Just a little note about distribution before I get to the actual chapter: I have not given permission for anyone but me to post my stories, so if you want to do that, please ask me first, and if I say yes (I probably won't, after a couple of unpleasant experiences) make sure you give me the proper credit for it wherever you're posting it.

Also, "All This Time," the fic I was co-writing with anglcdmn1986, has now been published and is up on Kindle Worlds. They're pretty strict about not posting the fic anywhere else once it's published, which is why anglcdmn1986 had to take most of it down from her profile.

"There's nothing like move-out day on a college campus," Damon drawled, feeling like the very embodiment of the cat who ate the canary as he strode into the parlor. Stefan looked up from his diary to glare at him.

"What makes them so special?" he asked.

Damon spread his hands in front of him. "All I have to do is offer to carry a few boxes for a sorority girl and she's putty in my hands. Can't remember the last time I had a better breakfast."

"I had a little chat with Grayson Gilbert yesterday," said Stefan, raising his voice slightly in a not-so-subtle show of disapproval of Damon's words.

"Ah, the good doctor," said Damon. "How'd he like the gift I sent him?"

"Whatever it was, he wanted you to never do it again," said Stefan.

"In that case, I'll be sure to keep doing it," said Damon smugly. He started to head to the stairs, already bored of this conversation, when Stefan spoke again, even louder than before.

"What did you do to get him on your side, Damon?"

Damon stopped abruptly, a smirk briefly lifting the corners of his mouth. "Gasp!" he said, whirling around. "You mean he didn't fall at your feet for the chance to team up against me and help you thwart my evil master plan?" He sped over to Stefan and snatched up his diary, holding it out of reach when Stefan made a grab for it and beginning to read aloud in an imitation of Stefan's voice. "'Somehow, my brother has tricked the Gilberts into thinking he isn't a threat to them. When I went to speak to Dr. Gilbert, he told me to get out, and when I didn't comply fast enough, he shot me with a crossbow.'"

Here, Damon broke off with a sympathetic noise, holding one hand over his heart—still easily avoiding Stefan's attempts to reclaim the diary. "'Clearly he is no novice when it comes to dealing with vampires—the Gilberts always seemed to have an edge over the other founders there—and yet he has this alliance with Damon. I have to find a way to convince him of the mistake he's making before it's too late.'"

Damon tossed the diary back with a snicker. "Why so paranoid, little brother?" he asked. "You should know by now that not agreeing to help me would have been a much bigger mistake. Isn't that right, Zach?" He said this last bit in a louder voice, turning slowly to face their nephew, who had just walked into the parlor from the dining room and whose face was already draining of color under the scrutiny.

"Leave him alone, Damon," said Stefan.

"Relax. I'm not going to kill him—until Thursday. He's still got five days. You're the one who's supposed to be explaining why I shouldn't do it. I don't know about you, Zach, but I feel like he's really dropping the ball on that." He clapped Stefan on the back a couple of times, hard enough to make him stagger, then disappeared from the room.

It looked like it was time to pay his partner in crime a little visit.


Elena reached groggily for her alarm clock and cracked one eye open to peer at it. It was only 8:30, but she still grudgingly rolled over and swung her feet off the bed, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. At a faint rustling sound, she looked up. A large black raven was sitting on her windowsill, its head cocked to the side.

"Edgar?" she mumbled thickly.

The raven gave a croak and bobbed his head. Elena smiled and got up slowly, not wanting to spook him. He stayed put, still watching her, as she approached him. "Hey, Edgar, how did you find my house?" She reached out and stroked one finger along the top of his head and down his back. He ruffled his wings a bit and turned his head to nudge her finger with his beak. "If you want food, you'll have to find me later," she said. "I don't have anything in my room." He let her pet him a few more times before hopping a little farther out on the windowsill and taking flight towards the forest.

Her immediate instinct after he was out of sight was to grab her phone and text Damon about what had just happened, but then she remembered everything that had happened yesterday. She was avoiding him. At least until she figured everything out. And passed all her finals. It wasn't that she thought he'd hurt her—no. Even with what she now knew about him, she couldn't believe that. He'd saved her life twice, after all, and had sort of apologized for scaring her away from the boarding house (though sneaking into her room to do so was a questionable strategy at best). But this whole vampire thing was just crazy. Maybe too crazy to deal with. Time would tell.

