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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 17)

In the first days after she'd come back from the afterlife, Stefan had always put her to bed early, made sure she was warm, and then allowed her to work on his computer with her, writing a diary of sorts, with her thoughts on what had happened that day, always adding his impressions.

Now she called up the file desperately, and desperately scrolled to the end.

And there it was.

My dearest Elena,

I knew you would look here sooner or later. I hope it was sooner.

Darling, I believe that you're able to take care of yourself now, and I've never seen a stronger or more independent girl.

And that means it's time. Time for me to go. I can't stay any longer without turning you into a vampire again – something we both know can't happen.

Please forgive me. Please forget me. Oh, love, I don't want to go, but I have to.

If you need help, I've gotten Damon to give his word to protect you. He would never hurt you, and whatever mischief is going on in Fell's Church won't dare touch you with him around.

My darling, my angel, I'll always love you….

Stefan

P.S. To help you go on with your real life, I've left money to pay Mrs. Flowers for the room for the next year. Also, I've left you $20,000 in hundred-dollar bills under the second floorboard from the wall, across from the bed. Use it to build a new future, with whomever you choose.

Again, if you need anything, Damon will help you. Trust his judgement if you're in need of advice. Oh, lovely little love, how can I go? Even for your own sake?

Elena finished the letter.

And then she just sat there.

After all her hunting, she'd found the answer.

And she didn't know what to do now but scream.

If you need help go to Damon…. Trust Damon's judgment….It couldn't be a more blatant ad for Damon if Damon had written it himself.

And Stefan was gone. And his clothes were gone. And his boots were gone.

He'd left her.

Make a new life….

And that was how Bonnie and Meredith found her, alarmed by an hour-long bounce-back of their telephone calls. It was the first time they hadn't been able to get through to Stefan since he'd arrived, at their request, to slay a monster. But that monster was now dead, and Elena…

Elena was sitting in front of Stefan's closet.

"He even took his shoes," she said emotionlessly, softly. "He took everything. But he paid for the room for a year. And yesterday morning he bought me a Jaguar."

"Elena – "

"Don't you see?" Elena cried. "Thisis my Awakening. Bonnie predicted that it would be sharp and sudden and that I would need both of you. And Matt?"

"He wasn't mentioned by name," Bonnie said gloomily.

"But I think we'll need his help," Meredith said grimly.

"When Stefan and I were first together – beforeI became a vampire – I always knew," Elena whispered, "that there would come a time when he would try to leave me for my own good." Suddenly she hit the floor with her fist, hard enough to hurt herself. "I knew, but I thought I would be there to talk him out of it! He's so noble – so self-sacrificing! And now – he'sgone ."

"You really don't care," Meredith said quietly, watching her, "whether you stay human or become a vampire."

"You're right – Idon't care! I don't care about anything, as long as I can be with him. When I was still half a spirit, I knew that nothing could Change me. Now I'm human and as susceptible as any other human to the Change – but it doesn't matter."

"Maybe that's the Awakening," Meredith said, still quietly.

"Oh, maybe him not bringing her breakfast is an awakening!" Bonnie, said, exasperated. She'd been staring into a flame for more than thirty minutes, trying to get psychically in touch with Stefan. "Either he won't – or he can't," she said, not seeing Meredith's violently shaking head until after the words were out.

"What do you mean ¡®can't'?" Elena demanded, popping back off the floor from where she was slumped.

"I don't know! Elena, you're hurting me!"

"Is he in danger? Think, Bonnie! Is he going to be hurt because of me?"

Bonnie looked at Meredith, who was telegraphing "no" with every inch of her elegant body. Then she looked at Elena, who was demanding the truth. She shut her eyes. "I'm not sure," she said.

She opened her eyes slowly, waiting for Elena to explode. But Elena did nothing of the kind. She merely shut her own eyes slowly, her lips hardening.

"A long time ago, I swore I'd have him, even if it killed us both," she said quietly. "If he thinks he can just walk away from me, for my own good or for any other reason…he's wrong. I'll go to Damon first, since Stefan seems to want it so much. And then I'm going after him. Someone will give me a direction to start in. He left me twenty thousand dollars. I'll use that to follow him. And if the car breaks down, I'll walk; and when I can't walk anymore, I'll crawl. But Iwill find him."

"Not alone, you won't," Meredith said, in her soft, reassuring way. "We're with you, Elena."

"And then, if he's done this of his own free will, he's going to get the bitch-slapping of hislife ."

"Whatever you want, Elena," Meredith said, still soothingly. "Let's just find him first."

"All for one and one for all!" Bonnie exclaimed. "We'll get him back and we'll make him sorry – or we won't," she added hastily as Meredith again began shaking her head. "Elena, don't! Don't cry," she added, the instant before Elena burst into tears.

"So Damon was the one to say he'd take care of Elena, and Damon should have been the one last to see Stefan this morning," Matt said, when he had been fetched from his house and the situation was explained to him.

