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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 9)

Damon dropped his hand. He simply couldn't make himself do it. Bonnie was weak, light-headed, a liability in combat, easy to confuse –

That's it, he thought. I'l use that! She's so naive –

"Let go for a second,"he coaxed. "So I can get the stave – "

"No! You'l jump if I do! What's a stave?"Bonnie said, al in one breath.

– and stubborn, and impractical –

Was the bril iant light beginning to flicker?

"Bonnie,"he said in a low voice, "I am deadly serious here. If you don't let go, I'l make you – and you won't like that, I promise."

"Do what he says,"Meredith pleaded from somewhere quite close. "Bonnie, he's going into the Dark Dimension! But you're going to end up going with him – and you'l both be human slaves this time! Take my hand!"

"Take her hand!"Damon roared, as the light definitely flickered, for an instant becoming less blinding. He could feel Bonnie shifting and trying to see where Meredith was, and then he heard her say, "I can't – "

And then they were fal ing.

The last time they had traveled through a Gate they had been total y enclosed in an elevator-like box. This time they were simply flying. There was the light, and there were the two of them, and they were so blinded that somehow speaking didn't seem possible. There was only the bril iant, fluctuating, beautiful light –

And then they were standing in an al ey, so narrow that it just barely al owed the two of them to face each other, and between buildings so high that there was almost no light down where they were.

No – that wasn't the reason, Damon thought. He remembered that blood-red perpetual light. It wasn't coming directly from either side of the narrow slit of al ey, which meant that they were basical y in deep burgundy twilight.

"Do you realize where we are?"Damon demanded in a furious whisper.

Bonnie nodded, seeming happy about having figured that out already. "We're basical y in deep burgundy – "

"Crap!"

Bonnie looked around. "I don't smel anything,"she offered cautiously, and examined the soles of her feet.

"We are,"Damon said slowly and quietly, as if he needed to calm himself between every word, "in a world where we can be flogged, flayed, and decapitated just for stepping on the ground."

Bonnie tried a little hop and then a jump in place, as if diminishing her ground-interaction time might help them in some manner. She looked at him for further instructions.

Quite suddenly, Damon picked her up and stared at her hard, as revelation dawned. "You're drunk!"he final y whispered. "You're not even awake! Al this while I've been trying to get you to see sense, and you're a drunken sleepwalker!"

"I am not!"Bonnie said. "And…just in case I am, you ought to be nicer to me. You made me this way."

Some distant part of Damon agreed that this was true. He was the one who'd gotten the girl drunk and then drugged her with truth serum and sleeping medicine. But that was simply a fact, and had nothing to do with how he felt about it. How he felt was that there was no possible way for him to proceed with this al -too-gentle creature along.

Of course, the sensible thing would be to get away from her very quickly, and let the city, this huge metropolis of evil, swal ow her in its great, black-fanged maw, as it would most certainly do if she walked a dozen steps on its streets without him. But, as before, something inside him simply wouldn't let him do it. And, he realized, the sooner he admitted that, the sooner he could find a place to put her and begin taking care of his own affairs.

"What's that?"he said, taking one of her hands.

"My opal ring,"Bonnie said proudly. "See, it goes with everything, because it's al colors. I always wear it; it's casual or dress-up."She happily let Damon take it off and examine it.

"These are real diamonds on the sides?"

"Flawless, pure white,"Bonnie said, stil proudly. "Lady Ulma's fianceLucen made it so that if we ever needed to take the stones out and sel them – "She came up short.

"You're going to take the stones out and sel them! No! No no no no no!"

"Yes! I have to, if you're going to have any chance of surviving,"Damon said. "And if you say one more word or fail to do exactly as I tel you, I am going to leave you alone here.

And then you wil die. "He turned narrowed, menacing eyes on her.

Bonnie abruptly turned into a frightened bird. "Al right,"she whispered, tears gathering on her eyelashes. "What's it for?"

Thirty minutes later, she was in prison; or as good as.

Damon had instal ed her in a second-story apartment with one window covered by rol er blinds, and strict instructions about keeping them down. He had pawned the opal and a diamond successful y, and paid a sour, humorless-looking landlady to bring Bonnie two meals a day, escort her to the toilet when necessary, and otherwise forget about her existence.

"Listen,"he said to Bonnie, who was stil crying silently after the landlady had left them, "I'l try to get back to see you within three days. If I don't come within a week it'l mean I'm dead. Then you – don't cry! Listen! –  then you need to use these jewels and this money to try to get al the way from here to here; where Lady Ulma wil stil be – we hope."

He gave her a map and a little moneybag ful of coins and gems left over from the cost of her bread and board. "If that happens – and I can pretty wel promise it won't, your best chance is to try walking in the daytime when things are busy; keep your eyes down, your aura smal , and don't talk to anyone. Wear this sacking smock, and carry this bag of food. Pray that nobody asks you anything, but try to look as if you're on an errand for your master. Oh, yes."Damon reached into his jacket pocket and pul ed out two smal iron slave bracelets, bought when he had gotten the map. "Never take them off, not when you're sleeping, not when you're eating –  never."

