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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 39)

Elena clutched the child to her. Damon had understood, even in his dazed and confused state. Everyone was connected.

No one was alone.

"And he asked something else. He asked if you would hold me, just like this – if I got sleepy."Velvety dark eyes searched Elena's face. "Would you do that?"

Elena tried to keep steady. "I'l hold you,"she promised.

"And you won't let go ever?"

"And I won't let go ever,"Elena told him, because he was a child, and there was no point in frightening him if he had no fear. And because maybe this part of Damon – this smal , innocent part – would have some kind of "forever."She had heard that vampires didn't come back, didn't reincarnate the way humans did. The vampires in the top Dark Dimension were Still"alive" – adventurers or fortune-seekers, or condemned there as a prison by the Celestial Court.

"I'l hold you,"Elena promised again. "Forever and ever."

Just then his smal body went into another spasm, and she saw tears on his dark eyelashes, and blood on his lip. But before she could say a word, he added, "I have more messages. I know them by heart. But" – his eyes begged her forgiveness – "I have to give them to the others."

What others? Elena thought at first, bewildered. Then she remembered. Stefan and Bonnie. There were other loved ones.

"I can…tel them for you,"she said hesitantly, and he gave a tiny smile, his first, just the corner of one lip up.

"He left me a little telepathy, too,"he said. "I kept it in case I had to cal to you."

Stillfiercely independent, Elena thought. Al she said was,

"You go ahead, then."

"The first one is for my brother, Stefan."

"You can tel him in just a moment,"Elena said. She held on to the smal boy in Damon's soul, knowing that this was the last thing she had left to give him. She could sacrifice a few priceless seconds, so that Stefan and Bonnie could say their own good-byes. She made some sort of enormous adjustment to her real body – her body outside Damon's mind, and found herself opening her eyes, blinking and trying to focus.

She saw Stefan's face, white and stricken. "Is he – ?"

"No. But soon. He can hear telepathy, if you think clearly, as if you were speaking. He asked to talk to you."

"To me?"Stefan bent down slowly and put his cheek against his brother's. Elena shut her eyes again, guiding him down through the darkness to where one smal light was Stillshining. She felt Stefan's wonder as he saw her there, Stillholding the little dark-haired boy in her arms.

Elena hadn't realized that through her link to the child, she would be able to hear every word spoken. Or that Damon's messages would come in the words of a child.

The little boy said, "I guess you think I'm pretty stupid."

Stefan started. He'd never seen or heard the child-Damon before. "I could never think that,"he said slowly, marveling.

"But it wasn't much like… him, you know. Like… me."

"I think,"Stefan said unsteadily, "that it's terribly sad – that I never real y knew either of you very well ."

"Please don't be sad. That's what he told me to say. That you shouldn't be sad…or afraid. He said it's a little bit like going to sleep, and a little bit like flying."

"I'l …remember that. And – thank you – big brother."

"I think that's al . You know to watch over our girls…."There was another of the terrible spasms that left the child breathless. Stefan spoke quickly.

"Of course. I'l take care of everything. You fly."

Elena could feel the grief slash at Stefan's heart, but his voice was calm. "Fly away now, my brother. Fly away."

Elena felt something through the link – Bonnie touching Stefan's shoulder. He quickly got up so that she could lie down. Bonnie was almost hysterical with sobbing, but she had done a good thing, Elena saw. While Elena had been in her own little world with Damon, Bonnie had taken a dagger and cut off a long lock of Elena's hair. Then she had cut one of her own strawberry curls, and placed the locks – one wavy and golden, one curling and red-blond – on Damon's chest. It was al they could do on this flowerless world to honor him, to be with him forever.

Elena could hear Bonnie, too, through her link with Damon, but at first al Bonnie could do was sob, "Damon, please! Oh, please! I didn't know – I never thought – that anyone would get hurt! You saved my life! And now – oh, please! I can't say good-bye!"

She didn't understand, Elena thought, that she was talking to a very young child. But Damon had sent the child a message to repeat.

"I'm supposed to tel you good-bye, though."For the first time the child looked uneasy. "And – and I'm supposed to tel you

'I'm sorry,'too. He thought you'd know what that meant and you'd forgive me. But…if you don't…I don't know what wil happen – oh!"

