The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 11)

Bonnie couldn't remember any more sophisticated prayer and so, like a tired child, she was saying an old one: "…I pray the Lord my soul to take…." She had used up all her energy calling for help and had gotten no response at all, just some feedback noise. She was so sleepy now. The pain had gone away and she was simply numb. The only thing bothering her was the cold. But then, that could be taken care

of, too. She could just pull a blanket over herself, a thick, downy blanket, and she would warm up. She knew it without knowing how she knew.

The only thing that held her back from the blanket was the thought of her mother. Her mother would be sad if she stopped fighting. That was another thing she knew without knowing how she knew. If she could just get a message to her mother, explaining that she had fought as hard as she could, but that with the numbness and the cold, she couldn't keep it up. And that she had known she was dying, but that it hadn't hurt in the end, so there was no reason for Mom to cry. And next time she would learn from her mistakes, she promised…next time…

Damon's entry was meant to be dramatic, coordinated with a flash of lightning just as his boots hit the car. Simultaneously, he sent out another vicious lash of Power, this time directed at the trees, the puppets who were being controlled by an unseen master. It was so strong that he felt a shocked response from Stefan all the way back at the boardinghouse. And the trees…melted backward into the darkness. They'd ripped the top off as if the car had been a giant sardine can, he mused, standing on the hood. Handy for him.

Then he turned his attention to the human Bonnie, the one with the curls, who ought by rights to have been embracing his feet by now, and gasping out "Thank you!"

She wasn't. She was lying just as she had been in the embrace of the trees. Annoyed, Damon reached down to grab her hand, when he got a shock of his own. He sensed it before he touched it, smelled it before he felt it smear on his fingers. A hundred little pinpricks, each leaking blood. The evergreen's needles must have done that, taking blood from her or – no, pumping some resinous substance in. Some anesthetic to keep her still as it took whatever was the next step in its consumption of prey – something quite unpleasant, to judge by the manners of the creature so far. An injection of digestive juices seemed most likely.

Or perhaps simply something to keep her alive, like antifreeze for a car, he thought, realizing with another nasty shock just how cold she was. Her wrist was like ice. He glanced at the two other humans, the dark-haired girl with the disturbing, logical eyes, and the fair-haired boy who was always trying to pick a fight. He might just have cut this one too fine. It certainly looked bad for the other two. But he was going to save this one. Because it was his whim. Because she had called for his help so piteously. Because those creatures, thosemalach, had tried to make him watch her death, eyes half-focused on it as they took his mind off the present with a glorious daydream.Malach – it was a general word indicating a creature of darkness: a sister or brother of the night. But Damon thought it now as if the word itself were something evil, a sound to be spat or hissed.

He had no intention of lettingthem win. He picked Bonnie up as if she were a bit of dandelion fluff and slung her over one shoulder. Then he took off from the car. Flying without changing shape first was a challenge. Damon liked challenges.

He decided to take her to the nearest source of warm water, and that was the boardinghouse. He needn't disturb Stefan. There were half a dozen rooms in that warren that was making its genteel decline into the good Virginia mud. Unless Stefan was snoopy, he wouldn't go walking in on other folks' bathrooms.

As it turned out, Stefan was not only snoopy butfast . There was almost a collision: Damon and his burden came around a corner to find Stefan driving down the dark road with Elena, floating like Damon, bobbing behind the car as if she were a child's balloon.

Their first exchange of words was neither brilliant nor witty.

"What the hell are you doing?" exclaimed Stefan.

"What the hell areyou doing?" Damon said, or began to say, when he noticed the tremendous difference in Stefan – and the tremendous Power that was Elena. While most of his mind simply reeled in shock, a small part of it immediately began to analyze the situation, to figure out how Stefan had gone from a nothing to a – a –

Good grief. Oh, well, might as well put a brave face on it.

"I felt a fight," Stefan said. "When did you become Peter Pan?"

"You should be glad you weren't in the fight. And I can fly because I have the Power, boy."

This was sheer bravado. In any case, it was perfectly correct, back when they were born, to address a younger relative asragazzo , or "boy."

