An Unexpected Return
Elena was home alone on a Friday night. Jenna was on a 'not a date just a casual meal shared between two friends' with Ric and Elena really hoped it went well. She still blamed herself for a lot of the problems between her aunt and Ric after all. Jeremy and Bonnie were out at a movie or channelling the mystical forces of the universe – Elena wasn't sure which and really didn't want to know the details either – and so, like some old maid, she was brushing her teeth and going to bed early to curl up with her journal and I-pod feeling sorry for herself.
Damon had been gone for two weeks and Elena still couldn't shake the weird feeling of being cut adrift. It was sort like the feeling of being in a small rowboat on the open ocean and getting caught in the swell from a passing ocean liner. She was bobbing and rocking about on choppy waters unable to steer a clear course. It was strange. Life in Mystic Falls continued just like it had before but Elena was different; she had changed.
She'd spent the last fortnight feeling like an actress in a play. It was like she'd been preparing herself for this big, dramatic scene for months and suddenly the director had told her, 'oh hey, turns out we're not doing that scene, so just carry on doing all the things you were doing before like nothing's changed'. She had this huge payload of unspent emotion inside her that had no place to go. She'd missed her cue and now she didn't know what to do.
Elena sighed, puffing out her cheeks as she stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror; she even looked a little shell-shocked. She was the girl interrupted without the mental institution. It was sort of funny. She'd had this big moment of emotional growth and it didn't make any difference. If this was what growing up was like then she wanted to opt out now because this, what she was feeling, sucked.
Once she'd finished rubbing in her shea butter body lotion she pulled on her tartan plaid pyjama pants and the worn grey baggy sweater she wore when the nights were too cold for her usual short-shorts and cami sleep combo and opened the bathroom door, yanking the light pull in the bathroom to off as she stepped out.
"What happened to the cute PJ's?"
"Ahh!" Elena yelped, almost vomiting up her own heart and stomach as she reared back, smacked into the bathroom doorframe, whacked the back of her head and nearly died of cardiac failure all in a hot second.
Damon was sitting at her window seat, large as life in his leather jacket, white t-shirt and dark jeans, hair windblown, and lips quivering as he tried not to laugh at her, his blue eyes literally twinkling with amusement at her expense. Elena opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again but couldn't force her throat to eject actual words from her lips. She clutched at the bathroom doorframe as if her life depended on it.
"Nice goldfish impression you have there Elena," he commented casually as if this was just any old night he'd decided to break into her room and lurk by her window just to annoy her. "Are you going to speak soon or are we playing charades? Cuz if we are, my first guess is Finding Nemo." He smirked and rolled his eyebrows. "You seem to be floundering a little right now."
"You've watched Finding Nemo?" She blurted out and could have smacked herself upside the head because of all the things she had wanted to say to Damon, was this seriously the best she could manage? When had she ever been tongue-tied around him before?
"Eh, the sea turtles were cool." Damon shrugged and rose from the window-seat to throw himself onto her bed, crossing his booted feet at the ankles and immediately folding his arms around her stuffed bear.
Elena's head was spinning and she had such a powerful sense of déjà vu she thought her brain might explode. She eyed her dresser warily. "Just tell me you didn't go rooting around in my underwear drawer again."
"Not yet," he sing-songed watching her keenly with an expression Elena couldn't quite describe. He didn't seem angry, his teasing wasn't malicious, but there was something expectant in his gaze; expectant and evaluating. She bit her lip as a voice in the back of her head yelled at her to just tell him. This was what she'd wanted after all, the chance to tell him everything she'd been too afraid to say before. She had no right to squander her chance now. Yet the words wouldn't come; they lodged in her breastbone and pressed down on her heart but she couldn't force them free.
"So what is it this time?" Damon finally spoke into the tense silence. "Evil mutant leprechauns; attack of the killer tomatoes; or have the bunnies finally banded together to avenge my brother's genocide of the cute fluffy forest dwellers?"
"What are you talking about?" Elena blinked at him, momentarily forgetting her own emotional overload.
"Your message," Damon frowned now, canting his head suspiciously even as he manipulated Bear's stubby arm to point at her. "I figured your text was code for: 'Come home Damon. Mystic Falls is overrun by deranged squirrels with bazookas, and Stefan's been indicted for crimes against bunnykind; help.'"
