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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 29)

"Elena!"

Something was bothering her.

"Elena!"

Please, no more pain. She couldn't feel it right now, but she could remember…oh, no more fighting for air…

"Elena!"

No…just let it be. Mentally, Elena pushed away the thing that bothered her ears and her head.

"Elena, please…"

All she wanted was sleep. Forever.

"Damn you,Shinichi!"

Damon had picked up the snow globe with the miniature forest when Shinichi found Elena's smudged glow radiating from it. Inside it, dozens of spruce, hickory, pine, and other trees grew – all from a perfectly transparent inner membrane. A miniature person – given that someone could be miniaturized and placed into such a globe, would see trees ahead, trees behind, trees in every direction – and could walk a straight line and come back to their starting point no matter which way they went.

"It's an amusement," Shinichi had said sullenly, watching him intently from under his lashes. "A toy, for children, usually. A play-trap."

"And you findthis amusing?" Damon had smashed the globe against the driftwood coffee table in the exquisite cabin which was Shinichi's secret hideout. That was when he had discovered why these were games for children – the globe was unbreakable.

After that Damon had taken a moment – just one moment – to get hold of himself. Elena had perhaps seconds to live. He needed to be precise with his words.

After that single moment, a long flow of words had spilled out from his lips, mostly in English, and mostly without unnecessary curses or even insults. He didn't care about insulting Shinichi. He had simply threatened – no, he hadsworn – to carry out on Shinichi the kind of violence that he had seen sometimes

in a long life filled with humans and vampires with skewed imaginations. Eventually, it had gotten through to Shinichi that he was serious, and Damon had found himself inside the globe with a drenched Elena in front of him. She was lying at his feet, and she was worse off than his worst fears had allowed him to picture. She had a dislocated right arm with multiple fractures and a hideously shattered left tibia.

Horrified as he had been to imagine her staggering through the forest of the globe, blood streaming from her right arm from shoulder to elbow, left leg dragging behind her like a wounded animal's, this was worse. Her hair had been soaking with sweat and mud, straggling over her face. And she'd been out of her mind, literally, delirious, talking to people who weren't there.

And she was turning blue.

She had been able to snap exactly one creeper with all her effort. Damon clawed up huge armfuls of them, ripping them from the earth viciously if they tried to fight or wrap around his wrists. Elena gasped in one deep breath just as suffocation would have killed her, but she didn't regain consciousness.

And she wasn't the Elena he remembered. When he'd picked her up, he'd felt no resistance, no acceptance, nothing. She didn't know him. She was delirious with fever, exhaustion, and pain, but in one moment of half-consciousness had kissed his hand through her damp, disheveled hair, whispering "Matt…Find…Matt." She didn't know who he was – she scarcely knew whoshe was, but her concern was for her friend. The kiss had gone through his hand and up his arm like the touch of a branding iron, and since then he'd been monitoring her mind, trying to divert the agony she was feeling away – away anywhere – into the night – into himself.

He turned back to Shinichi and, in a voice like an icy wind, said, "You'd better have a way to cure all her wounds – now."

The charming cabin was surrounded by the same evergreens, hickory, and pines as grew in the snow globe. The fire burned violet and green as Shinichi poked it.

"This water is just about ready to boil. Make her drink tea made with this." He handed Damon a blackened flagon – once beautiful chased silver; now a battered remnant of what it had been – and a teapot with some broken leaves and other unsavory-looking things at the bottom. "Make sure she drinks a good three quarters of a cup, and she'll fall asleep and wake up almost as good as new."

He dug an elbow into Damon's ribs. "Or you can just let her have a few sips – heal her partway, and then let her know it's in your power to give her more…or not. You know…depending on how cooperative she is…"

Damon remained silent and turned away. If I have to look at him, he thought, I'll kill him. And I might need him again.

"And if you really want to accelerate the healing, add some of your blood. Some people like to do it that way," Shinichi added, his voice picking up speed with excitement again. "See how much pain a human can take, you know, and then when they're dying, you can just feed them tea and blood and start over…if they remember you from last time – which they hardly ever do; they'll usually go through more pain just to get a chance to fight you…," he giggled, and Damon thought he sounded not quite sane.

