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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 21)

Someone was still knocking on Stefan's door.

"It's a woodpecker,"Elena said when she could speak. "They knock, don't they?"

"On doors inside houses?"Stefan said dazedly.

"Ignore it and it wil go away."

A moment later the knocking resumed.

Elena moaned, "I don't believe this."

Stefan whispered, "Do you want me to bring you its head?

Unattached from its neck, I mean?"

Elena considered. As the knocking continued, she was getting more worried and less confused. "Better see if it is a bird, I guess,"she said.

Stefan rol ed away from her, somehow got on his jeans, and went reeling to the door. In spite of herself, Elena pitied whoever was on the other side.

The knocking started again.

Stefan reached the door and nearly wrenched it off its hinges.

"What the – "He stopped, suddenly moderating his voice.

"Mrs. Flowers?"

"Yes,"Mrs. Flowers said, deliberately not seeing Elena, who was wearing a sheet and directly in her line of vision.

"It's poor dear Meredith,"Mrs. Flowers said. "She's in such a state, and she says she has to see you now, Stefan."

Elena's mind switched tracks as suddenly and smoothly as a train. Meredith? In a state? Demanding to see Stefan, even if, as Elena was sure she must have, Mrs. Flowers had delicately indicated just how…busy Stefan was at the moment?

Her mind was Stillsolidly linked with Stefan's. He said,

"Thank you, Mrs. Flowers. I'l be down in just a moment."

Elena, who was slipping into her clothes as fast as she could, while crouching on the far side of the bed, added a telepathic suggestion.

"Maybe you could make her a nice cup of tea – I mean, a cup of tea,"Stefan added.

"Yes, dear, what a good idea,"Mrs. Flowers said gently. "And if you should see Elena, perhaps you could say that dear Meredith is asking for her, too?"

"We wil ,"Stefan said automatical y. Then he turned around and hastily shut the door.

Elena gave him time to put his shirt and shoes on, and then they both hurried down to the kitchen, where Meredith was not having a nice cup of tea, but pacing around like a caged leopard.

Stefan began, "What's – "

"I'l tel you what's wrong, Stefan Salvatore! No – you tel me!

You were in my mind before, so you must know. You must have been able to see – to tel  – about me."

Elena was Stillmindlocked with Stefan. She felt his dismay.

"To tel what about you?"he asked gently, pul ing out a chair at the kitchen table so Meredith could sit.

The very simple act of sitting down, of pausing to respond to civility, seemed to calm Meredith slightly. But StillElena could feel her fear and pain like the taste of a steel sword on her tongue.

Meredith accepted a hug and became a little calmer yet. A little more herself and less like a caged animal. But the struggle was so visceral and so clear within her that Elena couldn't bear to leave her, even when Mrs. Flowers deposited four mugs of tea around the table and took another chair Stefan offered.

Then Stefan sat down. He knew Elena would stand or sit or share a chair with Meredith, but whatever it was, she would be the one to decide.

Mrs. Flowers was gently stirring honey into her mug of tea and then passing the honey along to Stefan who gave it to Elena who put just the little bit that Meredith liked into Meredith's mug and stirred it gently, too.

The ordinary, civilized sounds of two spoons quietly clinking seemed to relax Meredith Stillfurther. She took the mug Elena gave her and sipped, then drank thirstily.

Elena could feel Stefan's mental sigh of relief as Meredith floated down another few levels. He politely sipped his own tea, which was hot but not burning hot and made from natural y sweet berries and herbs.

"It's good,"Meredith said. She was almost a human now.

"Thank you, Mrs. Flowers."

Elena felt lighter. She relaxed enough to pul over her own cup of tea and squeeze lots of honey in and stir it and take a gulp. Good! Calming down tea!

That's chamomile and cucumber, Stefan told her.

"Chamomile and cucumber,"Elena said, nodding wisely, "for calming down."And then she blushed, for Mrs. Flowers's bright smile had knowledge in it.

