The Return: Midnight (Chapter 26)

"Now you know how it's done?"Elena asked Meredith. "You put the key in the keyhole and say where you want to go.

Then open the door and go through. That's it."

"You three go first,"Stefan added. "And quick."

"I'l turn the key,"Meredith told Matt. "You take care of Mrs. Flowers."

Just then Elena thought of something that she didn't want to say aloud, only to Stefan. But she and he were physical y so close, she knew he would pick it up. Saber! she thought to Stefan. We can't leave him to these malach!

We won't, she heard Stefan's voice in her head say. I showed him the way to Matt's house, and told him to go there and take Talon and protect the people who will be coming.

At the same time Matt was saying, "Oh, my God! Saber! He saved my life – I can't just leave him."

"Already taken care of,"Stefan reassured him and Elena patted him on the back. "He'l be at your house in a little while, and if you go somewhere else he'l track you."

Elena turned her pats into gentle pushes. "Be good!"

"Matt Honeycutt's bedroom in Fel 's Church,"Meredith said, thrusting the key at the door handle, and opening the door.

She and Mrs. Flowers and Matt al stepped forward. The door shut.

Stefan turned to Elena. "I'm going first,"he said flatly. "But I'm holding on to you. I'm not going to let you go."

"Never let me go, never let me go,"Elena whispered in an imitation of Misao's "Have nightmares."Then she had a thought.

"Slave bracelets!"

"What?"Stefan said. Then, "Oh, I remember, you told me. But what are they supposed to look like?"

"Like any two bracelets, matching if possible."Elena was scrambling around the back of the room, where furniture was piled up, opening drawers, closing them. "Come on, bracelets! Come on! This house is supposed to have everything!"

"What about these things you wear in your hair?"Stefan asked. Elena looked back and he tossed her a bag of soft cotton ponytail holders.

"You're a genius! They won't even hurt my wrists. And here are two white ones so they'l match!"Elena said happily.

They arranged themselves in front of the door, with Stefan to Elena's left so he could see what was out there before they stepped in. He also had a firm grip on Elena's left arm.

"Wherever our friend Bonnie McCul ough is,"Stefan said, and thrust the key into the lockless door handle, turning it. Then, after giving Elena the key, he gingerly opened the door.

Elena wasn't sure what she was expecting. A blaze of light maybe, as they traveled through dimensions. Some kind of spiraling tunnel, or shooting stars. At least a feeling of motion.

What she got was steam. It soaked through her T-shirt and dampened her hair.

And then she got noise.

"Elena! Eleeeeeeeeeeeeeeena! You're here! "

Elena recognized the voice but couldn't locate the screamer in the steam.

Then she saw an immense bathtub made of tiles of malachite, and a frightened-looking girl tending a charcoal fire at the bath's foot, while two other young attendants holding scrubbing brushes and pumice stones cowered against the other wal .

And in the bath was Bonnie! It was obvious that the tub was very deep, because Bonnie wasn't able to touch bottom in the middle but she was half-leaping out of the water like a foam-covered dolphin over and over to attract attention.

"There you are,"gasped Elena. She dropped to her knees on a thick, soft blue rug. Bonnie made a spectacular leap and just for a moment Elena could feel a smal soapy, sudsy body in her arms.

Then Bonnie went down again and came up laughing.

"And is that Stefan? It's Stefan! Stefan, hello! Helloooo! "

Stefan glanced back, as if trying to assess the suds situation. He seemed satisfied with it, turned slightly, and waved.

"Hey, Bonnie?"he asked, voice muffled by the sounds of continual splashing. "Where are we?"

"It's Lady Ulma's house! You're safe – you're al safe!"She turned a smal hopeful face to Elena. "Where's Meredith?"

Elena shook her head, thinking of al the things about Meredith that Bonnie didn't know yet. Well, she decided, this wasn't the time to mention them. "She had to stay behind, to protect Fel 's Church."

"Oh,"Bonnie looked down, troubled. "Stillbad, is it?"

"You wouldn't believe it. Real y; it's – indescribable. That's where Matt and Mrs. Flowers and Meredith are. I'm sorry."

"No, I'm just so glad to see you! Oh my God, but you're hurt."She was looking at the smal tooth wounds on Elena's arm, and the blood on her torn T-shirt. "I'l get out and – hey, no, you get in! There's plenty of room; plenty of hot water, and… plenty of clothes! Lady Ulma even designed some for us, for 'when we came back'!"

Elena, smiling reassuringly at the bath girls, was already stripping as fast as she could. The tub, which was big enough for six to swim in, looked too luxurious to miss and, she reasoned, it made sense to be clean when you greeted your hostess.

"Go have fun,"she shouted to Stefan. "Is Damon here?"she added in a whispered aside to Bonnie, who nodded.

"Damon's here, too,"Elena caroled. "If you find Lady Ulma, tel her Elena's coming, but she's getting washed up first."She didn't actual y dive into the pearl pink steaming water, but she got onto the second step down and let herself slide from there.

Instantly, she was immersed in delicious heat that seeped straight into her body, pul ing some magic string that relaxed al her muscles at once. Perfumes suffused the air. She flung her wet hair back and saw Bonnie laughing at her.

"So you got out of your hole and you've been here wal owing in luxury while we've been worried sick?"Elena couldn't help but hear the way her voice went up at the end, making it a question.

"No, I got picked up by some people, and – "Bonnie broke off. "Well…the first few days were tough, but never mind.

