The world seemed quieter that night, hushed as some of its oldest inhabitants found themselves in the scope of the Hunter. The stars were dimmer, the air unbearably still and heavy; it weighed on Elena Gilbert without mercy. Blackness had swallowed the daylight, and though she'd been asleep for hours – albeit sleep induced by powerful sedatives – she felt that she'd never been more exhausted in her life. Every movement made her feel nauseous, every thought like an icepick through her skull, triggering worry and confusion that seemed eternal. Why had her best friend conspired to kidnap her? Why did it feel like her life was on the verge of breaking to pieces? Why wouldn't someone tell her what was going to happen?
It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Klaus was dead, his reign of terror ended by the commandeered body of one of Elena's closest friends. Thousands of vampires and all of the hybrids were less than an hour from death; the Salvatore brothers were going to die. Nothing mattered because she didn't expect to survive their loss.
These things rolled non-stop through her mind as Matt drove further and further from home, pushing his old blue Chevrolet to at least twice the speed limit. She saw how pained his eyes were; she followed each silver tear down his cheek and into his lap. She suspected that he no longer cared where they were going, or in how many pieces they got there.
"Matt…" she whispered, reaching toward him. When her trembling hand touched his arm, he flinched, making her heart jump into her throat.
He looked at her uneasily, his eyes reflecting the darkness that had settled over their lives. She was sure he saw the same thing when he looked at her. The two of them were the not-so-innocent bystanders who watched their loved ones die from a distance, losing so much that it became numbing, and yet, they felt the guilt more powerfully than anymore. They were two sides of the same coin, thrown together by the universe because it desired nothing short of total chaos.
When he said nothing, only stared at her in a way that made her want to abandon ship, she whispered, "We have to go back." She laid her hand on his arm again, her eyebrows pulling together. She was worried about her friends, sad for the way this evening had gone downhill, and angry that she could do nothing but wait and see if two people who meant the world to her were going to die. She knew that she could still go back, and that's what kept her determined. She could go back and be with them – all of them – one last time. They could all sit together and hope life wasn't that cruel; it couldn't be that horrible. The only thing left to do was convince Matt, but it would be hard, because he was less fond of those at risk, and very fond of her.
"Listen to me, Matt," she said, "If Klaus is the one that turned their bloodline, then they'll all gonna die."
Her words brought indecision to his eyes. She knew where it came from. He'd kidnapped her to spare her from the demons at her door; he'd only wanted to keep her safe, and now she was asking him to drive back into the heart of darkness. She was asking him to give up his plan, and this is what made him a failure. His hopes crashed and burned. The vigor with which he'd described his reasons was evaporating. The night had taken a turn for the worst, and, regardless of the fate of the Salvatores, his best friend was going to die.
His eyes were only asking a question she'd seen echoed in Damon's eyes, and Stefan's eyes: How can you ask me to do this, Elena? How could you put me through this?
She squeezed his arm, as if that would ease his pain. "We have to go back, Matt," she mumbled, shaking her head. Her eyes were watering.
Matt stared at her. Several times he opened his mouth only to shut it. Deterred, he focused on the road, carefully pulling to the side with his foot on the brake. He stared at the gearshift, running his fingers along it before setting the truck in park. They rolled forward an inch. The headlights were extinguished. He turned to her, his eyes barely lit by the reflection of the moon, and said,
"Elena… Damon's not with them."
Ice dropped into Elena's body. The fire in her eyes, in her spirit, faded. Her hand dropped from his arm, hitting the leather with a solid thud, but she wasn't distracted by it. Her eyes were locked on him, her thoughts clouded by possibilities, the good and the bad. Inevitably, the darkness of the night played a part in her internal scenario, and it brought tears to her eyes.
Was Damon Salvatore dead? Was he lying in a ditch somewhere? Had one of the Originals taken him? Had he left of his own accord? Was he out trying to find her? Was he in danger because of her? The thoughts began to have a physical effect on Elena; her expression slowly changed to something far younger. She appeared more innocent, taken off-guard by a sudden shift in the weather. Her lips parted, but the questions in her mind were indistinguishable from the confusion, the doubt, and the worry.
One word slipped out. Her voice was shaking uncontrollably. "What?"
Matt's eyes were like glass in such low light, his brow pinching toward the center. "He's a hundred miles out of town. I can keep driving to him… or I can turn around and go back to Stefan. It's your choice."
It's my choice, Elena repeated in her mind, picturing those words coming from Damon's mouth, and from the disapproving eyes of her family and friends. As she walked the tightrope between loving two people in two very different ways, they prodded her with sticks, trying to get her to fall either way. The problem was, Elena couldn't see the safety net; she knew that if she just kept balancing, she would never have to fall down.
Reeling from his words, Elena took the cellphone from Matt's jacket pocket and stared at the glowing keys. She decided to call Damon; she'd let his words decide for her. His number came to mind easily; in times of fear or uncertainty, she always seemed to be dialing it. It was the two long rings that were hard for her, because when she thought of him ignoring it, or missing it for any reason, it made her want to scream.
Thankfully, Captain Sarcasm picked up on the third ring.
"Let me guess, calling to see if the Grim Reaper's paid a visit?"
She let out the breath she'd been holding, but gathered another to interrogate her friend. "How are you feeling? Are there any symptoms?"
In her mind's eye, she imagined Damon propped against a brick wall, bourbon in one hand, cell phone in the other, dead person on the ground at his feet. And then she pictured him coughing up blood, writhing in agony as the life drained from his body. She imagined those beautiful blue eyes turning gray; that thick black hair falling piece-by-piece from his head.
