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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 8)

As they hastened from the car to the secluded motel room, Elena had to put pressure on her legs to keep them steady under her. As soon as the door to the room slammed shut, with the storm more or less outside and her own stiff and aching body inside, she headed for the bathroom without even turning on a light. Her clothes and hair and feet were all damp.

The fluorescent lights of the bathroom seemed too bright after the darkness of the night and the storm. Or maybe it was the beginning of her learning to circulate her Power.

That had certainly been a surprise. Damon hadn't even been touching her, but the shock she had felt still reverberated inside her. And as for the feeling of having her Power manipulated from outside her body, well, there just weren't words. It had been a breathtaking experience, all right. Even now just thinking about it made her knees tremble.

But it was more clear than ever that Damon wanted nothing to do with her. Elena confronted her own image in the mirror and winced. Yes, she looked like a drowned rat that had been dragged backward a mile through the gutter. Her hair was damp, turning its silky waves into tiny wisps of curls all around her head and face; she was as white as an invalid, and her blue eyes were staring out of the pinched and exhausted face of a child.

For just a moment she remembered being in even worse shape a few days – yes, it was only days – ago, and having Damon treat her with the utmost gentleness, as if her bedraggled appearance had meant nothing to him. But those memories had been taken from Damon by Shinichi, and it was too much to hope that that might have been his real state of mind. It had been…whim…like all his other whims.

Furious at Damon – and at herself for the prickling behind her eyes she felt – Elena turned away from the mirror.

The past was the past. She had no idea why Damon had suddenly decided to start jerking away from her touch, or to look at her with the hard cold eyes of a predator. Something had caused him to hate her, to barely be able to sit in the car with her. And whatever it was, Elena had to learn to ignore it, because if Damon left, she would have no chance of finding Stefan.

Stefan. At last her trembling heart could find rest in thinking of Stefan. He wouldn't care what she looked like: his sole concern would be for her well-being. Elena shut her eyes as she turned on the hot water in the tub and stripped off her clammy clothes, basking in her imagination of Stefan's love and approval.

The motel had provided a small plastic bottle of bubblebath, but Elena left it alone. She'd brought her own translucent-gold bag of vanilla bath crystals in her duffel bag, and this was the first chance she'd had to use it.

Carefully, she shook about a third of the beribboned bag's crystals into the rapidly filling tub and was rewarded with a steamy blast of vanilla, which she drew into her lungs gratefully.

A few minutes later, Elena was shoulder deep in hot water covered with a vanilla-scented foam. Her eyes were shut and the warmth was soaking into her body. The softly disintegrating salts were easing away all pain.

These weren't ordinary bath salts. They had no medicinal smell, but they'd been given to her by Stefan's landlady, Mrs. Flowers, who was a genteel elderly white witch. Mrs. Flowers's herbal recipes were her specialty, and right now Elena would swear that she could feel all the tension of the last few days being actively sucked out of her body and gently soothed away.

Oh, this was just what she had needed. Elena had never appreciated a bath like this before.

Now, there's just one thing, she told herself firmly, as she inhaled breath after delicious breath of vanilla steam. You asked Mrs. Flowers for bath salts that would relax you, but you cannot fall asleep here. You'll drown, and you already know what that feels like. Been there, done that, didn't even have to buy the shroud.

But even now Elena's thoughts were dimmer and more fragmented, as the hot water continued to relax her muscles, and the vanilla scent swirled around her head. She was losing continuity, her mind drifting off into daydreams…. She was giving herself to the heat and the luxury of not having to do anything at all….

She was asleep.

In her dream, she was moving briskly. It was only half-light, but she could tell somehow that she was skimming downward through deep gray mist. What worried her was that she seemed to be surrounded by arguing voices, and they were arguing about her.

"A second chance? I've spoken to her about it."

"She won't remember anything."

"It doesn't matter whether she remembers. Everything will remain inside her, if unawakened."

"It will germinate inside her…until the time is right."

Elena had no idea what any of it meant.

