The Return: Nightfall

Chapter 38

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Bonnie knew that she was going to die.

She had had a clear premonition of it just before thosethings - the trees that moved like humans, with their hideous faces and their thick, knotted arms - had surrounded the little band of humans in the Old Wood. She had heard the howl of the black weir dog, turned, and just caught a glimpse of one vanishing in the glare of her flashlight. The dogs had a long history in Bonnie's family: when one of them howled, a death was soon to come.

She'd guessed then that it would be hers.

But she hadn't said anything, even when Dr. Alpert had said, "What in the name ofheaven wasthat ?" Bonnie was practicing being brave. Meredith and Matt were brave. It was something built into them, an ability to keep going when any sane person would run away and hide. They both putthe group's good ahead of their own. And of course Dr. Alpert was brave, not to mention strong, and Mrs. Flowers seemed to have decided that the teenagers were her own special charges to take care of.

Bonnie had wanted to show that she could be brave, too. She was practicing holding her head up and listening for things in the bushes, while simultaneously listening with her psychic senses for any sign of Elena. It was hard to juggle the two kinds of hearing. There was a lot to hear with her real ears; all kinds of quiet chucklings and whisperings from the bushes that didn't belong there. But from Elena there wasn't a sound, not even when Bonnie called her name over and over:Elena, Elena, Elena!

She's human again, Bonnie had realized sadly, at last. She can't hear me or make contact. Out of all of us, she's the only one who didn't miraculously escape.

And it was then that the first of the Tree-Men loomed up in front of the group of searchers. Like something out of a nursery-tale nightmare, it was a tree and then - suddenly - it was athing , a treelike giant that suddenly moved swiftly toward them, its upper branches bunching together to become long arms, and then everyone was screaming and trying to get away from it.

Bonnie would never forget how Matt and Meredith had tried to help her run then.

The Tree-Man wasn't fast. But when they turned and ran from it they found that there was another one behind them. And more to the right and the left. They were surrounded.

And then, like cattle, like slaves, they were herded. Any of them that tried to resist the trees were slapped and cuffed by hard and sharp-thorned branches, and then, with a lithe branch wound around the neck, weredragged .

They'd been caught - but they hadn't been killed. Instead they were being taken somewhere. It wasn't hard to imagine why: in fact Bonnie could imagine a whole lot of different whys. It was just a matter of picking which was the scariest.

In the end, after what seemed like hours of forced walking, Bonnie began to recognize things. They were going back to the boardinghouse again. Or rather, they were going back to thereal boardinghouse for the first time. Caroline's car was outside. The house was again lit from top to bottom, but there were dark windows here and there.

And their captors were waiting for them.

And now, after her outburst of weeping and pleading, she was trying to be brave once more.

When that boy with the strange hair had said that she would be the first, she'd understood exactly what he meant, and how she was going to die - and suddenly she wasn't brave at all - inside. But she wouldn't scream again.

She could just see the widow's walk, and the sinister figures on it, but Damon hadlaughed when the Tree-Men had begun to pluck her clothes off. Now he waslaughing as Meredith held the garden shears. She wouldn't beg him again, not when it wouldn't make any difference anyway.

And now she was on her back, with her arms and legs tied so she was helpless, clothed in strips and rags. She wanted them to kill her first, so she wouldn't have to watch Meredith cut her own tongue to pieces.

Just as she felt a last scream of fury welling up inside her like a snake climbing a pole, she had seen Elena high above her in a white pine tree.

"Wings of the Wind,"Elena whispered as the ground rushed up toward her, very fast.

The wings unfolded instantly from somewhere inside Elena. They weren't real, they spanned some forty feet and were made of golden gossamer, the color ranging from deepest Baltic amber at her back to ethereal pale citrine at the tips. They were almost still, barely rising and falling, but they held her up, the wind rushing under them, and they got her to exactly where she needed to go.

Not to Bonnie. That was what they would all be expecting. From her height, she just might be able to snatch Bonnie free, but she had no idea how to cut Bonnie's bonds or whether she could lift off again.

Instead Elena swerved toward the widow's walk at the last moment, snatched the pruning shears out of Meredith's upraised hand, and then caught a handful of long, silky black-and-scarlet hair. Misao shrieked.And then...

Thatwas when Elena really needed some belief. So far she had really just been gliding, not flying. But now she needed uplift; she needed the wings towork...and once again, although there was no time, she was with Stefan, and feeling...

