The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 4)

With the signed contract safely tucked in Bonnie's purse, they pulled up to the boardinghouse in which Stefan had taken up residence again. They looked for Mrs. Flowers but couldn't find her, as usual. So they walked up the narrowing steps with the worn carpet and splintering balustrade, hallooing as they came.

"Stefan! Elena! It's us!"

The door at the very top opened and Stefan's head came out. He looked – different somehow.

"Happier," Bonnie whispered wisely to Meredith.

"Is he?"

"Of course."Bonnie was shocked. "He's got Elena back."

"Yes, he does. Just the way she was when they met, I bet. You saw her in the woods." Meredith's voice was heavy with significance.

"But…that's…oh, no! She'shuman again!"

Matt looked down the stairs and hissed, "Will you two quit it? They're gonna hear us."

Bonnie was confused. Of course Stefan could hear them, but if you were going to worry about what Stefan heard you'd have to worry about what youthought , too – Stefan could always catch the shape of what you were thinking, if not the actual words.

"Boys!" hissed Bonnie. "I mean I know they're totally necessary and all, but sometimes they Just Don't Get It."

"Just wait till you try men," whispered Meredith, and Bonnie thought of Alaric Saltzman, the college student that Meredith was more or less engaged to.

"I could tell you a thing or two," Caroline added, examining her long, manicured nails with a world-weary look.

"But Bonnie doesn't need to know even one yet. She has plenty of time to learn," Meredith said, firmly in mothering mode. "Let's go inside."

"Sit down, sit down," Stefan was encouraging them as they entered, the perfect host. But nobody could sit down. All eyes were fixed on Elena.

She was sitting in lotus position in front of the room's only open window, with the fresh wind making her white nightgown billow. Her hair was true gold again, not the perilous white-gold it had become when Stefan had unintentionally turned into a vampire. She looked exactly the way Bonnie remembered her.

Except that she was floating three feet off the floor.

Stefan saw them all gawking.

"It's just something she does," he said almost apologetically. "She woke up the day after our fight with Klaus and started floating. I think gravity hasn't quite got a hold on her yet."

He turned back to Elena. "Look who's come to see you," he said enticingly.

Elena was looking. Her gold-flecked blue eyes were curious, and she was smiling, but there was no recognition as she looked from one visitor to another.

Bonnie had been holding her arms out.

"Elena?" she said. "It'sme , Bonnie, remember? I was there when you came back.I'm sure glad to see you ."

Stefan tried again. "Elena, remember? These are your friends, your good friends. This tall, dark-haired beauty is Meredith, and this fiery little pixie is Bonnie, and this guy with the all-American looks is Matt."

Something flickered in Elena's face, and Stefan repeated, "Matt."

"And what about me? Or am I invisible?" Caroline said from the doorway. She sounded good-humored enough, but Bonnie knew that it made Caroline grind her teeth just to see Stefan and Elena together and out of danger.

"You're right. I'm sorry," Stefan said, and he did something that no ordinary eighteen-year-old could have pulled off without looking like an idiot. He took Caroline's hand and kissed it as gracefully and unthinkingly as if he were some count from nearly half a millennium ago. Which, of course, was pretty much what he was, Bonnie thought.

Caroline looked slightly smug – Stefan had taken his time with the hand kiss. Now he said, "And last but not least, this tanned beauty here is Caroline." Then, very gently, in a voice that Bonnie had heard him use only a few times since she'd known him, he said, "Don't you remember them, love? They nearly died for you – and for me." Elena was floating easily, in a standing position now, bobbing like a swimmer trying to keep still.

"We did it because we care," Bonnie said, and she put her arms out again for a hug. "But we never expected to get you back, Elena." Her eyes filled. "You came back to us. Don't youknow us?"

Elena floated down until she was directly in front of Bonnie.

There was still no sign of recognition on her face, but there was something else. There was a kind of limitless benediction and tranquility. Elena radiated a calming peace and an unconditional love that made Bonnie breathe in deeply and shut her eyes. She could feel it like sunshine on her face, like the ocean in her ears. After a moment Bonnie realized she was in danger of crying at the sheer feeling ofgoodness – a word that was almost never used these days. Some things still could be simply, untouchablygood .

Elenawas good.

And then, with a gentle touch on Bonnie's shoulder, Elena floated toward Caroline. She held out her arms.

