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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 34)

I don't think about those things, Elena answered in the same way Damon had spoken and for the same reason. I don't think because if I do I'll go insane. But if I go insane, what good will I be to Stefan? I couldn't help him. Instead I block it all out with walls of iron and I keep it away at any cost.

"And you can manage that?" Damon asked, his voice shaking slightly.

"I can – because I have to. Remember in the beginning when we were arguing about the ropes around our wrists? Meredith and Bonnie had doubts. But they knew that I would wear handcuffs and crawl after you if that was what it took." Elena turned to look at Damon in the crimson darkness and added, "And you've given yourself away, time after time, you know." She slipped arms around him to touch his healed back, so that he would have no doubt about what she meant.

"That was for you," Damon said harshly.

"Not really," Elena replied. "Think about it. If you hadn't agreed to the Discipline, we might have run out of town, but we could never have helped Stefan after that. When you get down to it, everything, all you've done, you've done for Stefan."

"When you get down to it, I was the one who put Stefan here in the first place," Damon said tiredly. "I figure we're just about even now."

"How many times, Damon? You were possessed when you let Shinichi talk you into it," Elena said, feeling exhausted herself. "Maybe you need to be possessed again – just a little – so you remember how it feels."

Every cell in Damon's body seemed to flinch away from this idea. But aloud he just said, "There's something that everyone has missed, you know. About the archetypal story of how two brothers killed each other simultaneously, and became vampires because they'd dallied with the same girl."

"What?" Elena said sharply, shocked out of her tiredness. "Damon, what do you mean?"

"What I said. There's something you've all missed. Ha. Maybe even Stefan has missed it. The story gets told and retold, but nobody catches it."

Damon had turned his face away. Elena moved closer to him, just a bit, so he could smell her perfume, which was attar of roses that night. "Damon, tell me. Tell me, please!"

Damon started to turn toward her –

And it was at that moment that the liftmen stopped. Elena had only a second to wipe her face, and the curtains were being drawn.

Meredith had told them all the myth about Bloddeuwedd, which she'd got from a story-telling globe. All about how Bloddeuwedd had been made out of flowers and brought to life by the gods, and how she had betrayed her husband to his death, and how, in punishment, she had been doomed to spend each night from midnight to dawn as an owl.

And, apparently, there was something the myths didn't mention. The fact that she had been doomed to live here, banished from the Celestial Court into the deep red twilight of the Dark Dimension.

All things considered, it was logical that her parties started at six in the evening.

Elena found that her mind was jumping from subject to subject. She accepted a goblet of Black Magic from a slave as her eyes wandered.

Every woman and most of the men at the party were wearing clever attire that changed color in the sun. Elena felt quite modest – after all, everything out of doors seemed to be pink or scarlet or wine-colored. Downing her goblet of Magic, Elena was slightly surprised to find herself going into automatic party-mode behavior, greeting people she'd met earlier in the week with cheek kisses and hugs as if she'd known them for years. Meanwhile she and Damon worked their way toward the mansion, sometimes with, sometimes against the tide of constantly moving people.

They made it up one steep set of white (pink) marble stairs, which sported on either side banks of glorious blue (violet) delphiniums and pink (scarlet) wild roses. Elena stopped here, for two reasons. One was to get a new goblet of Black Magic. The first had already given her a pleasant glow – although of course everything was constantly glowing here. She was hoping that the second cup would help her forget everything that Damon had brought up in the litter except the key – and help her remember what she'd been fretting over originally, before her thoughts had been hijacked by Bonnie and Meredith's talk.

"I expect the best way is just to ask someone," she told Damon, who was suddenly and silently at her elbow.

"Ask what?"

Elena leaned a little toward the slave who'd just supplied her with a fresh goblet. "May I ask – where is Lady Bloddeuwedd's main ballroom?"

The liveried slave looked surprised. Then, with his head, he made a gesture all around. "This plaza – below the canopy – has gained the name the Great Ballroom," he said, bowing over his tray.

Elena stared at him. Then she stared around her.

Under a giant canopy – it looked semipermanent to her and was hung all around with pretty lanterns in shades that were enhanced by the sun – the smooth grass lawn stretched away for hundreds of yards on all sides.

It is bigger than a football field.

