The first thing she saw were feet.
At first she thought maybe her uncle John had sat on the floor of their beige kitchen with his legs sprawled, though it didn't fit at all in his tailored, uptight image.
And then she saw the blood.
Horror and revulsion choked her; chills ran down her, making the hair on her body stand up on end as she stared in disbelief at the sight of her uncle—her biological father—leaning against the cabinets, his eyes open, a blank expression on his face.
"No," she begged, diving to her knees in the pool of blood that had formed around him, from what appeared to be a massive wound in his stomach. "Uncle John. Uncle John!" She looked down in horror at his right hand, which was missing most of his fingers, including the ring Stefan had said would protect him. The same ring Alaric wore.
"Oh god," she moaned, reaching forward to shake him. "Uncle John!" she cried. He wasn't moving. He wasn't breathing. Oh god, he was really… "Jenna!" she shouted desperately, turning to look at the entrance to the kitchen. "Jenna!"
No answer. No frantic running of feet to her impassioned plea. Nothing.
"Jenna!" she shouted again, her voice hitting a hysterical note.
A feeling of dread washed over her. Elena slowly climbed to her feet, terrified trepidation twisting in her stomach as she cautiously made her way through the living room. This couldn't be happening. Jenna couldn't… No. Jenna was fine. She couldn't be… "Jenna?" Elena half-pleaded, peering up the stairs.
Her heart hammered against her ribs as she slowly headed up the creaking staircase, clinging to the railing for support.
It seemed to take an eternity before she was finally at the top of the staircase, turning down the hallway to her aunt's bedroom. She felt tears already stinging in her eyes as she reached out for the door knob. Not Jenna, too. She couldn't lose Jenna, too. First her parents, then her birth mother, then her biological father… Not Jenna, too…
Elena turned the door knob and pushed.
Jenna ripped out her headphones and stared at her in a mixture of horror, terror, and fear as she sat up, mid-crunch on the floor in her yoga pants and white tank top.
"E-Elena?" Jenna asked, sounding as sickened as Elena felt relieved.
"Jenna, thank god," Elena sobbed, diving to her knees and throwing her arms around her aunt, not caring that she was getting her uncle's blood all over the woman. The woman's brother's blood. "I thought you—"
"Elena, what—" Jenna stammered, sounding stricken.
"I-it's Uncle John," Elena choked out. "Jenna… someone… in the kitchen…"
Jenna stared at her for only a split second before she was rushing out of the room. Elena followed her quickly. "Jenna, you don't want to—" Elena tried.
But it was too late. She heard her aunt's horrified screams. Elena closed her eyes and tried to compose herself—tried to hold herself calm despite the horror of the situation—and went to her brother's room. "Jeremy," she said through the closed door. "You need to come out. It's…" She didn't wait for an answer as she opened the door, a mixture of confusion and uneasiness stopping her in her tracks as she stared at her brother's still figure on his bed.
Jeremy Gilbert was covered in sweat, curled up uncomfortably on his bed in an awkward position that didn't resemble anything natural. He was buried in his pillows, and he was alarmingly pale and ashen.
"Jeremy?" Elena asked, feeling another chill through her body. She hurried to the bed, reaching over to shake her brother's shoulder. "Jeremy?" he was still warm under her hand, but he was unresponsive. Unmoving.
"Jeremy!" Elena cried. "No. No. No. Jeremy, what…" She pulled him to her, cuddling her brother's body, catching sight of the bathroom—of her prescription bottle open and empty on the countertop—and felt her hysteria grow. "Jeremy, no! Jeremy! No!"
She yanked out her phone and dialed 911, begging for an ambulance. And then she held her brother's body, rocked him, and sobbed.
"Stefan's cell phone. He's not in right now, but—"
She heard him shift, and somehow knew he had sat up from whatever lounging position he'd been in. "Where are you?"
Elena let out a shaky breath. "The hospital. Emergency room."
She heard him getting his keys, and she knew she shouldn't be so grateful, but she was. "I'll be right there." He hesitated. "I'll leave Stefan a note."
"Thank you." She heard her voice crack, and ended her call. Slowly, she made her way back to where Jenna was seated with her cup of coffee, still in her workout clothes, a blank look on her face.
"Jenna," Elena said softly. Her aunt looked up at her listlessly. "Do you want me to call Alaric?"
Jenna just stared at her. After a moment, she shook her head and looked away. Elena nodded and sat back down, bringing her knees to her chest as they waited for news of Jeremy.
Elena followed the steaming coffee cup in front of her to the pale hand holding it, up to the leather jacket covered arm, up to the broad shoulders, to the pale neck, to the strong jaw line and thin, well-sculpted lips, defined cheekbones, and finally up to the shockingly blue eyes of Damon Salvatore.
His normally proud, mocking, teasing expression was replaced with a sympathetic, calm, subdued expression that was so anti-Damon—and yet, perhaps, more Damon than the Damon he portrayed himself to be—that she felt tears spring to her eyes. If it was so serious that Damon had to be himself, his real self, then it really had to be helpless. Jeremy really might be…
She burst into tears, falling against his shoulder.
She felt him sigh, his arms wrapping securely around her. Damon didn't ask questions. He didn't say a word. He just held her and let her cry. She felt everything she had been shoving down rush up around her like a tidal wave, threatening to drown her, but Damon held her firmly, keeping her safe amidst all of the chaos in her mind.
Finally, when she was all cried out, she heard herself say, "It's Jeremy. He… overdosed…"
A change went over Damon. She felt it. His entire body stiffened. "Overdosed?" Damon repeated.
She pulled away slowly, exhausted after her crying fest. "On my pills."
"What room is he in?"
Alarm began to take hold. "What?" she asked, chills running down her body.
"What room, Elena?" Damon stood, looking suddenly agitated.
She stood as well. "I-I don't know… They won't let us see him y—Damon!" Damon was already headed down the hallway, through the Emergency Room doors.
"Elena, what is he—" Jenna demanded, looking outraged.
"I don't know," Elena told her quickly, rushing after him. "Damon, what is it?" she asked, keeping at his heels as he started looking in at beds. "What do you know about Jeremy?"
He didn't answer. "Damon!" she objected, grabbing his arm and spinning him to face her. He looked back at her, a flicker of irritation on his face. "What is it? What do you know?"
He looked tempted to ignore her, but he reluctantly said, "Jeremy had Anna's blood. If he drank it and dies with it in his system—"
"Flat line! Code blue! We need a crash cart in here!"
Elena cried out as her hand was suddenly empty. She looked up at the opposite side of the room, where Damon was staring in at a bed, where doctors and nurses were trying to push him out of the way, even as they rushed in behind a curtain, trying to get the machines ready.
At the sickened look on Damon's face, Elena felt her heart stop beating.
And then everything went black.
"Why didn't you take the blood away from him?"
Elena looked up numbly at Sefan's low, guttural hiss of fury. Her boyfriend was angry… on her behalf? At who?
Slowly, she focused on the eldest Salvatore brother, who was staring back at his brother through dark, unrelenting eyes. "It wasn't my decision," Damon returned quietly. "It was Jeremy's."
Elena straightened, wide-eyed, as Stefan grabbed Damon by his jacket and yanked him closer. "You should have taken it from him!" Stefan growled. "He was emotional and traumatized at the news of his girlfriend dying. You should have known he would do something irrational. How could you let him sit in his room with that bottle of blood?"
Damon shoved Stefan off of him. "Because that blood was the only thing he had left of her!" he snapped. "I wasn't about to take it from him."
Stefan leaned back and glared at him. "And now he's going to become a vampire, Damon. A vampire. You let this happen. You!"
Elena waited for Damon to fight back—to yell at Stefan and defend himself—but Damon just stared back at him. And then, to her astonishment, he looked away. "He wanted to keep her close to him forever. I wasn't going to take that from him."
"And you know the price you have to pay for that!" Stefan howled, grabbing Damon's shoulder and swinging his brother back to face him. Elena watched in shock as the two brothers faced each other down. "You, better than anyone, know what that feels like. And now you—you, Damon—have damned Elena's brother to that same torment for eternity! Eternity!"
Elena felt her heart sink. "Is it really so bad?" she asked softly, trembling. She saw the brothers both look at her out of the corner of her eye, falling away from each other, and slowly looked up at them. "Is it really so horrible? Is Jeremy… going to be miserable for the rest of his life?"
Stefan quickly knelt at her side. "No," he reassured her gently. "He won't be. We'll…" he hesitated, darting a half-glance over his shoulder at his brother, but went on, "We'll show him how to handle it. How to maintain his humanity. He'll be fine, Elena. I promise."
Damon turned away.
Stefan stood. "Where are you going?" he demanded.
Damon only turned back slightly. "He's going to be hungry when he wakes up," he replied quietly. "Don't you think he should be out of the hospital when that happens?"
"Oh god," Elena moaned. She heard Damon's footsteps leading out of the house and chased after him quickly, catching up to him as he reached the front door. "Damon!" she begged.
He turned back to her, his carefully guarded expression hiding anguish that was almost palpable. Stefan was wrong about him—he was all wrong. Damon felt responsible. And he was going to do whatever he could to fix it.
A soft, gentle hand lightly skimmed her cheek, startling her. "I'll take care of him," Damon promised quietly.
And then the door opened, and he was gone.
Elena hesitantly offered a smile at Damon. "Hi."
"What are you doing here?" Damon cast a quick look around the forest, thick with trees and brush and frowned, taking her arm. "It's not safe here."
She stopped as he started walking her back in the direction she had come from. "I wanted to know… how it was going."
He studied her for a moment. "No you don't," he declared, after a moment, then resumed walking.
"Damon, stop!" she protested, digging her heels in and pulling her arm free as she faced him. "He's my brother. I… want to know."
He took a step toward her, closing the distance between them. "Elena," he stated quietly. "It's not pretty. He's learning to hunt right now. It's messy and brutal and it's not all elegant lace and quick moves like the movies would have you believe. He's learning, and it takes some time."
"He's my brother," she repeated. She hesitated. "Look. I know you're trying to protect me… But I could really use…" She hesitated, but forced herself to meet his eyes. "Cavalier Damon." His eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "I know you feel like this is your fault, and Stefan isn't helping, but I know it's not. Jeremy was going to do whatever he wanted. You had nothing to do with it. And I… appreciate you helping him. I just could really use the old Damon who reassured me that everything was going to be fine and teased me too much."
He studied her. "I thought you didn't want me to tease you," he returned, but almost on command, a devilish twinkle lit his eyes and turned up the corner of his mouth.
"Right now, I could really just use some… normalcy." She sighed. "My uncle, who was actually my biological father, is dead, and my brother is a vampire. I kind of just want everything to go back to the way it was as much as possible."
She pulled back at the suddenly stricken look on Damon's face. "Everything?" he repeated.
She frowned. "Yes," she agreed slowly, bewildered.
He frowned back at her. "Elena, I don't—"
"I did it!" Jeremy's triumphant cry interrupted, ringing throughout the trees. They both turned, the strange, almost intimate moment between them interrupted as Jeremy appeared, holding the carcass of a dead raccoon, its throat torn out. Elena felt her stomach churn at the sight of her brother with his mouth covered in blood, his clothes drenched in it, but she forced her revulsion down, trying to remind herself of what Damon had said… and that it would get better. That Jeremy needed to do this to live.
That at least Jeremy was alive.
"Elena," Jeremy greeted, his smile falling.
"Hi, Jer," Elena returned, forcing a smile. "Looks like you're doing well. You have a good teacher."
Jeremy turned away from her. "Go away, Elena."
It was worse than any wound he could have inflicted. "Jeremy—" she protested.
"Go away!" he shouted. Before she could blink, he was gone, the raccoon discarded where he had been seconds before.
