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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 17)

"Her name's Ulma," a voice said, and Elena looked down to find Lakshmi holding back the curtains of the litter with a hand over her head. "Everybody knows Old Drohzne and his slaves. He beats 'em until they pass out and then expects 'em to pick up his rickshaw and go on carrying a load. He kills five or six a year."

"He didn't kill this one," Elena murmured. "He got what he deserved." She squeezed Ulma's hand.

She was vastly relieved when the litter stopped and Damon himself appeared, just as she was about to start bargaining with one of the litter bearers to carry Ulma in their arms to the doctor. Without regard for his clothing, Damon still somehow managed to convey disinterest even as he picked up the woman – Ulma – and nodded to Elena to follow him. Lakshmi skipped around him and took the lead into an intricately patterned stone courtyard and then down a crooked hallway with some solid, respectable-looking doors. Finally, she knocked on one and a wizened man with a huge head and the faintest remnant of a wispy beard opened the door cautiously.

"I don't keep any ketterris here! No hexen, no zemeral! And I don't do love spells!" Then, peering short-sightedly, he seemed to focus on the little group.

"Lakshmi?" he said.

"We've brought a woman who needs help," Elena said shortly. "She's pregnant, too. You're a doctor, aren't you? A healer?"

"A healer of some limited ability. Come in, come in."

The doctor was hurrying into a back room. They all followed him, Damon still carrying Ulma. Once she arrived, Elena saw that the healer was in the corner of what looked like a crowded wizard's sanctuary, with quite a bit of voodoo and witch doctor thrown in.

Elena, Meredith, and Bonnie glanced at one another nervously, but then Elena heard water splashing and realized that the doctor was in the corner because there was a basin of water there, and the healer was washing his hands thoroughly, rolling his sleeves up to his elbows and making a lot of frothy bubbles. He might call himself a "healer," yet he did understand basic hygiene, she thought.

Damon had put Ulma onto what looked like a clean white-sheeted examining table. The doctor nodded to him. Then, tch-tching, he pulled out a tray of instruments and set Lakshmi about fetching cloths to clean the cuts and staunch the profuse bleeding. He also opened various drawers to pull out strong-smelling bags and stood on a ladder to pull down clumps of herbs that were strung from the ceiling. Finally he opened a small box and took a pinch of snuff, himself.

"Please hurry," Elena said. "She's lost a lot of blood."

"And you've lost not a little," the man said. "My name is Kephar Meggar – and this would be Master Drohzne's slave, yes?" He peered at them, looking somehow as if he were wearing glasses, which he wasn't. "And you would be slaves, too?" He stared at the single rope Elena was still wearing, and then at Bonnie and Meredith, each wearing the same.

"Yes, but – " Elena stopped. Some infiltrator she was. She'd very nearly said "But not really; it's just to satisfy convention. She settled for saying, "But our master is very different from hers." They were very different, she thought. Damon didn't have a broken neck, for one thing. And for another, no matter how vicious and deadly he might be, he would never strike a woman, much less do something like this to one. He seemed to have some kind of internal block against it – except when he was possessed by Shinichi, and couldn't control his own muscles.

"And yet Drohzne allowed you to bring this woman to a healer?" The little man looked doubtful.

"No, he wouldn't have let us, I'm sure," Elena said flatly. "But please – she's bleeding and she's going to have a baby…."

Dr. Meggar's eyebrows went up and down. But without asking anyone to leave while he treated her, he pulled out an old-fashioned stethoscope and listened carefully to Ulma's heart and lungs. He smelled her breath, and then gently palpated her abdomen below Elena's bloody camisole, all with a professional air, before tipping to her lips a brown bottle, from which she drank a few sips, then sank back, her eyes fluttering closed.

"Now," the little man said, "she's resting comfortably. She'll need quite a bit of stitching of course, and you could use a few stitches yourself, but that's as your master says, I suppose." Dr. Meggar said the word master with a definite implication of dislike. "But I can almost promise you that she won't die. About her babe I don't know. It may come out marked as a result of this business – striped birthmarks, perhaps – or it may be perfectly all right. But with food and rest" – Dr. Meggar's eyebrows went up and down again, as if the doctor would have liked to say this to Master Drohzne's face – "she should recover."

