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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 3)

Damon leaped. Somewhere in the middle of the leap Elena felt herself left to the whims of gravity. She tried to curl into a bal to take the impact on one buttock.

What happened was strange – almost miraculous. She came down, right side up, on the opposite side of the couch from the plate of steak tartar. The plate did a little leap of its own, three or four inches, perhaps, and then settled back where it had been.

Elena was also lucky enough to get a perfect view of the end of the heroic rescue – which involved Damon diving for the floor and grabbing the bottle of precious Black Magic wine just before it hit the ground and smashed. He might not have the kind of lightning-fast reflexes he had when he was a vampire, but he was stil far, far faster than an ordinary human. Leap holding girl, drop girl onto something soft, turn leap into dive, and at last instant grab bottle, just before it would hit. Amazing.

But there was another way that Damon wasn't like a vampire anymore – he wasn't invincible to fal ing onto hard surfaces.

Elena only realized this when she heard him gasp, trying to breathe and not being able to.

She scrambled wildly in her mind for al the accidents she could remember with jocks, and – yes, recal ed one when Matt had had the wind completely knocked out of him. The coach had seized him by the col ar and thumped him on the back.

Elena ran to Damon and grabbed him under the arms, rol ing him onto his back. She put al her strength into hauling him into a sitting position. Then she made a club of her hands.

Pretending she was Meredith, who had been on the basebal team at Robert E. Lee High and had a .225 ERA, she swung as hard as she could at Damon, slamming her fists into his back.

And it worked!

Suddenly Damon was wheezing, and then breathing again. A born straightener of ties, Elena knelt and tried to rearrange his clothes. As soon as he could breathe properly, his limbs stopped being pliant under her fingers. He gently curled her hands into each other. Elena wondered if possibly they'd gone so far beyond words that they would never find them again.

How had it al happened? Damon had picked her up perhaps because her leg was burned, or perhaps because he had decided Mrs. Flowers was the one with the star bal .

She herself had said, "Damon, what are you doing?"Perfectly straightforward. And then halfway through the sentence she had heard for herself the "darling"and – but who would ever believe her? – it hadn't been connected with anything they had been doing earlier at al . It had been an accident, a slip of the tongue.

But she'd said it in front of Bonnie, the one person most likely to take it seriously and personal y. And then Bonnie had been gone before she could even explain.

Darling! When they had just started fighting again.

It real y was a joke. Because he had been serious about just taking the star bal . She had seen it in his eyes.

To cal Damon "darling"seriously, you would have to be – have to be…hopelessly…helplessly…desperately in…

Oh, God…

Tears began to run down Elena's cheeks. But these were tears of revelation. Elena knew she wasn't in her best form today. No real sleep for going on three days – too many conflicting emotions – too much genuine terror right now.

Stil, she was terrified to find that something fundamental had changed inside her.

It wasn't anything she had asked for. Al she had asked was that the two brothers stop feuding. And she had been born to love Stefan; she knew that! Once, he'd been wil ing to marry her. Wel , since then she'd been a vampire, a spirit, and a new incarnation dropped from the sky, and she could hope that one day he would be wil ing to marry the new Elena, too.

But the new Elena was bewildered, what with her strange new blood that to vampires was like rocket fuel compared to the gasoline most girls carried about in their veins. With her Wings Powers, such as Wings of Redemption, most of which she didn't understand and none of which she could control. Although lately she had seen the beginning of a stance, and she knew it was for Wings of Destruction. That, she thought grimly, might be quite useful someday.

Of course a number of them had already been helpful to Damon, who was no longer simply an al y, but an enemy-al y again. Who wanted to steal something that her whole town needed.

Elena hadn't asked to fal in love with Damon – but, oh God, what if she already had? What if she couldn't make the feelings stop? What could she do?

Silently, she sat crying, knowing that she could never say any of these things to Damon. He had a gift of farseeing and a level head in times of emotion, but not, as she knew al too wel , about this particular issue. If she told him what was in her heart, before she knew it, he would kidnap her. He would believe she had forgotten Stefan for good, as she had forgotten him briefly tonight.

"Stefan,"she whispered. "I'm sorry…"

She could never let Stefan know about it either – and Stefan was her heart.

"We've got to get rid of Shinichi and Misao fast,"Matt was saying moodily. "I mean, I real y need to get into condition soon or Kent State's gonna send me back stamped

'Reject.'"He and Meredith were sitting in Mrs. Flowers's warm kitchen nibbling on gingersnap cookies and watching her as she diligently worked at making beef carpaccio – the second of the two raw beef recipes in the antique cookbook she owned. "Stefan's doing so wel that in a couple of days we could even be tossing around the old pigskin,"he added, sarcasm edging his voice, "if everybody in town would just stop being crazy possessed. Oh, yeah, and if the cops would stop coming after me for assaulting Caroline."

