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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 14)

The next morning Elena noticed that Meredith stil looked pale and languid, and that her eyes slid away if Stefan happened to glance at her. But this was a time of crisis, and as soon as the breakfast dishes were washed, Elena cal ed a meeting in the parlor. There she and Stefan explained what Meredith had missed during the visit from the sheriffs.

Meredith smiled wanly when Elena told how Stefan had banished them like stray dogs.

Then Elena told the story of her out-of-body experience. It proved one thing, at least, that Bonnie was alive and relatively well. Meredith bit her lip when Mrs. Flowers said this, for it only made her want to go and get Bonnie out of the Dark Dimension personal y.

But on the other hand, Meredith wanted to stay and wait for Alaric's photographs. If that would save Fel 's Church…

No one at the boardinghouse could question what had happened on the Island of Doom. It was happening here, on the other side of the world. Already a couple of parents in Fel 's Church had had their children taken away by the Virginia Department of Child Protective Services.

Punishments and retaliations had begun. How much longer would it be before Shinichi and Misao turned al the children into lethal weapons – or let loose those already turned? How long before some hysterical parent kil ed a kid?

The group sitting in the parlor discussed plans and methods.

In the end, they decided to make jars identical to those Elena and Bonnie had seen, and prayed that they could reproduce the writing. These jars, they were sure, were the means by which Shinichi and Misao were original y sealed off from the rest of the Earth.

Therefore Shinichi and Misao had once fit into the rather cramped accommodations of the jars. But what did Elena's group have now that could lure them back inside?

Power, they decided. Only an amount of Power so great that it was irresistible to the kitsune twins. That was why the priestess had tried to lure them back with her own blood.

Now…it meant either the liquid in a ful star bal …or blood from an extraordinarily powerful vampire. Or two vampires.

Or three.

Everyone was sober, thinking of this. They didn't know how much blood would be needed – but Elena feared that it would be more than they can afford to lose. It had certainly been more than the priestess could afford.

And then there was a silence that only Meredith could fil . "I'm sure you've al been wondering about this,"she said, producing the staff thing from thin air, as far as Elena could see. How did she do that? Elena wondered. She didn't have it with her and then she did.

They al stared in the bright sunlight at the sleek beauty of the weapon.

"Whoever made that,"Matt said, "had a twisted imagination."

"It was one of my ancestors,"Meredith said. "And I won't contest that."

"I have a question,"Elena said. "If you'd had that from the beginning of your training; if you'd been raised in that kind of world, would you have tried to kil Stefan? Would you have tried to kil me when I became a vampire?"

"I wish I had a good answer to that,"Meredith said, her dark gray eyes pained. "But I don't. I have nightmares about it. But how can I ever say what I would have done if I'd been a different person?"

"I'm not asking that. I'm asking you, the person you are, if you'd had the training – "

"The training is brainwashing," Meredith said harshly. Her composed fa?ade seemed about to break.

"Okay, forget that. Would you have tried to kil Stefan, if you'd just had that staff?"

"It's cal ed a fighting stave. And we're cal ed – people like my family, except that my parents dropped out – hunter-slayers."

There was a sort of gasp around the table. Mrs. Flowers poured Meredith more herbal tea from the pot sitting on a trivet.

"Hunter-slayers,"repeated Matt with a certain relish. It wasn't hard to tel who he was thinking about.

"You can just cal us one or the other,"Meredith was saying.

"I've heard that out west they've got hunter-kil ers. But we hang on to tradition here."

Elena suddenly felt like a lost little girl. This was Meredith, her big sister Meredith, saying al of this. Elena's voice was almost pleading. "But you didn't even tel on Stefan."

"No, I didn't. And, no, I don't think I'd have had the courage to kil anyone – unless I'd been brainwashed. But I knew Stefan loved you. I knew he would never make you into a vampire.

The problem was – I didn't know enough about Damon. I didn't know that you were fooling around so much. I don't think anybody knew that."Meredith's voice was anguished, too.

"Except me,"Elena said, flushing, with a lopsided smile.

"Don't look so sad, Meredith. It worked out."

"You cal having to leave your family and your town because everyone knows you're dead, working out?"

"I do,"Elena replied desperately, "if it means I get to be with Stefan."She did her best not to think about Damon.

Meredith looked at her blankly for a moment, then put her face in her hands. "Do you want to tel them or should I?"she asked, coming up for air and facing Stefan.

Stefan looked startled. "You remember?"

"Probably as much as you got from my mind. Bits and pieces. Stuff I don't want to remember."

"Okay."Now Stefan looked relieved, and Elena felt frightened. Stefan and Meredith had a secret together?

