The night was cold, grim, shadows gathering in the bright corners of the town. Outside Elena's window, tiny flakes of snow slid down the glass, and icicles were forming on the sill. An eerie stillness hushed the earth.

It had been an innocent night, fittingly. Elena had taken a break from the paranormal for a single day, deciding to stay at home and read rather than get caught up in a life that wasn't hers to live. It was oddly peaceful when she was alone; there was a comforting lull of sanity before the crashing gale of her life, a simplicity that soothed her. And so she curled up underneath the covers, far past midnight, dozing off with a book tucked in her hands.

The first warning was the sudden draft of coolness that slid into her room, chilling her to the bone. She wrapped tighter in her covers, all traces of sleep gone. Since Elena met Stefan, she knew not to take even the littlest happenings lightly.

In the end, Elena had been right; there was only a moment or so more before the screeching sound of splintering glass filled her ears. Elena watched with disbelieving eyes as a shape flung itself across her room and landed awkwardly in a heap at the foot of her bed. Heart thudding, skin numb, she peered over with wide eyes.

"Damon?" Elena whispered the name fervently, all fear instantly dispelled. "What happened?" She hopped from the bed and pulled Damon off the ground, attempting to support his weak body with hers, which proved to be difficult. His weight overtook hers and she had to drop him onto the bed.

Glassy eyes gazed up at her, tumbling with a battle Elena couldn't see or understand. It seemed to take much effort for Damon to continue staring, and so he drooped his eyelids with a sigh. "A fight," he murmured, words thick and exhausted. "I..." He gasped for breath. "I need to ask you... I need to take something from you." Each word came as a struggle.

Elena tensed. "Damon, I -"

At the single breath of hesitance, Damon opened his eyes and flitted to her side, the movement as subtle as a puff of wind. He pressed his nose into her neck, inhaling desperately. Elena stayed completely still, eyes squeezed shut, bracing herself for the pain of teeth in her flesh.

"You want me dead." Damon held her still, one hand over her wrist. Elena could feel the loss of strength, the way his words came out as rasps. He was weak, and getting weaker. "I know you do." His lips moved against her skin, as if a plea etched into her flesh. "I still need... I still need you to tell me... it's okay." His breathing became shallow.

Elena said nothing, focusing instead on the proximity of his mouth, the words choked from his tongue. Finally: "I can't."

Damon pressed closer, willing her, begging her. "Please." His voice seemed to have lost its malice, replaced with tiredness. "Please..." He drew in a breath, tasting her skin, inhaling the scent of her blood thrumming beneath the barrier.

The slightest hint of realization entered Elena's head as she realized: Damon wasn't going to take without her permission. If she said no, he would die, for he refused to compel her. He refused to make anything less real. Elena pressed her lips together, praying a shattered prayer, with no one to hear her. Damon buried his face further into her neck, willing her to understand.

Elena glanced warily down at her wrist, where Damon's hand still held it in delicate fingers, not allowing her to escape. With each passing second, she could feel the grip growing looser, and she could leave if she chose so. She would watch as he crumbled to the ground and starved.

With a final breath, Elena took Damon's limp hand, lacing her fingers tightly through his, a promise without words.

Damon kissed a warm gratefulness into Elena's skin, squeezing her hand until his knuckles were white. "I'm sorry," he whispered, an apology without meaning, before he opened his mouth and bit down.

Pain seared through Elena's body, each nerve set on fire, each thought exploding into anguish. Into Damon's hand, covering her mouth, she screamed and screamed and screamed, with no one there to hear her. Yet still, her hand remained twined with his, fearful that if she let go, he would stop; he would die.

It was over in mere moments, yet the agony continued for much longer than that. In the tendrils of darkness closing over Elena's eyes, she could only hear his breath, shattered and miserable, and his apology still etched into her skin. His arms locked around her body, falling into a pile on the floor, as he held her when the darkness proved too much to bear. She gave herself over to unconsciousness, with only a flitted memory of his tormented eyes as they stared down at her.

(When she awoke, Damon's face was yet still pressed into her neck, and after the hours of loss of the outside world, he was still murmuring the same words over and over. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." His apology without meaning suddenly meant everything at once.)