A growling sound rumbled outward from her midriff, and, taking the hint, she turned and headed out of her room and down the stairs, hoping breakfast was already ready. Sure enough, she could smell something delicious waiting for her, and she could hear voices coming from the kitchen. By the sound of it, there was her dad, her mom, and…Aunt Jenna! She'd forgotten that yesterday was the last day of finals at Whitmore, so Jenna would be moving back today. Elena was about to take the rest of the stairs at a run to go greet her when something they were saying made her freeze in her tracks.

"Stefan Salvatore?" said Jenna. "The brother?"

Elena's hand flew to her throat, which was still pretty sore from yesterday. She'd left her hair down to cover the bruises, but even if she made it out of the house without anyone noticing them, she was going to have to come up with some kind of explanation for the other girls at cheer practice. She could wear a scarf, but a scarf in May might be harder to explain to a group of fashionistas than a few bruises anyway.

"He came to my office just when I was about to come home," said Grayson.

"What did you do?" said Jenna. "What happened?"

"He tried to feed me a bunch of crap about wanting to help, about making sure Damon stays away from Elena."

"Tell her what you did, honey," said Miranda, who sounded rather amused considering how serious the subject was.

"I shot him with a crossbow," said Grayson.

"You killed him?" said Jenna.

"No, it was a warning shot. Just as long as no one invites him into the house, I don't think he'll be a problem."

Elena let out a sigh of relief, then continued down the stairs. "Hey," she said as she entered the kitchen.

"Morning, sweetie!" said Miranda.

"Hey Elena," said Jenna.

"I made pancakes," said Grayson, pointing to a steaming pile of blueberry pancakes on a platter in the middle of the island, "but now I've got to run to the office." He leaned towards Miranda and gave her a peck on the lips.

"Hey, what?" said Jenna indignantly. "I thought you were going to help me unpack!"

"Sorry!" he said unrepentantly, grabbing his keys off the counter and heading out.

"Don't worry, Aunt Jenna. I'll help, and we can get Jeremy too."

"He still asleep?" said Miranda.

"Yeah," said Elena. She pulled a plate from the cupboard and slid a few pancakes onto it.

"Good, because there's something you should know."

"What?" said Elena, now spreading large amounts of butter on the pancakes.

"Damon's brother Stefan is in town now too," said Miranda.

"Whoa, really?" said Elena, trying to sound like this was news to her. While she poured syrup on her pancakes, she rolled her shoulders slightly, just to make sure her hair was still hiding her neck. Somehow she doubted her mom would be thrilled to learn that she'd gone to the boarding house after school yesterday and almost gotten choked to death by the vampire in question, especially when she was supposed to have been being extra careful while Damon's blood was still in her system.

"Yeah, so get in touch with us right away if you see anything weird, and make sure you don't invite any strange teenage boys into the house."

"Okay," said Elena. She frowned as she took her first bite of pancake. "Um…," she chewed and swallowed. "What about Jeremy? How will he know not to invite Stefan in?"

"We can probably think of something to tell him," said Jenna, looking at Miranda.

"Yeah," said Miranda. "I'm not too worried about that."


Damon walked inside Grayson's office building and immediately stopped. The reception desk was empty, but Grayson himself was leaning against it. Damon was starting to find this guy slightly unsettling, but he didn't let any of that show. "So you were expecting me," he observed, looking Grayson up and down.

"You didn't come to gloat yesterday, and since your brother didn't come here to do it for you, I figured it was inevitable."

"I would call you paranoid again, except that you've been right about pretty much everything so far. Keep it up." He gave Grayson a sarcastic thumbs up.

"Then maybe you'll listen when I say that sending me blank-faced hypovolemic civilians is not what we agreed," said Grayson, his eyes narrowing.

"You only said I couldn't kill any of the locals," said Damon, advancing on Grayson slightly. Grayson didn't move a muscle. "Technically, I could've sent you two hypovolemic bodies from the next highway exit and I still wouldn't have broken your terms. I mean, I know you're a doctor, not a lawyer, but still. Pretty big loophole." He grabbed one of the mints out of the bowl on the desk right next to Grayson's elbow and popped it into his mouth.

"You know, I shot your brother about half an inch above his heart just because he had the nerve to show his face here," said Grayson.

"Yeah," said Damon. "Heard about that. Had a good laugh."

Grayson glared coldly at him. "I think we need to revisit the terms of this deal."

