The Return: Midnight (Chapter 35)

Elena felt as if she had been doing nothing in al her life except walk under a shady canopy of high branches. It wasn't cold here, but it was cool. It wasn't dark, but it was dim.

Instead of the constant crimson sunlight from the bloated red sun in the first Dark Dimension, they were walking in a constant dusk. It was unnerving, always looking up for the sky and never seeing the moon – or moons – or the planet – that might well be up there. Rather than sky, there was nothing but tangled tree branches, clearly heavy and so intricately entwined as to take up every bit of space above.

Was she crazy, thinking that maybe they were on that moon, the diamond bright tiny moon that you could see from the outside of the Nether World Gatehouse? Was it too tiny to have an atmosphere? Too smal for proper gravity? She had noticed that she felt lighter here and that even Bonnie's steps seemed quite long. Could she…? She tensed her legs, let go of Stefan's hand, and jumped.

It was a long jump, but it hadn't taken her anywhere near the canopy of woven branches above. And she didn't land neatly on her toes, either. Her feet flew out from under her on mil ennia of leaf mold and she skidded on her rear end for maybe three feet, before she could dig her fingers and feet in and stop.

"Elena! Are you All right?"She could hear Stefan and Bonnie cal ing from behind her, and a quick, impatient: Are you crazy? from Damon.

"I was trying to figure out where we were by testing the gravity,"she said, standing up on her own and brushing leaves off the seat of her jeans, mortified. Damn! Those leaves had gone up the back of her T-shirt, had even gotten inside her camisole. The group had left most of their furs behind at the Gatehouse, where Sage could guard them, and Elena didn't even have spare clothes. That had been stupid, she told herself angrily now. Embarrassed, she tried to walk and shimmy at the same time, to get the crumbled leaves out of her top. Final y she had to say, "Just a second, everybody.

Guys, could you turn around? Bonnie, could you come back here and help me?"Bonnie was glad to help and Elena was astonished at how long it took to pick gunk away from her own flinching back.

Next time you want a scientific opinion, try asking, Damon's scornful telepathy commented. Aloud, he added, "I'd say it's about eighty percent Earth's gravity here and we could well be on a moon. Doesn't signify. If Sage hadn't helped us with this compass, we'd never be able to find the tree's trunk – at least not in time."

"And remember,"Elena said, "that the idea that the star bal is near the trunk is just a guess. We have to keep our eyes open!"

"But what should we look for?"Once, Bonnie would have wailed this. Now she simply asked quietly.

"Well…"Elena turned to Stefan. "It wil look bright, won't it?

Against this horrible half-light?"

"This horrible camouflage-green half-light,"Stefan agreed. "It should look like a slightly shifting bright light."

"But put it like this,"Damon said, walking backward graceful y and flashing his old 250-kilowatt smile for a second at them.

"If we don't fol ow Sage's suggestion, we'l never find the trunk. If we try to wander randomly around this world, we wil never find anything – including our way back. And then not only Fel 's Church, but we wil al die, in this order. First, we two vampires wil break with al civilized behavior, as starvation – "

"Stefan won't,"cried Elena, and Bonnie said, "You're just as bad as Shinichi, with his 'revelations'about us!"

Damon smiled subtly. "If I were as bad as Shinichi, little redbird, you would already be punctured like an empty juice box – or I would be sitting back with Sage, enjoying Black Magic – "

"Look, this is pointless,"Stefan said.

Damon feigned sympathy. "Maybe you have…problems…in the canine area, but I do not, little brother."He deliberately held the smile this time so everyone could see his pointed teeth.

Stefan wouldn't be baited. "And it's holding us up – "

"Wrong, little brother. Some of us have mastered the art of speaking and walking at the same time."

"Damon – stop it! Just stop!"Elena said, rubbing her hot forehead with cold fingers.

Damon shrugged, Stillmoving backward. "You only had to ask,"he said, with just the slightest emphasis on the first word.

Elena said nothing in return. She felt feverish.

It wasn't al just straight walking. Frequently there were huge mounds of knotted roots in their way that had to be climbed.

Sometimes Stefan had to use the axe from his backpack to make footholds.

Elena had come to hate the deep green demi-light more than anything. It played tricks on her eyes, just as the muffled sound of their feet on the leaf-strewn ground played tricks on her ears. Several times she stopped – and once Stefan did – to say, "There's someone else here! Fol owing us!"

