The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 7)

Elena woke to the sound of Damon impatiently rapping on the window of the Prius. She was fully clothed, clutching her diary to her. It was the day after Matt had left them.

"Did you sleep all night like that?" Damon asked, looking her up and down as Elena rubbed her eyes. As usual, he was immaculately dressed: all in black, of course. Heat and humidity had no effect on him.

"I've had my breakfast," he said shortly, getting in the driver's seat. "And I brought you this."

This was a styrofoam cup of steaming coffee, which Elena clutched as gratefully as if it were Black Magic wine, and a brown paper bag that proved to contain donuts. Not exactly the most nutritious breakfast, but Elena craved the caffeine and sugar.

"I need a rest stop," Elena warned as Damon coolly seated himself behind the wheel and started the car. "To change my clothes and wash my face and things."

They headed directly west, which accorded with what Elena had found by looking at a map on the Internet last night. The small image on her mobile phone matched the Prius's navigation system readout. They had both shown that Sedona, Arizona, lay on an almost perfectly straight horizontal line from the small rural road where Damon had parked overnight in Arkansas. But soon Damon was turning south, taking a roundabout route of his own that might or might not confuse any pursuers. By the time they found a rest stop, Elena's bladder was about to burst. She spent an unashamed half hour in the women's room, doing her best to wash with paper towels and cold water, brushing her hair, and changing into new jeans and a fresh white top that laced up the front like a corset. After all, one of these days she just might have another out of body experience while napping and see Stefan again.

What she didn't want to think about was that with Matt's departure, she was left alone with Damon, an untamed vampire, traveling through the middle of the United States toward a destination that was literally out of this world.

When Elena finally emerged from the restroom, Damon was cold and expressionless – although she noticed that he took the time to look her over just the same.

Oh, damn, Elena thought. I left my diary in the car.

She was as certain that he'd read it as if she'd seen him doing it, and she was glad that there was nothing in it about leaving her body and finding Stefan. Although she believed Damon wanted to free Stefan, too – she wouldn't be in this car with him if she didn't – she also felt that it was better that he didn't know she had gotten there first. Damon enjoyed being in charge of things as much as she did. He also enjoyed Influencing each police officer who pulled him over for blasting the speed limit.

But today he was short-tempered even by his own standards. Elena knew from firsthand experience that Damon could make himself remarkably good company when he chose, telling outrageous stories and jokes until the most prejudiced and taciturn of passengers would laugh in spite of themselves.

But today he wouldn't even reply to Elena's questions, much less laugh at her own jokes. The one time she tried to make physical contact, touching his arm lightly, he jerked away as if her touch might ruin his black leather jacket.

Fine, terrific, Elena thought, depressed. She leaned her head against the window and stared at the scenery, which all looked alike. Her mind wandered.

Where was Matt now? Ahead of them or behind? Had he gotten any rest last night? Was he driving through Texas now? Was he eating properly? Elena blinked away tears, which welled up whenever she remembered the way he had walked away from her without a backward look.

Elena was a manager. She could make almost any situation turn out okay, as long as the people around her were normal, sane beings.

And managing boys was her speciality. She'd been handling them – steering them – since junior high. But now, approximately two and a half weeks since she had come back from death, from some spirit world that she didn't remember, she didn't want to steer anyone.

That was what she loved about Stefan. Once she'd gotten past his reflexive instinct to keep away from anything he cherished, she didn't need to manage him at all. He was maintenance-free, except for the gentlest of hints that she'd turned herself into an expert on vampires. Not at hunting them or slaying them, but at loving them safely. Elena knew when it was right to bite or be bitten, and when to stop, and how to keep herself human.

But apart from those gentle hints, she didn't even want to manage Stefan. She wanted simply to be with him. After that, everything took care of itself.

Elena could live without Stefan – she thought. But just as being away from Meredith and Bonnie was like living without her two hands, living without Stefan would be like trying to live without her heart. He was her partner in the Great Dance; her equal and her opposite; her beloved and her lover in the purest sense imaginable. He was the other half of the Sacred Mysteries of Life to her.

And after seeing him last night, even if it had been a dream, which she wasn't willing to accept, Elena missed him so much that it was a throbbing pain inside her. A pain so great that she couldn't bear to just sit and dwell on it. If she did she might just go insane and start raving at Damon to drive faster – and Elena might hurt inside, but she wasn't suicidal.

