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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 34)

Elena had once fallen off that balcony and Stefan had jumped and caught her before she could hit the ground. A human falling from that height would be dead on impact. A vampire in full possession of his or her reflexes would simply twist in the air like a cat and land lightly on their feet. But one in Damon's particular circumstances tonight…

From the sound of it, he had tried to twist, but had only ended up landing on his side and breaking bones. Elena deduced the latter from his cursing. She didn't wait to listen for more specifics. She was off like a rabbit, down to the level of Stefan's room – where instantaneously and almost unconsciously, she sent out a wordless plea – and then down the stairs. The cabin had turned completely into a perfect duplicate of the boardinghouse. Elena didn't know why, but instinctively she ran to the side of the house that Damon would know the least: the old servant's quarters. She got that far before she dared whispering things to the house, asking for them rather than demanding them, and praying that the house would obey her as it had obeyed Damon.

"Aunt Judith's house," she whispered, thrusting the key into a door – it went in like a hot knife into butter and turned almost of its own volition, and then suddenly she was there again, in what had been her home for sixteen years, up until her first death.

She was in the hallway, with her little sister Margaret's open door showing her lying on the floor of her bedroom, staring with wide-open eyes over a coloring book.

"It's tag, sweetie!" she announced as if ghosts appeared every day in the Gilbert household and Margaret was supposed to know how to deal with it. "You go running to your friend Barbara's and then she has to be It. Don't stop running until you get there, and then go see Barbara's mom. But first you give me three kisses." And she lifted Margaret and hugged her tightly and then almost threw her at the door.

"But Elena – you're back – "

"I know, darling, and I promise to see you again another day. But now – run, baby – "

"I told them you would come back. You did before."

"Margaret!Run!"

Choking on tears, but maybe recognizing in her childlike way the seriousness of the situation, Margaret ran. And Elena followed, but zagging toward a different staircase when Margaret zigged.

And then she found herself confronted by a smirking Damon.

"You take too long to talk to people," he said as Elena frantically counted her options. Go over the balcony into the entry way? No. Damon's bones might still hurt a little but if Elena jumped even one story, she would probably break her neck. What else? Think!

And then she was opening the door into the china closet, at the same time shouting out, "Great-aunt Tilda's house," unsure if the magic would still work. And then she was slamming the door in Damon's face.

And she was in her Aunt Tilda's house, but the Aunt Tilda's house of the past. No wonder they accused poor Auntie Tilda of seeing strange things, Elena thought, as she saw the woman turning while holding a large glass casserole dish full of something that smelled mushroomy, and screaming, and dropping the dish.

"Elena!" she cried. "What – it can't be you – you're all grown up!"

"What's the trouble?" demanded Aunt Maggie, who was Aunt Tilda's friend, coming in from the other room. She was taller and fiercer than Aunt Tilda.

"I'm being chased," cried Elena. "I need to find a door, and if you see a boy after me – "

And just then Damon stepped out of the coat closet, and at the same time Aunt Maggie tripped him neatly and said, "Bathroom door beside you," and picked up a vase and hit the rising Damon over the head with it. Hard.

And Elena dashed through the bathroom door, crying, "Robert E. Lee High School last fall – just as the bell's rung!"

And then she was swimming against the flow, with dozens of students trying to get to their classes on time – but then one of them recognized her, and then another, and while apparently she'd successfully traveled to a time when she wasn't dead – no one was screaming "ghost" – neither had anyone at Robert E. Lee ever seen Elena Gilbert wearing a boy's shirt over a camisole, with her hair falling wildly over her shoulders.

"It's a costume for a play!" she shouted, and created one of the immortal legends about herself before she had even died by adding, "Caroline's house!" and stepping into a janitor's closet. An instant later, the most gorgeous boy that anyone had ever seen appeared behind her, and rocketed through the same doors saying words in a foreign language. And when the janitor's closet opened, neither boy nor girl was there.

Elena landed running down a hallway and almost crashed into Mr. Forbes, who looked rather wobbly. He was drinking what seemed to be a large glass of tomato juice that smelled like alcohol.

"We don't know where she's gone, all right?" he shouted before Elena could say a word. "She's gone right out of her mind, as far as I can tell. She was talking about the ceremony at the widow's walk – and the way she was dressed! Parents don't have any control over children anymore!" He slumped against the wall.