...the first time she had kissed him. Other girls might have waited until it was the other way around, letting the boy take the lead, but not Elena. Besides, at first Stefan had thought that all kissing meant was seducing prey....

...the first timehe had kissed her, understanding that it wasn't a predatory relationship...

And now she needed toreally fly....

I know I can....

But Misao was just so heavy - and Elena's memory was faltering. The great golden wings trembled and became still. Shinichi was trying to climb a creeper to get to her, and Damon was holding Meredith motionless.

And, too late, Elena realized that it wasn't going to work.

She was alone, and she couldn't fight this way. Not against so many.

She was alone, and pain that made her want to shriek was lancing through her back. Misao was somehow making herself heavier, and in another minute she would be too heavy for Elena's trembling wings to hold up.

She was alone, and like the rest of the humans, she was going to die -

And then, through the agony that was causing fine sweat to break out all over her body, she heard Stefan's voice.

"Elena! Let go! Fall and I'll catch you!"

How strange, Elena thought, as if in a dream. His love and panic had distorted his voice somehow - making him sound different. Making him sound almost like -

"Elena! I'mwith you!"

- like Damon.

Shaken out of her dream, Elena looked below her. And there was Damon, standing protectively in front of Meredith, looking up at her, with his arms held out.

He was with her.

"Meredith," he went on, "girl, this is no time to be sleepwalking! Your friend needs you!Elena needs you!"

Slowly, dully, Meredith turned her face up. And Elena saw life and animation restored to it as her eyes focused on the trembling of the great golden wings.

"Elena!" she shouted, "I'm with you! Elena!"

How did she know to say that? The answer was - that she was Meredith - and Meredith always knew what to say.

And now the cry was being taken up by another voice: Matt's.

"Elena!" he shouted, in a sort of acclamation. "I'm with you, Elena!"

And Dr. Alpert's deep voice: "Elena! I'm with you, Elena!"

And Mrs. Flowers, surprisingly strong: "Elena! I'm with you, Elena!"

And even poor Bonnie: "Elena!We're with you, Elena!"

While deep in her heart, the real Stefan whispered, "I'm with you, my angel."

"We're all with you, Elena!"

She didn't drop Misao. It was as if the great golden wings had caught an updraft; in fact, they almost lifted her straight up, out of control - but somehow she managed to keep herself steady. She was still looking down and she saw the tears spill from her eyes and fall toward Damon's outstretched arms. Elena didn't know why she was crying, but part of it was sorrow for ever having doubted him.

Because Damon wasn't just on her side. Unless she was wrong, he was willing to die for her - was courting death for her. He threw himself into the entangling creepers and vines, all reaching for Meredith or for Elena.

It had only taken an instant to get hold of Misao, but Shinichi was already leaping toward Elena, in fox form, lips drawn back, aiming to tear her throat out. These were no ordinary foxes. Shinichi was almost as big as a wolf - certainly the size of a large dog - and as vicious as a wolverine.

Meanwhile the entire widow's walk burst into a maze of vines, creepers, and fibrous tendrils, and Shinichi was beinglifted by them. Elena didn't know which way to dodge. She needed time, and she needed a clear shot out of here.

All Caroline was doing was screaming.

And then Elena saw her opening. A gap in the creepers that she threw herself at, knowing in her subconscious that she was throwing herself over the railing as well, and somehow keeping her hold on Misao's hair. In fact, it must have been an extremely painful experience for the female kitsune as she swung back and forth like a pendulum below Elena.

The one glance Elena was able to give over her shoulder showed Damon, still moving faster than anything Elena had ever seen. He had Meredith in his arms now and was hurrying her through a gap that led to the cupula door. As soon as she stepped in, she appeared down on the ground and ran toward the altar where Bonnie was lying, only to slam into one of the Tree-Men. For a moment, as Damon glanced toward Elena, their gazes met and something electric passed between them. It made Elena tingle all over, that look did.

Then she refocused: Caroline was screaming again; Misao was using her whip to get a grip on Elena's leg and was calling on Tree-Men to give her a lift. Elena needed to fly higher. She had no idea how she

was controlling her golden gossamer wings, but nothing seemed to snarl them; and they obeyed her slightest whim as though she had always had them. The great trick was to not think ofhow to get somewhere, but just to imagine being there.

