The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 25)

Matt lunged at Damon in a rush that clearly demonstrated the skills that had gotten him a college football scholarship. He accelerated from utter stillness to a blur of motion, trying to tackle Damon, to bring him down.

"Run," he shouted, at the same instant."Run!"

Elena stood still, trying to come up with Plan A after this disaster. She had been forced to watch Stefan's humiliation at Damon's hands at the boardinghouse, but she didn't think she could stand to see this.

But when she looked again, Matt was standing about a dozen yards from Damon, white-faced and grim, but alive and on his feet. He was preparing to rush Damon again.

And Elena…couldn't run. She knew that it would probably be the best thing – Damon might punish Matt briefly but most of his attention would be turned to hunting her down.

But she couldn't be sure. And she couldn't be sure that the punishment wouldn't kill Matt, or that he would be able to get away before Damon found her and had leisure time to think of him again.

No, notthis Damon, pitiless and remorseless as he was.

There must be some way – she could almost feel wheels spinning in her own head.

And then she saw it.

No, not that…

But what else was there to do?

Matt was, indeed, rushing Damon again, and this time as he went for him, lithe and unstoppable and fast as a darting snake, she saw what Damon did. He simply sidestepped at the last moment, just when Matt was about to ram him with a shoulder. Matt's momentum kept him going, but Damon simply turned in place and faced him again. Then he picked up his damned pine branch. It was broken at the end where Matt had trampled it.

Damon frowned at the stick, then shrugged, lifting it – and then both he and Matt stopped frozen. Something came sailing in from the sidelines to settle on the ground between them. It lay there, stirring in the breeze.

It was a maroon and navy Pendleton shirt.

Both of the boys turned slowly toward Elena, who was wearing a white lacy camisole. She shivered slightly and wrapped her arms around herself. It seemed unusually cold for this time of evening.

Very slowly, Damon lowered the pine branch.

"Saved by yourinamorata ," he said to Matt.

"I know what that means and it's not true," Matt said. "She's my friend, not my girlfriend."

Damon just smiled distantly. Elena could feel his eyes on her bare arms. "So…on to the next step," he said.

Elena wasn't surprised. Heartsick but not surprised. Neither was she surprised to see, when Damon turned to look from her to Matt and back, a flash of red. It seemed to be reflected on the inside of his sunglasses.

"Now," he said to Elena. "I think we'll put you over there on that rock, sort of half reclining. But first – another kiss." He looked back at Matt. "Get with the program, Matt; you're wasting time. First, maybe you kiss her hair, then she throws her head back and you kiss her neck, while she puts her arms around your shoulders…."

Matt,thought Elena. Damon had saidMatt . It had slipped out so easily, so innocently. Suddenly her entire brain, and her body, too, seemed to be vibrating as if to a single note of music, seemed to be flooded by an icy shower-bath. And what the note was saying was not shocking, because it was something that somehow, at a subliminal level, she already knew….

That's not Damon.

This wasn't the person she had known for – was it really only nine or ten months? She had seen him when she was a human girl, and she had defied him and desired him in equal measure – and he had seemed to love her best when she was defying him.

She had seen him when she was a vampire and had been drawn to him with all her being, and he had cared for her as if she were a child.

She had seen him when she was a spirit, and from the afterlife she had learned a great deal.

He was a womanizer, he could be callous, he drifted through his victims' lives like a chimera, like a catalyst, changing other people while he himself remained unchanging and unchanged. He mystified humans, confused them, used them – leaving them bewildered, because he had the charm of the devil.

And never once had she seen him break his word. She had a rock-bottom feeling that this wasn't something that was a decision, it was so much a part of Damon, lodged so deep in his subconscious, that even he couldn't do anything to change it. He couldn't break his word. He'd starve first.

Damon was still talking to Matt, giving him orders. "…and then take off her…"

So what about his word to be her bodyguard, to keep her from harm?

He was talking to her now. "So you know when to throw your head back? After he – "

"Who are you?"


"You heard me.Who are you? If you had really seen Stefan off and promised him to take care of me, none of this would have happened. Oh, you might be messing with Matt, but not in front of me. You're not – Damon's not stupid. He knows what a bodyguard is. He knows that watching Matt in pain hurts me as well. You're not Damon. Who…are…you?"

Matt's strength and fast-as-a-rattlesnake speed hadn't done any good. Maybe a different approach would work. As Elena spoke, she had been very slowly reaching up to Damon's face. Now, with one motion, she pulled his sunglasses off.

Eyes red as fresh new blood shone out at her.

