Matt nodded, but he was blushing to the fair roots of his hair. "Tami...pressed herself against me."
There was a long pause.
Meredith said levelly, "Matt, do you mean she hugged you? Like a biiiiiig hug? Or that she..." She stopped, because Matt was already shaking his head vehemently.
"It was no innocent biiiiiig hug. We were alone, in the doorway there, and she just...well, I couldn't believe it. She's only fifteen, but she acted like an adult woman. I mean...not that I've ever had an adult woman dothat to me."
Looking embarrassed but relieved at having got this off his chest, Matt's gaze went from face to face. "So what do you think? Was it just a coincidence that Caroline was there? Or did she...say something to Tamra?"
"No coincidence," Elena said simply. "It'd be toomuch of a coincidence: Caroline coming on to you and then Tamra acting like that. I know - I used to know Tami Bryce. She's a nice little girl - or she used to be."
"She still is," Meredith said. "I told you, I went out with Jim a few times. She's a very nice girl, and not at all mature for her age. I don't think she would normally do anything inappropriate, unless..." She stopped, looking into the middle distance, and then shrugged without finishing her sentence.
Bonnie looked serious now. "But we have to stop this," she said. "What if she does that to some guy who's not nice and shy like Matt? She's going to get herself assaulted!"
"That's the whole problem," Matt said, turning red again. "I mean, it's pretty difficult.... If she had been some other girl, that I was going on a date with - not that I go out with other girls on dates..." he added hastily, glancing at Elena.
"But youshould be going out on dates," Elena said firmly. "Matt, I don't want eternal fidelity from you - there's nothing I'd like better than to see you dating a nice girl." As if by accident, her gaze wandered over to Bonnie, who was now trying to crunch celery very quietly and neatly.
"Stefan, you're the only one who can tell us what to do," Elena said, turning to him.
Stefan was frowning. "I don't know. With only two girls, it's pretty hard to draw any conclusions."
"So we're going to wait and see what Caroline - or Tami - does next?" Meredith asked.
"Not just wait," Stefan said. "We've got to find out more about it. You guys can keep an eye on Caroline and Tamra Bryce, and I can do some research on it."
"Damn!" Elena said, hitting the ground with one fist. "I can almost - " She stopped suddenly and looked at her friends. Bonnie had dropped her celery, gasping, and Matt had choked on his Coke, going into a coughing fit. Even Meredith and Stefan were staring at her. "What?" she said blankly.
Meredith recovered first. "It's just that yesterday you were - well, very young angels don't swear."
"Just because I died a couple of times, it means I have to say ¡®darn' for the rest of my life?" Elena shook her head. "Not. I'm me and I'm going to stay me - whoever I am."
"Good," said Stefan, leaning over to kiss the top of her head. Matt looked away and Elena gave Stefan an almost dismissive pat, but thinking,I love you forever , and knowing that he would pick it up even if she couldn't hear his thought in return. In fact she found shecould pick up his general response to it, a warm rose color seemed to hang around him.
Was this what Bonnie saw and called an aura? She realized that most of the day she'd seen him with a light, cool, emerald sort of shadowing around him - if shadows could be light. And the green was returning now as the pink faded away.
Immediately she glanced over the rest of the picnickers. Bonnie was surrounded by a roselike color, shading to the palest of pinks. Meredith was a deep and profound violet. Matt was a strong clear blue.
It reminded her that up until yesterday - only yesterday? - she'd seen so many things that no one else could see. Including something that had scared her silly.
What had itbeen ? She was getting flashes of images - little details that were scary enough by themselves. It could be as small as a fingernail or as large as an arm. Bark-like texture, at least on the body. Insect-like antennae, but far too many of them, and moving like whips, faster than any insect ever moved them. She had the general crawly feeling she got whenever she thought about insects. It was a bug, then. But a bug built on a different body plan than any insect she knew of. It was more like a leech in that respect, or a squid. It had a completely circular mouth, with sharp teeth all around, and far too many tentacles that looked like thick vines whipping around in back.
