The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 2)

Damon had to wait some hours for another opportunity to feed – there were too many girls in deep sleep – and he was furious. The hunger that the manipulative creature had roused in him was real, even if it hadn't succeeded in making him its puppet. He needed blood; and he needed itsoon .

Only then would he think over the implications of Caroline's strange mirror-guest: that trulydemonic demon lover who had handed her over to Damon to be killed, even while pretending to make a deal with her.

NineA.M . saw him driving down the main street of the town, past an antique store, eateries, a shop for greeting cards.

Wait. There it was. A new store that sold sunglasses. He parked and got out of the car with an elegance of motion born of centuries of careless movement that wasted not an erg of energy. Once again, Damon flashed the instantaneous smile, and then he turned it off, admiring himself in the dark glass of the window. Yes, no matter how you look at it, I am gorgeous, he thought absently.

The door had a bell that made a tinkling sound as he entered. Inside was a plump and very pretty girl with brown hair tied back and large blue eyes.

She had seen Damon and she was smiling shyly.

"Hi." And though he hadn't asked, she added, in a voice that quavered, "I'm Page."

Damon gave her a long, unhurried look that ended in a smile, slow and brilliant and complicit. "Hello, Page," he said, drawing it out.

Page swallowed. "Can I help you?"

"Oh, yes," Damon said, holding her with his eyes, "I think so."

He turned serious. "Did you know," he said, "that you really belong as a chatelaine in a castle in the Middle Ages?"

Page went white, then blushed furiously – and looked all the better for it. "I – I always wished that I'd been born back then. But how could you know that?"

Damon just smiled.

Elena looked at Stefan with wide eyes that were the dark blue of lapis lazuli with a scattering of gold. He'd just told her that she was going to have Visitors! In all the seven days of her life, since she had returned from the afterlife, she had never – ever – had a Visitor.

First thing, right away, was to find out what a Visitor was.

Fifteen minutes after entering the sunglasses shop, Damon was walking down the sidewalk, wearing a brand-new pair of Ray-Bans and whistling.

Page was taking a little nap on the floor. Later, her boss would threaten to make her pay for the Ray-Bans herself. But right now she felt warm and deliriously happy – and she had a memory of ecstasy that she would never entirely forget.

Damon window-shopped, although not exactly the way a human would. A sweet old woman behind the counter of the greeting cards shop…no. A guy at the electronics shop…no.

But…something drew him back to the electronics shop. Such clever devices they were inventing these days. He had a strong urge to acquire a palm-sized video camera. Damon was used to following his urges and was not picky about donors in an emergency. Blood was blood, whatever vessel it came in. A few minutes after he'd been shown how to work the little toy, he was walking down the sidewalk with it in his pocket.

He was enjoying just walking, although his fangs were aching again. Strange, he should be sated – but then, he'd had almost nothing yesterday. That must be why he still felt hungry; that and the Power he'd used on the damnable parasite in Caroline's room. But meanwhile he took pleasure in the way his muscles were working together smoothly and without effort, like a well-oiled machine, making every movement a delight.

He stretched once, for the pure animal enjoyment of it, and then stopped again to examine himself in the window of the antiques store. Slightly more disheveled, but otherwise as beautiful as ever. And he'd been right; the Ray-Bans looked wicked on him. The antiques store was owned, he knew, by a widow with a very pretty, very young niece.

It was dim and air-conditioned inside.

"Do you know," he asked the niece when she came to wait on him, "that you strike me as someone who would like to see a lot of foreign countries?"

Some time after Stefan explained to Elena that Visitors were her friends, hergood friends, he wanted her to get dressed. Elena didn't understand why. It was hot. She had given in to wearing a Night Gown (for at least most of the night), but the daytime was even warmer, and she didn't have a Day Gown.

Besides, the clothes he was offering her – a pair of his jeans rolled up at the hems and a polo shirt that would be much too big – were…wrong somehow. When she touched the shirt she got pictures of hundreds of women in small rooms, all using sewing machines in bad light, all working frantically.

"From a sweat shop?" Stefan said, startled, when she showed him the picture in her mind."These?" He dropped the clothes on the floor of the closet hastily.

"What about this one?" Stefan handed her a different shirt.

Elena studied it soberly, held it to her cheek. No sweating, frantically sewing women.

"Okay?" Stefan said. But Elena had frozen. She went to the window and peered out.

"What's wrong?"

This time, she sent him only one picture. He recognized it immediately.


Stefan felt a tightening in his chest. His older brother had been making Stefan's existence as miserable as possible for nearly half a millennium. Every time that Stefan had managed to get away from him, Damon had tracked him down, looking for…what? Revenge? Some final satisfaction? They had killed each other at the same instant, back in Renaissance Italy. Their fencing swords had pierced each other's hearts almost simultaneously, in a duel over a vampire girl. Things had only gone downhill from there.