"You thought what?" Elena gaped at him. She shook her head vigorously not sure whether to cry because he'd immediately assumed she had an ulterior motive or hit him for it. "Damon I've sent you dozens of texts and voicemails since you've been gone. Stefan sent you dozens of messages. We even made Ric try when you wouldn't answer either of us."
It was Damon's turn to look confused. "I only got the one message." He set Bear aside and sat up against her headboard, "From you." She watched any number of emotions dance across his face as he reconsidered whatever assumptions he'd drawn. "You said you missed me." He admitted hesitantly as if waiting for her to take it back.
"I did miss you." Elena finally regained full control of her limbs and moved forward coming to the end of the bed and then stopping. "Damon," She said his name as if it was an answer in itself, struggling to marshal her thoughts. "I thought you were gone for good. I didn't think I'd ever see you again." She remembered the message he was talking about. It was the last one she'd sent. She'd thought she was saying goodbye when she'd sent it.
"I wanted you to know how I felt about you." She told him quietly forcing herself to hold onto that complicated blue gaze and not look away. "I wanted you to come home because I missed you, but I…" she hesitated struggling to find the words and then suddenly they were there, rising up from someplace deep within her like a distorted echo. "I realised I can't be selfish with you." Without really knowing why her fingers reached for her locket. "I love you. And it's because I love you that I..." wish you didn't have to forget this... "...Can't be selfish with you anymore." I don't deserve you... "But that doesn't mean you don't deserve to be loved. Damon...I..."
Damon leapt from the bed like a bolting horse and his foot caught on the edge of one of her blankets. He tripped and stumbled. Elena was pretty sure that trip was the only thing stopping him from blurring out of her window as fast as his vampire speed could take him. He whirled around to face her and his eyes were wild. As wild as they had been the night of Katherine's return when he'd tried to force her to acknowledge a feeling she wasn't sure had been there back then.
Elena went towards him instinctively, hands fluttering with the need to hug him. He warded her off, and moved to the other side of the room.
"You weren't supposed to remember." He said, pacing like a tiger in a pen.
"What wasn't I supposed to remember?" Elena frowned, moving so she was between him and the window. He could still bolt out of the door but she'd have a little more chance of catching him before he could disappear that way. If he leapt from the window she'd have no chance. Damon flashed a look her way then and the sheer emotion in it carried the weight of all his hundred and sixty-plus years.
"Stefan." He spat, not answering her precisely, but answering her in another way. Unable to stay still Damon was suddenly in front of her, his dark hair falling across his forehead in disarray. He grasped her upper arms. "It's always Stefan. It will always be Stefan." He let go of her arms then so agitated she could tell he didn't know what to do with his hands. "You said that. Those are your words Elena."
She nodded. She'd already had to come to terms with the impossibility of that promise. Elena could feel the ferment of emotion building inside him, and just like that other night when things had been so very different, she knew that they wouldn't stay contained for long. Yet she wasn't afraid.
"I said you'd lost me forever too." She told him softly meeting him dead in the eyes. "I was wrong."
Damon looked lost. Not angry or wild anymore, but just lost. Like a man who'd had the rug pulled out from under him and the fabric of his world unstitched. Elena wanted to touch him, hold him, but that was her need. Looking at Damon now she thought what he needed was a reason to believe, not empty comfort. Yet after so long denying her own feelings Elena realised she didn't know how to make him believe her. She'd been too successful in convincing both herself and Damon that she didn't love him. Damon's next words proved that only too well.
"You love my brother Elena." He said, voice cracking. "He deserves you. He's your choice."
"You're wrong. I've been choosing you all along." Elena said realising it was true only as she said the words. She couldn't deny that she had loved Stefan, or that she still did in some ways, even if she couldn't give him the commitment he needed anymore, but she could refute the idea that Stefan was her one and only choice, because the reality was that had never been the case.
"In Georgia when I saved you from Lexi's boyfriend. On Founder's Day – and after Caroline turned and Bonnie attacked you. Every time I chose to save you, I was really choosing to keep you in my life, no matter what." Elena approached him then and placed one hand on his chest, over the breastbone. "I guess that makes us even. You always choose me, I always choose you."
Damon shook his head mutely, frustration and confusion all over his face. His eyes looked shiny and Elena had to swallow hard and blink back tears of her own. She needed him to believe her and she didn't know what else to say to convince him. At the same time she was scared of what would happen if he did believe her. She'd told Stefan she couldn't give him forever, but the same was true for Damon as well.
