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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 43)

"Elena?"Stefan said quietly. "Could you ask me to come in?

You have to invite me in if you want to – to talk – "

Invite him in? He was already in – inside her heart. She had told the Guardians that everyone would have to accept Stefan as her boyfriend of almost a year.

It didn't matter. In a low voice she said, "Come in, Stefan."

"The window's locked from your side, Elena."

Numbly, Elena unlocked the window. The next moment she was encompassed by warm, strong arms in a desperate, fervent embrace. But the moment after that, the arms dropped, leaving her frozen and lonely.

"Stefan? What's wrong?"Her eyes had adapted and by the starlight through the window she could see him hesitating before her.

"I can't – It isn't – It's not me you want,"he said in a rush that sounded as if it came through a constricted throat. "But I wanted you to know that – that Meredith and Matt are holding Bonnie. Comforting her, I mean. They're al okay and so is Mrs. Flowers. And I thought that you – "

"They put me to sleep! They said they wouldn't put me to sleep!"

"You fel asleep, lo – Elena. While we were waiting for them to send us home. We al watched over you: Bonnie, Sage, and I."He was Stillspeaking in that formal, unusual tone. "But I thought – Well, that you might want to talk tonight, too. Before I – I left."He put a finger up to stop his lip from shaking.

"You swore you wouldn't leave me!"Elena cried. "You promised, not for any reason, not for any length of time, no matter how noble the cause!"

"But – Elena – that was before I understood…"

"You Stilldon't understand! Do you know – "

His hand flew to cover her mouth and he put his lips to her ear. "Lo – Elena. We're in your house. Your aunt – "

Elena felt her eyes widen, although of course subconsciously she had known this al along. The air of familiarity. This bed – it was her bed, and the spread was her beloved gold and white bedspread. The obstacles she'd known how to avoid in the dark – the tapping at her window…she was home.

Like a climber who has negotiated an impossible-seeming section of rock, and almost fal en, Elena felt a tremendous rush of adrenaline. And it was this – or, perhaps, simply the power of the love that flooded through her – that achieved what she had been so clumsily trying to reach. She felt her soul expand and come out of her body. And meet Stefan's.

She was appal ed by the hastily swept-away desolation in his spirit, and humbled by the surge of love that flooded every part of him at the touch of her mind.

Oh, Stefan. Just – say that – that you can forgive me, that's all. If you forgive me I can live. Maybe you can even be happy with me again – if you just give it a little time.

I'm already happy with you. But we have all the time in the world, Stefan reassured her. But she caught the shadow of a dark thought whisked quickly out of the way. He had al the time in the world. She, however…

Elena had to choke back a laugh but then clutched at Stefan suddenly. My backpack – did they take it? Where is it?

Right beside your nightstand. I can reach it. Do you want it?

He reached in the darkness and pul ed up something heavy and rough and none too pleasant-smel ing. Elena thrust one frantic hand inside it while Stillholding on to Stefan with the other.

Yes! Oh, Stefan, it's here!

He was beginning to suspect – but he only knew when she drew out the bottle labeled Evian Water and held it to her cheek. It was icy cold, although the night was mild and humid.

And as it effervesced violently, it glowed in a way that no ordinary water did.

I didn't mean to do it, she told Stefan, suddenly worried that he might not like to associate with a thief. At least – not at first. Sage said to get the water from the Fountain of Eternal Youth and Life into bottles. I dug up a big bottle and this little one, and somehow I stashed the smaller one in my backpack – I'd've put the big one in, too, but it didn't fit. And I didn't even think about the little one again until after they took away my Wings and my telepathy.

And a good thing, Stefan thought. If they had caught you –

oh, my lovely love! His arms squeezed the breath from Elena's lungs. So that's why you were suddenly so eager to leave!

"They took almost everything else supernatural about me,"Elena whispered, placing her lips close to Stefan's ear.

