The Return: Midnight (Chapter 24)

Stefan woke early. He spent the time from dawn until breakfast just watching Elena, who even in sleep had an inner glow like a golden flame through a faintly rose-colored candle.

At breakfast, everyone was more or less Stillwrapped up in thoughts of the day before. Meredith showed Matt the picture of her brother, Cristian, the vampire. Matt briefly told Meredith about the inner workings of the Ridgemont court system and painted her a picture of Caroline as werewolf. It was clear that both of them felt safer at the boardinghouse than anywhere else.

And Elena, who had woken up with Stefan's mind al around her, embracing her, and her own mind Stillful of light, was completely at a loss for a Plan A or any other letter. She had to be told gently by the others that only one thing made sense.

"Stefan,"Matt said, draining a mug of Mrs. Flowers's pitch-black coffee. "He's the only one who might be able to use his mind instead of Post-it Notes on the kids."

And, "Stefan,"said Meredith. "He's the only one Shinichi might be afraid of."

"I'm no use at all,"Elena said sadly. She had no appetite. She had gotten dressed with a feeling of love and compassion toward al humankind and a desire to help protect her hometown, but as everyone pointed out, she was probably going to have to spend the day in the root cel ar. Reporters might come to cal .

They're right, Stefan sent to Elena. I'm the only logical person to find out what's really going on in Fell's Church.

He actual y went while the rest of them were finishing breakfast. Only Elena knew why; only she could feel him at the limits of her telepathic range.

Stefan was hunting. He drove into the New Wood, got out, and final y startled a rabbit out of the brush. He Influenced it to rest and not be frightened. Surreptitiously, in this thin woodland without cover, he took a little blood from it…and choked.

It tasted like some kind of hideous liquid flavored with rodent.

Was a rabbit a rodent? He had been lucky enough to find a rat one day in his prison cel and it had tasted vaguely like this.

But now, for days, he had been drinking human blood. Not just that, but the rich, potent blood of strong, adventurous, and in several cases paranormal y talented individuals – the cr��me de la cr��me. How could he have gotten used to it so quickly?

It shamed him now, to think of what he'd taken. Elena's blood, of course, was enough to drive any vampire wild. And Meredith, whose blood had the deep crimson taste of some primordial ocean, and Bonnie, who tasted like a telepath's dessert. And final y Matt, the Al -American red-blooded boy.

They'd fed him and fed him by the hour, far past what he needed to survive. They'd fed him until he'd begun to heal, and seeing that he was healing, they'd fed him more. And it had gone on and on, ending with Elena last night – Elena, whose hair was taking on a silvery cast and whose blue eyes seemed almost radiant. Back in the Dark Dimension, Damon hadn't exercised any restraint at all. Elena hadn't exercised any on her own behalf.

That silvery cast…Stefan's stomach clenched when he thought about it, about the last time he'd seen her hair that way. She'd been dead then. On her feet, but dead just the same.

Stefan let the rabbit scamper away. He was taking another oath. He must not make Elena into a vampire again. That meant no significant blood exchange between the two of them for at least a week – either giving or taking might tip her over the edge.

He must once again adjust to the taste of animal blood.

Stefan shut his eyes briefly, remembering the horror of the first time. The cramps. The shakes. The agony that seemed to tel his entire body that it wasn't getting fed. The feeling that his veins might explode into flame at any moment, and the pain in his jaws.

He stood up. He was lucky to be alive. Luckier than he ever could have dreamed he would be in having Elena beside him. He would work through the readjustment without bothering her by tel ing her, he decided.

Just two hours later Stefan was back at the boardinghouse, limping slightly. Matt, who met him at the heavy front door, noticed the limp. "You okay? You'd better get in and ice it."

"Just a cramp,"Stefan said briefly. "I'm not used to exercise.

Didn't get any back there in – you know."He looked away, flushing. So did Matt, hot and cold and furious at the people who had put Stefan in this condition. Vampires were pretty resilient, but he had the feeling – no, he knew – that Stefan had almost died in his prison cel . One day under lock and key had convinced Matt that he never wanted to be imprisoned again.

