"Are you sure this will do what we need?" Elena asked Bonnie. They'd chosen Stefan's spacious, uncluttered single to summon the Principal Guardian. When Elena had called Bonnie, she'd come right up, her hand held tightly in Zander's. She looked so happy, but when she handed Damon the potion she'd made for him, her small face creased with anxiety.

"I think so," she said. "The valerian will slow his heart rate even more than usual, and the aconite ought to make his breathing really shallow. It will probably feel pretty weird," she told Damon, "but I don't think it'll hurt you."

Damon looked down at the thick green mixture in the cup. "Of course it won't," he said reassuringly. "You can't poison a vampire."

"I put honey in to make it taste better," Bonnie said.

"Thank you, redbird," Damon said, and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Whether this plan works or not, I'm grateful." Bonnie grinned, a little flustered, and he added, "You and your wolf had better go. We wouldn't want the Guardians to think you were involved." Zander and Damon nodded to each other and Zander took Bonnie's hand again.

When they left, it was just the three of them: Elena, Damon, and Andres. Stefan had wanted to come, to stand by his brother's side in what might be Damon's last moments, but Damon hadn't let him. An angry Guardian is dangerous, he'd said. And, at best, Mylea would be very angry.

Damon drank Bonnie's potion in one long swallow and grimaced. "The honey doesn't help that much," he commented. Elena hugged him and he gently rubbed her back. "Whatever happens, it's not your fault," he said. Then he shuddered and leaned back against the wall, pressing one hand against his chest. "Ugh," he said faintly. "I don't feel . . ." His eyes rolled back in his head and he slid down the wall, landing in a crumpled heap on the floor.

"Damon!" she cried, and then caught herself. This was supposed to happen. He looked vulnerable like that, she thought, and smaller, and she dragged her eyes away from him. This would be easier if she didn't look at Damon.

"Are you ready to call the Guardian?" Elena asked Andres, and he nodded, holding tightly to her hand. His mouth was tense, and there was none of the usual warmth and humor in his eyes.

Elena concentrated on the link between herself and Andres, energy flowing back and forth between them, moving as steadily and rhythmically as the tide. As that energy found a balance and began to grow, she forced open the doors of Power inside herself.

OH. As soon as her Power was unleashed, everything in her swung to attention, snapping toward Damon. She wanted to . . . she didn't want to hurt him, exactly; it wasn't anger the Power was nursing inside her, but something cold and clean that wanted to destroy him. Not vengeance, not passion, but a cool, urgent instruction: This needs to be eliminated.

This must be what it was to have an unfulfilled task. It would be so easy to give in to that cold urgency, to do what she was expected to do. What she wanted to do.

No. She couldn't do it. Or, at least, she wouldn't.

With a physical effort, she turned her attention back to Andres. With the doors inside her mind wide open, she could see his expansive aura, shimmering green around him, filling half the room. Using immense concentration, she tried to move her own aura, blending her gold into Andres's green. Slowly, the colors slid together and mixed, filling the room. Power sang through Elena's veins, and everything she could see was touched with light. She met Andres's eyes, and his face was filled with wonder. They were stronger like this, more than twice as strong, and she felt the summoning go out with the Power of a shout.

"Guardians," Elena said, holding on to Andres's hand. "Mylea. I call on you. My task is complete."

Nothing happened.

For a long moment, they stood like that, hand-in-hand, eyes on each other, auras expanded to fill the room with Power, and felt nothing change.

Finally, something shifted infinitesimally, just a small adjustment in the universe. There was no physical change, but Elena knew that someone was listening at last, as if they'd flicked the call-waiting button on a phone.

"Mylea," she said. "I have killed Damon Salvatore. Now that my task is complete, come and release me from my compulsion."

There was still no answer. And then Andres slowly stiffened. His eyes rolled back and his aura faded, changing from green to a clear wash of white. His fingers trembled in Elena's.

"Andres!" she called, alarmed.

His eyes, unseeing, fixed on hers. The eerie white aura around him throbbed.

"I am coming, Elena." Mylea's voice came through Andres's mouth, sounding crisply businesslike. Elena could imagine her ticking Elena's name off a clipboard before stepping onto some kind of interdimensional escalator.

Released, Andres gasped and staggered. Making a face as if there was a strange taste in his mouth, he said, "That was . . . weird."

Elena couldn't stop herself from looking at Damon. His bones stood out distinctly, as if his pale skin had grown a size tighter, and his straight black hair was tousled. She could snap his neck with her mind, she thought, and she bit the inside of her cheek hard, looking away again, shaking.

Mylea stepped through nothingness and into the room. Her eyes went immediately to Damon. "He's not dead yet," she said coolly.

"No." Elena took a deep breath. "And I won't let Damon die," she said. "You have to revoke the task."

