It's been there for a while now, though you don't know exactly how long, a fluttering flickering haze that you can see from the corner of your eye but refuse to focus on. To acknowledge it would make it real, make it solid, and solid things can shatter so easily.
You don't want this to shatter.
Like most teenagers, you used to think the world was pretty clear cut. Yeah, sometimes criminals went free and sometimes cute little kids got cancer, but all in all, there was a general sense of justice in the world.
Your innocence died in roughly the amount of time it took from waking up in the hospital after the car crash to realizing that Jeremy was sobbing and Aunt Jenna, who should have been in Boston studying for her midterms, was holding him tight and looking at you with eyes that told you everything you'd never wanted to know.
And everything changes in slow-motion and too fast for thought, and you along with it.
You learn that the monsters in the dark are real, and your boyfriend is one, and you're a carbon copy of the 500-year-old vampire that your boyfriend and his brother were in love with a century before.
You learn that you are adopted, and your biological parents are the emotionally distant uncle you've never liked and a murdering vampire who has no soul.
You learn that everyone is shades of gray, that your boyfriend has done sickeningly horrible acts, and that his brother is capable of awe-inspiringly good things.
You learn that you will always be hunted by those who want your blood, and that no one you love will ever be safe. Even if they're vampires.
They are watching a movie in the darkened living room in one of their brotherly moments that overtake them sometimes, when you let yourself in one evening unannounced.
Alaric's psycho new alter-ego has been leaving you creepy voicemails that you always tell yourself you're not going to listen to and then you do anyway, and this latest one was so bad that you got lightheaded and fled your empty house as he described how he would flay alive everyone you've ever loved.
Stefan and Damon both glance up at you when you walk in and hesitate in the doorway, and Stefan holds out an arm and beckons you over. You curl up next to him, and if there isn't quite enough room between the two brothers for you to sit without touching thighs and hips with Damon as well, what does it matter? Besides, he can move over if it bothers him.
What doesn't adapt dies in this world, and you adapt. (You are not about to let the world win another round.) You're not sure if you're better or worse than you were before, but you're undoubtedly different.
But you'll always be a scared little girl on the inside, where no one can find you.
And what do you learn?
You learn that moral absolutes are a luxury you can't afford anymore, or else some of the people closest to you would have to die for their sins (Stefan, Damon, Caroline, Tyler).
You learn there is no justice except that which you make for yourself. If right and wrong really mattered, then your parents (your real parents) wouldn't have died. Jenna wouldn't have died. Even John and Isobel didn't turn out to be so bad, really. They shouldn't have died.
And the only purpose that makes sense to you is to protect the people you love. At any cost.
Because you're not sure how you can go on living if even one more person on that ever-shrinking list dies on you.
You mention your epiphany to Stefan one day while Damon pours himself a drink in the kitchen, and both brothers go still. After a moment, Damon walks into the room and looks at you, head tilted slightly.
"You're starting to think like a vampire," he says, and takes his glass upstairs.
Stefan pulls you to him. He doesn't look displeased, exactly, but still a little concerned. "Don't worry," he says. He kisses your forehead.
You frown. "It's just that it's us against them most of the time, so we've gotta take care of each other. I refuse to lose anyone else."
He squeezes your hand, leads you upstairs to his bedroom. "You won't," he says. "We'll all get through this."
Your eyes fill with tears. "I will." You look around, careful of vampire super-hearing, and say, "Damon," in the barest of whispers, a catch in your voice. "Even if I don't lose anyone else, I'm eventually gonna lose him." It's probably not fair to be talking to your boyfriend about this, but he's told you a hundred times he wants you to tell him anything.
Stefan hesitates, looking like a dozen thoughts are crossing his mind. "You don't have to," he says finally, not quite meeting your eyes.
You sit down beside him on his bed. "No, Stefan. I love you; I'm not giving you up."
"That's not what I meant." He turns to face you with a conflicted expression. "Loving the two of us is tearing you apart. " You start to protest that of course you don't love Damon the same way you love him (because that would be wrong) but he speaks over you. "I'm not angry, Elena. But only truth between us, okay?"
He stands and walks over to his window, staring out at a beautiful late autumn night sky, crisp and clear. "Sometimes I think that if Damon had come back to Mystic Falls first, and he'd shown you his human side, you'd be with him right now, agonizing over how you felt about me."
"Stefan, I-" Your hands twist in the folds of Stefan's modern yet tasteful bedspread, and you reach for a denial that won't come, because you won't lie to him.
He eyes you wryly. "Or maybe I'm being arrogant, and if I hadn't met you first, you and I would have never happened at all. Maybe that would have been better - easier for you, at least."
Your stomach drops to your feet and the world grows dark and blurry like a bad photograph.
He is standing over you suddenly, gently pushing against your shoulders so you lie back fully on his bed. "Elena," he says urgently. "I'm sorry, God, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I know you love me. And I love you, with my whole heart."
He holds you until your breathing returns to normal, and then his lips brush against your hairline. "I just wanted you to know you don't have to feel like you're split down the middle anymore."
