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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 10)

Damon was making his way up the beautiful rose-covered trel is below the window of the bedchamber of M. le Princess Jessalyn D'Aubigne, a very wealthy, beautiful, and much-admired girl who had the bluest blood of any vampire in the Dark Dimension, according to the books he'd bought. In fact, he'd listened to the locals and it was rumored that Sage himself had changed her two years ago, and had given her this bijoux castle to live in. Delicate gem that it appeared, though, the little castle had already presented Damon with several problems. There had been that razor-wire fence, on which he ripped his leather jacket; an unusual y dexterous and stubborn guard whom it had real y been a pity to strangle; an inner moat that had almost taken him unawares; and a few dogs that he had treated with the Saber-tranquilizer routine – using Mrs. Flowers's sleeping powder, which he'd brought with him from Earth. It would have been easier to poison them, but Jessalyn was reputed to have a very soft heart for animals and he needed her for at least three days. That should be long enough to make him a vampire – if they did nothing else during those days.

Now, as he pul ed himself silently up the trel is, he mental y added long rose thorns to the list of inconveniences. He also rehearsed his first speech to Jessalyn. She had been – was  – would forever be – eighteen. But it was a young eighteen, since she had only two years'experience at being a vampire.

He comforted himself with this as he climbed silently into a window.

Still silently, moving slowly in case the princess had guardian animals in her bedchamber, Damon parted layer after layer of filmy, translucent black curtains that kept the blood-red light of the sun from shining into the chamber. His boots sank into the thick pile of a black rug. Making it out of the enfolding curtains, Damon saw that the entire chamber was decorated in a simple theme by a master of contrast. Jet-black and off-black. black.

He liked it a lot.

There was an enormous bed with more bil owing filmy black curtains almost encasing it. The only way to approach it was from the foot, where the diaphanous curtains were thinner.

Standing there in the cathedral-like silence of the great chamber, Damon looked at the slight figure under the black silk sheets, among dozens of smal throw pil ows.

She was a jewel like the castle. Delicate bones. A look of utter innocence as she slept. An ethereal river of fine, scarlet hair spil ing about her. He could see individual hairs straying on the black sheets. She looked a little like Bonnie.

Damon was pleased.

He pul ed out the same knife he had put to Elena's throat, and just for a moment hesitated – but no, this was no time to be thinking of Elena's golden warmth. Everything depended on this fragile-shouldered child in front of him. He put the point of the knife to his chest, deliberately placing it wide of his heart in case some blood had to be spil ed…and coughed.

Nothing happened. The princess, who was wearing a black negligee that showed frail-looking arms as fine and pale as porcelain, went on sleeping. Damon noticed that the nails on her smal fingers were lacquered the exact scarlet of her hair.

The two large pil ar candles set in tal black stands were giving off an enticing perfume, as wel as being clocks – the farther down they burned, the easier to tel time. The lighting was perfect – everything was perfect – except that Jessalyn was stil asleep.

Damon coughed again, loudly – and bumped the bed.

The princess woke, starting up and simultaneously bringing two sheathed blades out of her hair.

"Who is it? Is someone there?"She was looking in every direction but the right one.

"It's only me, your highness."Damon pitched his voice low, but fraught with unrequited need. "You don't have to be afraid,"he added, now that she'd at last gotten the right direction and seen him. He knelt by the foot of her bed.

He'd miscalculated a bit. The bed was so large and high that his chest and the knife were far below Jessalyn's line of sight.

"Here I wil take my life,"he announced, very loudly to make sure that Jessalyn was keeping up with the program.

After a moment or two the princess's head popped up over the foot of the bed. She balanced herself with hands spread wide and narrow shoulders hunched close to her. At this distance he could see that her eyes were green – a complicated green consisting of many different rings and speckles.

At first she just hissed at him and lifted her knives held in hands whose fingers were tipped with nails of scarlet.

Damon bore with her. She would learn in time that al this wasn't real y necessary; that in fact it had gone out of fashion in the real world decades ago and was only kept alive by pulp fiction and old movies.

"Here at your feet I slay myself,"he said again, to make sure she didn't miss a syl able, or the entire point, for that matter.

"You – yourself?"She was suspicious. "Who are you? How did you get here? Why would you do such a thing?"

"I got here through the road of my madness. I did it out of what I know is madness I can no longer live with."

"What madness? And are you going to do it now?"the princess asked with interest. "Because if you're not, I'l have to cal my guards and – wait a minute,"she interrupted herself.

She grabbed his knife before he could stop her and licked it.

"This is a metal blade,"she told him, tossing it back.

"I know."Damon let his head fal so that hair curtained his eyes and said painful y: "I am…a human, your highness."

He was covertly watching through his lashes and he saw that Jessalyn brightened up. "I thought you were just some weak, useless vampire,"she said absently. "But now that I look at you…"A rose petal of a pink tongue came out and licked her lips. "There's no point in wasting the good stuff, is there?"

She was like Bonnie. She said exactly what she thought, when she thought it. Something inside Damon wanted to laugh.

He stood again, looking at the girl on the bed with al the fire and passion of which he was capable – and felt that it wasn't enough. Thinking about the real Bonnie, alone and unhappy, was…wel , passion-quenching. But what else could he do?

