Elena was still off-balance from everything that had happened the previous night. Stefan was gone, and it was very likely that he'd never be the person she'd loved again. Surprisingly, that wasn't what had her so shaken. She had had something of a revelation over the past six months. Nothing could change the fact that Stefan had been her first true love; he would forever own a piece of her heart. That didn't bother her so much anymore. Stefan was free, he could have chosen to come back to her, but he hadn't. For whatever reason, he hadn't. Stefan, the Stefan she'd loved so deeply, was not coming back. Elena had meant it when she'd said she wouldn't love a ghost.

Damon's eyes had expressed a sense of recognition when she'd told him she was ready to let his brother go. It was a breakthrough for them. He had seemed so full of hurt and worry and fear that she might still not want to be with him. It was true that she had her doubts. A relationship with Damon would be difficult and tumultuous. It wouldn't be gentle and sensitive. He wouldn't coddle her. That was a little scary for her. She was used to being the dynamic force in relationships. Matt and Stefan had both been tender and sweet, and had always let her take the lead. Damon possessed these qualities, but not in excess, and he rarely let her be in charge of the decision-making. She knew that was because her decisions were even more impulsive and dangerous that his own most of the time. He didn't do it because he wanted to control her. He desperately wanted to protect her. He loved her. Sometimes Elena thought he loved her more that Stefan ever had. This possibility was both comforting and terrifying. Stefan had been a warm breeze. Damon was a blazing inferno of raw emotion that constantly threatened to consume her.

When Caroline had accused her of being attracted to him, she had told the truth…sort of. She was afraid of being more like Katherine. She was afraid of loving Damon, and admitting it would make it impossible to go back. She had been pushing back so many feelings that she knew opening the floodgates would unleash something she wasn't sure she was ready to face. If she let the thought in, truly let it in, there would be no escape from the truth. The truth was that Damon had started to get under her skin a long time ago. It would be ridiculous to say that she hadn't been attracted to him from the moment she saw him. Even her Aunt Jenna had been attracted to him. Matt's mom had almost slept with him (which was a little creepy if she was honest). He was insanely hot, and irresistibly charming. That was a simple truth. Every woman on the planet was attracted to Damon, Elena included. She may have told him repeatedly to stop flirting with her, but they both knew how her heart fluttered when he did. That was why he kept doing it.

The issue was not whether she found him appealing. It was that she wasn't sure if she was brave enough to love him the way he deserved to be loved. He had been broken for a century and a half. He had become her best friend. She didn't want to hurt him the way Katherine had, because she knew it would destroy him forever. Damon was barely clinging to his desire for his humanity. Elena knew that she was a major part of why he'd come this far. If she kept him waiting too long, she worried he might lose hope completely. She realized at that moment how much she didn't want to lose him. He was her protector, her confidant, her partner. He was the first person she called when she was happy or sad, excited or afraid. Against her will, the thought had snuck in last night. When she told him they would let Stefan go, held his face between her hands, the firelight dancing over his skin, she had thought it. I could be in love with him.