Ice cubes clinked lightly in his glass as Damon raised it in a toast to Katherine. "Here's to you, darling," he said. "The last survivor of Klaus's army. Lucky that you missed the battle, isn't it?"

With a sly smile, Katherine fluttered her eyelashes expressively, taking a sip of her own drink, and patted the sofa cushion next to her, inviting Damon to sit.

"Thank you for warning me," she said. "I may have been indebted to Klaus for bringing me back, but I didn't think I owed him another death. I never had any intention of fighting you and your precious princess again. I may be older and stronger than you, but there's always been too much luck on your side."

"Not my precious princess," Damon said with a grimace. "Stefan's. She was never really mine."

"Oh, well," Katherine said lightly, "I think it's always been a little more complicated than that, hasn't it?"

Damon narrowed his eyes. "You knew about Elena being a Guardian, didn't you?" he demanded. "And you never told Klaus. Why?"

A small, slightly smug smile crossed Katherine's face. "You should have learned by now that you can never ask a girl to give up all her secrets. And I'm full of secrets. Always." Damon frowned. He had never been able to get Katherine to tell him anything she didn't want to.

A knock on the door interrupted them, and Damon rose and opened the door to find Elena herself outside. Her face was pale and strained, and her jewel-blue eyes seemed huge as they stared at each other. Damon cocked an eyebrow and threw her his most brilliant smile, refusing to acknowledge the tremor of nervousness that ran through him.

She cared for him - he knew that. He'd tried to throw that fact back in her face, to deny it, and it hadn't worked. But there was also something in her that was driving her toward killing him, her Guardian's task pushing for fulfillment. Ever since he had saved her in the elevator, he had been able to feel that Elena was holding herself back. And he still loved her, would probably always love her. Part of him wanted to bow his head before her, take the punishment she was duty-bound to give him.

And whatever happened to him, he would probably deserve it.

Elena looked past him at Katherine and paled even further, although he wouldn't have thought that was possible. Damon turned and found that Katherine was standing absolutely still just a few feet away, looking back at Elena with a faint, secretive smile.

"So now you know," Katherine said to Elena. "And you're smart enough to use it."

"Did you know? Back when we first met?" Elena asked her abruptly, as if the words had been jerked out of her against her will.

Katherine shook her head. "You learn a lot when you're dead sometimes," she said, the faint smile spreading.

"Know what?" Damon said, looking back and forth between them.

Katherine came closer, trailing her fingers lightly across Damon's arm. "Like I said," she told him, "a girl has to have her secrets." She winked at Elena. "I'm going to leave town for a little while. I think it's better if I keep out of your way from now on."

Elena nodded. "You're probably right. Good-bye, Katherine," she said. "And thank you."

A flash of humor crossed Katherine's face. "Right back at you," she said, and for a moment, the resemblance between them struck Damon more strongly than it ever had before.

Then Elena, all business now, turned to Damon. "It's time for us to face the Guardians. Are you ready?" she asked him.

Damon downed the rest of his drink quickly, then slammed the glass down on his polished steel coffee table, and inwardly cursed his vampiric tolerance for alcohol. It might have been easier, he thought, to face what was coming if he had been a little bit drunk. "Ready as I'll ever be," he drawled.

Bonnie sniffed at the rich and varied scents as she turned over her store of herbs.

"Where does this one go?" Matt asked her, holding up a bag of purple petals.

"That's aconite. It's used for protection," Bonnie replied. "Put it over there with the dogwood and agrimony."

"Got it," Matt said, placing the aconite in a neat pile amidst the other herbs, as if it was the most normal task.

For their lives, it was pretty much as close to normal as it got. She was low on a bunch of herbs, unsurprisingly, after all the spells for protection and strength she had been performing in the past few weeks. She would have to drive down to Fell's Church soon and ask Mrs. Flowers to help her restock her supplies, now that things were quiet.

She wriggled with pleasure at the thought of a nice, normal visit home. It was so good to feel safe; it had been such a long time since she had.

