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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 3)

Time stopped. Elena found that she was instinctively groping for the mind of the one who was kissing her so sweetly. She had never really appreciated a kiss until she had died, become a spirit, and then been returned to earth with an aura that revealed the hidden meaning of other people's thoughts, words, and even their minds and souls. It was as if she had gained a beautiful new sense. When two auras mingled as deeply as this, two souls were laid bare to each other.

Semi-consciously, Elena let her aura expand, and met a mind almost at once. To her surprise, it recoiled from her. That wasn't right. She managed to snag it before it could retreat behind a great hard stone, like a boulder. The only things left outside the boulder – which reminded her of a picture of a meteorite she had seen, with a pocked, charred surface – were rudimentary brain functions, and a little boy, chained to the rock by both wrists and both ankles.

Elena was shocked. Whatever she was seeing, she knew it was a metaphor only, and that she should not judge too quickly what the metaphor meant. The images before her were really the symbols of Damon's naked soul, but in a form that her own mind could understand and interpret, if only she looked at it from the right perspective.

Instinctively, though, she knew that she was seeing something important. She had come through the breathless delight and dizzying sweetness of joining her soul to another's. And now, her inherent love and concern drove her to try to communicate.

"Are you cold?" she asked the child, whose chains were long enough to allow him to wrap his arms tightly about his drawn-up legs. He was clothed in ragged black.

He nodded silently. His huge dark eyes seemed to swallow up his face.

"Where do you belong?" Elena said doubtfully, thinking of ways to get the child warm. "Not inside that?" She made a gesture toward the giant stone boulder.

The child nodded again. "It's warmer in there, but he won't let me inside anymore."

"He?" Elena was always on the lookout for signs of Shinichi, that malicious fox spirit. "Which 'he,' darling?" She had already knelt and taken the child in her arms, and he was cold, ice cold, and the iron was freezing.

"Damon," the little ragamuffin boy whispered. For the first time the boy's eyes left her face, to glance fearfully around him.

"Damon did this?" Elena's voice started loud and ended up as soft as the boy's whisper, as he turned pleading eyes on her and desperately patted at her lips, like a velvet-clawed kitten.

This is all just symbols, Elena reminded herself. It's Damon's mind – his soul – that you're looking at.

But are you? an analytical part of her asked suddenly. Wasn't there – a time before, when you did this with someone – and you saw a world inside them, entire landscapes full of love and moonlit beauty, all of it symbolizing the normal, healthy workings of an ordinary, extraordinary mind. Elena couldn't remember the name of the person now, but she remembered the beauty. She knew that her own mind would use such symbols to present itself to another person.

No, she realized abruptly and definitively: she was not seeing Damon's soul. Damon's soul was somewhere inside that huge, heavy ball of rock. He lived cramped inside that hideous thing, and he wanted it that way. All that was left outside was some ancient memory from his childhood, a boy who had been banished from the rest of his soul.

"If Damon put you here, then who are you?" Elena asked slowly, testing her theory, while taking in the black-on-black eyes of the child, and the dark hair and the features she knew even if they were so young.

"I'm – Damon," the little boy whispered, white around the lips.

Maybe even revealing that much was painful, Elena thought. She didn't want to hurt this symbol of Damon's childhood. She wanted him to feel the sweetness and comfort that she was feeling. If Damon's mind had been like a house, she would have wanted to tidy it up, and fill every room with flowers and starlight. If it had been a landscape she would have put a halo around the full white moon, or rainbows amongst the clouds. But instead it presented itself as a starving child chained to a ball that no one could breach, and she wanted to comfort and soothe the child.

She cradled the little boy, rubbing his arms and legs hard and nestling him against her spirit body.

At first he felt tense and wary in her arms. But after a little time, when nothing terrible happened as a result of their contact, he relaxed and she felt his small body go warm and drowsy and heavy in her arms. She herself felt a crushingly sweet protectiveness about the little creature.

