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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 41)

Stefan didn't move or speak for long moments. Elena's heart swelled. Suddenly she was as afraid as he clearly was. She went to him and took both his hands, which were shaking.

Darling, don't cry, she sent. There must still be time to save Fell's Church. There must. It can't end this way. And besides, Shinichi is gone! We can get to the children; we can break the conditioning…" She stopped. It was as if the word "conditioning"echoed in her ears. Stefan's green eyes were fil ing her vision. Her mind was getting…it was getting fuzzy. Everything was becoming unreal again. In a minute she wouldn't be able to…

She wrenched her eyes away, breathing hard.

"You were Influencing me,"she said. She could hear the anger in her own voice.

"Yes,"Stefan whispered. "I've been Influencing you for half an hour."

How dare you? Elena thought, just for him.

"I'm stopping it…now,"Stefan said quietly.

"As am I,"Sage added, sounding exhausted.

And the universe did a slow spin and Elena remembered what it was that they were al keeping from her.

With a wild sob, she rose, scattering droplets, coming to her feet like an avenging goddess. She looked at Sage. She looked at Stefan.

And Stefan proved how brave he was, how much he loved her. He told her what she already knew. "Damon is gone, Elena. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry if…if I kept you from being with him as much as you wanted to. I'm sorry if I came between you. I didn't understand – how much you loved each other. I do now."And then he dropped his face into his hands.

Elena wanted to go to him. To scold him, to hold him. To tel Stefan that she loved him just as much, drop for drop, grain for grain. But her body had gone numb, and the darkness was threatening again…al she could do was hold out her arms as she crumpled onto the grass. And then somehow Bonnie and Stefan were both there, the three of them al sobbing: Elena with the intensity of new discovery; Stefan with a lost sound that Elena had never heard before; and Bonnie with a dry, wrenching exhaustion that seemed to want to shatter her smal body.

Time lost al meaning. Elena wanted to grieve for every moment of Damon's painful death, and for every moment of his life, too. So much had been lost. She couldn't get her head around it, and she didn't want to do anything but cry until the kind darkness took her mind again.

That was when Sage broke.

He grabbed Elena and pul ed her up, and shook her by the shoulders. It snapped her head back and forth.

"Your town is in ruins!"he shouted, as if this was her fault.

"Midnight may or may not bring disaster. Oh, yes, I saw it al in your mind when I went in to Influence you. Little Fel 's Church is already devastated. And you won't even fight for it!"

Something blazed through Elena. It melted the numbness, the iciness. "Yes, I'l fight for it!"she screamed. "I'l fight for it with every breath in my body, until I stop the people who did it, or until they kil me!"

"And how, puis-je savoir, wil you get back in time? By the time you walk back the way you came, it wil al be over!"

Stefan was beside her, bracing her, shoulder to shoulder.

"Then we'l force you to send us some other way – so that we can get back in time!"

Elena stared. No. No. Stefan couldn't have said that. Stefan didn't force his way – and she wouldn't have him changing himself. She whirled back on Sage. "There's no need to fight! I have a Master Key in my backpack, and magic works here inside the Gatehouse!"she cried.

But Stefan and Sage were staring each other down, each fierce and intent. Elena wanted to go to Stefan but the world was doing another of its slow somersaults. She was afraid that Sage would attack Stefan, and that she couldn't even fight for him.

But instead, suddenly, Sage threw back his head and laughed wildly. Or perhaps it was something between thunderous laughing and crying. It was as eerie as the sound of a wolf baying, and Elena felt Bonnie's smal , trembling body hug her – to comfort both of them.

"What the hel !"Sage bel owed, and now there was a wild look in his eyes, too. "Mais oui, what the Hell?"He laughed again. "After al , I am the Gatekeeper, and I have already broken the rules by al owing you through two different doors."

Stefan was Stillbreathing hard. Now he reached out and grabbed Sage by his broad shoulders and shook him with the strength of a vampire gone mad. "What are you talking about? There's no time for talk!"

"Ah, but there is, mon ami. My friend, there is. What you need is the firepower of the heavens to save Fel 's Church –

and to undo the damage that has already been done. To wipe it out, to make it as if it had never happened.

