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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 21)

"It actually makes a horrible kind of sense," Meredith said. They were in Isobel's family room, waiting for Dr. Alpert. Meredith was at a beautiful desk made of some black wood ornamented with designs in gilt, working at a computer that had been left on. "The Salem girls accused people of hurting them – witches, of course. They said they were pinching them and ¡®pricking them with pins.'"

"Like Isobel blaming us," Bonnie said, nodding.

"And they had seizures and contorted their bodies into ¡®impossible positions.'"

"Caroline looked as if she were having seizures in Stefan's room," said Bonnie. "And if crawling like a lizard isn't contorting your body into an impossible position…here, I'll try it." She got down on the Saitous' floor and tried to stick her elbows and knees out the way Caroline had. She couldn't do it.

"See?"

"Oh, my God!" It was Jim at the doorway of the kitchen, holding – almost dropping – a tray of food. The smell of miso soup was sharp in the air, and Bonnie wasn't sure if it made her feel hungry or if she was too sick to ever be hungry again.

"It's okay," she told him hastily, standing up. "I was just…trying something out."

Meredith stood up too. "Is that for Isobel?"

"No, it's for Obaasan – I mean Isa-chan's grandma – Grandma Saitou – "

"I told you to call everybody whatever comes out naturally. Obaasan is fine, just like Isa-chan," Meredith said softly and firmly to him.

Jim relaxed a hair. "I tried to get Isa-chan to eat, but she just throws the trays at the wall. She says that she can't eat; that somebody's choking her."

Meredith glanced significantly at Bonnie. Then she turned back to Jim. "Why don't you let me take it? You've been through a lot. Where is she?"

"Upstairs, second door on the left. If – if she says anything weird, just ignore it."

"All right. Stay near Bonnie."

"Oh, no," Bonnie said hastily. "Bonnie is going with." She didn't know if it was for her own protection or Meredith's, but she was going to stick like glue.

Upstairs, Meredith turned the hall light on carefully with her elbow. Then they found the second door on the left, which turned out to have a doll-like old lady in it. She was in the exact center of the room, lying on the exact center of a futon. She sat up and smiled when they came in. The smile turned a wrinkled face almost into the face of a happy child.

"Megumi-chan, Beniko-chan, you came to see me!" she exclaimed, bowing where she sat.

"Yes," Meredith said carefully. She put the tray down beside the old lady. "We came to see you – Ms. Saitou."

"Don't play games with me! It's Inari-chan! Or are you mad at me?"

"All thesechans . I thought ¡®Chan' was a Chinese name. Isn't Isobel Japanese?" whispered Bonnie from behind Meredith.

One thing, the doll-like old woman was not, was deaf. She burst into laughter, bringing up both hands to cover her mouth girlishly. "Oh, don't tease me before I eat.Itadakimasu! " She picked up the bowl of miso soup and began to drink it.

"I thinkchan is something you put at the end of someone's name when you're friends, the way Jimmy was sayingIsa-chan ," Meredith said aloud. "AndEeta-daki-mass-u is something you say when you start eating. And that'sall I know."

Part of Bonnie's mind noted that the "friends" Grandma Saitou had just happened to have names starting withM andB . Another part was calculating where this room was with relation to the rooms below it, Isobel's room in particular.

It was directly above it.

The tiny old woman had stopped eating and was watching her intently. "No, no, you're not Beniko-chan and Megumi-chan. I know it. But they do visit me sometimes, and so does my dear Nobuhiro. Other things do, too, unpleasant things, but I was raised a shrine maiden – I know how to take care ofthem ." A brief look of knowing satisfaction passed over the innocent old face. "This house is possessed, you know." She added,"Kore ni wa kitsune ga karande isou da ne."

"I'm sorry, Ms. Saitou – what was that?" Meredith asked.

"I said, there's a kitsune involved in this somehow."

"A kit-su-nay?" Meredith repeated, quiz-zically.

"A fox, silly girl," the old woman said cheerfully. "They can turn into anything they like, don't you know? Even humans. Why, one could turn intoyou and your best friend wouldn't know the difference."

"So – a sort of were-fox, then?" Meredith asked, but Grandma Saitou was rocking back and forth now, her gaze on the wall behind Bonnie. "We used to play a circle game," she said. "All of us in a circle and one in the middle, blindfolded. And we would sing a song.Ushiro no shounen daare? Who is standing behind you? I taught it to my children, but I made up a little song in English to go with it."