In just a few minutes, the child in her arms was asleep, and Elena thought that there was the faintest ghost of a smile on his lips. She cuddled his little body, rocking him gently, smiling herself. She was thinking of someone who had held her when she'd cried. Someone who was – was not forgotten, never forgotten – but who made her throat ache with sadness. Someone so important – it was desperately important that she remember him now, now – and that she…she had to…to find…

And then suddenly the peaceful night of Damon's mind was split open – by sound, by light, and by energies that even Elena, young as she was in the ways of Power, knew had been kindled by the memory of a single name.

Stefan.

Oh, God, she had forgotten him – she had actually, for a few minutes allowed herself to be drawn into something that meant forgetting him. The anguish of all those lonely late-night hours, sitting and pouring out her grief and fear to her diary – and then the peace and comfort that Damon had offered had actually made her forget Stefan – to forget what he might be suffering at this very moment.

"No – no!" Elena was struggling alone in darkness. "Let go – I have to find – I can't believe that I forgot – "

"Elena." Damon's voice was calm and gentle – or at least unemotional. "If you keep jerking around like that you're going to get free – and it's a long way to the ground."

Elena opened her eyes, all her memories of rocks and little children flying away, scattering like white dandelion silk in every direction. She looked at Damon accusingly.

"You – you – "

"Yes," Damon said composedly. "Blame it on me. Why not? But I did not Influence you, and I did not bite you. I merely kissed you. Your Powers did the rest; they may be uncontrollable, but they're extremely compelling all the same. Frankly, I never intended to get sucked in so deeply – if you'll forgive a pun."

His voice was light, but Elena had a sudden inner vision of a weeping child, and she wondered if he were really as indifferent as he seemed.

But that's his speciality, isn't it? she thought, suddenly bitter. He gives out dreams, fancies, pleasure that stays in the minds of his…donors. Elena knew that the girls and young women that Damon…preyed on…adored him, their only complaint being that he didn't visit them often enough.

"I understand," Elena said to him as they drifted closer to the ground. "But this can't happen again. There's only one person that I can kiss, and that's Stefan."

Damon opened his mouth, but just then there was the sound of a voice that was as furious and accusing as Elena had been, and which didn't care about the consequences. Elena remembered the other person she'd forgotten.

"DAMON, YOU BASTARD, BRING HER DOWN!"

Matt.

Elena and Damon came to a twirling, elegant stop, right beside the Jaguar. Matt immediately ran to Elena and snatched her away, examining her as if she had been in an accident, with particular attention to her neck. Once again Elena was uncomfortably aware of being dressed in a lacy white nightgown in the presence of two boys.

"I'm fine, honestly," she said to Matt. "I'm just a little bit dizzy. I'll be better in a few minutes."

Matt let out a breath of relief. He might not still be in love with her as he once had been, but Elena knew he cared deeply about her and always would. He cared about her as his friend Stefan's girlfriend, and also on her own merits. She knew he would never forget the time they had been together.

More, he believed in her. So right now, when she promised that she was all right, he believed that. He was even willing to give Damon a look that wasn't completely hostile.

And then both of the boys headed for the driver's side door of the Jag.

"Oh, no," Matt said. "You drove yesterday – and look what happened! You said it yourself – there are vampires trailing us!"

"You're saying it's my fault? Vampires are tracing this fire-engine-red-paint-job giant and it's somehow my doing?"

Matt simply looked stubborn: his jaw clenched, his tanned skin flushed. "I'm saying we should take turns. You've had your turn."

"I don't recall anything ever being said about 'taking turns.'" Damon managed to give the word an inflection that made it sound like some rather wicked activity. "And if I go in a car, I drive the car."

Elena cleared her throat. Neither of them even noticed her.

"I'm not getting into a car if you're driving!" Matt said furiously.

"I'm not getting into a car if you're driving!" Damon said laconically.

Elena cleared her throat more loudly, and Matt finally remembered her existence.

"Well, Elena can't be expected to drive us all the way to wherever we're going," he said, before she could even suggest the possibility. "Unless we're going to get there today," he added, looking at Damon sharply.

Damon shook his dark head. "No. I'm taking the scenic route. And the fewer people who know where we're going the safer we're going to be. You can't tell if you don't know."

Elena felt as if someone had just lightly touched the hairs on the back of her neck with an ice cube. The way Damon said those words…

"But they'll already know where we're going, won't they?" she asked, shaking herself back to practicality. "They know we want to rescue Stefan, and they know where Stefan is."

