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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 16)

Stefan was surprised to find Mrs. Flowers waiting for them when they returned from their picnic. And, also unusually, she had something to say that didn't involve her gardens.

"There is a message for you upstairs," she said, jerking her head toward the narrow staircase. "It came from a dark young fellow – he looked somewhat like you. He wouldn't leave a word with me. Just asked where to leave a message."

"Dark fellow? Damon?" Elena asked.

Stefan shook his head. "What would he want to be leaving me messages for?"

He left Elena with Mrs. Flowers and hastened up the crazy, zigzagging stairs. At the top he found a piece of paper stuffed under the door.

It was a Thinking of You card, sans envelope. Stefan, who knew his brother, doubted that it had been paid for – with money, at least. Inside, in heavy black felt-tipped pen, were the words:

DON'T NEED THIS.

THOUGHT ST. STEFAN MIGHT.

MEET ME TONIGHT AT THE TREE

WHERE THE HUMANS CRASHED.

NO LATER THAN 4:30A.M .

I'LL GIVE YOU THE SCOOP.

D.

That was all…except for a Web address.

Stefan was about to throw the note in the wastebasket when curiosity assailed him. He turned on the

computer, directed it to the proper website, and watched. For a while, nothing happened. Then very dark gray letters on a black screen appeared. To a human, it would have appeared to be a completely blank screen. To vampires, with their higher visual acuity, the gray on black was faint but clear.

Tired of that lapis lazuli?

Want to take a vacation in Hawaii?

Sick of that same old liquid cuisine?

Come and visit Shi no Shi.

Stefan started to close the page, but something stopped him. He sat and stared at the inconspicuous little ad beneath the poem until he heard Elena at the door. He quickly closed the computer and went to take the picnic basket from her. He said nothing about the note or what he'd seen on the computer screen. But as the night went on, he thought more and more.

"Oh! Stefan, you'll break my ribs! You squeezed all my breath out!"

"I'm sorry. I just need to hold you."

"Well, I need to hold you, too."

"Thank you, angel."

Everything was quiet in the room with the high ceiling. One window was open, letting the moonlight through. In the sky, even the moon seemed to creep stealthily along, and the shaft of moonlight followed it on the hardwood floor.

Damon smiled. He had had a long, restful day and now he meant to have an interesting night.

Getting through the window wasn't quite as easy as he'd expected. When he arrived as a huge, glossy black crow, he was expecting to balance on the windowsill and change to human form to open the window. But the window had a trap on it – it was linked by Power to one of the sleepers inside. Damon puzzled over it, preening himself viciously, afraid to put any tension on that thin link, when something arrived beside him in a flutter of wings.

It looked like no respectable crow ever registered in the sighting book of any ornithologist. It was sleek enough, but its wings were tipped with scarlet, and it had golden, shining eyes.

Shinichi?Damon asked.

Who else?came the reply as a golden eye fixed on him.I see you have a problem. But it can be fixed. I'll deepen their sleep so that you can cut the link.

Don't!Damon said reflexively.If you so much as touch either of them, Stefan will –

The answer came in soothing tones.Stefan's just a boy, remember? Trust me. You do trust me, don't you?

And it worked out exactly as the demonically colored bird said it would. The sleepers inside slept more deeply, and then more deeply still.

A moment later the window opened, and Damon changed form and was inside. His brother and…and she…the one he alwayshad to watch…shewas lying asleep, her golden hair lying across the pillow and lying across his brother's body.

Damon tore his eyes away. There was a medium-sized, slightly outdated computer on the desk in the corner. He went over to it and without the slightest hesitation turned it on. The two on the bed never stirred.

Files…aha.Diary. How original a name. Damon opened it and examined the contents.

Dear Diary,

I woke up this morning and – marvel of marvels – I'mmeagain. I walk, talk, drink, wet the bed (well, I haven't yet, but I'm sure I could if I tried).

I'm back.

It's been one hell of a journey.

I died, dearest Diary, I really died. And then I died as a vampire. And don't expect me to describe what happened either time – believe me; you had to be there.

The important thing is that I was gone, but now I'm back again – and, oh, dear patient friend who has been keeping my secrets since kindergarten…I am so glad to be back.

On the debit side, I can never live with Aunt Judith or Margaret again. They think I'm "resting in peace" with the angels. On the credit side, I can live with Stefan.

