Another lead, another road trip, another dead end. Sheriff Forbes had pointed them toward Black Mountain, North Carolina, after an increase in reports of animal attacks that seemed to scream Stefan's name. Three days later, they were back in Mystic Falls, no closer to finding Stefan than they had been when they left. Damon was convinced they had just missed Stefan and Klaus, although he wouldn't tell Elena why.

They had finally come to an agreement. He would let her tag along when he checked out these leads, but he reserved the right to tell her to stay in the car or hotel room until he knew what they were walking into. She knew he was trying to protect her, physically and emotionally, that he didn't want her to see the trail of bodies that Stefan had left in his wake.

She wasn't as naïve as Damon thought, though, certainly not as naïve as she was at the beginning of this nightmare. She had overheard whispered conversations, seen scene photos on the sheriff's desk, witnessed the look of devastation that flitted across Damon's face every time he learned that Ripper Stefan had struck again. She knew of Stefan's history as a ripper. And now, she knew what that looked like. At first, she couldn't believe that her Stefan would do those horrible things, but time had taught her that anything was possible.

As weeks stretched into months, she realized she had lost 'her' Stefan, if he had ever been hers at all. She wondered if she had ever really known him. He had hidden so much of himself away from her, while she had shared everything with him. Well, almost everything, that is. The piece of her that had felt an instant attraction to Damon, which she kept hidden deep within, never wanting to hurt Stefan with the truth.

Elena sighed as she dropped her bag on the floor, just inside the door. Looking around Stefan's room, she felt, for the first time, that she didn't belong there. The shift had been subtle, so slight that she hadn't noticed it until it hit her full force in chest. She was no longer in love with Stefan. She would always love him. They had been through too much for that to just slip away. Somewhere along the way it had shifted, becoming more like the love she felt for her friends. Instead, the pull that she had always felt toward Damon had become stronger. He had become the one that she turned to, she relied on, she was in love with.

There it was, the one thing she thought she would never admit. She, Elena Gilbert, was in love with Damon Salvatore. Just thinking it scared her. She couldn't imagine saying the words out loud. Instead, she had focused on the search for Stefan, realizing even that had changed. In the beginning of this seemingly never-ending quest, Damon assured her that he would bring Stefan home to her. For her. Now, she knew Stefan needed to come home for Damon. Damon was the one who needed Stefan. He had spent too many years away from his brother, they had come too far to just let Stefan go.

Elena walked to Stefan's bed, grabbed a pillow and slowly lowered herself to the floor. She couldn't lie on the bed that she had shared with Stefan. Too many memories raised their ugly head if she did that. Instead, she buried her face in the pillow and inhaled deeply, immediately regretting it. Even though Stefan's head hadn't touched this pillow in months, it still carried his scent. That was the push that sent her toppling over the edge, tears pouring down her cheeks, her sobs muffled by the pillow, hoping that Damon couldn't hear her.

Damon paused while pouring his fourth drink since walking through the front door less than an hour ago. He heard it, the hitch in Elena's breath as she cried. He hurriedly poured and downed that drink, as well as a few more, hoping to find some numbness at the bottom of the glass. Her tears did him in every time. He wanted to rush to her, scoop her up in his arms and promise that he would make it all better. But, he couldn't. She was still his brother's girl, even if his brother was nowhere to be found. So, he played his part - the friend, the brother, sometimes, the protector - even though it killed him to do so. She had chosen Stefan (it would always be Stefan) and Damon refused to be the thing that came between them. He wasn't sure that Stefan still deserved to be with Elena, but he refused to have a repeat of the Katherine fiasco.

He sat his crystal tumbler down and sped up to his room, deciding that a hot shower was just what he needed to relax after the long hours spent in the car. It had absolutely nothing to do with trying to drown out the sound of her sobs. If the running water happened to do that, it was just a bonus.

He stood under the hot spray of the shower, letting the water sluice down his back, until it began to run cold. Only then did he turn the water off and let himself listen to the sounds in the house. After a moment, he could hear her slow, rhythmic breathing and knew she was asleep. A wave of relief rolled over him and he finally allowed himself to relax. With Elena sleeping, he could allow himself to do the same. Maintaining his distance from her, hiding his true feelings was exhausting. He quickly dried off, wrapping the towel low around his waist when he was done. Pausing to open his door a crack in case Elena needed him, he made his way across the room to his bed, where he collapsed, sprawled across the surface and immediately fell into a dreamless sleep.

Elena was disoriented when she woke the next morning. It wasn't until her knee banged against the hard wood floor while she tried to stretch the stiffness from her body that she remembered where she had fallen asleep. Her very swollen eyes refused to cooperate when she tried to look at the time on her phone. She pushed herself into a sitting position, before rubbing her eyes and trying once again to pry them open. Mission accomplished, she looked at the time and was amazed to find that she had not only slept through dinner, but the whole night as well.

