"Chloe?" Matt called cautiously, sticking his head into one of the empty sheds that surrounded the burned-out stables. The sky was starting to lighten in the east, signifying the end of a long night. There were still a few firefighters and EMTs near the blocked-off stables, turning over the ashes, so he had to be quiet. He took a deep breath, trying to calm down. Chloe had to be somewhere, he reminded himself. He had seen her after the fight, weary but not seriously hurt. She had probably just retreated, overwhelmed by all the blood and by the adrenaline from the fight. She would turn up soon.
The shed was silent and dark. Matt raised his flashlight and shone it around the empty walls of the tiny space: nowhere here for anyone to hide. As he was about to move on, a faint scratching noise caught his attention. Not completely empty, then.
Focusing the flashlight on the ground, he caught a glimpse of bright eyes and a long tail before a mouse zipped out of sight again. Nothing else.
"Chloe!" he hissed, heading for the old barn, the last outbuilding he hadn't yet searched.
Three werewolves, the most battered and bloody of the Pack after the battle, had stayed behind after the rest had left to hunt for Klaus and Elena. But they were gone now. They'd offered to help Matt search for Chloe, but he'd waved them off: at that point, he'd still been sure that he'd find her any minute.
"I'll be fine," Matt had told Spencer. "Go take care of your injuries. I'll find her. It's probably stupid to be so worried."
Spencer had always struck Matt as being more about hair gel than brains, but he'd pinned him with a surprisingly shrewd look. "Listen, man," he'd drawled in his preppy, rich-surfer-boy accent, still managing to sound sort of laid-back despite the pain in his voice. "I'm wishing you the best here, I am, but vampires . . ."
"I know," Matt had said, wincing. He did know; he could have written the book on reasons not to date vampires, but that was when he'd been thinking of Elena, not himself, and before he had met Chloe. Now it was different. "I'll find her," he had said, absurdly touched by Spencer's concern. "Thanks, though. Really."
He'd felt wistful while he watched Spencer and his friends walk off, like he would be the last person left in the world once the werewolves were out of sight.
Where could Chloe be? They had been shoulder-to-shoulder coming out of the stable after half the roof fell in. Chloe had been shaking, her pupils dilated and her hands streaked with blood, but she had been with him.
And then, sometime during the rise of panic as they realized that Elena had been under the fiery roof when it collapsed, Chloe was just gone.
Thinking of Elena in Klaus's grasp gave him a pang of guilt. This was Elena, his friend and the girl who'd been the sun he orbited around for so long. He wanted to be searching for her with the rest of them. But he needed to find Chloe, too.
The barn was rickety, one of its broad double doors hanging crookedly by a single hinge. Matt approached it with caution - he wouldn't do Chloe any good if he was caught and pinned under a falling barn door.
The half-broken door wobbled and creaked, but did not fall as he edged his way through the gap between it and the side of the barn, shining his flashlight inside. Dust rose in the beam of light, specks floating thickly in midair.
Inside, something shifted, and Matt walked forward, sweeping the flashlight back and forth. Far in the back, he saw something white.
As he came closer, Matt realized that it was Chloe's face staring into the flashlight's beam, wild with panic. After such a long search, it took Matt a moment to process what was going on: his first reaction was a simple swell of relief - thank God he'd found Chloe at last. Then he realized that Chloe was streaked with blood and that, quiet in her arms, lay Tristan.
Chloe blinked at Matt blankly for a moment, and then her face filled with dismayed realization. She pushed Tristan away from her, horrified. The werewolf let out a weak cry of distress as he hit the floor with a thump, then lay still.
"Oh, no," Chloe said, dropping to her knees beside him. "Oh, no. I didn't mean to."
Matt ran toward her. "Is he alive?" he asked.
Chloe had tried so hard, and he'd been there every step of the way, helped her as much as he could. Life was unfair enough. But now Chloe's head was bent over Tristan and she was patting her hand urgently over his body, trying to wake him.
Matt got down on the other side of Tristan and tried to check the werewolf's injuries. God, the poor guy was bleeding everywhere. He must have smelled like a banquet to Chloe.
"I'm so sorry, Tristan," Chloe whispered. "Please wake up."
"Tristan, can you hear me?" Matt asked, checking his pulse. The werewolf's heart was beating slowly and steadily, and he was breathing well. The Pack was tough. But the werewolf's eyes were unfocused, and he didn't respond when Matt called his name again, shaking him gently.
"I think I might have, um, calmed him down," Chloe said, stricken. "Like the rabbits."
"We should get him some help," Matt said brusquely, not looking at her.
She didn't answer. Matt looked up and saw the horror and guilt on her face, tears running over her rounded cheeks, making tracks through the blood around her mouth. She'd joked to him once that she was an ugly crier, and now she scrubbed at her running nose with the back of her sleeve. In the semidarkness, her eyes seemed like black pits of misery.
"Come on," he said, more gently. "This isn't the end of the world. We'll start over. You shouldn't have been in a battle right now. It was too hard on you to be around all that action. All that blood." Despite himself, his voice stumbled a little over the word blood. Matt gulped unhappily and went on, working to make his voice confident. "Everyone slips up when they're breaking an addiction. We'll get back to the boathouse, away from everyone. It's going to be fine." He sounded desperate, even to himself.
Chloe shook her head. "Matt . . ." she began.
"It was a mistake," Matt told her firmly. "Tristan's going to be all right. So will you."
Chloe shook her head again, harder this time, the ringlets Matt had always found so adorable flying around her head. "I'm not," she said miserably. "I'm not going to be all right. I love you, Matt, I do." Her voice broke in a sob, and then she took a deep breath and began again. "I love you, but I can't live like this. Stefan was right; I'm not really living at all now. I'm not strong enough. It's not getting better for me."
"You are strong enough," Matt argued. "I'll help you." Dawn was breaking outside, and he could see the ash and blood streaked on Chloe's tear-blotched skin now, the deep circles beneath her eyes.
"I'm so glad I got to stay with you for a while," she said. "You took such good care of me." She leaned forward, across Tristan's unconscious body, and kissed him. Her lips were soft and tasted of copper and salt. Her hand found his, and she pressed something small and hard into his palm.
Pulling back from the kiss at last, she said, her voice thin, "I hope someday you'll find someone who deserves you, Matt," and got to her feet.
"Don't . . ." Matt said, panicking, and reached out for her. "I need you, Chloe."
Chloe looked down at him, her face calm and sure now. She even smiled a little. "This is the right thing," she told him.
In a few steps, she'd crossed the barn and was slipping out through the gap between the doors. The sunrise was well underway now, and her body was dark against the pink-and-golden light.
Then there was a burst of fire, and Chloe crumpled into a heap of ash.
Matt looked down at the small hard object she had pressed into his palm. It was a little pin in the shape of a V, made of blue stone. He had one, too: the Vitale badge Ethan had given all of them, back when he and Chloe and the other pledges were all human, all innocent. The lapis lazuli charm that defended Chloe from the daylight.
He closed his fist tightly around it, ignoring the pain as its sharp edges pressed into his palm, and gave a dry, heaving sob.
He would have to get up in a minute. Tristan needed his help. But for a moment, Matt bent his head and let the tears come.
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