The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 9)

Even as Elena opened her mouth to speak, she could feel herself lifted as if in a hurricane. For a moment she clung to the boy who was being torn from her grasp, then she just had time to shout, "I'll be back," and to hear his reply, before she was pulled into the ordinary world of baths and manipulation and motel rooms.

"I'll keep our secret!" That was what the little boy had cried to her at the last moment.

And what could that mean but that he would keep their rendezvous from the real (or "ordinairy") Damon?

A moment later Elena was standing in a dingy motel room, and Damon was clutching her upper arms. As he released her, Elena could taste salt. Tears were flowing freely down her cheeks.

It didn't seem to make any difference to her attacker. Damon seemed to be at the mercy of raw desperation. He was shaking like a little boy the first time he kissed his first love. That's what's driving the control away, Elena thought fuzzily.

As for herself, she felt as if she might faint.

No! She had to stay conscious.

Elena pushed and twisted, hurting herself deliberately against the apparently unbreakable grip that held her.

It held.

The possessor? Shinichi again, sneaking into Damon's mind and making him do things – ?

Elena fought harder, pushed herself until she actually could have screamed with pain. She whimpered once –

The hold broke.

Somehow Elena knew that Shinichi wasn't involved in this. The true soul of Damon was a little boy held in chains for God-knew-how-many centuries, who had never known warmth and closeness but who still had a tearful appreciation for them. The child who was chained to the rock surrounding was one of Damon's deepest secrets.

And now Elena was trembling so hard she wasn't sure she could stand up, and she was wondering about the child. Was he cold? Was he crying like Elena? How could she tell?

She and Damon were left staring at each other, both breathing hard. Damon's sleek hair was mussed, making him look rakish as a buccaneer. His face, always so pale and self-composed, was flushed with blood. His eyes dropped to watch Elena automatically massaging her wrists. She could feel pins and needles now: she was getting back some circulation. Once he'd looked away, he couldn't seem to look her in the eye again.

Eye contact. All right. Elena recognized a weapon, groping for a chair and finding the bed unexpectedly close behind her. She didn't have many weapons right now; and she needed to use all of them.

She sat, giving in to the weakness in her body, but she kept her eyes on Damon's face. His mouth was swollen. And that was…unfair. Damon's pout was a part of his most basic artillery. He had always had the most beautiful mouth she'd ever seen on anyone, man or woman. The mouth, the hair, the half-drooping lids, the heavy lashes, the delicacy of his jawline…unfair, even to someone like Elena, who'd long ago gotten past interest in a person because of some accident of beauty.

But she'd never seen that mouth swollen, the perfect hair disordered, the eyelashes trembling because he was looking everywhere except at her and trying not to show it.

"Was that… what you've been thinking about while you've been refusing to talk to me?" she asked, and her voice was almost steady.

Damon's sudden stillness was perfection like all his other perfections. No breathing, of course. He stared at a spot in the beige carpet that by rights ought to have broken into flames.

Then, finally, he lifted those huge dark eyes to hers. It was so hard to tell anything about Damon's eyes because the iris was almost the same color as the pupil, but Elena had a feeling that at this moment they were dilated so far as to be all pupil. How could eyes as dark as midnight trap and hold light? She seemed to see in them a universe of stars.

Damon said, softly, "Run."

Elena felt her legs tense. "Shinichi?"

"No. You should run now."

Elena felt her thigh muscles relax slightly and was grateful not to have to try to prove that she could run – or even crawl – at this exact instant. But her fists clenched.

"You mean this is just you being a bastard?" she said. "Have you decided to hate me again? Did you enjoy – ?"

Damon whirled again, stillness into motion faster than her eyes could track it. He hit the frame of the window, once, pulling the punch almost completely at the last instant. There was a crash and then a thousand little echoes as the glass showered like diamonds against the darkness outside.

"That might…bring some people to help you." Damon wasn't trying to make the words seem more than an afterthought. Now that he was turned away from her, he didn't seem to care about keeping up appearances. Fine tremors ran through his body.

