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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 35)

Aprison, with filthy rushes on the floor and bars between her and the sleeping Stefan.

Between her andStefan!

It was really him. Elena didn't know how she could know. Undoubtedly they could twist and change your perceptions here. But just now, perhaps because nobody had been expecting her to drop into a dungeon, no one was prepared with anything to make her doubt her senses.

Itwas Stefan. He was thinner than before, and his cheekbones stuck out. He was beautiful. And his mind felt just right, just the right mixture of honor and love and darkness and light and hope and grim understanding of the world he lived in.

"Stefan! Oh,hold me! "

He woke and half sat up. "At least leave me my sleep. And meanwhile go away and put on another face, bitch!"

"Stefan! Language!"

She saw muscles in Stefan's shoulders freeze.

"What…did you…say?"

"Stefan…it's really me.I don't blame you for cursing. I curse this whole place and the two who put you here…."

"Three," he said wearily, and bent his head. "You'd know that if you were real. Go and let them teach you about my traitor brother and his friends who sneak up on people with kekkai crowns…"

Elena couldn't wait to debate about Damon now. "Won't youlook at me, at least?"

She saw him turn slowly, look slowly, then saw him leap up from a pallet made of sickly-looking hay, and saw him stare at her as if she were an angel dropped down from the sky.

Then he turned his back on her and put his hands over his ears.

"No bargains," he said flatly. "Don't even mention them to me. Go away. You've gotten better but you're still a dream."

"Stefan!"

"I said, go away!"

Time was wasting. And this was too cruel, after what she had been through just to speak to him.

"You first saw me just outside the principal's office the day you brought your papers into school and influenced the secretary. You didn't need to look at me to know what I looked like. Once I told you that I felt like a murderer because I said, ¡®Daddy, look' and pointed to – something outside – just before the car accident that killed my parents. I've never been able to remember what the something was. The first word I learned when I came back from the afterlife wasStefan . Once, you looked at me in the rearview mirror of the car and said that I was your soul…."

"Can't you stop torturing me for one hour? Elena – the real Elena – would be too smart to risk her life by coming here."

"Where's ¡®here'?" Elena said sharply, frightened. "I need to know if I'm supposed to get you out."

Slowly Stefan uncovered his ears. Even more slowly he turned around again.

"Elena?" he said, like a dying boy who has seen a gentle ghost in his bed. "You're not real. You can't be here."

"I don't think I am. Shinichi made a magic house and it takes you wherever you want if you name it and open the door with this key. I said, ¡®Somewhere I can hear and see and touch Stefan.' But" – she looked down – "you say Ican't be here. Maybe it's all an illusion anyway."

"Hush." Now Stefan was clenching the bars on his side of the cell.

"Is this where you've been? Is this theShi no Shi ?"

He gave a little laugh – not a real one. "Not exactly what either of us expected, is it? And yet, they didn't lie in anything they said, Elena. Elena! I said ¡®Elena.' Elena, you're really here!"

Elena couldn't bear to waste any time. She took the few steps through damp, crackly straw and scampering creatures to the bars that separated her from Stefan.

Then she tilted up her face, clutching bars in either hand, and shut her eyes.

I will touch him. I will, I will. I'm real, he's real – I'll touch him!

Stefan leaned down – to humor her, she thought – and then warm lips touched hers.

She put her arms through the bars because they were both weak at the knees: Stefan in astonishment that she could touch him, and Elena in relief and sobbing joy.

But – there was no time.

"Stefan, take my bloodnow – take it!"

She looked desperately for something to cut herself with. Stefan might need her strength, and no matter what Damon had taken from her, she would always have enough for Stefan. If it killed her, she would have enough. She was glad, now, that in the tomb, Damon had persuaded her to take his.

"Easy. Easy, little love. If you mean it, I can bite your wrist, but…"

"Do itnow !" Elena Gilbert, the princess of Fell's Church, ordered. She had even gotten the strength to pull herself off her knees. Stefan gave her half a guilty glance.

"NOW!"Elena insisted.

Stefan bit her wrist.

It was an odd sensation. It hurt a little more than when he pierced the side of her neck as usual. But there were good veins down there, she knew; she trusted Stefan to find the largest so that this would take the least amount of time. Her urgency had become his.

But when he tried to pull back, she clutched a handful of his wavy dark hair and said, "More, Stefan. You need it – oh, I can tell, and we don't have time to argue."

The voice of command. Meredith had told her once that she had it, that she could lead armies. Well, she might need to lead armies to get into this place to save him.

