A/N: OK, once again, we are so, so sorry. First it was exam season and then there were holidays for both of us and then results stress and summer jobs and family stuff and results themselves and just life really. Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed, we're so sorry to have kept you waiting but we hope you'll read this chapter anyway. There's probably only going to be one more chapter before this story is finished, and although we're both going off to university in the next few weeks, we are hopeful we can get it written by then. Every review means so much to us, and we really didn't mean to leave you hanging. We hope you enjoy this chapter and continue to tell us what you think :)
Disclaimer: Not ours.
It was over as quickly as it had started. My vision cleared, and the buzzing noise ceased, allowing me to think clearly again. The first thing I saw was Damon's face, only a few feet in front of me, slowly coming into focus as I shook my head to rid it of the last few effects of my trip though time.
As soon as I saw him, I acted instinctively, not stopping to consider the consequences, not even thinking about Stefan. I flung myself across the kitchen and into Damon's arms.
He squeezed me tightly, burying his face in my hair, and I closed my eyes, allowing myself to relax completely for the first time in days. I hadn't succeeded in my task. I hadn't managed to save his human life. But here, standing in my own kitchen with his arms wrapped tightly around me, that didn't seem to matter. He was alive, and we were together, and nothing else mattered.
'What happened to you? Where did you go?' Damon asked, his lips moving against the top of my head. I prepared to answer him, bracing myself to tell the whole story, when the sound of a familiar cough reminded me of where - and when - I was.
Damon and I immediately broke apart, and, blushing furiously, I turned to face his brother. Stefan. My boyfriend. Whom I hadn't even noticed in my rush to get to Damon. I hugged him too, pressing my face tightly against him in an attempt to hide my embarrassment.
'I was so worried,' Stefan whispered as he pulled me closer, making my heart contract in guilt as I realised fully, perhaps for the first time, the extent of what I'd done. In 1864, alone and far away from the boyfriend loved, it had been easier to ignore what I was doing. But now, now that I was home and safe, I couldn't ignore it anymore.
I'd cheated. And to make things worse, I'd cheated on my boyfriend with his brother. Guilt shot through me, making me feel nauseous. How was I ever going to explain this to Stefan? And Damon? He'd feel so used...
Heart pounding, I pulled myself out of Stefan's arms, turning to face Ric and John, who were sitting at the kitchen table. Too miserable to even wonder what on earth John was doing here, I quickly hugged them both - John's eyes widened in surprise - and turned back to Damon.
'You asked where I went, Damon,' I said quietly. '1864. I was stuck there for a month before I managed to get home.'
The effect of this statement was instantaneous. Both Stefan and Damon opened their mouths, shock and fury obvious on their faces, and Alaric jumped out of his chair.
I held up a hand to stop them. There was no way I'd be able to tell this story without breaking down if they all started to interrupt me.
'Please. Just let me speak. I'll tell you what happened.' I said, and something in my voice made Stefan, Alaric and John back off. Damon, however, didn't.
'Elena,' he said, indicating my dress, his eyes full of concern - more concern, I realised, than 2010 Damon had ever shown for me before. 'What happened can wait. You're injured.'
Instinctively, I reached up to cup the cut the metal muzzle had caused on my face. What with everything that had happened in the past few hours, I'd forgotten all about it.
I'd also forgotten, I realised, looking down, about huge bloodstain spread across the front of my dress, caused by the gunshot wound Katherine had healed.
'That's nothing...don't worry...it's healed...' I stuttered, trying to explain, but thinking of the wound brought back memories of the pain, of the sheer terror I'd felt when Katherine had had me thrown in the carriage. My entire body started shaking uncontrollably, my vision sliding in and out of focus for the second time that night.
'Elena!' Two voices shouted at once, and then they rushed at me, both trying to hold me up. Damon reached me a split second before his brother, catching me just as my legs gave out. He lifted me off the ground, inevitably reminding me of how he'd rescued me from the carriage.
'Let's get you cleaned up,' he said, heading for the stairs. 'You can tell us your story afterwards.'
'Damon...' The threatening note in Stefan's voice was obvious.
'I've got her, Stefan.' Damon said firmly. 'Why don't you go...deal with that other problem?'
Stefan, to my surprise, nodded and backed off, although he still looked grim. Too tired to even wonder what the 'other problem' was, I focused instead on keeping my eyes open. Now that I was no longer in danger, I was realising just how exhausted the events of the past twenty four hours had left me.
Damon carried me all the way up to my room, gently depositing me on the bed. 'Why don't you take a shower?' he suggested, his voice warm and soothing.