"I'm so sorry," murmured Elena.The ceremony. Well, Black Magic ceremonies were usually held at moonrise or midnight. And it was just a few minutes before midnight. But in those minutes, Elena had just come up with scheme B.

"Excuse me," she said, taking the drink out of Mr. Forbes's hand and dashing it directly into the face of Damon, who had appeared out of a closet. Then she shouted, "Some placetheir kind can't see!" and stepped into…

Limbo?

Heaven?

Some place their kind couldn't see.At first Elena wondered about herself, because she couldn't see much of anything at all.

But then she realized where she was, deep in the earth, beneath Honoria Fell's empty tomb. Once, she had fought down here to save the lives of Stefan and Damon.

And now, where there should have been nothing but darkness and rats and mildew, was a tiny, shining, light. Like a miniature Tinkerbell – just a speck, it hovered in the air, not leading her, not communicating, but…protecting, Elena realized. She took the light, which felt bright and cool in her fingers, and around her she traced a circle, big enough for a full-grown person to lie down in.

When she turned back, Damon was sitting in the middle.

He looked strangely pale for someone who had just fed. But he said nothing, not a word, just gazed at her. Elena went to him and touched him on the neck.

And a moment later, Damon was again drinking deep, deep, of the most extraordinary blood in the world.

Usually, he would be analyzing by now: taste of berry, taste of tropical fruit, smooth, smoky, woody, rounded with a silken aftertaste…But not now. Notthis blood, which far surpassed anything for which he had words. This blood that was filling him with power such as he had never known before….

Damon…

Why was he not listening? How had he come to be drinking this extraordinary blood that tasted

somehow of the afterlife, and why was he not listening to the donor?

Please, Damon. Please fight it…

He ought to recognize that voice. He'd heard it enough times.

I know they're controlling you. But they can't controlallof you. You're stronger than they are. You're the strongest….

Well, that was certainly true. But he was getting more and more confused. The donor seemed to be unhappy and he was a past-master at making donors happy. And he didn't quite remember…he really should remember how this had started.

Damon, it's me. It's Elena. And you're hurting me.

So much pain and bewilderment. From the beginning, Elena had known better than to outright fight the tapping of her veins. That would only cause agony, and it wouldn't do her the slightest bit of good except to stop her brain from working.

So she was trying to make him fight off the horrible beast inside him. Well, yes, but the change had to come from inside. If she forced him, Shinichi would notice and just possess him again. Besides, the simpleDamon, be strong gig wasn't working.

Was there nothing to do but die, then? She could at least fight that, although she knew that Damon's strength would make it pointless. With every swallow he took of her new blood, he got stronger; he changed more and more into…

Into what? It washer blood. Maybe he would answer its call, which was also her call. Maybe, somehow inside, he could beat the monster without Shinichi noticing.

But she needed some new power, some new trick…

And even as she thought it, Elenafelt the new Power moving in her, and she knew that it had always been there, just waiting for the right occasion to use it. It was a very specific power, not to be used for fighting or even for saving herself. Still, it was hers to tap. Vampires who preyed on her got only a few mouthfuls, but she had an entire blood supply filled with its enormous vigor. And calling upon it was as easy as reaching toward it with an open mind and open hands.

As soon as she did, she found new words coming to her lips, and most strangely of all, new wings springing from her body, which Damon was holding bent sharply back from the hips. These ethereal wings were not for flying, but for something else, and when they fully unfurled they made a huge, rainbow-colored arch whose very tip circled back again, surrounding and enfolding Damon and Elena both.

And then she said it telepathically.Wings of Redemption.

And inside, soundlessly, Damon screamed.

Then the wings opened slightly. Only one who had learned a great deal about magic would have seen what was happening inside them. Damon's anguish was becoming Elena's anguish as she took from him every painful incident, every tragedy, every cruelty that had ever gone into making up the stony layers of

indifference and unkindness that encased his heart.

Layers – as hard as the stone at the heart of a black dwarf star – were breaking up and flying away. There was no stopping it. Great chunks and boulders fractured, fine pieces shattered. Some dissolved into nothing more than a puff of acrid smelling smoke.

