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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 20)

Meredith usual y found her parents funny and sil y and dear.

They were solemn about al the wrong things like, "Make sure, honey, that you real y get to know Alaric – before – before – "Meredith had no doubts about Alaric at al , but he was another of those sil y, dear, gal ant people, who talked al around things without getting to the point.

Today, she was surprised to see that there was no cluster of cars around the ancestral home. Maybe people had to stay home to fight it out with their own children. She locked the Acura, conscious of the precious contents given by Isobel, and rang the doorbel . Her parents believed in chain locks.

Janet, the housekeeper, looked happy to see her but nervous. Aha, Meredith thought, they have discovered that their dutiful only child has ransacked the attic. Maybe they want the stave back. Maybe I should have left it back at the boardinghouse.

But she only realized that things were truly serious when she came into the family room and saw the big La-Z-Boy deluxe lounging chair, her father's throne: empty. Her father was sitting on the couch, holding her mother, who was sobbing.

She had brought the stave with her, and when her mother saw it, she broke into a fresh burst of tears.

"Look,"Meredith said, "this doesn't have to be so tragic. I've got a pretty good idea of what happened. If you want to tel me about how Grandma and I real y got hurt, that's your business. But if I was…contaminated in some way…"

She stopped. She could hardly believe it. Her father was holding out an arm to her, as if the somewhat rank condition of her clothes didn't matter. She went to him slowly, uncomfortably, and let him hug her regardless of his Armani suit. Her mother had a glass with a few sips left of what looked like Coke in front of her, but Meredith would bet it wasn't al Coke.

"We'd hoped that this was a place of peace,"her father orated. Every sentence her father spoke was an oration. You got used to it. "We never dreamed…"And then he stopped.

Meredith was stunned. Her father didn't stop in the middle of an oration. He didn't pause. And he certainly didn't cry.

"Dad! Daddy! What is it? Have kids been around here, crazy kids? Did they hurt somebody?"

"We have to tel you the whole story from that time long ago,"her father…said. He spoke with such despair that it wasn't anything like an oration. "When you were…al attacked."

"By the vampire. Or Grandfather. Or do you know?"

Long pause. Then her mother drained the contents of her glass and cal ed, "Janet, another one, please."

"Now, Gabriel a – "her father said, chiding.

"'Nando – I can't bear this. The thought that mi hija inocente…"

Meredith said, "Look, I think I can make this easier for you. I already know…Well, first, that I had a twin brother."

Her parents looked horrified. They clung together, gasping.

"Who told you?"her father demanded. "At that boardinghouse, who could know – ?"

Calming down time. "No, no. Dad, I found out – Well, Grandpa talked to me."That was true enough. He had. Just not about her brother. "Anyway, that was how I got the stave. But the vampire that hurt us is dead. He was the serial kil er, the one who kil ed Vickie and Sue. His name was Klaus."

"You thought that there was only one vampire?"her mother got out. She pronounced the word the Hispanic way, which Meredith always found more scary. Vahm-peer.

The universe seemed to start moving slowly around Meredith.

"That's just a guess,"her father said. "We don't real y know that there was more than the very strong one."

"But you know about Klaus – how?"

"We saw him. He was the strong one. He kil ed the security guards at the gate with one blow each. We moved to a new town. We hoped you would never have to know you had a brother."Her father brushed his eyes. "Your grandfather spoke to us, right after the attack. But the next day…nothing.

He couldn't talk at al ."

Her mother put her face in her hands. She only lifted it to cal ,

"Janet! Another, por favor!"

"Right away, ma'am."Meredith looked to the housekeeper's blue eyes for the solution to this mystery and found nothing – sympathy, but no help. Janet walked away with the empty glass, blond French braid receding.

Meredith turned back to her parents, so dark of eye and hair, so olive of skin color. They were huddling together again, eyes on her.

"Mom, Dad, I know that this is real y hard. But I'm going after the kind of people who hurt Grandpa, and Grandma, and my brother. It's dangerous, but I have to do it."She dropped into a Taekwondo stance. "I mean you did have me trained."

"But against your own family? You could do that?"her mother cried.

Meredith sat down. She had reached the end of the memories that she and Stefan had found. "So Klaus didn't kil him like Grandmother. He took my brother with him."

