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The Vampire Diaries #6: Shadow Souls (The Return Trilogy #2) (2010)

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发表于 2016-9-20 10:41 | 显示全部楼层 |阅读模式

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The Return: Shadow Souls

Author: L.J. Smith

Category: Young Adult , Fantasy

Series: The Vampire Diaries


Elena Gilbert's love, the vampire Stefan Salvatore, has been captured and imprisoned by demonic spirits who are wreaking havoc in Fell's Church.

While her friends Bonnie and Meredith explore the evil that has taken over their town, Elena goes in search of Stefan.

In order to find him, she entrusts her life to Stefan's brother, Damon Salvatore, the handsome but deadly vampire who wants Elena, body and soul.

Along with her childhood friend Matt, they set out for the slums of the Dark Dimension, where Stefan is being held captive.

It is rumored to be a world where vampires and demons roam free, but humans must live enslaved to their supernatural masters...

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发表于 2016-9-20 11:04 | 显示全部楼层
Chapter 1

"Dear Diary," Elena whispered, "how frustrating is this? I left you in the trunk of the Jaguar and it's two o'clock in the morning." She stabbed her finger on the leg of her nightgown as if she had a pen and was making a period. She whispered even more softly, leaning her forehead against the window, "And I'm afraid to go outside - in the dark - and get you. I'm afraid!" She made another stab and then, feeling tears slip down her cheeks, reluctantly turned her mobile on to record. It was a stupid waste of the battery, but she couldn't help it. She needed this.

"So here I am," she said softly, "sitting up in the backseat of the car. This has to be my diary entry for today. By the way, we made a rule for this road trip - I sleep in the Jag's backseat and it's the Great Outdoors for Matt and Damon. Right now it's so dark outside that I can't see Matt anywhere.... But I've been going crazy - crying and feeling lost - and so lonely for Stefan....

"We have to get rid of the Jaguar - it's too big, too red, too flashy, and too memorable when we're trying not to be remembered as we travel to the place where we can free Stefan. After the car is sold, the lapis lazuli and diamond pendant Stefan gave me the day before he disappeared will be the most precious thing I have left. The day before...Stefan got tricked into going away, thinking he could become an ordinary human being. And now...

"How can I stop thinking about what They might be doing to him, at this very second - whoever 'They' are? Probably the kitsune, the evil fox spirits at the prison called the Shi no Shi."

Elena paused to wipe her nose on her nightgown sleeve.

"How did I ever get myself into this situation?" She shook her head, hit the seatback with her clenched fist.

"Maybe if I could figure that out, I could come up with Plan A. I always have a Plan A. And my friends always have a Plan B and C to help me." Elena blinked hard, thinking of Bonnie and Meredith. "But now I'm frightened that I'll never see them again. And I'm scared for the entire town of Fell's Church."

For a moment she sat with her clenched fist on her knee. A small voice inside her was saying, "So stop whining, Elena, and think. Think. Start from the beginning."

The beginning? What was the beginning? Stefan?

No, she had lived in Fell's Church long before Stefan came.

Slowly, almost dreamily, she spoke into her mobile. "In the first place: who am I? I'm Elena Gilbert, age eighteen." Even more slowly, she said, "I...don't think it's vain to say that I'm beautiful. If I didn't know I was, I'd have to have never looked in a mirror or heard a compliment. It's not something I should be proud of - it's just something that was passed down from Mom and Dad.

"What do I look like? I have blond hair that falls in sort of waves past my shoulders and blue eyes that some people have said are like lapis lazuli: dark blue with splashes of gold." She gave a half-choked laugh. "Maybe that's why vampires like me."

Then her lips tightened and, staring into the utter blackness around her, she spoke seriously.

"A lot of boys have called me the most angelic girl in the world. And I played around with them. I just used them - for popularity, for amusement, for whatever. I'm being honest, all right? I considered them to be toys or trophies." She paused. "But there was something else. Something that I knew all my life was coming - but I didn't know what. I felt as if I were searching for something that I could never find with boys. None of my scheming or playing around with them ever touched my...deepest heart...until one very special boy came along." She stopped and swallowed and said it again. "One very special boy.

"His name was Stefan.

"And he turned out not to be what he looked like, a normal - but gorgeous - high school senior with rumpled dark hair and eyes as green as emeralds.

"Stefan Salvatore turned out to be a vampire.

"A real vampire."

Elena had to pause to take a few choked breaths before she could get the next words out.

"And so did his gorgeous older brother, Damon."

She bit her lips, and it seemed a long time later that she added, "Would I have loved Stefan if I'd known he was a vampire from the beginning? Yes! Yes! Yes! I'd have fallen in love with him no matter what! But it changed things - and it changed me." Elena's finger traced a pattern on her nightgown by touch alone. "You see, vampires show love by exchanging blood. The problem was...that I was sharing blood with Damon, too. Not really by choice, but because he was after me constantly, day and night."

She let out a sigh. "What Damon says is that he wants to make me a vampire and his Princess of the Night. What that translates into is: he wants me all to himself. But I wouldn't trust Damon on anything unless he gave his word. That's one quirk he has, he never breaks his word."

Elena could feel an odd smile curling her lips, but she was speaking calmly now, fluently, the mobile almost forgotten.

"A girl involved with two vampires...well, there's bound to be trouble, isn't there? So maybe I deserved what I got.

"I died.

"Not just 'died' like when your heart stops and they resuscitate you and you come back talking about almost going into the Light. I went into the Light.

"I died.

"And when I came back - what a surprise! I was a vampire.

"Damon was...kind to me, I suppose, when I first woke up as a vampire. Maybe that's the reason I still have...feelings for him. He didn't take advantage of me when he could have easily.

"But I only had time to do a few things in my vampire life. I had time to remember Stefan and love him more than ever - since I knew, then, how difficult everything was for him. I got to listen to my own memorial service. Ha! Everybody should get a chance to do that. I learned to always, always wear lapis lazuli so I wouldn't become a vampire Crispy Critter. I got to say good-bye to my little four-year-old sister, Margaret, and visit Bonnie and Meredith...."

Tears were still sliding almost unnoticed down Elena's face. But she spoke quietly.

"And then - I died again.

"I died the way a vampire dies, when they don't have lapis lazuli in the sunlight. I didn't crumble into dust; I was only seventeen. But the sun poisoned me anyway. Going was almost...peaceful. That was when I made Stefan promise to take care of Damon, always. And I think Damon swore to take care of Stefan, in his mind. And that was how I died, with Stefan holding me and Damon beside me as I simply drifted away, like going to sleep.

"After that, I had dreams I don't remember, and then suddenly, one day everyone was surprised because I was talking to them through Bonnie, who is very psychic, poor thing. I guess I had landed the job of being Fell's Church's guardian spirit. There was a danger to the town. They had to fight it and somehow, when they were sure that they had lost, I got dumped back to the world of the living to help. And - well, when the war was won I was left with these weird powers I don't understand. But there was Stefan, too! We were together again!"

Elena wrapped her arms around herself tightly and held on as if she were holding Stefan to her, imagining his warm arms around her. She shut her eyes until her breathing slowed.

"About my powers, let's see. There's telepathy, which I can do if the other person is telepathic - which all vampires are, but to different degrees unless they're actually sharing blood with you at the time. And then there are my Wings.

"It's true - I have Wings! And the Wings have powers you wouldn't believe - the only problem being that I don't have the faintest idea how to use them. There's one that I can feel sometimes, like right now, trying to get out of me, trying to shape my lips to name it, trying to move my body into the right stance. It's Wings of Protection and that sounds like something we could really use on this trip. But I can't even remember how I made the old Wings work - much less figure out how to use this new one. I say the words until I feel like an idiot - but nothing happens at all.

"So I'm a human again - as human as Bonnie. And, oh, God, if I could only see her and Meredith right now! But all the time I tell myself that I'm getting closer to Stefan every minute. That is, if you take into account Damon's running us up and down and everywhere to throw off anybody trying to track us down.

"Why would anyone want to track us down? Well, you see, when I came back from the afterlife there was a very big explosion of Power that everyone in the world who can see Power saw.

"Now, how do I explain Power? It's something that everybody has, but that humans - except genuine psychics like Bonnie - don't even recognize. Vampires definitely have Power, and they use it to Influence humans to like them, or to think that things are different from reality - oh, like the way Stefan Influenced the high school staff to think his records were all in order when he 'transferred' to Robert E. Lee High School. Or they use Power to blast other vampires or creatures of darkness - or humans.

"But I was talking about the burst of Power when I dropped down from the heavens. It was so big that it attracted two horrible creatures from the other side of the world. And then they decided to come see what had made the burst, and if there was any way they could use it for themselves.

"I'm not joking, either, about them being from the other side of the world. They were kitsune, evil fox spirits from Japan. They're something like our Western werewolves - but much more powerful. So powerful that they used malach, which are really plants but look like insects that can be no bigger than a pinhead or big enough to swallow your arm. And the malach attach themselves to your nerves and feather out along your entire nervous system and finally they take you over from inside."

Now Elena was shuddering, and her voice was hushed.

"That's what happened to Damon. A tiny one got into him and it took him over from inside so that he was only a puppet of Shinichi's. I forgot to say, the kitsune are called Shinichi and Misao. Misao is the girl. They both have black hair with red all around the tips, but Misao's is long. And they're supposed to be brother and sister - but they sure don't act like it.

"And once Damon was fully possessed, that's when Shinichi made Damon's body...do terrible things. He made him torture Matt and me, and even now I know that sometimes Matt still wants to kill Damon for it. But if he'd seen what I saw - a whole thin, wet, white second body that I had to pull out with my fingernails from Damon's spine - with Damon finally passing out from the pain - then Matt would understand better. I can't blame Damon for what Shinichi made him do. I can't. Damon was...you can't imagine how different. He was crushed. He cried. He was...

"Anyway, I don't expect to ever see him like that again. But if I ever get my Wings' powers back, Shinichi is in big trouble.

"I think that that was our mistake last time, you see. We finally were able to fight Shinichi and Misao - and we didn't kill them. We were too moral or too gentle or something.

"It was a bad mistake.

"Because Damon wasn't the only one who got possessed by Shinichi's malach. There were girls, young girls, fourteen and fifteen and younger. And some boys. Acting...crazy. Hurting themselves and their families. We didn't know how badly until after we'd already made a bargain with Shinichi.

"Maybe we were too immoral, making a bargain with the devil. But they had kidnapped Stefan - and Damon, who was already possessed by then, had helped them. Once Damon was unpossessed, all he wanted was for Shinichi and Misao to tell us where Stefan was, and then for them to leave Fell's Church forever.

"In exchange for that, Damon let Shinichi into his mind.

"If vampires are obsessed with Power, kitsune are obsessed with memories. And Shinichi wanted Damon's memories for the last few days - the time that Damon was possessed and torturing us...and the time when my Wings made Damon realize that he had done it. I don't think Damon himself wanted those memories, either of what he'd done or of how he'd changed when he had to face that he'd done it. So he let Shinichi take them, in exchange for Shinichi putting Stefan's location into his mind.

"The problem is that we were trusting Shinichi's word that he would leave then - when Shinichi's word meant nothing at all.

"Plus, ever since then he's been using the telepathic channel that he opened between his mind and Damon's to take more and more of Damon's memories without Damon even knowing.

"It happened just last night, when we were pulled over by a policeman who wanted to know what three teenagers in an expensive car were doing that late at night. Damon Influenced him to go away. But just a few hours later Damon had forgotten the policeman completely.

"It frightens Damon. And anything that frightens Damon - not that he would ever admit it - scares me to death.

"And, you might ask, what were three teenagers doing out in the middle of nowhere, in Union County, Tennessee, according to the last road sign I saw? We're heading toward some Gate to the Dark Dimension...where Shinichi and Misao left Stefan in the prison called the Shi no Shi. Shinichi only put the knowledge into Damon's mind, and I can't get Damon to say much about what kind of place it is. But Stefan is there and I'll get to him somehow, even if it kills me.