Caroline looked flustered. A wave of scarlet swept up her neck. Bonnie saw it, but didn't understand it. They'd all had a chance to pick up on Elena's vibes. And Caroline and Elenahad been close friends – until Stefan, their rivalry had been friendly. It wasgood of Elena to pick Caroline to hug first.

And then Elena went into the circle of Caroline's hastily raised arms and just as Caroline began to say "I've – " she kissed her full on the mouth. It wasn't just a peck, either. Elena wrapped her arms around Caroline's neck and hung on. For long moments Caroline stood deathly still as if in shock. Then she reared back and struggled, at first feebly, and then so violently that Elena was catapulted backward in the air, her eyes wide.

Stefan caught her like an infielder going for a pop fly.

"What thehell – ?" Caroline was scrubbing at her mouth.

"Caroline!" Stefan's voice was filled with fierce protectiveness. "It doesn't mean anything like what you're thinking. It's got nothing to do with sex at all. She's just identifying you, learning who you are. She can do that now that she's come back to us."

"Prairie dogs," Meredith said in the cool, slightly distant voice she often used to bring down the temperature of a room. "Prairie dogs kiss when they meet. It does exactly what you said, Stefan, helps them identify specific individuals…."

Caroline was far beyond Meredith's abilities to cool down, however. Scrubbing her mouth had been a bad idea; she had smeared scarlet lipstick all around it, so that she looked like something out of aBride of Dracula movie. "Are you crazy? What do you think I am? Because some hamsters do it, that makes it okay?" She had flushed a mottled red, from her throat to the roots of her hair.

"Prairie dogs. Not hamsters."

"Oh, who gives a – " Caroline broke off, frantically fumbling in her purse until Stefan offered her a box of tissues. He had already dabbed the scarlet smears off Elena's mouth. Caroline rushed into the small bathroom attached to Stefan's attic bedroom and slammed the door hard.

Bonnie and Meredith caught each other's eye and let out their breaths simultaneously, convulsing with laughter. Bonnie did a lightning-quick imitation of Caroline's expression and frantic scrubbing, miming someone using handful after handful of tissues. Meredith gave a reproving shake of her head, but she and Stefan and Matt all had a case of themustn't-laugh snickers. A lot of it was simply the release of tension – they had seen Elena alive again, after six long months without her – but they couldn't stop laughing.

Or at least they couldn't until a tissue box sailed out of the bathroom, nearly hitting Bonnie in the head – and they all realized that the slammed door had rebounded – and that there was a mirror in the bathroom. Bonnie caught Caroline's expression in the mirror and then met her full-on glare.

Yep, she'd seen them laughing at her.

The door closed again – this time, as if it had been kicked. Bonnie ducked her head and clutched at her short strawberry curls, wishing the floor would open up and swallow her.

"I'll apologize," she said after a gulp, trying to be adult about the situation. Then she looked up and realized that everyone else was more concerned about Elena, who was clearly upset by this rejection.

It's a good thing we made Caroline sign that oath in blood, Bonnie thought. And it's a good thing that you-know-who signed it, too. If there was one thing Damon would know about, it was consequences.

Even as she was thinking this, she joined the huddle around Elena. Stefan was trying to hold Elena; Elena was trying to go after Caroline; and Matt and Meredith were helping Stefan and telling Elena that it was okay.

When Bonnie joined them, Elena gave up trying to get to the bathroom. Her face was distressed, her blue eyes swimming with tears. Elena's serenity had been broken by hurt and regret – and underneath that, a surprisingly deep apprehension. Bonnie's intuition gave a twinge.

But she patted Elena's elbow, the only part of her that she could reach, and added her voice to the chorus: "You didn't know she'd get so upset. You didn't hurt her."

Crystal tears spilled down Elena's cheeks, and Stefan caught them with a tissue as if each one was priceless.

"She thinks that Carolineis hurt," Stefan said, "and she's worried about her – for some reason I don't get."

Bonnie realized that Elena could communicate after all – by mind-link. "I felt that, too," she said. "The hurt. But tell her – I mean – Elena, Ipromise I'll apologize. I'll grovel."

"It may take some groveling from all of us," Meredith said. "But meanwhile I want to make sure that this ¡®angel unaware' recognizesme ."

With an expression of tranquil sophistication, she took Elena out of Stefan's arms and into her own, and then she kissed her.

Unfortunately, this coincided with Caroline stalking out of the bathroom. The bottom of her face was paler than the top, having been denuded of all makeup: lipstick, bronzer, blush, the works. She stopped dead and stared.