You freeze, unable to even breathe as you try to understand what he means.
"Yeah," he says softly. "I don't want to lose you or my brother ever again. So. If this is what you need..."
You don't hear the rest of his words because you are crying like a little girl, relief and anxiety and happiness as you think that maybe the two halves of your heart can be put back together again.
Stefan holds you all night and you've never loved him more, for this gift you never even dared articulate inside your own head.
You get up before he does the next morning, and go downstairs to put on a pot of coffee. Damon is sitting on the couch, staring into the fireplace with far-away eyes. You turn on the coffee machine and go to stand in front of him. You mean just to have a normal, completely not awkward conversation with him, but then his eyes meet yours and you know that he knows.
"You eavesdropped!" you say accusingly.
"I listened, just like Stefan meant me to," he says without inflection.
You flinch, afraid that he hates you now, that you've lost any hope of this fragile balance that Stefan has proposed before you've even tried.
"How pathetic is it that I'll share my brother's girl?" he asks you without looking at you. "And what's even sadder is hearing Stefan offer that to you was one of my happiest moments in 150 years."
He turns away, his back rigid. "Yeah. I get it, Elena, trust me. I'll always be second choice. You're probably just considering this because you feel sorry for m-"
Your eyes fill with angry tears, but you refuse to let him see you cry over this. "You're not second choice, Damon! You're just - Damon. And I love you, you asshole."
He freezes, like he's waiting for you to take it back, but you don't say things you don't mean, so you just stand there waiting to see what he'll do. His expression is lost, like he doesn't even know how to feel hopeful anymore, when he steps up to you, into your personal space.
"Yeah?" he says hoarsely. "Don't fuck with me about this."
"I do love you. Though I don't know why, half the-" Then his lips are claiming yours and the two of you stumble until he has you pressed against the wall, exploring every inch of your mouth until you are lightheaded and moaning. He finally pulls away so you can breathe, and you rest your forehead against his.
"So how is this gonna work?" he asks, while you just stare dazedly into his intense blue eyes, mesmerized at seeing them up close.
You laugh nervously and try to regain coherent speaking capabilities. "Um, I have no idea. Does this mean you'll do it?"
He rolls his eyes. "Are you stupid?"
In many ways, it's easier, now. No more hiding how you feel about Damon, no more skirting the edge of appropriateness with your boyfriend's brother since neither of you can stay away from each other, no more wondering when Damon will leave you behind and take half of your heart with him.
In a few ways, it's so much harder.
Stefan is patient, but he's not a fount of everlasting serenity, and he gets frustrated - with you sometimes, but mostly with Damon. He tries his best not to be jealous, but there's a spark you've always had with Damon, a never-sated fire that you don't have with anyone else, and Stefan knows it.
You reassure him about twenty times a day that you love him and you'll never leave him, and it makes the worried lines around his eyes fade for a while. And your heart swells with love and affection and then he smiles and you kiss and try to crawl into each other's skin and make love in his bed.
You and Damon are breathlessly in love, but you don't make love; you fuck. On his bed, in the shower, on the floor, once even against the kitchen counter while Stefan was out. But you know he's scared shitless, afraid that he's going to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and you're going to give him up and go back to just Stefan, the ever-simmering deep down fear that he's second best and tolerated instead of loved.
But the two of you will be fighting and you'll suddenly go dry-mouthed at seeing his eyes blaze or he'll stop in the middle of yelling at you to tell you how much he loves you, and the passion gets redirected into forging a new bond between the two of you.
Morality and logic both say that this shouldn't work; there are more ways than you can count that it could go wrong. But everything and nothing has changed since Stefan and Damon returned to Mystic Falls two years ago, and your boys love each other (despite their pasts), and they love you. And with all your heart, you love them.
For the first time in years, you know peace.
You hate the way Evilaric looks at you, that sneer he wears almost constantly and the rage and hatred lurking just behind his eyes. You hate the way he can take a kernel of truth and twist it with so much viciousness that you're left gasping and trying to convince yourself not to listen to him. You hate how he looks at Stefan and Damon, as if they're simultaneously beneath him and complete monsters.
Worst of all is the way he talks about your parents, as if he has any right to act like he knew them.
"The only thing your parents would have hated more than you dating one monster is dating two," he tells you when he accosts you on your way back to the boarding house. He nods sardonically to the two vampires on either side of you.
"All my parents would have cared about is that I was happy," you say, more confidently than you feel.
His expression sends chills down your spine. "No, Elena, they would have cared that you were safe."
Bonnie and Caroline are sitting on the couch with weathered books spread out on the coffee table in front of them when you come over one evening with Stefan and Damon to discuss spells that might work on Alaric. Though the kitchen window you can see Matt and Jeremy setting up the grill on the backyard patio.
Your friends smile at you in greeting, but you look around worriedly. "Where's Tyler?" Somewhere along the grand supernatural soap opera that is your life, he got added to your "family", too.
Caroline smiles. "Swiping beers from his mom's house, don't worry, Elena. We're all gonna be together."