I'll get an army somewhere, she thought fuzzily.

The starving bloodfever that Stefan had been in – they obviously hadn't fed him since she had last seen him – was dying into the more normal blood-taking that she knew. His mind melted into hers.When you say you'll get an army, I believe you. But it's impossible. No one's ever come back.

Well, you will. I'm bringing you back.

Elena, Elena…

Drink,she said, feeling like an Italian mother.As much as you can without being sick.

But how did – no, you told me how you got here. That was the truth?

The truth. I always tell you the truth. But Stefan, how do I getyouout?

Shinichi and Misao – you know them?

Enough.

They each have half a ring. Together it makes a key. Each half is shaped like a running fox. But who knows where they may have hidden the pieces? And as I said, just to get into this place, it takes an army….

I'll find the pieces of the fox ring. I'll put them together. I'll get an army. I'll get you out.

Elena, I can't keep drinking. You'll collapse.

I'm good at not collapsing. Please go on.

I can hardly believe it's you –

"No kissing! Take my blood!"

Ma'am! But Elena, truly, I'm full now. Overfull.

And tomorrow?

"I'll still be overfull." Stefan pulled away, a thumb on the places where he had pierced veins. "Truly, I can't , love."

"And the next day?"

"I'll manage."

"You will – because I broughtthis . Hold me, Stefan," she said, several decibels softer. "Hold me through the bars."

He did, looking bewildered, and she hissed in his ear, "Act like you love me. Stroke my hair. Say nice things."

"Elena, lovely little love…" He was still close enough mentally to say telepathically: Actlike I love you? But while his hands were stroking and squeezing and tangling in her hair, Elena's own hands were busy. She was transferring from under her clothes to under his a flask full of Black Magic wine.

"But where did you get it?" Stefan whispered, seeming thunderstruck.

"The magic house has everything. I've been waiting for my chance to give it to you if you needed it."

"Elena – "

"What?"

Stefan seemed to be struggling with something. At last, eyes on the ground, he whispered, "It's no good. I can't risk you getting killed for the sake of an impossibility. Forget me."

"Put your face to the bars."

He looked at her but didn't ask any questions, obeying.

She slapped him across the face.

It wasn't a very hard slap…although Elena's hand hurt from colliding with the iron on either side.

"Now,be ashamed !" she said. And before he could say anything else,"Listen!"

It was the baying of hounds – far away, but getting closer.

"It'syou they're after," Stefan said, suddenly frantic. "You have to go!"

She just looked at him steadily. "I love you, Stefan."

"I love you, Elena. Forever."

"I – oh, I'msorry ." Shecouldn't go; that was the thing. Like Caroline talking and talking and never leaving Stefan's apartment, she could stand here and speak about it, but she couldn't do it.

"Elena! Youhave to. I don't want you to see what they do – "

"I'll kill them!"

"You're no killer. You're not a fighter, Elena – and you shouldn't see this. Please? Remember once you asked me if I'd like to see how many times you could make me say ¡®please?' Well, each counts for a thousand now. Please? For me? Will you go?"

"One more kiss…" Her heart was beating like a frantic bird inside her.

"Please!"

Blind with tears, Elena turned around and grasped hold of the cell door.

"Anywhere outside the ceremony where no one will see me!" she gasped and wrenched the door to the corridor open and stepped through.

At least she'd seen Stefan, but for how long that would last to keep her heart from shattering again –

– oh, my God, I'mfalling –

– she didn't know.

Elena realized that shewas outside the boardinghouse somewhere – at least some eighty feet high – and plummeting rapidly. Her first, panicked conclusion was that she was going to die, and then instinct kicked in and she reached out with arms and hands and kicked in with legs and feet and managed to arrest her fall after twenty agonizing feet.

I've lost my flying wings forever, haven't I? she thought, concentrating on a single spot between her shoulder blades. She knew just where they should be – and nothing happened.

Then, carefully, she inched her way closer to the trunk, pausing only to move to a higher twig a caterpillar that was sharing the branch with her. And she managed to find a sort of place where she could sit by sidling and then pushing backward. It was far too high a branch for her personal taste.

As it was, she found that she could look down and see the widow's walk quite clearly, and that the longer she looked at any particular thing the clearer her vision got. Vampire vision plus, she thought. It showed her that she was Changing. Or else – yes, somehow here the sky was getting lighter.