The idea of forever had come to terrify Elena. She'd realised in the last few weeks that forever scared her more than dying ever had. She'd started to feel like her life wasn't her own, but instead belonged to some unknown and unimaginable 'forever'. Promises shouldn't feel like death sentences, but 'always and forever' had become worse than that to her. It left her heart bruised and sore and made her question whether she really had any right to push her feelings on Damon when she might not be able to give him everything he wanted. Blinking back fresh tears, Elena was suddenly unsure all over again. Katherine had ripped a hole in Damon's soul because she hadn't loved him, but he'd survived and even begun to fix everything broken inside him. Elena didn't think she could live with the idea that by loving him to the limits of her human heart she could end up hurting him far, far worse.
Under her palm she could feel the rise and fall of Damon's chest, feel his breathing become slow and steady even as hers became shallow and staccato rasping. He covered her hand with his own, his palm large and warm, and she felt him shift, leaning closer, a soft sighing breath escaping his lips as, almost tentatively, he pressed his forehead to hers. Elena closed her eyes as Damon raised his free hand to brush his fingers through her hair.
"Elena," he said and just the way he said her name was almost enough to break her.
She could feel the pressure of his forehead against hers, a strange and exotic intimacy, as his body folded into and around her and she bowed into him. They moulded together into a frozen tableau of pain, tension, hope, fear, need and caution. Until this moment Elena had thought that love was a lazy summer afternoon, spent amid the dust motes cycling in the air – full of sweet breezes and gentle warmth. And maybe it was for some people; but not for her. Not anymore. Now she realised that love was messy; it was a gale howling through a lonely mansion, a hurricane ripping through acres of empty space and bringing with it fury and passion, but also courage and conviction and a reason to keep fighting.
She wasn't sure how long they stayed like that, as close as two people could get, yet remaining somehow chaste, lips never touching even as they breathed the same air, bodies entwined not like lovers but soldiers holding each other up after a long battle. Somehow the similes seemed fitting. In a weird, twisted way, they'd each fought for the other, even when they'd fought against each other. Because that's what they were, they were each others' champion, the person who saw the deepest, looked the longest. They held a mirror up to the each others' soul and refused to allow the other to give up - ever. Sometimes that was ugly, and painful, sometimes that made them enemies, but in the end, no one else would, or could, fight for them in the way they fought for each other.
It was Damon who finally broke the spell of silent communion, stirring almost sluggishly and pulling away from her slowly. Damon looked at her and to Elena he seemed almost dazed; subdued but not unhappy – quieted in a way she hadn't seen before. Elena understood though, because she felt the same. Tired but calm. They'd been dragged along by the current of feeling between them for so long, and they'd both fought so hard, in separate but identical battles, and now it was finally done. Whatever happened next between them Elena knew it would be better than before, they'd won that much at least.
Damon blinked his eyes and regained his focus. "The night I kissed Katherine thinking it was you." He began and Elena jolted in surprise. Of all the things she might have expected him to say, bringing up that first transgression wasn't anywhere on the list. Damon looked at her solemnly, an expression she hadn't seen on his face often. "I never told you why I was really there that night. It wasn't just about Jeremy and Anna. I wanted to tell you that..."
"Wait." Elena held up a hand silencing Damon before he could explain further. She looked towards the door to her bedroom as the germ of an idea blossomed in her brain. It was strange and unexpected, but so perfect Elena could almost believe that some external force had been guiding them to this moment. Katherine had hurt them both, Damon especially, but maybe there was a way they could take something back from her now. Elena had felt like someone playing a part in her own interrupted drama for the last two weeks, and now she thought she might understand just why she'd felt that way.
"Come on," she said to Damon as she left her room and started down the stairs.
"Where are we going?"
Bemused but compliant Damon followed her down the stairs, out her front door and onto her dark porch. They stood facing each other. The chill of the wooden boards soaked into the soles of her bare feet but Elena ignored both that and the cold of the night.
"Tell me what you said," she commanded. "Katherine took this moment from us both. Let's take it back now."
"Elena." Damon licked his lips and seemed almost nervous. "I don't remember everything I said that night." He admitted just a little shamefaced.
"Then tell me what you do remember." She insisted warming up to her idea with every passing second. Whatever else Damon had done that night he'd truly thought he was kissing her, not Katherine, and whatever had been said must have been important; it must have meant something to him. Giving him back this moment was a small gift but a necessary one.