Realizing that if she hurried she could still make it to school on time, she grabbed her bag and headed to the bathroom adjoining Stefan's room to shower and get ready for the day. Showered, dressed, wet hair pulled back in a ponytail, she dashed down the stairs, hoping to avoid Damon. After her breakdown the night before, which she hoped against hope that Damon hadn't heard, she wasn't ready to face him or his questions or his smirk. She just wanted to pretend that everything was normal, or at least as normal as it could be for a doppelganger who was in love with her vampire ex-boyfriend's brother, who also happened to be a vampire.

Damon had become very adept at reading Elena's moods over the last few months. He knew what she needed most right now was space, so he stayed in his room until he could no longer hear Elena's car in the distance.

He called Liz Forbes, hoping that something else had turned up while he and Elena were away. Damon had an urgent need to be doing something, even if it was chasing dead end leads. The status quo was driving him crazy. Something had to give. Lucky for him, the sheriff had just received another animal attack report, this time from the mountains in northern North Carolina.

He threw a few things in his leather duffle and was in his car, cruising down the interstate fifteen minutes after talking to Liz. Elena needed space? Well, so did he. He would be making this trip solo even though Elena would be furious with him. He would text her once he had crossed the North Carolina state line, hoping to give himself enough of a head start that she wouldn't try to follow.

Elena's phone buzzed as she was walking to her car after school. She smiled to herself when she saw Damon's name on the screen and then wanted to throw her phone across the parking lot when she read the text. She couldn't believe that he had left without her. She had stuck to their agreement, following Damon's instructions to the letter. Letting him call the shots was so much better than being left behind to wonder what was going on. She sent him a scathing text in return, vividly describing the bodily harm she intended to cause him upon his return before starting her car and going home.

It was pitch black out when Elena woke with a start. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. When they did, she saw a figure reclining on her window seat, legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles. Assuming it was Damon, she let out the breath she had been holding, knowing that she wasn't in any danger.

The feeling of security quickly fled at the sound of his voice. It was just one word, her name. It was enough to let her know that she had every reason to be afraid. It wasn't Damon's voice that carried across her room. She quickly turned on her lamp, needing to see that she was wrong. That cold, unfeeling voice couldn't possible have come from the man that she had once loved with all her heart. Yet, there he was, Stefan, staring at her with hollow eyes.

Elena recoiled from Stefan's glare. She could almost feel the coldness radiating from him. She considered reaching for her phone to call Damon before remembering that he wasn't home. She wasn't sure where he was, only that he was following a lead – a lead that obviously would come to nothing since the object of their search was not in North Carolina, but causally reclining in her bedroom. She would have to deal with Stefan on her own.

Pulling herself together, she began to pepper Stefan with questions. He continued to stare, not answering, waiting for her to take a break before saying anything. Then he dove right in, telling her to stop looking for him, he didn't want to be found. She needed to forget him, as he had already forgotten about her. They were over, it was time for her to move on. Almost as if he wanted to drive the final nail in the coffin of their relationship, he told her he never truly loved her. It had all been an illusion, something they had both wanted to see, but never really existed.

Staring at him in shocked silence, she flinched when he stood. Before she could make a move away from him, he was gone, leaving her curtains fluttering in his wake.

Elena didn't know whether to laugh or cry. On the whole, she agreed with Stefan. She had planned on saying many of the same things to him. She was ready to move on, more than ready. She just hoped that someday Stefan would realize that she had truly loved him, even if it wasn't the epic, rest-of-my-life love that she thought it had been.

She had no idea what she was going to tell Damon. She had no clue where Stefan had gone, if he was staying in Mystic Falls or if he was leaving again with Klaus. At least she could tell Damon that she and Stefan were over. He would probably assume that she was devastated. Funny thing, though, she was anything but. She was happy, almost giddy about being able to act on her feelings for Damon. And, she was relieved. She hadn't realized how much the situation with Stefan had been weighing her down. It was as if Stefan had absolved her of any responsibility regarding his actions. His choices were his, hers were hers. Time to move on.

For the first time in longer than Elena could remember, she fell asleep feeling hopeful, happy and content. She couldn't wait for Damon to come home.

Thirty-six hours after rushing off to chase a Stefan lead, Damon walked in the front door of his home and stopped dead in his tracks. Loud music and giggling girls could be heard without the aid of his super vamp hearing. A feeling of dread sat in his gut as he walked toward the source of the noise.

Lounging on a couch, surrounded by girls, was Stefan. Damon cringed as he took in the scene, several bodies strewn about the room along with numerous empty bottles. Not ready to deal with that particular nightmare, Damon turned on his heel and headed for his bedroom, Stefan's laughter trailing up the stairs behind him.