He fol owed Stefan to the kitchen where Elena, Meredith, and Mrs. Flowers were – what else? – drinking mugs of tea.

And Matt felt a twinge when Elena instantly noticed the limp and got up and went to Stefan, and Stefan held her tightly, running reassuring fingers through her hair. Matt couldn't help but wonder, though – was that glorious golden hair turning lighter? More like the silvery gold it had been when Elena had first gone with Stefan and was on her way to turning into a vampire? Stefan certainly seemed to be inspecting it closely, turning each handful as he raked his fingers through it.

"Any luck?"Elena asked him, tension in her voice.

Wearily, Stefan shook his head. "I went up streets and down streets and wherever I found a – a young girl who was contorted, or whirling round and round, or doing any other of the things the papers mentioned, I tried to Influence them.

Well, maybe I shouldn't have bothered with the whirling girls. I couldn't catch their eyes. But the final count is zero for eleven."

Elena turned toward Meredith in agitation. "What do we do?"

Mrs. Flowers busily began rummaging through bundles of herbs that hung above her stove. "You need a nice cup of tea."

"And a rest,"Meredith said, patting him lightly on the hand.

"Can I get you anything?"

"Well  – I've got a new idea – scrying. But I need Misao's star bal to see if it wil work. Don't worry,"he added, "I won't use any of the Power in it; I just need to look at the surface."

"I'l bring it,"Elena offered, getting up promptly from where she was sitting on his lap. Matt started slightly and looked at Mrs. Flowers as Elena went to the door of the root cel ar and pushed. Nothing moved and Mrs. Flowers simply watched benignly. It was Stefan who rose to help her, Stilllimping.

Then Matt and Meredith got up, Meredith asking, "Mrs.

Flowers, are you sure we should keep the star bal in that same safe?"

"Ma ma says we're doing the right thing,"Mrs. Flowers answered serenely.

After that things happened very fast.

As if they'd rehearsed it, Meredith pressed the exact place to open the root cel ar door. Elena fel to her hands and knees.

Faster than even he had imagined he could go, Matt went barreling toward Stefan with one shoulder down. Mrs.

Flowers was frantical y pul ing great swaths of dried herbs down from where they hung above the kitchen table.

And then Matt was hitting Stefan with al the power in his body and Stefan was stumbling over Elena, his head going down and down and meeting no resistance on the way.

Meredith was coming at him sideways and helping him do a complete forward flip in the air. As soon as the flip took him out of the doorway and he was cartwheeling down the stairs, Elena got up and shut the door and Meredith leaned against it, as Matt shouted, "How do you keep in a kitsune?"

"These might help,"gasped Mrs. Flowers, stuffing odiferous herbs into the crack under the door.

"And – iron!"cried Elena, and she and Meredith and Matt al ran to the den where there was an enormous, tripartite iron fire screen. Somehow they bundled it back to the kitchen and set it upright against the root cel ar door. Just then the first crash came from the inside against it, but the iron was heavy and the second crash against the door was weaker.

"What are you doing? Have you al gone crazy?"Stefan shouted plaintively, but as the entire group began to cover the door in Post-it Note amulets, he cursed instead and became pure Shinichi. "You'll be sorry, damn you! Misao's not right. She cries and cries. You'll make it up to her with your blood, but not before I introduce you to some special friends of mine. The kind who know how to cause real pain!"

Elena lifted her head, as if hearing something. Matt watched her frown. Then she cal ed to Shinichi, "Don't even try to probe for Damon. He's gone. And if you try to track him I'l fry your brains."

Sul en silence greeted her from the root cel ar.

"My goodness gracious, what next?"murmured Mrs. Flowers.

Elena simply nodded for the others to fol ow her, and they went al the way to the very top of the house – Stefan's room – and spoke in whispers.

"How did you know?"

"Did you use telepathy?"

"I didn't know at first,"Matt admitted, "but Elena was acting as if the star bal was in the root cel ar. Stefan knows it's not there. I guess,"he added with a guilty start, "that I invited him in."