On the other hand, the Tree-Men were growing. It was like some childhood nightmare of giants, and at first it made Elena feel that it was she who was shrinking. But the hideous creatures were actually overtopping the house now, and their upper, snake-like branches slashed into her legs while Misao lashed out with her whip. Elena's jeans were in shreds now. She swallowed a cry of pain.

I have to fly higher.

I can do it.

I'm going to save you all.

Ibelieve.

Faster than the swoop of a hummingbird, she was darting up in the clear air again, still holding Misao by her long black-and-red hair. And Misao was screaming, screams that Shinichi echoed even as he fought with Damon.

And then, just as she and Damon had planned, just as she and Damon hadhoped , Misao turned into her true form and Elena was holding a large and heavy, writhing vixen by the scruff of its neck.

There was a difficult moment while Elena got the balance right. She had to remember that there was more weight in back because Misao had six tails and was heaviest where a real fox would be lightest.

By then she had swooped back to her perch in the tree, and she stood there, able to look down on the scene below, the Tree-Men too slow to keep up. The plan had gone perfectly, except that Damon, of all people, had forgotten what he was supposed to be doing. Far from retreating into possession, he had fooled Shinichi and Misao beautifully - and Elena, too. Now, according to their plan he was supposed to be taking care of any innocent bystanders, letting Elena lure Shinichi on.

Instead something inside him seemed to have snapped; and he was methodically beating the human-shaped Shinichi's head against the house, shouting: "Damn...you! Where...is...my...brother?"

"I - could kill you - right now - " Shinichi shouted back, but he was short of breath. He wasn't finding Damon an easy opponent.

"Do it!" Damon returned immediately. "And then she" - pointing to the perching Elena - "will cut your sister's throat!"

Shinichi's contempt was scathing.

"You expect me to believe that a girl with an aura likethat willkill - "

There comes a time when you have to make a stand. And for Elena, blazing with defiance and glory, this was that time. She took a deep breath, begged the Universe's forgiveness, and leaned down, positioning the pruning shears. Then she squeezed as hard as she could.

And a red-tipped black vixen's tail fell twisting to the ground, while Misao shrieked in pain and rage. As the tail fell it writhed, and it lay in the middle of the clearing, squirming like a snake that wasn't quite defeated yet. Then it became transparent and faded away.

That was when Shinichi really screamed, "Do you know what you've done, you ignorant bitch? I'll bring this place down on top of you! I'll tear you apart!"

"Oh, yes, of course you will. But first," Damon spoke each word deliberately, "you have to get past me."

Elena barely registered their words. It hadn't been easy for her to squeeze those shears. It had meant thinking about Meredith with the shears in her own hands, and Bonnie lying on the altar, and Matt, earlier, writhing on the ground. And Mrs. Flowers, and the three lost little girls, and Isobel and - a great deal - about Stefan.

But as for the first time in her life she drew another's blood with her own hands, she had a sudden strange sense of responsibility - of newaccountability . As if an icy wind had blown her hair back sharply and said into her frozen, gasping face:Never without reason. Never without necessity. Never unless there's no other solution available.

Elena felt something inside her grow up, all at once. Too fast to say good-bye to childhood, she had become a warrior.

"You all thought I couldn't fight," she called to the assembled group. "You were wrong. You thought I was powerless. You were wrong there, too. And I'll use the last drop of my Power in this fight, because you twins are real monsters. No, you're - abominations. And if I die I'll rest with Honoria Fell, and I'll watch over Fell's Church again."

Fell's Church will rot and die writhing with maggots, a voice near her ear said, and it was a deep bass voice, nothing like Misao's shrill screaming. Elena knew even as she turned that it was the white pine tree. A hard scaly bough, laden with those serrated, resin-sticky needles, slammed into her midriff, throwing her off balance - and making her involuntarily open her hands. Misao promptly escaped, and burrowed into the Christmas-tree-like branches.

"Bad...trees...go...to...Hell," Elena cried, throwing her entire body weight into digging the shears she held into the base of the branch that had tried to crush her. It tried to pull away, and she twisted the shears in the wounded dark bark, relieved when a large piece fell off, with only a long string of resin left to show where it had been.

Then she looked for Misao. The fox wasn't finding it as easy as she might have thought, navigating a tree. Elena looked at the cluster of tails. Strangely, there was no stump, no blood, no sign that the fox had been injured.