Elena felt her heart sink. Tears stung her eyes as she stared at the spot Jeremy had disappeared from.
"He doesn't want you to see him like this," Damon said quietly. "No one would."
"But that doesn't make any sense!" Elena protested. "He's my brother!"
"He's a monster," Damon returned. "He drinks blood to survive. He's not human anymore. He doesn't want you to know that side of him."
"I see you drink blood all the time!" Elena burst out angrily, turning on him. In that moment, his compassionate, understanding blue eyes were too much for her to take. "I don't think you're a monster! Why would I think Jeremy is?"
To her astonishment, Damon turned away from her. "Because you see something in me most people can't," he replied quietly. "Most people would think I'm a monster after everything I've done." She fell back, stunned. "Go home, Elena. I'm going to find Jeremy."
"Damon!" she protested.
But it was too late. He was gone.
"Where is he?" Elena demanded, shouldering her way past Damon and into the house.
"Ow, not so loud," Damon complained, holding a hand to his head. "He's in my bed. Which he stole!" he shouted pointedly up the stairs.
Elena didn't wait as she ran up to Damon's room, rushing to where her brother slept peacefully in the eldest Salvatore brother's bed. She scowled down at him in the darkness of the bedroom, wishing she could throw open the curtains and stream light into his eyes to wake him up. Instead she opted for shaking his shoulder roughly.
"Jeremy!" she shouted angrily.
"Not so loud," Damon complained again, from the doorway.
She ignored him and shook her grumbling brother's shoulder. "Jeremy!" she shouted again.
He moaned intelligibly and grunted something, but his eyes pulled apart. "Elena?" he asked. "What?"
Elena glared down at him. "Don't you dare ask me what! You know what! I heard all about you and Damon and your bar fight last night! What were you thinking? You'll be lucky if they don't press charges!"
"They're not going to press charges," Jeremy muttered. "We took care of it."
"You mean you compelled them," Elena reiterated, irritated. "That only goes so far, Jeremy! Everyone saw you. Caroline told me all about it this morning when I got to school. You have to be careful! You could have killed them. I heard they had to go to the emergency room!"
"They'll be fine," Jeremy groaned. "Ugh, I'm hungry."
As if he'd been waiting for those words, a water bottle full of blood went sailing through the air and landed beside Jeremy on the bed. Elena looked back at the doorway at Damon, who offered a cocky smile, then winced and rubbed his head. She looked back down at Jeremy, who eagerly began downing the contents from the bottle.
"Where's Stefan?" Damon asked, out of nowhere.
Elena frowned back at him. "Mr. Saltzman wanted to talk to him." She looked back at Jeremy. "Jeremy, you have to be careful. Jenna is going to figure out something is going on."
"Ric?" Damon repeated.
Elena scowled. "Yes," she confirmed, frowning. "Why?"
Damon looked unhappy. "Why did he want to talk to Stefan?" he asked.
"I don't know. He didn't say. He just asked to talk to him. Stefan'll tell us later." She narrowed her eyes at Damon. "What were you thinking, letting Jeremy get into a bar fight?"
Damon put a mocking hand to his chest. "Me?" he repeated. "I looked up and he was in a fight of three against one. It was my civic duty to join in and help even the odds."
Elena scowled at him. "You're vampires!" she objected angrily. "You could have killed them!"
He flashed a grin. "It's one of the many perks."
She turned back to Jeremy, sighing. "No more fights, Jer. Jenna is already mad that you aren't coming home."
Jeremy just waved a hand at her and drank from his bottle.
Elena reluctantly stood and turned back to Damon. "What about getting him a ring?" she asked.
"I'm meeting with someone tomorrow about it." He gave a wicked grin. "Want to come?"
"I have school."
"So skip it. Your brother is in need of a ring so he doesn't burst into ashes when he walks into the sunlight."
Elena stared at him, narrowing her eyes. "That was cruel, Damon."
His mocking smile fell a little, contrite, but before she could blink, his hands pressed together palm-to-palm. "Does that mean that you'll come? Let me make it up to you?" He flashed a wicked grin. "I'll show you a good time."
She eyed him warily. "Somehow, I don't think you and I have the same idea of a good time, Damon." She held up a hand as he began to protest. "I'll go. But only to make sure that you actually get him a ring and don't end up in some other country with some showgirl."
He was on her so quickly she breathed in and he occupied the space she had vacated. Startled, she looked up at him, her breath catching in her throat as she locked eyes with the deep blue ones. "Would you be jealous if I did?" he asked, a smirk curling up his pretty, perfect lips.
She expected to protest loudly and growl his name in annoyance, shoving him away from her. But, staring up into his blue eyes, breathing in his air and his strong, sexy cologne, she couldn't. Her jaw fell, working for an answer that was as stuck as her breath.
Who was…? Oh god, Stefan!
She quickly broke away from Damon, gasping to catch her ragged breath as she darted out of the room. "Up here, Stefan," she called down to him, trying to calm her pounding heart. He would be able to hear it, and he would want to know what was wrong, and how could she tell him that being close to his brother—who he was already worried she had feelings for—had made her heart skip into triple overtime?
Stefan was up the stairs quickly, but to her surprise, Alaric Saltzman was at his heels. She frowned at the teacher, a pit forming in her stomach. "Mr. Saltzman?" she asked warily. If he was with Stefan, it couldn't be good.
"Ric, you didn't call?" Damon asked, suddenly at her shoulder. She forced herself not to tense as his warm cologne invaded her senses and wrapped around her, angry that her knees went a little weak. This was Damon, of all… vampires. Damon, her boyfriend's older brother. She was not feeling weird about Damon. It wasn't happening. She refused to let it. "I'm offended. I thought we were the close ones."
"Cut the jokes," Alaric declared flatly. "We need to talk."
Elena looked up over her shoulder, watching Damon's taunting smirk die instantly. He stepped past her into the hallway as if she wasn't even there. Bewildered, and more concerned than ever, she looked up at Stefan, who approached as the other two headed down the stairs together.
"What's going on?" she asked Stefan, frowning.
He looked troubled. "There was some trouble last night," he told her, and from his voice, she could tell he was trying to brace her for bad news. "Two women were found murdered." He hesitated and met her eyes. "They're calling it an animal attack."
Elena felt the blood drain from her face. "But… there are other vampires in town, right? It could have been—"
"Most of them were killed in the fire," Stefan interrupted quietly. "But it could have been one of the ones that got away." He took her hands, his expression strong and tender. "We just want to make sure."
"But Jeremy and Damon wouldn't—" Elena tried, frowning.
"They were drunk. They got into a bar fight. They almost killed a few men and probably would have if they weren't thrown out. We don't know what they would or wouldn't do." Stefan glared down the stairs as if he could see his brother and stake him with his eyes. "Nowadays I don't know anything about Damon anymore."
Elena shook her head vehemently. "No. You're wrong. You're wrong about Damon and about Jeremy. They wouldn't just kill a couple of girls. They're… They're not that sloppy, Stefan!"
"Alaric is just checking," Stefan soothed her gently, rubbing her arms comfortingly.
"Well he's wrong," Elena insisted. "That's my brother he's talking about. And Damon isn't the monster everyone thinks he is. Just because he does some horrible things doesn't mean he's going to go around killing people—and even if he did, he wouldn't be stupid enough to leave the bodies laying around for anyone to find!"
Stefan eyed her. "You really seem to understand him," he declared quietly. "I… never really could."
She frowned at his tone, already knowing where the conversation was headed. "Damon isn't a bad person," she pointed out, wrapping her arms around his neck. "But that doesn't mean I want to be with him. I chose you, Stefan."
He offered a weak smile. "I know. And I'm grateful every day."
She nodded, relieved, and stepped away. "But that's still my brother Alaric is talking about." She headed down the stairwell, Stefan at her heels.
As they entered the living room, they heard Damon seethe, "And I certainly wouldn't be stupid enough to leave the bodies laying around for some idiot to find."
Elena felt a surge of triumph go through her. Those had been almost her exact words. She knew Damon and Jeremy hadn't done it. She knew it! Damon had been hunting with Jeremy just yesterday. He would never let her brother around people if he thought Jeremy was a danger to them. Damon wasn't heartless like people thought he was.
She turned to give Stefan a smug smile, feeling it die when she found his eyes on her, almost… heartbroken. Startled, she straightened, but he headed into the room. "So I take it Damon and Jeremy are innocent?" Stefan asked, sounding strangely tired.
Elena frowned after him, but she followed, watching Damon and Alaric fall away from each other.
"It would appear not," Alaric agreed dryly, brushing off his shirt. "I just asked, Damon."
"Well next time go accuse someone else of being stupid," Damon retorted, sounding annoyed. "Whoever did this did it because they were either trying to draw attention to the vampires in this town, which my diet of stolen hospital blood—which is oh so tasty, by the way—clearly is not intended for, and my brother's scavenging in the woods for little woodland critters is pathetically obviously not designed to do, or they did it because they're a new vampire. And the only new vampire we know about was practically handcuffed to my side all night, so I know for a fact that it wasn't him." He turned to them in irritation. "God, why is it that someone gets their throats ripped out and suddenly everyone looks right at me? Do you know how long it's been since I had a decent kill? I mean, really?"
"I didn't," Elena pointed out quietly, meeting his eyes. When his anger seemed to hesitate, she went on. "When my… When Uncle John was murdered. I didn't assume it was you at all."
He gave her a look of gratitude that disappeared almost as soon as it appeared. "Well there's one," he snapped to Alaric and Stefan, who stared back at him.
"Damon, we were just asking," Alaric reassured him.
"And after I warned you about the vampire attack at the Founder's Day Celebration," Damon sighed at him. He shook his head. "I really thought we were closer than that, Ric."
Alaric stared at him blankly. "You tried to kill me."
"Ancient history." Damon waved a hand and wrapped an arm around his neck. "You're like an Etch-a-Sketch. No matter how many times I ruin you, I can just shake you and you come back. We've got the perfect bromance."
Alaric eyed him. "You ever use that word with me again and I'll stake you myself."
"So there's another vampire in town?" Elena asked, frowning at them.
Damon released Alaric, who sighed. "That's the only explanation, other than Damon went to the dark side."
"Thank you," Damon mocked, eyeing him. He turned and went to the table, pouring himself a drink.
"Damon, you and Jeremy did have a lot to drink last night," Stefan hedged slowly.
It was the wrong thing to say. Elena felt the crackle of electricity in the air even before Damon turned and glared back at his brother. She was glad she wasn't on the receiving end of that cold look, which felt like it would reduce Stefan to ashes in just seconds, and possibly take her with it just for being in Damon's peripheral.
"Stefan," Elena objected gently, taking his arm before he and Damon had a chance to get into it. "He and Jeremy didn't do it." She looked up at Alaric and Damon, who turned back to pouring his drink, his entire body tense. "So what do we do?"
Alaric let out a sigh. "Until we find out who it is, it's not safe to be alone. It could be anybody."
"Well that's not a scary thought," Elena murmured.
"Oh, don't worry, Elena," Damon reassured her loudly, talking over Stefan as he started to comfort her. They all paused and looked up at him as he began drinking from his glass, his eyebrows darting up suggestively at her. "You're probably the safest girl in Mystic Falls. With three vampires and a…" He looked over at Alaric. "Do you still consider yourself a vampire hunter?"
Alaric looked back at him. "I'm a Damon-hunter."
Damon looked back at Elena. "And a Damon-hunter protecting you, you've got nothing to worry about."
When he grinned, Elena wasn't so sure that was true.
"Damon," Elena moaned. "We've been driving for almost two hours. Where are we meeting this… seller?"
"Seller?" Damon repeated, scoffing amusedly at her. "Who said anything about a seller?"