"Take care of Elena first, then," Damon said.

"No, no!" Elena said, pushing the doctor away. He seemed like a nice man, but obviously around here, masters were masters – and Damon was more masterful and intimidating than most.

But not, at this moment, to Elena. She didn't care about herself right now. She'd made a promise – the doctor's words meant that she might be able to keep it. That was what she cared about.

Up and down, up and down. Dr. Meggar's eyebrows looked like two caterpillars on one elastic string. One lagged a little behind the other. Clearly, the behavior he was seeing was abnormal, even liable to be punished by serious means. But Elena only noticed him peripherally, the way she was noticing Damon.

"Help her," she said vehemently – and watched the doctor's eyebrows shoot up as if they were aimed for the ceiling.

She'd let her aura escape. Not completely, thank God, but a blast had definitely discharged, like a flash of sheet lightning in the room.

And the doctor, who wasn't a vampire, but just an ordinary citizen, had noticed it. Lakshmi had noticed it; even Ulma stirred on the examining table uneasily.

I'm going to have to be a whole lot more careful, Elena thought. She cast a quick look at Damon, who was about to explode, himself – she could tell. Too many emotions, too much blood in the room, and the adrenaline of killing still pulsing in his bloodstream.

How did she know all that?

Because Damon wasn't perfectly in control, either, she realized. She was sensing things directly from his mind. Best to get him out of here quickly. "We'll wait outside," she said, catching his arm, to Dr. Meggar's obvious shock. Slaves, even beautiful ones, didn't act that way.

"Go and wait in the courtyard then," the doctor said, carefully controlling his face and speaking to the air in between Damon and Elena. "Lakshmi, give them some bandages so they can staunch the young girl's bleeding. Then come back; you can help me."

"Just one question," he added as Elena and the others were walking out of the room. "How did you know that this woman is pregnant? What sort of spell can tell you that?"

"No spell," Elena said simply. "Any woman watching her should have known." She saw Bonnie flash her an injured look, but Meredith remained inscrutable.

"That horrible slaver – Drogsie – or whatever – was whipping her from the front," Elena said. "And look at those gashes." She winced, looking over two stripes that crossed Ulma's sternum. "In that case, any woman would be trying to protect her breasts, but this one was trying to cover her belly. That meant she was pregnant, and far along enough to be sure about it, too."

Dr. Meggar's eyebrows drew down and together – and then he looked up at Elena as if peering over glasses. Then he nodded slowly. "You take some bandages and stop your own bleeding," he said – to Elena, not to Damon. Apparently, slave or not, she had won some kind of respect from him.

On the other hand, Elena seemed to have lost stature with Damon – or at least, he'd cut his mind off from hers quite deliberately, leaving her with a blank wall to stare at. In the doctor's waiting room, he waved an imperious hand at Bonnie and Meredith.

"Wait here in this room," he said – no, he ordered. "Don't leave it until the doctor comes out. Don't let anyone in the front door – lock it now, and keep it locked. Good. Elena is coming with me into the kitchen – that's the back door. I do not want to be disturbed by anyone unless an angry mob is threatening the house with arson, do you understand? Both of you?"

Elena could see Bonnie about to blurt out, "But Elena's still bleeding!" and Meredith was with her eyes and brows calling council on whether or not they needed to hold an immediate velociraptor sisterhood rebellion. They all knew Plan A for this: Bonnie would throw herself into Damon's arms, passionately weeping or passionately kissing him, whichever best fit the situation, while Elena and Meredith came at him from the sides and did – well, whatever had to be done.

Elena, with one flash of her own eyes, had categorically nixed this. Damon was angry, yes, but she could sense that it was more with Drohzne than with her. The blood had agitated him, yes, but he was used to controlling himself in bloody situations. And she needed help with her wounds, which had begun to hurt seriously, ever since she'd heard that the woman she had rescued would live, and might even have her baby. But if Damon had something on his mind, she wanted to know what it was – now.

