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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 2)

Elena couldn't have been out for more than a few seconds.

When she came to, everything was the same – although she wondered how she hadn't lethal y cut her own throat on the knife.

She knew that the tray with the dishes and cup had gone flying into the darkness in that first instant when she couldn't help flinging out her arms. But now she recognized the grip, she recognized the scent, and she understood the reason for the knife. And she was glad that she did, because she was about as proud of fainting as Sage would have been of doing it. She wasn't a fainter!

Now she wil ed herself to sag in Damon's arms, except for where the knife was. To show him that she was no threat.

"Hel o, princess,"a voice like black velvet said into her ear.

Elena felt an inner shiver – but not of fear. No, it was more as if her insides were melting. But he didn't change his grasp on her.

"Damon…"she said huskily, "I'm here to help you. Please let me. For your sake."

As abruptly as it had come, the iron grip was withdrawn from her waist. The knife stopped pressing into her flesh, although the sharp, stinging feeling at her throat was quite enough to remind her that Damon would have it ready. Substitute fangs.

There was a click, and suddenly the room was too bright.

Slowly, Elena turned to look at Damon. And even now, even when he was pale and rumpled and haggard from not eating, he was so gorgeous that her heart seemed to plummet into darkness. His black hair, fal ing every which way over his forehead; his perfect, carven features; his arrogant, sensual mouth – right now compressed into a brooding line…

"Where is it, Elena?"he asked briefly. Not what. Where. He knew she wasn't stupid, and, of course, he knew the humans in the boardinghouse were hiding the star bal from him deliberately.

"Is that al you have to say to me?"Elena whispered.

She saw the helpless softening in his eyes, and he took one step toward her as if he couldn't help himself, but the next instant he looked grim. "Tel me, and then maybe I'l have more."

"I…see. Wel , then, we made a system, two days ago,"Elena said quietly. "Everyone draws lots for it. Then the person who gets the paper with the X takes it from the center of the kitchen table and everyone goes to their rooms and stays there until the person with the star bal hides it. I didn't get the lot today, so I don't know where it is. But you can try to – test me."Elena could feel her body cringing as she said the last words, feeling soft and helpless and easily hurt.

Damon reached over and slowly slipped a hand beneath her hair. He could slam her head against a wal , or throw her across the room. He could simply squeeze her neck between knife and hand until her head fel off. Elena knew that he was in the mood to take out his emotions on a human, but she did nothing. Said nothing. Just stood and looked into her eyes.

Slowly, Damon bent toward her and brushed his lips – so softly – against hers. Elena's eyes drifted shut. But the next moment Damon winced and slid the hand back out of her hair.

That was when Elena gave another thought as to what must have become of the food she had been bringing to him.

Near-scalding coffee seemed to have splashed her hand and arm and soaked her jeans on one thigh. The cup and saucer were laying in pieces on the floor. The tray and the cookies had bounced off behind a chair. The plate of steak tartar, however, had miraculously landed on the couch, right side up. There was miscel aneous cutlery everywhere.

Elena felt her head and shoulders droop in fear and pain.

That was her immediate universe right now – fear and pain.

Overwhelming her. She wasn't usual y a crier, but she couldn't help the tears that fil ed her eyes.

Damn! Damon thought.

It was her. Elena. He'd been so certain an adversary was spying on him, that one of his many enemies had tracked him down and was setting a trap…someone who had discovered that he was as weak as a child now.

It hadn't even occurred to him that it might be her, until he was holding her soft body with one arm, and smel ing the perfume of her hair as he held an ice-slick blade to her throat with the other.

And then he'd snapped on a light and saw what he had already guessed. Unbelievable! He hadn't recognized her.

He had been outside in the garden when he'd seen the door to the storage room standing open and had known that there was an intruder. But with his senses degraded as they were he hadn't been able to tel who was inside.

No excuses could cover up the facts. He had hurt and terrified Elena. He had hurt her. And instead of apologizing he had tried to force the truth out of her for his own selfish desires.

And now, her throat…

His eyes were drawn to the thin line of red droplets on Elena's throat where the knife had cut her when she'd jerked in fear before col apsing right onto it. Had she fainted? She could have died right then, in his arms, if he hadn't been fast enough in whipping the knife away.

He kept tel ing himself that he wasn't afraid of her. That he was just holding the knife absentmindedly. He wasn't convinced.

"I was outside. You know how we humans can't see?"he said, knowing he sounded indifferent, unrepentant. "It's like being wrapped in cotton al the time, Elena: We can't see, can't smel , can't hear. My reflexes are like a tortoise's, and I'm starving."

