The Struggle (Chapter Thirteen)

Elena stirred, then opened heavy eyelids. Light was showing around the edges of the curtains. She found it hard to move, so she lay there on her bed and tried to piece together what had happened last night.

Damon. Damon had come here and threatened Margaret. And so Elena had gone to him. He'd won.

But why hadn't he finished it? Elena lifted a languid hand to touch the side of her neck, already knowing what she would find. Yes, there they were: two small punctures that were tender and sensitive to pressure.

Yet she was still alive. He'd stopped short of carrying out his promise. Why?

Her memories of the last hours were confused and blurry. Only fragments were clear. Damon's eyes looking down at her, filling her whole world. The sharp sting at her throat. And, later, Damon opening his shirt, Damon's blood welling from a small cut in his neck.

He'd made her drink his blood then. Ifmade was the right word. She didn't remember putting up any resistance or feeling any revulsion. By then, she had wanted it.

But she wasn't dead, or even seriously weakened. He hadn't made her into a vampire. And that was what she couldn't understand.

He has no morals and no conscience, she reminded herself. So it certainly wasn't mercy that stopped him. He probably just wants to draw the game out, make you suffer more before he kills you. Or maybe he wants you to be like Vickie, with one foot in the shadow world and one in the light. Going slowly mad that way.

One thing was sure: she wouldn't be fooled into thinking it was kindness on his part. Damon wasn't capable of kindness. Or of caring for anybody but himself.

Pushing the blankets back, she rose from the bed. She could hear Aunt Judith moving around in the hallway. It was Monday morning and she had to get ready to go to school.

Dear Diary,

It's no good pretending I'm not frightened, because I am. Tomorrow's Thanksgiving, and Founders' Day is two days after that. And I still haven't figured out a way to stop Caroline and Tyler.

I don't know what to do. If I can't get my diary back from Caroline, she's going to read it in front of everyone. She'll have a perfect opportunity; she's one of the three seniors chosen to read poetry during the closing ceremonies. Chosen by the school board, of which Tyler's father is a member, I might add. I wonder what he'll think when this is all over?

But what difference does it make? Unless I can come up with a plan, when this is all over I'll be beyond caring. And Stefan will be gone, run out of town by the good citizens of Fell's Church. Or dead, if he doesn't get some of his Powers back. And if he dies, I'll die too. It's that simple.

Which means I have to find a way to get the diary. I have to.

But I can't.

I know, you're waiting for me to say it. There is a way to get my diary – Damon's way. All I need to do is agree to his price.

But you don't understand how much that frightens me. Not just because Damon frightens me, but because I'm afraid of what will happen if he and I are together again. I'm afraid of what will happen to me… and to me and Stefan.

I can't talk about this any more. It's too upsetting. I feel so confused and lost and alone. There's nobody I can turn to or talk to. Nobody who could possibly understand.

What am I going to do?

November 28, Thursday, 11:30p.m.

Dear Diary,

Things seem clearer today, maybe because I've come to a decision. It's a decision that terrifies me, but it's better than the only alternative I can thinkof.

I'm going to tell Stefan everything.

It's the only thing I can do now. Founders' Day is Saturday and I haven't come up with any plan of my own. But maybe Stefan can, if he realizes how desperate the situation is. I'm going over to spend the day at the boarding house tomorrow, and when I get there I'm going to tell him everything I should have told him in the first place.

Everything. About Damon, too.

Oh, I'm scared. My stomach is churning. I could barely touch Thanksgiving dinner – and I can't keep still I feel as if I might fly apart into a million pieces. Go to sleep tonight? Ha.

Please let Stefan understand. Please let him forgive me.

The funniest thing is, I wanted to become a better person for him. I wanted to be worthy of his love. Stefan has these ideas about honor, about what's right and wrong. And now, when he finds out how I've been lying to him, what will he think of me? Will he believe me, that I was only trying to protect him? Will he ever trust me again?

Tomorrow I'll know. Oh, God, I wish it were already over. I don't know how I'll live until then.

Elena slipped out of the house without telling Aunt Judith where she was going. She was tired of lies, but she didn't want to face the fuss there would inevitably be if she said she was going to Stefan's. Ever since Damon had come to dinner, Aunt Judith had been talking about him, throwing subtle and not-so-subtle hints into every conversation. And Robert was almost as bad. Elena sometimes thought he egged Aunt Judith on.

She leaned on the doorbell of the boarding house wearily. Where was Mrs. Flowers these days? When the door finally opened, Stefan was behind it.

He was dressed for outdoors, his jacket collar turned up. "I thought we could go for a walk," he said.

"No." Elena was firm. She couldn't manage a real smile for him, so she stopped trying. She said, "Let's go upstairs, Stefan, all right? There's something we need to talk about."

