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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 33)

To her surprise, Elena felt no anger, only a determination to protect Stefan if she could.

And then she saw that in the cell she'd assumed was empty, there was a kitsune.

The kitsune looked nothing like Shinichi or Misao. He had long, long hair as white as snow – but his face was young. He was wearing all white, too, tunic and breeches out of some flowing, silky material and his tail practically filled the small cell, it was so fluffy. He also had fox ears which twitched this way and that. His eyes were the gold of fireworks.

He was gorgeous.

The kitsune coughed again. Then he produced – from his long hair, Elena thought, a very, very small and thin-skinned leather bag.

Like, Elena thought, the perfect bag for one perfect jewel.

Now the kitsune took a pretend bottle of Black Magic (it was heavy and a pretend drink was delicious), and filled the little bag with it. Then he took a pretend syringe (he held it as Dr. Meggar had and tapped it to get the bubbles out) and filled it from the little bag. Finally, he stuck the pretend syringe through his own bars and depressed his thumb, emptying it.

"I can feed you Black Magic wine," Elena translated. "With his little pouch I can hold it and fill the syringe. Dr. Meggar could fill the syringe, too. But there's no time, so I'm going to do it."

"I – " began Stefan.

"You are going to drink as fast as you can." Elena loved Stefan, wanted to hear his voice, wanted to fill her eyes with him, but there was a life to be saved, and the life was his. She took the little pouch with a bow of thanks to the kitsune and left her cloak on the floor. She was too intent on Stefan to even remember how she was dressed.

Her hands wanted to shake but she wouldn't let them. She had three bottles of Black Magic here: her own, in her cloak, Dr. Meggar's, and somewhere, in his cloak, Damon's.

So with the delicate efficiency of a machine, she repeated what the kitsune had shown her over and over. Dip, pull up lever, push through bars, squirt. Over and over and over.

After about a dozen of these Elena developed a new technique, the catapult. Filling the tiny bag with wine and holding it by the top until Stefan got his mouth positioned, and then, all in one motion, smashing the bag with her palm and squirting a fair amount straight into Stefan's mouth. It got the bars sticky, it got Stefan sticky; it would never have worked if the steel had been razor-sharp for him, but it actually forced a surprising amount down his throat.

The other bottle of Black Magic wine she put in the kitsune's cell, which had regular bars. She didn't quite know how to thank him, but when she could spare a second, she turned to him and smiled. He was chugging the Black Magic straight from the bottle, and his face was set in an expression of cool, appreciative pleasure.

The end came too quickly. Elena heard Sage's voice booming, "It is no fair! Elena will not be ready! Elena has not had enough time with him!"

Elena didn't need an anvil dropped on her head. She shoved the last bottle of Black Magic wine into the kitsune's cell, she bowed for the last time and gave him back his tiny pouch – but with the canary diamond from her navel in it. It was the largest piece of jewelry she had left and she saw him turn it over precisely in long-nailed fingers and then rise to his feet and make a tiny bow to her. There was a moment for a mutual smile and then Elena was cleaning up Dr. Meggar's bag, and pulling on her red cloak. Then she was turning to Stefan, jelly inside once more, gasping: "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to make it a medical visit."

"But you saw the chance to save my life and just couldn't pass it up."

Sometimes the brothers were very much alike.

"Stefan, don't! Oh, I love you!"

"Elena." He kissed her fingers, pressed to the bars. Then, to the guards: "No, please, please, don't take her away! For pity's sake, give us one more minute! Just one!"

But Elena had to let go of his fingers to hold her cloak together. The last she saw of Stefan, he was pounding on the bars with his fists and calling, "Elena, I love you! Elena!"

Then Elena was dragged out of the hallway and a door shut between them. She sagged.

Arms went around her, helped her to walk. Elena got angry! If Stefan was being put back in his old lice-ridden cell – as she supposed he was, right about now – he was being made to walk. And these demons did nothing gently, she knew that. He was probably being driven like an animal with sharp instruments of wood.

Elena could walk, too.

As they reached the front of the Shi no Shi lobby Elena looked around. "Where's Damon?"

"In the coach," Sage answered in his gentlest voice. "He needed some time."

Part of Elena said, "I'll give him time! Time to scream once before I rip his throat out!" But the rest of her was just sad.

"I didn't get to say anything I wanted to say. I wanted to tell him how sorry Damon is; and how Damon's changed. He didn't even remember that Damon had been there – "

"He talked to you?" Sage seemed astonished.

The two of them, Sage and Elena, walked out of the final marble doors of the building of the Gods of Death. That was the name Elena had chosen for it in her own mind.

