The Return: Midnight (Chapter 36)

Matt broke a lot of traffic rules on the way to the Saitous'street. Meredith leaned on the console between the two front seats so that she could see the digital clock ticking down to midnight, and so that she could watch the transformation of Mrs. Flowers. At last her recently sane, sensible mind forced words out of her mouth. "Mrs. Flowers – you're changing."

"Yes, Meredith, dear. Some of it is due to the little present that Sage left for me. Some of it is my own wil  – to return to the days when I was in my prime. I believe that this wil be my last fight, so I don't mind using al my energy in it. Fel 's Church must be saved."

"But – Mrs. Flowers – the people here – Well, they haven't always been – exactly nice – "Matt stammered his way to a stop.

"The people here are like people everywhere,"Mrs. Flowers said calmly. "Treat them as you'd like to be treated, and things wil be fine. It was only when I'd let myself become a bitter, lonely old woman, always resentful of the fact that I had had to turn my home into a boardinghouse just to make ends meet, that people began to treat me – Well, at best as a loony old hag."

"Oh, Mrs. Flowers – and we've been such a bother to you!"Meredith found the words coming without her volition.

"You've been the saving of me, child. Dear Stefan was the start, but as you can imagine, he didn't want to explain al his little differences to me, and I was suspicious of him. But he was always cordial and respectful and Elena was like sunlight, and Bonnie like laughter. Eventual y, when I dropped my hidebound barriers, so did you young ones. I won't say more about those who are present so as not to embarrass you, but you've done me a world of good."

Matt ran another stop sign and cleared his throat. Then, the steering wheel wavering slightly, he cleared his throat again.

Meredith took over. "I think what Matt and I both want to say is…Well, it's that you've become very special to us, and we don't want to see you get hurt. This battle – "

"Is a battle for al I hold dear. For al my memories. Back when I was a child and the boardinghouse was built – it was just a home, then, and I was very happy. As a young woman, I was very happy. And now that I have lived long enough to be an old woman – Well, besides you children, I Stillhave friends like Sophia Alpert and Orime Saitou. They are both healing women, and very good at it. We Stilltalk about different uses for my herbs."

Matt snapped his fingers. "That's another reason I was confused,"he said. "Because Dr. Alpert said that you and Mrs. Saitou were such good people. I thought she meant the old Mrs. Saitou – "

"Who is not a 'Mrs. Saitou'at all,"Mrs. Flowers said, almost sharply. "I have no idea what her name real y is – perhaps she is real y Inari, a deity gone bad. Ten years ago, I didn't know what made Orime Saitou suddenly so diffident and quiet. Now I realize that it began just around the time her

'mother'moved in with her. I was quite fond of young Isobel, but she suddenly became – aloof – in an unchildlike way.

Now I understand. And I am determined to fight for her – and for you – and for a town that is worth saving. Human lives are very, very precious. And now – here we are."

Matt had just turned onto the Saitous'block. Meredith took a moment to openly stare at the figure in the front passenger seat. "Mrs. Flowers!"she exclaimed.

This made Matt turn to stare in his turn and what he saw made him clip a Volkswagen Jetta parked by the sidewalk.

"Mrs…. Flowers?"

"Please park now, Matt. You needn't cal me Mrs. Flowers if you don't want to. I have returned to the time when I was Theophilia – when my friends cal ed me Theo."

"But – how – why – ?"Matt stuttered.

"I told you. I felt that it was time. Sage left me a gift that helped me change. An enemy beyond your powers to fight has arisen. I felt this back at the boardinghouse. This is the time that I have been waiting for. The last battle with the true enemy of Fel 's Church."

Meredith's heart actual y seemed ready to fly out of her chest. She had to be calm – calm and logical. She had seen magic many times. She knew the look of it, the feel of it. But frequently she had been too busy comforting Bonnie, or too worried about aiding Bonnie to take in what she was facing.

Now, it was just her and Matt – and Matt had a stricken, stupefied look, as if he hadn't seen enough magic before. As if he might crack.

"Matt,"she said loudly, and then even louder, "Matt!" He turned, then, to look at her, with his blue eyes wild and dark.

"They'l kill her, Meredith!"he said. "Shinichi and Misao – you don't know what it feels like…"

"Come on,"Meredith said. "We have to make sure that it doesn't kil her."

The dazed look passed from Matt's eyes. "We have to do this,"he agreed simply.

"Right,"said Meredith, final y releasing him. Together they got out of the car to stand by Mrs. Flowers – no, by Theo.

Theo had hair that hung almost to her waist; so fair that it looked silver in the moonlight. Her face was – electrifying. It was young; young and proud, with classic features and a look of quiet determination.

Somehow during the drive, her clothes had changed too.

Instead of a coat covered with bits of paper, she was wearing a sleeveless white gown that ended in a slight train.

In style, it reminded Meredith a little of the "mermaid"dress she herself had worn when going to a bal in the Dark Dimension. But Meredith's dress had only made her look sultry. Theo looked…magnificent.

As for the Post-it Note amulets…somehow the paper had disappeared and the writing had grown enormously, changing into very large scrawls that wrapped around the white gown. Theo was literal y swathed in haute couture arcane protection.

