“Ah, there you are.” Klaus greeted her with a warm smile which was almost an oxymoron.
Klaus represented everything Elena had grown to hate—despair, danger, and that emptiness she felt inside, the lonely existence she’d begun to recognize as life after Stefan. Klaus symbolized darkness, a darkness she might have otherwise accepted if he hadn’t stood so firmly before her as the gatekeeper, the one creature standing in front of Stefan and deliberately keeping them apart.
“I’ll be right there,” she snapped, tucking her journal under the mattress.
“I’ll wait with you.” Klaus snatched Elena’s floral garment bag and draped it over his arm. “It would be a real shame if you backed out at the last minute, Elena. You wanted a Christmas wish and your wish was granted.”
“With certain terms.”
“Ah yes.” Klaus tilted his head one way or another. “Well I’ve never been one to greet demands with open arms. Besides, we’ll all feel better on neutral ground.”
“And why is that?” Elena had spent the last few days questioning everything and everyone. When she’d asked Klaus to release Stefan for the holidays, she hadn’t thought about the terms and conditions, the possibility of bargaining with the devil.
“We all play by my rules, Elena. You still won, sweetheart. You wanted Stefan for the holidays. He’s yours.” Klaus approached her with speed and narrowed his eyes as if he planned to compel her.
She quickly dismissed the thought. Klaus didn’t need her under his spell. She was his human blood bank, a walking natural resource for his hybrid nation. Outside of his need for her blood, he had little use for her, which brought her back to another question. “When I asked you to grant Stefan a holiday weekend, why did you agree to a break?”
“You always surprise me, Elena. More often I’m merely amused by your requests.” He tilted her chin and his head at the same time, looking at her as if he were indeed perplexed. “When you asked for Stefan’s release so you could celebrate Christmas with both Salvatore brothers, I was curious.”
“Which explains why you’re going with us to Tennessee?”
He moistened his lips and for a split second, Elena could’ve sworn his mouth was dripping in blood. She cringed as a memory crawled through her head. Her mind’s eyes flickered with newspaper clippings about a rampant killing spree, a murderous binge controlled by Klaus and executed by Stefan.
“I’ve always loved the mountains.” Klaus grinned. “Besides, holidays are monumental. We can build memories together. Why would I throw away such an opportunity?”
“You promised to release him while we’re in Tennessee.”
“And I will,” Klaus assured her. “Once we’re settled in and before the sun goes down.”
“Is there a ‘but’ in there somewhere?”
“All right, Elena, you win. I’ll let you in on a little secret.” His demeanor changed then. “You can’t play with fate or run from it, love. Katerina tried and as you saw for yourself, she failed on numerous occasions. She also loved two brothers as you love two brothers.”
“I never said—”
Klaus held up his hand. “Let me finish. Damon gives you what you need, what you must have at any cost. Stefan, on the other hand, gives you what you want—the ability to stay committed to your high moral standards. The Stefan you know gives you a normal relationship, an acceptable bond. Your friends like him. Your teachers accept him.”
“What about the Stefan you know?”
“The Stefan I know would rip your pretty little neck apart if I so much as compelled him to do so.”
She swallowed, processing. Klaus wanted to hurt her. He wanted to watch how she interacted with the Salvatore brothers. He would then later use what he learned against her. “You made Stefan into something he’s not.”
“On the contrary,” Klaus said. “We’re vampires. That makes us hunters or predators by nature. We’re only killers by choice.”
“Stefan wouldn’t have done any of this if you hadn’t compelled him.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Klaus said. “I can hand an average man a gun, beat him within an inch of his life, and he will not pull the trigger if he isn’t a killer. The survival instinct, some of us have it and some of us don’t, Elena.”
“That’s a terrible comparison.”
Klaus shrugged. “Maybe you’re right. Besides, Stefan’s weapons are embedded in his gums. No one hands him anything. He takes what he wants.”
“At one time he wanted me.”
“Yes and we all watched in horror as he became this henpecked vampire following you up and down the local high school’s halls. It was dreadfully painful to observe. Sad, really. At least now Stefan is his own person.”
Elena inched forward, anger driving each of her steps. “What’s sad is you really believe that.” She mustered up the courage to close the last bit of distance between them. “Now tell me, Klaus. Why are you really here?”
Klaus gripped her shoulders. “Let me remind you, sweetheart. You weren’t supposed to spend Christmas with Stefan. Word travels fast in our circles. From what I hear, you and another Salvatore have more in common. Then again, some might argue—at least those who have witnessed your volatile relationship—you and Damon probably weren’t supposed to spend Christmas together. You aren’t exactly an ideal mistletoe-seeking pair.”
“So you want to go with us and what…referee?”
“Hmm. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but sure. Think of me as the middle ground.”
“Ha! You want Elena to see you as a mediator?” Damon entered the bedroom cautiously. He watched Elena as if he were afraid to take his eyes off her. After her heart fluttered a few extra beats, he grinned—because he likely picked up on the fact—and turned to Klaus. “Well?”
“How do you want her to see me, Damon?”
“That’s a no-brainer. As the monster you are.”
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