And,"Sage added deliberately, looking directly at Elena,

"perhaps – just perhaps – to undo this day's events, also."

Suddenly every inch of Elena's skin was tingling. Her whole body was listening to Sage, leaning toward him, yearning, while her eyes widened with the only other question that mattered.

Sage said, very softly, very triumphantly, "Yes. They can bestow life upon the dead. They have that Power. They can bring back mon petit tyran Damon – as they brought you back."

Stefan and Bonnie were holding Elena up. She couldn't stand on her own.

"But why would they help?"she whispered painful y. She wouldn't al ow herself even a breath of hope, not until she understood everything.

"In exchange for what was stolen from them mil ennia ago,"Sage replied. "You are in a fortress of Hel , you know.

That is what the Gatehouse is. The Guardians cannot enter here. They cannot storm the gate and demand back what is inside…the seven –  pardon, now six – kitsune treasures."

Not a breath of hope. Not a breath. But Elena heard herself give a wild laugh.

"How do we give them a park? Or a field of black roses?"

"We give them the rights to the land that the park and the field of roses lie upon."

Not a breath, even though the bodies on either side of Elena were shaking now. "And how do we offer them the Fountain of Eternal Youth and Life?"

"We do not. However, I have here various containers, waiting to be col ected as garbage. The threat of a gal on bottle of La Fontaine randomly spread al over your Earth…that would devastate them. And, of course,"Sage added, "I know the kinds of gems with enchantments already upon them that they would most desire. Here, let me open the doors al at once! We take al we can – the rooms, strip them bare!"

His enthusiasm was contagious. Elena half-turned, breath held, eyes widened to catch the first glowing of a door's light.

"Wait."Stefan's voice was hard suddenly. Bonnie and Elena turned back and froze, embracing each other, trembling.

"What is your – your father – going to do to you when he finds out that you al owed this?"

"He wil not kil me,"Sage said brusquely, the wild tone back in his voice. "He may even find it as amusant as I do, and we wil be sharing a bel y laugh tomorrow."

"And if he doesn't find it amusing? Sage, I don't think…

Damon wouldn't have wanted – "

Sage whirled around and for the first time since she had met him, Elena could believe with her whole soul that he was the son of his father. His eyes had even seemed to change color, to the yel ow of a flame, with diamond pupils like a cat's. His voice was like steel splintering, harder even than Stefan's. "What is between my father and me is my own business – mine! Stay here if you want. He never bothers himself about vampires, anyway – he says they're cursed already. But I am going to do everything I can to bring mon cheri Damon back."

"Whatever the cost to you?"

"The hel with the cost!"

To Elena's surprise, Stefan gripped Sage's shoulders for a moment and then simply hugged as much of him as he could hold.

"I just wanted to make sure,"he said quietly. "Thank you, Sage. Thank you."Then he turned and strode over to the Royal Radhika plant, and with one yank, pul ed it out of its bower.

Elena, heart beating in her lips and throat and fingertips, ran to gather the empty containers and bottles Sage was tossing out of a ninth doorway that had appeared in between the mine shaft and the field of black roses. She snatched up a gal on container and an Evian water bottle, both with secure caps intact. They were made of plastic, which was good, because she dropped them both just going across the room to the bubbling fountain. Her hands were shaking that badly; and al the time she was sending up a monotonous prayer, Oh, please. Oh, please. Oh, please!

She got water into both containers at the Fountain and capped them. And then she realized that Bonnie was Stillstanding in the middle of the Gatehouse. She looked bewildered, frightened.

"Bonnie?"

"Sage?"Bonnie said. "How do we get these things to the Celestial Court to bargain with them?"

"Have no worries,"Sage said kindly. "I am certain that Guardians wil be waiting just outside to arrest us. They wil take us to the Court."

Bonnie didn't stop trembling, but she nodded and hurried to help Sage get bottles of Black Magic – and break them. "A symbol,"he said. "Un signe of what we wil do to this area if the Celestials don't agree. Be careful not to cut your pretty hands."

Elena thought she heard Bonnie's husky voice then, and that it was not a happy tone. But Sage's rumbling murmur was reassuring. And Elena would neither al ow herself to hope nor despair. She had a task in hand, a scheme. She was making private Plans for the Celestial Court.

