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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 4)

"First,"Meredith asked, "is Damon right? If you go back to animal blood, wil you be seriously weakened?"

Stefan smiled. "I'l be the way I was when I first met you,"he said. "Strong enough to do this."He bent toward the fire irons right below Damon's elbow, murmuring absently, "Scusilo per favore" and removed the poker.

Damon rol ed his eyes. But when Stefan, in one fluid motion, bent the poker into a shape and then straightened it immediately back and replaced it, Matt could swear that there was ice-cold envy in Damon's usual poker-player expression.

"And that was iron, which is resistant to al eldritch forces,"Meredith said evenly, as Stefan stepped away from the fireplace.

"But of course he's been imbibing from you three charming girls for the past few days – not to mention the nuclear powerhouse that dear Elena has become,"Damon said, clapping his hands three times slowly. "Oh…Mutt. Sono spiacente – I mean, I didn't mean to add you in with the girls.

No offense meant."

"None taken,"Matt said through his teeth. If he could, just once, wipe that flashing, there-and-gone smile off Damon's face, he would die happy, he thought.

"But, the truth is that you have become a very…wil ing… donor for Dear Brother, haven't you?"Damon added, his lips twitching slightly, as if only the strictest control kept him from smiling.

Matt took two steps toward Damon. It was al he could do not to get right up in Damon's face, even though something in his brain always screamed suicide when he had thoughts like that.

"You're right,"he said as evenly as possible. "I've been donating blood to Stefan just like the girls. He's my friend, and a couple of days ago he looked like he'd just gotten out of a concentration camp."

"Of course,"Damon murmured, as if chastened, but then he went on in even softer tones, "My little brother has always been popular with both – wel , with ladies present, I wil say genders. Even with male kitsune; which of course is why I am in this mess."

Matt literal y saw red as if he were looking through a haze of blood at Damon.

"Speaking of which, what happened to Sage, Damon? He was a vampire. If we could find him, your problem would be over, right?"Meredith asked.

It was a good riposte, just as al Meredith's cool responses were. But Damon spoke with his fathomless black eyes fixed on Meredith's face. "The less you know and say about Sage, the better. I wouldn't speak of him lightly – he has friends in low places. But to answer your question: No, I would not let Sage make me into a vampire. It would just complicate things."

"Shinichi said good luck on finding out who he is,"Meredith said, stil calm. "Do you know what he meant by that?"

Damon shrugged fluidly. "What I know is my own business.

He spends time in the lowest and darkest of the Dark Dimensions."

Bonnie burst out, "Why did Sage go? Oh, Damon, did he go because of us? Why did he leave Talon and Saber to watch over us, then? And, oh – oh –  oh, Damon, I'm so sorry! So, so sorry! "She slid off the love seat and bent her head so that only strawberry curls were visible. With her smal pale hands on the floor to brace her, she looked as if she were about to bow her head to the ground at his feet. "This is al my fault and everyone's angry – but it was just so horrible I had to believe the worst things I could think of!"

It was a tension-breaker. Nearly everyone laughed. It was so Bonnie, and so true of al of them. So human.

Matt wanted to pick her up and put her back on the love seat.

Meredith was always the best medicine for Bonnie. But as Matt found himself reaching for her, he was confounded by two other pairs of hands doing the same thing. One was Meredith's own long, slender olive-skinned hands, and the other pair were male, with even longer tapering fingers.

Matt's hand clenched into a fist. Let Meredith take her, he thought, and his clumsy fist – somehow – got in the way of Damon's reaching fingers. Meredith lifted Bonnie easily and sat back on the love seat. Damon lifted his dark eyes to Matt's and Matt saw perfect comprehension there.

"You real y ought to forgive her, Damon,"Meredith, ever the impartial referee, said bluntly. "I don't think she'l be able to sleep tonight otherwise."

Damon shrugged, cold as an iceberg. "Maybe…someday."

Matt could feel his muscles clench. What kind of bastard said that to little Bonnie? Because of course she was listening.

"Damn you,"Matt said under his breath.

"Excuse me?"Damon's voice was no longer languid and falsely polite, but suddenly a whiplash.

"You heard me,"Matt growled. "And if you didn't, maybe we'd better go outside so I can say it louder,"he added, soaring on the wings of bravado.

He left behind a wail of "No!"from Bonnie, and a gentle

"Sh,"from Meredith. Stefan said, "Both of you – "in a commanding voice, but then he faltered and coughed, which both Matt and Damon took as a chance to sprint for the door.

It was stil very warm outside on the boardinghouse porch. "Is this the kil ing ground?"Damon asked lazily when they had descended the steps and stood beside the gravel path.

"It's fine by me,"Matt said briefly, knowing in his bones that Damon would fight dirty.

"Yes, this is definitely close enough,"Damon said, flashing an unnecessarily bril iant smile in Matt's direction. "You can yel for help while little brother is in the parlor, and he'l have plenty of time to rescue you. And now we're going to solve the problems of what you're doing in my business and why you are – "

Matt punched him in the nose.

He had no idea what Damon was trying to do. If you asked a guy to step outside, then you asked him to step outside.

Then you went for the guy. You didn't stand around talking. If you tried that, you'd be stuck with the label of "coward"or worse. Damon didn't seem like the type who needed to be told that.

But then, Damon had always been able to repel any attack on him while he got as many insults as he liked…before.

Before, he'd have just broken every bone in my hand and gone on baiting me, Matt guessed. But now…I'm almost as fast as him, and he simply got taken by surprise.

Matt flexed his hand gingerly. It always hurt, of course, but if Meredith could do it to Caroline, then he could do it to…

Damon?

