"Are you excited for Alaric to arrive tomorrow?" Matt asked. "He's bringing his researcher friend Celia, right?"

Meredith kicked him in the chest.

"Oof!" Matt staggered backward, knocked breathless despite the protective vest he had on. Meredith fol owed up with a roundhouse kick to Matt's side, and he fel to his knees, barely managing to raise his hands and block a straight punch to his face.

"Ow!" he said. "Meredith, time-out, okay?"

Meredith dropped into a graceful tiger stance, her back leg supporting her weight while her front foot rested lightly on her toes. Her face was calm, her eyes cool and watchful. She looked ready to pounce if Matt showed any sign of sudden movement.

When he'd arrived to spar with Meredith - to help her keep her hunter-slayer skil s in top-notch shape - Matt had wondered why she had handed him a helmet, mouth guard, gloves, shin guards, and vest, while she wore only sleek black workout clothes.

Now he knew. He hadn't even come close to hitting her, while she'd pummeled him mercilessly. Matt eased a hand up under the vest and rubbed rueful y at his side. He hoped he hadn't cracked a rib.

"Ready to go again?" Meredith said, her eyebrows raised in chal enge.

"Please, no, Meredith," Matt said, raising his hands in surrender. "Let's take a break. It feels like you've been punching me for hours."

Meredith walked over to the smal fridge in the corner of her family's rec room and tossed Matt a bottle of water, then sank down next to him on the mat. "Sorry. I guess I got carried away. I've never sparred with a friend before."

Looking around as he took a long, cool drink, Matt shook his head. "I don't know how you managed to keep this place secret for so long." The basement room had been converted into a perfect place to train: throwing stars, knives, swords, and staves of various kinds were mounted on the wal s; a punching bag hung in one corner, while a padded dummy leaned in another. The floor was lined with mats, and one wal was completely mirrored. In the middle of the opposite wal hung the fighting stave: a special weapon for battling the supernatural that had been handed down through generations of Meredith's family. It was deadly but elegant-looking, the hilt covered with jewels, the ends spiked with silver, wood, and white ash, and the needles steeped in poison. Matt eyed it warily.

"Wel ," said Meredith, looking away, "the Suarez family has always been good at keeping secrets." She began to move through a tae kwon do form: back stance, double fist block, left front stance, reverse middle punch. She was graceful as a slim black cat in her workout gear. After a moment, Matt capped his water bottle, climbed to his feet, and began to mirror her movements. Left double front kick, left inside block, double-handed punch. He knew he was half a beat behind and felt shambling and awkward next to her, but frowned and concentrated. He'd always been a good athlete. He could do this, too.

"Besides, it's not like I was bringing my prom dates down here," Meredith offered after a cycle, half smiling. "It wasn't that hard to hide." She watched Matt in the mirror. "No, block low with your left hand and high with your right hand, like this." She showed him again, and he shadowed her movements.

"Okay, yeah," he said, only half concentrating on his words now, focused on the positions. "But you could have told us. We're your best friends." He moved his left foot forward and mimicked Meredith's backward elbow blow.

"At least, you could have told us after the whole thing with Klaus and Katherine," he amended. "Before that, we would have thought you were crazy."

Meredith shrugged and dropped her hands, and Matt fol owed before he realized that the gestures weren't part of the tae kwon do form.

Now they stood side by side, staring at each other in the mirror. Meredith's cool and elegant face looked pale and pinched. "I was brought up to keep my heritage as a hunterslayer a deep, dark secret," she said. "Tel ing anybody wasn't something I could consider. Even Alaric doesn't know."

Matt turned away from Meredith's mirror image to gape at the real girl. Alaric and Meredith were practical y engaged. Matt had never been that serious with anyone -

the girl he'd come closest to loving was Elena, and obviously that hadn't worked out - but he'd sort of figured that, if you committed your heart to somebody, you told them everything.

"Isn't Alaric a paranormal researcher? Don't you think he would understand?"

Frowning, Meredith shrugged again. "Probably," she said, sounding irritated and dismissive, "but I don't want to be something for him to study or research, any more than I want him to freak out. But since you and the others know, I'l have to tel him."

"Hmm." Matt rubbed his aching side again. "Is that why you're pounding on me so aggressively? Because you're worried about tel ing him?"

Meredith met his eyes. The lines of her face were stil tense, but a mischievous glimmer shone in her eyes.

"Aggressive?" she asked sweetly, fal ing back into the tiger stance. Matt felt an answering smile tug at the corners of his mouth. "You haven't seen anything yet."