"Nothing you can offer me will stop me from feeding wherever and whenever I want," said Damon, looking Grayson straight in the eyes and letting his vampiric features surface. His face was only a few inches from Grayson's, but the man still hadn't flinched. He merely looked mildly disgusted.

Damon's face cleared and he backed off a little. "I know how to eat well and still stay under the radar of people like your Council buddies," he said. "But if you want me to live more the spirit of the deal and less the letter of it, then maybe it's time you start paying up."

"We can't open the tomb before September, Damon," Grayson reminded him.

"Thank you, Captain Obvious; after a hundred and forty-four years, I know that better than anyone. But that's not what I'm talking about. You're holding back on a lot of that impressive Gilbert ancestral brain trust, and I don't like being kept in the dark."

"Most of that information has never left the family," said Grayson.

"If you want me to be your daughter's bodyguard for the next four months, I'm gonna need more than what you already told me." What Grayson didn't need to know was that Damon was already keeping an eye on Elena whether or not he got more information—or, to be more specific, he was already keeping Edgar's eyes on her. He just preferred to know what he was going up against.

"Have you retrieved the grimoire yet?"


"Emily Bennett's spellbook. I gave you everything you need to find it. You can get it, take it to Sheila, and work out that deal with her. That's what you get up front. When I decide I can trust you with more information about Elena, you'll get it. Not before. Just know that she is in danger, and it's serious enough that a sixth generation Gilbert Councilman is willing to work with a Salvatore vampire."


"You weren't kidding about these bruises," said Bonnie, wincing sympathetically at the sight of the bluish purple marks shaped like fingers on Elena's throat. The two of them were in the girls' locker room, getting ready for cheer practice.

"That's why I asked you to come early with me," said Elena. "Do you think you can help me cover them up? If I wear a scarf with the uniform, it'll be weird."

"Of course," said Bonnie. "Give me your makeup bag."

Elena handed it over and Bonnie dug around in it until she found the concealer, and Elena sat down on the bench in front of the long mirror so Bonnie could start dabbing the powder onto the bruises Elena couldn't see so well, while she worked on the ones in the front. "So your parents think he might show up again?"

"I don't know," said Elena. "They told me not to invite him in, so I guess they think he might try."

"Do you think he'd do this to you again?"

Elena winced a little; she'd hit one of the bruises harder than she meant to.

"You okay?" said Bonnie, stopping what she was doing.

"I'm fine. It wasn't you."


"I hope I don't run into him again, but I don't think he would've done it if he'd known I wasn't Katherine. I think his issues are with Damon, not me."

"Still," said Bonnie. "If this was an accident, I'd hate to see what he can do on purpose."

"I know."

After a few more minutes, the makeup was finished, and the bruises would only be visible to someone standing very close to Elena and actively looking for them. They had barely put away the makeup bag and washed their hands when Caroline arrived, and Elena was then treated to a lecture on the importance of attending every last cheerleader-related activity, especially practice. Elena apologized profusely in an attempt to placate her, but she was left feeling a little less enthusiastic at the idea of varsity squad than she had been at tryouts. Caroline was quite the hard taskmaster, and she did not show mercy on her friends.

Eventually, the rest of the girls arrived too and they headed out onto the lawn to stretch and work on drills. While Elena was preoccupied with keeping Caroline appeased, Bonnie noticed the large black raven sitting on top of a light pole. For some reason, the sight of it made her shiver.


For all the unsavory things Damon had done in the last century and a half, it was strange that digging up his father's grave could make him feel so uncomfortable. It was as though by physically digging up the grave, he was digging up the past with it. Every beating, every lecture, every look of disdain. It shouldn't affect him so much, but everything was like that lately. It seemed that Elena, saving her, being saved by her, leaving her standing there in her room last night—all of it had wedged the door open to his humanity, and there was no turning back.

About halfway down, he climbed out of the grave, leaned against the tall headstone, and closed his eyes. When he concentrated, he could see Elena practicing with the cheerleading squad. Sheila Bennett's granddaughter was there, too, but he barely spared her a glance. He checked the area for any signs of someone who wasn't a sixteen-year-old human girl, but the coast was clear. As far as he knew, he and Stefan were the only non-desiccated vampires to set foot in Mystic Falls in years. He turned the bird's gaze on Elena again. She was doing the routines along with the rest of them, but it didn't look like her heart was in it.

God, if only women had been wearing shorts like that in the 1860s.