The carriage was at the curb in front of them, but no one got in. Instead, Sage gently steered Elena a little distance from the others. There he put his large hands on her shoulders and spoke, still in that very soft voice,

"Mon Dieu, my child, but I do not want to say this to you. It is that I must. I fear that even if we get your Stefan out of jail by the day of Lady Bloddeuwedd's party that – that it will be too late. In three days he will already be…"

"Is that your medical opinion?" Elena said sharply, looking up at him. She knew her face was pinched and white and that he pitied her greatly, but what she wanted was an answer.

"I am not a medical man," he said slowly. "I am just another vampire."

"Just another Old One?"

Sage's eyebrows went up. "Now, what gave you that little idea?"

"Nothing. I'm sorry if I'm wrong. But will you please get Dr. Meggar?"

Sage looked at her for a long minute more, then departed to get the doctor. Both men came back.

Elena was ready for them. "Dr. Meggar, Sage only saw Stefan at the beginning, before you gave him that injection. It was Sage's opinion that Stefan would be dead in three days. Given the effects of the injection, do you agree?"

Dr. Meggar peered at her and she could see the shine of tears in his short-sighted eyes. "It is – possible – just possible that if he has enough willpower, he could still be alive by then. But most likely…"

"Would it make any difference to your opinion if I said that he drank maybe a third of a bottle of Black Magic wine tonight?"

Both men stared at her. "Are you saying – "

"Is this just a plan you have now?"

"Please!" Forgetting about her cape, forgetting everything, Elena grasped Dr. Meggar's hands. "I found a way to get him to drink about that much. Does it make a difference?" She squeezed the elderly hands until she could feel bone.

"It certainly should." Dr. Meggar looked bewildered and afraid to hope. "If you really got that much into his system, he would be almost certain to live until the night of Bloddeuwedd's party. That's what you want, isn't it?"

Elena sank back, unable to resist giving his hands a little kiss as she let go.

"And now let's go tell Damon the good news," she said.

In the carriage, Damon was sitting bolt upright, his profile outlined against a blood-red sky. Elena got in and shut the door behind her.

With no expression at all, he said, "Is it over?"

"Over?" Elena wasn't really this dense, but she figured it was important that Damon be clear in his own mind as to what he was asking.

"Is he – dead?" Damon said wearily, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers.

Elena allowed the silence to go on for a few beats longer. Damon must know Stefan was not likely to actually die in the next half hour. Now that he wasn't getting instant confirmation of this his head snapped up.

"Elena, tell me! What happened?" he demanded, urgency in his voice. "Is my brother dead?"

"No," Elena said quietly. "But he's likely to die in a few days. He was coherent this time, Damon. Why didn't you speak to him?"

There was an almost palpable drawing-in on Damon's part. "What do I have to say to him that matters?" he asked harshly. "'Oh, I'm sorry I almost killed you'? 'Oh, I hope you make it another few days'?"

"Things like that, maybe, if you lose the sarcasm."

"When I die," Damon said cuttingly, "I'm going to be standing on my own two feet and fighting."

Elena slapped him across the mouth. There wasn't room to get much leverage here, but she put as much Power behind the motion as she dared without risking breaking the carriage.

Afterward, there was a long silence. Damon was touching his bleeding lip, accelerating the healing, swallowing his own blood.

Finally he said, "It never even occurred to you that you are my slave, did it? That I'm your master?"

"If you're going to retreat into fantasy, that's your affair," Elena said. "Myself, I have to deal with the real world. And, by the way, soon after you ran away, Stefan was not only standing but laughing."

"Elena" – on a quick rising note. "You found a way to give him blood?" He grasped her arm so hard it hurt.

"Not blood. A little Black Magic. With two of us there, it would have gone twice as fast."

"There were three of you there."

"Sage and Dr. Meggar had to distract the guards."

Damon took his hand away. "I see," he said, expressionlessly. "So I failed him yet again."

Elena looked at him with sympathy. "You're completely inside the stone ball now, aren't you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"The stone ball you stick anything that might hurt you inside. You even draw yourself inside it, although it must be very cramped in there. Katherine must be in there, I suppose, walled off in her own little chamber." She remembered the night at the hotel. "And your mother, of course. I should say, Stefan's mother. She was the mother you knew."

"Don't…my mother…" Damon couldn't even form a coherent sentence.

Elena knew what he wanted. He wanted to be held and soothed and told it was all right – just the two of them, under her cloak with her warm arms holding him. But he wasn't going to get it. This time she was saying no.

She had promised Stefan that this was for him, alone. And, she thought, she would keep to the spirit of that promise, if she hadn't kept to the letter, forever.

As the week progressed, Elena was able to recover from the pain of seeing Stefan. Although none of them could speak about it except in choked, brief exclamations, they listened when Elena said that there was still a job to be done, and that if they managed to complete it well they would be able to go home soon – while if they did not complete it, Elena didn't care whether she went home or stayed here in the Dark Dimension.