Nodding blearily, I pulled myself to my feet.
'Elena? What's all the shouting about?' came a familiar voice from the hallway.
Jeremy. My little brother. The mere sound of his voice seemed to send an electric shock through me, pumping adrenaline through my veins. How long had it been since I'd seen him? All tiredness forgotten, I leapt off the bed, and for the second time in ten minutes flung myself into the room and into someone's arms.
Jeremy started as I wrapped my arms around his neck, burying my face in his shoulders. Relief coursed through me as I realised, perhaps for the first time since I'd returned, that I was home. Really and truly home. With my family, and my friends…now that I was back, the full force of how much I'd missed them, how much I'd missed everything, hit me, causing my entire body to tremble as my insides to turned to jelly.
'Elena? Is something wrong?' I could hear the concern in Jeremy's voice as he put his hands on my shoulders, pushing me away from him so that he could see my face. I stared up into his eyes, drinking in his every feature. I could see his emotions battle it out on his face – the worry that something had happened to me against the anger he still nursed from reading my journal.
'Everything's fine, Jer, I just…' I stopped, taking a deep breath. I'd been about to lie to him, to say that nothing bad whatsoever had happened. What was wrong with me? I'd lied to him before, and he was still angry with me about it. If I lied again and he ever found out, it could completely ruin our relationship.
Jeremy's eyes left my face, flickering downwards over my bloodstained dress. 'Are you hurt? Why are you dressed like that?' he demanded, and this time I could hear the fear in his voice.
Damon stepped up behind me, laying a gentle hand on my shoulder. 'Elena, why don't you go and take that shower? I'll tell Jeremy what's been going on.'
I nodded, grateful for the chance to be able to shower and change – finally – back into my normal clothing.
'Thanks, Damon.' I turned my attention briefly back to my brother. 'Jer, I promise I'm fine. Go downstairs with Damon. I'll be there in a few minutes.'
Jeremy hesitated, but something in my voice must have convinced him, because he released my shoulders and followed Damon downstairs without another word.
Five minutes later, standing in the shower, the scalding hot water to massaging my back, I decided I had never before been so filled with appreciation as I was at that moment.
A hot shower. A real shower. After a month of only being able to wash in a tub filled by buckets of lukewarm water that all had to be carried in by servants, I was in heaven. I stayed in there, simply allowing the water to wash over my skin, allowing it to clean away all the dirt and blood that seemed to have been clinging to me forever, for a good ten minutes before I even reached for the soap.
My newfound appreciation for my life in 2010 didn't end with the shower. After drying off, I realised with a rush of happiness, that I was going to be able to dress in jeans. Jeans. No more dresses that were so long I was constantly tripping over the hem. No more ridiculous layers of undergarments. And above all, no more corsets.
My good mood lasted until approximately five seconds after I returned to the kitchen. I'd heard voices as I came down the stairs, but they cut off abruptly as I entered the room. Alaric and John were still seated at the table, in exactly the same seats they'd been in when I'd gone upstairs. Jeremy, too, was seated at the table, and his expression clearly said that he wasn't happy about not being told immediately when I'd disappeared.
Damon, loitering almost casually against one of the counters, straightened up as I came in. 'Feeling better, Elena?'
I smiled at him, opening my mouth to reply, but stopped short when my heart did the same somersault in my chest that it had done every time I'd seen him over the past few weeks. I was back now, I told myself. Back in 2010. In 2010, I dated Stefan, and was nothing more than friends with his brother. In 2010, I loved Stefan. And somehow, I had to go back to that. Had to seal away my feelings for Damon. Had to come to terms with the fact that this Damon wasn't the person I'd been with for the past few weeks. That Damon was gone. And I'd never see him again.
Without warning, tears filled my eyes and I stumbled slightly, reaching out for something, anything, to grip to keep my balance.
'Elena?' Two voices asked simultaneously. A split second later, Damon was there, holding me up, one hand stroking my back. Just as it had been on the night of the Founder's Ball. A mere few seconds before our first kiss.
I pulled myself together, pushing away the memories that were assaulting me, threatening to push me under. The memories that his touch had evoked. 'I'm fine, Damon, thank you.' Thankfully, my voice was steady.
Despite my efforts to pull away, Damon helped me drop into Jeremy's chair, which Jeremy had vacated at the sight of my distress, then turned towards the door. The expression on his face indicated that he was listening intently, probably to something no-one else could hear.
