Matt lunged at Damon in a rush that clearly demonstrated the skills that had gotten him a college football scholarship. He accelerated from utter stillness to a blur of motion, trying to tackle Damon, to bring him down.
"Run," he shouted, at the same instant."Run!"
Elena stood still, trying to come up with Plan A after this disaster. She had been forced to watch Stefan's humiliation at Damon's hands at the boardinghouse, but she didn't think she could stand to see this.
But when she looked again, Matt was standing about a dozen yards from Damon, white-faced and grim, but alive and on his feet. He was preparing to rush Damon again.
And Elena...couldn't run. She knew that it would probably be the best thing - Damon might punish Matt briefly but most of his attention would be turned to hunting her down.
But she couldn't be sure. And she couldn't be sure that the punishment wouldn't kill Matt, or that he would be able to get away before Damon found her and had leisure time to think of him again.
No, notthis Damon, pitiless and remorseless as he was.
There must be some way - she could almost feel wheels spinning in her own head.
And then she saw it.
No, not that...
But what else was there to do?
Matt was, indeed, rushing Damon again, and this time as he went for him, lithe and unstoppable and fast as a darting snake, she saw what Damon did. He simply sidestepped at the last moment, just when Matt was about to ram him with a shoulder. Matt's momentum kept him going, but Damon simply turned in place and faced him again. Then he picked up his damned pine branch. It was broken at the end where Matt had trampled it.
Damon frowned at the stick, then shrugged, lifting it - and then both he and Matt stopped frozen. Something came sailing in from the sidelines to settle on the ground between them. It lay there, stirring in the breeze.
It was a maroon and navy Pendleton shirt.
Both of the boys turned slowly toward Elena, who was wearing a white lacy camisole. She shivered slightly and wrapped her arms around herself. It seemed unusually cold for this time of evening.
Very slowly, Damon lowered the pine branch.
"Saved by yourinamorata ," he said to Matt.
"I know what that means and it's not true," Matt said. "She's my friend, not my girlfriend."
Damon just smiled distantly. Elena could feel his eyes on her bare arms. "So...on to the next step," he said.
Elena wasn't surprised. Heartsick but not surprised. Neither was she surprised to see, when Damon turned to look from her to Matt and back, a flash of red. It seemed to be reflected on the inside of his sunglasses.
"Now," he said to Elena. "I think we'll put you over there on that rock, sort of half reclining. But first - another kiss." He looked back at Matt. "Get with the program, Matt; you're wasting time. First, maybe you kiss her hair, then she throws her head back and you kiss her neck, while she puts her arms around your shoulders...."
Matt,thought Elena. Damon had saidMatt . It had slipped out so easily, so innocently. Suddenly her entire brain, and her body, too, seemed to be vibrating as if to a single note of music, seemed to be flooded by an icy shower-bath. And what the note was saying was not shocking, because it was something that somehow, at a subliminal level, she already knew....
That's not Damon.
This wasn't the person she had known for - was it really only nine or ten months? She had seen him when she was a human girl, and she had defied him and desired him in equal measure - and he had seemed to love her best when she was defying him.
She had seen him when she was a vampire and had been drawn to him with all her being, and he had cared for her as if she were a child.
She had seen him when she was a spirit, and from the afterlife she had learned a great deal.
He was a womanizer, he could be callous, he drifted through his victims' lives like a chimera, like a catalyst, changing other people while he himself remained unchanging and unchanged. He mystified humans, confused them, used them - leaving them bewildered, because he had the charm of the devil.
And never once had she seen him break his word. She had a rock-bottom feeling that this wasn't something that was a decision, it was so much a part of Damon, lodged so deep in his subconscious, that even he couldn't do anything to change it. He couldn't break his word. He'd starve first.
Damon was still talking to Matt, giving him orders. "...and then take off her..."
So what about his word to be her bodyguard, to keep her from harm?
He was talking to her now. "So you know when to throw your head back? After he - "
"Who are you?"
"You heard me.Who are you? If you had really seen Stefan off and promised him to take care of me, none of this would have happened. Oh, you might be messing with Matt, but not in front of me. You're not - Damon's not stupid. He knows what a bodyguard is. He knows that watching Matt in pain hurts me as well. You're not Damon. Who...are...you?"
Matt's strength and fast-as-a-rattlesnake speed hadn't done any good. Maybe a different approach would work. As Elena spoke, she had been very slowly reaching up to Damon's face. Now, with one motion, she pulled his sunglasses off.
Eyes red as fresh new blood shone out at her.