Elena hastily drank more tea and watched Meredith have more tea and everything began to feel almost al right.

Meredith was completely Meredith now, not some fierce animal. Elena squeezed her friend's hand tightly.

There was just one problem. Humans were less frightening than beasts but they could cry. Now Meredith, who never wept, was shaking and tears were dripping into the tea.

"You know what morcillo is, right?"she asked Elena at last.

Elena nodded hesitantly. "We had it sometimes in stew at your house?"she said. "And for tapas?"Elena had grown up with the blood sausage as a meal or a snack at her friend's house, and she was used to the bite-sized pieces as a delicious food only Mrs. Sulez made.

Elena felt Stefan's heart sinking. She looked back and forth from him to Meredith.

"It turns out my mother didn't always make it,"Meredith said, looking at Stefan now. "And my parents had a very good reason for changing my birthday."

"Just tel it al ,"Stefan suggested softly. And then Elena felt something she hadn't before. A surge, like a wave – a long gentle swell that spoke right into the center of Meredith's brain. It said: Just tell it and be calm. No anger. No fear.

But it wasn't telepathy. Meredith felt the thought in her blood and bones, but didn't hear it with her ears.

It was Influence. Before Elena could brain her beloved Stefan with her mug for using Influence on one of her friends, Stefan said, just to her, Meredith's hurting, feeling scared and angry. She has reason to, but she needs peace. I probably won't be able to hold her anyway, but I'll try.

Meredith wiped her eyes. "It turns out that nothing was like what I thought happened – that night when I was three."She described what her parents had told her, about everything that Klaus had done. Tel ing the story, even quietly, was undoing al the calming influences that had helped Meredith maintain herself. She was beginning to shake again. Before Elena could grab her, she was up and striding around the room. "He laughed and said that I'd need blood every week – animal blood – or I'd die. I didn't need much. Just a tablespoon or two. And my poor mother didn't want to lose another child. She did what he told her to. But what happens if I have more blood, Stefan? What happens if I drink yours?"

Stefan was thinking, desperately trying to see if in al his years of experience he'd come across anything like this.

Meanwhile he answered the easy part.

"If you drank enough of my blood you'd become a vampire.

But so would anyone. With you – Well, it might take less. So don't let any vampire trick you into blood exchange. Once might be enough."

"So I'm not a vampire? Now? Not any kind? Are there different kinds?"

Stefan answered seriously. "I've never heard of 'different kinds'of vampires in my life, except for Old Ones. I can tel you that you don't have a vampire's aura. What about your teeth? Can you make your canines sharp? Usual y it's best to test over human flesh. Not your own."

Elena promptly stuck out her arm, wrist vein-side up.

Meredith, eyes closed in concentration, made a great effort, which Elena felt through Stefan. Then Meredith opened her eyes, mouth also open for a dental inspection. Elena stared at her canines. They looked a little bit sharp, but so did anybody's, didn't they?

Careful y Elena reached a fingertip in. She touched one of Meredith's canines.

Tiny pinch.

Startled, Elena pul ed back. She stared at her finger where a very smal drop of blood was well ing up.

Everyone watched it, mesmerized. Then Elena's mouth said without pausing to consult her brain, "You have kitten teeth."

The next moment Meredith had brushed Elena aside and was pacing wildly al around the kitchen. "I won't be one! I won't be! I'm a hunter-slayer, not a vampire! I'l kill myself if I'm a vampire!"She was deadly serious. Elena felt Stefan feeling it, the quick thrust of the stave between her ribs and into the heart. She would go on the Internet to find the right area. Ironwood and white ash piercing her heart, Stilling it forever…sealing off the evil that was Meredith Sulez.

Be calm! Be calm! Stefan's Influence flooded into her.

Meredith was not calm.

