The Return: Midnight (Chapter 5)

"I thought you wanted to get out so we could talk to Damon,"Stefan said, stil hand in hand with Elena as she made a sharp right turn onto the rickety stairway that led to the second-floor rooms and, above that, to Stefan's attic.

"Wel , unless he kil s Matt and runs I don't see what's to keep us from talking to him tomorrow."Elena glanced back at Stefan and dimpled. "I took your advice and thought a little about the two of them. Matt's a pretty tough quarterback and they're both only human now, right? Anyway, it's time for your dinner."

"Dinner?"Stefan's canine teeth responded automaticaly – embarrassingly quickly – to the word. He real y needed to have a word with Damon later and make sure Damon understood his place as a guest at the boardinghouse – nothing more – but it was true, he could do that tomorrow. It might even be more effective tomorrow, when Damon's own pent-up rage was spent.

He pressed his tongue against his fangs, trying to force them back down, but the smal stimulation caused them to sharpen, nicking his lip. Now they were aching pleasantly. Al in response to a single word: dinner.

Elena threw him a teasing glance over her shoulder and giggled. She was one of those lucky females with a beautiful laugh. But this was a clearly mischievous giggle, straight from her wicked, scheming childhood. It made Stefan want to tickle her to hear more; it made him want to laugh with her; it made him want to grab her and demand to know the joke.

Instead he said, "What's up, love?"

"Someone has sharp teeth,"she responded innocently, and giggled again. He lost himself in admiration for a second and also suddenly lost hold of her hand. Laughing like a musical cascade of white water over rock, she ran up the stairs ahead of him, both to tease and to show him what good shape she was in, he thought. If she had stumbled, or faltered, she knew he would decide that her donation of blood was harming her.

So far it didn't seem to be damaging any of his friends, or he would have insisted on a rest for that person. But even Bonnie, as delicate as a dragonfly, hadn't seemed to be the worse for it.

Elena raced up the stairs knowing that Stefan was smiling behind her, and there was no shadow of mistrust in his mind.

She didn't deserve it, but that only made her more anxious to please him.

"Have you had your dinner?"Stefan asked as they reached his room.

"Long ago; roast beef – cooked."She smiled.

"What did Damon say when he final y realized it was you and looked at the food you'd brought?"

Elena made herself giggle again. It was al right to have tears in her eyes; her burns and cuts hurt and the episode with Damon justified any amount of weeping.

"He cal ed it bloody hamburger. It was steak tartar. But, Stefan, I don't want to talk about him now."

"No, of course you don't, love."Stefan was immediately contrite. And he was trying so hard not to seem eager to feed – but he couldn't even control his canines.

And Elena was in no mood to dal y either. She perched on the bed, careful y unwinding the bandage Mrs. Flowers had just wound on it. Stefan suddenly looked troubled.

Love – He stopped abruptly.

What? Elena finished with the bandage, studying Stefan's face.

Well – shall I take it out of your arm instead? You're already in pain and I don't want to fool with Mrs. Flowers's anti-tetanus treatment.

There's still plenty of room around it, Elena said cheerful y.

But a bite on top of those cuts…He stopped again.

Elena looked at him. She knew her Stefan. There was something he wanted to say. Tell me, she pressed him.

Stefan final y met her eyes directly, and then put his mouth close to her ear. "I can heal the cuts,"he whispered. "But – it would mean opening them again so they can bleed. That wil hurt."

"And it might poison you!"Elena said sharply. "Don't you see? Mrs. Flowers put heaven knows what on them – "

She could feel his laughter, which sent warm tingles down her spine. "You can't kil a vampire so easily,"he said. "We only die if you stake us through the heart. But I don't want to hurt you – even to help you. I could Influence you not to feel anything – "

Once again, Elena cut him off. "No! No, I don't mind if it hurts.

As long as you get as much blood as you need."

Stefan respected Elena enough to know that he shouldn't ask the same question twice. And he could hardly restrain himself any longer. He watched her lie down and then stretched out beside her, bending to get to the green-stained cuts. He licked gently, at first rather tentatively, at the wounds, and then ran a satiny tongue over them. He had no idea how the process worked or what chemicals he was stroking over Elena's injuries. It was as automatic as breathing was to humans. But after a minute, he chuckled softly.

What? What? Elena demanded, smiling herself as his breath tickled.

Your blood's laced with lemon balm, Stefan replied.

Grand mama's healing recipe has lemon balm and alcohol in it! Lemon balm wine!

Is that good or bad? Elena asked uncertainly.

It's fine – for a change. But I still like your blood straight the best. Does it hurt too much?

Elena could feel herself flush. Damon had healed her cheek this way, back in the Dark Dimension, when Elena had, with her own body, protected a bleeding slave from a whiplash.

She knew Stefan knew the story, and must know, each time he saw her, that the almost-invisible white line on her cheekbone had been stroked just this gently into healing.

Compared to that, these scratches are nothing, she sent.

But a sudden chil went through her.

Stefan! I never begged your pardon for protecting Ulma at the risk of not being able to save you. Or, worse – for dancing while you were starving – for keeping up the society pretense so we could get the Twin Fox key –

Do you think I care about that? Stefan's voice was mock-angry as he gently sealed one cut at her throat. You did what you had to in order to track me – find me – save me – after I'd left you alone here. Don't you think I understand? I didn't deserve the saving –

Now Elena felt a smal sob choke her. Never say that!

Never! And I suppose – I suppose I knew you would forgive me – or I would have felt every jewel I wore burning like a brand. We had to chase you down like a fox with hounds – and we were so scared that a single misstep could mean you'd be hanged…or we would be.

Stefan was holding her tightly now. How can I make you understand? he asked. You gave up everything – even your freedom – for me. You became slaves. You – you – were "Disciplined"…

Elena asked wildly, How do you know that? Who told you?

You told me, beloved. In your sleep – in your dreams.

But, Stefan – Damon took the pain for me. Did you know that?

Stefan was silent a moment, then responded, I…see. I didn't know that before.

Scenes strewn from the Dark Dimension bubbled in Elena's mind. That city of tarnished baubles – of il usive glitter, where a whiplash that spread blood across a wal was as much celebrated as a handful of rubies strewn on the sidewalk….

Love, don't think about it. You followed me, and you rescued me, and now we're here together, Stefan said. The last cut closed, he lay his cheek on hers. That's all I care about. You and I – together.

Elena was almost dizzily glad to be forgiven – but there was something inside her – something that had grown and grown and grown during the weeks she was in the Dark Dimension.

A feeling for Damon that was not just the result of her need for his help. A feeling that Elena had thought Stefan understood. A feeling that might even change the relations between the three of them: her, Stefan, and Damon. But now Stefan seemed to assume that everything would return to the way it was before his kidnapping.

Oh, wel , why fret about tomorrow when tonight was enough to make her weep with joy?

This was the best feeling in the world, the knowledge that she and Stefan were together, and she made Stefan promise her over and over that he would not ever leave her on another quest again, no matter how briefly, no matter what the cause.

By now, Elena could not even focus on what she had been worried about before. She and Stefan had always found heaven in each other's arms. They were meant to be together forever. Nothing else mattered now that she was home.

"Home"was where she and Stefan were together.