Elena couldn't breathe. She could vaguely feel her mouth opening and closing, but she found she wasn't able to say anything. Her hands and feet had gone numb. Damon gave her an almost shy smile - which was funny, because Damon didn't do shy - and shrugged. "Wel , princess? You wanted me to be here with you, didn't you?"

As if a rubber band holding her back had snapped, Elena leaped out of bed and hurtled into Damon's arms.

"Are you real?" she said, half sobbing. "Is this real?" She kissed him fiercely, and he met her kiss with equal fervor. He felt real, cool skin and leather, the surprising softness of his lips familiar under hers.

"Here I am," he murmured into her hair as he pul ed her close to him. "It's real, I promise you."

Elena stepped back and smacked him hard across the face. Damon glared at her and reached up to rub his cheek. "Ouch," he said, and then cracked a narrow, irritating smile. "I can't say that was completely unexpected

- I get slapped by women more often than you'd think possible - but not a nice welcome for the long-lost love, sweetheart."

"How could you?" Elena said, dry-eyed now and furious.

"How could you, Damon? We've al been mourning you. Stefan's fal ing apart. Bonnie blames herself. I... I... A piece of my heart died. How long have you been watching us? Didn't you care? Was this al some kind of joke to you?

Did you laugh when we cried?"

Damon winced. "Darling," he said. "My princess. Aren't you glad to see me at al ?"

"Of course I am!" said Elena indignantly. She took a breath and cooled down a little. "But, Damon, what were you thinking? We al thought you were dead! Permanently dead, not show-up-in-my-bedroom-a-few-days-laterlooking-perfectly-healthy dead! What's going on? Did the Guardians do this? They told me they couldn't when I begged them to, that death is permanent for a vampire once it happens."

Damon graced her with a genuine, laughing smile. "Wel , you of al people ought to know that death isn't always permanent."

Elena shrugged and wrapped her arms around herself.

"They told me that when I came back, it was different," she said in a smal voice, her emotions zigzagging al over the place. Because you're in shock, a tiny voice at the back of her head said wisely. "Mystical stuff, you know. My time wasn't up. Hey!" She poked him with one finger, perking up.

"Are you human now? I was human when I returned."

Damon gave a long, theatrical shudder. "God forbid. I had enough of that when that meddling kitsune made me a mortal. Thank heaven - or whoever - I don't have to go looking for an obliging vampire princess to turn me back this time." He grinned slyly at Elena. "I'm as bloodsucking as ever, darling." He eyed her neck. "Speaking of which, I'm rather hungry..."

Elena smacked him again, though more gently this time.

"Knock it off, Damon."

"Can I sit down now?" Damon asked and, when she nodded, settled himself on the foot of her bed and drew her down to sit beside him. Elena looked searchingly into his eyes, then gently traced her hand over his sharp cheekbones, his sculpted mouth, his soft raven hair.

"You were dead, Damon," she said quietly. "I know it. I saw you die."

"Yes," he said, and sighed. "I felt myself die. It was horribly painful and it seemed to both go on forever and be over in a few moments." He shuddered. "There was a little bit left of me even then though" - Elena nodded - "and Stefan told me, told him, to fly away. And you held him -

held me - and told me to close my eyes. And then that last little bit of me was gone, too, and even the pain was gone. And then... I came back." Damon's dark eyes were wide with remembered wonder.

"But how?" asked Elena.

"Remember the star bal ?"

"How could I forget? It was the root of al our problems with the kitsune. It was vaporized when I... Oh, Damon, I used my Wings of Destruction on the tree on the Nether World's moon. But they destroyed the kitsune's star bal , too, and I had to go to the Guardians to save Fel 's Church. The Wings of Destruction were... like nothing I've ever seen or felt before." She shivered.

"I've seen what you did to that moon," Damon said, smiling slightly. "Would it make you feel better, my lovely angel, if you knew that using your Powers like that and destroying the star bal is what saved me?"

"Don't cal me that," said Elena, scowling. The Guardians were the closest thing she had ever seen to real angels, and she did not have fond memories of them. "How did it save you?"

"Do they explain how condensation works in modern schools?" Damon asked with the supercilious expression he always wore when he teasingly criticized her world in comparison to the one he had grown up in. "Is it al sex education, empathy, and second-rate novels now, or do they stil tel the children a little about science? I know they've dropped Latin and Greek in favor of theater and consciousness-raising." His voice dripped with contempt. Elena told herself not to rise to his bait. Instead she folded her hands neatly in front of her in her lap. "I think you may be a few decades out-of-date. But please, O wise one," she said, "assume that my education didn't include the connection between condensation and rising from the dead, and enlighten me."

"Nice." Damon smirked. "I like to see a young woman who is respectful of her elders and betters." Elena cocked an eyebrow at him warningly. "Anyway," he continued, "the liquid in the star bal , the pure magic, didn't vanish. It's not that easy to get rid of real y strong magic. As the atmosphere cooled, the magic turned from vapor back into liquid and fel down on me, with the rain of ash. I was soaking in pure Power for hours, gradual y being reborn."

Elena's mouth dropped open. "Those sneaks," she said indignantly. "The Guardians told me you were gone for good, and they took al the treasures we bribed them with, too." She thought briefly of the one last treasure she stil had, a water bottle ful of the Water of Eternal Youth, hidden high up on the shelf in her closet, and pushed the thought away. She couldn't even acknowledge that hidden treasure to herself for more than a moment, for fear the Guardians would realize she had it, and she couldn't use it... not yet, maybe not ever.

