The Return: Midnight (Chapter 37)

Then Meredith saw something that was not smoke or fire.

Just a glimpse of a door frame – and a tiny breath of cool air.

With this hope to sustain her, she scuttled straight for the door to the backyard, dragging Isobel behind her.

As she passed the threshold, she felt blessedly cold water somehow showering down onto her body. When she pul ed Isobel into the spray, the younger girl made the first voluntary sound she had during the entire journey: a wordless sob of thanks.

Matt's hands were helping her along, were taking away the burden of Isobel. Meredith got up to her feet and staggered in a circle, then dropped to her knees. Her hair was on fire!

She was just recal ing her childhood rehearsal of stop, drop, and rol , when she felt the cold water turned on it. The hose water went up and down her body and she turned around, basking in the feeling of coolness, until she heard Matt's voice say, "The flames are out. You're good now."

"Thank you, Matt. Thank you."Her voice was hoarse.

"Hey, you were the one who had to go al the way to the bedrooms and back. Getting Mrs. Saitou out was pretty easy – there was the kitchen sink ful of water, so as soon as I cut her free from the kitchen chair we just got al wet and dashed outside."

Meredith smiled and looked around quickly. Isobel had become her responsibility now. To her relief, she saw that the girl was being hugged by her mother.

And al it had taken was the nonsense choice between a thing – however precious it was – and a life. Meredith gazed at the mother and daughter and was glad. She could have another stave made. But nothing could replace Isobel.

"Isobel said to give this to you,"Matt was saying.

Meredith turned toward him, the fiery light making the world crazy, and for one moment didn't believe her eyes. Matt was holding the fighting stave out to her.

"She must have dragged it with her free hand – oh, Matt, and she was almost dead before we started…"

Matt said, "She's stubborn. Like someone else I know."

Meredith wasn't quite sure what he meant by that, but she knew one thing. "We'd al better get to the front yard. I doubt the volunteer fire department is going to come. Besides – Theo – "

"I'l get them moving. You scout the gate side,"Matt said.

Meredith plunged into the backyard, which was hideously il uminated by the house, now ful y engulfed in flames.

Fortunately, the side yard was not. Meredith flicked the gate open with the stave. Matt was right behind her, helping Mrs.

Saitou and Isobel along.

Meredith quickly ran by the flaming garage and then stopped. From behind her she heard a cry of horror. There was no time to try to soothe whoever had cried, no time to think.

The two fighting women were too busy to notice her – and Theo was in need of help. Inari was truly like a fiery Medusa, with her hair writhing around her in flaming, smoking snakes.

Only the crimson part burned, and it was that part that she was using like a whip, using one snake to wrest away the silver bul whip from Theo's hand, and then another to wrap around Theo's throat and choke her. Theo was desperately trying to pul the blazing noose from her neck.

Inari was laughing. "Are you suffering, petty witch? It wil al be over in seconds – for you and for your entire little town! The Last Midnight has final y come!"

Meredith glanced back at Matt – and that was al it took. He ran forward, passing her, al the way up to the space below the fighting women. Then he bent slightly, cupping his hands.

And then Meredith sprinted, putting everything she had left into the short run, leaving her just enough energy to leap and place one foot into Matt's cupped hands, and then she felt herself soaring aloft, just within distance for the stave to slice cleanly through the snake of hair that was choking Theo.

After that Meredith was in free fal , with Matt trying to catch her from below. She landed more or less on top of him and they both saw what happened next.

Theo, who was bruised and bleeding, slapped out a part of her gown that was smoldering. She held out a hand for the silver bul whip and it flew to meet her outstretched fingers.

But Inari wasn't attacking. She was waving her arms wildly, as if in terror, and then suddenly she shrieked: a sound so anguished that Meredith drew in her breath sharply. It was a death-scream.

Before their eyes she was turning back into Obaasan, into the shrunken, helpless, dol -like woman Matt and Meredith knew. But by the time this shriveled body hit the ground it was already stiff and dead, her expression one of such unrepentant malice that it was frightening.

It was Isobel and Mrs. Saitou then who came forward to stand over the body, sobbing with relief. Meredith looked at them and then up at Theo, who slowly floated to the ground.

"Thank you,"Theo said with the faintest of smiles. "You have saved me – yet again."

