Damon made his way to the bar as Elena continued ranting about Bonnie. Keeping his gaze lowered and his attention seemingly focused on pouring a precise two fingers of bourbon, he did his best to appear uninterested.
In reality, he was hanging on her every word. If he wanted to break her heart thoroughly enough to make her leave, he needed to pay attention.
“So then Caroline said ‘I’ll buy it for you two as a housewarming gift,’” Elena revealed, directing her comments in Damon’s general direction as she continued to pace the length of the room. “Right in front of Bonnie! I mean, I know Care isn’t the best secret keeper in the world, but she just blurted it out without even thinking!”
“Why were you keeping it a secret from Bonnie?” Damon asked bluntly, taking a sip of his drink and folding his arms.
“What?” she asked, pausing in mid-stride as she blinked at him in surprise over the interruption.
“You were going to tell her, right?” he pressed, meeting her eye with an unblinking gaze. “You weren’t going to hide the fact that you planned on moving in with a vampire from your best friend forever, were you?”
Elena winced at the clear accusation in his tone before trying to mask her guilt with exaggerated defiance. “Of course, I was,” she insisted. “I was just waiting for the right time to-.”
“Break it to her gently?” Damon asked, scoffing derisively as he made his way casually around the couch and took a seat on the end furthest from her. “Come on, Elena. Even you’re not that naïve when it comes to Bonnie. Like you said, she hates me.”
“Right,” she replied, gritting her teeth. “Anyway, like I was saying, I was definitely going to tell Bonnie, but with finals and all the graduation stuff going on I hadn’t had a chance to yet.”
“You had time to tell Caroline,” he pointed out, studying the amber liquid in his glass.
“Do you want to hear this or not, Damon?” she huffed, placing a hand on her hip as she glared at him. Holding up his hands, he shrugged and waved at her to continue. Despite the fact that he was used to Bonnie’s anti-vampire vitriol, listening to a play-by-play of her argument with Elena stung. The witch apparently didn’t understand why Elena wanted to have anything to do with vampires, why she loved one, why she’d want to move in with one in Atlanta and play house when all they did was fight all of the time. The real fist to the gut came near the end of the conversation, however, when Bonnie had apparently laid all of her cards on the table and presented Elena with the coup de grace.
“Mistake, Damon,” she cried, shaking her head in anger and disbelief. “She actually used the word mistake to describe the most important relationship – the most important decision – of my life.”
Damon’s stomach churned as he silently took a sip of his alcohol, feeling like he was right back at the Bleeding Wolf, listening to a far less diplomatic version of Alaric’s speech.
“And as if that wasn’t enough, she told me that I didn’t have to settle for you. Settle,” Elena continued ranting as he stared into the empty fireplace. Whatever doubts he’d had about following through with his plan to end things faded with each word that she recapped for him. Bonnie may be a judgmental bitch, but that didn’t mean she was wrong and adding her voice to Alaric’s simply reinforced the truth that Damon hadn’t wanted to face.
Letting Elena go was the best thing he could do for her.
“Damon,” she said sharply, her long, bare legs filling his field of vision as she stopped directly in front of him. “Are you even listening?”
To every word. Rising abruptly and forcing her back a step, he shrugged as he turned his back on her and walked toward the fireplace. “Not really.”
“Not really?” she repeated, her voice cracking like a whip in the tense room. “Seriously?”
“What’s the point?” he asked, his stomach turning with every mocking word he continued to deliver. “Bonnie hates me because I’m an evil vampire, an abomination against Nature, out to ruin her best friend’s life, blah blah blah. Same shit, different day.”
A measure of hurt bled into her expression, mixing with and sharpening her anger. “How can you be so glib-?”
“How can you take it so seriously?” he demanded, draining his drink and heading back to the alcohol as the weight of her incredulous gaze bore into his back. “I mean, the Sabrina the Teenage Bitch has been singing the same sad song for almost two years. Why is this time special and worthy of discussion? Unless…” He paused for effect, flicking a glance her way and noting the confusion in her eyes with an aching heart. “Deep down, you’ve decided that she’s right.”
