The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 3)

Later that day Caroline was sitting with Matt Honeycutt, Meredith Sulez, and Bonnie McCullough, all listening to Stefan on Bonnie's mobile phone.

"Late afternoon would be better," Stefan told Bonnie. "She takes a little nap after lunch – and anyway, it'll be cooler in a couple hours. I told Elena you'd be coming by, and she's excited to see you. But remember two things. First, it's only been seven days since she came back, and she's not quite…herself yet. I think she'll get over her – symptoms – in just a few days, but meanwhile don't be surprised by anything. And second, don'tsay anything about what you see here. Not to anyone."

"Stefan Salvatore!" Bonnie was scandalized and offended. "After all we've been through together, you think we'd blab?"

"Not blab," Stefan's voice came back over the mobile, gently. But Bonnie was going on.

"We've stuck together through rogue vampires and the town's ghost, and werewolves, and Old Ones, and secret crypts, and serial killings and – and – Damon – and have we ever told people about them?" Bonnie said.

"I'm sorry," Stefan said. "I just meant that Elena won't be safe if any of you tells even one person. It would be all over the newspapers right away:GIRL RETURNS TO LIFE . Andthen what do we do?"

"I understand about that," Meredith said briefly, leaning in so that Stefan could see her. "You don't need to worry. Every one of us will vow not to tellanyone ." Her dark eyes flicked momentarily toward Caroline and then away again.

"Ihave to ask you" – Stefan was making use of all his Renaissance training in politeness and chivalry, particularly considering that three of the four people watching him on the phone were female – "do you really have any way to enforce a vow?"

"Oh, I think so," Meredith said pleasantly, this time looking Caroline directly in the eyes. Caroline flushed, her bronzed cheeks and throat turning scarlet. "Let us work it out, and in the afternoon, we'll come over."

Bonnie, who was holding the phone, said, "Anybody have anything else to say?"

Matt had remained silent during most of the conversation. Now he shook his head, making his shock of fair hair fly. Then, as if he couldn't hold it back, he blurted, "Can we talk to Elena? Just to say hi? I mean – it's been a wholeweek ." His tanned skin burned with a sunset glow almost as brightly as Caroline's had.

"I think you'd better just come over. You'll see why when you get here." Stefan hung up.

They were at Meredith's house, sitting around an old patio table in the backyard. "Well, we can at least take them some food," Bonnie suggested, rocketing up from her seat. "God knows what Mrs. Flowers makes for them to eat – orif she does." She made waving motions to the others as if to raise them from their chairs by levitation.

Matt started to obey, but Meredith remained seated. She said quietly, "We just made a promise to Stefan. There's the matter of the vow first. And the consequences."

"I know you're thinking about me," Caroline said. "Why don't you just say so?"

"All right," Meredith said, "I'm thinking about you. Why are you suddenly interested in Elena again? How can we be sure that you won't go spreading the news of this all around Fell's Church?"

"Why would I want to?"

"Attention. You'd love to be at the center of a crowd, giving them every juicy detail."

"Or revenge," Bonnie added, suddenly sitting down again. "Or jealousy. Or boredom. Or – "

"Okay," Matt interrupted. "I think that's enough with the reasons."

"Just one more thing," Meredith said quietly. "Why do youcare so much about seeing her, Caroline? The two of you haven't gotten along in almost a year, ever since Stefan came to Fell's Church. We let you in on the call to Stefan, but after what he said – "

"If you really need a reason why I should care, after everything that happened a week ago, well…well, I would think you'd understand without being told!" Caroline fixed shining cat-green eyes on Meredith.

Meredith looked back with her best no-expression expression.

"All right!" Caroline said. "She killed him for me. Or had him called to Judgment, or whatever. That vampire, Klaus. And after being kidnapped and – and – and – used – like a toy – whenever Klaus wanted blood – or – " Her face twisted and her breathing hitched.

Bonnie felt sympathy, but she also was wary. Her intuition was aching, warning her. And she noticed that although Caroline spoke about Klaus, the vampire, she was strangely silent about her other kidnapper, Tyler Smallwood, the werewolf. Maybe because Tyler had been her boyfriend until he and Klaus had held her hostage.