But when he had suddenly turned to Shinichi, he had to hold himself very still inside. Shinichi had become a blazing, glowing, outline of himself, with tongues of light lapping from his projection, rather like close-up solar flares. Damon was nearly blinded, and knew he was meant to be. He clutched the silver flagon as if he were holding on to his own sanity.

Maybe he was. He had a blank space in his mind – and then there were suddenly memories of trying to find Elena…or Shinichi. Because Elena had abruptly been absent from his company, and it could only be the fault of the kitsune.

"There's a modern bathroom here?" Damon asked Shinichi.

"There's whatever you want; just decide before you open a door and unlock it with this key. And now…" Shinichi stretched, his golden eyes half shut. He ran a languid hand through his shiny black hair tipped with flame. "Now, I think I'll go sleep under a bush."

"Is that all you ever do?" Damon made no attempt to keep the biting sarcasm out of his voice.

"And have fun with Misao. And fight. And go to the tournaments. They – well, you'll have to come and see one for yourself."

"I don't care to go anywhere." Damon didn't want to know what this fox and his sister considered fun.

Shinichi reached out and took the miniature cauldron full of boiling water off the fire. He poured the boiling water over the collection of tree bark, leaves, and other detritus in the battered metal teapot.

"Why don't you go find a bushnow ?" Damon said – and it wasn't a suggestion. He'd had enough of the fox, who had served his purpose now anyway, and he didn't care a bit about whatever mischief Shinichi might make for other people. All he wanted was to be alone – with Elena.

"Remember; get her to drink it all if you want to keep her for a while. She's pretty much unsalvageable without it." Shinichi poured through a fine sieve the infusion of dark green tea. "Better try before she wakes up."

"Will you justget out of here ?"

When Shinichi stepped through the dimensional crack, taking care to turn just the right way so as to reach the real world, and not some other globe, he was steaming. He wanted to go back and thrash Damon within an inch of his life. He wanted to activate the malach inside Damon and cause him to…well, of course, notquite kill sweet Elena. She was a blossom with nectar untasted, and Shinichi was in no hurry to see her buried underground.

But as for the rest of the idea…yes, he decided. Now he knew what he would do. It would be simply delicious to watch Damon and Elena make up, and then, during the Moonspire Festival tonight, to bring back the monster. He could let Damon go on believing they were "allies," and then, in the middle of their little spree – let the possessed Damon loose. Show that he, Shinichi, had been in control all along.

He would punish Elena in ways she had never dreamed about and she would die in delicious agony…at Damon's hand. Shinichi's tails quivered a little ecstatically at the thought. But for now, let them laugh and joke together. Revenge only ripened with time, and Damon was really quite difficult to control when he was raging.

It hurt to admit that, just as his tail – the physical one in the center – hurt from Damon's abominable cruelty to animals. When Damon was in a passion it took every ounce of Shinichi's concentration to control him.

But at Moonspire Damon would be calm, would be placid. He'd be pleased with himself, as he and Elena would undoubtedly have laid some absurd plot to try to stop Shinichi.

Thatwould be when the fun would begin.

Elena would make a beautiful slave while she lasted.

With the kitsune gone, Damon felt that he could behave more naturally. Keeping a firm grasp on Elena's mind, he picked up the cup. He tried a sip of the mixture himself before trying it on her and found it tasted just slightly less nauseating than it smelled. However, Elena really had no choice, she could not do anything of her own volition, and little by little, the mixture went down.

And then a dose of his blood went down. Again, Elena was unconscious and had no choice in the matter.

And then she'd gone to sleep by herself.

Damon paced restlessly. He had a memory that was more like a dream floating around in his head. It was of Elena trying to throw herself out of a Ferrari going about 100 kilometers an hour, to get away from – what?

Him?

Why?

Not, in any case, the best of beginnings.

But that wasall he could remember! Damn it! Whatever came right before it was a total blank. Had he hurt Stefan? No, Stefan was gone. It had been the other boy with her, Mutt.What had happened?