Thank God we got to Lady Ulma's in the end. Want a bath brush? Some soap that smel s just like roses?"

Elena was looking at Bonnie with slightly narrowed eyes.

She knew that Bonnie would do just about anything for Damon. That included covering up for him. Delicately, al the while enjoying the brushes and unguents and many kinds of soaps laid out on a shelf for easy reach, she began an inquisition.

Stefan got out of the steamy room before he was soaking wet. Bonnie was safe and Elena was happy. He found he had stepped into another room, in which were a number of couches made of some soft spongy material. For drying?

Massage? Who knew?

The next room he entered had gas lanterns that were turned high enough to rival electrical light. Here were three more couches – he had no idea what for – a ful -length silvered-glass mirror, and smal er mirrors in front of chairs. Obviously a place for makeup and beautifying.

This last room opened onto a hal way. Stefan stepped out and hesitated, spreading delicate tendrils of Power in different directions, hoping to find Damon before Damon noticed his presence in the estate. The Master Key had proved that it could overcome the fact that he hadn't been invited here. That meant that maybe he could…

At that moment he got a hit, and withdrew his probe immediately, startled. He stared down the long corridor. He could actual y see Damon, pacing in the room at the end, talking to someone Stefan couldn't see behind the door.

Stefan crept very quietly down the hal way, stalking. He made it to the door without his brother even noticing, and there he saw that the person Damon was talking to was a woman wearing what looked like buckskin breeches and shirt, who had weathered skin, and a general aura of being more at home outside civilization than inside it. Damon was saying,

"Make sure there are enough warm clothes for the girl. She's not exactly hardy, you know – "

"Then where are you taking her – and why?"Stefan asked, leaning against the doorjamb.

He had the good fortune to once – just this once – take Damon unaware. His brother glanced up, and then jerked like a startled cat. It was priceless to watch Damon scrambling for a mask until he decided on the fa?ade of absent amiability. Stefan guessed that no one had ever put so much effort into walking over to a desk chair, sitting down, and forcing himself to lounge.

"Well, well! Little brother! You dropped in for a visit! How…

nice. What a pity, though, that I'm practical y running out the door on a journey, and there's no room for you."

At this point the weather-beaten woman who had been taking notes – and who had risen when Stefan entered the room – spoke up. "Oh, no, my lord. The thurgs won't mind the extra weight of this gentleman. They probably won't notice it.

If his baggage can be ready by tomorrow you can start out in the early morning just as you planned."

Damon gave her his best "shut up or die"glare. She shut up.

Through clenched teeth, Damon managed to say, "This is Pelat. She's the coordinator of our little expedition. Hel o, Pelat. Good-bye, Pelat. You may go."

"As you wish, my lord."

Pelat bowed and left.

"Aren't you taking this 'my lord'thing a bit too seriously?"Stefan asked. "And what is that costume you're wearing?"

"It's the uniform of the captain of the guard of Madame le Princess Jessalyn D'Aubigne,"Damon said coldly.

"You got a job?"

"It was a position."Damon bared his teeth. "And it's none of your business."

"Got your canines back, too, I see."

"And that's none of your business either. But if you want me to knock you out and trample over your undead body, I'l be delighted to oblige."

Something was wrong, Stefan thought. Damon should be through the taunting phase and be actual y trampling on him by now. It only made sense if…

"I've already spoken to Bonnie,"he said. And so he had, to ask where he was. But to a guilty mind, apparent foreknowledge often worked wonders.

And Damon hastily said exactly what Stefan hoped he wouldn't. "I can explain!"

"Oh, God,"Stefan said.

"If she'd just done as I told her – "

"While you were off becoming a princess's captain of the guard? And she was – where?"

"She was safe, at least! But, no, she had to go out into the street and then to that shop – "

"Shocking! She actual y walked in the street?"

Damon ground his teeth. "You don't know how it is around here – or how the slave trade works. Every day – "

Stefan slammed both hands on the desk, now truly angry.

"She was picked up by slavers? While you were sleazing around with a princess?"

"Princess Jessalyn does not sleaze,"Damon replied icily.

"Nor do I. And anyway it al turned out to be a good thing because now we know where the Seven Kitsune Treasures are."

"What treasures? And who cares about treasures when there's a town being destroyed by kitsune?"

Damon opened his mouth, shut it, then looked narrowly at Stefan. "You said that you'd talked to Bonnie about al this."

"I did talk to Bonnie,"Stefan said flatly. "I said hel o."

Damon's dark eyes flared. For a moment Stefan thought he was going to snarl or start a fight. But then, through clenched teeth, he said, "It's al for the damned town, don't you see that? Those treasures include the largest star bal ever to be fil ed with Power. And that Power may be enough to save Fel 's Church. At least to stop its total annihilation. Maybe to even clear out every malach that exists and destroy Shinichi and Misao with a single blow. Is that noble enough for you, little brother? Is it reason enough?"

"But taking Bonnie – "

"You stay with her here if you like! Spend your lives here! I might mention that without her I would never have been able to set up an expedition, and that she's determined to go.

Besides, we're not coming back this way. There has to be an easier route from the Gatehouse to Earth. We wouldn't survive coming back, so you'd better hope like hel that there is one."

Stefan was surprised. He had never heard his brother speak with such passion about anything that involved humans. He was about to reply, when behind him there came a scream of pure, unadulterated rage. It was frightening – and worrying, too, because Stefan would recognize that voice anywhere, anytime. It was Elena's.