Elena, oh Elena," Stefan said, stroking her hair, feeling the urge to pull her to him and never, never let her leave his side again. "I was so afraid that I'd lost you. That I'd failed you."
As soon as Klaus had left the clearing, releasing the compelled stillness he'd held them all under, Stefan had raced to Elena, taking her in his arms. They were still on the battlefield, everyone nursing their wounds all around them, but he couldn't let go of her even for a moment.
"I'm okay," Elena said, grasping his hand and holding it against her cheek, letting him feel how warm and alive she was. She sounded bewildered. "How can I be okay, though? Klaus cut my throat."
"Do you know, Andres?" Stefan said, turning to the Guardian beside them. Behind him hovered Meredith, Alaric, and Bonnie. Bonnie was watching the werewolves across the clearing as they gathered around Chad's body, but she lingered with the other humans, giving them some space. A few steps away, Matt and Chloe stood half in the clearing, half below the trees, murmuring quietly to each other.
"I don't know for certain what protected her," Andres said slowly.
"You must have a pretty good idea," Stefan said sharply. "Tell us." He knew he should treat Andres more gently; he was, after all, the only one who could help Elena through her transition to Guardianship. But Stefan was still terrified, feeling sick and hollowed out from the moment when he had seen Klaus draw his dagger across Elena's throat. And he was sure that Andres knew more than he had told them.
"I have heard that, sometimes, Guardians who have very dangerous assignments are given special protections as well," Andres said. The full moon lit up the clearing and he looked pale and worn in its light. "Most commonly, they are safeguarded against death by paranormal means. The Power - the Guardian Powers - can't make them immortal, because they have to stay in tune with nature. Elena could be run over by a car or die of disease, but, if this is what's happened, she can't be killed by a vampire's bite or a spell, or" - he waved a hand in the direction that Klaus and his family had retreated - "by a magical dagger."
"If Klaus and his vampires can't kill her," Meredith said, starting to grin a wild, delighted grin, "then we have a weapon. Elena's safe."
Andres frowned. "Wait," he said. "They can't kill her by supernatural means. If Klaus figures that out, he could kill her with a rope or a kitchen knife." Stefan flinched, and Andres looked at him sympathetically. "I'm sorry," he said. "I know. It's hard to love someone as fragile as a human."
A long, drawn-out howl, echoing with misery and loss, rose from the foot of the tree where Chad had fallen. The wolves had, as a Pack, raced to Chad's side as soon as the Power holding them in place had lifted. They had been nosing at the fallen wolf's shaggy body, whimpering and growling, trying to confirm what Stefan had known since Chad hit the ground: Chad was dead.
Not just humans, Stefan thought bleakly. Anyone mortal is so vulnerable to death.
"We need to take a vow," he said, looking around at the humans' stricken faces. "No one can know about Elena's Powers, or about her being a Guardian. Not anyone. If Klaus finds out, he'll find a way to kill her." He felt sick and dizzy with panic. If Klaus found out Elena's secret . . . He looked wildly around. With the Pack here, there were so many now who might slip and give her away.
Meredith met his eyes challengingly. "I will never tell," she said. "On my honor as a hunter and a Sulez."
Matt nodded fervently. "I won't tell anyone," he promised, and Chloe, her eyes wide, nodded along with him.
Bonnie, Andres, and Alaric all promised, too. Stefan held Elena close to him and kissed her again before, with almost a physical wrench, letting go and walking across the clearing. Approaching the circle of mourning wolves, he called softly, "Zander." The huge white wolf had laid his head alongside Chad's and, at Stefan's approach, jerked his head up to snarl a warning.
"I'm sorry," Stefan said. "It's very important. I wouldn't interrupt you if it weren't."
Zander pressed his muzzle to the top of Chad's head for a moment, and then stood and left the circle of wolves. Shay moved automatically in to take his place, laying next to Chad's body as if she could comfort the dead wolf.
When Zander was standing before Stefan, he stiffened and then writhed, his muscles contracting and expanding. Patches of bare skin began to show between the tufts of his thick fur, and he staggered up onto his hind legs as the direction of his joints reversed with a cracking noise. He was changing back into a human, Stefan realized, and the transformation looked painful.
"It hurts to change back when the moon is still full," Zander said gruffly, once he was standing before Stefan in human form. His eyes were reddened with grief, and he drew his hand roughly across his face. "What do you want?"
"I am so sorry about Chad," Stefan said. "He was a loyal member of your Pack and a valuable ally to the rest of us."
Chad had been a nice kid, Stefan thought, earnest and cheerful. His chest tightened as he remembered that Chad's death was ultimately Stefan's fault: Klaus had come to this part of the world to avenge Katherine, who had followed Stefan. Years of Stefan's own history, leading to the death of a skinny, friendly nineteen-year-old werewolf who had never done anyone harm.
"It's a risk we take when we fight - we all know it," Zander said shortly. His usually open face was closed off: Pack mourning was not for outsiders. "Is that all?"
"No, I need your word. Elena's Guardian Powers are the only reason Klaus couldn't kill her tonight," Stefan said. "I need you and your Pack to promise not to tell anyone she's a Guardian."
"Wolves are loyal," Zander said. "We won't tell anyone." He turned away from Stefan and took two long strides back toward the circle of wolves, his body changing as he went.
Huddled together at the edge of the clearing, Matt took Chloe's hand and noticed she was trembling, a small, tight shiver running through her body. He was cold, but vampires didn't get cold, did they?
"Are you okay?" he asked quietly.
Chloe pressed her free hand against her chest, as if she was having trouble breathing. "It's just that there were so many people," she said. "It was hard to concentrate. The blood - I could smell everyone's blood. And when the wolf died . . ."
Matt understood. Fresh blood had leaked from Chad's nose and mouth as he died, and Matt had felt Chloe stiffen beside him. "It's okay," he said now. "Let's head back to the boathouse. You just weren't ready to be around such a big group yet, especially with everyone's pulses pounding from the battle."
Watching Chloe closely, he saw her jaw shift shape as her canines involuntarily descended. No talking about pounding pulses, he thought.
Chloe turned her head aside, trying to hide her lowering canines, and Matt noticed something else. There was a long streak of blood along Chloe's jaw, near her mouth. "Where's that from?" Matt asked, hearing the sharpness in his own voice as he let go of Chloe's hand.
"What?" Chloe asked, alarmed, skating her fingers over her own face. "I don't . . . I don't know what you mean." She was looking away, though, avoiding Matt's eyes.
"Did you feed?" Matt asked, trying to calm down, to not scare Chloe. "Maybe from Chad after he died? I know it wouldn't have seemed as bad with him in wolf form, but werewolves are still people." And jeez, when did that become something I believed? he wondered.
"No!" Chloe's eyes flew open wide, the whites showing all the way around her pupil. "No, Matt, I wouldn't do that!" She wiped roughly at her face, trying to erase the mark. "We were together the whole time!"
Matt frowned. "Not the whole time," he contradicted. "I lost sight of you during the fighting for a while." Chloe knew they'd been separated. Why would she say differently?
Chloe shook her head hard. "I didn't feed from anyone," she insisted. But her eyes jittered nervously away and, with a sickening swoop of his stomach, Matt realized he had no idea what to believe. Chloe sighed. "Please, Matt," she said quietly. "I promise I'm not lying to you." Tears shone in her big brown eyes. "I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to become something to be afraid of."
"You won't," Matt promised her. "I'll keep you safe." Chloe leaned her face against his, forehead to forehead, and they stayed that way for a while, breathing quietly. I will, Matt promised himself silently. I can help her.