"Yes," Elena said with quiet certainty. "But Matt, you're wrong if you think Damon would do anything to keep Stefan away from me. Damon's not what you all think. He really was trying to save Bonnie that night. And he truly felt hurt when you all hated him."

"This is what is called ¡®evidence of motive,' I think," Meredith remarked.

"No. It's character evidence – evidence that Damondoes have feelings, that he can care for human beings," Elena countered. "And he would never hurt Stefan, because – well, because of me. He knows how I would feel."

"Well, why won't he answer me, then?" Bonnie said querulously.

"Maybe because the last time he saw us all together, we were glaring at him as if we hated him," said Meredith, who was always fair.

"Tell him I beg his pardon," Elena said. "Tell him that I want to talk with him."

"I feel like a communications satellite," Bonnie complained, but she clearly put all her heart and strength into each call. At last, she looked completely wrung out and exhausted.

And, at last, even Elena had to admit it was no good.

"Maybe he'll come to his senses and start callingyou ," Bonnie said. "Maybe tomorrow."

"We're going to stay with you tonight," Meredith said. "Bonnie, I called your sister and told her you'd be with me. Now I'm going to call my dad and tell him I'll be with you. Matt, you're not invited – "

"Thanks," Matt said dryly. "Do I get to walk home, too?"

"No, you can take my car home," Elena said. "But please bring it back here early tomorrow. I don't want people to start asking about it."

That night, the three girls prepared to make themselves comfortable, schoolgirl fashion, in Mrs. Flowers' spare sheets and blankets (no wonder she washed so many sheets today – she must have known somehow, Elena thought), with the furniture pushed to the walls and the three makeshift sleeping bags on the floor. Their heads were together and their bodies radiated out like the spokes of a wheel.

Elena thought, So this is the Awakening.

It's the realization that, after all, I can be left alone again. And, oh, I'm grateful to have Meredith and Bonnie sticking with me. It means more than I can tell them.

She had gone automatically to the computer, to write a little in her diary. But after the first few words she'd found herself crying again, and had been secretly glad when Meredith took her by the shoulders and more or less forced her to drink hot milk with vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and when Bonnie had helped her into her pile of sleeping blankets and then held her hand until she went to sleep.

Matt had stayed late, and the sun was setting as he drove home. It was a race against darkness, he thought suddenly, refusing to be distracted by the Jaguar's expensive new-car smell. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was pondering. He hadn't wanted to say anything to the girls, but there was something about Stefan's farewell note that bothered him. The only thing was, he had to make sure it wasn't just his injured pride speaking.

Why hadn't Stefan ever mentionedthem ? Elena's friends from the past, her friends in the here and now. You'd think he'd at least give the girls a mention, even if he'd forgotten Matt in the pain of leaving Elena permanently.

What else? There definitely was something else, but Matt couldn't bring it to mind. All he got was a vague, wavering image about high school last year and – yeah, Ms. Hilden, the English teacher.

Even as Matt was daydreaming about this, he was taking care with his driving. There was no way to avoid the Old Wood entirely on the long, single-lane road that led from the boardinghouse to Fell's Church proper. But he was looking ahead, keeping alert.

He saw the fallen tree even as he came around the corner and hit the brakes in time to come to a screeching stop, with the car at an almost ninety-degree angle to the road.

And then he had to think.

His first instinctive reaction was: call Stefan. He can just lift the tree right off the ground. But he remembered fast enough that that thought was knocked away by a question. Call the girls?

He couldn't make himself do it. It wasn't just a question of masculine dignity – it was the solid reality of the mature tree in front of him. Even if they all worked together, they couldn't move that thing. It was too big, too heavy.

And it had fallen from the Old Wood so that it lay directly across the road, as if it wanted to separate the boardinghouse from the rest of the town.

Cautiously, Matt rolled down the driver's side window. He peered into the Old Wood to try to see the tree's roots, or, he admitted to himself, any kind of movement. There was none.

He couldn't see the roots, but this tree looked far too healthy to have just fallen over on a sunny summer afternoon. No wind, no rain, no lightning, no beavers. No lumberjacks, he thought grimly.

Well, the ditch on the right side was shallow, at least, and the tree's crown didn't quite reach it. It might be possible –

Movement.

Not in the forest, but on the tree right in front of him. Something was stirring the tree's upper branches, something more than wind.

When he saw it, he still couldn't believe it. That was part of the problem. The other part was that he was driving Elena's car, not his old jalopy. So while he was frantically groping for a way to shut the window, with his eyes glued to thething detaching itself from the tree, he was groping in all the wrong places.

And the final thing was simply that the beast was fast. Much too fast to be real.

The next thing Matt knew, he was fighting it off at the window.

Matt didn't know what Elena had shown Bonnie at the picnic. But if this wasn't a malach, then what the hell was it? Matt had lived around woods his entire life, and he'd never seen any insect remotely like this one before.