At the mention of Stefan's name, Mrs. Flowers peeked into a cauldron that had been bubbling away on the stove for so long, and was now emitting such a fearsome odor that Matt didn't know who to pity more: the guy getting the huge pile of raw meat or the one who'd soon be trying to choke down whatever was in that cooking pot.

"So – assuming you're alive – you're going to be glad to leave Fel 's Church when the time comes?"Meredith asked him quietly.

Matt felt as if she had just slapped him. "You're joking, right?"he said, petting Saber with one tanned, bare foot. The huge beast was making a sort of growly purring sound. "I mean, before that, it's going to be great to throw a couple of passes to Stefan again – he's the best tight end I've ever seen – "

"Or ever wil see,"Meredith reminded him. "I don't think many vampires go in for footbal , Matt, so don't even think of suggesting that he and Elena fol ow you to Kent State.

Besides, I'l be right beside you, trying to get them to come to Harvard with me. And worse, we're both checkmated by Bonnie, because that junior col ege – whatever – is much closer to Fel 's Church and al the things around here they love."

"Al the things around here Elena loves,"Matt couldn't help correcting. "Al Stefan wants is to be with Elena."

"Now, now,"Mrs. Flowers said. "Let's just take things as they come, shal we, my dears? Ma ma says that we need to keep up our strength. She sounds worried to me – you know, she can't foresee everything that happens."

Matt nodded, but he had to swal ow hard before saying to Meredith, "So, you're eager to be off for the Ivied Wal s, I'm sure?"

"If it wasn't Harvard – if I could just put it off for a year and keep my scholarship…"Meredith's voice trailed off, but the yearning in it was unmistakable.

Mrs. Flowers patted Meredith's shoulder, and then said, "I wonder about dear Stefan and Elena. After al , with everyone thinking that she's dead, Elena can't live here and be seen."

"I think they've given up on the idea of going somewhere far, far away,"Matt said. "I'l bet that now they think of themselves as Fel 's Church's guardians. They'l get by somehow. Elena can shave her head."Matt was trying for a light tone, but the words sank like lead bal oons as they left his mouth.

"Mrs. Flowers was talking about college,"Meredith said in a tone just as heavy. "Are they going to be super-heroes at night and just veg out the rest of the time? If they want to go somewhere even next year, they need to be thinking about it now."

"Oh…wel , I guess there's Dalcrest."

"Where?"

"You know, that little campus in Dyer. It's smal but the footbal team there is real y – wel , I guess Stefan wouldn't care how good they are. But it's only half an hour away."

"Oh, that place. Wel , the sports may be fantastic but it's sure not an Ivy, much less Harvard."Meredith – unsentimental, enigmatic Meredith – sounded as if she had a stuffed-up nose.

"Yeah,"Matt said – and just for a second took Meredith's slim, cold hand and squeezed it. He was even more surprised when she linked her chil ed fingers up with his, holding his hand.

"Ma ma says whatever is fated to happen wil happen soon,"Mrs. Flowers said serenely. "The main thing, as I see it, is to save the dear, dear old town. As wel as the people."

"Of course it is,"Matt said. "We're going to do our best.

Thank God we have somebody in town who understands Japanese demons."

"Orime Saitou,"Mrs. Flowers said with a little smile. "Bless her for her amulets."

"Yeah, both of them,"Matt said, thinking of the grandmother and mother who shared the name. "I think we're going to need a lot of those amulets they make,"he added grimly.

Mrs. Flowers opened her mouth, but Meredith spoke, stil focused on thoughts of her own.

"You know, Stefan and Elena may not have given up on their far, far away thing after al ,"she said sadly. "And since at this point none of us may even live to make it to our own col eges…"She shrugged.

Matt was stil squeezing her hand when Bonnie dashed in the front door, keening. She tried to speed through the foyer toward the stairs, avoiding the kitchen, but Matt released Meredith and they both dashed up to block her. Instantly, everyone was in combat mode. Meredith grasped Bonnie's arm tightly. Mrs. Flowers came into the foyer, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

"Bonnie, what happened? Is it Shinichi and Misao? Are we being attacked?"Meredith asked quietly but with the intensity to cut through hysteria.

Something shot like a bolt of ice through Matt's body. No one real y knew where Shinichi and Misao were right now.

Perhaps in the thicket that was al that was left of the Old Woods – perhaps right here at the boardinghouse.

"Elena!"he shouted. "Oh, God, she and Damon are both out there! Are they hurt? Did Shinichi get them?"

