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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 15)

Bonnie woke slowly, coming up from some dark place.

Then she wished she hadn't. She was in some out-of-doors place – only buildings blocked the horizon where the sun hung forever. Around her were a lot of other girls, al approximately her own age. That was puzzling, first of al . If you took a random sampling of females off the street there would be little girls crying for their mothers, and there would be mother-aged women taking care of them. There might be a few older women. This place looked more like –

– oh, God, it looked like one of those slave warehouse places that they had had to pass the last time they had come to the Dark Dimension. The ones that Elena had ordered them not to look at or listen to. But now Bonnie felt sure she was inside one herself, and there was no way not to look at the Stillfaces, at the terrified eyes, at the quivering mouths around her.

She wanted to speak, to find the way – there would have to be a way, Elena would insist – to get out. But first she gathered al the Power at her command, wrapped it into a cry, and soundlessly screamed Damon! Damon! Help! I really need you!

Al she heard in return was silence.

Damon! It's Bonnie! I'm at a slave warehouse! Help!

Suddenly she had a hunch, and lowered her psychic barriers.

She was instantly crushed. Even here, at the edge of the city, the air was choked ful of long messages and short: cries of impatience, or camaraderie, of greeting, of solicitation.

Longer, less impatient conversations about things, instructions, teasings, stories. She couldn't keep up with it. It turned into a menacing wave of psychic sound that was curled like a wave about to break over her head, to crush her into a mil ion pieces.

And then, all of a sudden, the telepathic melee vanished.

Bonnie was able to focus her eyes on a blond girl, a little older than her and about four inches taller.

"I said, are you okay?"the girl was repeating – obviously she'd been saying it for a while.

"Yes,"Bonnie said automatically. No! Bonnie thought.

"You might want to get ready to move. They've sounded the first dinnertime whistle, but you looked so out of it, I waited for the second one."

What am I supposed to say? Thank you seemed safest.

"Thanks,"Bonnie said. Then her mouth said all on its own,

"Where am I?"

The blond girl looked surprised. "The depot for runaway slaves, of course."

Well, that was that. "But I didn't run away,"she protested. "I was going right back after I got a sugarplum."

"I don't know about that. I was trying to run away, but they finally caught me."The girl slammed one fist into an open hand. "I knew I shouldn't have trusted that litter carrier.

Carried me right to the authorities and me blind and without a clue."

"You mean you had the litter curtains down – ?"Bonnie was asking, when a shril whistle interrupted her. The blond girl took hold of her arm and began dragging her away from the fence. "That's the second service dinnertime whistle – we don't want to miss that, because after that they shut us up for the night. I'm Eren. Who're you?"

"Bonnie."

Eren snorted and grinned. "All right by me."

Bonnie allowed herself to be led up a dirty stairway and into a dirty cafeteria. The blond girl, who seemed to regard herself as Bonnie's keeper, handed her a tray, and pushed her along. Bonnie didn't get any choice in what she was to have, not even to veto the noodles that were squirming slightly, but she did manage to snatch an extra bread rol in the end.

Damon! Nobody was tel ing her not to send a message, so she kept on doing it. If she was going to be punished, she thought defiantly, she was going to be punished for trying to get out of here. Damon, I'm in a slave warehouse! Help me!

Blond Eren grabbed a spork, so Bonnie did too. There were no knives. There were thin napkins, which relieved Bonnie, because that was where the Squirmy Noodles were going to end up.

Without Eren, Bonnie would never have found a place at the tables, which were crammed with young girls eating. "Shove over, shove over,"Eren kept saying, until there was room for Bonnie and her.

Dinner was a test of Bonnie's courage – and also of how loud she could scream. "Why are you doing all this for me?"she shouted into Eren's ear, when a lul in the deafening conversation gave her a chance.

"Oh, Well, you being a redhead and all  – it put me in mind of Aliana's message, you know. To the reall Bonny."She pronounced it oddly, sort of swall owing the y, but at least it wasn't Bonna.

"Which of them? Which message, I mean?"Bonnie screamed.

Eren gave her an are you kidding look. "Help when you can, shelter when you have room, guide when you know where to go,"she said in a sort of impatient chant, then looked chagrined and added, "And be patient with the slow."She attacked her food with an air of having said everything there was to say.