"I don't believe it," she said in scathing tones. "You'restill doing it! It's dis – "

"Caroline." Stefan's voice was a warning.

"I came here to see Elena." Caroline – beautiful, lithe, bronze-limbed Caroline – was twisting her hands together as if in terrible conflict. "Theold Elena. And what do I see? She's like a baby – she can't talk. She's like some smirking guru floating in the air. And now she's like some kind of perverted – "

"Don't finish that," Stefan said quietly but firmly. "I told you, she ought to be over the first symptoms in just a few days, to judge by her progress so far," he added.

And hewas different, somehow, Bonnie thought. Not just happier to have gotten Elena back. He was…stronger somehow at the core of himself. Stefan had always been quiet inside; her powers sensed him as a pool of clear water. Now she saw that same clear water built up like a tsunami.

What could have changed Stefan so much?

The answer came to her immediately, although in the form of a wondering question. Elena was still part spirit – Bonnie's intuition told her that. What did it do if you drank the blood of someone who was in that state?

"Caroline, let's just drop it," she said. "I'm sorry, I'm really, really sorry for – you know. I was wrong, and I'm sorry."

"Oh, you'resorry . Oh, that makes everything all right then, doesn't it?" Caroline's voice was pure acid, and she turned her back on Bonnie with finality. Bonnie was surprised to feel the sting of tears behind her eyes.

Elena and Meredith still had their arms around each other, their cheeks wet with the other's tears. They were looking at each other and Elena was beaming.

"Now she'll know you anywhere," Stefan told Meredith. "Not just your face, but – well, the inside of you, too, or the shape of it, at least. I should have mentioned that before this started, but I'm the only one she's ¡®met,' and I didn't realize – "

"You should have realized!" Caroline was pacing like a tiger.

"So you kissed a girl, sowhat ?" Bonnie exploded. "What do you think, you're going to grow a beard now?"

As if powered by the conflict around her, Elena suddenly took off. All at once she was zipping around the room as if she'd been shot from a cannon; her hair crackled with electricity when she made sudden stops or turns. She soared around the room twice, and as she was silhouetted against the dusty old window, Bonnie thought,Oh, my God! We've got to get her some clothes! She looked at Meredith and saw that Meredith had shared her realization. Yes, they had to get Elena clothes – and most especially underclothes.

As Bonnie moved toward Elena, as shyly as if she'd never been kissed before, Caroline exploded.

"You just keep doing it and doing it and doing it!" She was practically screeching by now, Bonnie thought. "What'swrong with you? Don't you have any morals at all?"

This, unfortunately, caused another case of thedon't-laugh-don't-laugh choked giggles in Bonnie and Meredith. Even Stefan turned away sharply, his gallantry toward a guest clearly fighting a losing battle.

Not just a guest, Bonnie thought, but a girl he'd gonepret-ty darn far with, as Caroline hadn't been shy about letting people know when she'd gotten her hands on him. About as far as vampirescould go, Bonnie remembered, which was not the whole way. Something about the blood-sharing substituting for – well, for Doing It. But he wasn't the only one Caroline had bragged about. Caroline was infamous.

Bonnie glanced at Elena, saw that Elena was watching Caroline with a strange expression. Not as if Elena were afraid of her, but rather as if Elena were deeply worriedabout her.

"Are you all right?" Bonnie whispered. To her surprise, Elena nodded, then looked at Caroline and shook her head. She carefully looked Caroline up and down and her expression was that of a puzzled doctor examining a very sick patient.

Then she floated toward Caroline, one hand extended.

Caroline shied away, as if she were disgusted to have Elena touch her. No, not disgusted, Bonnie thought, butfrightened.

"How do I know what she'll do next?" Caroline snapped, but Bonnie knew that wasn't the real reason for her fear. What do we have going on here? she wondered. Elena afraidfor Caroline, and Caroline afraidof Elena. What does that equal?

Bonnie's psychic senses were giving her gooseflesh. There was somethingwrong with Caroline, she felt, something she'd never encountered before. And the air…it was thickening somehow, as if it were building up to a thunderstorm.

Caroline made a sharp turn to keep her face averted from Elena's. She moved behind a chair.

"Just keep her freakin'away from me, all right? I won't let her touch me again – " she began, when Meredith changed the whole situation with two quiet words.

"Whatdid you say to me?" Caroline said, staring.