When she opened her eyes, Elena found herself in someone's attic. Its wide wooden floorboards and low rafters were thick with dust, and the long room was crowded with objects: a hammock, sleds, skis, boxes with words like Xmas or toddler toys or B's winter clothes scribbled on them in black marker. Oilcloths were draped over larger objects that might be furniture, chairs and tables, by their shapes.
At the far end of the room an old mattress lay on the floor, with an oilcloth crumpled at one end, as if someone sleeping there had been using it as a makeshift blanket and had shoved it off when they rose.
Faint traces of pale light showed around the edges of a smal shuttered window at the nearer end of the attic. There was a soft rustling, as if mice were going about their private business behind the shelter of the stored furniture. It was al weirdly familiar.
She looked back toward the far end of the attic and saw, without the faintest sense of surprise, that Damon was now sitting on the old mattress, his long black-clad legs drawn up, his elbows resting on his knees. He was managing to give the appearance of lounging graceful y despite his awkward position.
"The places where we meet are getting less and less elegant," she told him dryly.
Damon laughed and held up his hands in denial. "You pick the locations, princess," he said. "This is your show. I'm just along for the ride." He paused thoughtful y. "Okay, that's not entirely true," he confessed. "But you do pick the locations. Where are we, anyway?"
"You don't know?" Elena said with mock indignation.
"This is a very special place for us, Damon! Ful of memories! You brought me here right after I became a vampire, remember?"
He looked around. "Oh, yes. The attic of the house where the teacher was staying. Convenient at the time, but you're right - an elegant setting suits us both much better. May I suggest a nice palace next time?" He patted the mattress next to him.
Elena, crossing the floor toward him, took a moment to marvel at how realistic and detailed her dream was. Each step she took sent tiny puffs of dust up from the floor. There was a slight scent of mildew: She couldn't remember ever having smel ed anything in a dream before these visions of Damon.
When she sat down, the mildew smel got stronger. She nestled close to Damon anyway, resting her head on his shoulder, and his leather jacket creaked as he put his arm around her. Elena closed her eyes and sighed. She felt safe and secure within his embrace, feelings she had never associated with Damon, but they were good ones. "I miss you, Damon," she said. "Please come back to me."
Damon leaned his cheek against her head, and she breathed in the smel of him. Leather and soap and the strange but pleasant woodsy scent that was Damon's own.
"I'm right here," he said.
"Not real y," Elena said, and her eyes fil ed with tears again. She wiped them roughly away with the backs of her hands. "It feels like I've been doing nothing but crying lately,"
she said. "When I'm here with you I feel safer, though. But it's just a dream. It won't last, this feeling."
Damon stiffened. "Safer?" he said, and there was a strained note in his voice. "You aren't safe when you're not with me? Isn't my little brother looking after you properly?"
"Oh, Damon, you can't imagine," Elena said. "Stefan..."
She took a deep breath, put her head in her hands, and began to sob.
"What is it? What's happened?" asked Damon sharply. When Elena didn't answer, just continued to cry, he took her hands and tugged them gently but firmly away from her face. "Elena," he said. "Look at me. Has something happened to Stefan?"
"No," said Elena through her tears. "Wel , yes, sort of... I don't real y know what's happened to him, but he's changed." Damon was looking at her intently, his nightblack eyes fixed on hers, and Elena made an effort to pul herself together. She hated acting like this, so weak and pathetic, sobbing on someone's shoulder instead of cool y formulating a solution to the problem at hand. She didn't want Damon, even a dream Damon who was just part of her subconscious, seeing her like this. She sniffled and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
Damon delved into an inner pocket of his leather jacket and handed her a neatly folded white handkerchief. Elena stared at it, then at him, and he shrugged. "I'm an oldfashioned gentleman, sometimes," he said, straight-faced.
"Hundreds of years of linen handkerchiefs. Some habits are hard to break."
Elena blew her nose and wiped her cheeks. She didn't quite know what to do with the soggy handkerchief - it seemed gross to hand it back to Damon - so she just held on to it, twisting it between her hands as she thought.
"Now tel me about what's going on. What's wrong with Stefan? What happened to him?" Damon commanded.
"Wel..." Elena said slowly, "I don't know what's wrong with Stefan, and I don't know if anything happened to change him that you don't already know about. Maybe he's just reacting to your... you know." It suddenly seemed weird to refer to Damon's death when he was sitting next to her - impolite somehow - but Damon nodded at her to go on. "It's been hard on him. And he's been even more tense and weird for the last couple of days. Then, earlier this evening, I was visiting my parents in the cemetery..." She told Damon about Stefan's attack on Caleb. "The worst part is that I never suspected this side of Stefan existed," she finished. "I can't think of any real reason he had to attack Caleb - he just claimed that Caleb wanted me, and that he was dangerous, but Caleb hadn't done anything - and Stefan seemed so irrational, and so violent. He was like another person."
Elena's eyes were fil ing with tears again, and Damon pul ed her closer, stroking her hair and gently peppering her face with soft kisses. Elena closed her eyes and gradual y relaxed into his arms. Damon held her more firmly, and his kisses got slower and deeper. Then he was cradling her head with his strong, gentle hands and kissing her mouth.
"Oh, Damon," she murmured. This was more vivid than any dream she'd ever had. His lips were soft and warm, with just a little roughness to them, and it felt like she was fal ing into him. "Wait." He kissed her more insistently but, when she pul ed away, let her go.