With one last comforting glance at Bonnie, Elena followed Damon through the kitchen door. It had a lock on it. Damon looked at it and opened his mouth; Elena locked it. Then she looked up at her "master."

He was standing by the kitchen sink, methodically pumping water, with one hand clenched against his forehead. His hair hung over his eyes, getting splashed, getting wet. He didn't seem to care.

"Damon?" Elena said uncertainly. "Are you…all right?"

He didn't answer.

Damon? she tried telepathically.

I let you get hurt. I'm fast enough. I could have killed that bastard Drohzne with one blast of Power. But I never imagined you'd get hurt. His telepathic voice was at once filled with the darkest kind of menace imaginable and a strange, almost gentle, calm. As if he were trying to keep all the ferocity and anger locked away from her.

I couldn't even tell him – I couldn't even send words to him to tell him what he was. I couldn't think. He was a telepath; he would have heard me. But I didn't have any words. I could only scream – in my mind.

Elena felt a bit light-headed – a little more light-headed than she'd already been feeling. Damon was feeling this anguish – for her? He wasn't angry about her flagrantly breaking rules in front of crowds, maybe breaking their cover? He didn't mind looking bedraggled?

"Damon," she said. He'd surprised her into speaking out loud. "It – it – doesn't matter. It's not your fault. You would never even have let me do it – "

"But I should have known you wouldn't ask! I thought you were going to attack him, to jump on his shoulders and throttle him, and I was ready to help you do that, to take him down like two wolves taking down a big buck. But you're not a sword, Elena. Whatever you think, you're a shield. I should have known that you would take the next blow yourself. And because of me, you got – " His eye drifted to her cheekbone and he winced.

Then he seemed to get a grip on himself. "The water is cold, but it's pure. We need to clean those slashes and stop that bleeding now."

"I don't suppose there's any Black Magic around," Elena said, half jokingly. This was going to hurt.

Damon, however, immediately began opening cupboards. "Here," he said after checking only three, triumphantly coming up with a half-full bottle of Black Magic. "Lots of doctors keep this as a medicine and anesthetic. Don't worry; I'll pay him well."

"Then I think you should have some, too," Elena said boldly. "Come on, it'll do us both good. And it won't be the first time."

She knew that the last sentence would clinch it with Damon. It would be a way of getting back something that Shinichi had taken from him.

I'll get the whole of his memories back from Shinichi somehow, Elena decided, doing her best to screen her thoughts from Damon with white noise. I don't know how to do it, and I don't know when I'll get the chance, but I swear I will. I swear.

Damon had filled two goblets with the rich, heady-smelling wine and was handing one to Elena. "Just sip at first," he said, helpless but to fall into the role of instructor. "This is a good year."

Elena sipped, then simply gulped. She was thirsty and Clarion Loess Black Magic wine didn't have any alcohol – as such – in it. It certainly didn't taste like regular wine. It tasted like remarkably refreshing effervescent spring water that was flavored with sweet, deep, velvety grapes.

Damon, she noticed, had forgotten to sip as well, and when he offered her a second glass to match his, she accepted willingly.

His aura sure had calmed down a lot, she thought, as he picked up a wet cloth and began, gently, to clean the cut that almost exactly followed the line of her cheekbone. It had been the one to stop bleeding first, but now he needed to get the blood flowing again, to cleanse it. With two glasses of Black Magic on top of no food since breakfast, Elena found herself relaxing against the back of the chair, letting her head drop back a little, and shutting her eyes. She lost track of time, as he stroked the cut smoothly. And she lost strict control of her aura.

When she opened her eyes it was in response to no sound, no visual stimulus. It was a blaze in Damon's aura, one of sudden determination.

"Damon?"

He was standing over her. His darkness had flared out behind him like a shadow, tall and wide and almost mesmerizing. Definitely almost frightening.

"Damon?" she said again, uncertainly.

"We're not doing this right," he said, and her thoughts flashed at once to her disobedience as a slave, and Bonnie and Meredith's less serious infractions. But his voice was like dark velvet, and her body responded to it more accurately than her mind. It shivered.

