The Return: Midnight (Chapter 22)

"Ma ma said not in Fel 's Church,"Mrs. Flowers repeated to Stefan. "And that means not the thicket."

"All right,"Stefan said. "If he's not there, then where else?"

"Well,"Elena said slowly, "it's the police, isn't it? They've caught him."Her heart felt as if it were in her stomach.

Mrs. Flowers sighed. "I suppose so. Ma ma should have told me that, but the atmosphere is ful of strange influences."

"But the sheriff's department is in Fel 's Church. What there is of it,"Elena objected.

"Then,"Mrs. Flowers said, "what about the police in another city close by? The ones who came looking for him before – "

"Ridgemont,"Elena said heavily. "That's where those police that searched the boardinghouse were from. That's where that Mossberg guy came from, Meredith said."She looked at Meredith, who didn't even murmur. "That's where Caroline's dad has al his big-shot friends – and Tyler Smal wood's dad does too. They belong to al those no-women clubs with does too. They belong to al those no-women clubs with secret handshakes and stuff."

"And do we have anything like a plan for when we get there?"Stefan asked.

"I have a sort of Plan A,"Elena admitted. "But I don't know that it wil work – you may know better than I do."

"Tell me."

Elena told him. Stefan listened and had to stifle a laugh. "I think,"he said soberly afterward, "that it just might work."

Elena immediately began to think about Plans B and C so that they wouldn't be stuck if Plan A should fail.

They had to drive through Fel 's Church to get to Ridgemont.

Elena saw the burnt-out houses and the blackened trees through tears. This was her town, the town which, as a spirit, she had watched over and protected. How could it have come to this?

And, worse, how could it ever possibly be put back together again?

Elena began to shiver uncontrol ably.

Matt sat grimly in the jury conference room. He had explored it long ago, and had found that the windows were boarded over from the outside. He wasn't surprised, as al the windows he knew back in Fel 's Church were boarded up, and besides, he had tried these boards and knew that he could break out if he cared to.

He didn't care to.

It was time to face his personal crisis. He would have faced it back before Damon had taken the three girls to the Dark Dimension, but Meredith had talked him out of it.

Matt knew that Mr. Forbes, Caroline's father, had al his cronies in the police and legal system here. And so did Mr.

Smal wood, the father of the real culprit. They were unlikely to give him a fair trial. But in any kind of trial, at some point they would at least have to listen to him.

And what they would hear was the plain truth. They might not believe it now. But later, when Caroline's twins had as little control as werewolf babies were reputed to have over their shapes – Well, then they'd think of Matt, and what he'd said.

He was doing the right thing, he assured himself. Even if, right now, his insides felt as if they were made of lead.

What's the worst they can do to me? he wondered, and was unhappy to hear the echo of Meredith's voice come back.

"They can put you in jail, Matt. Real jail; you're over eighteen. And while that may be good news for some genuine, vicious, tough old felons with homemade tattoos and biceps like tree branches, it is not going to be good news for you." And then after a session on the Internet, "Matt, in Virginia, it can be for life. And the minimum is five years.

Matt, please; I beg you, don't let them do this to you!

Sometimes it's true that discretion is the better part of valor.

They hold all the cards and we're walking blindfolded in the dark…"

She had gotten surprisingly worked up about it, mixing her metaphors and al , Matt thought dejectedly. But it's not exactly as if I volunteered for this. And I bet they know those boards are pretty flimsy and if I break out, I'l be chased from here to who-knows-where. And if I stay put at least I'l get to tel the truth.

For a very long time nothing happened. Matt could tel from the sun through the cracks in the boards that it was afternoon. A man came in and offered a visit to the bathroom and a Coke. Matt accepted both, but also demanded an attorney and his phone cal .

"You'l have an attorney,"the man grumbled at him as Matt came out of the bathroom. "One'l be appointed for you."

"I don't want that. I want a real attorney. One that I pick."

The man looked disgusted. "Kid like you can't have any money. You'l take the attorney appointed to you."

"My mom has money. She'd want me to have the attorney we hire, not some kid out of law school."

"Aw,"the man said, "how sweet. You want Mommy to take care of you. And her al the way out in Clydesdale by now, I bet, with the black lady doctor."

Matt froze.

