Damon reclined on the couch, all fake calmness and relaxed pose. He turned another page of the folder he had snatched from his brother's desk with a rustling of paper, waiting patiently for Zach to come down the stairs.
It was truly ridiculous how little it took to put humans at dangerous ease – even those who should know better were easily mislead with a bit of body-language.
Zach needed long seconds to become aware of Damon's presence – enough to kill him a dozen times over. His dear nephew had realized that too, if the distinct odor of sour sweat filling the salon was anything to go by. Together with all the hundreds of other smells it would have been overwhelming, had a vampire not the advantage of using his senses selectively.
“I didn't know you were here,” Zach said, stating the more than obvious to cover his fear. Such a pity that the tremor in his voice and the racing of his heart gave him away.
Damon smiled thinly – this false bravado made Zach one of his favorite targets to play with. This thin veneer of courage, trying to protect the rabbits heart beneath; prey that knew itself to be just that.
“I'm just going through Stefan's homework. Boy, this country has sure dumbed down in the last hundred years,” Damon said jovially, deliberately missing Zach's meaning.
He leaned back farther, sinking into the cushions, a position that would prevent a human from standing up quickly. “Why he wants to go to high school is beyond me. In the '70s, he went Ivy League. Harvard, I understood.”
Damon closed the folder and let it fall on the expensive carpet with a soft thud, leaning his head on the armrest. He scowled up at the wooden ceiling full of carved ornaments. “Actually no, I didn't get that, either.”
From the corner of his eye, Damon had no problem studying Zach's features – the family resemblance, polluted and watered-down by generations of humans, was still undeniably there. Zach's green eyes flickered here and there, clearly uncomfortable at being in the same room with Damon. In its own way, that was more satisfying than the deer caught in headlights look.
“Go ahead, purge,” Damon finally said into the tense silence, his tone both mocking and encouraging. Zach's heartbeat increased, torn between caution, the instinct to retreat and anger, that Damon had showed up once again to disrupt his life, most likely. “Get it out. What's on your mind?”
Zach swallowed hard and turned his head to meet his gaze. “Why are you here, Damon?”
“Why, to spend time with you, Zach. Family's important,” Damon smiled sweetly, saying it.
He was under no delusions that the tiny shred of honesty in that statement would be misconstrued to cruelty in Zach's ears. He had cultivated a certain image, after all.
Zach snorted, barely able to hide a disgusted sneer – it was the moment where Damon's relaxed pose worked its magic on him, together with the anger he felt, making his dear nephew careless.
“I know you better than that. You always have a motive. So tell me, what is it this time?”
Playing turned serious in an instant: no one got to demand something from him – and even worse the gall of Zach to presume he
Damon was up and in his face in less than a second, moving with the speed that would tear apart a mere humans muscle fibers and grabbed Zach's throat with one hand. Even in his anger, though, Damon was careful with the pressure he exerted on the larynx.
“You are in no position to question me,” Damon informed him evenly, not reacting to the enticing smells of sweat, blood and spicy aftershave in such close proximity. And something else tickled his nose – vervain.
Of course. Had this young fool of a Salvatore truly believed that he could cultivate the herbs in the basement without Damon finding out?
Zach's heartbeat was racing, his hands had flown up on instinct, to try and wrench Damon's away, but of course the attempt was futile. His breath was warm on Damon's skin and his eyes had shrunken to pinpricks with raw animal fear.
“I didn't mean to upset you,” Zach choked out, trying to placate Damon. He looked away, then, in an instinctual show of submission, like baring his throat in a less... literal way.
The front door opened with a quiet creak – Stefan was back. Time to end this.
“This is not upset, Zach.”
Damon dropped him and left with lazy, silent steps, not in the mood for his brother's whining and lectures.
Damon didn't bother Zach the next few days – he had enough fun playing with Stefan and Elena, the latter being the most recent love interest of his little brother. Plus she had more than enough friends and family members to keep him entertained between his nightly adventures.
He was therefore in a good mood when he 'ran' into Zach the next time, which happened not exactly accidentally – as a vampire, he could hear humans a mile away, after all.
Zach froze, seeing him standing in the doorway; his mug with coffee stopped half-way to his lips. Faced with Damon's expectantly raised eyebrow, he sat it back on the wooden kitchen table without taking a swallow.
“Uncle Damon,” he greeted stiffly.
The address startled an amused snort out of Damon. “Don't call me 'uncle'. It's creepy enough when you do that with Stefan.”
He could feel Zach's stare following him as far as it could, when he walked over to pour himself a cup from the steaming pot. His poor little nephew was so tense – probably because of the empty vial he tried to hide in his left hand. The remains exuded the piercing aroma typical for vervain.
“Sure thing. We're all family here, after all,” Damon agreed between two sips of Zach's atrociously bitter brew. Drinking that plus a dose of vervain, Damon really had to admire Zach's self-control – or perhaps lament his loss of too many taste buds.
If at all possible, Zach sat up even more straight. “We're not family, Damon. Only in the most dysfunctional sense of the word. In fact, I avoided having a living, breathing, loving family because of you.”
The whole kitchen seemed to darken in atmosphere, but Zach had sounded more resigned and grateful of his decision to never risk what he longed for, than reproachful. Of course, a second later he was half out of his mind with fear, remembering the salon scene all too late.
Damon emptied his cup into the drain, grateful that Zach couldn't see his face right then – he knew what a lone existence meant, even one by one's own choosing. It was not exactly what he wished for the only family he had left besides Stefan.