"But before that I have to kil my brother."She flung down a photograph on Mrs. Flowers's kitchen table. "It turns out that Klaus or someone has been sending these since Cristian was four – on my real birthday. For years! And in every picture you could see his vampire teeth. Not 'kitten teeth.'And then they stopped coming when I was about ten.

But they had shown him growing up! With pointed teeth! And last year this one came."

Elena leaped for the photo, but it was closer to Stefan and he was faster. He stared in astonishment. "Growing up?"he said. She could feel how shaken he was – and how envious.

No one had given him that option.

Elena looked at the pacing Meredith and around at Stefan.

"But it's impossible, isn't it?"she said. "I thought that if you were bitten, that was it, right? You never got any older – or bigger."

"That's what I thought too. But Klaus was an Old One and who knows what they can do?"Stefan answered.

Damon will be furious when he finds out, Elena told Stefan privately, reaching for the picture even though she'd already seen it through Stefan's eyes. Damon was very bitter about Stefan's height advantage – about anyone's height advantage.

Elena brought the picture to Mrs. Flowers and looked at it with her. It showed an extremely handsome boy, with hair that was just Meredith's dark color. He looked like Meredith in his facial structure and olive skin. He was wearing a motorcycle jacket and gloves, but no helmet, and he was laughing merrily with a ful set of very white teeth. You could easily see that the canines were long and pointed.

Elena looked back and forth from Meredith to the picture.

The only difference she could see was that this boy's eyes seemed lighter. Everything else screamed "twins."

"First I kil him,"Meredith repeated tiredly. "Then I kil myself."She stumbled back to the table and sat, almost knocking over her chair.

Elena hovered near her, snatching two mugs from the table, to prevent Meredith's clumsy arm from sweeping them to the floor.

Meredith…clumsy! Elena had never seen Meredith ungraceful or clumsy before. It was frightening. Was it somehow due to being – at least partly – a vampire? The kitten teeth? Elena turned apprehensive eyes on Stefan, felt Stefan's own bewilderment.

Then both of them, without consultation, turned to look at Mrs.

Flowers. She gave them an apologetic little-old-lady smile.

"Gotta kil …find him, kil him…first,"Meredith was whispering as her dark head lowered to the table, to the pil ow of her arms. "Find him…where? Grandpa…where? Cristian…my brother…"

Elena listened silently until there was only soft breathing to be heard.

"You drugged her?"she whispered to Mrs. Flowers.

"It was what Ma ma thought best. She's a strong, healthy girl.

It won't harm her to sleep from now through the night.

Because I'm sorry to tel you, but we have another problem right now."

Elena glanced at Stefan, saw fear dawning on his face, and demanded, "What?"Absolutely nothing was coming through their link. He'd shut it down.

Elena turned to Mrs. Flowers. "What?"

"I'm very worried about dear Matt."

"Matt,"agreed Stefan, looking around the table as if to show that Matt wasn't there. He was trying to protect Elena from the chil s racing through him.

At first Elena wasn't alarmed. "I know where he might be,"she said brightly. She was remembering stories that Matt had told of being in Fel 's Church while she and the others had been in the Dark Dimension. "Dr. Alpert's place. Or out with her, making the rounds of home visits."

Mrs. Flowers shook her head, her expression bleak. "I'm afraid not, Elena dear. Sophia – Dr. Alpert – cal ed me and told me she was taking Matt's mother, your own family, and several other people with her and escaping Fel 's Church entirely. And I don't blame her a bit – but Matt wasn't one of those going. She said he meant to stay and fight. That was around twelve thirty."

Elena's eyes automatical y went to the kitchen clock. Horror shot through her, flipping her stomach and reverberating out to her fingertips. The clock said 4:35 – 4:35 P.M.! But that had to be wrong. She and Stefan had only joined minds a few minutes ago. Meredith's rage hadn't lasted that long.

This was impossible!

"That clock – it's not right!"She appealed to Mrs. Flowers, but heard at the same time Stefan's telepathic voice, It's the mind-blending. I didn't want to rush. But I was lost in it too – it's not your fault, Elena!

