“Brother! Care to join us?”
Elena met Stefan's shocked gaze over the back of the chair. At that moment she was just as shocked by her behavior as he was. Was she really doing this? With... Damon?
In front of Stefan?
It occurred to Elena that Damon was still inside her, still thrusting into her with long, fluid strokes. There was no denying how her body responded to his movements, the way her muscles tightened around him, the steady build-up of pressure that grew with each thrust...
But her mind was screaming in protest.
“Damon,” she said, her shaky voice barely more than a whisper, “Stop.”
One word was all it took. Damon stilled, slowly withdrawing from her. He stepped away from the chair and offered her a hand up. Elena ignored it. Her body was wound too tight, was too aware of Damon's still-hard body beside her; she was afraid of what might happen if she touched him now.
Though his tone and his actions had been careless, Elena knew better than to think that Damon was unaffected by Stefan's interruption. Pretending that he didn't care was nothing but a coping mechanism. Inside, she was willing to bet, Damon was feeling just as embarrassed and guilty as she was. She wondered if he was also fighting the same feeling of crushing disappointment that she was.
Elena was shocked by the turn her thoughts had taken. Stefan was the love of her life, her soul mate – and instead of wishing that she had never betrayed him, she found herself wishing that he'd walked in five minutes later. It was pure torture, having to face Stefan while her body still throbbed from Damon's touch, while it still begged for release.
On legs that were none too steady, Elena stood and stepped around the chair. She was painfully aware of her nudity. Her first instinct was to hang her head, to hide her face behind the curtain of her hair. No, she thought, I made this choice. I have to own up to it. Slowly, reluctantly, Elena forced herself to look directly at Stefan for the first time since he entered the room.
A tumult of emotion played across Stefan's face. Wide eyed with surprise and confusion, his gaze swept from Elena to Damon and back again, taking in their naked, flushed bodies. It was as though his shock was so complete that he couldn't comprehend what he was seeing. Or maybe he was just trying to convince himself that it wasn't real.
Elena could do nothing but watch helplessly as understanding dawned. The confusion in Stefan's eyes swiftly gave way to rage. The mask of absolute fury he wore made her cringe; she had never seen him so angry before – not even at Katherine and she'd tried to kill him. As badly as she wanted to, Elena forced herself not to look away. Tears stung her eyes but she met Stefan's anger head on.
“You!” he snarled, turning his wrath instead on his brother, “You-”
Elena couldn't follow the string of abuse he hurled at Damon but she suspected in was in Italian. She expected Damon to respond in kind but he didn't; he took it all without any kind of reaction. He didn't even flinch when Stefan made a move toward him.
“Stop it!” Elena shouted, throwing herself between them. “It's not Damon's fault,” she admitted, “I started it.”
Stefan reeled back as though she'd actually hit him. She saw the flash of pain in his eyes and hated herself for putting it there.
“Stefan,” she began, “I-”
Elena reached out a hand toward him, letting it fall to her side when he jerked away from her touch. He looked away quickly but not before she saw his expression – an expression that triggered painful memories.
Elena's own memories of that day were, thankfully, hazy. She didn't remember much besides a lot of trees and a strong compulsion to protect Damon. But, she did remember the look on Stefan's face after she attacked him. It was the same broken expression he wore now.
Back then, just the realization that she had shared enough blood with Damon to make it through the transformation into a vampire was enough to make Stefan look as though she'd ripped out his heart and stomped on it. Now? Finding her in the arms of his brother? She couldn't imagine what he must be feeling.
“Stefan?” she asked, fear lacing her voice.
He didn't respond, didn't move, didn't even breathe. He just stood there, staring at nothing at all.
Elena gave Damon a panicked look. He lifted his shoulders in a small shrug but moved, ever so slowly, to stand beside Elena. No, she corrected, a step in front of her. Damon was putting himself in a position to protect her.
Just what did he think Stefan would do, she wondered? Stefan would never hurt her, she was certain of it. But... The look of rage he wore just moments ago...
“Stefan,” Elena said, desperate to end the silence that stretched between them. “Please. Look at me.”
She braced herself for his reaction but when Stefan did turn to face her, Elena was shocked, not by the anger or hurt that she saw there, but by the complete lack of any emotion at all. 'Oh, God,' she thought. She knew that look. Too well.
Stefan's face was a mask of cool indifference. It wasn't the aloof, disinterested look he wore when he first started at Robert E Lee High, it was more like the I-don't-give-a-fuck look Damon usually hid behind. Only the tense set of his jaw gave away the effort it took to keep that mask in place. Elena hated that look, hated to know the pain that he tried to conceal.
Pain she had caused.
“Oh, Stefan. I'm so sorry,” she told him. Hot tears she couldn't control rolled down her cheeks. Unable to bear it any longer, she finally dropped her head, letting the long veil of her hair hide her face.