There was something at the center, though – some nucleus that was blacker than hell and harder than the horns of the devil. She couldn't quite see what happened to it. She thought – she hoped – that at the very end even it blasted open.

Now, and only now, could she call for the next set of wings. She hadn't been sure that she would live through the first attack; she certainly didn't feel as if she could live through this one. But Damon had to know.

Damon was kneeling on one knee on the floor, with his arms clasped tightly around him. That should be all right. He was still Damon, and he'd be a lot happier without the weight of all that hatred and prejudice and cruelty. He wouldn't keep remembering his youth and the other young blades who'd mocked his father for being an old fool, with his disastrous investments and his mistresses younger than his own sons. Neither would he endlessly dwell on his own childhood, when that same father had beaten him in drunken rages when he neglected his studies or took up with objectionable companions.

And, finally, he would not go on savoring and contemplating the many terrible things he'd done himself. He had been redeemed, in heaven's name and in heaven's time, by words put into Elena's mouth.

But now…there was something that he needed to remember. If Elena was right.

If only she were right.

"Where is this place? Are you hurt, girl?"

In his confusion, he couldn't recognize her. He had knelt; now she knelt beside him.

He gave her a keen glance. "Are we at prayer or were we making love? Was it the Watch or the Gonzalgos?"

"Damon," she said, "it's me, Elena. It's the twenty-first century, now, and you are a vampire." Then, gently embracing him, with her cheek against his, she whispered,"Wings of Remembrance."

And a pair of translucent butterfly wings, violet, cerulean, and midnight blue in color, sprouted from her backbone, just above her hips. The wings were decorated with tiny sapphires and translucent amethysts in intricate patterns. Using muscles she had never used before, she easily drew them up and forward until they curled inside out, and Damon was shielded within them. It was like being enclosed in a dim, jewel-studded cave.

She could see in Damon's fine-bred features that he didn't want to remember anything more than he did right now. But new memories, memories connected with her, were already welling up inside him. He looked at his lapis lazuli ring and Elena could see tears come to his eyes. Then, slowly, his gaze turned on her.

"Elena?"

"Yes."

"Someone possessed me, and took the memories of the times I was possessed," he whispered.

"Yes – at least, I think so."

"And someone hurt you."

"Yes."

"I swore to kill him or make him your slave a hundred times over. Hestruck you. He took your blood by force. He made up ludicrous stories about hurting you in other ways."

"Damon. Yes, that's true. But, please – "

"I was on his track. If I'd met him I might have run him through; might have ripped his beating heart out of his chest. Or I might have taught him the most painful lessons I've heard tales of – and I've heard a lot of tales – and at the end, through the blood in his mouth, he would have kissed your heel, your slave until he died."

This wasn't good for him. She could see it. His eyes were white all around, like a terrified colt's.

"Damon, Ibeg you…"

"And the one who hurt you…was me."

"Not you by yourself. You said it yourself. You werepossessed ."

"You feared me so much you stripped yourself for me."

Elena remembered the original Pendleton shirt.

"I didn't want you and Matt fighting."

"You let me bleed you when it was against your true will."

This time she could find nothing to say but, "Yes."

"I – dear God! – I used my powers to afflict you with terrible grief!"

"If you mean an attack that causes hideous pain and seizures, then yes. And you were worse to Matt."

Matt wasn't on Damon's radarscope. "And then I kidnapped you."

"Youtried ."

"And you jumped out of a speeding car rather than take your chances with me."

"You were playing rough, Damon. They had told you to go out and play rough, maybe even to break your toys."

"I've been looking for the one who made you jump from the car – I couldn't remember anything before that. And I swore to take out his eyes and his tongue before he died in agony. You couldn't walk. You had to use a crutch to get through the forest, and just when help should have come, Shinichi drew you into a trap. Oh, yes, I know him. You wandered into his snow globe…and would be wandering still if I hadn't broken it."

"No," Elena said quietly. "I would have been dead a long time ago. You found me at the point of suffocation, remember?"

"Yes." A moment of fierce joy on his face. But then the trapped, horrified look returned. "I was the tormenter, the persecutor, the one you were so terrified of. I made you do things with – with – "

"Matt."