It could attach itself to a person, she thought. But she had a terrible feeling that it could do more.
It could turn transparent and pull itself inside you and you would feel no more than a pinprick.
Andthen what would happen?
Elena turned to Bonnie. "Do you think that if I show you what something looks like, you could recognize it again? Not with your eyes, but with your psychic senses?"
"I guess it depends on what the ¡®something' is," Bonnie answered cautiously.
Elena glanced over at Stefan, who gave her briefest of nods.
"Then shut your eyes," she said.
Bonnie did so, and Elena put her fingertips on Bonnie's temples, with her thumbs gently brushing Bonnie's eyelashes. Trying to activate her White Powers - something that had been so easy before today - was like striking two rocks together to make a fire and hoping one was flint. Finally she felt a small spark, and Bonnie jerked backward.
Bonnie's eyes snapped open."What was that?" she gasped. She was breathing hard.
"That's what I saw - yesterday."
Elena said slowly, "Inside Damon."
"But what does it mean? Was he controlling it? Or...or..." Bonnie stopped and her eyes widened.
Elena finished the sentence for her. "Was it controlling him? I don't know. But here's one thing I do know, almost for certain. When he ignored your Calling, Bonnie, he was being influenced by the malach."
"The question is,if not Damon , who was controlling it?" Stefan said, standing up again restlessly. "I picked that up, and the kind of creature Elena showed you - it's not something with a mind of its own. It needs an outside brain to control it."
"Like another vampire?" Meredith asked quietly.
Stefan shrugged. "Vampires usually just ignore them, because vampires can get what they want without them. It would have to be a very strong mind to get a malach like that to possess a vampire. Strong - and evil."
"Those," Damon said with biting grammatical precision, from where he was sitting on a high limb of an oak, "are they. My younger brother and his...associates."
"Marvelous," murmured Shinichi. He had draped himself even more gracefully and languidly against the oak than Damon had. It had become an unspoken contest. Shinichi's golden eyes had flared once or twice - Damon had seen it - upon seeing Elena and at the mention of Tami.
"Don't even try to tell me you're not involved with those rowdy girls," Damon added dryly. "From Caroline to Tamra and onward, that's the idea, isn't it?"
Shinichi shook his head. His eyes were on Elena and he began to sing a folksong softly.
"With cheeks like blooming roses
And hair like golden wheat..."
"I wouldn't try it onthose girls." Damon smiled without humor. His eyes were narrow. "Granted, they look about as strong as wet tissue paper - but they're tougher than you'd think, and they're toughest of all when one of them is in danger."
"I told you, it's not me doing it," Shinichi said. He looked uneasy for the first time since Damon had seen him. Then he said, "Although I might know the originator."
"Do tell," Damon suggested, still narrow-eyed.
"Well - did I mention my younger twin? Her name is Misao." He smiled winningly. "It means maiden."
Damon felt an automatic stirring of appetite. He ignored it. He was too relaxed to think of hunting, and he wasn't at all sure thatkitsune - fox-spirits, which Shinichi claimed to be - could be hunted. "No, you didn't mention her," Damon said, absently scratching at the back of his neck. That mosquito bite was gone, but it had left behind a furious itching. "It must have somehow slipped your mind."
"Well, she's here somewhere. She came when I did, when we saw the flare of Power that brought back...Elena."
Damon felt sure that the hesitation before the mention of Elena's name was a fake. He tilted his head at thedon't think you're fooling me angle and waited.
"Misao likes to play games," Shinichi said simply.
"Oh, yes? Like backgammon, chess, Go Fish, that sort of thing?"
Shinichi coughed theatrically, but Damon caught the glint of red in his eye. My, he reallywas overprotective of her, wasn't he? Damon gave Shinichi one of his most incandescent smiles.
"I love her," the young man with the black hair licked by fire said, and this time there was an open warning in his voice.
"Of course you do," Damon said in soothing tones. "I can see that."
"But, well, her games usually have the effect of destroying a town. Eventually. Not all at once."