When she and Bonnie had al the plunder they could carry, and their backpacks were ful as Well, when Stefan had two narrow black boxes that held deeds, and when Sage looked like a cross between Santa Claus and a bronzed, gorgeous, long-haired Hercules, as he carried two sacks made of pil owcases, they gave one last look around at the ravaged Gatehouse.

"All right,"Sage said then. "Time to face the Guardians."He smiled reassuringly at Bonnie.

As usual, Sage was right. The moment they came out with their booty, Guardians from two different dimensions were ready for them. The first type were the ones who looked vaguely like Elena: blond hair, dark blue eyes, slender. The Guardians of the Nether World seemed senior to these, and were lithe women with skin so dark it was almost ebony, and hair that curled tightly in a cap over their heads. Behind them were bril iant golden air cars.

"You are under arrest,"one of the dark ones said, not looking as if she enjoyed her job, "for removing treasures that rightful y belong to the Celestial Court out of the sanctuary where it was agreed that they would be kept, under the laws of both our dimensions."

And then it was only a matter of hanging on to the golden air cars while hanging on at the same time to their unlawful booty.

The Celestial Court was…celestial. Pearly white with a faint hint of blue. Minarets. It was a long distance from the heavily guarded gate – where Elena had seen a third type of Guardian, one with short red hair and slanted, piercing green eyes – to the actual palace, which seemed to encompass a city.

But it was when Elena's group was guided to the throne room that the real culture shock hit. It was far larger and far more glorious than any room Elena had ever imagined. No bal or gala in the Dark Dimensions could have prepared her in the least for it. The cathedral ceiling seemed to be made entirely of gold, as were the double line of stately columns that marched vertical y across the floor. The floor itself was of intricately patterned malachite and gold-threaded lapis lazuli, with gold seemingly used as grouting – and with a heavy hand at that. The three golden fountains in the middle of the room (the central one was the largest and most elaborate) threw into the air not water, but delicately perfumed flower petals that sparkled like diamonds in turning at their apex and then floated down again. Stained-glass windows in bril iant colors that Elena couldn't remember ever having seen before threw rainbow light like a benediction from high on every wal , giving warmth to the otherwise cool engraved gold.

Sage and Elena and Stefan and Bonnie were seated in smal comfortable chairs just a few feet back from a great dais, draped with a fantastical y woven golden cloth. The treasures were spread out in front of them, as attendants dressed in flowing blue and gold took the objects one by one up to the current ruling triumvirate in back.

The rulers comprised one each of the groups of Guardians – fair, dark, redheaded. Their seats on the dais ensured that they were far from – and high above – their petitioners. But with Power sent to her eyes, Elena could see perfectly well that they each sat on an exquisitely jeweled golden throne. that they each sat on an exquisitely jeweled golden throne.

They were speaking softly together, admiring the Royal Radhika flower – blue delphiniums at the moment. Then the dark one smiled and sent one of her attendants running for a pot with soil for the plant to survive in.

Elena stared sightlessly at the other treasures. A gal on of water from the Fountain of Eternal Youth and Life. Six bottles of unbroken Black Magic wine, and the shards of at least that many around them. A blazing rainbow to rival the stained-glass windows in fist-sized gems, some raw, some already faceted and polished, but most of them not only faceted, but also hand-carved with mysterious gold or silver inscriptions.

Two long, black, velvet-lined boxes with yel owing cylinders of papyrus or paper inside them, one with a pure black rose lying next to it, and the other with a simple spray of light springtime-green leaves. Elena knew what the yel owed documents with their cracked waxen seals were. The deeds to the field of black roses and the kitsune paradise.

When you saw al the treasures together like this, it almost seemed too much, Elena thought. Any one object from any one of the Seven – no, now Six – kitsune Treasures was enough to trade worlds for. One sprig of the Royal Radhika, which was even now being returned, (pink larkspur changing to a white orchid) properly potted again, was immeasurably precious. So was a single velvety black rose, with its power to hold the most powerful of magics. One jewel from the hoard in the mining cavern, maybe a double-fist-sized diamond that put the Star of Africa and the Golden Jubilee to shame. One day in the kitsune paradise, where a day could seem like a perfect lifetime. One sip of that effervescent water that could make a human live as long as the oldest Old One…

Of course there should also have been the largest star bal in existence, ful of eldritch Power, but Elena was hoping that the Guardians would overlook that.

