The Return: Midnight (Chapter 23)

In the car, Matt sat by the sleeping Meredith with Saber crammed in at their feet, listening in shock and horror as they recounted Meredith's story. When they were done, he was able to speak about his own experiences.

"I'm going to have nightmares al my life about Cole Reece,"he admitted. "And even though I slapped an amulet on him, and he cried, Dr. Alpert said he was Stillinfected.

How can we fight something this far out of control?"

Elena knew he was looking at her. She dug her nails into her palms. "It isn't that I haven't tried to use Wings of Purification over the town. I've tried so hard that I feel as if I'l burst. But it's no good. I can't control any Wings Powers at all! I think –

after what I've learned about Meredith – that I may need training. But how do I get it? Where? From who?"

There was a long silence in the car. At last Matt said, "We're al in the dark. Look at that courtroom! How can they have so many werewolves in one town?"

"Wolves are sociable,"Stefan said quietly. "It looks as if there is a whole community of werewolves in Ridgemont. Seeded among the various Bear and Moose and Lions Clubs of course. For spying on the only creatures they're scared of: humans."

At the boardinghouse Stefan carried Meredith to the first-floor bedroom and Elena pul ed the covers over her. Then she went to the kitchen, where the conversation was continuing.

"What about those werewolves'families? Their wives?"she demanded as she rubbed Matt's shoulders where she knew the muscles must hurt fiercely from being handcuffed behind his back. Her soft fingers soothed bruises, but her hands were strong, and she kept kneading and kneading until her own shoulder muscles began to swear at her…and beyond.

Stefan stopped her. "Move over, love, I've got evil vampire magic. This is necessary medical treatment,"he added sternly to Matt. "So you have to take it no matter how much it hurts."Elena could Stillfeel him, if faintly, through their connection and she saw how he anesthetized Matt's mind and then dug into the knotted shoulders as if he was kneading stiff dough, meanwhile reaching out with his Powers of healing.

Mrs. Flowers came by just then with mugs of hot, sweet cinnamon tea. Matt drained his mug and his head fel back slightly. His eyes were shut, his lips parted. Elena felt a huge wave of pain and tension flood away from him. And then she hugged both of her boys and cried.

"They picked me up on my own driveway,"Matt admitted as Elena sniffled. "And they did it by the book, but they wouldn't even look at the – the chaos al around them."

Mrs. Flowers approached again, looking serious. "Dear Matt, you've had a terrible day. What you need is a long rest."She glanced at Stefan, as if to see how this would impact him, with so few blood donors. Stefan smiled reassuringly at her. Matt, Stillbeing kneaded pliant, had just nodded. After that his color started coming back and a little smile curved his lips.

"There's m'main man,"he said, when Saber butted his way through traffic to pant directly in Matt's face. "Buddy, I love your dog breath,"he declared. "You saved me. Can he have a treat, Mrs. Flowers?"he asked, turning slightly unfocused blue eyes on her.

"I know just what he'd like. I have half a roast left in the refrigerator that just needs to be heated a bit."She punched buttons and in a short while, said, "Matt, would you like to do the honors? Remember to take the bone out – he might choke on it."

Matt took the large pot roast, which, heated, smel ed so good it made him aware that he was starving. He felt his morals col apse. "Mrs. Flowers, do you think I could make a sandwich before I give it to him?"

"Oh, you poor dear boy!"she cried. "And I never even thought – of course they wouldn't give you lunch or dinner."

Mrs. Flowers got bread and Matt was happy enough with that, bread and meat, the simplest sandwich imaginable –

and so good it curled his toes.

Elena wept just a little more. So easy to make two creatures happy with one simple thing. More than two – they were al happy to see Matt safe and to watch Saber get his proper reward.

The enormous dog had fol owed every movement of that roast with his eyes, tail swishing back and forth on the floor.

But when Matt, Stillchomping, offered him the large piece of meat that was left, Saber just cocked his head to one side, staring at it as if to say, "You have to be joking."

"Yes, it's for you. Go on and take it now,"Mrs. Flowers said firmly. Final y, Saber opened his enormous mouth to take hold of the end of the roast, tail twirling like a helicopter blade. His body language was so clear that Matt laughed out loud.

"This once on the floor with us,"Mrs. Flowers added magnificently, spreading a large rug over the kitchen floorboards.

Saber's joy was only surpassed by his good manners. He put the roast on the rug and then trotted up to each of the humans to push a wet nose into hand or waist or under a chin, and then he trotted back and attacked his prize.

"I wonder if he misses Sage?"Elena murmured.

"I miss Sage,"Matt said indistinctly. "We need al the magic help we can get."