They stopped at some nameless town for lunch. Elena had no appetite, but Damon spent the entire break as a bird, which for some reason infuriated her.

By the time they were driving again, the tension in the car had built until the old clich�� was impossible to avoid: you could cut it with a folded napkin, much less a knife, Elena thought.

That was when she realized exactly what kind of tension it was.

The one thing that was saving Damon was his pride.

He knew that Elena had things figured out. She'd stopped trying to touch him or even speak to him. And that was good.

He wasn't supposed to be feeling like this. Vampires wanted girls for their pretty white throats, and Damon's sense of esthetics demanded that the rest of the donor be at least up to his standards. But now even Elena's human-sized aura was advertising the unique life-force in her blood. And Damon's response was involuntary. He had not even thought about a girl in this way for approximately five hundred years. Vampires weren't capable of it.

But Damon was – very capable – now. And the closer he got to Elena, the stronger her aura was around him, and the weaker was his control.

Thank all the little demons in hell, his pride was stronger than the desire he felt. Damon had never asked for anything from anyone in his life. He paid for the blood he took from humans in his own particular coin: of pleasure and fantasy and dreams. But Elena didn't need fantasy; didn't want dreams.

Didn't want him.

She wanted Stefan. And Damon's pride would never allow him to ask Elena for what he alone desired, and equally it would never allow him to take it without her consent…he hoped.

Just a few days ago he had been an empty shell, his body a puppet of the kitsune twins, who had made him hurt Elena in ways that now made him cringe inside. Damon hadn't existed then as a personality, but his body had been Shinichi's to play with. And although he scarcely could believe it, the takeover had been so complete that his shell had obeyed Shinichi's every command: he had tormented Elena; he might well have killed her.

There was no point in disbelieving it; or saying that it couldn't be true. It was true. It had happened. Shinichi was that much stronger when it came to mind control, and the kitsune had none of the vampires' detachment about pretty girls – below the neck. Besides which, he happened to be a sadist. He liked pain – other people's, that is.

Damon couldn't deny the past, couldn't wonder why he hadn't "awakened" to stop Shinichi from hurting Elena. There had been nothing of him to awaken. And if a solitary part of his mind still wept because of the evil he had done – well, Damon was good at blocking it out. He wouldn't waste time over regrets, but he was intent on controlling the future. It would never happen again – not and leave him still alive.

What Damon really couldn't understand was why Elena was pushing him. Acting as if she trusted him. Of all the people in the world, she was the one with the most right to hate him, to point an accusing finger at him. But she had never once done that. She had never even looked at him with anger in her dark blue, gold-spattered eyes. She alone had seemed to understand that someone as completely possessed by the master of the malach, Shinichi, as Damon had been, simply had no choice – wasn't there to make a choice – in what he or she did.

Maybe it was because she'd pulled the thing the malach had created out of him. The pulsating, albino, second body that had been inside him. Damon forced himself to repress a shudder. He only knew this because Shinichi had jovially mentioned it, while taking away all Damon's memories of the time since the two of them, kitsune and vampire, had met in the Old Wood.

Damon was glad to have had the memories gone. From the moment he had locked gazes with the fox spirit's laughing golden eyes, his life had been poisoned.

And now…right now he was alone with Elena, in the middle of the wilderness, with towns few and far between. They were utterly, uniquely alone, with Damon helplessly wanting from Elena what every human boy she'd ever encountered had wanted.

Worst of all was the fact that charming girls, deceiving girls, was practically Damon's own raison d'��tre. It was certainly the only reason he'd been able to keep on living for the past half millennium. And yet he knew that he must not, must not even start the process with this one girl who, to him, was the jewel lying on the dungheap of humanity.

To all appearances, he was perfectly in control, icy and precise, distant and disinterested.

The truth was that he was going out of his mind.

That night, after making sure that Elena had food and water and was safely locked into the Prius, Damon called down a damp fog and began to weave his darkest wards. These were announcements to any sisters or brothers of the night who might come upon the car that the girl inside it was under Damon's protection; and that Damon would hunt down and flay alive anyone who even disturbed the girl's rest…and then he'd get around to really punishing the culprit. Damon then flew a few miles south as a crow, found a dive with a pack of werewolves drinking in it and a few charming barmaids serving them, and brawled and bled the night away.

But it wasn't enough to distract him – not nearly enough. In the morning, returning early, he saw the wards around the car in tatters. Before he could panic, he realized that Elena had broken them from the inside. There had been no warning to him because of her peaceful intent and innocent heart.