"Even if I have to learn how to kill.

"I'm not the sweet little girl from Virginia I used to be."

Elena stopped and blew out her breath. But then, cuddling herself, she went on.

"And why is Matt along with us? Well, because of Caroline Forbes, my friend since kindergarten. Last year...when Stefan came to Fell's Church, she and I both wanted him. But Stefan didn't want Caroline. And after that she turned into my worst enemy.

"Caroline was also the lucky winner of Shinichi's first visit to any girl in Fell's Church. But more to the point: she was Tyler Smallwood's girlfriend quite a while before she was his victim. I wonder how long they were together and where Tyler is now. All I know is that, in the end, Caroline hung on to Shinichi because she 'needed a husband.' That was how she put it herself. So I assume - well, what Damon assumes. That she's going to...have puppies. A werewolf litter, you know? Since Tyler is a werewolf.

"Damon says that having a werewolf baby turns you into a werewolf even faster than if you're bitten, and that at some point in the pregnancy you gain the power to be all wolf or all human, but before that point you're just a mixed-up mess.

"The sad thing is that Shinichi scarcely gave Caroline a second glance when she blurted it all out.

"But before that Caroline had been desperate enough to accuse Matt of - of assaulting her - on a date that went wrong. She had to have known something about what Shinichi was doing because she claimed her 'date' with Matt was at a time when one of the arm-swallowing mallach was attacking him, making marks on his arm that looked like a girl's fingernail scratches.

"That sent the police after Matt, all right. So basically I just made him come with us. Caroline's father is one of the most important people in Fell's Church -  and he's friends with the district attorney in Ridgemont and the leader of one of those men's clubs where they have secret handshakes and other stuff that makes you, you know, 'prominent in the community.'

"If I hadn't convinced Matt to run instead of facing Caroline's charges, the Forbeses would have lynched him. And I feel the anger like a fire inside me - not just anger and hurt for Matt, but anger and the feeling that Caroline has let all girls everywhere down. Because most girls aren't pathological liars, and wouldn't say something like that about a boy falsely. She's shamed all girls by doing what she did."

Elena paused, looking at her hands, and then added, "Sometimes when I get angry at Caroline, cups shake or pencils roll right off the table. Damon says all this is caused by my aura, my life force, and that ever since I came back from the afterlife it's been different. First of all, it makes anyone who drinks my blood incredibly strong.

"Stefan was strong enough that the fox demons could never have forced him into their trap if Damon hadn't tricked him in the beginning. They could only deal with him when he was weakened and surrounded by iron. Iron is bad news for any eldritch creature, plus vampires need to feed at least once a day or they get weak, and I'll bet - no, I'm sure that they used that against him.

"That's why I can't stand to think about what shape Stefan might be in right this minute. But I can't let myself get too afraid or angry or I'll lose control of my aura. Damon showed me how to keep my aura mostly inside, like a normal human girl. It's still pale gold and pretty, but not a beacon for creatures like vampires.

"Because there's one other thing my blood - maybe even just my aura - can do. It can...oh, well, I can say anything I want to here, right? Nowadays, my aura can make vampires want me...the way human guys do. Not just to bite, get it? But to kiss and all the rest. And so, naturally, they come after me if they sense it. It's as if the world is full of honeybees and I'm the only flower.

"So I have to practice keeping my aura hidden. If it's just barely showing, then I can get away with seeming like a normal human, not somebody who's died and come back. But it's hard to always remember to hide it - and it hurts a lot pulling it in suddenly if I've forgotten!

"And then I feel - this is absolutely private, all right? I'm putting a curse on you, Damon, if you replay this. But it's then that I feel like I want Stefan to bite me. It eases up the pressure, and that's good. Being bitten by a vampire only hurts if you fight it, or if the vampire wants it to hurt. Otherwise, it can just feel good - and then you touch the mind of the vampire who's done it, and...oh, I just miss Stefan so much!"

Elena was shaking now. As hard as she tried to quiet her imagination, she kept thinking about the things that Stefan's jailers might be doing to him. Grimly, she gripped her mobile again, letting tears fall on it.

"I can't let myself think of what they might do to him because then I really start to go crazy. I become this useless shaking insane person who just wants to scream and scream and never stop. I have to fight every second not to think about it. Because only a cool, calm Elena with a Plan A and B and C is going to help him. When I have him safe in my arms, I can let myself shake and cry - and scream, too."

Elena stopped, half laughing, her head bent against the passenger's seatback, her voice husky with overuse.

"I'm tired now. But I have a Plan A, at least. I need to get more information from Damon about the place we're going, the Dark Dimension, and anything he knows about the two clues Misao gave me about the key that will unlock Stefan's cell.

"I guess...I guess I haven't mentioned that at all. The key, the fox key, that we need to get Stefan out of his cell, is broken into two pieces that are hidden in two different places. And when Misao was taunting me about how little I knew about those places, she gave me flat-out clues about where they were. She never dreamed I'd actually go into the Dark Dimension; she was just showing off. But I still remember the clues, and they went like this: The first half is 'in the silver nightingale's instrument.' And the second half is 'buried in Bloddeuwedd's ballroom.'

"I need to see if Damon has any ideas about these. Because it sounds as if once we get to the Dark Dimension we're going to have to infiltrate some people's houses and other places. To search a ballroom, it's best to somehow get invited to the ball, right? That sounds like 'easier said than done,' but whatever it takes, I'll do. It's simple as that."

Elena lifted her head in determination and went still, then said in a whisper, "Would you believe it? I looked up just now and I can see the palest streaks of dawn in the sky: light green and creamy orange and the faintest aqua.... I've talked all through the darkness. It's so peaceful now. Just now the sun peeked up o -

"What the hell was that? Something just went BANG on the top of the Jag. Really, really loud."

Elena clicked off the recorder on her mobile. She was scared, but a noise like that - and now scrabbling sounds on the roof...

She had to get out of the car as fast as possible.
发表于 2016-9-20 11:06 | 显示全部楼层
Chapter 2

Elena burst out of the backseat of the Jaguar and ran a little way from the car before turning to see what had fallen on top of it.

What had fallen was Matt. He was in the process of struggling to get up off his back.

"Matt - oh, my God! Are you all right? Are you hurt?" Elena cried at the same time as Matt was shouting in tones of anguish:

"Elena - oh, my God! Is the Jag all right? Is it hurt?"

"Matt, are you crazy? Did you hit your head?"

"Are there any scratches? Does the moonroof still work?"

"No scratches. The moonroof is fine." Elena had no idea if the moonroof worked, but she realized that Matt was raving, off his head. He was trying to get down without getting any mud on the Jag, but he was handicapped since his legs and feet were covered with mud. Getting off of the car without using his feet was proving difficult.

Meanwhile, Elena was looking around. She herself had once fallen from the sky, yes, but she had been dead for six months first and had arrived naked, and Matt fulfilled neither requirement. She had a more prosaic explanation in mind.

And there it was, lounging against a yellowwood tree and eyeing the scene with a very slight, wicked smile.

Damon.

He was compact; not as tall as Stefan, but with an indefinable aura of menace that more than made up for it. He was as immaculately dressed as always: black Armani jeans, black shirt, black leather jacket, and black boots, which all went with his carelessly windblown dark hair and his black eyes.

Right now, he made Elena acutely aware that she was wearing a long white nightgown that she had brought with the idea that she could change her clothes underneath it if necessary while they were camping. The problem was that she usually did this just at dawn, and today writing in her diary had distracted her. And all at once the nightgown wasn't the correct attire for an early-morning fight with Damon. It wasn't sheer, being more akin to flannel than to nylon, but it was lacy, especially around the neck. Lace around a pretty neck to a vampire - as Damon had told her - was like a waving red cloak in front of a raging bull.

Elena crossed her arms over her chest. She also tried to make sure that her aura was pulled in decorously.

"You look like Wendy," Damon said, and his smile was wicked, flashing, and definitely appreciative. He cocked his head to the side coaxingly.

Elena refused to be coaxed. "Wendy who?" she said, and at just that moment remembered the last name of the young girl in Peter Pan, and winced inwardly. Elena had always been good at repartee of this kind. The problem was that Damon was better.

"Why, Wendy...Darling," Damon said, and his voice was a caress.

Elena felt an inward shiver. Damon had promised not to Influence her - to use his telepathic powers to cloud or manipulate her mind. But sometimes it felt as if he got awfully close to the line. Yes, it was definitely Damon's fault, Elena thought. She didn't have any feelings for him that were - well, that were anything other than sisterly. But Damon never gave up, no matter how many times she rejected him.

Behind Elena was a thump and squelch that undoubtedly meant Matt had finally gotten off the roof of the Jag. He jumped into the fray immediately.

"Don't call Elena, Elena darling!" he shouted, continuing as he turned to Elena, "Wendy's probably the name of his latest little girlfriend. And - and - and do you know what he did? How he woke me up this morning?" Matt was quivering with indignation.

"He picked you up and threw you on top of the car?" Elena hazarded. She talked over her shoulder to Matt because there was a faint morning breeze that tended to mold her nightgown to her body. She didn't want Damon behind her just now.

"No! I mean, yes! No and yes! But - when he did, he didn't even bother to use his hands! He just went like this" - Matt waved an arm - "and first I got dropped into a mud hole and next thing I know I got dropped on the Jag. It could have broken the moonroof - or me! And now I'm all muddy," Matt added, examining himself with disgust, as if it had only just occurred to him.

Damon spoke up. "And why did I pick you up and put you down again? What were you actually doing at the time when I put some distance between us?"

Matt flushed to the roots of his fair hair. His normally tranquil blue eyes were blazing.

"I was holding a stick," he said defiantly.

"A stick. A stick like the kind you find along the roadside? That kind of stick?"

"I did pick it up along the roadside, yes!" Still defiant.

"But then something strange seems to have happened to it." From nowhere that Elena could see, Damon suddenly produced a very long, and very sturdy-looking stake, with one end that had been whittled to an extremely sharp point. It had definitely been carved from hardwood: oak from the look of it.

While Damon was examining his "stick" from all sides with a look of acute bafflement, Elena turned on a sputtering Matt.

"Matt!" she said reproachfully. This was definitely a low point in the cold war between the two boys.

"I just thought," Matt went on stubbornly, "that it might be a good idea. Since I'm sleeping outdoors at night and a...another vampire might come along."

Elena had already turned again and was making appeasing noises at Damon when Matt burst out afresh.

"Tell her how you actually woke me up!" he said explosively. Then, without giving Damon a chance to say anything, he continued, "I was just opening my eyes when he dropped this on me!" Matt squelched over to Elena, holding something up. Elena, truly at a loss, took it from him, turning it over. It seemed to be a pencil stub, but it was discolored dark reddish-brown.

"He dropped that on me and said 'scratch off two,'" Matt said. "He'd killed two people - and he was bragging about it!"

Elena suddenly didn't want to be holding the pencil anymore.

"Damon!" she said in a cry of real anguish, as she tried to make something out of his no-expression expression. "Damon - you didn't - not really - "

"Don't beg him, Elena. The thing we've got to do - "

"If anybody would let me get a word in," Damon said, now sounding truly exasperated, "I might mention that before I could explain about the pencil someone attempted to stake me on the spot, even before getting out of his sleeping bag. And what I was going to say next was that they weren't people. They were vampires, thugs, hired muscle - but these were possessed by Shinichi's malach. And they were on our trail. They'd gotten as far as Warren, Kentucky, probably by asking questions about the car. We're definitely going to have to get rid of it."

"No!" Matt shouted defensively. "This car - this car means something to Stefan and Elena."

"This car means something to you," Damon corrected. "And I might point out that I had to leave my Ferrari in a creek just so we could take you on this little expedition."