"What have you done?"she whispered. "What have you done to Damon?"

Matt was out of the range of her voice but had been inching around, trying to get her attention. She wished fervently that Matt would just make a run for it himself. Here, he was just another way for this creature to blackmail her.

Without seeming to move quickly, the Damon-thing reached down and snatched the sunglasses from her hand. It was too fast for her to resist.

Then he seized her wrist in a painful grip.

"This would be a lot easier on both of you if you'd cooperate," he said casually. "You don't seem to realize what might happen if you make me angry."

His grip was forcing her down, forcing her to kneel. Elena decided not to let it. But unfortunately her body didn't want to cooperate; it sent urgent messages of pain to her mind, of agony, of burning, searing agony. She had thought that she could ignore it, could stand to let him break her wrist. She was wrong. At some point something in her brain blacked out completely, and the next thing she knew she was on her knees with a wrist that felt three times the right size and burned fiercely.

"Human weakness," Damon said scornfully. "It will get you every time…. You should know better than to disobey me, by now."

Not Damon,Elena thought, so vehemently that she was surprised the imposter didn't hear her.

"All right," Damon's voice continued above her as cheerfully as if he'd simply given her a suggestion. "You go sit on that rock, leaning backward, and Matt, if you'll just come over here, facing her." The tone was of polite command, but Matt ignored it and was beside her already, looking at the finger marks on Elena's wrist as if he didn't believe them.

"Matt stands up, Elena sits, or the opposite one gets the full treatment. Have fun, kiddies." Damon had the palm-camera out again.

Matt consulted Elena with his eyes. She looked at the imposter and said, enunciating carefully, "Go to hell, whoever you are."

"Been there, done that, bought the brimstone," the not-Damon creature rattled off. He gave Matt a smile that was both luminescent and terrifying. Then he waggled the pine branch.

Matt ignored it. He waited, his face stoic, for the pain to hit.

Elena struggled up to stand by him. Side by side, they could defy Damon.

Who seemed for a moment to be out of his mind. "You're trying to pretend you're not afraid of me. But you will be. If you had any sense, you would be now."

Belligerently, he took a step toward Elena."Why aren't you afraid of me?"

"Whoever you are, you're just an oversized bully. You've hurt Matt. You've hurt me. I'm sure you can kill us. But we're not afraid of bullies."

"You will be afraid." Now Damon's voice had dropped to a menacing whisper. "Just wait."

Even as something was ringing in Elena's ears, telling her to listen to those last words, to make a connection – who did that sound like? – the pain hit.

Her knees were knocked out by it. But she wasn't just kneeling now. She was trying to roll into a ball, trying to curl around the agony. All rational thought was swept from her head. She sensed Matt beside her, trying to hold her, but she could no more communicate with him than she could fly. She shuddered and fell to her side, as if having a seizure. Her entire universe was pain, and she only heard voices as if they came from far away.

"Stop it!" Matt sounded frantic."Stop it! Are you crazy? That'sElena , for God's sake! Do you want to kill her ?"

And then the not-Damon-thing advising him mildly, "I wouldn't try that again," but the only sound Matt made was a scream of primal rage.

"Caroline!" Bonnie was raging, pacing back and forth in Stefan's room while Meredith did something else with the computer. "Howdare she?"

"She doesn't dare try to attack Stefan or Elena outright – there's the oath," Meredith said. "So she's thought this up to get at all of us."

"But Matt – "

"Oh, Matt's handy," Meredith said grimly. "And unfortunately there's the matter of the physical evidence on both of them."

"What do you mean? Matt doesn't – "

"The scratches, my dear," put in Mrs. Flowers, looking sad, "from your razor-toothed bug. The poultice I put on will have healed them so that they'll look like a girl's fingernail scratches – about now. And the mark it left on your neck…" Mrs. Flowers coughed delicately. "It looks like what in my day was called a ¡®love bite.' Perhaps a sign of a tryst that ended in force? Not that your friend would ever do anything like that."

"And remember how Caroline looked when we saw her, Bonnie?" Meredith said dryly. "Not the crawling around – I'll bet anything she's walking just fine now. But her face. She had a black eye coming in and a swollen cheek. Perfect for the time frame."

Bonnie felt as if everyone was two steps ahead of her. "Whattime frame?"

"The night the bug attacked Matt. It was the morning after that that the sheriff called and talked to him. Matt admitted that his mother hadn't seen him all night, and that Neighborhood Watch guy saw Matt drive up to his house and, basically, pass out."

"That was from the bug poison. He'd just been fighting the malach!"