Sure enough, a split second later, the front door opened and Stefan crashed in, zooming to my side as soon as he saw me. 'Elena! You look better.' I could hear the sincere relief in his voice, and the guilt returned, tearing apart my insides.
His laid his hand on my shoulder, giving it a comforting squeeze before turning to Ric and John. 'I've dealt with our…other problem, for the moment.'
'Excuse me, Stefan,' I interrupted, my voice colder than I intended it to be. 'But what exactly is this 'other problem' everyone keeps mentioning?'
Stefan shot me a puzzled look, probably confused by my tone. Great. One more thing to feel guilty about. I sighed internally. Not only was I having trouble separating the memory of 1864 Damon from 2010 Damon, I kept thinking of Stefan as Katherine's accomplice. Someone who was trying to hurt me. Not someone to be trusted.
Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to go to sleep in my own bed. To be alone for a while so that I could sort out my feelings. Reconcile myself to being back.
And yes, mourn for what I had lost.
Sadly, though, I knew there was no way I could do that at this particular moment. Firstly, I needed someone to fill me in on what was going on. And secondly, everyone in this kitchen deserved an explanation.
'Nothing for you to worry about for the moment, Elena,' Stefan started, but Damon interrupted him a split second before I would have.
'We need to tell her, Stefan. She deserves to know.' His voice was soft, but deadly serious. A shiver ran down my spine. What on earth was going on?
'Not today, Damon.' Stefan's voice was equally serious as he faced up to his brother. 'Elena's been through enough today, she needs rest. We can deal with this tomorrow.'
Annoyance rose in me – they were talking about me as if I wasn't there, and I did not appreciate it.
'Damon's right,' I said, rising from my chair. 'I want to know now. Especially if it involves me.'
Stefan turned to me, the pain evident on his face. I felt myself start to cave, but pushed the feelings away. I knew he wanted to protect me, and I was grateful for that, but I couldn't allow him to hide something that could be potentially important from me. And I had the feeling that whatever was going on was really important.
Before his brother could speak, Damon interjected bluntly, with only the barest hints of hesitation. 'Elena. Earlier this evening, your…birth mother showed up in town.'
Being hit by a sledgehammer was the closest I could come to describing the feeling that assaulted me. Whatever I'd been expecting them to say, it wasn't that.
'Isobel?' was all I could manage to croak as I dropped back into the chair. 'Here?' My exhausted brain ground back into action. This could not be good news.
'Yes, here,' said Stefan gently, shooting his brother a furious look. 'She wants to meet you, but I saw her just now and convinced her to wait until tomorrow. I thought it might be better if you didn't have to deal with this tonight.' He shot a second glare at Damon as he finished speaking, and I felt obliged to speak up.
'It's OK, Stefan, really,' I said wearily. 'I'm glad Damon told me. It's good that I know what's going on.'
'She's right, Stefan.' Alaric spoke up quietly. 'It wouldn't have been any easier for her to hear the news tomorrow.'
Too mentally and physically exhausted to deal with more than one thing at once, I pushed this latest development, disturbing as it was, to the back of my mind. For the moment, I had another task to focus one. I nodded gratefully at Alaric, then turned my attention back to the Salvatore brothers.
'I think it's time I told you the full story.'
This time no one objected, and for the next half an hour, I talked. My voice growing hoarser and hoarser, I told them everything, from the beginning. How Emily had helped me. How we'd told everyone I was Katherine's cousin. And then, the full story of my involvement with the Council, right up until that fateful night when the massacre had taken place.
Damon telling me about my mother had reminded me of how honest we'd been with each other, in 1864. And how much that honesty had meant to me. With this in mind, I was as truthful as I could possibly be, not even eliminating the parts about how Stefan had been on Katherine's side, under her compulsion, even though I knew that hearing that would hurt him.
I missed out only one aspect of the story. How the friendship between myself and Damon had grown into something more. My voice caught in my throat as I remembered how he'd kissed me at the Founder's Ball. The night we'd spent together after the break-in. How, he'd told me he'd loved me when we'd been in the woods, after he'd rescued me from Katherine. As much as I wanted to be honest, I couldn't bring myself to tell any of that either of the brothers, especially in front of Ric, John and Jeremy. After all, I'd betrayed both of them, in a way, I thought, remembering the look on Damon's face when I told him I was in a relationship with his brother in 2010. A look that had broken my heart.
'So that's why we don't remember any of this,' Stefan said thoughtfully as I finished the story. 'The spell Emily used.'
Damon said nothing, simply staring at me with the same intense gaze that had become familiar to me recently. His eyes felt like they were boring straight into me. Unable to shake the feeling that he knew I was omitting something important, I dropped my gaze, breaking eye contact.