This is the compensation for all I've been through – I don't know how to compensate those who went to the very gates of Hell forme. Oh, I'm tired and – might as well say it – eager for a night with my darling.

I'm very happy. We had a fine day, laughing and loving, and watching each of my friends' faces as they saw mealive! (And notinsane, which I gather is how I have been acting the past few days. Honestly, you'd think Great Spirits Inna Sky could have dropped me off with my marbles all in order. Oh, well.)

Love ya,

Elena

Damon's eyes skimmed over these lines impatiently. He was looking for something quite different. Ah. Yes. This was more like it:

My dearest Elena,

I knew you would look here sooner or later. I hope you never have to see it at all. If you're reading this, then Damon is a traitor, or something else has gone terribly wrong.

A traitor? That seemed a little strong, Damon thought, hurt, but also burning with an intense desire to get on with his task.

I'm going out to the woods to talk to him tonight – if I don't come back, you'll know where to start asking questions.

The truth is that I don't exactly understand the situation. Earlier today, Damon sent me a card with a Web address on it. I've put the card under your pillow, love.

Oh damn, thought Damon. It was going to be hard to get that card without waking her. But he had to do it.

Elena, follow this Web link. You'll have to dither with the brightness controls because it's been created for vampire eyes only. What the link seems to be saying is that there is a place calledShi no Shi – literally translated, it says, asthe Death of Death, where they can remove this curse which has haunted me for almost half a millennium. They use magic and science in combination to restore former vampires to simple men and women, boys and girls.

If they truly can do this, Elena, we can be together for as long as ordinary people live. That's all I ask of life.

I want it. I want to have the chance to stand before you as an ordinary breathing, eating human.

But don't worry.I'm just going to talk with Damon about this. You don't need to command me to stay. I would never leave you with all the goings-on in Fell's Church right now. It's too dangerous for you, especially with your new blood and your new aura.

I realize that I'm trusting Damon more than I probably should. But of one thing I am certain:he would never harm you.He loves you. How can he help it?

Still, I have to meet with him at least, on his terms, alone at a particular location in the wood. Then we'll see what we see.

As I said before, if you're reading this letter, it means that something has gone drastically wrong. Defend yourself, love. Don't be afraid. Trust yourself. And trust your friends. They can all help you.

I trust Matt's instinctive protectiveness for you, Meredith's judgment, and Bonnie's intuition. Tell them to remember that.

I'm hoping that you never have to read this,

with all my love, my heart, my soul,

Stefan

P.S. Just in case, there is $20,000 in hundred-dollar bills under the second floorboard from the wall, across from the bed. Right now the rocking chair is over it. You'll see the crack easily if you move the chair.

Carefully, Damon deleted the words in this file. Then, with one corner of his mouth quirked up, he carefully, silently typed in new words with a rather different meaning. He read them over. He smiled brilliantly. He'd always fancied himself a writer; no formal training of course, but he felt he had an instinctive flair for it.

And that was Step One accomplished, Damon thought, saving the file with his words instead of Stefan's.

Then, noiselessly, he walked to where Elena was sleeping, spooned behind Stefan on the narrow bed.

Now for Step Two.

Slowly, very slowly, Damon slipped his fingers under the pillow on which Elena's head rested. He could feel Elena's hair where it spilled on her pillow in the moonlight, and the ache that it awoke was more in his chest than in his canines. Inching his fingers under the pillow, he searched for something smooth.

Elena murmured in her sleep and suddenly turned over. Damon almost jumped back into the shadows, but Elena's eyes were shut, her lashes a thick inky crescent on her cheeks.

She was facing him now, but strangely Damon didn't find himself tracing the blue veins in her fair, smooth skin. He found himself staring hungrily at her slightly parted lips. They were…almost impossible to resist. Even in sleep they were the color of rose petals, slightly moist, and parted that way….

I could do it very lightly. She would never know. I could, I know I could. I feel invincible tonight.

As he bent toward her his fingers touched cardboard.

It seemed to jerk him out of a dream world. What had he been thinking? Risking everything, all his plans, for akiss ? There would be plenty of time for kisses – and other, much more important things – later.

He slipped the little card out from under the pillow and put it in his pocket.

Then he became a crow and vanished from the windowsill.

Stefan had long ago perfected the art of sleeping only until a certain moment, then awakening. He did this now, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece to confirm that it was fourA.M . exactly.

He didn't want to awaken Elena.

