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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 31)

Elena woke up feeling stiff and cramped. But that wasn't surprising. Three other people seemed to be on top of her.

Elena? Can you hear me?

Stefan?

Yes! You're awake?

I'm all cramped…and hot.

A different voice interrupted. Just give us a moment and you won't be cramped anymore. Elena felt Damon move away. Bonnie rol ed into his place.

But Stefan clung to her for a moment. Elena, I'm sorry. I never even realized what condition you were in. Thank God for Damon. Can you forgive me?

Despite the heat, Elena cuddled closer to him. If you can forgive me for putting the whole party in danger. I did that, didn't I?

I don't know. I don't care. All I know is that I love you.

It was several minutes before Bonnie woke up. Then she said feebly, "Hey! Whachoo doin'in my bed?"

"Getting out of it,"Elena said, and tried to rol over and get up.

The world was wobbly. She was wobbly – and bruised. But Stefan was never more than a few inches away, holding her, righting her when she started to fal . He helped her get dressed without making her feel like a baby. He examined her backpack, which fortunately hadn't gone into the water, and then he took out anything heavy inside. He put the heavy things in his own pack.

Elena felt much better after being given some food, and after seeing the thurgs – both of them – eating too; either stretching their great double trunks up to break off pieces of wood from the barren trees, or scooping away snow to find dry grass underneath. They clearly were not going to die after al .

Elena knew everyone was watching her to gauge whether or not she was up to any more that day. She hurried to finish drinking the tea heated over a dung fire, trying to conceal the fact that her hands shook. After forcing some jerky down, she said in her most cheerful voice, "So what next?"

How do you feel? Stefan asked her.

"Little sore, but I'l be fine. I guess everyone expects me to have pneumonia, but I don't even have any cough."

Damon, after one heavy-lidded glance at Stefan, took both her hands and stared at her. She couldn't – she didn't dare –

meet his eyes, so she focused on Stefan, who was looking at her comfortingly.

At last Damon dropped Elena's hands abruptly. "I went in as far as I could. You should know how far that is,"he added to Stefan. "She's sound, her nose is wet, and her coat is shiny."

Stefan looked as if he were going to smack him one, but Elena took his hand soothingly. "I'm healthy,"she said. "So that's two votes for me going on to save Fel 's Church."

"I've always believed in you,"Stefan said. "If you think you can go on, you can go on."

Bonnie sniffled. "Just don't take any more chances, okay?"she said. "You scared me."

"I'm real y sorry,"Elena said gently, feeling the void of Meredith's absence. Meredith would be a great help to both of them now. "So, shal we continue? And where are we heading? I'm al turned around."

Damon stood. "I think we just keep in a straight line. The path is narrow after this – and who knows what the next trial is?"

The path was narrow – and misty. Just as before, it started in filmy veils and ended up blinding them. Elena let Stefan, with his catlike reflexes, go first, and she held on to his pack.

Behind her, Bonnie clung like a burr. Just when Elena thought she was going to scream if she had to keep traveling through the white blanket any farther, it cleared.

They were near the top of some mountain.

Elena took off after Bonnie, who had hurried ahead at the sight of transparent air. She was just fast enough to grab on to Bonnie's pack and pul her backward as she reached the place where the land stopped.

"No way!"Bonnie cried, setting up a clamoring echo from below. "There is no way I'm going across that!"

That was a chasm with a very thin bridge spanning it.

The chasm was frosty white on either side at the top, but when Elena gripped the bridge's ice-cold metal poles and leaned a little forward she could see glacial blues and greens at the very bottom. A chil wind hit her face.

The gap between this bit of the world and the next bit directly in front of them was about a hundred yards long.

Elena looked from the shadowy depths to the slender bridge, which was made of wooden slats and just wide enough for one person to walk on. It was supported here and there by ropes which ran to the sides of the chasm and were sunk with metal posts into barren, icy rock.

It also swooped magnificently down and then back up again.

Even looking at it gave the eye a sort of mini�Cthril ride. The only problem was that it didn't include a safety belt, a seat, two handrails, and a uniformed guide saying, "Hands and feet must be kept inside the attraction at alltimes!"It did have a single, thin, creeper-woven rope to hold on to on the left.

"Look,"Stefan was saying, as quietly and intently as Elena had ever heard him speak, "we can hold onto each other. We can go go one by one, very slowly – "

"NOOO!" Bonnie put into that one word a psychic shriek that almost defeaned Elena. "No, no, no, no, NO! You don't understand! I can't DO IT!" She flung her backpack down.

Then she began laughing and crying at the same time in a ful -blown attack of hysterics. Elena had an impulse to dash water in her face. She had a stronger impulse to throw herself down beside Bonnie and shriek, "And neither can I!

It's insane!"But what good would that do?

A few minutes later Damon was talking quietly to Bonnie, unaffected by the outburst. Stefan was pacing in circles.

Elena was trying to think of Plan A, while a little voice chanted inside her head, You can't do it, you can't do it, you can't do it, either.

This was al just a phobia. They could probably train Bonnie out of it – if, say, they had a year or two.

Stefan, on one of his circular trips near her, said, "And how are you about heights, love?"

Elena decided to put a brave face on it. "I don't know. I think I can do it."

Stefan looked pleased. "To save your hometown."

"Yes…but it's too bad nothing works here. I could try to use my Wings for flying, but I can't control them – "

And that kind of magic is simply not available here, Stefan's voice said in her mind.

But telepathy is. You can hear me, too, can't you?

They thought of the answer simultaneously, and Elena saw the light of the idea breaking on Stefan's face even as she began to speak.

"Influence Bonnie! Make her think she's a tightrope walker –

a performer since she was a toddler. But don't make her too playful so she doesn't bounce the rest of us off!"