Damon shifted awkwardly eyes flicking from her to the boards of the porch and for a long moment she thought he wasn't going to say anything but then, faltering at first he started speaking. "I wanted to tell you that...it meant something to me." Closing his eyes Damon pulled the words from his memory. "Somewhere along the way you decided I was worth saving and I wanted to thank you for that."
Elena swallowed hard, her own imagination transporting her back to the night of the Founder's Day disaster. She tried to imagine what she might have said that night upon hearing Damon say those same words and found that she couldn't. Right here in this time and place however Elena knew exactly what to say. There was only one thing she could say:
Damon blinked, thrown off by her response. "She said 'you're welcome.'" He mumbled.
"I don't care." Elena shivered and stepped closer to him, she looked into his eyes from less than a hand span apart. "Damon. Everything you just said applies to you just as much as it does me. Somewhere along the way you decided I was worth saving, maybe even dying for, and I want to thank you for that."
"Your ad-libbing sucks." Damon muttered. Then he seemed to shake himself and he peered at her both curious and sly. "Do you want to know what happened next?"
Elena was pretty sure she already knew. She shivered again and licked her lips, tongue darting out nervously. "What happened next?" She asked her throat suddenly dry and her voice hoarse. Her heart started tripping faster and louder in her chest.
"I did this."
Damon stepped in close and ducked his head down towards her. Elena stopped breathing. Damon's lips brushed her cheek, sweet and innocent and gently lingering, warm breath tickling her ear as he took his time pulling away. Elena's heart bounced in her ribcage and, inevitable as gravity, she turned her face towards him.
Their lips met and there was taste and touch and the soft, fumbled friction of two bodies learning each other. There were questing fingers tangling in hair, the flaring heat of strong hands sliding down overheated flesh, the burn felt even through clothing, and the insistent tug of a smaller hand grasping the sleeve of a leather jacket, pulling the wearer closer. There was a soft sound, deep in the throat, not pain but something just on the edge of hunger and there was heat and need enough to banish the chill of the night.
It was over too soon, in one breathless slice of time, and the big wide world crashed down around Elena's ears, reminding her of all her recently hard learned lessons on the limitations of love in the face of doubt. She pulled away, burned by passion but chilled by fear.
"I can't…I can't promise you forever." Elena whispered, lips tingling and heart breaking. She still clutched his arm with her free hand so tightly her knuckles ached. She was shivering as panic clawed at her thoughts but she had to tell him the truth. She'd failed Stefan already. The thought of failing Damon too was worse. "God I wish I could. But I can't."
There was a lull, a still well of silence between them punctuated by the rasp of her breathing as Elena faced down the spectre of rejection and the dark places where just loving had proved insufficient in the face of so much expectation. She looked into Damon's face, his eyes cast in shadow so she could not read them, and waited for the axe to drop.
Damon reached out and stroked her cheek, delicately tracing the contours of her face in the lightest of caresses. "I spent a hundred and forty-five years existing on a promise that never came true." He told her voice soft as a breath. "That's not love; that's a jail term."
His thumb brushed her lips and he cupped her face in his hand. the warmth of his skin soaked into like a balm. "I don't need forever." He said with fierce conviction. "I have now...and it's real." His hands gently framed her face and brushed away her tears with his thumbs. "This is us, Elena...and it's beautiful." He pulled her against him so he could stroke her hair and rub away her trembling. Elena felt him smile against her hair as he brushed a kiss onto the top of her head and she nuzzled her head into his shoulder.
"We're not perfect. I'm monumentally fucked up and your jailbait with a self-sacrifice kink." Damon laughed a soft sound of jubilation and Elena lifted her head from his shoulder. "...But god, Elena. You and me? We're awesome."
Elena laughed then, laughed right through her tears and let Damon pull her into an impromptu waltz right there on her cold porch...because who needed forever, who needed always, when they had this moment. They had each other. They had now...
...And if they were smart, and clever, and if they fought hard enough, 'now' could last for just about as long as they needed it to.
To everyone who has read this story and everyone who has sent me such wonderful reviews and feedback. Thank you. I have loved every minute spent writing this story and I can only hope now that "An Unexpected Return" is complete that you all have laughed, smiled, and above all, enjoyed the ride. Thank you again and best wishes,
21st April 2011