"What I'd like to know," Bonnie was asking a fellow guest, a woman who had clearly been to many of Bloddeuwedd's affairs and knew her way around the mansion, "is this: which room is the main ballroom?"

"Oh, my deah, it depends on what you mean," the guest replied cheerfully. "Theah's the Great Ballroom out of doors – you must have seen it while climbing – the big pavilion? And then theah's the White Ballroom inside. That's lit with candelabras and has the curtains drawn all round. Sometimes it's called the Waltz Room, since all that is played in there is waltzes."

But Bonnie was still caught in horror a few sentences back. "There's a ballroom outside?" she said shakily, hoping that somehow she hadn't heard right.

"That's it, deah, you can see through that wall theah." The woman was telling the truth. You could see through the wall, because the walls were all of glass, one beyond another, allowing Bonnie to see what seemed to be an illusion done with mirrors: lighted room after lighted room, all filled with people. Only the last room on the bottom floor seemed to be made out of something solid. That must be the White Ballroom.

But through the opposite wall, where the guest was pointing – oh, yes. There was a canopy top. She remembered vaguely passing it. The other thing she remembered was…

"They dance on the grass? That – enormous field of grass?"

"Of course. It's all especially cut and rolled smooth. You won't trip over a weed or hummock of ground. Are you sure you're feeling quite well? You look rathah pale. Well" – the guest laughed – "as pale as anyone can look in this light."

"I'm fine," Bonnie said dazedly. "I'm just…fine."

The two parties met later and told each other of the horrors that they had unearthed. Damon and Elena had discovered that the ground of the outdoor ballroom was almost as hard as rock – anything that had been buried there before the ground was rolled smooth by heavy rollers would now be packed down in something like cement. The only place that anyone could dig there was around the perimeter.

"We should have brought a diviner," Damon said. "You know, someone who uses a forked stick or a pendulum or a bit of a missing person's clothing to home in on the correct area."

"You're right," Meredith said, her tone clearly adding for once. "Why didn't we bring a diviner?"

"Because I don't know of any," Damon said, with his sweetest, most ferocious barracuda smile.

Bonnie and Meredith had found that the inside ballroom's flooring was rock – very beautiful white marble. There were dozens of floral arrangements in the room, but all that Bonnie had stuck her small hand into (as unobtrusively as possible) were simply cut flowers in a vase of water. No soil, nothing that could justify using the term "buried in."

"And besides, why would Shinichi and Misao put the key in water they knew would be thrown out in a few days?" Bonnie asked, frowning, while Meredith added,

"And how do you find a loose floorboard in marble? So we can't see how it could be buried there. By the way, I checked – and the White Ballroom has been here for years, so there's no chance that they dumped it under the building stones, either."

Elena, by now drinking her third goblet of Black Magic, said, "All right. The way we look at this is: one room scratched off the list. Now, we've already got half of the key – look how easy that was – "

"Maybe that was just to tease us," Damon said, raising an eyebrow. "To get our hopes up, before dashing them completely…here."

"That can't be," Elena said desperately, glaring at him. "We've come so far – farther than Misao ever imagined we would. We can find it. We will find it."

"All right," Damon said, suddenly deadly serious. "If we have to pretend to be staff and use pickaxes on that soil outdoors, we'll do it. But first, let's go through the entire house inside. That seemed to work well last time."

"All right," Meredith said, for once looking straight at him and without disapproval. "Bonnie and I will take the upstairs floors and you can take the downstairs ones – maybe you can make something of that White Waltz Ballroom."

"All right."

They set to work. Elena wished that she could calm down. Despite most of three goblets of Black Magic oscillating inside her – or perhaps because of them – she was seeing certain things in new lights. But she must keep her mind on the quest – and only on the quest. She would do anything – anything – she told herself, to get the key. Anything for Stefan.

The White Ballroom smelled of flowers and was garlanded with large, opulent blooms in the midst of abundant greenery. Standing arrangements were placed to shield an area around a fountain into an intimate nook where couples could sit. And, although there was no visible orchestra, music poured into the ballroom, demanding a response from Elena's susceptible body.

"I don't suppose you know how to waltz," Damon said suddenly, and Elena realized that she had been swaying in time to the beat, eyes closed.