He rejected call after call from Elena as he paced, trying to figure out how to tell her that Stefan had returned, but not the Stefan that she knew. He had wanted to spare her the reality of Ripper Stefan, but all hope of that was lost when Stefan returned to Mystic Falls. Now, he would have to tell her the truth and hope that she didn't want to kill the messenger.

Damon checked the time and saw that if he left right away, he could be at Elena's house when she got home from school. Better to get this over with so that Elena could begin to move on, whether it was with him or not. Damon stopped long enough to order the girls out of his house and told Stefan to clean up his mess - bottles and bodies. When Stefan started to argue, Damon pinned him to the wall with a hand to the throat to be sure he had Stefan's attention. He spelled out, in no uncertain terms, what needed to happen while he was gone, because there was no way in hell that he would let Elena walk into a scene straight from the Ripper's playbook.

Damon arrived at the Gilbert house just as Elena was pulling into the driveway. She turned her head at the sound of his car and watched as he pulled up to the curb. The smile that lit her face as he walked toward her almost dropped him to his knees. He never thought he would be on the receiving end of one of those smiles. If the smile weren't enough, the hug she gave him almost made his heart explode. Damon soaked it all in, holding her close with an arm around her waist, tangling a hand in her hair, inhaling the scent that was pure Elena, lightly kissing the top of her head before pulling away.

He hesitated for a moment, working up the courage to tell her about Stefan, when she jumped right into the gap, telling him how happy she was to see him, how much she missed him, how they needed to talk, with no mention of Stefan at all.

The need to get everything out in the open forced him to act, placing a finger on her lips to hush her. Taking a deep breath, he told her that Stefan was home, what he had found when he walked in on Stefan's 'party' earlier that day, that Stefan seemed to be back in Ripper mode, every gory detail that he had withheld over the last several months all came spilling out of him. She needed to know all of it if she was close the door on Stefan.

When he finished, he took a deep breath, trying to read her reaction and totally confused by it. She wasn't weeping, wasn't shocked, wasn't anything, except maybe accepting. Completely unsure of how to deal with this reaction, he decided that she would be better off with Bonnie and Caroline for the time being. He mumbled something about needing to talk to the sheriff, gave her a pat on the arm and jogged over to his car. He looked in the rearview mirror as he drove away and saw Elena standing in the same spot he had left her in, looking confused and a little lost.

Hours later, Damon walked back through the front door of the boarding house, stopped and listened. No giggling girls, no loud music, no ice rattling in crystal tumblers, no sounds whatsoever. No bodies or bottles littering the parlor seemed to indicate that Stefan had left, whether for the night or for the foreseeable future, Damon didn't know.

What he did know was that there was a tub calling his name. A long, hot soak along with a bottle of his best bourbon was just what he needed to forget about his problems. Stefan could do whatever the hell he wanted, as long as he did it somewhere else. As for Elena, he knew it was chicken of him, but he was leaving the next move up to her. He's be there if she needed him, always. But if they were to be anything more, she was going to have to act on it. He would give her space while taking some for himself.

Damon was more exhausted than he realized. He dozed off in the tub, only waking up when he heard her voice outside his bedroom door. Somehow, she had managed to enter the house make her way to his bedroom without him hearing a thing. Calling out for her to give him a minute, he was out of the tub, dried and dressed in record time.

He opened the door, fully expecting to see a distraught Elena. Instead, he found her smiling, the same smile she had given him earlier in the day. His breath caught when she tenderly reached out and touched his cheek.

Words began to pour out of her. She had known about Stefan, about him being a ripper again, that he was back in town. She was sorry, for Damon's sake, that they hadn't found Stefan earlier, saved him from what he had become. She had known it was over between them, even if she hadn't admitted it. There was so much she had planned to say, most of it was forgotten.

Damon watched, listened, convinced that he was hearing her wrong. She couldn't possibly be saying what he thought she was.

Elena wrapped her hand around the back of his neck, burying her fingers in his jet black hair, making sure that she had his full attention before she continued, saying the most important thing she could say.

"I love you, Damon. You."

Before she could do or say anything else, Damon pulled her into his room, into his arms, crushing his mouth against hers. The next instant, she was pinned to the wall by nothing more than a hand resting on her waist and his breath next to her ear, Elena made a weak attempt to get free. Once Damon pulled back just enough to catch her eyes, however, she stilled. Rarely had she seen him so open. Instead of his usual smirk, he was looking at her in awe, as if he couldn't believe what he saw. With a brush of his hand, he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and waited.

In that moment, she realized what he was doing. She had thought that he was taking control of the situation by pinning her to the wall, knowing she would never be able to break free unless he allowed it. But, that wasn't it at all. He wasn't trying to control the situation, he was relinquishing all control to her. Whatever happened next, it would be up to her.

