The Return: Nightfall

Chapter 31

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Let us at least have the dignity of walking out of your trap on our own feet - or should I say, using your own key?Damon thought to Shinichi. To Elena, he said, "Yes, we're looking for what's-his-face. But you took a bad fall. I wish - I would like to ask you - that you stay here and recuperate whileI go look for him."

"You think you know where Matt is?" That was the entire sentence distilled for her. That was all she heard.

"Yes."

"Can we gonow ?"

"Won't you let me go alone?"

"No," Elena said simply. "I have to find him. I wouldn't sleep at all if you went out alone. Please, can't we go now?"

Damon sighed. "All right. There were some" - (there will be now) - "clothes that will fit you in the closet. Jeans and things. I'll get them," he said. "As long as I really, really can't convince you to lie down and rest while I look for him."

"I can make it," Elena promised. "And if you go without me, I'll just jump out a window and follow you."

She was serious. He went and got the promised pile of clothes and then turned his back while Elena put on an identical version of the jeans and Pendleton shirt she had been wearing, whole and un-bloodstained. Then they left the house, Elena brushing her hair vigorously, but glancing back every step or so.

"What are you doing?" Damon asked, just when he had decided to carry her.

"Waiting for the house to disappear." And when he gave her his bestwhat're you talking about? look, she said, "Armani jeans, just my size? La Perla camisoles, same? Pendleton shirts, two sizes too big, just like the one I was wearing? That place is either a warehouse or it's magic. My bet's on magic."

Damon picked her up as a way to shut her up, and walked to the passenger's door of the Ferrari. He wondered if they were in the real world now or in another of Shinichi's globes.

"Did it disappear?" he asked.

"Yup."

What a pity, he thought. He'd have liked to keep it.

He could try to renegotiate the bargain with Shinichi, but there were other, more important things to think of. He gave Elena a slight squeeze, thinking, other,much, much more important things.

In the car he made sure of three small facts. First, that click which his brain automatically registered as passenger buckled up really did mean that Elena had her seat buckle properly fastened. Second, that the doors were locked - fromhis master control. And third, that he drove quite slowly. He didn't think that anyone in Elena's shape would be throwing themselves out of cars again in the near future, but he wasn't taking any chances.

He had no idea how long this spell was going to work. Elena must eventually come out of her amnesia. It was only logical, since he seemed to be, and he'd been awake much longer than she had. Pretty soon she would remember...what? That he'd taken her in the Ferrari against her will (bad but forgivable - he couldn't know she'd launch herself out)? That he'd been teasing Mike or Mitch or whoever and her in the clearing? He himself had a vague picture of this - or was it another dream.

He wished he knew what the truth was. When wouldhe remember everything? He'd be in a much stronger bargaining position once he did.

And it was hardly possible that Mac was getting hypothermia in a midsummer snowstorm even if he were still in that clearing right now. It was a chilly night, but the worst the boy could expect was a twinge of rheumatism when he was around eighty.

The vital thing was that theydidn't find him. He might have some unpleasant truths to tell.

Damon noticed Elena making the same gesture again. A touch to her throat, a grimace, a deep breath.

"Are you carsick?"

"No, I'm..." In the moonlight he could see her blush come and go; could sense her heat with detectors in his face. She flushed deeply. "I explained," she said, "about feeling...too full. That's what it is now."

What was a vampire to do?

Say,I'm sorry - I've given it up for Moonspire ?

Say, I'm sorry - you'll hate me in the morning?

Say,To hell with the morning; this seat reclines two inches ?

But what if they got to the clearing and found that something really had happened to Mutt - Gnat - the boy? Damon would regret it for the rest of the remaining twenty seconds of his life. Elena would call battalions of sky spirits down on his head. Even if no one else believed in her, Damon did.

He found himself saying, as smoothly as ever he'd spoken to a Page or a Damaris, "Will you trust me?"

"What?"

"Will you trust me for another fifteen or twenty minutes, to go to a certain place I think what's his name might be?"If he is - my bet is that you remember everything and you never want to see me again in your life - then you'll be spared a long search. If he isn't - and the car isn't either; it's my lucky day and Mutt wins the prize of a lifetime - and then we go on looking.

Elena was watching him intently. "Damon, do youknow where Matt is?"

