The Return: Midnight (Chapter 17)

Meredith and Matt were sitting at the breakfast table, which seemed sadly empty without Bonnie. It was amazing how much space that slight body had seemed to fil , and how much more serious everyone was without her. Meredith knew that if Elena had done her best, she could have offset it. But she also knew that Elena had one thing on her mind above al others, and that was Stefan, who was stricken with guilt for al owing his brother to abduct Bonnie. And meanwhile Meredith knew that both she and Matt were feeling guilty too, because today they would be leaving the other three, even if only for the evening. They each had been summoned home by parents who demanded to see them for dinner.

Mrs. Flowers clearly didn't want them to feel too badly. "With the help you've given, I can make our urns,"she said. "Since Matt has found my wheel – "

"I didn't exactly find it,"Matt said under his breath. "It was there in the storage room al the time and it fel on me."

" – and since Meredith has received her pictures – along, I'm sure, with an email from Mr. Saltzman – perhaps she could get them enlarged or whatever."

"Of course, and show them to the Saitous, too, to make sure that the symbols say the things we want them to,"Meredith promised. "And Bonnie can – "

She broke off short. Idiot! She was an idiot, she thought.

And, as a hunter-slayer, she was supposed to be clear-minded and at al times maintain control. She felt terrible when she looked at Matt and saw the naked pain in his face.

"Dear Bonnie wil surely be home soon,"Mrs. Flowers finished for her.

And we al know that's a lie, and I don't have to be psychic to detect it, Meredith thought. She noticed that Mrs. Flowers hadn't weighed in with anything from Ma ma.

"We'l al be just fine here,"Elena said, final y picking up the bal as she realized that Mrs. Flowers was looking at her with ladylike distress. "You two think we're some kind of babies who need to be taken care of,"she said, smiling at Matt and Meredith, "but you're just babies too! Off you go! But be careful."

They went, Meredith giving Elena one last glance. Elena nodded very slightly, then turned stiffly, mimicking holding a bayonet. It was the changing of the guard.

Elena let Stefan help her clean up the dishes – they were al letting him do little things now because he looked so much better. They spent the morning trying to contact Bonnie in different ways. But then Mrs. Flowers asked if Elena could board up the last few of the basement windows, and Stefan couldn't stand it. Matt and Meredith had already done a far more dangerous job. They'd hung two tarps from the house's ridgepole, each one hanging down one side of the main roof.

On each tarp were the characters that Isobel's mother put on the Post-it Note amulets she always gave them, painted at an enormous scale in black paint. Stefan had been al owed only to watch and give suggestions from the widow's walk above his attic bedroom. But now…

"We'l nail up the boards together,"he said firmly, and went off to get a hammer and nails.

It wasn't real y such a hard job anyway. Elena held the boards and Stefan wielded the hammer and she trusted him not to hit her fingers, which meant that they got on very quickly.

It was a perfect day – clear, sunny, with a slight breeze. Elena wondered what was happening to Bonnie, right now, and if Damon was taking care of her properly – or at al . She seemed unable to shake off her worries these last days: over Stefan, over Bonnie, and over a curious feeling that she had to know what was going on in town. Maybe she could disguise herself…

God, no! Stefan said voicelessly. When she turned he was spitting out nails and looking both horrified and ashamed.

Apparently she'd been projecting.

"I'm sorry,"he said before Elena could get the nails out of her mouth, "but you know better than anyone why you can't go."

"But it's maddening not knowing what's happening,"Elena said, having gotten rid of her nails. "We don't know anything.

What's happening to Bonnie, what state the town's in – "

"Let's finish this board,"Stefan said. "And then let me hold you."

When the last board was secure, Stefan raised her from the lower embankment where she was sitting, not bride-style, but kid-style, putting her toes on top of his feet. He danced her a little, whirled her a couple of times in the air, and then nabbed her coming down again.

"I know your problem,"he said soberly.

Elena looked up quickly. "You do?"she said, alarmed.

Stefan nodded, and to her further alarm said, "It's Love-itis.

Means the patient has a whole slew of people she cares about, and she can't be happy unless each and every one of them is safe and happy themselves."

Elena deliberately slipped off his shoes and looked up at him. "Some more than others,"she said hesitantly.

Stefan looked down at her and then he took her in his arms.

"I'm not as good as you,"he said while Elena's heart pounded in shame and remorse for ever having touched Damon, ever having danced with him, ever having kissed him. "If you are happy, that's al I want, after that prison. I can live; I can die…peaceful y."

"If we're happy,"Elena corrected.

"I won't tempt the gods. I'l settle for you."