And then this mist was thinning, and clouds were making way for her, and she was drifting down, more and more slowly, until she was deposited gently on a ground covered with pine needles.

The voices were gone. She was lying on a forest floor, but she wasn't naked. She was wearing her prettiest nightgown, the one with real Valenciennes lace. She was listening to the tiny night sounds all around her when suddenly her aura reacted in a way that it never had before.

It told her someone was coming. Someone who brought a sense of safety in warm earthen hues, in soft rose colors and deep, blue violets that enfolded her even before the person arrived. These were…someone's…feelings about herself. And behind the love and soothing concern she experienced, there were deep forest greens, shafts of warm gold, and a mysterious tinge of translucency, like a waterfall that sparkled as it fell and foamed like diamonds around her.

Elena, a voice whispered. Elena.

This was so familiar….

Elena. Elena.

She knew this….

Elena, my angel.

It meant love.

Even as Elena was sitting up and turning in her dream, she was holding out her arms. This person belonged with her. He was her magic, her solace, her best-beloved. It didn't matter how he'd gotten there, or what had happened before. He was her soul's eternal mate.

And then…

Strong arms holding her tenderly…

A warm body close to hers…

Sweet kisses…

Many, many times…

This familiar feeling as she melted into his embrace…

He was so gentle, but almost fierce in his love for her. He had vowed not to kill, but he would kill to save her. She was his most precious thing in all the world…. Any sacrifice would be worth it if she were safe and free. His life meant nothing without her, so he would gladly give it, laughing and kissing his hand to her with his last breath.

Elena breathed in the wonderful autumn-leaves scent of his sweater and was comforted. Like a baby, she allowed herself to be soothed by simple familiar odors, by the feeling of her cheek against his shoulder and the wonder of the two of them breathing together in synchronicity.

When she tried to put a name to this miracle, it was at the front of her mind.

Stefan…

Elena didn't even need to look up at his face to know that Stefan's leaf-green eyes would be dancing like the waters of a small pond ruffled by wind and sparkling with a thousand different points of light. She buried her head in his neck, afraid somehow to let go of him, although she couldn't remember why.

I don't know how I got here, she told him nonverbally. In fact, she didn't remember anything before this, before awakening to his call, only jumbled images.

It doesn't matter. I'm with you.

Fear seized her. This isn't…just a dream, is it?

No dream is just a dream. And I'm with you always.

But how did we get here?

Shhh. You're tired. I'll hold you up. On my life, I swear it. Just rest. Let me hold you just once.

Just once? But…

But now Elena felt worried and dazed, and she had to let her head fall backward, had to see Stefan's face.

She tilted her chin back and found herself meeting laughing eyes of an infinite darkness in a chiseled, pale, and proudly handsome face.

She almost cried out in horror.

Hush. Hush, angel.

Damon!

The dark eyes that met hers were full of love and joy. Who else?

How dare you – how did you get here? Elena was more and more confused.

I don't belong anywhere, Damon pointed out, suddenly sounding sad. You know I'll always be with you.

I do not; I do not –  give Stefan back to me!

But it was too late. Elena was aware of the sound of water trickling and of tepid liquid sloshing around her. She woke up just in time to keep her head from going underwater in the bathtub.

A dream…

She felt much more flexible and easy in her body, but she couldn't help feeling saddened by the dream. It hadn't been an out of body experience, either – it had been a simple, crazy, mixed-up, dream of her own.

I don't belong anywhere. I'll always be with you.

Now what was gibberish like that supposed to mean?

But something inside Elena trembled, even as she remembered it.

She hastily changed – not into a Valenciennes lace nightgown, but into a gray and black sweat suit. When she emerged, she was feeling overtired and prickly and ready to start a fight if Damon gave any sign of having picked up on her sleeping thoughts.

But Damon didn't. Elena saw a bed, managed to focus on it, stumbled toward it and collapsed, flopping down on pillows that sank unsatisfactorily beneath her head. Elena liked her pillows firm.