Elena held up her hand. She didn't want to hear any more. She did have feelings for the car. It was big and brilliantly red and flashy and buoyant - and it expressed how she and Stefan had been feeling on the day that he bought it for her, celebrating the start of their new life together. Just looking at it made her remember the day, and the weight of Stefan's arm around her shoulder and the way he'd looked down at her, when she'd looked up at him - his green eyes sparkling with mischief and the joy of getting her something she really wanted.

To Elena's embarrassment and fury, she found that she was shaking slightly, and that her own eyes were full of tears.

"You see," Matt said, glaring at Damon. "Now you're making her cry."

"I am? I'm not the one who mentioned my dear departed younger brother," Damon said urbanely.

"Just stop it! Right now! Both of you," Elena shouted, trying to find her composure. "And I don't want this pencil, if you don't mind," she added, holding it at arm's length.

When Damon took it, Elena wiped her hands on her nightgown, feeling vaguely light-headed. She shivered, thinking of the vampires on their trail.

And then, suddenly, as she swayed, there was a warm, strong arm around her and Damon's voice beside her saying, "What she needs is some fresh air, and I'm going to give it to her."

Abruptly Elena was weightless and she was in Damon's arms and they were going higher.

"Damon, could you please put me down?"

"Right now, darling? It's quite a distance..."

Elena continued to remonstrate with Damon, but she could tell that he had tuned her out. And the cool morning air was clearing her head a bit, although it also made her shake.

She tried to stop the shivering, but couldn't help it. Damon glanced down at her and to her surprise, looking completely serious, began to make motions as if to take his jacket off. Elena hastily said, "No, no - you just drive - fly, I mean, and I'll hang on."

"And watch for low-going seagulls," Damon said solemnly, but with a quirk at the side of his mouth. Elena had to turn her face away because she was in danger of laughing.

"So, just when did you learn you could pick people up and drop them on cars?" she inquired.

"Oh, just recently. It was like flying: a challenge. And you know I like challenges."

He was looking down at her with mischief in his eyes, those black on black eyes with such long lashes that they were wasted on a boy. Elena felt as light as if she were dandelion fluff, but also a little light-headed, almost tipsy.

She was much warmer now, because - she realized - Damon had enfolded her in his aura, which was warm. Not just in temperature, either, but warm with a heady, almost drunken appreciation, as he took her in, her eyes and her face and her hair floating weightlessly in a cloud of gold around her shoulders. Elena couldn't help but blush, and she almost heard his thought, that blushing suited her very well, pale pink against her fair complexion.

And just as blushing was an involuntary physical response to his warmth and appreciation, Elena felt an involuntary emotional response - of thankfulness for what he had done, of gratitude for his appreciation, and of unintentional appreciation of Damon himself. He had saved her life tonight, if she knew anything about vampires possessed by Shinichi's malach, vampires who were thugs to begin with. She couldn't even imagine what such creatures would do to her, and she didn't want to. She could only be glad that Damon had been clever enough and, yes, ruthless enough to take care of them before they got to her.

And she would have to be blind and just plain stupid not to appreciate the fact that Damon was gorgeous. After having died twice, this fact did not affect her as it would most other girls, but it was still a fact, whether Damon was pensive or giving one of those rare genuine smiles that he seemed to have only for Elena.

The problem with this was that Damon was a vampire and could therefore read her mind, especially with Elena being so close, their auras intermingling. And Damon appreciated Elena's appreciation, and it became a little cycle of feedback, all on its own. Before Elena could quite focus she was melting, her weightless body feeling heavier as it molded itself to Damon's arms.

And the other problem was that Damon wasn't Influencing her; he was as caught up in the feedback as Elena was - more so, because he didn't have any barriers against it. Elena did, but they were blurring, dissolving. She couldn't think properly. Damon was gazing at her with wonder and a look she was all too used to seeing - but she couldn't remember where.

Elena had lost the power to analyze. She was simply basking in the warm glow of being cherished, being held and loved and cared for with an intensity that shook her to the bone.

And when Elena gave of herself, she gave completely. Almost without conscious effort, she arched her head back to expose her throat and closed her eyes.

Damon gently positioned her head differently, supported it with one hand, and kissed her.
发表于 2016-9-20 11:24 | 显示全部楼层
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.
发表于 2016-9-20 11:28 | 显示全部楼层
Chapter 4
  
"You're shaking. Let me do it alone," Meredith said, putting a hand on Bonnie's shoulder as they stood together in front of Caroline Forbes's house.

Bonnie started to lean into the pressure, but made herself stop. It was humiliating to be shaking so obviously on a Virginia morning in late July. It was humiliating to be treated like a child, too. But Meredith, who was only six months older, looked more adult than usual today. Her dark hair was pulled back, so that her eyes looked very large and her olive-skinned face with its high cheekbones was shown to its best advantage.

She could practically be my babysitter, Bonnie thought dejectedly. Meredith had high heels on, too, instead of her usual flats. Bonnie felt smaller and younger than ever in comparison. She ran a hand through her strawberry-blond curls, trying to fluff them up a precious half inch higher.

"I'm not scared. I'm c-cold," Bonnie said with all the dignity she could muster.

"I know. You feel something coming from there, don't you?" Meredith nodded at the house before them.

Bonnie looked sideways at it and then back at Meredith. Suddenly Meredith's adultness was more comforting than annoying. But before she looked at Caroline's house again she blurted, "What's with the spike heels?"

"Oh," Meredith said, glancing down. "Just practical thinking. If anything tries to grab my ankle this time, it gets this." She stamped and there was a satisfying clack from the sidewalk.

Bonnie almost smiled. "Did you bring your brass knuckles, too?"

"I don't need them; I'll knock Caroline out again barehanded if she tries anything. But quit changing the subject. I can do this alone."

Bonnie finally let herself put her own small hand on Meredith's slim, long-fingered one. She squeezed. "I know you can. But I'm the one who should. It was me she invited over."

"Yes," Meredith said, with a slight, elegant curl of her lip. "She's always known where to stick in the knife. Well, whatever happens, Caroline's brought it on herself. First we try to help her, for her sake and ours. Then we try to make her get help. After that - "

"After that," Bonnie said sadly, "there's no telling." She looked at Caroline's house again. It looked...skewed...in some way, as if she were seeing it through a distorting mirror. Besides that, it had a bad aura: black slashed across an ugly shade of gray-green. Bonnie had never seen a house with so much energy before.

And it was cold, this energy, like the breath out of a meat locker. Bonnie felt as if it would suck out her own life-force and turn it into ice, if it got the chance.

She let Meredith ring the doorbell. It had a slight echo to it, and when Mrs. Forbes answered, her voice seemed to echo slightly, as well. The inside of the house still had that funhouse mirror look to it, Bonnie thought, but even stranger was the feel. If she shut her eyes she would imagine herself in a much larger place, where the floor slanted sharply down.

"You came to see Caroline," Mrs. Forbes said. Her appearance shocked Bonnie. Caroline's mother looked like an old woman, with gray hair and a pinched white face.

"She's up in her room. I'll show you," Caroline's mother said.

"But Mrs. Forbes, we know where - " Meredith broke off when Bonnie put a hand on her arm. The faded, shrunken woman was leading the way. She had almost no aura at all, Bonnie realized, and was stricken to the heart. She'd known Caroline and her parents for so long - how could their relationships have come to this?

I won't call Caroline names, no matter what she does, Bonnie vowed silently. No matter what. Even...yes, even after what she's done to Matt. I'll try to remember something good about her.

But it was difficult to think at all in this house, much less to think of anything good. Bonnie knew the staircase was going up; she could see each step above her. But all her other senses told her she was going down. It was a horrifying feeling that made her dizzy: this sharp slant downward as she watched her feet climb.

There was also a smell, strange and pungent, of rotten eggs. It was a reeking, rotten odor that you tasted in the air.

Caroline's door was shut, and in front of it, lying on the floor, was a plate of food with a fork and carving knife on it. Mrs. Forbes hurried ahead of Bonnie and Meredith and quickly snatched up the plate, opened the door opposite Caroline's, and placed it in there, shutting the door behind her.

But just before it disappeared, Bonnie thought she saw movement in the heap of food on the fine bone china.

"She'll barely speak to me," Mrs. Forbes said in the same empty voice she'd used before. "But she did say that she was expecting you."

She hurried past them, leaving them alone in the corridor. The smell of rotten eggs - no, of sulfur, Bonnie realized, was very strong.

Sulfur - she recognized the smell from last year's chemistry class. But how did such a horrible smell get into Mrs. Forbes's elegant house? Bonnie turned to Meredith to ask, but Meredith was already shaking her head. Bonnie knew that expression.

Don't say anything.

Bonnie gulped, wiped her watering eyes, and watched Meredith turn the handle of Caroline's door.

The room was dark. Enough light shone from the hallway to show that Caroline's curtains had been reinforced by opaque bedspreads nailed over them. No one was in or on the bed.

"Come in! And shut that door fast!"

It was Caroline's voice, with Caroline's typical waspishness. A flood of relief swept over Bonnie. The voice wasn't a male bass that shook the room, or a howl, it was Caroline-in-a-bad-mood.

She stepped into the dimness before her.
发表于 2016-9-20 11:30 | 显示全部楼层
Chapter 5

Elena got into the backseat of the Jaguar and put on a plush aquamarine T-shirt and jeans underneath her nightgown, just in case a police officer - or even someone trying to help the owners of a car apparently stalled by a deserted highway - stopped by. And then she lay down in the Jag's backseat.

But although she was now warm and comfortable, sleep wouldn't come.

What do I want? Really want right now? she asked herself. And the answer came to her immediately.

I want to see Stefan. I want to feel his arms around me. I want to just look at his face - at his green eyes with that special look that he only ever shows to me. I want him to forgive me and tell me that he knows I'll always love him.

And I want...Elena felt herself flush as a warmth went through her body, I want Stefan to kiss me. I want Stefan's kisses...warm and sweet and comforting....

Elena was thinking this as for the second or third time she shut her eyes and shifted position, tears once again welling up. If only she could cry, really cry, for Stefan. But something stopped her. She found it hard to squeeze out a tear.

God, she was exhausted....

Elena tried. She kept her eyes shut and turned back and forth, trying not to think about Stefan for just a few minutes. She had to sleep. Desperate, she gave a mighty heave to try to find a better position - when everything suddenly changed.

Elena was comfortable. Too comfortable. She couldn't feel the seat at all. She bolted upright and froze, sitting on air. She was almost hitting her head against the Jag's top.

I've lost gravity again! she thought, horrified. But, no - this was different than what had happened when she had first returned from the afterlife, and had floated around like a balloon. She couldn't explain why, but she was sure.

She was afraid to move in any direction. She wasn't sure of the cause of her distress - but she didn't dare move.

And then she saw it.

She saw herself, with her head back and her eyes closed in the backseat of the car. She could make out every tiny detail, from the wrinkles in her plush aquamarine shirt to the braid she'd made from her pale golden hair, which, for the lack of a hair tie, was coming unbraided already. She looked as if she were serenely sleeping.

So this was how it all ended. This is what they'll say, that Elena Gilbert, one summer day, died peacefully in her sleep. No cause of death was ever found....

Because they could never see heartbreak as a cause of death, Elena thought, and in a gesture even more melodramatic than her usual melodramatic gestures, she tried to fling herself down on her own body with one arm covering her face.

It didn't work. As soon as she reached out to begin to fling herself, she found herself outside the Jaguar.

She'd gone right through the ceiling without feeling anything. I suppose that's what happens when you're a ghost, she thought. But this is nothing like the last time. Then I saw the tunnel, I went into the Light.

Maybe I'm not a ghost.

Suddenly Elena felt a rush of exhilaration. I know what this is, she thought triumphantly. This is an out of body experience!