Hoping? She wondered and shook her head at nothing, causing Bonnie to squeeze her hand tightly. Not hoping. She didn't dare hope. Not a breath yet.

Another attendant, red-haired, flashing them a cold green-eyed look, picked up the plastic gal on bottle that said Sector 3 Water on the label. Sage rumbled as she left, "Qu'est-ce qui lui prend? I mean, what is her problem? I like the water in the vampire sector. I don't like the pump water in the Nether World."

Elena had already figured out the color code for the Guardians. The blond ones were al business, impatient only with delays. The dark ones were the kindest – maybe there was less work for them to do in the Nether World. The green-eyed redheads were just plain bitchy. Unfortunately, the young woman on the central throne up there on the dais was a redhead.

"Bonnie?"she whispered.

Bonnie had to gulp and sniff before she could get out, "Yes?"

"Have I ever told you how much I like your eyes?"

Bonnie gave her a long brown-eyed gaze before beginning to shake with laughter. At least it started out like laughter, and then Bonnie burrowed her head into Elena's shoulder and simply shook.

Stefan squeezed Elena's hand. "She's been trying so hard – for you. She – she loved him too, you see. I didn't even know that. I guess…I guess I've just been blind on al sides."

He ran his free hand through his already-tousled hair. He looked very young, like a little boy who had been suddenly punished for doing something he hadn't been told was wrong. Elena remembered him in the backyard of the boardinghouse, dancing with her feet on his feet, and then in his attic room, kissing her hands, her knuckles bruised with hammering, the pulsing inside of her wrists. She wanted to tel him that everything was going to be All right, that the laughter would come back to his eyes, but she couldn't stand the chance of lying to him.

Suddenly Elena felt like a very, very old woman, who could hear and see only dimly, whose every movement caused her terrible pain, and who was cold inside. Her every joint and every bone was fil ed with ice.

At last, when al the treasures, including a sparkling, diamond-set, golden Master Key, had been taken up for the young women on the thrones to handle, heft, examine, and discuss, a warm-eyed dark-skinned woman came to Elena's group. "You may approach Their High Judgments now.

And,"she added in a voice as soft as the stroke of a dragonfly's wing, "they are very, very impressed. That doesn't often happen. Speak meekly and keep your heads low and I think you shal have your hearts'desires."

Something inside Elena gave a bound that would have sent her leaping to clutch at the retreating attendant's robe, but fortunately Stefan had her in an embrace of iron. Bonnie's head came off Elena's shoulder, and Elena had to restrain her, in turn.

They walked, the very portrait of meekness, to where four scarlet cushions blazed against the golden weave of the floor cloth. Once, Elena would have refused to abase herself.

Now, she was thankful for a soft resting place for her knees.

This close, she could see that the rulers each wore a circlet of some metal, from which a single stone hung on to her forehead.

"We have considered your petition,"the dark one said, her white-gold circlet with its diamond pendant dazzling Elena with pinpricks of lilac and red and royal blue. "Oh, yes,"she added, laughing. "We know what you want. Even a Guardian on the street would have to be very bad at her job not to know. You want your town…renewed. The burned buildings rebuilt. The victims of the malach pestilence re-created, their souls swathed again in flesh, and their memories – "

"But, first,"interrupted the fair one, waving a hand, "don't we have business at hand? This girl – Elena Gilbert – may not be eligible to be a spokesman for her group. If she becomes a Guardian, she doesn't belong with the petitioners."

The redhead tossed her head like an impatient fil y, causing the rose gold of her circlet to flash, and its ruby to shimmer.

"Oh, go on then, Ryannen. If your recruitment levels are so low – "

The businesslike fair one ignored this, but bent forward, some of her hair held back from her face by her circlet of yel ow gold with its sapphire pendant. "What about it, Elena?

I know our first encounter was – unfortunate. You must believe that I am sorry for that. But you were well on your way to becoming a ful Guardian when we had orders from Above to weave you into a new body so that you could take up your life as a human again."

