I was flying.
The trees blurred and sped past as the creature held me and streaked through the forest, its sister beside us, silent and terrible. Bright red spots bloomed across my vision. Time seemed to bend as we flew through the undergrowth and then the forest itself warped and lurched as we shuddered to a halt, miles away from the smouldering heap of the house.
“Why are we stopping?” demanded the other roughly, its voice a serpentine hiss. My head rolled and my stomach churned. My neck felt broken from the blow that had struck it before I was dragged away from the clearing- out of sight and reach of my friends.
“To feed.” The one holding me threw me down onto the ground. My head rolled sickeningly. I think my head struck a rock, or a rock struck my head. Hot liquid seeped down my cheek.
The creatures froze.
The voice struck more fear in my heart than anything had throughout this nightmare. For the first time, a real sob broke through and I clutched the rough grass and tried to scramble away.
“We should not wait here!” snarled the other creature. “Not feed! We must kill her, and turn back and hunt the others!”
“We are not strong enough!”
The creature whirled around, and now it was turned away from me, facing the angry other. My heart leapt into my throat; my legs shook and my head burned, but I began to crawl away. “We will be decimated, Vera!”
“They killed our sisters! They are weak and live on essence borrowed from us; we can destroy them right now!”
“Keep your voice down, you tempestuous little fool!”
The gloom of the forest echoed with their rage. Dry leaves scrunched under my hand as I trembled and swayed and clutched a tree trunk to stay upright. Their noise masked my movements and, hardly daring to breathe, I retreated slowly into a net of brambles, shallow breaths escaping from between my lips. I took another step backwards and turned, and there was something grey in the undergrowth, watching me. Her eyes were red and hungry and mine opened wide with surprise and-
My screams pierced the air as the black whirlwind enveloped me and they grabbed me by the hair and pulled me back, stronger than they should be. I was trapped and their filthy nails slashed open a gash in my neck. Blood flowed out and the one closest opened her mouth and I could see the black hole, with no teeth, and a forked black tongue, and she bent over me to drink, and uttered an odd gasp instead.
Her sister suddenly let go of me, and I fell to the ground, blood pouring from my neck. The other stood frozen, a scream dying in her throat. She looked down at her chest.
There, sticking out from her heart, was the tip of a steel sword.
Fifteen minutes earlier
“What did you do, little witch?” I snarled.
Bonnie sat on the forest floor, panting. My little brother was still comatose. Caroline was still looking on the verge of tears. And Elena had stood up, all warrior-princess-like, and run back to where Sophia had been, before.
“I didn’t do anything,” Bonnie snapped, the angry red my-palm-shaped patch on her cheek still glowing (I slapped her to make her wake up), “the fire distracted me. I was trying to keep you both and Stefan alive, and I wanted to do, oh, I don’t know, a THOROUGH JOB!”
Her shout took me off guard. She glared at me from the floor.
“They went that way,” Elena said, right behind me. I tore my eyes away from the witch.
“Great. Let’s go. I’ll lead.” I picked up the sword from where I’d thrown it down before the fireworks started.
I raised an incredulous eyebrow.
“I’ll go,” said Elena.
When she didn’t elaborate, I cocked my head towards her. “What?”
“Look around you,” she replied, her sword in her hand. “Stefan’s not moving. Bonnie’s exhausted. Caroline’s covered in burns. If someone were to attack them, they’re as good as dead. So you need to stay here and look after them. I’ll go.”
“No no no no no no,” I said, shaking an accusing finger, “You’ve got that all wrong. You’ll stay here to look after them, and I’ll go find her. Deal?”
But even as I looked into those brown eyes, I knew there was no hope. “You’re not the ones who saw the creatures, Damon. Not the ones who experienced their speed and strength. I’ll go.”
“No, you see-“
“End of story.”
I stared back at her, astounded.
“And I’m gonna need that sword.”
She snatched it out of my hand and walked away, abruptly picking up speed and disappearing between a bank of trees.
My anger and heartbreak fuelled my speed as I raced through the maze of trees, every second taking me closer to her blood.
I could smell it now, fresh and strong, pumping somewhere very close at hand. And there was something else- a strange, sibilant hissing, like huge snakes or really angry llamas… the sounds wafting towards me from up ahead.
I paused, taking my bearings.
Straight ahead- east. It was coming from the east.
The undergrowth barely rustled as I silently passed through, coming to a halt behind a huge tree trunk.
The creatures were arguing.
Caroline had stumbled into the burnt bodies of two of them while inside the house, and from our previous forays we knew there were only four of them. So two remained for me now, distracted – therefore vulnerable. I lifted my arm to take aim with one of the swords and suddenly realized that a vital piece of the puzzle was missing.
Where was the girl?
In the moment I sighted them, I had stopped thinking about her. After all, she didn’t mean a great deal to me. She didn’t mean anything to me.
Where was her blood?
Suddenly, I caught the delicious scent to my left. I automatically jerked around, for one moment letting the overpowering thirst overtake me completely.