Taken aback, Elena demanded. “What?”
“I am a vampire, Elena,” he reminded her, splashing bourbon into the tumbler quickly and with far less precision than before. If he slowed down she might notice the way his hands were shaking and he couldn’t afford to show any weakness – she knew him too well. “And I get why someone like you would be attracted to one.”
“Someone like me?” she repeated, crossing her arms protectively across her chest. “What’s that supposed to-.”
“Everyone that you’ve ever loved has died on you,” Damon snapped, desperately trying to remember how it felt not to care. “And I can’t. No matter the supernatural bullshit that you drag me in to, I’ll always be here. It’s probably what made you stick around after you found out the truth about Stefan and I. A literal eternity with a vampire sounds pretty appealing, even though it’s my nature to prey on humans.” Pausing for effect, he added. “You’re supposed to fear me, Elena, not fuck me.”
Elena’s jaw dropped in shock and it took her a long moment to find her voice. “Wow.”
“Speaking of which, why don’t we just skip to the fucking?” he asked, mentally calculating how quickly he could take the discussion from peaceable to all-out-war with a method of escalating vulgarity. Knowing that she’d hate the implication that what they had was nothing more than really good sex, it became his weapon of choice.“That’s the only part we’ve ever been good at.”
Visibly stung, Elena shook her head as she blinked away tears. “Why are you-”
“Am I wrong?” he demanded, deciding that it was best not to let her speak because the anguish in her voice wreaked havoc on his resolve. “Come on, Elena. The first time we met, you wanted me to take you down to the floor and fuck you until you couldn’t move. I could smell it. You were so turned on, you couldn’t think straight.”
“Stop,” she demanded, her voice surprisingly strong considering the blush staining her cheeks.
“That’s all this is,” he continued, taking a sip of his bourbon and ignoring the way her chin was trembling with emotion. “Fighting and fucking. You get off on the fighting, on the way I wind you up like a toy until the only thing that will get rid of that itch between your thighs is bending you over and taking you-.”
“Shut up, you son of a bitch!”
Leering at her – and hating himself with every fiber of his being as he watched the tears roll down her cheeks – he took another sip of bourbon before striking out again. “Are you going to hit me now?”
Shaking her head, Elena wiped the tears away angrily, her whole body trembling with a mixture of hurt and rage as she continued to stare at Damon, speechless and humiliated and confused. Mind racing, she desperately tried to catch up and figure out what the hell had happened in the past few minutes. She’d expected him to rail at Bonnie, not at her, and yet somehow the entire conversation had been flipped upside down and sideways. Jesus, he expected her to hit him.
Although, the more his crude words sunk in, the more she really really wanted to.
“Do you want me to hit you?” she asked quietly, trying to keep her voice steady as she tried not to think about the number of times she had hit him in the heat of an argument. She’d regretted it immediately, every time, but Damon had always known what buttons to push to bring out the worst in her.
Buttons he hadn’t pushed in almost two years.
“It’s the pattern, Elena,” he sneered, uttering her name in an erotic way that dripped with sex and made her skin crawl simultaneously. It was the way he used to talk to her when they’d first met – when he’d wanted to piss her off. “We fight, I upset your delicate sensibilities by saying something true that you don’t want to hear, you hit me, we fuck.” He shrugged again from his place behind the bar. “As much as I like a little violence now and then, I’d rather we just skip to the end.”
“You think I’m going to let you touch me after what you’ve just said?” she asked, cursing herself for sounding weak and scared when she wanted to be strong. “Why are you acting like this?”
“I’m not acting like anything,” he said dispassionately, lifting his shoulders in a maddening and dismissive shrug that set her nerves on edge. Looking away from her, he took a sip of his drink.
“Bullshit,” she cried, advancing on him determined to get the truth. If this was how he really felt – if he really considered her nothing more than a good lay – then she wanted to know why he’d strung her along for the past year. “We were talking about Bonnie. I thought you’d commiserate with me on what a horrible bitch I have for a best friend and instead you…Why are you saying all of these things?”
