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    Chapter One
      
    Dear Diary,

    I'm so scared.

    My heart is pounding, my mouth is dry, and my hands are shaking. I've faced so much and survived: vampires, werewolves, phantoms. Things I never imagined were real. And now I'm terrified.

    Why?

    Simply because I'm leaving home.

    And I know that it's completely, insanely ridiculous. I'm barely leaving home, really. I'm going to college, only a few hours' drive from this darling house where I've lived since I was a baby.

    No, I'm not going to start crying again. I'll be sharing a room with Bonnie and Meredith, my two best friends in the whole world. In the same dorm, only a couple of floors away will be my beloved Stefan. My other best friend, Matt, will be just a short walk across campus. Even Damon will be in an apartment in the town nearby.

    Honestly, I couldn't stick any closer to home unless I never moved out of this house at all. I'm being such a wimp. But it seems like I just got my home back - my family, my life - after being exiled for so long, and now I suddenly have to leave again.

    I suppose I'm scared partly because these last few weeks of summer have been wonderful. We packed all the enjoyment we would have been having these past few months - if it hadn't been for fighting the kitsune, traveling to the Dark Dimension, battling the jealousy phantom, and all the other Extremely Not Fun things we've done - into three glorious weeks. We had picnics and sleepovers and went swimming and shopping. We took a trip to the county fair, where Matt won Bonnie a stuffed tiger and turned bright red when she squealed and leaped into his arms. Stefan even kissed me on the top of the Ferris wheel, just like any normal guy might kiss his girlfriend on a beautiful summer night.

    We were so happy. So normal in a way I thought we could never be again.

    That's what's frightening me, I guess. I'm scared that these few weeks have been a bright golden interlude and that now that things are changing, we'll be heading back into darkness and horror. It's like that poem we read in English class last fall says: Nothing gold can stay. Not for me.

    Even Damon...

    The clatter of feet in the hal way downstairs distracted her, and Elena Gilbert's pen slowed. She glanced up at the last couple of boxes scattered around her room. Stefan and Damon must be here to pick her up.

    But she wanted to finish her thought, to express the last worry that had been nagging at her during these perfect weeks. She turned back to her diary, writing faster so that she could get her thoughts down before she had to leave.

    Damon has changed. Ever since we defeated the jealousy phantom, he's been ... kinder. Not just to me, not just to Bonnie, who he's always had a soft spot for, but even to Matt and Meredith. He can still be intensely irritating and unpredictable - he wouldn't be Damon without that - but he hasn't had that cruel edge to him. Not like he used to.

    He and Stefan seem to have come to an understanding. They know I love them both, and yet they haven't let jealousy come between them.

    They're close, acting like true brothers in a way I haven't seen before. There's this delicate balance between the three of us that's lasted through the end of the summer. And I worry that any misstep on my part will bring it crashing down and that like their first love, Katherine, I'll tear the brothers apart. And then we'll lose Damon forever.

    Aunt Judith cal ed up, sounding impatient, "Elena!"

    "Coming!" Elena replied. She quickly scribbled a few more sentences in her diary.

    Still, it's possible that this new life will be wonderful. Maybe I'll find everything I've been looking for. I can't hold on to high school, or to my life here at home, forever. And who knows? Maybe this time the gold will stay.

    "Elena! Your ride is waiting!"

    Aunt Judith was definitely getting stressed out now.

    She'd wanted to drive Elena up to school herself. But Elena knew she wouldn't be able to say good-bye to her family without crying, so she'd asked Stefan and Damon to drive her up instead. It would be less embarrassing to get emotional here at home than to weep al over Dalcrest's campus. Since Elena had decided to go up with the Salvatore brothers, Aunt Judith had been working herself up about every little detail, anxious that Elena's col ege career wouldn't start off perfectly without her there to supervise. It was al because Aunt Judith loved her, Elena knew.

    Elena slammed the blue-velvet-covered journal shut and dropped it into an open box. She climbed to her feet and headed for the door, but before she opened it, she turned to look at her room one last time.

    It was so empty, with her favorite posters missing from the wal s and half the books gone from her bookcase. Only a few clothes remained in her dresser and closet. The furniture was al stil in place. But now that the room was stripped of most of her possessions, it felt more like an impersonal hotel room than the cozy haven of her childhood.

    So much had happened here. Elena could remember cuddling up with her father on the window seat to read together when she was a little girl. She and Bonnie and Meredith - and Caroline, who had been her good friend, too, once - had spent at least a hundred nights here tel ing secrets, studying, dressing for dances, and just hanging out. Stefan had kissed her here, early in the morning, and disappeared quickly when Aunt Judith came to wake her.

    Elena remembered Damon's cruel, triumphant smile as she invited him in that first time, what felt like a mil ion years ago. And, not so long ago, her joy when he had appeared here one dark night, after they al thought he was dead.

    There was a quiet knock at the door, and it swung open.

    Stefan stood in the doorway, watching her.

    "About ready?" he said. "Your aunt is a little worried.

    She thinks you're not going to have time to unpack before orientation if we don't get going."

    Elena stood and went over to wrap her arms around him. He smel ed clean and woodsy, and she nestled her head against his shoulder. "I'm coming," she said. "It's just hard to say good-bye, you know? Everything's changing." Stefan turned toward her and caught her mouth softly in a kiss. "I know," he said when the kiss ended, and ran his finger gently along the curve of her bottom lip. "I'l take these boxes down and give you one more minute. Aunt Judith wil feel better if she sees the truck getting packed up."