"Of course I do," Elena answered, a little offended. "We all of us went to Ms. Hopewell's classes. That was the equivalent of charm school in Fell's Church," she added, seeing the funny side of it and laughing at herself. "But Ms. Hopewell did love to dance, and she taught us every dance and movement she thought was graceful. That was when I was about eleven."

"I suppose it would be absurd for me to ask you to dance with me," Damon said.

Elena looked at him with what she knew were large and puzzled eyes. Despite the low-cut scarlet dress, she didn't feel like an irresistible siren tonight. She was too wrought up to feel the magic woven in the cloth, magic which she now realized was telling her she was a dancing flame, a fire elemental. She supposed that Meredith must feel like a quiet stream, flowing swiftly and steadily to her destination, but sparkling and glinting all the way. And Bonnie – Bonnie, of course was a sprite of the air, meant to dance as lightly as a feather in that opalescent dress, barely subject to gravity.

But abruptly Elena remembered certain glances of admiration she had seen directed toward herself. And now suddenly Damon was vulnerable? Yet he didn't imagine she would dance with him?

"Of course I would love to dance," she said, realizing with a slight shock that she hadn't noticed before, that Damon was in flawless white tie. Of course, it was on the one night when it might hinder them, but it made him look like a prince of the blood.

Her lips quirked slightly at the title. Of the blood…oh, yes.

"Are you sure you know how to waltz?" she asked him.

"A good question. I took it up in 1885 because it was known to be riotous and indecent. But it depends on whether you are speaking of the peasant waltz, the Viennese Waltz, the Hesitation Waltz, or – "

"Oh, come on, or we'll miss another dance." Elena grabbed his hand, feeling tiny sparks as if she'd stroked a cat's fur the wrong way, and pulled him into the swaying crowd.

Another waltz began. Music flooded into the room and lifted Elena almost off her feet as the small hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Her body tingled all over as if she had drunk some sort of celestial elixir.

It was her favorite waltz since childhood: the one she'd been brought up on. Tchaichovsky's Sleeping Beauty waltz. But some child part of her mind could never help but pairing the sweet sweeping notes that came after the thundering, electrifying beginning together with the words from the Disney movie version:

I know you; I danced with you once upon a dream….

As always, they brought tears to her eyes; they made her heart sing and her feet want to fly rather than dance.

Her dress was backless. Damon's warm hand was on her bare skin there.

I know, something whispered to her, why they called this dance riotous and indecent.

And now, certainly, Elena felt like a flame. We were meant to be this way. She couldn't remember if it was an old quote of Damon's or something new he was just barely whispering to her mind now. Like two flames that join and merge into one.

You're good, Damon told her, and this time she knew that it was him speaking and that it was in the present.

You don't need to patronize me. I'm too happy already! Elena laughed back. Damon was an expert, and not just at the precision of the steps. He danced the waltz as if it were still riotous and indecent. He had a firm lead, which of course Elena's human strength could not break. But he could interpret little signals of her own, about what she wanted and he obliged her, as if they were ice dancing, as if at any moment they might twirl and leap.

Elena's stomach was slowly melting and taking her other internal organs with it.

And it never once occurred to her to think what her high school friends and rivals and enemies would have thought of her melting over classical music. She was free of petty spite, petty shame over differences. She was through with labeling. She wished that she could go back to show everyone that she'd never meant it in the first place.

The waltz was over all too soon and Elena wanted to push the Replay button and do it from the beginning again. There was a moment just when the music stopped where she and Damon were looking at each other, with equal exaltation and yearning and –

And then Damon bowed over her hand. "There is more to the waltz than just moving your feet," he said, not looking up at her. "There is a swaying grace that can be put into the movements, a leaping flame of joy and oneness – with the music, with a partner. Those are not matters of expertise. Thank you very much for giving me the pleasure."

Elena laughed because she wanted to cry. She never wanted to stop dancing. She wanted to tango with Damon – a real tango, the kind you were supposed to have to get married after. But there was another mission…a necessary mission that had to be completed.

And, as she turned, there were a whole crowd of other things in front of her. Men, demons, vampires, beastlike creatures. All of them wanted a dance. Damon's tuxedoed back was walking away from her.

Damon!

He paused but did not turn back. Yes?

Help me! We need to find the other half of the key!