"O God," he said, and it was clearly an invocation to the deity, not just an exclamation, because he looked up, holding his clenched hands to heaven. "I thought I was being a hero for you. InsteadI'm the abomination. What now? By rights, I should be dead at your feet already." He looked at her with wide, feral, black eyes. There was no humor in them, no sarcasm, no holding back. He looked very young and very wild and desperate. If he'd been a black leopard he'd have been pacing his cage frantically, biting at the bars.

Then he bowed his head to kiss her bare foot.

Elena was shocked.

"I'm yours to do what you please with," he said in that same stunned voice. "You can order me to die right now. After all my clever talk, it turns out that I'm the monster."

And then he wept. Probably no other set of circumstances could have brought tears to Damon Salvatore's eyes. But he had boxed himself in. He never broke his word, and he'd given his word to break the monster, the one who had done all this to Elena. The fact that he had been possessed – at first a little, and then more and more, until his entire mind was simply another of Shinichi's toys, to be picked up and put down at leisure – didn't make up for his crimes.

"You know that I – I'm damned," he told her, as if perhaps that might go a small way toward restitution.

"No, Idon't ," Elena said. "Because I don't believe that's true. And Damon, think of how many times you fought them. I'm sure they wanted you to kill Caroline that first night you said you felt something in her mirror. You said you almost did it. I'm sure they want you to kill me. Are you going to do it?"

He bent toward her foot again, and she hastily grabbed him by the shoulders. She couldn't stand to see him in such pain.

But now Damon was looking this way and that, as if he had a definite purpose. He was also twisting the lapis lazuli ring.

"Damon – what are you thinking? Tell me what you're thinking!"

"That he may pick me up as a puppet again – and that this time there may be areal birch rod. Shinichi – he's monstrous beyond your innocent belief. And he can take me over at a moment's notice. We've seen that."

"He can't if you'll let me kiss you."

"What?" He looked at her as if she hadn't been following the conversation properly.

"Let me kiss you – and strip out that dying malach inside you."

"Dying?"

"It dies a little more each time you gain enough strength to turn your back on it."

"Is – it very big?"

"As big as you are by now."

"Good," he whispered. "I only wish I could fight it myself."

"Pour le sport?" Elena answered, showing that her summer in France last year hadn't been entirely wasted.

"No. Because I hate the bastard's guts and I'd happily suffer a hundred times its pain as long as I knew I was hurtingit. "

Elena decided this was no time for delay. He was ready. "Will you let me do this one last thing?"

"I told you before – the monster who hurt you is your slave now."

All right. They could argue about that point later. Elena leaned forward and tilted her head up, lips pursed slightly.

After a few moments, Damon, the Don Juan of darkness, got the point.

He kissed her very gently, as if afraid to make too much contact.

"Wings of Purification," Elena whispered against his lips. These wings were as white as untrammeled snow, and lacelike, barely existing in some places at all. They arched high above Elena, shimmering with an iridescence that reminded her of moonlight on frosted cobwebs. They encased mortal and vampire in a web made of diamond and pearl.

"This is going to hurt you," Elena said, not knowing how she knew. The knowledge seemed to come moment by moment as she needed it. It was almost like being in a dream where great truths are understood without needing to be learned, and accepted without astonishment.

And that was how she knew thatWings of Purification would seek out and destroy anything foreign inside Damon and that the feeling could be very unpleasant for him. When the malach didn't seem to be coming out of its own accord, she said, prompted by her inner voice, "Take off your shirt. The malach is attached to your spine and it's closest to the skin at the back of your neck where it entered. I'm going to have to strip it out by hand."

"Attached to my spine?"

"Yes. Did you ever feel it? I think it would have felt like a bee sting at first, as it entered you, just a sharp little drill and a blob of jelly that attached to your spine."

"Oh. The mosquito bite. Yes, I felt that. And then later, my neck began to ache, and at last my whole body. Was it…growing inside me?"

"Yes, and taking over more and more of your nervous system. Shinichi was controlling you like a marionette."

"Dear God, I'msorry ."

"Let's make him be sorry instead. Will you take off your shirt?"

Silently, like a trusting child, Damon took off his black jacket and shirt. Then, as Elena motioned him into position, he lay across her lap, his back hard with muscle and pale against the dark ground on either side.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Getting rid of it this way – pulling it out through the hole where it entered – will really hurt."