"Not yet," Damon responded, jerking her from her nightmarish thoughts, "But I'm sure we'll have a laugh when we find out that Klaus is a big fat liar."
Elena breathed softly, leaning her forehead against the window to feel the cold of the outside world. It was relieving to hear him revert to his old self, the Damon that didn't fear death. His outlook was 'to die and let live,' because in his mind, people died. Bad things happened. Evil sometimes won the war. Good, righteous people were corrupted by greed and lust. He was staring straight into the Grim Reaper's shadowed hood, but Damon still feared nothing. He was the man she'd become friends with; the man she'd always wondered whether she should love or hate. He had an untamed personality, both human and vampiric in nature, and his words were completely true to that. It made Matt's dark truck less terrifying, and the atmosphere less heavy.
It allowed her a few words that didn't tremble as they left her mouth, and for that, she would always be grateful.
"Yeah… I'm… I'm sure we will."
Elena let a deep breath pass through her. Damon didn't respond to her words, giving her another moment to contemplate what was happening. Matt's words hung over her, waiting for her to choose one or the other, a single Salvatore to spend the rest of her life with. But it wasn't meant to happen this way. She didn't want to choose between them. She didn't want to lose one of her closest friends… she didn't want that part of her life to wither away. Was her last act meant to break one of their hearts? Was that how she wanted this story to end?
The older Salvatore again rescued her from her own thoughts, though this question didn't help her decision. It was a vulnerable question; it was a way of speaking only Damon Salvatore had mastered.
"Hey, where are you?"
It was innocent enough. Where was she? She could've said anything at that moment, because Damon didn't actually know where she was. She could say she's still at home, waiting for him to come back… waiting with Stefan. She could say she's halfway to Minnesota with Matt, and that she needed someone to rescue her. She could say she was halfway between him and his brother, and that she'd be turning around and heading back, because it would always be Stefan.
And what if it was? What if it was always Stefan? What if the love they had was meant to last forever? What if they were soul mates? Didn't she owe Damon the visit, if she was going to choose his brother anyway? Yes. That made sense. Stefan was at home with their friends, and if the end came for him, he'd be surrounded by people that cared for him. Damon was somewhere out of town, definitely alone, and never surrounded by people that cared for him. It was simple logic. He'd been by her side when she needed him, and as his friend, she was obligated to go to his aid, wherever he may be.
Besides, she loved them both. In separate situations, in radically different worlds, they were each perfect for her in their own way. She wasn't ready to make the choice of all choices, to decide which one had a stronger grip on her heart. They were two brothers full of darkness and hatred, but they could both be affectionate, devoted, and passionate. She could lose neither of them, and, for now, she could only be there for one of them.
Stefan would understand. He was so compassionate, so empathetic. He would welcome her with open arms no matter what happened that night. His devotion would never be hindered by something as simple as this.
So she answered Damon with that decision, hoping he wouldn't read into her words, hoping everyone wouldn't decide she'd finally chosen between them. She hoped Damon would understand that this was repayment for the times he'd been by her side, not a declaration of love for him.
"I'm with Matt," she began. "We're on our way there."
There was a slight pause, and then, "How far are you?"
The silence of the other line lasted a lifetime. While she sat there, she pictured Stefan pacing her living room, a pensive look on his handsome face. She thought about Caroline; a knot formed in her stomach at the thought of her friend watching Tyler die. She longed to be with Jeremy, to wrap her arms around him and promise him that everything was going to be okay.
Her thoughts became too powerful, so she broke the still air. "See you soon, okay, Damon? I don't want Matt's phone to die." She hoped the vampire wouldn't hear her voice tremble. She was already thinking of taking her words back, of telling him that she'd be heading home after all; she thought about Stefan's delight at her return, the way he'd wrap his arms around her and kiss her cheek.
Damon didn't hesitate in responding. His words made the decision for her, and whether he'd intended it or not, the depth of his concern made her worry fade away.
"For the love of God, Elena, be careful. Ranger Rick is pissed and I'm his new favorite toy. If you get hurt…" His voice softened immensely. The changes in him over the last few months bubbled to the surface, dusting the chains that bound them to each other. "I can't lose you, Elena. Please be careful."
Elena drew both hands to the phone, wishing she could be there to comfort him. "I won't take any risks," she promised him quietly. "You're not gonna lose me."
There was nothing else to say, so Elena hung up. She surrendered the phone to Matt, a storm of doubt looming above her – what had she done? Why had she even reasoned with herself? Why had she chosen the Salvatore who would never have a safety net? What would she do when she saw him? Would he know the importance of her decision?
Elena had a terrible thought. She saw the back of Stefan's jacket fading rapidly in the distance as he left Mystic Falls, and her life, forever. A pit of grief opened up in her stomach, so familiar that it was sickening. Even thoughts of finding Damon safe and sound, thoughts of going back to her brother and putting this whole mess behind her, couldn't erase the blackness of losing Stefan Salvatore. There was no life after that kind of love.
And then, as always, her thoughts found an even darker path. She thought of both of them dying, of watching their lives melt away. She thought of funerals, black clothing, and the empty, pointless days that would follow. She thought of faking smiles all over again, crying until the tears ran out, until the headaches never stopped, until life and death were indistinguishable from one another.
Matt touched her shoulder softly, drawing her from self-induced tears, and from the way he looked at her in that moment, she was glad he'd cared enough to kidnap her.
"Elena… I'm so sorry I brought you out here…" He reached up and wiped away a tear, shaking his head. "And… you know Damon and me don't see eye-to-eye… he's been a dick lately... well, always…" – They both smiled slightly at that – "but he's good sometimes, and he helps us. He's not… the popular choice, but… for what it's worth, I think he loves you… I think you made the right choice."