Home! It had the sound of a haven, even though Bonnie and Meredith knew firsthand what kind of hell was lurking in Fell's Church for them. But somehow anything would be preferable to this land of bloody light.

With hope kindling interest in their surroundings, they were once again able to feel pleasure at the dresses Lady Ulma was having made for them. Designing was the one pursuit that the lady could still enjoy during her official bed rest, and Lady Ulma had been hard at work with her sketchbook. Since Bloddeuwedd's party would be an indoor/outdoor affair, all three dresses had to be carefully designed to be attractive both under candlelight and under the giant red sun's crimson rays.

Meredith's gown was deep metallic blue, violet in the sunlight, and it showed an entirely different side of the girl from the siren in the skin-tight mermaid dress who had attended Fazina's gala. It reminded Elena somehow of something an Egyptian princess would wear. Once again, it left Meredith's arms and shoulders bare, but the modest narrow skirt that fell in straight lines to her sandals, and the delicacy of the sapphire beads that adorned the shoulder straps served to give Meredith an unassuming look. That look was emphasized by Meredith's hair, which Lady Ulma dictated be worn down, and her face, which was bare of makeup except kohl around the eyes. At her throat, a necklace made of the very largest oval-cut sapphires formed an elaborate collar. She also had matching blue gems on her wrists and slender fingers.

Bonnie's dress was a little clever invention: it was made of a silvery material which took on a pastel tinge of the color of the ambient lighting. Moonlight-colored indoors, it shone a soft shimmering pink, almost exactly the color of Bonnie's strawberry hair, when she was outside. It sported a belt, necklace, bracelets, earrings, and rings all of matching cabochon-cut white opals. Bonnie's curls were to be carefully pinned up and away from her face, in a daringly mussed-up mass, leaving her translucent skin to shine softly rose in the sunlight, and ethereally pale inside.

Once again, Elena's dress was the simplest and the most striking. Her gown was scarlet, the same color under blood-red sun or indoor gas lamp. It was rather low cut, giving her creamy skin a chance to shine golden in the sunlight. Clinging close to her figure, it was slashed up one side to give her room to walk or dance. On the afternoon of the party Lady Ulma had Elena's hair carefully brushed into a tangled cloud that shimmered Titian outdoors, golden indoors. Her jewelry ranged from an inset of diamonds at the bottom of the neckline, to diamonds on her fingers, wrists and one upper arm, plus a diamond choker that fit over Stefan's necklace. All these would blaze as red as rubies in the sunlight, but would occasionally glint another startling color, like a burst of mini-fireworks. Onlookers, Lady Ulma promised, would be dazzled.

"But I can't wear these," Elena had protested to Lady Ulma. "I might not get to see you again before we get Stefan – and from that moment we're on the run!"

"It's the same for all of us," Meredith had added quietly, looking at each of the girls in their "indoor" colors of silvery-blue, scarlet, and opal. "We're all wearing the most jewelry we've ever worn indoors or out – but you might lose it all!"

"And you might need it all," Lucen had said quietly. "All the more reason for you each to have jewelry that you can trade for carriages, safety, food, whatever. It's simply designed, too – you can wrench out a stone and use it as payment, and the jewels are not in an elaborate setting that might not be to some collector's taste."

"In addition to which, they are all of the highest quality," Lady Ulma had added. "They are the most flawless examples of their kind we could get on such short notice."

At that point, all three girls had reached their limit, and rushed the couple – Lady Ulma on her enormous bed, sketchbook always beside her, and Lucen standing nearby – and cried and kissed and generally undid the beautiful jobs that had been done on their faces.

"You're like angels to us, do you know that?" Elena sobbed. "Just like fairy godparents or angels! I don't know how I can say good-bye!"

"Like angels," Lady Ulma had said then, wiping a tear from Elena's cheek. Then she grasped Elena, saying "Look!" and gestured to herself comfortably in bed, with a couple of blooming, dewy-eyed young women ready to attend to her wishes. Lady Ulma had then nodded at the window, out of which a small mill stream could be seen, and some plum trees, with ripe fruit blazing like jewels on the branches, and then with a sweep of her hand indicated the gardens, orchards, fields, and forests on the estate.

Then she had taken Elena's hand and smoothed it over her own softly curving abdomen. "You see?" she had spoken almost in a whisper. "Do you see all of this – and can you remember how you found me? Which of us is an angel now?"

At the words "how you found me" Elena's hands had flown up to cover her face – as if she'd been unable to bear what memory showed her at that moment. Then she was hugging and kissing Lady Ulma again, and a whole new round of cosmetic-destroying embraces had begun.

"Master Damon was even kind enough to buy Lucen," Lady Ulma had said, "and you may not be able to picture it, but" – here she had looked at the quiet, bearded jeweler with eyes full of tears – "I feel for him as you feel for your Stefan." And then she had blushed and hidden her face in her hands.