"No, you can't! Don't you see? If you disappeared again, I'd worry and fret and fol ow you. To Hel if I had to."

"I'l take you with me wherever I go,"Stefan said hastily. "If you'l take me with you."

Elena relaxed slightly. That would do, for now. As long as Stefan was with her she could stand anything.

They sat and cuddled, right under the open sky, even with a maple tree and a clump of slender waving beeches nearby.

She extended her aura a little and felt it touch Stefan's.

Peace flooded into her, and al the dark thoughts were left behind. Almost al .

"Since I first saw you, I loved you – but it was the wrong kind of love. See how long it took me to figure that out?"Elena whispered into the hol ow of his throat.

"Since I first saw you, I loved you – but I didn't know who you real y were. You were like a ghost in a dream. But you put me straight pretty quickly,"Stefan said, obviously glad that he could brag about her. "And we've survived – everything. They say long-distance relationships can be pretty difficult,"he added, laughing, and then he stopped, and she could feel al his faculties fixed on her suddenly, breath stopping so he could hear her better.

"But then, there's Bonnie and Damon,"he said before she could say or think a word. "We have to find them soon – and they'd damn well better be together – or it had better have been Bonnie's decision to part."

"There's Bonnie and Damon,"agreed Elena, glad that she could share even her darkest thoughts with someone. "I can't think about them. I can't not think about them. We do have to find them, and very fast – but I pray that they're with Lady Ulma now. Maybe Bonnie is going to a bal or gala. Maybe Damon is hunting with that Black Ops program."

"As long as nobody's real y hurt."

"Yes."Elena tried hard to tuck herself closer to Stefan. She wanted to – be closer to him, somehow. The way they had when she had been out of her body and she had just sunk into him.

But of course, with regular bodies, they couldn't…

But of course they could. Now. Her blood…

Elena real y didn't know which of them thought of it first. She looked away, embarrassed at even having considered it – and caught the tail end of Stefan looking away too.

"I don't think we have the right,"she whispered. "Not to – be that happy – when everyone else is miserable. Or doing things for the town or for Bonnie."

"Of course we don't,"Stefan said firmly, but he had to gulp a little first.

"No,"Elena said.

"No,"Stefan said firmly, and then right in the middle of her echoing "no,"he went and pul ed her up and kissed her breathless.

And of course, Elena couldn't let him do that and not get even. So she demanded, Stillbreathless, but almost angry, that he say "no"again, and when he did it she caught him and kissed him.

"You were happy,"she accused a moment later. "I felt it."

Stefan was too much of a gentleman to accuse her of being happy because of anything she might do. He said, "I couldn't help it. It just happened by itself. I felt our minds together, and that made me happy. But then I remembered about poor Bonnie. And – "

"Poor Damon?"

"Well, somehow I don't think we need to go so far as to cal him 'poor Damon.'But I did remember him,"he said.

"Well done,"Elena said.

"We'd better go inside now,"Stefan said. And then hastily,

"Downstairs, I mean. Maybe we can think of something more to do for them."

"Like what? There's not a thing I can think of. I did meditation and Attempt to Contact by Out-of-Body Experience – "

"From nine thirty to ten thirty A.M.,"Stefan said. "And meanwhile I was trying al frequency telepathic cal s. No response."

"Then we tried with the Ouija board."

"For half an hour – and al we got was nonsense."

"It did tel us the clay was coming."

"I think that was me bumping it toward 'yes.'"

"Then I tried to tap into the ley lines below us for Power – "

"From eleven to around eleven thirty,"Stefan recited. "While I tried to go into hibernation to have a prophetic dream…."

"We really tried hard,"Elena said grimly.

"And then we nailed the last few boards up,"Stefan added.

"Bringing us to a little after twelve thirty P.M."

"Can you think of a single Plan – we're down to G or H now –

that might al ow us to help them any more?"

"I can't. I just honestly can't,"Stefan said. Then he added, hesitantly, "Maybe Mrs. Flowers has some housework for us.

Or" – even more hesitantly, testing the waters – "we could go into town."

"No! You're definitely not strong enough for that!"Elena said sharply. "And there's no more housework,"she added. Then she threw everything to the wind. Every responsibility. Every rationality. Just like that. She began to tow Stefan to the house so they could get there quicker.

"Elena – "

I'm burning my bridges! Elena thought stubbornly, and suddenly she didn't care. And if Stefan cared she would bite him. But it was as if some spel had suddenly come over her so that she felt she would die without his touch. She wanted to touch him. She wanted him to touch her. She wanted him to be her mate.