“I’m saying these things because they’re true,” Damon insisted, backing away from her as she rounded the couch. “It’s time you faced reality and quit living in the fairytale where I’m some kind of white knight instead of an evil monster.”
Elena narrowed her eyes at the catch in his voice on the last word. Monster. Not bad guy, not vampire, but monster. On instinct, she stepped closer, noting the way he countered the move with another step backward. Suddenly suspicious, she lifted her chin and met his gaze unflinchingly. Damon held it for a few seconds before looking away and bringing his glass of bourbon to his lips with a trembling hand.
Elena started. Damon didn’t tremble. He also didn’t keep his distance when they fought. He crowded her, deliberately invaded her personal space in an often successful attempt to throw her off of her game.
He’s lying, she realized with relief. Whatever point he was trying to make, whatever pain he was trying to inflict, he was utterly full of shit.
Why would he purposely try to hurt her in the midst of her story about Bonnie? Where the hell was this even coming from?
“You’re not a monster,” she argued, buying time as her mind raced to make sense of the conversation.
“Oh, I’m the definition of monster, sweetheart,” he replied, his trademark smirk suddenly looking like a grimace of pain.
“But you don’t think you are,” she insisted, advancing on him slowly as he stared into the empty fireplace. “Damon Salvatore – at least the one you so vividly described – thinks he’s at the top of the goddamn food chain.”
“I am,” he nodded, gulping his bourbon as he crossed his arm around his torso. The gesture had appeared casual and defiant when he’d done it earlier.
Now, it just looked like he was trying to hold himself together.
“Deep down, you’ve decided that she’s right.”
Elena’s eyes widened with sudden understanding. Everything out of his mouth had been a lie, but he’d looked her right in the eye when he’d made that comment. She didn’t think that Bonnie was right, but Damon…
He believed that she was making a mistake. Settling. He believed that she was better off without him.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” Elena said, noting that she’d hit the nail on the head when she’d thought about the way Damon knew how to push her buttons. He’d been pushing her on purpose so that she’d do what she always had in the past and walk away in a huff.
Walk away…and never come back.
“I’m just telling the truth.”
“No, you’re lying,” she argued, crossing her arms as she stared at him appraisingly. “You don’t think Bonnie’s right. You never think Bonnie’s right. You’re just trying to upset me.”
“Now why would I do that?” Damon demanded, his hard, cold gaze slicing through her as he looked at her again. Her confidence wavered in light of that gaze, fueling her resolve to get to the truth.
She refused to believe that everything she knew to be true was really a lie.
“I don’t know. So, I’d save you from having to grow a pair and leave me, maybe?” Elena said, her brain racing a mile a minute as she tried to piece things together. “What happened? Did Bonnie get to you, too? Did she call you or something? You can’t tell me that you just decided somewhere between this morning when we woke up in bed together and now that you’re tired of me.”
Damon shook his head before saying evasively. “I haven’t talked to Bonnie in weeks.”
“Then who?” Elena demanded, trying to remember what Damon had told her he was doing that day. He’d said something about meeting with Liz and then having drinks with Alaric after school, but that didn’t…
“Ric?” she murmured, her stomach turning at the implied betrayal. It had to have been him. Even if Sheriff Forbes had had an opinion on her and Damon moving to Atlanta, she wouldn’t have voiced it. Rushing to his side, she demanded. “Oh, my god, what did he say to you, Damon-.”
“Don’t lie to me,” she cried, tears burning behind her eyes. “We were fine this morning – better than fine. So, tell me the truth. What the hell did Ric say to you?”
Cursing under his breath, Damon closed his eyes briefly and rubbed his hand over his face. When he opened them again his entire demeanor had changed. Pain and anguish radiated from his intense, blue gaze, breaking her heart as it searched her face. Lifting his hand, his fingers hovered near her cheek for a moment before he dropped it back to his side and turned away. “Nothing I didn’t already know,” he muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded, following close on his heels and ducking around him as they drew close to the fireplace. He brushed her away as she reached for him, but she insisted, taking his face between her hands and forcing him to look at her. “Damon, talk to me.”