Elena felt her heart fall into her stomach. "Damon," she warned, her anger growing. "You do have someone to get Jeremy a ring from… don't you?"
"Of course I do." He looked over at her. "What, now you think I'm a liar, too?"
"I never said that," she objected, scowling. "But you said—"
"I said I never said anything about a seller." He eyed her. "Lighten up, Elena."
"I'm light," she returned evenly, looking over at him. "And I'll be even lighter when my brother isn't cooped up in your house during sunlight hours."
He made a face at her. "You know what you need?" he asked. She gasped as the car suddenly pulled off the road, crying out in terror as the low-riding sports car suddenly felt like it would flip.
"Not to die?" she cried.
"To relax," he corrected. She stared in disbelief as he pulled into the parking lot of the state's theme park.
He pulled into a parking spot and put the car into park. "Now don't make me drag you," he requested. "I don't like all the funny looks." He paused thoughtfully. "I could compel you…"
"You said we were getting Jeremy a ring!" she burst out furiously, angry at herself for trusting him.
He regarded her calmly. "I also said you needed to relax. Now. Should I yank that pretty little necklace off of your neck and compel you out of the car, or will you come willingly?"
She crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm not going," she declared angrily. "Go yourself. Or take one of those women you pick up in the bar out on a date. I'm not going, Damon. You lied to me!"
She felt a snappy retort start to come out of him, but to her surprise, it didn't come. Slowly, she looked back at him, seeing him gaze at her seriously. "Elena, I didn't lie to you. I'm getting your brother a ring. But you also need to relax."
She tried to fight it, but gazing into his deep blue eyes melted her heart. She felt some of her anger give way. He seemed to know it, too, because he suddenly flashed a grin and climbed out of the car. In a flash he was at her door, opening it and bowing gentlemanly to gesture her out. "My lady."
She rolled her eyes, but it was almost cute. Reluctantly, she climbed out of the car. "One hour," she relented, pointing a finger at his chest. "Just one. And then we go get Jeremy's ring."
He made a face. "One hour is a line for a ride." He shut the door behind her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Come on, Elena. Live a little!"
"I did live. If you want to continue doing the same, you'll get my brother his ring!"
"So violent." He tugged her to the gates.
Despite her protests, she couldn't resist admitting that by the third rollercoaster she was having a good time. A great time, even. Damon was surprisingly good company, and he was actually quite a gentleman.
Plus he bought her cotton candy.
"How do you eat that stuff?" Damon asked, wincing as she stuck a piece of the pink cotton fluff into her mouth.
She laughed. "It's good!"
He grimaced. "I remember when it was invented. It's not good. It's poison on a paper cone."
"You don't know what you're missing," she admonished. "It's like…"
"Sugar on a stick?" he supplied.
She laughed and bumped him with her side. He could easily have stood his ground, but as if he were trying to act as human as possible, he went off-step, as if she had really done him damage. It was such a silly, small thing, but she found herself strangely touched by the gesture. "It's good," she insisted. "Thank you."
He nodded his acknowledgement, his blue eyes twinkling in the sunlight. She knew she shouldn't care that Damon was having a good time, but she did. A part of her was pleased that he was having fun, and that he had dragged her to the theme park to escape everything back home, and he had done it just for her.
Guilt began to creep in, but he suddenly grabbed her hand and began tugging. "Where are we—" she started, shocked.
"Gypsy hut," he commanded, heading to the small purple tent covered with glittery suns, stars, and moons. The front part was parted, waiting for occupants, tassles hanging down in a fringe along the edges.
Elena gaped up at him. "Gypsy hut?" she asked, staring up at him. "Are you serious?"
"Why?" she asked.
"Because it's fun, Elena. Geez, do I have to explain fun to you?" He shot her an exasperated look and ducked into the tent without letting go of her hand, pulling her in with him.
She sighed, stopping short as they stared at the old woman sitting behind the table who looked up at them. She looked around sixty, but her skin was flawless and beautiful, her dark eyes gazing at them from under a dark blue silk scarf. She wore a light, flowing dark blue robe and a dark blue cord around her waist. A dozen necklaces covered her neck, and a ring adorned each finger.
Elena stared at her in disbelief, hardly able to believe that Damon was actually going to pay money for this.
The woman's hard face suddenly broke into a smile. "You're late," she said, standing.
"I brought you poison," he offered, grabbing Elena's cotton candy stick and holding it out to her.
Elena watched, stunned, as the two suddenly embraced tightly. And then the woman closed the tent behind them and gestured them into the two seats across the small, purple-cloth covered table from her.
"It's been too long, Damon," the woman sighed, smiling fondly at him.
"You still look gorgeous," he returned, grinning devilishly at her. "There some where private we can go before I have to head out?"
She waved a hand at him. "Don't you start with me. I'm an old woman now. You might break one of my hips."
He winked at her. "I'll be gentle."
She grinned impishly. "That was never as much fun."
"You two know each other?" Elena asked, shocked at the surge of jealousy and annoyance that soured her good mood. What was she jealous about? Damon? Of all people? No… It couldn't be. Why would she be jealous about Damon? She was with Stefan. Stefan. Damon was just her friend. She was not jealous.
"Oh, we go way back," the woman said coyly, smiling at Damon. Damon grinned wickedly at her. She turned to her. "You must be Elena."
Elena straightened, looking from Damon back to the woman. "That's right," she agreed slowly. "You are…?"
"Razzia." She gave Elena a sympathetic look. "It is your brother who was turned?"
Elena gaped at her, then over at Damon. "You told her?" she asked, horrified. How could Damon go around telling people she didn't even know about her family? She had never felt so betrayed. How could he—
"Of course I did." Damon looked back at her with his shockingly blue eyes, his expression condescendingly patient. "Who do you think is going to give us the ring?"
Elena stared at him for only a second longer before turning back to the woman, who graced her with a small smile. "You?" she asked, astonished. "You're who we came here to meet?"
She nodded, and as if by magic, produced a large silver ring with a dark blue lapis lazuli stone set in the middle. She set it on the table between them. "For your brother," she told Elena.
Elena stared at it, feeling her heart alternately sing with relief and sink with realization that this really was real. Jeremy really was a vampire. He needed that in order to be able to go out into the sun—just like Stefan and Damon.
Jeremy was a vampire.
Damon slid his ring off and held it out to Elena. She took it, stunned. She didn't think she'd ever seen Damon take his ring off before, and for him to hand it to her… The old woman seemed just as shocked as she was, looking from Damon to Elena and back again. Elena watched as Damon picked the ring up off of the table without letting his eyes leave the woman's and leaned back, reaching through the closed curtains and into the sunlight with one hand.
He swore under his breath and yanked his hand back in, his light blue eyes darkening in fury as he glared at the woman across the table. Elena felt her heart sink as he yanked his ring back from her and slid it back on, slamming the other ring back on the table between them.
"Razzia—" he started menacingly, standing.
"It was Katherine!" Razzia cried, her eyes wide with terror. Elena felt her heart skip, and even Damon paused, looking caught off-guard. "Katherine threatened to kill me if I gave you a ring for her brother."
Elena's head spun. Katherine had threatened to kill this woman Elena had never met if she provided Jeremy with a ring? But why? What was she trying to do? "How does Katherine know about Jeremy?" Elena asked the woman, suddenly chilled despite the temperature spike in the small tent.
The woman looked fearfully between her and Damon. "She knows everything. She has people… everywhere." Her eyes fell to Damon. "She's not happy, Damon. She doesn't want you and Stefan close to this girl. You know what she's capable of. No one is safe."
Elena slowly looked up at Damon. A million emotions flickered across his face, finally settling into cold fury. "She hid for 150 years," he returned darkly. "Now is a little late for her to try and have a say about our lives." He sat back down. "And you can tell her that when you see her."
The old woman looked shaken, but some color returned to her face. "You're not going to kill me?" she asked, sounding stunned.
He scowled at her. "I'd love to show you just how much your ass has fallen since the last time I saw you. But I need you to make that ring."
She looked stricken. "I can't…"
"You will." He leaned forward and glared at her over the table. "Now."
"Elena," Stefan greeted, leaning down to kiss her lightly. "How are you feeling?"
Katherine Pierce forced herself to smile tightly. "I'm dealing," she admitted. She let out a sigh. "Thanks for coming, Stefan. Being around you… It makes me feel better."
He covered her hand with his on the table. Katherine tried not to be annoyed that Stefan had never been so demonstrative with her as she smiled weakly up at him in Elena's smile. "You're being amazing through this," Stefan told her quietly. "I don't know how you can continue to look at Damon after everything he's done."
Katherine quickly thought back to what she had overheard Elena say. "It's not Damon's fault," she objected. "He thought he was helping Jeremy. It just didn't work."
A flash of anger went through Stefan's eyes. Katherine felt her jealousy spike and tried not to splinter the table under them in her anger and give away her identity. "He's lucky that you care so much about him," he said softly. "Damon hasn't had anyone understand him in a long time. He hasn't opened up since Katherine."
She was pleased to hear that, even though she knew it already. She met his eyes in Elena's half-pleading, half-strong style. "He just needs someone to be his friend," she insisted. "He's doing a great job looking after Jer."
Stefan sighed and lightly squeezed her hand, so softly she almost couldn't feel it, but she knew Elena would have felt it as a tight grip and tried to contract her hand accordingly. He leaned back in his chair. "What do you want to do today?" he asked her, sounding tired and defeated.
Katherine felt her anger grow. Elena had her younger Salvatore lover tied up in knots. That damn human… When Katherine was done with her, Elena would beg for death. "I don't know," Katherine replied, keeping her tone light. She deliberately reached for her phone, the replica of Elena's that she had purchased, and began to go through it. "I thought maybe we could—"
In a practiced move that she knew looked completely natural, she dropped the phone on the ground, letting out a gasp of surprise. She jumped down from the chair even as Stefan reached down for the phone, deliberately crushing the phone under her heel with her incredible strength. She tried not to smile in satisfaction when she felt it destroyed under her boot, diving to her knees to gather up the pieces.
"Oh no!" she cried, throwing her voice into horror.
"Oh, oh no," Stefan fretted, troubled. "Oh… I… I don't think that's… fixable…"
She held up the crushed piece of metal and plastic and let out a deliberate cry. "Jenna's going to be so mad at me," she moaned, naming Elena's aunt. "I need to replace this before she finds out."
"Sure," Stefan agreed immediately. "Do you want me to go with you?"
Katherine smiled up at him, her gratitude almost genuine. "Yeah—thank you, Stefan."
They'd been driving in silence, a heavy thickness in the air between them, for almost an hour when Elena decided she couldn't take it anymore.
"Did you know?" she finally asked, turning to Damon hesitantly. He didn't look back at her, but she sensed him waiting for her to continue. "Did you know that Katherine was… following you? You and Stefan?"
He half-glanced at her, which was as much confirmation as she needed. "Damon!" Elena hissed angrily. "If you knew, why didn't you say something? She could be the vampire in town! The one who killed the two girls!"
He shot her an annoyed look. "Don't be ridiculous," he snapped. "Katherine wouldn't want to start a hunt for vampires anymore than Stefan and I do. She was almost caught in the last one, remember?" He scowled and faced the road again. "Besides. If she were in town, I would know."
"How?" Elena demanded. "How would you know? She looks just like me, right? What if you thought she was me and she pretended to be me and just waved at you from across the street? You would have no idea."
"The unbeating heart might give it away," he retorted flatly, glaring at her in old-Damon style. "Katherine isn't in Mystic Falls. If she was…"
When he didn't finish, she pressed him. "What?" she asked. "What, Damon? You two would pick up where you left off? Run away together and live for eternity ripping people's throats out? What?"