"I have to live with that, and if they'd given me a chance I'd have agreed – for the sake of Fel 's Church – if I'd been logical – "She broke off as she suddenly realized that she had been literal y out of her mind. She'd been worse than a thief. She'd tried to use a lethal attack on a group of – mostly – innocent people. And the worst thing was that a part of her knew that Damon would have understood her madness, while she wasn't sure Stefan ever could.

"But you don't have to change me into – you know,"she began whispering frenetical y again. "A sip or two of this and I can be with you forever. Forever and – for – forever – Stefan – "She stopped, trying to get her breath and her mental balance.

His hand closed over hers on the cap. "Elena."

"I'm not crying. It's because I'm happy. Forever and ever, Stefan. We can be together, just…just us two…forever."

"Elena, love."His hand kept hers from twisting open the bottle.

"It – isn't what you want?"

With his other arm, Stefan pul ed her tightly to him. Her head fel forward onto his shoulder and he rested his chin on her hair. "It's what I want more than anything. I'm…dazed, I guess. I have been ever since – "He stopped and tried again.

"If we have al the time in the world, we have tomorrow,"he said in a voice muffled by hair. "And tomorrow is time enough for you to start to think it through. There's enough in that bottle for maybe four or five people. You're the one who's going to have to decide who drinks it, love. But not tonight. Tonight is for…"

With a sudden rush of joy Elena understood. "You're talking about – Damon."Amazing how difficult it was to simply say his name. It almost seemed a violation, and yet…

When he could talk – like this – for a moment to me, he told me what he wanted, she sent. Stefan stirred a little in the darkness, but said nothing. Stefan, he only asked for one thing before he…went. It was not to be forgotten. That's all.

And we're the ones who remember the most. Us and Bonnie.

Aloud she added, "I wil never forget him. And I wil never let anyone else who knew him forget him – for as long as I live."

She knew she'd spoken too loudly, but Stefan didn't try to quiet her. He gave one quick shudder and then held her tightly again, his face buried in her hair.

I remember, he sent to her, when Katherine asked him to join her – when we three were in Honoria Fell's crypt. I remember what he said to her. Do you?

Elena felt their souls intertwine as they both saw the scene through the other's eyes. Of course, I remember too.

Stefan sighed, half-laughing. I remember trying to take care of him later in Florence. He wouldn't behave, wouldn't even Influence the girls he fed on. Another sigh. I think he wanted to get caught at that point. He couldn't even look me in the face and talk about you.

I made Bonnie send for you. I made sure she got both of you out here, Elena told him. Her tears had begun to flow again, but slowly – gently. Her eyes were shut and she felt a faint smile come to her lips.

Do you know – Stefan's mental voice was startled, astonished –  I remember something else! From when I was very young, maybe three or four years old. My father had a terrible temper, especially right after my mother died. And back then, when I was little, and my father was furious and drunk, Damon would deliberately get in between us. He'd say something obnoxious and – well, my father would end up beating him instead of me. I don't know how I could have forgotten about that.

I do, Elena thought, remembering how frightened she had been of Damon when he'd first turned human – even though he'd put himself in between her and the vampires who wanted to Discipline her in the Dark Dimension. He had a gift for knowing exactly what to say – how to look – what to do – to get under anyone's skin.

She could feel Stefan chuckle faintly, wryly. A gift, was it?

Well, I certainly couldn't do it, and I can manage most people, Elena replied softly. Not him, though. Never him.

Stefan added, But he was almost always kinder to weak people than to strong ones. He always did have that soft spot for Bonnie… He broke off, as if frightened he'd ventured too near something sacred.

But Elena had her bearings now. She was glad, so glad, that in the end Damon had died to save Bonnie. Elena herself needed no more proof of his feelings about her. She would always love Damon, and she would never al ow anything to diminish that love.

And, somehow, it seemed fitting that she and Stefan should sit in her old bedroom and speak of what they remembered of Damon in hushed tones. She planned on taking the same thing up with the others tomorrow.

When she final y fel asleep in Stefan's arms, it was hours after midnight.

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