For a few moments she lay, savoring her after-bath sensations, as her skin gradually cooled – and her head cooled as well. As far as she could tell, Damon was standing in exactly the same position as he had taken up when they'd entered the room.

And he was still as silent as he had been since the morning.

Finally, to get it over with, she spoke to him. And being Elena, she went straight to the heart of the problem.

"What's wrong, Damon?"

"Nothing." Damon stared out the window, pretending to be engrossed in something beyond the glass.

"What nothing?"

Damon shook his head. But somehow, his turned back eloquently conveyed his opinion of this motel room.

Elena examined the room with the too-bright vision of someone who has forced their body beyond its limits. She contemplated beige walls, beige carpet, a beige armchair, a beige desk, and of course, a beige bedspread. Even Damon couldn't reject a room on the grounds that it doesn't match his basic black, she thought, and then: oh, I'm tired. And bewildered. And scared.

And…incredibly stupid. There's only one bed in here. I'm lying on it.

"Damon…" With an effort, she sat up. "What do you want? There's a chair. I can sleep on the chair."

He half turned, and she saw in the movement that he wasn't annoyed or playing games. He was furious. It was all there in the faster-than-the-human-eye-could-follow assassin's spin and the complete muscular control that stilled it almost before it had begun.

Damon with his sudden movements and his frightening stillness. He was looking out the window again, body poised as always for…something. Right now it looked poised to jump through glass to get outside.

"Vampires don't need sleep," he said in a voice icier and more controlled than she'd heard since Matt had left them.

That gave her the energy to get off the bed. "You know I know that's a lie."

"Take the bed, Elena. Go to sleep." But his voice was the same. She would have expected a flat, weary command. Damon sounded more tense, more controlled than ever.

More shaken than ever.

Her eyelids sank. "Is this about Matt?"

"No."

"Is it about Shinichi?"

"No!"

Aha.

"It is, isn't it? You're afraid that Shinichi will get past all your defenses and possess you again. Aren't you?"

"Go to bed, Elena," Damon said tonelessly.

He was still shutting her out as completely as if she weren't there. Elena got mad.

"What does it take to show you that I trust you? I'm traveling all alone with you, without any idea where we're really going. I'm trusting you with Stefan's life." Elena was behind Damon now, on the beige carpet which smelled like…nothing, like boiled water. Not even like dust.

Her words were the dust. There was something about them that sounded hollow, wrong. They were the truth – but they weren't getting through to Damon….

Elena sighed. Touching Damon unexpectedly was always a tricky business, with all the risks of setting off murderous instinct by accident, even when he wasn't possessed. She reached out, now, very carefully, to put her fingertips on the elbow of his leather jacket. She spoke as precisely and unemotionally as she could.

"You also know that I have other senses now than the usual five. How many times do I have to say it, Damon? I know it wasn't you torturing me and Matt last week." Despite herself, Elena heard a certain pleading in her own voice. "I know that you've protected me on this trip when I was in danger, even killing for me. That means – a lot to me. You may say you don't believe in the human sentiment of forgiveness, but I don't think you've forgotten it. And when you know that there is nothing to forgive in the first place – "

"This has absolutely nothing to do with last week!"

The change in his voice – the force in it – hit Elena like a whiplash. It hurt…and it frightened her. Damon was serious. He was also under some dreadful strain, not completely unlike that of fighting off Shinichi's possession, but different.

"Damon…"

"Leave me alone!"

Now, where have I heard something like that before? Befuddled, her heart pounding, Elena groped through memories.

Oh, yes. Stefan. Stefan when they had first been in his room together, when he was afraid to love her. When he was sure he would cause her to be damned if he showed he cared.

Could Damon be that much like the brother he always mocked?

"At least turn around and talk with me face-to-face."

"Elena." It was a whisper, but it sounded as if Damon couldn't summon up his usual silky menace. "Go to bed. Go to hell. Go anywhere, but stay away from me."