    "Okay. I'l be right down."

    Stefan left the room with the boxes, and Elena sighed, looking around again. The blue flowered curtains her mother had made for her when Elena was nine stil hung over the windows. Elena remembered her mother hugging her, her eyes a little teary, when her baby girl told her she was too big for Winnie the Pooh curtains.

    Elena's own eyes fil ed with tears, and she tucked her hair behind her ears, mirroring the gesture her mother had used when she was thinking hard. Elena was so young when her parents died. Maybe if they'd lived, she and her mother would be friends now, would know each other as equals, not just as mother and daughter.

    Her parents had gone to Dalcrest Col ege, too. That's where they'd met, in fact. Downstairs on top of the piano sat a picture of them in their graduation robes on the sun-fil ed lawn in front of the Dalcrest library, laughing, impossibly young.

    Maybe going to Dalcrest would bring Elena closer to them. Maybe she'd learn more about the people they'd been, not just the mom and dad she'd known when she was little, and find her lost family among the neoclassical buildings and the sweeping green lawns of the col ege.

    She wasn't leaving, not realy. She was moving forward.

    Elena set her jaw firmly and headed out of her room, clicking off the light as she went.

    Downstairs, Aunt Judith, her husband, Robert, and Elena's five-year-old sister, Margaret, were gathered in the hal , waiting, watching Elena as she came down the stairs.

    Aunt Judith was fussing, of course. She couldn't keep stil ; her hands were twisting together, smoothing her hair, or fiddling with her earrings. "Elena," she said, "are you sure you've packed everything you need? There's so much to remember." She frowned.

    Her aunt's obvious anxiety made it easier for Elena to smile reassuringly and hug her. Aunt Judith held her tight, relaxing for a moment, and sniffed. "I'm going to miss you, sweetheart."

    "I'l miss you, too," Elena said, and squeezed Aunt Judith closer, feeling her own lips tremble. She gave a shaky laugh. "But I'l be back. If I forgot anything, or if I get homesick, I'l run right back for a weekend. I don't have to wait for Thanksgiving."

    Next to them, Robert shifted from one foot to the other and cleared his throat. Elena let go of Aunt Judith and turned to him.

    "Now, I know col ege students have a lot of expenses," he said. "And we don't want you to have to worry about money, so you've got an account at the student store, but..." He opened his wal et and handed Elena a fistful of bil s. "Just in case."

    "Oh," said Elena, touched and a little flustered. "Thank you so much, Robert, but you realy don't have to." He patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. "We want you to have everything you need," he said firmly. Elena smiled at him gratefuly, folded the money, and put it in her pocket.

    Next to Robert, Margaret glared down obstinately at her shoes. Elena knelt before her and took her little sister's hands. "Margaret?" she prompted.

    Large blue eyes stared into her own. Margaret frowned and shook her head, her mouth a tight line.

    "I'm going to miss you so much, Meggie," Elena said, pul ing her close, her eyes fil ing with tears again. Her little sister's dandelion-soft hair brushed against Elena's cheek.

    "But I'l be back for Thanksgiving, and maybe you can come visit me on campus. I'd love to show off my little sister to al my new friends."

    Margaret swal owed. "I don't want you to go," she said in a smal miserable voice. "You're always leaving."

    "Oh, sweetie," Elena said helplessly, cuddling her sister closer. "I always come back, don't I?" Elena shivered. Once again, she wondered how much Margaret remembered of what had really happened in Fel 's Church over the last year. The Guardians had promised to change everyone's memories of those dark months when vampires, werewolves, and kitsune had nearly destroyed the town - and when Elena herself had died and risen again - but there seemed to be exceptions.

    Caleb Smal wood remembered, and sometimes Margaret's innocent face looked strangely knowing.

    "Elena," Aunt Judith said again, her voice thick and weepy, "you'd better get going."

    Elena hugged her sister one more time before letting her go. "Okay," she said, standing and picking up her bag.

    "I'l calyou tonight and let you know how I'm settling in." Aunt Judith nodded, and Elena gave her another quick kiss before wiping her eyes and opening the front door.

    Outside, the sunlight was so bright she had to blink.

    Damon and Stefan were leaning against the truck Stefan had rented, her stuff packed into the back. As she stepped forward, they both glanced up and, at the same time, smiled at her.

    Oh. They were so beautiful, the two of them, that seeing them could stil leave her shaken after al this time. Stefan, her love Stefan, his leaf-green eyes shining at the sight of her, was gorgeous with his classical profile and that sweet little kissable curve to his bottom lip.

    And Damon - al luminescent pale skin, black velvety eyes, and silken hair - was graceful and deadly al at once.

    Damon's bril iant smile made something inside her stretch and purr like a panther recognizing its mate.

    Both pairs of eyes watched her lovingly, possessively.

    The Salvatore brothers were hers now. What was she going to do about it? The thought made her frown and made her shoulders hunch nervously. Then she consciously smoothed the wrinkles in her forehead away, relaxed, and smiled back at them. What would come, would come.

    "Time to go," she said, and tilted her face up toward the sun.

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