"Wait," Elena repeated, sitting up straight. Somehow she had lain back until she was half reclining across the musty old mattress with Damon, her legs entangled with his. She moved away from him, toward the edge of the mattress.
"Damon, whatever's going on with Stefan scares me. But that doesn't mean... Damon, I'm stil in love with Stefan."
"You love me, too, you know," Damon said lightly. His dark eyes narrowed. "You're not getting rid of me that easily, princess."
"I do love you," Elena said. Her eyes were dry now. She thought she might be al cried out, at least for the moment. Her voice was quite steady as she added, "I'l always love you, I guess. But you're dead." And Stefan is my true love, if I had to choose between you, she thought, but did not say. What was the point? "I'm sorry, Damon," she went on,
"but you're gone. And I'l always love Stefan, but suddenly I'm afraid of him, of what he might do. I don't know what's going to happen to us. I thought things would be easy now that we're home again, but awful things are stil happening."
Damon sighed and lay back on the mattress. He stared up at the ceiling in silence for a moment. "Listen," he said final y, lacing his fingers across his chest. "You've always underestimated Stefan's potential for violence."
"He's not violent," Elena said hotly. "He doesn't even drink human blood."
"He doesn't drink human blood because he doesn't want to be violent. He doesn't want to hurt anyone. But Elena" -
Damon reached out and took her hand - "my little brother's got a temper. I know that if anyone does."
Elena shivered. She knew that, back when they were humans, Stefan and Damon had kil ed each other in a fit of rage over what they thought was Katherine's death. Katherine's blood had been in both their systems, and they had risen again as vampires that night. Their anger and jealousy over a lost love had destroyed them both.
"However," Damon continued, "much as it pains me to admit it, Stefan would never hurt you, and wouldn't hurt anyone else without a real reason. Not without the kind of reason you would approve of. Not these days. He might have a temper, but he's also got a conscience." He smirked a little and added, "An annoying, self-righteous kind of conscience, of course, but it's there. And he loves you, Elena. You're the whole world to him."
"Maybe you're right," Elena said. "I'm scared, though. And I wish you were there with me." She looked at him, as sleepy and confiding as a tired child now. "Damon, I wish you weren't dead. I miss you. Please come back to me."
Damon smiled and kissed her softly. But then he pul ed away and Elena could feel the dream changing. She tried to cling to the moment, but it faded and Damon was lost to her again.
"Please be careful, Damon," said Sage, worry lines marring his bronzed forehead.
It wasn't often that the muscular Keeper of the Gates looked worried - or spoke only one language at a time -
but ever since Damon had staggered back from death and out of the ashes, Sage had spoken softly and clearly to him in English, treating the vampire as if he were likely to shatter at any minute.
"I usual y am careful," said Damon, leaning against the wal of what they cal ed, for want of a better term, the mystical elevator. "Unless I'm being heart-stoppingly brave, of course." The words were right, but to Damon's own ears, his voice sounded off: hoarse and hesitant.
Sage seemed to hear the wrongness there, too, and his handsome face furrowed in a frown. "You can stay longer if you want."
Damon leaned back against the plain white wal . "I have to go," he said wearily, for what felt like the mil ionth time.
"She's in danger. But thank you for everything, Sage."
He wouldn't be here now without Sage. The powerful vampire had cleaned Damon up, given him clothes - stylish black clothes in the right size - and fed him blood and rich Black Magic wine until Damon had been hauled back from the edge of death and realized who he was again. But... Damon didn't feel like himself. There was a strange empty ache inside him, as if he'd left something behind, buried deep under the ash.
Sage was stil frowning, staring at him with grave concern. Damon pul ed himself together and gave Sage a sudden bril iant smile. "Wish me luck," he said. The smile helped: The other vampire's face relaxed.
"Bonne chance, mon ami," he said. "I wish you the very best of luck."
Bilingual again, Damon thought. I must be looking better.
"Fel 's Church," he said into the empty air. "The United States, the mortal realm. Somewhere I can hide."
He raised a hand in solemn salute to Sage and pushed the elevator's single button.
Elena woke up in darkness. She ran a quick and automatic mental check: smooth, fabric-softener-scented cotton sheets, dim light from the window past the foot of her bed on the right, the faint sound of Robert snoring in his and Aunt Judith's bedroom at the other end of the hal . Her own old familiar room. Home again.
She heaved a deep sigh. She didn't feel quite as mired in despair as she had when she climbed into bed; things were dark, but she could admit there was a possibility they might someday get better again. But her eyes and throat felt raw from crying. She missed Damon so much. A floorboard creaked. Elena stiffened. She knew that creak. It was the high, complaining whine the floorboard over near her window gave if you stepped right in the middle of it. Someone was in her room.
Elena lay very stil , running through the possibilities. Stefan would have announced himself as soon as he heard her sigh. Was it Margaret, quietly wandering in to crawl into bed with Elena?
"Margaret?" she asked softly.
There was no answer. Her ears straining, Elena thought she could make out the sound of slow, heavy breathing. Suddenly the lamp on her desk was switched on, and Elena was temporarily dazzled by the bright light. She could see only the silhouette of a dark figure.
Then her vision cleared. And at the foot of her bed, a half smile on his chiseled face, dark eyes wary, as if he was unsure of his welcome, stood a figure dressed al in black. Damon.
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