Suddenly he knew what he could do. Before, when he'd stopped himself from thinking of Elena, he had cut off any genuine passion or desire. But he was doing this for Elena, as much as for himself. Elena couldn't be his Princess of Darkness if he couldn't be her Prince.

This time, when he looked down at M. le Princess, it was differently. He could feel the atmosphere change.

"Highness, I have no right even to speak to you,"he said, deliberately putting one booted foot on the metal scrol work that formed the frame of the bed. "You know as wel as I that you can kil me with a single blow…say, here" – pointing to a spot on his jaw – "but you have already slain me – "

Jessalyn looked confused, but waited.

" – with love. I fel in love with you the moment I saw you. You could break my neck, or – as I would say if I were permitted to touch your perfumed white hand – you could curl those fingers around my throat and strangle me. I beg you to do it."

Jessalyn was beginning to look puzzled but excited.

Blushing, she held out one smal hand to Damon, but clearly without any intention of strangling him.

"Please, you must,"Damon said earnestly, never taking his eyes off hers. "That is the only thing I ask of you: that you kil me yourself instead of cal ing your guards so that the last sight I see wil be your beautiful face."

"You're il ,"Jessalyn decided, stil looking flustered. "There have been other unbalanced minds who have made their way past the first wal of my castle – although never to my chambers. I'l give you to the doctors so that they can make you wel ."

"Please,"said Damon, who had forged his way through the last of the filmy black hangings and was now looming over the sitting princess. "Grant me instant death, rather than leaving me to die a little each day. You don't know what I've done. I can't stop dreaming of you. I've fol owed you from shop to shop when you went out. I am already dying now as you ravish me with your nobility and radiance, knowing that I am no more than the paving stones you walk on. No doctor can change that."

Jessalyn was clearly considering. Obviously, no one had ever talked to her like this.

Her green eyes fixed on his lips, the lower of which was stil bleeding. Damon gave an indifferent little laugh and said,

"One of your guards caught me and very properly tried to kil me before I could reach you and disturb your sleep. I'm afraid I had to kil him to get here,"he said, standing between one pil ar candle and the girl on the bed so that his shadow was thrown over her.

Jessalyn's eyes widened in approval even as the rest of her seemed more fragile than ever. "It's stil bleeding,"she whispered. "I could – "

"You can do anything you want,"Damon encouraged her with a wry quirk of a smile on his lips. It was true. She could.

"Then come here."She thumped a place by the nearest pil ow on the bed. "What are you cal ed?"

"Damon,"he said as he stripped off his jacket and lay down, chin propped on one elbow, with the air of one not unused to such things.

"Just that? Damon?"

"You can cut it stil shorter. I am nothing but Shame now,"he replied, taking another minute to think of Elena and to hold Jessalyn's eyes hypnotical y. "I was a vampire – a powerful and proud one – on Earth – but I was tricked by a kitsune…"He told her a garbled version of Stefan's story, omitting Elena or any nonsense about wanting to be human.

He said that when he managed to escape the prison that had taken his vampire self, he decided to end his own human life.

But at that moment, he had seen Princess Jessalyn and thought that, serving her, he would be happy with his sorry lot.

Alas, he said, it only fed his disgraceful feelings for her highness.

"Now my madness has driven me to actual y accost you in your own chambers. Make an example of me, your highness, that wil cause other evildoers to tremble. Burn me, have me flogged and quartered, put my head on a pike to cause those who might do you il to cast themselves into a fire first."He was now in bed with her, leaning back a little to expose his bare throat.

"Don't be sil y,"Jessalyn said, with a little catch in her voice.

"Even the meanest of my servants wants to live."

"Perhaps the ones that never see you do. Scul ions, stable boys – but I cannot live, knowing that I can never have you."

The princess looked Damon over, blushed, gazed for a moment into his eyes…and then she bit him.

"I'l get Stefan to go down to the root cel ar,"Elena said to Meredith, who was angrily thumbing tears out of her eyes.

"You know we can't do that. With the police right here in the house – "

"Then I'll do it – "

"You can't! You know you can't, Elena, or you wouldn't have come to me!"

Elena looked at her friend closely. "Meredith, you've been donating blood al along,"she whispered. "You never seemed even slightly bothered…"

"He only took a tiny bit – always less from me than anyone.

And always from my arm. I just pretended I was having blood drawn at the doctor's. No problem. It wasn't even bad with Damon back in the Dark Dimension."

"But now…"Elena blinked. "Now – what?"

"Now,"Meredith said with a faraway expression, "Stefan knows that I'm a hunter-slayer. That I even have a fighting stave. And now I have to…to submit to…"

Elena had gooseflesh. She felt as if the distance from her to Meredith in the room was getting larger. "A hunter-slayer?"she said, bewildered. "And what's a fighting stave?"

"There's no time to explain now! Oh, Elena…"

If Plan A was Meredith and Plan B was Matt, there was real y no choice. Plan C had to be Elena herself. Her blood was much stronger than anyone else's anyway, so ful of Power that Stefan would only need a –

"No!"Meredith whispered right in Elena's ear, somehow managing to hiss a word without a single sibilant. "They're coming down the stairs. We have to find Stefan now! Can you tel him to meet me in the little bedroom behind the parlor?"

