But I Always Will
Spoilers: 2x21 – The Sun Also Rises.
Summary: Damon finds Elena at the cemetery after he compels the gravediggers to bury John and Jenna. This is an imaginary missing scene that takes place between Elena coming back to life and the funeral.
Author's note: This started out as a simple, short one-shot and ended up being almost 4,000 words. This was my attempt at dealing with last week's heartbreaking episode. I hope you enjoy.
"I wish you'd hold me when I turn my back
The less I give the more I get back
Oh, your hands can heal
Your hands can bruise
I don't have a choice but I still choose you
Oh, I don't love you but I always will."
"Poison & Wine" by The Civil Wars
The sun was already blazing when Damon parked his Chevrolet Camaro in the cemetery. The heat was a taunting, cruel reminder that the world hadn't stopped turning in spite of the horror that had transpired in the past twenty-four hours.
Damon kept his hands on the steering wheel and allowed his eyes to close for a brief second. The throbbing in his arm was already excruciating, and he knew it had barely begun.
But his deadly werewolf bite wasn't what pained him the most.
Damon had always been one for ripping the band-aid and dealing with pain head on. But no amount of acceptance could make the sight of Jenna's broken body lying across from John's in his trunk any easier. He wanted to go back in time and save them so badly that their deaths become torturous in ways he had never thought possible.
When Damon had watched John kill Anna before his eyes a few months ago, his humanity had barely been hovering on the surface. For so long after that, he hadn't known how to reconcile his human feelings with his blood thirst. Whether it was because he knew he only had hours left to live, or because of how much braveness the sacrifice had instilled in him, he had never felt more at peace with who he was than he did now.
Damon had killed, snapped and hurt. But he had also loved, deeply, unconditionally and irrevocably, and that made everything else worthwhile.
Katherine couldn't have been more wrong when she'd told him that she survived because she didn't let love get in the way. It had taken Damon over a hundred and sixty years of existence to realize that love was the point. Maybe that made him a weak vampire, but he had never felt so alive in his whole life.
The irony was that Damon's newfound humanity made John and Jenna's death all the more difficult. In an odd, twisted way, he almost welcomed the pain. It was a reminder of how far he had come.
Damon carefully picked up Jenna's body and laid it down by the Gilbert plot. The two gravediggers he had compelled were already digging in the fresh earth. The overpowering smell of the wet earth was almost sickening.
Damon went back for John's body and placed him next to Jenna. Stefan and him had spent so much time trying to protect Elena, but he wished they had taken more time to figure out a way to protect everyone else. In the wake of the tragedy that Klaus had brought in their lives, it was no longer about who was right or wrong or what plan might have worked better, but it didn't keep Damon from feeling so damn powerless. They had lost every battle they'd fought. The curse was broken, John and Jenna were dead, and Klaus was still alive and on the loose.
Part of him felt like they had won the one battle that mattered the most, but he was ridden with guilt for feeling victorious given how many lives had been lost in the process.
But Elena's human heart was still beating in her chest. She was alive. He couldn't deny the hope it brought him on this dark day, no matter how selfish it was to feel this way.
Damon felt Elena's presence nearby as he laid John and Jenna's bodies in their respective graves himself. He knew he should be saving whatever little energy he had left, but he wanted to give Elena's father and aunt all the dignity and honor he could, no matter how clandestine the arrangement was. John and Jenna had both died to protect Elena, and they had his respect and eternal gratitude for that.
Damon knew Elena's eyes were locked on him, but he chose not to turn around. She would come his way if she wanted to. He couldn't imagine the thoughts that were running through her head after the last twenty-four hours. If she wanted to stand from a distance, he would let her. If she wanted to join him and cry in silence, he would stay by her side forever.
The gravediggers walked away in silence, and Damon kneeled down to feel the soil slip through his fingers. His arm throbbed as the bite kept spreading, and he couldn't help but think that he too would be dead soon enough.
It was a little past eight when Elena slipped out of the Gilbert house.
Every muscle in her body caved under the weight of exhaustion, but she refused to let herself sleep. It didn't matter how much Stefan pleaded that she needed to get some rest or that he would be right by her side when she woke up. She didn't want to sleep because it meant that she would wake up and that this nightmare would turn out to be real. She wanted to go on pretending that things could be different and that this could turn out to be a bad dream if she postponed going to bed for long enough.