"This late, in this storm, this far away from the office – I doubt it." Elena's body was catching up with the adrenaline spurt that had allowed her to fight her way out of Damon's grip. She was tingling all over and she had to work to keep it from turning into outright shaking.

And they were back to square one, with Damon staring into the night and her staring at his back. Or, at least, that was where he wanted them to be.

"You could have just asked," she said. She didn't know if this was possible for a vampire to understand. She still hadn't taught Stefan. He went without things that he wanted because he didn't understand about asking. In all innocence and with all good intentions, Stefan left things until she, Elena, was forced to ask him.

Damon, she thought, didn't usually have that problem. He took whatever he wanted as casually as if picking items off of a grocery store shelf.

And right now he was laughing silently, which meant that he was truly stricken.

"I'll take that as an apology," Elena said softly.

Now Damon was laughing out loud, and Elena felt a chill. Here she was, trying to help him, and –

"Do you think," he broke into her thoughts, "that that was all I wanted?"

Elena felt herself freeze again as she mulled this over. Damon could easily have taken her blood while he held her immobile. But – of course – that wasn't all he wanted from her. Her aura…she knew what it did to vampires. Damon had been protecting her all along from other vampires who might see it.

The difference, Elena's native honesty told her, was that she didn't give a damn about any of the others. But Damon was different. When he kissed her she could feel the difference inside her. Something she had never felt before…until Stefan.

Oh, God – was this really her, Elena Gilbert, betraying Stefan by the simple act of not running away from this situation? Damon was being a better person than she was; he was telling her to take the temptation of her aura away from him.

So that she could start the torture anew tomorrow.

Elena had been in many circumstances where she'd judged that it was best for her to leave before things got too hot. The problem here was that there was nowhere that she could go to without turning up the heat – putting herself in greater danger. And, incidentally, losing her chance to find Stefan.

Should she have gone with Matt? But Damon had said they couldn't get into this Dark Dimension place, not two humans by themselves. He'd said they needed him with them. And Elena still had some doubts as to whether Damon would take the trouble to even drive to Arizona, much less search for Stefan, if she wasn't with him every step of the way.

Besides, how could Matt have protected her on the dangerous road she and Damon were following? Elena knew that Matt would die for her – and that's just what he would do, too, if they came up against vampires or werewolves. Die. Leaving Elena facing her enemies alone.

Oh, yes, Elena knew what Damon did each night when she slept in the car. He put some kind of dark spells around her, signing them with his name, sealing them with his seal, and they kept random creatures of the night away from the car until morning.

But their greatest enemies, the kitsune twins, Shinichi and Misao, they had brought with them.

Elena thought about all this before raising her head to look Damon in the eyes. Eyes which, at that moment, reminded her of those of a ragged child chained to a rock.

"You're not going to leave, are you?" he whispered.

Elena shook her head.

"You're really not afraid of me?"

"Oh, I'm afraid." Again Elena felt that inward shiver. But she was flying somewhere now, she had set the course, and there was no way that she could stop. Especially not when he looked at her like that. It reminded her of the fierce joy, the almost reluctant pride he always showed when they took down an enemy together.

"I won't become your Princess of Darkness," she told him. "And you know that I could never give up Stefan."

A ghost of his old mocking smile touched his lips. "There's plenty of time to convince you to my way of thinking on those matters."

No need, Elena thought. She knew that Stefan would understand.

But even now, when it seemed the whole world was whirling around her, something rose up in Elena to challenge Damon. "You say it's not Shinichi. I believe you. But is all this because – of what Caroline said?" She could hear the sudden hardness in her own voice.

"Caroline?" Damon blinked as if thrown off his stride.

"She said that before I met Stefan I was just a – " Elena found it impossible to get the last word out. "That I was…promiscuous."

Damon's jaw hardened and his cheeks flushed quickly – as if he'd

been struck from an unexpected direction. "That girl," he muttered.

