The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 43)

Elena had a feeling she couldn't quite describe. It wasn't letdown. It was…let up. For what seemed like most of her life she had been searching for Stefan.

But now she had him back again, quite safe and clean (he'd had a long bath while she insisted on scrubbing him gently with all sorts of brushes and pumice stones, and then a shower, and then a rather cramped shower with her). His hair was drying into the silky soft dark shock – a little longer than he usually kept it – that she knew. He hadn't had energy for frivolities like keeping his hair short and clean before. Elena understood that.

And now…there were no guards or kitsune around to spy on them. There was nothing to keep them from each other. They had been playful in the shower, splashing each other, Elena always making sure to keep her feet on the no-slip guard and ready to try to support Stefan's lanky weight. But they could not be playful now.

The shower's spray had been very helpful, too – at concealing the teardrops that kept flowing down Elena's cheeks. She could – oh, dear heaven – count and feel each one of his ribs. He was just bones and skin, her beautiful Stefan, but his green eyes were alive, sparkling and dancing in his pale face.

After they were dressed in nightclothes they simply sat on the bed for a little while. Sitting together, both breathing – Stefan had got into the habit from being around humans so much and, recently, from trying to eke out the small amount of nutrition he received – in synchronicity, and both feeling the other's warm body beside them…it was almost too much. Then, almost tentatively, Stefan groped for Elena's hand, and catching it, held it in both of his, turning it over wonderingly.

Elena was swallowing and swallowing, trying to make a start in a conversation, felt herself practically radiating bliss. Oh, I never want anything more, she thought, although she knew that soon enough she would want to talk, and to hold, and to kiss, and to feed Stefan. But if someone had asked her if she would have accepted just this, sitting together, communicating by touch and love alone, she would have accepted it.

Before she knew it, she was talking, words that came like bubbles out of molasses, only these were bubbles from her soul. "I thought that somehow I might lose this time. That I'd won so many times, and that this time something would teach me a lesson and you…wouldn't make it."

Stefan was still wondering over her hand, bending industriously to kiss each separate finger. "You call 'winning' dying in pain and sunlight to save my worthless life – and my even more worthless brother's?"

"I call this a better kind of winning," Elena admitted. "Any time we get to be together is winning. Any moment – even in that dungeon…"

Stefan winced, but Elena had to finish her thought. "Even there, to look in your eyes, to touch your hand, to know that you were looking at me and touching me – and that you were happy – well, that's winning, in my book."

Stefan lifted his eyes to hers. In the dim light, the green looked suddenly dark and mysterious. "And one more thing," he whispered. "Because I am what I am…and because your crowning glory isn't that glorious golden cloud of hair, but an aura that is…ineffable. Indescribable. Beyond any words…"

Elena had thought they would sit and simply gaze at each other, drowning in each other's eyes, but that wasn't happening. Stefan's expression had slipped and Elena realized how close to bloodlust – and to death – he still really was.

Hurriedly, Elena pulled her damp hair to one side of her neck, and then she leaned back, knowing Stefan would catch her.

He did this, but although Elena tilted her chin back, he tilted it down in his two hands to look at her.

"Do you know how much I love you?" he asked.

His entire face was masked now, enigmatic and strangely thrilling. "I don't think you do," he whispered. "I've watched and watched how you were willing to do anything, anything to save me…but I don't think you know how much that love has been building up, Elena…."

Delicious shivers were going down Elena's spine.

"Then you'd better show me," she whispered. "Or I might not believe that you mean it – "

"I'll show you what I mean," Stefan whispered back. But when he bent down it was to kiss her softly. The feelings inside Elena – that this starving creature wanted to kiss her instead of going at once for her throat, reached a peak that she could not explain in thoughts or words, but only by drawing Stefan's head so that his mouth rested on her neck.

"Please," she said. "Oh, Stefan, please."

Then she felt the quick sacrificial pains, and then Stefan was drinking her blood, and her mind, which had been fluttering around like a bird in a lighted room, now saw its nest and its mate and swooped up and up and up to at last reach unity with its best-beloved.

