Stefan

Stefan was waiting for the backlash. He knew it would come. Matt had been in no way ready for this, and, despite his assurances, wouldn't be able to distinguish it from sexual activity. And Stefan had in no way planned to tap Matt's veins. Even in the end, when Matt had proved so stubborn that Stefan's vampire anger had been provoked to teach him a lesson, he hadn't expected Matt to last beyond the first stirrings of pleasure.

But Matt was . . . stubborn. And a born giver, and all he'd been thinking about when Stefan had pierced him was giving. And about Stefan.

And I'm . . . not myself, Stefan, thought, licking his lips and probing for copper sweetness around his canine teeth. It's been so long, and I was so careful with the girls . . . Through the mindlink that sharing blood always enhanced, he had been swept back through Matt's visions of the old days, Matt's perception of him. And that . . . had been a mistake. The deep, illogical fondness Matt had for him, thethe caring, had been something that Stefan had needed more than he realized it. He'd been shaken by how much . . . Can't say it? Too wrapped up in human prejudice? Or is it just the lingering cedarsalty edge of testosterone you've drunk? His mind was a chorus of mockery.

It made him angry in turn, and angrier to realize that he'd drunk more of that testosteronelaced blood than he'd ever meant to, even when basking in the sunlight of Matt's feelings for him. I can say it, he told the voices coldly. He loved me once. I had a friend. And now . . . I've made my friend hate me. When he wakes up, he's going to despise me, and himself, and it isn't going to matter a bit that he's got all his clothes on, and not even a mortal stain except on his neck. He's going to loathe me . . . and himself . . . That hurt, a lot. Stefan fumbled for his sunglasses, even though the evening light was no threat to his now hypersensitive eyes. The room was almost dark, but he could hear Matt's breathing perfectly, changing from the slow regularity of sleep to the lighter, quicker, sounds of a sleeper about to waken. He could turn on the light, leave Matt alone to recover, toreact to this. Maybe that would be kinder.

And certainly a lot more convenient. You really are a coward, aren't you? his mind scoffed. Sometimes his subconscious sounded a lot like Damon. He already had his strategy in line. Sit, don't stand, but at least a couple of bodylengths away. Out of punching distance, not because Matt could hurt him, but because the automatic lunge that Matt was going to make as soon as he woke would hurt Matt. He might even pass out, from rising too quicklyand from lack of blood, Stefan's mind added guiltily. He hated to admit it, but he'd taken that much. And even if he'd thought Matt would be interested in the slightest in the only panaceato take some of Stefan's blood in return, as Bonnie so calmly hadwell, Matt had been unconscious by the time it had occurred to Stefan had to offer it.

Some friend you are. Shut up. He'd probably have been sick all over both of us. His strategy included his expression. Cool, clinical, in keeping with the doctorimages that Matt's own mind had generated. Authoritative. He was planning to use mindcontrol anyway, to keep Matt on the bed long enough to listen, he might as well implant as deeply as he could the ideas that he was the authority here.

He had his litany down, too. He didn't want to imagine the rage, and bright sickness in Matt's eyes that he'd have to be facing, but he knew what he was going to say, and how he was going to say it. I told you so was both cruel and necessary. But then:

"You don't want to talk about it?" Matt wouldn't want to talk about it. "You don't have to. But somewhere, underneath, you're wondering what it all means." And if Matt tried to argue, "If you're not wondering now, then you will be. I was in your mind deep enough to be sure of that." That would shut him up, all right.

"What it means, then. What it means is that you can never tell what's going to happen with humans and vampires, especially if they have any kind of emotional connection. Like our connection with Elena."

And that, he considered, was truly a master stroke. Because it was true. The only problem was whether he could get it out without choking over Elenas name.

"What it doesn't mean may be more important to you." It would be, since Matt would be finished with him by then.