And although she was reed slender, she was tal . Tal er than Meredith, tal er than Matt, tal er than Stefan, wherever he was in the Dark Dimensions. She was this tal not only because she had grown so much, but because the train of her dress was just brushing the ground. She had entirely overcome gravity. The whip, Sage's present to her, was coiled into a circle attached to her waist, shining as silver as her hair.

Matt and Meredith simultaneously closed the SUV's doors.

Matt left the engine running for a quick getaway.

They walked around the garage so that they could see the front of the house. Meredith, not caring what she looked like or whether she seemed cool or in control, wiped her hands, one and then the other, on her jeans. This was the stave's first – and possibly only – true battle. What counted was not appearance, but performance.

Both she and Matt stopped dead when they saw the figure standing at the bottom of the steps in front of the porch. It was no one they could identify from the house. But then the crimson lips opened, the delicate hands flew up to cover them, and wind-chime laughter came from somewhere behind the hands.

For a moment they could only stare, fascinated, at this woman who was dressed al in black. She was ful y as tal as Theo, ful y as slender and graceful, and she was floating equal y high off the ground. But what Meredith and Matt were staring at was the fact that her hair was like Misao's or Shinichi's – but reversed. Whereas they had black hair with a crimson fringe on the bottom, this woman had crimson hair –

yards and yards of it, with a black fringe al around it. Not only that, but she had delicate black fox ears emerging from the crimson hair, and a long sleek crimson tail, tipped with black.

"Obaasan?"Matt gasped in disbelief.

"Inari!"Meredith snapped.

The lovely creature didn't even look at them. She was staring at Theo in contempt. "Tiny witch of a tiny town,"she said.

"You've used nearly al your Power just to stand up to my level. What good are you?"

"I have very smal Powers,"Theo agreed. "But if the town is worthless, why has it taken you so long to destroy it? Why have you watched others try – or were they all your pawns, Inari? Katherine, Klaus, poor young Tyler – were they your pawns, Kitsune Goddess?"

Inari laughed – Stillthat chiming, girlish giggling, behind her fingers. "I don't need pawns! Shinichi and Misao are my bond-servants, as al kitsune are! If I have left them some freedom, it has been so they can get experience. We'l go on to larger cities now, and ravage them."

"You have to take Fel 's Church first,"Theo said steadily. "And I won't let you do that."

"You Stilldon't understand, do you? You are a human, with almost no Power left! Mine is the largest star bal in the worlds! I am a Goddess!"

Theo lowered her head, then lifted it to look Inari in the eyes.

"Do you want to know what I think the truth is, Inari?"she said.

"I think that you have come to the end of a long, long, but not immortal life. I think you have dwindled so that at last you need to use a great deal of Power from your star bal  –

wherever it is – to appear this way. You are a very, very ancient woman and you have been setting children against their own parents, and parents against children across the world because you envy the children's youth. You have even come to envy Shinichi and Misao, and let them be hurt, as revenge."

Matt and Meredith looked at each other with wide eyes. Inari was breathing rapidly, but it seemed she couldn't think of anything to say.

"You've even pretended to have entered a 'second childhood'to behave girlishly. But none of it satisfies you, because the plain, sad truth is that you have come to the end of your long, long lifetime – no matter how great your Power.

We must al take that final journey, and it is your turn now."

"Liar!"shrieked Inari, looking for a moment more glorious –

more radiant than before. But then Meredith saw why. Her scarlet hair had actual y begun to smolder, framing her face in a dancing red light. And at last she spoke venemously.

"Well, then, if you think this is my last battle, I must be sure to cause al the pain I can. Starting with you, witch."

Meredith and Matt both gasped. They were afraid for Theo, especial y as Inari's hair was braiding itself into thick ropes like serpents that floated around her head as if she were Medusa.

The gasps were a mistake – they attracted Inari's attention.

But she didn't move. She only said, "Smel that sweet scent on the wind? A roast sacrifice! I think the result wil be oishii – delicious! But perhaps you two would like to speak to Orime or Isobel one last time. I'm afraid they can't come out to see you."

Meredith's heart was pounding violently in her throat, as she realized that the Saitous'house was on fire. It seemed as if there were several smal fires burning, but she was terrified at the implication that Inari had already done something to the mother and daughter.

"No, Matt!"she cried, grabbing Matt's arm. He would have charged straight at the laughing black-clad woman and tried to attack her feet – and seconds were invaluable now.

"Come help me find them!"

Theo came to their aid. Drawing up the white bul whip, she whirled it once around her head and cracked it precisely on Inari's raised hands, leaving a bloody gash on one. As a furious Inari turned back to her, Meredith and Matt ran.

"The back door,"Matt said as they careered around the side of the house. Up ahead they saw a wooden fence, but no gate. Meredith was just considering using the stave to pole-vault, when Matt panted, "Here!"and made a cradle of his hands for her to step into. "I'l boost you over!"

Meredith hesitated only an instant. Then, as he skidded to a stop she jumped to place one foot in his inter-locked fingers.