"Yes, but – "

"Do it!"

And I stil don't know what a fighting stave is, Elena thought, al owing Meredith to take her arms and propel her toward the bedroom. But I know what a "hunter-slayer"sounds like, and I definitely don't like it. And that weapon – it makes a stake look like a plastic picnic knife. Stil , she sent to Stefan, who was fol owing the sheriffs downstairs: Meredith is going to donate as much blood as you need to Influence them.

There's no time to argue. Come here fast and for God's sake look cheerful and reassuring.

Stefan didn't sound cooperative. I can't take enough from her for our minds to touch. It might – Elena lost her temper. She was frightened; she was suspicious of one of her two best friends – a horrible feeling – and she was desperate. She needed Stefan to do just as she said. Get here fast! was al she projected, but she had the feeling that she'd hit him with al of the feelings ful force, because he suddenly turned concerned and gentle. I will, love, he said simply.

While the female police officer was searching the kitchen and the male the living room, Stefan stepped into the smal first-floor guest room, with its single rumpled bed. The lamps were turned off but with his night vision he could see Elena and Meredith perfectly wel by the curtains. Meredith was holding herself as stiffly as an acrophobic bungee jumper.

Take all you need without permanently harming her – and try to put her to sleep, too. And don't invade her mind too deeply –

I'll take care of it. You'd better get out in the hallway, let them see at least one of us, love, Stefan replied soundlessly. Elena was obviously simultaneously frightened for and defensive about her friend and had sped right into micromanagement mode. While this was usual y a good thing, if there was one thing Stefan knew about – even if it was the only thing he knew – it was taking blood.

"I want to ask for peace between our families,"he said, reaching one hand toward Meredith. She hesitated and Stefan, even trying his hardest, could not help but hearing her thoughts, like smal , scuttling creatures at the base of her mind. What was she committing herself to? In what sense did he mean family?

It's really just a formality, he told her, trying to gain ground on another front: her acceptance of the touch of his thoughts to hers. Never mind it.

"No,"Meredith said. "It's important. I want to trust you, Stefan.

Only you, but…I didn't get the stave until after Klaus was dead."

He thought swiftly. "Then you didn't know what you were – "

"No. I knew. But my parents were never active. It was Grandpa who told me about the stave."

Stefan felt a surge of unexpected pleasure. "So your grandfather's better now?"

"No…sort of."Meredith's thoughts were confusing. His voice changed, she was thinking. Stefan was truly happy that Grandpa's better. Even most humans wouldn't care – not really.

"Of course I care,"Stefan said. "For one thing, he helped save al our lives – and the town. For another, he's a very brave man – he must have been – to survive an attack by an Old One."

Suddenly, Meredith's cold hand was around his wrist and words were tumbling from her lips in a rush that Stefan could barely understand. But her thoughts stood bright and clear under those words, and through them he got the meaning.

"Al I can know about what happened when I was very young is what I've been told. My parents told me things. My parents changed my birthday – they actual y changed the day we celebrate my birthday on – because a vampire attacked my grandpa, and then my grandpa tried to kil me. They've always said that. But how do they know? They weren't there – that's part of what they say. And what's more likely, that my grandpa attacked me or that the vampire did?"She stopped, panting, trembling al over like a white-tailed doe caught in the forest. Caught, and thinking she was doomed, and unable to run.

Stefan put out a hand that he deliberately made warm around Meredith's cold one. "I won't attack you,"he said simply. "And I won't disturb any old memories. Good enough?"

Meredith nodded. After her cathartic story Stefan knew she wanted as few words as possible.

"Don't be afraid,"he murmured, just as he had thought the soothing phrase into the mind of many an animal he'd chased through the Old Wood. It's all right. There's no reason to fear me.

She couldn't help being afraid, but Stefan soothed her as he soothed the forest animals, drawing her into the darkest shadow of the room, calming her with soft words even as his canines screamed at him to bite. He had to fold down the side of her blouse to expose her long, olive-skinned column of neck, and as he did the calming words turned into soft endearments and the kind of reassuring noises he would use to comfort a baby.

And at last, when Meredith's breathing had slowed and evened and her eyes had drifted shut, he used the greatest of care to slide his aching fangs into her artery. Meredith barely quivered. Everything was softness as he easily skimmed over the surface of her mind, too, seeing only what he already knew about her: her life with Elena and Bonnie and Caroline. Parties and school, plans and ambitions.

Picnics. A swimming hole. Laughter. Tranquility that spread out like a great pool. The need for calm, for control. Al this stretching back as far as she could remember…

The farthest depths that she could remember were here at the center…where there was a sudden plunging dip. Stefan had promised himself he would not go deeply into her mind, but he was being pul ed, helpless, being dragged down by the whirlpool. The waters closed over his head and he was drawn at tremendous speed to the very depths of a second pool, this one not composed of tranquility, but of rage and fear.

And then he saw what had happened, what was happening, what would forever be happening – there at Meredith's stil center.

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