"We al know that Klaus made at least two visits to Fel 's Church. We know that he was – completely evil – and that on the second visit he planned to be a serial murderer. He kil ed Sue Carson and Vickie Bennett."

Elena interrupted quietly. "Or at least he helped Tyler Smal wood to kil Sue, so that Tyler could be initiated as a werewolf. And then Tyler got Caroline pregnant."

Matt cleared his throat as something occurred to him. "Uh –

does Caroline have to kil somebody to be a ful werewolf, too?"

"I don't think so,"Elena said. "Stefan says that having a werewolf litter is enough. Either way, blood is spil ed.

Caroline wil be a ful werewolf when she has her twins, but she'l probably begin changing involuntarily before that.

Right?"

Stefan nodded. "Right. But getting back to Klaus: What was it he was supposed to have done on his first visit? He attacked – without kil ing – an old man who was a ful hunter-slayer."

"My grandfather,"Meredith whispered.

"And he supposedly messed with Meredith's grandfather's mind so much that this old man tried to kil his wife and his three-year-old granddaughter. So what is wrong with this picture?"

Elena was truly frightened now. She didn't want to hear whatever was coming. She could taste bile, and she was glad that she'd only had toast for breakfast. If only there had been someone to take care of, like Bonnie, she would have felt better.

"I give up. So what is wrong?"Matt asked bluntly.

Meredith was staring into the distance again.

Final y Stefan said, "At the risk of sounding like a bad soap opera…Meredith had, or has, a twin brother."

Dead silence fel over the group in the parlor. Even Mrs.

Flowers's Ma ma didn't put in a word.

"Had or has?"Matt said final y, breaking the silence.

"How can we know?"Stefan said. "He may have been kil ed.

Imagine Meredith having to watch that. Or he could have been kidnapped. To be kil ed at a later time – or to become a vampire."

"And you real y think her parents wouldn't tel her?"Matt demanded. "Or would try to make her forget? When she was – what, three already?"

Mrs. Flowers, who had been quiet a long time, now spoke sadly. "Dear Meredith may have decided to block out the truth herself. With a child of three it's hard to say. If they never got her professional help…"She looked a question at Meredith.

Meredith shook her head. "Against the code,"she said. "I mean, strictly speaking, I shouldn't be tel ing any of you this, and especial y not Stefan. But I couldn't stand it anymore…having such good friends, and constantly deceiving them."

Elena went over and hugged Meredith hard. "We understand,"she said. "I don't know what wil happen in the future if you decide to be an active hunter – "

"I can promise you my friends won't be on my list of victims,"Meredith said. "By the way,"she added, "Shinichi knows. I'm the one who's kept a secret from my friends al my life."

"Not any longer,"Elena said, and hugged her again.

"At least there are no more secrets now,"Mrs. Flowers said gently, and Elena looked at her sharply. Nothing was ever that simple. And Shinichi had made a whole handful of predictions.

Then she saw the look in the mild blue eyes of the old woman, and she knew that what was important right then was not truth or lies, or even reckonings, but simply comforting Meredith. She looked up at Stefan while stil hugging Meredith and saw the same look in his eyes.

And that – made her feel better somehow. Because if it was truly "no secrets"then she would have to figure out her feelings about Damon. And she was more afraid of that than of facing Shinichi, which was saying quite a lot, real y.

"At least we've got a potter's wheel – somewhere,"Mrs.

Flowers was saying. "And a kiln in the back, although it's al grown over with Devil's Shoestring. I used to make flowerpots for outside the boardinghouse, but children came and smashed them. I think I could make an urn like the ones you saw if you can draw one for me. But perhaps we'd better wait for Mr. Saltzman's pictures."

Matt was mouthing something to Stefan. Elena couldn't make it out until she heard Stefan's voice in her mind. He says Damon told him once that this house is like a swap meet, and you can find anything here if you look hard enough.

Damon didn't make that up! I think Mrs. Flowers said it first, and then it sort of got around, Elena returned heatedly.

"When we get the pictures,"Mrs. Flowers was saying brightly,

"we can get the Saitou women to translate the writing."

Meredith final y moved back from Elena. "And until then we can pray that Bonnie doesn't get into any trouble,"she said, and her voice and face were composed again. "I'm starting now."

Bonnie was sure she could stay out of trouble.

She'd had that strange dream – the one about shedding her body, and going with Elena to the Island of Doom.

Fortunately, it had seemed to be a real out-of-body experience, and not something she had to ponder over and try to find hidden meanings in. It didn't mean she was doomed or anything like that.

Plus, she'd managed to live through another night in this brown room, and Damon had to come and get her out soon.

But not before she had a sugarplum. Or two.

