"C'mon, Princess," Damon said, waggling his brows playfully. "Drop it like it's hot. Show me what you're hiding."

"Ugh, why does everything that rolls off your tongue sound dirty?"

"You enjoyed my dirty mouth the other night."

Alice made a gagging sound from her seat near the window and Damon swiveled around in his chair, fixing her with narrowed eyes. "Don't you have something better to do, Tiny Tim, like tiptoe through the tulips?"

Alice nodded over to Elena and winked. "A straight flush trumps a high card straight."

"Sometimes your ability to predict the future sucks the fun out of everything." Damon grimaced and threw his cards down on the table, sending them skittering across the wood surface. "I'm out."

"Guess I win," Elena said with a grin and placed her cards face up. "Thanks Alice."

"A pair of deuces? Are you effin' kidding me?" Damon slammed his palms on the table and pushed back in his chair, the sound of its legs scraping across the floor before it fell over completely as he stood up. "What the hell, Alice? I thought you said she had a straight flush."

"I never said Elena had the straight flush," Alice said, feigning innocence.

"I have the straight flush." Bella smirked, fanning the cards in front of her face before placing them on the table, face up.

"You," Damon sputtered. "You said you didn't even know how to play poker?"

"I may have exaggerated a teeny bit." She shrugged. "Stef taught me."

"Of course he did," he said, crossing the floor to gaze outside, his eyes searching for unseen threats. It was too quiet, he thought gripping the window ledge. He was beginning to feel like too much of a sitting duck and no matter how many stupid games they played to pass the hours, he couldn't shake the feeling. "Why does this remind me of the scene from Jaws when the guys are all drinking and singing 'Show Me the Way to Go Home' right before the shark rams the side of the boat?"

"I don't think sharks are much concern in the mountains," Alice said in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Thanks for the geography lesson, Carmen Santiago but I'm more concerned with the other predators that are equipped with sharp incisors. Are you sure your spidey senses are working? I mean they have been kind of glitchy lately."

"My sight is just fine, Damon."

Bella cut her gaze from Alice to Damon and back again. Those two were apt to kill one another before the night was through. They'd been sniping at each other for hours now. Damon pushed and Alice shoved right back. She knew Damon was feeling frustrated by the situation. He really wanted to be in the fray of things. He also hated depending on Alice's sight. And Alice? Well she hated to have her abilities questioned, so used to being in the know about everything. She also hated being away from Jasper, especially now.

"I'm going to call Edward," Bella announced, standing up, needing to cut through the thick tension. "Then I'm going to bed."

"Bella's got the right idea." Elena nodded. She, too, thought it was time to diffuse the situation. There were only so many card games they could play. "Damon? Why don't you join me on the cot? Bella can take the other one."

He nodded absently as he pulled at his lower lip, watching his reflection in the window. He knew he wasn't going to get a lick of sleep, especially on the thin lump of a mattress masquerading as a bed. Hell, even if said bed was one for kings with Egyptian cotton sheets that were a gazillion thread count, he'd probably be tossing all night. Nervous anticipation wasn't his forte. He tended to get snappy.

There was so much could go wrong, even if he did employ his sneaky safety nets. And Stefan. He was down there. If something was to happen to him and he didn't get to make his peace with him, he may never forgive himself.

Bella took Alice's phone and stepped outside into the chilly night air, pulling the loose clothes tighter around her. The stars were out tonight, for once, shining bright against the clear night sky. In the distance she could hear coyotes howling and the mountain wind rustle through the trees. It was so peaceful, it was hard to believe in a few hours, the peace would be corrupted by violence.

She scrolled through the contacts on the phone and smiled when she saw the picture Alice had of Edward. It was obviously a candid shot, taken mid-laugh. When was the last time he really laughed like that?

"Alice?" he answered on the first ring. "Is there something wrong? Is Bella-"

"It's me, Edward," she quickly assured him. "Everything's fine. I just wanted to call and say goodnight and to tell you I love you."

She heard his sigh through the phone, his relief was palatable. "I love you too and Bella, everything is going to work out. I promise."

Even though he said he couldn't read her mind, he sure didn't have any trouble knowing the direction her thoughts had headed.

"I know," she agreed but her voice lacked conviction.

"Listen, I know you're scared. If you want me to scratch this whole thing and replace Alice, I will. I can be there in less than an hour."