With that light in his face, Stefan looked…too good. He seized both Elena's hands, whirled her around once as if she weighed nothing, picked her up, and kissed her.

And kissed her.

And kissed her until Elena felt her soul dripping off her fingertips.

They shouldn't have done it in front of Damon. But Elena's euphoria was clouding her judgment, and she couldn't control herself.

Neither of them had been trying for a deep mind probe. But telepathy was al they had left, and it was warm and wonderful and it left them for an instant in the circle of each other's arms, laughing, panting – with electricity flashing between them. Elena's whole body felt as if she'd just gotten a sizable jolt.

Then she pul ed herself out of his arms, but it was too late.

Their shared gaze had gone on much too long, and Elena felt her heart pounding in fear. She could feel Damon's eyes on her. She barely managed to whisper, "Wil you tel them?"

"Yes,"Stefan said softly. "I'l tel them."But he didn't move until she actual y turned her back on Bonnie and Damon.

After that she peeked over her shoulder and listened.

Stefan sat down by the sobbing girl and said, "Bonnie, can you look at me? That's al I want. I promise you, you don't have to go across that bridge if you don't want to. You don't even have to stop crying, but try to look me in the eye. Can you do that? Good. Now…"His voice and even his face changed subtly, becoming more forceful – mesmerizing.

"You're not afraid of heights at all, are you? You're an acrobat who could walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon and never turn a hair. You're the very best of al your family, the flying McCul oughs, and they're the best in the world. And right now, you're going to choose whether to cross over that wooden bridge. If so, you'l lead us. You'l be our leader."

Slowly, while listening to Stefan, Bonnie's face had changed.

With swol en eyes fixed on Stefan's, she seemed to be listening intently to something in her own head. And final y, as Stefan said the last sentence, she jumped up and looked at the bridge.

"Okay, let's go!"she cried, picking up her backpack, while Elena sat staring after her.

"Can you make it?"Stefan asked, looking at Elena. "We'l let her go first – there's real y no way she can fal off. I'l go after her. Elena can come after me and hold on to my belt, and I'm counting on you, Damon, to hold on to her. Especial y if she starts to faint."

"I'l hold her,"Damon said quietly. Elena wanted to ask Stefan to Influence her, too, but everything was happening so fast.

Bonnie was already on the bridge, only pausing when cal ed back by Stefan. Stefan was looking behind him at Elena, saying, "Can you get a good grip?"Damon was behind Elena, putting a strong hand on her shoulder, and saying,

"Look straight ahead, not down. Don't worry about fainting; I'l catch you."

But it was such a frail wooden bridge, and Elena found that she was always looking down and her stomach floated up outside her body and above her head. She had a death-grip on Stefan's belt with one hand, and on the woven creeper with the other.

They came to a place where a slat had detached and the slats on either side looked as if they might go at any moment.

"Careful with these!"Bonnie said, laughing and leaping over al three.

Stefan stepped over the first chancy slat, over the missing one, and put his foot on the next.

Crack!

Elena didn't scream – she was beyond screaming. She couldn't look. The sound had shut her eyes.

And she couldn't move. Not a finger. Certainly not a foot.

She felt Damon's arms around her waist. Both of them. She wanted to let him support her weight as he had many times before.

But Damon was whispering to her, words like spel s that allowed her legs to stop shaking and cramping and even let her stop breathing so fast that she might faint. And then he was lifting her and Stefan's arms were going around her and for a moment they were both holding her firmly. Then Stefan took her weight and gently put her feet down on firm slats.

Elena wanted to cling to him like a koala, but she knew that she mustn't. She would make them both fal . So somewhere, from inner depths she didn't know she had, she found the courage to take her own weight on her feet and fumbled for the creeper.

Then she lifted her head and whispered as loudly as she could, "Go on. We need to give Damon room."

"Yes,"Stefan whispered back. But he kissed her on the forehead, a quick protective kiss, before he turned and stepped toward the impatient Bonnie.

Behind her, Elena heard – and felt – Damon jumping catlike over the gap.

Elena raised her eyes to stare at the back of Stefan's head again. She couldn't compass al the emotions she was feeling at that moment: love, terror, awe, excitement – and, of course, gratitude, al at once.

She didn't dare turn her head to look at Damon behind her, but she felt exactly the same things for him.

"A few more steps,"he kept saying. "A few more steps."

A brief eternity later, they were on solid ground, facing a medium-sized cavern, and Elena fel to her knees. She was sick and faint, but she tried to thank Damon as he passed by her on the snowy mountain trail.

"You were in my way,"he said shortly and as coldly as the wind. "If you had fal en you might have upset the entire bridge. And I don't happen to feel like dying today."

"What are you saying to her? What did you just say?"Stefan, who had been out of earshot, came hurrying back. "What did he say to you?"

Damon, examining his palm for creeper thorns, said without looking up, "I told her the truth, that's al . So far she's zero for two on this quest. Let's hope that as long as you make it through they let you in the Gatehouse, because if they're grading on performance we've flunked. Or should I say, one of us has flunked?"

"Shut up or I'll shut you up," Stefan said in a different voice than Elena had ever heard him use before. She stared. It was as if he'd grown ten years in one second. "Don't you ever talk to her or about her that way again, Damon!"

Damon stared at him for a moment, pupils contracted. Then he said, "Whatever,"and strol ed away.

Stefan bent down to hold Elena until her shaking stopped.

And that's that, Elena thought. An ice-cold rage gripped her.

Damon had no respect for her at all; he had none for anyone but himself. She couldn't protect Bonnie from Bonnie's own feelings – or stop him from insulting her. She couldn't stop Bonnie for forgiving. But she, Elena, was done with Damon.

This last insult was the end.

The fog came in again as they walked through the cavern.

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