The Return: Midnight (Chapter 1)

"Dear Diary,

I'm so frightened I can hardly hold this pen. I'm printing rather than writing in cursive, because that way I have more control.

What am I terrified of, you ask? And when I say "of Damon"you don't believe the answer, not if you'd seen the two of us a few days ago. But to understand, you have to know a few facts.

Have you ever heard the phrase "Al bets are off"?

It means that anything, anything, can happen. So that even somebody who figures out odds and takes bets from people gives them back their money. Because a wild card has entered the situation. You can't even figure the odds to take a bet.

That's where I am. That's why my heart is pounding in my throat and head and ears and fingertips in fear.

Al bets are off.

You can see how shaky even my printing is. Suppose my hands shake like this when I go in to see him? I might drop the tray. I might annoy Damon. And then anything might happen.

I'm not explaining this right. What I should be saying is that we're back: Damon and Meredith and Bonnie and me. We went to the Dark Dimension and now we're home again, with a star ball – and Stefan.

Stefan was tricked into going there by Shinichi and Misao, the brother and sister kitsune, or evil fox-spirits, who told him that if he went to the Dark Dimension he could get the curse of being a vampire removed and become human again.

They lied.

All they did was leave him in a stinking prison, with no food, no light, no warmth…until he was at the point of death.

But Damon – who was so different back then – agreed to lead us to try to find him. And, oh, I can't even begin to describe the Dark Dimension itself. But the important thing is that we finally found Stefan, and that by then we'd found the Twin Fox key we needed to release him. But – he was a skeleton, poor boy. We carried him out of the prison on his pallet, which later Matt burned; it was so infested with creepy-crawlies. But that night we gave him a bath and put him to bed…and then we fed him. Yes, with our blood. All the humans did it except Mrs. Flowers, who was busy making poultices for where his poor bones were almost sticking out of his skin.

They had starved him to that point! I could kill Them with my own hands – or my Wings Powers – if only I could use them properly. But I can't. I know there is a spell for Wings of Destruction, but I have no idea how to summon it.

At least I got to see how Stefan blossomed when being fed with human blood. (I admit that I gave him a few extra feedings that weren't on his chart, and I'd have to be an idiot not to know that my blood is different from other people's –

it's much richer and it did Stefan amazing amounts of good.)

And so Stefan recovered enough that the next morning he was able to walk downstairs to thank Mrs. Flowers for her potions!

The rest of us, though – all the humans – were totally exhausted. We didn't even think about what had happened to the bouquet, because we didn't know it had anything special in it. We'd gotten it just as we were leaving the Dark Dimension, from a kind white kitsune who'd been in the cell across from Stefan's before we arranged a jailbreak. He was so beautiful! I never knew a kitsune could be kind. But he had given Stefan these flowers.

Anyway, that morning Damon was up. Of course, he couldn't contribute any of his own blood, but I honestly think he would have, if he could. That was the way he was back then.

And that's why I don't understand how I can feel the fear I feel now. How can you be terrified of someone who's kissed you and kissed you…and called you his darling and his sweetheart and his princess? And who has laughed with you with his eyes dancing with mischief? And who's held you when you were frightened, and told you there was nothing to be afraid of, not while he was there? Someone you only had to glance at to know what he was thinking?

Someone who has protected you, no matter what the cost to himself, for days on end?

I know Damon. I know his faults, but I also know what he's like inside. And he's not what he wants people to think he is.

He's not cold, or arrogant, or cruel. Those are fa?ades he puts on to cover himself, like clothes.

The problem is that I'm not sure he knows he isn't any of these things. And right now he's all mixed-up. He might change and become all of them – because he's so confused.

What I'm trying to say is, that morning only Damon was really awake. He was the only one who saw the bouquet.

And one of the things Damon definitely is, is curious.

So he unwrapped all the magical wards from it and it had a single pitch-black rose in the center. Damon has been trying to find a black rose for years, just to admire it, I think.

But when he saw this one he smelled it…and boom! The rose disappeared!

And suddenly he was sick and dizzy and he couldn't smell anything and all his other senses were dulled as well. That was when Sage – oh, I haven't even mentioned Sage, but he's a tall bronze gorgeous hunk of a vampire who's been such a good friend to all of us – told him to suck in air and to hold it, to push it down into his lungs.

Humans have to breathe that way, you see.

I don't know how long it took Damon to realize that he really was a human, no joke, nothing anyone could do about it.

The black rose had been for Stefan; and it would have given him his dream of being human again. But when Damon realized it had worked its magic on him…

That's when I saw him look at me and lump me in with the rest of my species – a species he's come to hate and scorn.

Since then I haven't dared look him in the eye again. I know he loved me just days ago. I didn't know that love could turn to – well, to all the things he feels now about himself.

You'd think it would be easy for Damon to become a vampire again. But he wants to be as powerful a vampire as he used to be – and there isn't anyone like that to exchange blood with him. Even Sage disappeared before Damon could ask him. So Damon is stuck like this until he finds some strong, powerful, and prestigious vampire to go through the whole process of changing him.

And every time I look into Stefan's eyes, those jewel-green eyes that are warm with trust and gratitude – I feel terror, too.