"Then why don't you try my blood?"Elena asked, sounding unexpectedly calm.

"I can't,"Damon said, trying not to eye the dainty ruby necklace flowing down Elena's slim white throat.

"I already cut myself,"Elena said, and Damon thought, Cut herself? Ye gods, the girl was priceless. As if she'd had a little kitchen accident.

"So we might as wel see what human blood tastes like to you now,"Elena said.

"No."

"You know that you're going to. I know you know. But we don't have much time. My blood won't flow forever. Oh, Damon –

after everything…just last week – "

He was looking at her too long, he knew. Not just at the blood. At the glorious golden beauty of her, as if the child of a sunbeam and a moonbeam had entered his room and was harmlessly bathing him in light.

With a hiss, narrowing his eyes, Damon took hold of Elena's arms. He expected an automatic recoil like the one when he'd grabbed her from behind. But there was no movement backward. Instead there was something like the leap of an eager flame in those wide malachite eyes. Elena's lips parted involuntarily.

He knew it was involuntarily. He'd had many years to study young women's responses. He knew what it meant when her gaze went first to his lips before lifting to his eyes.

I can't kiss her again. I can't. It's a human weakness, the way she affects me. She doesn't realize what it is to be so young and so impossibly beautiful. She's going to learn someday.

In fact, I might accidental y teach her now.

As if she could hear him, Elena shut her eyes. She let her head fal back and suddenly Damon found himself half-supporting her weight. She was surrendering al thought of herself, showing him that despite everything she stil trusted him, stil ……stil loved him.

Damon himself didn't know what he was going to do as he bent toward her. He was starving. It tore at him like a wolf's claws, the hunger. It made him feel dazed and dizzy and out of control. Half a thousand years had left him believing that the only thing that would relieve the starvation was the crimson fountain of a cut artery. Some dark voice that might have come from the Infernal Court itself whispered that he could do what some vampires did, ripping a throat like a werewolf. Warm flesh might ease the starvation of a human.

What would he do, so close to Elena's lips, so close to her bleeding throat?

Two tears slipped from under the dark lashes and slid a little way down her face before dropping into golden hair. Damon found himself tasting one before he could think.

Stil a maiden. Wel , that was to be expected; Stefan was too weak to stand yet. But on top of the cynical thought came an image, and just a few words: a spirit as pure as driven snow.

He suddenly knew a different hunger, a different thirst. The only place to ease this need was close by. Desperately, urgently, he sought and found Elena's lips. And then he found himself losing al control. What he needed most was here, and Elena might tremble, but she didn't push him away.

This close, he was bathed in an aura as golden as the hair he was touching gently at the ends. He was pleased himself when she shivered in pleasure, and he realized that he could sense her thoughts. She was a strong projector, and his telepathy was the only Power left to him. He had no idea why he stil had it, but he did. And right now he wanted to tune into Elena.

The wench! She wasn't thinking at al ! Elena had been offering her throat, truly surrendering herself, abandoning al thought but that she wanted to aid him, that his wishes were hers. And now she was too deeply enmeshed in the kiss to even make plans – which was extraordinary for her.

She's in love with you, the tiny part of him that could stil think said.

She's never said so! She's in love with Stefan! something visceral answered.

She doesn't have to say it. She's showing it. Don't pretend you haven't seen it before!

But Stefan – !

Is she thinking about Stefan in the slightest right now? She opened her arms to the wolf-hunger in you. This is no one-day stand, no quick meal, not even a steady donor. This is Elena herself.

Then I've taken advantage of her. If she's in love, she can't protect herself. She's stil a child. I have to do something.

The kisses had now gotten to the point that even the tiny voice of reason was fading. Elena had lost her ability to stand. He was either going to have to put her down somewhere, or give her a chance to back out.

Elena! Elena! Damn it, I know you can hear me. Answer!

Damon?  – faintly. Oh, Damon, now do you understand – ?

Too well, my princess. I Influenced you, so I should know.

You…? No, you're lying!

Why should I lie? For some reason my telepathy is as strong as ever. I still want what I want. But you might want to think a minute, maiden. I don't need to drink your blood. I'm human and right now I'm ravenous. But not for that mess of bloody hamburger you brought me.

Elena broke away from him. Damon let her go.

"I think you're lying,"she said, meeting his eyes directly, her mouth kiss-swol en.

