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The Hunters: Phantom Chapter 11

Elena hung up the phone. She and Bonnie had discussed everything that was going on, from the mysterious appearance of Celia’s and Meredith’s names to Margaret’s upcoming dance recital. But she hadn’t been able to bring up what she had real y cal ed to talk about.

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She sighed. After a moment, she felt under her mattress and pul ed out her velvet-covered journal.

Dear Diary,

This afternoon, I talked with Caleb Smallwood on the front lawn of my house. I barely know him, yet I feel this visceral connection with him. I love Bonnie and Meredith more than life itself, but they have no idea what it’s like to lose your parents, and that puts a space between us.

I see myself in Caleb. He’s so handsome and

seems so carefree. I’m sure most people think his life is perfect. I know what it’s like to pretend to have it together, even when you’re coming apart. It can be the loneliest thing in the world. I hope he has a Bonnie or a Meredith of his own, a friend he can lean on.

The strangest thing happened while we were

talking. A crow flew straight at us. It was a big crow, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen, with iridescent black feathers that shone in the sun and a huge hooked beak and claws. It might have been the same one that appeared on my windowsill

yesterday morning, but I wasn’t sure. Who can tell crows apart?

And, of course, both the crows reminded me of Damon, who watched me as a crow before we

even met.

What’s strange – ridiculous, really – is this

dawning feeling of hope I have deep inside me. What if, I keep thinking, what if somehow Damon’s not dead after all?

And then the hope collapses, because he is

dead, and I need to face that. If I want to stay strong I can’t lie to myself. I can’t make up pretty fairy tales where the noble vampire doesn’t die, where the rules get changed because it’s

someone I care about.

But that hope comes sneaking up on me again: What if?

It would be too cruel to say anything about the crow to Stefan. His grief has changed him.

Sometimes, when he’s quiet, I catch a strange look in his leaf green eyes, like there’s someone I don’t know in there. And I know he’s thinking of Damon, thoughts that take him somewhere I can’t follow anymore.

I thought I could tell Bonnie about the crow. She cared about Damon, and she wouldn’t laugh at me for wondering whether there were some way he might still, in some form, be alive. Not after she suggested the very same thing earlier today. At the last minute, though, I couldn’t talk to her about it.

I know why, and it’s a lousy, selfish, stupid reason: I’m jealous of Bonnie. Because Damon saved her life.

Awful, right?

Here’s the thing: For a long time, out of millions, there was one human Damon cared about. Only

one. And that one person was me. Everyone else could go to hell as far as he was concerned. He could barely remember my friends’ names.

But something changed between Damon and

Bonnie, maybe when they were alone in the Dark Dimension together, maybe earlier. She’s always had a little crush on him, when he wasn’t being cruel, but then he started to take notice of his little redbird. He watched her. He was tender with her. And when she was in danger, he moved to save her without a second thought as to what it might cost him.

So I’m jealous. Because Damon saved

Bonnie’s life.

I’m a terrible person. But, because I am so

terrible, I don’t want to share any more of Damon with Bonnie, not even my thoughts about the crow. I want to keep part of him just for me.

Elena reread what she had written, her lips pressed tightly together. She wasn’t proud of her feelings, but she couldn’t deny they existed.

She leaned back on her pil ow. It had been a long, exhausting day, and now it was one o’clock in the morning. She’d said good night to Aunt Judith and Robert a couple of hours ago, but she didn’t seem to be able to make it into bed. She’d just puttered around after changing into her nightdress: brushing her hair, rearranging some of her possessions, flipping through a magazine, looking with satisfaction at the fashionable wardrobe she hadn’t had access to in months. Cal ing Bonnie.

Bonnie had sounded odd. Distracted, maybe. Or perhaps just tired. It was late, after al .

Elena was tired, too, but she didn’t want to go to sleep. She final y admitted it to herself: She was a little afraid to go to sleep. Damon had been so real in her dream the other night. His body had felt firm and solid as she held him; his silky black hair had been soft against her cheek. His smooth voice had sounded sarcastic, seductive, and commanding by turns, just like the living Damon’s. When she had remembered, with a sickening horror, that he was gone, it had been as if he had died al over again. But she couldn’t stay awake forever. She was so tired. Elena switched off the light and closed her eyes. She was sitting on the creaky old bleachers in the school gym. The air smel ed of sweaty athletic shoes and the polish they used on the wooden floor.

“This is where we met,” said Damon, who she now realized was sitting beside her, so close the sleeve of his leather jacket brushed her arm.

“Romantic,” Elena replied, raising one eyebrow and looking around the big empty room, the basketbal hoops hanging at each end.