Because it was an insect. Its skin looked bark-like, but that was just camouflage. As it banged against the half-raised car window – as he beat it off with both hands – he could hear and feel its chitinous exterior. It was as long as his arm, and it seemed to fly by whipping its tentacles in a circle – which should be impossible, but here it was stuck halfway inside the window.

It was built more like a leech or a squid than like any insect. Its long, snakelike tentacles looked almost like vines, but they were thicker than a finger and had large suckers on them – and inside the suckers was something sharp. Teeth. One of the vines got around his neck, and he could feel the suction and the pain all at once.

The vine had whipped around his throat three or four times, and it was tightening. He had to use one hand to reach up and rip it away. That meant only one hand available to flail at the headless thing – which suddenly showed it had a mouth, if no eyes. Like everything else about the beast, the mouth was radially symmetrical: it was round, with its teeth arranged in a circle. But deep inside that circle, Matt saw to his horror as the bug drew his arm in, was a pair of pincers big enough to cut off a finger.

God – no. He clenched his hand into a fist, desperately trying to batter it from the inside.

The burst of adrenaline he had after seeingthat allowed him to pull the whipping vine from around his throat, the suckers coming free last. But now his arm had been swallowed up past the elbow. Matt made himself strike at the insect's body, hitting it as if it were a shark, which was the other thing it reminded him of.

He had to get his arm out. He found himself blindly prying the bottom of the round mouth open and merely snapping off a chunk of exoskeleton that landed in his lap. Meanwhile the tentacles were still whirling around, thumping against the car, looking for a way in. At some point it was going to realize that all it had to do was fold those thrashing vine-like things and it could squeeze its body through.

Something sharp grazed his knuckles. The pincers! His arm was almost completely engulfed. Even as Matt was focused entirely on how to get out, some part of him wondered: where's its stomach? This beast isn'tpossible .

He had to get his arm freenow . He was going to lose his hand, as sure as if he'd put it in the garbage disposal and turned it on.

He'd already undone his seat belt. Now with one violent heave, he threw his body to the right, toward the passenger seat. He could feel the teeth raking his arm as he dragged it past them. He could see the long, bloody furrows it left in his arm. But that didn't matter. All that mattered was getting his armout .

At that moment his other hand found the button that controlled the window. He mashed it upward, dragging his wrist and hand out of the bug's mouth just as the window closed on it.

What he expected was a crackling of chiton and black blood gushing out, maybe eating through the floor of Elena's new car, like that scuttling thing inAlien .

Instead the bug vaporized. It simply…turned transparent and then turned into tiny particles of light that disappeared even as he stared at them.

He was left with one arm with long bloody scratches on it, swelling sores on his throat, and scraped knuckles on the other hand. But he didn't waste time counting his injuries. He had to make it out of there; the branches were stirring again and he didn't want to wait to see whether it was wind.

There was only one way. The ditch.

He put the car in drive and floored it. He headed for the ditch, hoping that it wasn't too deep, hoping that the tree wouldn't somehow foul the tires.

There was a sharp plunge that made his teeth clash together, catching his lip between them. And then there was the crunch of leaves and branches under the car, and for a moment all movement stopped, but Matt kept his foot pressed as hard as he could on the accelerator, and suddenly he was free, and being thrown around as the car careened in the ditch. He managed to get control of it and swerved back onto the road just in time to make a sharp left turn where it curved abruptly and the ditch ran out.

He was hyperventilating. He took curves at nearly fifty miles an hour, with half his attention on the Old Wood – until suddenly, blessedly, a solitary red light stared at him like a beacon in the dusk.

The intersection with Mallory. He had to force himself to screech to another rubber-burning stop. A hard right turn and he was sailing away from the woods. He'd have to loop around a dozen neighborhoods to get home, but at least he'd stay clear of any large groves of trees.

It was a big loop, and now that the danger was over, Matt was starting to feel the pain of his furrowed arm. By the time he was pulling the Jaguar up to his house, he was also feeling dizzy. He sat under a streetlight and then let the car coast into the darkness beyond. He didn't want anyone to see him so rattled.

Should he call the girlsnow ? Warn them not to go out tonight, that the woods were dangerous? But they already knew that. Meredith would never let Elena go to the Old Wood, not now that Elena was human. And Bonnie would kick up a huge noisy fuss if anyone even mentioned going out in the dark – after all, Elena had shown her thosethings that were out there, hadn't she?

Malach.An ugly word for a genuinely hideous creature.

What they really needed was for some official people to go out and clear the tree away. But not at night. Nobody else was likely to be using that lonely road tonight, and sending people out there – well, it was like handing them over to the malach on a platter. He would call the police about it first thing tomorrow. They'd get the right people out there to move that thing.

It was dark, and later than he'd imagined. He probably should call the girls, after all. He just wished his head would clear. His scratches itched and burned. He was finding it hard to think. Maybe if he just took a moment to breathe…

He leaned his forehead against the steering wheel. And then the dark closed in.

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