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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 2)

Elena burst out of the backseat of the Jaguar and ran a little way from the car before turning to see what had fallen on top of it.

What had fallen was Matt. He was in the process of struggling to get up off his back.

"Matt – oh, my God! Are you all right? Are you hurt?" Elena cried at the same time as Matt was shouting in tones of anguish:

"Elena – oh, my God! Is the Jag all right? Is it hurt?"

"Matt, are you crazy? Did you hit your head?"

"Are there any scratches? Does the moonroof still work?"

"No scratches. The moonroof is fine." Elena had no idea if the moonroof worked, but she realized that Matt was raving, off his head. He was trying to get down without getting any mud on the Jag, but he was handicapped since his legs and feet were covered with mud. Getting off of the car without using his feet was proving difficult.

Meanwhile, Elena was looking around. She herself had once fallen from the sky, yes, but she had been dead for six months first and had arrived naked, and Matt fulfilled neither requirement. She had a more prosaic explanation in mind.

And there it was, lounging against a yellowwood tree and eyeing the scene with a very slight, wicked smile.

Damon.

He was compact; not as tall as Stefan, but with an indefinable aura of menace that more than made up for it. He was as immaculately dressed as always: black Armani jeans, black shirt, black leather jacket, and black boots, which all went with his carelessly windblown dark hair and his black eyes.

Right now, he made Elena acutely aware that she was wearing a long white nightgown that she had brought with the idea that she could change her clothes underneath it if necessary while they were camping. The problem was that she usually did this just at dawn, and today writing in her diary had distracted her. And all at once the nightgown wasn't the correct attire for an early-morning fight with Damon. It wasn't sheer, being more akin to flannel than to nylon, but it was lacy, especially around the neck. Lace around a pretty neck to a vampire – as Damon had told her – was like a waving red cloak in front of a raging bull.

Elena crossed her arms over her chest. She also tried to make sure that her aura was pulled in decorously.

"You look like Wendy," Damon said, and his smile was wicked, flashing, and definitely appreciative. He cocked his head to the side coaxingly.

Elena refused to be coaxed. "Wendy who?" she said, and at just that moment remembered the last name of the young girl in Peter Pan, and winced inwardly. Elena had always been good at repartee of this kind. The problem was that Damon was better.

"Why, Wendy…Darling," Damon said, and his voice was a caress.

Elena felt an inward shiver. Damon had promised not to Influence her – to use his telepathic powers to cloud or manipulate her mind. But sometimes it felt as if he got awfully close to the line. Yes, it was definitely Damon's fault, Elena thought. She didn't have any feelings for him that were – well, that were anything other than sisterly. But Damon never gave up, no matter how many times she rejected him.

Behind Elena was a thump and squelch that undoubtedly meant Matt had finally gotten off the roof of the Jag. He jumped into the fray immediately.

"Don't call Elena, Elena darling!" he shouted, continuing as he turned to Elena, "Wendy's probably the name of his latest little girlfriend. And – and – and do you know what he did? How he woke me up this morning?" Matt was quivering with indignation.

"He picked you up and threw you on top of the car?" Elena hazarded. She talked over her shoulder to Matt because there was a faint morning breeze that tended to mold her nightgown to her body. She didn't want Damon behind her just now.

"No! I mean, yes! No and yes! But – when he did, he didn't even bother to use his hands! He just went like this" – Matt waved an arm – "and first I got dropped into a mud hole and next thing I know I got dropped on the Jag. It could have broken the moonroof – or me! And now I'm all muddy," Matt added, examining himself with disgust, as if it had only just occurred to him.

Damon spoke up. "And why did I pick you up and put you down again? What were you actually doing at the time when I put some distance between us?"

Matt flushed to the roots of his fair hair. His normally tranquil blue eyes were blazing.

"I was holding a stick," he said defiantly.

"A stick. A stick like the kind you find along the roadside? That kind of stick?"

"I did pick it up along the roadside, yes!" Still defiant.

"But then something strange seems to have happened to it." From nowhere that Elena could see, Damon suddenly produced a very long, and very sturdy-looking stake, with one end that had been whittled to an extremely sharp point. It had definitely been carved from hardwood: oak from the look of it.

While Damon was examining his "stick" from all sides with a look of acute bafflement, Elena turned on a sputtering Matt.

"Matt!" she said reproachfully. This was definitely a low point in the cold war between the two boys.

"I just thought," Matt went on stubbornly, "that it might be a good idea. Since I'm sleeping outdoors at night and a…another vampire might come along."

Elena had already turned again and was making appeasing noises at Damon when Matt burst out afresh.

"Tell her how you actually woke me up!" he said explosively. Then, without giving Damon a chance to say anything, he continued, "I was just opening my eyes when he dropped this on me!" Matt squelched over to Elena, holding something up. Elena, truly at a loss, took it from him, turning it over. It seemed to be a pencil stub, but it was discolored dark reddish-brown.

"He dropped that on me and said 'scratch off two,'" Matt said. "He'd killed two people – and he was bragging about it!"