“I try,” Damon said, a tinge of a laugh coloring his dry voice. “But you chose where we are. It’s your dream.”

“Is it a dream?” Elena asked suddenly, turning to study his face. “It doesn’t feel like one.”

“Wel ,” he said, “let me put it this way. We’re not actual y here.” His face was serious and intent as he gazed back at her, but then he flashed one of his sudden, bril iant smiles and his eyes slid away. “I’m glad we didn’t have gymnasiums like this when I did my studies,” he said casual y, stretching out his legs in front of him. “It seems so undignified, with the shorts and the rubber bal s.”

“Stefan said that you played sports then, though,” Elena said, distracted despite herself. Damon frowned at Stefan’s name.

“Never mind,” she said hastily. “We might not have much time. Please, Damon, please, you said you’re not here, but are you anywhere? Are you al right? Even if you’re dead… I mean real y dead, dead for good, are you somewhere?”

He looked at her sharply. His mouth twisted a little as he said, “Does it matter that much to you, princess?”

“Of course it does,” Elena said, shocked. Her eyes were fil ing with tears.

His tone was light, but his eyes, so black she couldn’t tel where the iris ended and the pupil began, were watchful.

“Everyone else – al your friends – this town – they’re al okay, though, aren’t they? You have your world back. There are such things as col ateral damages you have to expect if you’re going to get what you want.”

Elena could tel from Damon’s expression that what she said next would matter dreadful y. And, in her heart of hearts, hadn’t she admitted to herself the other day that, as much as she loved Damon, things were better now, that everything could be good again with the town saved and her returned to her old life? And that she wanted it that way, even if it meant Damon was dead? That Damon was what he said: collateral damage?

“Oh, Damon,” she said at last, helplessly. “I just miss you so much.”

Damon’s face softened and he reached for her. “Elena

– “

“Yes?” Elena murmured.

“Elena?” A hand was gently shaking her. “Elena?”

Someone stroked her hair, and Elena nuzzled sleepily into the touch.

“Damon?” she said, stil half dreaming.

The hand paused in its stroking and then withdrew. She opened her eyes.

“Just me, I’m afraid,” said Stefan. He was sitting next to her on her bed, his mouth a straight, tight line, his eyes averted.

“Oh, Stefan,” said Elena, sitting up and throwing her arms around him. “I didn’t mean – “

“It’s al right,” Stefan said flatly, turning away from her. “I know what he meant to you.”

Elena pul ed him toward her and looked up into his face.

“Stefan. Stefan.” His green eyes had a distant expression.

“I’m sorry,” she said pleadingly.

“You have nothing to apologize for, Elena,” he said.

“Stefan, I was dreaming about Damon,” she confessed.

“You’re right, Damon was important to me, and I… miss him.” A muscle twitched at the side of Stefan’s face, and she stroked his jaw. “I wil never love anyone more than I love you, Stefan. It would be impossible. Stefan,” she said, feeling like she might cry, “you’re my true love, you know that.” If only she could reach out and show him with her mind, make him understand what she felt for him. She’d never ful y explored her other Powers, never ful y claimed them, but losing their telepathic connection felt like it might kil her.

Stefan’s expression softened. “Oh, Elena,” he said slowly, and wrapped his arms around her. “I miss Damon, too.” He buried his face in her hair and his next words were muffled. “I’ve spent hundreds of years fighting with my only brother, with us hating each other. We killed each other when we were human, and I don’t think either of us ever got over the guilt and the shock, the horror of that moment.” She felt a long shudder go through his body.

He sighed, a soft, sad sound. “And when we final y started to find our way back to being brothers again, it was al because of you.” His forehead stil resting on her shoulder, Stefan took Elena’s hand and held it between both of his, turning it over and stroking it as he thought. “He died so suddenly. I guess I never expected… I never expected Damon to die before I did. He was always the strong one, the one who truly loved life. I feel…” He smiled a little, just a sad twist of his lips. “I feel… surprisingly lonely without him.”

Elena entwined her fingers with Stefan’s and held his hand tightly. He turned his face toward hers, meeting her eyes, and she pul ed back a little so she could see him more clearly. There was pain in his eyes, and grief, but there was also a hardness she had never seen there before.

She kissed him, trying to erase that hard edge. He resisted her for half a second, and then he kissed her back.

“Oh, Elena,” he said thickly, and kissed her again. As the kiss deepened, Elena felt a sweet, satisfying sense of rightness sweep through her. It was always like this: If she felt distanced from Stefan, the touch of their lips could unite them. She felt a wave of love and wonder from him, and held on to it, feeding the emotion back to him, the tenderness between them growing. With her Powers gone, she needed this more than ever.

