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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 19)

Bonnie decided, with seconds precious and seeming to stretch for hours, that what was going to happen was going to happen no matter what she did. And there was a matter of pride here. She knew that there were people who would laugh at that, but it was true. Despite Elena's new Powers, Bonnie was the one most used to confronting stark darkness. She was somehow alive after al that. And very soon she would not be. And the way she went was the only thing left up to her.

She heard a glissando of screams and then she heard them come to a halt. Well, that was al she could do for the moment. Stop screaming. The choice was made. Bonnie would go out, unbroken, defiant – and silent.

The moment she stopped shrieking Shinichi made a gesture and the ogre who had hold of her stopped carrying her to the window.

She'd known it. He was a bul y. Bul ies wanted to hear that things hurt or that people were miserable. The ogre lifted her so her face was level with Shinichi's. "Excited about your one-way trip?"

"Thril ed,"she said expressionlessly. Hey, she thought, I'm not so bad at this brave thing. But everything inside her was shaking at double time in order to make up for her stony face.

Shinichi opened the window. "Stillthril ed?"

Now that had done something, opening the window had. She was not going to be smashed against glass until she broke it with her face and went sailing through the jagged bits. There wasn't going to be pain until she hit the ground and nobody would know about that, not even her.

Just do it and get it over with, Bonnie thought. The warm breeze from the window told her that this – place – this slave-sel ing place – where customers were al owed to sift through the slaves until they found just the right one – was too highly air-conditioned.

I'l be warm, even if it's just for a second or so, she thought.

When a door near them banged, Bonnie nearly jumped out of the ogre's arms, and when the door to their own room banged open, she nearly jumped through her own skin.

You see? Something surged wildly through her. I'm saved! It only took a little of that brave stuff and now…

But it was Shinichi's sister, Misao. Misao, looking gravely il , her skin ashen, holding on to the door to hold herself up. The only thing about her that wasn't grayed-out was her bril iant black hair, tipped with scarlet at the ends, just like Shinichi's.

"Wait!"she said to Shinichi. "You never even asked about – "

"You think a little airhead like her would know? But have it your own way."Shinichi seated Misao on the couch, rubbing her shoulders comfortingly. "I'l ask."

So she was the one inside the two-way mirror room, Bonnie thought. She looks real y bad. Like dying bad.

"What happened to my sister's star bal ?"Shinichi demanded and then Bonnie saw how this thing formed a circle, with a beginning and an ending, and how, understanding this, she could die with true dignity.

"It was my fault,"she said, with a faint smile as she remembered. "Or half of it was. Sage opened it up the first time to open the Gate back on Earth. And then…"She told them the story, as if it were one she'd never heard before, putting an emphasis on how it was she who had given Damon the clues to find Misao's star bal , and it was Damon who then had used it to enter the top level of the Dark Dimensions.

"It's al a circle,"she explained. "What you do comes back to you."Then despite herself, she started to giggle.

In two strides, Shinichi was across the room and slapping her. She didn't know how many times he did it. The first was enough to make her gasp and stop her giggling. Afterward her cheeks felt as swol en as if she had a very painful case of the mumps, and her nose was bleeding.

She kept trying to wipe it on her shoulder, but it wouldn't stop.

At last Misao said, "Ugh. Unfasten her hands and give her a towel or something."

The ogres moved just as if Shinichi had given the order.

Shinichi himself was now sitting beside Misao, talking to her softly, as if he were speaking to a baby or a beloved pet. But Misao's eyes, with their tiny flicker of fire in them, were clear and adult as she looked at Bonnie.

"Where is my star bal now?"she asked with dreadful gray intensity.

Bonnie, who was wiping her nose, feeling the bliss of not being handcuffed behind her back, wondered why she wasn't even trying to think of a lie. Like, let me free and I'l lead you to it. Then she remembered Shinichi and his damn kitsune telepathy.

"How could I know?"she pointed out logical y. "I was just trying to pul Damon away from the Gate when we both fel in.

It didn't come with us. As far as I know, it got kicked in the dust and al the liquid spil ed out."

