3 WEEKS LATER
Bonnie raised her fingers to her temples and massaged them forcefully, willing her pounding migraine to go away. She was sitting in the Salvatore library, with newspapers and books strewn haphazardly across the table. Across from her, Jeremy sent her a sympathetic smile. She tried to smile back at him, but flinched as her head gave another painful throb.
Her headache wasn't helped by the screaming argument going on in the living room.
"And every time you've come along, you've nearly died!" Damon shouted, and there was a loud thud that sounded like he had banged his fist on something. "What part of that do you not understand?"
"Well, we didn't know we were being set up!" Elena shouted back, "Just because Klaus is always two steps ahead of us, doesn't mean you can blame me—"
Bonnie covered her ears in a useless attempt to drown out their fight. For these past three weeks, she had seen the two of them grow more and more miserable. It was strange, because she would've never thought that Stefan had such a strong influence on the dynamic of their group…but, turns out, he did.
The most affected (besides Damon and Elena) was, oddly, Caroline. Bonnie hesitantly raised her head and glanced across the room to where the blonde vampire was huddled over in an armchair, poring over a stack of newspapers and muttering to herself. Caroline seemed to take Stefan's abrupt departure as some kind of personal insult, and now she had thrown herself into the task of finding him with such a strong vendetta that it left the others reeling.
In a way, though, Bonnie understood Caroline's attitude. Stefan had been there from the beginning for Caroline—when she had turned into a vampire, when she had trouble controlling her bloodlust; teaching her how to hunt, how to hold on to her humanity. He'd been her rock, and her friend, and probably one of the few constants in her life. To have him leave so suddenly, just like Tyler had, was probably messing with her head.
And speaking of which…Bonnie glanced over to where Tyler was leaning against the bookshelf, pulling out books at random and flipping through them without any real conviction. He had said from the beginning that no amount of "research" was going to help them outsmart Klaus or find Stefan, and it was abundantly clear that he thought all of this was a colossal waste of time.
Sometimes, Bonnie thought he was right.
"I just don't understand you!" Damon bellowed at that moment, "Do you have a freakin' death wish? Why won't you just stay here WHERE YOU'LL BE SAFE?"
"This is Stefan we're talking about!" Elena hurled back, and nearly everyone in the library groaned simultaneously at the predictable response.
Their arguments were nothing if not repetitive.
"Seriously, do those two ever come up with new things to say?" Katherine asked as she blurred into the room, holding a stack of white papers in her hand. "I could hear their dulcet tones from halfway down the street."
"Of course you could, you're a vampire," Jeremy muttered under his breath.
Caroline's head snapped up, her eyes frantic. "What are those?" she demanded, pointing to what Katherine was holding, "Did you find anything?"
"The latest news articles from online," she answered, tossing the pile on to the table. "Alaric said to bring them over. He says there's a new lead."
"Probably another trick cooked up by Klaus," Tyler grumbled, "How many times are we going to fall into his traps? You know the guy is probably laughing at us right now, don't you?"
"Nobody is perfect," Caroline said through gritted teeth, her expression making it clear that she was just barely holding it together. "We're going to keep following these leads, because Klaus will screw up at some point. Eventually, one of these leads will pan out…And we're going to be there when it does. Got it?"
Everyone exchanged glances, but no one said anything.
"I can't always be worried about your safety!" Damon roared in frustration, "You always being in the middle of the fight—it's a distraction, Elena!"
"You know I have to be there, Damon! What if one of these times we actually find Stefan? I'm the only one that has a chance at talking him out of...well, whatever mind games Klaus is playing with him!"
"Anyone have a stake?" Katherine snarled, "I might just put myself out of this misery."
"Tell me about it," Jeremy rubbed his hands over his face tiredly, "Honestly, you'd think they'd be sick of fighting for three weeks straight."
"Yeah, I think they're gonna drive us over the edge first," Tyler glared at the wall separating the two rooms, "And now we have to go on another road trip with them?"
Bonnie sighed inwardly. She'd had enough. "Okay," she stood up and began waving everyone through the door, "How about everyone goes home and gets what they need for the newest lead? Clothes, weapons, food, blood bags, the usual. According to Alaric's notes, it'll be about a 2 day drive to get there."
"I live here," Katherine started, letting out an indignant huff when Bonnie pushed her into the hallway with the others.
"Then go buy some supplies, or I don't know, make yourself useful and go help Ric pack. I don't care. Everyone meet back here in an hour, okay?" The group filed out the house reluctantly, with Jeremy sending her a suspicious look. She quickly kissed him to alleviate his concerns, then firmly shut the door behind them.
Well, here goes nothing.
Bonnie strode into the living room, but paused on the threshold to watch Damon and Elena. They were both standing over a table in the corner of the room, with Damon angrily tossing aside scraps of paper with failed leads. "Stefan's feeding again, Elena. You can't control it, don't you get that? You can't do anything about it!"
