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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 6)

Elena was using all her considerable talents at negotiation to calm Matt down, encouraging him to order a second and third Belgian waffle; smiling at him across the table. But it wasn't much good. Matt was moving as if he were driven to rush, while at the same time he couldn't take his eyes off her.

He's still imagining Damon swooping down and terrorizing some young girl, Elena thought helplessly.

Damon wasn't there when they stepped out of the coffee shop. Elena saw the frown between Matt's eyebrows begin and had a brainstorm.

"Why don't we take the Jag to a used-car dealership? If we're going to give up the Jaguar, I want your advice on what we get in return."

"Yeah, my advice on beat-up, falling-apart heaps has got to be the best," Matt said, with a wry smile that said he knew Elena was managing him, but he didn't mind.

The single car dealership in the town didn't look very promising. But even it was not as depressed-looking as the owner of the lot. Elena and Matt found him asleep inside a small office building with dirty windows. Matt tapped gently on the smudged window and eventually the man started, jerked up in his chair, and angrily waved them away.

But Matt tapped again on the window when the man began to put his head down once more, and this time the man sat up very slowly, gave them a look of bitter despair, and came to the door.

"What do you want?" he demanded.

"A trade-in," Matt said loudly before Elena could say it softly.

"You teenagers have a car to trade," the little man said darkly. "In all my twenty years owning this place – "

"Look." Matt stepped back to reveal the brilliant red Jag shining in the morning sun like a giant rose on wheels. "A brand-new Jaguar XZR. Zero to sixty in 3.7 seconds! A 550-horsepower supercharged AJ-V8 GEN III R engine with 6-speed ZF automatic transmission! Adaptive Dynamics and Active Differential for exceptional traction and handling! There is no car like the XZR!" Matt finished nose to nose with the little man, whose mouth had slowly come open as his eyes flickered between the car and the boy.

"You want to trade that in for something on this lot?" he said, shocked into frank disbelief. "As if I'd have the cash to – waitaminute!" he interrupted himself. His eyes stopped flickering and became the eyes of a poker player. His shoulders came up, but his head didn't, giving him the appearance of a vulture.

"Don't want it," he said flatly and made as if to go back into the office.

"What do you mean you don't want it? You were drooling over it a minute ago!" Matt shouted, but the man had stopped wincing. His expression didn't change.

I should have done the talking, Elena thought. I wouldn't have gotten into a war from word one – but it's too late now. She tried to shut out the male voices and looked at the dilapidated cars on the lot, each with its own dusty little sign tucked into the windshield: 10 PERCENT OFF FOR XMAS! EASY CREDIT! CLEAN! GRANNY-OWNED SPECIAL! NO DOWN-PAYMENT! CHECK IT OUT! She was afraid she was going to burst into tears at any second.

"No call for a car like that around here," the owner was saying expressionlessly. "Who'd buy it?"

"You're crazy! This car will bring customers flocking in. It's – it's advertising! Better than that purple hippo over there."

"Not a hippo. S'an elephant."

"Who can tell, with it half deflated like that?"

With dignity, the owner stalked over to look at the Jag. "Not brand-new. S'got too many miles on it."

"It was bought only two weeks ago."

"So? In a few more weeks, Jaguar will be advertising next year's cars." The owner waved a hand at Elena's giant rose of a vehicle. "Obsolete."

"Obsolete!"

"Yeah. Big car like this, gas guzzler – "

"It's more energy efficient than a hybrid – !"

"You think people know that? They see it – "

"Look, I could take this car anywhere else – "

"Then take it. On my lot, here and now, that car is barely worth one car in exchange!"

"Two cars."

The new voice came from directly behind Matt and Elena, but the car dealer's eyes widened as if he had just seen a ghost.

Elena turned and met Damon's unfathomable black gaze. He had his Ray-Bans hooked over his T-shirt and was standing with his hands behind his back. He was looking hard at the car dealer.

A few moments passed, and then…

"The…silver Prius in the back right corner. Under…under the awning," the car dealer said slowly, and with a dazed expression – in answer to no question that had been asked aloud. "I'll…take you there," he added in a voice to match his expression.

"Take the keys with you. Let the boy test-drive it," Damon ordered, and the owner fumbled to show a key ring at his belt, and then walked slowly away, staring at nothing.

Elena turned to Damon. "One guess. You asked him which was the best car on his lot."

"Substitute 'least disgusting' and you'd be closer," Damon said. He flashed a brilliant smile at her for a tenth of a second, and then turned it off.

