The Return: Midnight (Chapter 32)

"Damon doesn't mean to be such a – a bastard,"Bonnie said explosively. "He's just – so often he feels like it's the three of us against him – and – and – "

"Well, who started that? Even back riding the thurgs,"Stefan said.

"I know, but there's something else,"Bonnie said humbly.

"Since it's only snow and rock and ice – he's – I don't know.

He's al tight. Something's wrong."

"He's hungry,"Elena said, stricken by a sudden realization.

Since the thurgs there had been nothing for the two vampires to hunt. They couldn't exist, like foxes, on insects and mice.

Of course Lady Ulma had provided plenty of Black Magic for them, the only thing that even resembled a substitute for blood. But their supply was dwindling, and of course, they had to think of the trip back, as well .

Suddenly Elena knew what would do her good.

"Stefan,"she murmured, pul ing him into a nook in the craggy stone of the cave entrance. She pushed off her hood and unrol ed her scarf enough to expose one side of her neck.

"Don't make me say 'please'too many times,"she whispered to him. "I can't wait that long."

Stefan looked into her eyes, saw that she was serious – and determined – and kissed one of her mittened hands.

"It's been long enough now, I think – no, I'm sure, or I would never even attempt this,"he whispered. Elena tipped her head back. Stefan stood between her and the wind and she was almost warm. She felt the little initial pain and then Stefan was drinking and their minds slid together like two raindrops on a glass window.

He took very little blood. Just enough to make the difference in his eyes between Stillgreen pools and sparkling, effervescent streams.

But then his gaze went Stillagain. "Damon…"he said, and paused awkwardly.

What could Elena say? I just severed al ties with him? They were supposed to help one another along these trials; to show their wit and courage. If she refused, would she fail again?

"Send him quick then,"she said. "Before I change my mind."

Five minutes later Elena was again tucked into the little nook, while Damon turned her head back and forth with dispassionate precision, then suddenly darted forward and sank his fangs into a prominent vein. Elena felt her eyes go wide.

A bite that hurt this much – Well, she hadn't experienced it since the days when she had been stupid and unprepared and had fought with al her strength to get free.

As for Damon's mind – there was a steel wal . Since she had to do this, she had been hoping to see the little boy who lived in Damon's inmost soul, the one who was the unwil ing Watch-Keeper over al of his secrets, but she couldn't even thaw the steel a little.

After a minute or two, Stefan pul ed Damon off of her – not gently. Damon came away sul enly, wiping his mouth.

"Are you okay?"Bonnie asked in a worried whisper, as Elena rummaged through Lady Ulma's medicine box for a piece of gauze to staunch the unhealed wounds in her neck.

"I've been better,"Elena said briefly, as she wrapped up her scarf again.

Bonnie sighed. "Meredith is the one who real y belongs here,"she said.

"Yes, but Meredith real y belongs in Fel 's Church, too. I only hope they can hold on long enough for us to come back."

"I only hope that we can come back with something that wil help them,"Bonnie whispered.

Meredith and Matt spent the time from 2:00 A.M. to dawn pouring infinitesimal drops from Misao's star bal onto the streets of the town, and asking the Power to – somehow –

help them in the fight against Shinichi. This brisk movement from place to place had also netted a surprising bonus: kids.

Not crazy kids. Normal ones, terrified of their brothers and sisters or of their parents, not daring to go home because of the awful things they had seen there. Meredith and Matt had crammed them into Matt's mother's second-hand SUV and brought them to Matt's house.

In the end, they had more than thirty kids, from ages five to sixteen, al too frightened to play, or talk, or even to ask for anything. But they'd eaten everything Mrs. Flowers could find that wasn't spoiled in Matt's refrigerator and pantry, and from the pantries of the deserted houses on either side of the Honeycutts'.

Matt, watching a ten-year-old girl cramming plain white bread into her mouth with wolfish hunger, tears running down her grimy face as she chewed and swal owed, said quietly to Meredith, "Think we've got any ringers in here?"

"I'd bet my life on it,"she replied just as quietly. "But what are we going to do? Cole doesn't know anything helpful. We'l just have to pray that the un-possessed kids wil be able to help us when Shinichi's ringers attack."

"I think the best option when confronted by possessed kids who may have weapons is to run."