He looked at her darkly, but Bonnie was already on the threshold of a panic attack. She was trembling and crying, but too frightened to say a word. Ever since entering the Dark Dimension she'd been keeping her aura as smal as possible, her psychic defenses high; she didn't need to be told to do that. She was in danger. She knew it.

Damon finished somewhat more leniently. "I know it sounds difficult, but I can tel you that I personal y have no intention whatsoever of dying. I'l try to visit you, but getting across the borders of the various sectors is dangerous, and that's what I may have to do to come here. Just be patient, and you'l be al right. Remember, time passes differently here than back on Earth. We can be here for weeks and we'l get back practical y the instant we set out. And, look" – Damon gestured around the room – "dozens of star bal s! You can watch al of them."

These were the more common kind of star bal , the kind that had, not Power in them, but memories, stories, or lessons.

When you held one to your temple, you were immersed in whatever material had been imprinted on the bal .

"Better than TV,"Damon said. "Much."

Bonnie nodded slightly. She was stil crushed, and she was so smal , so slight, her skin so pale and fine, her hair such a flame of bril iance in the dim crimson light that seeped through the blinds, that as always Damon found himself melting slightly. "Do you have any questions?"he asked her final y.

Bonnie said slowly, "And – you're going to be…?"

"Out getting the vampire versions of Who's Who and the Book of Peers,"Damon said. "I'm looking for a lady of quality."

After Damon had left, Bonnie looked around the room.

It was horrible. Dark brown and just horrible! She had been trying to save Damon from going back into the Dark Dimension because she remembered the terrible way that slaves – who were mostly humans – were treated.

But did he appreciate that? Did he? Not in the slightest! And then when she'd been fal ing through the light with him, she'd thought that at least they would be going to Lady Ulma's, the Cinderel a-story woman whom Elena had rescued and who had then regained her wealth and status and had designed beautiful dresses so that the girls could go to fancy parties.

There would have been big beds with satin sheets and maids who brought strawberries and clotted cream for breakfast. There would have been sweet Lakshmi to talk to, and gruff Dr. Meggar, and…

Bonnie looked around the brown room and the plain rush-fil ed pal et with its single blanket. She picked up a star bal listlessly, and then let it drop from her fingers.

Suddenly, a great sleepiness fil ed her, making her head swim. It was like a fog rol ing in. There was absolutely no question of fighting it. Bonnie stumbled toward the bed, fel onto it, and was asleep almost before she had settled under the blanket.

"It's my fault far more than yours,"Stefan was saying to Meredith. "Elena and I were – deeply asleep – or he'd never have managed any part of it. I'd have noticed him talking with Bonnie. I'd have realized he was taking you hostage. Please don't blame yourself, Meredith."

"I should have tried to warn you. I just never expected Bonnie to come running out and grab him,"Meredith said. Her dark gray eyes shimmered with unshed tears. Elena squeezed her hand, sick in the pit of her stomach herself.

"You certainly couldn't be expected to fight off Damon,"Stefan said flatly. "Human or vampire – he's trained; he knows moves that you could never counter. You can't blame yourself."

Elena was thinking the same thing. She was worried about Damon's disappearance – and terrified for Bonnie. Yet at another level of her mind she was wondering at the lacerations on Meredith's palm that she was trying to warm.

The strangest thing was that the wounds appeared to have been treated – rubbed slick with lotion. But she wasn't going to bother Meredith about it at a time like this. Especial y when it was real y Elena's own fault. She was the one who had enticed Stefan the night before. Oh, they had been deep, al right – deep in each other's minds.

"Anyway, it's Bonnie's fault if it's anyone's,"Stefan said regretful y. "But now I'm worried about her. Damon's not going to be inclined to watch out for her if he didn't want her to come."

Meredith bowed her head. "It's my fault if she gets hurt."

Elena chewed her lower lip. There was something wrong.

Something about Meredith, that Meredith wasn't tel ing her.

Her hands were real y damaged, and Elena couldn't figure out how they could have gotten that way.

Almost as if she knew what Elena was thinking, Meredith slipped her hand out of Elena's and looked at it. Looked at both her palms, side by side. They were equal y scratched and torn.

Meredith bent her dark head farther, almost doubling over where she sat. Then she straightened, throwing back her head like someone who had made a decision. She said,

"There's something I have to tel you – "

"Wait,"Stefan whispered, putting a hand on her shoulder.

"Listen. There's a car coming."

Elena listened. In a moment she heard it too. "They're coming to the boardinghouse,"she said, puzzled.

"It's so early,"Meredith said. "Which means – "

"It has to be the police after Matt,"Stefan finished. "I'd better go in and wake him up. I'l put him in the root cel ar."

Elena quickly corked the star bal with its meager ounces of fluid. "He can take this with him,"she was beginning, when Meredith suddenly ran to the opposite side of the Gate. She picked up a long, slender object that Elena couldn't recognize, even with Power channeled to her eyes. She saw Stefan blink and stare at it.