"But, Damon, why two cars? I know it's more fair and all, but what are we going to do with the second car?"

"Caravan," Damon said.

"Oh, no." But even Elena could see the benefits of this – at least after they held a summit to decide on a rotation schedule between the cars for Elena. She sighed. "Well – if Matt agrees…"

"Mutt will agree," Damon said, looking very briefly – very briefly – as innocent as an angel.

"What have you got behind your back?" Elena said, deciding not to pursue the question of what Damon intended to do to Matt.

Damon smiled again, but this time it was an odd smile, just a quirk of one side of his mouth. His eyes said it was nothing much. But his right hand came out and it was holding the most beautiful rose Elena had ever seen in her life.

It was the deepest red rose she had ever seen, yet there wasn't a hint of purple to it – it was just velvety burgundy, and open at exactly the moment of full bloom. It looked as if it would be plush to the touch, and its vivid green stem, with just a few delicate leaves here and there, was at least eighteen inches long and straight as a ruler.

Elena resolutely put her own hands behind her back. Damon wasn't the sentimental type – even when he got on his "Princess of the Night" soapbox. The rose probably had something to do with their journey.

"Don't you like it?" Damon said. Elena might be imagining it, but it almost sounded as if he were disappointed.

"Of course I like it. What's it for?"

Damon settled back. "It's for you, Princess," he said, looking hurt. "Don't worry; I didn't steal it."

No – he wouldn't have stolen it. Elena knew exactly how he would have gotten the rose…but it was so pretty….

As she still made no move to take the rose, Damon lifted it and allowed the cool, silky-feeling petals to caress her cheek.

It made her shiver. "Stop it, Damon," she murmured, but she didn't seem to be able to step backward.

He didn't stop. He used the cool, softly rustling petals to outline the other side of her face. Elena took a deep breath automatically, but what she smelled was not flowerlike at all. It was the smell of some dark, dark wine, something ancient and fragrant that had once made her drunk immediately. Drunk on Black Magic and on her own heady excitement…just to be with Damon.

But that wasn't the real me, a small voice in her head protested. I love Stefan. Damon…I want…I want to…

"Do you want to know why I got this particular rose?" Damon was saying softly, his voice blending in with her memories. "I got it because of its name. It's a Black Magic rose."

"Yes," Elena said simply. She'd known that before he said it. It was the only name that fit.

Now Damon was giving her a rose kiss by swirling the blossom in a circle on her cheek and then applying pressure. The firmer petals in the middle pressed into her skin, while the outer petals just brushed it.

Elena was feeling distinctly light-headed. The day was warm and humid already; how could the rose feel so cool? Now the outermost petals had moved to trace her lips, and she wanted to say no, but somehow the word wouldn't come.

It was as if she had been transported back in time, back to the days when Damon had first appeared to her, had first claimed her for his own. When she had almost let him kiss her before she knew his name….

He hadn't changed his ideas since then. Vaguely, Elena remembered thinking something like that before. Damon changed other people while remaining unchanged himself.

But I've changed, Elena thought, and suddenly there was quicksand under her feet. I've changed so much since then. Enough to see things in Damon I'd never imagined could be there. Not just the wild and angry dark parts, but the gentle parts. The honor and decency that were trapped like veins of gold inside that stone boulder in his mind.

I have to help him, Elena thought. Somehow, I have to help him – and the little boy chained outside the boulder.

These thoughts had trickled slowly through her mind while it seemed separated from her body. She was so involved with them, in fact, that she somehow lost track of her body, and only now did she realize how much closer Damon had gotten. Her back was against one of the sad, sagging cars. And Damon was speaking lightly, but with an undertone of seriousness.

"A rose for a kiss, then?" he asked. "It is called Black Magic, and I did come by it honestly. Her name was…it was…"

Damon stopped, and for a moment a look of intense bewilderment flashed across his face. Then he smiled, but it was the warrior's smile, the brilliant one he turned on and off almost before you were sure you had seen it. Elena sensed trouble. Sure, Damon still didn't remember Matt's name correctly, but she had never known him to forget a girl's name when he was really trying to remember. Especially within minutes of when he must have fed from that girl.

Shinichi again? Elena wondered. Was he still taking Damon's memories – only the highlights, of course? The thrills, good or bad? Elena knew that Damon himself was thinking the same thing. His black eyes were smoldering. Damon was furious – but there was a certain vulnerability about his fury.

Without thinking, Elena put her hands on Damon's forearms. She ignored the rose, even as he traced the curve of her cheekbone with it. She tried to speak steadily. "Damon, what are we going to do?"