Elena felt free, brave even. There were no voices in her head telling her that she was making a mistake, no one telling her she should be with Stefan, no one pointing out that Damon was a soulless, evil killer. There was no one who knew Damon like she did, knew the good that he hid from everyone else. She had seen how quickly he could build walls to protect himself and how quickly they could come down when he was with her.

As all of those thoughts circled through Elena's mind at lightning speed, so fast she wouldn't have been able to voice them, she sent a message. Lowering her hands to the hem of her plum henley, she grabbed and pulled it up and over her head, letting it slide through her fingers and fall to the floor. Just as the shirt left her hands, she draped them across Damon's shoulders, sliding them under his unbuttoned shirt and waited.

Message sent. Message received. Control had been yielded back to him. Her eyes danced with delight as she watched a myriad of emotions drift across his face – confusion, understanding, hope, awe, desire and finally, love.

He could have easily ripped the cami from her body. Instead, he pulled the hem up and up, slowly peeling it off of her, holding his breath the whole time. Releasing the shirt and his breath at the same time, he bought his hands to her face, tilting her head back until her eyes were locked with his. His crystal clear blue eyes seemed to be looking into her soul and he needed her to do the same, needed her to see the truth. Damon whispered the words he had thought a thousand times, but said only once, immediately compelling her to forget them.

"I love you, Elena. God, do you know how long I've waited -"

Pushing up on her toes to reach him, Elena silenced him with a kiss. It was soft and sweet, but it served its purpose. She didn't want to think about time wasted, mistakes made, pain suffered. She only wanted to think about the here and now, the future, their future. Anything else was meaningless to her. She knew he would be her future, whether it was for the remainder of her normal, human life or for something much, much longer.

That first kiss became a second one, igniting the fire that had smoldered just below the surface between them for so long. He tangled a hand in her hair as his other arm pulled her tightly to him with a controlled strength she didn't know he possessed. Elena melted into him as his lips traveled from her mouth to the spot just behind her ear that drove her crazy. She vaguely wondered how he knew about that spot, but let the thought slide away as he placed kiss after kiss down her neck, settling just above the pulsing artery there. Her heart was pounding in her chest. The sound of her blood rushing echoed in her ears. She knew that he could hear it, feel it under his mouth as he continued focus on that one spot. Unable to believe it of herself, she willed him to do it, to take what she had never given to Stefan.

Instead, he pulled back, chest heaving, pupils blown so wide open, they nearly covered the icy blue surrounding them. Damon rested his forehead against hers, trying to regain some control. He had waited, they had waited for this for too long for it to be over in an instant.

By the time Damon had caught his breath, so had Elena. Her eyes were wide, wondering what he would do next. He shrugged out of his shirt and added it to growing pile on the floor. She had seen him shirtless countless times. Hell, she had seen him naked a time or two. But, she had never been allowed touch him, to feel his strength as his muscled rippled under her hands. He was once again searching for control, her touch pushing him to the far edge of his limits.

Before she was consciously aware of what had happened, he had scooped her into his arms and laid her across his bed. He quickly rid himself of his jeans before joining her and disposing of hers as well. Bra, panties and boxers were removed before she could form a thought. He seemed to spend an eternity learning her body, with his hands, his mouth, his eyes. He pushed her to the edge time and time again, only to pull her back and start over. She lost the ability to think or speak, too caught up in his ministrations. The only sounds she uttered where sighs, gasps, moans.

Finally, neither of them could wait any longer. Damon's hands found hers, entwining their fingers, holding them on the pillow above he head. He caught her eyes again, refusing to even blink, daring her to, as he entered her. A century and a half of experience had not prepared him for this. At last, his control broke. He began to move, smoothly at first and then more erratic, as he drew closer and closer to his release.

Elena arched her back, exposing her neck. That was it for him. His fangs descended and he bit her. The first pull of her blood was enough to send her flying over the edge. The second one sent him. After the third, he pulled his mouth off her and began to lick the punctures, not want to waste a single drop.

Damon pulled back a little to check her reaction, worried that he might see disgust. What he saw was anything but. Elena wore a huge smile that could only be described as contentment, even as she fought sleep, losing the battle to keep her eyes open. He chuckled to himself as he settled them into the cocoon of his bed. With her pulled tightly against him, his arms around her, Damon let himself drift to sleep as well.

Hours later, propped up on an elbow, he watched her sleep, fighting the urge to run his fingers through her hair, his hands over her body. Instead, he let her sleep while his breathing kept pace with hers, his heart waiting for her next heart beat and the next and the next. That sound, that steady beat, was his foothold in reality. None of this had been a dream. Elena Gilbert was not only in his bed, in his life, but she had also worked her way into his heart and that is where she would stay.

A/N: Thank you so much for reading this, my first Vampire Diaries fic. I'd love to know what you thought. Remember - reviews feed the muse. :) Thanks again! ~ craftyjhawk