Oh, boy, Bonnie thought. Somebody had really taken the balland run with it. Elena had never said any of those things.

Yeah, but – but maybe she'd lived them, Bonnie thought, a tingling breaking out all over her body. And maybe somebody had seen her and made up the words. For instance, that crazy-looking guy she'd given her ring or bracelet or something to. She'd given her earrings away to people with signs, too. Signs that said: POETRY FOR

FOOD.

The rest of dinner was a matter of picking up food with the spork and not looking at it, crunching it once, and then deciding whether to spit into her Still-writhing napkin, or to try to swallow without tasting.

Afterward the girls were marched into another building, this one fil ed with pal ets, smal er and not so comfortable-looking as Bonnie's at the inn. She was now horrified at herself for leaving that room. There she had had safety, she had had food that she could actual y eat, she had had entertainment –

even the Dustbins were clothed in a golden glow of remembrance now – and she had had the chance of Damon finding her. Here she had nothing.

But Eren seemed to have some mesmeric influence on the girls around, or else they al were Aliana-ites too, because when she shouted "Where's a pal et? I've got a new girl in my bedroom. Think she's gonna sleep on the bare floor?"And eventual y, a dusty pal et was passed hand over hand into Eren's "bedroom" – a group of pal ets al spread with the heads together in the middle. In exchange, Eren handed over the wriggling napkin Bonnie had given her. "Share and share alike,"she said firmly, and Bonnie wondered if she thought Aliana had said that, too.

A whistle shril ed. "Ten minutes until lights-out,"a hoarse voice shouted. "Every girl not on her pal et in ten minutes wil be punished. Tomorrow section C goes up."

"All right! We're going to be bloody deaf before we're sold,"Eren muttered.

"Before we're sold?"Bonnie repeated stupidly, even though she had known what would happen from the first moment she had recognized this as a warehouse for slaves.

Eren turned and spat. "Yeah,"she said. "So you can have one more breakdown and then that's it. Only two per customer, and by tomorrow you may wish you'd saved one up."

"I wasn't going to have a breakdown,"Bonnie said, with al the courage at her command. "I was going to ask how we're going to be sold. Is it at one of those horrible public places, where you have to stand in front of a crowd in just a shift?"

"Yeah, that's what most of us wil be doing,"a young girl, who had been crying quietly through dinner and the pal et-arranging time, spoke up in a soft voice. "But the ones they pick out as special items wil have to wait. They'l give us a bath and special clothes, but it's al just so we look more presentable for the clients. So the clients can inspect us more closely."She shuddered.

"You're frightening the new girl, Mouse,"Eren scolded. "We cal her Mouse, because she's always so scared,"she told Bonnie.

Bonnie silently screamed, Damon!

Damon was decked out in his new captain of the guard suit.

It was nice, being black on black, with lighter black piping (even Damon recognized the necessity of contrast). It had a cloak.

And he was a ful vampire again, as powerful and prestigious as even he could have imagined. For a moment he simply luxuriated in the feeling of a job well done. Then he flexed his vampire muscles more strongly, urging Jessalyn, who was upstairs, into deeper sleep, while he sent tendrils of Power al over the Dark Dimension, sampling what was going on in different districts.

Jessalyn…now there was a dilemma. Damon had the feeling that he should leave her a note or something, but he wasn't quite sure what to say.

What could he tel her? That he was gone? She would see that for herself. That he was sorry? Well, obviously he wasn't so sorry that he'd chosen not to go. That he had duties elsewhere?

Wait. That might actual y work. He could tel her that he needed to check up on her territory and that if he were to stay here in the castle he doubted he'd ever get anything done.

He could tel her he'd be back…soon. Soonish. Soonishly.

Damon pressed his tongue against a canine and felt the prompt rewarding sharpness and length. He real y wanted to try out those legendary Black Ops vs. vampires programs.

He wanted to hunt, period. Of course, there was so much Black Magic wine about the place that when he stopped a male servant and asked for some, the servant had brought a magnum. Damon had been having flutes every now and then, but what he real y wanted was to go hunting. And not to hunt a slave and certainly not an animal, and it hardly seemed fair to wander the streets on the chance that there was a noblewoman to get to know better.

It was at that moment that he remembered Bonnie.