Shut back in the jury room he tried frantical y to think. How did they know where his mom and Dr. Alpert had gone? He tried the sound of "black lady doctor" on his tongue and found it tasted bad, sort of old-time-ish and just plain bad. If the doctor had been Caucasian and male, it would've sounded sil y to say "…gone with the white man doctor." Sort of like an old Tarzan film.

A great anger was rising in Matt. And along with it a great fear. Words slithered around his mind: surveillance and spying and conspiracy and cover-up. And outwitted.

He guessed it was after five o'clock, after everybody who normal y worked at court had left, that they took him to the interrogation room.

They were just playing, he figured, the two officers who tried to talk to him in a cramped little room with a video camera in one corner of the wal , perfectly obvious even though it was smal .

They took turns, one yel ing at him that he might as well confess everything, the other acting sympathetic and saying things like, "Things just got out of hand, right? We have a picture of the hickey she gave you. She was hot stuff, right?"Wink, wink. "I understand. But then she started to give you mixed signals…"

Matt reached his snapping point. "No, we were not on a date, no, she did not give me a hickey, and when I tel Mr.

Forbes you cal ed Caroline hot stuff, winkey winkey, he's gonna get you fired, mister. And I've heard of mixed signals, but I've never seen them. I can hear 'no'as well as you can, and I figure one 'no'means 'no'!"

After that they beat him up a little bit. Matt was surprised, but considering the way he had just threatened and sassed them, not too surprised.

And then they seemed to give up on him, leaving him alone in the interrogation room, which, unlike the jury room, had no windows. Matt said over and over, for the benefit of the video camera, "I'm innocent and I'm being denied my phone cal and my attorney. I'm innocent…"

At last they came and got him. He was hustled between the good and bad cops into a completely empty courtroom. No, not empty, he realized. In the first row were a few reporters, one or two with sketchbooks ready.

When Matt saw that, just like a real trial, and imagined the pictures they'd sketch – just like he'd seen on TV, the lead in his stomach turned into a fluttering feeling of panic.

But this was what he wanted, wasn't it, to get the story out?

He was led to an empty table. There was another table, with several well-dressed men, al with piles of papers in front of them.

But the thing that held Matt's attention at that table was Caroline. He didn't recognize her at first. She was wearing a dove gray cotton dress. Gray! With no jewelry on at all, and subtle makeup. The only color was in her hair – a brazen auburn. It looked like her old hair, not the brindled color it had been when she was starting to become a werewolf. Had she learned to control her form at last? That was bad news. Very bad.

And final y, with an air of walking on eggshel s, in came the jury. They had to know how irregular this was, but they kept coming in, just twelve of them, just enough to fil the jury seats.

Matt suddenly realized that there was a judge sitting at the desk high above him. Had he been there al along? No…

"Al rise for Justice Thomas Hol oway,"boomed a bailiff. Matt stood and wondered if the trial was real y going to start without his lawyer. But before everyone could sit, there was a crash of opening doors, and a tal bundle of papers on legs hurried into the courtroom, became a woman in her early twenties, and dumped the papers on the table beside him.

"Gwen Sawicki here – present,"the young woman gasped.

Judge Hol oway's neck shot out like a tortoise's, to bring her into his realm of sight. "You have been appointed on behalf of the defense?"

"If it pleases Your Honor, yes, Your Honor – al of thirty minutes ago. I had no idea we had gone to night sessions, Your Honor."

"Don't you be pert with me!"Judge Hol oway snapped. As he went on to al ow the prosecution attorneys to introduce themselves, Matt pondered on the word "pert."It was another of those words, he thought, that was never used toward males. A pert man was a joke. While a pert girl or woman sounded just fine. But why?

"Cal me Gwen,"a voice whispered beside him, and Matt looked to see a girl with brown eyes and brown hair back in a ponytail. She wasn't exactly pretty, but she looked honest and straightforward, which made her the prettiest thing in the room.

"I'm Matt – Well, obviously,"Matt said.

"Is this your girl, Carolyn?"Gwen was whispering, showing a picture of the old Caroline at some dance, wearing stilts, and with tanned legs that went up and up to almost meet before a miniskirt took over, black and lacy. She had on a white blouse so tight at the bust that it hardly seemed able to contain her natural assets. Her makeup was exactly the opposite of subtle.