He pulled back abruptly from the mental link with the raven and jumped into the grave again, resuming digging with a vengeance. What the hell was happening to him?

Half an hour later, he was in the Camaro with a spellbook as old as he was on the passenger seat and a sticky note from Grayson's office with Sheila Bennett's address stuck to the dashboard.

One step closer to Katherine.


"Just a second!" Sheila called, quickly moving a stack of papers aside so she could get out of her office. It was only the first day after the spring semester ended, and already she was buried in prep work for the two seminars she would be teaching over the summer.

She pulled the door open and went very still. "Mr. Salvatore," she said.

"Mrs. Bennett," said the vampire on her doorstep. He cocked his head to the side and watched her through narrowed eyes. "I don't suppose I'm likely to get an invite."

"Then you suppose correctly," said Sheila, folding her arms and raising an eyebrow.

"It's a shame," said Damon. "'Cause I have here the spellbook of a certain ancestor of yours," he pulled a heavy, slightly tattered leather-bound volume out from under his arm and held it up for her to see, "and I'd be happy to pass it on to you, but first, I think I deserve an invitation—and an apology. Written would be a nice touch, but I'll settle for verbal."

"Why would you need access to the inside of my house?" she asked, her eyes fixed on the long lost piece of Bennett heritage that she desperately wanted.

"Just to keep you honest," said Damon. "Witches tend to be fickle, even when they owe a debt seven generations old and counting."

Sheila looked him in the eyes again. "Vampire business," she muttered in resignation. "Come on in."

"Thank you," said Damon, stepping smoothly past her to cross the threshold. "Now the other part?"

Sheila pursed her lips. "I'm sorry for the spell I used on you Thursday evening. Considering the protection you've always offered my family, I never would have worked against you if I hadn't believed there was a good reason for it."

"Elena," said Damon.

"Yes," said Sheila.

"Any chance you'll tell me what went down between your daughter and some old vampire who came looking for Elena when she was little?"

"That information is for Grayson and Miranda to share, not me," she said curtly. The subject of Abby was a painful one. She hadn't seen or heard from her daughter in nearly fifteen years.

"How much has Grayson told you about the deal he and I made?" said Damon.

"He mentioned that you planned on leaving town with Katherine Pierce and letting him finish off all the other vampires rotting in that tomb."

"I've got another witch on standby to actually open the tomb, but help me out when I need it until I get Katherine, and I'll consider your debt repaid." He held out the spellbook. Sheila hesitated for a moment, but after a few seconds, she took it.


While Stefan hunted in the forest, his thoughts remained on Damon, his plans, the clock counting down against Zach, and Elena Gilbert. Even if Damon didn't plan to hurt her like he did Zach, Damon never did anything for good reasons. Elena looked just like Katherine, and Damon was obsessed with Katherine. He probably had her compelled and wanted to use her as some sick Katherine replacement. Stefan couldn't allow that to happen. He only had enough vervain to protect Elena, not to neutralize Damon, but that wasn't his only option. Once he'd had his fill of deer and rabbit blood, he went back to the boarding house to get cleaned up, then headed out again.

One thing he loved about small towns was how easy it was to find people. The first person he met was able to point him in the right direction, and within ten minutes, he was walking up the steps onto Sheila Bennett's porch. He could only hope he'd get a better reception here than he had at Grayson Gilbert's office.

He knocked, and a few seconds later, the door opened to reveal a thin black woman. She looked much different from the last time he'd seen her, but forty years would do that to a person. It was strange how they never seemed to age in his mind until he saw them again. "Hello," she said, her brow furrowing, though whether with recognition or not, he couldn't tell.

"Sheila Bennett?" he said.

"Yes," she said slowly.

"I'm Stefan Salvatore," he said, holding out a hand. She shook it, her eyes flickering from his to their hands and back again before she let go. Some of the tension drained out of her, but she looked weary.

"What brings you here?"

"I need your help to stop my brother," said Stefan.

She sighed. "Come in," she said. "It's hot out there; I'll get you some iced tea."

"Thank you," said Stefan, and he followed her inside. She gestured to the living room and told him to have a seat, then headed off to the kitchen. She didn't say another word until she sat down on the chair across from him, handed him his glass of iced tea, and took a sip from her own.

"If you expect me to use magic against Damon, then I can't help you," she said without preamble.

"Don't tell me he got you on his side too," said Stefan incredulously. "Don't you know how dangerous he is?"