Terror that somehow he'll be snatched away again – right out of my arms. And…terror that he'll find out how I've come to feel about Damon. I hadn't even realized myself how much Damon has come to mean to me. And I can't…

stop…my feeling…for him, even if he hates me now.

And, yes, damn it, I'm crying! In a minute, I have to go take him his dinner. He must be starving, but when Matt tried to take him something earlier today, Damon threw the whole tray at him.

Oh, please, God, please don't let him hate me!

I'm being selfish, I know, in just talking about what's going on with Damon and me. I mean, things in Fell's Church are worse than ever. Every day more children become possessed and terrify their parents. Every day, parents get angrier with their possessed children. I don't even want to think about what's going on. If something doesn't change, the whole place will be destroyed like the last town Shinichi and Misao visited.

Shinichi…he made a lot of predictions about our group, about things we've kept secret from the others. But the truth is, I don't know if I want to hear any of his riddles solved.

We're lucky in one way. We have the Saitou family to help us. You remember Isobel Saitou, who pierced herself so horribly while she was possessed? Since she's gotten better, she's become a good friend, and her mother, Mrs.

Saitou, and her grandmother, Obaasan, too. They give us amulets – spells to keep evil away, written on Post-it Notes or little cards. We're so grateful for that kind of help.

Someday maybe we can repay them all.

Elena Gilbert put down the pen reluctantly. Shutting her diary meant having to face the things she had been writing about.

Somehow, though, she managed to make herself walk downstairs to the kitchen and take the dinner tray from Mrs.

Flowers, who smiled encouragingly at her.

As she set out for the boardinghouse's storage room, she noticed that her hands were trembling so that the entire tray of food she was carrying jingled. Since there was no access to the storage room from inside, anyone who wanted to see Damon had to go out the front door and around to the addition tacked on near the kitchen garden. Damon's lair, people were cal ing it now.

As she passed the garden Elena glanced sideways at the hole in the middle of the angelica patch that was the powered-down Gateway where they'd come back from the Dark Dimension.

She hesitated at the storage room door. She was stil trembling, and she knew that was not the right way to face Damon.

Just relax, she told herself. Think of Stefan.

Stefan had had a grim setback when he'd found that there was nothing left of the rose, but he had soon recovered his usual humility and grace, touching Elena's cheek and saying that he was thankful just to be there with her. That this closeness was al he asked of life. Clean clothes, decent food –  freedom – al these were worth fighting for, but Elena was the most important. And Elena had cried.

On the other hand, she knew that Damon had no intention of remaining as he now was. He might do anything, risk anything…to change himself back.

It had actual y been Matt who had suggested the star bal as a solution for Damon's condition. Matt hadn't understood either the rose or the star bal until it was explained that this star bal , which was probably Misao's, contained within it most or al of her Power, and that it had become more bril iant as it absorbed the lives that she took. The black rose had probably been created with a liquid from a similar star bal  – but no one knew how much or whether it was combined with unknown ingredients. Matt had frowned and asked, if the rose could change a vampire to a human, could a star bal change a human to a vampire?

Elena hadn't been the only one to see the slow rising of Damon's bent head, and the glimmer in his eyes as they traveled the length of the room to the star bal fil ed with Power. Elena could practical y hear his logic. Matt might be total y off track…but there was one place a human could be sure to find powerful vampires. In the Dark Dimension – to which there was a Gateway in the boardinghouse's garden.

The Gateway was closed right now…for lack of Power.

Unlike Stefan, Damon would have absolutely no qualms about what would happen if he had to use al the star bal 's liquid, which would result in the death of Misao. After al , she was one of the two foxes who had abandoned Stefan to be tortured.

So all bets were off.

Okay, you're scared; now deal with it, Elena told herself fiercely. Damon's been in that room for almost fifty hours now  and who knows what he's been plotting to do to get hold of the star bal . Stil , somebody's got to get him to eat – and when you say "somebody,"face it, it's you.

Elena had been standing at the door so long that her knees were starting to lock. She took a deep breath and knocked.

There was no answer, and no light went on inside. Damon was human. It was quite dark outside now.

"Damon?"It was meant to be a cal . It came out a whisper.

No answer. No light.

Elena swal owed. He had to be in there.

Elena knocked harder. Nothing. Final y, she tried the knob.

To her horror it was unlocked, and it swung open to reveal an interior as dark as the night around Elena, like the maw of a pit.

The fine hairs at the back of Elena's neck were standing up.

"Damon, I'm coming in,"she managed in a bare whisper, as if to convince herself by her quietness that there was nobody there. "I'l be silhouetted against the very edge of the porch light. I can't see anything, so you have al the advantages. I'm carrying a tray with very hot coffee, cookies, and steak tartar, no seasonings. You should be able to smel the coffee."

It was odd, though. Elena's senses told her that there was no one standing directly in front of her, waiting for her to literal y run into him. Al right, she thought. Start with baby steps. Step one. Step two. Step three – I must be wel into the room now, but it's stil too dim to see anything. Step four…

A strong arm came out of the darkness and locked in an iron grip around her waist, and a knife pressed against her throat.

Elena saw blackness shot with a sudden gray network, after which the dark closed in overwhelmingly.