"What have you done?"she whispered. "What have you done to Damon?"
Matt was out of the range of her voice but had been inching around, trying to get her attention. She wished fervently that Matt would just make a run for it himself. Here, he was just another way for this creature to blackmail her.
Without seeming to move quickly, the Damon-thing reached down and snatched the sunglasses from her hand. It was too fast for her to resist.
Then he seized her wrist in a painful grip.
"This would be a lot easier on both of you if you'd cooperate," he said casually. "You don't seem to realize what might happen if you make me angry."
His grip was forcing her down, forcing her to kneel. Elena decided not to let it. But unfortunately her body didn't want to cooperate; it sent urgent messages of pain to her mind, of agony, of burning, searing agony. She had thought that she could ignore it, could stand to let him break her wrist. She was wrong. At some point something in her brain blacked out completely, and the next thing she knew she was on her knees with a wrist that felt three times the right size and burned fiercely.
"Human weakness," Damon said scornfully. "It will get you every time.... You should know better than to disobey me, by now."
Not Damon,Elena thought, so vehemently that she was surprised the imposter didn't hear her.
"All right," Damon's voice continued above her as cheerfully as if he'd simply given her a suggestion. "You go sit on that rock, leaning backward, and Matt, if you'll just come over here, facing her." The tone was of polite command, but Matt ignored it and was beside her already, looking at the finger marks on Elena's wrist as if he didn't believe them.
"Matt stands up, Elena sits, or the opposite one gets the full treatment. Have fun, kiddies." Damon had the palm-camera out again.
Matt consulted Elena with his eyes. She looked at the imposter and said, enunciating carefully, "Go to hell, whoever you are."
"Been there, done that, bought the brimstone," the not-Damon creature rattled off. He gave Matt a smile that was both luminescent and terrifying. Then he waggled the pine branch.
Matt ignored it. He waited, his face stoic, for the pain to hit.
Elena struggled up to stand by him. Side by side, they could defy Damon.
Who seemed for a moment to be out of his mind. "You're trying to pretend you're not afraid of me. But you will be. If you had any sense, you would be now."
Belligerently, he took a step toward Elena."Why aren't you afraid of me?"
"Whoever you are, you're just an oversized bully. You've hurt Matt. You've hurt me. I'm sure you can kill us. But we're not afraid of bullies."
"You will be afraid." Now Damon's voice had dropped to a menacing whisper. "Just wait."
Even as something was ringing in Elena's ears, telling her to listen to those last words, to make a connection - who did that sound like? - the pain hit.
Her knees were knocked out by it. But she wasn't just kneeling now. She was trying to roll into a ball, trying to curl around the agony. All rational thought was swept from her head. She sensed Matt beside her, trying to hold her, but she could no more communicate with him than she could fly. She shuddered and fell to her side, as if having a seizure. Her entire universe was pain, and she only heard voices as if they came from far away.
"Stop it!" Matt sounded frantic."Stop it! Are you crazy? That'sElena , for God's sake! Do you want to kill her ?"
And then the not-Damon-thing advising him mildly, "I wouldn't try that again," but the only sound Matt made was a scream of primal rage.
"Caroline!" Bonnie was raging, pacing back and forth in Stefan's room while Meredith did something else with the computer. "Howdare she?"
"She doesn't dare try to attack Stefan or Elena outright - there's the oath," Meredith said. "So she's thought this up to get at all of us."
"But Matt - "
"Oh, Matt's handy," Meredith said grimly. "And unfortunately there's the matter of the physical evidence on both of them."
"What do you mean? Matt doesn't - "
"The scratches, my dear," put in Mrs. Flowers, looking sad, "from your razor-toothed bug. The poultice I put on will have healed them so that they'll look like a girl's fingernail scratches - about now. And the mark it left on your neck..." Mrs. Flowers coughed delicately. "It looks like what in my day was called a ¡®love bite.' Perhaps a sign of a tryst that ended in force? Not that your friend would ever do anything like that."
"And remember how Caroline looked when we saw her, Bonnie?" Meredith said dryly. "Not the crawling around - I'll bet anything she's walking just fine now. But her face. She had a black eye coming in and a swollen cheek. Perfect for the time frame."
Bonnie felt as if everyone was two steps ahead of her. "Whattime frame?"
"The night the bug attacked Matt. It was the morning after that that the sheriff called and talked to him. Matt admitted that his mother hadn't seen him all night, and that Neighborhood Watch guy saw Matt drive up to his house and, basically, pass out."
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