What it showed her was a dark and empty boardinghouse, which was disturbing because of what Caroline's father had said about "the meeting" and what she had learned telepathically from Damon about Shinichi's plans for this Moonspire night. Could this be not the real boardinghouse at all, but another trap?

"We made it!" Bonnie cried as they approached the house. She knew her voice was shrill, was over-shrill, but somehow the sight of that brightly lit boardinghouse, like a Christmas tree with a star on top, comforted her, even if she knew that it was all wrong. She felt she could cry in relief.

"Yes, we did," Dr. Alpert's deep voice said. "All of us. Isobel's the one who needs the most treatment, the fastest. Theophilia, get your nostrums ready, and somebody else take Isobel and run her a bath."

"I'll do it," Bonnie quavered, after a brief hesitation. "She's going to stay tranquilized like she is now, right? Right?"

"I'llgo with Isobel," Matt said. "Bonnie, you go with Mrs. Flowers and help her. And before we go inside, I want to make one thing clear: nobody goes anywhere alone. We all travel in twos or threes." There was the ring of authority in his voice.

"Makes sense," Meredith said crisply and took up a place by the doctor. "You'd better be careful, Matt; Isobel is the most dangerous."

That was when the high, thin voices began outside the house. It sounded like two or three little girls singing.

"Isa-chan, Isa-chan,

Drank her tea and ate her gran."

"Tami? Tami Bryce?" Meredith demanded, opening the door as the tune began again. She darted forward, then she grabbed the doctor by the hand, and dragged her along beside her as she darted forward again.

And, yes, Bonnie saw, there were three little figures, one in pajamas and two in nightgowns, and they were Tami Bryce and Kristin Dunstan and Ava Zarinski. Ava was only about eleven, Bonnie thought, and she didn't live near either Tami or Kristin. The three of them all giggled shrilly. Then they started singing again and Matt went after Kristin.

"Help me!" Bonnie cried. She was suddenly hanging on to a bucking, kicking bronco that lashed out in every direction. Isobel seemed to have gone crazy, and she went crazier every time that tune was repeated.

"I've got her," Matt said, closing in on her with a bear hug, but even the two of them couldn't hold Isobel still.

"I'm getting her another sedative," Dr. Alpert said, and Bonnie saw the glances between Matt and Meredith – glances of suspicion.

"No – no, let Mrs. Flowers make her something," Bonnie said desperately, but the hypodermic needle was already almost at Isobel's arm.

"You're not giving her anything," Meredith said flatly, dropping the charade, and with one chorus-girl kick, she sent the hypodermic flying.

"Meredith! What's wrong with you?" the doctor cried, wringing her wrist.

"It's what's wrong withyou that's the matter. Who are you? Where are we? This can't be the real boardinghouse."

"Obaasan! Mrs. Flowers! Can't you help us?" Bonnie gasped, still trying to hold on to Isobel.

"I'll try," Mrs. Flowers said determinedly, heading toward her.

"No, I meant with Dr. Alpert – and maybe Jim. Don't you – know any spells – to make people take on their true forms?"

"Oh!" Obaasan said. "I can help with that. Just let me down, Jim dear. We'll have everyone in their true forms in no time."

Jayneela was a sophomore with large, dreamy, dark eyes that were generally lost in a book. But now, as it neared midnight and Gramma still hadn't called, she shut her book and looked at Ty. Tyrone seemed big and fierce and mean on the playing field, but off it he was the nicest, kindest, gentlest big brother a girl could want.

"You think Gramma's okay?"

"Hm?" Tyrone had his nose in a book, too, but it was one of those help-you-get-into-the-college-of-your-dreams books. As a senior-to-be, he was having to make some serious decisions. "Of course she is."

"Well, I'm going to check on the little girl, at least."

"You know what, Jay?" He poked her teasingly with one toe. "You worry too much."

In moments he was lost again in Chapter Six, "How to Make the Most of Your Community Service." But then the screams started coming from above him. Long, loud, high screams – his sister's voice. He dropped the book and ran.

"Obaasan?" Bonnie said.

"Just a moment, dear," Grandma Saitou said. Jim had put her down and now she was facing him squarely: she looking up, and he looking down. And there was something…very wrong about it.

Bonnie felt a wave of pure terror. Could Jim have done something evil to Obaasan as he carried her? Of course he could. Why hadn't she thought of that? And there was the doctor with her syringe, ready to tranquilize anyone who got too "hysterical." Bonnie looked at Meredith, but Meredith was trying to deal with two squirming little girls, and could only glance helplessly back.