"No. It's fine." She left out her feelings of trepidation. The last thing he needed on his mind was to worry about her. It would be a distraction and his concentration was needed elsewhere. "I'm sure we'll be safe up here. Alice assures me I still stink to the high heavens."

Edward laughed through the phone and she knew she was doing the right thing. "Good. By tomorrow night this will all be a memory. Nothing is going to stop me from coming for you."

"You better."

"Until tomorrow then, love."

"I'll be waiting." Bella paused thoughtfully, knowing there was one other person she needed to speak with. "Hey, is Stefan there? I want to talk to him."

"Yeah, hold on."

She waited only a few moments before she heard Stefan's voice come over the line. She also felt eyes at her back and knew that Damon was watching her from the window.

"Hey, Stef," she said forcing cheerfulness in her tone. The unease in her stomach wasn't letting up. She needed things to be set right before the morning between her brothers, just in case.

"You haven't called me that in ages," he chuckled. "What's going on?"

"I just wanted to check in, tell you to be careful, watch your back and most important of all, that I love you, big brother. It means a lot to me that you are here."

"Bella, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I've failed you once before. I'm not going to-"

"Stop it. You've never failed me."

"Well, just the same, despite everything, I'm glad I'm here."

Turning around, she saw Damon watching her through the window and knew he could hear her every word. She knew he was going to be pigheaded but she also knew he'd carry the weight of his guilt for a thousand years if things got ugly and he never made his peace with Stefan. Well, she could be just as pigheaded.

"I have someone that wants to talk to you."

"Who?" Stefan's voice sounded wary.

Damon shook his head furiously at her and in turn she waved him forward with her hand until he rolled his eyes. He opened the door and stepped through the doorway.

"C'mon Damon. Get your butt over here. Rome wasn't built in a day but it has to start somewhere."

"Okay, fine, Miss Bossy Pants." He held out his hand for the phone and she placed it in his hand with a victorious smirk. "I think we raised a real tyrant, Stef," he said into the phone.

"I blame you," Stefan chuckled softly.

"Yeah, it probably was my fault. So how are things at command central?"

"Tense. What about up there?"

"Same. Got my ass kicked in poker, though."

"Let me guess. Bella."

"Yeah, she's a regular shark. She tells me I have you to thank for that."

"You're welcome."

An uncomfortable silence stretched between them that felt longer than any distance by miles. There was too much unsaid between them and neither of them knew how to breach that chasm.

"So, anywho..." Damon broke through the quiet first.

"Bella said you had something to talk to me about."

"I was kinda working up to that but yeah, I guess I do." Damon squeezed his eyes shut and left out a whoosh of air, his fingers tightening around the phone. The idea of apologizing again made his throat burn and his palms itch. He had done the right thing. He walked away from it all. What was he supposed to say, I'm sorry your girlfriend chose me and by the way don't get your ass killed tomorrow? "I'm sorry you're hurting."

There that should cover it. He was sorry Stefan was in pain but he wasn't going to apologize for being happy. He wasn't sorry Elena chose him. He could admit to himself that he was too selfish for that. Why should everyone be miserable?

"Just not sorry enough to give her up."

Oh, hell, no. He did not just go there. "Stefan..."

"Sorry, sorry. I know. Like Bella said, Rome wasn't built in a day. But this isn't exactly something I can forgive and forget so easily."

"I know." Boy, did he know.

"But," Stefan added, "I have to accept that she made her choice long before we broke up. I just didn't want to see what was happening right in front of me."

"Denial seems to be your forte."

"And trying to take what I have is yours," he snapped back.

"It's not like Elena woke up one morning and said, 'Gee, I'm going to shred Stefan's feelings to ribbons today'. I get it. It sucks. I know. I've been there remember? Twice. And I'm really tired of you talking about Elena like she was a possession to be acquired. I didn't take her. She chose me, Stefan, me." Damon stabbed his finger at his own chest. "But you'd be a fool if you think that you don't have a special part of Elena's heart and you always will."

"I bet you hate that too."

"No, Stef, I really don't. At one of the worst times in her life, you were what she needed and she loved you with everything she had. You see, I get that about her. I understand."

"I think you actually do," Stefan agreed much to Damon's surprise. "Just don't break her heart, Damon. That's all I ask. Or I will have to drive a stake through yours."

"If that happens, I'll be the one handing you the wood. Stick close to Jasper and Eddie tomorrow."

"I will. You protect our girls."

"Count on it. Oh and Stef?"


"Don't get yourself killed. I think I'd miss having you around."

"You too, bro, you too."