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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 33)

Damon just sat there. Then he licked his mouth and said nothing, did nothing.

"You bastard!"

"Yes."

"You're saying that Stefan didn't really walk out on me?"

"Yes. I mean – correct."

"Who wrote the letter in my diary, then?"

Damon said nothing, but looked away.

"Oh, Damon!" She didn't know whether to kiss him or shake him. "How could you – do youknow," she said in a choked and threatening voice, "what I've gone through since he disappeared? Thinking every minute that he just suddenly decided to up andleave me ? Even if he intended to come back – "

"I – "

"Don't try to tell me you'resorry ! Don't try to tell me you know what it feels like feeling that, because you don't.How could you? You don't have feelings like that!"

"I think – I've had some similar experience. But I wasn't going to try to defend myself. Only to say that we have a limited time while I can block Shinichi from seeing us."

Elena heart was shattering into a thousand pieces; she could feel each one pierce her. Nothing mattered anymore. "You lied, you broke your promise about never harming each other – "

"I know – and that should have been impossible. But it started that night when the trees closed in on Bonnie and Meredith and…Mark…."

"Matt!"

"That night, when Stefan knocked me around and showed me his true Power – it was because of you. He did it so I would stay away from you. Before that he'd just hoped to keep you hidden. And that night I felt…betrayed somehow. Don't ask me why that should make sense, when for years before I've knocked him down and made him eat dirt any time I wanted."

Elena tried to make sense of what he was saying in her shattered condition. And she couldn't. But neither could she ignore a feeling that had just dropped down like an angel in chains grabbing hold of her.

Try to look with your other eyes. Look inside, not outside for the answer. You know Damon. You've already seen what is inside him. How long has it been there?

"Oh, Damon, I'm sorry! I know the answer. Damon – Damon. Oh, God! I cansee what's wrong with you. You're more possessed than any of those girls."

"I – have one of those things in me?"

Elena kept her eyes shut while she nodded. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and she felt sick even as she made herself do it: gather enough human power to see with her other eyes, see as she had somehow learned to seeinside people.

The malach that she had seen before inside Damon, and the one Matt had described had been huge for insects – as long as an arm, maybe. But now in Damon she sensed something…huge. Monstrous. Something that inhabited him completely, its transparent head inside his beautiful features, its chitinous body as long as his torso; its backward-twisted legs inside his legs. For a moment she thought she would faint; but then she controlled herself. Staring at the ghostly image, she thought, What Would Meredith Do?

Meredith would stay calm. She wouldn't lie, but she would find some way to help.

"Damon, it's bad. But there has to be some way to get it out of you – soon. I'm going to find that way. Because as long as it's in you, Shinichi can make you do anything."

"Will you listen to why I think it's grown so large? That night, when Stefan dismissed me from his room, everyone else went home like good little girls and boys, but you and Stefan took a walk. A fly. A glide."

For a long time it meant nothing to her, even though it had been the last time she'd seen Stefan. In fact, that was its only significance to her: it was the last time she and Stefan had…

She felt herself freeze over inside.

"You went into the Old Wood. You were still the little spirit child who didn't really know what was right and what was wrong. But Stefan should have known better than to do that – on my own territory. Vampires take territory seriously. And in my own resting place – right in front of my eyes."

"Oh, Damon! No!"

"Oh, Damon, yes! There you were, sharing blood, too absorbed to have noticed me even if I had leaped out and tried to pry you apart. You were wearing a high-necked white nightgown and you looked like an angel. I wanted to kill Stefanright then."

"Damon – "

"And it wasright then that Shinichi appeared. He didn't need to be told what I was feeling. And he had a plan, an offer…a proposition."

Elena shut her eyes again and shook her head. "He'd prepared you beforehand. You were already possessed and ready to be full of anger."