She thought she would be able to keep up a semblance of normalcy for a little, but when she had heard Alaric and Stefan discuss funeral arrangements over the phone, she had almost sprinted out of the house.
Stefan hadn't stopped her. She wasn't sure he even knew how to act around her. She wasn't sure how she could even be herself right now.
She felt like a ghost, and all she could do was run.
She found herself at the cemetery before she realized where her feet were taking her. She knew she would be back here soon enough for John and Jenna's funeral, but this was the only place that made sense. Her life was death and she was deadly and she felt like she belonged in between the headstones and mausoleums and faded flowers more than she had ever belonged anywhere.
She slowed down as she approached her parents' headstone, and her heart sank in her chest at the sight of Damon laying down her father and aunt's bodies in freshly dug graves. She forgot how to breathe for a few seconds as her hand flew to her mouth involuntarily. She refused to cry. She couldn't cry.
If she let herself, she wasn't sure she would ever stop.
By the time her breathing slowed down, John and Jenna's graves were filled. Elena felt like she was lying six feet under, too.
She watched as Damon kneeled down and ran his hand through the earth. She wasn't sure why she was always surprised when he looked so affected, but the sadness and desperation etched on his face made his sight unbearable. He looked like he had been swallowed whole by the darkness, and yet his humanity shone so brightly that she wanted to drown in it.
She knew he must have felt her presence by now, but he had chosen not to acknowledge her. She reveled in the token of freedom he was giving her on a day where it felt like everything had been cruelly ripped away from her. She found her feet moving in Damon's direction of their volition.
Elena wanted to be brave for him. She didn't understand why and she was too scared to even ask herself the question, but the courage he instilled in her was the only thing she could hang onto on this warm, bright morning that felt like the darkest of days.
Damon felt Elena walk over to him and slowly rose up. He waited in silence until she reached his side, and acknowledged her presence with a slight nod of the head. He didn't let their eyes meet, afraid he would see the depth of her grief and be unable to stop himself from doing whatever was in his power to fix it. That implied a physical proximity he had lost the right to when he had forced her to drink his blood.
Elena stared at the ground beneath her feet. This was the closest she would ever get to the last two parents she'd had left.
All five of them were dead. Five.
She wished she could go back in time and trade her life for theirs, so she wouldn't feel this excruciating pain. So she wouldn't feel anything.
Damon saw Elena shudder next to him, and he stepped in front of her before he had even registered his own movement. But then again, he had never been able to help himself when it came to Elena.
He found her eyes. She was trying so hard to appear composed and strong, but he could feel her the grief and resignation storming beneath the surface. Her clenched jaw and sad, sad eyes killed him more than his stupid werewolf bite ever would.
Elena sighed. Damon's eyes were full of so much concern and love that it sent her right over the edge. In the mist of the tragedy her life was, she couldn't allow him to feel any of this – whatever it was – and to make her feel it right back.
She wanted to turn if off and to stop feeling, and there was only thing that brought her any easy comfort.
"Go ahead. Say you were right."
Damon flinched. The mere sight of this cold, detached Elena added years of suffering to his mostly meaningless existence.
Somehow, it was always about her.
He had meant his words as a warning, but they sounded more like a plea. It fueled her fire even more.
"What? Isn't this what you wanted all along? You were right and I was wrong. We went with my plan and now the curse is broken and Jenna and John are dead and it was all for nothing!"
"You survived. It wasn't all for nothing."
Elena took a step toward Damon and shoved him with all the strength she could muster. She needed him to be angry with her so he would make her feel guilty for her stupid, stupid plan because she knew no one else would.
"Tell me I was wrong! Tell me it was my fault! Jenna died, and John died, and everything is fucked up, and it's all because of me!"
Her fists bore down on Damon. He let her. "Why can't you HATE me?" she almost cried. "Why can't everyone just hate me? This is all my fault! MY fault!"
Damon grabbed Elena's arms and held her still. "I'm not going to do this, Elena," he warned her. He refused to be a part of her self-destruction plan.
"Do what?" she asked defiantly.