She looked down at her sleeping self again, searching carefully. Yes! Yes! There was a cord attaching her sleeping body - her real body - to her spiritual self. She was tethered! Wherever she went, she could find her way home.

There were only two possible destinations. One was back to Fell's Church. She knew the general direction from the sun, and she was sure that someone having an O.O.B. (as Bonnie, who had once gone through a spiritualist fad and had read lots of books about the subject, familiarly called them) would be able to recognize the crossing of all those ley lines.

The other destination, of course, was to Stefan.

Damon might think she didn't know where to go, and it was true that she could only vaguely sense from the rising sun that Stefan was in the other direction - to the west of her. But she'd always heard that the souls of true lovers were connected somehow...by a silver string from heart to heart or a red cord from pinky to pinky.

To her delight, she found it almost immediately.

A thin cord the color of moonlight, that seemed to be stretched taut between the sleeping Elena's heart, and...yes. When she touched the cord, it resonated so clearly to her of Stefan that she knew it would take her to him.

There was never a doubt in her mind as to which direction she would take. She'd been in Fell's Church. Bonnie was a psychic of some impressive powers, and so was Stefan's old landlady, Mrs. Theophilia Flowers. They were there, along with Meredith and her brilliant intellect, to protect the town.

And they would all understand, she told herself somewhat desperately. She might not ever have this chance again.

Without another moment's hesitation, Elena turned toward Stefan and let herself go.

Immediately she found herself rushing through the air, far too quickly to take note of her surroundings. Everything she passed was a blur, differing only in color and texture as Elena realized with a catch in her throat that she was going through objects.

And so, in just a few instants, she found herself looking at a heart-wrenching scene: Stefan on a worn and broken pallet, looking gray-faced and thin. Stefan in a hideous, rush-strewn, lice-infested cell with its damned bars of iron from which no vampire could escape.

Elena turned away for a moment so that when she woke him he wouldn't see her anguish and her tears. She was just composing herself, when Stefan's voice jolted through her. He was awake already.

"You try and try, don't you?" he said, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "I guess you should get points for that. But you always get something wrong. Last time it was the little pointed ears. This time it's the clothes. Elena wouldn't wear a wrinkled shirt like that and have dirty, bare feet if her life depended on it. Go away." Shrugging his shoulders under the threadbare blanket, he turned from her.

Elena stared. She was in too many kinds of distress to choose her words: they burst from her like a geyser. "Oh, Stefan! I was just trying to fall asleep in my clothes in case a police officer stopped by while I was in the backseat of the Jag. The Jag you bought me. But I didn't think you'd care! My clothes are wrinkled because I'm living out of my duffel bag and my feet got dirty when Damon - well - well - never mind that. I have a real nightgown, but I didn't have it on when I came out of my body and I guess when you come out you still look like yourself in your body...."

Then she threw up her hands in alarm as Stefan swung around. But - marvel of marvels - there was now a tinge of blood in his cheeks. Moreover, he was no longer looking disdainful.

He was looking deadly, his green eyes flashing with menace.

"Your feet got dirty - when Damon did what?" he demanded, enunciating carefully.

"It doesn't matter - "

"It damn well does matter - " Stefan stopped short. "Elena?" he whispered, staring at her as if she had only just appeared.

"Stefan!" She couldn't help holding out her arms to him. She couldn't control anything. "Stefan, I don't know how, but I'm here. It's me! I'm not a dream or a ghost. I was thinking about you and falling asleep -  and here I am!" She tried to touch him with ghostlike hands. "Do you believe me?"

"I believe you...because I was thinking about you. Somehow - somehow that brought you here. Because of love. Because we love each other!" And he spoke the words as if they were a revelation.

Elena shut her eyes. If only she could be here in her body, she would show Stefan how much she loved him. As it was, they had to use clumsy words - clich��s that just happened to be uniquely true.

"I will always love you, Elena," Stefan said, whispering again. "But I don't want you near Damon. He'll find a way to hurt you - "

"I can't help it," Elena interrupted him.

"You have to help it!"

" - because he's my only hope, Stefan! He's not going to hurt me. He's already killed to protect me. Oh, God, so much has happened! We're on our way to - " Elena hesitated, her eyes flicking around warily.

Stefan's eyes widened for an instant. But when he spoke his face was deadpan. "Someplace where you'll be safe."

"Yes," she said, just as seriously, knowing that phantom tears were now racing down her bodiless cheeks. "And...oh, Stefan, there's so much you don't know. Caroline accused Matt of attacking her while they were on a date because she's pregnant. But it wasn't Matt!"

"Of course not!" Stefan said indignantly, and would have said more, but Elena was racing on.

"And I think that the - the litter is really Tyler Smallwood's because of the timing, and because Caroline's changing. Damon said that - "

"A werewolf baby will always turn its mother into a werewolf - "

"Yes! But the werewolf part is going to have to fight the malach that's already inside her. Bonnie and Meredith told me things about Caroline - like how she was scuttling on the floor like a lizard - that just terrified me. But I had to leave them to deal with that so that I could - could get to that safe place."

"Werewolves and were-foxes," Stefan said, shaking his head. "Of course, the kitsune, the foxes, are much more powerful magically, but werewolves tend to kill before they think." He struck his knee with his fist. "I wish I could be there!"

Elena burst out with mixed wonder and despair, "And instead here I am - with you! I never knew I could do this. But I haven't been able to bring you anything this way, not even myself. My blood." She made a helpless gesture and saw the smugness in Stefan's eyes.

He still had the Clarion Loess Black Magic wine she'd smuggled to him! She knew it! It was the only liquid that would - in a pinch - help keep a vampire alive when no blood was available.

Black Magic "wine" - nonalcoholic and never made for humans in the first place, was the only drink that vampires really enjoyed aside from blood. Damon had told Elena that it was magically made from special grapes that were grown in the soil at the edges of glaciers, loess, and that they were always kept in complete darkness. That was what gave it its velvety dark taste, he'd said.

"It doesn't matter," Stefan said, undoubtedly for the benefit of anyone who might be spying. "Exactly how did it happen?" he asked then. "This out of body thing? Why don't you come down here and tell me about it?" He lay back on his pallet, turning aching eyes on her. "I'm sorry that I don't have a better bed to offer you." For a moment the humiliation showed clearly in his face. All this time he'd managed to hide it from her: the shame he felt in appearing before her in this way - in a filthy cell, with rags for clothes, and infested with God knew what. He - Stefan Salvatore, who had once been - had once been -

Elena's heart truly broke then. She knew it was breaking, because she could feel it inside shattering like glass, with each needle-like shard skewering flesh inside her chest. She knew it was breaking, too, because she was weeping, huge spirit tears that dropped on Stefan's face like blood, translucent in the air as they fell, but turning deep red when they touched Stefan's face.

Blood? Of course, it wasn't blood, she thought. She couldn't even bring anything so useful to him in this form. She was really sobbing now; her shoulders shaking as the tears continued to fall onto Stefan, who now had one hand held up as if to catch one...

"Elena - " There was wonder in his voice.

"Wha - what?" she keened.

"Your tears. Your tears make me feel..." He was staring up at her with something like awe.

Elena still couldn't stop weeping, although she knew that she had soothed his proud heart - and done something else.

"I d-don't understand."

He caught one of her tears and kissed it. Then he looked at her with a sheen in his own eyes. "It's hard to talk about, lovely little love...."

Then why use words? she thought, still weeping, but coming down to his level so she could snuffle just above his throat.

It's just...they're not too free with the refreshments around here, he told her. As you guessed. If you hadn't - helped me - I'd've been dead by now. They can't figure out why I'm not. So they - well they run out before they get to me, sometimes, you see -

Elena lifted her head, and this time tears of pure rage fell right onto his face. Where are they? I'll kill them. Don't tell me I can't because I'll find a way. I'll find a way to kill them even though I'm in this state -

He shook his head at her. Angel, angel, don't you see? You don't have to kill them. Because your tears, the phantom tears of a pure maiden -

She shook her head back at him. Stefan, if anyone knows I'm not a pure maiden, it's you -

- of a pure maiden, Stefan continued, not even disturbed by her interruption, can cure all ills. And I was ill tonight, Elena, even though I tried to hide it. But I'm cured now! As good as new! They'll never be able to understand how it could happen.

Are you sure?

Look at me!

Elena looked at him. Stefan's face, which had been gray and drawn before, was different now. He was usually pale, but now his fine features looked flushed - as if he had been standing in front of a bonfire and the light was still reflecting off the pure lines and elegant planes of his beloved face.

I...did that? She remembered the first tear droplets falling, and how they had looked like blood on his face. Not like blood, she realized, but like natural color, sinking into him, refreshing him.

She couldn't help but hide her face again in his throat as she thought, I'm glad. Oh, I'm so glad. But I wish we could touch each other. I want to feel your arms around me.

"At least I can look at you," Stefan whispered, and Elena knew that even this is like water in the wasteland to him. "And if we could touch, I'd put my arm around your waist here, and kiss you here and here...."

They spoke to each other this way for a while - just exchanging lovers' nonsense, each sustained by the sight and sound of the other. And then, softly but firmly, Stefan asked her to tell him all about Damon - everything since they'd started. By now Elena was cool-headed enough to tell him about the incident with Matt without making Damon sound too much like a villain.

"And Stefan, Damon really is protecting us as best he can." She told him about the two possessed vampires who had been tracking them and what Damon had done.

Stefan merely shrugged and said wryly, "Most people write with pencils; Damon writes people off with them." He added, "And your clothes got dirty?"

"Because I heard a great big crash - which ended up being Matt on top of the car," she said. "But, to be fair, he was trying to stake Damon at the time. I made him get rid of the stake." She added, in the barest of whispers: "Stefan, please don't mind that Damon and I have to - to be together a lot right now. It doesn't change anything between us."

"I know."

And the amazing thing was that he did know. Elena was bathed in the deep glow of his trust for her.

After that they "held" each other, Elena snuggling weightlessly above the curve of Stefan's arm...and it was bliss.

And then abruptly the world - the entire universe - shuddered at the sound of a gigantic slamming sound. It jerked at Elena. It didn't belong in here with love and trust and the sweetness of sharing every part of her self with Stefan.

It began again - a monstrous booming that terrified Elena. She clutched uselessly at Stefan, who was looking at her with concern. He didn't hear the clanging that was defeaning her, she realized.

And then something even worse happened. She was torn out of Stefan's arms bodily, and she was rushing backward, back through objects, back faster and faster until with a jar she landed in her body.

For all her reluctance she landed perfectly on the solid body that until now had been the only one she'd known. She landed on it and melded into it and then she was sitting up and the sounds were the sounds of Matt rapping at the window.

"It's been over two hours since you went to sleep," he said as she opened the door. "But I figured you needed it. Are you all right?"

"Oh, Matt," Elena said. For a moment it seemed impossible that she was going to be able to keep from crying. But then she remembered Stefan's smile.

Elena blinked, forcing herself to deal with her new situation. She hadn't seen Stefan for nearly long enough. But her memories of their short, sweet time together were wrapped in jonquils and lavender and nothing could ever take them away from her.

Damon was irritated. As he flew higher on his wide, black crow's wings, the landscape beneath him unfolded like a magnificent carpet, the breaking day making the grasslands and rolling hills glow like emerald.

Damon ignored it. He'd seen it too many times. What he was looking for was una donna splendida.

But his mind kept drifting. Mutt and his stake...Damon still didn't see why Elena wanted to take a fugitive from justice along with them. Elena...Damon tried to conjure up the same irritated feelings for her as he had for Mutt, but just couldn't manage it.

He circled down toward the town below, keeping to the residential district, searching for auras. He wanted a strong aura as much as a beautiful one. And he'd been in America long enough to know that this early in the morning you could find three sorts of people up and outdoors. Students were the first, but this was summer, so there were fewer to pick from. Despite Mutt's assumptions, Damon seldom sank to high school girls. Joggers were the second. And the third, thinking beautiful thoughts, just like...that one down there...were home gardeners.