She wasn't sure who was more surprised by her outburst—her or him. The car suddenly felt too hot and she wanted to reach out and turn on the air conditioning. Her heart hammered so hard against her ribs she was sure his sensitive ears could hear it. She felt strangely flushed and accusing, and yet it made no sense for her to feel that way. She had no right to be upset if Damon decided to run away with Katherine. Wasn't that why she had befriended him in the first place? To help him get into the tomb and get her out until they had discovered she wasn't in there?
But the idea of Mystic Falls without Damon seemed so… empty. So boring. She couldn't imagine calling Stefan and not having Damon answer the phone instead and talking to her for half an hour until she realized she was late for whatever she had been planning on doing. She couldn't imagine going to a festival or a town event and not having Damon there to taunt her in some way that would undoubtedly irritate her and at the same time be somehow sweet when she thought about it later.
She didn't want to think about her life without Damon in it.
And besides that… Katherine was a ruthless killer!
Damon faced the road again, his expression uncharacteristically grim and serious. "I'd toss her out into the sun without her necklace."
She had no right to be relieved. She had no right to be happy. Her heart had no right to sing. Her shoulders had no right to relax. It was Damon's life—Damon was allowed to do whatever he wanted with it.
And yet at his words, all she wanted to do was throw her arms around him and hug him.
She slowly looked down at the ring in her hand that would allow Jeremy the freedom to walk around in the sunlight, then back up at Damon. "You made me think you were taking me to the park for fun," she started slowly, watching his eyes flicker over to her, "but you were actually there for that woman the whole time, weren't you?"
He offered a cavalier grin that didn't touch his eyes. "It was fun, though, wasn't it?"
She looked back down at the ring. "Thank you, Damon." When she looked back up at him, the smile was gone and his eyes were carefully fastened back on the road. "Thank you for taking me and getting my mind off of everything for a little while."
He offered a light scoff. "You and my brother like to brood," he retorted. "I'm trying to break you out of his pattern."
She reached over and squeezed his hand, knowing Damon would never be able to accept her appreciation verbally. His light expression died quickly to a serious one as he glanced back at her. "Thank you," she said again.
He nodded slightly, looking almost pained. She released his hand and held onto the ring. She knew if the woman hadn't been afraid of Damon, Jeremy never would have gotten it. She was lucky Damon was willing to look out for Jeremy.
And, as she thought of the cotton candy and roller coasters he had taken her on before finally taking her to the woman who had eventually made Jeremy's ring, she couldn't help but think that she was pretty lucky he was looking out for her, too.
Katherine giggled as she plugged "Elena's" new cell phone number into Stefan's phone. She looked up and darted a quick look around, making sure Stefan was still at the coffee stand before quickly blocking Elena and Damon's cell phone numbers just like the man at the cell phone store had shown her how to do.
Now, she thought triumphantly, Stefan was all hers.
"He has a ring, now, Damon, thanks to you," Elena reminded, shifting the phone as she straightened out her black dress and surveyed her image in the mirror. She let out a sigh, deciding that she looked good enough for a funeral, and walked back into her bedroom. "Could you at least try to convince him to come? It's… important. Jenna needs him." She hesitated, thinking of their uncle—her father—sitting sprawled out on the kitchen floor. "And so do I."
Damon was silent on the other end of the phone. And then he let out a dramatic sigh. "I'll see what I can do. See if I can't get him to make an appearance with me."
Elena straightened, startled. "You're coming?" she asked, her heart skipping a beat.
"Of course. With you and my wimpy brother crying all over each other, you'll be useless. Jenna's still numbed out, so Ric'll have his hands full trying to take care of her and make sure she stands where she needs to. That leaves moi to make sure that things get done." He let out a sound of irritation. "Besides. The founding families are all going, and you know they'll expect me to be there. John was part of the inner circle." She could almost hear the smirk on his face. "Until he knocked out Liz. I think she's still pissed at him about that one. Some things even death can't conquer."
"Liz…" Elena repeated slowly, then straightened. "You mean Sheriff Forbes? Caroline's mom?"
"Who else would I be talking about?" She could hear him through the phone, getting dressed, the soft fabric of shirt rustling in the speaker. "I guess she didn't want him to use Jonathan Gilbert's device on the day of the celebration and so he 'convinced' her by knocking her out."
Elena felt her anger at her uncle surge up around her. "And because of it killed a lot of people—and almost killed you."
There was a hesitation on the phone. She could feel him lift it from his shoulder, but he said nothing.
Elena paused, frowning, picking her phone up off of her shoulder as she finished putting on her left shoe. "Damon?" she asked warily. Was he mad at Bonnie for him almost dying? Was he going to seek revenge? He couldn't… Bonnie would kill him. And Elena still cared about Bonnie… even if she didn't think she could deal with her for a while.
Damon suddenly plunged on. "Yep, but luckily for me, the witch did have a few party tricks. So Stefan is picking you up?"
Something was wrong. She could hear it in his voice. She held the phone tighter, as if that would somehow help her pick out what was wrong with his tone. "Damon?" she asked again. "Do you—"
"Elena? Stefan's here! Are you ready?"
Elena swore softly, startling herself. On the other end of the phone was more silence, but she could hear the catch in Damon's non-breath, as stunned as she was at her annoyance at being interrupted.
"I'll be right down!" she called, trying to cover the mouth piece of her phone.
"Yeah, doesn't really help," she heard a half-pained, half-teasing voice say in her ear.
"What doesn't?" she asked, uncovering the mouth piece.
"Covering the mouth piece. You've got vampire hearing on the other end. Designed to pick up teeny tiny sounds. And amplifies the loud shout you just did from right beside my ear."
"Sorry," she returned, making a face at the phone. "I'll… see you there?" And she didn't like how that sounded, saying it to him, because it sounded wrong. It sounded too intimate. Something she should only be saying to Stefan.
Stefan, who was waiting downstairs while she sat on the phone with his brother.
Guilt gnawed at her.
"Yep. With your little brother in tow. You can thank me later."
"Thank you," she said deliberately, ending her call. She shakily tossed one last look in the mirror, and then hurried down the stairs. Alaric and Stefan were talking quietly in the entryway, both wearing black suits, pausing as they saw her.
"Bad news?" she asked, her heart sinking as she finished stepping down the last of the stairs to join them.
Alaric and Stefan exchanged a look. Stefan turned to her, his face tight with concern. "There's been another attack," Stefan told her quietly. "A couple, right in the middle of the road. Their throats were torn out."
Elena stared at him, trying to process the news. And then she looked over at Alaric, warily noticing that both were watching her closely. "You can't possibly think…" she started, taking a step back, away from them.
"We don't know," Stefan reassured her quickly, shaking his head. "He and Jeremy are out all hours of the night, if either of them lost control, even for a moment…"
She couldn't believe they were even considering this possibility—again. "He's teaching Jeremy how to hunt, Stefan!" she objected, trying to keep her voice low. It was hard with the anger coursing through her. "He's trying to teach Jeremy how to survive on his own. He feels responsible for… what happened."
"I know," Stefan soothed, rubbing her arms. She forced down her annoyance, reminding herself that Stefan was just angry on her behalf anyway, and leaned into him as he pulled her into his arms. "We need to find whoever is responsible," he said to Alaric.
"I'm out every night," Alaric said back, his voice low to avoid being overheard. "But whoever it is isn't coming after me."
"Which could mean that they know you're ready for them," Stefan pointed out quietly.
Elena felt her anger surge again and pulled away from him. "I should get Jenna. We're going to be late." She turned and walked into the living room, where her aunt was sitting in the darkened room, staring at the wall. Her heart ached at the sight. "Jenna?" she asked softly, approaching the couch.
Her aunt looked up numbly. "Elena," she greeted, subdued.
Elena stood beside her. "It's time to go. Are you ready?" When Jenna stared back at her blankly, Elena had to force down her tears. "Uncle John's funeral."
Jenna nodded slowly and rose from the couch. Wordlessly, Elena led her out of the living room, grateful when Alaric took over, wrapping an arm around Jenna's waist and leading her to his waiting car.
"I've never seen her like this," Elena told Stefan quietly, trying to hold back her sobs. "Not even when my parents died. She just looks so… broken."
"She'll make it." Stefan reassured her gently, squeezing her hand. He led her out of the house, to his car.
"She wasn't even close to him," Elena murmured, staring at the back of Alaric's car, and Jenna's head through the back window. "But she's so… destroyed by this."
"Maybe that's why," Stefan suggested thoughtfully, from the driver's seat. "Maybe because she wasn't close to John, and she didn't like him, she feels the guilt that much… heavier."
Elena sighed. "Maybe," she agreed, gazing out the passenger window.
It was a short ride to the cemetery. Elena tried not to be overwhelmed by the amount of people already gathered, forcing down her uneasiness as she quickly scanned the crowd for any sign of Jeremy and Damon.
She turned at her name, letting out a sigh when she felt two small, thin arms wrap tightly around her. "Caroline," she greeted, sighing. "You shouldn't be here. How are you feeling?"
"Of course I'm here," Caroline admonished, stepping back to reveal herself in a pretty black jersey dress. "You're my best friend. What kind of friend would I be if I weren't here for you? And I'm fine." She swung a bit to her right to indicate Matt. "Matt's taking excellent care of me."
"Matt," Elena greeted, relieved. She gave him a tight hug. "Thank you for coming."
"Wouldn't miss it." He hugged her back with his familiar embrace, stepping back to smile in concern down at her. "How are you holding up?"
"We're dealing," Elena admitted. "Jenna's taking this pretty hard."
"What, no hug for me?"
They all turned, Elena's heart skipping a beat at the sight of the tall, dark haired, pale, bright blue-eyed man standing with her brother. Both were wearing black suits, looking handsome and dashing.
Elena gave Damon a patient smile, trying to hide her relief and gratitude at the sight of him even as she turned and hugged her brother, who looked uncomfortable and uneasy in the crowd. "Jer," she sighed. "I'm glad you're here. Jenna will be, too."
"Damon said you said she's been acting weird."
Elena tried not to notice Stefan stiffen or that Jeremy hadn't hugged her back as she pulled away from her brother, who wouldn't meet her eyes. "She's taking Uncle John's death—"
"Don't you mean your father's?" Jeremy interrupted flatly, looking at her through blank, almost unfeeling eyes.
There was a silence throughout the group as Elena stared at her brother in horrified betrayal.
And then Damon's hand cracked on the back of Jeremy's head with a loud slap. "What did I tell you?" Damon demanded, in his mock-patient tone. "If you can't keep secrets, we won't tell them to you. And then you'll miss out on all the fun stuff."
Jeremy eyed him in annoyance, rubbing a hand on the back of his head where he'd been hit. "I just don't see the point in lying," Jeremy muttered. "It's not like she's not going to tell everyone eventually. Might as well get it out in the open now."
"Well that's her choice to tell, not yours." Damon wrapped an arm around Jeremy's neck and addressed the group, his eyes settling on Elena's. "Excuse us while we go make nice." As he pulled Jeremy away, Elena heard him say in his exaggerated patient tone, "Nice is when you say things that won't make people mad. I know it's not as exciting as pissing people off, but…"
Elena stared after them for a minute, slowly looked back at Caroline and Matt's stunned faces, and then, deciding she couldn't deal with it, tossed out a quick apology and chased after her brother and Damon.
"Jeremy, wait!" she called.
Damon swung the two back around. Jeremy looked miserable, as if he'd just been thoroughly scolded, and Damon expressive face was masked with pleasantness, but she could see the sorrow and regret just under the surface.
"You're right," Elena told her brother's bowed head, watching him look up through his lashes. "I would have told them eventually. I just… would have liked to do it. On my own time." She crossed the few feet between them, studying her brother, and then looking up at Damon before looking back at Jeremy. "What's going on with you? Are you okay?"