And she sang, in the voice of the very old or the very young, with her eyes fixed innocently on Bonnie all the while.

"Fox and turtle

Had a race.

Who's that far behind you?

Whoever came in

Second place

Who's that near behind you?

Would make a nice meal

For the winner.

Who's that close behind you?

Lovely turtle soup

For dinner!

Who's that right behind you?"

Bonnie felt hot breath on her neck. Gasping, she whirled around – and screamed. Andscreamed .

Isobel was there, dripping blood onto the mats that covered the floor. She had somehow managed to get past Jim and to sneak into the dim upstairs room without anyone seeing or hearing her. Now she stood there like some distorted goddess of piercing, or the hideous embodiment of every piercer's nightmare. She was wearing only a pair of very brief bikini bottoms. Otherwise she was naked except for the blood and the different kinds of hoops and studs and needles she had put through the holes. She had pierced every area Bonnie had ever heard that youcould pierce, and a few that Bonnie hadn't dreamed of. And every hole was crooked and bleeding.

Her breath was warm and fetid and nauseating – like rotten eggs.

Isobel flicked her pink tongue. It wasn't pierced. It was worse. With some kind of instrument she had cut the long muscle in two so that it was forked like a snake's.

The forked, pink thing licked Bonnie's forehead.

Bonnie fainted.

Matt drove slowly down the almost invisible lane. There was no street sign to identify it, he noticed. They went up a little hill and then down sharply into a small clearing.

"¡®Keep away from faerie circles,'" Elena said softly, as if she were quoting. "¡®And old oaks…'"

"What are you talking about?"

"Stop the car." When he did, Elena stood in the center of the clearing. "Don't you think it has a faerie sort of feeling?"

"I don't know. Where'd the red thing go?"

"In here somewhere. I saw it!"

"Me, too – and did you see how it was bigger than a fox?"

"Yes, but not as big as a wolf."

Matt let out a sigh of relief. "Bonnie just won't believe me. And you saw how quickly it moved – "

"Too quickly to be something natural."

"You're saying we didn't really see anything?" Matt said almost fiercely.

"I'm saying we saw somethingsuper natural. Like the bug that attacked you. Like the trees, for that matter. Something that doesn't follow the laws of this world."

But search as they would, they couldn't find the animal. The bushes and shrubs between the trees reached from the ground up in a dense circle. But there was no evidence of a hole or a hide or a break in the dense thicket.

And the sun was sliding down in the sky. The clearing was beautiful, but there was nothing of interest to them.

Matt had just turned to say so to Elena when he saw her stand up quickly, in alarm.

"What's – ?" He followed her gaze and stopped.

A yellow Ferrari blocked the way back to the road.

They hadn't passed a yellow Ferrari on their way in. There was only room for one car on the one-lane road.

Yet there the Ferrari stood.

Branches broke behind Matt. He whirled.

"Damon!"

"Whom were you expecting?" The wraparound Ray-Bans concealed Damon's eyes completely.

"We weren't expectinganyone ," Matt said aggressively. "We just turned in here." The last time he'd seen Damon, when Damon had been banished like a whipped dog from Stefan's room, he'd wanted to punch Damon in the mouth very much, Elena knew. She could feel that he wanted it again now.

But Damon wasn't the same as he'd been when he'd left that room. Elena could see danger rising off him like heat waves.

"Oh, Isee . This is – yourprivate area for – privateexplorations," Damon translated, and there was a note of complicity in his voice that Elena disliked.

"No!" Matt snarled. Elena realized she was going to have to keep him under control. It was dangerous to antagonize Damon in this mood. "How can you even say that?" Matt went on. "Elena belongs to Stefan."

"Well – we belong to each other," Elena temporized.

"Of course you do," said Damon. "One body, one heart, one soul." For a moment there was something there – an expression inside the Ray-Bans, she thought, that was murderous.

Instantly, though, Damon's tone changed to an expressionless murmur. "But then, why areyou two here?" His head, turning to follow Matt's movement, moved like a predator tracking prey. There was something more disquieting than usual about his attitude.

"We saw something red," Matt said before Elena could stop him. "Something like what I saw when I had that accident."

Prickles were now running up and down Elena's arms. Somehow she wished Matt hadn't said that. In this dim, quiet clearing in the evergreen grove, she was suddenly very much afraid.

Stretching her new senses to their utmost – until she could feel them distending like a gossamer garment pushed thin all around her, she felt the wrongness there, too, and felt it pass out of the reach of her mind. At the same time she felt birds go quiet all that long distance away.