"She's already fixed her destiny and if it were anyone else I might be

inclined to take some pity. But she

goes…beyond…she's…beyond…any propriety…" As he spoke his words slowed, and a look of bewilderment clouded his face. He was gazing at Elena and she knew he could see the tears standing in her eyes, because he reached up to brush them away with his fingers. As he did, however, he stopped dead in midmotion, and, his face suddenly bemused, he brought one of his hands up to his lips, tasting her tears.

Whatever they tasted like to him, he didn't seem to believe it. He brought the other hand up to his lips as well. Elena was openly staring at him now; he should have been put out of countenance – but he wasn't. Instead a kaleidoscope of expressions passed over his face, too quickly for her human eyes to catch them all. But she did see astonishment, disbelief, bitterness, more astonishment, and then finally a kind of joyful shock and a look almost as if there were tears in his own eyes.

And then Damon laughed. It was a quick, self-mocking laugh, but it was genuine, euphoric, even.

"Damon," Elena said, still blinking back tears – it had all happened that fast – "what is wrong with you?"

"Nothing's wrong, everything's right," he said, while raising a scholarly finger. "You should never try to fool a vampire, Elena. Vampires have many senses humans don't – and some we don't even know we have until we need them. It's taken me long enough to realize what I know about you. Because, of course, everyone was telling me one thing, and my own mind was telling me something else. But I've figured it out, at last. I know what you really are, Elena."

For half a minute Elena sat in shocked silence. "If you do, then I might as well tell you right now that no one will believe you."

"Maybe not," Damon said, "especially if they're human. But vampires are programmed to recognize the aura of a maiden. And you are unicorn-bait, Elena. I don't know or care how you got your reputation. I was fooled by it myself for a long time, but I've finally found the truth." Suddenly he was bending over her so that she could see nothing but him, his fine hair brushing her forehead, his lips close to hers, his dark eyes, fathomless, capturing her gaze.

"Elena," he whispered. "This is your secret. I don't know how you've managed it, but…you're a virgin."

He leaned in toward her, his lips just brushing hers, sharing his deliberate breaths with hers. They stayed like that for a long, long time, Damon seeming enthralled to be able to give Elena something from his own body: the oxygen that both she and he needed, but acquired in different ways. For many humans, the stillness of their bodies, the silence, and the sustained eye contact, for neither of them had shut their eyes, might have been too much. It might have felt as if they had plunged themselves into their partner's personalities too far, that they were losing definition and becoming an ethereal part of each other before one kiss had even been completed.

But Elena was floating on air: on the breath that Damon gave her – and in the literal sense. If Damon's strong, long, slender hands had not held her shoulders, she would have escaped his grip entirely.

Elena knew that there was another way that he could keep her down. He could Influence her to let gravity have its way with her. But so far, she had felt not the slightest touch of attempted Influence. It was as if he still wanted to give her the honor of choice. He would not seduce her by any of his many accustomed methods, the tricks of domination learned over half a millennium of nights.

Only the breathing, which was coming more and more quickly, as Elena felt her senses begin to swim and her heart began to pound. Was she truly sure that Stefan wouldn't mind this? But Stefan had given her the greatest honor possible by trusting in her love and her judgment. And she was beginning to feel Damon's true self, his overwhelming need for her; his vulnerability because that need was becoming like an obsession to him.

Without attempting to Influence her, he was still spreading great soft dark wings all around her so that there was nowhere to run, nowhere to escape. Elena felt herself begin to swoon with the intensity of the passion they had wrought between them. As a final gesture, not of repudiation, but of invitation, she arched her head back, exposing to him her bare throat, and let him feel her longing.

And as if great, crystal bells were ringing in the distance, she felt his jubilation at her voluntary surrender to the velvet darkness that was overtaking her.

She never felt the teeth that broke her skin and claimed her blood. Before that happened she was seeing stars. And then the universe was swallowed up in Damon's dark eyes.