After that there was no need for clumsy things like words. They communicated in thoughts as pure and clear as shimmering gems, and Elena rejoiced because all of Stefan's mind was open to her, and none of it was walled off or dark and there were no boulders of secrets or chained and weeping children…

What! she heard Stefan exclaim voicelessly. A child in chains? A mountain-sized boulder? Who could have that in their mind – ?

Stefan broke off, knowing the answer, even before Elena's lightning-swift thought could tell him. Elena felt the clear green wave of his pity, spiced by the natural anger of a young man who has gone through the depths of hell, but untainted by the terrible black poison of hatred of brother for brother.

When Elena had finished explaining all she knew about Damon's mental processes, she said, And I don't know what to do! I've done everything I could, Stefan, I've – I've even loved him. I gave him everything that wasn't yours alone. But I don't know if it's made even the slightest difference.

He called Matt "Matt" instead of Mutt, Stefan interrupted.

Yes. I…noticed that. I'd kept asking him to, but it never seemed to matter.

It mattered this way: you managed to change him. Not many people can.

Elena wrapped him in a tight embrace, stopped, worried that it was too tight, and glanced at him. He smiled and shook his head. He was already looking like a person rather than a death camp survivor.

You should keep using it, Stefan said voicelessly. Your influence over him is strongest.

I will – without any artificial Wings, Elena promised. Then she worried that Stefan would think her too presumptuous – or too attached.

But one look at Stefan was enough to assure her that she was doing the right thing.

They clung to each other.

It wasn't as hard as Elena had imagined it would be – handing Stefan over to other humans to be bled. Stefan had a clean pair of pajamas on, and the first thing he said to all three donors was, "If you get frightened or change your mind, just say so. I can hear perfectly well, and I'm not in bloodlust. And anyway, I'll probably sense it if you're not enjoying it before you do, and I'll stop. And finally – thank you – thank you all. I've decided to break my oath tonight because there's still some little chance that if I slept I wouldn't wake up tomorrow without you."

Bonnie was horrified and indignant and furious. "You mean you couldn't sleep all that time because you were afraid to – to…?"

"I did fall asleep from time to time, but thank fortune – thank God – I always woke up again. There were times when I didn't dare move to conserve energy, but somehow Elena kept finding ways to come to me, and every single time she came, she brought me some kind of sustenance." He gave Elena a look that sent her heart spinning out of her chest and high into the stratosphere.

And then she set up a schedule, with Stefan being fed every hour on the hour, and then she and the others left the first volunteer, Bonnie, alone, so as to be more comfortable.

It was the next morning. Damon had already been out to visit Leigh, the antiques-seller's niece, who had seemed very glad to see him. And now he was back, to look with scorn at the slug-a-beds who were distributed all around the boardinghouse.

That was when he saw the bouquet.

It was heavily sealed down with wards – amulets to help get it through the dimensional gap. There was something powerful in there.

Damon cocked his head to one side.

Hmm…I wonder what?

Dear Diary,

I don't know what to say. We're home.

Last night we each had a long bath…and I was half-disappointed, because my favorite long-handled back-scrubbing brush wasn't there, and there was no star ball to make dreamy music for Stefan – and the water was LUKEWARM! And Stefan went to see if the water heater was turned on all the way and met Damon going to do the same thing! Only, they couldn't because we're home again.

But I woke up a couple of hours ago for a few minutes to see the most beautiful sight in the world…a sunrise. Pale pink and eerie green in the east, with nighttime still full dark in the west. Then deeper rose in the sky, and the trees all wreathed in dew clouds. Then a shiny glory from the edge of the horizon and dark rose, cream, and even a green melon color in the sky, Finally, a line of fire and in an instant all the colors change. The line becomes an arc, the western sky is deepest deepest blue, and then up comes the sun bringing warmth and light and color to the green trees and the sky begins to become celestial blue – celestial just means heavenly, although somehow, I have a delicious shivery feeling when I say it. The sky becomes a gemlike, celestial, cerulean blue and the golden sun begins to pour energy, love, light, and every good thing onto the world.

Who could not be happy to watch this while Stefan held her?

We who are so lucky as to be born into the light – who see it every day and never think about it, we're blessed. We could have been born shadow souls who live and die in crimson darkness, never even knowing that somewhere there is something better.