"Her name's Caroline and she's never been my girl, but that's her – the real her,"Matt whispered. "Before Klaus came and did something to her boyfriend, Tyler Smal wood. But I have to tel you what happened when she found out she was pregnant – "

She'd gone nuts, was what had happened. No one knew where Tyler was – dead after the final fight against Klaus, turned into a ful wolf in hiding; whatever. So Caroline had tried to pin it on Matt – until Shinichi appeared and became her boyfriend.

But Shinichi and Misao were playing a cruel joke on her, pretending that Shinichi would marry her. It was after she realized that Shinichi didn't care at allthat Caroline had gone total y bal istic, and had real y tried to make Matt fit the gaping hole in her life. Matt did his best to explain this to Gwen so she could explain it to the jury, until the judge's voice interrupted him.

"We wil dispense with opening arguments,"said Judge Hol oway, "since the hour is so late. Wil the prosecution cal its first witness?"

"Wait! Objection!"Matt shouted, ignoring Gwen's tugging at his arm and her hissing: "You can't object to the judge's rulings!"

"And the judge can't do this to me,"Matt said, twitching his T-shirt back from between her fingers. "I haven't even had a chance to meet with my public defender yet!"

"Maybe you should have accepted a public defender earlier,"replied the judge, sipping from a glass of water. He suddenly thrust his head at Matt and snapped, "Eh?"

"That's ridiculous,"cried Matt. "You wouldn't give me my phone cal to get a lawyer!"

"Did he ever ask for a phone cal ?"Judge Hol oway snapped, his eyes traveling around the room.

The two officers who had beat Matt up solemnly shook their heads. At this, the bailiff, whom Matt suddenly recognized as the guy who'd kept him in the jury room for around four hours, began wagging his head back and forth in the negative. They al three wagged, almost in unison.

"Then you forfeited that right by not asking for it,"the judge snapped. It seemed to be his only way of speaking. "You can't demand it in the middle of a trial. Now, as I was saying – "

"I object!" Matt shouted even louder. "They're al lying! Look at your own tapes of them interrogating me. Al I kept saying – "

"Counselor,"the judge snarled at Gwen, "control your client or you wil be held in contempt of court!"

"You have to shut up,"Gwen hissed at Matt.

"You can't make me shut up! You can't have this trial while you're breaking al the rules!"

"Shut your trap!" The judge belted out the words at a surprising volume. He then added, "The next person to make a remark without my express permission shal be held in contempt of court to the tune of a night in jail and five hundred dol ars."

He paused to look around to see if this had sunk in. "Now,"he said. "Prosecution, cal your first witness."

"We cal Caroline Beulah Forbes to the stand."

Caroline's figure had changed. Her stomach was sort of upside-down-avocado-shaped now. Matt heard murmurs.

"Caroline Beula Forbes, do you swear that the testimony you shal give wil be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"

Somewhere deep inside, Matt was shaking. He didn't know if it was mostly anger or mostly fear or an equal combination of both. But he felt like a geyser ready to blow – not necessarily because he wanted to, but because forces beyond his control were taking hold of him. Gentle Matt, Quiet Matt, Obedient Matt – he had left al those behind somewhere. Raging Matt, Rampaging Matt, that was about al he could be.

From a dim outside world, voices came filtering into his reverie. And one voice pricked and stung like a nettle.

"Do you recognize the boy you have named as your former boyfriend Matthew Jeffrey Honeycutt here in this room?"

"Yes,"the prickly nettle voice said softly. "He's sitting at the defense table, in the gray T-shirt."

Matt's head flew up. He looked Caroline straight in the eye.

"You know that's a lie,"he said. "We never went on one date together. Ever."

The judge, who had seemed to be asleep, now woke up.

"Bailiff!"he snapped. "Restrain the defendant immediately."

Matt tensed. As Gwen Sawicki moaned, Matt suddenly found himself being held while duct tape was wrapped round and round his mouth.

He fought. He tried to get up. So they duct-taped him around his waist to the chair. As they final y left him alone, the judge said, "If he runs off with that chair, you wil pay it out of your own salary, Miz Sawicki."

Matt could feel Gwen Sawicki trembling beside him. Not with fear. He could recognize the about-to-explode expression and realized that she was going to be next. And then the judge would hold her in contempt and who would speak up for him?

