The Return: Midnight (Chapter 27)

Stefan whirled around and saw Bonnie, with only a towel wrapped around her, trying to physical y restrain Elena, who was similarly clad. Elena's hair was wet and uncombed.

Something had caused her to leap out of the bathing pool and run directly into the corridor.

Stefan was surprised by Damon's reaction. Was that a spark of alarm in the endlessly dark eyes that had remained impassive watching a thousand disasters, calamities, cruelties?

No, it couldn't be. But it certainly looked like one.

Elena was getting closer. Her voice rang out clearly through the hal way, which was spacious enough to give it a slight echo. "Damon! I see you! You wait right there –  I'm coming to kill you! "

This time the flicker was unmistakable. Damon glanced at the window, which was partly open.

Meanwhile Bonnie had lost the fight and Elena was running like a gazel e toward the office. Her eyes, however, were definitely not doe-like. Stefan saw them glitter dangerously as Elena herself eluded him – mainly because he didn't dare grab her by the towel, and every other part of her was slippery. Elena was now facing Damon, who had risen from his chair.

"How could you?"she cried. "Using Bonnie like that –

Influencing her, drugging her – al to get at what didn't belong to you! Using almost al the Power that was left in Misao's star bal  – what did you think Shinichi would do when you did that? He came after us, that's what he did – and who knows if the boardinghouse is Stillstanding?"

Damon opened his mouth, but Elena wasn't finished.

"And then to bring Bonnie to the Dark Dimension with you – I don't care if you didn't want to waste opening the Gate or not. You knew you shouldn't be taking her here."

Damon was angry now. "I – "

But Elena cut him off without even hesitating. "Then once you drag her here you abandon her. You leave her terrified, alone, in a room where she's not even al owed to look out of the window, with a col ection of star bal s that you don't even bother to examine – but which are completely unsuitable and give her nightmares! You – "

"If the little dolt had just had the sense to wait quietly – "

"What? What did you say? "

"I said, if the little dolt had just had the sense – "

Stefan, who was already on the move, shut his eyes briefly.

He opened them again in time to see the slap and to feel Elena putting al her Power into it. It snapped Damon's head around.

What astonished him – even though he positioned himself precisely in case of it – was to see Damon's hand flash up as quick as a cobra's strike. There was no fol ow-through, but Stefan had already picked Elena up bodily and pul ed her back out of range.

"Let go!"Elena cried, struggling to get out of Stefan's arms, or at least get her feet on the ground. "I'm going to kill him!"

The next astonishing thing – discontinuing the raw fury that Stefan could feel coursing through Elena's aura – was that Elena was actual y winning the struggle, despite the fact that he was orders of magnitude stronger than she was. Part of it had to do with the towel, which was threatening to drop at any moment. The other part was that Elena had acquired a unique style of fighting stronger opponents – at least those with any conscience. She deliberately threw herself against any point at which it would hurt her to restrain her, and she didn't give up. Eventual y he was going to have to choose between injuring her and letting her go.

At that moment, however, Elena stopped moving. She froze, head turned as she looked behind him.

Stefan glanced backward too, and felt an electrical shock shoot through him.

Bonnie was standing directly behind them, looking at Damon, her lips parted in anguish, tears in her wide brown eyes and streaming down her cheeks.

Instantly, even before he could register Elena's pleading glance, Stefan released her. He understood: Her mood and the dynamics of this situation had just been turned upside down.

Elena adjusted her towel and turned to Bonnie, but by then Bonnie was running away down the corridor. Elena's longer strides al owed her to reach Bonnie in a moment and she caught the smal er girl and held her, not so much by force as by sisterly magnetism. "Don't worry about that snake, "Elena's voice came back to them clearly, as it was obviously meant to. "He's a – "And here Elena indulged in some very creative cursing.

Stefan could hear al of it distinctly and noticed that it broke off into tiny hushing sounds just as Elena turned into the door of the bathing salon.

Stefan glanced sideways at Damon. He didn't mind fighting his brother in the least right now; he was ful of rage himself on behalf of Bonnie. But Damon ignored him as if he were part of the wal paper, staring at nothing with an expression of icy fury.

At that moment Stefan heard a faint sound from the farthest end of the corridor, which was quite a distance away. But his vampire senses informed him that surely the person in front was a woman of consequence, probably their hostess. He stepped forward so that at least she could be greeted by someone who was wearing clothing.

However, at the last moment, Elena and Bonnie appeared in front of him, clad in dresses – gowns, rather – that were both casual and works of genius. Elena's was an informal robe of deep lapis blue, with her hair drying into a soft golden mass around her shoulders. Bonnie was wearing something shorter and lighter: pale violet, shot with threads of silver in no particular pattern. Both outfits, Stefan grasped suddenly, would look as good in the interminable sunlight as in a closed room with no windows and gas lamps.