She reached out with her mind and emotions, past the tenderness, past the rock-solid love that was always waiting for her in Stefan’s kiss, and delved deeper into his mind. There was a fierce passion there, and she returned it, their emotions twining together, as their hands held each other harder.

Beneath the passion, there was grief, a terrible, endless grief, and farther stil , buried in the depths of Stefan’s emotions, was an aching loneliness, the loneliness of a man who had lived for centuries without companionship. And in that loneliness was the taste of something unfamiliar. Something… unyielding and cold and faintly metal ic, as if she had bitten into foil.

There was something Stefan was holding back from her. Elena was sure of it, and she reached deeper into his mind as their kisses intensified. She needed al of him… She started to pul back her hair, to offer him her blood. That always brought them as close as they could possibly be. But before he could accept her offer, there was a sudden knock on the door.

Almost immediately it opened and Aunt Judith peeked in. Elena, blinking, found herself alone, her palms stinging from the speed with which Stefan had pul ed away from her. She looked around hastily, but he’d vanished.

“Breakfast is on the table, Elena,” Aunt Judith said cheerful y.

“Uh-huh,” Elena said, distracted, peering at the closet, wondering where Stefan had hidden himself.

“Are you al right, dear?” her aunt said, her forehead creased with concern. Elena had a sudden picture of how she must look: wide-eyed, flushed, and disheveled, sitting in her rumpled bed and looking wildly around the room. It had been a long time since Stefan had needed to use his vampiric speed for anything as mundane as not getting caught in her bedroom!

She gave Aunt Judith a reassuring smile. “Sorry, I’m stil half-asleep. I’l be right down,” she said. “I’d better hurry. Stefan wil be here to pick me up soon.”

As Aunt Judith left the room, Elena final y caught sight of Stefan, waving from the lawn below her open window, and she waved back, laughing, the strange emotions at the bottom of Stefan’s mind put aside for the moment. He gestured that he was going around to the front of the house and that he would see her in a minute.

She laughed again and jumped up to get ready for the picnic at Hot Springs. It was nice to be the kind of girl who worried about getting grounded. It felt… pleasurably normal.

A few minutes later, as Elena, now dressed in shorts and a light blue T-shirt, her hair pul ed back in a ponytail, headed down the stairs, the doorbel rang.

“That’l be Stefan,” she cal ed as Aunt Judith appeared in the kitchen doorway. Elena grabbed her beach bag and picnic cooler from the bench in the hal .

“Elena!” Aunt Judith scolded. “You have to eat something before you go!”

“No time,” Elena said, smiling at the familiarity of the argument. “I’l grab a muffin or something on the way.” She and Aunt Judith had exchanged these words, or similar ones, most mornings of Elena’s years in high school.

“Oh, Elena,” Aunt Judith said, rol ing her eyes. “Don’t move, young lady. I’l be right back.”

Elena opened the door and smiled up into Stefan’s eyes.

“Why, hel o there, stranger,” she said softly. He kissed her, a sweet touch of his lips on hers.

Aunt Judith hurried back into the hal way and pressed a granola bar into Elena’s hand. “There,” she said. “At least you’l have something in your stomach.”

Elena gave her a quick hug. “Thank you, Aunt Judith,” she said. “I’l see you later.”

“Have fun, but please don’t forget Margaret’s dance recital tonight,” Aunt Judith said. “She’s so excited about it.”

Aunt Judith waved good-bye from the doorway as Elena and Stefan strol ed toward the car.

“We’re meeting the others at the boardinghouse and caravanning to Hot Springs,” Stefan said. “Matt and Meredith are both bringing their cars.”

“Oh, good, we won’t be as crowded as we were yesterday. Not that I minded sitting on your lap, but I thought I might squish Celia in the middle,” Elena said. She turned her face up and stretched like a cat in the sunshine. A breeze tossed her ponytail, and she closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensation. “It’s a gorgeous day for a picnic,”

she said. The world was alive with birdsong and with the rustle of trees. A faint tracery of white clouds underscored the bright blue of the sky. “Would it be jinxing ourselves to say it feels like the kind of day where nothing could go wrong?” she asked.

“Yes, it absolutely would be jinxing ourselves to say that,”

Stefan said, straight-faced, unlocking the passenger-side door for her.

“Then I won’t say it,” Elena said. “I won’t even think it. But I feel good. I haven’t been to Hot Springs for ages.” She grinned with pure pleasure, and Stefan smiled back at her, but Elena was struck once again by that certain something new – something troubling – in his eyes.