It seemed to take him a moment to assess the situation, but then he understood. He came back to her, and taking her by the hand said in a clear, ringing voice, "This girl is my…personal assistant. I do not desire that she dance with anyone other than myself."

There was a restless murmuring at this. The kind of slaves that got taken to balls of this sort were not usually the kind that were forbidden to interact with strangers. But just then there was a sort of flurry at the side of the room, eventually pressing toward the opposite side where Damon and Elena were.

"What is it?" Elena asked, the dance and the key both forgotten.

"Who is it, I'd ask, rather," Damon replied. "And I'd answer: our hostess, Lady Bloddeuwedd herself."

Elena found herself crowding behind other people to get a glimpse of this most extraordinary creature. But when she actually saw the girl standing alone in the doorway to the ballroom, she gasped.

She was made out of flowers… Elena remembered. What would a girl made out of flowers look like?

She would have skin like the faintest blush of pink on an apple blossom, Elena thought, staring unashamedly. Her cheeks would be slightly deeper pink, like a dawn-colored rose. Her eyes, enormous in her delicate, perfect face, would be the color of larkspur, with heavy feathery black lashes that would make them droop half-shut, as if she walked always half in a dream. And she would have yellow hair as pale as primroses, falling down almost to the floor, wound in braids that were themselves incorporated into thicker braids until the whole mass was brought together just above her delicate ankles.

Her lips would be as red as poppies, half-open and inviting. And she would give off a scent that was like a bouquet of all the first blossoms of spring. She would walk as if swaying in the breeze.

Elena could only remember standing, gazing after this vision like the dozens of other guests around her. Just one more second to drink in such loveliness, her mind begged.

"But what was she wearing?" Elena heard herself say aloud. She could not remember either a stunning dress or a glimpse of lustrous apple-blossom skin through the many braids.

"Some sort of gown. It was made out of what else? Flowers," Damon put in wryly. "She was wearing a dress made of every kind of flower I've ever seen. I don't understand how they stayed put – maybe they were silk and sewn together." He was the only one who didn't seem dazzled by this vision.

"I wonder if she would talk to us – just a few words," Elena said. She was longing to hear the delicate, magical girl's voice.

"I doubt it," a man in the crowd answered her. "She doesn't talk much – at least until midnight. Say! It's you! How're you feeling?"

"Very well, thank you," Elena replied politely, and then quickly stepped back. She recognized the speaker as one of the young men who had forced their cards on Damon at the end of the Godfather's ceremony, the night of her Discipline.

Now she just wanted to get away unobtrusively. But there were too many of the men, and it was clear that they were not about to let her and Damon go.

"This is the girl I told you about. She goes into a trance and no matter how she's marked; she doesn't feel a thing – "

" – blood running down her sides like water and she never flinched – "

"They're a professional act. They go on the road…."

Elena was just about to say, coolly, that Bloddeuwedd had strictly forbidden this kind of barbarism at her party, when she heard one of the young vampires saying, "Don't you know, I was the one who persuaded Lady Bloddeuwedd to ask you to this get-together. I told her about your act and she was most interested to see it."

Well, scratch one excuse, Elena thought. But at least be nice to these young men. They might be helpful somehow later.

"I'm afraid I can't do it tonight," she said, quietly, so that they would be quiet themselves. "I'll apologize to Lady Bloddeuwedd directly, of course. But it just isn't possible."

"Yes, it is." Damon's voice, just behind her, astounded her. "It's quite possible – given that someone finds my amulet."

Damon! What are you saying?

Hush! What I have to.

"Unfortunately, about three and a half weeks ago I lost a very important amulet. It looks like this." He brought out the half of the fox key and let them all take a good look at it.

"Is that what you used to do the trick?" someone asked, but Damon was far too clever for that.

"No, many people saw me do the act just a week or so ago without it. This is a personal amulet, but with part of it missing, I simply don't feel like doing magic."

"It looks like a little fox. You're not a kitsune?" someone – too clever for their own good, Elena thought – asked next.

"It may look like that to you. It's actually an arrow. An arrow with two green stones at the arrowhead. It's a – masculine charm."

A female voice somewhere in the crowd said: "I shouldn't think you need any more masculine charm than you have right now!" and there was laughter.

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