"We know that. But they'll say he'd just come back from attacking Caroline. Caroline's mother will hardly be fit to testify – you saw how she was. So who's to say that Matt wasn't over at Caroline's? Especially if he was planning assault."

"We are! We can vouch for him – " Bonnie suddenly stumbled to a halt. "No, I guess it was after he left that this was supposed to have happened. But, no, this is all wrong!" She took up pacing again. "I saw one of those bugs up close and it was exactly the way Matt described…."

"And what's left of it now? Nothing. Besides, they'll say that you would sayanything for him."

Bonnie couldn't stand just walking aimlessly around anymore. She had to get to Matt, had to warn him – if they could even find him or Elena. "I thoughtyou were the one who couldn't wait a minute to find them," she said accusingly to Meredith.

"I know; I was. But I had to look something up – and besides I wanted one more try at that page only vampires are supposed to read. TheShi no Shi one. But I've tweaked the screen in all the ways I can think of, and if there's something written here, I certainly can't find it."

"Best not to waste more time on it, then," Mrs. Flowers said. "Come get into your jacket, my dear. Shall we take the Yellow Wheeler or not?"

For just a moment Bonnie had a wild vision of a horse-drawn vehicle, a sort of Cinderella carriage but not pumpkin-shaped. Then she remembered seeing Mrs. Flowers' ancient Model T – painted yellow – parked inside what must be the old stables that belonged to the boardinghouse.

"We did better when we were on foot than weor Matt did in a car," said Meredith, giving the computer monitor controls a final vicious click. "We're more mobile than – oh, my God!I did it! "

"Did what?"

"The website. Come look at this."

Both Bonnie and Mrs. Flowers came over to the computer. The screen was bright green with thin, faint, dark green writing.

"Howdid you do it?" Bonnie demanded as Meredith bent to get a notebook and pen to copy down what they saw.

"I don't know. I just tweaked the color settings one last time – I'd already tried it for Power Saver, Low Battery, High Resolution, High Contrast, and every combination I could think of."

They stared at the words.

Tired of that lapis lazuli?

Want to take a vacation in Hawaii?

Sick of that same old liquid cuisine?

Come and visit Shi no Shi.

After that came an ad for the "Death of Death," a place where vampires could be cured of their cursed state and become human again. And then there was an address. Just a city road, no mention of what state, or, for that matter, what city. But it was a Clue.

"Stefan didn't mention a road address," Bonnie said.

"Maybe he didn't want to scare Elena," Meredith said grimly. "Or maybe, when he looked at the page, the address wasn't there."

Bonnie shivered. "Shi no Shi – I don't like the sound of it. And don't laugh at me," she added to Meredith defensively. "Remember what Stefan said about trusting my intuition?"

"Nobody's laughing, Bonnie. We need to get to Elena and Matt. What does your intuition tell you about that?"

"It says that we're going to get into trouble, and that Matt and Elena are in trouble already."

"Funny, because that's just what my judgment tells me."

"Are we ready, now?" Mrs. Flowers handed out flashlights.

Meredith tried hers and found it had a strong, steady beam.

"Let's do it," she said, automatically flipping off Stefan's lamp again.

Bonnie and Mrs. Flowers followed her down the stairs, out of the house, and onto the street they had run from not so long ago. Bonnie's pulse was racing, her ears ready for the slightestwhipwhip sound. But except for the beams of their flashlights, the Old Wood was completely dark and eerily silent. Not even the sound of birdsong broke the moonless night.

They plunged in, and in minutes they were lost.

Matt woke up on his side and for a moment didn't know where he was. Outdoors. Ground. Picnic? Hiking? Fell asleep?

And then he tried to move and agony flared like a geyser of flame, and he remembered everything. That bastard , torturing Elena, he thought.

Torturing Elena.

It didn't go together, not withDamon . What was it Elena had been saying to him at the end that had made him so angry?

The thought nagged at him, but it was just another unanswered question, like Stefan's note in Elena's diary.

Matt realized that he could move, if very slowly. He looked around, moving his head by careful increments until he saw Elena, lying near him like a broken doll. He hurt and he was desperately thirsty. She would feel the same way. The first thing was to get her to a hospital; the kind of muscular contractions brought on by that degree of pain could break an arm or even a leg. They were certainly strong enough to cause a sprain or dislocation. Not to mention Damon spraining her wrist.

That was what the practical, sensible part of him was thinking. But the question that kept going around in his mind still made him reel in complete astonishment.

