The Struggle (Chapter Twelve)

A voice spoke as Elena reached for a can on the store shelf.

"Cranberry sauce already?"

Elena looked up. "Hi, Matt. Yes, Aunt Judith likes to do a preview the Sunday before Thanksgiving, remember? If she practices, there's less chance she'll do something terrible."

"Like forgetting to buy the cranberry sauce until fifteen minutes before dinner?"

"Until five minutes before dinner," said Elena, consulting her watch, and Matt laughed. It was a good sound, and one Elena hadn't heard for too long. She moved on toward the check-out stand, but after she'd paid for her purchase she hesitated, looking back.

Matt was standing by the magazine rack, apparently absorbed, but there was something about the slope of his shoulders that made her want to go to him.

She poked a finger at his magazine. "What areyou doing for dinner?" she said. When he glanced uncertainly toward the front of the store, she added, "Bonnie's waiting out in the car; she'll be there. Other than that it's just the family. And Robert, of course; he should be there by now." She meant that Stefan wasn't coming. She still wasn't sure how things were between Matt and Stefan these days. At least they spoke to each other.

"I'm fending for myself tonight; Mom's not feeling so hot," he said. But then, as if to change the subject, he went on, "Where's Meredith?"

"With her family, visiting some relatives or something." Elena was vague because Meredith had been Aunt Judith's cooking?"

"For old times' sake?"

"For oldfriends' sake," said Elena after a moment's hesitation, and smiled at him.

He blinked and looked away. "How can I refuse an invitation like that?" he said in an oddly muted voice. But when he put the magazine back and followed her out he was smiling, too.

Bonnie greeted him cheerfully, and when they got home Aunt Judith looked pleased to see him come into the kitchen.

"Dinner's almost ready," she said, taking the grocery bag from Elena. "Robert got here a few minutes ago. Why don't you go straight on back to the dining room? Oh, and get another chair, Elena. Matt makes seven."

"Six, Aunt Judith," said Elena, amused. "You and Robert, me and Margaret, Matt and Bonnie."

"Yes, dear, but Robert's brought a guest, too. They're already sitting down."

Elena registered the words just as she stepped through the dining room door, but there was an instant's delay before her mind reacted to them. Even so, sheknew; stepping through that door, she somehow knew what was waiting for her.

Robert was standing there, fiddling with a bottle of white wine and looking jovial. And sitting at the table, on the far side of the autumn centerpiece and the tall lighted candles, was Damon.

Elena realized she'd stopped moving when Bonnie ran into her from behind. Then she forced her legs into action. Her mind wasn't as obedient; it remained frozen.

"Ah, Elena," Robert said, holding out a hand. "This is Elena, the girl I was telling you about," he said to Damon. "Elena, this is Damon… ah…"

"Smith," said Damon.

"Oh, yes. He's from my alma mater, William and Mary, and I just ran into him outside the drugstore.

Since he was looking for some place to eat, I invited him along here for a home-cooked meal. Damon, these are some friends of Elena's, Matt and Bonnie."

"Hi," said Matt. Bonnie just stared; then, she swung enormous eyes on Elena.

Elena was trying to get a grip on herself. She didn't know whether to shriek, march out of the room, or throw the glass of wine Robert was pouring in Damon's face. She was too angry, for the moment, to be frightened.

Matt went to bring in a chair from the living room. Elena wondered at his casual acceptance of Damon, and then realized he hadn't been at Alaric's party. He wouldn't know what had happened there between Stefan and the "visitor from college."

Bonnie, though, looked ready to panic. She was gazing at Elena imploringly. Damon had risen and was Before Elena could come up with a response, she heard Margaret's high little voice in the doorway.

"Matt, do you want to see my kitty? Aunt Judith says I can keep her. I'm going to call her Snowball."

Elena turned, fired with an idea.

"She's cute," Matt was saying obligingly, bending over the little mound of white fur in Margaret's arms. He looked startled as Elena unceremoniously grabbed the kitten from under his nose.