Each time they had al stopped and listened intently. Stefan and Damon sent telepathic probes of Power as far as they could reach, seeking another mind. But either it was so well disguised as to be invisible or it didn't exist at all.

And then, after Elena felt as if she had been walking her whole life, and would keep walking until eternity ended, Damon stopped abruptly. Bonnie, just behind him, sucked in her breath. Elena and Stefan hurried forward to see what it was.

What Elena saw made her say, unsteadily, "I think maybe we missed the trunk and…found…the edge…"

On the ground in front of her and as far as she could see, was the star-studded darkness of space. But washing out the light of the stars was a huge planet and two huge moons, one swirled blue and white and one silver.

Stefan was holding her hand, sharing the wonder with her, and tingles ran up her arm and into her suddenly weak knees, just from his feather-light touch on her fingers.

Then Damon said caustical y, "Look up."

Elena did and gasped. For just an instant her body was completely unmoored. She and Stefan automatical y wound their arms around each other. And then Elena realized what they were seeing, both above and below.

"It's water,"she said, staring at the pool spread out before them. "One of those freshwater seas Sage told us about.

And not a ripple on it. Not a breath of wind."

"But it does look as if we're on that smal est moon,"Stefan said mildly, his eyes deceptively innocent as he looked at Damon.

"Yes, Well, then there's something exceedingly heavy at the core of this moonlet, to al ow for eight-tenths the gravity we normal y experience, and to hang on to so much atmosphere

– but who cares about logic? This is a world we reached through the Nether World. Why should logic apply?"He looked at Elena with slightly narrowed, hooded eyes.

"Where is the third one? The grave one?"

The voice came from behind them – Elena thought. She was

– they al were – turning from looking at bril iant light into half-darkness. Everything shimmered and danced before her eyes.

"Grave Meredith; laughing Bonnie;

And Elena with golden hair.

They whisper and then are silent…

They plot and I no longer care…

But I must have Elena,

Elena with the Golden Hair…"

"Well, you're not going to have me!"cried Elena. "And that poem is a complete misquote, anyway. I remember it from freshman English class. And you're crazy! "Even through her anger and fear she wondered about Fel 's Church. If Shinichi was here, could he bring about the Last Midnight there? Or could Misao simply set it off with a languid wave?

"But I will have you, golden Elena,"the kitsune said.

Both Stefan and Damon had knives out. "That's just where you're wrong, Shinichi,"Stefan said. "You wil never, ever touch Elena again."

"I have to try. You've taken everything else."

Elena's heart was pounding now. If he'l talk sense to any of us, he'l talk to me, she thought. "Shouldn't you be getting ready for the Last Midnight, Shinichi?"she asked in a friendly tone, inwardly trembling in case he should say, "It's already over."

"She doesn't need me. She wouldn't protect Misao. Why should I help Her?"

For a moment Elena couldn't speak. She? She? Other than Misao, what other She was involved in this?

Damon had a crossbow out now, with a quarrel loaded in it.

But Shinichi just went rambling on.

"Misao couldn't move anymore. She had put al her Power into her star bal , you see. She never laughed or sang any longer – never made up any plots with me. She just…sat.

"Final y she asked me to put her into myself. She thought we'd become one that way. So she dissolved and merged right into me. But it didn't help. Now…I can barely hear her.

I've come to get my star bal . I've been using its energy to travel through the dimensions. If I put Misao into my star bal , she'l recover. Then I'l hide it again – but not where I left it last. I'l put it farther up where no one else wil ever find it."He seemed to focus on his listeners. "So I guess it's Misao and I who are talking to you right now. Except that I'm so lonely – I can't feel her at all."

"You wil not touch Elena,"Stefan said quietly.

Damon was looking grimly at the rest of the group at Shinichi's words, "…I'l put it farther up…"

"Go on, Bonnie, keep moving,"Stefan added. "You too, Elena. We'l fol ow."

Elena let Bonnie go some feet ahead before saying telepathical y, We can't break up, Stefan; there's only one compass.

Watch out, Elena! He might hear you! came Stefan's voice, and Damon added flatly, Shut up!

"Don't bother tel ing her to shut up,"Shinichi said. "You're mad if you think that I can't just pick your thoughts right out of your minds. I didn't think you were that stupid."