He met her eyes and shook his head firmly at her. But he also shook his head at every lie Caroline came up with.

"We had to keep it a secret, our relationship,"Caroline was saying demurely, straightening the gray dress. "Because Tyler Smal wood, my previous boyfriend, might have found out. Then he would have – I mean, I didn't want any trouble between them."

Yeah, Matt thought bitterly: you'd better walk careful y –

because Tyler's dad probably has as many good friends in here as yours does. More. Matt tuned out until he heard the prosecutor say, "And did anything unusual happen on the night in question?"

"Well, we went out together in his car. We went over near the boardinghouse…no one would see us there…Yes, I – I'm afraid I did give him a…a love-bite. But after that I wanted to leave, but he didn't stop. I had to try to fight him off. I scratched him with my nails – "

"The prosecution offers Peoples'Exhibit 2 – a picture of the deep fingernail scores on the defendant's arm – "

Gwen's eyes, meeting Matt's, looked dul . Beaten. She showed Matt a picture of what he remembered: the deep marks made by the huge malach's teeth when he had pul ed his arm out of its mouth. "The defense wil stipulate…"

"So admitted."

"But no matter how I screamed and fought…Well, he was too strong, and I – I couldn't – "Caroline tossed her head in agony of remembered shame. Tears flooded from her eyes.

"Your Honor, perhaps the defendant needs a break to freshen her makeup,"Gwen suggested bitterly.

"Young lady, you are getting on my nerves. The prosecution can care for its own clients – I mean witnesses – "

"Your witness…" – from the prosecution.

Matt had scribbled as much of the real story as he could onto a blank sheet of paper while Caroline's theatrics had gone on. Gwen was now reading this.

"So,"she said, "your ex, Tyler Smal wood, is not and has never been a" – she swal owed – "a werewolf."

Through her tears of shame Caroline laughed lightly. "Of course not. Werewolves aren't real."

"Like vampires."

"Vampires aren't real either, if that's what you mean. How could they be?"Caroline was looking into every shadow of the room as she said this.

Gwen was doing a good job, Matt realized. Caroline's demure patina was beginning to chip.

"And people never come back from the dead – in these modern times, I mean,"Gwen said.

"Well, as to that" – malice had crept into Caroline's voice – "if you just go to the boardinghouse in Fel 's Church, you can see that there's a girl cal ed Elena Gilbert, who was supposed to have drowned last year. On Founder's Day, after the parade. She was Miss Fel 's Church, of course."

There was a murmur among the reporters. Supernatural stuff sold better than anything else, especial y if a pretty girl was involved. Matt could see a smirk making the rounds.

"Order! Miz Sawicki, you wil keep to the facts in this case!"

"Yes, Your Honor."Gwen looked thwarted. "Okay, Caroline, let's go back to the day of the al eged assault. After the events you have narrated, did you cal the police at once?"

"I was…too ashamed. But then I realized I might be pregnant or have some horrid disease, and I knew I had to tel ."

"But that horrid disease wasn't lycanthropy – being a werewolf, right? Because that couldn't be true."

Gwen looked anxiously down at Matt and Matt looked bleakly up at her. He'd hoped that if Caroline were forced to keep talking about werewolves she would eventual y start to twitch.

But she seemed to have complete control over herself now.

The judge seemed furious. "Young lady, I won't have my court made a joke with any more supernatural nonsense!"

Matt stared at the ceiling. He was going to jail. For a long time. For something he hadn't done. For something he would never do. And besides, now, there might be reporters going over to the boardinghouse to bother Elena and Stefan.

Damn! Caroline had managed to get that in despite the blood oath she'd made never to give their secret away.

Damon had signed that oath as well. For a moment Matt wished that Damon were back and right here, to take revenge on her. Matt didn't care how many times he got cal ed "Mutt"if Damon would just appear. But Damon didn't.

Matt realized that the duct tape around his middle was low enough that he could slam his head against the defense table. He did this, making a smal boom.

"If your client wishes to be completely immobilized, Miz Sawicki, it can be – "

But then they al heard it. Like an echo, but delayed. And much louder than the sound of a head striking a table.


And again.


And then the distant, disturbing sound of doors slamming open as if they had been hit by a battering ram.