Jeremy suddenly looked up at her with a glare. "Damon dragged me here against my will. I'm locked up in that house unless Damon lets me out. I am hungry all the time. I have more rules now than I did when I lived at Jenna's, and I could snap almost all of the people here in half. Would you be okay if you were me, Elena?"
Elena looked between Jeremy and Damon, alarmed at the change that had come over her brother and at the wave of hostility and fury she could feel emanating from him. Damon's bright blue eyes were serious, his face set, confirming Jeremy's words. She felt a little disappointed that Damon hadn't shared all of that with her, but she knew he had kept it to himself to protect her and not worry her, and though she was annoyed that had kept it from her, she was also a little grateful that he was trying to look out for her. "Jer," she started slowly, looking back at her brother. "Damon is trying to protect you. And this town. Until you can control yourself—"
"I can control myself just fine," Jeremy hissed furiously.
Damon gave him a little shake. At least, it looked like a little shake, but it was clearly hard enough to subdue Jeremy, who winced and looked back up at him, irritated. "You're doing a great job of demonstrating that," Damon agreed conversationally. "Now, should we go practice in front of the founding families before I take you to see your aunt?"
"I just want to go home," Jeremy muttered.
"After the funeral, emo boy. If you're really good, I'll take you hunting."
"There's a party," Elena objected quickly, pleadingly. She looked from Jeremy to Damon. "At the house. Just a little get together. I think the founding families will all be there. Right after the ceremony."
"I'm not going," Jeremy declared, looking away.
"Jer, please," Elena begged, trying to reason with her brother. "Jenna really needs us right now. She's… she's a mess, Jer. She doesn't even seem to know where she is half the time. I…" She hated spilling Jenna's secrets, but she had to make Jeremy understand. "I had to dress her this morning. She just lies in bed all the time. And I can't," oh god, she was crying, "I can't do this by myself." She reached out and took his hand pleadingly, meeting the dark brown eyes that met hers. "Jeremy, please. We're all each other have left, now."
Jeremy stepped forward, and to her relief, wrapped his arms tightly around her. She let out a sob, burying her face in her brother's chest. As she lifted her head to rest her cheek on her brother's shoulder, she caught sight of Damon standing there, staring at her with so much compassion and genuine tenderness on his face that she would have been blind to miss it.
She felt her heart ache in gratitude.
Thank you, she mouthed to him, hugging Jeremy tighter.
He inclined his head in acknowledgement, his eyes falling closed before he looked away.
Elena tossed the makeup wipe into the trashcan and stared at herself in the mirror. She looked tired. Her skin looked dulled without foundation to give it some luster. The dark circles under her eyes were especially noticeable without concealer. She looked, in a word, horrible.
She sighed and stepped out of the bathroom, grateful that the long day was over. Jeremy had reluctantly agreed to stay the night in his room, which Damon had been against, but after showing him the cooler of blood she had set up in his closet, he had reluctantly agreed. Jenna wouldn't be going through Jeremy's room anytime soon, anyway. She had spent the entire party sitting on the couch with Alaric, looking like a zombie. He had been the one accepting people's condolences for her—Elena made a mental note to thank him tomorrow at school.
As she stepped into her bedroom she gasped, staggering backwards and clutching her racing heart. Damon lay on her bed, his feet crossed at his ankles, his hands behind his head, looking obnoxiously comfortable and at home.
"Damon," she hissed, quickly hurrying to her bedroom door to shut it before turning back to her. Guiltily, she couldn't help being embarrassed that she had just finished taking off her makeup. "What are you doing here?"
"I thought you could use a roommate." He settled more into her bed. "This bed is big enough for two, don't you think?" He shot her a wicked grin.
Her heart skipped but she tried to force it down. "I do not," she declared. "If anyone would be sharing it with me, it would be my boyfriend. Stefan. You know, your brother?"
"Oh, don't remind me," Damon scoffed, rolling his eyes. "He's not as much fun as me, I promise you that." He winked deliberately at her. "C'mon, I promise not to invade your side too much. But if you roll onto mine in your sleep, all bets are off."
She studied him as she crossed to the bed, sitting cross-legged on the free side of the bed and facing him. He shifted to look up at her, still grinning. "You're worried, aren't you?" she asked, watching his lighthearted expression fall. "Jeremy?"
He eyed her, smiling impishly. "Or maybe it's just an excuse to get into your bed. What do you think?"
"Is he dangerous?" she asked quietly, choosing to ignore the flutter of butterflies in her stomach.
His expression turned suddenly serious. "He's a vampire, Elena. Of course he's dangerous."
"You know what I mean, Damon." She lowered her eyes to her bedspread, running her fingers over the stitching. It was in a wide swirling pattern that she had never really understood. Why did a comforter need stitches on it? "Are Jenna and I not safe with Jeremy in the house?" She lifted her eyes to his bright blue ones, smoldering in the dim light of her room. "Why didn't you tell me you were keeping him under lock and key?"
"You have enough to worry about," Damon replied quietly, confirming what she already knew. "He's emotional. He was emotional when he was alive, so being a vampire has just amplified what he was. He's more of himself than he was before."
Elena didn't know if she wanted the truth or a lie when she asked, "Will he be okay?"
"Well, he's dead," Damon offered.
She stared at him, half-tempted to hit him, and half-tempted to laugh. When his blue eyes lit slightly, she couldn't resist laughing, giving up and falling down beside him against the pillows, mirroring his position on the bed. It was strange how companionable she felt with Damon—how comfortable it was to be with him like this.
"He'll be fine, Elena," Damon reassured her, his tone as light as if he were dismissing a known fact. "He just needs some time to adjust and some training. Don't worry your pretty little head about it. You look like hell enough as it is."
She laughed out loud, embarrassed and indignant as she reached over and smacked him on his firm chest. He laughed and caught her hand, and though she hated to let herself think it, it was nice. Comforting. Still, she reminded herself that no matter how weak her knees felt, she had a boyfriend, who happened to be Damon's younger brother, and reluctantly detached her hand, though it seemed to want to cling to his slender, cool fingers.
"I saw you talking to Mr. Saltzman," Elena hedged.
"Ooo, tactful, Elena," Damon mocked. "No. He, unlike my brother, did not accuse me of feasting off of the young deceased couple. We're going vampire hunting tomorrow."
Elena burst out laughing. "Really?" she asked, looking over at him.
He rolled his eyes, staring at the ceiling. "I'm a regular Buffy-in-training," he agreed dryly. "Look out, WB." He paused thoughtfully. "Maybe I'll get my own TV show." He put his hands up in the air like a marquee. "Damon, the vampire hunter."
Elena laughed. "No one would watch," she teased.
He put a mocking hand to his heart and looked over at her. "Elena, I'm crushed. You wouldn't tune in each week to watch my sexy ass stake a few vamps?"
"Nope. I have better things to do."
"Anything other than dote over my brooding, melodramatic brother?"
She made a face at him. "Yes."
"This I gotta hear. What?"
"Wash my hair."
His eyes widened and then he lunged for her. Before she could stop him, he was tickling her breathless, and she was squealing, protesting.
"I'm going to get some vervain!" she threatened, through gasps for air.
"A likely threat from someone who can't even move," he returned, grinning down at her from his vantage point on top, his legs on either side of her, his hands pinning her wrists above her head.
"Only 'cause you vampires weigh a ton!" she shot back, squirming.
"I resent that! I'm quite slender," he retorted, lifting off of her to go stand in front of her mirror and primp. He ran his hands down his body, showcasing himself. "See? Look at me. I'm gorgeous."
She burst out laughing and tossed a pillow at him. "Maybe in your head."
He caught the pillow easily and came back to the bed, flopping down beside her. "Oh, trust me, Elena, I'm in the heads—and fantasies—of thousands of women," he teased boastfully, even as they both curled up on their sides, facing each other.
She rolled her eyes, trying to cover up the strange jealousy that she felt circling inside of her. "I'm sure," she agreed dryly.
He flashed a wicked grin and she couldn't resist smiling back. As she gazed into his blue eyes, she realized it was the first time she had laughed all day… Maybe even since she and Damon had gone to the theme park. She didn't have to talk everything to death with Damon. He understood that she was upset, and why she was upset, and he just handled everything, behind her back, so she didn't have to worry about it anymore. He took care of everything, so she could just relax and laugh. He didn't hide anything from her… It wasn't that he was lying to her. It was just that he was dealing with it, so she didn't have to. So she could focus on being happy.
Before she could stop herself, she covered his hand between them with hers. "Thank you, Damon," she said softly. "For everything."
The burning blue eyes were filled with an emotion that made her giddy and frightened to see. And yet, almost as if he'd known what she had been thinking before she had thanked him, he pulled his hand out from under hers and covered it with his, enclosing it. Protecting it. Covering her, just as Damon always did.
When his eyes closed in acknowledgement, it took everything in her not to lean over and kiss him.
Elena and Stefan turned, alarmed at the anger and agitation in Bonnie's voice as she approached in the Mystic Grill.
"Bonnie?" Elena asked, taking a step toward her. "What's wrong?"
Bonnie darted a quick look around, then said, "Your brother just asked me if I could bring someone back from the dead." She gave her a pointed look. "A dead vampire back from the dead."
Elena felt her heart fall into her stomach. "Jeremy did?" she asked, stunned. She sighed. "Bonnie, Jeremy's just reeling from Anna's death—"
"I'm not doing it, Elena," Bonnie declared darkly. "Even if I could, I wouldn't. Do you understand? I'm sorry Jeremy's upset, but there is no way I'm doing it." She cast a deliberate look at Stefan. "I'm making an exception for Stefan and Damon because they're important to you." She leveled Elena with a look. "But I still hate vampires. Let's be clear."
Elena felt her fear and terror shake her. "Bonnie, Jeremy—"
"I didn't even know he was a vampire," Bonnie told her coldly.
Elena let out a shaky breath. "He had a vial of Anna's blood… After she was staked, he drank it and overdosed on my pills. When he died in the hospital—"
"I get it." Bonnie held up her hand and stared hard at her. "But I'm not doing it, Elena. I won't."
Elena frowned at her. "I-I get it, Bonnie. I'm not asking you to."
"Are you saying it's possible?" Stefan asked, sounding stunned.
Elena looked from him to Bonnie. After a moment, Bonnie reluctantly said, "There are some texts that suggest since the vampire is already dead, it is possible… If the body hasn't been reduced to ashes already." Bonnie narrowed her eyes at them. "But I won't read more about it. I'm done with vampires."
"Okay, Bonnie, I get it!" Elena insisted, frowning.
Bonnie glared up at Stefan. "You tell your brother that if he tries to intimidate me, it's not going to work. I'll just attack back." She cast a pointed look to the pool tables. Elena followed her gaze, where Damon and Jeremy were laughing together, Jeremy lining up a shot. The sight tugged at Elena's heart, relief flooding through her at the sight of her brother happy.
And, though she struggled to fight it, it skipped a little at the sight of Damon, who she had stepped on that morning when she'd woken up. She must have fallen asleep while he'd been holding her hand, because she'd woken up in the same position, but he had gotten up, out of her bed at some point, and opted to sleep on the floor despite all of his talk. She was grateful to him for it, since she would have insisted on it if she'd been awake, and he seemed to know it. Damon just… understood her. And once he'd complained—loudly—about how heavy she was, he'd woken up Jeremy and the two had disappeared for the rest of the day.
"Did Damon threaten you?" Stefan asked, his voice sounding sharp.
Elena looked back at Bonnie, who was looking up at Stefan. "No," she told him flatly. "It's just a warning."