It wasn't now. And meanwhile the part of his brain that hadn't simply shut down was still analyzing. He could see, feel, do everything buttouch Stefan's aura. And it was…unimaginable. If Damon hadn't been this close, hadn't been experiencing it firsthand, he wouldn't have believed it was possible for one person to have so much Power.

But he was looking at the situation with the same ability of cold and logical assessment that told him that his own Power – even after making himself drunk with the variety of women's blood he had taken in the last few days – his Power was nothing to Stefan's right now. And his cold and logical ability was also telling him that Stefan had been pulled out of bed for this, and that he hadn't had time – or hadn't been rational enough – to hide his aura.

"Well, now, look at you," Damon said with all the sarcasm that he could call up – and that turned out to be quite a lot. "Is it a halo? Did you get canonized while I wasn't looking? Am I addressing St. Stefan now?"

Stefan's telepathic response was unprintable. "Where are Meredith and Matt?" he added fiercely.

"Or," continued Damon, exactly as if Stefan hadn't spoken, "could it be that you merit congratulation for having learned the art of deception at last?"

"And what are you doing with Bonnie?" Stefan demanded, ignoring Damon's comments in turn.

"But you still don't seem to have a grasp of polysyllabic English, so I'll put this as simply as I can. You threw the fight."

"I threw the fight," Stefan said flatly, apparently seeing that Damon wasn't going to answer any of his questions until he'd told the truth. "I just thanked God thatyou seemed to be too mad or drunk to be very observant. I wanted to keep you and the rest of the world from figuring out just exactly what Elena's blood does. So you drove away without even trying to get a good look at her. And without suspecting that I could have shaken you off like a flea from the very beginning."

"I never thought you had it in you." Damon was reliving their little combat in all-too-vivid detail. It was true: he had never suspected that Stefan's performance had been entirely that – a performance – and that he could have thrown Damon down at any time and done whatever he'd wanted.

"And there's your benefactress." Damon nodded up to where Elena was floating, secured by – yes, it was true – secured by clothesline to the clutch. "Just a little lower than the angels, and crowned with glory and honor," he remarked, unable to help himself as he gazed up at her. Elena was, in fact, so bright that to look at her with Power channeled to the eyes was like trying to stare straight into the sun.

"She seems to have forgotten how to hide as well; she's shining like a G0 star."

"She doesn't know how to lie, Damon." It was clear that Stefan's anger was steadily mounting. "Now tell me what's going on and what you've done to Bonnie."

The impulse to answer,Nothing. Why, do you think I should? was almost irresistible – almost. But Damon was facing a different Stefan than he'd ever seen before. This is not the little brother you know and love to trample into the ground, the voice of logic told him, and he heeded it.

"The other two huuu-mans," Damon said, drawing the word out to its full obscene length, "are in their automobile. And" – suddenly virtuous – "I was taking Bonnie toyour place."

Stefan was standing by the car, at a perfect distance for examining Bonnie's outflung arm. The pinpricks turned into a smear of blood when he touched them, and Stefan examined his own fingers with horror. He kept repeating the experiment. Soon Damon would be drooling, a highly undignified behavior that he wished to avoid.

Instead, he concentrated on a nearby astronomical phenomenon.

The full moon, medium high, and white and pure as snow. And Elena floating in front of it, wearing an old-fashioned high-necked nightgown – and little if anything else. As long as he looked at her without the Power needed to discern her aura, he could examine her as a girl rather than as an angel in the midst of blinding incandescence.

Damon cocked his head to get a better view of the silhouette. Yes, that was definitely the right apparel for her, and she should always stand in front of brilliant lights. If he –


He was flying backward and to the left. He hit a tree, trying to make sure that Bonnie didn't hit it, too – she might break. Momentarily stunned, he floated – wafted really – down to the ground.

Stefan was on top of him.

"You," said Damon somewhat indistinctly through the blood in his mouth, "have been a naughty boy, boy."

"She made me. Literally. I thought she might die if I didn't take some of her blood – her aura was that swollen. Now you tell me what's wrong with Bonnie – "

"So you bled her despite your heroic unflagging resistance – "


This new tree smelled of resin. I never particularly wanted to get acquainted with the insides of trees, Damon thought as he spat out a mouthful of blood. Even as a crow I only use them when necessary.

