The Struggle (Chapter Five)

November 2, Saturday

Dear Diary,

This morning I woke up and felt so strange. I don't know how to describe it. On the one hand, I was so weak that when I tried to stand up my muscles wouldn't support me. But on the other hand I felt… pleasant.So comfortable , sorelaxed. As if I were floating on a bed of golden light. I didn't care if I never moved again.

Then I remembered Stefan, and I tried to get up, but Aunt Judith put me back to bed. She said Bonnie and Meredith had left hours ago, and that I'd been so fast asleep they couldn't wake me. She said what I needed was rest.

So here I am. Aunt Judith brought the TVin,but I don't care about watching it. I'd rather lie here and write, or just lie here.

November 3,Sunday (10:30 p.m.)

I've just read over yesterday's entry and I'm shocked. What was wrong with me? I broke off in the middle of a sentence, and now I don'teven know what I was going to say. And I didn'texplain about my new diary or anything. I must have been completely spaced out.

Anyway, this is the official start of my new diary. I boughtthis blank book at the drugstore. It's not as beautiful as the other one, but it will have to do. I've given up hope of ever seeing my old one again. Whoever stole it isn't going to bring it back. But when I think of them reading it, all my inner thoughts and my feelings about Stefan, I want to kill them. While simultaneously dying of humiliation myself.

I'm not ashamed of the way I feel about Stefan. But it's private. And there are things in there, about the way it is when we kiss, when he holds me, that I know he wouldn't want anybody else to read.

Of course, it hasn't got anything about his secret in it. I hadn't found that out yet. It wasn't until I did that I really understood him, and we got together, really together, at last. Now we're part of each other. I feel as if I've been waiting for him all my life.

Maybe you think I'm terrible for loving him, considering what he is. He can be violent, and I know there are some things in his past that he's ashamed of. But he could never be violent toward me,and the past is over. He has so much guilt and he hurts so much inside. I want to heal him.

I don't know what will happen now; I'm just so glad that he's safe. I went to the boarding house today and found out that the police had been there yesterday. Stefan was still weak and couldn't use his Powers to get rid of them, but they didn't accuse him of anything. They just asked questions. Stefan says they acted friendly, which makes me suspicious. What all the questions really boil down to is: where were you on the night the old man was attacked under the bridge, and the night Vickie Bennett was attacked in the ruined church, and the night Mr. Tanner was killed at school?

They don't have any evidence against him. So the crimes started right after he came to Fell's Church, so what? That's not proof of anything. So he argued with Mr. Tanner that night. Again, so what? Everybody argued with Mr. Tanner. So he disappeared after Mr. Tanner's body was found. He's back now, and it's pretty clear that he was attacked himself, by the same person who committed the other crimes. Mary told the police about the condition he was in. And if they ever ask us, Matt and Bonnie and Meredith and I can all testify how we found him. There's no case against him at all.

Stefan and I talked about that, and about other things. It was so good to be with him again, even if he did look white and tired. He still doesn't remember how Thursday night ended, but most of it is just as I suspected. Stefan went to find Damon Thursday night after he took me home. They argued. Stefan ended up half-dead in a well. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happened in between.

I still haven't told him that I went looking for Damon in the graveyard Friday morning. I suppose I'd better do it tomorrow. I know he's going to be upset, especially when he hears what Damon said to me.

Well, that's all. I'm tired. This diary is going to be well-hidden, for obvious reasons.

P.S. I wonder who our new European history teacher will be?

She tucked the diary under her mattress and turned out the light.

Elena walked down the hallway in a curious vacuum. At school she was usually peppered with greetings from all sides; it was "hi, Elena," after "hi, Elena," wherever she went. But today eyes slid away furtively as she approached, or people suddenly became very busy doing something that required them to keep their backs to her. It had been happening all day long.

She paused in the doorway of the European history classroom. There were several students already sitting down, and at the chalkboard was a stranger.

He looked almost like a student himself. He had sandy hair, worn a little long, and the build of an athlete. Across the board he had written "Alaric K. Saltzman." As he turned around, Elena saw that he also had a boyish smile.

He went on smiling as Elena sat down and other students filed in. Stefan was among them, and his eyes met Elena's as he took his seat beside her, but they didn't speak. No one was talking. The room was dead silent.

Bonnie sat down on Elena's other side. Matt was only a few desks away, but he was looking straight ahead.

The last two people to come in were Caroline Forbes and Tyler Smallwood. They walked in together, and Elena didn't like the look on Caroline's face. She knew that catlike smile and those narrowed green eyes all too well. Tyler's handsome, rather fleshy features were shining with satisfaction. The discoloration under his eyes caused by Stefan's fist was almost gone.

"Okay, to start off, why don't we put all these desks in a circle?"