Meredith nodded absently, but Matt noticed she took the stave everywhere with her now. "I've devised a little test for them. I'm going to smack every one with a Post-It, and see what happens. Kids who've done things they regret may get hysterical, kids who're already just terrified may get some comfort, and the ringers wil either attack or run."

"This I have to see."

Meredith's test lured out only two ringers in the whole mob, a thirteen-year-old boy and a fifteen-year-old girl. Each of them screamed and darted through the house, shrieking wildly.

Matt couldn't stop them. When it was al over and the older kids were comforting the younger ones, Matt and Meredith finished boarding up the windows and pasting amulets between the boards. They spent the evening scouting for food, questioning the kids about Shinichi and the Last Midnight, and helping Mrs. Flowers treat injuries. They tried to keep one person on guard at alltimes, but since they had been up and moving since 1:30 A.M., they were al very tired.

At a quarter to eleven Meredith came to Matt, who was cleaning the scratches of a yel ow-haired eight-year-old.

"Okay,"she said quietly, "I'm going to take my car and get the new amulets Mrs. Saitou said she'd have done by now. Do you mind if I take Saber?"

Matt shook his head. "No, I'l do it. I know the Saitous better, anyway."

Meredith gave what, in a less refined person, might have been cal ed a snort. "I know them well enough to say, excuse me, Inari-Obaasan; excuse me, Orime-san; we're the troublemakers who keep asking for huge amounts of anti-evil amulets, but you don't mind that, do you?"

Matt smiled faintly, let the eight-year-old go, and said, "Well, they might mind it less if you got their names straight.

'Obaasan'means 'grandma,'right?"

"Yes, of course."

"And 'san'is just a thingy you put at the end of a name to be polite."

Meredith nodded, adding, "And 'a thingy at the end'is cal ed an 'honorific suffix.'"

"Yeah, yeah, but for al your big words you've got their names wrong. It's Orime-grandma and Orime-Isobel's-mother. So Orime-Obaasan and Orime-san, too."

Meredith sighed. "Look, Matt, Bonnie and I met them first.

Grandma introduced herself as Inari. Now I know she's a little wacky, but she would certainly know her own name, right?"

"And she introduced herself to me and said not just that she was named Orime, but that her daughter was named after her. Talk your way out of that one."

"Matt, shal I get my notebook? It's in the boardinghouse den – "

Matt gave a short sharp laugh – almost a sob. He looked to make sure Mrs. Flowers wasn't around and then hissed, "It's somewhere down at the center of the earth, maybe. There is no den anymore."

For a moment Meredith looked simply shocked, but then she frowned. Matt glared darkly. It didn't help to think that they were the two most unlikely of their group to quarrel. Here they were, and Matt could practical y see the sparks flying. "All right,"Meredith said final y, "I'l just go over there and ask for Orime-Obaasan, and then tel them it was al your fault when they laugh."

Matt shook his head. "Nobody's going to laugh, because you're going to get it right that way."

"Look, Matt,"Meredith said, "I've been reading so much on the Internet that I even know the name Inari. I've come across it somewhere. And I'm sure I would have made…made the connection…"Her voice trailed off. When Matt turned his eyes down from the ceiling, he started. Meredith's face was white and she was breathing quickly.

"Inari…"she whispered. "I do know that name, but…"Suddenly she grabbed Matt's wrist so hard that it hurt.

"Matt, is your computer absolutely dead?"

"It went when the electricity went. By now even the generator is gone."

"But you have a mobile that connects to the Internet, right?"

The urgency in her voice made Matt, in turn, take her seriously. "Sure,"he said. "But the battery's been kaput for at least a day. Without electricity I can't recharge it. And my mom took hers. She can't live without it. Stefan and Elena must've left their stuff at the boardinghouse – "He shook his head at Meredith's hopeful expression and whispered, "Or, should I say, where the boardinghouse used to be."

"But we have to find a mobile or computer that works! We have to! I need it to work for just a minute!"Meredith said frantical y, breaking away from him and beginning to pace as if trying to beat some world record.

Matt was staring at her in bewilderment. "But why?"

"Because we have to. I need it, even just for a minute!"

Matt could only gaze at her, perplexed. Final y he said, "I guess we can ask the kids."

"The kids! One of them has got to have a live mobile! Come on, Matt, we have to talk to them right now."She stopped and said, rather huskily, "I pray that you're right and I'm wrong."

"Huh?"Matt had no idea what was going on.

"I said I pray that I'm wrong! You pray, too, Matt –  please!"