"I knew as soon as he started groping my hair,"Elena said with a shudder. "Stefan and D – I mean, Stefan knows I only like it touched lightly, and at the ends. Not mauled like that.

Remember al Shinichi's little songs about golden hair? He's a nutcase. Anyway, I could tel from the feel of his mind."

Matt felt ashamed. Al his wondering about Elena maybe changing into a vampire…and this was the answer, he thought.

"I noticed his lapis ring,"Meredith said. "I saw him with it on his right hand as he went out earlier. When he came back he had it on his left hand."

There was a brief pause as they al stared at her. She shrugged. "It was part of my training, noticing little things."

"Good point,"Matt said at last. "Good point. He wouldn't be able to change it in sunlight."

"How did you know, Mrs. Flowers?"Elena asked. "Or was it just the way we were behaving?"

"Goodness, no, you're al very good little actors. But as soon as he stepped over the threshold Ma ma fairly shrieked at me: 'What are you doing, letting a kitsune into your house?'So then I knew what we were in for."

"We beat him!"Elena said, beaming. "We actual y caught Shinichi off guard! I can hardly believe it."

"Believe it,"Meredith said with a wry smile. "He was off guard for a moment. He'l be thinking up revenge right now."

Something else was worrying Matt. He turned to Elena. "I thought that you said that both you and Shinichi had keys that could take you anywhere, anytime. So why couldn't he have just said, 'Take me inside the boardinghouse where the star bal is'?"

"Those were different keys from the Twin Fox key,"Elena said, her brows drawn together. "They're, like, the Master Keys and Shinichi and Misao Stillhave them both. I don't know why he didn't use his. Although it would have given him away the moment he was inside."

"Not if he went inside the root cel ar, and stayed there the whole time,"Meredith said. "And maybe a Master Key can override the 'not invited inside'rule."

Mrs. Flowers said, "But Ma ma Stillwould have told me. Also there are no keyholes in the root cel ar. at all."

"'No keyholes'wouldn't matter, I don't think,"Elena answered.

"I think he just wanted to show how clever he was, and how he could fool us into giving him Misao's star bal ."

Before anyone else could say a word, Meredith held out her palm, with a shining key on it. The key was golden with diamonds inset and had a very familiar outline.

"That's one of the Master Keys!"cried Elena. "It's what we thought the Twin Fox key would look like!"

"It sort of came out of his jeans pocket when he did that flip,"Meredith said innocently.

"When you were flipping him over me, you mean,"said Elena.

"I suppose you picked his pocket too."

"So, right now, Shinichi doesn't have a key to escape with!"Matt said excitedly.

"No key to make keyholes,"Elena agreed, dimpling.

"He can have fun changing into a mole and burrowing out of the root cel ar,"Meredith said cool y. "That's if he's got his transforming gear or whatever with him."She added, with a troubled change in her voice, "I wonder…if we should have Matt tel one other person where he's actual y hidden the star bal . Just…Well, just in case."

Matt saw knitted brows al around him. But suddenly the realization hit him that he had to tel someone that he'd hidden the star bal in his closet. The group – including Stefan – had picked him to hide it because he had so stubbornly resisted when Shinichi was using Damon's body as a puppet to torture him a month ago. Matt had proved then that he would die in hideous pain rather than endanger his friends. But if Matt were to die now, Misao's star bal might be lost to the group forever. And only Matt knew how close he had come today to tumbling down the stairs along with Shinichi.

Far below they al heard a shout. "Hel o! Is anybody home? Elena!"

"That's my Stefan,"Elena said and then, without a shred of dignity, she ran to launch herself from the foyer into his arms.

He looked startled, but managed to break her fal before they both went down on the porch.

"What's been going on?"he said, his body vibrating infinitesimal y, as with the urge to fight. "The whole house smel s like kitsune!"

"It's All right,"Elena said. "Come and see."She led him upstairs to his room. "We've got him in the root cel ar,"she added.

Stefan looked confused. "You've got who in the root cel ar?"

"With iron against the door,"Matt said triumphantly. "And herbs and amulets al over it. And, anyway, Meredith got his key."

"His key? You're talking about – Shinichi?"Stefan turned on Meredith, green eyes wide. "While I've been gone?"