But he's saved your life a few times, too, Stefan thought, suddenly discomfited. And you promised you'd watch out for each other, take care of each other….

Stefan looked sharply at Elena.She was the one who'd made both of them take the same oath – when she was dying. Elena looked back with eyes that were limpid, deep blue pools of innocence.

In any case, he had to deal with Damon, who was now parking his Ferrari beside Stefan's Porsche in front of the boardinghouse.

"Stay in here and – and keep away from the window.Please ," Stefan hastily told Elena. He dashed out

of the room, shut the door, and almost ran down the steps.

He found Damon standing by the Ferrari, examining the dilapidated boardinghouse's exterior – first with sunglasses on, then with them off. Damon's expression said that it didn't make a great deal of difference whichever way you looked at it.

But that wasn't Stefan's first concern. It was Damon's aura and the variety of different scents lingering on him – which no human nose would ever be able to detect, much less untangle.

"What have you beendoing ?" Stefan said, too shocked for even a perfunctory greeting.

Damon gave him a 250-watt smile. "Antiquing," he said, and sighed. "Oh, and I did some shopping." He fingered a new leather belt, touched the pocket with the video camera, and pushed back his Ray-Bans. "Would you believe it, this little dust speck of a town has some pretty decent shopping. I like shopping."

"You like stealing, you mean. And that doesn't account for half of what I can smell on you. Are you dying or have you just gone crazy?" Sometimes, when a vampire had been poisoned or had succumbed to one of the few mysterious curses or illnesses that afflict their kind, they would feed feverishly, uncontrollably, on whatever – whomever – was at hand.

"Just hungry," Damon replied urbanely, still surveying the boardinghouse. "And what happened to basic civility, by the way? I drive all the way out here and do I get a ¡®Hello, Damon,' or ¡®Nice to see you, Damon'? No. Instead I hear ¡®What have you been doing, Damon?'" He gave the imitation a whining, mocking twist. "I wonder what Signore Marino would think of that, little brother?"

"Signore Marino," Stefan said through his teeth, wondering how Damon was able to get under his skin every time – today with a reference to their old tutor of etiquette and dancing – "has been dust for hundreds of years by now – as we should be, too. Which has nothing to do with this conversation, brother . I asked you what you were doing, and you know what I meant by it – you must have bled half the girls in town."

"Girls and women," Damon reproved, holding up a finger facetiously. "We must be politically correct, after all. And maybe you should be taking a closer look at your own diet. If you drank more, you might begin to fill out. Who knows?"

"If I drank more – ?" There were a number of ways to finish this sentence, but no good ones. "What a pity," he said instead to the short, slim, and compact Damon, "thatyou'll never grow another millimeter taller however long you live. And now, why don't you tell me what you're doing here, after leaving so many messes in town for me to clean up – if I know you."

"I'm here because I want my leather jacket back," Damon said flatly.

"Why not just steal anoth – ?" Stefan broke off as he suddenly found himself flying briefly backward and then pinned against the groaning boards of the boardinghouse wall, with Damon right in his face.

"I didn't steal these things,boy . I paid for them – in my own coin. Dreams, fantasies, and pleasure from beyond this world." Damon said the last words with emphasis, since he knew they would infuriate Stefan the most.

Stefanwas infuriated – and in a dilemma. He knew Damon was curious about Elena. That was bad enough. But right now he could also see a strange gleam in Damon's eyes. As if the pupils had, for a moment, reflected a flame. And whatever Damon had been doing today was abnormal. Stefan didn't know what was going on, but he knew just how Damon was going to finish this off.

"But a real vampire shouldn't pay," Damon was saying in his most taunting tones. "After all, we're so wicked that we ought to be dust. Isn't that right, little brother?" He held up the hand with the finger on which he wore the lapis lazuli ring that kept him from crumbling to dust in the golden afternoon sunlight. And then, as Stefan made a movement, Damon used that hand to pin Stefan's wrist to the wall.

Stefan feinted to the left and then lunged right to break Damon's hold on him. But Damon was fast as a snake – no, faster. Much faster than usual. Fast and strong with all the energy of the life force he'd absorbed.

"Damon, you…" Stefan was so angry that he briefly lost his hold on rational thought and tried to swipe Damon's legs out from under him.

"Yes, it's me, Damon," Damon said with jubilant venom. "And I don't pay if I don't feel like it; I just take. Itake what I want, and I give nothing in return."