Damon locked the sight of her inside the boulder ful of secrets he dragged around with him. He gave her his best opaque ebony stare. "Why should I lie?"he repeated. "I just thought you deserved a chance to make your own choice. Or have you already decided to abandon little brother while he's out of commission?"

Elena's hand flashed up, but then she dropped it. "You used Influence on me,"she said bitterly. "I'm not myself. I would never abandon Stefan – especial y when he needs me."

There it was, the essential fire at her core, and the fiery golden truth. Now he could sit and let bitterness gnaw at him, while this pure spirit fol owed her conscience.

He was thinking this, already feeling the loss of her dazzling light receding when he realized he no longer had the knife.

An instant later, horror just catching up with his hand, he was snatching it from her throat. His telepathic blast was entirely reflexive:

What in Hell are you doing? Killing yourself because of what I said? This blade is like a razor!

Elena faltered. "I was just making a nick – "

"You almost made a nick that spurted six feet high!"At least he was able to speak again, despite the constriction of his throat.

Elena was back on stable ground too. "I told you I knew you knew you'd have to try blood before you'l try to eat. It feels as if it's flowing down my neck again. This time, let's not waste it."

She was only tel ing the truth. At least she hadn't seriously hurt herself. He could see that fresh blood was flowing from the new cut she'd so recklessly made. To waste it would be idiotic.

Utterly dispassionate now, Damon took her again by the shoulders. He tilted up her chin to look at her soft, rounded throat. Several new ruby cuts were flowing freely.

Half a mil ennium of instinct told Damon that just there was nectar and ambrosia. Just there was sustenance and rest and euphoria. Just here where his lips were as he bent to her a second time…and he had only to taste it – to drink…

Damon reared back, trying to force himself to swal ow, determined not to spit. It wasn't…it wasn't utterly revolting.

He could see how humans, with their degraded senses, could make use of the animal varieties. But this coagulating, mineral-tasting stuff wasn't blood… it had none of the perfumed bouquet, the heady richness, the sweet, velvety, provocative, life-giving, ineffable attributes of blood.

It was like some sort of bad joke. He was tempted to bite Elena, just to skim a canine over the common carotid, making a tiny scratch, so he could taste the little burst that would explode onto his palate, to compare, to make sure that the real stuff wasn't in there somehow. In fact he was more than tempted; he was doing it. But no blood was coming.

His mind paused in midthought. He'd made a scratch al right  a scratch like a scuff. It hadn't even broken the outer layer of Elena's skin.

Blunt teeth.

Damon found himself pressing on a canine with his tongue, wil ing it to extend, wil ing it with al his cramped and frustrated soul to sharpen.

And…nothing. Nothing. But then, he'd spent al day doing the same thing. Miserably, he let Elena's head turn back.

"That's it?"she said shakily. She was trying so hard to be brave with him! Poor doomed white soul with her demon lover. "Damon, you can try again,"she told him. "You can bite harder."

"It's no good,"he snapped. "You're useless – "

Elena almost slid to the floor. He kept her upright while snarling in her ear, "You know what I meant by that. Or would you prefer to be my dinner rather than my princess?"

Elena simply shook her head mutely. She rested in the circle of his arms, her head against his shoulder. Little wonder that she needed rest after al he'd put her through. But as for how she found his shoulder a comfort…wel , that was beyond him.

Sage! Damon sent the furious thought out on al the frequencies he could access, just as he had been doing al day. If only he could find Sage, al his problems would be solved. Sage, he demanded, where are you?

No answer. For al Damon knew, Sage had managed to operate the Gateway to the Dark Dimension that was even now standing, powerless and useless, in Mrs. Flowers's garden. Stranding Damon here. Sage was always that blindingly fast when he took off.

And why had he taken off?

Imperial Summons? Sometimes Sage got them. From the Fal en One, who lived in the Infernal Court, at the lowest of the Dark Dimensions. And when Sage did get them, he was expected to be in that dimension instantly, in mid-word, in mid-caress, in mid – whatever. So far Sage had always made the deadline, Damon knew that. He knew it because Sage was stil alive.

On the afternoon of Damon's catastrophic bouquet investigation Sage had left on the mantel a polite note thanking Mrs. Flowers for her hospitality, and even leaving his gigantic dog, Saber, and his falcon, Talon, for the protection of the household – a note doubtlessly pre-prepared. He had gone the way he always did, as unpredictably as the wind, and without saying good-bye.

Undoubtedly he'd thought that Damon would find his way out of the problem easily. There were a number of vampires in Fel 's Church. There always were. The ley lines of sheer Power in the ground drew them even in normal times.