Was that why she wasn't turning human? The loss of a tail? Even if she were naked when she changed back to her human self - as some stories of werewolves had it - she'd be in better condition to climb down.

Because Misao seemed finally to have chosen the slow but sure method of descent - to have branch after branch take hold of her fox body and pass it down to the next. Which meant she was only about ten feet below Elena.

And all Elena had to do was to coast over the needles down to her and then - by wings or other means - stop. If she believed in her wings. If the tree didn't throw her off.

"You're too slow," Elena shouted. Then she began the coast to overcome the distance - not far in human body-lengths - to her goal.

Until she saw Bonnie.

Bonnie's slight body was still lying on the altar, pale and cold-looking. But nowfour of the hideous Tree-Men had hold of her, one at each hand and one at each foot. They were already pulling so hard that she was lifted up into the air.

And Bonnie was awake. But not screaming. Not making a noise to attract attention to herself; and Elena realized with a rush of love and horror and desperation thatthat was why she hadn't been making a fuss before. She wanted the major players here to fight their fight without the bother of rescuing her.

The Tree-Men leaned back.

Bonnie's face contorted in agony.

Elenahad to get to Misao. Sheneeded the double fox key to free Stefan, and the only people who could tell her where it was were Misao and Shinichi. She looked up at the darkness above and noticed that it seemed a little less dark than when she had last seen it, the sky a dark swirling gray instead of dead black - but there was no help there. She looked down. Misao, making a little better time with her escape. If Elena let her get away...Stefan was her love. But Bonnie - Bonnie was her friend - ever since childhood....

And then she saw Plan B.

Damon was fighting Shinichi - or trying.

But Shinichi was always an easy centimeter away from where Damon's fist was. Shinichi's fists, on the other hand, always connected solidly with their targets, and right now Damon's face was a bloody mask.

"Use wood!"Misao was coaching in a shriek, her childlike manner having suddenly vanished. "You men, youidiots, all you think of is yourfists !"

Shinichi broke a pillar support from the widow's walk one-handed, showing his true strength. Damon smiled beatifically. He was, Elena knew, going to enjoy this, even though it meant all the many little wounds those wooden splinters would entail.

It was in the middle of this that Elena shouted, "Damon, look down!" Her voice seemed weak over the cacophony of shrieks and sobs and screams of fury all around. "Damon! Look down - atBonnie !"

Nothing so far had been able to break Damon's concentration - he seemed determined to find out where Stefan was being kept - or to kill Shinichi trying.

Now, to Elena's slight surprise, Damon's head jerked around immediately. He looked down.

"A cage," shouted Shinichi. "Build me a cage."

And tree branches leaned in from all sides to pin him and Damon into their own little world, a lattice to keep them contained.

The Tree-Men leaned back farther. And despite herself, Bonnie screamed.

"You see?" laughed Shinichi. "Each of your friends will die in that agony or worse. One by one, we will take you!"

That was when Damon really seemed to go crazy. He began moving like quicksilver, like a leaping flame, like some animal with reflexes far faster than Shinichi's. Now there was a sword in his hand, undoubtedly conjured up by the magical housekey, and the sword slashed through the branches even as the branches reached out to trap him. And then he was airborne, leaping over the railing for the second time that night.

This time Damon's balance was perfect, and far from breaking bones, he made a graceful, catlike landing just beside Bonnie. And then his sword was flashing in an arc, sweeping all around Bonnie, and the tough, fingerlike tips of the branches that held her were cut cleanly away.

A moment later, Bonnie was being lifted, being held by Damon as he leaped easily off the rough-hewn altar and was lost in the shadows near the house.

Elena let out the breath she'd been holding and turned back to her own affairs. But her heart was beating more strongly and faster, with joy and with pride and with gratitude, as she slid down the painful, cutting-edged needles, and almost flashed past Misao, who was being whisked out of her way - not quite in time.

She got a good grip on the nape of the fox's neck. Misao keened a strange animal lament and sank her teeth into Elena's hand so hard that it felt as if they were going to meet. Elena bit her lip until she felt blood come, trying not to scream.

Be crushed, and die, and turn to loam,the tree said in Elena's ear.Your kind can feed my kin for once. The voice was ancient, malevolent and very, very frightening.

Elena's legs reacted without pausing to consult her mind. They pushed off hard and then the golden butterfly wings unfurled again, not beating but undulating, holding Elena steady above the altar.