"But what do you think happened to her?"Matt asked. "And why didn't Shinichi or Misao come to help her?"

"I think they al must be dead, don't you?"Theo's voice was soft over the roar of the flames. "As for Inari – I think that perhaps someone destroyed her star bal . I'm afraid I was not strong enough to defeat her myself."

"What time is it?"Meredith abruptly cried, remembering. She ran to the old SUV, which was Stillrunning. Its clock showed 12:00 midnight exactly.

"Did we save the people?"Matt asked desperately.

Theo turned her face outward toward the center of the town.

For nearly a minute she was Still, as if listening for something. At last, when Meredith felt that she might shatter from tension, she turned back and said quietly, "Dear Ma ma, Grand mama, and I are one, now. I sense children who are finding themselves holding knives – and some with guns. I sense them standing in their sleeping parents'rooms, unable to remember how they got there. And I sense parents, hiding in closets, a moment ago frightened for their very lives, who are seeing weapons dropped and children fal ing onto master bedroom floors, sobbing and bewildered."

"We did it, then. You did it. You held her off,"Matt panted.

Stillgentle and sober, Theo said, "Someone else – far away – did much more. I know that the town needs healing. But Grand mama and Ma ma agree. Because of them, no child has kil ed a parent this night, and no parent has kil ed a child.

The long nightmare of Inari and her Last Midnight is over."

Meredith, grimy and bedraggled as she was, felt something rise and swell inside her, bigger and bigger, until, for al her training, she couldn't contain herself any longer. It exploded out of her in a yel of exultation.

She found that Matt was shouting too. He was as grubby and unkempt as she was, but he seized her by the hands and whirled her around in a barbarian victory dance.

And it was fun, whirling around and yel ing like a kid. Maybe – maybe in trying to be calm, in always being the most grown-up, she had missed out on the essence of fun, which always felt as if it had some childlike quality to it.

Matt had no trouble in expressing his feelings, whatever they were: childlike, mature, stubborn, happy. Meredith found herself admiring this, and also thinking that it had been a long time since she'd real y looked at Matt. But now she felt a sudden wave of feeling for him. And she could see that Matt felt the same way about her. As if he'd never real y looked at her properly before.

This was the moment…when they were meant to kiss.

Meredith had seen it so often in movies, and read about it in books, that it was almost a given.

But this was life, it wasn't a story. And when the moment came, Meredith found herself holding Matt's shoulders while he held hers, and she could see that he was thinking exactly the same thing about the kiss.

The moment stretched…

Then, with a grin, Matt's face showed that he knew what to do. Meredith did too. They both moved in, and hugged each other. When they drew back, they were both grinning. They knew who they were. They were very different, very close friends. Meredith hoped that they always would be.

They both turned to look at Theo, and Meredith felt a pang in her heart, the first since she had heard they'd saved the town. Theo was changing. It was the look on her face as she watched them that gave Meredith the pang.

After being young, and while watching youth at its peak, she was once again aging, wrinkling, her hair going white instead of moonlit silver. At last, she was an old woman wearing a raincoat covered with bits of paper.

"Mrs. Flowers!" This person, it was perfectly safe and right to kiss. Meredith flung her arms about the frail old woman, lifting her off her feet in excitement. Matt joined them, and they boosted her above their heads. They carried her like this to the Saitous, mother and daughter, who were watching the fire.

There, sobered, they put her down.

"Isobel,"Meredith said. "God! I'm so sorry – your home…"

"Thank you,"Isobel said in her soft, slurred voice. Then she turned away.

Meredith felt chil ed. She was even beginning to regret the celebration, when Mrs. Saitou said, "Do you know, this is the greatest moment in the history of our family? For hundreds of years, that ancient kitsune – oh, yes, I've always known what she was – has been forcing herself upon innocent humans.

And for the last three centuries it has been my family line of samurai mikos that she has terrorized. Now my husband can come home at last."

Meredith looked at her, startled. Mrs. Saitou nodded.

"He tried to defy her and she banished him from the house.

Ever since Isobel was born, I have feared for her. And now, please forgive her. She has trouble expressing what she feels."

"I know about that,"Meredith said quietly. "I'l go have a little talk with her, if it's All right."

If ever in her life she could explain to a fel ow traveler what fun having fun was, she thought, it was now.