The young woman with the pruning shears looked up as Damon turned the corner and approached her house, deliberately hurrying and then slowing his stride. His very footsteps made it clear that he was delighted to take in the floral extravaganza in front of the charming Victorian house. For a moment the girl looked startled, almost afraid. That was normal. Damon was wearing black boots, black jeans, a black T-shirt, and black leather jacket, in addition to his Ray-Bans. But then he smiled and at the same moment began the first delicate infiltration of la bella donna's mind.

One thing was clear even before that. She liked roses.

"A full flush of Dreamweavers," he said, shaking his head in admiration as he looked at the bushes covered with brilliant pink bloom. "And those White Icebergs climbing the trellis.... Ah, but your Moonstones!" He lightly touched an open rose, its petals moonlight-colored but shading to palest pink at the edges.

The young woman - Krysta - couldn't help smiling. Damon felt the information flow effortlessly from her mind to his. She was just twenty-two, not married, still living at home. She had precisely the kind of aura he was looking for, and only a sleeping father in the house.

"You don't look like the type to know so much about roses," Krysta said frankly, and then gave a self-conscious laugh. "I'm sorry. I've met all sorts at the Creekville Rose Shows."

"My mother is an avid gardener," Damon lied fluently and without a trace of misgiving. "I guess I got my passion from her. Now I don't stay in one place long enough to grow them, but I can still dream. Would you like to know what my ultimate dream is?"

By this time Krysta felt as if she were floating on a delicious rose-scented cloud. Damon felt every delicate nuance with her, enjoyed seeing her flush, enjoyed the slight tremor that shook her body.

"Yes," Krysta said simply. "I'd love to know your dream."

Damon leaned forward, lowered his voice. "I want to breed a true black rose."

Krysta looked startled and something flashed through her mind too quickly for Damon to catch. But then she said in an equally hushed voice, "Then there's something I'd like to show you. If - if you have time to come with me."

The backyard was even more splendid than the front and there was a hammock gently swinging, Damon noted with approval. After all, he would soon need a place to put Krysta...while she slept it off.

But at the rear of the bower was something that caused his pace to quicken involuntarily.

"Black Magic roses!" he exclaimed, eyeing the wine-dark, almost burgundy-colored blooms.

"Yes," Krysta said softly. "Black Magics. The closest anyone has ever gotten to a black rose. I get three flushes a year," she whispered tremulously, no longer questioning who this young man might be, overwhelmed by her feelings which almost took Damon with her.

"They're magnificent," he said. "The deepest red I've ever seen. The closest to black ever bred."

Krysta was still trembling with joy. "You're welcome to one, if you like. I'm taking them to the Creekville show next week but I can give you one in full bloom now. Maybe you'll be able to smell it."

"I'd...like that," Damon said.

"You can give it to your girlfriend."

"No girlfriend," Damon said, glad to get back to lying. Krysta's hands shook slightly as she cut one of the longest, straightest stems for him.

Damon reached out to take it and their fingers touched.

Damon smiled at her.

When Krysta's knees went boneless with pleasure, Damon caught her easily and went on with what he was doing.

Meredith was right behind Bonnie as she stepped into Caroline's room.

"I said, shut the damn door!" Caroline said - no, snarled.

It was only natural to look to see where the voice was coming from. Just before Meredith cut off the only sliver of light by shutting the door Bonnie saw Caroline's corner desk. The chair that used to sit in front of it was gone.

Caroline was underneath.

It might have been a good hiding space for a ten-year-old, but as an eighteen-year-old Caroline had curled into an impossible position in order to fit there. She was sitting on a pile of what looked like shreds of clothing. Her best clothes, Bonnie thought suddenly, as a twinkle of gold lam�� flashed and was gone when the door shut.

Then it was just the three of them together in the darkness. No illumination came from above or below the door to the hall.

It's because the hall is in another world, Bonnie thought wildly.

"What's wrong with a little light, Caroline?" Meredith asked quietly. Her voice was steady, comforting. "You asked us to come and see you - but we can't see you."

"I said come and talk to me," Caroline corrected instantly, exactly as she always had in the old days. That should have been comforting, too. Except - except that now that Bonnie could hear her voice sort of reverberating under the desk, she could tell it had a new quality. Not so much husky as -

You really don't want to be thinking this. Not in the midnight darkness of this room, Bonnie's mind told her.

Not so much husky as snarly, Bonnie thought helplessly. You could almost say Caroline growled her answers.

Little sounds told Bonnie that the girl under the desk was moving. Bonnie's own breathing quickened.

"But we want to see you," Meredith said quietly. "And you know that Bonnie's scared of the dark. Can I just turn on your bedside lamp?"

Bonnie could feel herself trembling. That wasn't good. It wasn't smart to show Caroline you were afraid of her. But the pitch-blackness was making her tremble. She could feel that this room was wrong in its angles - or maybe it was only her imagination. She could also hear things that made her jump - like that loud double clicking noise directly behind her. What had made that?

"All rrright then! Turrn on the one by the bed." Caroline was definitely snarling. And she was moving toward them; Bonnie could hear rustling and breathing getting closer.

Don't let her get to me in the dark!

It was a panicked, irrational thought, but Bonnie couldn't help thinking it any more than she could help stumbling blindly sideways into...

Something tall - and warm.

Not Meredith. Never since Bonnie had known her had Meredith smelled like rancid sweat and rotten eggs. But the warm something took hold of both Bonnie's upraised hands, and there were strange little clicking noises as they clenched.

The hands weren't just warm; they were hot and dry. And the ends poked oddly into Bonnie's skin.

Then, as a light by the bedside went on, they were gone. The lamp Meredith had found put out a very, very dim ruby light - and it was easy to see why. A ruby negligee and peignoir had been tied around the shade.

"This is a fire hazard," Meredith said, but even her level voice sounded shaken.

Caroline stood before them in the red light. She seemed taller than ever to Bonnie, tall and sinewy, except for the slight bulge of her belly. She was dressed normally, in jeans and a tight T-shirt. She was holding her hands playfully hidden behind her back, and smiling her old insolent, sly smile.

I want to go home, Bonnie thought.

Meredith said, "Well?"

Caroline just kept smiling. "Well, what?"

Meredith lost her temper. "What do you want?"

Caroline just looked arch. "Have you visited your friend Isobel today? Had a little talk with her?"

Bonnie had a powerful urge to slap that smug smile off Caroline's face. She didn't. It was just a trick of the lamplight - she knew it had to be - but it looked almost as if there was a red dot shining in the center of each of Caroline's eyes.

"We visited Isobel at the hospital, yes," Meredith said expressionlessly. Then, with unmistakable anger in her voice, she added, "And you know very well that she can't talk yet. But" - with a triumphant little pounce - "the doctors say she will be able to. Her tongue will heal, Caroline. She may have scars from all the places she pierced herself, but she's going to be able to talk again just fine."

Caroline's smile had faded, leaving her face looking haggard and full of dull fury. At what? Bonnie wondered.

"It would do you some good to get out of this house," Meredith told the copper-haired girl. "You can't live in the dark - "

"I won't forever," Caroline said sharply. "Just until the twins are born." She stood, hands still behind her, and arched her back so that her stomach protruded more than ever.

"The - twins?" Bonnie was startled into speaking.

"Matt Junior and Mattie. That's what I'm going to call them."

Caroline's gloating smile and impudent eyes were almost too much for Bonnie to stand. "You can't do that!" she heard herself shouting.

"Or maybe I'll call the girl Honey. Matthew and Honey, for their daddy, Matthew Honeycutt."

"You can't do it," Bonnie shouted, more shrilly. "Especially with Matt not even here to defend himself - "

"Yes, he did run away very suddenly, didn't he? The police are wondering why he had to run. Of course" - Caroline lowered her voice to a meaningful whisper - "he wasn't alone. Elena was with him. I wonder what the two of them do in their spare time?" She giggled, a high, fatuous giggle.

"Elena isn't the only person with Matt," Meredith said, and now her voice was low and dangerous. "Someone else is, too. Do you remember an agreement you signed? About not telling anyone about Elena or bringing publicity around her?"

Caroline blinked slowly, like a lizard. "A long time ago. In a different lifetime, for me."

"Caroline, you're not going to have a lifetime if you break that oath! Damon would kill you. Or - have you already - ?" Meredith stopped.

Caroline was still giggling in that childish way, as if she were a little girl and someone had just told her a naughty joke.

Bonnie felt cold sweat break out all over her body at once. Fine hairs lifted on her arms.

"What are you hearing, Caroline?" Meredith wet her lips. Bonnie could see that she was trying to hold Caroline's eyes, but the copper-haired girl turned away. "Is it...Shinichi?" Meredith moved forward suddenly and grasped Caroline's arms. "You used to see and hear him when you looked in the mirror. Do you hear him all the time now, Caroline?"

Bonnie wanted to help Meredith. She did. But she couldn't have moved or spoken for anything.

There were - gray threads - in Caroline's hair. Gray hairs, Bonnie thought. They shone dully, much lighter than the flaming auburn Caroline was so proud of. And there were...other hairs that didn't shine at all. Bonnie had seen this brindled coloration on dogs; she knew vaguely that some wolves must look the same. But it was really something else to see them in your girlfriend's hair. Especially when they seemed to bristle and quiver, lifting like the hackles of a dog....

She's mad. Not angry mad; insane mad, Bonnie realized.

Caroline looked up, not at Meredith, but straight into Bonnie's eyes. Bonnie flinched. Caroline was gazing at her as if considering whether or not Bonnie were dinner or just garbage.

Meredith stepped to stand beside Bonnie. Her fists were clenched.

"Don't starrre," Caroline said abruptly, and turned away. Yes, that was definitely a snarl.

"You really wanted us to see you, didn't you?" Meredith said softly. "You're - flaunting yourself in front of us. But I think that maybe this is your way of asking for help - "

"Harrrrdly!"

"Caroline," Bonnie said suddenly, amazed by a wave of pity that swamped her, "please try to think. Remember back when you said you needed a husband? I - " She broke off and swallowed. Who was going to marry this monster, who a few weeks ago had looked like a normal teenage girl?

"I understood you back then," Bonnie finished lamely. "But, honestly, it won't do any good to keep on saying Matt attacked you! No one..." She couldn't bring herself to say the obvious.

No one will believe something like you.

"Oh, I clean up rrrreal prrretty," Caroline growled and then giggled. "You'd be surprrrised."

In her mind's eye, Bonnie saw the old insolent flash of Caroline's emerald gaze, the sly and secretive expression on her face, and the shimmering of her auburn hair.

"Why pick on Matt?" Meredith demanded. "How did you know he was attacked by a malach that night? Did Shinichi send it after him just for you?"

"Or did Misao?" Bonnie said, remembering that it was the female of the twin kitsune, the fox spirits, who had spoken the most to Caroline.

"I went out on a date with Matt that night." Suddenly Caroline's voice was a singsong, as if she were reciting poetry - badly. "I didn't mind kissing him - he's so cute. I guess that's when he got the hickey on his neck. I guess I might have bitten his lip a little."

Bonnie opened her mouth, felt Meredith's restraining hand on her shoulder, and shut it again.

"But then he just went crazy," Caroline lilted on. "He attacked me! I scratched him with my fingernails, all up and down one arm. But Matt was too strong. Much too strong. And now - "

And now you're going to have puppies, Bonnie wanted to say, but Meredith squeezed her shoulder and she stopped herself again. Besides, Bonnie thought with a sudden twinge of alarm, the babies might look human, and there might only be twins, as Caroline herself had said. Then what would they do?

Bonnie knew the way adult minds worked. Even if Caroline couldn't dye her hair back to auburn, they would say, look what stress she's been under: she's actually going prematurely gray!