"It is my fault,"Elena snapped back aloud. "I never meant to forget about my friends for the entire afternoon! And Matt –

Matt would never scare us by keeping us waiting for his cal !

I should have cal ed him! I shouldn't have been – "She looked at Stefan with unhappy eyes. The only thing burning inside her right now was the shame of failing Matt.

"I did cal his mobile number,"Mrs. Flowers said very gently.

"Ma ma advised me to do so, al the way back at half past twelve. But he didn't answer. I've cal ed every hour since.

Ma ma won't say more than that it's time we looked into things directly."

Elena ran to Mrs. Flowers and wept on the soft cambric lacework at the old woman's neck. "You did our job for us,"she said. "Thank you. But now we have to go and find him."

She whirled on Stefan. "Can you put Meredith in the first-floor bedroom? Just take off her shoes and put her on top of the covers. Mrs. Flowers, if you're going to be alone here, we'l leave Saber and Talon to take care of you. Then we'l keep in touch by mobile. And we'l search every house in Fel 's Church – but I guess we should go to the thicket first…"

"Wait, Elena my dear."Mrs. Flowers had her eyes shut. Elena waited, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other. Stefan was just returning from putting Meredith in the front room.

Suddenly, Mrs. Flowers smiled, eyes Stillshut. "Ma ma says she wil do her utmost for you two, since you are so devoted to your friend. She says that Matt is not anywhere in Fel 's Church. And she says, take the dog, Saber. The falcon wil watch over Meredith while we are away."Mrs. Flowers's eyes opened. "Although we might plaster her window and door with Post-it Notes,"she said, "just to make sure."

"No,"Elena said flatly. "I'm sorry, but I won't leave Meredith and you on your own with only a bird for protection. We'l take you both with us, covered in amulets if you like, and then we can take both animals, too. Back in the Dark Dimension, they worked together when Bloddeuwedd was trying to kil us."

"Al right,"Stefan said at once, knowing Elena well enough to realize that a half-hour-long argument could ensue and Elena would never be moved an inch from her position. Mrs.

Flowers must have known it too, for she rose, also immediately, and went to get ready.

Stefan carried Meredith out to her car. Elena gave a tiny whistle for Saber, who was instantly underfoot, seeming bigger than ever, and she raced him up the stairs to Matt's room. It was disappointingly clean – but Elena fished a pair of briefs from between bed and wal . She gave these to Saber to delight in, but found she couldn't stand Still. Final y, she ran up to Stefan's room, snatched her diary from under the mattress, and began scribbling.

Dear Diary,

I don't know what to do. Matt has disappeared. Damon has taken Bonnie to the Dark Dimension – but is he taking care of her?

There's no way to know. We don't have any way to open a Gate ourselves and go after them. I'm afraid Stefan will kill Damon, and if something – anything – has happened to Bonnie, I'll want to kill him too. Oh, God, what a mess!

And Meredith…of all people, Meredith turns out to have more secrets than all of us combined.

All Stefan and I can do is hold each other and pray. We've been fighting Shinichi so long! I feel as if the end is coming soon…and I'm afraid.

"Elena!"Stefan's shout came from below. "We're al ready!"

Elena quickly stuffed the diary back under the mattress. She found Saber waiting on the stairs, and fol owed him down, running. Mrs. Flowers had two overcoats covered in amulets.

Outside, a long whistle from Stefan was met by an answering keeeeeeee from above and Elena saw a smal dark body circling against the white-streaked August sky. "She understands,"Stefan said briefly, and took the driver's seat of the car. Elena got into the backseat behind him, and Mrs.

Flowers into the front passenger seat. Since Stefan had buckled up Meredith into the middle of the backseat, this left Saber a window to put his panting head through.

"Now,"Stefan said, over the purring of the engine, "where are we going, exactly?"

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