Well, kiddos, here we are, another beginning and another ending. This has been an absolute joy to write, in no small part because of your reviews and alerts and messages. Truly, thank you. And of course, this story would not be what it is without an amazing support group. This chapter, betaing thanks go to both JWAB and Elvishgrrl, but all of my other regular correspondents own a piece of this story-WildYennifer and onerepublicgirl and afanoftvd and all the rest of you. You make me better, all of you. Thank you.

Hit those author alerts, I've got a couple stories left in me you might want to read. But in the meantime, let's see if Damon finally lets himself be caught.

My skin is unraveling; I'm coming apart at the seams. I have everything I want right in the palm of my hand, and I can't deal with any of it.

Fuck me, so this is the thing that finally does it, that drives me over the edge. I've survived war, death, sibling rivalry, Katherine fucking Pierce, disco, and more torture than you can shake a stick at, and it's going to be a letter that tears me apart. A letter full of true lies and false truths. A letter that says she loves me.

I can't stop reading it. I swear I've got it memorized—every word, every place where her pen stuttered, even the dry feel of the paper and the softest whiff of lilies, I know it all by heart. And I know it's true but it can't be.

Is this Rebekah again—is this another dream from her, another way to make me suffer? It can't be; I lost a lot of blood last night, but not enough to bleed out all the vervain. No, this letter is real, and it's from Elena. And Elena is the world's worst liar and had no reason to lie anyway. Which means, ipso facto, it's true. She loves me.

My brain's like a hamster on its little wheel at the thought. She loves me. Loves me. Me.

Somehow, I'm at her house, letter crushed in my hand, though I don't remember getting here. I shouldn't be here, but I can't just pretend this didn't happen. I can't erase the words from my memory—they just repeat in my head: "I love you, Damon," she said. Does she have any concept of what those words mean? What they mean to me? Does she know how long I've waited to have her say those words, how those words scare me shitless?

Her car's not here. Goddammit, Elena, you don't write a man a letter like that and then go off the fucking grid. She's probably with Jeremy, rescuing kittens from trees or something. I don't even know what the fuck she'd do with him right now when she's still stifling an urge to eat him, but it doesn't matter because she's not here and I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do.

I know what to do. I have to wait for her. When she comes back, I'll take her in my arms and tell her that of course I love her, too, that maybe we can be happy together and God fuck it, let's try. I should kiss her hard and let her tell me those words again and again.

I know what to do. I have to get in my car and put my foot to the floor and go. Away from her, away from this girl who doesn't know what those words mean, doesn't know what she's in for. Because even if she does love me (God, I want her to), that's still a damn sight different from being with someone. Love isn't enough; never has been. To be with her would take compromise and struggle and other self-help bullshit. Or so I'm told-it's not like I've actually ever had a relationship; I had an obsession and a lot of fuck buddies. But with her, it has to be different.

I'm pacing in her driveway like a crazy person. Someone will probably call the fucking cops on me and wouldn't that be hilarious? I circle to the back of the house and a second later I'm in her room. I remind myself to buy a lock for her window; I remind myself she's a vampire now and can protect herself.

I'm surrounded by her things, her smell, but not her. Good, easing myself into this. It's good to be here, helps me stitch myself back together and get back under control. Better. Okay. I just need a moment to think, figure out my next move.

I wander the room, looking at the pleasant clutter of her life. Cheerleading trophies and a putridly pink jewelry box crowd her bureau. Photos of smiling girls and a happy family are tucked around her mirror. There's that ugly horse drawing over her bed—I've always hated that thing. There are empty blood bags in the trash, and on her bed is that sweet, snuggly teddy bear. A fucking teddy bear.

She's a child, a little girl. She's not ready for this, not ready for love and eternity and whatever we are or we could be. Her love doesn't change anything; her love changes everything.

I slump onto the edge of the bed. Something bounces beside me. It's a book, face-down, left there carelessly. She'll ruin the spine if she leaves it like that. I pick it up, looking for something to mark her place with, when I happen to glance at the title. I'm expecting The Hunger Games or some other teen bullshit, but that's not it at all.

The Call of the Wild.

It's a cheap paperback, an awful drawing of a wolf in full cry on the cover. But inside, the words are the same. She hasn't finished it yet— still has a few pages to go, a few pages until Buck finishes his transition from pet to predator, another chapter until Buck sings the song of a younger world.