And my eyes met the girl’s, mine red and hungry, hers crazed with fear.
Within the space of a heart beat they were on her, tearing into her flesh and preparing to feed on her blood. In one swift movement, I swung my arm back and let the sword slice through the air.
There was a short pause, during which I think the creature gasped.
Then the hilt of the sword was buried into her back, and she dropped like a marionette cut from its strings.
I stared in dumb horror at the sword.
The other creature gave a shrieking cry, and oddly enough, it seemed to me as if grief was there in the piercing notes. She whirled around with a snarl, when the second sword cut through the air, and its hilt was buried in her chest. She stopped, choked, and then collapsed. Slowly, the creatures both crumbled to dust in front of our eyes.
It took a long time for me to turn away from the black heap.
When I did, Elena was standing in front of me, very matter-of-factly wiping the blade of the swords- when did she pull them out?- clean with a fern leaf. She caught them both by the hilt and then turned to me.
“Ready to go?”
By her voice, I knew nothing had changed between us. She still hated me and I was still the unwelcome intruder.
But she was here.
She looked back at me for a moment, and abruptly lifted me into her arms. I didn’t even have energy to be surprised. Cradled in her cold, uncomfortable embrace, I realized that my legs were broken.
Then we raced into the forest, back towards the clearing with the house. It was just like before. Speed, and trees, and my head straining. But this time, I knew I was safe.
This caring and loving stuff was really getting on my nerves.
I had stopped attempting to revive Stefan and instead, just tried to keep a watch out for any of the jeepers, when suddenly Elena emerged from the forest, carrying- actually carrying- Sophia. Although the moment she saw me, she dumped her onto the floor. But still.
What the heck was going on?
Anyway, we managed to get Caroline to carry her, albeit very gingerly, and Elena and I supported my brother. Bonnie followed a few paces behind, and if I had wanted, I could have pointed out to the warrior princess that we were worse than sitting ducks that way. But I was so drained, I didn’t even have energy left for sarcasm. Which actually says a lot about exactly how much my day had sucked.
It was a long walk, may I mention.
We made it back to the car and were on our way, emerging from the forest into the orange glow of a California twilight. The day was drawing to an end, and half our party was crashing in the backseats. I could practically hear the soft snores, if it weren’t for the waves and the smooth swoosh of the slipstream of the car. Only Elena was alert, looking out of the window, the orange lighting her face up. The car sped round a corner and we raced downhill.
I wanted to talk to her. But it was impossible, in this hilly terrain, and I was already half asleep as it was. All I wanted was to go home, dump Stefan onto his bed with a few bloodbags, drink a Bourbon and go to bed. That was all, really. I wasn’t even sure I was up for the talk I wanted to have. I was just too tired. Every day, it seemed something loomed up on us, threatening to take the people I care about away from me- now that I actually cared. I didn’t want Stefan to thank me. I didn’t want Sophia to be all understanding and sympathetic. I didn’t want Elena’s silent hand on my shoulder, letting me know that she was there for me… always.
I just wanted to be home.
He caught up to me just before I could sneak away to a spare bedroom and bolt myself in.
Stefan had been laid out on the couch, and Bonnie had finally managed to bring him round. He still seemed to be very woozy, so I stood and watched for a moment, and then tiptoed out. Sophia was curled up on the sofa. Damon had given her a dose of his blood.
“Try not to die within the next twenty-four hours or so and you’ll be fine,” he had said, winking at her, with that beautiful, capricious half-smile. She had laughed, and suddenly given way to a flood of tears, melting into the sofa. Caroline was with her now.
Her lips were still a little red from the blood bag snack, I thought.
Before I put a foot on the stairs Damon caught hold of my arm and steered me outside, under the crescent moon. My feet sank into the sand of the beach as I unwillingly dragged myself after him. The waves unrolled softly onto the beach, and stars sparkled in the black sky.
“What?” I said defensively.
“Why did you do it?” he demanded without preamble. “You hate her- you do,” he said warningly, watching me shake my head exasperatedly, “don’t deny it, Elena, you do. So why bother? Why not let her die? Stefan was fine. You could’ve left sooner without her.”
“It’s not like that,” I snarled through gritted teeth.
“Then what is it like?!”
“I saved her because Stefan would have wanted me to!”
The trees murmured as the breeze blew softly through them. A single star winked at me as I wrestled with my tears.
“Do you remember Wickery Bridge?” I asked Damon, more in control now. I looked into those sapphire eyes which had always consumed me, always broken me down with their fire.
“Fifteen years ago, Damon, I made a choice. I chose to die rather than lose anyone else. I wanted Stefan to save Matt and not me, because I just could not have another person die for me. And he gave what I asked for. No matter how much you blamed him then- no matter how much you blame him now-“ Even as I spoke, the words caught in my throat. It had been so long since I had spoken about what I had become… so very long, that I had forgotten what relief speaking can bring. Damon looked unblinkingly at me, his face frozen into a furious mask- “It was my choice. And he gave it to me. And today, the situation was reversed. I could’ve walked away, but I didn’t, knowing what he would have wanted. At least he wasn’t dying.”