"He's freeing Lucen today," Elena had said, dropping to her knees to rest her head against Lady Ulma's pillow. "And giving the estate to you irrevocably. He's had a lawyer – an advocate, you'd say – working on the papers all week with a Guardian. They're done now, and even if that hideous general should come back, he couldn't touch you. You have your home forever."

More crying. More kissing. Sage, who had been innocently walking down the hallway, whistling, after a romp with his dog, Saber, had passed Lady Ulma's room and had been drawn in. "We'll all miss you, too!" Elena had wept. "Oh, thank you!"

Later that day, Damon had made good on all of Elena's promises, besides giving a large bonus to each member of the staff. The air had been full of metallic confetti, rose petals, music, and cries of farewell as Damon, Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith had been carried to Bloddeuwedd's party – and away forever.

"Come to think of it, why didn't Damon free us?" Bonnie asked Meredith as they rode in litters toward Bloddeuwedd's mansion. "I can understand that we needed to be slaves to get into this world, but we're in now. Why not make honest girls of us?"

"Bonnie, we're honest girls already," Meredith reminded her.

"And I think the point is that we were never real slaves at all."

"Well, I meant: Why doesn't he free us so that everyone knows we're honest girls, Meredith, and you know it."

"Because you can't free somebody who's free already, that's why."

"But he could have gone through the ceremony," Bonnie persisted. "Or is it really hard to free a slave here?"

"I don't know," Meredith said, breaking at last under this tireless inquisition. "But I'll tell you why I think he doesn't do it. I think that it's because this way he's responsible for us. I mean, it's not that slaves can't be punished – we saw that with Elena." Meredith paused while they both shuddered at the memory. "But, ultimately, it's the slave owner that can lose their life over it. Remember, they wanted to stake Damon for what Elena did."

"So he's doing it for us? To protect us?"

"I don't know. I…suppose so," Meredith said slowly.

"Then – I guess we've been wrong about him in the past?" Bonnie generously said "we've" instead of "you've." Meredith had always been the one of Elena's group most resistant to Damon's charm.

"I…suppose so," Meredith said again. "Although it seems that everyone is forgetting that until recently Damon helped the kitsune twins to put Stefan here! And Stefan definitely hadn't done anything to deserve it."

"Well, of course that's true," Bonnie said, sounding relieved not to have been too wrong, and at the same time strangely wistful.

"All Stefan ever wanted from Damon was peace and quiet," Meredith continued, as if on more steady ground there.

"And Elena," Bonnie added automatically.

"Yes, yes – and Elena. But all Elena wanted was Stefan! I mean – all Elena wants…" Meredith's voice trailed off. The sentence didn't seem to work properly in the present tense anymore. She tried again. "All Elena wants now is…"

Bonnie just watched her speechlessly.

"Well, whatever she wants," Meredith concluded, rather shaken, "she wants Stefan to be a part of it. And she doesn't want any of us to have to stay here – in this…this hellhole."

In another litter just beside them things were very quiet. Bonnie and Meredith were so used by now to traveling in closed litters that they hadn't even realized that another palanquin had drawn abreast of them and that their voices carried clearly in the hot, still afternoon air.

In the second litter, Damon and Elena both looked very hard at the silken curtains fluttering open.

Now, Elena, with an almost mad air of needing something to do, hurriedly unwound a cord and the curtains dropped into place.

It was a mistake. It closed Elena and Damon into a surreal glowing red oblong, in which only the words that they had just heard seemed to have validity.

Elena felt her breath coming too quickly. Her aura was slipping. Everything was slipping sideways.

They don't believe that I only want to be with Stefan!

"Steady on," Damon said. "This is the last night. By tomorrow – "

Elena held up a hand to keep him from saying it.

"By tomorrow we'll have found the key and gotten Stefan and we'll be out of here," Damon said anyway.

Jinx, thought Elena. And sent up a prayer after it.

They rode in silence up toward Bloddeuwedd's grand mansion. For a surprisingly long time Elena didn't realize that Damon was trembling. It was a quick, involuntary shaken breath that alerted her.

"Damon! Dear – dear heaven!" Elena was stricken, at a loss, not for words, but for the right words. "Damon, look at me! Why?"

Why? Damon replied in the only voice he could trust not to tremble or crack or break. Because – do you ever think of what's happening to Stefan while you're going to a party wearing splendid clothes, being carried along, to drink the finest wine and to dance – while he – while he –  The thought remained unfinished.

This is just what I needed right before being seen in public, Elena thought, as they reached the long driveway to Bloddeuwedd's home. She tried to call on all of her resources before the curtains were drawn and they were free to step out at the location of the second half of the key.

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