Stefan stared into those heated black-on-black eyes and again saw the tiny flicker of flame. He tried to think. Damon was always quick to attack, to take offense. Butnot like this . Stefan had known him long enough to know something was off; something was wrong. Damon seemed almost feverish. Stefan sent a small surge of Power toward his brother, like a radar sweep, trying to put his finger on what was different.

"Yes, I see you've got the idea, but you'll never get anywhere that way," Damon said wryly, and then suddenly Stefan's insides, his entire body was on fire, was in agony, as Damon lashed out with a violent whip of his own Power.

And now, however bad the pain was, Stefan had to be coldly rational; he had to keepthinking , not just reacting. He made a small movement, twisting his neck to the side, looking toward the door of the boardinghouse. If only Elena would stay inside…

But it was hard to think with Damon still whiplashing him. He was breathing fast and hard.

"That's right," Damon said. "We vampirestake – a lesson you need to learn."

"Damon, we're supposed to take care of each other – we promised – "

"Yes, and I'm going to take care ofyou right now."

And Damon bled him.

It was even more painful than the lashings of Power, and Stefan held himself carefully still for it, refusing to put up a struggle. The razor-sharp teeth shouldn't have hurt as they plunged into his carotid, but Damon was holding him at an angle – now by his hair – deliberately so that they did.

Then came the real pain. The agony of having blood drawn out against your will, against your resistance. That was a torture that humans compared with having their souls ripped out from their living bodies. They would do anything to avoid it. All Stefan knew was that it was one of the greatestphysical anguishes that

he had ever had to endure, and that at last tears formed in his eyes and rolled down his temples and down into his wavy dark hair.

Worse, for a vampire, was the humiliation of having another vampire treat you like a human, treat you likemeat . Stefan's heart was pounding in his ears as he writhed under the double carving knives of Damon's canines, trying to bear the mortification of being used this way. At least – thank God – Elena had listened to him and stayed in his room.

He was beginning to wonder if Damon had truly gone insane and meant to kill him when – at last – with a shove that sent him off balance, Damon released him. Stefan tripped and fell, rolled, and looked up, only to find Damon standing over him again. He pressed his fingers to the torn flesh on his neck.

"And now," Damon said coldly, "you will go up and get me my jacket."

Stefan got up slowly. He knew Damon must be savoring this: Stefan's humiliation, Stefan's neat clothes wrinkled and covered with torn blades of grass and mud from Mrs. Flowers' scraggly flower bed. He did his best to brush them off with one hand, the other still pressed to his neck.

"You're quiet," Damon remarked, standing by his Ferrari, running his tongue over his lips and gums, his eyes narrow with pleasure. "No snappy back talk? Not even a word? I think this is a lesson I should teach you more often."

Stefan was having trouble making his legs move. Well, that went about as well as could be expected, he thought as he turned back toward the boardinghouse. Then he stopped.

Elena was leaning out of the unshuttered window in his room, holding Damon's jacket. Her expression was very sober, suggesting she'd seen everything.

It was a shock for Stefan, but he suspected it was an even greater shock for Damon.

And then Elena whirled the jacket around once and threw it so that it made a direct landing at Damon's feet, wrapping around them.

To Stefan's astonishment, Damon went pale. He picked up the jacket as if he didn't really want to touch it. His eyes were on Elena the whole time. He got in his car.

"Good-bye, Damon. I can't say it's been a pleasure – "

Without a word, looking for all the world like a naughty child who'd been whipped, Damon turned on the ignition.

"Just leave me alone," he said expressionlessly in a low voice.

He drove off in a cloud of dust and gravel.

Elena's eyes were not serene when Stefan shut the door to his room behind him. They were shining with a light that nearly stopped him in the doorway.


"He hurts everyone. He doesn't seem to be able to help it. But there was something weird about him today. I don't know what. Right now, I don't care. But look at you, making sentences!"

He's…Elena paused, and for the first time since she'd first opened her eyes back in the glade where she had been resurrected, there was a frown-wrinkle on her forehead. She couldn't make a picture. She didn't know the right words.Something inside him. Growing inside him. Like…cold fire, dark light, she said finally.But hidden. Fire that burns from the inside out.

Stefan tried to match this up with anything he'd heard of and came up blank. He was still humiliated that Elena had seen what had happened. "AllI know that's inside him is my blood. Along with that of half the girls in town."

Elena shut her eyes and shook her head slowly. Then, as if deciding not to go any further down that path, she patted the bed beside her.

Come,she ordered confidently, looking up. The gold in her eyes seemed especially lustrous.Let me…unhurt…the pain.

When Stefan didn't come immediately, she held out her arms. Stefan knew he shouldn't go to them, but hewas hurt – especially in his pride.

He went to her and bent down to kiss her hair.