She couldn't say how sorry she truly was. Sorry that Stefan had found out this way... Sorry that she had hurt him... Sorry that she and Damon had come together? Never. How could she be? It was... Amazing.
And that was the moment that Elena finally let herself realize what her body had been trying to tell her all along: She was in love with Damon.
But she loved Stefan.
Elena couldn't help but think about the last woman who made the mistake of falling for both Salvatore brothers. To say that had ended badly was an understatement of epic proportions. Once, just after learning that Stefan and Damon had killed each other over her ancestor, Elena had sworn to herself that they would never fight over her. Well... She'd never been particularly good at keeping that promise but now...
Now she'd really done it.
Her breath caught in her throat and the tears ran freely. It seemed hopeless. Katherine, all over again. She buried her face in her hands – which meant that she didn't see Damon awkwardly reach out a hand to her only to drop it when Stefan's gaze shifted to him.
She also didn't see Stefan's hard expression soften. In all the hundreds of years that they had flitted in and out of each other’s lives, he had never seen Damon care enough about anyone to comfort them. Only Elena.
Against his will, Stefan's mind was drawn back to the day of Elena's death – her second death – in the crypt that morning after the showdown with Katherine. He remembered Damon's tears and the unbearable grief. He also remembered, months later, the look of sheer joy Damon wore the night Elena was given back to them. He had known, even then, hadn't he? Maybe before then... maybe right from the very start.
Damon was in love with Elena.
All the fury, all the betrayal Stefan had felt vanished in one moment of realization. How could he be angry with Damon for loving Elena? How could anyone not love her, once they knew her?
Right now, Damon was tensed, alert, ready for a fight – but Stefan was done fighting with his brother. And Elena...
Maybe it was strange but Stefan didn't blame her either. He had long suspected that he wasn't worthy of Elena, that he just wasn't good enough for her. Secretly, he had always wondered when someone better would come along and be for Elena what he never could.
He just never expected that person to be Damon.
Maybe he shouldn't be so surprised... Damon was more of a man than he was; Damon was powerful, ruthless... he could take care of Elena, protect her, better than Stefan could. Stefan knew that, compared to his brother, he was weak. No, he didn't deserve Elena.
But did Damon?
He wasn't sure. But he was sure that Damon had every right to try. Stefan had already had his chance – and what had he done with it? Driven Elena right into his brother's arms, that's what.
Stefan forced his gaze back to Elena with a resigned sigh. He was about to do the hardest thing he had ever done. Harder than living with Katherine's death on his conscience. Harder than knowing that he had condemned his own brother to a life of darkness. Harder, even than watching Elena die. To know that they both lived but that she was with someone else? He didn't know how he would bear it.
But he would bear it. He would do it for Elena. And for Damon.
“Oh, Elena,” Stefan said, trying to keep the despair he felt from his voice, “Don't...”
Damon moved aside wordlessly as Stefan took Elena in his arms. “Hush,” Stefan said as he took her in his arms. “Don't cry, my love.”
Damon – who had been ready to fight his brother to the death, if necessary, moments before – felt himself deflate. He'd thought that they had finally pushed Stefan too far, that he would lash out at them. What had he been thinking? Stefan? Hurt Elena?
Ha, Damon thought bitterly, Stefan wasn't even capable of hurting a fly.
And that's a bad thing? a little voice asked.
Yes! In their world it was. To survive in a world of shadows and secrets, you had to be cunning, ruthless and detached – everything that Stefan was not.
It described Damon pretty well, though.
Damon was more than just suited to the life of a hunter, he excelled at it, reveled in the power of it. Or, rather, he had excelled at it. Had reveled in it. Now, he found little thrill in the chase. Found little thrill in anything, actually.
His life – or afterlife – had become monotonous a long time ago. There were only so many ways to kill and fuck and he'd tried them all – and every combination of the two. Now, he found little excitement in either. Nothing had excited Damon in a long time – nothing except...
Against his will, Damon's gaze was drawn to Elena. She was sobbing gently with her face pressed against Stefan's shirt, the long fall of her hair shielding her face. Damon fought against feelings that were unfamiliar to him.
Damon had thought himself in love with Katherine. He had spent centuries mourning her death. But looking at Elena, he was forced to admit that he had never truly loved the woman who had made him what he was. He realized that what he had always called love was nothing more than school boy infatuation.
The feelings he once had for Katherine were nothing more than a flickering candle flame to the inferno of his love for Elena. It was a fire that consumed everything in its path until nothing existed but Elena; she was his reason for living. He would do anything to make her happy – even if that meant walking out of her life for good.
Stefan wasn't suited to the life of a vampire – which was why he was perfectly suited for Elena. He was gentle and kind – disgustingly so – and that was exactly what Elena needed. She had been through hell already and deserved so much more than the darkness Damon could offer her.