Damn it tohell ! He had to figure out what had happened so he could explain it all to Elena when she woke up. He wanted her to believe him, to trust him. He didn't want Elena as a one-night bleeder. He wanted her tochoose him. He wanted her to see how much better suited she was to him than to his mousy, milksop brother.

His princess of darkness. That was what she wasmeant to be. With him as king, consort, whatever she wished. When she saw things more clearly, she would understand that it didn't matter. That nothing mattered except them being together.

He viewed her body, veiled under the sheet, with dispassion – no, with positiveguilt .Dio mio – what if he hadn't found her? He couldn't get the picture out of his mind of how she'd looked, stumbling forward like that…lying there breathless…kissing his hand…

Damon sat down and pinched the bridge of his nose. Why had she been in the Ferrari with him? She'd been angry – no, not angry. Furious was closer but so frightened…ofhim . He could picture that clearly now, the moment of her throwing herself out of the speeding car, but he couldn't remember anything before it.

Was he going out of his mind?

What had been done to her? No…Damon forced his thoughts away from the easy question and made himself ask thereal question. What hadhe done to her? Elena's eyes, blue with golden flecks, like lapis lazuli, were easy to read even without telepathy. What had…he…done to her that was so frightening that she would jump out of a speeding car to get away from him?

He'd been taunting the fair-haired boy. Mutt…Gnat…whatever. The three of them had been together, and he and Elena had been…damn! From there to his awakening at the steering wheel of the Ferrari, all was a shimmering blank. He could remember saving Bonnie at Caroline's house; he could remember being late for his 4:44A.M . meeting with Stefan; but after that, things began to fragment.Shinichi , maledicalo! That fox! He knew more about this than he was telling Damon.

I have always…been stronger…than my enemies, he thought. I have always…remained…in…control.

He heard a slight sound and was by Elena in an instant. Her blue eyes were shut, but the lashes were fluttering. Was she waking up?

He made himself turn down the sheet by her shoulder. Shinichi had been right. There was a lot of dried blood, but he could sense that the blood flow itself was more normal. But there was something horribly wrong…no, he wouldn't believe it.

Damon barely kept himself from screaming in frustration. The damn fox had left her with a dislocated shoulder.

Things were definitely not going well for him today.

Now what? Call for Shinichi?

Never. He felt he couldn't look at the fox again tonight without wanting to murder him.

He was going to have to put her shoulder back in the socket alone. It was a procedure usually only attempted by two people, but what could he do?

Still keeping Elena in an iron mind-grip, making sure shecouldn't awaken, he grasped her by the arm and began the painful business of dislocating the humerus even farther, pulling the bone away so that he could finally release pressure and hear the sweetpop that meant that the long arm bone had slipped back into the socket. Then he let go. Elena's head was tossing from side to side, her lips parched. He poured some more of Shinichi's magical bone-knitting tea into the battered cup, then lifted her head gently from the left side to put the cup to her lips. He let her mind have some freedom, then, and she started to lift her right hand and then dropped it.

He sighed and tilted her head, tipping the silver flagon so that the tea trickled into her mouth. She swallowed obediently. It all reminded him of Bonnie…but Bonnie hadn't been so terribly hurt. Damon knew he couldn't return Elena to her friends in this condition; not with her camisole and jeans shredded, and dried blood everywhere.

Maybe he could do something about that. He went to the second door off the bedroom, thought, bathroom – modern bathroom, and unlocked and opened the door. It was exactly what he'd imagined: a pristine, white, sanitary place with a large heap of towels piled, ready for guests, on the bathtub.

Damon ran warm water over one of the washcloths. He knew better by now than to strip Elena and dump her in warm water. It was what she needed, but if anyone ever found out, her friends would have his beating heart torn out of his chest and staked on a pike. He didn't even have to think about that – he simply knew it.

He went back to Elena and began to gently stroke dried blood off her shoulder. She murmured, shaking her head, but he kept it up until the shoulder at least looked normal, exposed as it was by torn cloth.

