Stefan and Elena were alone in Elena's dorm room at last, taking advantage of the small moment they had together. Bonnie, Meredith, and Alaric were in the library studying up on dream control, while Stefan had offered Matt and Chloe his room for the night now that their boathouse hideaway had been destroyed.
Stefan cupped Elena's cheek gently. "What's wrong?" he said, concerned by whatever it was he saw in her eyes. Elena had thought she was hiding her fear pretty well, but Stefan had always been able to see through her masks. She was glad they were finally alone. She didn't want the others to know, not yet. They weren't determined to protect Damon, not like she and Stefan were.
"A Principal Guardian came to me today and made me take the Guardian oath," she told him. "She gave me my first task."
For a moment, Stefan's face lightened. "But that's wonderful news," he said. "Now you'll be able to access more Power to fight Klaus, won't you?"
Elena shook her head. "My task isn't to kill Klaus," she told him simply. "They want me to kill Damon."
Stefan, eyes wide with shock, stepped back, his hand dropping from Elena's cheek.
"I'm not going to do it," she said. "You know that. But we have to figure out how to get around this. If I just refuse to do it, they'll" - her mouth went dry - "banish me to the Celestial Court. I won't be on Earth anymore."
"No." Stefan's arms were around her again, holding her close. "Never."
Elena pressed her face against his neck. "I can't do it," she whispered. "The Guardian told me that Damon was killing again, and I still can't bring myself to hurt him."
She felt Stefan stiffen at the news, but when she looked up his eyes were steady. "Elena, I love my brother. But if Damon's murdering innocent people, we have to stop him. No matter what the cost."
"I can't kill Damon," Elena said again. "The Guardians already took away two people I love, and I won't let them take away any more. We have to find another way."
"What if Damon changes?" Stefan asked. "If he's not a threat to humans, will the Guardians change their minds?"
Elena shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "But Damon won't listen to us; he's completely shut down. Maybe if we tell him that the Guardians want him dead?"
Stefan's lip quirked into a rueful almost-smile, just for a moment. "Maybe," he said. "Or maybe he'll double his attacks just to defy them. Damon would laugh at the devil if he felt like it."
Elena nodded. It was true, and she knew Stefan was sharing both the affection and the despair Damon inspired in her.
"Maybe Andres will have an idea," Stefan suggested. "He knows a lot more about Guardian business than we do. But are you sure we can trust him?"
"Of course we can," Elena said automatically. Andres was good - she knew that without question. And he had fought beside them against Klaus.
Gripping Elena's shoulder tightly, Stefan looked into her eyes again, his face grim. "I know we can trust Andres to do what's right," he said. "But can we trust him to save a vampire - a violent vampire? I don't even know if that's the right thing."
Elena swallowed. "I think I can trust Andres to back me up," she said carefully, "even against the Guardians. He believes in me." She hoped desperately that this was true.
Stefan gave her a sad smile. "Then tomorrow we talk to Andres," he said. He pulled her into an embrace and stroked a hand through her hair. "Tonight, though, let's take some time and be together, you and me," he said, his voice rough. There was a long silence as Elena just let Stefan hold her.
"I want Damon to live," Stefan finally said. "I want him to change. But if it comes down to a choice between him and you, I have to choose you. There's no world for me without you, Elena. I'm not going to let you sacrifice yourself this time."
Elena didn't answer, refused to make any promises she might not be able to keep. She hoped the love flowing between them would be enough, for now.
The next morning, Elena and Stefan sat with James and Andres in James's small, sunny kitchen. All four of them had cups of coffee and bagels in front of them, and Stefan stirred his coffee without sipping it, just to keep his hands busy. He didn't eat or drink much, but it made people more comfortable if they thought he did. It was a cheerful morning scene, except for the look of complete confusion on James's face.
"I don't understand," he said, looking from Elena to Stefan in bewilderment. "Why are you trying to save a vampire?"
Elena opened her mouth, then closed it and thought for a moment. "He's Stefan's brother," she said flatly after a moment. "And we love him."
James shot Stefan a scandalized look, and Stefan tried to remember if James had any idea that Stefan was also a vampire. He didn't think so, actually.
Elena went on. "Damon's fought at our side and saved a lot of people," she said. "We need to give him a chance to get better. We can't just forget all the good he's done."
Andres nodded. "You're reluctant to kill him when there might be some other way to control his missteps."
James shook his head. "I'm not sure I'd call eating people 'missteps,'" he said. "I'm sorry, Elena. I don't think I can help you." Stefan tensed, feeling the coffee spoon bend in his hand.
