Damon was the first to move, which didn't surprise Elena. His leather jacket scorched, long burns running across his face and arms, he staggered past the others through the fire and threw open the garage door. Outside, thunder rumbled overhead and a heavy rain was fal ing. Despite the rain, the garage was burning ferociously, flames licking their way up the sides of the smal building and across the roof. As they al stumbled outside, Meredith, coughing, turned her face up to the rain. Matt and Alaric supported Mrs. Flowers and placed her in the driver's seat of her car. Elena held her hands out, letting the driving rain wash away the soot and soothe her burns. The rest of her friends mil ed around not far from the burning garage, stil stunned.

"Oh, Damon," said Bonnie. She paused to cough and wheeze for a few seconds, then leaned careful y toward Damon, avoiding his injuries, and kissed him on the cheek.

"I'm so happy you came back."

"Thank you, redbird," Damon said, patting her on the back. "Excuse me for a second; I need to take care of something." He stepped away and caught Elena by the hand.

In the distance came the wail of sirens, signaling the advance of fire trucks and police cars drawn by the fire. Damon pul ed Elena toward the dark shadows under a tree near the house. "Come on," he said. "You need blood now." He felt his throat with charred fingers, then drew a fingernail against one of his veins. His leather jacket was practical y destroyed, just rags and ashes hanging from him, and the long burns on his face and body were stil red and raw-looking, but already better than they had been a few minutes before.

"I could do that," said Stefan, approaching them and leaning against the wal of the house. He looked tired and bedraggled, but his injuries, too, were already healing.

"Elena's always welcome to my blood."

"You can definitely pitch in. But that's a bad injury she's got," said Damon matter-of-factly, "and you don't have the Power to heal it right now."

Elena had been trying not to look at her right hand. Although she couldn't real y move it, it didn't hurt much anymore. Which was probably a bad sign, actual y. Did that mean the nerve endings were dead? A quick, anxious glance down at her hand made her stomach churn. Even that tiny glimpse showed her horribly blackened and reddened flesh and peeling skin and - God - she thought she'd seen a glimpse of bone beneath the flesh. She let out a low, involuntary whimper.

"Drink," said Damon impatiently. "Let me fix it before they come and drag you off to the burn unit." Elena stil hesitated, and Damon sighed and turned to Stefan again.

"Look," he said, his voice softening, "it's not always about Power. Sometimes the blood is just about taking care of someone."

"I know that," Stefan replied, blinking tiredly at him. "I just wasn't sure that you did."

Damon's mouth twisted in a wry smile. "I'm an old man, little brother," he said. "I know a lot of things." He turned back to Elena. "Drink now," he insisted, and Stefan smiled reassuringly at her.

Elena nodded at Stefan before pushing her mouth tightly against Damon's neck. The second she tasted his blood, Elena became wrapped in warmth and the pain in her hand stopped. She no longer felt the unpleasant cold drumming of the rain on her head and shoulders, the icy trickle of water down her body. She was cozy and safe and loved, and time had stopped just long enough for her to catch her breath.

Damon? she thought, and reached out to his mind with hers. He answered her without words, but with a wave of affection and care, of undemanding love. Through the haze, Elena realized there was something new here... When she and Damon had al owed their minds to touch in the past, she had often sensed that Damon had been holding back a part of himself. Or, on the rare occasions when she got past the inner barriers he'd thrown up against intruders, she'd found hurt and rage, a lost child chained to a rock.

Now Elena sensed only love and peace as she and Damon melted into each other. When she pul ed back from him at last, it took her a moment to return to the real world. Stefan was no longer next to them. It was raining stil , cold water running through her hair, over her shoulders, down her neck and arms and body. Her hand ached and was stil badly burned, but it had healed to the point of needing ointment and a bandage rather than surgery.

A couple of fire trucks and police cars pul ed into the drive, lights blazing, sirens screaming. Closer to the garage, she saw Meredith abruptly drop Stefan's arm, and Elena realized Meredith had been drinking from his wrist. She realized vaguely that she would have been shocked by this only a few hours ago - she would have assumed Meredith would shy away from touching the blood of any vampire, and Stefan had always reserved his blood for Elena as part of the connection only they shared - but she couldn't work up any real emotion about it now. It felt like al the barriers between their group had broken down. Whether this new state of things lasted or not, they were al one for now. They'd seen the worst of one another. They'd told the truth and come out the other side. And now, if Meredith needed to be healed, of course Stefan would give her his blood. It would be the same for any of them. The firemen jumped from their truck and unrol ed the hoses. As they turned their attention to putting out the fire, a couple of uniformed police officers and a man who must be the fire marshal walked purposeful y toward Mrs. Flowers, Matt, Alaric, Celia, and Bonnie, al of whom were now huddled in the car. Meredith and Stefan headed toward them, too.

"Why didn't they help her into the house?" Elena wondered aloud suddenly, and Damon turned a blank gaze of surprise on her.

"I have no idea," he said slowly. "It never even occurred to me that we could go inside. I guess everyone felt like they should be out here to watch it burn. Make sure the phantom doesn't come out."

"It's like we were at the end of the world," she said softly, thinking aloud. "Even the boardinghouse seemed so far away that it just wasn't part of the picture. Now that other people are here, the world is starting to turn again."

Damon hmmmed noncommittal y. "We'd better get over there," he said. "I think they could use some help." Mrs. Flowers's voice was raised indignantly, although Elena couldn't make out the words. As she trailed after Damon she smiled to herself: Since when had Damon cared whether anyone, except Elena herself, could use some help?