Then he got another washcloth and went to work on her ankle. This was still swollen – she wasn't going to be running away anytime soon. Her tibia, the first of the two bones in the lower leg, had grown properly together again. It was more evidence that Shinichi and theShi no Shi had no need for money, or they could simply put this tea on the market and make a fortune.

"We look at things…differently," Shinichi had said, fixing Damon with those strange golden eyes. "Money doesn't mean much to us. What does? The deathbed agonies of an old rogue who fears he's going to hell. Watching him sweat, trying to remember encounters he's long forgotten. A baby's first conscious tear of loneliness. The emotions of an unfaithful wife when her husband catches her with her lover. A maiden's…well, her first kiss and her first night of discovery. A brother willing to die for his brother. Things like that."

And many other things that couldn't be mentioned in polite company, Damon thought. A lot were about pain. They were emotional leeches, sucking up the feelings of mortals to make up for the emptiness of their own souls.

He could feel the sickness inside him again as he tried to imagine – to calculate – the pain Elena must have felt, leaping out of his car. She must have expected an agonizing death – but it was still better than staying with him.

This time, before entering the door that had been a white-tiled bathroom, he thought,Kitchen, modern, with plenty of ice packs in the freezer.

Nor was he disappointed. He found himself in a strongly masculine kitchen, with chrome appliances and black-and-white tiling. In the freezer: six ice packs. He took three back to Elena and put one around her shoulder, one at her elbow, and one around her ankle. Then he went back into the kitchen's spotless beauty for a glass of ice-cold water.

Tired. So tired.

Elena felt as if her body were weighted with lead.

Every limb…every thought…lapped in lead.

For instance, there was something she was supposed to be doing – or not doing – right now. But she couldn't make the thought come to the surface of her mind. It was too heavy. Everything was too heavy. She couldn't even open her eyes.

A scraping sound. Someone was near, on a chair. Then there was liquid coolness on her lips, just a few drops, but it stimulated her to try to hold the cup herself and drink. Oh, delicious water. It tasted better than anything she'd ever had before. Her shoulder hurt terribly, but it was worth the pain to drink and drink – no! The glass was being pulled away. She tried, feebly, to hang onto it, but it was pulled out of her grasp.

Then she tried to touch her shoulder, but those gentle, invisible hands wouldn't let her, not until they had washed her own hands with warm water. After that they packed the ice packs around her and wrapped her like a mummy in a sheet. The cold numbed her immediate feelings of pain, although there were other pains, deep inside….

It was all too difficult to think about. As the hands removed the ice packs again – she was shivering with cold now – she let herself lapse back into sleep.

Damon treated Elena and dozed, treated and dozed. In the perfectly appointed bathroom, he found a tortoiseshell hairbrush and a comb. They looked serviceable. And one thing he knew for certain: Elena's hair had never looked like this in her life – or unlife. He tried to stroke the brush gently through her hair and found that the tangles were much harder to get out than he'd imagined. When he pulled harder on the brush, she moved and murmured in that strange sleep-language of hers.

And, finally, it was the hair brushing that did it. Elena, without opening her eyes, reached up and took the brush from his hand and then, when it hit a major tangle, frowned, reached up to grasp a fistful and try to get the brush through it. Damon sympathized. He'd had long hair at times during his centuries of existence – when it couldn't be helped, and though his hair was as naturally fine as Elena's, he knew the frustrated feeling that you were ripping your hair out by the roots. Damon was about to take the brush from her again, when she opened her eyes.

"What – ?" she said, and then she blinked.

Damon had tensed, ready to push her into mental blackout if it were necessary. But she didn't even try to hit him with the brush.

"What…happened?" What Elena was feeling was clear: she didn't like this. She was unhappy about another awakening with only a vague idea of what had been going on when she slept.

As Damon, poised for fight or flight, watched her face, she slowly began to put together what had happened to her.

"Damon?" She gave him that no-holds-barred lapis gaze.

It said,Am I being tortured, or treated, or are you just an interested bystander, enjoying somebody's pain while drinking a glass of cognac?

"Theycook with cognac, princess. Theydrink Armagnac. And I don't drink…either," Damon said. He spoiled the entire effect by adding hastily, "That's not a threat. I swear to you, Stefan left me as your bodyguard."