He looked at her a moment in surprise. Something must have shown in her face, for his expression gradually stilled and darkened. He took a deep breath and nodded. Without a word, he turned and led the way to his room.

The trunks and dressers and bookcases had long since been put back into order, of course. But Elena felt as if she was really noticing this for the first time. For some reason, she thought of the very first night she'd been here, when Stefan had saved her from Tyler's disgusting embrace. Her eyes ran over the objects on the dresser: the fifteenth century gold florins, the ivory-hiked dagger, the little iron coffer with the hinged lid. She'd tried to open that the first night and he'd slammed the lid down.

She turned. Stefan was standing by the window, outlined by the rectangle of gray and dismal sky. Every day this week had been chilly and misty, and this was no exception. Stefan's expression mirrored the weather outside.

"Well," he said quietly, "what do we need to talk about?"

There was one last moment of choice, and then Elena committed herself. She stretched out a hand to the small iron coffer and opened it.

Inside, a length of apricot silk shone with muted luster. Her hair ribbon. It reminded her of summer, of

"About this," she said.

He had taken a step forward when she touched the coffer, but now he looked puzzled and surprised. "Aboutthat ?"

"Yes. Because I knew it was there, Stefan. I found it a long time ago, one day when you left the room for a few minutes. I don't know why I had to know what was in there, but I couldn't help it. So I found the ribbon. And then…" She stopped and braced herself. "Then I wrote about it in my diary."

Stefan was looking more and more bewildered, as if this was not at all what he'd been expecting. Elena groped for the right words.

"I wrote about it because I thought it was evidence that you'd cared about me all along, enough to pick it up and keep it. I never thought it could be evidence of anything else."

Then, suddenly, she was speaking quickly. She told him about taking her diary to Bonnie's house, about how it had been stolen. She told him about getting the notes, about realizing that Caroline was the one who was sending them. And then, turning away, pulling the summer-colored silk over and over through her nervous fingers, she told him about Caroline and Tyler's plan.

Her voice almost gave out at the end. "I've been so frightened since then," she whispered, her eyes still on the ribbon. "Scared that you'd be angry with me. Scared of what they're going to do. Just scared. I tried to get the diary back, Stefan, I even went to Caroline's house. But she has it too well hidden.

And I've thought and thought, but I can't think of any way of stopping her from reading it." At last she looked up at him. "I'm sorry."

"You should be!" he said, startling her with his vehemence. She felt the blood drain from her face. But Stefan was going on. "You should be sorry for keeping something like that from me when I could have helped you. Elena, why didn't you justtell me?"

"Because it's all my fault. And I had a dream…" She tried to describe how he had looked in the dreams, the bitterness, the accusation in his eyes. "I think I would die if you really looked at me that way," she concluded miserably.

But Stefan's expression as he looked at her now was a combination of relief and wonder. "So that's it," he said, almost in a whisper himself. "That's what's been bothering you."

Elena opened her mouth, but he was still speaking. "I knew something was wrong, I knew you were holding something back. But I thought…" He shook "his head and a skewed smile tugged at his lips. "It doesn't matter now. I didn't want to invade your privacy. I didn't even want to ask. And all the time you were worried about protectingme. "

Elena's tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. The words seemed to be stuck, too. There's more, she thought, but she couldn't say it, not when Stefan's eyes looked like that, not when his whole face was alight that way.

"When you said we needed to talk today, I thought you'd changed your mind about me," he said simply, without self-pity. "And I wouldn't have blamed you. But instead…" He shook his head again. "Elena," he said.

It felt so good to be there, so right. She hadn't even realized how wrong things had been between them until now, when the wrongness had disappeared.This was what she remembered, what she had felt that first glorious night when Stefan had held her. All the sweetness and tenderness in the world surging between them. She was home, where she belonged. Where she would always belong.

Everything else was forgotten.

As she had in the beginning, Elena felt as if she could almost read Stefan's thoughts. They were connected, a part of each other. Their hearts beat to the same rhythm.

Only one thing was needed to make it complete. Elena knew that, and she tossed her hair back, reaching from behind to pull it away from the side of her neck. And this time Stefan did not protest or thwart her. Instead of refusal he was radiating a deep acceptance – and a deep need.

Feelings of love, of delight, of appreciation overwhelmed her and with incredulous joy she realized the feelings were his. For a moment, she sensed herself through his eyes, and sensed how much he cared for her. It might have been frightening if she had not had the same depth of feeling to give back to him.

She felt no pain as his teeth pierced her neck. And it didn't even occur to her that she had unthinkingly offered him the unmarked side – even though the wounds Damon had left were healed already.

She clung to him when he tried to lift his head. He was adamant, though, and at last she had to let him do it. Still holding her, he groped over onto the dresser for the wicked ivory-handled blade and with one quick motion he let his own blood flow.