Bonnie shut her eyes and shook her head.

"Bonnie, stay with me. Stay calm. Is it Shinichi? Is it the police?"Meredith asked. And to Matt: "You'd better check through the curtains there."But Bonnie was stil shaking her head.

Matt saw no police lights through the curtains. Nor did he see any sign of Shinichi and Misao attacking.

"If we're not being attacked,"Matt could hear Meredith saying to Bonnie, "then what is happening?"

Maddeningly, Bonnie just shook her head.

Matt and Meredith looked at each other over Bonnie's strawberry curls. "The star bal ,"Meredith said softly, just as Matt growled, "That bastard."

"Elena won't tel him anything but the story,"Meredith said.

And Matt nodded, trying to keep from his mind a picture of Damon casual y waving and Elena convulsing in agony.

"Maybe it's the possessed kids – the ones who walk around hurting themselves or acting insane,"Meredith said, with a side glance at Bonnie, and squeezing Matt's hand very hard.

Matt was bewildered and fumbled the cue. He said, "If that S.O.B. is trying to get the star bal , Bonnie wouldn't have run away. She's bravest when she's scared. And unless he's kil ed Elena she shouldn't be like this – "

Which left Meredith the grim job of saying, "Talk to us, Bonnie,"in her most comforting big-sister voice. "Something must have happened to get you in this state. Just breathe slowly and tel me what you saw."

And then, in a torrent, words began to spil from Bonnie's lips. "She – she was cal ing him darling,"Bonnie said, gripping Meredith's other hand with both of hers. "And there was blood smeared al around on her neck. And – oh, I dropped it! The bottle of Black Magic!"

"Oh, wel ,"Mrs. Flowers said gently. "No use crying over spil ed wine. We'l just have to – "

"No, you don't understand,"Bonnie gasped. "I heard them talking as I came up – I had to go slow because it's so hard not to trip. They were talking about the star bal ! At first I thought they were arguing, but – she had her arms around Damon's neck. And al that stuff about him not being a vampire anymore? She had blood al over her throat and he had it on his mouth! As soon as I got there he picked her up and threw her so I couldn't see but he wasn't fast enough.

She must have given the star bal to him! And she still was calling him 'darling'!"

Matt's eyes met Meredith's and they both flushed and looked away quickly. If Damon was a vampire again – if he had somehow gotten the star bal from its hiding place – and if Elena had been "taking food"to him just to give him blood…

Meredith was stil looking for a way out. "Bonnie – aren't you making too much of this? Anyway, what happened to Mrs.

Flowers's tray of food?"

"It was – al over the place. They'd just tossed it away! But he was was holding her with one hand under her knees and one under her neck, and her head was way back so that her hair was fal ing al over his shoulder!"

There was a silence as everyone tried to imagine various positions that might correspond to Bonnie's last words.

"You mean he was holding her up to steady her?"Meredith asked, her voice suddenly almost a whisper. Matt caught her meaning. Stefan was probably asleep upstairs, and Meredith wanted to keep it that way.

"No! They – they were looking at each other,"Bonnie cried.

"Looking. Into each other's eyes."

Mrs. Flowers spoke mildly. "But dear Bonnie – maybe Elena fel down and Damon had to just scoop her up."

Now Bonnie was speaking remorselessly and fluently. "Only if that's what's just happened to al those women on the covers of those romance books – what-d'you-cal -'ems?"

"Bodice-rippers?"Meredith suggested unhappily when no one else spoke.

"That's right! Bodice-rippers. That's how he was holding her!

I mean, we al knew that something was going on with the two of them in the Dark Dimension, but I thought al that would stop when we found Stefan. But it hasn't!"

Matt felt sick in the pit of his stomach. "You mean right now Elena and Damon are in there…kissing and stuff?"

"I don't know what I mean!"Bonnie exclaimed. "They were talking about the star ball! He was holding her like a bride!

And she wasn't fighting it!"

With a chil of horror, Matt could see trouble, and he could see that Meredith could see it too. Even worse, they were looking in two different directions. Matt was looking upstairs, at the staircase, where Stefan had just appeared. Meredith was looking at the kitchen door, one glance at which showed Matt that Damon was entering the foyer.

What was Damon doing in the kitchen? Matt wondered. We were there until a minute ago. And he was, what, eavesdropping from the den side?

Matt gave the situation his best shot, anyway. "Stefan!"he said in a hearty voice that made him wince inwardly. "You ready for a little athlete's-blood nightcap?"

A tiny part of Matt's mind thought: But just look at him. Only three days out of prison and he already looks like himself again. Three nights ago he was a skeleton. Today he just looks – thin. He's even handsome enough to make the girls al go crazy over him again.