Damon shrugged. "This flyspeck of a village isn't going to be missed. Of course, I get my girls out alive first." Now it was his voice that held an open warning.
"Just as you like." Shinichi was back to his normal, submissive self. "We're allies, and we'll keep to our deal. Anyway, it would be a shame to waste...all that." His gaze drifted to Elena again.
"By the way, we won't even discuss the little fiasco with your malach and me - or hers, if you insist. I'm pretty sure I've vaporized at least three of them, but if I see another one, our business relationship is over. I make a bad enemy, Shinichi. You don't want to find out how bad."
Shinichi looked suitably impressed as he nodded. But the next moment he was gazing at Elena again, and singing.
"...hair like golden wheat
all a-down her milk-white shoulders;
My pretty pink, my sweet..."
"And I'll want to meet this Misao of yours. For her protection."
"And I know she wants to meet you. She's caught up in her game at the moment, but I'll try to tear her away from it." Shinichi stretched luxuriously.
Damon looked at him for a moment. Then, absent-mindedly, he too stretched.
Shinichi was watching him. He smiled.
Damon wondered about that smile. He had noticed that when Shinichi smiled, two little flames of crimson could be seen in his eyes.
But he was really too tired to think about it right now. Simply too relaxed. In fact he suddenly felt very sleepy....
"So we're going to be looking for these malach things in girls like Tami?" Bonnie asked.
"Exactly like Tami," said Elena.
"And you think," Meredith said, watching Elena closely, "that Tami got it somehow from Caroline."
"Yes. I know, I know - the question is: where did Caroline get it from? And that Idon't know. But, again, we don't know what happened to her when she was kidnapped by Klaus and Tyler Smallwood. We don't know anything about what she's been doing for the last week - except that it's clear she never really stopped hating us."
Matt held his head in his hands. "And then what are we going todo? I feel as if I'm responsible somehow."
"No - Jimmy's responsible, if anyone is. If he - you know, let Caroline spend the night - and then let her talk about it with his fifteen-year-old sister.... Well, it doesn't make himguilty , but he sure could have been a little more subtle," Stefan said.
"And that's whereyou're wrong," Meredith told him. "Matt and Bonnie and Elena and I have known Caroline forages andwe know what she's capable of . If anyone qualifies as their sister's keeper - it's us. And I think we're in serious delinquency of duty. I vote we stop by her house."
"So do I," Bonnie said sadly, "but I'm not looking forward to it. Besides, what if shedoesn't have one of those malach things in her?"
"That's where the research comes in," Elena said. "We need to find out who's behind it all. Someone strong enough to influence Damon."
"Wonderful," Meredith said, looking grim. "And given the power of the ley lines, we only have every single person in Fell's Church to choose from."
Fifty yards west and thirty feet straight up, Damon was struggling to keep awake.
Shinichi reached up to brush fine hair the color of night and flames licking upward off his forehead. Under his lowered lids he was watching Damon intently.
Damon meant to be watching him as intently, but he was simply too drowsy. Slowly, he imitated Shinichi's motion, brushing a very few strands of silky black hair off his own forehead. His lids drooped inadvertently, just a little more than before. Shinichi was still smiling at him.
"So we have our deal," he murmured. "We get the town, Misao and I, and you don't stand in our way. We get the rights to the power of the ley lines. You get your girls safely out...and you get your revenge."
"Against my sanctimonious brother and that...that Mutt!"
"Matt." Shinichi had sharp ears.
"Whatever. I just won't have Elena hurt, is all. Or the little red-headed witch."
"Ah, yes, sweet Bonnie. I wouldn't mind one or two like her. One for Samhain and one for the Solstice."
Damon snorted drowsily. "There aren't two like her; I don't care where you look. I won't have her hurt either."
"And what about the tall, dark-haired beauty...Meredith?"
Damon woke up."Where?"
"Don't worry; she's not coming to get you," Shinichi said soothingly. "What do you wantdone with her?"
"Oh." Damon lounged back again in relief, easing his shoulders. "Let her go her own way - as long as it's far away from mine."