As they got closer, Elena could see that Mrs. Flowers had gotten out of the car and assumed her best expression of dottiness and eccentricity, blue eyes wide, arms akimbo, as Alaric held an umbrel a over her head.

"Young man!" she snapped at the fire marshal. "What are you trying to imply by asking why my car wasn't parked in the garage? Surely I have every right to distribute my possessions anywhere I like on my own property! What sort of world do we live in where I am penalized, where I am judged for not fol owing conventions? Do you dare to suggest that I might have had some advance knowledge of this fire?"

"Wel , ma'am, it's been known to happen. I'm not suggesting anything, but the matter has to be investigated,"

said the fire marshal stolidly.

"What're al these kids doing here?" one of the police officers asked, shooting a glance around. His eyes lingered on Damon's burned leather jacket and the raw skinless patch on Stefan's cheek. "We're going to need to talk to al of you," he said. "Let's start by getting your names and addresses."

Stefan stepped forward and held the officer's eyes with his. "I'm sure that won't be necessary," he said softly, compel ingly. Elena could feel him using his Power. "The garage burned because it was struck by lightning in the storm. No one was here except the old lady in the house and a few of her guests. Everything's so straightforward and simple, there's no need to question anyone."

The officer looked puzzled and then nodded, his face clearing. "These storms can cause a lot of property damage," he replied.

The fire marshal snorted. "What are you talking about?

Lightning didn't strike anywhere near here."

Stefan shifted his gaze to the fire marshal. "There's nothing to bother investigating..." But the spel was broken, and now al three men were looking at him with suspicion.

Stefan's Power wasn't going to be strong enough to use on al three, Elena realized, and he wouldn't be able to convince even one of them if the men were al together, awakening one another's doubts. Stefan's face was drawn and tired. He had fought a long battle - more than one, actual y. And Stefan was never strong in Power, not when he didn't drink human blood. If he'd been worrying over her and preparing to fight the phantom, it had probably been days since he had had even more than a few swal ows of animal blood.

Damon stepped forward. "Sir?" he said politely. The fire marshal looked at him. "If I could speak to you privately for a moment, I'm sure we can clear this up."

The marshal frowned but fol owed him to the back porch of the boardinghouse, the second police officer tagging along. Under the porch light, they faced Damon, at first suspicious. Gradual y, as he spoke to them, their shoulders relaxed and they began to nod and smile.

Stefan spoke softly to the other officer again. He'd be able to handle influencing one person alone, Elena knew, even in his current state.

Meredith and Bonnie had gotten into the backseat of Mrs. Flowers's ancient automobile - so old that Elena suspected it might predate Mrs. Flowers herself - and were deep in conversation, while Alaric and Celia continued to support Mrs. Flowers under the umbrel a as she listened to Stefan's conversation with the police officer, Matt hovering nearby.

Elena walked quietly past them and slipped into the back of the car with Bonnie and Meredith. The door shut with a satisfyingly heavy clunk, and the black leather bench seat creaked and groaned under her.

Bonnie's red curls were soaked straight, wet tendrils hanging down over her shoulders and sticking to her forehead. Her face was smudged with ash and her eyes were red, but she gave Elena a genuinely happy smile. "We won," she said. "It's gone for good, isn't it? We did it."

Meredith was solemn yet exultant, her gray eyes shining. There was stil a smear of Stefan's blood on her lips, and Elena stifled the urge to wipe it away for her. "We did win,"

Meredith affirmed. "You both did so amazingly. Bonnie, it was real y smart of you to start casting off jealousies as fast as you could. It kept the phantom off balance. And Elena..." She swal owed. "Plunging into the fire was so brave of you. How's your hand?"

Elena held out her hand and flexed the fingers in front of them. "The incredible powers of vampire blood," Elena said lightly. "Very useful for the aftermath of a battle, right, Meredith?"

Meredith flushed at Elena's teasing, then smiled a little. "I don't know," she said. "It seemed sil y not to use al our... advantages. I feel better already."

"You were terrific, too, Meredith," Bonnie said. "You fought like you were dancing. Graceful and strong and beautiful and so supertough, the way you used your stave."

Elena agreed. "I never could have gotten the rose if you hadn't cut the phantom."

"I guess we're al terrific," said Meredith. "The first meeting of the Robert E. Lee High School Alumni Mutual Admiration Society is now cal ed to order."

"We'l have to get Matt in and tel him how wonderful he is," Bonnie said. "And I guess Stefan also counts as an alum, right? I think now that the world's changed, he might have graduated with us." She yawned, showing a smal pink tongue like a cat's. "I'm just worn out."

Elena realized she was, too. It had been a very long day. A very long year since the Salvatore brothers had come to Fel 's Church and life had changed forever. She slumped down in the seat and rested her head on Meredith's shoulder. "Thank you for saving the town again, both of you," she said sleepily. It seemed important to say it.

"Maybe tomorrow we can start working on normal again."

Meredith laughed a little and hugged them both. "Nothing can defeat our sisterhood," she said. "We're too good for normal." Her breath hitched. "When you were both taken by the phantom," she said quietly, "I was afraid I had lost you forever. You're my sisters, real y, not just my friends, and I need you. I want you to know that."

"Absolutely," Bonnie said, nodding feverishly. Elena reached out for both of them. The three friends squeezed one another tightly in a laughing, slightly tearful group hug. Tomorrow would come, and maybe normal - whatever that was at this point - would come, too. For now, Elena had her true friends. That was a lot. Whatever happened, that would be enough.

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