The Return: Midnight (Chapter 40)

But after an endless time in the soft, kind darkness, something was forcing Elena back up into light. Real light.

Not the terrible green half-light of the Tree. Even through shut eyelids she could see it, feel its heat. A yel ow sun. Where was she? She couldn't remember.

And she didn't care. Something was saying inside her that the gentle darkness was better. But then she remembered a name.


Stefan was…?

Stefan was the one who…the one she loved. But he'd never understood that love was not singular. He'd never understood that she could be in love with Damon and that it would never change an atom's worth of her love for him. Or that his lack of understanding had been so wrenching and painful that she had felt torn into two different people at times.

But now, even before she opened her eyes, she realized that she was drinking. She was drinking the blood of a vampire, and that vampire wasn't Stefan. There was something unique in this blood. It was deeper and spicier and more heavy, al at once.

She couldn't help opening her eyes. For some reason she didn't understand, they flew open and she tried immediately to focus on the scent and feeling and color of whoever was bending over her, holding her.

She couldn't understand, either, her sense of letdown when she slowly realized that it was Sage leaning over her, holding her gently but securely to his neck, with his bronze chest bare and warm from the sunlight.

But she was lying down flat, on grass, from what her hands could feel…and for some reason her head was cold. Very cold.

Cold and wet.

She stopped drinking and tried to sit up. The light grip became firmer. She heard Sage's voice say, and felt the rumbling in his chest as he said it, "Ma pauvre petite, you must drink more in a moment or so. And your hair has Stillsome of the ashes in it."

Ashes? Ashes? Didn't you put ashes on your head for…now what had she been thinking about? It was as if there was a block in her mind, keeping her from getting close to…

something. But she wasn't going to be told what to do.

Elena sat up.

She was in – yes, she was very sure – the kitsune paradise, and until a moment ago her body had been arched back, so that her hair had been in the clear little stream that she had seen earlier. Stefan and Bonnie had been washing something pitch-black out of her hair. They both were smudged with black as well: Stefan had a big swath across one cheekbone, and Bonnie had faint gray streaks below her eyes.

Crying. Bonnie had been crying. She was Stillcrying, in little sobs that she was trying to suppress. And now that Elena looked harder she could see that Stefan's eyelids were swol en and that he had been crying too.

Elena's lips were numb. She fel back onto the grass, looking up at Sage, who was wiping his eyes furtively. Her throat ached, not just inside, where sobbing and gasping might make it hurt, but outside, too. She had a picture of herself slashing at her own neck with a knife.

Through her numb lips, she whispered, "Am I a vampire?"

"Pas encore,"Sage said unsteadily. "Not yet. But Stefan and I, we both had to give you massive amounts of blood. You must be very careful in the next days. You are right on the brink."

That explained how she felt. Probably Damon was hoping that she would become one, wicked boy. Instinctively, she held out her hand to Stefan. Maybe she could help him.

"We just won't do anything for a little while,"she said. "You don't have to be sad."But she herself Stillfelt very wrong. She hadn't felt this wrong since she'd seen Stefan in prison and had thought that he would die at any moment.

No…it was worse…because with Stefan there had been hope and Elena had the feeling that now hope was gone.

Everything was gone. She was hol ow: a girl who looked solid, but whose insides were missing.

"I'm dying,"she whispered. "I know it…Are you al going to say good-bye now?"

And with that Sage – Sage! – choked up and began to sob.

Stefan, Stilllooking so oddly mussed, with those traces of soot on his face and arms and his hair and clothes soaking wet, said, "Elena, you're not going to die. Not unless you choose to."

She had never seen Stefan look like this before. Not even in prison. His flame, his inner fire that he showed to almost no one but Elena, had gone out.

"Sage saved us,"he said, slowly careful y, as if it cost him great effort to speak. "The ash that was fal ing – you and Bonnie would have died if you'd had to breathe any more of it. But Sage put a door back to the Gatehouse right in front of us. I could barely see it; my eyes were so ful of ashfal , and it's only getting worse on that moon."

"Ashfal ,"Elena whispered. There was something at the bottom of her mind, but once again her memory failed her. It was almost as if she'd been Influenced to not remember. But that was ridiculous.

"Why were ashes fal ing?"she asked, realizing that her voice was husky, hoarse – as if she'd cheered too long at a footbal game.

"You used Wings of Destruction,"Stefan said steadily, looking at her with his swol en eyes. "You saved our lives. But you kil ed the Tree – and the star bal disintegrated."

Wings of Destruction. She must have lost her temper. And she'd kil ed a world. She was a murderer.

And now the star bal was lost. Fel 's Church. Oh, God. What would Damon say to her? Elena had done everything –

everything wrong. Bonnie was sobbing now, her face turned away.

"I'm sorry,"Elena said, knowing how inadequate this was. For the first time she looked around miserably. "Damon?"she whispered. "He won't speak to me? Because of what I did?"

Sage and Stefan looked at each other.

Ice went down Elena's spine.

She started to get up, but her legs weren't the legs she remembered. They wanted to unlock at the knees. She was staring down at herself, at her own wet and smudged clothes – and then something like mud came down her forehead.

Mud or congealing blood.

Bonnie made a sound. She was Stillsobbing, but she was speaking, too, in a new husky voice that made her sound much older. "Elena – we didn't get the ashes out of the top of your hair. Sage had to give you an emergency transfusion."

"I'l get the ashes out,"Elena said flatly. She let her knees bend. She fel onto them, jarring her body. Then, twisting, she leaned down to the little brook and let her head fal forward.

Through the icy shock she could dimly hear exclamations from the people above water, and Stefan's sharp, Elena, are you All right? in her head.

No, she thought back. But I'm not drowning, either. I'm washing out my hair. Maybe Damon will at least see me if I'm presentable. Maybe he'll come with us and fight for Fell's Church.

Let me help you up, Stefan sent quietly.

Elena had come to the end of her air. She pul ed her heavy head out of the water and flipped it, soaking but clean, so that it fel down her back. She stared at Stefan.

"Why?"she said – and then, with a sudden panic – "Has he left already? Was he angry…with me?"

"Stefan."It was Sage, speaking tiredly. Stefan, who was staring out of his green eyes like a hunted animal, made some faint sound.

"The Influence, it is not working,"Sage said. "She will remember on her own."