What was most disturbing was to turn just then, just as the birdsong stopped, and find Damon turning at the same instant to look at her. The sunglasses kept her from knowing what he was thinking. The rest of his face was a mask.

Stefan, she thought helplessly, longingly.

How could he have left her – with this? With no warning, no idea of his destination, no way of ever contacting him again…It might have made sense to him, with his desperate desire not to make her into something he loathed in himself. But to leave her with Damon in this mood, and all of her previous powers gone –

Your own fault, she thought, cutting short the flood of self-pity. You were the one who harped on brotherhood. You were the one who convinced him Damon was to be trusted. Now you deal with the consequences.

"Damon," she said, "I've been looking foryou . I wanted to ask you – about Stefan. You do know that he's left me."

"Of course. I believe the saying goes, for your own good. He left me to be your bodyguard."

"Then you saw him two nights ago?"

"Of course."

And – of course – you didn't try to stop him. Things couldn't have turned out better for you, Elena thought. She had never wished more for the abilities she'd had as a spirit, not even when she'd realized Stefan was really gone and beyond her all-too-human reach.

"Well, I'm not just letting him leave me," she said flatly, "for my own good or for any other reason. I'm going to follow him – but first I need to know where he might have gone."

"You're askingme ?"

"Yes. Please. Damon, I have to find him. I need him. I – " She was starting to choke up, and she had to be stern with herself.

But just then she realized that Matt was whispering very softly to her. "Elena, stop. I think we're just making him mad. Look at the sky."

Elena felt it herself. The circle of trees seemed to be leaning in all around them, darker than before, menacing. Elena tilted her chin slowly, looking up. Directly above them, gray clouds were pooling, piling in on themselves, cirrus overwhelmed by cumulus, turning to thunderheads – centered exactly over the spot where they stood.

On the ground, small whirlwinds began to form, lifting handfuls of pine needles and fresh green summer leaves off saplings. She had never seen anything like it before, and it filled the clearing with a sweet but sensuous smell, redolent of exotic oils and long, dark winter nights.

Looking at Damon, then, as the whirlwinds lifted higher and the sweet scent encircled her, resinous and aromatic, closing in until she knew it was soaking into her clothes and being impressed into her very flesh, she knew she had overstepped herself.

She couldn't protect Matt.

Stefan told me to trust Damon in his note in my diary. Stefan knows more about him than I do, she thought desperately. But we both know what Damon wants, ultimately. What he's always wanted. Me. My blood…

"Damon," she began softly – and broke off. Without looking at her, he held out a hand with the palm toward her.

Wait.

"There's something I have to do," he murmured. He bent down, every movement as unconsciously and economically graceful as a panther's, and picked up a small broken branch of what looked like ordinary Virginia pine. He waved it slightly, appraisingly, hefting it in his hand as if to feel weight and balance. It looked more like a fan than a branch.

Elena was now looking at Matt, trying with her eyes to tell him all the things she was feeling, foremost of which was that she was sorry: sorry that she had gotten him into this; sorry that she'd ever cared for him; sorry that she'd kept him bound into a group of friends who were so intimately intertwined with the supernatural.

Now I know a little bit of what Bonnie must have felt this last year, she thought, being able to see and predict things without having the slightest power to stop them.

Matt, jerking his head, was already moving stealthily toward the trees.

No, Matt.No .No!

He didn't understand. Neither did she, except to feel that the trees were only keeping their distance because of Damon's presence here. If she and Matt were to venture into the forest; if they left the clearing or even stayed in it too long…Matt could see the fear on her face, and his own face reflected grim understanding. They were trapped.

Unless –

"Too late," Damon said sharply. "I told you, there's something I have to do."

He had apparently found the stick he was looking for. Now he raised it, shook it slightly, and brought it down in a single motion; slashing sideways as he did.

And Matt convulsed in agony.

It was a kind of pain he had never dreamed of before: pain that seemed to come frominside himself, but from everywhere, every organ in his body, every muscle, every nerve, every bone, releasing a different type of pain. His muscles ached and cramped as if they were strained to their ultimate flexion, but were being forced to flex farther still. Inside, his organs were on fire. Knives were at work in his belly. His bones felt the way his arm had when he had shattered it once, when he was nine years old and a car had broadsided his dad's. And his nerves – if there was a switch on nerves that could be set from "pleasure" to "pain" – his had been set to "anguish." The touch of clothes on his skin was unbearable. The currents of air passing were agony. He endured fifteen seconds of it and passed out.