She pulled the snarling vixen's muzzle up - not too close - to her own face. "Where are the two pieces of the fox key?" she demanded. "Tell me or I'll take off another tail. Iswear I will. Don't fool yourself - it's not just your pride that you're losing, is it? Your tails are your Power. What would it feel like to have none at all?"

"Like being a human - exceptyou , you freak." Now Misao was laughing again in her panting-dog way, her fox ears flat to her head.

"Just answer the question!"

"As if you would understand the answers I could give. If I told you that one was inside the silver nightingale's instrument, would that give you any kind of idea?"

"It might if you explained it a little more clearly!"

"If I told you that one was buried in Blodwedd's ballroom, would you be able to find it?" Again the panting grin as the fox gave clues that led nowhere - or everywhere.

"Are those your answers?"

"No!"Misao shrieked suddenly and kicked with her feet, as if they were dog's legs scrabbling in the dirt. Except that the dirt was Elena's midriff, and the scrabbling legs felt as if they might well puncture her entrails. She felt her camisole tear.

"I told you; I'm not playing around here!" Elena cried. She lifted the vixen with her left arm, even though it ached with tiredness. With her right hand, she positioned the shears.

"Where is the first part of the key?" Elena demanded.

"Search for yourself! You only have the whole world to look through, and every thicket besides." The fox went for her throat again, white teeth actually scoring Elena's flesh.

Elena forced that arm to hold Misao higher. "I warned you, so don't say that I didn't or that you have any reason to complain!"

She squeezed the shears.

Misao gave a squeal that was almost lost in the general commotion. Elena, feeling more and more tired, said, "You're a complete liar, aren't you? Look down if you want. I didn't cut anywhere close to you. You just heard the shears click and screamed."

Misao very nearly got a claw into Elena's eye. Oh, well. Now, for Elena, there were no more moral or ethical issues. She wasn't causing pain, she was simply draining Power. The shears wentsnap, snap, snap , and Misao screamed and cursed her, but below them the Tree-Men were shrinking.

"Where is the first part of the key?"

"Let me go and I'll tell." Suddenly Misao's voice was less shrill.

"On your honor - if you can say that without laughing?"

"On my honor and my word as a kitsune. Please! You can't leave a fox without a real tail! That's why the ones you cut didn't hurt. They're badges of honor. But my real tail is in the middle, it's tipped with white, and if you cut me there; you'll see blood and it will leave a stump." Misao seemed thoroughly cowed, thoroughly ready to cooperate.

Elena knew about judging people and intuition, and both her mind and her heart were telling her not to trust this creature. But she wanted so much to believe, to hope....

Making a slow curving descent so that the vixen was close to the ground - she would not give in to the temptation to drop her from sixty feet up - Elena said, "Well? On you honor, what are the answers?"

Six Tree-Men came to life around her and plunged at her, with greedy, grasping finger branches.

But Elena wasn't taken completely off guard. She hadn't let go of her grip on Misao; only slackened it. Now she tightened the grip again.

A wave of strength buoyed her so that she lifted fast and swept by the widow's walk and a furious Shinichi and weeping Caroline. Then Elena met Damon's eyes. They were filled with hot, fierce pride in her. She was filled with hot, fierce passion.

"I am not an angel," she announced to any of the group who hadn't quite managed to grasp this yet. "I am not an angel and I am not a spirit. I'm Elena Gilbert and I've been to the Other Side. And right now I'm ready to do whatever needs to be done, which seems to include kicking some ass!"

There was a clamor below that at first she couldn't identify. Then she realized it was the others - it was her friends. Mrs. Flowers and Dr. Alpert, Matt and even wild Isobel. They were cheering - and they were visible because suddenly the backyard was in daylight.

Am I doing that? Elena wondered, and realized that somehow she was. She was lighting up the clearing in which Mrs. Flowers' house stood, while leaving the woods around dark.

Maybe I can extend it, she thought. Make the Old Wood into something younger and less evil.

If she had been more experienced, she would never have attempted it. But right here and right now she felt that she could take anything on. She looked at the four directions of the Old Wood around her quickly, and she cried, "Wings of Purification!" and watched the huge, frosty, iridescent butterfly wings spread high and wide, and then wider, and then spread some more.

She was aware of a silence, of being so enrapt in something she was doing that even Misao's struggles didn't matter. It was a silence that reminded her of something: of all the most beautiful strains of music coming together into one, single, powerful chord.