Meanwhile Mrs. Flowers was hurrying around the kitchen making ham and cheese sandwiches and bagging them like school lunches. "Anybody who wakes up tonight hungry must have something to eat,"she said. "Ham and cheese, chicken salad, some nice crisp carrots, and a big hunk of apple pie."Elena went to help her. She didn't know why, but she wanted to cry some more. Mrs. Flowers patted her. "We are al feeling – er, strung out, "she announced gravely. "Anyone who doesn't feel like going right to sleep is probably running on too much adrenaline. My sleeping aid wil help with that.

And I think we can trust our animal friends and the wards on the roof to keep us safe tonight."

Matt was practical y asleep on his feet now. "Mrs. Flowers –

someday I'l repay you…but for now, I can't keep my eyes open."

"In other words, bedtime, kiddies,"Stefan said. He closed Matt's fingers firmly around a packed lunch, then steered him toward the stairs. Elena gathered several more lunches, kissed Mrs. Flowers twice, and went up to Stefan's room.

She had the attic bed straightened and was opening a plastic bag when Stefan came in from putting Matt to bed.

"Is he okay?"she said anxiously. "I mean, wil he be okay tomorrow?"

"He'l be okay in his body. I got most of the damage healed."

"And in his mind?"

"It's a tough thing. He just ran smack into Real Life. Arrested, knowing they might lynch him, not knowing if anybody would be able to figure out what had happened to him. He thought that even if we tracked him it would come down to a fight, which would have been hard to win – with so few of us, and not much magic left."

"But Saber fixed 'em,"Elena said.

She looked thoughtful y at the sandwiches she'd laid out on the bed. "Stefan, do you want chicken salad or ham?"she asked.

There was a silence. But it was moments before Elena looked up at him in astonishment. "Oh, Stefan – I – I actual y forgot. I just – today has been so strange –  I forgot – "

"I'm flattered,"Stefan said. "And you're sleepy. Whatever Mrs.

Flowers puts in her tea – "

"I think the government would be interested in it,"Elena offered. "For spies and things. But for now…"She held her arms out, head bent back, neck exposed.

"No, love. I remember this afternoon, if you don't. And I swore I was going to start hunting, and I am,"Stefan said firmly.

"You're going to leave me?"Elena said, startled out of her warm satisfaction. They stared at each other.

"Don't leave,"Elena said, combing her hair away from her neck. "I had it al planned out, how you'l drink, and how we'l sleep holding each other. Please don't leave, Stefan."

She knew how hard he found it to leave her. Even if she was grimy and worn out, even if she was wearing grungy jeans and had dirt under her fingernails. She was endlessly beautiful and endlessly powerful and mysterious to him. He longed for her. Elena could feel it through their bond, which was beginning to hum, beginning to warm up, beginning to draw him in close.

"But, Elena,"he said. He was trying to be sensible! Didn't he know she didn't want sensible at this particular moment?

"Right here."Elena tapped the soft spot on her neck.

Their bond was singing like an electric power line now. But Stefan was stubborn. "You need to eat, yourself. You have to keep your strength up."

Elena immediately picked up a chicken salad sandwich and bit into it. Mmm…yummy. Real y good. She would have to pick Mrs. Flowers a wildflower bouquet. They were al so well taken care of here. She had to think of more ways to help.

Stefan was watching her eat. It made him hungry, but that was because he was used to being fed round the clock, and not used to exercise. Elena could hear everything through their connection and she heard him thinking that he was glad to see Elena renewing herself. That he had learned discipline now; that it wouldn't do him any harm to go to bed one night feeling hungry. He would hold his sleepy adorable Elena al night.

No! Elena was horrified. Since he'd been imprisoned in the Dark Dimension, anything that hinted at Stefan going without fil ed her with appal ing terror. Suddenly she had trouble swal owing the bite she'd taken.

"Right here, right here…please?"she begged him. She didn't want to have to seduce him into it, but she would if he forced her to. She would wash her hands into pristine cleanliness, and change into a long, clinging nightgown, and stroke his stubborn canines in between kisses, and touch them with her tongue tip gently, just at the base where they wouldn't cut her as they responded and grew. And by then he would be dizzy, he would be out of control, he would be hers completely.

All right, All right! Stefan thought to her. Mercy!

"I don't want to give you mercy. I don't want you to let me go,"she said, holding her arms out to him, and heard her own voice soft and tender and yearning. "I want you to hold me and keep me forever, and I want to hold you and keep you forever."

Stefan's face had changed. He looked at her with the look he'd worn in prison when she had come to visit him in an outfit – very unlike the grubby one she wore now – and he'd said, bewildered, "Al this…it's for me?"

There had been razor wire between them then. Now there was nothing to separate them and Elena could see how much Stefan wanted to come to her. She reached a little farther and then Stefan came into the circle of her arms and held her tightly but with infinite care not to use enough strength to hurt her. When he relaxed and leaned his forehead against hers, Elena realized that she would never be tired or sad or frightened without being able to think of this feeling and that it would uphold her for the rest of her life.