Stefan had somehow snatched Bonnie out of the air while Damon was flying toward the tree. He was that fast now. He was very, very fast. Elena was aphenomenon .

"So now you have a secondhand idea what Elena's blood is like."And Stefan could hear Damon's private thoughts. Normally, Damon was always up for a fight, but right now he could almost hear Elena's weeping over her human friends, and something inside him felt tired. Very old – centuries old – and very tired.

But as for the question, well,yes . Elena was still bobbing aimlessly, sometimes spread-eagled and sometimes balled up like a kitten. Her blood was rocket fuel compared to the unleaded gasoline in most girls.

And Stefan wanted to fight. Wasn't even trying to hide it. I was right, Damon thought. For vampires, the urge to squabble is stronger than any other urge, even the need to feed or, in Stefan's case, the concern for his – what was the word? Oh, yes.Friends.

Now Damon was trying to elude a thrashing, trying to enumerate his assets, which weren't many, because Stefan was still holding him down. Thought. Speech. A penchant for fighting dirty that Stefan just couldn't seem to understand. Logic. An instinctive ability to find the chinks in his foe's armor…


"Meredith and" – damn! What was that boy'sname ? – "her escort are dead by now, I think," he said innocently. "We can stay here and brawl, if that's what you want to call it, considering that I never laid a finger on you – or we can try to resuscitate them. Which will it be, I wonder?" He really did wonder about how much control Stefan had over himself right now.

As if Damon had zoomed out abruptly with a camera, Stefan seemed to become smaller. He had been floating a few feet above the ground; now he landed and looked about himself in astonishment, obviously unaware that he had been airborne.

Damon spoke in the pause while Stefan was most vulnerable. "I wasn't the one who hurt them," he added. "If you'll look at Bonnie" – thank badness, he knewher name – "you'll see that no vampire could do it. I think" – he added ingenuously, for shock value – "that the attackers were trees, controlled by malach."

"Trees?"Stefan barely took time to glance at Bonnie's pin-pricked arm. Then he said, "We need to get them indoors and into warm water. You take Elena – "

Oh, gladly. In fact I'd give anything,anything –

" – and this car with Bonnie right back to the boardinghouse. Wake Mrs. Flowers. Do all you can for Bonnie. I'll go on ahead and get Meredith and Matt – "

That was it! Matt. Now if only he had a mnemonic –

"They're just up the road, right? That was where your first strafe of Power seemed to come from."

A strafe, was it? Why not be honest and just call it a feeble wash?

And while it was fresh in his mind…M for Mortal, A for Annoying, T for Thing. And there you had it. The pity was that it applied to all of them and yet not all of them were called MAT. Oh, damn – was there supposed to be another T at the end? Mortal, Annoying, Troublesome Thing? Annoying Terrible Thing?

"I said, is that all right?"

Damon returned to the present. "No, it's not all right. The other car's wrecked. It won't drive."

"I'll float it behind me." Stefan wasn't bragging, just making a statement of fact.

"It's not even in one piece."

"I'll bind the pieces. Come on, Damon. I'm sorry I strafed you; I had a completely wrong idea about what was going on. But Matt and Meredith may really be dying, and even with all my new Power, and all of Elena's, we may not be able to save them. I've raised Bonnie's core temperature a few degrees but I don't dare to stay and bring it up slowly enough.Please , Damon." He was putting Bonnie in the passenger seat.

Well, thatsounded like the old Stefan, but coming from this powerhouse, the new Stefan, it had rather different undertones. Still, as long as Stefanthought he was a mouse, he was a mouse. End of discussion.

Earlier Damon had felt like Mount Vesuvius exploding. Now he suddenly felt as if he werestanding near Vesuvius, and the mountain was rumbling. Ye gods! He actually felt seared just being this close to Stefan.

He called on all his considerable resources, mentally packing himself in ice, and hoped that at least a breath of coolness underlay his answer. "I'll go. See you later – hope the humans aren't dead yet."

As they parted, Stefan sent him a powerful message of disapproval – not strafing him with sheer elemental pain, as he had before when throwing Damon against the tree, but making sure that his opinion of his brother was stamped across every word.