He bit back the reflex comment about the sweet taste of a newborns blood, seeing no need to be that cruel when he could simply rummage around in the drawers, looking for matches he didn't need behind Zach's back, which made him jump with each clatter.
“You're like your grandfather. He didn't like it when I came to visit, either.”
“But you don't visit, Damon,” Zach said heatedly and Damon wondered if his nephew was developing suicidal tendencies. “You appear unannounced, reminding me that this isn't my house, that you're just permitting me to live here. Hell, that you're permitting me to live.”
Damon's hand cupped Zach's neck the next instant, eliciting a startled noise and making him freeze again. He leaned closer, digging his fingers into Zach's skin until he had to tilt his head to the side and bare his throat – or otherwise risked his neck being snapped.
“ - drink vervain?” Damon finished for him and placed a chaste kiss on the frantically pulsing carotid. The brief contact of cool lips on warm skin send a shiver through Zach. “Humans are so fragile... You could die in so many ways without me spilling a single drop of blood. What good will the vervain do you then?”
Damon was gone before Zach could answer.
Damon paused on his way to the front door as he heard Zach whisper.
“What are you – the vervain?” Stefan sounded dismayed.
Damon would need to be careful what he drank from now on. He left before the conversation continued – he had another trail to follow.
Zach had trouble breathing. He could hear his blood pounding in his ears with every step he took; it was the only sound besides the mad giggling that filled the forest all around him.
He had only been five minutes on foot away from the boarding house when his car had broken down and decided to walk from there. He was too tired after work to bother with calling the towing service – tomorrow was Sunday and he had been positive that he could fix then whatever was wrong with Stefan's help.
Every muscle in his body screamed for him to stop, his lungs burning, but Zach managed to stay on his feet, avoiding roots and stones trying to trip him. He kept on running, deeper into the forest, driven there by the creature at his heels. He could feel blood running down his cheek.
Something slammed into his back, the world tilting suddenly and Zach found himself in the vice like embrace of cold arms that forced the air from his lungs. He groaned and felt the scrape of fangs on his skin. He struggled weakly, trying to kick his assailant but it was no use.
Everything blurred before his eyes, but instead of the pain he expected to pierce his skin, Zach found himself sitting on the mossy ground, leaning at a tree's trunk. He had to blink to clear his eyes, watering from the pounding in his head, to make sense of the dark shape in front of him – it was Damon, shielding him. Zach saw it, but had a hard time believing it.
Damon made a disgusted sound and Zach realized that he had zoned out and missed some kind of conversation, because he had come to associate that particular noise with Damon running out of his short supply of patience.
“I'll use small words, then, Nick,” Damon said with disdain, his blue eyes surely bright and cold. “This is my turf and I won't tolerate an upstart like you – especially when you try to dine on my family.”
“Family?!” The younger vampire - Nick - sounded as incredulous as Zach felt – because Damon had sounded dead serious. “You call cattle your 'family'?”
Nick backed away and Zach, seeing only Damon's back, could only guess at how terrifying he must have looked. He felt slightly dizzy, wondering whether Damon had forgotten that he was here and could hear him, wondering if Stefan would say that this was all just an act of caring; another game.
“Whoa, sorry man – no offense, okay? I'm just looking for friends of mine and he ran around here... Easy prey, you surely understand, right?”
“Looking for Dany and Jim, maybe?” Damon asked.
“Yeah – how did you know?”
Damon sighed theatrically. “You youngsters,” he shook his head – and was behind Nick faster than Zach's eyes could follow, snapping his neck with a loud crack. “Didn't I tell you that this is my turf?”
The pounding in Zach's head almost drowned the words out and suddenly the ground came closer...
Zach woke up lying in his own bed, with the feeling of tight pressure around his rips. His fingers brushed over a bandage, which explained why each breath too deep hurt.
“I would have given you my blood to heal you, but I thought you wouldn't approve,” a voice said from – somewhere. Then Damon melted out of the shadows beside Zach's desk and stepped closer, swirling the amber contents of a glass lazily in his left hand.
Instead of answering with one of the hundreds things swirling inside his heavy head – starting with 'thank you' and very much not ending with heartfelt curses that he would never want to drink Damon's blood – Zach heard himself asking: “Dany and Jim? You have been – what? Hunting vampires?”
Damon quirked an eyebrow, somehow managing to convey that he thought Zach was an ungrateful asshole. “Stefan isn't exactly keeping an eye on things here, so ensuring that you keep on living and breathing falls to me. Beats me why, but Mystic Falls has always attracted our kind.”
“You... visit to protect me?” Zach said, thinking that his voice did a miserable job at conveying how mind-boggling he found that claim to be.
Damon took a long swallow from his whiskey and Zach wondered for the first time if he did it to cover some sort of reaction – it was in that strange moment that he realized that Damon's presence did not terrify him like it should.
“My main mission is still to make Stefan's life as miserable as possible.”
Damon would know what Zach was asking.
The vampire shrugged, turning to leave. “We're family.”
Zach stared after him. This – whatever this was, a trick or the truth – didn't erase what Damon had done in the past and it never could have. But maybe it was a start, a glimpse at a Damon who had not so much given up on his humanity than buried it deeply.
Zach hoped that, after some hours worth of sleep, he would be able to start actually processing what had happened this night and figuring out what it meant in the overall scheme of things.
For now he settled with saying “Thank you” into the dark.
Damon was already gone, but Zach trusted that keen vampire ears would have no problem hearing the words regardless.