"I'll make sure he knows," Stefan agreed quietly.
Without another word, Bonnie brushed past them, and out of the Mystic Grill.
Elena sighed. Stefan's hand on her back anchored her to the ground as he lightly led her to a table. "Bringing vampires back from the dead," Elena mused. "I didn't think it would ever be possible."
Stefan shook his head. "It shouldn't be," he declared. "We shouldn't have been created in the first place. Bringing us back… It's insane."
Elena reached across the table and squeezed his hand. "Don't say that," she admonished, smiling at him. "If you weren't a vampire, I never would have met you."
He flashed a smile. "That's true," he agreed, covering her hand with his. "I guess there was at least one benefit."
She nodded. "I just can't believe that Jeremy asked Bonnie about it." She shook her head. "Damon should have stopped him."
"Damon should do a lot of things he doesn't," Stefan pointed out flatly.
Elena squeezed his hand again. "Hey," she objected. "Let's not talk about Damon. We're here for a date tonight, right? Let's just enjoy it."
He flashed a grin. "Right. Then, can I get you a drink?"
She nodded, grinning back. "I'd love a soda."
"One soda, coming right up." He stood and leaned forward, kissing her cheek before heading away from the table, to the bar.
When he was gone, she couldn't resist looking back over her shoulder at the pool tables, where her brother and Damon were still laughing. Damon was holding a beer bottle as Jeremy lined up his shot, and almost as if he sensed her eyes, looked up at her.
Even from across the room, his eyes were astonishingly blue.
He lifted the bottle at her in a mock-toast, nodding his head at her in greeting. She smiled, a little embarrassed, and waved a little over her shoulder at him. Jeremy took his shot, distracting Damon, who said something that had been clearly sarcastic. Both burst into laughter.
Elena felt her heart go out to them, surprised that she wished she was over there with them.
She faced forward again, sighing to herself. Stefan was still at the bar, waiting for the bartender to bring him their drinks. She straightened, startled, when her phone suddenly beeped at her, and quickly pulled it from her purse, looking down at it.
From: Damon. Message: You look gorgeous. When you get bored of my droll brother, come join the fun.
A pleased smile turned her lips up in a grin before she could resist. She licked her lips and pursed them together to force it down, quickly typing back a reply. I'm on a date with your very exciting, very sexy brother.
A second later her phone beeped again. It's a standing invitation, sweetheart.
She knew she should let it go at that, but she couldn't. I'll remember that. Even though I won't need it.
Her phone beeped again. Good. Now stop flirting with me, he's coming back.
She quickly slid her phone back into her purse, even as Stefan rounded the corner to their table, wearing a smile. She accepted the drink he handed her, smiling up at him.
"Thank you," she said, pleased.
"You're welcome," he said back. He gazed over her shoulder, and she didn't even have to look to ask what he was looking at.
"They're just playing pool, Stefan," she pointed out, trying to curb her annoyance.
His eyes came back to her. "It just seems like every time they come here, someone is found dead the next morning," he returned. "I just don't want to see that happen again tonight."
Elena straightened, looking back at her brother and Damon, who were still laughing. "Is that true?" she asked warily. "It's been each time they've come here?"
"Yes." She looked back at Stefan, whose face was grim. "It's a little too coincidental."
"Stefan, don't you get it?" Elena asked, her heart falling into her stomach. "Damon and Jeremy aren't responsible for the attacks. They're being blamed for them! Someone knows who they are and they're targeting them." She looked around the grill quickly, scanning it for anyone who seemed to be watching Damon and her brother.
Stefan hesitated. "Elena, I know you want to think that, but…"
Her phone beeped in her purse, interrupting Stefan. She reached for it, frowning. From: Damon. Message: Told you we were vampire hunting tonight.
There was another beep. From: Damon. Message: And would you lower your voice when talking about a vampire in front of one? It's so rude. Super-power hearing, remember?
Elena held up the last message for Stefan to see, giving her boyfriend a pointed look. A jealous look crossed his features, but she grabbed her drink and didn't wait for a response as she headed straight back for the pool table where Damon and Jeremy were.
"Took you long enough," Damon greeted, straightening from his shot as she approached. "Ditch the brooder?" As Stefan appeared over her shoulder, Damon pursed his lips together and turned to Jeremy. "Awk-ward," he mock-declared.
"Cute, Damon," Stefan agreed flatly. "Why are you here?"
Damon wrapped an arm around Jeremy's shoulders. "Jeremy and I were just enjoying a game of pool in this fine establishment. Would you like to try, Stefan? Is there any bit of fun left in that shell of a man?" He laughed hollowly. "Oh, right. Not a man. Sorry. Figure of speech, anyway." He paused and studied Stefan. "I think I see some right… there. Oh, no, wait, that's fur." He made a face at him. "Have you been eating rabbit? What did the cute and cuddly ever do to you?"
"Damon," Elena interrupted, before Stefan could get into it with him. She watched him fall back, his eyes meeting hers. "Do you really think being here is a good idea?"
"Oh sure," Damon admonished, waving a hand at her. "You worry too much, Elena. You're spending too much time with my brother." He squeezed Jeremy's neck. "Jeremy and I have been itching for another kill, haven't we, Jer?"
Elena's heart skipped when Jeremy's eyes lit up. "Are we going to kill someone tonight?" he asked eagerly.
Damon looked back at him blankly. "You're ruining our act," he stated, lowering his voice as if they were off-stage somewhere together. "Stefan thinks we're blood-thirsty monsters, remember? You gotta roll with me on this."
"Oh, right…" Jeremy looked back up at Stefan, his eyes narrowing. "You should probably go," he suggested, baring his teeth. "Wouldn't want to stain your pretty little animal-blood loving hands with human flesh."
"Jeremy!" Elena exclaimed, horrified.
Damon winced. "You should leave those comments to me," Damon told him.
"Damon—" Elena started, turning on him angrily.
"Here comes the scolding," Damon sighed, releasing Jeremy. "This is your fault. Five hundred pushups when we get home."
"I hate pushups," Jeremy muttered.
"But you're getting so good at them," Damon mock-encouraged, poking Jeremy in the cheek.
Elena wasn't sure if she was watching her brother and Damon, a comedy duo, or some big elaborate scheme to make her crazy. She turned to Jeremy. "Jer, apologize," she ordered.
Jeremy looked down at her, his eyes surprisingly cold. "No," he declared flatly.
"Jeremy," Elena said sharply. "It was rude and uncalled for. Apologize."
"No." Jeremy stared hard at her. "Where do you get off, thinking you can run my—"
He was interrupted by Damon's hand suddenly clamped over his mouth, Damon's arm back around Jeremy's neck. "This isn't part of the act," Damon said, his tone light, but with an undercurrent of anger. "Be nice to your sister."
Elena looked between the two of them in disbelief. Jeremy stepped away from Damon, shooting a dark glare at Elena before looking back up at Damon. "Would you stop taking her side for once?" he demanded. "She's dating your brother—not you. She doesn't care about you. And you don't respect your brother, so why should I have to respect my sister? I'm not a child! Stop treating me like one! Am I going to have to put up with this for eternity? Or just until I stake you myself and get it over with?" He tossed his pool cue onto the table, scattering the balls everywhere, and stormed off.
"Jeremy!" Elena protested, starting to go after him.
"I'll go," Damon said, suddenly subdued. She felt her heart ache at the serious, almost hurt look on his face. "Enjoy your date."
"Damon—" she argued, looking quickly around the bar for whoever could be watching them.
But he was already leaving, and Stefan was holding her arm, keeping her back. She let out a shaky breath and wrapped her arms around him, staring at the doorway her brother and Damon had gone through.
Katherine Pierce smiled as her favorite Salvatore brother looked up from his drink in surprise, doing a double-take at the sight of her.
"Elena," he greeted. "What are you doing here?"
"I just needed to get out of the house for a bit." She studied him. "What are you doing here?" She looked around. "Where's Jeremy?"
"With Ric. Going over line by what we did last night that didn't tip off whoever is following us and framing these murders on us." Damon tossed back a shot.
Katherine placed a hand on his arm, watching his eyes fall to it, then slowly lift up to her face. She had always loved Damon's blue eyes. They were so bright blue, just like the sky. She doubted Elena could fully appreciate the beauty and expressiveness in Damon's gorgeous eyes. They gave away everything he was thinking and feeling at any given moment. Damon had always been so easy to read. Like right now—she could read just how much he wanted to grab her, as Elena, and wrap his arms around her. But Damon had always been a gentleman, and he wouldn't cross that line with a woman he cared about until he had the green light.
"You'll find out who it is," she reassured him gently, lightly squeezing his arm with the barest bit of pressure, the way a human would.
Damon looked away, his eyebrows rising in unexpressed doubt. He tossed back another shot. "Where's my brother?" he asked, looking around her.
She sat down on the stool beside him. "At home. Working on a history paper."
Damon scoffed. "He could probably write it from first-person experience."
Katherine giggled. He probably could. And she could probably help. Damon looked over at her, his eyes oddly unreadable. "Maybe," she agreed. Damon had acquired a new sense of humor since she had known him. She had to admit, she liked it. "But I don't think the teacher would believe him."
"Probably not," Damon agreed. He shifted suddenly, leaning away from her to regard her. "How's Jenna?"
She lowered her eyes in Elena's fashion. "The same. She just sits on the couch and stares at the wall." She leaned her cheek on her hand, her elbow on the bar as she gazed at the wall, using Elena's lost and frightened look. "I don't know how to help her."
Damon was silent for a moment. "Right now, taking care of yourself and Jeremy is all you can do," he said, but there was a strange tone in his voice.
She lifted her eyes, studying him sharply. He was staring at her just as closely. Alarmed, she quickly went on. "Thank you, by the way. For taking such good care of Jer. He seems to be really attached to you."
Damon suddenly threw back another shot and stood. "Do you want to see him?" he asked.
She faltered, stunned. She hadn't expected Damon to invite her back to the house. "Yeah, I'd like that," she agreed, trying to figure out how to get out of it. She reached into her purse for her phone. "Let me just call Jenna—"
"There's no need," Damon admonished, reaching for her hand and holding onto it. "Jenna's practically comatose anyway, right? She probably won't even answer the phone."
Katherine smiled weakly. "That's true, but I should still call her."
He already had her out of the bar, and headed to his car. Like a gentleman, he opened her door for her, and she slid in, trying to calm her uneasiness. Damon had suddenly switched, almost as if he—
"So where have you been all this time, Katherine?"
She looked over at him as he threw the car roughly into gear, flooring it through the street. His expression was cold and unforgiving, his eyes not on her.
She considered asking him what he was talking about, but Damon had always known her well. She cocked her head at him. "You realize I could rip your throat out right now, don't you?"
He bared his teeth in a grin as he looked over at her. "I spent 150 years trying to get you out of a tomb. I think that earns me a free pass."
Katherine settled more comfortably in his seat. "You did better than Stefan. He still thinks I'm Elena."
Damon's eyes slid to her. "How long have you been here?"
Katherine smiled pleasantly. "A few weeks."
"Long enough to kill John Gilbert?"
She laughed. "Long enough to do that." She looked over at him angrily. "And long enough for you to kiss me, thinking I was Elena."
Damon's jaw clenched as he slammed on the brakes at a red light, glaring over at her. "I knew something wasn't right," he hissed furiously. "I just never thought it would have been you." He smacked his hand against the steering wheel. "Where the hell have you been, Katherine? Why did you…"
"Leave you?" she finished, when he didn't. She sighed and looked away from the pain in his blue eyes. "I never really left you, Damon. You or Stefan. I looked after both of you, all this time. I—"
"Then why?" he asked, sounding heartbroken. "Why didn't you come see me? Why didn't you let me know you were okay? Why… Stefan…?"
