Elena wakes up in the middle of the woods with a splitting headache. She groans, puts a hand to her forehead. It's pitch dark and the droning of the insects and the bubbling of a nearby river sound too loud in her ears. To make matters worse, her clothes are damp and her hair is bedraggled, as though she got caught in a downpour. She shivers.
She has no idea how she got here.
She jumps, but recognises the voice, and the shadowy figure that crouches in front of her. He looks as drenched as she is.
"Damon," she says. "Damon, what are you doing here? What happened?"
The look he's giving her is so serious that she knows it's something really bad. He lifts her up, smoothes back her hair. "Just stay calm. You'll remember in a moment."
"Remember what?" Her voice catches as she says it. She'd been driving. Something bad had happened. Had she been hurt? She feels shaky, but all her limbs seem to be intact. It's more like she's woken up with a terrible hangover.
"My car," she says.
"Is in the river," Damon finishes for her.
She stares at him in bewilderment. "You saved me?"
Damon twists his mouth. "Not exactly."
"I didn't get to you in time, Elena. You drowned."
There's a long moment of not-silence, during which the bubbling of the river and the buzzing of the insects seem to reach new decibel levels and Elena feels as though her head might explode. She's starting to remember, in bits and pieces. Katherine. The car crash. Wickery Bridge. She takes in several shaky breaths.
"I'm dead. Oh my God, I'm dead."
She's starting to panic, her breathing too fast and too shallow. The world feels both too faint and too clear, as though she's woken up with a wall of mist between her and it but she can still feel the earth turning beneath her feet - spinning at an incredibly fast rate, so fast that she's amazed they're not thrown off, it's dizzying-
She realises that Damon is still supporting her. His face is inches from hers, and she makes herself focus, look at him.
"You're not dead, Elena, you're transitioning." Damon smiles as though that's supposed to comfort her. "You had vampire blood in your system, you'll be fine. C'mon, I can help you."
"No, no." She shakes her head, horrified. The bile rises in her throat. She's dead. Whatever she does now, she'll have to make a terrible choice. "I can't do this."
Damon cups her face in both his hands, staring at her with real anxiety in his eyes. "If you don't, you'll die."
"But if I do, I'll become a vampire." She shakes him off, finding the strength to stand up and pace away from him. Even her footsteps sound magnified; she can hear every leaf rustle and every twig crack underfoot and she thinks it might drive her crazy. "I don't want this, I don't want to become a vampire. I'm supposed to be human, living a human life..." Her voice cracks. Whatever she does now, she's lost her human life forever. "Oh, God. Jeremy, Aunt Jenna... What are they going to say?"
"Well, how about I ask them at your funeral?"
It's a harsh statement and it shocks Elena into silence for a moment.
"Human blood, Damon." She looks at him, desperate, anxious. "What am I supposed to do?"
Damon's arms are folded, his expression inscrutable. "Stay right there. I won't be long."
He disappears at once, blurring away into the woods. Elena is left alone, swaying slightly as she tries to find her balance. She doesn't know what she's doing, only that she doesn't want to stay here. She has some vague idea of going to find her car, but only manages to stumble ten or twenty yards away from where she had woken up in a painful haze before Damon returns. He's carrying an unconscious young woman in his arms. Elena stares, feeling sick to her stomach. She doesn't recognise the girl, isn't sure if that makes it better or worse. Damon sets the young woman on her feet, whispers something in her ear. Maybe she wasn't unconscious after all, because she opens her eyes and blinks, looking around.
"Over here, there's a good girl." Damon leads her over to Elena, who is trembling, her face white. He pushes the girl's long hair back behind her ears, exposing her throat.
"No - don't-"
But he ignores Elena's plea. Standing behind the girl, Damon leans forward and bites her neck. When he stands straight again, Elena can see the wound on the girl's throat, the blood dripping down her skin. She can smell it. She swallows.
"It's this," says Damon, "or you die. This is the only way I can save you."
She wants that blood. She knows that she needs it. All her senses are screaming at her.
Elena shakes her head. "I can't."
She turns away from the girl, from that bright blood gleaming on her neck, and walks away. It takes every ounce of her self-control to do that but she stumbles, slipping on the wet leaves underfoot. Damon is there to catch her at once.
"Elena," he says. "I'm not going to force you. You have to make the choice for yourself. But you have to be aware of exactly what it is you're doing here. What you're giving up."
She hears his words, but she can barely process them, because all she can do is stare at his mouth. It's still bloody, red from biting that poor girl's neck. Slowly, Elena brings up her hand to Damon's lips, smearing some of the blood on her fingers. Damon watches her, but doesn't say anything, doesn't encourage her either way.
"I know," she says. She can feel her heart thumping in her chest (is it beating? isn't she dead?). She knows exactly what this process entails. She's seen it before. She knows what it means. It feels as though a huge gulf is opening up before her: one world where she has ceased to exist, where all has turned dark for her. In that world, she's lost everything and she won't even know it, because she's dead. Oh, God. She doesn't want to die.
The other world is the one she's practically already in anyway, a world of supernatural beings, of blood and death. It's closer than ever before now, with the blood on her skin that she desperately wants to taste. Damon is still holding her in his arms, looking at her with more intensity than he's ever done before. She looks at him, then looks at her fingers.
She makes her choice.
Trembling, she lifts her fingers to her lips and tastes the blood. The strong iron tang makes her screw up her face in disgust. But that's a human reaction, and it doesn't last long. Elena looks back up at Damon and he's smiling and his mouth is still covered in blood...
She can't help herself. She leans up and licks the blood off his lips. She feels Damon's breath hitch, his grip on her pulling them closer together. And before she knows it, she's kissing him hungrily and Damon is kissing her back, and it's intoxicating - the blood thrilling through her body, one of Damon's hands tangled in her hair, the other gripping her waist. She exults in the taste of it, of him, all of her vampire senses magnified, concentrated on Damon's mouth pressed against her own.
She wants more. As they break apart, Damon's eyes are dark with lust, but Elena is already craning her head, looking back at the young woman still standing there with an open wound on her neck. The blood rushes to her face. In a flash she's by the woman, sinking her fangs into her neck. She bites down deeply, overcome by blood lust, barely noticing the girl cry out in pain.
The next second there's an arm curled around her waist, a sudden force that deprives Elena of her prey. She hisses as Damon yanks her away and slams her vampire-fast against a tree. He grips both her arms, pinning her there.
"Stop. I know you don't want to kill that girl."
She's breathing fast, her eyes wide as she realises what she's just done. "Damon-"
"I know what you're feeling," Damon continues. "That urge, the desire to feed, it's hard to control. Maybe you don't want to control it. Maybe you'd rather give in. We could make a meal out of her."
His eyes keep flicking to her mouth and Elena is horribly conscious of how bloodied she must be. "No," she says, shaking her head. "No, I don't want to."
Damon tilts his head. "You sure?"
She nods, although she isn't entirely sure if she trusts herself at this point.
He lets go, then steps back and walks away to check on the injured girl. Elena stays exactly where she is, not daring to move an inch. She can't believe what she's just done, can't even begin to process it. She's a vampire. There's no turning back from that.
"She'll live," Damon pronounces.
Elena sighs in relief. "Thank you."
He turns back to her, wearing that smirk that she knows so well. "I think I'm going to like you as a vampire, Elena," Damon says. He licks his lips. "Sexy."