In a matter of three more minutes he had everything he needed to do wrapped up, including the annual delivery of dozens of roses to the princess in his name. Jessalyn had given him a very liberal al owance, and already advanced for the first month.

In a matter of five minutes he was flying, though that was very bad manners on the street, and doubly so in a market district.

In a matter of fifteen minutes he had his hands around the landlady's neck, the one whom he had paid very well to make sure that exactly what had happened never happened.

In sixteen minutes, the landlady was grimly offering him the life of her young and not very intel igent slave as recompense. He was Stillwearing his captain of guard suit.

He could have the boy to kil , to torture, whatever…he could have the money back…

"I don't want your filthy slave,"he snarled. "I want my own back! She's worth…"Here he came to a stop, trying to calculate how many ordinary girls Bonnie was worth. A hundred? A thousand? "She is worth infinitely more – "he began, when the landlady surprised him by interrupting.

"Why'd you leave her in a dump like this, then?"she said. "Oh, yes, I know what my own lodgings are like. If she was so damn precious, why'd you leave her here?"

Why had he left her in this place? Damon couldn't think now.

He'd been panicked, half out of his mind – that was what being human had done to him. He'd been thinking only about himself, while little Bonnie – fragile Bonnie, his little redbird –

had been shut up in this filthy place. He didn't want to keep thinking about it. It made him feel searing hot and icy cold at once.

He demanded that a search be made of al the neighborhood buildings. Someone had to have seen something.

Bonnie had been awakened too early and parted from Eren and Mouse. She immediately had an urge to lose control, to have a breakdown at once. She was shivering al over.

Damon! Help me!

Then she saw a girl who couldn't seem to get up off her pal et and saw a woman with arms like a man's go over with a white ash rod to administer punishment.

And then something seemed to go blank in Bonnie's mind.

Elena or Meredith might have tried to stop the woman, or even this huge machine they were caught in, but Bonnie couldn't. The only thing she could do was try not to have a breakdown. She had a song stuck in her head, not even a song she liked, but it repeated endlessly over and over as the slaves around her were dehumanized, broken into mechanical, but clean, mindless bodies.

She was being scrubbed mercilessly by two muscular women whose whole life doubtless consisted of scrubbing grimy street girls into pink cleanliness – at least for a night.

But final y her protests led the women to actual y look at her – with her fair, almost translucent skin scrubbed raw – and concentrate instead on washing her hair, which felt as if it were being pul ed out at the roots. Final y, though, she was done and was given an adequate towel with which to dry off.

Next, in what she was realizing was a giant assembly line, were kinder plump women who stripped off the towel and proceeded to put her on a couch and massage her with oil.

Just when she was starting to feel better she was hustled up to have the oil removed, except that which had soaked into her skin. Women then appeared who measured her, cal ing out the numbers as they did, and by the time Bonnie had tramped to the wardrobe station, three dresses were waiting for her on a bar. There was a black one, a green one, and a gray one.

I'l get the green for sure because of my hair, Bonnie thought blankly, but after she had tried al three on, a woman took the green and gray away, leaving Bonnie in a little black bubble dress, strapless, with a glittery touch of white material at the neck.

Next was a giant sanitary room, where her dress was careful y covered with a white paper robe that kept ripping.

She was led to a chair with a hair dryer and the rudiments of makeup, which a white-shirted woman used to put too much on Bonnie's face. Then the hair dryer was swung over her head, and Bonnie, with a stolen tissue, took off as much makeup as she dared. She didn't want to look good, didn't want to be sold. When she finished she had silvery eyelids, a touch of blush, and velvety rose-red lipstick that wouldn't wipe off.

After that she just sat and finger-combed her hair until it was dry, which the ancient machine announced with a ping.

The next station was a bit like the day after Thanksgiving at a big shoe store. The stronger or more determined girls managed to wrench shoes away from their weaker sisters and jammed them on one foot, only to start the process again the next minute. Bonnie was lucky. She saw a tiny black shoe that had a faintly silvery bow coming down the ramp and kept her eye on it while it passed from girl to girl until someone dropped it and then she swooped in and tried it on. She didn't know what she would have done if it hadn't fit. But it did fit, and she went to the next station to get its mate. As she sat waiting, other girls were trying on perfume.