He remembered the stories Elena had told about Lady Ulma designing gowns for her, and he realized that whatever else his hostess might be, she was truly a genius couturier.

And then Elena was running, dainty gold sandals flying, and Bonnie's silver slippers were fol owing and Stefan began to run too, fearing some unknown danger. They al arrived at the far end of the hal way at the same time, and Stefan saw that the woman standing there was dressed even more splendidly than the girls. She was wearing a deep red raw silk gown with a heavy diamond-and-ruby necklace and ring – but no bracelets.

The next minute the girls were both curtseying, deep, graceful curtseys. Stefan made his best bow.

Lady Ulma held out both hands to Elena, who seemed to be almost frantic over something that Stefan didn't understand.

Elena took the extended hands, breathing quickly and shal owly. "Lady Ulma – you're so thin – "

Just then the babbling of a baby could be heard. Elena's face lit up and she smiled at Lady Ulma, letting out a quick breath. A young servant – even younger-looking than Bonnie – gently put a tiny bundle made of lace and sheerest lawn into Lady Ulma's arms. Both Elena and Bonnie blinked away tears, al the while beaming at the child and making little nonsense noises. Stefan could understand that – they'd known the Lady since she was a whip-torn slave, trying not to miscarry.

"But how – ?"Elena began spluttering. "We saw you only a few days ago, but this baby is months old – "

"A few days? Is that how long it seems to you?"asked Lady Ulma. "To us, it has been many months. But the magic Stillworks, Elena! Your magic remained! It was an easy delivery – easy! And then Dr. Meggar says that you saved me before she suffered injury from the abuse I went through. She is trying to speak already! It is you, Elena, it is your magic!"

At this the Lady made a movement as if to kneel at Elena's feet. She got no farther than a few inches, though, because Elena caught her hands, crying, "Lady Ulma, no!"while Stefan, at his best speed, slipped beside the girl servant and caught the Lady by her elbows, supporting her weight.

"And I'm not magic,"Elena added. "Stefan, tel her that I'm not magic."

Obediently, Stefan leaned toward the ear of the tal woman.

"Elena is the most magic I've ever encountered,"he stage-whispered. "She has Powers that I can't even understand."

"Ahh!" Elena made a wordless exclamation of frustration.

"Do you know what I'm naming her?"the Lady continued. Her face, if not conventional y beautiful, was striking, with an aristocratic combination of Roman nose and high cheekbones.

"No."Elena smiled – and then "No!"Elena cried. "Please!

Don't condemn her to a life of expectations and terror. Don't tempt anyone to hurt her while she's Stilla child. Oh, Lady Ulma!"

"But my dear savior…"

Then Elena began to manage things. Once she took a situation in hand there was no way not to go with the flow of it. "Lady Ulma,"she said clearly, "forgive me for interfering in your affairs. But Bonnie has told me – "She stopped, hesitated.

"Of the troubles of strong and hopeful young girls, for the most part poor or enslaved, who have taken on the names of the three bravest young women who ever graced our world,"Lady Ulma finished for her.

"Something like that,"Elena said, flushing.

"Nobody's cal ing themselves Damon,"put in the young nurse cheerful y and with the utmost goodwil . "Neither boys nor girls."

Stefan could have kissed her.

"Oh, Lakshmi!"Elena hugged the coltish-looking teenager. "I didn't even see you properly. Let me look at you."She held the girl at arm's length. "Do you know, you've grown at least an inch since I last saw you?"

Lakshmi beamed.

Elena turned back to Lady Ulma. "Yes, I am afraid for the child. Why not cal her Ulma?"

The patrician lady half shut her eyes. "Because, my dear Elena, Helena, Aliena, Al iana, Laynie, El a – I would not wish

'Ulma'on anyone, much less my lovely daughter."

"Why not cal her Adara?"Lakshmi put in suddenly. "I always thought that was pretty, since I was a kid."

There was a silence – almost a stunned silence. Then Elena said, "Adara – it's a lovely name."

"And not at alldangerous,"Bonnie said.

Stefan said, "It wouldn't stop her from starting a revolution if she wanted to."

There was a pause. Everyone looked at Damon, who was looking out the window expressionlessly. Everyone waited.

He final y turned. "Oh, excel ent,"he said blankly, clearly having no idea – and less interest – in what they were talking about.

"Oh come on, Damon."Bonnie's eyes were Stillswol en, but she spoke brightly. "Make it unanimous! That way Lady Ulma wil be sure."Good God, Stefan thought, she must be the most forgiving girl in the universe.