Shinichi got up to hurt her again, but she was only tel ing the truth. Misao was already speaking. "We know that didn't happen because I am" – she had to pause to breathe – "Stillalive."

She turned her ashen, sunken face toward Shinichi and said,

"You're right. She's useless now, and ful of information she shouldn't have. Throw her out."

An ogre picked Bonnie up, towel and al . Shinichi came around the other side. "Do you see what you've done to my sister? Do you see?"

No more time now. Just a second to wonder if she real y was going to be brave or not. But what should she say to show she was brave? She opened her mouth, honestly not sure whether what was coming out was a scream or words.

"She's going to look even worse when my friends are done with her,"she said, and saw in Misao's eyes that she'd hit her target.

"Throw her out,"Shinichi shouted, livid with fury.

And the ogre threw her out the window.

Meredith was sitting with her parents, trying to figure out what was wrong. She had finished her errands in record time: getting enlarged versions of the writing on the front of the jars made; cal ing the Saitou family to find that they would al be home at noon. Then she had examined and numbered the individual blow-ups of each character in the pictures that Alaric had sent.

The Saitous had been…tense. Meredith hadn't been surprised since Isobel had been a prime, if entirely innocent, carrier of the kitsune's deadly possessing malach. One of the worst casualties was Isobel's own steady boyfriend, Jim Bryce, who had gotten the malach from Caroline and spread it to Isobel without knowing what he was doing. He himself had been possessed by Shinichi's malach and had demonstrated al the hideous symptoms of Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, eating away at his own lips and fingers, while poor Isobel had used dirty needles – sometimes the size of a child's knitting needles – to pierce herself in more than thirty places, besides forking her tongue with scissors.

Isobel was out of the hospital and on the mend now. Still, Meredith was bewildered. She had gotten approval of the cards with enlarged, individual characters off the jars from the older Saitous – Obaasan (Isobel's grandmother) and Mrs. Saitou (Isobel's mother) – not without a good deal of argument in Japanese over each character. She was just getting into her car when Isobel had come running out of the house with a bag of Post-it Notes in her hand. "Mother did them – in case you needed,"she gasped in her new, soft, slurring voice. And Meredith had taken the notes from her grateful y, murmuring something awkward about repayment.

"No, but – but may I have a look at the blow-ups?"Isobel had panted. Why was she panting so hard? Meredith wondered.

Even if she'd run from the top floor al the way fol owing Meredith – that wouldn't account for it. Then Meredith remembered: Bonnie had said Isobel had a "jumpy"heart.

"You see,"Isobel said with what looked like shame and a plea for understanding, "Obaasan is real y almost blind now – and it's been so long since Mother was in school…but I take Japanese classes right now."

Meredith was touched. Obviously, Isobel had felt it bad manners to contradict an adult when they were in earshot.

But there, sitting in the car, Isobel had gone through every card with a blown-up character, writing a similar, but definitely different character on the back. It had taken twenty minutes. Meredith had been awed. "But how do you remember them al ? How do you ever write to each other?"she had blurted, after seeing the complicated symbols that differed only by a few lines.

"With dictionaries,"Isobel had said, and had for the first time given a little laugh. "No, I'm serious – to write a very proper letter, say, don't you use Thesaurus and Spel Check and – "

"I need those to write anything!"Meredith had laughed.

It had been a nice moment, both of them smiling together, relaxed. No problems. Isobel's heart had seemed just fine.

Then Isobel had hurried away and when she was gone Meredith was left staring at a round circle of moisture on the passenger seat. A tear. But why should Isobel be crying?

Because it reminded her of the malach, or of Jim?

Because it would take several plastic surgeries before her ears would have flesh on them again?

No answer that Meredith could think of made sense. And she had to hurry to get to her own home – late.

It was only then that Meredith was stricken by a fact. The Saitou family knew that Meredith, Matt, and Bonnie were friends. But none of them had asked about either Bonnie or Matt.

Strange.

If she had only known how much stranger her visit with her own family would be…

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