She let out a sigh. "I loved both of you," she told him, placing a hand on his arm. "I still do, Damon. I wanted the three of us to be together, and all you two would do was fight. I wanted the three of us to be together for eternity."
Damon stared at her endlessly. "You wanted me to share you?" he repeated, his voice hoarse. "With my brother?"
She cupped his cheek. "I loved you both equally," she told him. "How could you choose between the sun and moon, Damon? You couldn't. Neither could I."
His eyes closed. When they reopened, they were hard. She frowned at the look, scowling when he pulled away from her. "So why are you back, Katherine? Why are you here, after all this time?"
Katherine narrowed her eyes at him. "You both weren't supposed to move on from me," she told him warningly, watching his eyes flicker. "That girl is stealing my boys."
"Elena," Damon reiterated flatly. "You're here for Elena."
Katherine smiled hopefully at him. "Don't you see, Damon? You and Stefan are getting along so much better, now! As soon as she's out of the way, the three of us can be together forever. We'll be happy, just like we were supposed to be!"
"That's your plan?" Damon asked, yanking on the wheel. She looked around as he pulled off the road and slammed on the brake, glaring over at her. "For me to share you with Stefan forever? I didn't want that, Katherine! I just wanted you! Why wasn't I enough for you?"
She patted his cheek. "You were," she reassured him. "I just wanted the best of both worlds, Damon. Didn't I deserve it? Don't I deserve the best of everything?"
Damon stared at her. And then he leaned back, away from her. "I loved you," he said quietly, facing forward. "For 150 years, I loved you. I thought of only you. I didn't think I would ever feel anything except for you."
Damon looked over at her, his eyes empty. "And now I'm going to tell you to get out of my car and pray I never see you again."
Elena slid her phone shut as she stared in a mixture of concern, horror, and anger at the sight before her at the Mystic Grill.
After being accused by a rather frantic Jeremy that she had made Damon run away, she had set out to look for him, calling his phone repeatedly. Despite her persistent, automatic redialing, his phone just jumped straight to voice mail, indicating it was either off, or he'd blocked her phone.
She had tried calling Stefan, but his phone also jumped straight to voice mail, which worried her even more. After debating between going to their house—which Jeremy had just come from—she decided to just head out for Damon's frequent haunts to see if she could track him down herself.
And she'd tried the Mystic Grill no fewer than three times in the last five hours, and finally, finally, just as she was about to give up and go over to Stefan's and beg for help, there he was, sitting at the bar, tossing back shots, both arms around a different woman wearing almost nothing.
For a moment, anger gave way to relief, then relief shifted to jealousy, and jealousy quickly surged into fury. She strode straight for the bar, reaching for his shoulder to spin him around. "Damon!" she hissed angrily.
He turned, the girls still firmly attached to him, giggling coyly and cuddling up to him as they fawned disgustingly all over him. He was beyond drunk, laughing as they trailed their fingers all over his chest.
At the sight of her, his smile died, stunning her. "Go away, Kalena," he ordered, turning back to the bar.
She gaped at his turned back. "What did you call me?" she demanded, scowling.
"Kalena. It's my new name for you. Whoever you are."
Elena wasn't sure if she wanted to punch him or shake him. "Damon, what are you… Get off of him!" she shouted at the girls, who were both whispering coquettishly into his ears. She strode forward and yanked the girl to his right away, glaring at the buxom blond who shot her a dirty look.
"Hey, Natasha, don't go—" Damon protested.
"Bye, gorgeous," the girl said, then held her fist up, extending her pinky and thumb. "Call me."
"You know I will," he assured her, winking at her and toasting his shot glass at her before tossing it back.
Elena couldn't believe what she was seeing. Something had happened, that was the only reasonable explanation for Damon's sudden behavior, but what could have possibly happened to make him act like this… She didn't have the faintest idea. "Damon," she said insistently, lowering her voice.
He ignored her, turning his back to her as he curled up to the girl still on his left, who wrapped both of her arms around his neck, pulling his mouth down to hers.
And there, in front of Elena, Damon kissed her passionately, hungrily, their mouths dueling fiercely as if a fire had been created between the two of them that could never be extinguished.
Elena felt her heart slam into her stomach, suddenly clinging onto the counter for support.
She had spent the last five hours looking for him for this? To find him here, making out with some random girl? To find him drunk off his ass? To find him an intoxicated mess? She had dismissed her missing brother, called Damon for five hours straight, and this was the greeting she got? To get to watch him make out with some skank? After everything she'd been through? After everything they had shared—together?
She shoved away from the counter and turned to stalk away, furious with herself for getting tangled up in Damon's life in the first place. She should have known better than to trust someone like him. She should never have allowed herself to feel anything for him in the first place!
She faltered in her step, stunned at her thought. Had she just… no… No, she couldn't have just… But, even as she slowly looked back over her shoulder, at Damon wrapped in the strange brunette's embrace, she suddenly saw his face gazing back at her from across her pillow, his face so serious and his blue eyes so bright, and realized that she had just thought that.
About her boyfriend's brother.
Elena turned and all-but ran out of the bar.
Elena looked up as she heard the footsteps approach, watching Damon's blue eyes fill with astonishment, fury, and then wariness as he stared down at her.
She had tried to leave the Mystic Grill earlier—she had—but she had seen his car parked outside on the street, and had spent the last hour trying to convince herself that sitting on the curb and leaning against his passenger side door to wait for him was a bad idea.
But she couldn't stop thinking about what he had called her… Kalena? What was that? Some bastardization of Katherine and Elena? Why? Hadn't they just been together two nights earlier in her bedroom, lying in her bed, laughing together? Hadn't they just been exchanging—and she flushed just admitting it to herself—flirty text messages the night before? What had changed in the last twenty-four hours?
What had happened to Damon?
She stood slowly, brushing herself off even as he finished closing the distance between them, his face guarded and uneasy as he looked down at her from a foot away. It was strange, but Damon almost looked… suspicious.
"Where's the brunette?" Elena asked, shocked at the biting words that fell from her lips. It hadn't been what she had wanted to ask. She wanted to ask if he was okay. She wanted to ask what was wrong. Instead she sounded… catty. Cold. Jealous. It rolled off of her in waves.
He leaned back and regarded her, his blue eyes narrowing. "Jealous you didn't get a taste?" he asked, almost sneering.
She reeled back, stunned. "A taste?" she repeated, astonished. She reached up to feel his forehead, even though she knew it was ridiculous. "Damon, did you hit your head or—"
He smacked her hand away.
For a moment, they both stood there, Elena staring at her stinging hand, Damon as cold as stone. She could see him in her peripheral, unmoving, waiting for her next move.
Damon… had just hit her.
Slowly, trying to hide the tears forming in her eyes, she looked up at him, lowering the throbbing appendage to her side as she looked up at him. He stared back at her, unblinking, unwavering, his face giving away nothing.
She stepped forward, bracing herself for him to hit her, and finished closing the distance between them, wrapping her arms firmly around his neck.
He didn't move. He was as still as ice. And then, quietly, his voice low, he said, "Let go of me, Katherine."
Elena reeled backwards, breaking her hold of him as she stared up into his unflinching blue eyes. "Katherine?" she repeated, aghast. "Damon, what are you talking about? I'm not Katherine!" She gaped up at him, the pieces suddenly falling into place: the sudden murders whenever Jeremy and Damon were out. Damon's sudden disappearance. Damon's sudden distrust of her. "Is Katherine here? Is she in Mystic Falls? Is she the one—"
She cried out as he suddenly slammed her back against his car, his fingers biting brutally into her shoulders so hard she could feel them start to pierce her skin. She felt tears spring to her eyes as she stared up at him, terrified that he would kill her… Kill her, thinking she was Katherine… But why? Damon… Damon loved Katherine. Why would he be attacking her? Why, if he thought she was Katherine, wasn't he trying to kiss her? Why was he—
"Do you honestly think Elena would pull a girl off of me, Katherine? Pull some little jealousy act, when she's dating my idiot brother who she's ridiculously, hopelessly devoted to for some unknown reason?" he sneered down at her. "That was dumb, especially for you. And waiting out here, in the middle of the night, when people are being murdered? Elena's smarter than that. You should have done your homework. You're getting sloppy in your old age."
His fingernails were starting to draw blood. She could feel the dampness against her skin. She forced down her cries of pain, a lump forming in her throat as she stared up into his burning blue eyes… at the rage swirling inside of him.
But Damon wasn't just angry. She could see the pain under the fury… the torment. Damon looked… devastated. Broken.
"Damon," she said softly, pleading him with her eyes to believe her. "I'm not—"
He caught her last word, his lips soft and supple, passionate and full of a ferocity that ripped her heart right out of her chest. She tried to protest against his mouth, but it was useless. She was pinned back against the car by a 150 year old vampire, who was kissing her breathless, her heart pounding frantically against her ribs as if it really were trying to burst through her chest and straight into his hands.
And god, passion couldn't even describe what she felt. It was almost torturous how many explosions she felt, her body pulsing and alive and throbbing in sheer ecstasy. It was almost too much to bear, and she felt a moan form, somewhere deep inside of her, her clenched fists reaching up to thread her fingers in his silky black hair. She tried to pull him closer, impossibly closer, the distance between them too great even with as tightly pressed against the car as he had her…
He suddenly slammed her back against the car and she shrieked in pain, falling limply to the ground, tears of pain forming in her eyes as she stared up at him in a mixture of hurt and horror as he glared down at her.
"You got better at that," he sneered, his voice cold. Elena felt her cheeks flame as she gaped up at him, suddenly not sure whether to tell him it was really her or not even as he stalked to the other side of the car without another word. She heard his door open, and then the engine gunned, and Damon was gone.
Elena tried not to wince as Stefan wrapped an arm around her shoulders, hugging her close. "Hello, beautiful," he greeted, smiling warmly at her.
Guilt hung heavy over her, almost as painful as the stab wounds on her shoulders. Damon had done a number on her—every one of his fingers had left a wound almost a quarter of an inch deep, and her entire back was black and blue. She had bandaged herself up as well as she could, but everything was sore. Moving hurt… And that was just the physical pain.
She had cheated. On Stefan. On her boyfriend, who she loved. With his brother.
Maybe she really was like Katherine.
She shuddered at the thought. No. No. It wasn't true. She wasn't anything like Katherine. Katherine was evil. And if she was in town, there was no doubt that she was the one responsible for the murders following Damon and Jeremy. And clearly Damon had found Katherine—though Elena wasn't sure she wanted to know how—and thought that Elena had been her the night before… A thought Elena wasn't sure she wanted to correct, because if she admitted it had been her, then she would have to admit that she had kissed Damon. She had kissed Damon and enjoyed it.
She had… moaned.
"Are you okay?" Stefan asked her.
Elena jumped, turning on him with wide eyes. "What? Sorry. Yes, I'm fine. Why?"
Stefan eyed her closely. "You look really flushed. Are you sure? Are you not feeling well?"
"No. I feel fine," she reassured him quickly. Too quickly. He stared at her closely, clearly not believing her. "Really, Stefan," she lied, feeling even more guilty. She hugged onto his arm, taking his hand and interlacing his strong fingers with hers. "I just want to enjoy today."
He grinned and squeezed her hand lightly. "Me, too," he agreed.
She smiled and looked up, angry at herself for being relieved at the sight of Caroline's blond hair approaching. "There're Caroline and Matt," she pointed out, quickly tugging him toward the couple.
"Hey guys!" Caroline greeted enthusiastically, with a bob of her pretty head. "So are we ready to shop 'til we drop?"
Matt groaned. "I thought we were going to see a movie."
