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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 12)

It came back to him, all of it: the cramped aisles and the tiny windows and the musty smell of old books. He had been in Belgium some fifty years ago, and had been surprised to find an English-language book on such a subject still in existence. But there it was, its cover worn to a solid burnished rust, with nothing of the writing remaining, if there ever had been any. Pages were missing inside, so no one would ever know the author or the title, if either had ever been printed there. Every "receipt" – recipe, or charm, or spell – inside involved forbidden knowledge.

Damon could easily remember the simplest spell of all: "Ye Bloode of ye Samphire or Vampyre i?fair goode a?a general physic for all Maladie?or mischief Done by those who Dance in the Woode?at Moonspire."

These malach had certainly been doing mischief in the woods, and it was the month of Moonspire, the month of the "summer solstice" in the Old Tongue. Damon didn't want to leave Bonnie, and he certainly didn't want Elena to see what he was going to do next. Still supporting Bonnie's head above the warm pinkish water, he opened his shirt. There was a knife of ironwood in a sheath at his hip. He removed it and, in one quick motion, cut himself at the base of his throat.

Plenty of blood now. The problem was how to get her to drink. Sheathing the dagger, he lifted her out of the water and tried to put her lips to the cut.

No, that wasstupid , he thought, with unaccustomed self-deprecation. She's going to get cold again, and you don't have any way to make her swallow. He let Bonnie lapse back into the water and thought. Then he pulled out the knife again and made another cut: this one on his arm, at the wrist. He followed the vein there until blood was not just dripping but streaming steadily out. Then he put that wrist to Bonnie's upturned mouth, adjusting the angle of her head with his other hand. Her lips were partly open and the dark red blood flowed beautifully. Periodically she swallowed. There was life in her yet.

It was just like feeding a baby bird, he thought, tremendously pleased with his memory, his ingenuity, and – well, just himself.

He smiled brilliantly at nothing in particular.

Now if it would only work.

Damon changed position slightly to be more comfortable and turned the hot water up again, all while holding Bonnie, feeding her, all – he knew – gracefully and without a wasted movement. This was fun. It appealed to his sense of the ridiculous. Here, right now, a vampire was not supping from a human, but was trying to save it from certain death by feeding it vampire blood.

More than that. He had followed all sorts of human traditions and customs by trying to strip Bonnie without compromising her maidenly modesty. That was exciting. Of course, he'd seen her body anyway; there had been no way to avoid that. But it was really more thrilling when he wastrying to follow the rules. He'd never done that before.

Maybe that was how Stefan got his kicks. No, Stefan had Elena, who had been human, vampire, and invisible spirit, and now appeared to be living angel, if such a thing existed. Elena was kicky enough on her own. Yet he hadn't thought of her inminutes . It might even be a record of Elena-overlooking.

He'd better call her, maybe get her in here and explain how this was working so there was no reason to crush his skull. It would probably look better.

Damon suddenly realized he couldn't feel Elena's aura in Stefan's bedroom. But before he could investigate there was a crash, then pounding footsteps, and then another crash, much closer. And then the bathroom door was kicked open by Mortal Annoying Troublesome….

Matt advanced menacingly, got his feet tangled, and looked down to untangle them. His tanned cheeks were swept with a sudden sunset. He was holding up Bonnie's small pink brassiere. He dropped it as if it had bitten him, picked it up again, and whirled around, only to cannon into Stefan, who was entering. Damon watched, entertained.

"How do youkill them, Stefan? Do you just need a stake? Can you hold him while – blood! He's feeding her blood!" Matt interrupted himself, looking as if he might attack Damon on his own. Bad idea, thought Damon.

Matt locked eyes with him. Confronting the monster, Damon thought, even more entertained. "Let…her…go." Matt spoke slowly, probably meaning to convey menace, but sounding, Damon thought, as if he thought that Damon was mentally impaired.

Mortally Unable To Talk, Damon mused. But that made…"Mutt," he said aloud, shaking his head slightly. Maybe, though, it would remind him in the future.

"Mutt?You're calling – ? God, Stefan, please help me kill him!He's killed Bonnie." The words spilled out of Matt in a single gushing flow, a single breath. Woefully, Damon saw his latest acronym go down in flames.

Stefan was surprisingly calm. He put Matt behind him and said, "Go and sit down with Elena and Meredith," in a way that was not a suggestion, and turned back to his brother. "You didn't feed from her," he said, andthis was not a question.

"Swill poison? Not my kind of fun, little brother."

One corner of Stefan's mouth quirked up. He made no response to this, but simply looked at Damon with eyes that were…knowing. Damon bridled.

"I told the truth!"