And then the Power blasted out from her - not destructive Power like that Damon had sent many times, but a Power of renewal, of springtime, of love, youth, and purification. And she watched as the light spread farther and farther, and the trees grew smaller and more familiar, with more clearings in between thickets. Thorns and hanging creepers disappeared. On the ground, spreading out like a circle expanding, flowers of all colors bloomed, sweet violets in clumps here and banks of Queen Anne's lace there, and wild roses climbing everywhere. It was so beautiful that it made her chest ache.

Misao hissed. Elena's trance was finally broken, and she looked around to see that the shambling, hideous Tree-Men had disappeared in the full sunlight and in their place was a wide patch of sorrel dotted with fossilized trees in odd shapes. Some looked almost human. For a moment Elena regarded the scene, puzzled, and then she realized what else was different. All the real humans were gone.

"I never should have brought you here!" And that, to Elena's surprise, was Misao's voice. She was speaking to her brother. "You spoiled everything because of that girl.Shinichi no baka!"

"Idiot, yourself!" Shinichi shouted at Misao. "Onore!You're reacting just the way they want - "

"What else am I supposed to do?"

"I heard you giving the girl clues," Shinichi snarled. "You'd do anything for the sake of your looks, you selfish - "

"You can say that to me? While you haven't lost even one tail yourself?"

"Just because I'm faster - "

Misao cut him off. "That's a lie and you know it! Take it back!"

"You're too weak to fight! You should have run long ago! Don't come crying to me about it."

"Don't youdare speak to me like that!" And Misao leaped from Elena's grasp and attacked Shinichi. He had been wrong. She was a good fighter. In a second they were a destruction zone, rolling over and over as they fought changing forms all the while. Black and scarlet fur flew. Out of the ball of turning bodies came scraps of speech -

" - still won't find the keys - "

" - not both of them, anyway - "

" - even if they did - "

" - what would it matter?"

" - still have to find the boy - "

" - I say it's only sporting to let them try - "

Misao's horrible shrill giggle. "And see what they find - "

" - in theShi no Shi !"

Abruptly the fight ended and they both became human. They were battered, but Elena felt that there was nothing more that she could do if they chose to fight again.

Instead Shinichi said, "I'm breaking the globe.Here ," he turned to Damon and shut his eyes, "is where your precious brother is. I'm putting it into your mind - if you can decode the map. And once you get there, you'll die. Don't say I didn't warn you."

To Elena he bowed and said, "I regret that you'll be dying, too. But I've memorialized you in an ode.

Wild rose and lilac,

Bee's balm and daisy,

Elena's smile chases

The winter away.

Bluebell and violet,

Foxglove and iris,

Watch where she treads

And then watch the grass sway.

Wherever her feet pass,

White flowers part the grass - "

"I'd rather hear a straight explanation of where the keys are," Elena said to Shinichi, knowing that after that song she wouldn't get any more from Misao. "Frankly, I'm sick and tired of all yourbullshit ."

She noticed that once again everyone was staring at her and she could feel why. She could feel a difference in her voice, in her stance, in her patterns of speech. But mostly,inside , what she felt was freedom.

"We'll give you this much," Shinichi said. "We won't move them. Find them from the clues - or by other means, if you can." He winked at Elena and turned away - to meet a pale and trembling Nemesis.

Caroline. Whatever else she'd been doing for the last few minutes, she had been crying, and rubbing her eyes, and wringing her hands - or so Elena guessed from the distribution of her makeup.

"You, too?" she said to Shinichi."You, too?"

Shinichi smiled his lazy smile. "And what two am I?" He held up two fingers in the V symbol to differentiate his two from Caroline's.

"You've fallen for her, too? Making up songs - giving her clues to find Stefan - "

"They're not very good clues," Shinichi said comfortingly and smiled again.

Caroline tried to hit him, but he caught her fist. "And you think you're leaving now?" Her voice was pitched at a scream - not as high as Misao's glass-splintering shriek, but with its own fearsome vibrato.

"Iknow we're leaving." He glanced at the sullen Misao. "After one more item of business. But not with you."

Elena tensed up, but Caroline was trying to attack Shinichi again. "After what you said to me? After all that yousaid ?"

Shinichi looked her up and down, seeming to actually see her for the first time. He also looked genuinely bewildered. "Saidto you?" he asked. "Have we spoken before tonight?"

