Thump, thump. Elena's heartbeat was accelerating at a mile a minute pace as Damon handed her into the car. Her expression was wary, almost fearful, as she strapped herself into the passenger seat, with a hint of trepidation on her face of what was to come next. Doubtless, she anticipated some sort of angry tirade or stern lecture from him, but Damon was not Stefan, so pulling the whole disappointed father routine with Elena wasn't really on his agenda. He did, however, want to impart the incredible stupidity of her scheme. When Rose had called him, his emotions had given way to incredible worry and panic, afraid that he would arrive too late, afraid that Rose wouldn't protect Elena from her kamikaze mission, afraid that Elena would succeed in sacrificing herself to Klaus. But now that Elena was sufficiently safe and back under his watchful eye, that fear for her life had turned into anger - anger that she would be so careless with her life. Damon would never let anything happen to her, and he knew for a fact that Stefan would die trying to save her, if his willingness to go to his death while rescuing her from Rose and Trevor was any indication. And her little gang of pals wouldn't let her die without a fight either, Damon mused, thinking upon Vampire Barbie and Judgy, not to mention mini-Gilbert Jeremy.
"What are we going to do with you?" he smirked, wrapping his arm around the back of her headrest so that his fingertips lightly danced against the back of her neck. She shivered involuntarily and fixed him with her impossibly huge doe-eyes. "You can't scare me, Damon," she retorted, crossing her arms over her chest. He had to hand it to her, she was brave for standing up to an angry vampire, considering her very human self. Brave or just plain foolish, anyway.
"Well, someone has to put the fear of God, or in this case, Klaus, into you," Damon snapped, starting the ignition with an angry twist of the wrist. "Have you gone mental? Asking Rose, whose loyalty to us seems somewhat dubious at this point, to arrange a meeting with some lowlife vampire scum so they can bring you to Klaus, who will kill you slowly and painfully so that all vampires will be able to walk in the sun, endangering not just your friends and family but the rest of the world? Yeah, please explain to me how any of that seemed like a good idea, Elena." His grip tightened on the steering wheel as he pulled out onto a busy street. He was beyond pissed. Pissed didn't even cover it - pissed fell short. He recalled the conversation in the kitchen at Elena's house just that morning. How her eyes had lingered on him when she said she cared about him getting hurt or worse dying, before they left his to land on Stefan. He knew he shouldn't read anything into it; just because she and Stefan were broken up didn't mean that they'd stopped loving each other. Damon still didn't stand a chance in Hades with her and he was well aware of that fact.
"You just offered yourself up to Klaus on a silver platter, Elena," Damon said tiredly when Elena remained annoyingly unresponsive. His hands tensed around the wheel. God, the effort of maintaining control of the whirlwind of human emotions that inflamed him was driving him insane. As a vampire, it was easy. It all came down to hunger, whether it was for sex or food, it all merged into one same, basic, essential need. With Elena, he felt like he was unraveling. A mere human girl made him feel guilt, shame, but most importantly, a fierce desire to protect her from all harm. "You were seconds away from dying today."
"It doesn't matter." The words were spoken so softly that at first even Damon's extra-sensory hearing had trouble catching them.
"Excuse me?" he demanded furiously, pressing his foot down harder on the accelerator. "Have you even, just for one second, considered what will happen if you died? Do you think your brother can survive that? Elena, he's lost your parents, Vicki...", Damon inwardly cringed, "and Anna". Mention of Vicki made him feel oddly responsible, an emotion he was uncomfortable with feeling, and Anna's name just made him want to end John Gilbert's existence, which would be very easy now that he didn't have his handy-dandy ring, Damon mused. He merged with traffic effortlessly, hitting 90 mph, almost daring a policeman to pull him over. "Elena, I'm not sure you're aware, but your baby bro wanted to shut down his emotions so badly that he not only wanted to die, he wanted to become a vampire," he said mockingly, masking his worry and irritation with her stubbornness with his usual trademark sarcasm. "You're really willing to risk that again?"
Elena's eyes blazed with anger at the memory of his hands snapping Jeremy's neck. "I'm very much aware of...the past," she hissed at him, her eyes shooting daggers. "I was even there when you killed him, remember? Funny thing about me, I can't seem to get the image of my brother's broken body out of my head. Burned onto the back of my retinas so that even when I close my eyes, I still see him. Worse, I see you. God...and you had the audacity to kiss me before you did it!" she exclaimed, startling Damon with her impassioned outburst. "God help me, I should hate you, but I don't. I trust you and even though you've proven yourself to be a monster at times, I still care about you, Damon. If anything happened to you, do you think I could live with myself?"
Damon chose his words carefully, trying to ignore the spasm of pain that lanced through his body as he remembered what he'd done to her younger brother. It hadn't been about Jeremy at all; it had been about Elena. It wasn't even about Katherine saying she'd never loved him. Deep down, he knew that even though he'd met Katherine first, in his eyes, he'd been using her to replace Elena's place in his heart. So when Elena had told him that it had always been Stefan, he'd felt double the hurt, double the anguish, double the anger, and as a result, he'd made a very poor decision and taken it out on Jeremy just to hurt Elena. "I regret my actions," he said slowly. "But this, today? Not my fault. You can't blame me for not allowing you to sacrifice yourself, Elena. That's cruel, even for you. I will protect you, no matter what."