"I won't let you feel this guilt when it's not yours to begin with. If you'd rather feel anger than pain, I'll be the last one to blame you. But I won't let you destroy yourself over this. You survived, Elena. John and Jenna gave their lives so you could live. Don't give up now."
She shook her head vehemently, refusing to hear his words, let alone understand what they meant. She couldn't do this.
"I'm not giving up!" she almost screamed at him. She tried to break out of his hold, but his grip was iron strong. This whole situation felt vaguely familiar, and yet she couldn't remember who the girl who had wanted to surrender to Klaus a few months ago was.
She hated that girl.
"Then what the hell are you doing?" Damon asked.
Elena shook her head again. He wasn't playing along and she wasn't sure she could keep pushing him without bringing herself to the brink of her own breakdown.
"Forget it," she spat. "Just let me go, okay?"
She was asking for so much more than for him to let her go in this moment. But she couldn't let herself think about that either. She was so close to her breaking point.
"Let me go, Damon."
It was the last thing he wanted to do, but the fire burning in her eyes was enough to convince him he had to. Only Elena could show so much strength in light of such a tragedy, no matter how misplaced.
Damon slowly let go of her arms, but he stopped her before she walked away. With a hand on her shoulder, he leaned in closer.
"I am happy you're alive, Elena. You're alive and human. That might be our only victory today, but don't act like it doesn't matter."
Elena's eyes locked with a grave in the distance, and Damon watched her face carefully as he repeated the same words she had spoken to him what felt like a lifetime ago. "It matters and you know it."
Elena's refusal to accept Damon's lack of humanity was what had allowed him to find it again, and he refused to watch her descend her into darkness without reminding her of why she had fought so hard for him.
Elena bit down on her lower lip. Damon was making this so much harder than it should be.
He always did.
"I can't," she pleaded.
But instead of walking away, Damon let his hand roam over her shoulders in what he meant as a friendly, reassuring gesture. His touch alone was enough to send Elena over the edge.
Tears rolled down her face before she could attempt to fight them. She felt her legs give out from under her, and Damon caught her as they both sunk to the ground. "I can't, Damon," she cried. "I can't!"
Damon wrapped his arms around her as sobs racked her body, and he felt her grip him tighter than he even thought she could. He pressed his lips to her hair as she cried in the crook of his neck. He didn't try telling her it was going to be okay. He knew nothing could make this better. It was going to take a long time before Elena's grief lessened, and it killed him to know that he wouldn't be around for it.
When Damon felt Elena's body relax in his arms, he started moving to get both of them off the ground. Elena stopped him almost instantly.
"Please," she begged him. "Don't go."
He happily obeyed her, marveling at the sound of her heartbeat and the smell of her hair and the fact that she chose to trust him - of all people - with her grief.
Not that he would ever be able to refuse her anything.
Eventually, Damon heard Elena's heartbeat slow down. She had fallen asleep in his arms. He thought that she probably hadn't slept since Klaus had first taken her the night before, and he could only imagine how exhausted she must be.
Careful not to wake her up, Damon picked her up and carried her to his car. He set her down gently on his passenger seat, and he couldn't help but smile at the memory of their road trip to Atlanta. Things were so simple back then. And yet… what they were had transformed into something he could have never imagined. He had changed into a man he didn't know he could be. But somehow, she had known, and that had made all the difference.
When Damon pulled up in front of the Gilbert house, he was tempted to turn his car around and take Elena away from all this and make her happy for a little while, no matter how fleeting – their own five-minute time out.
But he knew he was dying anyways, and it wouldn't be fair to give Elena a first-row seat to his death just because he wanted to spend every single second he had left next to her.
Damon reached out and gently shook Elena's shoulder. "Elena."
Elena slowly opened her eyes. It took her a handful of seconds to take in her surroundings. The last twenty-four hours hit like a ton of brick as she realized where she was.
Her eyes stung and her heart felt so, so heavy.
She had woken up, and the nightmare was real.
"You're home," Damon said.
He sounded grimmer than he had intended to. She could see how much he wanted to mean his words, but home now felt like a foreign concept to her. She knew she needed to go inside and change for the funeral, but she couldn't get her legs to move.
She didn't want this to be real. It couldn't be real.
The alternative was too much to bear.
"Do you want me to come inside?" he asked her almost too quietly for her to hear.