"Of course I know," said Sheila. "But I'm bound by my family's debt to him. I already violated that once for a dear friend; I can't do it for you. Don't take that to mean I trust him."

"He's going to kill Zach, Sheila," said Stefan. "I have to stop him, but I'm not strong enough."

Sheila closed her eyes. "You'll find a way," she said. "You just have to find it without me."


By Tuesday of the following week, Elena was already thoroughly sick of studying for finals, and the first one was still six days away. When she wasn't studying, Caroline had her and the rest of the squad meeting daily for cheer practice, which was really starting to drive her nuts. They still had all of cheer camp to learn the routines for the fall; why was she so obsessed with cramming it in now? And then there were all the other extracurricular activities she had that her mom was helping her with. Apparently that stuff would increase her chances of getting into a great college, so she couldn't just stop doing it.

All things considered, she barely had a minute to spare to think about Damon, his brother, and the rest of the crazy supernatural stuff she'd learned in the last week. Her bruises had gone from dark purple to a slightly lighter shade now tinged with green, and they didn't hurt nearly as much when she touched them. Hopefully they'd be gone in a few more days; hiding them from her parents was tricky.

She was heading out to her car after yet another grueling practice when she spotted the raven perched on top of it. She grinned and dug into her backpack for the Ziploc bag containing two apple slices she'd saved from lunch. She'd seen Edgar at least twice a day since Saturday, so she'd started carrying treats with her.

"If you keep finding me to beg for food, you're going to start having a hard time lifting off," she said, holding out an apple slice to him. He croaked and hopped down from the car to perch on her forearm, then started pecking slivers out of the apple.


She turned and saw Bonnie heading her way. As soon as Bonnie spotted Edgar, she stopped for a second, looking surprised, then kept walking.

"Hey Bonnie," said Elena.

"Why do you have a crow on your arm?" said Bonnie.

"He's a raven, not a crow," said Elena. "And his name is Edgar. You can pet him if you want. He's really friendly."

"And covered in disease, probably," said Bonnie, looking at the bird with distaste. Edgar turned his head towards her and gave a croak that almost sounded like she'd offended him.

Elena laughed. "Just pet him. I haven't come down with anything yet, and it's been over a week since I made friends with him."

Bonnie gave her the look, but cautiously reached out a hand anyway. However, no sooner had her fingers brushed against the glossy feathers of Edgar's back when she jerked away, suddenly breathing hard. Edgar rustled his wings and gave a squawk of protest, then glared at Bonnie reproachfully before attacking the apple slice some more.

"What was that?" said Elena. "You're not scared of him, are you? I told you he's friendly."

"It's not that," said Bonnie. She frowned at Edgar. "Can you make him fly away? I don't want to talk about it in front of him."

"What?" said Elena, laughing again. "Bonnie, I know ravens are smart, but he's still only a bird."

"I don't care," said Bonnie stubbornly.

Elena rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said. She walked over to the edge of the parking lot farthest away from the rest of campus, Edgar still perched on her arm. Using her other hand, she awkwardly retrieved the second apple slice from the baggie and placed it on top of the curb, then put what was left of the first slice next to it. She stroked Edgar's head with her finger and coaxed him off her arm. He watched her as she stood up and backed a few steps away. Was it possible for ravens to look hurt? Even if she was only imagining it, she couldn't help feeling slightly guilty.

"Sorry, Edgar," she said. "I'll give you more treats next time." With that, she headed back over to Bonnie.

"There," she said. "Now what's up?"

"Okay, if it wasn't for everything Grams told me about witches and vampires, I'd think this was totally crazy, but when I touched that bird, I got a really weird feeling. I don't think he's just a normal raven."

"What kind of raven would he be, then?" said Elena, pulling the driver's side door open.

"I don't know," said Bonnie, heading around to the passenger side. They both climbed in, and Elena put the key in the ignition. "But for a second, I thought…I thought I was seeing Damon's face when I touched him. Like somehow they're connected."


Stefan's eyes narrowed as he watched the school parking lot from the cover of the forest. He couldn't quite make out what Elena was saying to her friend, but it would have been impossible to miss that raven. So he'd been right. Damon did want something with her.


In a bar a few miles outside Mystic Falls, Damon was halfway through eating a burger while casually scoping out his real lunch. His phone buzzed on the counter next to him. He frowned and picked it up, expecting to find Stefan's latest attempt to persuade him to lay off Zach waiting for him, but instead it was a text from Elena. He raised an eyebrow and flipped the phone open.

