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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 12)

"Stefan. Stefan!"Elena had been too nervous to stay out of the bedroom for longer than the five minutes it had taken to show herself to the sheriffs. It was Stefan the officers real y wanted and couldn't find, not seeming to consider that someone might backtrack and hide in a room that had already been searched.

And now Elena couldn't get a response out of Stefan, who was locked in an embrace with Meredith, mouth pressed tightly over the two little wounds he'd made. Elena had to shake him by the shoulders, to shake both of them, in order to get any response.

Then Stefan reared back suddenly, but held on to Meredith, who would otherwise have fal en. He hastily licked blood from his lips. For once, though, Elena wasn't focused on him, but on her friend – her friend whom she'd al owed to do this.

Meredith's eyes were shut, but they had dark, almost plum-colored circles under them. Her lips were parted, and her dark cloud of hair was wet where tears had fal en into it.

"Meredith? Merry?"The old nickname just slipped out of Elena's lips. And then, when Meredith gave no sign of having heard her: "Stefan, what's wrong?"

"I Influenced her at the end to sleep."Stefan lifted Meredith and put her on the bed.

"But what happened? Why is she crying – and what's wrong with you?"Elena couldn't help but notice that despite the healthy flush on Stefan's cheeks his eyes were shadowed.

"Something I saw – in her mind,"Stefan said briefly, pul ing Elena behind his back. "Here comes one of them. Stay there."

The door opened. It was the male sheriff, who was red-faced and panting, and who had clearly just lapped himself, returning to this room after starting from it to search the entire first floor.

"I have them al in a room – al but the fugitive,"the sheriff said into a large black mobile. The female sheriff made some brief reply. Then the red-faced male turned to speak to the teenagers. "Now what's going to happen is that I'm going to search you" – he nodded at Stefan – "while my partner searches you two."His head jerked, ear-first, at Meredith.

"What's wrong with her, anyway?"

"Nothing that you could understand,"Stefan replied cool y.

The sheriff looked as if he couldn't believe what had just been said. Then, suddenly, he looked as if he could, and did, and he took a step toward Meredith.

Stefan snarled.

The sound made Elena, who was right behind him, jump. It was the low savage snarl of an animal protecting its mate, its pack, its territory.

The ruddy-faced policeman suddenly looked pale and panicked. Elena guessed that he was looking at a mouth ful of teeth much sharper than his own, and tinged with blood as well.

Elena didn't want this to turn into a pi – that was, a…snarling match.

As the sheriff gabbled to his partner, "We may need some of them silver bul ets after al ,"Elena poked her beloved, who was now making a noise like a very big buzz saw that she could feel in her teeth, and whispered, "Stefan, Influence him!

The other one's coming, and she may already have cal ed for backup."

At her touch, Stefan stopped making the sound, and when he turned she could see his face changing from that of a savage animal baring its teeth back to his own dear, green-eyed self.

He must have taken a lot of blood from Meredith, she thought, with a flutter in her stomach. She wasn't sure how she felt about that.

But there was no denying the after-effects. Stefan turned back to the male sheriff and said crisply, "You wil go into the front hal way. You wil remain there, silent, until I tel you to move or speak."Then, without looking up to see if the officer was obeying or not, he tucked the blankets more tightly around Meredith.

Elena was watching the sheriff, though, and she noticed that he didn't hesitate an instant. He made an about-face and marched off to the front foyer.

Then Elena felt safe enough to look at Meredith again. She couldn't find anything wrong in her friend's face, except her unnatural pal or, and those violet shadows around her eyes.

"Meredith?"she whispered.

No response. Elena fol owed Stefan out of the room.

She had just made it to the foyer when the female sheriff ambushed them. Coming down the stairs, pushing the fragile Mrs. Flowers before her, she shouted, "On the ground! Al of you!"She gave Mrs. Flowers a hard shove forward. "Get down now!"

When Mrs. Flowers almost fel sprawling on the floor, Stefan leaped and caught her, and then turned back to the other woman. For a moment Elena thought that he would snarl again, but instead, in a voice tight with self-control, he said,

"Join your partner. You can't move or speak without my permission."

He took the shaken-looking Mrs. Flowers to a chair on the left side of the foyer. "Did that – person – hurt you?"

"No, no. Just get them out of my house, Stefan, dear, and I'l be most grateful,"Mrs. Flowers replied.

"Done,"Stefan said softly. "I'm sorry we've caused you so much trouble – in your own home."He looked at each of the sheriffs, his eyes piercing. "Go away and don't come back.

You have searched the house, but none of the people you were looking for were here. You think further surveil ance wil yield nothing. You believe that you would do more good by helping the – what was it? Oh, yes, the mayhem in the town of Fel 's Church. You wil never come here again. Now go back to your car and leave."

Elena felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She could feel the Power behind Stefan's words.

And, as always, it was satisfying to see cruel or angry people become docile under the power of a vampire's Influence.

These two stood for another ten seconds quite stil , and then they simply walked out the front door.

Elena listened to the sound of the sheriff's car driving away and such a strong feeling of relief washed over her that she almost col apsed. Stefan put his arms around her, and Elena hugged him back tightly, knowing that her heart was pounding. She could feel it in her chest and her fingertips.

It's all over. All done now, Stefan thought to her and Elena suddenly felt something different. She felt pride. Stefan had simply taken charge and chased the officers away.