"Here, Margaret, let's show your kitty to Robert's friend," she said, and thrust the fluffy bundle into Damon's face, all but throwing it at him.

Pandemonium ensued. Snowball swelled to twice her normal size as her fur stood on end. She made a noise like water dropped on a red-hot griddle and then she was a snarling, spitting cyclone that clawed Elena, swiped at Damon, and ricocheted off the walls before tearing out of the room.

For an instant, Elena had the satisfaction of seeing Damon's night black eyes slightly wider than usual. Then the lids drooped down, hooding them again, and Elena turned to face the reaction of the other occupants of the room.

Margaret was just opening her mouth for a steam engine wail. Robert was trying to forestall it, hustling her off to find the cat. Bonnie had her back pressed flat against the wall, looking desperate. Matt and Aunt Judith, who was peering in from the kitchen, just looked appalled.

"I guess you don't have a way with animals," she said to Damon, and took her seat at the table. She nodded to Bonnie who reluctantly peeled herself off the wall and scuttled for her own seat before Damon could touch the chair. Bonnie's brown eyes slid around to follow him as he sat down in turn.

After a few minutes, Robert reappeared with a tear-stained Margaret and frowned sternly at Elena. Matt pushed his own chair in silently although his eyebrows were in his hair.

As Aunt Judith arrived and the meal began, Elena looked up and down the table. A bright haze seemed to lie over everything, and she had a feeling of unreality, but the scene itself looked almost unbelievably wholesome, like something out of a commercial. Just your average family sitting down to eat turkey, she thought. One slightly flustered maiden aunt, worried that the peas will be mushy and the rolls burnt, one comfortable uncle-to-be, one golden-haired teenage niece and her tow-headed baby sister. One blue-eyed boy-next-door type, one spritely girlfriend, one gorgeous vampire passing the candied yams. A typical American household.

Bonnie spent the first half of the meal telegraphing "What do I do?" messages to Elena with her eyes. But when all Elena telegraphed back was "Nothing," she apparently decided to abandon herself to her fate. She began to eat.

Elena had no idea what to do. To be trapped tike this was an insult, a humiliation, and Damon knew it. He had Aunt Judith and Robert dazzled, though, with compliments about the meal and light chat about William and Mary. Even Margaret was smiling at him now, and soon enough Bonnie would go under.

"Fell's Church is having its Founders' Day celebration next week," Aunt Judith informed Damon, her thin cheeks faintly pink. "It would be so nice if you could come back for that." Aunt Judith looked pleased. "And this year Elena has a big part in it. She's been chosen to represent the Spirit of Fell's Church."

"You must be proud of her," said Damon.

"Oh, we are," Aunt Judith said. "So you'll try to come then?"

Elena broke in, buttering a roll furiously. "I've heard some news about Vickie," she said. "You remember, the girl who was attacked." She looked pointedly at Damon.

There was a short silence. Then Damon said, "I'm afraid I don't know her."

"Oh, I'm sure you do. About my height, brown eyes, light brown hair… anyway, she's getting worse." "Oh, dear," said Aunt Judith.

"Yes, apparently the doctors can't understand it. She just keeps getting worse and worse, as if the attack was still going on." Elena kept her eyes on Damon's face as she spoke, but he displayed only a courteous interest. "Have some more stuffing," she finished, propelling a bowl at him.

"No thank you. I'll have some more of this, though." He held a spoonful of jellied cranberry sauce up to one of the candles so that light shone through it. "It's such a tantalizing color."

Bonnie, like the rest of the people at the table, looked up at the candle when he did this. But Elena noticed she didn't look down again. She remained gazing into the dancing flame, and slowly all expression disappeared from her face.

Oh,no , thought Elena, as a tingle of apprehension crept through her limbs. She'd seen that look before.

She tried to get Bonnie's attention, but the other girl seemed to see nothing but the candle.

"… and then the elementary children put on a pageant about the town's history," Aunt Judith was saying to Damon. "But the ending ceremony is done by older students. Elena, how many seniors will be doing the readings this year?"