"If you're going to stalk me, do it in person. Don't send Edgar to do it for you."

Damon smirked and started typing. "Edgar happens to love those apples you keep feeding him. I just check in every now and then to make sure you haven't gotten yourself into more trouble."

It took a surprisingly short time for her to reply. He'd only had time to eat one more bite of burger before his phone buzzed again. "I don't need a bodyguard, Damon. What I need is time to think about this without you hovering, which also includes hovering vicariously through a bird."

"That's where you're wrong," Damon muttered as he reread the first sentence. "Maybe you're the one Grayson needs to be more honest with." He looked up and noticed an attractive young woman across the room who was trying to catch his eye. "And dinner is served," he said, pocketing his phone and throwing a few bills next to his half-cleared plate.


On Wednesday, Stefan was just about to leave the boarding house to make sure Damon wasn't up to anything when he heard Zach call his name. He stopped, hand on the doorknob, and looked around. "What is it?" he said.

"Have you figured out a plan to help me live to see Friday?" said Zach.

"I'm still working on it," said Stefan. He made to leave, but Zach spoke again.

"I might have something to help you."

Stefan let go of the doorknob and faced Zach properly. "Like what?" he said.

"Vervain," said Zach. "I've been growing it for the Council since 1994. Damon already knows I have it, but he doesn't know where."

"And you're trusting me with that information?"

"What choice do I have?" said Zach. "If I don't, I die tomorrow."

Stefan nodded. "Show me where it is."


Elena climbed out of her car at the library and looked around suspiciously for any signs of raven minions, but the coast was clear. Good. Even though she sort of missed Damon, it was a little irritating that he would tell her she'd never see him again and then turn around and send Edgar to keep an eye on her for him. More word games. Was he trying to push her away?

Elena closed the car door behind her and dropped her keys into her purse. She got about halfway to the library's entrance when she noticed who was already standing there.

"Elena," Stefan called out.

She backed away a couple of steps, her heart pounding, then turned and made a run for her car. She'd barely gone two paces before she suddenly crashed into his chest. He seized her by the upper arms, holding her still. "Let me go!" she yelled, struggling wildly against his grip.

He clapped a hand over her mouth and used his other arm to hold onto her. The next thing she knew, they were in the narrow gap between the library and the post office fifty feet away from where they'd just been standing, and he was pinning her against the brick wall. "Elena, calm down," he said, staring right into her eyes. She stopped fighting, but only because she knew she was no match for his strength and she'd only give herself more bruises this way.

Slowly, he moved the hand covering her mouth. "I'm sorry about that," he said, "but I need you to listen to me."

"Are you insane?" she hissed. "After Friday, you still think manhandling me is the right approach? You can't keep tossing me around like this and expect me to trust you!"

"I had to get you somewhere I could be sure Damon wasn't watching," said Stefan.

"Why, so you could finish what you started last time?" she asked. Though outwardly she was angry and indignant, on the inside she was afraid. She bitterly wished that she hadn't told Damon to stop using Edgar to keep tabs on her.

"No!" said Stefan. "No, I never meant to hurt you."

"Yeah, your case is really convincing. I've had to wear concealer on my neck all week because of the bruises you gave me!"

His face fell. He really did look sorry. Elena couldn't help softening slightly, and she wasn't quite as scared. He backed off and ran a hand through his hair. "Look, can we just start over?" he said. "When I first saw you, I thought you were Katherine, and I made a mistake."

"Do your mistakes usually come in the form of murderous overreactions?" she said tartly, crossing her arms. Something shuttered in his eyes, and she had the uncomfortable feeling that she'd actually hit the mark with her flippant comment.

He closed his eyes and sighed. "I know I haven't given you a single reason to believe me, but just hear me out."

"Fine," she said grudgingly.

"You need to stay away from Damon," he said.

This time, Elena's anger wasn't just external. "I don't need to do anything!" she said. It had been irritating enough when her parents warned her off Damon without giving a decent explanation, and they had changed their minds since then. Stefan, on the other hand, had only met her once. Just because he said he wanted to start over with her didn't erase the fact that his first impression had left visible marks on her.

"Yes you do!" he insisted. "Everyone who's gotten close to Damon since he became a vampire has come to regret it. He's dangerous."