“Elena…” he murmured, gazing at her helplessly. “What the hell are you doing with me?”
“I love you,” she replied, frowning at him in confusion.
“You shouldn’t,” he said, his gaze flitting all over her face, as if he were memorizing her features. “Klaus is dead. You’ve been happy and safe for a year and now you’ve got a chance to get the hell out of Mystic Falls and put all of this doppelganger bullshit behind you. You can be human, live a human life.”
“Why do you think I’ve been happy?” she demanded, stroking his cheeks with her thumbs as the gravity of the situation weighed her down. Every time they fought, a small part of her wondered if this fight would be the fight – the one that broke them for good. She’d never paid much attention to that small part of her, but suddenly it wasn’t so small. Suddenly, the fear that she could lose Damon for good took over her entire being. “It’s because of you, Damon. I’m happy because I’m with you.”
“But I’ll destroy you,” he insisted with such earnestness that it made her heart break. “My life, my world...me. It’ll ruin everything good in you…everything that I love about you.”
Tears coursed down her cheeks as she argued. “No, you won’t,” she insisted, shaking her head for emphasis. “Damon…if it weren’t for you…and Stefan…coming into my life when you did, I’d be dead. This…doppelganger bullshit isn’t something that I can escape. No matter what Ric said.”
“Fuck Klaus,” Elena cried, dropping her hands to his shoulders and shaking him a little. “God, how can you be so short-sighted? Not everything is your fault.”
“I think everyone who’s ever met me would beg to differ,” he quipped, trying – and failing – to laugh.
“Shut up,” she muttered, her voice breaking with emotion. Elena didn’t find it funny. She didn’t find any of this funny. In that moment she hated Alaric and Bonnie – hated everyone who’d ever said or done anything to make Damon doubt his place in her life and how impossible it would be for her to continue without him. “It doesn’t matter that Klaus is dead or that things have been quiet for a year. It’s not over, Damon. It’s never going to be over. I’m never going to live a normal, human life.”
“You could,” he argued. “I’m the last link, Elena. Without me -.”
“Without you, there’s still Caroline and Bonnie. And Tyler,” Elena pointed out. “And my brother who can see ghosts. And me,” she added, reminding him of the irrefutable truth. “I’m always going to be the doppelganger. Until the day I die or turn, I’m going to be different, a target because we don’t know who else out there might want my blood for their magic spells or whatever.”
“I’ll protect you, Elena,” he promised, a look of horror crossing his features as if he were appalled that she could even think that he’d abandon her completely. “I’ll always protect you, but you don’t have to be with me for me to do that. You can fall in love with a human, get married, raise a family. You don’t need me-.”
“Yes, I do,” she cried, tears falling down her cheeks unchecked now. “I need you, Damon. And I want you. Just you. It’s always going to be you.”
Damon blinked at those words, his expression clearing slightly as he continued to stand stoically before her. The uncertainty in his gaze was breathtakingly painful to behold, as if he’d already let her go – on the way home perhaps – and now the challenge came in convincing himself that he could take her back. Her hands fell to her sides as he took a step back from her and turned away. Despair coursed through her as he continued to stare into the empty fireplace, the sudden silence in the room deafening.
Taking a deep breath, he turned towards her, his gaze unwavering before a corner of his mouth hitched upwards. “Fuck Klaus, huh?” Something in his voice – something that sounded a lot like acceptance – made her heart soar.
“Yes,” she nodded. “Fuck him and Bonnie and Ric…fuck anyone that tries to say that this isn’t right. That the way we love each other isn’t the best, most amazing thing that’s ever happened, okay?”
“Okay,” Damon promised after a drawn-out silence. Half sobbing and half laughing with relief, she closed the distance between them, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face in the crook of his neck, already trying to forget how real the past few minutes had been, how incredibly close she’d come to losing him.