He knew what he had to do.
Damon squeezed his eyes shut against the moisture that threatened to gather there. What he saw when he opened them again was enough to make his heart feel as though it would wither in his chest.
Elena lifted her tear-streaked face to Stefan's. “Oh, Elena,” he said in a broken, defeated voice. He brushed his thumb across her cheek, wiping away a tear. “Don't cry, my love. I understand.”
He understood? Could it possibly be that he really did understand? Did he understand that he and Damon both held a part of her heart and without both of them, she would never be whole?
“You – You do?” she asked hopefully.
Stefan nodded. “Yes. And that's why I'm leaving tonight. Right now.” He kissed Elena on the forehead before moving away.
Too shocked to do anything but stare, Elena watched as Stefan stopped in front of his brother, holding out his hand. Damon – looking every bit as confused as Elena felt – took the hand Stefan offered. Instead of shaking his hand, Stefan pulled his brother into a quick embrace.
“Take good care of her,” he said.
He didn't understand. Not one bit. He thought that she wanted to be with Damon – only Damon.
“Stefan!” she cried, rushing over to where the two men stood. Stefan looked sad but resigned as he released his brother; Damon just looked confused.
“I don't want you to leave,” she told Stefan.
Before her words could register fully, before the spark of hope he felt could reach his eyes, Elena threw her arms around Stefan and kissed him. The kiss was full of all the desperation she couldn't find the words for. At first, Stefan didn't respond. The moment Elena had to wait before his lips parted in a sigh of relief felt like an eternity.
Before Damon could do something stupid – like decide he was going to be the gallant one and walk away – Elena reached out and caught his wrist. Breaking the kiss, she met Damon's eyes.
“I don't want you to leave either,” she told him.
No one moved. Or spoke. Then both brothers spoke at once.
“Elena...” they said in unison.
Now they understood. And she could tell by the looks on their faces that neither of them were happy about it.
Of course, they must be thinking about Katherine, had to be remembering the night she asked them both to spend eternity by her side – and the disastrous consequences of their replies.
Well, Elena thought, I'm not Katherine. This wasn't about some spoiled little girl having her cake and eating it too. This was about honest to goodness, soul consuming love – and, as Elena had only just come to realize, it was entirely possible to love two different people at the same time.
But how could she make them see? And how could she do it without sounding just like Katherine? More importantly, how could she do it without reigniting their old rivalries? Before they asked her to choose.
I won't, Elena thought. I will never choose between them.
Nor would she take the coward's way out as Katherine had done. There had to be a way to prove to kind-hearted Stefan that she couldn't live without his brother's passion... And a way to convince quick-tempered Damon that she would die without his brother's tenderness. There had to be a way to show them...
That was it! Clearly telling them wouldn't work – Katherine had tried that and look where it had gotten her. Elena would need to show them. As her Aunt Judith always said, actions speak louder than words.
Elena stepped out of Stefan's embrace and dropped Damon's hand. Turning her back on them, she walked toward the fire knowing, without having to look, that both brothers followed her progress with their eyes. For a moment, she stared into the low burning flames without really seeing them.
Reaching deep inside, she tried to summon a spark of the old Elena, the one who knew what she wanted and always – always – got it. She'd changed so much over the past few months that she didn't even think of herself as that person anymore – but she knew that stubborn streak was still there. Elena harnessed it, squaring her shoulders before she turned to face Damon and Stefan.
Two pairs of eyes – one green, on black – stared back at her out of equally confused, pale faces. Elena was shocked once again by how very similar they looked with their dark hair and fine features – and yet how very different they were in every other way. Perhaps that was how she was able to love them both at the same time.
A strange sense of destiny came over Elena – a sense of... Rightness. She was meant to be with them both; it was shocking how long it had taken her to realize it. But it was more than that. This second chance of hers wasn't just a reward for besting Klaus, it was a chance to set things right.
And that meant bringing the Salvatore brothers together.
They were two halves of the same whole, Damon and Stefan – like a soul that had been torn in two. 'They just need stitching back together,' Elena thought. She had an idea of how to do it, she just didn't know how badly they would fight against it.
“Stefan,” she said, “I love you.” Before he could reply, she spoke again. “Damon, I love you.”
“Don't ask me how it's possible to love two people at once but it is. I love you both. And-” this was where her plan could go horribly wrong - “I want to be with you.”
She caught Damon's gaze first. “Both.” Then Stefan's. “Right now.”
She waited long enough for her meaning to sink in before stretching herself out on the plush carpet that lay before the fire. If her words hadn't made her meaning clear, her position certainly left no doubts.
“Not one of you,” she reiterated, “Both. And if either of you even think about making me choose, neither of you will ever get this chance again.”
“So, boys...” she said, propping herself up on one elbow, “What'll it be?”