"We'll fix him," Elena said. Her chin was out determinedly. "He won't be a danger to anyone."
Andres sighed and laid his hands flat on the table, all traces of humor gone from his face. "You took an oath," he said quietly. "The Guardians believe in rules, and, as you've agreed to their rules, you must fulfill your task or suffer the consequences. Even if you accept your removal to the Celestial Court, the task will simply pass to another Earthly Guardian." He grimaced, and Stefan's heart sank. Andres was telling them that he might be the next one assigned to kill Damon. If Elena somehow got out of the job, they'd be fighting Andres.
Elena's eyes were bright with tears. "There must be some way to fix this," she said. "How do I summon the Principal Guardian back? Maybe I can reason with her. Klaus is much more dangerous than Damon is. Even if you don't agree with me about saving Damon, you have to see that Klaus is the one we need to focus on."
"You can't call her," Andres said sadly. "They only appear to assign a task, or when the task is completed." He slowly shook his head. "Elena, there's no gray area here. You're already feeling the drive to fulfill your mission, aren't you? That's only going to get worse."
Elena put her head in her hands, resting her elbows on the table. Stefan touched her shoulder, and she leaned into him as he channeled silent support to her. After a moment, she lifted her head, her mouth firm with resolve. "Okay," she said. "Then I'll try something else. I'm not giving up."
"I will help you if I can," Andres told her. "But if your task passes to me, I won't have a choice."
Elena nodded and stood up briskly. Stefan started to follow her, but she put a hand on his shoulder and gently pressed him back down. "This one I have to do by myself," she said apologetically. She kissed him lightly, her lips warm, and Stefan tried to send all the love and trust he could to her.
I have something I have to take care of, too, he thought. He didn't know when he'd back. This might, he realized with a flare of breathless panic, be the last time they saw each other. His arms tightened around her, holding on to her for as long as he could. Please, Elena, be careful.
Finding Damon was easy. When Elena opened herself to the nagging ache that had been inside her all day, barely touching on her Power, the path to Damon appeared ahead of her and all she had to do was follow the vivid black and red.
This time, it led to a seedy-looking building with a sign out front that read EDDIE'S BILLIARDS. It was open, but there were only a couple of cars in the parking lot. It looked more like a nighttime place. Frankly, it didn't look like Elena's kind of place at all, and she felt a little nervous walking up to the doors. I've been to the Dark Dimension, she reminded herself. I'm a Guardian. There's nothing here that can scare me. She pushed through the doors and boldly stepped inside.
The bartender made eye contact with her for a moment and then turned back to his chore, polishing glasses. Two men sat at a small round table in the corner, smoking and talking quietly. They didn't even glance up at her. All but one of the pool tables were empty.
There, in the middle of the room, Damon leaned over the pool table, lining up his cue to take a shot. He looked tough in his leather jacket, Elena thought, rougher and somehow less elegant than he usually did. A shorter, fairer man hovered behind him. As he made the shot, Damon flicked his eyes up toward Elena, cool and black and giving nothing away.
"Game's over," he said briefly to his companion, despite the colored balls still littering the table. Damon picked up the wad of bills on the corner of the table and stuffed them into his pocket. The sandy-haired guy seemed about to speak at this, but then bit his lip and stared at the floor, remaining silent.
"You don't give up, do you?" Damon said, crossing the room toward Elena in a few quick steps. He seemed to be weighing her up with his dark, considering gaze. "I told you, I won't be any help to you anymore, princess."
Elena felt her cheeks heat up. Damon always called her princess, but this time the nickname lacked the affection she was used to. Now it sounded dismissive, as if he couldn't be bothered to use her real name. She stiffened, using the flash of anger to help her start talking.
"You're in trouble, Damon," she said brusquely. "The Principal Guardians want you dead. They've assigned me to kill you." For a moment, she thought Damon looked startled, and she pushed forward. "I don't want to do it, Damon," she said, letting a pleading note creep into her voice. "I can't. But maybe it's not too late. If you change what you're doing . . ."
Damon shrugged. "Do what you have to do, princess," he said lightly. "The Guardians couldn't keep me dead before - I'm not too worried now." He started to turn away, and Elena sidestepped to block his path.
"You have to take this seriously, Damon," she said. "They will kill you."
Damon sighed. "Frankly," he said, "I think they're overreacting. So I killed someone. It was one girl, in a world of millions of girls." He glanced over her shoulder, back at the pool table. "Jimmy? Rack them up."