Slowly, Damon returned the embrace, his hands moving over her body reverently as if he were memorizing every curve. For a long moment they stood like that, limbs entangled and pressed against each other so tightly that if Elena hadn’t known better she would have sworn that she could hear his heart pounding against his ribs.
“I need you to promise me something,” she said, pulling away to look him in the eye. “Promise me that no matter what happens, we don’t let anyone come between us. If we fall apart,” she paused, swallowing the bitter taste the words left in her mouth before pressing ahead. “If we fall apart…”
“It won’t be because a bitchy little witch hates me,” he supplied with enough venom in his voice to prove that things were returning to normal.
“Or because your idiot best friend thinks he needs to look out for my best interests,” she finished, raising a brow as she ran her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck.
“Right,” Damon said, his gaze dropping to her mouth a second before he claimed her lips. Passion flared between them, fierce and intense, reminding her that they’d fought – and would inevitably fight again. Between kisses, almost as if he’d read her mind, he murmured. “Sorry I was an asshole. I’ll make it up to you.”
“I know you will,” she replied breathlessly as he turned his attention to her neck, dragging his blunt teeth against her skin and making her thighs clench. “Besides, you may have been a dick, but you weren’t wrong. Our fights do tend to follow a pattern.”
“They do,” he agreed as he tugged her tank top down to press a trail of open mouthed kisses to the swells of her breasts. Elena clung to him, letting her head fall back as he made his way back to her mouth. “And I kind of like how they end.”
“Me, too,” she grinned, nipping playfully at his bottom lip. “We shouldn’t break tradition.”
“No?” he asked, raising a brow.
Elena shook her head. “No.”
Grinning against his lips, Elena wrapped her legs around his waist as he lifted her off of the floor and carried her toward the couch, the familiar heat between them building in intensity with every step. The knot of anxiety that had taken root in her stomach that afternoon at the mall loosened as he settled her against the cushions without breaking their connection. Parting her lips, she allowed entrance to his probing tongue, arching into him as his hand smoothed down her hip and beneath the hem of her shorts. Elena moaned into his mouth as he caressed her thigh, his fingers inching slowly higher as they kissed.
Best. Tradition. Ever.
Can I have it now?
Damon could have gone nuts with innuendo and smartass remarks – and any other night, over anything else he would have – but in that moment all he wanted was to do what Elena asked.
Nodding, he tugged her temporary daylight ring off of the middle finger on her left hand before taking the beautiful, intricately carved silver band from the plush velvet box. He rubbed his thumb over the lapis lazuli stones, momentarily struck by the fact that those tiny blue gems could be spelled to protect them from the sun.
Would be protecting her from the sun.
“Wait,” Elena said as he tried to put the new ring back on her middle finger. Frowning slightly, he raised a questioning brow as she smiled softly and said. “Not on that one.”
Presenting him with her left ring finger, he smirked and shook his head at the embarrassingly giddy sensation that swept through him. He knew it was silly to be so sentimental about putting the daylight ring on such a noteworthy finger. The ring was life and freedom for vampires– meaning so much more than an engagement ring or a wedding band – but Damon held his breath as he slid the ring into place, anyway, releasing it only when he knew for certain that it fit.
“Thank you,” Elena breathed, taking a moment to stare at her hand and admire the ring in a new light. Lifting her gaze, she blinked away the tears in her eyes before rising on her toes and wrapping her arms around his neck. She kissed him, her soft lips feathering over his with reverence as his hands settled on her hips.
“You’re welcome,” he murmured as they broke away, brushing extra kisses to the corner of her mouth and the tip of her nose. Desperate to break the tension before he did something so foolishly romantic as to voice the thoughts that were running through his head –that she was the one who deserved the thanks, that she was the one who’d saved him and chosen him a thousand times over – Damon wrapped his arms fully around her, pulling her flush against his wet, fully clothed body. Speaking into her ear as she squealed and struggled against the uncomfortable cold, he added. “But don’t think you’re off the hook for your little stunt in the square.”