"How…do we do it right?" she asked, and then she made the mistake of opening her eyes. She found that he was stooping over her as she sat on the chair, stroking – no, just touching – her hair so softly that she hadn't even felt it.

"Vampires know how to take care of wounds," he said confidently, and his great eyes that seemed to hold their own universe of stars caught and held her. "We can clean them. We can start them bleeding again – or stop them."

I've felt like this before, Elena thought. He's talked to me like this before, too, even if he doesn't remember. And I – I was too frightened. But that was before…

Before the motel. The night when he'd told her to run, and she hadn't. The night that Shinichi had taken, just as he'd taken the first time they'd shared Black Magic together.

"Show me," whispered Elena. And she knew that something else in her mind was whispering too, whispering different words. Words that she would never have said if she had for a moment thought of herself as a slave.

Whispering, I'm yours…

That was when she felt his mouth lightly brush her mouth.

And then she just thought, Oh! and Oh, Damon…until he moved to gently touch her cheek with his silky soft tongue, manipulating chemicals first to make cleansing blood flow, and finally when the impurities had all been so softly swept away, to stop the blood and to heal the wound. She could feel his Power now, the dark Power that he had used in a thousand fights, to inflict hundreds of mortal wounds, being held tightly in check to concentrate on this simple, homely task, to heal the mark of a whiplash on a girl's cheek. Elena thought it was like being stroked with the petals of that Black Magic rose, its cool smooth petals gently sweeping away the pain, until she shivered in delight.

And then it stopped. Elena knew that she'd once again had too much wine. But this time she didn't feel sick. The deceptively light drink had gone to her head, making her tipsy. Everything had taken on an unreal, dreamlike quality.

"It will finish healing well now," Damon said, again touching her hair so softly that she could barely feel it. But this time she did feel it, because she sent out fingers of Power to meet the sensation and enjoy every moment of it. And once again he kissed her – so lightly – his lips barely brushing hers. When her head fell back, though, he didn't follow, even when, disappointed, she tried to put pressure on the back of his neck. He simply waited until Elena thought things out…slowly.

We shouldn't be kissing. Meredith and Bonnie are right next door. How do I get myself in situations like this? But Damon isn't even trying to kiss…and we're supposed to be – oh! Her other wounds.

They really hurt now. What cruel person had thought up a whip like that, Elena thought, with a razor-thin lash that cut so deeply it didn't even hurt at first – or not that much…but got worse and worse over time? And kept bleeding…we're supposed to be stopping the bleeding until the doctor can see me….

But her next wound, the one that burned like fire now, was diagonally across her collarbone. And the third was near her knee….

Damon started to get up, to get another cloth from the sink and cleanse the cut with water.

Elena held him back. "No."

"No? Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"All I want to do is cleanse it…."

"I know." She did know. His mind was open to hers, all its turbulent power running clear and tranquilly. She didn't know why it had opened to her like this, but it had.

"But let me advise you, don't go donating your blood to some dying vampire; don't let anyone sample it. It's worse than Black Magic – "

"Worse?" She knew he was complimenting her, but she didn't understand.

"The more you drink, the more you want to drink," Damon answered, and for a moment Elena saw the turbulence she had caused in those calm waters. "And the more you drink, the more Power you can absorb," he added seriously. Elena realized that she had never even thought of this as a problem, but it was. She remembered the agony it had been to try to absorb her own aura before she had learned how to keep it moving with her bloodstream.

"Don't worry," he added, still serious. "I know who you're thinking about." He made a move again to get a cloth. But without knowing it, he had said too much, presumed too far.

"You know who I'm thinking about?" Elena said softly, and she was surprised at how dangerous her own voice could sound, like the soft padding of heavy tigress feet. "Without asking me?"

Damon tried to finesse his way out. "Well, I assumed…."

"No one knows what I'm thinking about," Elena said. "Until I tell

them." She moved and made him kneel to look at her, questioningly.

Hungrily.

Then, just as it was she who had made him kneel, it was she who

drew him to her wound.

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