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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 24)

Dear Diary,

It's the night before the night of our first party – or rather gala. But I don't feel very gala. I miss Stefan too much.

I've been brooding about Matt, too. How he walked away, so angry at me, not even looking back. He didn't understand how I could…care for…Damon, and yet still love Stefan so much that it felt as if my heart was breaking.

Elena put down the pen and stared at her diary dully. The heartbreak manifested itself in actual physical pains in her chest that would have frightened her if she hadn't been sure of what it really was. She missed Stefan so desperately that she could hardly eat, could barely sleep. He was like a part of her mind that was constantly on fire, like a phantom limb that would never go away.

Not even writing in her diary would help tonight. All she could write about were painfully tantalizing memories of the good times she and Stefan had shared together. How good it had been when she could just turn her head and know that she would see him – what a privilege that had been! And now it was gone, and in its place was racking confusion, guilt, and anxiety. What was happening to him, right now, when she no longer had the privilege of turning her head and seeing him? Were they…hurting him?

Oh, God, if only…

If only I had made him lock all the windows to his room at the boardinghouse…

If only I had been more suspicious of Damon…

If only I had guessed he had something on his mind that last night…

If only…if only…

It became a pounding refrain in time to her heart. She found herself breathing in sobs, her eyes tightly shut, clutching the rhythm to her and clenching her fists.

If I keep feeling this way – if I let it crush me enough – I'll become an infinitesimal point in space. I'll be crushed into nothingness – and even that will be better than needing him so much.

Elena lifted up her head…and stared down at her head, resting on her diary.

She gasped.

Once more her first reaction was to imagine death. And then, slowly, because she was stupefied by so many tears, she realized that she'd done it again.

She was out of her body.

This time she wasn't even aware of a conscious decision about where to go. She was flying, so fast that she couldn't tell which way she was going. It was as if she were being pulled, as if she were the tail of a comet that was rapidly shooting downward.

At one point she realized with familiar horror that she was passing through things, and then she was veering as if she were the end of the whip in a game of Crack the Whip and then she was catapulted into Stefan's cell.

She was still sobbing as she landed in the cell, unsure of whether she had solid form or gravity, and uncaring for the moment. The only thing she had time to see was Stefan, very thin but smiling in his sleep and then she was dumped onto him, into him, and still crying as she bounced, as lightly as a feather, and Stefan woke.

"Oh, can't you let me sleep for a few minutes in peace?" Stefan snapped, and added a couple of Italian words that Elena had never had reason to hear before.

Elena had an immediate fit of the Bonnies, sobbing so hard that she couldn't listen to – couldn't even hear – any comfort that was on offer. They were doing horrible things to him, and they were using her image, Elena's, to do them. It was all too awful. They were conditioning Stefan to hate her. She hated herself. Everyone in the whole world hated her –

"Elena! Elena, don't cry, love!"

Dully, Elena lifted herself up, getting a brief anatomical view of Stefan's chest before she was sobbing again, trying to wipe her nose on Stefan's prison uniform, which looked as if it could only be improved by anything she might do to it.

She couldn't, of course; just as she couldn't feel the arm that was trying to encircle her gently. She hadn't brought her body with her.

But she had, somehow, brought her tears, and a cold, cable-wire-tough voice inside herself said, Don't waste them, idiot! Use those tears. If you're going to sob, sob over his face or his hands. And, by the way, everyone hates you.

Even Matt hates you, and Matt likes everybody, the tiny cruel, productive voice went on and Elena gave way to a fresh gale of sobbing, absently noting the effect of each teardrop. Each drop turned the white skin under it pink and the color spread in ripples outward, as if Stefan were a pool, and she was resting on him, water on water.

Except that her tears were falling so fast that it looked like a rainstorm on Wickery Pond. And that only made her think about the time that Matt had fallen into the pond, trying to rescue a little girl who had fallen through the ice, and how Matt hated her now.

"Don't, oh don't; don't, lovely love," Stefan begged, so sincerely that anyone would have believed he meant it. But how could he? Elena knew what she must look like, face swollen and blotched by tears: no "lovely love" here! And he'd have to be mad to want her to stop crying: the teardrops were giving him new life wherever they touched his skin – and perhaps the storm inside him had done best, because his telepathic voice was strong and sure.

Elena, forgive me – oh, God, just give me one moment with her! Just a single moment! I can bear anything then, even the true death. Just one moment to touch her!

And perhaps God did look down for a moment in pity. Elena's lips were hovering over, quivering over, Stefan's, as if she could somehow steal a kiss like this as she used to when he was still asleep. But for just an instant it seemed to Elena that she felt warm flesh below hers and the flick of Stefan's lashes against her eyelids as his eyes flew open in surprise.

Instantly they both froze, eyes wide open, neither of them foolish enough to move in the slightest. But Elena couldn't help herself, as the flush of warmth from Stefan's lips sent a flush of warmth through her entire body. She melted into the kiss, and, while keeping her body carefully in the same position, felt her gaze go unfocused and her eyelids close.

As her lashes swept against something with substance, the moment swept quietly to an end. Elena had two choices: she could shriek and rail telepathically at Il Signore for only giving them what Stefan had asked for, or she could gather her courage and smile and maybe comfort Stefan.

Her better nature won out and when Stefan opened his eyes, she was leaning over him, pretending to be resting on her elbows and his chest, and smiling at him as she tried to straighten out her hair.

Relieved, Stefan smiled back at her. It was as if he could bear anything, as long as she was unhurt.

"Now, Damon would have been practical," she teased him. "He would have kept me crying, because in the end, his health would be the most important thing. And he'd have prayed for…" She paused and finally began laughing, which made Stefan smile. "I have no idea," Elena said finally. "I don't think Damon prays."