"We're not stupid,"Bonnie said hotly.

"No? Then did you figure out my riddles for you?"

"This is hardly the time for that,"Elena snapped. It was a mistake, for it caused Shinichi to focus on her again.

"Did you tel them what you think about the tragedy of Camelot, Elena? No, I didn't think you'd have the courage. I'l tel them, then, shal I? I'l read it as you put it in your diary."

"No! You can't have read my diary! Anyway – it's no longer applicable! "Elena flared.

"Let me see…these are your own words now."He assumed a reading voice. 'Dear Diary, one of Shinichi's riddles was what I thought of Camelot. You know, the legend of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the knight she loved, Lancelot.

And here's what I thought. A lot of innocent people died and were miserable because three selfish people – a king, a queen, and a knight – couldn't behave in a civilized way.

They couldn't understand that the more you love, the more you find to love. But those three couldn't give in to love and just share – al three of them…'"

"Shut up!"screamed Elena. "Shut up!"

My God, Damon said, my life just lapped itself.

So did mine. Stefan sounded dizzy.

Just forget about all of it, Elena told them. It's not true anymore. Stefan, I'm yours forever, and I always was. And right now w e've got to get rid of this bastard, and run for the trunk.

"Misao and I used to do that,"Shinichi said. "Talk alone together on a special frequency. You're certainly a good manipulator, Elena, to keep them from kil ing each other over you."

"Yes, it's a special frequency I cal the truth,"Elena said. "But I'm not half as good a manipulator as Damon is. Now attack us or let us go away. We're in a hurry!"

"Attack you?"Shinichi seemed to be thinking over the idea.

And then, faster than Elena could track it, he went for Bonnie.

The vampires, who had been expecting him to try to get to Elena, were caught off guard, but Elena, who had seen the flicker of his eyes toward the weaker girl, was already diving for him. He moved back so quickly that she found herself heading for his legs, but then she realized she had a chance to throw him off balance. She deliberately went for a headbutt with his kneecap, at the same time stabbing deep into his foot with her knife.

Forgive me, Bonnie, she thought, knowing what he would do. It was the same as what he'd had his puppet, Damon, do when he'd held Elena and Matt hostage before – except that he didn't need a pine branch to direct the pain. Black energy erupted directly from his hands into Bonnie's smal body.

But there was another factor he hadn't taken into account.

When he'd had Damon attack Matt and Elena he'd had the sense to keep away from them while directing agony into their bodies. This time, he'd seized Bonnie and wrapped his arms around her. And Bonnie was a most excel ent telepath herself, especial y at projecting. When the first wave of agony hit her, she screamed – and redirected the pain toward Shinichi.

It was like completing a circuit. It didn't hurt Bonnie any less, but it meant that anything Shinichi did to her he felt in his own body, amplified by Bonnie's terror. That was the system that Elena slammed into as hard as she could. When her head impacted with his knee, his kneebone was the more fragile of the two, and something inside it crackled. Dazed, she concentrated on twisting the knife she'd stabbed through his foot and into the soil below.

It wouldn't have worked if she hadn't had two extremely agile vampires right behind her. Since Shinichi didn't fal over, she would just have been putting her neck at the perfect level for him to snap cleanly.

But Stefan was only a split second behind her. He seized her and was out of Shinichi's reach before the kitsune could even assess the situation properly.

"Let me go,"Elena gasped at Stefan. She was determined to get Bonnie. "I left my knife,"she added craftily, finding a more concrete reason for forcing Stefan to let her back into the fray.


"In his foot, of course."

She could feel Stefan trying not to laugh out loud. "I think that's a good place to leave it. Take one of mine,"he added.

If you've quite finished your little chat, you might get rid of his tails, came Damon's cold telepathy.

At that moment Bonnie passed out, but with her own telepathic circuits Stillwide open and directed back toward Shinichi. And now Damon had gone into offensive mode, as if he cared nothing about Bonnie's well-being, as long as he could get through her to Shinichi.

Stefan, quick as a striking snake, went for one of the many tails that now waved behind Shinichi, advertising his tremendous Power. Most of them were translucent, and they surrounded his real tail – the flesh-and-blood tail that every fox had.