Elena's attention snapped back to the stranger at the front of the room. He was still smiling.

"Come on, let's do it. That way we can all see each other's faces when we talk," he said.

Silently, the students obeyed. The stranger didn't sit at Mr. Tanner's desk; instead, he pulled a chair to the circle and straddled it backward.

"Now," he said. "I know you all must be curious about me. My name's on the board: Alaric K. Saltzman. But I want you to call me Alaric. I'll tell you a little more about me later, but first I want to give you a chance to talk.

"Today's probably a difficult day for most of you. Someone you cared about is gone, and that must hurt. I want to give you a chance to open up and share those feelings with me and with your classmates. I want you to try to get in touch with the pain. Then we can start to build our own relationship on trust. Now

They stared at him. No one so much as moved an eyelash.

"Well, let's see… what about you?" Still smiling, he gestured encouragingly to a pretty, fair-haired girl. "Tell us your name and how you feel about what's happened."

Flustered, the girl stood. "My name's Sue Carson, and, uh…" She took a deep breath and went doggedly on. "And I feelscared. Because whoever this maniac is, he's still loose. And next time it could be me." She sat down.

"Thank you, Sue. I'm sure a lot of your classmates share your concern. Now, do I understand that some of you were actually there when this tragedy occurred?"

Desks creaked as students shifted uneasily.

But Tyler Smallwood stood up, his lips drawing back from strong white teeth in a smile.

"Most of us were there," he said, and his eyes flickered toward Stefan. Elena could see other people following his gaze. "I got there right after Bonnie discovered the body. And what I feel is concern for the community. There's a dangerous killer on the streets, and so far nobody's done anything to stop him. And – " He broke off. Elena wasn't sure how, but she felt Caroline had signaled him to do it. Caroline tossed back gleaming auburn hair and recrossed her long legs as Tyler took his seat again.

"Okay, thank you. So most of you were there. That makes it doubly hard. Can we hear from the person who actually found the body? Is Bonnie here?" He looked around.

Bonnie raised her hand slowly, then stood. "Iguess I discovered the body," she said. "I mean, I was the first person who knew that he was really dead, and not just faking."

Alaric Saltzman looked slightly startled. "Not just faking? Did he often fake being dead?" There were titters, and he flashed that boyish smile again. Elena turned and glanced at Stefan, who was frowning.

"No – no," said Bonnie. "You see, he was a sacrifice. At the Haunted House. So he was covered with blood anyway, only it was fake blood. And that was partly my fault, because he didn't want to put it on, and I told him he had to do it. He was supposed to be a Bloody Corpse. But he kept saying it was too messy, and it wasn't until Stefan came and argued with him – " She stopped. "I mean, we talked to him and he finally agreed to do it, and then the Haunted House started. And a little while later I noticed that he wasn't sitting up and scaring the kids like he was supposed to, and I went over and asked him what was wrong. And he didn't answer. He just – he just kept staring at the ceiling. And then I touched him and he – it was terrible. His head just sort offlopped …" Bonnie's voice wavered and gave out. She gulped.

Elena was standing up, and so were Stefan and Matt and a few other people. Elena reached over to Bonnie.

"Bonnie, it's okay. Bonnie, don't; it's okay."

"And blood got all over my hands. There was blood everywhere, so much blood…" She sniffed hysterically.

He stood up and paced around the center of the circle, his hands opening and shutting nervously. Bonnie was still sniffling softly.

"I know," he said, the boyish smile coming back full force. "I'd like to get our student-teacher relationship off to a good start, away from this whole atmosphere. How about if you all come around to my place this evening, and we can all talk informally? Maybe just get to know each other, maybe talk about what happened. You can even bring a friend if you want. How about it?"

There was another thirty seconds or so of staring. Then someone said, "Your place?"

"Yes… oh, I'm forgetting. Stupid of me. I'm staying at the Ramsey house, on Magnolia Avenue." He wrote the address on the board. "The Ramseys are friends of mine, and they loaned me the house while they're on vacation. I come from Charlottesville, and your principal called me Friday to ask me if I could take over here. I jumped at the chance. This is my first real teaching job."

"Oh, that explains it," said Elena under her breath.

"Does it?" said Stefan.

"Anyway, what do you think? Is it a plan?" Alaric Saltzman looked around at them.

No one had the heart to refuse. There were scattered "yeses" and "sures."

"Great, then it's settled. I'll provide the refreshments, and we'll all get to know each other. Oh, by the way…" He opened a grade book and scanned it. "In this class, participation makes up half your final grade." He glanced up and smiled. "You can go now."

"The nerve of him," somebody muttered as Elena went out the door. Bonnie was behind her, but Alaric Saltzman's voice called her back.

"Would the students who shared with us please stay behind for a minute?"