"Who am I to you, that you should be willing to do this for me?" she demanded. "I'm not your girlfriend, Damon, and I'm your friend only out of necessity." She nearly choked on her anger, not caring that she was speaking too quickly, her voice slurred with the urgency to get all her words out at once before she lost the courage to say them at all. "Do you really think I'm so blind that I can't see the similarities between myself and Katherine? People who befriended her, who tried to help her, they end up screwed over, Damon! You, Stefan, Rose, Trevor...and you say you'll protect me? I don't want lives laid down to defend mine, Damon. I don't. I don't want to be protected if it comes at the cost of you or anyone else I love. I won't be like her. I'm not accepting casualties just to save my own skin."
Taken aback, he could only furrow his brow in consternation at the vast expanse of highway in front of him. What did that mean? She loved him? No, that couldn't be true. Her love applied only to those who had proved worthy of it, and it had only been a slip of the tongue that she'd included him in that list.
"I won't give up trying to save the people I love," she said insistently.
"Your idea of a solution was a dead end, Elena. Literally," Damon retorted. "Besides, you do know that if anything happened to you, Saint Stefan would pin it on me? He'd stake me to Kingdom come."
"I told you," Elena replied somewhat sullenly. "It was my choice, Damon. God forbid you and Stefan remember to let me make one. I'm not the girl on the road, trapped inside a wrecked car anymore. This was my choice and if you hadn't shown up, I would have seen it through. At least Rose understood."
"Rose lied," Damon said impatiently, waving a hand in the air. "And, in case you forgot, she also skedaddled the second Elijah showed up, or did you miss that while you were off making stupid decisions?" he said scathingly.
"I'm not some frail doll that has to be protected."
Quick as a flash, Damon was looming over her. "Damon, the road!" Elena squeaked as she noticed his hands had left the steering wheel. Completely confident in his abilities to drive with one eye on the road, Damon gripped her shoulders, letting his face transform into the menacing visage of a vampire. Her eyes widened; she'd seen Damon like this before, but never directed towards her. Elena shrank against her seat. He was terrifying. Damon growled in a strangely feral way, but she could see no signs of bloodlust, even though the veins under his eyes were prominently displayed.
His eyes burned into hers, flashing dangerously. "All it would take, my dear naive Elena, is one movement of my hands to snap your neck and effectively end your life," he hissed, his hands wrapping around her neck; firmly, but not hard enough to bruise. Stefan would kill him if he came back to Mystic Falls with so much as a scratch on the human. "So yeah, you are frail. And you'd be wise to remember that," he added, not unkindly, as he let his face fall back into a more human-friendly version.
After twenty minutes passed by in complete silence, Elena staring moodily out the window, and Damon growing annoyed by the screaming boy bands on the radio, finally stopped fiddling with the knob. "Are you seriously going to ignore me?" he asked in aggravation, rolling his eyes.
Elena turned to look at him, and what he saw in her face made the last vestiges of Damon's anger evaporate. Two tears tracks were running down her cheeks and her lower lip was wobbling. "I don't question why you and Stefan and the rest of them try so hard to save me," she whispered, running a hand through her hair. "So you shouldn't question why I would try to save all of you."
Taken aback, Damon didn't know what to say, so he settled instead for taking an exit ramp. "Damon? What...what are you doing? Where are you taking me?" Elena straightened in her seat, straining to see where they were.
"We, Elena, are getting a quick bite to eat before heading back," Damon said, flashing Elena a sunny smile, flirting with his eyes. He parked the car in front of a Wendys and used his speed to blur over to her side to open her door for her. She stepped out cautiously, blinking into the bright rays of the setting sun.
"But Stefan will be worried...we should call him, let him know where we -" Elena broke off, distracted. "Damon!" His nimble fingers had snatched the phone out of her hands where her fingers were busily searching for Saint Stefan in her contact list. "Give it back!" She tried to lunge for it, but failed.
"Ah, what have we here?" Damon asked himself out loud, purely for Elena's benefit, as he scrolled leisurely through the numbers stored in her phone. "Damon!" Elena said loudly, managing to knock the phone out of his hand. She scrambled to pick it up, but he was quicker. The highlighted contact had landed on ICE, which he assumed was Stefan. "Shh, it's not polite to be rowdy while someone's on the phone," he teased, holding Elena at arms length as she attempted to get her phone back.
A loud ringing erupted and Damon froze. What the hell? Shocked, he reached in his back pocket and pulled out his phone. The word "Elena" flashed at him on the screen. His arm fell slack and Elena's face looked horrified as she slumped against the side of the car. "Me?" Damon said slowly, drawing his eyebrows together in confusion, his silvery blue eyes looking astonished. He lifted his gaze from the phone to her wan face. "I'm your In Case of Emergency contact?"