Shinichi seemed to deliberately relax back against his branch. "Your brother will be no problem. So it's really just that other boy down there," he murmured. He had a very insinuating murmur.
"Yes. But my brother - " Damon was almost asleep now, in the exact position that Shinichi had taken.
"I told you, he'll be taken care of."
"Mm. I mean, good."
"So we have a deal?"
"We have a deal."
This time, Damon didn't respond. He was dreaming. He dreamed that Shinichi's angelic golden eyes snapped open suddenly to look at him.
"Damon." He heard his name, but in his dream it was too much trouble to open his eyes. He could see without opening them, anyway.
In his dream, Shinichi leaned over him, hovering directly over his face, so that their auras mixed and they would have shared breath if Damon had been breathing. Shinichi stayed that way a long time, as if he were testing Damon's aura, but Damon knew that to an outsider he would appear to be out on all channels and frequencies. Still, in his dream Shinichi hung over him, as if he were trying to memorize the crescent of dark lashes on Damon's pale cheek or the subtle curve of Damon's mouth.
Finally, the dream-Shinichi put his hand under Damon's head and stroked the spot where the mosquito bite had itched.
"Oh, growing up to be a fine big lad, aren't you?" he said to something Damon couldn't see - to somethinginside him. "You could almost take full control against his own strong will, couldn't you?"
Shinichi sat for a moment, as if watching a cherry blossom fall, then shut his eyes.
"I think," he whispered, "that that's what we'll try, not too long from now. Soon. Very soon. But first, we have to gain his trust; get rid of his rival. Keep him blurred, angry, vain, off balance. Keep him thinking of Stefan, of his hatred for Stefan, who took his angel, whileI take care of what needs to be done here."
Then he spoke directly to Damon. "Allies, indeed!" He laughed. "Not while I can put my finger on your very soul. Here. Do you feel it? What I could make you do..."
And then again he seemed to address whatever creature was already inside Damon: "But right now...a little feast to help you grow up much faster and get much stronger."
In the dream, Shinichi made a gesture, and lay back, encouraging previously invisible malach to come up the trees. They slunk up and slid up the back of Damon's neck. And then, hideously, they slipped inside him, one by one, through some cut he hadn't known he had. The feeling of their soft, flabby, jellyfish-like bodies was almost unbearable...slipping inside of him....
Shinichi sang softly.
"Oh, come a' tae me, ye fair pretty maidens
Haste ye lassies tae my bosom
Come tae me by sunlight or moonlight
While the roses still are in blossom..."
In his dream, Damon was angry. Not because of the nonsense about malach inside him. That was ludicrous. He was angry because he knew that the dream-Shinichi was watching Elena as she began to pack up the remains of the picnic. He was watching every motion she made with an obsessive closeness.
"They blossom ever where you tread
...Wild roses bloody red."
"Extraordinary girl, your Elena," the dream-Shinichi added. "If she lives, I think she'll be mine for a night or so." He stroked the remaining strands of hair off Damon's forehead gently. "Extraordinary aura, don't you think? I'll make sure her death is beautiful."
But Damon was in one of those dreams where you can neither move nor speak. He didn't answer.
Meanwhile, dream-Shinichi's dream-pets continued to climb the trees and pour themselves, like Jell-O, inside him. One, two, three, a dozen, two dozen of them.More .
And Damon could not wake, even though he sensed more malach coming from the Old Wood. They were neither dead, nor living, neither man nor maiden, mere capsules of Power that would allow Shinichi to control Damon's mind from far away. Endlessly, they came.
Shinichi kept watching the flow, the bright sparkle of internal organs sparkling into Damon. After a while he sang again,
"Days are precious, dinna lose them
Flo'ers will fade and so will ye...
Come to me, ye fair young maidens
While young and fair ye still may be."
Damon dreamed that he heard the word "forget" as if whispered by a hundred voices. And even as he tried to remember what to forget, it dissolved and disappeared.
He woke up alone in the tree, with an ache that filled his entire body.