Another of the hateful spasms went through the child. Elena held on to him hard, biting her own lip until the blood came; at the same time trying to shield the little boy completely from her own feelings. And deep in Damon's mind, she saw Bonnie's expression change, from tearful penance to astonished fear to careful control. As if Bonnie had grown up al in an instant.

"Of course – of course I understand! And I forgive you – but you haven't done anything wrong. I'm such a sil y girl – I…"

"We don't think you're a sil y girl,"the child said, looking vastly relieved. "But thank you for forgiving me. There's a special name I'm supposed to cal you, too – but I…"He sank back against Elena. "I guess – I'm…getting sleepy…"

"Was it 'redbird'?"Bonnie asked careful y, and the little boy's pale face lit up.

"That was it. You knew already. You're al …so nice and so smart. Thank you…for making it easy…But can I say one more thing?"

Elena was about to answer, when abruptly she was jarred completely out of Damon's mind and back into reality. The Tree had slammed down another spider's leg set of branches, trapping them and Damon's body between two circles of wooden bars.

Elena had no plans. No idea how to get to the star bal that Damon had died for. Either the Tree was intel igent, or it was wired to have such efficient defenses that it might as well have been. They were lying on the evidence that many, many people had tried for that star bal  – and left behind their bones ground to sand.

Come to that, she thought, I wonder why it hasn't gone for us, too – especial y for Bonnie. She's been in, and then out, and back in again, which I should never have let her do except that we were al thinking about Damon. Why didn't it go for her again?

Stefan was trying to be strong, trying to organize something out of this disaster that was so stunning that Elena herself simply sat. Bonnie was sobbing again, making heart-wrenching sounds.

Between both circular sets of bars a wooden network was spreading – too close-knit for even Bonnie to squeeze through. Elena's group was efficiently separated from anything outside the sand pit, and just as efficiently separated from the star bal .

"The axe!"Stefan cal ed to her. "Throw me – "

But there was no time. A rootlet had curled around it and was swiftly dragging it into the upper branches.

"Stefan, I'm sorry! I was too slow!"

"It was too fast!"Stefan corrected.

Elena held her breath, waiting for the last crash from above, the one that would kil them al . When it didn't come, she realized something. The Tree was not only intel igent, but sadistic. They were to be trapped here, away from their supplies, to die slowly of thirst and starvation, or to go mad watching the others die.

The best that they could hope for was that Stefan would kil both Bonnie and her – but even he would never get out.

These wooden branches would come crashing down again and again, as often as the Tree felt necessary, until Stefan's crushed bones joined the others that had been mil ed to fine sand.

That was what did it, the thought of al of them, trapped with Damon, making a mockery of his death. The thing that had been swelling inside Elena for weeks now, at hearing the stories about children who ate their pets, at creatures who delighted in pain, had, with Damon's sacrifice, final y gotten so big that she could no longer contain it.

"Stefan, Bonnie – don't touch the branches,"she gasped.

"Make sure you're not touching any part of the branches."

"I'm not, love, and Bonnie isn't either. But why?"

"I can't keep it in anymore! I have to stand like this – "

"Elena, no! That spel  – "

Elena could no longer think. The hateful demi-light was driving her mad, reminding her of the pinpoint of green in Damon's pupils, the horrible green light of the Tree.

She understood exactly about the Tree's sadism to her friends…and in the corner of her eye she could see a bit of black…like a rag dol . Except that it was no dol ; it was Damon. Damon with al of his wild and witty spirit broken.

Damon…who must be gone from this and al worlds by now.

His face was covered with her blood. There was nothing peaceful or dignified about him. There was nothing the Tree had not taken from him.

Elena lost her mind.

With a scream that peeled raw and bleeding from her backbone and came hoarsely out of her throat, Elena grabbed a branch of the Tree that had kil ed Damon, that had murdered her beloved, and that would murder her and these two others she loved as well.

She had no thoughts. She wasn't capable of thinking. But instinctively she held a high bough of the Tree's cage and let the fury explode out of her, the fury of murdered love.

Wings of Destruction.

She felt the Wings arch behind her, like ebony lace and black pearls, and for a moment she felt like a deadly goddess, knowing that this planet would never harbor any life ever again.

When the attack flared out, it turned the twilight al around her to matte black. What a fitting color. Damon wil like this, she thought in confusion, and then she remembered again, and it slammed blistering out of her again, the Power to destroy the Tree al over this smal world. It shattered her from the inside but she let it keep coming. No physical pain could compare with what was in her heart, with the pain of losing what she had lost. No physical pain could express how she felt.