All right, then, Bonnie thought. I'll kick him where it hurts most and get the old lady away from him. She turned back to Obaasan and felt herself freeze.

"Just one thing I have to do…," Obaasan had said. And she was doing it. Jim was bent at the waist, folded in half toward Obaasan, who was on her tiptoes. They were locked in a deep, intimate kiss.

Oh, God!

They had met four people in a wood – and assumed that two were sane and two insane. How could they tell which were the insane ones? Well, if two of them see things that aren't there…

But the housewas there; Bonnie could see it, too. Wasshe insane?

"Meredith, come on!" she screamed. Her nerve breaking completely, she began to run away from the house toward the forest.

Something from the skies plucked her up as easily as an owl picks up a mouse and held her in an unrelenting iron grip.

"Going somewhere?" Damon's voice asked from above her as he glided in the last few yards to a stop, with her neatly tucked under one steely arm.

"Damon!"

Damon's eyes were slightly narrowed, as though at a joke only he could see. "Yes, the evil one himself. Tell me something, my fiery little fury."

Bonnie had already exhausted herself trying to make him let go. She hadn't even succeeded in tearing his clothes.

"What?" she snapped. Possessed or not, Damon had last seen her when she had Called him to save her from Caroline's insanity. But according to Matt's reports, he had done something awful to Elena.

"Why do girls love to convert a sinner? Why can you feed them almost any line if they feel that they've reformed you?"

Bonnie didn't know what he was talking about, but she could guess. "What did you do with Elena?" she said ferociously.

"Gave her what she wanted, that's all," Damon said, his black eyes twinkling. "Is there anything so awful about that?"

Bonnie, frightened by that twinkle, didn't even try to run again. She knew it was no use. He was faster and stronger, and he could fly. Anyway, she had seen it in his face: a sort of distant remorselessness. They were not just Damon and Bonnie here together. They were natural predator and natural prey.

And now here she was back with Jim and Obaasan – no, with a boy and girl she'd never seen before. Bonnie was in time to watch the transformation. She saw Jim's body shrink and his hair turn black, but that wasn't the striking thing about it. The striking thing was that all around the edges, his hair was not black but crimson. It was as if flames were licking up from the tips into darkness. His eyes were golden and smiling.

She saw Obaasan's doll-like old body grow younger and stronger and taller. This girl was a beauty; Bonnie had to admit it. She had gorgeous sloe-black eyes and silky hair that fell almost to her waist. And her hair was just like her brother's – only the red was even brighter, scarlet instead of crimson. She was wearing a barely-there laced black halter that showed how delicately built she was on top. And, of course, low-rise black leather pants to show the same thing on the bottom. She was wearing expensive-looking black high-heeled sandals, and her toenails were enameled the same brilliant red as the tips of her hair. At her belt, in a sinuous circle, was a curled-up whip with a scaly black handle.

Dr. Alpert said slowly, "My grandchildren…?"

"They don't have anything to do with this," the boy with the strange hair said charmingly, smiling. "As long as they mind their own business, you don't have to worry about them a bit."

"It's suicide or an attempted suicide – or something," Tyrone told the police dispatcher, almost weeping. "I think it was a guy named Jim who went to my high school last year. No, this is nothing to do with any drugs – I came here to watch my little sister Jayneela. She was baby-sitting – look, just come over, will you? This guy's chewed off most of his fingers, and as I came in, he said, ¡®I'll always love you, Elena,' and he took a pencil and – no, I can't tell if he's alive or dead. But there's an old lady upstairs and I'm sureshe's dead. Because she's not breathing."

"Who the hell are you?" Matt was saying, eyeing the strange boy belligerently.

"I'm the – "

" – and what the hell are you doing here?"

"I'm the hell Shinichi," the boy said in a much louder voice, looking annoyed to be interrupted. When Matt just stared at him, he added in an annoyed voice, "I'm the kitsune – the were-fox, you could say – who's been messing with your town, idiot. I came halfway around the world to do it, and I'd think you'd at least have heard of me by now. And this is my lovely sister, Misao. We're twins."

"I don't care if you're triplets. Elena said somebody besides Damon was behind this. And so did Stefan before he – hey, what did you do to Stefan?What did you do to Elena? "

While the two strange males were bristling at each other – quite literally in Shinichi's case, since his hair was almost standing on end – Meredith was picking out Bonnie, Dr. Alpert, and Mrs. Flowers by eye. Then she glanced at Matt and touched herself lightly on the chest. She was the only one strong enough to womanhandle him, although Dr. Alpert gave a quick nod that said she would be helping.