"Going to take it up as a hobby?"

Damon started to release Bonnie, figuring that dropping her into bloodstained water would be the proper precursor to walking out of this dump, but…

But. She was his baby bird. She'd swallowed enough of his blood now that any more would begin to Change her seriously. And if the amount of blood he had already given her wasn't enough, it simply wasn't a remedy in the first place. Besides, the miracle worker was here.

He closed the cut on his arm enough to stop the bleeding and started to speak….

And the door crashed open again.

This time it was Meredith, and she had Bonnie's bra. Both Stefan and Damon quailed. Meredith was, Damon thought, a very scary person. At least she took the time, which Mutt had not, to look over the trampled clothes on the bathroom floor. She said to Stefan, "How is she?" which Mutt had not, either.

"She's going to be fine," Stefan said and Damon was surprised at his feeling of…not relief, of course, but of a job well done. Plus, now he might avoid being thrashed to within an inch of his life by Stefan.

Meredith took a deep breath and closed her frightening eyes briefly. When she did that, her whole face glowed. Maybe she was praying. It had been centuries since Damon had prayed; and he had never had any prayer answered.

Then Meredith opened her eyes, shook herself, and started looking scary again. She nudged the pile of clothes on the floor and said, slowly and forcefully, "If the item that matchesthis is not still on Bonnie's body, there is going to be trouble."

She waved the now infamous bra like a flag.

Stefan looked confused. How could he not understand the mighty missing lingerie question? Damon wondered. How could anyone be such a…such an unobservant fool? Didn't Elena wear any – ever? Damon sat frozen, too arrested by the images in his own inner world to move for a moment. Then he spoke up. He had the answer to Meredith's riddle.

"Do you want to come and check?" he asked, turning his head virtuously away.

"Yes, I do."

He remained with his back to her as she approached the tub, plunged her hand into the warm pink water, and swished the towel a little. He heard her let out her breath in relief.

When he turned around she said, "There's blood on your mouth." Her dark eyes looked darker than ever.

Damon was surprised. He hadn't gone and pierced the redhead out of habit and thenforgotten it, had he? But then he realized the reason.

"You tried to suck the poison out, didn't you?" Stefan said, throwing him a white face towel. Damon wiped the side Meredith had been looking at and came up with a bloody smear. No wonder his mouth had been stinging like fire. That poison was pretty nasty stuff, although it clearly didn't affect vampires the way it did humans.

"And there's blood on your throat," Meredith went on.

"Unsuccessful experiment," Damon said, and shrugged.

"So you cut your wrist. Pretty seriously."

"For a human, maybe. Is the press conference over?"

Meredith settled back. He could read her expression and he smiled inwardly. Extra! Extra! SCARYM EREDITH

THWARTED. He knew the look of those who had to give up on cracking the Damon nut.

Meredith stood up. "Is there anything I can get him to stop his mouth bleeding? Something to drink, maybe?"

Stefan just looked stricken. Stefan's problem – well, a part of one of Stefan's many problems – was that

he thought feeding was sinful. Even to talk about.

Maybe it was actually kickier that way. People relished anything they thought was sinful. Even vampires did. Damon was put out. How did you go back in time to whenanything was sinful? Because he was sadly out of kicks.

With her back turned, Meredith was less scary. Damon risked an answer to the question of what he could drink.

"You,darling…you darling."

"One too many darlings," Meredith said mysteriously, and before Damon could figure out that she was simply making a point about linguistics, and not commenting on his personal life, she was gone. With the traveling bra.

Now Stefan and Damon were alone. Stefan came a step closer, keeping his eyes off the tub. You miss so much, you chump, Damon thought. That was the word he'd been searching for earlier. Chump.

"You did a lot for her," Stefan said, seeming to find it as hard to look at Damon as at the tub. This left him very little to stare at. He chose a wall.

"You told me you'd beat me up if I didn't. I've never cared for beatings." He flashed his dazzling smile at Stefan and kept it up until Stefan started to turn to look at him, and then turned it off immediately.

"You went beyond the call of duty."

"With you, little brother, one never knows where duty ends. Tell me, what does infinity look like?"

Stefan heaved a sigh. "At least you're not the kind of bully who only terrorizes when he has the upper hand."

"Are you inviting me to ¡®step outside,' as they say?"

"No, I'm complimenting you on saving Bonnie's life."

"I didn't realize I had a choice. How, by the way, did you manage to cure Meredith and – and…how did you manage?"

"Elena kissed them. Didn't you even realize she was gone? I brought them back here, and she came downstairs and breathed into their mouths and it cured them. From what I've seen, she seems to be slowly turning from spirit to full human. I'm guessing it will take another few days, just from looking at her progress since she woke up until now."