Damon sent Stefan a last message as he went.I don't understand, he thought innocently toward the disappearing Stefan.What's wrong with saying that I hope the humans are still alive? I've been in greeting card shops, you know – he didn't mention that it wasn't for the cards but for the young cashiers – and they had sections like "Hope you get well" and "Sympathy," which I suppose means that the previous card's spell wasn't strong enough. So what's wrong with saying "I hope they're not dead"?

Stefan didn't even bother to answer. But Damon flashed a quick and brilliant smile anyway, as he turned the Porsche around and set off for the boardinghouse.

He tugged on the clothesline that kept Elena bobbing above him. She floated – nightgown billowing – above Bonnie's head – or rather where Bonnie's head should have been. Bonnie had always been small, and this freezing illness had her crumpled into the fetal position. Elena could practically sit on her.

"Hello, princess. Looking gorgeous, as always. And you're not too bad yourself."

It was one of the worst opening lines of his life, he thought dejectedly. But he wasn't feeling quite himself. Stefan's transformation had startled him – that must be what's wrong, he decided.


Damon started. Elena's voice was slow and hesitant…and absolutely beautiful: molasses dripping sweetness, honey falling straight from the comb. It was lower in pitch, he was sure, than it had been before her transformation, and it had become a true Southern drawl. To a vampire it resembled the sweet drip-drip of a newly opened human vein.

"Yes, angel. Have I called you ¡®angel' before? If not, it was purely an oversight."

And as he said this, he realized that that was another component to her voice, one he'd missed before: purity. The lancing purity of a seraph of seraphim. That should have put him off, but instead it just reminded him that Elena was someone to take seriously, never lightly.

I'd take you seriously or lightly or any way you prefer, Damon thought, if you weren't so stuck on my idiot younger brother.

Twin violet suns turned on him: Elena's eyes. She'd heard him.

For the first time in his life, Damon was surrounded by people more powerful than he was. And to a vampire, Power was everything: material goods, community position, trophy mate, comfort, sex, cash, candy.

It was an odd feeling. Not entirely unpleasant in regards to Elena. He liked strong women. He'd been looking for one strong enough for centuries.

But Elena's glance very effectively brought his thoughts back to their situation. He parked askew outside the boardinghouse, snatched up the stiffening Bonnie, and floated up the twisting, narrowing staircase towards Stefan's room. It was the only place heknew there was a bathtub.

There was barely room for three inside the tiny bathroom, and Damon was the one carrying Bonnie. He ran water into the ancient, four-footed tub based on what his exquisitely tuned senses said was five degrees above her current icy temperature. He tried to explain to Elena what he was doing, but she seemed to have lost interest and was floating round and round Stefan's bedroom, like a close-up of Tinkerbell caged. She kept bumping the closed window and then zooming over to the open door, looking out.

What a dilemma. Ask Elena to undress and bathe Bonnie, and risk her putting Bonnie in the tub wrong side up? Or ask Elena to do the job and watch over them both, but not touch – unless disaster struck? Plus, someone had to find Mrs. Flowers and get hot drinks going. Write a note and send Elena with it? There might be more casualties in here any moment now.

Then Damon caught Elena's eye, and all petty and conventional concerns seemed to drop away. Words appeared in his brain without bothering to come through his ears.

Help her. Please!

He turned back to the bathroom, lay Bonnie on the thick rug there and shelled her like a shrimp. Off with the sweatshirt, off with the summer top that went under it. Off with the small bra – A cup, he noticed sadly, discarding it, trying not to look at Bonnie directly. But he couldn't help but see that the prickling marks the tree had left were everywhere.

Off with the jeans, and then a small hitch because he had to sit and take each foot in his lap to get the tightly tied high-top sneakers off before the jeans would come past her ankles. Off with socks.

And that was all. Bonnie was left naked except for her own blood and her pink silky underwear. He picked her up and put her in the tub, soaking himself in the process. Vampires associated baths with virgin's blood, but only the really crazy ones tried it.

The water in Bonnie's bathtub turned pink when he put her in. He kept the tap running because the tub was so large, and then sat back to consider the situation. The tree had been pumping something into her with its needles. Whatever it was, it wasn't good. So it ought to come out. Most sensible solution was to suck it as if it were a snakebite, but he was hesitant to try that until he was sure Elena wouldn't crush his skull if she found him methodically sucking Bonnie's upper body.