And then Elena herself appeared, coming up the bank of a stream, looking clean and refreshed. Damon was stricken speechless by the very sight of her. By her grace, by her beauty, by the unbearable closeness of her. He could smell her freshly washed skin, and couldn't help deliberately breathing in more and more of her unique fragrance.

He didn't see how he could put up with another day of this.

And then Damon suddenly had an Idea.

"Would you like to learn something that would help you to control that aura of yours?" he asked as she passed him, heading for the car.

Elena threw him a sidelong glance. "So you've decided to talk to me again. Am I supposed to faint with joy?"

"Well – that would always be appreciated – "

"Would it?" she said sharply, and Damon realized that he had underestimated the storm he had brewed inside this formidable girl.

"No. Now, I'm being serious," he said, fixing his dark gaze on her.

"I know. You're going to tell me to become a vampire to help control my Power."

"No, no, no. This has nothing to do with being a vampire." Damon refused to be drawn into an argument and that must have impressed Elena, because finally she said, "What is it, then?"

"It's learning how to circulate your Power. Blood circulates, yes? And Power can be circulated, too. Even humans have known that for centuries, whether they call it life-force or chi or ki. As it is, you're simply dissipating your Power into the air. That's an aura. But if you learn to circulate it, you can build it up for some really big release, and you can be more inconspicuous as well."

Elena was clearly fascinated. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

Because I'm stupid, Damon thought. Because to vampires it's as instinctive as breathing is to you. He lied unblushingly. "It takes a certain level of competence to accomplish."

"And I can do it now?"

"I think so." Damon put slight uncertainty in his voice.

Naturally, this made Elena even more determined. "Show me!" she said.

"You mean right now?" He glanced around. "Someone might drive by – "

"We're off the road. Oh, please, Damon? Please?" Elena looked at Damon with the huge blue eyes that altogether too many males had found irresistible. She touched his arm, trying once more to make some kind of contact, but when he automatically drew away, she continued, "I really do want to learn. You can teach me. Just show me once, and I'll practice."

Damon glanced down at his arm, felt his good sense and his will wavering. How does she do that?

"All right." He sighed. There were at least three or four billion people on this dust mote of a planet that would give anything to be with this warm and eager, yearning Elena Gilbert. The problem was that he happened to be one of them – and that she clearly didn't give a damn for him.

Of course not. She had dear Stefan. Well, he would see if his princess was still the same when – if – she managed to free Stefan and get out of their destination alive.

Meanwhile, Damon concentrated on keeping his voice, face, and aura all dispassionate. He'd had some practice at that. Only five centuries' worth, but it added up.

"First I have to find the place," he told her, hearing the lack of warmth in his voice, the tone that was not merely dispassionate but actually cold.

Elena's expression didn't flicker. She could be dispassionate, too. Even her deep blue eyes seemed to have taken on a frosty glint. "All right. Where is it?"

"Near where the heart is, but more to the left. He touched Elena's sternum, and then moved his fingers to the left.

Elena fought back both tension and a shiver – he could see it. Damon was probing for the place where the flesh became soft over bone, the place most humans assumed their heart was because it was where they could feel their heart beating. It should be right around…here….

"Now, I'll run your Power through one or two circulations, and when you can do it by yourself – that's when you'll be ready to really conceal your aura."

"But how will I know?"

"You'll know, believe me."

He didn't want her to ask questions, so he simply held up one hand in front of her – not touching her flesh or even her clothing – and brought her life-force in synchronization with his. There. Now, to set the process off. He knew what it would feel like to Elena: an electric shock, starting at the point where he had first touched her and quickly spreading warmth through her body.

Then, a rapid montage of sensations as he went through a practice rotation or two with her. Up toward him, to her eyes and ears, where she would suddenly find she could see and hear much better, then down her spine and out to her fingertips, while her heartbeat quickened and she felt something like electricity in her palms. Back up her arm and down the side of her body, at which point a tremor would set in. Finally, the energy would sweep down her magnificent leg all the way to her feet, where she would feel it in her soles, curling her toes, before coming back around to where it had started near her heart.

Damon heard Elena gasp faintly when the shock first hit her, and then felt her heartbeat race and her eyelashes flicker as the world suddenly became much lighter to her; her pupils dilating as if she were in love, her body going rigid at the tiny sound of some rodent in the grass – a sound she would never have heard without Power directed to her ears. And so, all around her body, once, and then again, so she could get a feel for the process. Then he let her go.