"Matt!" For her part, Elena had been frozen, her muscles locked, unable to move for what seemed like forever. Suddenly released, she ran to Matt, pulled him up into her lap, stared into his face.

Then she looked up.

"Damon,why ? Why?" Suddenly she realized that although Matt wasn't conscious, he was still writhing in pain. She had to keep herself from screaming the words, to only speak forcefully. "Why are youdoing this? Damon!Stop it ."

She stared up at the young man dressed all in black: black jeans with a black belt, black boots, black leather jacket, black hair, and those damned Ray-Bans.

"I told you," Damon said casually. "It's something I need to do. To watch. Painful death."

"Death!"Elena stared at Damon in disbelief. And then she began gathering all her Power, in a way that had been so easy and instinctual just days ago while she had been mute and not subject to gravity, and that was so difficult and so foreign right now. With determination, she said, "If you don't let him go – now – I'll hit you with everything I've got."

He laughed. She'd never seen Damon really laugh before, not like this. "And you expect that I'll even notice your tiny Power?"

"Notthat tiny." Elena weighed it grimly. It was no more than the intrinsic Power of any human being – the Power that vampires took from humans along with the blood they drank – but since becoming a spirit, she knew how to use it. How to attack with it. "I think you'll feel it, Damon. Let him go – NOW!"

"Why do people always assume that volume will succeed when logic won't?" Damon murmured.

Elena let him have it.

Or at least she prepared to. She took the deep breath necessary, held her inner self still, and imagined herself holding a ball of white fire, and then –

Matt was on his feet. He looked as if he'd beendragged to his feet and was being held there like a puppet, and his eyes were involuntarily watering, but it was better than Matt writhing on the ground.

"You owe me," Damon said to Elena casually. "I'll collect later."

To Matt he said, in the tones of a fond uncle, with one of those instantaneous smiles that you could never be quite sure you saw, "Lucky for me that you're a hardy specimen, isn't it?"

"Damon." Elena had seen Damon in hislet's-play-with-weaker-creatures mood, and it was the one she liked least. But there was something off today; something she couldn't understand. "Let's get down to it," she said, while the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck rose again. "What do youreally want?"

But he didn't give the answer she expected.

"I was officially appointed as your caretaker. I'm officially taking care of you. And for one thing, I don't think you should be without my protection and companionship while my little brother is gone."

"I can handle myself," Elena said flatly, waving a hand so they could get down to the real issue.

"You're a very pretty girl. Dangerous and" – flash smile – "unsavory elements could be after you. I insist you have a bodyguard."

"Damon, right now the thing I need most is to be protected fromyou . You know that. What is this really about?"

The clearing was…pulsing. Almost as if it were something organic, breathing. Elena had the feeling that beneath her feet – beneath Meredith's old, rugged hiking boots – the ground was moving slightly, like a great sleeping animal, and the trees were like a beating heart.

For what? The forest? There was more dead wood than live here. And she could swear that she knew Damon well enough to know that he didn't like trees or woods.

It was at times like this that Elena wished she still had wings. Wings and the knowledge – the hand motions, the Words of White Power, the white fire inside her that would allow her to know the truth without trying to figure it out, or to simply blast annoyances back to Stonehenge.

It seemed that all she'd been left with was being a greater temptation to vampires than ever, and her wits.

Wits had worked up until now. Maybe if she didn't let Damon know how afraid she was, she could win a stay of execution for them.

"Damon, I thank you for being concerned about me. Now would you mind leaving Matt and me for a moment so that I can tell if he's still breathing?"

From inside the Ray-Bans, she thought she could discern a single flash of red.

"Somehow I thought you might say that," Damon said. "And, of course, it's your right to have consolation after being so treacherously abandoned. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, for example."

Elena wanted to swear. Carefully, she answered, "Damon, if Stefan appointed you as my bodyguard, then he hardly ¡®treacherously abandoned' me, did he? You can't have it both – "

"Just indulge me in one thing, all right?" Damon said in the voice of one whose next words are going to beBe careful orDon't do anything I wouldn't do .

There was silence. The dust devils had stopped whirling. The smell of sun-warmed pine needles and pine resin in this dim place was making her languid, dizzy. The ground was warm, too, and the pine needles were all aligned, as if the slumbering animal had pine needles for fur. Elena watched dust motes turn and sparkle like opals in the golden sunlight. She knew she wasn't at her best right now; not her sharpest. Finally, when she was sure her voice would be steady, she asked, "What do you want?"

"A kiss."

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