He would have to settle for next best. The bloody water didn't quite conceal Bonnie's diminutive form, but it helped to blur the details. Damon supported Bonnie's head against the edge of the tub with one hand, and with the other he began to squeeze and massage the poison out of one arm.

He knew he was doing the right thing when he smelled the resinous scent of pine. It was so thick and viscid itself that it hadn't yet disappeared into Bonnie's body. He was getting a small amount of it out this way, but was it enough?

Cautiously, watching the door and cranking his senses up to cover their broadest spectrum, Damon lifted Bonnie's hand to his lips as if he were going to kiss it. Instead, he took her wrist in his mouth and, suppressing every urge he had to bite, instead simply sucked.

He spat almost immediately. His mouth was full of resin. The massage wasn't enough by far. Even suction, if he could get a couple of dozen vampires and attach them all over Bonnie's little body like leeches, wouldn't be enough.

He sat back on his heels and looked at her, this fatally poisoned woman-child he'd as good as given his word to save. For the first time, he became aware that he was soaked to the waist. He gave an irritated glance toward the heavens and then shrugged out of his black bomber jacket.

What could he do? Bonnie needed medicine, but he had no idea what specific medicine she needed, and there was no witch he knew of to appeal to. Was Mrs. Flowers acquainted with arcane knowledge? Would she give it to him if she were? Or was she just a batty old lady? What was a generic medicine – for a human? He could give her over to her own people and let them try their bungling sciences – take her to a hospital – but they would be working with a girl who'd been poisoned by the Other Side, by the dark places they would never be allowed to see or understand.

Absently, he had been rubbing a towel over his arms and hands and black shirt. Now, he looked at the towel and decided that Bonnie deserved at least a sop to modesty, especially since he could think of no more work to be done on her. He soaked the towel and then spread it out and pushed it underwater to cover Bonnie from throat to feet. It floated in some places, sank in others, but generally did the job.

He turned the water temperature up again, but it made no difference. Bonnie was stiffening into the true death, young as she was. His peers in old Italy had had it right, he thought, a female like this was amaiden , no longer girl, not yet woman. It was especially apposite since any vampire could tell that she was a maiden in both senses.

And it had all been done under his nose. The lure, the pack-attack, the marvelous technique and synchronization – they had killed this maiden while he sat and watched. He'd applauded it.

Slowly, inside, Damon could feel something growing. It had sparked when he thought of the audacity of the malach, hunting his humans right under his nose. It didn't ask the question of when the group in the car had becomehis humans – he supposed it was because they had been so close lately that it seemed they were his to dispose of, to say whether they lived or died, or whether they became what he was. The growing thing surged when he'd thought of the way the malach had manipulated his thoughts, drawing him into a blissful contemplation of death in general terms, while death in very specific terms was going on right at his feet. And now it was reaching incendiary levels because he had been shown up too many times today. It really was unbearable….

…and it was Bonnie….

Bonnie, who had never hurt a – a harmless thing for malice. Bonnie, who was like a kitten, making airy pounces at no prey at all. Bonnie, with her hair that was called something strawberry, but that looked simply as if it was on fire. Bonnie of the translucent skin, with the delicate violet fjords and estuaries of veins all over her throat and inner arms. Bonnie, who had lately taken to looking at him sideways with her large childlike eyes, big and brown, under lashes like stars….

His jaws and canines were aching, and his mouth felt as if it were on fire from the poisonous resin. But all that could be ignored, because he was consumed with one other thought.

Bonnie had called for his help for nearly half an hour before succumbing to the darkness.

That was what needed to be said. Needed to be examined. Bonnie had called for Stefan – who had been too far away and too busy with his angel – but she had called for Damon, too, and she had pleaded for his help.

And he had ignored it. With three of Elena's friends at his feet, he had ignored their agonies, had ignored Bonnie's frenzied pleas not to let them die.

Usually, this sort of thing would only make him take off for some other town. But somehow he was still here and still tasting the bitter consequences of his act.

Damon leaned back with his eyes closed, trying to shut out the overwhelming smell of blood and the musty scent of…something.

He frowned and looked around. The little room was clean even to its corners. Nothing musty here. But the odor wouldn't go away.

And then he remembered.