"I'm sorry," Meredith said in a quiet voice thatdid sound sorry. "So you want to thank Elena."

"Yes. I want to thank her." Caroline was breathing hard. "And I want to make sure that she's okay."

"Okay. But this oath covers quite a bit of time," Meredith continued calmly. "You may change your mind tomorrow, next week, a month from now…we haven't even thought about consequences."

"Look, we can'tthreaten Caroline," Matt said. "Not physically."

"Or get other people to threaten her," Bonnie said wistfully.

"No, we can't," Meredith said. "But for the short term – you're a sorority pledge this coming fall, aren't you, Caroline? I can always tell your prospective sorority sisters that you broke your solemn vow about somebody who is helpless to hurt you – who I'm sure doesn'twant to hurt you. Somehow I don't think they'd care for you much after that."

Caroline's face flushed deeply again. "You wouldn't. You wouldn't go interfering with my college – "

Meredith cut her off with two words. "Try me."

Caroline seemed to wilt. "I never said I wouldn't take the vow, and I never said I wouldn't keep it. Just try me, why don't you? I – I've learned a few things this summer."

I should hope so.The words, although nobody said them aloud, seemed to hover over all of them. Caroline's hobby for the entire last year had been trying to find ways to hurt Stefan and Elena.

Bonnie shifted position. There was something – shadowed – behind what Caroline was saying. She didn't know how she knew; it was the sixth sense that she'd been born with. But maybe it just had to do with how much Caroline had changed, with what she had learned, Bonnie told herself.

Look how many times she'd asked Bonnie in the last week about Elena. Was she really all right? Could Caroline send flowers? Could Elena have visitors yet? Whenwould she be all right? Caroline really had been a nuisance, although Bonnie didn't have the heart to tell her that. Everyone else was waiting just as anxiously to see how Elena was…after returning from the afterlife.

Meredith, who always had a pen and paper, was scribbling some words. Now she said, "How about this?" and they all leaned forward to look at the pad.

I swear not to tellanyone about any supernatural events relating to Stefan or Elena, unless given specific permission to do so by Stefan or Elena. I will also help in the punishment of anyone who breaks this vow, in a way to be determined by the rest of the group. This vow is made in perpetuity, with my blood as my witness.

Matt was nodding his head. "¡®In perpetuity' – perfect," he said. "It sounds just like what an attorney would write."

What followed was not particularly attorney-like. Each of the individuals around the table took the piece of paper, read it aloud, and then solemnly signed it. Then they each pricked a finger with a safety pin that Meredith had in her purse and added a drop of blood beside their signatures, with Bonnie shutting her eyes as she pricked herself.

"Now it's really binding," she said grimly, as one who knows. "I wouldn't try to break this."

"I've had enough of blood for a long time," Matt said, squeezing his finger and looking at it gloomily.

That was when it happened. Meredith's contract was sitting in the center of the table so all could admire it when, from a tall oak where the backyard met the forest, a crow came swooping down. It landed on the table with a raw-throated scream, causing Bonnie to scream, too. The crow cocked an eye at the four humans, who were hastily pulling back their chairs to get out of its way. Then it cocked its head the other way. It was the biggest crow any of them had ever seen, and the sun stroked iridescent rainbows from its plumage.

The crow seemed, for all the world, to be examining the contract. And then it did something so quickly that it made Bonnie dart behind Meredith, stumbling over her chair. It opened its wings, leaned forward, and pecked violently at the paper, seeming to aim at two specific spots.

And then it was gone, first fluttering, and then soaring off until it was a tiny black speck in the sun.

"It's ruined all our work," Bonnie cried, still safely behind Meredith.

"I don't think so," said Matt, who was closer to the table.

When they dared to move forward and look at the paper, Bonnie felt as if someone had thrown a blanket of ice around her back. Her heart began to pound.

Impossible as it seemed, the violent pecking was all red, as if the crow had retched up blood to color it. And the red marks, surprisingly delicate, looked exactly like an ornate letter:


And under that:

Elena is mine.