And then, while the boys were working up to shouting volume, Misao was giggling at the ground, and Damon was leaning against a door with his eyes shut, they moved. With no signal at all to unite them, they were running, instinctively, as one group. Meredith and Dr. Alpert grabbed Matt from either side and simply lifted him off his feet, just as Isobel quite unexpectedly jumped on Shinichi with a guttural scream.

They hadn't expected anything from her, but it was certainly convenient, Bonnie thought as she hurtled over obstacles without even seeing them. Matt was still shouting and trying to run the other way and take out some primitive frustration on Shinichi, but he couldn't quite manage to get free to do it.

Bonnie could scarcely believe it when they made it into the Wood again. Even Mrs. Flowers had kept up and most of them still had their flashlights.

It was a miracle. They had even escaped Damon. The thing now was to be very quiet and to try to get through the Old Wood without disturbing anything. Maybe they could find their way back to the real boardinghouse, they decided. Then they could figure out how to save Elena from Damon and his two friends. Even Matt finally had to admit that it was unlikely that they would be able to overcome the three supernatural creatures by force.

Bonnie just wished they'd been able to take Isobel with them.

"Well, we have to go to the real boardinghouse anyway," Damon said, as Misao finally got Isobel subdued and semi-conscious. "That's where Caroline will be."

Misao stopped glaring at Isobel and seemed to start slightly. "Caroline? Why do we want Caroline?"

"It's all part of the fun, isn't it?" Damon said in his most charming, flirtatious voice. Shinichi immediately stopped looking martyred and smiled.

"That girl – she's the one you've been using as a carrier, right?" He looked mischievously at his sister, whose smile seemed slightly strained.

"Yes, but – "

"The more the merrier," Damon said, more cheerful with every minute. He didn't seem to notice Shinichi smirking at Misao behind his back.

"Don't sulk, darling," he said to her, tickling her under the chin while his golden eyes gleamed. "I've never set eyes on the girl. But of course, if Damon says it'll be fun, itwill be." The smirk became a full-fledged gloating smile.

"And there's no chance of any of them actually getting away at all?" Damon said, almost absently, staring into the darkness of the Old Wood.

"Give me a little credit, please," the kitsune snapped. "You're a damned – a vampire, aren't you?You're not supposed to hang out in the woods at all."

"It's my territory, along with the cemetery – " Damon was beginning mildly, but Shinichi was determined to finish first this time. "Ilive in the woods," he said. "I control the bushes, the trees – and I've brought a few of my own little experiments along with me. You'll all see them soon enough. So, to answer your question, no, not one of them is going to escape."

"That was all I asked," Damon said, still mildly, but locking gazes with the golden eyes for another long moment. Then he shrugged and turned away, eyeing the moon that could be seen between swirling clouds on the horizon.

"We've got hours before the ceremony yet," Shinichi said, behind him. "We're hardly going to be late."

"We'd better not," Damon murmured. "Caroline can do an awfully good impression of that pierced girl in hysterics when people are late."

As a matter of fact, the moon was riding high in the sky as Caroline drove her mother's car to the porch of the boardinghouse. She was wearing an evening dress that looked as if it had been painted on her, in her favorite colors of bronze and green. Shinichi looked at Misao, who giggled with one hand covering her mouth and looked down.

Damon walked Caroline up the porch steps to the front door and said, "This way to the good seats."

There was some bewilderment as people got themselves sorted out. Damon spoke cheerfully to Kristin and Tami and Ava: "The peanut gallery for you three, I'm afraid. That means you sit on the ground. But if you're good, I'll let you come sit up with us the next time."

The others followed him with more or less exclamation, but it was Caroline who looked annoyed, saying, "Why do we want to goinside ? I thought they were supposed to beoutside ."

"Closest seats not in danger," Damon said briefly. "We can get the best view from up there. Royal box seats, come on, now."

The fox twins and the human girl followed him, switching on lights in the darkened house all the way up to the widow's walk on the roof.

"And now where are they?" Caroline said, peering down.

"They'll be here any minute," Shinichi said, with a glance that was both puzzled and reproving. It said: Who does this girl think she is? He didn't spout any poetry.

"And Elena? She'll be here, too?"

Shinichi didn't answer that at all, and Misao just giggled. But Damon put his lips close to Caroline's ear and whispered.

After that, Caroline's eyes shone green as a cat's. And the smile on her lips was the one of a cat who has just put its paw on the canary.

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