Elena was panting and exhausted; and he'd been the one expending energy. "I'll never – be able – to do that alone," she gasped.

"Yes, you will, in time and with practice. And when you can do it, you'll be able to control all your Power."

"If you…say so." Elena's eyes were shut now, her lashes dark crescents on her cheeks. It was clear that she'd been pushed to her limit. Damon felt the temptation to draw her to him, but suppressed it. Elena had made it clear that she didn't want him embracing her.

I wonder just how many boys she didn't push away, Damon thought abruptly, bitterly. That surprised him a little, the bitterness. Why should he care how many boys had handled Elena? When he made her his Princess of Darkness, they would both go hunting for human prey – sometimes together, sometimes alone. He wouldn't be jealous of her then. Why should he care how many romantic encounters she'd had now?

But he found that he was bitter, bitter and angry enough that he answered without warmth, "I do say you will. Just practice doing it alone."

In the car, Damon managed to stay annoyed with Elena. This was difficult, as she was a perfect traveling companion. She didn't chatter, didn't try to hum or – thank fortune – sing along with the radio, didn't chew gum or smoke, didn't backseat drive, didn't need too many rest stops, and never asked "Are we there yet?"

As a matter of fact, it was difficult for anyone, male or female, to stay annoyed at Elena Gilbert for any length of time. You couldn't say she was too exuberant, like Bonnie, or too serene, like Meredith. Elena was just sweet enough to offset her bright, active, ever-scheming mind. She was just compassionate enough to make up for her self-confessed egotism, and just skewed enough to ensure that no one would ever call her normal. She was intensely loyal to her friends and just forgiving enough that she herself considered almost no one an enemy – kitsune and Old Ones of the vampire kind excepted. She was honest and frank and loving, and of course she had a dark streak in her that her friends simply called wild, but that Damon recognized for what it really was. It compensated for the naïve, soft, ingenuous side of her nature. Damon was very sure that he didn't need any of those qualities in her, especially right now.

Oh, yes…and Elena Gilbert was just gorgeous enough to make any of her negative characteristics completely irrelevant.

But Damon was determined to be annoyed and he was strong-willed enough that he could usually choose his mood and stick to it, appropriate or not. He ignored all of Elena's attempts at conversation, and eventually she gave up trying to make them. He kept his mind pinned to the dozens of boys and men whom the exquisite girl beside him must have bedded. He knew that Elena, Caroline, and Meredith had been the "senior" members of the quartet when they had all been friends, while little Bonnie had been the youngest and had been considered a bit too naïve to be fully initiated.

So why was he with Elena now? he found himself asking sourly, wondering for just the slightest second if Shinichi was manipulating him as well as taking his memories.

Did Stefan ever worry about her past – especially with an old boyfriend – Mutt – still hanging around, willing to give his very life for her? Stefan must not, or he'd have put a stop – no, how could Stefan put a stop to anything Elena wanted to do? Damon had seen the clash of their wills, even when Elena had been a child mentally just after returning from the afterlife. When it came to Stefan and Elena's relationship, Elena was definitely in control. As humans said: She wore the trousers in the family.

Well, soon enough she could see how she liked wearing harem trousers, Damon thought, laughing silently, although his mood was darker than ever. The sky over the car darkened further in response, and wind ripped summer leaves from branches before their time. Cat's paws of rain dotted the windshield, and then came the flash of lightning and the echoing sound of thunder.

Elena jumped slightly, involuntarily, every time the thunder let loose. Damon watched this with grim satisfaction. He knew she knew that he could control the weather. Neither of them said a single word about it.

She won't beg, he thought, feeling that quick savage pride in her again and then feeling annoyance with himself for being so soft.

They passed a motel, and Elena followed the blurry electric signs with her eyes, looking over her shoulder until it was lost in darkness. Damon didn't want to stop driving. Didn't dare stop, really. They were headed into a really nasty storm now, and occasionally the Prius hydroplaned, but Damon managed to keep it under control – barely. He enjoyed driving in these conditions.

It was only when a sign proclaimed that the next place of shelter was over a hundred miles away that Damon, without consulting Elena, swung into a flooding driveway and stopped the car. The clouds had let loose by then; the rain was coming down in bucketfuls; and the room Damon got was a small outbuilding, separated from the main motel.

The solitude suited Damon just fine.