"I'm not gonna give up on finding him, Damon," she snapped back, her hands curling into fists at her sides. "I'm going with you guys!"
Damon opened his mouth to retort, but Bonnie cut him off in a calm voice, "You both need to stop."
He glanced over his shoulder at her, "What do you want? Where's everyone?"
"I sent them home to get supplies for the latest lead on Stefan's whereabouts," Bonnie replied, crossing her arms. "They'll be back in an hour."
"Fine," he turned away from her, "See you in an hour."
"I'll leave in a minute," Bonnie stepped further into the room, "But first I have to say something."
Elena sighed, dropping onto the sofa wearily, "What's wrong, now? Did something else happen?"
"You two are driving everyone crazy," Bonnie said bluntly, and Damon stiffened at her tone. "We're all worried about Stefan and we've all been doing our best to find him. So what if Klaus has been outsmarting us? I kinda think that would be expected considering he's got, like, centuries of experience on us."
"We know that," Elena began, but Bonnie held up a hand to stop her.
"I'm not done. You two have been arguing constantly these past few weeks and, frankly, none of us can take it any more. Even worse, it's the same fight over and over again." She blew out a breath of air in exasperation, "Don't you see? It's like you guys are stuck in some kind of loop, and you're not only making yourselves miserable, but it's affecting everyone else, too."
Damon whirled back around to face her, a dozen emotions fighting for dominance across his face. "Anything else?" he growled, "Or are you done?"
"One more thing," Bonnie said evenly. She met his gaze, "We might not like each other very much, but I do respect you. The choices you make and the lengths you go to protect the people you care about. I get that. I would do the same."
His expression flickered with warning, "Bonnie..."
"But I'm also Elena's friend," she interrupted him, "And I don't like to see her hurting like this. And I don't like lying to her either."
Elena frowned, "What do you mean?"
Bonnie didn't miss the betrayal that flashed in Damon's eyes. "I'm sorry," she said to him truthfully, "But Elena deserves to know."
"Know what? What's going on?"
"Damon knows what happened during the trials. He remembers all of it."
Elena stood up, her eyes wide. "What? No, there must be some mistake...He doesn't—I mean, he said he didn't!"
"I tried to tell you that day," Bonnie said quietly, "That he would probably remember. But then he woke up and he chose to lie to protect you...because he was able to hear you wish that he wouldn't remember anything."
Damon clenched his jaw, "I need a drink."
"And now I'll leave you guys to talk," Bonnie backed out of the room as Damon fumbled with the bottles of liquor. She met Elena's gaze, "I'm sorry I kept it a secret for so long, but Damon had his reasons for not telling you and I..." She hesitated, "I understood where he was coming from." She smiled at her friend and mouthed, "Work it out. I'll be back in an hour."
Elena nodded wordlessly, sinking back down onto the sofa as the front door closed with a sharp snap.
The only sound in the room was the ice cubes clinking against Damon's glass. Elena ran her fingers through her hair, trying to decide what to say. After ten minutes, she finally whispered, "Why?"
The ice cubes stilled. "Why what?"
She winced at the harshness of his tone and lowered her voice, "Why did you want to keep it a secret? I would've been able to handle the truth."
"Would you?" Damon asked coldly, "Somehow, I didn't get that impression."
"Don't," Elena looked up at him bleakly, "Don't put this all on me. I didn't know you were awake when I said those things...I wanted to protect you from that guilt—"
He slammed the glass down on the coffee table so hard that she was momentarily stunned it didn't shatter. "News flash, Elena," he hissed, "I don't need your protection! I've been suppressing my feelings for you for so long that it's practically second nature at this point."
Tears sprang to her eyes and she dug her fingers into the cushions, slowly counting to ten in her head. "You know why I did what I did," she said shakily, "You've done so much for me...It was the least I could do."
"So you know why I did what I did, then," Damon said in a hard voice, and she got the impression that he reigning in his anger. "It was what you wanted. Everything I do...it's for you, Elena."
"I know," she admitted quickly, relieved that the conversation was gaining some momentum. "I'm not upset at what you did. I just wish you had told me the truth. We could've...These past few weeks would've been easier if we had been able to talk about it."
He shook his head, "What is there to discuss, Elena? Things happened in those trials, sure. But none of it was real. It doesn't change anything."
She swallowed, "But it felt real. At least to me."
Damon didn't respond for a minute, but then he said quietly, "It was real for me, too." He stood up and began pacing in front of the fireplace to avoid looking at her. "The Wrath trial, when I saw you die...don't you understand how much that's haunting me, Elena? Don't you get that's why I don't like it when you come on these road trips to search for Stefan? You're putting yourself in danger, and I don't..." he trailed off, "I can't see that ever happen again."