"Certainly, then,"Damon said indifferently.

"Forgive us,"Elena said tightly to the room in general. "We've all been going through a bit of a hard time."

That gave Lady Ulma her cue. "Of course you have,"she said, smiling the smile of one who has known bitter suffering.

"Bonnie has told us of the destruction of your town. I am deeply sorry. What you need now is food and rest. I'l have someone conduct you to your rooms."

"I should have introduced Stefan at the start, but I was so worried I forgot to,"Elena said. "Stefan, this is Lady Ulma, who was so good to us before. Lady Ulma – Well, you know who this is."She went on tiptoe to kiss Stefan lingeringly.

Lingeringly enough that Stefan had to gently detach her and put her down. He was almost frightened at this display of bad manners. Elena was really angry at Damon. And if she didn't forgive him, the scenes would only continue to escalate – and if he was right, Elena was truly getting closer to being able to cast Wings of Destruction.

He didn't even consider asking Damon to forgive anyone.

After the girls had whispered raptures over the baby again, they were conducted to opulent bed chambers, each furnished in excel ent taste, down to the smal est decoration.

As usual, though, they al congregated in one room, which happened to be Stefan's.

There was more than enough space on the bed for the three of them to sit or flop. Damon wasn't present but Stefan would bet his undead life that he was listening in.

"All right,"Elena said briskly, and went into storytel ing mode.

She explained to Bonnie everything that had happened through their taking the Master Keys from Shinichi and Misao, to their flight to Lady Ulma's bathing chamber.

"To have so much Power suddenly torn away from you in an instant…"Bonnie had her head down, and it wasn't hard to guess who she was thinking about. She looked up. "Please, Elena. Don't be so angry at Damon. I know he's done some bad things – but he's been so unhappy…"

"That's no excuse,"Elena began. "And, frankly, I'm – "

Don't, Elena! Don't tell her that you're ashamed of her for putting up with it! She's already ashamed of herself!

"I'm surprised at him,"Elena said with only the smal est hesitation. "I know for a fact that he cares for you. He even has a pet name for you: his little redbird."

Bonnie sniffed. "You always say that pet names are stupid."

"Well, but I meant names like – oh – if he cal ed you 'Bonbon'or something."

Bonnie's head came up. "Even that would be okay for the baby,"she said, with a sudden smile, like a rainbow after a storm.

"Oh, yes, isn't she adorable? I never saw such a happy baby.

Margaret used to just look at you with big eyes. Adara – if she is Adara – should have such a happy life…"

Stefan settled back against the headboard. Elena had the situation in hand.

Now he could worry about where Damon was going. After a moment he tuned back in, to find Bonnie talking about treasure.

"And they kept asking me and asking me and I couldn't figure out why since the star bal with the story on it was right there.

Only the story is gone now – Damon checked. Shinichi was going to throw me out the window, and that was when Damon rescued me, and the Guardians asked me about the story too."

"Strange,"Stefan said, sitting up alertly. "Bonnie, tel me how you first felt this story; where you were and al ."

Bonnie said, "Well, first I saw a story about a little girl named Marit going to buy a sugarplum – that was why I tried to do the same thing the next day. And then I went to bed, but I couldn't sleep. So then I picked up the star bal again and it showed me the story about the kitsune treasures. The stories are shown in order, so it had to be the one right after the sweetshop story. And then suddenly I was out of my body, and I was flying with Elena right over Alaric's car."

"Did you do anything in between experiencing the story and going to bed?"Stefan asked.

Bonnie thought; her rosebud mouth pursed. "I suppose I turned down the gas lamp. Every night I would turn the lamp way down so that it was only a flicker."

"And did you turn it back up again when you couldn't sleep and reached for the star bal again?"

"Um…no. But they're not books! You don't have to see to experience a story."

"That wasn't what I meant. How did you find the star bal in that dim room? Was it the only star bal on the floor near you?"

Bonnie's brows came together. "Well …no. There were twenty-six. Two others were hideous; I'd kicked those into a corner. Twenty-five were soap operas – so boring. It's not as if I had shelves or anywhere else to put them – "

"Bonnie, do you want to know what I think happened?"

Bonnie blinked and nodded.

"I think that you read a children's story and then you went to bed. And you actual y fel asleep very quickly, even though you dreamed you were awake. Then you dreamed a premonition – "

Bonnie groaned. "Another one of those? But there wasn't even anyone to tel it to then!"

"Exactly. But you wanted to tel it to someone, and that longing brought you – your spirit – to where Elena was. But Elena was so worried about getting word across to Alaric that she was having an out-of-body experience. She'd been asleep too, I'm sure of it."Stefan looked at Elena. "What do you think of that?"