"At least she's talking. Not much, but you can't ask for everything." Damon was remembering the view from the Porsche, with the top down and Elena bobbing like a balloon. "This little redhead hasn't said a word," Damon added querulously, and then shrugged. "Same difference."

"Why, Damon? Why not just admit that you care about her, at least enough to keep her living – and without even molesting her? You knew she couldn't afford to lose blood…."

"It was an experiment," Damon explained painstakingly. And it was over now. Bonnie would wake or sleep, live or die, in Stefan's hands – not his. He was wet, he was uncomfortable, he was far enough from this night's meal to be hungry and cross. His mouth hurt. "You take her head now," he said brusquely. "I'm leaving. You and Elena and…Mutt can finish – "

"His name is Matt, Damon. It's not hard to remember."

"It is if you have absolutely no interest in him. There are too many lovely ladies in this vicinity to make him anything but last choice for a snack."

Stefan hit the wall hard. His fist broke through the ancient plastering. "Damn it, Damon, that's not all there is to humans."

"It's all I ask of them."

"Youdon't ask. That's the problem."

"It was a euphemism. It's all I plan totake from them, then. It's certainly all I'm interested in. Don't try to make-believe that it's anything more. There's no point in trying to find evidence for a pretty lie."

Stefan's fist flew out. It was his left fist, and Damon was supporting Bonnie's head on that side, so he couldn't lean away gracefully as he normally would. She was unconscious; she might take in a lungful of water and die immediately. Who knew about these humans, especially when they were poisoned?

Instead, he concentrated on sending all his shielding to the right side of his chin. He figured he could take a punch, even from the New Improved Stefan without losing his hold on the girl – even if Stefan broke his jaw.

Stefan's fist stopped a few millimeters away from Damon's face.

There was a pause; the brothers looked at each other across a distance of two feet.

Stefan took a deep breath and sat back. "Now will you admit it?"

Damon was genuinely puzzled. "Admit what?"

"That you care something for them. Enough to take a punch rather than letting Bonnie go underwater."

Damon stared, then began to laugh and found he couldn't stop.

Stefan stared back. Then he shut his eyes and half-turned away in pain.

Damon still had a case of the giggles. "And you th-thought that I cuh-cared about one little hu-hu-hu…"

"Why did you do it, then?" Stefan said tiredly.

"Whu-whu-whim. I t-told y-yuh-you. Just wuh-huhhuhuha…" Damon collapsed, punch-drunk from lack of food and from too many varying emotions.

Bonnie's head went underwater.

Both vampires dived for her, head butting each other as they collided over the center of the tub. Both fell back briefly, dazed.

Damon wasn't laughing anymore. If anything, he was fighting like a tiger to get the girl out of the water. Stefan was, too, and with his newly sharpened reflexes, he looked close to winning. But it was as Damon had thought just an hour or so earlier – neither one of them even considered cooperating to get the girl. Each was trying to do it alone, and each was impeding the other.

"Get out of my way, brat," Damon snarled, almost hissing in menace.

"You don't give a damn about her.You get out of the way – "

There was something like a geyser and Bonnie exploded upward from the water on her own. She spat out a mouthful and cried, "What's going on?" in tones to melt a heart of stone.

Which they did. Contemplating his bedraggled little bird, who was clutching the towel to her instinctively, with her fiery hair plastered to her head and her big brown eyes blinking between strands, something swelled in Damon. Stefan had run to the door to tell the others the good news. For a moment it was just the two of them: Damon and Bonnie.

"It tastes awful," Bonnie said woefully, spitting out more water.

"I know," Damon said, staring at her. The new thing he was feeling had swollen inside his soul until the pressure was almost too much to stand. When Bonnie said, "But I'm alive!" with an abrupt 180-degree turn in mood, her heart-shaped face flushing suddenly with joy, the fierce pride Damon felt in response was intoxicating. He and he alone had brought her back from the edge of icy death. Her poison-filled body had been cured by him; it was his blood that had dissolved and dispersed the toxin,his blood –

And then the swelling thing burst.

There was, to Damon, a palpable if not audible crack as the stone encasing his soul burst open and a great piece fell away.

With something inside him singing, he clutched Bonnie to him, feeling the wet towel through his raw silk shirt, and feeling Bonnie's slight body under the towel. Definitely a maiden, and not a child, he thought dizzily, whatever the writing on that infamous scrap of pink nylon had claimed. He clutched at her as if he needed her for blood – as if they were in hurricane-tossed seas and to let go of her would be to lose her.