The huge roots in the ground underneath them were bucking as if there was an earthquake, and then –

There was a deafening sound as the trunk of the Great Tree exploded straight upward like a rocket, disintegrating to fine ash as it went. The spider's-leg bars around them simply disappeared along with the canopy above. Something in Elena's mind noted that very far away the same destruction was going on, racing to turn branches and leaves into infinitesimal bits of matter that hung in the air like haze.

"The star bal !"Bonnie cried in the eerie silence, anguished.

"Vaporized!"Stefan caught Elena as she sank to her knees, her ethereal black wings fading. "But we'd never have gotten it anyway. That Tree had been protecting it for thousands of years! Al we'd have gotten would have been a slow death."

Elena had turned back to Damon. She had not been touching the stake that ran through him – in seconds it would be the only remnant of the Tree on this world. She could hardly dare hope that there was a spark of life left in him now, but the child had wanted to speak with her and she would make that possible or die trying. She scarcely felt Stefan's arms around her.

Once again, she plunged into the very depths of Damon's mind. This time she knew exactly where to go.

And there, by a miracle, he was, although obviously in hideous pain. Tears were rol ing down his cheeks and he was trying not to sob. His lips were bitten raw. Her Wings had not been able to destroy the wood inside him – it had already done its poisonous damage – and there was no way to reverse that.

"Oh, no, oh God!"Elena caught the child in her arms. A teardrop fel on her hand. She rocked him, scarcely knowing what she was saying. "What can I do to help?"

"You're here again,"he said, and in his voice, she heard the answer. This was al that he wanted. He was a very simple child.

"I'l be here – always. Always. I'm never letting go."

This didn't have the effect that she wanted. The boy gasped, trying to smile, but was torn with a horrible spasm that almost arched his body out of her arms.

And Elena realized that she was turning the inevitable into slow, excruciating torture.

"I'l hold you,"she modified her words for him, "until you want me to let go. All right?"

He nodded. His very voice was breathless with pain. "Could you – could you let me shut my eyes? Just…just for a moment?"

Elena knew, as perhaps this child did not, what would happen if she stopped badgering him and let him sleep. But she couldn't stand to see him suffering any longer, and nothing was real again, and there was no one else in the world for her, and she didn't even care if doing it this way meant she would fol ow him into death.

Careful y steadying her voice, she said, "Maybe…we can both shut our eyes. Not for a long time – no! But…just for a moment."

She kept rocking the smal body in her arms. She could Stillfeel a faint pulse of life…not a heartbeat, but Still, a pulsing.

She knew that he hadn't shut his eyes yet; that he was Stillfighting the torture.

For her. Not for anything else. For her sake only.

Putting her lips close to his ear, she whispered, "Let's close our eyes together, All right? Let's close them…at the count of three. Is that All right?"

There was such relief in his voice and such love. "Yes.

Together. I'm ready. You can count now."

"One."Nothing mattered except holding him and keeping herself steady. "Two. And…"

"Elena?"

She was startled. Had the child ever said her name before?

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"Elena…I…love you. Not just because of him. I love you too."

Elena had to hide her face in his hair. "I love you, too, little one. You've always known that, haven't you?"

"Yes – always."

"Yes. You've always known that. And now…we'l close our eyes – for a moment. Three. "

She waited until the last faint movement stopped, and his head fel back, and his eyes were shut and the shadow of suffering was gone. He looked, not peaceful, but simply gentle – and kind, and Elena could see in his face what an adult with Damon's features and that expression would look like.

But now even the smal body was evaporating right out of Elena's arms. Oh, she was stupid. She'd forgotten to close her eyes with him. She was so dizzy, even though Stefan had stopped the bleeding from her neck. Closing her eyes…

maybe she would look as he had. Elena was so glad that he'd gone gently at the end.

Maybe the darkness would be kind to her, too.

Everything was quiet now. Time to put away her toys and draw the curtains. Time now to get in bed. One last embrace…and now her arms were empty.

Nothing left to do, nothing left to fight. She'd done her best.

And, at least, the child had not been frightened.

Time to turn off the light now. Time to shut her own eyes.

The darkness was very kind to her, and she went into it gently.

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