"No." Well, that was true enough. But she was a bright little trinket, a pretty little pink, and more than all that, she was clever.... Damon broke off his polyrhythmic contemplations on Elena's intelligence. Why was he thinking in poetry? Was he really going crazy? He'd wondered that before - hadn't he? Didn't it prove you weren't crazy if you wondered if you were? The truly insane never doubted their sanity, right? Right. Or did they? And surely all this talking to himself couldn't be good foranyone .

Merda.

"All right, then. I'll trust you."

Damon let out a breath he didn't need and headed the car toward the clearing.

It was one of the more exciting gambles of his life. On one hand, therewas his life - Elena would find some way or other of killing him if he'd killed Mark, he was certain. And on the other hand...a taste of paradise. With a willing Elena, an eager Elena, an open Elena...he swallowed. He found himself doing the thing closest to praying that he'd done in half a millennium.

As they rounded the corner on the road to the little lane, he kept himself in hyper-alertness, the engine a bare hum, the night air bringing all kinds of information to vampire senses. He was thoroughly aware that an ambush could have been set up for him. But the lane was deserted. And as he suddenly hit the accelerator to reveal the little clearing, he found it blessedly, bleakly, blankly empty of either cars or of college-aged young men whose names started with "M."

He relaxed against the seatback.

Elena had been watching him.

"You thought he might be here."

"Yes." And now was the time for the real question. Without asking her this, the whole thing was a sham, a fraud. "Doyou remember this place?"

She glanced around. "No. Should I?"

Damon smiled.

But he took the precaution of driving on up another three hundred yards, into a different clearing, just in case she should have a sudden attack of memory.

"There were malach in the other clearing," he explained easily. "This one is guaranteed monster-free." Oh, what a liar, I am, I am, he rejoiced. Have I still got it or what?

He'd been...disturbed ever since Elena had come back from the Other Side. But if that first night it had discomfited him into literally giving her the shirt off his back - well, there were still no words for how he'd felt when she'd stood before him newly returned from the afterlife, her skin glowing in the dark clearing, naked without shame or the concept of shame. And during her massage, where veins traced out lines of blue comet fire against an inverse sky. Damon was feeling something he hadn't felt for five hundred years.

He was feeling desire.

Human desire. Vampires didn't feel that. It was all sublimated into the need for the blood, always the blood....

But he was feeling it.

He knew why, too. Elena's aura. Elena's blood. She'd brought back with her something more substantial than wings. And while the wings had faded, this new talent seemed to be permanent.

He realized that it was a very long time since he'd felt this, and that therefore he might be quite wrong. But he didn't think so. He thought that Elena's aura would make the most fossilized of vampires stand up and blossom into virile young men once again.

He leaned away as far as the crowded confines of the Ferrari would allow. "Elena, there's something I should tell you."

"About Matt?" She gave him a straightforward, intelligent glance.

"Nat? No, no. It's about you. I know you were surprised that Stefan would leave you in the care of somebody likeme ."

There was no room for privacy in the Ferrari and he was sharing her body warmth already.

"Yes, I was," she said simply.

"Well, it may have something to do with - "

"It may have had something to do with how we decided that my aura would give even old vampires the jigsies. From now on, I'll need strong protection because of that, Stefan said."

Damon didn't know what the jigsies were, but he was prepared to bless them for getting a delicate point across to a lady. "I think," he said carefully, "that of all things, Stefan would want you to have protection from the evil folk drawn here from all over the globe, and above all other things that you not be forced to - to, um, jigsy - if it was not your wish."

"And now he'sleft me - like a selfish, stupid, idealistic idiot, considering all the people in the world who might want to jigsy me."

"I agree," Damon said, careful of keeping the lie of Stefan's willing departure intact. "And I've already promised what protection I can offer. I really will do my best, Elena, to see that no one gets near you."

"Yes," said Elena, "but then something like this" - she made a little gesture probably to indicate Shinichi and all the problems brought about by his arrival - "comes up and nobody knows how to deal with it."

"True," said Damon. He had to keep shaking himself and reminding himself of his real purpose here. He was here to...well, he wasn't on St. Stefan's side. And the thing was, it was easy enough....