"Oh, yes. They'll know we're trying to get into the Dark Dimension. But by what gate? And when? If we can lose them the only thing we need to worry about is Stefan and the prison guards."

Matt looked around. "How many gates are there?"

"Thousands. Wherever three ley lines cross, there's the potential for a gate. But since the Europeans drove the Native Americans out of their homes, most of the gates aren't used or maintained as they were in the old days." Damon shrugged.

But Elena was tingling all over with excitement, with anxiety. "Why don't we just find the nearest gate and go through it, then?"

"Travel all the way to the prison underground? Look, you don't understand at all. First of all, you need me with you to get you into a gate – and even then it isn't going to be pleasant."

"Not pleasant for who? Us or you?" Matt asked grimly.

Damon gave him a long, blank look. "If you tried on your own it would be briefly and terminally unpleasant for you. With me, it should be uncomfortable but a matter of routine. And as for what it's like traveling for even a few days down there – well, you'll see for yourselves, eventually," Damon said, with an odd smile. "And it would take much, much longer than going by a main gate."

"Why?" Matt demanded – always ready to ask questions that Elena really, really didn't want to know the answers to.

"Because it's either jungle, where five-foot leeches dropping from the trees are going to be the least of your worries, or wasteland, where any enemy can spot you – and everyone is your enemy."

There was a pause while Elena thought hard. Damon looked serious. Clearly, he really didn't want to do it – and not many things bothered Damon. He liked fighting. More, if it would only waste time…

"All right," Elena said slowly. "We'll go on with your plan."

Immediately, both boys reached for the driver's side door handle again.

"Listen," Elena said without looking at either of them. " I am going to drive my Jaguar down to the next town. But first I am going to get in it and get changed into real clothes and maybe even catch a few minutes of sleep. Matt will want to find a brook or something where he can clean up. And then I'm going to whatever town is closest for some brunch. After that – "

" – the bickering can begin anew," Damon finished for her. "You do that, darling. I'll meet you at whatever greasy spoon you've selected."

Elena nodded. "You're sure you'll be able to find us? I am trying to hold my aura down, really."

"Listen, a fire-engine-red Jaguar in whatever flyspeck of a town you find down this road is going to be as conspicuous as a UFO," Damon said.

"Why doesn't he just come with…" Matt's voice trailed off. Somehow, although it was his deepest grievance against Damon, he often managed to forget that Damon was a vampire.

"So you're going to go down there first and find some young girl walking to summer school," Matt said, his blue eyes seeming to darken. "And you're going to swoop down on her and take her away where no one can hear her screaming and then you're going to pull her head back and you're going to sink your teeth into her throat."

There was a fairly long pause. Then Damon said in a slightly injured tone, "Am not."

"That's what you – people – do. You did it to me."

Elena saw the need for really drastic intervention: the truth. "Matt, Matt, it wasn't Damon who did that. It was Shinichi. You know that." She gently took Matt by the forearms and turned him until he was facing her.

For a long moment Matt wouldn't look at her. Time stretched and Elena began to fear that he was beyond her reach. But then at last he lifted his head so that she could look into his eyes.

"All right," he said softly. "I'll go along with it. But you know that he's going off to drink human blood."

"From a willing donor!" Damon, who had very good hearing, shouted.

Matt exploded again. "Because you make them willing! You hypnotize them – "

"No, I don't."

" – or 'Influence' them, or whatever. How would you like it – "

Behind Matt's back, Elena was now making furious go-away motions at Damon, as if she were shooing a flock of chickens. At first Damon just raised an eyebrow at her, but then he shrugged elegantly and obeyed, his form blurring as he took the shape of a crow and rapidly became a dot in the rising sun.

"Do you think," Elena said quietly, "that you could get rid of your stake? It's just going to make Damon completely paranoid."

Matt looked everywhere but at her and then finally he nodded. "I'll dump it when I go downhill to wash," he said, looking at his muddy legs grimly.

"Anyway," he added, "you get in the car and try to get some sleep. You look like you need it."

"Wake me up in a couple hours," Elena said – without the first idea that in a couple hours she was going to regret this more than she could say.

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