Yes, she had gotten a taste of one in the story last night, but Marit was such a good girl that she had waited for dinner to have any more. Dinner was obtained in the next story about the Dustbins, which she'd plunged into this morning. But that contained the horror of little Marit tasting her first hand-caught piece of raw liver, fresh from the hunt. Bonnie had hastily pul ed the little star bal off her temple, and had determined not to do anything that could possibly get her on a human hunting range.

But then, compulsively, she had counted up her money. She had money. She knew where a shop was. And that meant…shopping!

When her bathroom break came around, she managed to get into a conversation with the boy who usual y led her to the outdoor privy. This time she made him blush so hard and tug at his earlobe so often that when she begged him to give her the key and let her go by herself – it wasn't as if she didn't know the way – he had relented and let her go, asking only that she hurry.

And she did hurry – across the street and into the little store, which smel ed so much of melting fudge, toffee being pul ed by hand, and other mouth-watering smel s that she would have known where she was blindfolded.

She also knew what she wanted. She could picture it from the story and the one taste Marit had had.

A sugarplum was round like a real plum, and she'd tasted dates, almonds, spices, and honey – and there may have been some raisins, too. It should cost five soli, according to the story, but Bonnie had taken fifteen of the smal coppery-looking coins with her, in case of a confectionary emergency.

Once inside, Bonnie glanced warily around her. There were a lot of customers in the shop, maybe six or seven. One brown-haired girl was wearing sacking just like Bonnie and looked exhausted. Surreptitiously, Bonnie inched toward her, and pressed five of her copper soli into the girl's chapped hand, thinking, there – now she can get a sugarplum just like me; that ought to cheer her up. It did: the girl gave her the sort of smile that Mother Dustbin often gave to Marit when she had done something adorable.

I wonder if I should talk to her?

"It looks pretty busy,"she whispered, ducking her head.

The girl whispered back, "It has been. Al yesterday I kept hoping, but at least one noble came in as the last one left."

"You mean you have to wait until the shop's empty to – ?"

The brown-haired girl looked at her curiously. "Of course –

unless you're buying for your mistress or master."

"What's your name?"Bonnie whispered.

"Kelta."

"I'm Bonnie."

At this Kelta burst into silent but convulsive giggles.

Bonnie felt offended; she'd just given Kelta a sugarplum – or the price of one, and now the girl was laughing at her.

"I'm sorry,"Kelta said when her mirth had died down. "But don't you think it's funny that in the last year there are so many girls changing their names to Alianas and Mardeths, and Bonnas – some slaves are even being allowed to do it."

"But why?"Bonnie whispered with such obvious genuine bewilderment that Kelta said, "Why, to fit into the story, of course. To be named after the ones who kil ed old Bloddeuwedd while she was rampaging through the city."

"That was such a big deal?"

"You real y don't know? After she was kil ed al her money went to the fifth sector where she lived and there was enough left over to have a holiday. That's where I'm from. And I used to be so frightened when I was sent out with a message or anything after dark because she could be right above you and you'd never know, until – "Kelta had put al her money into one pocket and now she mimed claws descending on an innocent hand.

"But you real y are a Bonna,"Kelta said, with a flash of white teeth in rather dingy skin. "Or so you said."

"Yeah,"Bonnie said feeling vaguely sad. "I'm a Bonna, al right!"The next moment she cheered up. "The shop's empty!"

"It is! Oh, you're a good-luck Bonna! I've been waiting two days."

She approached the counter with a lack of fear that was very encouraging to Bonnie. Then she asked for something cal ed a blood jel y that looked to Bonnie like a smal mold of strawberry Jel -O, with something darker deep inside. Kelta smiled at Bonnie from under the curtain of her long, unbrushed hair and was gone.

The man who ran the sweetshop kept looking hopeful y at the door, clearly hoping a free person – a noble – would come in.

No one did, however, and at last he turned to Bonnie.

"And what is it you want?"he demanded.

"Just a sugarplum, please?"Bonnie tried hard to make sure her voice didn't quaver.

The man was bored. "Show me your pass,"he said irritably.

It was at that point that Bonnie suddenly knew that everything was going to go horribly wrong.

"Come on, come on, snap it up!"Stil looking at his accounting books, the man snapped his fingers.

Meanwhile Bonnie was running a hand over her sack-cloth smock, in which she knew perfectly well there was no pocket, and certainly no pass.

"But I thought I didn't need a pass, except to cross sectors,"she babbled final y.

The man now leaned over the counter. "Then show me your freedom pass,"he said, and Bonnie did the only thing she could think of. She turned and ran, but before she could reach the door she felt a sudden stinging pain in her back and then everything went blurry and she never knew when she hit the ground.

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