It's probably her English homework, I tell myself. But I don't believe that. Why does it matter so much that she has this book? I don't know. But it does. I thought she was still in denial about what she was, still clinging to that ferocious humanity of hers. But this...if she read this, if she understood it, she knows what she needs to do, to keep that old humanity while finding new passion and freedom. Maybe that means I won't ruin her, won't change her. She can still be who she wants to be, even if she's with me. Maybe that's what this means.

Or maybe I'm such a mess, so scattered and thrown by her letter, that it only seems to matter. I leaf through the pages without seeing. Here and there, I catch familiar snatches of text, words about wildness and civilization, about blood and lust, about gentle love and fierce pride.

I hear the front door open. Hear her footsteps—just hers—in the hall, then the stairs. Then she's standing in the doorway. She finds me sitting on the bed with the battered letter in one hand and the book in the other. I blink up at her.

She's beautiful, skin still radiating heat from the sun, warm and almost alive. She's not surprised to see me, but she's wary, doesn't run to me and try to smother me and convince me and kiss me. Good. I can't take that. Not now. Not yet.

"Reading anything good?" She jerks her chin toward my double-fisted reading material.

"Is this where you've been getting your recent insight?" I try to make it a sneer, turn it into sarcasm, but it doesn't work. I just want to know. "You think you get me because you read this?"

She takes a step or two forward and stops. Her gaze is steady, meets mine without flinching. "I started reading it to show you that I paid attention to you, that what matters to you, matters to me." She pauses, head cocked to the side. "And it does. But the only insight I got was about...who I am now. I guess maybe who you are, too. I don't know if it's the same for you. The wanting, the call." Yes. Yes it's the same—all that blood and all those torn jugulars and that endless, aching call for something distant and old, something I crave but can't ever fully have. If it's like that for her, if she can embrace that...well, that tears down a lot of walls.

"But maybe you and Buck do have a little in common, besides just the wildness." She takes another step forward.

"Please, Elena," I say, forcing my voice into familiar mocking tones, but there's a quaver there I can't quite erase."I'm way less hairy than Buck." She smiles at the horrible, terrible joke. I'm way off my game and she's still smiling. I put the book down, careful not to lose her place. "You haven't finished it yet," I say.

She shakes her head. "Not yet. I want to make the ending last, so I read slowly."

I can relate to that. I release my death grip on the wadded letter, smooth it out on my thigh. I stare down at it. As battered as it is now, the words are still the same. I feel her eyes on me and look up. She's even closer now, just a few feet separating us. Too close. Too soon.

"Elena," I start. I stop. I have no idea where I'm going with this. None at all. I try again. Second verse, same as the first. "Elena, I don't-" I don't what? I'm supposed to know what to say. I need a quip or a joke or something to defuse this awful tension, but all my words have run dry.

"Can I say it now? Will you let me?" she asks softly. She sounds just as scared as I feel.

It'll always be Stefan. Maybe that's the problem. I have to let you go. The words pound against me, but I look down at the letter. I love you, Damon. I hope that's enough, because it's all I have. I love you.

I force myself to look at her. I expect there to be tears in her eyes, but there aren't. The old Elena would have been on the verge of weeping by now with all these floppy, intense emotions flying around, but she's not. She looks earnest. Determined. Strong.

"I've hurt you, Elena. You know I'll hurt you again." I'm almost begging her, but I don't know what I'm asking for.

"Yes, you have." Her voice catches and I feel about two inches tall. But she recovers. Continues: "And you will again. I'll hurt you, too. That's part of it." Is it? I don't know. Love and pain have always been all wrapped together, but I thought that was just me. Maybe she's right. But she still has to know, has to understand what it would really mean to do this.

"You know I'm not him," I remind her. I'm not safe. Not tame. I won't let her die; won't let her go.

"I don't want you to be," she says quietly. Fervently.

"And knowing all that, you still want to say it?" One last out. One last chance to walk away now before we hit the point of no return. Letters can be destroyed, but these words can't be unsaid.

She takes that last step, her legs pressing against my knees. She reaches out and tilts my face up toward her. I swallow hard. "Yes. Will you let me?"