He dressed soundlessly and exited the window by the same route his brother had – only as a hawk. Somewhere, he was sure Damon was being made a fool by someone using malachs to make him their puppet. And Stefan, still pumped up with Elena's blood, felt that he had a duty to stop them.

The note Damon had delivered had directed him to the tree where the humans had crashed. Damon would also want to continually revisit that tree until he'd traced the malach puppets to their puppeteer.

He swooped, drifted, and once almost gave a mouse a heart attack by stooping down on it suddenly before rocketing skyward again.

And then, in midair, as he saw evidence of a car hitting a tree, he changed from a glorious hawk to a young man with dark hair, a pale face, and intensely green eyes.

He drifted, light as a snowflake, down to the ground and gazed in each direction, using all his vampire senses to test the area. He could feel nothing of a trap; no animosity, just the unmistakable signs of the trees' violent fight. He stayed human to climb the tree that bore the psychic imprint of his brother.

He wasn't chilly as he climbed the oak his brother had been lounging in when the accident had taken place at his feet. He had too much of Elena's blood running through him to feel the cold. But he was aware that this area of the forest was particularly cold; that something was keeping it that way. Why? He'd already claimed the rivers and forests that ran through Fell's Church, so why take up lodging here without telling him? Whatever it was, it would have to present itself before him eventually, if it wanted to stay in Fell's Church. Why wait? he wondered, as he squatted on the branch.

He felt Damon's presence coming at him long before his senses would have noticed it in the days before Elena's transformation, and he kept himself from flinching. Instead he turned with his back to the trunk of the tree and looked outward. He could feel Damon speeding toward him, faster and faster, stronger and stronger – and then Damon should have been there, standing before him, but he wasn't.

Stefan frowned.

"It always pays to look up, little brother," advised a charming voice above him, and then Damon, who had been clinging to the tree like a lizard, did a forward flip and landed on Stefan's branch.

Stefan said nothing, merely examining his older brother. At last he said, "You're in good spirits."

"I've had a sumptuous day," Damon said. "Shall I name them off to you? There was the greeting-card shop girl…Elizabeth, and my dear friend Damaris, whose husband works in Bronston, and little young Teresa who volunteers at the library, and…"

Stefan sighed. "Sometimes I think you could remember the name of every girl you've bled in your life, but you forget my name on a regular basis," he said.

"Nonsense…little brother. Now, since Elena has undoubtedly explained to you just what happened when I tried to rescue your miniature witch – Bonnie – I feel I'm due an apology."

"And sinceyou sent me a note that I can only construe as provocative, I really feelI'm due an explanation."

"Apology first," Damon rapped out. And then, in long-suffering tones, "I'm sure you think it's bad enough, having promised Elena when she was dying that you would look after me – forever. But you never seem to realize that I had to promise the same thing, and I'm not exactly the caretaking type. Now that she's not dead anymore, maybe we should just forget it."

Stefan sighed again. "All right, all right. I apologize. I was wrong. I shouldn't have thrown you out. Is that enough?"

"I'm not sure you really mean it. Try it once more, with feel – "

"Damon, what in God's name was the website about?"

"Oh. I thought it was rather clever: they got the colors so close that only vampires or witches or such could read it, whereas humans would just see a blank screen."

"But how did you find out about it?"

"I'll tell you in a moment. But just think of it, little brother. You and Elena, on the perfect little honeymoon, just two more humans in a world of humans. The sooner you go, the sooner you can sing ¡®Ding Dong, the Corpse Is Dead'!"

"I still want to know how youjust happened to come across this website."

"All right. I admit it: I've been suckered into the age of technology at last. I have my own website. And a very helpful young man contacted me just to see whether I really meant the things I said on it or if I was just a frustrated idealist. I figured that description fit you."

"You – a website? I don't believe – "

Damon ignored him. "I passed the message along because I'd already heard of the place, theShi no Shi ."

"TheDeath of Death , it said."

"That's how it was translated to me." Damon turned a thousand-kilowatt smile on Stefan, boring into him, until finally Stefan turned away, feeling as if he'd been exposed to the sun without his lapis ring.

"As a matter of fact," Damon went on chattily, "I've invited the fellow himself to come and to explain it to you."

"You didwhich ?"

"He should be here at 4:44 exactly. Don't blame me for the timing; it's something special to him."