Meredith and Elena were both out, and Bonnie had taken advantage of the room and the time without them to spread out piles of dried and fresh herbs all across the floor. Her best friends were both total neat freaks and would doubtless complain about the fragrant dust and crumbled bits of leaves this would leave behind. It was just amazing to worry about something as ordinary as what Meredith would say when she stepped in the remains of a pile of celandine (which was useful for happiness and aided in escaping entrapments).

Almost amazing. There was a steady ache inside her these days, a reminder of what she had lost, one that couldn't be cured by any herb. But she wasn't the only one who was in pain.

"I think you're really brave, Matt," Bonnie said. Matt looked up at her, startled by the abrupt shift in the conversation.

"When life hands you lemons . . ." Matt drifted off, not even able to complete the halfhearted joke. She knew he was devastated by losing Chloe, but he never let it change him. Bonnie admired that.

Before she could tell him as much, there was a knock at the door, and she tensed. An unexpected tap at the door usually meant disaster.

Nevertheless, she got up and opened the door, managing at the last minute to stop herself from kicking a little pile of chinaberry seeds (for luck and change) into Elena's slippers.

Slouched against her door frame, his hands tucked into his jeans pockets, was Zander. He smiled at her tentatively. "Can I come in?" he asked.

He smelled so good, she thought. He looked gorgeous, too, and Bonnie just wanted to wrap her arms around him and hold on. She had missed him so much lately.

But she'd lost the right to grab on to Zander whenever she felt like it; she'd been the one to walk away. So instead of leaping into his arms, Bonnie just stepped back to let him in, feeling some kind of powdery leaves crumble under her bare heel.

"Oh, hey, Matt," Zander said as he stepped into the room, and then pulled up short, his eyes widening as he took in the little heaps of herbs on every available surface.

"Hey, Zander," Matt said. "I was just heading out, actually. Football practice."

Matt gave Bonnie a pointed look that said, Don't screw up a second chance. Bonnie smiled at her friend as he slipped out the door.

"Jeez," Zander said, impressed as he explored more of the room. Bonnie followed him. "Meredith is going to murder you. Do you want help cleaning this up?"

"Um." Bonnie looked around. Now that she saw the room through Zander's eyes, it looked much worse than she'd realized. "Wow. Maybe, yeah. But I know that's not why you're here. What's up?"

Zander took Bonnie's hand and together they carefully navigated their way through the room without knocking over any piles. When they finally arrived at her bed, which was probably the clearest surface in the room - she didn't like the smell of mixed herbs all over her sheets - they sat down and he took her hands in his big, warm ones.

"Listen, Bonnie," he said. "I've been thinking about what you said, that being Alpha to the Pack is such an important responsibility, and that I need another werewolf by my side who really understands that, to be my partner and help me. And you're right. Shay's perfect for that."

"Oh," Bonnie said, her voice tiny. Something was crumbling inside her, as fragile as a dead leaf. She tried to gently pull her hands away from Zander's, but he tightened his grip.

"No," he said, distressed. "I'm saying this wrong. Let me start over. Bonnie, look at me." She looked up, her vision clouded with tears, and met Zander's sea-blue eyes. "You, Bonnie," he said softly. "I love you. When we were fighting Klaus's army, I saw you casting spells to protect everyone, with this fierce kind of light in your face. You were so strong, and so powerful, and you could have been killed. Or I could have been killed, and we wouldn't have been together at the end. It made me realize what I should have known all along: you're the only one I want."

The crumbling thing in Bonnie's chest stopped its dry disintegration and began to melt instead, filling her with warmth. But she couldn't let Zander sacrifice the good of his Pack for her. "But nothing's changed," she said at last. "I love you, too, but what if loving me destroys everything else that matters to you?"

Zander pulled her closer. "It won't," he said. "The wolves on the Council can't choose who I love. I don't love Shay. I love you. Shay and I can lead the Pack together, but if it ever came down to it, I would rather lose that than lose you." He raised Bonnie's hand to his lips and kissed it softly, his eyes shining. "I can choose my own destiny," he said. "And I choose you. If you'll have me."

"If I'll have you?" Bonnie choked on her tears, wiped at her eyes, and then punched Zander softly in the shoulder. "You dork," she said lovingly, and kissed him.
 

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