Elena suddenly didn't want to be holding the pencil anymore.

"Damon!" she said in a cry of real anguish, as she tried to make something out of his no-expression expression. "Damon – you didn't – not really – "

"Don't beg him, Elena. The thing we've got to do – "

"If anybody would let me get a word in," Damon said, now sounding truly exasperated, "I might mention that before I could explain about the pencil someone attempted to stake me on the spot, even before getting out of his sleeping bag. And what I was going to say next was that they weren't people. They were vampires, thugs, hired muscle – but these were possessed by Shinichi's malach. And they were on our trail. They'd gotten as far as Warren, Kentucky, probably by asking questions about the car. We're definitely going to have to get rid of it."

"No!" Matt shouted defensively. "This car – this car means something to Stefan and Elena."

"This car means something to you," Damon corrected. "And I might point out that I had to leave my Ferrari in a creek just so we could take you on this little expedition."

Elena held up her hand. She didn't want to hear any more. She did have feelings for the car. It was big and brilliantly red and flashy and buoyant – and it expressed how she and Stefan had been feeling on the day that he bought it for her, celebrating the start of their new life together. Just looking at it made her remember the day, and the weight of Stefan's arm around her shoulder and the way he'd looked down at her, when she'd looked up at him – his green eyes sparkling with mischief and the joy of getting her something she really wanted.

To Elena's embarrassment and fury, she found that she was shaking slightly, and that her own eyes were full of tears.

"You see," Matt said, glaring at Damon. "Now you're making her cry."

"I am? I'm not the one who mentioned my dear departed younger brother," Damon said urbanely.

"Just stop it! Right now! Both of you," Elena shouted, trying to find her composure. "And I don't want this pencil, if you don't mind," she added, holding it at arm's length.

When Damon took it, Elena wiped her hands on her nightgown, feeling vaguely light-headed. She shivered, thinking of the vampires on their trail.

And then, suddenly, as she swayed, there was a warm, strong arm around her and Damon's voice beside her saying, "What she needs is some fresh air, and I'm going to give it to her."

Abruptly Elena was weightless and she was in Damon's arms and they were going higher.

"Damon, could you please put me down?"

"Right now, darling? It's quite a distance…"

Elena continued to remonstrate with Damon, but she could tell that he had tuned her out. And the cool morning air was clearing her head a bit, although it also made her shake.

She tried to stop the shivering, but couldn't help it. Damon glanced down at her and to her surprise, looking completely serious, began to make motions as if to take his jacket off. Elena hastily said, "No, no – you just drive – fly, I mean, and I'll hang on."

"And watch for low-going seagulls," Damon said solemnly, but with a quirk at the side of his mouth. Elena had to turn her face away because she was in danger of laughing.

"So, just when did you learn you could pick people up and drop them on cars?" she inquired.

"Oh, just recently. It was like flying: a challenge. And you know I like challenges."

He was looking down at her with mischief in his eyes, those black on black eyes with such long lashes that they were wasted on a boy. Elena felt as light as if she were dandelion fluff, but also a little light-headed, almost tipsy.

She was much warmer now, because – she realized – Damon had enfolded her in his aura, which was warm. Not just in temperature, either, but warm with a heady, almost drunken appreciation, as he took her in, her eyes and her face and her hair floating weightlessly in a cloud of gold around her shoulders. Elena couldn't help but blush, and she almost heard his thought, that blushing suited her very well, pale pink against her fair complexion.

And just as blushing was an involuntary physical response to his warmth and appreciation, Elena felt an involuntary emotional response – of thankfulness for what he had done, of gratitude for his appreciation, and of unintentional appreciation of Damon himself. He had saved her life tonight, if she knew anything about vampires possessed by Shinichi's malach, vampires who were thugs to begin with. She couldn't even imagine what such creatures would do to her, and she didn't want to. She could only be glad that Damon had been clever enough and, yes, ruthless enough to take care of them before they got to her.

And she would have to be blind and just plain stupid not to appreciate the fact that Damon was gorgeous. After having died twice, this fact did not affect her as it would most other girls, but it was still a fact, whether Damon was pensive or giving one of those rare genuine smiles that he seemed to have only for Elena.

The problem with this was that Damon was a vampire and could therefore read her mind, especially with Elena being so close, their auras intermingling. And Damon appreciated Elena's appreciation, and it became a little cycle of feedback, all on its own. Before Elena could quite focus she was melting, her weightless body feeling heavier as it molded itself to Damon's arms.

And the other problem was that Damon wasn't Influencing her; he was as caught up in the feedback as Elena was – more so, because he didn't have any barriers against it. Elena did, but they were blurring, dissolving. She couldn't think properly. Damon was gazing at her with wonder and a look she was all too used to seeing – but she couldn't remember where.

Elena had lost the power to analyze. She was simply basking in the warm glow of being cherished, being held and loved and cared for with an intensity that shook her to the bone.

And when Elena gave of herself, she gave completely. Almost without conscious effort, she arched her head back to expose her throat and closed her eyes.

Damon gently positioned her head differently, supported it with one hand, and kissed her.

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