"I don't know why," Damon went on as if he hadn't heard her, "but I scarcely thought about what it would mean to Bonnie and Meredith and the rest of the town. All I could think of was you. All I wanted was you, and revenge on Stefan."

"Damon, will you listen? By then, you had already been deliberately possessed. I couldsee the malach in you. You admit" – as she felt him swelling up to speak out – "that something was influencing you before that, forcing you to watch Bonnie and the others die at your feet that night. Damon, I think these things are even harder to get rid of than we imagine. For one thing, you wouldn't normally stay and watch people do – private things, would you? Doesn't the fact that you did in itself prove that something was wrong?"

"It's…a theory," Damon granted, not sounding happy.

"But don't you see? That was what made you tell Stefan you only saved Bonnie out of whim, and that was what made you refuse to tell everyone that the malach weremaking you watch the trees' attack, hypnotizing you. That and your stupid, stubborn pride."

"Watch it on the compliments. I may dry up and blow away."

"Don't worry," Elena said flatly, "whatever happens to the rest of us, I have a feeling your ego will survive. What happened next?"

"I made my deal with Shinichi. He would lure Stefan somewhere out of the way where I could see him alone, then smuggle him out of this place to somewhere Stefan couldn't find you – "

Something bubbled up explosively again inside Elena. It was a tight hard ball of compressed elation. "Not kill him?" she managed to get out.

"What?"

"Stefan's alive? He's alive? He…he's really alive?"

"Steady," Damon replied coldly. "Steady on, Elena. We can't have you fainting." He held her by the shoulders. "You thought I meant to kill him?"

Elena was trembling almost too hard to answer. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

"I apologize for the omission."

"He's alive – for sure, Damon? You're absolutely sure?"

"Positive."

Without a thought of herself, without a thought of any kind, Elena did what she did best – gave in to impulse. She threw her arms around Damon's neck and kissed him.

For a moment Damon just stood rigid with shock. He had contracted with killers to hijack her lover and decimate her town. But Elena's mind would never see it that way.

"If he were dead – " He stopped and had to try again. "Shinichi's whole bargain depends on keeping him alive – alive and away from you. I couldn't risk you killing yourself orreally hating me" – again the note of distant coldness. "With Stefan dead, what hold would I have over you, princess?"

Elena ignored all this. "If he's alive, I can find him."

"If he remembers you. But what if every memory he had of you were taken away?"

"What?" Elena wanted to explode. "If every memory of Stefan were taken away fromme ," she said icily, "I would still fall in love with him the very moment I saw him. And if every memory of me were taken away from Stefan, he would wander all over the world looking for something without knowing what he was looking for."

"Very poetic."

"But, oh, Damon, thank youfor not letting Shinichi kill him!"

He shook his head at her, looking bewildered at himself. "I couldn't – seem to – do that. Something about giving my word. I figured that if he were free and happy and didn't remember, that would satisfy enough…"

"Of your promise to me? You figured wrong. But it doesn't matter now."

"It does matter. You've suffered for it."

"No, Damon. All thatreally matters is that he's not dead – and he didn't leave me. There's still hope."

"But Elena," Damon's voice had life now; it was both excited and inflexible: "Can't you see? Past history aside, you have to admit thatwe're the ones that belong together. You and I are simply better suited to each other by nature. Deep down you know that, because we understand each other. We're on the same intellectual level – "

"So is Stefan!"

"Well, all I can say is that he does a remarkable job of hiding it, then. But can't you feel it? Don't you feel" – his grip was becoming uncomfortable now – "that you could be my princess of darkness – that something deep inside you wants to? I can see it, if you can't."

"I can't beanything to you, Damon. Except a decent sister-in-law."

He shook his head, laughing harshly. "No, you're only suited for the main role. Well, all I can say is that if we live through the fight with the twins, you'll see things in yourself that you've never seen before. And you'llknow that we're more suited together."

"And allI can say is that if we live through this fight with the Bobbsey twins from Hell, it sounds as if we're going to need all the spiritual power that we can get afterward. Andthat means getting Stefan back."