Elena surveyed the restaurant Judith had picked with a kind of bemused horror. Beeping video game machines vied for attention with old-fashioned arcade games like Whac-AMole and Skee-Bal . Bouquets of brightly colored bal oons bobbed over every table, and a cacophony of song rose from various corners as singing waiters delivered pizza after pizza. What seemed like hundreds of children ran loose across the floor, shrieking and laughing. Stefan had walked her to the restaurant, but, eyeing the neon paint job with alarm, he'd declined to come in.

"Oh, I shouldn't intrude on girls' night," he'd said vaguely, and then disappeared so quickly Elena suspected he'd used vampiric speed.

"Traitor," she'd muttered, before warily opening the bright pink door. After their time together in the graveyard, she felt stronger and happier, but she would have liked some support here, too.

"Welcome to Happytown," chirped an unnatural y cheery hostess. "Table for one, or are you meeting a party?"

Elena repressed a shudder. She couldn't imagine anyone choosing to come to a place like this by themselves. "I think I see my group now," she said politely, catching sight of Aunt Judith waving to her from a corner.

"This is your idea of a fun girls' night out, Aunt Judith?"

she asked when she reached the table. "I was picturing something more like a cozy bistro."

Aunt Judith nodded toward the other side of the room. Peering over, Elena spotted Margaret, happily whacking away at toy moles with a mal et.

"We're always dragging Margaret to grown-up places and expecting her to behave," Aunt Judith explained. "I thought it was time she got a turn to do something she enjoyed. I hope Bonnie and Meredith won't mind."

"She certainly looks like she's enjoying herself," Elena said, studying her little sister. Her memories of Margaret from the last year were of strain and anxiety: During the fal Margaret had been upset by Elena's fighting with Judith and Robert and by the mysterious happenings in Fel 's Church, and then, of course, devastated by Elena's death. Elena had watched her through the windows afterward and seen her sobbing. She'd suffered more than any five-yearold should, even if she didn't remember any of it now. I'll take care of you, Margaret, she promised fiercely and silently, watching the studious concentration on her sister's face as Margaret practiced a little old-fashioned carnival violence. You won't have to feel like that again in this world.

"Are we waiting for Bonnie and Meredith?" Aunt Judith prompted gently. "Did you end up inviting them to join us?"

"Oh," said Elena, jarred out of her reverie. She reached for a handful of popcorn from the basket in the middle of the table. "I couldn't get ahold of Meredith, but Bonnie's coming. She'l love this."

"I absolutely, total y do love this," a voice agreed from behind her. Elena turned to see Bonnie's silky red curls.

"Especial y the expression on your face, Elena." Bonnie's wide brown eyes were dancing with amusement. She and Elena shared a look that was ful of al the we're back, we're back, they did what they said and Fell's Church is the way it should be again that they couldn't say in front of Aunt Judith, then fel into each other's arms.

Elena squeezed Bonnie tightly, and Bonnie buried her face in Elena's shoulder for a moment. Her petite body quivered slightly in Elena's arms, and Elena realized that she wasn't the only one walking a fine line between delight and devastation. They'd gained so much - but it had come at a very high price.

"Actual y," said Bonnie with careful cheer as she released Elena, "I had my ninth birthday at a place very much like this. Remember the Hokey-Pokey Gril ? That was the place to be when we were in elementary school." Her eyes held a bright sheen that might be tears, but her chin stuck out determinedly. Bonnie, Elena thought with admiration, was going to have fun if it kil ed her.

"I remember that party," Elena said, matching Bonnie's lightness. "Your cake had a big picture of some boy band on it."

"I was mature for my age," Bonnie told Aunt Judith merrily. "I was boy crazy way before any of my friends were."

Aunt Judith laughed and waved Margaret over toward their table. "We'd better order before the stage show starts," she said.

Elena, eyes wide, mouthed, Stage show? at Bonnie, who smirked and shrugged.

"Do you girls know what you want?" Aunt Judith asked.

"Do they have anything besides pizza?" Elena asked.

"Chicken fingers," answered Margaret, climbing into her chair. "And hot dogs."

Elena grinned at her sister's tousled hair and expression of delight. "What are you going to have, bunny?" she asked.

"Pizza!" Margaret answered. "Pizza, pizza, pizza."

"I'l have pizza, too, then," Elena decided.

"It's the best thing here," Margaret confided. "The hot dogs are weird-tasting." She squirmed in her chair. "Elena, are you coming to my dance recital?" she asked.

"When is it?" Elena asked.

Margaret frowned. "The day after tomorrow," she said.

"You know that."

Elena glanced quickly at Bonnie, whose eyes were wide.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," she told Margaret affectionately, and her sister nodded firmly and stood up on her chair to reach the popcorn.

Under cover of Aunt Judith's scolding and the semimelodious sound of their singing waiter approaching, Bonnie and Elena exchanged a smile.

Dance recitals. Singing waiters. Pizza.

It was good to live in this kind of world for a change.

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