Damn, did I just take down Damon?

Run, Honeycutt, he seemed to hear the voice of his old coach tel ing him. Run. Get out of town. Change your name.

Tried that. Didn't work. Never even got a T-shirt, Matt thought sourly.

But Damon wasn't leaping up like a flaming demon from hel , with the eyes of a dragon and the strength of a raging bul to annihilate Matt. It looked and sounded more as if he were shocked and indignant from his disheveled hair to his earth-stained boots.

"You…ignorant…childish…"He lapsed into Italian.

"Look,"Matt said. "I'm here to fight, okay? And the smartest guy I ever knew said: 'If you're gonna fight, don't talk. If you're gonna talk, don't fight.'"

Damon tried to snarl as he knelt up and pul ed spiny teasel and prickly sida out of his distressed black jeans. But the snarl didn't come out quite right. Maybe it was the new shape of his canines. Maybe it just didn't have enough conviction behind it. Matt had seen enough defeated guys to know that this fight was over. A strange exaltation came over him. He was going to keep al his limbs and organs! It was a precious, precious moment.

Al right, then, should I offer him a hand? Matt wondered, to be answered instantaneously by, Sure, if you'd offer a hand to a temporarily stunned crocodile. What do you really need ten whole fingers for, anyway?

Oh, wel , he thought, turning to go back into the front door. As long as he lived – which, conceded, might not be too long – he would remember this moment.

As he went in, he bumped into Bonnie, who was rushing out.

"Oh, Matt, oh, Matt,"she cried. She was looking wildly around. "Did you hurt him? Did he hurt you?"

Matt smacked his fist into the palm of his hand, once. "He's stil sitting down back there,"he added helpful y.

"Oh, no!"Bonnie gasped, and she hurried out the door.

Okay. Less spectacular of a night. But stil a pretty good one.

"They did what?"Elena asked Stefan. Cold poultices anchored by tight bandages were wrapped around her arm, hand, and thigh – Mrs. Flowers had cut her jeans off short – and Mrs. Flowers was wiping away the dried blood on her neck with herbs.

Her heart was pounding with more than pain. Even she hadn't realized that Stefan was tuned in to the entire house when he was awake. Al she could do was to shakily thank God that he'd been asleep while she and Damon – no! She had to stop thinking about it, and right now!

"They went outside to fight,"Stefan said. "It's idiotic, of course. But it's a matter of honor, too. I can't interfere."

"Wel , I can – if you're done, Mrs. Flowers."

"Yes, dear Elena,"Mrs. Flowers said, winding a bandage around Elena's throat. "Now you shouldn't get tetanus."

Elena stopped in mid-motion. "I thought you got tetanus from rusty blades,"she said. "Da – this one looked brand-new."

"Tetanus comes from dirty blades, my dear,"Mrs. Flowers corrected her. "But this" – she held up a bottle – "is Grand mama's own personal recipe that has kept many a wound disease-free down the cen – down the years."

"Wow,"Elena said. "I never even heard of Grand mama before. Was she a – healer?"

"Oh, yes,"Mrs. Flowers said earnestly. "She was actual y accused of being a witch. But at her trial they could prove nothing. Her accusers seemed not even to be capable of coherent speech."

Elena looked at Stefan only to find that he was looking at her.

Matt was in danger of being dragged off to a kangaroo court – for al egedly assaulting Caroline Forbes while under the influence of some unknown and terrible drug. Anything to do with courts was interesting to both of them. But looking at Stefan's concerned face, Elena decided not to pursue the subject. She squeezed his hand. "We have to go now – but let's talk about Grand mama later. I think she sounds fascinating."

"I just remember her as a crotchety old recluse, who didn't suffer fools gladly and thought just about everyone was a fool,"Mrs. Flowers said. "I suppose I was going down the same path until you children came and made me sit up and take notice. Thank you."

"We're the ones who should thank you,"Elena began, hugging the old woman, feeling her heart stop pounding.

Stefan was looking at her with open love. It was al going to be al right – for her.

I'm worried about Matt, she thought to Stefan, testing the waters more vigorously. Damon's still so fast – and you know he doesn't like Matt a bit.

I think, Stefan returned with a wry smile, that that is a rather stunning understatement. But I also think you shouldn't worry until we see who comes back injured.

Elena eyed that smile, and thought for a moment about impulsive, athletic Matt. After a moment, she smiled back.

She was feeling both guilty and protective – and safe. Stefan always made her feel safe. And right now, she wanted to spoil him.

In the front yard, Bonnie was abasing herself. She couldn't help thinking, even now, about how handsome Damon looked, how wild and dark and ferocious and gorgeous. She couldn't help thinking about the times he'd smiled at her, laughed at her, come to save her at her urgent cal . She had honestly thought that someday…But now she felt as if her heart were breaking in two.

"I just want to bite my tongue out,"she said. "I should never have assumed anything from what I saw."

"How could you possibly have known that I wasn't stealing Elena away from Stefan?"Damon said wearily. "It's just the kind of thing I'd do."

"No, it isn't! You did so much to free Stefan from prison – you always faced the most danger yourself – and you kept us al from being hurt. You did al that for other people – "

Suddenly Bonnie's upper arms were being held by hands that were so strong that her mind was flooded with cliches. A grasp of iron. Strong as steel bands. An inescapable grip.

And a voice like an icy torrent was coming at her.

"You don't know anything about me, or what I want, or what I do. For al you know I could be plotting right now. So don't ever let me hear you talk again about such things, or imagine that I won't kil you if you get in my way,"Damon said.

He got up and left Bonnie sitting there, staring after him. And she'd been wrong. She wasn't out of tears at al .

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