"It was mostly an accident. I sort of stuck my hand in his pocket when he was upside down and off balance. And I lucked out and got the Master Key – unless this is an ordinary house key."

Stefan stared at it. "It's the real thing. Elena knows that.

Meredith, you're incredible!"

"Yes, it's the right one,"Elena confirmed. "I remember the shape – pretty elaborate, yes?"She took it from Meredith's hand.

"What are you going to – "

"Might as well test it,"Elena said with a mischievous smile.

She walked to the door of the room, shut it, said, "The den downstairs,"inserted the winged key in the lock, and opened the door, stepping through and shutting the door behind her.

Before anyone could speak, she was back, with the poker from the den held aloft in triumph.

"It works!"Stefan cried.

"That's amazing,"Matt said.

Stefan looked almost feverish. "But don't you realize what it means? It means we can use this key. We can go anywhere we like without using Power. Even to the Dark Dimension!

But first – while he's Stillhere – we ought to do something about Shinichi."

"You're in no condition to do that now, dear Stefan,"Mrs.

Flowers said, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, but the truth is that we have been very, very lucky. That wicked kitsune was off guard back then. He won't be now."

"I Stillhave to try,"Stefan said quietly. "Every one of you has been tormented or had to fight – whether with your fists or your minds,"he added, bowing slightly to Mrs. Flowers. "I've suffered but I've never had a chance to fight him. I have to try."

Matt said, just as quietly, "I'l go with you."

Elena added, "We can al fight together. Right, Meredith?"

Meredith nodded slowly, taking Stefan's poker from his fireplace. "Yes. It may be a low blow, but – together."

"I say it's a higher blow than letting him live and go on hurting people. Anyway, we'l take care of it…together,"Elena said firmly. "Right now!"

Matt started to get up, but his motion was frozen in midair as he stared in horror. Simultaneously, with the grace of hunting lionesses or bal et dancers the two girls closed in on Stefan, and simultaneously they swung their separate pokers; Elena hitting him in the head and Meredith hitting him squarely in the groin. Stefan reeled away from the blow to the head, but simply said, "Ow!"when Meredith hit him. Matt knocked Elena out of the way and then, turning as precisely as if he were on the footbal field, got Meredith out of "Stefan's"way too.

But this imposter had obviously decided not to fight back.

Stefan's form melted. Misao, green leaves woven into her scarlet-tipped black hair, stood before them. To Matt's shock, her face was pinched and pale. She was obviously very il , although Stilldefiant. But there was no mockery in her voice tonight.

"What have you done with my star bal ? And my brother?"she demanded feebly.

"Your brother's safely locked up,"Matt said, hardly knowing what he was tel ing her. Despite al the crimes Misao had committed he couldn't help feeling sorry for her. She was clearly desperate and il .

"I know that. I was going to say my brother wil kil you al  – not as a game, but in anger."Now Misao looked wretched and frightened. "You've never seen him really angry."

"You've never seen Stefan angry either,"Elena said. "At least not when he had al his Power."

Misao just shook her head. A dried leaf floated from her hair.

"You don't understand!"

"I doubt we understand anything. Meredith, have we searched this girl?"

"No, but surely she wouldn't have brought the other one – "

Elena said crisply, "Matt, take a book and read it. I'l tel you when we're done."

Matt was reluctant to turn his back on a kitsune, even a sick one. But when even Mrs. Flowers nodded gently he obeyed.

Still, back turned or not, he could hear noises. And the noises suggested that Misao was being held tightly and searched thoroughly. At first the sounds were al negative murmurs.

"Huh-uh…huh-uh…huh-uh…huh- oops!"There was a rattle of metal on wood.

Matt only turned when Elena said, "Okay, you can look. It was in her front pocket."She added to Misao, who was looking as if she might faint, "We didn't want to have to hold you and search you. But this key – where in heaven's name did you get keys like this, anyway?"

A pink spot showed on Misao's cheeks. "Heaven is right.

They're the only two left of the Master Keys – and they belong to Shinichi and me. I figured out how to steal them from the Celestial Court. That was…a long time ago."