"Elena!"Stefan could hear what she was thinking. He was torn, of course, Elena thought. Stefan was always torn. But how dare he be torn about this?

She turned around to face him, blazing. "You don't want to!"

"I don't want to do it and then find out I've Influenced you into it!"

"You were Influencing me?"shouted Elena.

Stefan threw out his hands and yel ed, "How can I know when I want you so much?"

Oh. Well, that was better. There was a little glitter in Elena's side-eye and she looked at it and realized that Mrs. Flowers had quietly shut a window.

Elena darted a glance at Stefan. He was trying not to blush.

She doubled over, trying not to laugh. Then she stood on his shoes again.

"Maybe we deserve an hour alone" – dangerously.

"A whole hour?"Stefan's conspiratorial whisper made an hour sound like eternity.

"We do deserve it,"Elena said, enthral ed. She began to tow him again.

"No."Stefan pul ed her back, lifted her – bridal-style – and suddenly they were going straight up, fast. They shot up three stories and a little more and landed on the platform of the widow's walk above his room.

"But it's locked from inside – "

Stefan stomped on the trapdoor – hard. The door disappeared.

Elena was impressed.

They floated down into Stefan's room amid a shaft of light and motes of dust that looked like fireflies or stars.

"I'm a little nervous,"Elena said.

She heeled her sandals off and slid out of her jeans and top and into bed…only to find Stefan already there.

They're faster, she thought. As fast as you think you are, they're always faster.

She turned toward Stefan in the bed. She was wearing a camisole and underwear. She was scared.

"Don't,"he said. "I don't even have to bite you."

"You do so. It's al that weird stuff about my blood."

"Oh, yeah,"he said, as if he'd forgotten. Elena would bet that he hadn't forgotten a word about her blood…al owing vampires to do things they couldn't otherwise. Her life energy gave them back al their human abilities, and he wouldn't forget that.

They're smarter, she thought.

"Stefan, it's not supposed to be like this! I'm supposed to parade in front of you in a golden negligee designed by Lady Ulma, with jewels by Lucen and golden stilts – which I don't own. And there are supposed to be scattered flower petals on the bed and roses in little round bubble bowls and white vanil a candles."

"Elena,"Stefan said, "come here."

She went into his arms, and let herself breathe in the fresh smel of him, warm and spicy, with a trace of rusty nails.

You're my life, Stefan told her silently. We're not going to do anything today. There's not much time, and you deserve your golden negligee and your roses and candles. If not from Lady Ulma, from the finest Earth designers that money can provide. But…kiss me?

Elena kissed him wil ingly, so glad that he was wil ing to wait.

The kiss was warm and comforting and she didn't mind the slight taste of rust. And it was wonderful to be with someone who would provide exactly what she needed, whether that was a slight mind probe, just to make her feel safer, or…

And then sheet lightning hit them. It seemed to come from both of them at once, and then Elena involuntarily clamped her teeth on Stefan's lip, drawing blood.

Stefan locked his arms around her, and barely waited for her to back off a little, before deliberately taking her lower lip in his own teeth and…after a moment of tension that seemed to last forever…biting down hard.

Elena almost cried out. She almost then and there unleashed the Still-undefined Wings of Destruction on him. But two things stopped her. One, Stefan had never, ever hurt her before. And, two, she was being drawn into something so ancient and mystical that she couldn't stop now.

A minute of finessing and Stefan had the two little wounds aligned. Blood surged from Elena's bleeding lip and, in direct connection with Stefan's less serious wound, caused a backflow. Her blood into his lip.

And the same thing happened with Stefan's blood; some of it, rich with Power, rushed into Elena.

It wasn't perfect. A bead of blood swell ed and stood gleaming on Elena's lip. But Elena couldn't have cared less.

A moment later the bead dropped down into Stefan's mouth and she felt the sheer staggering power of how much he loved her.

She herself was concentrating on one single tiny feeling, somewhere in the center of this storm they'd cal ed up. This kind of exchange of blood – she was sure as she could be –

this was the old way, the way that two vampires could share blood and love and their souls. She was being drawn into Stefan's mind. She felt his soul, pure and unconstrained, swirling around her with a thousand different emotions, tears from his past, joy from the present, al open without a trace of a shield from her.

She felt her own soul lift to meet his, herself unshielded and unafraid. Stefan had long ago seen any selfishness, vanity, over-ambition in her – and forgiven it. He'd seen al of her and loved al of her, even the bad parts.

And so she saw him, as darkness as tender as rest, as gentle as evensong, wrapping black protective wings around her…

Stefan, I…

Love…I know…

That was when someone knocked on the door.