Bonnie saw two entire bottles go down the bodices of girls and wondered if they meant to sel them or try to poison themselves with them. There were also flowers. Bonnie was already dizzy with perfume and had decided not to wear any, but a tal woman bel owed over her head and a garland of freesia was pinned to frame her curls, without anyone asking her permission.

The last station was the hardest to bear. She had on no jewelry and would have worn only one bracelet with the dress. But she was given two: slim unbreakable plastic bracelets, each with a number on it – her identity from now on, she was told.

Slave bracelets. She had now been washed, packaged, and stamped, so that she could be conveniently sold.

Damon! she cried voicelessly, but something had died inside her, and she knew now that her cal s would not be answered.

"She was picked up as a runaway slave and confiscated,"the sweetshop man told Damon impatiently. "And that's al I know."

Damon was left with a feeling he didn't often have. Sickening terror. He was real y beginning to believe that this time he had cut it too fine; that he would be too late to save his redbird. That any of several dreadful scenarios might have played out before he got to her.

He couldn't stand to visualize them in detail. What he would do if he didn't find her in time…

He reached out and without the slightest effort gripped the sweetshop man around the throat, lifting him off the floor.

"We need to have a little chat,"he said, turning the ful force of his menacing dark eyes on the bulging ones of his prey.

"About just how she got confiscated. Don't struggle. If you haven't hurt the girl, you've got nothing to fear. If you have…"

He pul ed the terrified man completely across the counter and said very softly, "If you have, then, by al means struggle.

It won't make any difference in the end – if you know what I mean?"

The girls were put into the largest carriages Bonnie had yet seen in the Dark Dimension, three slim girls to a seat and two sets of seats in a carriage. She got a nasty jolt, though, when instead of going forward like a carriage, the whole thing was lifted straight up by sweaty male slaves straining at poles. It was a giant litter and Bonnie immediately snatched off her freesia garland and buried her nose in it. It had the added function of hiding her tears.

"Do you have any idea of how many homes and dancing rooms and hal s and theaters there are where girls are being sold tonight?"The golden-haired Guardian looked at him sardonical y.

"If I knew that,"Damon said with a cold and ominous smile, "I wouldn't be here asking you."

The Guardian shrugged. "Our job is real y only to try to keep the peace here – and you can see how well we succeed. It's a matter of too few of us; we're insanely understaffed. But I can give you a list of the venues where girls are being sold.

Still, as I said, I doubt you'l be able to find your runaway before morning. And by the way, we'l have an eye on you, because of your little query. If your runaway wasn't a slave, she's Imperial property – no humans are free here. If she was, and you freed her, as reported by the baker across the street – "

"Sweet-sel er."

"Whatever. Then he had a right to use a stun gun when she ran. Better for her, real y, than being Imperial property; they tend to char, if you get my drift. That level's a long way down."

"But if she was a slave –  my slave…"

"Then you can have her. But there's a certain mandatory punishment set before you can have her. We want to discourage this kind of thing."

Damon looked at her with eyes that made her shrink and look away, abruptly losing her authority. "Why?"he demanded. "I thought you claimed to be from the other Court.

You know. The Celestial one?"

"We want to discourage runaways because there've been so many since some girl named Alianna came around,"the Guardian said, her frightened pulse visible in her temple.

"And then they get caught and have even more reason to try it again…and it wears out the girl, eventual y."

There was no one in the Great Hal when Bonnie and the others were hustled off the giant litter and into the building.

"It's a new one, so it's not on the lists,"Mouse said, unexpectedly at her shoulder. "Not that many people wil know about it, so it doesn't fil up til late, when the music gets loud."

Mouse seemed to be clinging to her for comfort. That was fine, but Bonnie needed some comfort of her own. The next minute she saw Eren and, dragging Mouse behind her, headed for the blond girl.

Eren was standing with her back against the wal . "Well, we can stand around like wal flowers,"she said, as a few men came in, "or we can look like we're having the best time of any of them right here by ourselves. Who knows a story?"

"Oh, I do,"Bonnie said absently, thinking of the star bal with its Five Hundred Stories for Young Ones.

Instantly there was a clamor. "Tel it!""Yes, please tel !"

Bonnie tried to think of the fairy tales that she had experienced.

Of course. The one about the kitsune treasure.

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