"We may not be able to get him back. Oh, I agree – even if we drive Shinichi and Misao away from Fell's Church, the likelihood that we're going to be able to do away with them completely is about zero. You're no fighter. We're probably not even going to be able to hurt them very much. But even I don't know exactly where Stefan is."

"Then the twins are the only ones who can help us."

"If they stillcan help us – oh, all right, I'll admit it. TheShi no Shi are probably complete frauds. They probably take a few memories from vampire chumps – memories are the coin of choice in the realm of the Other Side – and then send them away while the cash register is still jingling. They're frauds. The whole place is a giant slum and freakshow – sort of like a rundown Vegas."

"But they're not afraid that the vampires they cheat will want revenge?"

Damon laughed, this time musically. "A vampire who doesn't want to be a vampire is about the lowest object on the totem pole on the Other Side. Oh, except for humans. Along with lovers who've fulfilled suicide pacts, kids who jump off the roof because they think their Superman cape can make them fly – "

Elena tried to pull away from him, to reprove him, but he was surprisingly strong. "It doesn't sound like a very nice place."

"It isn't."

"And that's where Stefan is?"

"If we're lucky."

"So basically," she said, seeing things, as she always did, in terms of Plans A, B, C, and D, "first we have to find out where Stefan is from these twins. Second, we have to get the twins to heal the little girls they've possessed. Third, we have to get them to leave Fell's Church alone – for good. But before any of that, we have to find Stefan. He'll be able to help us; I know he will. And then we just hope we're strong enough for the rest."

"We could use Stefan's help, all right. But you missed the real point – for now, what we have to do is keep the twins from killing us."

"They still think you're their friend, yes?" Elena's mind was flickering through options. "Make themsure you are. Wait until a strategic moment comes, and then take the chance. Do we have any weapons against them?"

"Iron. They do badly against iron – they're demons. And dear Shinichi is obsessed with you, although I can't say his sister will approve when she realizes it."

"Obsessed?"

"Yes. With you and with English folk songs, remember? Although I can't fathom why. The songs, I mean."

"Well, I don't know what we can make of that – "

"But I'll bet that his obsession with you will make Misao angry. It's just a hunch, but she's had him to herself for thousands of years."

"Then we set them against each other, pretend that he's going to get me. Damon – what?" Elena added in tones of alarm as he tightened his grip on her as if concerned.

"He's not going to get you," Damon said.

"I know that."

"I don't quite like the idea of anyone else getting you. You were meant to be mine, you know."

"Damon, don't. I've told you. Please – "

"Meaning ¡®please don't make me hurt you'? The truth is that you can't hurt me unless I let you. You can only hurt yourself against me."

Elena could at least pull their upper bodies farther apart. "Damon, we just made an agreement, made plans. Now, what are we doing, throwing them all away?"

"No, but I thought of another way to get you a grade-A superhero, right now. You've been saying I should take more of your blood for ages."

"Oh…yes." It was true, even if that had been before he had admitted to her the terrible things he'd done. And…

"Damon, what happened with Matt in the clearing? We went looking all over for him, but we didn't find him. And you wereglad ."

He didn't bother to deny it. "In the real world I was angry at him, Elena. He seemed to be just another rival. Part of the reason we're here is so I can remember exactly what happened."

"Did you hurt Matt, Damon? Because now you're hurting me."

"Yes." Damon's voice was light and indifferent suddenly, as if he found it amusing. "I suppose I did hurt him. I used psychic pain on him, and that's stopped a lot of hearts from beating. But your Mutt's tough. I like that. I made him suffer more and more, and yet he still went on living because he was afraid to leave you alone."

"Damon!" Elena wrenched herself back, only to find that it did no good. He was far, far stronger than she was. "How could you do that to him?"