"You did that? Of course you did."Elena's voice was soft and low and flattering. "You can do anything. But – our first encounter? I don't remember – "

"You were too young, and you saw just a flash of our air car as it passed your parents'vehicle. It was meant to be a minor accident with one apparent casualty – you. But instead…"

Bonnie's hands flew to her mouth. She was clearly getting something Elena wasn't. Her parents'"vehicle"…? The last time she'd driven with her father and mother – and little Margaret – had been the day of the crash. The day she'd distracted her father, who'd been driving…

"Look, Daddy! Look at the pretty – "

And then had come the impact.

Elena forgot about being meek and keeping her head low. In fact, she raised her head, and met gold-splattered blue eyes very much like hers. Her own gaze, she knew, was piercing and hard.

"You… killed my parents?"she whispered.

"No, no!"the dark one cried. "It was an operation gone sour.

We only had to intersect with the Earth dimension for a few minutes. But, quite unexpectedly, your talent flared. You saw our air car. Instead of a crash with only one apparent casualty: you, your father turned to look and…"Slowly her voice trailed off as Elena's turned unbelieving eyes on her.

Bonnie was staring sightlessly into the distance, almost as if she were in trance. "Shinichi,"she breathed. "That weird riddle of his – or whatever it was. That one of us had murdered, and that it was nothing to do with being a vampire or a mercy kil ing…"

"I'd always assumed it was me,"Stefan said quietly. "My mother never real y recovered after my birth. She died."

"But that doesn't make you a murderer!"Elena cried. "Not like me. Not like me! "

"Well, that was why I was asking you now,"the businesslike blond woman said. "It was a flawed mission, but you understand that we were only trying to recruit you, yes? It's the traditional method. Our genes have honed us to be the best at managing powerful, irrational demons, who don't respond to traditional strength but require on-the-spot recalculation – "

Elena choked back a scream. A scream of wrath – agony – disbelief – guilt –  she didn't know what. Her Plans. Her schemes. The way she had handled boisterous boys in the bad old days – it was al genetic. And…her parents…what had they died for?

Stefan stood up. His jaw was hard, his green eyes were burning bril iantly. There was no gentleness in his face. He clasped Elena's hand and she heard, If you want to fight, I'm in.

Mais, non. Elena turned around and saw Sage. His telepathic voice was unmistakable. She was compel ed to listen. We cannot fight them on their own territory and win.

Even I cannot. What you can do is make them pay! Elena, my brave one, your parents'spirits have undoubtedly found new homes. It would be cruel to drag them back. But let us demand of the Guardians anything you desire. For a year and a day in the past, demand whatever you wish! I think that we all will back you.

Elena paused. She looked at the Guardians and she looked at the treasures. She looked at Bonnie and Stefan, who were waiting. There was permission in their eyes.

Then she said slowly to the Guardians, "This is really going to cost you. And I don't want to hear that any of it is impossible. For al your treasures back and the Master Key too…I want my old life. No, I want a new life, with my real old life behind me. I want to be Elena Gilbert, exactly as if I'd graduated with my high school class, and I want to go to Dalcrest Col ege. I want to wake up in my aunt Judith's house in the morning and find that no one realizes I've been gone for almost ten months. And I want a 4.5 grade point average for my last year in high school – just in case of emergencies.

And I want Stefan to have lived in the boardinghouse peaceful y al that time, and to have everyone accept him as my boyfriend. And I want every single thing that Shinichi and Misao and whoever they were working for did undone and forgotten. I want the person they were working for dead. And I want everything that Klaus did in Fel 's Church undone as well. I want Sue Carson back! I want Vickie Bennett back! I want everyone back! "

Bonnie said faintly, "Even Mr. Tanner?"

Elena understood. If Mr. Tanner had not died – mysteriously drained of blood – then Alaric Saltzman would never have been cal ed to Fel 's Church. Elena remembered Alaric from the out-of-body experience: sandy hair, laughing hazel eyes.

She thought of Meredith and his almost-engagement to her.

But who was she to play God? To say, yes, this person can die because he was unlovely and unloved, but this one has to live because she was my friend.

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