And here's my last out. She's given me one, too. Aren't we considerate? All these convenient escape hatches. I could take this, bump like a motherfucker, and run like hell. I could let the fact that we'll hurt each other keep me away, let the memory of my brother and my own laundry list of sins keep me from being with her. I could let my childish fear that she'll leave keep me from trying to be happy right fucking now. If I walk away, I'll be safe. But I'll be alone.

I don't know what happens tomorrow. I don't know what happens ten minutes from now. But I know the words I want to hear her say right now.

"Please," I say.

The smile threatens to split her face clean in half. "I love you, Damon."

And that's it. So simple. Four words I've waited lifetimes for, and now they're here. And it's not enough. It'll never be enough. In a flash, I've got her pressed against the wall, caging her with my arms as if she might run at any moment. But she's not going anywhere. Because she loves me.

I dip my head so our lips are almost touching. But not quite. After all, I've kissed her before. But this is the first time I've heard those words. All I want to do is beg her to say it again and again, and I probably will at some point because I'm just that needy and pathetic. But there's something I have to tell her first—something I've already told her, but I have to repeat anyway. "In case it wasn't painfully clear, I love you." I laugh. "I love you, too." As incredible as it was to hear her say those words, I think I like saying them even better.

We kiss, something slow and deep. I'm not in a hurry, not rushing to tear clothes off and get to the good part, because this is the good part. I let my arms drop from the wall and curl around her waist, tugging her body against mine.

She's still smiling and I'm smiling and Jesus Christ, we must look like a couple of idiots, but I don't give a fuck because we're idiots together. She wraps her arms around my neck. "And I love you, too. For the record. Hasn't changed in the past minute."

"Smart ass," I growl, but I'm grinning, which kind of ruins the effect. Then we're kissing again and it's all hands and tongues and lips everywhere. We start toward the bed and I inch her shirt off, running my hands up the curve of her waist, over the swell of her breast. When I kissed her in Denver (when I copped a feel in Denver), she scorched my skin like a branding iron. Now she's as cool as I am, now she smells like lilies and blood.

I love her. I want her.

I pull her shirt off over her head, which means I have to break our kiss, which is irritating but worth it when I can touch more of her, run my hands across her flat belly, brush my fingers along her spine. She sighs and struggles to yank my shirt off, but she still doesn't know her own strength and winds up ripping the shirt nearly in half. We both stare at the scrap of black fabric in her hand. She looks up at me with guilty eyes.

"Sorry, that's been happening a lot lately-"

I tear the rest of the shirt from my back and push her down onto the bed. "I buy those things in bulk. Forget it."

She laughs and pulls me down on top of her. I kiss my way down her neck, across her collar bone—hard kisses, kisses which would have left bruises on a human. But now, she just sighs happily and tugs on my hair, pressing me closer, urging me on.

I slip one hand behind her and unfasten her bra. She shrugs out of the straps and I fling the thing across the room. I take a moment to admire; they're pretty great breasts. I start to lower my head to give them the attention they so obviously deserve, but she's pulling me up and kissing me again. I let her, cover her breasts with my hands, swirl my thumbs around each dark nipple while she kisses me with that fire I always knew she had, that fire she was saving just for me.

Her hands find their way between my legs, brushing against me—as if I needed any more stimulation- before moving to my straining fly. She pops the button and has my zipper halfway down when she stops.

She. Fucking. Stops. Stops kissing me, stops touching me, just looks up at me with big eyes, her lower lip caught between her teeth and I don't get it. "What is it?" I ask, totally lost. She wasn't exactly sending mixed signals when she was thrusting her tits into my hands. Fuck. Second thoughts, second guessing-

"We don't have to make love. Not that I don't want to," she babbles,"but after what you said last time, I'd understand if you just wanted to, you know, cuddle or something."

And she means it. This girl is trying so fucking hard to make sure I know this isn't just about sex, making sure I knows that she wants all of me. God, I want all of her, too. And sure, we could stop here and I'd still be happier than I've ever been. But why stop? I got what I wanted—her, with no reservations and no restraints. If she's sure about me, there's no reason to wait.

I press myself against her, give a slow grind of my hips. She arches up to meet me. "Cuddling comes after, Elena."

I kiss her before she can say anything else stupid. She laughs against my mouth. She finishes what she started, pulling the zipper down. I'm commando, as usual, which seems to surprise her for a minute, but she recovers and wraps her hand around me, moves it up and down with amazing, agonizing slowness.

