Stefan and Elena couldn't stop touching each other. Little touches, hands entwining, a light kiss, or a stroke to the cheek.

"You're alive," Stefan said to her, his eyes wide. "I thought I'd lost you."

"Never," said Elena, reaching up from her bed to tug him closer until he was sitting on the bed, his side against hers. "I'm not going anywhere without you."

Klaus was dead. And Elena had survived. The sheer amazement of it had her buzzing with joy.

But Stefan stroked her hair back from her face, and the look in his eyes - loving, but somehow still laced with concern - made her effervescence flatten.

"What is it?" she asked, suddenly apprehensive.

Stefan shook his head. "The task isn't gone," he said. "The Guardians still might take you away."

Elena had been avoiding that thought with everything she had, but at Stefan's words, she stilled and let the knowledge flood over her: the Guardians still expected her to kill Damon. And the punishment for not doing so would be leaving Earth. Losing Stefan.

"I will love you whatever happens," Stefan said. His brows were drawn tight, and Elena knew the terrors that warred in him: the fear of losing Elena after all, and the fear of losing Damon. "Whatever you decide, Elena, I trust you." He raised his head, and his gaze was steady and true, his eyes shining.

Elena reached up and ran her fingers over Stefan's forehead, trying to erase the lines of his frown. "I think . . ." she said slowly, "I think I can see a way that we can save both me and Damon. I hope."

Just then, Andres tapped gently on the half-open door to Elena's room and she greeted him with a smile.

"How are you feeling?" he asked seriously. "I can come back later if you're resting."

"No, don't," she said, patting the chair by her bedside. "I want you to fill me in on everything that's going on."

"If you want to talk Guardian business, I could leave you two here, maybe get Elena something to eat," Stefan said. "I didn't want to leave her alone."

Stefan kissed Elena once more and she tried to pour all the love and reassurance she felt into their embrace. When he finally pulled back, the lines of his face were softer, more relaxed. Whatever Elena was planning, his gaze assured her, he would be with her. As he left, Andres took the chair by her bed. "Stefan's been looking after you?" he asked.

"Oh, yes," Elena said, stretching luxuriously, and trying to turn off her serious thoughts for a moment. She'd almost died - she had the right to be babied and indulged for one day, surely. "He tried to make me something called a hot milk posset earlier today. Supposedly, I am at a delicate stage in my recovery." She started to laugh, but the laugh abruptly cut off when she caught the look in Andres's eyes. "What's the matter?" she said in a different, sharper tone, sitting up. "What's happened?"

Andres waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing has happened," he said. "Only, perhaps we should talk after you've had more time to recover. What I have to say is not bad news, I don't think, but it is . . ." He hesitated. "Surprising," he concluded at last.

"Now you have to tell me," Elena said. "Or I'll worry myself into a coma." Seeing the flicker of concern on Andres's face, she hurriedly added: "I'm joking."

"All right, then," Andres said. "You know how we found you in the tunnels, correct?"

Elena nodded. "Klaus was dead," she said. "You said that there was a legend that the blood of a Guardian born of a Principal Guardian would kill Old Ones." She shook her head. "That's the first thing I don't understand. How could I have that kind of family history without knowing it?"

"I'm having trouble understanding, too," Andres said. "Celestial Guardians don't have children, not that I'd ever heard. They're not" - he frowned - "people, not exactly. That is what I've believed, at least. I think we both have a lot to learn." He reached inside his jacket and withdrew a small leather-bound book. "I have brought you something that I hope will illuminate some of your questions," he told her. "I began to read it, and then I realized that it was intended for your eyes, not mine. The police finally let me return to James's house, and I found this there. I believe this is what he called you about, when he said he had found a way to kill Klaus, and that he hid it before Klaus killed him. It must have been sent to him after your parents died."

"My parents? What is it?" Elena asked, reaching out and taking the book. It felt oddly comfortable in her hand, as if it naturally belonged to her.

Andres hesitated for a long moment before he answered. "I think it's better that you find that out for yourself," he said at last. He stood and touched Elena on the shoulder briefly. "I'll let myself out."

Elena nodded and watched him go. Andres shot her a small smile as he closed the door behind him. Then, wonderingly, she turned her attention to the book. It was quite plain, without any patterns or words embossed on the outside, and was covered in a very soft pale-brown leather. Opening it, she saw that it was a journal, handwritten in a large, looping, dashing script, as if the writer had been in a hurry to get a million thoughts and feelings out onto the page.

I will not let them have Elena, she read, the words halfway down the first page, and gasped. Glancing down the page, names popped up at her: Thomas, her father, Margaret, her sister. Was this her mother's journal? Her chest felt tight suddenly, and she had to blink hard. Her beautiful, poised mother, the one who had been so clever with her hands and with her heart, who Elena had loved and admired so much - finding this was almost like hearing her speak once more.

After a moment, she composed herself and began to read again.

Elena turned twelve yesterday. I was getting down the birthday candles from the cabinet when the eternity mark on my palm began to itch and burn. It had almost faded into invisibility after so many years, but when I looked at my hand, it was suddenly as clear as the day I was first initiated into my duties.

I knew my sisters were calling for me, reminding me of what they think I owe them.

But I will not let them have Elena.

Not now, and maybe not ever.

I will not repeat the mistakes I have made, so disastrously, in the past.

Thomas understands. Despite what he agreed to when we were young, when Elena was just the idea of a child to him instead of her own funny, determined, sharp-witted self, he knows that we can't just let her go. And Margaret, sweet baby Margaret, the Guardians will want her, too, eventually, because of who I used to be.