The problem was that just now al those vampires were infested with malach – parasites control ed by the evil fox-spirits. They couldn't be lower in the vampire hierarchy.

And of course Stefan was a complete nonstarter. Even if he hadn't been so weak that trying to change Damon into a vampire would have kil ed him; even if his anger over Damon's "stealing his humanity"could be assuaged, he would simply never have agreed, out of his feeling that vampirism was a curse.

Humans never knew about things like the vampire hierarchy because the subjects didn't concern them – until suddenly, they did, usual y because they had just been changed into a vampire themselves. The hierarchy of vampires was strict, from the useless and ignoble to the fanged aristocracy. Old Ones fit in that category, but so did others who were particularly il ustrious or powerful.

What Damon wanted was to be made a vampire by the kind of women Sage knew, and he was determined to have Sage find him a vampire lady of quality, one who was real y worthy of him.

Other things tormented Damon, who had spent two entire sleepless days pondering them. Was it possible that the white kitsune who had given Stefan the bouquet had engineered a rose that turned the first person to smel it permanently human? That would have been Stefan's greatest dream.

The white fox had listened to days upon days of Stefan's ramblings, hadn't he? He'd seen Elena weeping over Stefan.

He'd seen the two lovebirds together, Elena hand-feeding a dying Stefan her blood through razor wire. Fortune only knew what ideas that fox had gotten into his furry white head when he'd prepared the rose that had "cured"Damon of his

"curse."If it turned out to be an irreversible "cure"…

If Sage turned out to be unreachable…

It suddenly broke into Damon's thoughts that Elena was cold.

It was strange, since the night was warm, but she was shivering violently. She needed his jacket or…

She's not cold, the smal voice somewhere deep inside him said. And she's not shivering. She's trembling because of al you've put her through.

Elena?

You forgot all about me. You were holding me, but you completely forgot my existence…

If only, he thought bitterly. You're branded on my soul.

Damon was suddenly furious, but it was different from his anger at kitsune and Sage and the world. It was the kind of anger that made his throat close and his chest feel too tight.

It was an anger that made him pick up Elena's scalded hand, which was rapidly turning scarlet in patches, and examine it.

He knew what he would have done as a vampire: stroked over the burns with a silky cool tongue, generating chemicals to accelerate the healing. And now…there was nothing he could do about it.

"It doesn't hurt,"Elena said. She was able to stand now.

"You're lying, princess,"he said. "The insides of your eyebrows are up. That's pain. And your pulse is jumping – "

"You can sense that without touching me?"

"I can see it, at your temples. Vampires,"with vicious emphasis on what he stil was, in essence, "notice things like that. I made you hurt yourself. And I can't do anything to help.

Also" – he shrugged – "you're a beautiful liar. About the star bal , I mean."

"You can always sense when I'm lying?"

"Angel,"he said wearily, "it's easy. You are either the lucky holder of the star bal today…or you know who is."

Again, Elena's head drooped in consternation.

"Or else,"Damon said lightly, "the entire story of the drawing of the lots was a lie."

"Think what you like,"Elena said, with at least some of her usual fire. "And you can clean up this mess, too."

Just as she turned to leave, Damon had a revelation. "Mrs.

Flowers!"he exclaimed.

"Wrong,"Elena snapped.

Elena, I wasn't talking about the star ball. I give you my word on this. You know how hard it is to lie telepathically –

Yes, and I know that therefore, if there's one thing in the world you'd…practice…at…

She couldn't finish. She couldn't make the speech. Elena knew how much Damon's word meant to him.

I'll never tell you where it is, she sent telepathical y to Damon. And I swear to you that Mrs. Flowers won't either.

"I believe you, but we're stil going to see her."

He picked Elena up easily and stepped over the smashed cup and saucer. Elena automatical y grabbed his neck with both hands to balance herself.

"Darling, what are you doing – ?"Elena cried, then stopped, wide-eyed, two scalded fingers flying to her lips.

Standing in the doorway, not two yards away from them, was petite Bonnie McCul ough, a bottle of Black Magic wine, nonalcoholic but mystical y exhilarating, held high in her hand.

But as Elena watched, Bonnie's expression changed al in an instant. It had been triumphant joy. But now it was shock. It was disbelief that couldn't hold. Elena knew exactly what she was thinking. The whole house had devoted itself to making Damon comfortable – while Damon stole what rightful y belonged to Stefan: Elena. Plus he'd lied about not being a vampire anymore. And Elena wasn't even fighting him off.

She was cal ing him "darling"!

Bonnie dropped the bottle and turned, running.

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