"Good," grunted Damon. And then he buried his face in his lithe, flat-muscled arms.

Elena used the pads of her fingers, feeling at the top of his spine for what she was looking for. A squishy point. A blister. When she found it, she pinched it with her fingernails until blood suddenly spurted.

She almost lost it then as it tried to go flat, but she was pursuing it with sharp nails – and it was too slow. At last she had it held firmly between thumbnail and two fingernails.

The malach was still alive and aware enough to feebly resist her. But it was like a jellyfish trying to resist – only jellyfish broke apart when you pulled. This slick, slimy, man-shaped thing retained its shape as she slowly pulled it through the breach in Damon's skin.

And it was hurting him. She could tell. She started to take some of the pain into herself, but he gasped, "No!" with such vehemence that she decided to let him have his way.

The malach was much larger and more substantial than she had realized. It must have been growing a long time, she thought – the little blob of jelly that had expanded until it controlled him to the fingertips. She had to sit up, then scoot away from Damon and back again before it lay on the ground, a sickly, stringy, white caricature of a human body.

"Is it done?" Damon was breathless – it really had hurt, then.

"Yes."

Damon stood and looked down at the flabby white thing – barely twitching – that had made him persecute the person he cared most about in the world. Then, deliberately, he trampled on it, crushing it under the heels of his boots until it lay torn in pieces, and then trampling the pieces. Elena guessed that he didn't dare blast it with Power for fear of alerting Shinichi.

At last, all that was left was a stain and a smell.

Elena didn't know why she felt so dizzy then. But she reached for Damon and he reached for her and they went to their knees holding each other.

"I release you from every promise you made – while in the possession of that malach," Elena said. This was strategy. She didn't want to release him from the promise of caring for his brother.

"Thank you," Damon whispered, the weight of his head on her shoulder.

"And now," said Elena, like a kindergarten teacher who wants to move quickly on to another activity, "We need to make plans. But to make plans in utter secrecy…"

"We have to share blood. But Elena, how much have you donated today? You look white."

"You said you'd be my slave – now you won't take a little of my blood."

"You said you released me – instead you're going to hold that over me forever, aren't you? But there's a simpler solution. You take some ofmy blood."

And in the end that was what they did, although it made Elena feel slightly guilty, as if she were betraying Stefan. Damon cut himself with the minimum of fuss, and then it began to happen – they weresharing minds, melting seamlessly together. In much shorter a time than it would take to speak the sentences aloud, it was done: Elena had told Damon of what her friends had found about the epidemic among the girls of Fell's Church – and Damon had told Elena everything he knew about Shinichi and Misao. Elena concocted a plan for scaring out any other possessed youngsters like Tami, and Damon promised to try to find out where Stefan was from the kitsune twins.

And, finally, when there was nothing more to say, and Damon's blood had restored faint color to Elena's cheeks they made plans as to how to meet again.

At the ceremony.

And then there was only Elena in the room, and a large raven winging its way toward the Old Wood.

Sitting on the cold stone floor, Elena took a moment to put all she now knew together. No wonder Damon had seemed so schizophrenic. No wonder he had remembered, and then forgotten, and then remembered that he was the one she was running from.

He remembered, she reasoned, when Shinichi was not controlling him, or at least was keeping him on a very loose rein. But his memory was spotty because some of the things he'd done were so terrible that his own mind had rejected them. They had seamlessly become part of the possessed Damon's memory, for when possessed Shinichi was controlling every word, every deed. And in between episodes, Shinichi was telling him that he had to find Elena's tormentor and kill him.

All very amusing, she supposed, for this kitsune, Shinichi. But for both her and Damon it had been hell.

Her mind refused to admit that there had been moments of heaven mixed in with the hell. She was Stefan's, alone. That would never change.

Now Elena needed one more magical door, and she didn't know how to find one. But there was the twinkling fairy light again. She guessed it was the last of the magic that Honoria Fell had left to protect the town she had founded. Elena felt a little guilty, using it up – but if it wasn't meant for her, why had she been brought here?

To try for the most important destination she could imagine.

Reaching for the speck with one hand and clenching the key in the other she whispered with all the force at her command:

"Somewhere I can see and hear and touch Stefan."

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