"Look, Damon saved my life, okay?" said Elena. "And before that, we hung out a lot and had fun. I may not be ready to deal with all this vampire crap just yet, but I'm not just going to arbitrarily write him off."

"Then at least take this," he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a silver chain with some kind of pendant on it. "It has vervain in it; he won't be able to compel you."

Elena made no move to accept the necklace. "I've been on vervain since the morning after Damon showed up in town, because even though I didn't know what he was yet, my parents did, and they weren't going to risk me getting compelled. And I also have this." She held up the silver charm bracelet. "So I don't need your necklace. Damon hasn't tried to compel me this whole time, and even if he had, it wouldn't have worked."

"But that's not possible," said Stefan. "I just—" He broke off, looking suddenly guilty. Elena realized where he'd been about to go with that, and she felt livid.

"You tried to compel me, didn't you?" she accused. "Just now, before you pulled me over here!"

"Only to get you to calm down!" he said. "I thought it worked!"

"No, I stopped fighting because I thought I'd be more likely to make it out of this in one piece if I cooperated. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to get on with my vampire-free day. You're lucky I'm not planning on telling my parents about this, because Dad would probably shoot you again." She stalked away from him. Who did he think he was, acting all high-handed and protective when he was the only one she'd ever needed protection from?


"You know, if you're going for the Bond villain look, you're still missing the black suit and fluffy white cat," Damon pointed out, pouring himself a generous measure of bourbon from the bar in the parlor. He would've just headed straight out to go catch his dinner, but Stefan was sitting in one of the armchairs, his face dramatically lit by the roaring fire, and he couldn't resist having a go at him before he left.

"I'm going to give you one last chance to drop this threat against Zach," said Stefan, with no sign that he'd heard Damon's comment.

"You are giving me one last chance? I think you're confused. You're the one who's running out of time to change Zach's fate." He drank a few mouthfuls of the bourbon, enjoying the momentary burn of the alcohol as it went down.

"Why are you even bothering with this anyway?" said Stefan, getting to his feet. "Now that Zach's tried to kill you and failed, he knows better than to do it again."

"That might be true, but just in case he is stupid enough to keep trying, I'd rather not spend my time here constantly looking over my shoulder."

"Then lock him up until the vervain is out of his system and compel him to never try to kill you!" said Stefan, throwing his arms up in frustration.

"Sound logic," said Damon, "but you're missing the actual point of this whole week-long countdown." He drained the rest of the bourbon, waiting for Stefan to figure it out.

Sure enough, after a few seconds, Stefan's expression darkened. "Psychological torture," he said. "You gave Zach one more week to live just so he could spend it hopeless and afraid."

"And while that has definitely been worth every minute, I still wouldn't have bothered if you hadn't been here to fret and worry right alongside him."

Stefan let out an incoherent yell of rage and rushed at him. Having goaded his brother past the breaking point many times over the years, Damon was ready for it. Stefan lunged for his neck, but Damon caught him with an arm across the chest and hurled him back across the parlor. He took a step toward him, but staggered, his strength suddenly gone. White-hot pain was spreading from a point on the side of his neck all through his body. He reached up with uncoordinated fingers and pulled out the syringe Stefan had managed to stick him with. It was the same one Zach had tried to use on him last Thursday. "What did you do?" he said hoarsely as he slumped to the floor.

Through blurring vision, he watched Stefan get unsteadily to his feet and approach him. "I told you," he said. "I was giving you one last chance. Too bad you didn't use it."

Everything around him vanished into blackness.

What's this? Another cliffhanger? I seem to write a lot of those, don't I? *evil grin* Hopefully I'll be able to update fairly soon, but I sort of doubt it. My students are turning in the third paper of the semester on Monday, so I'll be spending a lot of my time grading that, and then the papers I have to write for my grad classes will be coming up fast. Still, I'll see what I can do. Anyway, once again, I think my favorite scene of the chapter was the one with Damon and Grayson. If I could figure out a way to write an entire story in which those two are constantly negotiating with ulterior motives, I'd totally do it. Instead, the occasional scene will have to suffice. I'm also enjoying driving Stefan nuts with how nobody but Sheila trusts him over Damon. It's really cracking me up.

And how about S5, you guys? I'm loving all the Damon/Elena stuff. I wrote a bit more of my reaction to "Original Sin" in a post on my brand new tumblr page, so you should check that out. Same username as here.