Stefan smiled faintly at him, leaning on the banister. In his pale face, his eyes were remarkably alive, a vibrant green that made them actual y shine like jewels. He didn't look upset, and that made Matt's heart twist for him. How could they tel him?

"Elena is hurt,"Stefan said, and suddenly there was a pause  – an utter silence – as every person froze in place. "But Damon couldn't help her, so he brought her to Mrs. Flowers."

"True,"Damon said coldly from behind Matt. "I couldn't help her. If I were stil a vampire…but I'm not. Elena has burns, mainly. Al I could think of was an ice pack or some kind of poultice. Sorry to disprove al your clever theories."

"Oh my heavens!"cried Mrs. Flowers. "You mean dear Elena's waiting right now in the kitchen for a poultice?"She hurried out of the foyer toward the kitchen.

Stefan was stil coming down the stairs, cal ing, "Mrs.

Flowers, she scalded her arm and leg – she says because Damon didn't recognize her in the dark and jostled her. And that he thought it was an intruder in his room, and nicked her throat with a knife. The rest of us wil be in the parlor if you need help."

Bonnie cried, "Stefan, maybe she's innocent – but he isn't!

Even according to you, he burned her – that's torture – and he put a knife to her throat! Maybe he threatened her to make her tel us what we wanted to hear. Maybe she's stil a hostage right now and we don't know it!"

Stefan flushed. "It's so hard to explain,"he said very softly.

"And I keep trying to tune it out. But so far – some of my Powers have been growing…faster than my ability to control them. Most of the time I'm asleep, so it doesn't matter. I was asleep until a few minutes ago. But I woke up and Elena was tel ing Damon that Mrs. Flowers doesn't have the star bal .

She was upset, and injured – and I could feel where she'd been injured. And then suddenly I heard you, Bonnie. You're a very strong telepath. Then I heard the rest of you talking about Elena…."

Oh my God. How insane, Matt was thinking. His mouth was babbling some "Sure, sure, our mistake"gibberish, and his feet fol owed Meredith's to the parlor as if they were attached to her Italian sandals.

But the blood on Damon's mouth…

There had to be some mundane reason for the blood, too.

Stefan had said that Damon had nicked Elena with a knife.

As to how the blood got smeared around; wel , that actual y didn't sound like vampirism to Matt. He'd been a donor for Stefan at least a dozen times in the last days and the process was always very neat.

It was strange, too, he thought, that it had never occurred to any of them that, even from the top of the house, Stefan might be able to hear their thoughts directly.

Could he always do that? Matt thought, wondering at the same time whether Stefan was doing it right now.

"I try not to listen to thoughts, unless I'm invited or I have a good reason,"Stefan said. "But when anybody mentions Elena, especial y if they sound upset – that I can't help. It's like when you're in a noisy place and you can barely hear, but when somebody says your name you hear it instantly."

"It's cal ed the Cocktail Party Phenomenon,"Meredith said.

Her voice was quiet and remorseful as she was trying to calm the mortified Bonnie. Matt felt another tug at his heart.

"Wel , you can cal it whatever you want,"he said, "but what it means is that you can listen in on our minds any time you like."

"Not any time,"Stefan said, wincing. "When I was drinking animal blood I wasn't strong enough unless I real y worked at it. By the way, it may please my friends to know that I'm going back to hunting animals by tomorrow or the next day, depending on what Mrs. Flowers says,"he added with a significant glance around the room. His eyes lingered on Damon, who was lounging against the wal by the window, looking disheveled and very, very dangerous. "But that doesn't mean I'l forget who saved my life when I was dying.

For that I honor and thank them – and, wel , we'l have a party sometime."He blinked hard and turned away. The two girls melted at once – even Meredith sniffled.

Damon heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Animal blood? Oh, bril iant. Make yourself as weak as you can, little brother, even with three or four wil ing donors around you. Then, when it comes to the final showdown with Shinichi and Misao, you'l be about as effective as a piece of damp tissue paper."

Bonnie started. "Is there going to be a showdown…soon?"

"As soon as Shinichi and Misao can manage it,"Stefan said quietly. "I think they'd rather not give me time to get wel . The whole town is supposed to go up in fire and ashes, you know. But I can't keep asking you and Meredith and Matt – and Elena – to donate blood. You've already kept me alive the last few days, and I don't know how to repay you for it."

"Repay us by getting as strong as you can,"Meredith said in her quiet, level voice. "But, Stefan, can I ask a few questions?"

"Of course,"Stefan said, standing by a chair. He didn't sit himself until Meredith, with Bonnie almost in her lap, had sunk down on the love seat.

Then he said, "Fire."

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