And then with very little fuss, and certainly no Power at all that Stefan could discern, something landed in the tree above them and dropped down to their branch, changing as it did.

It was, indeed, a young man, with fire-tipped black hair and serene golden eyes. As Stefan swung toward him, he held up both hands in a gesture of helplessness and surrender.

"Who the hell are you?"

"I'm the hell Shinichi," the young man said easily. "But, as I told your brother, most people call me just Shinichi. Of course, it's up to you."

"And you know all about the Shi no Shi."

"Nobody knows all about it. It's a place – and an organization. I'm a little partial to it because" – Shinichi looked shy – "well, I guess I just like to help people."

"And now you want to help me."

"If you truly want to become human…I know a way."

"I'll just leave the two of you to talk about it, shall I?" said Damon. "Three's a crowd, especially on this branch."

Stefan looked at him sharply. "If you have any slightest thought of stopping by the boardinghouse…"

"With Damaris already waiting for me? Honestly, little brother." And Damon changed to crow form before Stefan could ask him to give his sworn word.

Elena turned over in bed, reaching automatically for a warm body next to her. What her fingers found, however, was a cool, Stefan-shaped hollow. Her eyes opened. "Stefan?"

The darling. They were so in tune that it was like being one person – he always knew when she was about to wake up. He'd probably gone down to get her breakfast – Mrs. Flowers always had it steaming hot for him when he went down (further proof that she was a witch of the white variety) – and Stefan brought up the tray.

"Elena," she said, testing her old-new voice just to hear herself talk. "Elena Gilbert, girl, you have had too many breakfasts in bed." She patted her stomach. Yes, definitely in need of exercise.

"All right, then," she said, still aloud. "Start with limbering up and breathing. Then some mild stretching." All of which, she thought, could be put aside when Stefan showed up.

But Stefan didn't show up, even when she lay exhausted from a full hour's routine.

And he wasn't coming up the stairs, bringing up a cup of tea, either.

Where was he?

Elena looked out their one-view window and caught a glimpse of Mrs. Flowers below.

Elena's heart had begun beating hard during her aerobic exercise and had never really slowed down properly. Though it was likely impossible to start a conversation with Mrs. Flowers this way she shouted down, "Mrs. Flowers?"

And, wonder of wonders, the lady stopped pinning a sheet on the clothesline and looked up. "Yes, Elena dear?"

"Where's Stefan?"

The sheet billowed around Mrs. Flowers and made her disappear. When the billow straightened out, she was gone.

But Elena had her eyes on the laundry basket. It was still there. She shouted, "Don't go away!" and hastened to put on jeans and her new blue top. Then, hopping down the stairs as she buttoned, she burst out into the back garden.

"Mrs. Flowers!"

"Yes, Elena dear?"

Elena could just see her between billowing yards of white fabric. "Have you seen Stefan?"

"Not this morning, dear."

"Not atall ?"

"I get up with the dawn, regular. His car was gone then, and it hasn't come back."

Now Elena's heart was pounding in good earnest. She'd always been afraid of something like this. She took one deep breath and ran back up the staircase without pausing.

Note, note…

He'd never leave her without a note. And there was no note on his pillow. Then she thought ofher pillow.

Her hands scrabbled frantically under it, and then under his pillow. At first she didn't turn the pillows over, because she wanted so badly for the note to be there – and because she was so afraid of what it might say.

At last, when it was clear that there was nothing under those pillows but the bed sheet, she flipped them and stared at the empty white blankness for a long time. Then she pulled the bed away from the wall, in case the note had fallen down behind it.

Somehow she felt that if she just kept looking, she must find it. In the end she'd shaken out all the bedding and ended up staring at the white sheets again, accusingly, ever so often running her hands over them.

And that ought to be good, because it meant Stefan hadn'tgone somewhere – except that she'd left the closet door open and she could see, without even meaning to, a bunch of empty hangers.

He'd taken all his clothes.

And emptiness on the bottom of the closet.

He'd taken every pair of shoes.

Not that he had ever owned much. But everything that he needed to make a trip away was gone – and he was gone.

Why? Where? Howcould he?

Even if it turned out that he'd left in order to scout them out a new place to live, howcould he? He'd get the fight of his life when he came back –

– if he came back.

Chilled to the bone, aware that tears were running unmeant and almost unnoticed down her cheeks, she was about to call up Meredith and Bonnie when she thought of something.

Her diary.

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