"Cristian,"wailed her mother. "He was just un bebe. Three years old! That was when we found the two of you…and the blood…oh, the blood…"

Her father got up, not to orate, but to put his hand on Meredith's shoulder. "We thought it would be easier not to tel you – that you wouldn't have any memories of what was happening when we came in. And you don't, do you?"

Meredith's eyes were fil ing with tears. She looked to her mother, trying to silently tel her she couldn't understand this.

"He was drinking my blood?"she guessed. "Klaus?"

"No!"cried her father as her mother whispered prayers.

"He was drinking Cristian's, then."Meredith was kneeling on the floor now, trying to look up into the face of her mother.

"No!"cried her father again. He choked.

"La sangre!" gasped her mother, covering her eyes. "The blood!"

"Querida – " her father sobbed, and went to her.

"Dad!"Meredith went after him and shook his arm. "You've ruled out al the possibilities! I don't understand! Who was drinking blood?"

"You! You!" her mother almost screamed. "From your own brother! Oh, el aterrorizar!"

"Gabriel a!"moaned her father.

Meredith's mother subsided into weeping.

Meredith's head was whirling. "I'm not a vampire! I hunt vampires and kil them!"

"He said,"her father whispered hoarsely: "'Just see she gets a tablespoon a week. If you want her to live, that is. Try a blood pudding.'He was laughing."

Meredith didn't need to ask if they had obeyed. At her house, they had blood sausage or pudding at least once a week.

She had grown up with it. It was nothing special.

"Why?"she whispered hoarsely now. "Why didn't he kil me?"

"I don't know! We Stilldon't know! That man with his front al dripping with blood – your blood, your brother's blood, we didn't know! And then at the last minute he grabbed for the two of you but you bit his hand to the bone,"her father said.

"He laughed – laughed! – with your teeth clamped in him and your little hands pushing him away, and said, 'I'l just leave you this one, then, and you can worry about what she wil turn out to be. The boy I'm taking with me.'And then suddenly I seemed to come out of a spel , for I was reaching for you again, ready to fight him for both of you. But I couldn't! Once I had you, I couldn't move another inch. And he left the house Stilllaughing – and took your brother, Cristian, with him."

Meredith thought. No wonder they didn't want to hold any kind of celebration on the anniversaries of that day. Her grandmother dead, her grandfather going crazy, her brother lost, and herself – what? No wonder they celebrated her birthday a week early.

Meredith tried to stay calm. The world was fal ing to pieces around her but she had to stay calm. Staying calm had kept her alive al her life. Without even having to count, she was breathing out deep, and in through her nostrils, and out through her mouth. Deep, deep, cleansing breaths. Soothing peace throughout her body. Only part of her was hearing her mother:

"We came home early that night because I had a headache – "

"Sh, querida – "her father was beginning.

"We got home early,"her mother keened. "O Virgen Bendecida, what would we have found if we had been late?

We would have lost you, too! My baby! My baby with blood on her mouth – "

"But we got home early enough to save her,"Meredith's father said huskily, as if trying to wake her mother from a spel .

"Ah, g racias, Princesa Divina, Vigen pura y impoluto…"Her mother couldn't seem to stop crying.

"Daddy,"Meredith said urgently, aching for her mother but desperately needing information. "Have you ever seen him again? Or heard about him? My brother, Cristian?"

"Yes,"her father said. "Oh, yes, we have seen something."

Her mother gasped. "'Nando, no!"

"She has to learn the truth sometime,"her father said. He rummaged among some cardboard file folders on the desk.

"Look!"he said to Meredith. "Look at this."

Meredith stared in utter disbelief.

In the Dark Dimension Bonnie shut her eyes. There was a lot of wind at the top of a tal building's window. That was al her mind had a thought for when she was out of the window and then back into it and the ogre was laughing and Shinichi's terrible voice saying, "You don't real y think we'd let you go without questioning you thoroughly?"

Bonnie heard the words without them making sense, and then suddenly they did. Her captors were going to hurt her.

They were going to torture her. They were going to take her bravery away.

She thought she screamed something at him. Al she knew, though, was that there was a soft explosion of heat behind her, and then –  unbelievably – al dressed up in a cloak with badges that made him look like some kind of military prince, there was Damon.

Damon.

He was so late she'd long ago given up on him. But now he was flashing a there-and-gone bril iant smile at Shinichi, who was staring as if he'd been stricken dumb.