I have to keep it the fuck together; I'm not a teenager and I'm not going to explode in her hand from sheer schoolboy satisfaction and giddiness and the fact that Elena Gilbert has her hand around my cock.

I ease back from her and the clothes come off, falling forgotten to the floor. When we're both stripped to our skins, we sit back and look at each other, floundering in the insanity and the rightness of this moment. Don't get me wrong, Elena's plenty easy on the eyes, but looking at her right now, it's more than that.

I've been with a lot of women. Hundreds, thousands, I lost track a long time ago. I've been with women who were more beautiful than she is, smarter than she is, stronger than she is. But none of them looked up at me like that, and now I can't recall a single name or face. They fade away and all that's left is this girl.

Elena recovers first and slips one arm behind my neck. She draws me down to kiss her again even as she wraps her legs around me. I haven't even done anything and she's wet and ready and I know I should pull out some crazy, kinky moves and blow her mind, but right now, I can't. There's going to be time for all that (isn't there?), but right now, I need her. And I think she needs me, too, judging by the way she's pressing against me, nipping at my lips, making that same animal sound she made when I found her before, when she was drinking blood.

I push into her—too hard maybe, too fast, maybe, but she's not complaining, she's still making that noise only now she's clawing at my back, urging me on. I oblige. And I'm not complaining either. Not just because it feels amazing (which, yeah. Hand, meet glove), but because her eyes are still riveted on mine (well, except for a couple of moments when her eyes start to roll back into her head, but I take that as a compliment), and all I can see is the truth of her words. The girl is head-over-heels in love. I hope she sees the same look on my face.

She's bucking her hips, wanting faster, harder, but I force myself to slow down. I want this to last, want it to live up to all the hype. I pull nearly all the way out before burying myself again. And again. I start slow and steady, but when I feel her tensing beneath me, hear that telltale hitch in her breathing, I vary the rhythm just enough to keep her hanging on the edge. I'm dangling by a thread, too.

I hear a little mewl of frustration and I'm pretty pleased with myself when I'm suddenly under her. Elena flips us over before I even have time to react. I'm still planted inside her to the hilt and the change is disorienting and exhilarating. "My turn," she says, obviously proud of her vampire trick. I'm impressed, but then she starts moving and I don't have any bandwidth to think of anything except the feel of her, tight and slick, her breasts bouncing, her eyes on mine.

I grip at her hips, trying to wrest back control, set the rhythm again, but she's having none of it. I'm thrusting up into her and she knows she's got me right where she wants me. Then it's all tighter, faster, harder, sweeter, and then it all stops and we're falling together.

A few moments later, she collapses on top of me and I hold her close, pressing my lips against her hair. She finds my hand and our fingers twine together and we lay there, not speaking, not moving, just coexisting in this comfortable, easy silence I've come to crave as much as I crave her laugh and her kindness and yeah, her body.



"I love you."

I smile. "Yeah. I know."

"You stole that from Star Wars."

"Still true. And I love you, too."

We're quiet again, and I'm pretty sure she's fallen asleep curled in my arms. Old fears start to creep back in, all the same impossibilities. There are still so many unanswered questions, obstacles we'll face. There's Stefan, her judgy little friends, her grappling with vampirism, our mutual tendency to fuck things up. That's not even counting all the normal couples' arguments about leaving towels on the floor and toilet seats up. I don't even know where to begin; I've never gotten much further than this in a relationship, not really. "Oh, Elena," I sigh, pulling her closer. "What do we do now?"

"Well," she says. Whoops. Guess she wasn't asleep after all. Figures. She seems to be thinking about this pretty hard, and I'm curious about what she'll say. "For now, we stay here. Make love a few more times." I am completely on board with this plan. "When we have to face the world, we get up and we do our best. Every day, for as long as we can, we try. And we remember we love each other."

She makes it sound simple. Maybe it is. Or maybe she'll go back to Stefan after all, or I'll decide her do-gooder ways are too much, or we'll just consume each other until all that's left are ashes. Maybe. Probably. But for a few years or even a few days of feeling like this? Maybe that's worth all the risk and the heartache.

I hope so. But I'm willing to gamble either way, because I love this girl. And finally, she loves me, too.

The End.