There was one other thing I hadn't mentioned to them. Emily's parting words, the message she'd sent me, about how I could get the brothers to remember. Bonnie could break the spell, I was sure of it. The question was, what would happen if she did? Could I bear to hurt Stefan that badly? And what would Damon feel if he knew what had really passed between us? I knew that I should probably tell them some time. They deserved to know the truth. But I didn't feel like I had the energy for that conversation tonight.
Damon's voice jolted me out of my thoughts.
'I bet,' he said in a slow drawl that made me instantly feel that no good could come from this, 'that another witch, one of Emily's descendents, say, could break that memory charm that's been place on both of us.' He shot a quick look at his brother, and then his gaze was back on me, the intensity of it making me feel physically uncomfortable. 'I don't know about you, Stefan, but I'd like to get my real memories back.'
Stefan had visibly brightened at this. 'Elena? Why don't you call Bonnie and see if she can come over?'
'Now?' I gasped, completely taken aback. I couldn't do this now. I wasn't ready. I needed time. To figure out what I was going to do when they found out the full story. To figure out how the hell I felt about both of them. That was all I needed. Just more time.
'Why not?' Damon asked in that same cool voice. He knew something was up. I was sure of it. He lifted his arm, indicating his watch. 'It's not actually that late, you know. And it's not like we'll be able to deal with this tomorrow, since we've got Isobel to worry about. Besides, don't you want to see her?'
He had me there. It had been a month since I'd seen Bonnie. My best friend. I'd missed her almost as much as Jeremy. I did want to see her. But if she came over, then the Salvatores would expect her to break the spell…my head started to spin as I frantically tried to figure out what the best thing to do was.
'Yes,' I managed to get out. 'I do want to see her. I'll call her.'
I patted down my pockets before realising my cell phone wasn't in any of them. I almost laughed as I realised how long it had been since I'd used it. Of course it wouldn't be in my pockets.
'You left your phone in the car, Elena,' Stefan said, noticing my actions. 'It's probably still in there.' He laid a hand on my arm. 'I'll go to Bonnie's. That way I can tell her what's happened on the way here, plus it'll be safer. We don't know what could happen, what will Isobel in town.'
'Thanks, Stefan.' I smiled weakly. There was always the possibility that Bonnie wouldn't be able to break the spell tonight, I told myself. Maybe she'd need to do some research, or look through Emily's grimoire. That would give me some time to warn Stefan and Damon, to prepare them for what was coming.
No one said anything after Stefan left. I could tell that they were all still processing my story. Jeremy, who hadn't said a word since I'd started speaking, reached over the table briefly to squeeze my hand. Somehow, that simple gesture conveyed everything – his relief that I was safe, along with his forgiveness. More relieved than I could say that we were no longer fighting, I blinked back tears as I smiled at him. Alaric and John began discussing something to do with Jonathan Gilbert and his inventions, but I tuned it out, too consumed with my inner turmoil to pay attention.
After fifteen minutes of watching Damon pace up and down the kitchen, I'd come to a decision, of sorts. There was a chance Bonnie would be able to break the spell when she arrived. And if that happened, surely telling one Salvatore brother the truth was better than telling neither of them.
Plucking up all my courage, I stood up. 'Damon, can I talk to you for a second? In the hall?'
Looking unsurprised, he merely nodded, and led the way into the hall. Detaching my hand from Jeremy's, I followed, being sure to close the kitchen door behind me.
I wasted no time once we were out of the kitchen. I was afraid that if I stalled, I'd chicken out.
'Damon, I wasn't completely honest with you before.' I said, forcing myself to get the words out. To just tell him. 'I mean, I was when I was telling you what happened to me, but…I missed out some things.'
Damon leaned slightly closer, his eyes looking directly into mine. My breath caught in my throat. He had me cornered against the wall, with no way to increase the distance between us. Which I wasn't even sure I wanted to do.
'What did you miss out, Elena?' he breathed, without breaking eye contact.
'I wasn't entirely honest about…about you and me.' My voice was so quiet, I could barely hear it.
His eyes widened, but before I could carry on, before he could respond, the front door opened, revealing a triumphant looking Stefan and Bonnie.
'Bonnie says she can do it, Elena. She can break the spell!' Stefan's voice trailed off as he took in the situation. My heart sank like a stone in my chest.
Hope it's been worth the wait! Please, please review, even if it's just to rant at us for leaving you in suspense for that long…:)