You relax and walk over to sit with them. Stefan kisses you on the forehead, and he and Damon wander toward the kitchen, one to help with the grilling and the other to seek out hard liquor, if you know them at all.
Dinner that night is exactly what you need, as carefree as your life can be since vampires dropped into it. Your friends are in a boisterous mood, and you think part of it may be to distract you and Jeremy from thinking about Ric.
"A toast," Caroline proposes, standing. "To good company and great friends." Everyone cheers, and you clink your beer can with Damon and Stefan, seated on either side of you. Damon does the eye-flirty thing that drives you crazy, and you shiver and turn to Stefan so Damon doesn't see the effect he has on you.
Then you all reluctantly traipse into the living room for a much more depressing discussion on Ric, murder and the nature of invincibility. Jeremy wants to look into methods for getting the "old" Ric back, but Bonnie dismisses it as a waste of time.
You know she doesn't mean to be cruel, but you can't help flinching when she says, "Ric's dead, Jeremy. He might have Alaric's body, but Ric we know is never coming back. Our only goal now is to find a way to kill him without hurting Elena." Her words pound in your head like gunfire and your hands shake. Your list just keeps getting shorter.
Damon puts his arm around you and you bury your face in his neck and focus on the smell of his cologne instead of your breaking heart. It's nothing you haven't done a dozen times before at the boarding house, but you didn't have an audience then, and Jeremy, who looks like he is beginning an angry, hurt retort to Bonnie, widens his eyes as he notices the movement.
"Um," he says. "Is this one of those Damon-Elena things that we're all supposed to pretend we can't see, or can we actually acknowledge the elephant in the room?"
The room falls tense and still, and you can feel everyone looking at you. Your eyes seek out Stefan's, and he inclines his head slightly and gives you a reassuring smile. It's up to you. You don't really want to explain yourself, but if it's going to distract people from a crucial discussion, you'll do it.
You slide one hand into Damon's and reach out the other for Stefan's. They interlace their fingers with yours, and you hold both hands up for everyone in the room to see.
"It's like this," you say. "Okay?"
You knew you'd probably have to die to get rid of Evilaric forever, no matter what anyone else said. (There are no free rides when it comes to magic.) You don't even have to seek out your death. There is Rebekah standing on Wickery Bridge like a zombie, and you shout and swerve instinctively, though as your car crunches through the wooden railing and slams into the river you realize that of course that was exactly what she wanted.
It's too late for regrets, though, as you struggle to open your seatbelt and then push futilely at the door that you already know won't open until the pressure equalizes when your car hits the bottom - ten, fifteen minutes from now.
Your lungs are burning now, and you notice with detachment that you can barely see, you've sunk so deep into the lake, and water has seeped in to your shoulders. It's kind of fitting in its way, being trapped here again, almost as if time is looping back to give you another chance to drown with your family.
It's probably for the best. You send out silent goodbyes to your brother, your friends, and your boys. You don't want to leave them, but at least they will all be safe now.
Then you close your eyes and inhale a cold, brackish mouthful of lake water and let the darkness takes you, thinking of green eyes and blue.
It doesn't even hurt.
You wake up in the morgue gasping for air through a throat that feels needy and parched to an intensity you've never felt before, and you think, oh.
Then Stefan and Damon are leaning over you, helping you sit up and talking over each other. Stefan's eyes are bright and almost hopeful as he watches you carefully, and you know he's wondering what you'll decide. Damon's eyes are devastated, like he's already grieving for you.
How ironic, you think, that it's Damon who will let you make your own decision and Stefan who will do whatever he can to convince you.
Once upon a time, it wouldn't have even been a topic for discussion. You were committed to living a mortal life, one with a career and husband and kids and an eventual, natural death. You used to be so good at knowing what was right, and for you it was being human.
Are you a product of your humanity, or are you something more? You're not sure.
As Damon and Stefan run their hands over your hair, your arms, your legs, reassuring themselves that for now, at least, you are with them, all you can think about is who you are, and what you want.
About 12 hours before it's too late to transition, Stefan tells you when you ask, and Damon's expression lightens from a 10 on the heartbreaking scale to a mere 9 as he realizes you will consider it.
They take you to the woods so you can watch the stars fade into what might be your last sunrise. You make them each move a quarter mile away so you can feel alone in your own skin as your gums burn and your vision shifts and your body tries to figure out what's happening to it.
You lie on your back and remember a lost time and a lost girl and wonder if you'll ever be able to find her again. If she even still exists. If you want her to.
Who are you? What do you want?
It all goes back to losing your parents, in the end. You think about that past life every day, before grief and creatures of the night and murder and blood and fear so intense you can taste it on your tongue. You love them, and so many other people, so fiercely that it destroys you when they're gone. But that doesn't stop you from do it anyway.
Even if Evilaric was wrong on a million other things, you think he was right about this: your parents would have wanted you to be safe. But you were, right too. They would've wanted you to be happy.
Now, as a vampire joined eternally to the two brothers whom you will love until you return to dust, you are both.