And even if the adults saw Caroline's bizarre appearance and strange behavior, as Bonnie and Meredith just had, they would dismiss it as being due to shock. Oh, poor Caroline, her whole personality has changed since that day. She's so frightened of Matt that she hides under her desk. She won't wash herself - maybe that's a common symptom after what she's been through.

Besides who knew how long it would take these werewolf babies to be born? Maybe the malach inside Caroline could control that, make it seem to be like a normal pregnancy.

And then suddenly Bonnie was snatched away from her own thoughts to tune into Caroline's words. Caroline was through growling for the moment. She sounded almost like the old Caroline, offended and nasty, as she said, "I just don't understand why you should take his word over mine."

"Because," Meredith said flatly, "we know both of you. We would have known if Matt had been dating you - and he wasn't. And he's hardly the kind of guy to just show up at your front door, especially when you consider how he felt about you."

"But you've already said that this monster that attacked him - "

"Malach, Caroline. Learn the word. You've got one inside you!"

Caroline smirked and waved a hand, dismissing this. "You said these things can possess you and make you do things out of character, right?"

There was a silence. Bonnie thought, if we have said it, we've never said it in front of you.

"Well, what if I admitted that Matt and I weren't dating? What if I said that I found him driving around our neighborhood at about five miles an hour, just looking lost. His sleeve was torn to pieces and his arm was all chewed up. So I took him inside my house and tried to bandage his arm - but suddenly he went crazy. And I did try to scratch him, but the bandages were in the way. I scratched them off him. I even still have them, all covered in blood. If I told you that, what would you say?"

I'd say that you were using us as a dry run before telling Sheriff Mossberg, Bonnie thought, chilled. And I'd say that you were right, you probably can clean up pretty normal looking when you make an effort. If you'd just stop that childish giggling and get rid of the crafty look, you'd be even more convincing.

But Meredith was speaking. "Caroline - they've got DNA tests for blood."

"Of course I know that!" Caroline looked so indignant that for a moment she forgot to look sly.

Meredith was staring at her. "That means they can tell if the bandages you've got have Matt's blood on them or not," she said. "And if it flows in the right pattern to match your story."

"There isn't any pattern. The bandages are just soaked." Abruptly, Caroline strode over to a dresser and opened it, plucking out a length of what might have originally been athletic bandage. Now it shone reddish in the faint light.

Looking at the stiff fabric in the ruby light, Bonnie knew two things. It wasn't any part of the poultice that Mrs. Flowers had put on Matt's arm the morning after he'd been attacked. And it was soaked with genuine blood, right to the stiff tips of the cloth.

The world seemed to be spinning around. Because even though Bonnie believed in Matt, this new story scared her. This new story might even work - provided that no one could find Matt and test his blood.

Even Matt admitted that there was time unaccounted for that night...time he couldn't remember.

But that didn't mean Caroline was telling the truth! Why would she start out with a lie, and only change it when the facts got in the way?

Caroline's eyes were the color of a cat's. Cats play with mice, just for amusement. Just to see them run.

Matt had run....

Bonnie shook her head. All at once she couldn't stand this house any longer. It had somehow settled into her mind, making her accept all the impossible angles of the distorted walls. She had even grown accustomed to the awful smell and the red light. But now, with Caroline holding out a blood-soaked bandage and telling her that it was Matt who had bled all over it...

"I'm going home," Bonnie announced suddenly. "And Matt didn't do it, and - and I'm never coming back!" Accompanied by the sound of Caroline's giggling, she whirled, trying not to look at the nest Caroline had made under her corner desk. There were empty bottles and half-empty plates of food piled in there with the clothes. Anything could be under them - even a malach.

But as Bonnie moved, the room seemed to move with her, accelerating her spin, until she had gone twice around before she could put out a foot to stop herself.

"Wait, Bonnie - wait, Caroline," Meredith said, sounding almost frantic. Caroline was folding her body like a contortionist, getting back under the desk. "Caroline, what about Tyler Smallwood? Don't you care that he's the real father of your - your kids? How long were you dating him before he joined up with Klaus? Where is he now?"

"Forrr all I know he's dead. You and yourrr friends killed him." The snarl was back, but it wasn't vicious. It was more of a triumphant purr. "But I don't miss him, so I hope he stays dead," Caroline added, with a muffled giggle. "He wouldn't marrrry me."

Bonnie had to get away. She fumbled for the doorknob, found it, and was blinded. She had spent so long in ruby dimness that the hall light was like the midday sun on the desert.

"Turrn off the lamp!" Caroline snapped from under the desk. But as Meredith moved to do it Bonnie heard a surprisingly loud explosion and saw the red-swathed shade go dark by itself.

And one thing more.

The hallway light swept across Caroline's room like a beacon as the door swung shut. Caroline was already tearing at something with her teeth. Something with the texture of meat, but not cooked meat.

Bonnie jerked back to run and almost knocked over Mrs. Forbes.

The woman was still standing in the hall where she had been when they went into Caroline's room. She didn't even look as if she'd been listening at the door. She was just standing, staring at nothing.

"I have to show you out," she said in her soft, gray voice. She didn't lift her head to meet Bonnie's or Meredith's eyes. "You might get lost otherwise. I do."

It was a straight shot to the stairs and down and four steps to the front door. But as they walked, Meredith didn't say anything, and Bonnie couldn't.

Once outside, Meredith turned to look at Bonnie.

"Well? Is she more possessed by the malach or the werewolf part of her? Or could you tell anything from her aura?"

Bonnie heard herself laugh, a sound that was like crying.

"Meredith, her aura isn't human - and I don't know what to make of it. And her mother doesn't seem to have an aura at all. They're just - that house is just - "

"Never mind, Bonnie. You don't have to go there ever again."

"It's like..." But Bonnie didn't know how to explain the fun-house look of the walls or the way the stairs went down instead of up.

"I think," she said finally, "that you'd better do some more research. On things like - like possession of the American kind."

"You mean like possession by demons?" Meredith shot her a sharp look.

"Yes. I guess so. Only I don't know where to start listing what's wrong with her."

"I have a few ideas of my own," Meredith said quietly. "Like - did you notice that she never showed us her hands? That was very strange, I thought."

"I know why," Bonnie whispered, trying not to let the sobbing laughter out. "It's because - she doesn't have fingernails anymore."

"What did you say?"

"She put her hands around my wrists. I could feel them."

"Bonnie, you're not making any sense."

Bonnie made herself speak. "Caroline has claws now, Meredith. Real claws. Like a wolf."

"Or maybe," Meredith said in a whisper, "like a fox."
发表于 2016-9-20 11:44 | 显示全部楼层
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 – wait a minute!" 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.
发表于 2016-9-20 11:48 | 显示全部楼层
Chapter 7

Elena woke to the sound of Damon impatiently rapping on the window of the Prius. She was fully clothed, clutching her diary to her. It was the day after Matt had left them.

"Did you sleep all night like that?" Damon asked, looking her up and down as Elena rubbed her eyes. As usual, he was immaculately dressed: all in black, of course. Heat and humidity had no effect on him.

"I've had my breakfast," he said shortly, getting in the driver's seat. "And I brought you this."

This was a styrofoam cup of steaming coffee, which Elena clutched as gratefully as if it were Black Magic wine, and a brown paper bag that proved to contain donuts. Not exactly the most nutritious breakfast, but Elena craved the caffeine and sugar.

"I need a rest stop," Elena warned as Damon coolly seated himself behind the wheel and started the car. "To change my clothes and wash my face and things."

They headed directly west, which accorded with what Elena had found by looking at a map on the Internet last night. The small image on her mobile phone matched the Prius's navigation system readout. They had both shown that Sedona, Arizona, lay on an almost perfectly straight horizontal line from the small rural road where Damon had parked overnight in Arkansas. But soon Damon was turning south, taking a roundabout route of his own that might or might not confuse any pursuers. By the time they found a rest stop, Elena's bladder was about to burst. She spent an unashamed half hour in the women's room, doing her best to wash with paper towels and cold water, brushing her hair, and changing into new jeans and a fresh white top that laced up the front like a corset. After all, one of these days she just might have another out of body experience while napping and see Stefan again.

What she didn't want to think about was that with Matt's departure, she was left alone with Damon, an untamed vampire, traveling through the middle of the United States toward a destination that was literally out of this world.

When Elena finally emerged from the restroom, Damon was cold and expressionless - although she noticed that he took the time to look her over just the same.

Oh, damn, Elena thought. I left my diary in the car.

She was as certain that he'd read it as if she'd seen him doing it, and she was glad that there was nothing in it about leaving her body and finding Stefan. Although she believed Damon wanted to free Stefan, too - she wouldn't be in this car with him if she didn't - she also felt that it was better that he didn't know she had gotten there first. Damon enjoyed being in charge of things as much as she did. He also enjoyed Influencing each police officer who pulled him over for blasting the speed limit.

But today he was short-tempered even by his own standards. Elena knew from firsthand experience that Damon could make himself remarkably good company when he chose, telling outrageous stories and jokes until the most prejudiced and taciturn of passengers would laugh in spite of themselves.

But today he wouldn't even reply to Elena's questions, much less laugh at her own jokes. The one time she tried to make physical contact, touching his arm lightly, he jerked away as if her touch might ruin his black leather jacket.

Fine, terrific, Elena thought, depressed. She leaned her head against the window and stared at the scenery, which all looked alike. Her mind wandered.

Where was Matt now? Ahead of them or behind? Had he gotten any rest last night? Was he driving through Texas now? Was he eating properly? Elena blinked away tears, which welled up whenever she remembered the way he had walked away from her without a backward look.

Elena was a manager. She could make almost any situation turn out okay, as long as the people around her were normal, sane beings.

And managing boys was her speciality. She'd been handling them - steering them - since junior high. But now, approximately two and a half weeks since she had come back from death, from some spirit world that she didn't remember, she didn't want to steer anyone.

That was what she loved about Stefan. Once she'd gotten past his reflexive instinct to keep away from anything he cherished, she didn't need to manage him at all. He was maintenance-free, except for the gentlest of hints that she'd turned herself into an expert on vampires. Not at hunting them or slaying them, but at loving them safely. Elena knew when it was right to bite or be bitten, and when to stop, and how to keep herself human.

But apart from those gentle hints, she didn't even want to manage Stefan. She wanted simply to be with him. After that, everything took care of itself.

Elena could live without Stefan - she thought. But just as being away from Meredith and Bonnie was like living without her two hands, living without Stefan would be like trying to live without her heart. He was her partner in the Great Dance; her equal and her opposite; her beloved and her lover in the purest sense imaginable. He was the other half of the Sacred Mysteries of Life to her.

And after seeing him last night, even if it had been a dream, which she wasn't willing to accept, Elena missed him so much that it was a throbbing pain inside her. A pain so great that she couldn't bear to just sit and dwell on it. If she did she might just go insane and start raving at Damon to drive faster - and Elena might hurt inside, but she wasn't suicidal.

They stopped at some nameless town for lunch. Elena had no appetite, but Damon spent the entire break as a bird, which for some reason infuriated her.

By the time they were driving again, the tension in the car had built until the old clich�� was impossible to avoid: you could cut it with a folded napkin, much less a knife, Elena thought.

That was when she realized exactly what kind of tension it was.

The one thing that was saving Damon was his pride.

He knew that Elena had things figured out. She'd stopped trying to touch him or even speak to him. And that was good.

He wasn't supposed to be feeling like this. Vampires wanted girls for their pretty white throats, and Damon's sense of esthetics demanded that the rest of the donor be at least up to his standards. But now even Elena's human-sized aura was advertising the unique life-force in her blood. And Damon's response was involuntary. He had not even thought about a girl in this way for approximately five hundred years. Vampires weren't capable of it.

But Damon was - very capable - now. And the closer he got to Elena, the stronger her aura was around him, and the weaker was his control.