The Powers my darling girls will have are almost unimaginable.

And so the Celestial Guardians, once my sisters and brothers, want to get their hands on them as early as possible, want to bring them up to be weapons instead of children, clear-eyed warriors with no trace of humanity about them.

Once, I would have let them. I stepped away from Katherine when she was only an infant, pretended that I had died, so that she could fulfill the destiny I believed was inevitable and right for her.

Elena stopped reading. Her mother had once had another child? The name must be a coincidence, though: the Katherine she knew, Damon's and Stefan's Katherine, was hundreds of years older than her. And about as far from being a Guardian as possible.

There were plenty of Guardians who looked rather like Elena, though. She reviewed in her mind's eye the faces that she'd seen in the Celestial Court: businesslike, blue-eyed blondes, crisp and cool. Could one of them have been her elder sister? Still, though, she couldn't shake off her unease: Katherine, her mirror image. She read on.

But Katherine was a sickly child, and the Guardians turned their backs on her, rejected the great power she could have been. She would not come into her Power for years, and they did not think she would survive long enough to see that day. A human child who probably wouldn't live to grow up wasn't worth their time, they thought.

My heart ached for her. I had abandoned my daughter for nothing. From a careful distance, I watched her grow: pretty and lively despite her illnesses, brave even in the shadow of the pain she suffered, adored by her father, loved by the household. She did not need the mother she had never known. Perhaps this was better, I thought. She could live a happy, human life, even if it was a short one.

Then, disaster struck. A servant, thinking it would save her, offered Katherine up to a vampire to be transformed. My sweet daughter, a creature of joy and light, was dragged unceremoniously into the darkness. And the creature who performed the deed was one of the worst of his kind: Klaus, an Old One. If Katherine had come into her Power, if the Guardians had made her one of them, Katherine's blood would have killed him. But without that protection, it merely bound them together, tying him to her with a fascination neither of them understood.

My darling girl was lost, all her charm and intelligence subverted into what, before long, seemed to be merely a vicious, broken doll, Klaus's plaything. I don't know if the real Katherine is still there underneath that shadowed life she must live now.

Elena gasped, a harsh sound to her own ears in the room's silence. There was no denying the truth now. Katherine's illness, Klaus's cruel gift, all the details Stefan had told her were here. Katherine, who had hated her and tried to kill her, who had loved Stefan and Damon centuries before Elena herself did, who had destroyed Stefan and Damon, was her half sister.

Part of her wanted to slam the book shut, to shove it to the back of her closet and never, never think about it again. But she couldn't stop herself from reading on.

I wandered for many years, mourning my daughter, turning my back on the Guardians who had once been my family. But, after centuries of loneliness, I met my sweet, honest, blindingly intelligent Thomas, and fell deeply, hopelessly, madly in love. We were so happy for a while.

And then the Guardians found us.

They came to us and told us that the Old Ones were gaining in Power. They were too strong, too cruel. They would destroy humanity if they could, would enslave the world in darkness and evil.

The Guardians begged me to have another child. Only an Earthly Guardian with the blood of a Principal Guardian could kill an Old One so that the Old One could never be resurrected. My peculiar situation - a Principal Guardian who had abandoned her post to live a human life, who had fallen in love - made me their only chance.

Thomas knew everything about my past. He trusted me to make the right choice, and I chose to say yes, under certain conditions. I would bear a child who could destroy the Old Ones, but she would not be taken from me. She would not be raised as a weapon but as a human girl. And, when she was old enough, she would be given a free choice: to come into her Power or not.

And they agreed. Elena's blood, Margaret's blood, was so precious that they would agree to anything.

But now they want to break that agreement. They want to take my darling Elena now, even though she is only twelve years old.

I will save Elena and Margaret, as I couldn't save Katherine. I will.

Elena is fiercely protective already of her friends and of her younger sister. I think she will choose to become a Guardian when she's given the choice, will decide to protect the larger world in the best way that she can. But it must be her decision, not theirs. Margaret is too young for me to tell yet whether she will have the makings of a Guardian. Perhaps she will choose another path. But no matter what I think they'll want in the end, they must have time to grow up before they have to make that decision.

I am afraid. The Guardians are ruthless, and they will not be pleased when I refuse to turn Elena over to them.

If anything should happen to me, and to Thomas, before the girls are grown, I have made arrangements to shield my daughters from the Guardians. Judith, my closest friend, will pretend to be my sister and raise Elena and Margaret to adulthood. I have already cast certain charms: as long as the girls are in her custody, the Guardians will not be able to locate them.

I would die, happily, to protect their innocence. The Guardians will never find them, not until they are grown women and can choose for themselves.

I cannot see the future. I do not know what will happen to any of my daughters any more than any parent does, but I have done my best to protect Elena and Margaret, as I was not wise enough to protect Katherine. I pray that this will be enough. And I pray that someday, somehow, Katherine, too, will find her way back into the light. That all three of my girls will be safe from harm.

Tears ran down Elena's cheeks. She felt as if a burden she'd been carrying for weeks had suddenly flown off her shoulders. Her parents hadn't planned to turn her over to the Guardians, hadn't had a child just to discard her. Her mother had loved her as much as Elena had always thought.

She had to think carefully now. Eyes narrowing, she shoved her pillows against the wall and sat up. Margaret was safe with Aunt Judith for the moment, and that was good. She couldn't consider all the ramifications of Katherine being her sister, not now.

But the fact that she, Elena, was special to the Guardians, precious to them, that her blood had unique Powers the Guardians were desperate to have on their side? The confirmation in her mother's journal might be the last piece she needed to put her plan to save Damon in motion.
 

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