Feeling like she'd been punched in the stomach, Elena gaped breathlessly, then followed him back to the table. Jimmy arranged the balls and Damon broke, carefully angling his cue. "What do you mean, you killed someone?" she said at last in a tiny voice.
Something she couldn't quite identify flickered over Damon's face, but then it was gone. "I'm afraid I got carried away," he said lightly. "Happens to the best of us, I suppose." He knocked a ball into a pocket and circled the table to take another shot.
Elena's mind was turning over what she'd seen: the girl she and Stefan had found unconscious in the woods, the girl Damon had been feeding on near the athletic fields. They'd been fine in the end, hadn't they? She and Stefan had made sure they got home safely. Dread coiled inside her as she finally realized what he was saying. Damon had killed someone else, someone they hadn't found. She'd been holding out hope for him, but he was murdering again, and she hadn't even known.
She made an effort now to see Damon's aura, and it became visible almost immediately. Elena winced in dismay at the sight. It was so dark, all the color almost swallowed up in blackness now, cut with repulsive winding strains of dried-blood red. Surely there was still something else there? She saw a wisp of greenish-blue close to Damon's body, but just as quickly as it appeared, it was covered again in darkness.
Still, that glimpse of color gave her a bit of hope. Damon wasn't lost yet. He couldn't be.
Impulsively, she followed Damon to the other side of the table and laid a hand on his arm. His muscles twitched once, as if about to pull away, then grew still. "Please, Damon," she said. "I know this isn't you. You're not a killer, not anymore. I love you. Please."
Damon placed his cue carefully on the table and glared at her, his body tense and strained. "You love me?" he asked in a low, dangerous voice. "You don't even know me, princess. I'm not your lapdog - I'm a vampire. Do you know what that means?" Elena involuntarily stepped back, alarmed by the anger in Damon's eyes, and his lips tipped up in a tiny smirk. "Jimmy," he called over his shoulder, and the guy he'd been playing pool with came over to them, still holding his cue.
"Yeah?" he said hesitantly, and Elena heard it in his tone: he was afraid of Damon. Glancing around, she could see the bartender hurriedly averting his eyes from them, as if he, too, was afraid. The two men from the table in the corner had slipped out while she was talking to Damon.
"Give me your cue," Damon said, and Jimmy handed it to him. Damon snapped it in two as easily as Elena herself would have torn a piece of paper and looked speculatively at the pieces in his hands. From one half extended long, jagged splinters of wood, and Damon handed that half back to Jimmy.
"Now take this and stab yourself with it," he said calmly. "Keep going until I tell you to stop."
"Damon, no! Don't do it," she told Jimmy. "Fight it."
Jimmy, staring at the cue, hesitated, and Elena felt the sudden snap of Power as Jimmy's face went distant and dreamy, and he raised the pool cue and jabbed it hard at his own stomach. As the cue made contact, he gave a harsh exhalation of breath, but his face remained unconcerned, his mind disconnected from what his body was doing. Jimmy pulled the cue back again, and Elena could see a long bloody streak where one of the splinters had gone into his side.
"Stop it!" Elena shouted.
"Harder," Damon ordered, "and faster." Jimmy obeyed, the cue snapping back and forth roughly. Blood was running down his shirt now. Damon watched with a small smile, his eyes bright. "Being a vampire," he said to Elena, "means that I like being in control. I like blood, too. And I don't have to care about human pain, any more than you do about the pain of the insect you tread on as you walk down the street."
"Please stop it," Elena said, horrified. "Don't hurt him any more."
Damon's smile widened, and he looked away from Jimmy, turning his whole attention to Elena. Jimmy's arms kept jerking back and forth, though, thrusting the pool cue into himself even without Damon's focus on him. "I'll only stop if you leave right now, princess," Damon said.
Elena blinked away tears. She was stronger than he thought. She would prove it. "Fine," she said. "I'll go. But Damon" - and here she dared to touch his arm again, a quick soft touch - "what you said when I came in is true. I never give up." Something seemed to shift in Damon when Elena touched him, the slightest softening of the grim lines of his face, and Elena almost felt like she'd gotten through to him. But a second later he was as cold and distant as ever.
Elena wheeled quickly and walked away, head high. Behind her, she heard Damon speak sharply and Jimmy's grunts of pain cease.
Had she imagined the momentary change in Damon's expression? Please, please let that have been real, Elena pleaded silently. Surely there was something left in that angry stranger behind her, something of the Damon she loved. She couldn't lose him. But as she felt a wrenching in her chest, she wondered if she already had.