"I told you; he was a rival." Damon laughed suddenly. "You really don't remember, do you? I made him abase himself for you. I made him eat dirt, literally, for you."

"Damon – are you crazy?"

"No. I'm just now finding my sanity. I don't need to convince you that you belong to me. I can take you."

"No, Damon. I won't be your princess of darkness or – or anything else of yours without asking. At the most you'll have a dead body to play with."

"Maybe I'd like that. But you forget; I can enter your mind. And you still have friends – at home, getting ready for supper or bed, you hope. Don't you? Friends with all their limbs; who've never known real pain."

It took Elena a long time to speak. Then she said quietly, "I take back every decent thing I ever said about you. You're a monster, do you hear that? You're an abomin – " Her voice wound slowly down. "They're making you do this, aren't they?" she said finally, flatly. "Shinichi and Misao. A nice little show for them. Just like they made you hurt Matt and me before."

"No, I do only what I want to." Was that a flash of red Elena saw in his eyes? The briefest flaring of a flame…"Do you know how beautiful you are when you're crying? You're more beautiful than ever. The gold in your eyes seems to rise to the surface and spill down in tears of diamond. I would love to have a sculptor carve a bust of you weeping."

"Damon, I know you're not really saying this. I know that the thing they put inside you is the one saying it."

"Elena, I assure you, it's all me. I quite enjoyed it when I made him hurt you. I liked to hear the way you cried out. I made him tear your clothes – I had to hurt him a lot to get him to do it. But didn't you notice that your camisole had been torn, and that you were barefooted? That was all Mutt."

Elena forced her mind back to the moment she had come to herself leaping out of the Ferrari. Yes, then, and in the time afterward she had been barefooted and bare-armed, wearing only a camisole. Quite a bit of the fabric of her jeans had been left on the roadside after that, and in the surrounding vegetation. But it had never occurred to her to wonder what had happened to her boots and socks, or how her camisole had been torn in strips at the bottom. She'd simply been so grateful for help…to the one who had hurt her in her first place.

Oh, Damon must have thought that ironic. She suddenly realized she herself was thinking ofDamon and not ofthe possessor. Not of Shinichi and Misao.But they weren't the same, she told herself. I've got to remember that!

"Yes, I enjoyed making him hurt you, and I enjoyed hurting you. I made him bring me a willow rod, just the right thickness, and then whipped you with it. You enjoyed that, too, I promise you. Don't bother to look for marks because they've all gone like the others. But all three of us enjoyed hearing your cries. You…and me…and Mutt, too. In fact, of all of us, he may have enjoyed it most."

"Damon, shut up! I won't listen to you talk about Matt that way!"

"I wouldn't let him see you without your clothes on, though," Damon confided, as if he hadn't heard a word. "That was when I had him – dismissed. Put into another snow globe. I wanted to hunt you as you tried to get away from me, in an empty globe that you could never get out of. I wanted to see that special look in your eyes that you get when you fight with everything you have – and I wanted to see it defeated. You're no fighter, Elena." Damon laughed suddenly, an ugly sound, and to Elena's shock his arm shot out and he punched through the wall of the widow's walk.

"Damon…" She was sobbing by now.

"And then I wanted to dothis ." With no warning, Damon's fist forced her chin up, jerking her head back. His other hand tangled in her hair, bringing her neck back to the exact position he wanted her to be in. And then Elena felt him strike, quick as a cobra, and felt the two tearing wounds in the side of her neck, and her own blood spurting out of them.

Ages later, Elena woke up sluggishly. Damon was still enjoying himself, clearly lost in the experience of having Elena Gilbert. And there was no time to make different plans.

Her body simply took over by itself, startling her almost as much as it startled Damon. Even as he lifted his head, her hand plucked the magical house key off his finger. Then she gripped, twisted, lifted her knees as high as she could, and kicked outward, sending Damon smashing through the splintered, rotted wood that formed the outside railing of the widow's walk.

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