"Honestly, Elena," Aunt Judith said, shaking her head as she adjusted the car's rearview mirror. "I don't know why these kinds of things always seem to happen to you, but you find yourself in the strangest situations."

"Tel me about it," Elena said, slumping down in the passenger seat of her aunt's car and resting her head in her hands. "Thank you for picking me up, Aunt Judith. I just felt too shaky to drive after being at the hospital with Caleb and everything." She swal owed. "I'm sorry I missed Margaret's dance recital after al ."

Aunt Judith patted Elena's knee with one cool hand without taking her eyes off the road. "I told Margaret that Caleb got hurt and you had to take care of him. She understood. Right now I'm worried about you. It must have been a shock to find him like that, especial y when you realized it was someone you knew. What exactly happened?"

Elena shrugged and repeated the lie she'd told the police. "I just found him lying there when I went to visit Mom and Dad." Elena cleared her throat before continuing. "The hospital's keeping him for a couple of days. They think he's got a bad concussion and they want to watch and make sure his brain doesn't swel . He woke up a little bit in the ambulance but was real y groggy and didn't remember what had happened." Which was lucky, Elena thought. What if he'd said he was attacked by Elena Gilbert's boyfriend, who had something weird going on with his teeth? What if he'd said her boyfriend was a monster? It would be last fal al over again.

Aunt Judith frowned sympathetical y and shook her head.

"Wel , Caleb's lucky you came along. He could have been lying there for days before anyone went looking for him."

"Yeah, lucky," said Elena hol owly. She rol ed the bottom of her T-shirt between her fingers and was startled to realize she stil had her bathing suit on under her clothes. The picnic that afternoon seemed like it had taken place a mil ion years ago.

Then something Aunt Judith said struck her. "What do you mean, he could have been lying there for days before anyone looked for him? What about his aunt and uncle?"

"I tried cal ing them after you cal ed me, but it seems that Caleb's been fending for himself for quite a while. When I reached them, they were out of town on vacation, and frankly they didn't seem like they were too concerned about their nephew, even when I told them what had happened."

She sighed heavily. "I'l go visit him tomorrow and bring him some of the flowers from our garden he's been working so hard on. He'l like that."

"Huh," said Elena slowly. "I thought he told me he came here to stay with his aunt and uncle because they were so upset about Tyler being missing."

"Maybe so," Aunt Judith said dryly, "but the Smal woods seem to be doing pretty wel now. They said that in their opinion, Tyler wil come home when he's good and ready. That boy was always a little out of control. It sounds like Caleb is more worried about Tyler than they are."

She pul ed into the driveway of their house, and Elena fol owed her inside to where Robert was reading his newspaper at the kitchen table.

"Elena, you look exhausted," he said, folding the paper and looking up at her in concern. "Are you al right?"

"I'm okay," she said numbly. "It's just been a long day."

She thought she had never made more of an

understatement in her life.

"Wel , Margaret's gone to bed, but we saved you some dinner," Aunt Judith said, making a move toward the refrigerator. "It's a chicken casserole, and there's some salad. You must be starving."

But suddenly Elena felt sick. She'd been suppressing al her feelings about Stefan and his attack on Caleb, keeping the images tamped down so she could get on with the business of dealing with the police and the staff at the hospital and her own family. But she was tired and her hands were shaking. She knew that she couldn't keep everything under control for much longer.

"I don't want anything," she said, backing away. "I can't... I'm not hungry, Aunt Judith. Thank you, though. I just want to take a bath and go to bed." She turned and hurried out of the kitchen.

"Elena! You have to eat something," she heard Aunt Judith cry exasperatedly behind her as she hurried up the stairs.

The solid-sounding murmur of Robert's voice broke in:

"Judith, let her go."

Elena ducked into the bathroom and closed the door behind her.

She and Margaret shared the hal bathroom, and she busied herself with emptying Margaret's bath toys from the tub, keeping her mind careful y blank: a pink rubber ducky, a pirate ship, a stack of gaily colored plastic cups. A goofily smiling purple seahorse looked up at her with painted blue eyes.

Once the tub was empty, Elena ran the water as hot as she could stand and poured in a generous dol op of apricot-scented bubble bath from a bottle that promised to soothe her spirit while rejuvenating her skin. Soothing and rejuvenating sounded good, although Elena had her doubts about how much she could reasonably expect from a bottle of bubble bath.

When the tub was ful and frothy with a thick layer of bubbles, Elena quickly undressed and stepped into the steaming water. It stung at first, but she eased herself in bit by bit, gradual y getting accustomed to the temperature. Once she was comfortable, she lay back in the water, her hair floating out like a mermaid's, the sounds of the house muffled by the water over her ears, and let the thoughts she'd been avoiding come at last.

Tears overflowed her eyes and trickled down her cheeks to join the bathwater. She had believed that everything was going to be normal now that they were back home, that things were going to be good again. When she and her friends had gotten the Guardians to send them back and to change things, to reverse the deaths, to fix the broken, to make everything the way it would have been if nothing dangerous had touched the little town of Fel 's Church, she had thought that it would make her life simple and easy. She would have her family, her friends, her Stefan. But it wasn't going to work, was it? It wasn't ever going to be that way, not for Elena.

As soon as she'd come back to town, the very first day she'd stepped outside into the sunshine of a Fel 's Church summer, something dark and evil and supernatural had started stalking her and her friends.

And as for Stefan... God... Stefan. What was happening to him?

When she closed her eyes, she saw Caleb flying through the air and heard that horrible, final-sounding crack that Caleb's head had made as it connected with the marble of the mausoleum. What if Caleb never ful y recovered? What if this cute, innocent guy, this guy whose parents had died and left him like hers had died and left her, was broken forever because of Stefan?

Stefan. How had he become the kind of person who could do something like that? Stefan, who felt guilty about the animals he took blood from, the doves and rabbits and deer of the forest. The Stefan who she knew at the deepest level of her soul, who she thought kept nothing from her -

that Stefan would never have harmed a human being like that.

Elena lay in the bathtub until the water got cold and her tears had stopped. Then she got out, drained the tub, dried her hair, brushed her teeth, put on a nightgown, cal ed good night to Aunt Judith and Robert, and climbed into bed. She did not want to write in her diary. Not tonight. She switched off the light and lay flat on her back, staring into the darkness - the same blackness, she thought, as Damon's eyes.

Damon had been a monster, she knew - he had kil ed, although not as blithely as he pretended; he had manipulated people and enjoyed it; he had haunted and hated Stefan for hundreds of years - but she had also seen the lost little boy he kept locked inside him. He had loved her, she had loved him, and he had died.

And she loved Stefan. Desperately, devotedly, undeniably. She loved the sincerity in his eyes, his pride, his courtly manners, his honor, and his intel igence. She loved that he had rejected the monster that lurked inside him, the one that had driven so many vampires to terrible acts. She loved the sorrow he held - for his past, for his hatred and jealousy of Damon, for the terrible things he had seen. And she loved the hope that always sprang up in him, the strength of wil Stefan possessed that al owed him to keep fighting back the darkness.

Beyond al that, she loved Stefan. But she was afraid. She had thought she knew him inside and out, that she could see clear through to the innermost reaches of his soul. That wasn't true, not anymore. Not since the Guardians had stripped her powers, severing their psychic connection and reverting her back to a normal, human girl. Elena rol ed over and buried her face in the pil ow. She knew the truth now. No matter what the Guardians had done for her, she would never be a normal girl. Her life would never be simple. Tragedy and horror would fol ow her forever.

In the end, there was nothing Elena could do to change her destiny.

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