Stefan had to leave, too. "I'd better go check about football practice," he said. "It's probably canceled, but I'd better make sure."

Elena was concerned. "If it's not canceled, do you think you're feeling up to it?"

"I'll be fine," he said evasively. But she noticed that his face still looked drawn, and he moved as if he were in pain. "Meet you at your locker," he said.

She nodded. When she got to her locker, she saw Caroline nearby talking to two other girls. Three pairs of eyes followed Elena's every move as she put away her books, but when Elena glanced up, two of them suddenly looked away. Only Caroline remained staring at her, head slightly cocked as she whispered something to the other girls.

Elena had had enough. Slamming her locker, she walked straight toward the group. "Hello, Becky; hello, Sheila," she said. Then, with heavy emphasis: "Hello, Caroline."

"What's going on?" she demanded. "Going on?" Caroline was obviously enjoying this, trying to draw it out as long as possible. "Going on with who?"

"With you, Caroline. With everybody. Don't pretend you're not up to something, because I know you are. People have been avoiding me all day as if I had the plague, and you look like you just won the lottery. What have you done?"

Caroline's expression of innocent inquiry slipped, and she smiled a feline smile. "I told you when school started that things were going to be different this year, Elena," she said. "I warned you your time on the throne might be running out. But it isn'tmy doing. What's happening is simply natural selection. The law of the jungle."

"And just whatis happening?" "Well, let's just say that going out with a murderer can put a cramp in your social life." Elena's chest tightened as if Caroline had hit her. For a moment, the desire to hit Caroline back was almost irresistible. Then, with the blood pounding in her ears, she said through clenched teeth, "That isn't true. Stefan hasn't done anything. The police questioned him, and he was cleared."

Caroline shrugged. Her smile now was patronizing. "Elena, I've known you since kindergarten," she said, "so I'll give you some advice for old times' sake: drop Stefan. If you do it right now you might just avoid being a complete social leper. Otherwise you might as well buy yourself a little bell to ring in the street."

Rage held Elena hostage as Caroline turned and walked away, her auburn hair moving like liquid under the lights. Then Elena found her tongue.

"Caroline." The other girl turned back. "Are you going to go to that party at the Ramsey house tonight?" "I suppose so. Why?"

"Because I'll be there. With Stefan. See you in the jungle." This time Elena was the one to turn away. The dignity of her exit was slightly marred when she saw a slim, shadowed figure at the far end of the hallway. Her step faltered for an instant, but as she drew closer she recognized Stefan.

She knew the smile she gave him looked forced, and he glanced back toward the lockers as they walked side by side out of the school.

"So football practice was canceled?" she said.

He nodded. "What was that all about?" he said quietly.

"Nothing. I asked Caroline if she was going to the party tonight." Elena tilted back her head to look at the gray and dismal sky.

She remembered what he had told her in his room. He could see better than a human, and hear better, too. Well enough to catch words spoken down forty feet of corridor?

"Yes," she said defiantly, still inspecting the clouds.

"And that's what made you so angry?"

"Yes," she said again, in the same tone.

She could feel his eyes on her. "Elena, that's not true."

"Well, if you can read my mind, you don't need to ask me questions, do you?"

They were facing each other now. Stefan was tense, his mouth set in a grim line. "You know I wouldn't do that. But I thought you were the one who was so big on honesty in relationships."

"All right. Caroline was being her usual bitchy self and shooting her mouth off about the murder. So what? Why do you care?"

"Because," said Stefan simply, brutally, "she might be right. Not about the murder but about you. About you and me. I should have realized this would happen. It's not just her, is it? I've been sensing hostility and fear all day, but I was too tired to try and analyze it. They think I'm the killer and they're taking it out on you."

"What they think doesn't matter! They're wrong, and they'll realize that eventually. Then everything will be the way it was again."

A wistful smile tugged at the corner of Stefan's mouth. "You really believe that, don't you?" He looked away, and his face hardened. "And what if they don't? What if it only gets worse?"

"What are you saying?" "It might be better…" Stefan took a deep breath and continued, carefully. "It might be better if we didn't see each other for a while. If they think we're not together, they'll leave you alone."

She stared at him. "And you think you could do that? Not see me or talk to me for however long?"

"If it's necessary – yes. We could pretend we've broken up." His jaw was set.

Elena stared another moment. Then she circled him and moved in closer, so close that they were almost touching. He had to look down at her, his eyes only a few inches from her own.

"There is," she said, "only one way I'm going to announce to the rest of the school that we've broken up. And that's if you tell me that you don't love me and you don't want to see me. Tell me that, Stefan, right now. Tell me that you don't want to be with me any more."

He'd stopped breathing. He stared down at her, those green eyes striated like a cat's in shades of emerald and malachite and holly green.

She never got to finish the sentence. It was cut off as his mouth descended on hers.