Thank all the little demons in hell, his pride was stronger than the desire he felt. Damon had never asked for anything from anyone in his life. He paid for the blood he took from humans in his own particular coin: of pleasure and fantasy and dreams. But Elena didn't need fantasy; didn't want dreams.

Didn't want him.

She wanted Stefan. And Damon's pride would never allow him to ask Elena for what he alone desired, and equally it would never allow him to take it without her consent...he hoped.

Just a few days ago he had been an empty shell, his body a puppet of the kitsune twins, who had made him hurt Elena in ways that now made him cringe inside. Damon hadn't existed then as a personality, but his body had been Shinichi's to play with. And although he scarcely could believe it, the takeover had been so complete that his shell had obeyed Shinichi's every command: he had tormented Elena; he might well have killed her.

There was no point in disbelieving it; or saying that it couldn't be true. It was true. It had happened. Shinichi was that much stronger when it came to mind control, and the kitsune had none of the vampires' detachment about pretty girls - below the neck. Besides which, he happened to be a sadist. He liked pain - other people's, that is.

Damon couldn't deny the past, couldn't wonder why he hadn't "awakened" to stop Shinichi from hurting Elena. There had been nothing of him to awaken. And if a solitary part of his mind still wept because of the evil he had done - well, Damon was good at blocking it out. He wouldn't waste time over regrets, but he was intent on controlling the future. It would never happen again - not and leave him still alive.

What Damon really couldn't understand was why Elena was pushing him. Acting as if she trusted him. Of all the people in the world, she was the one with the most right to hate him, to point an accusing finger at him. But she had never once done that. She had never even looked at him with anger in her dark blue, gold-spattered eyes. She alone had seemed to understand that someone as completely possessed by the master of the malach, Shinichi, as Damon had been, simply had no choice - wasn't there to make a choice - in what he or she did.

Maybe it was because she'd pulled the thing the malach had created out of him. The pulsating, albino, second body that had been inside him. Damon forced himself to repress a shudder. He only knew this because Shinichi had jovially mentioned it, while taking away all Damon's memories of the time since the two of them, kitsune and vampire, had met in the Old Wood.

Damon was glad to have had the memories gone. From the moment he had locked gazes with the fox spirit's laughing golden eyes, his life had been poisoned.

And now...right now he was alone with Elena, in the middle of the wilderness, with towns few and far between. They were utterly, uniquely alone, with Damon helplessly wanting from Elena what every human boy she'd ever encountered had wanted.

Worst of all was the fact that charming girls, deceiving girls, was practically Damon's own raison d'��tre. It was certainly the only reason he'd been able to keep on living for the past half millennium. And yet he knew that he must not, must not even start the process with this one girl who, to him, was the jewel lying on the dungheap of humanity.

To all appearances, he was perfectly in control, icy and precise, distant and disinterested.

The truth was that he was going out of his mind.

That night, after making sure that Elena had food and water and was safely locked into the Prius, Damon called down a damp fog and began to weave his darkest wards. These were announcements to any sisters or brothers of the night who might come upon the car that the girl inside it was under Damon's protection; and that Damon would hunt down and flay alive anyone who even disturbed the girl's rest...and then he'd get around to really punishing the culprit. Damon then flew a few miles south as a crow, found a dive with a pack of werewolves drinking in it and a few charming barmaids serving them, and brawled and bled the night away.

But it wasn't enough to distract him - not nearly enough. In the morning, returning early, he saw the wards around the car in tatters. Before he could panic, he realized that Elena had broken them from the inside. There had been no warning to him because of her peaceful intent and innocent heart.

And then Elena herself appeared, coming up the bank of a stream, looking clean and refreshed. Damon was stricken speechless by the very sight of her. By her grace, by her beauty, by the unbearable closeness of her. He could smell her freshly washed skin, and couldn't help deliberately breathing in more and more of her unique fragrance.

He didn't see how he could put up with another day of this.

And then Damon suddenly had an Idea.

"Would you like to learn something that would help you to control that aura of yours?" he asked as she passed him, heading for the car.

Elena threw him a sidelong glance. "So you've decided to talk to me again. Am I supposed to faint with joy?"

"Well - that would always be appreciated - "

"Would it?" she said sharply, and Damon realized that he had underestimated the storm he had brewed inside this formidable girl.

"No. Now, I'm being serious," he said, fixing his dark gaze on her.

"I know. You're going to tell me to become a vampire to help control my Power."

"No, no, no. This has nothing to do with being a vampire." Damon refused to be drawn into an argument and that must have impressed Elena, because finally she said, "What is it, then?"

"It's learning how to circulate your Power. Blood circulates, yes? And Power can be circulated, too. Even humans have known that for centuries, whether they call it life-force or chi or ki. As it is, you're simply dissipating your Power into the air. That's an aura. But if you learn to circulate it, you can build it up for some really big release, and you can be more inconspicuous as well."

Elena was clearly fascinated. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

Because I'm stupid, Damon thought. Because to vampires it's as instinctive as breathing is to you. He lied unblushingly. "It takes a certain level of competence to accomplish."

"And I can do it now?"

"I think so." Damon put slight uncertainty in his voice.

Naturally, this made Elena even more determined. "Show me!" she said.

"You mean right now?" He glanced around. "Someone might drive by - "

"We're off the road. Oh, please, Damon? Please?" Elena looked at Damon with the huge blue eyes that altogether too many males had found irresistible. She touched his arm, trying once more to make some kind of contact, but when he automatically drew away, she continued, "I really do want to learn. You can teach me. Just show me once, and I'll practice."

Damon glanced down at his arm, felt his good sense and his will wavering. How does she do that?

"All right." He sighed. There were at least three or four billion people on this dust mote of a planet that would give anything to be with this warm and eager, yearning Elena Gilbert. The problem was that he happened to be one of them - and that she clearly didn't give a damn for him.

Of course not. She had dear Stefan. Well, he would see if his princess was still the same when - if - she managed to free Stefan and get out of their destination alive.

Meanwhile, Damon concentrated on keeping his voice, face, and aura all dispassionate. He'd had some practice at that. Only five centuries' worth, but it added up.

"First I have to find the place," he told her, hearing the lack of warmth in his voice, the tone that was not merely dispassionate but actually cold.

Elena's expression didn't flicker. She could be dispassionate, too. Even her deep blue eyes seemed to have taken on a frosty glint. "All right. Where is it?"

"Near where the heart is, but more to the left. He touched Elena's sternum, and then moved his fingers to the left.

Elena fought back both tension and a shiver - he could see it. Damon was probing for the place where the flesh became soft over bone, the place most humans assumed their heart was because it was where they could feel their heart beating. It should be right around...here....

"Now, I'll run your Power through one or two circulations, and when you can do it by yourself - that's when you'll be ready to really conceal your aura."

"But how will I know?"

"You'll know, believe me."

He didn't want her to ask questions, so he simply held up one hand in front of her - not touching her flesh or even her clothing - and brought her life-force in synchronization with his. There. Now, to set the process off. He knew what it would feel like to Elena: an electric shock, starting at the point where he had first touched her and quickly spreading warmth through her body.

Then, a rapid montage of sensations as he went through a practice rotation or two with her. Up toward him, to her eyes and ears, where she would suddenly find she could see and hear much better, then down her spine and out to her fingertips, while her heartbeat quickened and she felt something like electricity in her palms. Back up her arm and down the side of her body, at which point a tremor would set in. Finally, the energy would sweep down her magnificent leg all the way to her feet, where she would feel it in her soles, curling her toes, before coming back around to where it had started near her heart.

Damon heard Elena gasp faintly when the shock first hit her, and then felt her heartbeat race and her eyelashes flicker as the world suddenly became much lighter to her; her pupils dilating as if she were in love, her body going rigid at the tiny sound of some rodent in the grass - a sound she would never have heard without Power directed to her ears. And so, all around her body, once, and then again, so she could get a feel for the process. Then he let her go.

Elena was panting and exhausted; and he'd been the one expending energy. "I'll never - be able - to do that alone," she gasped.

"Yes, you will, in time and with practice. And when you can do it, you'll be able to control all your Power."

"If you...say so." Elena's eyes were shut now, her lashes dark crescents on her cheeks. It was clear that she'd been pushed to her limit. Damon felt the temptation to draw her to him, but suppressed it. Elena had made it clear that she didn't want him embracing her.

I wonder just how many boys she didn't push away, Damon thought abruptly, bitterly. That surprised him a little, the bitterness. Why should he care how many boys had handled Elena? When he made her his Princess of Darkness, they would both go hunting for human prey - sometimes together, sometimes alone. He wouldn't be jealous of her then. Why should he care how many romantic encounters she'd had now?

But he found that he was bitter, bitter and angry enough that he answered without warmth, "I do say you will. Just practice doing it alone."

In the car, Damon managed to stay annoyed with Elena. This was difficult, as she was a perfect traveling companion. She didn't chatter, didn't try to hum or - thank fortune - sing along with the radio, didn't chew gum or smoke, didn't backseat drive, didn't need too many rest stops, and never asked "Are we there yet?"

As a matter of fact, it was difficult for anyone, male or female, to stay annoyed at Elena Gilbert for any length of time. You couldn't say she was too exuberant, like Bonnie, or too serene, like Meredith. Elena was just sweet enough to offset her bright, active, ever-scheming mind. She was just compassionate enough to make up for her self-confessed egotism, and just skewed enough to ensure that no one would ever call her normal. She was intensely loyal to her friends and just forgiving enough that she herself considered almost no one an enemy - kitsune and Old Ones of the vampire kind excepted. She was honest and frank and loving, and of course she had a dark streak in her that her friends simply called wild, but that Damon recognized for what it really was. It compensated for the naïve, soft, ingenuous side of her nature. Damon was very sure that he didn't need any of those qualities in her, especially right now.

Oh, yes...and Elena Gilbert was just gorgeous enough to make any of her negative characteristics completely irrelevant.

But Damon was determined to be annoyed and he was strong-willed enough that he could usually choose his mood and stick to it, appropriate or not. He ignored all of Elena's attempts at conversation, and eventually she gave up trying to make them. He kept his mind pinned to the dozens of boys and men whom the exquisite girl beside him must have bedded. He knew that Elena, Caroline, and Meredith had been the "senior" members of the quartet when they had all been friends, while little Bonnie had been the youngest and had been considered a bit too naïve to be fully initiated.

So why was he with Elena now? he found himself asking sourly, wondering for just the slightest second if Shinichi was manipulating him as well as taking his memories.

Did Stefan ever worry about her past - especially with an old boyfriend - Mutt - still hanging around, willing to give his very life for her? Stefan must not, or he'd have put a stop - no, how could Stefan put a stop to anything Elena wanted to do? Damon had seen the clash of their wills, even when Elena had been a child mentally just after returning from the afterlife. When it came to Stefan and Elena's relationship, Elena was definitely in control. As humans said: She wore the trousers in the family.

Well, soon enough she could see how she liked wearing harem trousers, Damon thought, laughing silently, although his mood was darker than ever. The sky over the car darkened further in response, and wind ripped summer leaves from branches before their time. Cat's paws of rain dotted the windshield, and then came the flash of lightning and the echoing sound of thunder.

Elena jumped slightly, involuntarily, every time the thunder let loose. Damon watched this with grim satisfaction. He knew she knew that he could control the weather. Neither of them said a single word about it.

She won't beg, he thought, feeling that quick savage pride in her again and then feeling annoyance with himself for being so soft.

They passed a motel, and Elena followed the blurry electric signs with her eyes, looking over her shoulder until it was lost in darkness. Damon didn't want to stop driving. Didn't dare stop, really. They were headed into a really nasty storm now, and occasionally the Prius hydroplaned, but Damon managed to keep it under control - barely. He enjoyed driving in these conditions.

It was only when a sign proclaimed that the next place of shelter was over a hundred miles away that Damon, without consulting Elena, swung into a flooding driveway and stopped the car. The clouds had let loose by then; the rain was coming down in bucketfuls; and the room Damon got was a small outbuilding, separated from the main motel.