His neck hurt fiercely, but more cracks were spreading all over the stone; it was going to explode completely, letting theDamon it held inside out – and he was too drunk on pride and joy, yes, joy, to care. Cracks were spreading in every direction, pieces of stone flying off…

Bonnie pushed him away.

She had surprising strength for someone with such a slight build. She pushed herself out of his arms completely. Her expression had changed radically again: now her face showed only fear and desperation – and, yes, revulsion.

"Help! Somebody, please,help !" Her brown eyes were huge and now her face was white again.

Stefan had whirled around. All he saw was what Meredith saw, darting under his arm from the other room, or what Matt saw, trying to peer into the tiny, over-full bathroom: Bonnie fiercely clutching her towel, trying to make it cover her, and Damon kneeling by the bath, his face without expression.

"Pleasehelp. He heard me calling – I couldfeel him on the other end – but he just watched. He stood and watched us all dying. He wants all humans dead, with our blood running down white steps somewhere. Please, get himaway from me!"

So. The little witch was more proficient than he had imagined. It wasn't unusual to recognize that someone was getting your transmissions – you got feedback – but to identify the individual took talent. Plus, she'd obviously heard the echoes of some of his thoughts. She was gifted, his bird…no, not his bird, not with her looking at him with a look as close to hatred as Bonnie could manage.

There was a silence. Damon had a chance to deny the charge, but why bother? Stefan would be able to gauge the truth of it. Maybe Bonnie, too.

Revulsion was flying from face to face, as if it were a swiftly-catching disease.

Now Meredith was hurrying forward, grabbing another towel. She had some kind of hot drink in her other hand – cocoa, by the smell. It was hot enough to be an effective weapon – no way to dodge all of that, not for a tired vampire.

"Here," she said to Bonnie. "You're safe. Stefan's here. I'm here. Matt's here. Take this towel; let's just put it around your shoulders."

Stefan had stood silently, watching all this – no, watching his brother. Now, his face hardening in finality, he said one word.

"Out."

Dismissed like a dog. Damon groped for his jacket behind him, found it, and wished that his groping for his sense of humor could be as successful. The faces around him were all the same. They could have been carved in stone.

But not stone as hard as that that was coming together again around his soul. That rock was remarkably quick to mend – and an extra layer was added, like the layering of a pearl, but not covering anything nearly so pretty.

Their faces were still all the same as Damon tried to get out of the small room that had too many people in it. Some of them were speaking; Meredith to Bonnie, Mutt – no, Matt – pouring out a stream of pure acidic hatred…but Damon didn't really hear the words. He could smell too much blood here. Everyone had little wounds. Their individual scents – different beasts inthe herd – closed in on him. His head was spinning. He had to get out of here or he'd be snatching the nearest warm vessel and draining it dry. Now he was more than dizzy; he was too hot, too…thirsty.

Very, very thirsty. He had worked a long time without feeding and now he was surrounded by prey. They were circlinghim . How could he stop himself from grabbing just one of them? Would one really be missed?

Then there was the one he hadn't seen yet, and didn't want to see. To witness Elena's lovely features twisted into the same mask of revulsion he saw on every other face here would be…distasteful, he thought, his old sense of dispassion finally returning to him.

But it couldn't be avoided. As Damon came out of the bathroom, Elena was right in front of him, floating like an oversized butterfly. His eyes were drawn to exactly what he didn't want to see: her expression.

Elena's features didn't mirror the others. She looked worried, upset. But there wasn't a trace of the disgust or hatred that showed on all the other faces.

She even spoke, in that strange mind-speech that wasn't, somehow, like telepathy, but which allowed her to get in two levels of communication at once.

"Da – mon."

Tell about the malach. Please.

Damon just raised an eyebrow at her. Tell a bunch of humans abouthimself ? Was she being deliberately ridiculous?

Besides, the malach hadn't really done anything. They had distracted him for a few minutes, that was all. No point in blaming malach when all they had done was enhance his own views briefly. He wondered if Elena had any notion of the content of his little nighttime daydream.

"Da – mon."

I can see it. Everything. But, still, please…

Oh, well, maybe spirits got used to seeingeverybody's dirty laundry. Elena made no response to that thought, so he was left in the dark.

In the dark. Which was what he was used to, where he had come from. They would all go their separate ways, the humans to their warm dry houses and he to a tree in the woods. Elena would stay with Stefan, of course.

Of course.

"Under the circumstances, I won't sayau revoir ," Damon said, flashing his dazzling smile at Elena, who looked gravely back at him. "We'll just say ¡®good-bye' and leave it at that."

There was no answer from the humans.

"Da – mon." Elena was crying now.

Please.Please.

Damon started out into the dark.

Please…

Rubbing at his neck, he kept going.

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