Damon looked back at me as the stars suddenly seemed to recede from the sky.
“I owe it to him,” I whispered. “After everything… I owe at least this much to him.”
The silence was the more terrible because I knew that with every word I spoke, I hurt him. I showed him how much I cared- how much I could never stop caring about. And that was worse than anything I could ever do to him.
But then he nodded, his face very calm. Only his tightly clenched fists gave any indication of emotion. “Of course,” He said, very formal. He held the door to the house open for me. “Shall we?”
My eyes filled with tears and they spilled over, finally, after a long, long time. He turned to walk in. I stumbled forward and caught hold of his hand.
“Don’t walk away, Damon,” I whispered, sounding like a lonely child. “Don’t… walk away.”
He held my hand, and suddenly the mask was gone, the pain in his eyes cutting me to my soul.
“Never,” he whispered in my ears, pulling me close. “Never again.”
“A walk through the woods at night. It would seem that the full moon is not the only time the woods are unsafe,” Stefan said quietly, the hint of a smile playing around his lips. We were sitting outside, on the beach. It was nearly midnight. The stars shone softly down on us. White-topped waves washed the shore.
“They’re supposed to be really rare, now that the vampires dominate,” I replied comfortingly. “You couldn’t have known.”
“Well, in addition to college, we now have one more experience in common.” I raised my eyebrows. “Getting chomped on by snake-women.”
Our laughter intermingled in the night, and I thought about how his eyes crinkle when he laughs, and how much that reminds me of my best friend, back home.
Of course, my best friend wasn’t a vampire.
“Which brings me to say,” he said, looking closely at me, “How are you? I know the wounds have healed.”
“Only because Elena got there in time.”
Stefan’s face was silvered by the light of the crescent moon as he nodded slowly.
“Yes,” he said, “She saved you. Why,” and his smile came back, “I couldn’t tell you.”
“The mind changes, but the heart remains the same,” I smiled too, repeating the words he had told me, long ago.
“Yes,” he agreed, the corner of his eyes creasing as his beautiful smile broadened, “The heart. It is unchangeable, unreasonable, truthful. She always had an amazingly noble heart.”
“And Bonnie… “
She was strange. I knew why Elena did not like me, but Bonnie? She was odd- an unknown entity. Always there, watchful and wise, refusing to be dictated by anyone’s terms but her own. I actually admired her for that. But I never understood her odd aversion to me.
“I think she doesn’t- take to you, because… she finds it odd for me to have such a close human connection, in a way other than… what I previously had. Not now. Not anymore. She doesn’t expect me to have them anymore and she wonders why I do. She thinks I may… hurt you. In an odd way, I think she’s actually trying to protect you.”
“Shouldn’t she be talking to you, then? I don’t blame her for what happened today, but – I can’t help thinking.”
“No, she won’t,” Stefan replied calmly. “That girl… she refrains from speaking out her feelings, ever since expressing them outright became restricting to her plans. She tends to function in her own way, on her own. She won’t tell either me or you to back off, but she will find a way to do it. And… I think, today, she wanted to show you what can happen if you insist on being my friend. And so here we are.”
Witches are complicated, he had told me once. But they are almost always right.
His words seemed to echo in the space between us.
“Have you heard from Katherine?” I asked, to change the subject.
Even in the darkness, I could tell his face clouded over.
“No,” he replied, his eyes suddenly expressionless.
“But you will,” I replied confidently, even though it broke my heart a little bit inside. I had never met her. But I knew enough to know I was right.
He looked at me skeptically.
“You will. Remember, it was always you, Stefan.”
A small sound echoed from the house. As both of us turned, a light switched off in the upper storey of the house. But not before I recognized the silhouette.
“Damon,” I said, contrite.
“Yes,” Stefan’s voice was heavy.
“But… he doesn’t love her anymore.” My confusion showed in my voice. Stefan shook his head.
“I don’t think… this is about Katherine,” he replied evenly. “Not at all, actually.”
“Elena doesn’t love meanymore,” he replied. And suddenly, I knew what he was talking about. I bit my lip.
“Poor guy,” I whispered. “Poor Damon. Poor Elena…”
A painful smile twisted his lip into almost a grimace.
The silence felt very heavy after that.
“You’ll be home again soon, you know,” I said, clearing my throat and changing the subject again. “And again, the residents of Mystic Falls will welcome you back with open arms.”
His smile broke out again, like a sudden sparkle of the ocean under an unclouded sun, like the flash of a flame on a dark night.
“Yes,” he nodded, half to himself, ”home sounds very good to me right now.” And suddenly he looked at me. “You remind me so much of someone sometimes, you know?”
“Someone who gave her entire life, and then some, to being the best friend she possibly could be to me.” His smile had so much sadness in it- much more than I had ever seen. “So much, I have lost, over the years. So much…
“But you know what the good part is?” he looked back at me. “Sometimes, in the maze of time, you do find your way to gaining again.”
The sea murmured as we smiled at each other, together under the night sky.