The solitude suited Damon just fine.
发表于 2016-9-20 11:50 | 显示全部楼层
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 bubble bath, 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.
发表于 2016-9-20 11:51 | 显示全部楼层
Chapter 9

Even as Elena opened her mouth to speak, she could feel herself lifted as if in a hurricane. For a moment she clung to the boy who was being torn from her grasp, then she just had time to shout, "I'll be back," and to hear his reply, before she was pulled into the ordinary world of baths and manipulation and motel rooms.

"I'll keep our secret!" That was what the little boy had cried to her at the last moment.

And what could that mean but that he would keep their rendezvous from the real (or "ordinairy") Damon?

A moment later Elena was standing in a dingy motel room, and Damon was clutching her upper arms. As he released her, Elena could taste salt. Tears were flowing freely down her cheeks.

It didn't seem to make any difference to her attacker. Damon seemed to be at the mercy of raw desperation. He was shaking like a little boy the first time he kissed his first love. That's what's driving the control away, Elena thought fuzzily.

As for herself, she felt as if she might faint.

No! She had to stay conscious.

Elena pushed and twisted, hurting herself deliberately against the apparently unbreakable grip that held her.

It held.

The possessor? Shinichi again, sneaking into Damon's mind and making him do things - ?

Elena fought harder, pushed herself until she actually could have screamed with pain. She whimpered once -

The hold broke.

Somehow Elena knew that Shinichi wasn't involved in this. The true soul of Damon was a little boy held in chains for God-knew-how-many centuries, who had never known warmth and closeness but who still had a tearful appreciation for them. The child who was chained to the rock surrounding was one of Damon's deepest secrets.

And now Elena was trembling so hard she wasn't sure she could stand up, and she was wondering about the child. Was he cold? Was he crying like Elena? How could she tell?

She and Damon were left staring at each other, both breathing hard. Damon's sleek hair was mussed, making him look rakish as a buccaneer. His face, always so pale and self-composed, was flushed with blood. His eyes dropped to watch Elena automatically massaging her wrists. She could feel pins and needles now: she was getting back some circulation. Once he'd looked away, he couldn't seem to look her in the eye again.

Eye contact. All right. Elena recognized a weapon, groping for a chair and finding the bed unexpectedly close behind her. She didn't have many weapons right now; and she needed to use all of them.

She sat, giving in to the weakness in her body, but she kept her eyes on Damon's face. His mouth was swollen. And that was...unfair. Damon's pout was a part of his most basic artillery. He had always had the most beautiful mouth she'd ever seen on anyone, man or woman. The mouth, the hair, the half-drooping lids, the heavy lashes, the delicacy of his jawline...unfair, even to someone like Elena, who'd long ago gotten past interest in a person because of some accident of beauty.

But she'd never seen that mouth swollen, the perfect hair disordered, the eyelashes trembling because he was looking everywhere except at her and trying not to show it.

"Was that... what you've been thinking about while you've been refusing to talk to me?" she asked, and her voice was almost steady.

Damon's sudden stillness was perfection like all his other perfections. No breathing, of course. He stared at a spot in the beige carpet that by rights ought to have broken into flames.

Then, finally, he lifted those huge dark eyes to hers. It was so hard to tell anything about Damon's eyes because the iris was almost the same color as the pupil, but Elena had a feeling that at this moment they were dilated so far as to be all pupil. How could eyes as dark as midnight trap and hold light? She seemed to see in them a universe of stars.

Damon said, softly, "Run."

Elena felt her legs tense. "Shinichi?"

"No. You should run now."

Elena felt her thigh muscles relax slightly and was grateful not to have to try to prove that she could run - or even crawl - at this exact instant. But her fists clenched.

"You mean this is just you being a bastard?" she said. "Have you decided to hate me again? Did you enjoy - ?"

Damon whirled again, stillness into motion faster than her eyes could track it. He hit the frame of the window, once, pulling the punch almost completely at the last instant. There was a crash and then a thousand little echoes as the glass showered like diamonds against the darkness outside.

"That might...bring some people to help you." Damon wasn't trying to make the words seem more than an afterthought. Now that he was turned away from her, he didn't seem to care about keeping up appearances. Fine tremors ran through his body.

"This late, in this storm, this far away from the office - I doubt it." Elena's body was catching up with the adrenaline spurt that had allowed her to fight her way out of Damon's grip. She was tingling all over and she had to work to keep it from turning into outright shaking.

And they were back to square one, with Damon staring into the night and her staring at his back. Or, at least, that was where he wanted them to be.

"You could have just asked," she said. She didn't know if this was possible for a vampire to understand. She still hadn't taught Stefan. He went without things that he wanted because he didn't understand about asking. In all innocence and with all good intentions, Stefan left things until she, Elena, was forced to ask him.

Damon, she thought, didn't usually have that problem. He took whatever he wanted as casually as if picking items off of a grocery store shelf.

And right now he was laughing silently, which meant that he was truly stricken.

"I'll take that as an apology," Elena said softly.

Now Damon was laughing out loud, and Elena felt a chill. Here she was, trying to help him, and -

"Do you think," he broke into her thoughts, "that that was all I wanted?"

Elena felt herself freeze again as she mulled this over. Damon could easily have taken her blood while he held her immobile. But - of course - that wasn't all he wanted from her. Her aura...she knew what it did to vampires. Damon had been protecting her all along from other vampires who might see it.

The difference, Elena's native honesty told her, was that she didn't give a damn about any of the others. But Damon was different. When he kissed her she could feel the difference inside her. Something she had never felt before...until Stefan.

Oh, God - was this really her, Elena Gilbert, betraying Stefan by the simple act of not running away from this situation? Damon was being a better person than she was; he was telling her to take the temptation of her aura away from him.

So that she could start the torture anew tomorrow.

Elena had been in many circumstances where she'd judged that it was best for her to leave before things got too hot. The problem here was that there was nowhere that she could go to without turning up the heat - putting herself in greater danger. And, incidentally, losing her chance to find Stefan.

Should she have gone with Matt? But Damon had said they couldn't get into this Dark Dimension place, not two humans by themselves. He'd said they needed him with them. And Elena still had some doubts as to whether Damon would take the trouble to even drive to Arizona, much less search for Stefan, if she wasn't with him every step of the way.

Besides, how could Matt have protected her on the dangerous road she and Damon were following? Elena knew that Matt would die for her - and that's just what he would do, too, if they came up against vampires or werewolves. Die. Leaving Elena facing her enemies alone.

Oh, yes, Elena knew what Damon did each night when she slept in the car. He put some kind of dark spells around her, signing them with his name, sealing them with his seal, and they kept random creatures of the night away from the car until morning.

But their greatest enemies, the kitsune twins, Shinichi and Misao, they had brought with them.

Elena thought about all this before raising her head to look Damon in the eyes. Eyes which, at that moment, reminded her of those of a ragged child chained to a rock.

"You're not going to leave, are you?" he whispered.

Elena shook her head.

"You're really not afraid of me?"

"Oh, I'm afraid." Again Elena felt that inward shiver. But she was flying somewhere now, she had set the course, and there was no way that she could stop. Especially not when he looked at her like that. It reminded her of the fierce joy, the almost reluctant pride he always showed when they took down an enemy together.

"I won't become your Princess of Darkness," she told him. "And you know that I could never give up Stefan."

A ghost of his old mocking smile touched his lips. "There's plenty of time to convince you to my way of thinking on those matters."

No need, Elena thought. She knew that Stefan would understand.

But even now, when it seemed the whole world was whirling around her, something rose up in Elena to challenge Damon. "You say it's not Shinichi. I believe you. But is all this because - of what Caroline said?" She could hear the sudden hardness in her own voice.

"Caroline?" Damon blinked as if thrown off his stride.

"She said that before I met Stefan I was just a - " Elena found it impossible to get the last word out. "That I was...promiscuous."

Damon's jaw hardened and his cheeks flushed quickly - as if he'd

been struck from an unexpected direction. "That girl," he muttered.

"She's already fixed her destiny and if it were anyone else I might be

inclined to take some pity. But she

goes...beyond...she's...beyond...any propriety..." As he spoke his words slowed, and a look of bewilderment clouded his face. He was gazing at Elena and she knew he could see the tears standing in her eyes, because he reached up to brush them away with his fingers. As he did, however, he stopped dead in midmotion, and, his face suddenly bemused, he brought one of his hands up to his lips, tasting her tears.

Whatever they tasted like to him, he didn't seem to believe it. He brought the other hand up to his lips as well. Elena was openly staring at him now; he should have been put out of countenance - but he wasn't. Instead a kaleidoscope of expressions passed over his face, too quickly for her human eyes to catch them all. But she did see astonishment, disbelief, bitterness, more astonishment, and then finally a kind of joyful shock and a look almost as if there were tears in his own eyes.

And then Damon laughed. It was a quick, self-mocking laugh, but it was genuine, euphoric, even.

"Damon," Elena said, still blinking back tears - it had all happened that fast - "what is wrong with you?"

"Nothing's wrong, everything's right," he said, while raising a scholarly finger. "You should never try to fool a vampire, Elena. Vampires have many senses humans don't - and some we don't even know we have until we need them. It's taken me long enough to realize what I know about you. Because, of course, everyone was telling me one thing, and my own mind was telling me something else. But I've figured it out, at last. I know what you really are, Elena."

For half a minute Elena sat in shocked silence. "If you do, then I might as well tell you right now that no one will believe you."

"Maybe not," Damon said, "especially if they're human. But vampires are programmed to recognize the aura of a maiden. And you are unicorn-bait, Elena. I don't know or care how you got your reputation. I was fooled by it myself for a long time, but I've finally found the truth." Suddenly he was bending over her so that she could see nothing but him, his fine hair brushing her forehead, his lips close to hers, his dark eyes, fathomless, capturing her gaze.

"Elena," he whispered. "This is your secret. I don't know how you've managed it, but...you're a virgin."

He leaned in toward her, his lips just brushing hers, sharing his deliberate breaths with hers. They stayed like that for a long, long time, Damon seeming enthralled to be able to give Elena something from his own body: the oxygen that both she and he needed, but acquired in different ways. For many humans, the stillness of their bodies, the silence, and the sustained eye contact, for neither of them had shut their eyes, might have been too much. It might have felt as if they had plunged themselves into their partner's personalities too far, that they were losing definition and becoming an ethereal part of each other before one kiss had even been completed.

But Elena was floating on air: on the breath that Damon gave her - and in the literal sense. If Damon's strong, long, slender hands had not held her shoulders, she would have escaped his grip entirely.

Elena knew that there was another way that he could keep her down. He could Influence her to let gravity have its way with her. But so far, she had felt not the slightest touch of attempted Influence. It was as if he still wanted to give her the honor of choice. He would not seduce her by any of his many accustomed methods, the tricks of domination learned over half a millennium of nights.

Only the breathing, which was coming more and more quickly, as Elena felt her senses begin to swim and her heart began to pound. Was she truly sure that Stefan wouldn't mind this? But Stefan had given her the greatest honor possible by trusting in her love and her judgment. And she was beginning to feel Damon's true self, his overwhelming need for her; his vulnerability because that need was becoming like an obsession to him.

Without attempting to Influence her, he was still spreading great soft dark wings all around her so that there was nowhere to run, nowhere to escape. Elena felt herself begin to swoon with the intensity of the passion they had wrought between them. As a final gesture, not of repudiation, but of invitation, she arched her head back, exposing to him her bare throat, and let him feel her longing.

And as if great, crystal bells were ringing in the distance, she felt his jubilation at her voluntary surrender to the velvet darkness that was overtaking her.

She never felt the teeth that broke her skin and claimed her blood. Before that happened she was seeing stars. And then the universe was swallowed up in Damon's dark eyes.

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