Stefan's knife went snick and one of the phantom tails fel to the ground and then disappeared. There was no blood, but Shinichi keened in fury and pain.

Damon, meanwhile, was ruthlessly attacking from the front.

As soon as Stefan had distracted the kitsune from the back, Damon slashed both Shinichi's wrists – one quickly on the upstroke, the other just as fast on the down-stroke. Then he went for a body blow just at the moment that Stefan, with Elena held like a baby on his hip, snicked away another phantom tail.

Elena was struggling. She was seriously worried that Damon would kill Bonnie to get to Shinichi. And besides, she herself would not be toted around like a piece of luggage!

Civilization had tumbled down al around her and she was reacting from her deepest instincts: protect Stefan, protect Bonnie, protect Fel 's Church. Put the enemy down. She hardly realized that in her heightened state she had sunk her unfortunately Still-human teeth into Stefan's shoulder.

He winced slightly, but he listened to her. All right! Try to get Bonnie, then – see if you can ease her.

He let go of her just as Shinichi whirled to deal with him, channeling the black pain that, back on Earth, had flung Matt and Elena off their feet in seizures, directly toward Stefan.

Elena, just released, found that everyone was making a half turn, as if to oblige her, and suddenly she saw a chance. She snatched at the limp form of Bonnie, and Shinichi dropped the smal er girl into her arms.

Words were echoing in Elena's brain. Get Bonnie. See if you can ease her.

Well, she had Bonnie now. Her own sense split Stefan's two orders with another –  get her away from Shinichi. She's the priceless hostage.

Elena found that she could almost scream with fury even now. She had to keep Bonnie safe – but that meant leaving Stefan, gentle Stefan, at the mercy of Shinichi. She scrambled away with Bonnie – so smal and light – and at the same time threw a backward glance at Stefan. He was wearing a slight frown of concentration now, but he was not only not overwhelmed with pain, he was pressing forward the attack.

Even though Shinichi's head was on fire. The bril iant crimson tips of his black hair had burst into flames, as if nothing else would express his enmity and his certainty of winning. He was crowning himself with a flaming garland, a hel ish halo.

Elena's anger at that turned into chil s down her spine as she watched something most people never lived to analyze: two vampires attacking together, perfectly in sync. There was the elemental savagery in it of a pair of raptors or wolves, but there was also the awesome beauty of two creatures working as a single, unified body. The distance in Stefan's and Damon's expressions said that this was a fight to the death. The occasional frown from Stefan or vicious smile from Damon meant that Shinichi was sending his searing dark Power through one or the other of them. But these weren't weak humans Shinichi was playing with now. They were both vampires with bodies that healed almost instantly – and vampires who had both fed recently – from her –

Elena. Her extraordinary blood was feuling them now.

So I'm already a part of this, Elena thought. I'm helping them right now. That would have to satisfy the savagery this no-holds-barred fight elicited in her. To ruin the perfect synchronicity with which the two vampires were handling Shinichi would be a crime, especial y when Bonnie was Stilllimp in her arms.

As humans, we're both liabilities, she thought. And Damon wouldn't hesitate to tel me so, even if al I wanted was to get in one single stroke.

Bonnie, come on, Bonnie, she thought. Hold on to me.

We're getting farther away. She picked up the smal er girl under the armpits and dragged her. She backed up into the olive dimness that stretched in al directions. When she tripped over a root and accidental y sat down, she decided that she'd gone far enough, and maneuvered Bonnie into her lap.

Then she cupped her hands around Bonnie's little heart-shaped face and she thought of the most soothing things she could imagine. A cool plunge at Warm Springs back home.

A hot bath at Lady Ulma's and then a four-handed massage, lying comfortably on a drying couch with the scent of floral incense rising around her. A cuddle with Saber in Mrs.

Flowers's informal den. The decadence of sleeping late and waking up in her own bed – with her own mother and father and sister in the house.

As Elena thought of this last, she couldn't help giving a tiny gasp, and a teardrop fel onto Bonnie's forehead. Bonnie's eyelashes fluttered.

"Now, don't you be sad,"she whispered. "Elena?"

"I've got you, and nobody's going to hurt you again. Do you Stillfeel bad?"

"A little. But I could hear you, in my mind, and it made me feel better. I want a long bath and a pizza. And to hold baby Adara. She can almost talk, you know. Elena – you're not listening to me!"