The Principal Guardian sighed briefly, but her face was, Elena thought, slightly sympathetic, and when she spoke, her voice was calm. "I was concerned that a task so tied to your own life would be difficult for you as your first duty," she said. "I apologize, and I understand why you have called me here to complete the job. You will not be punished for your foolish attachment to the vampire. But Damon Salvatore must die." She reached for Damon, and Andres and Elena moved to shield the vampire's unconscious body.

"Why?" Elena burst out. It was so unfair. "There are worse vampires than Damon," she said indignantly. "Until recently, he hadn't killed anyone for" - she wasn't sure, she realized, and this wasn't her strongest argument, anyway - "a long time," she finished lamely. "Why send me after Damon when truly evil vampires like Klaus and his descendants were around?" She could hear what she was almost saying: He's only a vicious killer some of the time. Let him go.

"It is not your job to question the decisions of the Celestial Court," Mylea told her sternly. "Time and again, Damon Salvatore has proven himself unable to control his emotions. He has no concept of right and wrong. We feel that he may grow to be as great a danger to humanity as any of the Old Ones."

"May," Elena said. "You mean you think he could just as easily go the other way. There's as great a chance that he will never kill again."

"It's not a chance we're prepared to take," Mylea said flatly. "Damon Salvatore is a murderer and so has forfeited his right to any consideration on our parts. Now step aside."

It was time to gamble. Elena took a deep breath.

"You need me," she said, and the Guardian frowned at her. "I am the daughter of a Principal Guardian. I killed Klaus, and I can destroy the most dangerous Old Ones, the ones you haven't found another way of getting rid of. I won't help you if you kill Damon."

She glanced at Andres, just the tiniest flick of her eyelashes, and he nodded. They had agreed that the most difficult part of their plan was making the Guardian believe that Elena wouldn't fight the Old Ones, would let innocent people suffer if she didn't get her way. Apparently Andres, at least, thought she sounded convincing enough for Mylea to believe her.

Mylea tilted her head to one side and stared at Elena, as if she was examining an interesting new specimen under some kind of special Guardian microscope. "The vampire is so important to you that you would risk punishment, risk being taken from your home and assigned to the Celestial Court?"

Elena nodded, her jaw clenched.

"The vampire should be conscious for this," Mylea said. Before Andres and Elena had a chance to block her again, she knelt beside Damon and pressed two fingers to his forehead. He blinked and stirred, and Mylea rose and left him without a glance, turning her gaze back to Elena.

"Would you risk your life for Damon Salvatore?" Mylea asked her.

"Yes," Elena said immediately. There didn't seem to be anything else to add.

"And what about you, vampire?" Mylea asked, looking over Elena's shoulder to address Damon. "Do you care so much for Elena that you would change your life for her?"

Damon pulled himself up to sit with his back against the wall. "Yes," he said steadily.

Mylea gave a slightly unpleasant smile. "I suppose we will see," she said, and reached for them both. She pressed their hands together, and Elena clasped her hand with Damon's and gave him a small smile. He squeezed her fingers reassuringly.

"There," Mylea said after a moment. "It is done."

That pull toward Damon, that cold feeling that he was a problem that needed to be eliminated, was completely gone. It was as if that connection had just suddenly snapped. But it had been replaced. She still felt connected. There was a great sense of Damon permeating through her, as if the air she breathed was made of him. His eyes widened, and she realized she could feel his heart beating in time with her own. Amazement was coming from Damon, running through the connection between them, and the lightest touch of fear. Concentrating, she tried to see Damon's aura.

A braided rope of light seemed to lead from her chest to Damon's, her aura's gold and the peacock-blue-and-black of Damon's aura twisted together.

"Now you are connected," Mylea said matter-of-factly. "If Damon kills, Elena will die. If Damon feeds on a human without their knowing, aware permission - no use of Power or illusion, but true agreement - Elena will suffer. In the event that Elena dies, the bond - the curse - will pass to a member of her family. If the bond is somehow broken, Damon will return to our attention and be eliminated immediately."

Damon's eyes widened. Through the bond between them, Elena felt a throb of dismay. "I'll starve," he said.

Mylea smiled. "You won't starve," she said. "Perhaps your brother will teach you his more humane methods of feeding. Or perhaps you will find willing humans, if you can honestly gain their trust."

The bond was vibrating now with a curious mixture of disgust and relief, but Damon's face was as closed off as Elena had ever seen it. She rubbed reflexively at her chest, pushing the intense emotions away.

"The bond will lose some of its intensity over time," Mylea said, almost sympathetically. "You feel each other's emotions strongly because it is so new." She looked between them. "It will connect you forever, and it may be deadly to one or both of you in the end."

"I understand," Elena told her and then, ignoring Mylea, she turned to Damon. "I trust you," she told him. "You'll do whatever you have to do to save me. As I've done for you."

Damon stared at her for a long moment, his dark eyes unfathomable, and Elena felt the connection between them flood with a sorrowful affection. "I will, princess," he promised.

His lips curved into a smile Elena had never seen on Damon's face before: neither his quick bitter smirk nor his brief and brilliant smile, but something warmer and gentler. And then the connection between them filled with love.

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