Damon shrugged one shoulder. "They do cheat, sometimes, I hear. But it's more likely this time that they thought they were tel ing the truth. They don't know everything, even though they like to pretend they do. And kitsune and vampires are both a little outside their area of expertise."

He told her how he had woken, buried deep in ash and mud, clawed his way to the surface, and set off across the desolate moon, not knowing who he was or what had happened to him, and how he had almost died again, and that Sage had saved him.

"And then what?" Elena asked eagerly. "How did you remember everything? How did you get back to Earth?"

"Wel ," said Damon, turning a slight, fond smile on her,

"that's a funny story." He reached into an inner pocket of his leather jacket and pul ed out a neatly folded white linen handkerchief. Elena blinked. It looked like the same handkerchief he had given her in her dream. Damon noticed her expression and smiled more widely, as though he knew where she was recognizing it from. He unfolded it and held it out for Elena's inspection.

Cradled inside the handkerchief were two strands of hair. Very familiar hair, Elena realized. She and Bonnie had each cut off a lock of hair and placed them on Damon's body, wanting to leave a part of themselves with him, since they couldn't take his body off the desolate moon with them. Before her now lay a curling red lock and a waving gold one, as bright and shiny as if they had just been cut from freshly washed heads, rather than left on a world with ash fal ing al around.

Damon gazed at the locks with an expression made up of tenderness and a little awe. Elena thought that she had never seen such an open, almost hopeful look from him.

"The Power from the star bal saved these, too," he said.

"First they were burned almost to ash, but then they regenerated. I held them and studied them and cherished them, and you started to come back to me. Sage had given me my name, and it sounded right to me, but I couldn't recal anything else about myself. But as I held these locks of hair, I gradual y remembered who you were, and what we had been through together, and al the things I..." He paused. "What I knew and felt about you, and then I remembered the little redbird, too, and then everything else came flooding back and I was myself again."

He glanced away and lost the sentimental look, smoothing his face into its usual cool expression, as if embarrassed, then folded the locks of hair back inside the handkerchief and tucked it careful y away into his jacket.

"Wel ," he said briskly, "then it was just a matter of having Sage lend me some clothes, fil me in on what I had missed, and give me a lift back to Fel 's Church. And now here I am."

"I bet he was amazed," said Elena, "and ecstatic." The vampire Keeper of the Gates Between Worlds was a dear friend of Damon's, the only friend of Damon's she knew of, other than herself. Damon's acquaintances tended to be enemies or admirers more often than friends.

"He was quite pleased," Damon admitted.

"So you just now made it back to Earth?"

Damon nodded.

"Wel , you've missed a lot here," Elena said, launching into an explanation of the past few days, starting with Celia's name written in blood and ending on Caleb's hospitalization.

"Wow." Damon let out a low whistle. "But I have to assume the problem is more than my little brother acting like a madman with Caleb? Because, you know, that may be simple jealousy. Jealousy has always been Stefan's biggest sin." He said the last with a smug twist to his lips, and Elena elbowed him gently in the ribs.

"Don't put Stefan down," she said reprovingly, and smiled to herself. It felt so good to be scolding Damon again. He real y was his own maddening, changeable, wonderful self again. Damon was back.

Wait. Oh, no. "You're in danger, too!" Elena gasped, remembering suddenly that he could stil be taken from her.

"Your name appeared earlier, written in the weeds that were holding Meredith underwater. We didn't know what it could mean, because we thought you were dead. But, since you're alive, it seems you're the next target." She paused.

"Unless fal ing through the surface of the moon was the attack on you."

"Don't worry about me, Elena. You are probably right about the attack on the moon being my 'accident.' But they haven't been very successful attempts, have they?" Damon said thoughtful y. "Almost as if whatever this is isn't trying very hard to kil us. I have a faint inkling about what might be causing this."

"You do?" asked Elena. "Tel me."

Damon shook his head. "It's just a glimmer right now," he said. "Let me get some sort of confirmation."

"But Damon," Elena pleaded, "even a glimmer is much more than the rest of us have been able to come up with. Come with me tomorrow morning and tel everyone about it, and we can al work together."

"Oh, yes," said Damon, with a mock shudder. "You and me and Mutt and the vampire hunter, a cozy group. Plus my pious brother and the little red witch. And the old lady witch and the teacher. No, I'm going to do some more digging on my own. And what's more, Elena," he said, fixing her with a dark stare, "you're not to tel anyone that I'm alive. Especial y not Stefan."

"Damon!" Elena protested. "You don't know how absolutely devastated Stefan is, thinking you're dead. We have to let him know you're al right."

Damon smiled wryly. "I think there's probably a part of Stefan that's glad enough to have me out of the picture. He doesn't have any reason to want me here." Elena shook her head in furious denial, but he went on. "It's true. But maybe it's time for things to be different between us. To that end, I have to show him that I can change. In any case, I can't investigate this properly if everyone knows I'm around. Keep quiet for now, Elena." She opened her mouth to object further, but he silenced her with a quick, fierce kiss. When they broke apart, he said, "Promise me for now, and I'l promise you that as soon as I figure this out, you can announce my resurrection to the world."

Elena nodded doubtful y. "If that's what you real y want, Damon, and you real y think it's necessary," she said. "But I'm not happy about it."

Damon got to his feet and patted her shoulder. "Things are going to be different now," he said. He looked down at her, his face serious. "I'm not the same as I was, Elena."

Elena nodded again, more firmly this time. "I'l keep your secret, Damon," she promised.

Damon gave her a smal , tight smile, then took three steps toward her open window. In a moment he was gone, and a large black crow flew out into the night.

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