"Just three of us." Elena had to turn to address her aunt, and it was while she was looking at Aunt Judith's smiling face that she heard the voice.


Aunt Judith gasped. Robert paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. Elena wished, wildly and absolutely hopelessly, for Meredith.

"Death," said the voice again. "Death is in this house."

Elena looked around the table and saw that there was no one to help her. They were all staring at Bonnie, motionless as subjects in a photograph.

Bonnie herself was staring into the candle flame. Her face was blank, her eyes wide, as they had been before when this voice spoke through her. Now, those sightless eyes turned toward Elena. "Your death," shoulders, lifting her. Bonnie's skin had gone bluish-white, her eyes were closed. Aunt Judith fluttered around her, dabbing at her face with a damp napkin. Damon watched with thoughtful, narrowed eyes.

"She's all right," Robert said, looking up in obvious relief. "I think she just fainted. It must have been some kind of hysterical attack." But Elena didn't breathe again until Bonnie opened groggy eyes and asked what everyone was staring at.

It put an effective end to the dinner. Robert insisted that Bonnie be taken home at once, and in the activity that followed Elena found time for a whispered word with Damon.

"Get out!"

He raised his eyebrows. "What?"

"I said, get out! Now! Go. Or I'll tell them you're the killer."

He looked reproachful. "Don't you think a guest deserves a little more consideration?" he said, but at her expression he shrugged and smiled.

"Thank you for having me for dinner," he said aloud to Aunt Judith, who was walking past carrying a blanket to the car. "I hope I can return the favor sometime." To Elena he added, "Be seeing you."

Well,that was clear enough, Elena thought, as Robert drove away with a somber Matt and a sleepy Bonnie. Aunt Judith was on the phone with Mrs. McCullough.

"I don't know what it is with these girls, either," she said. "First Vickie, now Bonnie… and Elena has not been herself lately…"

While Aunt Judith talked and Margaret searched for the missing Snowball, Elena paced.

She would have to call Stefan. That was all there was to it. She wasn't worried about Bonnie; the other times this had happened hadn't seemed to do permanent damage. And Damon would have better things to do than harass Elena's friends tonight.

He was coming here, to collect for the "favor" he'd done her. She knew without a doubt that that was the meaning of his final words. And it meant she would have to tell Stefan everything, because she needed him tonight, needed his protection.

Only, what could Stefan do? Despite all her pleas and arguments last week, he had refused to take her blood. He'd insisted that his Powers would return without it, but Elena knew he was still vulnerable right now. Even if Stefan were here, could he stop Damon? Could he do it without being killed himself?

Bonnie's house was no refuge. And Meredith was gone. There was no one to help her, no one she could trust. But the thought of waiting here alone tonight, knowing that Damon was coming, was unbearable. She heard Aunt Judith click down the receiver. Automatically, she moved toward the kitchen, Stefan's

She looked at the floor to ceiling windows and at the elaborate fireplace with its beautifully scrolled molding. This room was part of the original house, the one that had almost completely burned in the Civil War. Her own bedroom was just above.

A great light was beginning to dawn. Elena looked at the molding around the ceiling, at where it joined the more modern dining room. Then she almost ran toward the stairs, her heart beating fast.

"Aunt Judith?" Her aunt paused on the stairway. "Aunt Judith, tell me something. Did Damon go into the living room?"

"What!" Aunt Judith blinked at her in distraction.

"Did Robert take Damon into the living room? Please think, Aunt Judith! I need to know."

"Why, no, I don't think so. No, he didn't. They came in and went straight to the dining room. Elena, what on earth?…" This last as Elena impulsively threw her arms around her and hugged her.

"Sorry, Aunt Judith. I'm just happy," said Elena. Smiling, she turned to go back down the stairs.

"Well, I'm gladsomeone's happy, after the way dinner turned out. Although that nice boy, Damon, seemed to enjoy himself. Do you know, Elena, he seemed quite taken with you, in spite of the way you were acting."