"I understand," Elena responded softly, "But I keep seeing the Sloth trial in my head...when everyone had died because of Klaus. Damon, I would never be able to forgive myself if I stayed behind within the safety of these four walls and something like that happened to everyone. I have to be there, even if..." She lowered her gaze, "Even if it's not safe."
He stopped pacing to stare at her with probing eyes, "It's not just Klaus and his minions that I'm worried about, Elena. You seem to have this notion that if Stefan just sees you, that everything will be okay." Damon waited until she was looking at him before he continued flatly, "It won't. You saw what Stefan on human blood was like in the Lust trial."
Elena sucked in a startled breath of air, flinching as she remembered Stefan rushing at her and throwing them both over the banister in his rage. "You saved me then," she said unthinkingly, glancing up at him.
"And I will always save you," he returned, "But—"
"But nothing," she cut him off firmly, "I trust you. With my life."
Damon's expression softened, "And I owe you mine. I wouldn't be standing here without you, Elena. I know I was a jackass in some of those trials..."
Elena smiled in spite of herself and she stood up to join him in front of the fireplace. "Some of the trials?" she teased, "More like all of them."
He pretended to be offended, placing a hand over his heart. "You wound me, Elena," he said playfully, "I do have a fragile ego, you know."
She laughed then, probably for the first time in weeks. Damon relaxed at the sound, reaching out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. Elena leaned into his touch, closing her eyes briefly. "Underneath all that bravado in those trials, you still showed me the human side of you," she whispered, "Every time."
Damon brushed his thumb against her cheek. "You bring out my humanity, Elena," he said huskily, "You always have."
"Speaking of humanity," she reached up with her own hand to cover the hand that he was resting against her cheek, "Do you remember what you said to me when you were dying? That I should've met you in 1864..."
"...And you would've liked me, then," Damon finished lightly, "I guess I got my wish in that Envy trial..."
"You were right," Elena whispered, "I did like the 1864-you." She took a deep breath, "In fact, I think I found myself falling in love with every single version of you." Damon tensed under her grip, but she didn't release his hand. "I was trying to figure it out," she went on, almost talking to herself, "Then I realized...it was because every single trial was you. Different aspects of your personality, different settings, different worlds...but still, undoubtedly, you."
Damon closed his eyes, "Elena..."
"No," she said quickly, taking a step forward so that she could lay a hand on his chest, "Please, I just...I need to say this. I felt like I was really getting to know you in those trials; the real you." She let her hand fall down his arm until their fingers were entwined. "I liked you then," she murmured, "And I like you now." He opened his eyes to look at her, surprised to see her standing so close. "I meant everything I said in all those trials, Damon."
He couldn't help the soaring sensation he experienced in his chest, and he unconsciously lowered his head so that his forehead was resting against hers. "You don't know what you're saying, Elena."
"I told you I loved you," she said unexpectedly, "I haven't forgotten."
Elena shivered as she felt Damon's arms wrap around her securely before he whispered, "And you still say you meant everything you said?"
She had barely finished the sentence before his mouth was on hers, desperately seeking something that had both craved for weeks. Her lips parted without thought, giving into all the feelings that she had kept tightly bottled inside, and gasping as he matched her emotions with a ferocity that had her hands tangling in his hair to bring him infinitely closer. Heat radiated through her body as his lips moved to her neck and she moaned as she buried her face into his shoulder.
"We have something, Elena," he muttered roughly in her ear, "You can't deny it anymore."
"I know," she pulled back to look at him, trying to catch her breath. "The connection between us...I can't explain it. But there's something drawing us together, and if there's one thing I learned from all this, it's that you can't fight fate. If something's meant to be, it'll happen."
Damon gazed down at her, "But for now we have to focus on finding Stefan."
She nodded, resting her head against his chest as he tightened his arms around her. "We'll find him, and we'll get rid of Klaus, and we'll help Stefan with his bloodlust, and—"
"And then we'll find a way to avert the next crisis, because this is Mystic Falls and trouble always seems to find you." Damon pressed a kiss onto the top of her head, "But after all that is over..."
Elena tipped her head back to look up at him. "After all that is over," she murmured, "I'll still be here."
"As will I," he lowered his head and Elena instantly captured his lips with her own. "You'll always be the one for me, Elena Gilbert," he mumbled between kisses, and he felt her smile against his lips.
"Likewise, Damon Salvatore."
As their kiss deepened, the fireplace crackled merrily behind them.
*ah, the end of another wonderful adventure! thank you to all your wonderful comments along the way! school starts tomorrow, so this is probably my last fic for a while (until the winter, at least). but I'll definitely be watching the new season of TVD so be sure to follow me on twitter (tamilnadu09) so we can all talk about this (hopefully) awesome season! much love xoxo :)