There was a high-pitched giggle. Everyone turned. Misao was standing, giggling, her hands over her mouth.

"I used your image," she said to her brother, her eyes on the floor as if confessing to a minor fault. "And your voice. In the mirror, when I would give her orders. She was on the rebound from some guy who'd dumped her. I told her I'd fallen in love with her and that I wanted to get revenge on her enemies - if she'd just do a few little things for me."

"Like spreading malach through little girls," Damon said grimly.

Misao giggled again. "And a boy or two. I know what it feels like to have those malach inside you. It doesn't hurt at all. They're just - there."

"Have you ever had one force you to do something you didn't want to?" Elena demanded. She could feel her blue eyes blazing. "Do you thinkthat would hurt, Misao?"

"It wasn't you?" Caroline was still looking at Shinichi; she obviously couldn't keep up with the script. "It wasn'tyou ?"

He sighed, smiling slightly. "Not me. Golden hair is my undoing, I'm afraid. Golden...or fiery red against black," he added hastily, glancing at his sister.

"So it was all a lie," Caroline said, and for a moment, desperation was written on her face larger than anger, with sadness larger than both. "You're just another Elena fan."

"Look," Elena said bluntly, "I don't want him. I hate him. The only guy I care about is Stefan!"

"Oh, he's the only guy, is he?" Damon asked, with a glance toward Matt, who had carried Bonnie up close to them while the fox-fight was going on. Mrs. Flowers and Dr. Alpert had followed.

"You know what I mean," Elena told Damon.

Damon shrugged. "Many a golden-haired lassie ends as the rough yeoman's bride." Then he shook his head. "Why am I spouting drek like this?" His compact body seemed to tower over Shinichi.

"It's just a residual effect...from being possessed...you know." Shinichi fluttered his hands, his eyes still on Elena. "My thought patterns..."

It looked as if another fight was brewing, but then Damon just smiled and said, narrow-eyed, "So you let Misao have her way with the town while you went after Elena and me."

"And - "

"Mutt," Damon said hastily and automatically.

"I was going to say Stefan," Elena said. "No, I would guess that Matt was the victim of one of Misao and Caroline's little schemes before he and I ran into you when you were completely possessed."

"And now you think you can just walk away," Caroline said, in a shaking, menacing voice.

"Weare walking away," Shinichi said stiffly.

"Caroline, wait," Elena said. "I can help you - withWings of Purification. You're being controlled by a malach."

"I don't need your help! I need ahusband !"

There was utter silence on the roof. Not even Matt stepped up to the plate on this one.

"Or at least a fianc��¦," Caroline muttered, one hand on her abdomen. "My family would acceptthat."

"We'll work it out," Elena said softly - then, firmly, "Caroline, believe it."

"I wouldn't believe in you if..." Caroline's answer was obscene. Then she spat in Elena's direction. And

then she was silent, by her own choice or because the malach inside her wanted it.

"Back to business," Shinichi said. "Let's see, our price for the service of the clues and the location is a little block of memory. Let's say...from the time I first met Damon until now. Taken from Damon's mind." He smiled nastily.

"You can't do that!" Elena felt panic shoot through her, starting in her heart and flying out to the farthest reaches of every limb. "He's different now: he's remembered things - he's changed. If you take that memory away - "

"So will all the sweet changes go," Shinichi told her. "Would you rather I took your memory?"

"Yes!"

"But you were the only one who heard the clues about the key. And in any case I don't want to see things from your eyes. I want to see you...throughhis eyes."

By now, Elena was ready to start another fight on her own. But Damon said, distancing himself already, "Go ahead and take what you like. But if you don't get out of this town right after, I take off yourhead with these shears."

"Agreed."

"No, Damon - "

"Do you want Stefan back?"

"Not at that price!"

"Too bad," Shinichi put in. "Thereis no other bargain."

"Damon! Please - think about it!"

"I have thought. It's my fault that the malach spread so far in the first place. It's my fault for not investigating what was going on with Caroline. I didn't care what happened to humans as long as the new arrivals kept away fromme . But I can fix some of the things I did to you by finding Stefan." He half turned to her, the old devil-may-care smile on his lips. "After all, taking care of my brother is my job."

"Damon - listento me."

But Damon was looking at Shinichi. "Agreed," he said. "You have yourself a deal."
    
 

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