"A headless body found in the woods near Dalcrest College last week has now been identified as Dalcrest senior Ethan Crane," announced the pretty newscaster on the TV morning show, her forehead crinkling seriously. "Police have not yet released a statement on whether Crane was the victim of a murder or a freak accident, but judging from the difference in wounds, Crane's death appears unrelated to the most recent animal attacks in the woods."
As the newscaster went on to another story, Meredith flipped off the TV, hissing in irritation.
"They must think everyone who watches the news is a moron," she muttered. "How could someone lose their head in a freak accident in the woods?"
Even though the student lounge was empty except for the five of them - Elena, Bonnie, Meredith, Stefan, and Zander - Elena lowered her voice and glanced around before answering. "They don't want people to panic any more than they are already."
The empty lounge was a sign of how frightened everyone already was, Elena thought. The first couple of weeks of school, the lounge had been packed in the evenings, guys and girls hanging out to watch TV or flirt or even study.
Now, though, everyone was wary, sticking to their rooms in case one of the friendly faces on campus was masking a killer. Elena was constantly on edge, too. She and her friends checked and rechecked their weapons, tried to anticipate what Klaus might do. And yet he'd done nothing, as far as they could tell.
"My psychology class was canceled this week," Bonnie told the others. "And there's hardly anyone left in my English section. A lot of people have left." She hesitated, her wide brown eyes flicking between Elena and Zander. "My father wants me to come home and see if we can get the tuition refunded. He says I could come back next year if they get to the bottom of all the attacks and disappearances," she confessed.
"You're not going home, are you?" Elena asked her. Bonnie's dad had always been superprotective of Bonnie and her older sisters, so Elena wasn't surprised by this news.
"Of course I'm not going," Bonnie said stoutly. "You guys need me here." She snuggled closer to Zander and tipped her head back against his chest to smile up at him. He smiled back, wide and warmly, and Elena found herself smiling, too. Zander was such a guy's guy, not really Elena's type at all, but it was wonderful to see Bonnie with someone who liked her so much that pure contentment just shone out of him whenever they were together.
Stefan cleared his throat to get their attention. "I don't know where Klaus is feeding, but I don't think the bodies that have been found in the woods are people he killed. The news reports are saying they look like animal attacks, and, uh" - he looked down at his feet, his face slightly embarrassed - "I compelled a police officer to find out what the police have seen. The kills are really sloppy; they look like an animal actually is attacking people, so it's not just a cover story as far as the police are concerned."
"So you think it's the new vampires who are killing people, not one as experienced as Klaus," Elena said. Stefan met her eyes and she knew he was thinking the same thing she was: not Damon, either. A great wave of relief broke over her.
If Damon crossed that line, if he started killing again, she didn't know what they would do. She couldn't imagine that they'd betray him, turn him over to the others, or hunt him down. So much had changed between Stefan and Damon. Elena knew Stefan would protect his brother now, choose him over anyone else except perhaps Elena herself.
But it hadn't come to that yet. It never would, Elena told herself fiercely. Damon might have lost control once, but no lasting harm had been done. The girl was fine. And it was the new vampires, the ones Ethan had turned, who were killing.
Meredith was watching her, her gray eyes sympathetic. "People are still dying, even if the killer is not Klaus," she said gently. With a start, Elena realized that she'd given away her relief that it wasn't Damon. Luckily, Meredith had misinterpreted Elena's reaction. "We can't guess what game Klaus is playing or what his plans are until he reveals himself," Meredith went on. A lock of dark hair fell over her cheek and she tucked it back behind her ear. "But we can target the Vitale vampires. Gassing the tunnels didn't work, and we can't make more gas unless we can get a lot more vervain than we have now. We should be patrolling regularly to keep the students safer."
She dug into her backpack and pulled out a campus map, carefully annotated in red ink, and traced an area on the map with one finger. "I've marked their hunting grounds here, and I think we can focus our patrols on the woods and on the playing fields on the edge of campus. We need to organize and make sure we've got nightly patrols that have enough strong fighters in them to take down a group of young vampires."
"What about during the day?" Bonnie asked, frowning and reaching for the map. "They've all got lapis lazuli, don't they? So they could be out hunting anytime."
Stefan stirred restlessly next to Elena on the couch. "Even though the sunlight doesn't kill them, they'll be laying low during the day," he explained. "Sunlight bothers vampires even with the lapis lazuli. Night is a vampire's natural habitat, and they won't leave it unless they're forced to."
Elena looked at him in surprise, but said nothing. Stefan lived in the day with her, slept at night. Did it hurt him, too? Had he changed so much, just to be with Elena?
"So nighttime patrols ought to be enough, at least for now," Meredith said.
Zander examined the map closely, his white-blond head close to Bonnie's red one. "I can organize the guys to take some of the patrols," he offered. Stefan nodded to Zander in acknowledgment. Meredith turned to Elena, her gray eyes sharp. "What about Damon?" she asked. "We could really use him."
Elena hesitated. Beside her, Stefan cleared his throat. "My brother isn't available right now," he said, his voice expressionless. "But I'll let you know if anything changes."
Meredith's lips tightened. Elena could imagine what was going through her friend's head: Damon, irritating but always there, had finally, over the past summer and fall, proven himself as a worthwhile ally, only to disappear when the campus was falling into chaos around them?
If that was what Meredith was thinking, she didn't say anything, just narrowed her eyes and let out a long sigh, then asked, "What about you, Bonnie? Are there any spells that will help the patrols?"
"There are a few protection spells I already know that could be useful," Bonnie said thoughtfully. "I'm going to call Mrs. Flowers and see what else she recommends."
Elena smiled across at her friend. With the discovery of her talent for witchcraft, Bonnie had found a new confidence. Bonnie looked up and caught her eye, then smiled back.
"We'll beat them, won't we, Elena?" she said softly. "And Klaus, too, when he shows up again."
"We did before, after all," Elena said lightly. Bonnie's expression sobered, and Meredith picked up the map again, turning it over thoughtfully in her hands. Next to Elena, Stefan reached to take her hand in his. They all knew just what it had taken to beat Klaus the first time they had faced him: Damon and Stefan united, and an army of the dead of Fell's Church, rising up from the land where they had fallen in battle. Not something they could duplicate. And even then, they had barely survived.
"We're stronger now," Bonnie said uncertainly. "Right?"
Elena forced herself to smile. "Of course we are," she said. Meredith's hand took hold of Elena's, and Elena felt comforted and strengthened by Stefan, her love, on one side, and Meredith, her friend, on the other. Bonnie raised her head proudly, her small face defiant, and Zander straightened beside her.
"We're invincible when we're together," Elena told them, and looking around at their resolute faces, she almost believed it.