Caroline made a face up at him. "We can't see a movie until this evening." She released his hand and stepped forward, interlacing her arm with Elena's. "Come on, Elena. Let's show these boys how it's done!"
Elena flashed a weak smile at Stefan, who nodded encouragingly at her, even as Caroline dragged her into the closest shop.
They spent the next few hours shopping, laughing, relaxing, and just enjoying being teenagers. Elena tried to enjoy herself, but it was almost impossible when every move she made reminded her that she had cheated on her boyfriend, who she loved, and caused her almost unbearable agony.
When Caroline and Matt went to get popcorn for the movie, Stefan and Elena waited by the ticket booth, Elena thoroughly exhausted. She had never been so ready for a day to be over. She just wanted to go home and lie on her stomach and sleep until her wounds had healed and she forgot all about that… electric… kiss with Damon.
She jumped, turning to Stefan with wide eyes. "Sorry," she apologized, laughing in embarrassment. "What?"
His eyebrows were drawn together in concern. "Are you okay? You've seemed kind of out of it all day."
She felt guilt gnaw at her. "Sorry," she apologized again. "I'm fine. I think I didn't get enough sleep last night."
Stefan's eyes darkened slightly with worry. "Is something wrong? Do you want to talk about it?"
"No," she reassured him, then deliberately wrapped her arms around his neck and forced a smile. "I just want to enjoy being here with my loving, doting boyfriend, and my good friends, and enjoy being normal for a while."
When his arms wrapped around her back, pulling her close for a kiss, she had to withhold her sobs.
Movie chairs, Elena had discovered, were not for people who couldn't lean back against them. She sighed to herself as she and Stefan made their way up to his front door, trying to calm the pounding in her heart and the throbbing in her back. She had been tempted to tell him she didn't want to come over, but she did want to see Jeremy, and she didn't want anyone to think anything was going on—especially if she was going to pretend like the night before had never happened.
They walked in, heading to the living room, where they could hear Damon and someone else talking. Elena's heart leapt into her throat, but she tried to remain calm, reminding herself that Damon still thought it had been Katherine the night before.
When Stefan shot her a sideways look, Elena jumped slightly, immediately calling out, "Jer?" She winced to herself, frustrated that she was already doing a bad job at keeping up an appearance that everything was fine.
The living room suddenly went silent. Elena felt her heart drum against her ribs as she and Stefan entered, taking in Damon standing by the drinks, Jeremy sitting on the couch, and Alaric lounging in one of the chairs by the fire. The three were silent, staring at them through unreadable eyes.
"Did we interrupt something?" Stefan asked slowly, eyeing them all.
Elena felt her heart skip as she met Damon's carefully masked expression. Had he figured it out? Did he know that it had been her instead of Katherine? Did he—
"This is like that awkward moment where someone enters and the room goes silent because everyone was talking about that person, isn't it?" Damon suddenly asked brightly.
Jeremy snickered, looking back away from Elena and Stefan.
Elena felt her cheeks flame as she looked over at Stefan and back to Damon, who regarded her for a moment before turning to the table of drinks. "Jer," she started, stepping into the room. "I thought maybe you could come home tonight, if—"
"Drink, Elena?" Damon offered, suddenly right in front of her, a glass thrust into her stomach.
She looked up at him, stunned, almost tripping over the hand he held in her way. She looked down at the glass warily, then up into his unreadable eyes as she slowly took it. "What is it?" she asked, eyeing the dark colored liquid warily.
He winked and gave her a kittenish smile. "Soda and a little pick-me-up. C'mon, try it. I made it just for you."
She looked back at Stefan, who frowned. "Damon, what kind of game is this?" Stefan asked, stepping closer.
Damon intercepted him smoothly, stepping between Elena and Stefan, turning his back to his brother and staring down at Elena, his blue eyes still a mask of merriment and taunts. "It's a new one I just invented, called, 'How far will Elena go?' C'mon, Elena. How can you resist a game named after you?"
He was testing her. She could see the daring, accusing look in his blue eyes. "Elena, you don't have to—" Stefan started, frowning over Damon's shoulder.
"Stefan, stop being so jealous. We'll make up a new game for you, later," Damon admonished, without letting his eyes leave Elena's. "What's wrong, Elena? Don't you trust my mixing skills? I could have been a bartender in someone's life, you know."
He was definitely after something. Something he wanted her to drink? But what…?
Almost as if he had told her himself, she knew. Vervain. He was trying to get her to drink vervain. And he was trying to do it without alerting the others. She felt some tenseness in her shoulders slip away as she smirked up at him. "In several someone's, I'm sure," she drawled, toasting her glass at him. She tossed the glass back, hissing as it burned and choked her all the way down her throat. "Damon!" she cried, thrusting the cup at him. "Did you have to put so much alcohol in there?"
From the chair, Alaric groaned. "I'm going to pretend like you didn't just give one of my under age students alcohol," he warned.
When her eyes were done watering and she looked back up at Damon, she saw the careful mask on his face lift, the relief and genuine regret obvious. And she knew, even without him saying, that the alcohol had been to cover up the smell of the vervain he'd put in the cup.
But Damon just grinned and winked, taking the glass away from her. "Want another one?" he asked impishly. "I'll call it the Elena special."
"No," she choked, wheezing. "Can I have some water?"
Stefan wrapped an arm around her to help her to the couch, which hurt worse than the alcohol. She accepted the water bottle Damon held out to her gratefully, swishing it around in her mouth to clear the taste.
"What were you guys talking about when we came in?" Stefan asked, still frowning at Damon.
"You. And how utterly boring and droll you are. But then you came in and it suddenly became a very uncomfortable conversation topic." Damon made a shooing gesture toward the entryway. "So can you go so we can continue? We were just about to start the imitations." He shot Elena a wink, his lips curling up into a devilish smile. "You can stay."
Damn—why was she staring at his mouth? She flushed and made a face at him, turning to Jeremy. "Jer, I wanted to know if you would come home tonight."
"Why?" Jeremy asked, looking up at her through his lashes, his arms crossed over his chest.
Elena stared at him. "Because you're my brother, Jer, and… this isn't your home."
Jeremy straightened, his eyes flashing. "It isn't?" he demanded, his sudden anger startling her. "Really, Elena? Is Jenna's house our home? Do you feel more at home there than you do here? If that's true, why do you spend so much time here, huh?"
She stammered for a response. "Jer—"
"Don't hold me to your standards! If I don't want to go home, I won't. I like it here. I want to live here. I'm happy here. Maybe you feel the same way, huh? Isn't that why you're here so much? You don't want to be in that house anymore than I do. The difference is I can break out of it, and you can't."
"Jer," Elena objected, frowning at him. "Jenna needs us with her right now. She's—"
"Comatose! She doesn't know whether we're there or not, Elena, and you know it." Jeremy stared at her and shook his head in disgust, lifting himself from the couch.
"Jeremy!" Elena called, jumping to her feet to chase after him. "Where are you going?"
"To my room!" he shouted, stomping up the stairs.
There was a moment of silence, and then Damon's dry voice drawled, "God I hope he grows out of this before I stake him."
Elena cried out as her arm was yanked on, whirling her around. She stared in disbelief at Bonnie, who was glaring daggers at her.
"Bonnie?" Elena asked, stunned. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Bonnie looked murderous. "I know what Damon and your brother have been doing," she warned quietly, menacingly. "You keep them in line, Elena. Or I'll come after them."
Elena gaped at her, horrified. "Bonnie, it's not them. Someone is framing them!"
Bonnie shook her head. "I know you'd like to believe that, Elena, but I don't." She stared hard at her. "This is your last chance." And with that, Bonnie strode out of the Mystic Grill.
Elena stared after her, feeling sick. She slowly lifted her head to the pool area, where Damon was staring at her unabashedly, his face heavy with concern. Jeremy was behind him, lining up his shot at the table.
Elena hesitated, but slowly made her way over to the table, knowing she couldn't avoid Damon after what had just happened. She had been steadfastly trying to avoid him for the last couple of days without making it obvious, but there she was… somehow drawn right back to where he was without meaning to be.
He stroked the back of feather-soft fingers along her cheek, smoothing her hair away from her face as she joined them, gazing down at her seriously. And then, as she felt her temperature rise, he abruptly turned away, going to the wall and selecting a pool cue.
"Let's hope you don't suck," Damon warned her, handing her the stick. "We're stripes, and we're winning."
She guessed Bonnie grabbing her arm had indicated she wasn't Katherine. She wasn't sure whether she was grateful or frustrated as she took the cue he held out to her.
"That's not fair," Jeremy protested. "Who's going to be my partner?"
Damon clapped him roughly on the back. "Be a man," he encouraged, with a deliberate pause, nodding at him.
Jeremy made a face at him.
Elena leaned down to line up a shot on one of the striped balls, freezing when she felt Damon just centimeters behind her. She slowly lifted her head, shock waves running through her body at how close he was to her. "A little space?" she requested pointedly, trying not to flush.
Damon made a face at her. "Don't flatter yourself. I was making sure your shot was lined up." He leaned over her, resting his arms over hers and his back over hers to line the cue up. She winced in pain, tensing, and prayed he couldn't tell. "Right about…" He leaned harder against her back, which screamed in pain. "There."
When he leaned back she staggered in pain and would have fallen if he hadn't caught by her shoulders, which burned from his fingers. She felt tears spring to her eyes as his fingers fell into the same spots they had before, astonishingly gentle and light, especially since she knew the kind of force he was capable of, because he had used it before.
Damon's face was full of confusion and concern, the worry almost too much for her to bear through her pain. "I'm fine," she lied, wheezing as she struggled to step away from him. "Sorry. I just got light headed. I'm fine."
He didn't release her, staring at her with so much worry she felt her heart ache. He looked almost… panicked. But Damon didn't panic. That wasn't like Damon.
It also wasn't like Damon to look at someone with so much… love.
Damon really did love her.
She felt a sob choke her. She pushed off of his chest with her hands, her shoulders screaming as his fingers tore at the wounds they had created before, and without another word, ran from the bar.
The night air was cold, astonishingly cold. She felt it bite into her skin through her black button-down blouse as she turned to run down the street; to run home and never look back. And yet a hand grabbed her forearm, spinning her back around, and she knew she'd be looking up at Damon before she actually turned to look. He was staring at her with a mixture of confusion and concern on his beautiful face, and in that moment, she hated him. Hated him for being so worried about her. Hated him for loving her. Hated him for making her glad he did.
"Why didn't you tell me about Katherine?" she demanded, watching his eyes widen in disbelief. "I thought we were friends, Damon. Why didn't you tell me?"
He stared at her. "How do you know about Katherine?" he asked slowly.
"It wasn't hard," she sneered angrily. "You lacing my drinks with vervain? Suddenly acting suspicious of me?" She glared at him. "So what happened, Damon? If she's here, why haven't you run off with her? Why are you still hanging out around here?"
He looked… crushed. Heartbroken. Devastated. Like she had just splintered something inside of him. She felt a sob build up inside of her and whirled around. "You should tell her to stop killing people!" she snapped at him. "She's going to get Bonnie after you and Jeremy."
"Elena—" he protested, grabbing her wrist.
She whirled back and smacked him across the face as hard as she could.
She knew to him, her hit probably felt like nothing, but the emotional impact of it seemed to break something inside of him. When he looked back at her, his eyes were empty. And yet she couldn't stop herself. She couldn't stop attacking. She was desperate to attack. She was afraid to stop. Afraid that if she did, she would allow herself to acknowledge the love in his eyes, and if she did that, she'd need to acknowledge—
"I don't need someone in my life who doesn't trust me," she spat at him. "Certainly not someone who I can't trust. Stay away from me from now on, Damon." And with that, she turned and ran, choking on her sobs all the way home.