There she was, brushing her hair out...a fair pretty maiden sat brushing her hair out...the sun in the sky was nonesuch so gold.... Damon shook himselfhard . Since when had he gotten into ye Olde English folksongs? What waswrong with him?

To have something to say, he asked, "How are you feeling?" - just, as it happened, as she lifted her hand to her throat.

She grimaced. "Not bad."

And that made them look at each other. And then Elena smiled and he had to smile back, at first just a quirk of the lip, and then a full smile.

She was...damn it, she waseverything . Witty, enchanting, brave, smart...and beautiful. And he knew that his eyes were saying all that and that she wasn't turning away.

"We might - take a little walk," he said, and bells rang and trumpets played fanfares, and confetti came raining down and there was a release of doves....

In other words, she said, "All right."

They picked a little path off the clearing that looked easy to Damon's night-acquainted vampire eyes. Damon didn't want her on her feet too much. He knew that she still hurt and that she didn't want him to know it or to pamper her. Something inside him said, "Well, then, wait until she says she's tired and help her to sit down."

And something else beyond his control, sprang out at the first little hesitation of her foot, and he picked her up, apologizing in a dozen different languages, and generally acting the fool until he had her seated on a comfortably carved wooden bench with a back to it and a very light traveling blanket over her knees. He kept adding, "You'll tell me if there's something - anything - else you want?" He accidentally sent to her a snippet of his thoughts of possible contenders, which were, a glass of water, him sitting beside her, and a baby elephant, which he had earlier seen in her mind that she admired very much.

"I'm very sorry, but I don't think I do elephants," he said, on his knees, making the footstool more comfortable for her, when he caught a random thought of hers: that he was not so different from Stefan as he seemed.

No other name could have caused him to do what he did then. No other word, or concept, could have such effect on him. In an instant the blanket was off, the footstool had disappeared, and he was holding Elena bent backward with the slender column of her neck fully exposed to him.

The difference,he told her,between me and my brother is that he is still hoping somehow to slip in through some side door into heaven. I'm not such a moaning ninny about my fate. I know where I'm going.And I don't - he gave her a smile with all canines fully extended - give a damn about it.

Her eyes were wide - he'd startled her. And startled her into an unintentional, thoroughly honest response. Her thoughts were projected toward him, easy to read.I know - and, I'm like that, too. I want what I want. I'm not as good as Stefan. And I don't know -

He was enthralled.What don't you know, sweetheart?

She just shook her head, eyes shut.

To break the deadlock, he whispered into her ear, "What about this, then:

Say I'm bold

And say I'm bad

Say - you vanities

- I'm vainer.

But you Erinyes, just add

I kissed Elena."

Her eyes flew open. "Oh, no! Please, Damon." She was whispering. "Please! Please not now!" And she swallowed miserably. "Besides, you asked me if I'd like a drink, and then suddenly it's no drink. I wouldn't mindbeing a drink if you'd like, but first, I'mso thirsty - as thirsty as you are, maybe?"

She did the little tap-tap-tap under her chin again.

Damon's insides melted.

He held out his hand and it closed around the stem of a delicate crystal glass. He swirled the splash of liquid in it expertly, tested it for bouquet - ah, exquisite - then gently rolled it on his tongue. It was the real thing.Black Magic wine,grown from Clarion Loess Black Magic grapes. It was the only wine most vampires would drink - and there were apocryphal stories of how it had kept them on their feet when their other thirst could not be assuaged.

Elena was drinking hers, her blue eyes wide above the deep violet of the wine as he told her some of its story. He loved to watch her when she was like this - investigating with all her senses fully aroused. He shut his eyes and remembered some choice moments from the past. Then he opened them again to find Elena, looking very much the thirsty child, eagerly gulping down -

"Yoursecond glass...?" He'd discovered the first goblet at her feet. "Elena, where did you get another one?"

"I just did what you did. Held out my hand. It's not as if it were hard liquor, is it? It tastes like grape juice, and I was dying for a drink."

Could she really be that naive? True, Black Magic wine didn't have the sharp odor or taste of most alcohol. It was subtle, created for the fastidious vampire palate. Damon knew that the grapes were grown in the soil, loess, that a grinding glacier leaves behind. Of course, that process was only for the long-lived vampires, as it took ages to build up enough loess. And when the soil was ready, the grapes were grown and processed, from graft to foot-stomped pulp in ironwood vats, without ever seeing the sun. That was what gave it its black velvet, dark, delicate taste. And now...