“You’re such a sore loser,” she exclaimed, wriggling out of his arms before backing him toward the tub as she helped him get rid of his clothes and boots. Reaching behind her back, she unhooked her bra, releasing it only when he eased into the water. Dropping it to the floor, she shed her panties as well and climbed in after him.
Damon leaned back against the wall of the tub as she settled against him, her back resting against his chest. For a while they soaked in silence as the hot water penetrated his chilled body. Closing his eyes, he rested his forehead against her crown, nuzzling his nose in her hair as he breathed her in.
“What’s this?” she asked suddenly.
“Huh?” he asked, without moving.
“On my ring,” she said, shifting slightly and forcing him to lift his head. Opening his eyes, he saw her leaning toward the candlelight, adjusting the ring minutely. “It looks like…dates. Did you have this engraved?”
“Remember that day you and Jeremy followed me around Atlanta?” he asked, sliding his fingers up the length of her arm and threading her fingers through hers. “That’s what I was doing.”
Narrowing her eyes, Elena read the tiny print of one of the dates aloud. “That was…that was a year ago, but I don’t…” Blushing in the candlelight, she turned and guiltily met his eye. “I don’t remember what happened.”
“You wouldn’t,” he said, recalling the innocuous Saturday when he’d opened the fridge and discovered her diet coke nestled next to his blood bags as if it had been the most normal thing in the world. “But it was the day I realized that you weren’t leaving. That whatever this thing was that we had…you weren’t going to change your mind.”
Tears filled her eyes as she looked at him. Swallowing, her voice was rough as she asked. “And the other date?”
“Figure it out,” he said, nodding toward their joined hands. Biting her lips, Elena studied the first date and Damon could tell by the way the color drained from her face when she remembered the when.
“Damon, this is…we weren’t even together yet.”
“Nope,” he replied, pulling her back into his arms as he settled against the tub. Keeping their hands joined, he explained. “But we were together. In a bar. In Georgia.”
“Oh,” Elena breathed, twisting slightly to grin at him. “Our first roadtrip.”
“Yup,” he said, running his fingers over the tiny engraving. “Two very significant things happened during that trip.”
“And what were those very significant things?” she asked, the grin evident in her voice.
“Well, I decided somewhere between your fifth and eighth beer, that any girl who could hold her liquor like you could, couldn’t be half bad.”
“Not half bad?” she repeated, glancing over her shoulder at him and raising a brow.
“Well, considering I was all bad at the time, that’s actually pretty high praise.”
Elena rolled her eyes, turning back around and shifting her grip on his hand as she began to play with his daylight ring. “What’s the other thing?”
“You saved my life,” he said, vividly recalling the heat of the flames, the scent of the gasoline and Elena’s anguished pleas for mercy. “For the first time.”
“You’d already saved mine,” she murmured softly, tugging his ring from his middle finger and slipping it onto his ring finger where it spun around, just the slightest bit too loose. “You’ve never stopped.”
“I never will,” he answered honestly, sliding his free hand below the water to lock around her waist. They sat in silence for a while as Damon fought with lingering reminders of the one time he’d failed. He knew that Elena didn’t see it that way and it was in moments like these, that her belief in him was the only thing that kept him from succumbing to the crushing weight of guilt over her death.
“Neither will I,” Elena promised, her soft voice sounding incredibly loud in the silence as she held Damon’s hand up so that his ring could catch the light. He looked at their hands, matching rings flashing in the candlelight as her heart beat slow and steady in time to his. He’d never felt so deeply at peace and he marveled at the fact that this was his.
She was his.
“I love you, Elena,” he whispered, pressing a kiss to the soft spot just behind her ear.“I love you, Damon,” she replied back, turning her head to capture his mouth in a lingering kiss that promised more to come. Lacing their fingers together, her lips curved up in a smile and her beautiful brown eyes sparkled as she added. “Tomorrow, we’ll get your ring resized.”