"Probably not," Stefan said. "When we were young – and human – the town priest walked with a cane that he seemed to enjoy using on young delinquent boys more than as a source of support."

Elena thought of the delicate child chained to the huge and heavy boulder of secrets. Was religion one of the things locked away, put behind doors closed one after another in secret there, like a chambered nautilus until almost everything he cared about was inside?

She didn't ask that of Stefan. Instead, she said, lowering her "voice" to the tiniest telepathic whisper, the barest disturbance of neurons in Stefan's receptive brain: What other practical things can you think of that Damon might have thought of? Things relating to a jailbreak?

"Well…for a jailbreak? The first thing I can think of is for you to know your way around the city. I was brought here blindfolded but since they don't have the power to take the curse off vampires and make them human, I still had all my senses. I'd say it's a city about the size of New York and Los Angeles combined."

"Big city," Elena noted, taking notes in her head.

"But fortunately the only bits that would interest us are in the southwestern section. The city's supposed to be ruled by the Guardians – but they're from the Other Side and the demons and vampires here long ago realized that people were more afraid of them than the Guardians. It's set up now with about twelve to fifteen feudal castles or estates, and each of those estates has control of a considerable amount of land outside the city. They grow their own unique products and sell them in deals made here. For instance, it's the vampires who cultivate Clarion Loess Black Magic."

"I see," said Elena, who had no idea what he was talking about, except the Black Magic wine. "But all we really need to know is how to get to the Shi no Shi – your prison."

"That's true. Well, the easiest way would be to find the kitsune sector. The Shi no Shi is a cluster of buildings, with the largest one – the one without a top, although it's curved, and you may not be able to tell from the ground – "

"The one that looks like a coliseum?" Elena interrupted eagerly. "I get a sort of bird's-eye view of the city whenever I come here."

"Well, the thing that looks like a coliseum is a coliseum." Stefan smiled.

He really smiled; he's feeling well enough to smile, now, Elena rejoiced, but silently.

"So to get you in and out, we just head from below the coliseum to the gate back to our world," Elena said. "But to get you free there are – some things we need to collect – and those are probably going to be in different parts of the city." She tried to remember if she had ever described the twin fox key to Stefan or not. It was probably better not to do it if she hadn't already done it.

"Then I'd hire a native guide," Stefan said immediately. "I don't really know anything about the city, except what the guards tell me – and I'm not sure if I would trust them. But the little people – the ordinary ones – will probably know the things you want to know."

"That's a good idea," Elena said. She drew invisible designs with a transparent finger on his chest. "I think Damon really plans to do everything he can to help us."

"I honor him for coming," Stefan said, as if he were thinking things out. "He's keeping his promise, isn't he?"

Elena nodded. Deep, deep in her consciousness floated the thoughts: His word to me that he would take care of you. His word to you that he would take care of me. Damon always keeps his word.

"Stefan," she said, again in the innermost recesses of his mind, where she could share information – she hoped – in secret, "you should have seen him, really. When I did Wings of Redemption and every bad thing that had hardened him or made him cruel came undone. And when I did Wings of Purification and all the stone covering his soul came away in chunks…. I don't think you could imagine how he was. He was so perfect – and so new. And later when he cried…"

Elena could feel inside Stefan three layers of emotion succeed one another almost instantaneously. Disbelief that Damon could cry, despite all that Elena had been telling him. Then, belief and astonishment as he absorbed her pictures and her memories. And finally, the need to console her as she stared at a Damon forever trapped in penitence. A Damon that would never exist again.

"He saved you," whispered Elena, "but he wouldn't save himself. He wouldn't even bargain with Shinichi and Misao. He just let them take all his memories of that time."

"Maybe it hurt too much."

"Yes," said Elena, deliberately lowering her barriers so that Stefan could feel the hurt that the new and perfect creature she'd created had felt upon learning that he had committed acts of cruelty and treachery that – well, that would make the strongest soul flinch. "Stefan? I think he must feel very lonely."

"Yes, angel. I think you're right."

This time Elena thought a good deal longer before venturing, "Stefan? I'm not sure he understands what it's like to be loved." And while he thought out his response, she was on tenterhooks.

Then he said very softly, very slowly again, "Yes, angel. I think you're right."

Oh, she did love him. He always understood. And he was always most brave and gallant and trusting just when she needed him to be.

"Stefan? Can I stay again tonight?"

"Is it nighttime, lovely love? You can stay – unless They come to take me somewhere." All at once Stefan was very solemn, holding her gaze. "But if They come – you'll promise me to leave then, won't you?"

Elena looked straight into his green eyes and said, "If that's what you want, I'll promise."

"Elena? Do you…do you keep your promises or not?" Suddenly, he sounded very sleepy, but the right kind of sleepy, not worn out, but someone who has been refreshed and is being lulled into a perfect slumber.

"I keep them close to me," Elena whispered. But I keep you closer, she thought. If someone came to hurt him, they would find out what a bodiless opponent could do. For instance, what if she just reached inside their bodies and managed to make contact for an instant? Long enough to squeeze a heart between her pretty white fingers? That would be something.

"I love you, Elena. I'm so glad…we kissed…"

"It's not the last time! You'll see! I swear it!" She dropped new healing tears down on him.

Stefan just smiled gently. And then he was asleep.

In the morning Elena woke up in her grand bedroom in Lady Ulma's house, alone. But she had another memory, like a pressed rose, to put away in its own special place inside her.

And somewhere, deep in her heart, she knew that these memories might be all she had of Stefan someday. She could imagine that these sweet-scented, fragile mementoes would be something to hold on to and cherish – if Stefan never came home.

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