That was the scene that Matt walked in on. Ran in on, actually. He came weaving through a maze of cars, and dashed around a white SUV with one flat tire, shouting, "Hey, you guys, that Prius is…"

And then he stopped dead.

Elena knew what he was seeing: Damon caressing her with the rose, while she was practically embracing him. She let go of Damon's arms, but she couldn't back away from him because of the car behind her.

"Matt – " Elena began, and then her voice trailed off. She had been about to say "This isn't what it looks like. We're not in the middle of a cuddle. I'm not really touching him." But this was what it looked like. She cared about Damon; she had been trying to get through to him….

With a small shock, that thought repeated itself with the force of a shaft of sunlight shooting through an unprotected vampire's body.

She cared about Damon.

She really did. It was usually difficult being with him because they were alike in so many ways. Headstrong, each wanting their own way, passionate, impatient…

She and Damon were alike.

Small shocks were going though Elena, and her entire body felt weak. She found herself glad to lean against the car behind her, even though it must be getting dust all over her clothes.

I love Stefan, she thought almost hysterically. He's the only one I love. But I need Damon to get to him. And Damon may be falling to pieces in front of me.

She was looking at Matt all the while, her eyes full of tears that would not fall. She blinked, but they stubbornly stayed on her lashes.

"Matt…" she whispered.

He said nothing. He didn't need to. It was all in his expression: astonishment turning to something Elena had never seen before, not when he was looking at her.

It was a sort of alienation that shut her out completely, that severed any bonds between them.

"Matt, no…" But it came out in a whisper.

And then, to her astonishment, Damon spoke.

"You do know it's all me, don't you? You can hardly blame a girl for trying to defend herself." Elena looked at her hands, which were shaking now. Damon was going on, "You know it's all my fault. Elena would never – "

That was when Elena realized. Damon was Influencing Matt.

"No!" She took Damon off guard, grabbing him again, shaking him. "Don't do it! Not to Matt!"

The black eyes that were turned on hers were definitely not those of a suitor. Damon had been interrupted in the use of his Power. If it had been anyone else, they would have ended as a small spot of grease on the ground.

"I'm saving you," Damon said coldly. "Are you refusing me?"

Elena found herself wavering. Maybe, if it was only once, and only for Matt's benefit…

Something surged up inside her. It was all she could do not to let her aura escape completely.

"Never try that on me again," Elena said. Her voice was quiet but icy. "Don't you dare ever try to Influence me! And leave Matt alone!"

Something like approval flickered in the endless darkness of Damon's gaze. It was gone before she could be sure she'd seen it. But when he spoke, he seemed less distant.

"All right," he said to Matt. "What's the game plan now? You name it."

Matt answered slowly, not looking at either of them. He was flushed but deadly calm. "I was going to say, that Prius isn't bad at all.

And the dealer guy has another one. It's in okay condition. We could have two cars just alike."

"And then we could caravan and split up if someone was following us! They won't know which to follow." Normally Elena would have thrown her arms around Matt at this point. But Matt was looking at his shoes, which was probably just as well really, since Damon had his eyes shut and was shaking his head slightly as if he couldn't believe something idiotic.

That's right, Elena thought. It's my aura – or Damon's – that they're homing in on. We can't confuse them with identical cars unless we have identical auras, too.

Which really meant that she should drive with Matt the whole way. But Damon would never accept that. And she needed Damon to get to her beloved, her one and only, her true mate: Stefan.

"I'll take the ratty one," Matt was saying, arranging it with Damon and ignoring her. "I'm used to ratty cars. I already arranged a deal with the guy. We should get going." Still speaking only to Damon, he said, "You'll have to tell me where we're really going. We might get separated."

Damon was silent for a long moment. Then, brusquely, he said, "Sedona, Arizona, for a start."

Matt looked disgusted. "That place full of New Age lunatics? You're kidding."

"I said we'll start out from Sedona. It's complete wilderness – nothing but rock – all around it. You could get lost…very easily." Damon flashed the brilliant smile and instantly turned it off.

"We'll be at the Juniper Resort, off North Highway 89A," he added smoothly.

"I've got it," Matt said. Elena could see no emotion in either his face or his expression, but his aura was seething red.

"Now, Matt," Elena began, "we should really meet every night, so if you just follow us – " She broke off with a sharply inhaled breath.

Matt had already turned around. He didn't turn back when she spoke. He just kept going, without another word.

Without a backward glance.

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