Thank you, she thought to Stefan.

"I guess we'd better get Matt out of the root cel ar,"she added.

Matt was unhappy. "Thanks for hiding me – but do you know how long that was?"he demanded of Elena when they were upstairs again. "And no light except what was in that little star bal . And no sound – I couldn't hear a thing down there. And what is this?"He held out the long, heavy wooden staff, with its strangely shaped, spiked ends.

Elena felt sudden panic. "You didn't cut yourself, did you?"She snatched up Matt's hands, letting the long staff fal to the ground. But Matt didn't seem to have a single scratch.

"I wasn't dumb enough to hold it by the ends,"he said.

"Meredith did, for some reason,"Elena said. "Her palms were covered with wounds. And I don't even know what it is."

"I do,"Stefan said quietly. He picked up the stave. "But it's Meredith's secret real y. I mean it's Meredith's property,"he added hastily as al eyes fixed on him at the word secret.

"Well, I'm not blind,"Matt said in his frank, straightforward way, flipping back some fair hair in order to look more closely at the thing. He raised blue eyes to Elena. "I know what it smells like, which is vervain. And I know what it looks like with al those silver and iron spikes coming out of the sharp ends. It looks like a giant staff for exterminating every kind of Godawful Hel acious monster that walks on this earth."

"And vampires, too,"Elena added hastily. She knew that Stefan was in a funny mood and she definitely didn't want to see Matt, for whom she stil cared deeply, lying on the floor with a crushed skul . "And even humans – I think these bigger spikes are for injecting poison."

"Poison?"Matt looked at his own palms hastily.

"You're okay,"Elena said. "I checked you, and besides it would be a very quick-acting poison."

"Yes, they would want to take you out of the fight as fast as possible,"Stefan said. "So if you're alive now, you're likely to stay that way. And now, this Godawful Hel acious monster just wants to get back up to bed."He turned to go to the attic.

He must have heard Elena's swift, involuntarily indrawn breath, because he turned around and she could see that he was sorry. His eyes were dark emerald, sad but blazing with unused Power.

I think we'l have a late morning, Elena thought, feeling pleasurable thril s ripple through her. She squeezed Stefan's hand, and felt him return the pressure. She could see what he had in mind; they were close enough and he was projecting pretty clearly what he wanted – and she was as eager to get upstairs as he was.

But at that moment Matt, eyes on the wickedly spiked staff, said, "Meredith has something to do with that?"

"I should never have said anything at al about it,"Stefan replied. "But if you want to know more, you'd real y better ask Meredith herself. Tomorrow."

"Al right,"Matt said, final y seeming to understand. Elena was way ahead of him. A weapon like that was – could only be –

for kil ing al sorts of monsters walking the earth. And Meredith – Meredith who was as slim and athletic as a bal erina with a black belt, and oh! Those lessons! The lessons that Meredith had always put off if the girls were doing something at that exact moment, but that she always somehow managed to make time for.

But a girl could hardly be expected to carry a harpsichord around with her and nobody else had one. Besides, Meredith had said she hated to play, so her BFFs had let it go at that.

It was al part of the Meredith mystique.

And riding lessons? Elena would bet some of them were genuine. Meredith would want to know how to make a quick escape mounting anything available.

But if Meredith wasn't practicing for a little light music in the drawing room, or for starring in a Hol ywood Western – then what would she have been doing?

Training, Elena guessed. There were a lot of dojos out there, and if Meredith had been doing this since that vampire attacked her grandfather she must be pretty darn good. And when we've fought grisly things, whose eyes have ever been on her, a soft gray shadow that kept out of the limelight? A lot of monsters probably got knocked out but good.

The only question that needed to be answered was why Meredith hadn't shown them the Godawful Hel acious monster staker or used it in any fights – say against Klaus –

until now. And Elena didn't know, but she could ask Meredith herself. Tomorrow, when Meredith was up. But she trusted that it had some simple answer.

Elena tried to stifle a yawn in a ladylike way. Stefan? she asked. Can you get us out of here – without picking me up – and to your room?

"I think we've al had enough stress this morning,"Stefan said in his own gentle voice. "Mrs. Flowers, Meredith is in the first-floor bedroom – she'l probably sleep very late. Matt – "

"I know, I know. I don't know where the schedule went but I might as well make it my night."Matt presented an arm to Stefan.

Stefan looked surprised. Darling, you can never have too much blood, Elena thought to him, seriously and straightforwardly.

"Mrs. Flowers and I wil be in the kitchen,"she said aloud.

When they were there, Mrs. Flowers said, "Don't forget to thank Stefan for defending the boardinghouse for me."

"He did it because it's our home,"Elena said, and went back into the hal , where Stefan was thanking a flushing Matt.

And then Mrs. Flowers cal ed Matt into the kitchen and Elena found herself swooped up in lithe, hard arms and then they were gaining altitude rapidly, with the wood staircase emitting little creaks and groans of protest. And final y they were in Stefan's room and Elena was in Stefan's arms.

There was no better place to be, or anything else either of them real y wanted now, Elena thought and turned her face up as Stefan turned his down and they began with a long slow kiss. And then the kiss went molten, and Elena had to cling to Stefan, who was already holding her with arms that could have cracked granite, but only squeezed her exactly as tightly as she wanted them to.

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