"This needs to go in the root cel ar too,"Meredith said. "And there are probably earth tracks coming out of the cel ar, and blood in the kitchen. Two places."

"Blood?"Elena began, furious with Damon, but then she shook her head and refocused. In the light of dawn, she could see a police car, cruising like some great white shark toward the house.

"Let's go,"Elena said. "Go, go, go!"

They al dashed back to the boardinghouse, crouching to stay low to the ground as they did it. As they went, Elena hissed, "Stefan, you've got to Influence them if you can.

Meredith, you try to clean up the soil and blood. I'l get Matt; he's less likely to punch me when I tel him he has to hide."

They hastened to their appointed duties. In the middle of it al , Mrs. Flowers appeared, dressed in a flannel nightgown with a fuzzy pink robe over it, and slippers with bunny heads on them. As the first hammering knock on the door sounded, she had her hand on the door handle, and the police officer, who was beginning to shout, "POLICE! OPEN THE – "found himself bawling this directly over the head of a little old lady who could not have looked more frail or harmless. He ended almost in a whisper, " – door?"

"It is open,"Mrs. Flowers said sweetly. She opened it to its widest, so that Elena could see two officers, and the officers could see Elena, Stefan, and Meredith, al of whom had just arrived from the kitchen area.

"We want to speak to Matt Honeycutt,"the female officer said.

Elena noted that the squad car was from the Ridgemont Sheriff's Department. "His mother informed us that he was here – after serious questioning."

They were coming inside, shouldering their way past Mrs.

Flowers. Elena glanced at Stefan, who was pale, with tiny beads of sweat visible on his forehead. He was looking intently at the female officer, but she just kept talking.

"His mother says he's been virtual y living at this boardinghouse recently,"she said, while the male officer held up some kind of paperwork.

"We have a warrant to search the premises,"he said flatly.

Mrs. Flowers seemed uncertain. She glanced back toward Stefan, but then let her gaze move on to the other teenagers.

"Perhaps it would be best if I made everyone a nice cup of tea?"

Stefan was stil looking at the woman, his face looking paler and more drawn than ever. Elena felt a sudden panic clutch at her stomach. Oh, God, even with the gift of her blood tonight, Stefan was weak – far too weak to even use Influence.

"May I ask a question?"Meredith said in her low, calm voice.

"Not about the warrant,"she added, waving the paper away.

"How is it out there in Fel 's Church? Do you know what's going on?"

She was buying time, Elena thought, and yet everyone stopped to hear the answer.

"Mayhem,"the female sheriff replied after a moment's pause.

"It's like a war zone out there. Worse than that because it's the kids who are – "She broke off and shook her head.

"That's not our business. Our business is finding a fugitive from justice. But first, as we were driving toward your hotel we saw a very bright column of light. It wasn't from a helicopter. I don't suppose you know anything about what it was?"

Just a door through space and time, Elena was thinking, as Meredith answered, stil calmly, "Maybe a power transmitter blowing up? Or a freak shaft of lightning? Or are you talking about…a UFO?"She lowered her already soft voice.

"We don't have time for this,"the male sheriff said, looking disgusted. "We're here to find this Honeycutt man."

"You're welcome to look,"Mrs. Flowers said. They were already doing so.

Elena felt shocked and nauseated on two fronts. "This Honeycutt man."Man, not boy. Matt was over eighteen. Was he stil a juvenile? If not, what would they do to him when they eventual y caught up to him?

And then there was Stefan. Stefan had been so certain, so… convincing…in his announcements about being wel again.

Al that talk about going back to hunting animals – but the truth was that he needed much more blood to recover.

Now her mind spun into planning mode, faster and faster.

Stefan obviously wasn't going to be able to Influence both of those officers without a very large donation of human blood.

And if Elena gave it…the sick feeling in her stomach increased and she felt the smal hairs on her body stand up…if she gave it, what were the chances that she would become a vampire herself?

High, a cool, rational voice in her mind answered. Very high, considering that less than a week ago, she had been exchanging blood with Damon. Frequently. Uninhibitedly.

Which left her with the only plan she could think of. These sheriffs wouldn't find Matt, but Meredith and Bonnie had told her the whole story of how another Ridgemont sheriff had come, asking about Matt – and about Stefan's girlfriend. The problem was that she, Elena Gilbert, had "died"nine months ago. She shouldn't be here – and she had a feeling that these officers would be inquisitive.

They needed Stefan's Power. Right now. There was no other way, no other choice. Stefan. Power. Human blood.

She moved to Meredith, who had her dark head down and cocked to one side as if listening to the two sheriffs clomping above on the stairs.

"Meredith – "

Meredith turned toward her and Elena almost took a step back in shock. Meredith's normal y olive complexion was gray, and her breath was coming fast and shal owly.

Meredith, calm and composed Meredith, already knew what Elena was going to ask of her. Enough blood to leave her out of control as it was being taken. And fast. That terrified her.

More than terrified.

She can't do it, Elena thought. We're lost.

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