And now Damon was saying, "I'm afraid Ms. McCul ough has another engagement at that moment. But I wil be back to kick your ass –  immediately. Move from this room and I'l kil you al , slowly. Thank you for your time and consideration."

And before anyone could even recover from their first shock at his arrival, he and Bonnie were blasting off through the windows. He went, not out of the building backward as if retreating, but straight ahead forward, one hand in front of him, wrapping them both in a black but ethereal bundle of Power. They shattered the two-way mirror in Bonnie's room and were almost al the way through to the next room before Bonnie's mind tagged the first "empty."Then they were crashing through an elaborate videoset-window – made to let people think they had a view of the outdoors, and flying over someone lying on a bed. Then…it was just a series of crashes, as far as Bonnie was concerned. She barely got a glimpse of what was going on in each room. Final y…

The crashing stopped. This left Bonnie holding on to Damon koala-style – she wasn't stupid – and they were very, very high in the air. And mobilizing in front of them, and off to the sides, and as far as Bonnie could see, were women who were also flying, but in little machines that looked like a combination of a motorcycle and a Jet Ski. No wheels, of course. The machines were al gold, which was also the color of each driver's hair.

So the first word Bonnie gasped to her rescuer, after he had blasted a tunnel through the large slave-owner's building to save her, was, "Guardians?"

"Indispensable, considering the fact that I didn't have the first idea where the bad guys might have taken you and I suspected that there might be a time limit. This was actual y the very last of the slave-sel ers we were due to check. We final y…lucked out."For someone who had lucked out, he sounded a little strange. Almost…choked up.

Water was on Bonnie's cheeks but it was being flicked away too fast for her to wipe it. Damon was holding her so that she couldn't see his face, and he was holding her very, very tightly.

It real y was Damon. He had cal ed out the cavalry and, despite the city-wide mind-gridlock, he had found her.

"They hurt you, didn't they, little redbird? I saw…I saw your face,"Damon said in his new choked-up voice. Bonnie didn't know what to say. But suddenly she didn't mind how hard he squeezed her. She even found herself squeezing back.

Suddenly, to her shock, Damon broke her koala-grip and pul ed her up and kissed her on the lips very gently. "Little redbird! I'm going to go now, and make them pay for what they did to you."

Bonnie heard herself say, "No, don't."

"No?"Damon repeated, bewildered.

"No,"Bonnie said. She needed Damon with her. She didn't care what happened to Shinichi. There was a sweetness unfolding inside her, but there was also a rushing in her head. It real y was a pity, but in a few moments she would be unconscious.

Meanwhile, she had three thoughts in mind and al of them were clear. What she was afraid of was that they would be less clear later, after she had fainted. "Do you have a star bal ?"

"I have twenty-eight star bal s,"Damon said, and looked at her quizzical y.

That wasn't what Bonnie meant at al ; she meant one to record onto. "Can you remember three things?"she said to Damon.

"I'd gamble on it."This time Damon kissed her softly on the forehead.

"First, you ruined my very brave death."

"We can always go back and you can have another try."Damon's voice was less choked now; more his own.

"Second, you left me at that horrible inn for a week – "

As if she could see inside his mind, she saw this slice into him like some kind of wooden sword. He was holding her so tightly that she real y couldn't breathe. "I…I didn't mean to. It was real y only four days, but I never should have done it,"he said.

"Third."Bonnie's voice dropped to a whisper. "I don't think any star bal was ever stolen at al . What never existed can't be stolen, can it?"

She looked at him. Damon was looking back in a way that normal y would have thril ed her. He was obviously, blatantly distressed. But Bonnie was just barely hanging on to consciousness at this point.

"And…fourth…"She puzzled out slowly.

"Fourth? You said three things."Damon smiled, just a little.

"I have to say this – "She dropped her head down on Damon's shoulder, gathered al of her energy, and concentrated.

Damon loosened his grip a little. He said, "I can hear a faint murmuring sound in my head. Just tel me normal y. We're well away from anyone."

Bonnie was insistent. She scrunched her whole tiny body together and then explosively sent out a thought. She could tel that Damon caught it.

Fourth, I know the way to the seven legendary kitsune treasures, Bonnie sent to him. That includes the biggest star ball ever made. But if we want it, we have to get to it – fast.

Then, feeling that she had contributed enough to the conversation, she fainted.

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