This was technically true if you considered the facts: Stefan had yelled, "You'd better make sure nothing happens to Elena, you double-dealing bastard, or I'm going to find a way to come back and rip off your – " The rest had been muffled in the fight, but Damon had gotten the gist. And now he took the assignment seriously.

"Nothing else will hurt you, if you'll allow me to watch over you," he added, now getting into the area of the fictitious, since whoever had frightened or pulled her out of the car had obviously been around when he had. But nothing would get her in the future, he swore to himself. However he had blundered this last time, from now on there would be no further attacks on Elena Gilbert – or someone would die.

He wasn't trying to spy on her thoughts, but as she stared into his eyes for a long moment, they projected with total clarity – and utter mystery – the words: I knew I was right. It was someone else all along. And he knew that under her pain, Elena felt a huge sense of satisfaction.

"I hurt my shoulder." She reached up with her right hand to grip it, but Damon stopped her.

"You dislocated it," Damon said. "It's going to hurt for a while."

"And my ankle…but someone…I remember being in the woods and looking up and it wasyou . I couldn't breathe but you tore the creepers off me and you picked me up in your arms…." She looked at Damon in bewilderment. "Yousaved me?"

The statement had the sound of a question, but it wasn't. She was wondering over something that seemed impossible. Then she began to cry.

A baby's first conscious tear of loneliness. The emotions of an unfaithful wife when her husband catches her with her lover…

And maybe a young girl's weeping when she believes that her enemy has saved her from death.

Damon ground his teeth in frustration. The thought that Shinichi might be watching this, feeling Elena's emotions, savoring them…it was impossible to bear. Shinichi would give Elena her memory back again, he was certain of that. But at a time and place most amusing to him.

"It was my job," he said tightly. "I'd sworn to do it."

"Thank you," Elena gasped between her sobs. "No, please – don't turn away. I really mean it. Ohhh – is there a box of tissues – or anythingdry ?" Her body was heaving with sobs again.

The perfect bathroom had a box of tissues. Damon brought it back to Elena.

He looked away as she used them, blowing her nose again and again as she sobbed. Here there was no enchanted and enchanting spirit, no grim and sophisticated fighter of evil, no dangerous coquette. There was only a girl broken by pain, gasping like a wounded doe, sobbing like a child.

And undoubtedly his brother would know what to say to her. He, Damon, had no idea of what to do – except that he knew he was going to kill for this. Shinichi would learn what it meant to tangle with Damon when Elena was involved.

"How do you feel?" he asked brusquely. No one would be able to say he'd taken advantage of this – no one would be able to say he'd hurt her only to…to make use of her.

"You gave me your blood," Elena said wonderingly, and as he looked quickly down at his rolled-up sleeve, she added, "No – it's just a feeling I know. When I first – came back to Earth, after the spirit life.

Stefan would give me his blood, and eventually I would feel…this way. Very warm. A little uncomfortable."

He swung around and looked at her. "Uncomfortable?"

"Too full – here." She touched her neck. "We think it's a symbiotic thing…for vampires and humans who live together."

"For a vampire Changing a human into a vampire, you mean," he said sharply.

"Except I didn't Change when I was part spirit still. But then – I turned back human." She hiccupped, tried a pathetic smile, and used the brush again. "I'd ask you to look at me and see that I haven't Changed, but…" She made a helpless little motion.

Damon sat and imagined what it would have been like, taking care of the spirit-child Elena. It was a tantalizing idea.

He said bluntly, "When you said you were a little uncomfortable before, did you mean thatI should take some of your blood?"

She half glanced away, then looked back. "I told you I was grateful. I told you that I felt…too full. I don't know howelse to thank you."

Damon had had centuries of training in discipline or he would have thrown something across the room. It was a situation to make you laugh…or weep. She was offering herself to him as thanks for rescue from suffering that he should have saved her from, and had failed.

But he was no hero. He wasn't like St. Stefan, to refuse this ultimate of prizes; whatever condition she was in.

He wanted her.

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