"You're so good at that, aren't you?" Elena's own voice was cold now. Recklessly, angrily, she moved in even closer. "At pushing people away. But I know that you haven't fed this evening. There's nothing else you want from me, and you can't do the starving-martyr bit half as well as Stefan – "

Elena had spoken knowing that her words were guaranteed to incite a response of some kind, but Damon's usual response to this sort of thing was to lounge against something and pretend not to have heard.

What happened instead was completely outside the range of her experience.

Damon whirled, caught her precisely, held her locked in an unbreakable grip. Then, with a swoop of his head like a falcon on a mouse, he kissed her. He was more than strong enough to hold her still without hurting her.

The kiss was hard and long and for quite a while Elena resisted out of sheer instinct. Damon's body was cool against hers, which was still warm and damp from the bath. The way he was holding her – if she put enough pressure on those particular points, it would hurt her possibly seriously. And then – she knew – he would release her. But did she really know what she knew? Was she prepared to break a bone to test it?

He was stroking her hair, which was so unfair, curling the ends and crushing them in his fingers…just hours after he'd taught her to feel things to the tips of her hair. He knew her weak spots. Not just every woman's weak spots. He knew hers; he knew how to make her want to cry out in pleasure and how to soothe her.

There was nothing to do but test her theory and maybe break a bone. She would not submit when she had not invited him. She would not!

But then she remembered her curiosity about the little boy and the great stone boulder, and she deliberately opened her mind to Damon's. He fell into the trap of his own making.

As soon as their minds connected there were something like fireworks. Explosions. Rockets. Stars going nova. Elena set her mind to ignoring her body and began looking for the boulder.

It was deep, deep inside the most locked-off part of his brain. Deep in the eternal darkness that slept there. But Elena seemed to have brought a searchlight with her. Wherever she turned, dark festoons of cobwebs fell and heavy-looking stone arches crumbled and fell to the ground.

"Don't worry," Elena found herself saying. "The light won't do that to you! You don't have to live down here. I'll show you the beauty of the light."

What am I saying? Elena wondered even as the words left her lips. How can I promise him – and maybe he likes living here in the dark!

But in the next second she had come much closer to the little boy, close enough to see his pale, wondering face.

"You came again," he said, as if it were a miracle. "You said you would come, and you did!"

That brought down all Elena's barriers at once. She knelt, and pulling the chains to their utmost length, took him on her lap. "Are you glad that I came back?" she asked gently. She was already stroking his hair smooth.

"Oh, yes!" It was a cry, and it frightened Elena almost as much as it pleased her. "You're the nicest person I've ever – the most beautiful thing I ever – "

"Hush," Elena told him, "hush. There's got to be some way to warm you up."

"It's the iron," the child said humbly. "Iron keeps me weak and cold. But it has to be iron; otherwise he wouldn't be able to control me."

"I see," Elena said grimly. She was beginning to get a grasp on what kind of relationship Damon had with this little boy. For a moment, on a hunch, she took two lengths of iron in her hands and tried to tear them apart. Elena had super-light here; why not superpowers? But all that happened was that she twisted and turned the length for nothing, and finally cut the web of her finger against an iron burr.

"Oh!" The boy's huge dark eyes fixed on the dark bead of blood. He stared as if he were fascinated – and afraid.

"Do you want it?" Elena held out the hand to him uncertainly. What a poor scrap of a creature to be coveting other people's blood, she thought. He nodded timidly as if he were sure she'd be angry. But Elena just smiled and he reverently held her finger and took the whole globe of blood at once, closing his lips like a kiss.

As he lifted his head, he seemed to have a tinge more color in his pale face.

"You told me Damon keeps you here," she said, holding him again and feeling heat being sucked from her into his cold body. "Can you tell me why?"

The child was still licking his lips, but he turned his face toward her immediately and said, "I'm the Warden of Secrets. But" – sadly – "the Secrets have gotten so big that even I don't know what they are."

Elena followed the motion of his head from his own small limbs to the iron chain to the huge, metallic ball. She felt a sinking inside herself and a deep pity for such a small warden. And she wondered what on earth could be inside that great stone sphere that Damon was guarding so intently.

But she didn't get the chance to ask.

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