He knew he was probably breaking a million unspoken rules just by asking. He was pretty sure she hated him for feeding her his blood and all the other terrible things he had done to her, but faced with her immeasurable pain, he didn't give a damn about rules and protocol. He never had whenever Elena was concerned. She was his rule.
Elena shook her head. "It's okay."
Damon offered her one of his all-too-rare genuine smiles, and Elena's heart tightened in her chest. She didn't know why she cared so much about Damon, but she did, and it was as undeniable as Jenna and John's freshly dug graves in the cemetery. She could go on lying to herself about it, but she was so damn tired, and Damon pulled her up in ways she wasn't sure she could ever explain.
She found so much clarity in that simple acknowledgement.
"I understand," she said quietly.
Damon raised an eyebrow. "Understand what?"
"Why you fed me your blood."
Elena watched as a myriad of emotions flashed on Damon's face. She knew it was the last thing he expected her to say. She didn't even think she was ready for this conversation… but she felt an inexplicable urge to clear the air between them because she had (almost) died today and he deserved the truth.
Elena shifted her body so she faced Damon. He remained completely still, afraid this conversation would crumble if he made so much as one wrong move. He had made so many before.
Elena took a deep breath. She wasn't sure how to explain something that she herself barely understood. But she would try. For him.
"With Jenna and John gone, I just… I wish I could go back and do anything to keep them alive." She felt a lump form in her throat. "Anything."
Damon nodded. He knew she was still a long ways from forgiving him, but this was already more than he'd dared to hope for.
"I'm sorry, Elena. It wasn't my choice to make."
She smiled bleakly. It was the best she could give him. She knew nothing she gave him was ever good enough, but she wasn't sure how she could ever fix that.
For so long, she had told herself that she loved Stefan and she couldn't love Damon and that was the end of the story. She couldn't be Katherine. She wouldn't be Katherine. But losing John and Jenna forced her to be more honest about her life – when she wasn't too busy crumbling under the weight of her grief.
And Damon was such a vital part of her life.
He was a part of her.
"I can't lose you, either, Damon. I know things are… complicated, between us. But I – I can't lose you. I need you to know that."
It took all Damon had not to launch Elena into his arms again. He had been waiting for these words for so long that they felt like some kind of sick joke life was playing on him. His imminent death was a cruel twist of fate.
He nodded slowly as his heart swelled in his chest.
"Thank you," he told her.
All he could think was I love you.
He thought that she had to know the answer to that question by now, but if she wanted to hear his reason again, he would gladly give it to her over and over again until his last breath came.
"For making me human again," he whispered, almost matter-of-factly.
Damon heard Elena's heart stop beating for a long, beautiful second, and he sighed at the way she responded to his confession. She couldn't deny this as much as he couldn't keep himself from feeling it – the fire that burned between them and kept them alive when nothing else seemed worth fighting for.
Elena didn't trust herself to speak. All she could do was stare at the man who used to be a monster and now felt like her own lifeline. Damon wasn't perfect, and he had hurt her so many times that she had yet to find it in her to forgive him for all his faults. But she could see right through him, and the man she saw was beautiful. He loved her for everything that she was – the good parts, and the bad ones, too.
"You're welcome," she finally answered.
She couldn't remember ever meaning anything as much as she meant this.
"You should probably go inside," Damon told her.
She didn't move. Neither did he.
A full minute passed before Elena finally reached for the door handle. She had to force herself to leave the haven Damon had created for her inside his car.
She stepped outside, but she paused before closing the door behind her.
"You'll be here?" she asked.
She was asking about so much more than just the funeral. She hoped he knew that it was all she could give him right now.
"Always," he answered with a heartbreaking, dazzling smile.
She nodded and closed the door. He kept his eyes locked with hers as he drove away, and Elena's legs almost gave out from under her.
She had run from her house earlier because she was suffocating from grief. But as Damon drove away, she found herself breathless from his absence.
Damon pulled up to the side of the road as soon as the Gilbert house was out of sight.
He put his car in park and stared ahead blankly. He could barely breathe at the realization that Elena's words had triggered in him.
The throbbing in his arm reminded him that he would be dead in a matter of hours, but he had never wanted to live more than he did in this moment.
- The End -