Elena wasn't. She was watching the denouement of the fight between Stefan and Damon and Shinichi. The vampires had the kitsune down now and were squabbling over him like a couple of fledglings over a particularly tasty worm. Or maybe like a pair of baby dragons – Elena wasn't sure if birds hissed at each other.

"Oh, no – yuck!"Bonnie saw what Elena was watching and col apsed, hiding her head against Elena's shoulder. Okay, Elena thought. I get it. There's no savagery at allin you, is there, Bonnie? Mischief, but nothing like bloodlust. And that's good.

Even as she thought this, Bonnie abruptly sat up straight, bumping Elena's chin, and pointing into the distance.

"Wait!"she cried. "Do you see that?"

That was a very bright light, which flared brighter as each vampire found a place to his liking on Shinichi's body and bit simultaneously.

"Stay here,"Elena said, a little thickly, because when Bonnie had bumped her chin she'd accidental y bitten her tongue.

She ran back to the two vampires and knocked them as hard as she could over the heads. She had to get their attention before they got completely locked into feeding mode.

Not surprisingly, Stefan detached first, and then helped her to pul Damon off his defeated enemy.

Damon snarled and paced, never taking his eyes off Shinichi as the beaten kitsune slowly sat up. Elena noticed drops of blood scattered around. Then she saw it, tucked into Damon's belt, black and crimson-tipped and sleek: Shinichi's real tail.

Savagery fled…fast. Elena wanted to hide her head against Stefan's shoulder but instead turned up her face for a kiss.

Stefan obliged.

Then Elena stepped back so that they formed a triangle around Shinichi.

"Don't even think of attacking,"Damon said pleasantly.

Shinichi gave a weak shrug. "Attack you? Why bother? You'l have nothing to go back to, even if I die. The children are pre-programmed to kil . But" – with sudden vehemence – "I wish we'd never come to your damned little town at all – and I wish we'd never fol owed Her orders. I wish I'd never let Misao near Her! I wish we hadn't – "He stopped speaking suddenly.

No, it was more than that, Elena thought. He froze, eyes wide open and staring. "Oh, no,"he whispered. "Oh, no, I didn't mean that! I didn't mean it! I have no regrets – "

Elena had the feeling of something coming at them at tremendous speed, so fast, in fact, that she just had time to open her mouth before it hit Shinichi. Whatever it was, it kil ed him cleanly and passed by without touching anyone else.

Shinichi fel facedown onto the dirt.

"Don't bother,"Elena said softly, as Stefan reflexively moved toward the corpse. "He's dead. He did it to himself."

"But how?"Stefan and Damon demanded in chorus.

"I'm not the expert,"Elena said. "Meredith is the expert on this. But she told me that kitsune could only be kil ed by destroying their star bal s, shooting them with a blessed bul et…or by the 'Sin of Regret.'Meredith and I didn't know what that meant back then – it was before we had even gone into the Dark Dimension. But I think we just now saw it in action."

"So you can't be a kitsune and regret anything you've done?

That's – harsh,"Stefan said.

"Not at all,"Damon said crisply. "Although, if it had operated for vampires, no doubt you would have been permanently dead when you woke up in the family vault."

"Earlier,"Stefan said expressionlessly. "I regreted striking you a mortal blow, even as I was dying. You've always said I feel too guilty, but that is one thing I would give my life to take back."

There was a silence that stretched and stretched. Damon was at the front of the group now, and no one but Bonnie could see his face.

Suddenly Elena grabbed Stefan's hand. "We Stillhave a chance!"she told him. "Bonnie and I saw something bright that way! Let's run!"He and Elena passed Damon running and he grabbed Bonnie's hand too. "Like the wind, Bonnie!"

"But with Shinichi dead – Well, do we real y have to find his star bal or the biggest star bal or whatever is hidden in this awful place?"Bonnie asked. Once, she would have whined, Elena thought. Now, despite whatever pain she felt, she was running.

"We do have to find it, I'm afraid,"Stefan said. "Because from what he said, Shinichi wasn't at the top of the ladder after al .

He and his sister were working for someone, someone female. And whoever She is, She may be attacking Fel 's Church right now."

"The odds have just shifted,"Elena said. "We have an unknown enemy."

"But Still – "

"Al bets,"Elena said, "are off."