When Elena's knees grew weak, he sat her on the bed. And then they just held each other, unaware of time or anything else. Elena felt that only she and Stefan existed.

"I love you," he said softly.

At first Elena, in her pleasant haze, simply accepted the words. Then, with a chill of sweetness, she realized what he'd said.

Heloved her. She'd known it all along, but he had never said it before.

"I love you, Stefan," she whispered back. She was surprised when he shifted and pulled away slightly, until she saw what he was doing. Reaching inside his sweater, he drew out the chain he had worn around his neck ever since she had known him. On the chain was a gold ring, exquisitely crafted, set with lapis lazuli.

Katherine's ring. As Elena watched, he took the chain off and unclasped it, removing the delicate golden band.

"When Katherine died," he said, "I thought I could never love anyone else. Even though I knew she would have wanted me to, I was sure it could never happen. But I was wrong." He hesitated a moment and then went on.

"I kept the ring because it was a symbol of her. So I could keep her in my heart. But now I'd like it to be a symbol of something else." Again he hesitated, seeming almost afraid to meet her eyes. "Considering the

and then gave up, his eyes meeting hers mutely.

Elena couldn't speak. She couldn't even breathe. But Stefan misinterpreted her silence. The hope in his eyes died and he turned away.

"You're right," he said. "It's all impossible. There are just too many difficulties – because of me. Because of what I am. Nobody like you should be tied to someone like me. I shouldn't even have suggested it – "

"Stefan!" said Elena. "Stefan, if you'll be quiet a moment – "

" – so just forget I said anything – "

"Stefan!" she said. "Stefan,look at me. "

Slowly, he obeyed, turning back. He looked into her eyes, and the bitter self-condemnation faded from his face, to be replaced by a look that made her lose her breath again. Then, still slowly, he took the hand she was holding out. Deliberately, as they both watched, he slipped the ring onto her finger.

It fit as if it had been made for her. The gold glinted richly in the light, and the lapis shone a deep vibrant blue like a clear lake surrounded by untouched snow.

"We'll have to keep it a secret for a while," she said, hearing the tremor in her voice.

"Aunt Judith will have a fit if she knows I'm engaged before I graduate. But I'll be eighteen next summer, and then she can't stop us."

"Elena, are you sure this is what you want? It won't be easy living with me. I'll always be different from you, no matter how I try. If you ever want to change your mind…"

"As long as you love me, I'll never change my mind."

He took her in his arms again, and peace and contentment enfolded her. But there was still one fear that gnawed at the edges of her consciousness.

"Stefan, about tomorrow – if Caroline and Tyler carry out their plan, it won't matter if I change my mind or not."

"Then we'll just have to make sure they can't carry it out. If Bonnie and Meredith will help me, I think I can find a way to get the diary from Caroline. But even if I can't, I'm not going to run. I won't leave you, Elena; I'm going to stay and fight."

"But they'll hurt you. Stefan, I can't stand that."

"And I can't leave you. That's settled. Let me worry about the rest of it; I'll find a way. And if I don't… well, no matter what I'll stay with you. We'll be together."

"We'll be together," Elena repeated, and rested her head on his shoulder, happy to stop thinking for a while and justbe.

Dear Diary,

It's late but I couldn't sleep. I don't seem to need as much sleep as I used to.

Well, tomorrow's the day.

We talked to Bonnie and Meredith tonight. Stefan's plan is simplicity itself. The thing is, no matter where Caroline has hidden the diary, she has to bring it out tomorrow to take it with her. But our readings are the last thing on the agenda, and she has to be in the parade and everything first. She'll have to stash the diary somewhere during that time. So if we watch her from the minute she leaves her house until she gets up on stage, we should be able to see where she puts it down. And since she doesn't even know we're suspicious, she won't be on guard.

That's when we get it.

The reason the plan will work is because everyone in the program will be in period dress. Mrs. Grimesby, the librarian, will help us put on our 19th century clothes before the parade, and we can't be wearing or carrying anything that's not part of the costume. No purses, no backpacks. No diaries! Caroline will have to leave it behind at some point.

We're taking turns watching her. Bonnie is going to wait outside her house and see what Caroline's carrying when she leaves. I'll watch her when she gets dressed at Mrs. Grimesby's house. Then, while the parade is going on, Stefan and Meredith will break into the house – or the Forbes' car, if that's where it is – and do their stuff.

I don't see how it can fail. And I can't tell you how much better I feel. It's so good just to be able to share this problem with Stefan. I've learned my lesson; I'll never keep things from him again.

I'm wearing my ring tomorrow. If Mrs. Grimesby asks me about it, I'll tell her it's even older than 19th century, it's from Renaissance Italy. I'd like to see her face when I say that.

I'd better try to get some sleep now. I hope I don't dream.