At this point the people in the courtroom Stillcould have scattered. But where was there to go?

BOOM! Another, closer door slamming open.

"Order! Order in the courtroom!"

Footsteps sounded down the wooden floor of the corridor.

"Order! Order!"

But no one, not even a judge, could stop this many people from muttering. And late in the evening, in a locked courthouse, after al that talk of vampires and werewolves…

Footsteps coming closer. A door, quite near, crashing and creaking.

A ripple of…something…went through the courtroom.

Caroline gasped, clutching at her bulging stomach.

"Bar those doors! Bailiff! Lock them!"

"Bar them how, Your Honor? And they only lock from the outside!"

Whatever it was, it was very close –

The doors to the courtroom opened, creaking. Matt put a calming hand on Gwen's wrist, twisting his neck to see behind him.

Standing in the doorway was Saber, looking, as always, as big as a smal pony. Mrs. Flowers walked beside him; Stefan and Elena drew up the rear.

Heavy clicking footsteps as Saber, alone, went up to Caroline, who was gasping and quivering.

Utter silence as everyone took in the sight of the giant beast, his coat ebony black, his eyes dark and moist as he took a leisurely look around the courtroom.

Then, deep in his chest, Saber went hmmf.

Around Matt people were gasping and writhing, as if they itched al over. He stared and saw Gwen staring along with him as the gasping became a panting.

Final y Saber tilted his nose to the ceiling and howled.

What happened after that wasn't pretty from Matt's point of view. Not seeing Caroline's nose and mouth jut out to make a muzzle. Not seeing her eyes recede into smal , deep, fur-lined holes.

And her hands, fingers shrinking into helplessly waving paws, widespread, with black claws. That wasn't pretty.

But the animal at the end was beautiful. Matt didn't know if she'd absorbed her gray dress or shucked it off or what. He did know that a handsome gray wolf leaped from the defendant's chair to lick up at Saber's chops, rol ing al the way on the floor to frolic around the huge animal, who was so obviously the alpha wolf.

Saber made another deep hmmf sound. The wolf that had been Caroline rubbed her snout lovingly against his neck.

And it was happening in other places in the room. Both of the prosecutors, three of the jurors…the judge himself…

They were al changing, not to attack, but to forge their social bonds with this huge wolf, an alpha if ever there was one.

"We talked to him al the way,"Elena explained in between cursing the duct tape in Matt's hair. "About not being aggressive and snapping off heads – Damon told me he did that once."

"We didn't want a bunch of murders,"Stefan agreed. "And we knew no animal would be as big as he was. So we concentrated on bringing out al the wolf in him we could –

wait, Elena – I've got the tape on this side. Sorry about this, Matt."

A sting as tape ripped free – and Matt put a hand to his mouth. Mrs. Flowers was snipping the duct tape that held him to the chair. Suddenly he was entirely free and he felt like shouting. He hugged Stefan, Elena, and Mrs. Flowers, saying, "Thank you!"

Gwen, unfortunately, was being sick in a trash can. Actual y, Matt thought, she was lucky in having secured one. A juror was being sick over the railing.

"This is Ms. Sawicki,"Matt said proudly. "She came in after the trial had begun, and did a real y good job for me."

"He said 'Elena,'"Gwen whispered when she could speak.

She was staring at a smal wolf, with patches of thinning hair, that came limping down from the judge's chair to cavort around Saber, who was accepting al such gestures with dignity.

"I'm Elena,"said Elena, in between giving Matt mighty hugs.

"The one who's…supposed to be dead?"

Elena took a moment out to hug Gwen. "Do I feel dead?"

"I – I don't know. No. But – "

"But I have a pretty little headstone in the Fel 's Church cemetery,"Elena assured her – then suddenly, with a change in countenance, "Did Caroline tel you that?"

"She told the whole room that. Especial y the reporters."

Stefan looked at Matt and smiled wryly. "You may just live to have your revenge on Caroline."

"I don't want revenge anymore. I just want to go home. I mean – "He looked at Mrs. Flowers in consternation.

"If you can think of my house as 'home'while your dear mother is away, I am very happy,"said Mrs. Flowers.

"Thank you,"Matt said quietly. "I real y mean that. But Stefan…what are the reporters going to write?"

"If they're smart, they won't write anything at all."