Suddenly she was flying upward. She made the most of it, landing, catlike, on the fence's flat top, and then jumping down. She could hear Matt scrambling up the fence as she was suddenly surrounded by black smoke. She jumped backward three feet and yel ed, "Matt, the smoke is dangerous! Get low; hold your breath. Stay outside to help them when I bring them out!"

Meredith had no idea whether Matt would listen to her or not, but she obeyed her own rules, crouching low, breath held, opening her eyes briefly to try to find the door.

Then she almost jumped out of her skin at the sound of an axe crashing into wood, of wood splintering, and of the axe crashing again. She opened her eyes and saw that Matt hadn't listened to her, but she was glad because he'd found the door. His face was black with soot. "It was locked,"he explained, hefting the axe.

Any optimism Meredith might have felt splintered like the door as she looked inside and saw only flames and more flames.

My God, she thought, anyone in there is roasting, is probably dead already.

But where had that thought come from? Her knowledge or her fear? Meredith couldn't just stop now. She took a step into searing heat and shouted, "Isobel! Mrs. Saitou! Where are you?"

There was a weak, choking cry. "That's the kitchen!"she said.

"Matt, it's Mrs. Saitou! Please go get her!"

Matt obeyed, but threw over his shoulder, "Don't you go farther in."

Meredith had to go farther in. She remembered very well where Isobel's room was. Directly under her "grandmother's."

"Isobel! Isobel! Can you hear me?"Her voice was so low and husky from smoke that she knew she had to keep going.

Isobel might be unconscious or too hoarse to answer.

Meredith dropped to her knees, crawling on the ground where the air was slightly cooler and more clear.

Okay. Isobel's room. She didn't want to touch the door handle with her hand, so she wrapped her T-shirt around it.

The handle wouldn't turn. Locked. She didn't bother to investigate how, she simply turned around and mule-kicked the door right beside the handle. Wood splintered. Another kick, and with a wooden scream the door swung free.

Meredith was feeling dizzy now, but she needed to see the entire room. She took two strides in, and – there!

Sitting up on the bed in the smoky, hot, but otherwise scrupulously tidy little room was Isobel. As Meredith neared the bed she saw – to her fury – that the girl was tied to the brass headboard with duct tape. Two slashes of the stave took care of that. Then, amazingly, Isobel moved, raising a blackened face up to Meredith's.

That was when Meredith's fury peaked. The girl had duct tape across her mouth, to prevent her from making any cry for help. Wincing herself to show that she knew this was going to be painful, Meredith grasped the duct tape and stripped it off. Isobel didn't cry out; instead she took in lungful after lungful of smoky air.

Meredith stumbled toward the closet, snatched two identical-looking white shirts, and swerved back to Isobel. There was a ful tumbler of water right beside her, on the nightstand.

Meredith wondered if it had been put there deliberately to increase Isobel's agony, but she didn't hesitate to use it. She gave Isobel a quick sip, took one herself, and then soaked each shirt. She held one over her own mouth and Isobel mimicked her, holding the wet shirt over her nose and mouth.

Then Meredith grabbed her and guided her back to the door.

After that it simply became a nightmare journey of crawling and kneeling and choking, pul ing Isobel with her al the time.

Meredith thought it would never end, as each inch forward became harder and harder. The stave was an unbearable weight to heave along with her, but she refused to let go of it.

It's precious, her mind said, but is it worth your life?

No, Meredith thought. Not my life, but who knows what else wil be out there if I get Isobel into the cool darkness?

You'l never get her there if you die because of – an object.

It's not an object! Painful y Meredith used the stave to clear some smoldering debris from her path. It belonged to Grandpa in the time when he was sane. It fits my hand. It's not just a thing!

Have it your own way, the voice said, and disappeared.

Meredith was beginning to run into more debris now.

Despite the cramping in her lungs, she was sure that she could make it out of the back door. She knew there should be a laundry room on her right. They should be able to feel a space there.

And then suddenly in the dark something reared up and struck her a blow on the head. It took her dimming mind a long time to come up with a name for the thing that had hurt her. Armchair.

Somehow they'd crawled too far. This was the living room.

Meredith was flooded with horror. They'd gone too far – and they couldn't go out the front door into the midst of magical battle. They would have to backtrack, and this time make sure to find the laundry room, their gate to freedom.

Meredith turned around, pul ing Isobel with her, hoping the younger girl would understand what they had to do.

She left the stave on the burning living room floor.

Elena sobbed to get her breath, even though she was al owing Stefan to help her now. He ran, holding Bonnie by one hand and Elena by the other. Damon was somewhere in front – scouting.

It can't be far now, she kept thinking. Bonnie and I both saw the brightness – we both did. Just then, like a lantern put into a window, Elena saw it again.

It's big, that's the problem. I keep thinking we should reach it because I have the wrong idea of what size it is in my mind.

The closer we get, the bigger it gets.

And that's good for us. We'l need a lot of Power. But we need to get there soon, or it could be al the Power in the universe and it won't matter. We'l be too late.

Shinichi had indicated that they would be too late – but Shinichi had been born a liar. Still, surely just beyond that low branch was…

Oh, dear God, she thought. It's a star ball.