Elena had a "grape juice" mustache. Damon wanted very much to kiss it away.

"Well, someday you can tell people you drank two glasses of Black Magic in under a minute, and impress them," he said.

But she was doing the tap-tap-tapping again under her chin.

"Elena, do you want to have some of your blood drawn?"

"Yes!" She said it in the ringing-bell tones of someone who has finally been asked the right question.

She was drunk.

She flung both arms backward, draping them against the bench, which conformed to accept her body's every new motion. It had become a black suede couch with a high back: a divan, and just now, Elena's slender neck was resting on the highest point of that back, her throat exposed to the air. Damon turned away with a little moan. He wanted to get Elena to civilization. He was worried about her health, mildly concerned about...Mutt's; and now...he couldn't haveanything he wanted. He could hardly bleed her when she was drunk.

Elena made a different sort of sound that might have been his name. "D'm'n?" she mumbled. Her eyes had filled with tears.

Just about anything that a nurse might have to do for a patient, Damon had done for Elena. But it seemed she didn't want to unswallow two glasses of Black Magic in front of him.

"¡®M'shick," Elena got out, with a dangerous hiccup at the end. She gripped Damon's wrist.

"Yes, this is not the kind of wine to guzzle. Wait, just sit up straight and let me try..." And maybe because he said the words without thinking, without thinking of being rude, without thinking of manipulating her one way or another, it was all right. Elena obeyed him and he put two fingers on either side of her temples and pressed slightly. For a split second there was a near disaster, and then Elena was breathing slowly and calmly. She was still affected by the wine, but she wasn't drunk any longer.

And the time was now. He had to tell her the truth at last.

But first, he needed to wake up.

"A triple espresso, please," he said, holding out his hand. It appeared instantly, aromatic and black as his soul. "Shinichi says espresso alone is an excuse for the human race."

"Whoever Shinichi is, I agree with him or her. A triple espresso, please," Elena said to the magic that was this forest, this snowflake globe, this universe. Nothing happened.

"Maybe it's only attuned to my voice right now," Damon said, flashing her a reassuring smile, and then he fetched her espresso with a wave.

To his surprise, Elena was frowning.

"You said ¡®Shinichi.' Who's that?

Damon wanted nothing less than for Elena to get involved with the kitsune, but if he was really going to tell all she was going to have to. "He's akitsune , a fox spirit," he said. "And the person who gave me that Web address that sent Stefan running."

Elena's expression froze over.

"Actually," Damon said, "I find that I would rather get you home before taking the next step."

Elena lifted exasperated eyes to the sky, but let him pick her up and carry her back to the car.

He had just realized where the best place to tell her was.

It was just as well that they didn't urgently need to get to any place that was out of the Old Wood right now. They didn't find any road that did not lead to dead ends, little clearings, or trees. Elena seemed so unsurprised at finding the little lane that led to their small but perfectly appointed house that he said nothing as they entered and he took new inventory of what they had.

They had one bedroom with one large, luxurious bed. They had a kitchen. And a living area. But any of these rooms could become any kind of room you chose simply by thinking of it before opening the door. Moreover, there were the keys - left behind by what Damon was realizing was a seriously shaken Shinichi - that allowed the doors to do more. Insert a key in a door and announce what you wanted and there you were - even, it seemed, if it should be outside Shinichi's territory in spacetime. In other words, theyseemed to link to the real outside world, but Damon wasn't entirely sure about that.Was it the real world or just another of Shinichi's play-traps?

What they had right now was a long spiraling stairway to an open-air observatory with a widow's walk around it, just like the roof of the boardinghouse. There was even a room just like Stefan's, Damon noted as he carried Elena up the stairs.

"We're going all the way up?" Elena sounded bewildered.

"All the way."

"And what are wedoing up here?" Elena asked, when he had her settled in a chair with a footstool and a light blanket on the roof.

Damon sat down on a rocker, rocking a little, his arms wrapped around one knee, his face tilted to the clouded sky.

He rocked once more, stopped, and turned to face her. "I suppose we're here," he said, in the light self-mocking tone that meant he was very serious, "so that I can tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."
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