Hehurt Elena? The way he hurt me? I don't believe it. I knew he was sick, twisted, but I never heard of him hurting the girls. And never, never Elena.Never . But me – if he treats me the way he treats Stefan, he'll kill me. I don't have a vampire's resilience.

I have to get Elena out of this before he kills me. I can't leave her alone with him.

Instinctively, somehow, he knew that Damon was still around. This was confirmed when he heard some little noise, turned his head too fast, and found himself staring at a blurred and wobbling black boot. The blur and wobble were the result of turning too quickly, but as quickly as he'd turned, he'd suddenly felt his face pressed into the dirt and pine needles on the ground of the clearing.

By The Boot. It was on his neck, grinding his face into the dirt now. Matt made a wordless sound of pure fury and grabbed at the leg above the boot with both hands, trying to get a purchase and throw Damon off. But while he could grasp the smooth leather of the boot, moving it in any direction was impossible. It was as if the vampire in the boot could turn himself to iron. Matt could feel the tendons in his throat stand out, his face turn red, and his muscles bunch under his shirt as he made a violent effort to heave Damon off. At last, exhausted, chest heaving, he lay still.

In that very same instant, The Boot was lifted. Exactly, he realized, at the moment when he was too tired to lift his head himself. He made a supreme effort and lifted it a few inches.

And The Boot caught him under the chin and lifted his face a little higher.

"What a pity," Damon said with infuriating contempt. "You humans are so weak. It's no fun to play with you at all."

"Stefan…will come back," Matt got out, looking up at Damon from where he was unintentionally groveling on the ground. "Stefan will kill you."

"Guess what?" Damon said conversationally. "Your face is all messed up on one side – scratches, you know. You've got sort of a Phantom of the Opera thing going on."

"If he doesn't, I will. I don't know how, but I will. I swear it."

"Careful what you promise."

Just as Matt got his arm working enough to prop him up – exactly then, to the millisecond – Damon reached out and grabbed him painfully by a handful of hair, yanking his head up.

"Stefan," Damon said, looking straight down into Matt's face and forcing Matt to look up at him, no matter how Matt tried to turn his face away, "was only powerful for a few days because he was drinking the blood of a very powerful spirit who hadn't yet adapted to Earth yet. But look at her now." He twisted his grip on Matt's hair again, more painfully. "Some spirit. Lying there in the dirt. Now the Power is back where it should be. Do you understand?Do you – boy?"

Matt just stared at Elena. "How could you do that?" he whispered finally.

"An object lesson in what it means to defy me. And surely you wouldn't want me to be sexist and leave her out?" Damontched . "You have to keep up with the times."

Matt said nothing. He had to get Elena out of this.

"Worrying about the girl? She's just playing possum now. Hoping I'll ignore her and concentrate on you."

"You're a liar."

"So I'll concentrate on you. Speaking of keeping up with the times, you know – except for the scratches and things, you're a fine-looking young man."

At first the words meant nothing to Matt. When he understood them, Matt could feel his blood freeze in his body.

"As a vampire, I can give you an informed and honest opinion. And as a vampire, I'm getting very thirsty. There's you. And then there's the girl who's still pretending to be asleep. I'm sure you can see what I'm getting at."

I believe in you, Elena, Matt thought. He's a liar, and he'll always be a liar. "Take my blood," he said wearily.

"Are you sure?" Now Damon sounded solicitous. "If you resist, the pain is horrible."

"Just get it over with."

"Whatever you like." Damon knelt fluidly on one knee, at the same time twisting his grip on Matt's hair, making Matt wince. The new grip dragged Matt's upper body across Damon's knee, so that his head was thrown back, his neck arched and exposed. In fact Matt had never felt so exposed, so helpless, so vulnerable in his life.

"You can always change your mind," Damon taunted him.

Matt shut his eyes, stubbornly saying nothing.

At the last moment, though, as Damon bent with fangs exposed, Matt's fingers almost involuntarily, almost as if it were something his body was doingapart from his mind, clenched themselves into a fist and he suddenly, unpredictably, brought the fist swinging up to deal a violent blow to Damon's temple. But – serpent-quick – Damon reached up and caught the blow almost nonchalantly in an open hand, and held Matt's fingers in a crushing grip – just as razor-sharp fangs opened a vein in Matt's throat and an open mouth fastened on his exposed throat, sucking and drinking the blood that sprayed upward.

Elena – awake but unable to move from where she had fallen, unable to make a sound or turn her head – was forced to listen to the entire exchange, forced to hear Matt's groan as his blood was taken against his will, as he resisted to the last.

And then she thought of something that, as dizzy and frightened as she was, almost made her pass out in fear.