"It doesn't mean you're gay." That was true enough. So far, as far as he could tell, Matt's sexual response had been confined solely to females. He hadn't found any of the conflict in Matt's mind that the tortured, lonely homosexual teenager always had. The need to conform to the norms of a human society that changed its norms every time a vampire looked, and over every national border a vampire crossed.

"It doesn't mean that anything like this will ever happen again." He was pretty sure of that. Matt's own reaction would ensure it, and unless he fell into the grasp of a truly twisted vampire, Matt's only issue would be how to forget.

"You've probably heard the clich that most boys go through some kind of a homoerotic phase during adolescence. You're older than they usually are, which is just more proof that this isn't normal for you." And all that was true, too.

"And, finally, if it was anybody's fault, it was mine. I knew what might happen, even though I thought your hatred of me"would Matt be hating him by thenï◊"might prevent it. And I still went ahead."

Because I didn't think you would, a lonely little voice inside Stefan went on. Because I didn't know I needed it so badly. But that was the end of his litany, and he knew that Matt wouldn't even want to hear that much.

I've made a friend hate me, Stefan thought again, even as the chorus mocked him for wallowing in self pity. He shut it up by summoning all the coldness he could muster, which surprised him. It was, in fact, pretty damn icy cold. I've made a friend hate meand I don't care, he thought, and he could practically feel the blizzard blowing around the thought. I'm going use what made him hate me to save his life.


Matt

"Hnuh?" Matt came awake with a sort of halfsnort, half question. It was dark. He was lying flat on a hard bed, with some kind of lukewarm cloth on his forehead.

"Wha?" That was a better question. And then memory came back, not all at once, but in puzzlepieces, and fuzzy ones.

"There's a Coke on the floor beside you. You might want to drink it for the sugar. But it's best not to sit up yet."

That was Stefan. As for how you drank a Coke without sitting up, he didn't want to try to deal with trying to explain to a vampire. Then he found out two more things. There was something, a jacket, propping his head up, and the Coke had a straw. His hands were a little shaky, and a little damp.

"Youve got your own refrigerator," he said, more because in the darkness and silence he felt somebody had to say something, than out of any surprise. He was still trying to fit puzzle pieces together.

"I have some juice, too. It's better for you, really. I took more blood than I meant to and it'll help you recover." Blood . . . yeah. That's what he was doing here. Being a donor. Because Stefan had to fight a monster . . . and dumb Stefan was planning to do it without any preparation. So they'd all offered . . .

"Where're the girls?"

"Meredith took Bonnie down to the car. She was pretty sleepy." Sleepy. A vampire drinking your blood made you sleepy. Yeah. And it made the vampire . . .

"Hey, you're not drunk anymore." There was a pause, as if Stefan was waiting for something more, or uncertain about something. Then Stefan said, "No. I told you; it burns off pretty quickly."

"Yeah." Despite the Coke, he was still feeling muddled. The darkness and silence when they weren't talking didn't help. Maybe Stefan didn't remember that humans needed light. Dumb Stefan, he thought, vaguely but affectionately.

"Why're you . . . all the way over there?" He squinted in the approximate direction of the voice.

"Because . . . " Stefan suddenly sounded much less cool, which made Matt realize how cool Stefan had been sounding in the first place. He could hear, sense Stefan coming a little closer.

"Matt, how much do you actually remember about what happened?" Now he soundedtorn. Sort of sharp, but puzzled.

"Um." Matt tried to think, turning the puzzle pieces around and around. "You mean about howstupid I was in the beginning?"

"No. I mean about what happened."

"I remember . . . it didn't hurt as much as I thought. Not when I figured out how to do it." Cautiously, Matt sat up, feeling the piece of damp cloth fall away from his forehead. He was a little dizzy, but not sick. He could remember the pain and . . . Suddenly, he was sharply aware of the and.

"Jeez." No wonder his hands were shaky. His gut was shaky.

"Stefan?"

"Yes."

" We . . . we . . . didn't . . . "

"No." Stefan sounded much more like himself. Oh. Okay. Okay? Thats all? Matt felt defensive. Well, what do you want me to say? Thanks a lot for drinking my blood? He made an effort. I appreciate the Coke.