At last they sank down together on the sheets, comforting each other in equal measure; exchanging sweet, warm kisses. With each kiss, Elena felt the outside world and al its horrors drift farther and farther away. How could anything be wrong when she herself felt that heaven was near? Matt and Meredith, Damon and Bonnie would surely al be safe and happy too. Meanwhile, every kiss brought her closer to paradise, and she knew Stefan felt the same way. They were so happy together that Elena knew that soon the entire universe would echo with their own joy, which overflowed like pure light and transformed everything it touched.

Bonnie woke and realized she had only been unconscious for a few minutes. She began to shiver, and once she started she couldn't seem to stop. She felt a wave of heat envelop her, and she knew that Damon was trying to warm her, but Stillthe trembling wouldn't go away.

"What's wrong?"Damon asked, and his voice was different from usual.

"I don't know,"Bonnie said. She didn't. "Maybe it's because they kept starting to throw me out the window. I wasn't going to scream about that,"she added hastily, in case he assumed she would. "But then when they talked about torturing me – "

She felt a sort of spasm go through Damon. He was holding her too hard. "Torturing you! They threatened you with that?"

"Yes, because, you know, Misao's star bal was gone. They knew that it had been poured out; I didn't tel them that. But I had to tel them that it was my fault that the last half got poured out, and then they got mad at me. Oh! Damon, you're hurting me!"

"So it was your fault it got poured out, was it?"

"Well, I figure it was. You couldn't have done it if I hadn't gotten drunk, and – wh-what's wrong, Damon? Are you mad too?"He real y was holding her so that she real y couldn't breathe.

Slowly, she felt his arms loosen a little. "A word of advice, little redbird. When people are threatening to torture and kil you, it might be more – expedient – to tel them that it's someone else's fault. Especial y if that happens to be the truth."

"I know that!"Bonnie said indignantly. "But they were going to kil me anyway. If I'd told about you, they'd've hurt you, too."

Damon pul ed her roughly back now, so that she had to look him in the face. Bonnie could also feel the delicate touch of a telepathic mind probe. She didn't resist; she was too busy wondering why he had plum-colored shadows under his eyes. Then he shook her a little, and she stopped wondering.

"Don't you understand even the basics of self-preservation?"he said, and she thought he looked angry again. He was certainly different from any other time that she'd seen him – except once, she thought, and that was when Elena had been "Disciplined"for saving Lady Ulma's life, back when Ulma had been a slave. He'd had the same expression then, so menacing that even Meredith had been frightened of him, and yet so fil ed with guilt that Bonnie had longed to comfort him.

But there had to be some other reason, Bonnie's mind told her. Because you're not Elena, and he's never going to treat you the way he treats Elena. A vision of the brown room rose before her, and she felt certain that he would never have put Elena there. Elena wouldn't have let him, for one thing.

"Do I have to go back?"she asked, realizing that she was being petty and sil y and that the brown room had seemed like a haven just a little while ago.

"Go back?"Damon said, a little too quickly. She had the feeling that he'd seen the brown room too, now, through her eyes. "Why? The landlady gave me everything in the room.

So I have your real clothes and a bunch of star bal s down there, in case you weren't through with one. But why would you think you might have to go back?"

"Well, I know you were looking for a lady of quality, and I'm not one,"Bonnie said simply.

"That was just so I could change back into a vampire,"Damon said. "And what do you think is holding you up in the air right now?"But this time Bonnie knew somehow that the sensations from the "Never Ever"star bal s were Stillin her mind and that Damon was seeing them too. He was a vampire again. And the contents of these star bal s were so abominable that Damon's stony exterior final y cracked.

Bonnie could almost guess what he thought of them, and of her, left to shiver under her one blanket every night.

And then, to her total astonishment, Damon, the ever-composed, brand-new vampire blurted, "I'm sorry. I didn't think about how that place would be for you. Is there anything that wil make you feel better?"

Bonnie blinked. She wondered, seriously, if she were dreaming. Damon didn't apologize. Damon famously didn't apologize, or explain, or speak so nicely to people, unless he wanted something from them. But one thing seemed real.

She didn't have to sleep in the brown room anymore.

This was so exciting that she flushed a little, and dared say,

"Could we go down to the ground? Slowly? Because the truth is that I'm just terrified of heights."

Damon blinked, but said, "Yes, I think I can manage that. Is there anything else you'd like?"

"Well  – there are a couple of girls who'd be donors – happily – if – well  – if there's any money left – if you could save them…"

Damon said a little sharply, "Of course there's some money left. I even wrung your share back out of that hag of a landlady."

"Well, then, there's that secret that I told you, but I don't know if you remember."

"How soon do you think you'l feel well enough to start?"asked Damon.