At that moment they heard a car on the road – Stefan's Porsche. In the dead silence that fol owed, they could also see the car through Stefan's window as it swung into the driveway.

"No one goes down,"Elena said tersely. "No one invites him in."

Meredith shot her a keen glance. "Shinichi could have tunneled out like a mole by now. And he's already been invited in."

"My fault for not warning you al  – but anyway, if it is Shinichi and he's done anything to hurt Stefan he's going to see me when I'm angry. The words Wings of Destruction just popped into my head and something inside me wants to say them."

There was a chil in the room.

No one met Stefan, but in a moment they could al hear running footsteps. Stefan appeared at his door, burst through, and found himself confronted with a row of people al looking at him suspiciously.

"What the hell is going on?"he demanded, staring at Misao, who was being held up between Meredith and Matt. "Misao – "

Elena took two steps toward him – and wound herself around him, drawing him into a deep kiss. For a moment he resisted, but then, bit by bit, his opposition col apsed despite the roomful of observers.

When Elena final y let go, she just leaned against Stefan, breathing hard. The others were al crimson with embarrassment. Stefan, flushed as he was, held her tightly.

"I'm sorry,"Elena whispered. "But you've already 'come home'twice. First, it was Shinichi and we locked him in the root cel ar. Then it was her."She pointed, without looking, toward the cowering Misao. "I didn't know how to make sure that Shinichi hadn't escaped somehow – "

"And you're sure now?"

"Oh, yes. I recognize you. You're always ready to let me in."

Matt realized that she was shaking and quickly stood up so she could sit, for at least a minute or two, in peace.

The peace lasted less than a minute.

"I want my star bal !"Misao cried. "I need to put Power in it or I'l go on weakening – and then you'l have murdered me."

"Go on weakening? Is the liquid evaporating out of the star bal or something?"Meredith asked. Matt was thinking about what he'd seen on his home block before the Ridgemont sheriffs had got him.

"You've gathered Power to put in it?"he asked mildly. "Power from yesterday, maybe?"

"Power from ever since you took it. But it isn't joined with…

me. With my star bal . It's mine, but not yet."

"Like maybe some Power from making Cole Reece eat his guinea pig while it was alive? From making kids burn down their own houses?"Matt's voice was gravel y.

"What does it matter?"Misao retorted sul enly. "It's mine.

They were my ideas, not yours. You can't keep me away – "

"Meredith, keep me away from her. I've known that kid Cole since he was born. I'l always have nightmares…"

Misao perked up like a wilting plant getting water. "Have nightmares, have nightmares,"she whispered.

There was a silence. Then Meredith said, careful y and expressionlessly, as if she were thinking of the stave, "You're a nasty little thing, aren't you? Is that your food? Bad memories, nightmares, fear of the future?"

Misao was plainly stumped. She couldn't see the catch. It was like asking a regular hungry teenager "How about some pizza and a Coke? Is that what you want?"Misao couldn't even see that her appetites were wrong, so she couldn't lie.

"You were right before,"Stefan said forceful y. "We have your star bal . The only way to make us give it back would be to do something for us. We're supposed to be able to control you anyway because we have it – "

"Old-ways thinking. Obsolete,"Misao growled.

There was a dead silence. Matt felt his stomach plummet.

They had been betting on "old-ways thinking"al along. To get Shinichi's star bal by making Misao tel them where it was.

Their ultimate goal had been to control Shinichi using his star bal .

"You don't understand,"Misao said, pitiful y and yet angrily at the same time. "My brother wil help me fil my star bal again.

But what we did in this town – it was an order, not just for fun."

"Could'a fooled me,"Elena murmured, but Stefan's head jerked up and he said, "An order? From who?"

"I…don't…know!" Misao screamed. "Shinichi gets the orders.

Then he tel s me what to do. But whoever it is should be happy by now. The town is almost destroyed. He ought to give me some help here!"She glared at the group, and they stared back.

Without knowing that he was going to say it, Matt said, "Let's put her in the root cel ar with Shinichi. I've got this feeling that we might al be sleeping in the storage room tonight."