Stefan dropped his face into his hands. I thought you would hate me. Because of . . . but you warned me, didn't you? I figured it was probably like that. Likelike symbiosis or whatever it is. In biology, where the plant makes nectar so the bee gets pollen on it and takes it to the next plant. Right?


Stefan

Wellwell . . . not exactly. Vampires and humans arent natural symbiants. They havent evolved together and all too often the human ends up He realized he should shut up. Telling Matt that humans usually ended up dead or as vampires too was just the opposite of a good strategy.

Oh, Matt said again. Stefan was too drenched in relief to find any fault with the conversation. He was gradually realizing that Matt didn't have the fears for his masculinity that made overcompensation necessary. Matt knew he was male and straight the way he knew he was human and an omnivore that ate certain foods and didn't eat others. He could force himself to take a bite of grass, or even, if the circumstances were drastic enough and survival was at stake, a bite of human flesh. But he wouldnt worry afterward about becoming a horse or a cannibal for life.

Besides, Matt was a giver. Just as Elena had been. Something inside them compelled them to get involved in any situation, to try to make it better. What Meredith had seen in the naked light of logic, and compelled herself to accept, what Bonnie had been able to follow as an adventure, Matt saw as an act of friendship, and an obligation between friends. Elena had always fulfilled her obligations, even to the undead. Stefan was not human, but inhuman or not, he was Matts friend.

Matt was talking again. Look, Matt said. You didn't want to do this tonight. We made you. And maybe there was something . . . somewhere that made us. Involuntarily, Stefan glanced up. Yes, hed had the strong feeling of her presence here tonight, too. Elena. Still scheming from the spirit world. Elena couldnt help him any longer with her blood, but that wouldnt matter to her. She had three humans that she could still influence, and that was fine. It wouldnt matter to her that Meredith got a bit of a shock or that Bonnie might be playing with fire, or evenwell, she wouldnt have done anything to destroy his friendship with Matt, but he hadnt known that before.

Matt was going on. But even though we did force you, you did everything you could for each one of us: three different personalities. No, don't try to figure out if Meredith or Bonnie talked. I could tell. And Meredith is going to be a tough one for a while, isnt she? There were some things gentlemen didn't talk about. But . . . Meredith is tough, Stefan said. Shell figure things out for herself and then Ill do whatever she wants. Assuming, he added dryly, I survive past tonight.

What do you think about your chancesnow? Our chances, I mean. Stefan shook his head, both to convey his opinion about his chances, and his opinion about Matt getting involved. But he tried to think about the question. Matt deserved that. I don't know, but a lot better than before, he admitted slowly. So if Elena did influence things, it might really make a difference. It had better, Stefan thought, remembering Meredith and the naked fear in her eyes in Merediths eyes!

Well, there, Matt was saying. If Elena is behind it all, then its another of her little victories. Everybody did the best they could. You had to try to fit yourself to each person, and we had to face our fears He paused and they spoke in unison. except maybe Bonnie. Matt snorted. Stefan could sense him looking at him.

I don't want . . . to lose a friend. My best friend, I guess you could say, even though I don't see much of him, Matt said finally. Now that took courage, Stefan thought. Overcoming the stereotypes of the culture you were born into, trying not to be defensive, or to run away. Id be proud to have a best friend like you, he said, and Matt smiled, then ducked his head and started fussing with his shoe, his tolerance for mushy type stuff undoubtedly exceeded.

Each of them had done their best. Matt was still his friend. For Meredith, maybe the day would come when she could look at him and not think inhumanor at least not think it immediately and constantly. Maybe Bonnie, the moth, would be able to stay away from the unholy flame. Now, there was something to worry about. He could all too easily see Bonnie taking a walk on the very wild side with Damon. His brother had a soft spot for her already, she knew. But if either of them had a problem, he already knew what he had to do to find a plan for a solution.

Just look up.

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