Elena turned back around. "So?"

"Well, I just thought you might give him a chance, that's all. I thought he was very pleasant. The kind of young man I like to see around here."

Elena goggled a moment, then swallowed to keep the hysterical laughter from escaping. Her aunt was suggesting that she take up Damon instead of Stefan… because Damon was safer. The kind of nice young man any aunt would like. "Aunt Judith," she began, gasping, but then she realized it was useless.

She shook her head mutely, throwing her hands up in defeat, and watched her aunt go up the stairs.

Usually Elena slept with her door closed. But tonight she left it open and lay on her bed gazing out into the darkened hallway. Every so often she glanced at the luminous numbers of the clock on the nightstand beside her.

There was no danger that she would fall asleep. As the minutes crawled by, she almost began to wish she could. Time moved with agonizing slowness. Eleven o'clock… eleven thirty… midnight. Onea.m. One thirty. Two.

At 2:10 she heard a sound.

She listened, still lying on her bed, to the faint whisper of noise downstairs. She'd known he would find a way to get in if he wanted. If Damon was that determined, no lock would keep him out.

The hallway was dark, but her eyes had had a long time to adjust. She could see the darker silhouette making its way up the stairs. When it reached the top she saw the swift, deadly glimmer of his smile.

She waited, unsmiling, until he reached her and stood facing her, with only a yard of hardwood floor between them. The house was completely silent. Across the hall Margaret slept; at the end of the passage, Aunt Judith lay wrapped in dreams, unaware of what was going on outside her door.

Damon said nothing, but he looked at her, his eyes taking in the long white nightgown with its high, lacy neck. Elena had chosen it because it was the most modest one she owned, but Damon obviously thought it attractive. She forced herself to stand quietly, but her mouth was dry and her heart was thudding dully. Now was the time. In another minute she would know.

She backed up, without a word or gesture of invitation, leaving the doorway empty. She saw the quick flare in his bottomless eyes, and watched him come eagerly toward her. And watched him stop.

He stood just outside her room, plainly disconcerted. He tried again to step forward but could not. Something seemed to be preventing him from moving any farther. On his face, surprise gave way to puzzlement and then anger.

He looked up, his eyes raking over the lintel, scanning the ceiling on either side of the threshold. Then, as the full realization hit him, his lips pulled back from his teeth in an animal snarl.

Safe on her side of the doorway, Elena laughed softly. It had worked.

"My room and the living room below are all that's left of the old house," she said to him. "And, of course, that was a different dwelling place. One you werenot invited into, and never will be."

His chest was heaving with anger, his nostrils dilated, his eyes wild. Waves of black rage emanated from him. He looked as if he would like to tear the walls down with his hands, which were twitching and clenching with fury.

Triumph and relief made Elena giddy. "You'd better go now," she said. "There's nothing for you here."

One minute more those menacing eyes blazed into hers, and then Damon turned around. But he didn't head for the stairway. Instead, he took one step across the hall and laid his hand on the door to Margaret's room.

Elena started forward before she knew what she was doing. She stopped in the doorway, grasping the casing trim, her own breath coming hard.

His head whipped around and he smiled at her, a slow, cruel smile. He twisted the doorknob slightly without looking at it. His eyes, like pools of liquid ebony, remained on Elena.

"Your choice," he said.

Elena stood very still, feeling as if all of winter was inside her. Margaret was just a baby. He couldn't mean it; no one could be such a monster as to hurt a four-year-old.

Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. She saw Damon's hand on the doorknob; she saw those merciless eyes. She was walking through the doorway, leaving behind the only safe place she knew.

Death was in the house, Bonnie had said. And now Elena had gone to meet Death of her own free will. She bowed her head to conceal the helpless tears that came to her eyes. It was over. Damon had won.

She did not look up to see him advance on her. But she felt the air stir around her, making her shiver. And then she was enfolded in soft, endless blackness, which wrapped around her like a great bird's wings.