Elena pulled up short so unexpectedly that Damon, directly behind and cursing a blue streak, plowed straight into her. Up ahead he could only see more trees, but she'd apparently spotted something.
The tone of her voice, so different from the light, playful one that she'd been bantering in for the last 45 minutes, stilled any further complaints from him.
"Damon." Her body was a mere silhouette in the heavy evening shadows. "I—there's something I need to tell you before we get to our date."
He was tired and much hungrier than was healthy for someone with his unusual appetite, but for her, only for her, he conjured up a little bit more patience.
"Before Jeremy was born, my mom spent all day, every day with me. The playground, the zoo, shopping, the hairdresser, I was like her little mini-me. " Elena laughed slightly, but there was more sadness than humor in the sound. "When my brother came along, that total focus on me shifted, obviously, and I got really jealous." She looked at Damon. "Probably like you were when Stefan was born, maybe?"
"Stefan's birth didn't change much of anything," he replied bluntly. "I couldn't please my father before, and Stefan's perfect son impression was only one more measure I couldn't meet."
She looked away. "I'm sorry."
"So Jeremy was born and you got jealous," Damon prompted, unwilling to get off track conversationally yet again this evening. "What'd you do? Try to sell him or something?"
"I might have tried that once," she admitted ruefully, "Mostly though, I just acted out a lot and tried to be the center of attention again. One day I came home from kindergarten and found that Mom had loaded up our SUV with all kinds of camping gear. We let the boys have a bonding weekend while we took off and got lost tramping around the forest. We were so tired and hungry and she had to finally carry me …"
"Now there's an idea," Damon mused casually, fully onboard with the idea of having her in his arms when she wasn't fresh from a car accident or some other calamity.
She ignored his comment. "Anyway, while we were trying to find our SUV, we stumbled across this place I'm about to show you and it sort of became … mine." Elena's voice got soft. "Anytime I needed some space after that, this is where Mom would bring me. Up until I got to middle school, she'd camp with me. Then I suddenly didn't want her anywhere near me—" her voice broke.
"Hey." Damon grasped her shoulders and turned her toward him. She tried to avoid his gaze, but he placed his hands on either side of her neck and used his thumbs to gently lift her chin. Her eyes glittered with unshed tears and memories.
"I didn't want her near me," she repeated "so she'd drive us and then camp out somewhere close by, and I'd have the place all to myself. Then when I hit that bratty teenage phase—"
"You mean the one that has yet to end?"
To his relief, Elena laughed, this time genuinely. "I would drive myself out here to escape all the angst."
"Where is 'here'?"
"Damon," she wrapped her fingers around his wrists but didn't push him away, "I—I've never shared this place with anybody. Not Dad, not Bonnie or Jeremy or Caroline."
He frowned, wanting to ask but uncertain. "What about—"
Elena shook her head. "Not even him."
He seriously needed a minute to take that in, but she didn't give it to him.
She took a shaky breath, somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. "It's so cheesy, but I used to call this my happy place. Somehow I decided I was going to keep this as the one spot where nobody ever argued or yelled or caused drama about anything. Whenever I came here, it was to escape completely." Elena pulled away and wiped at her face, unaware of all the dirt she was smearing on it. "Before my parents died, I hadn't been here in several years. After they died—I just couldn't come back." She looked up at him intently. "Damon, nothing bad has ever happened to me here. Do you understand?"
"No." He stared at her in disbelief, feeling anger start to rise in him at the implications.
She opened her mouth and he cut her off,
"Let me see if I've got this straight. You didn't bring your brother here, so no sibling rivalry taints the place." He counted down on his fingers. "Bonnie and Caroline never came, so no girlfriend gossip was exchanged, but also no cat fighting. Your mom kept out of your way and your dad never came, so there weren't any dramatic parental confrontations. My guess is Matt never got a peek at whatever this place is, so there have never been any human boyfriend issues to mar the landscape. And," Damon continued emphatically, "you were smart enough not to bring Stefan. Hard as he tries to be a saint, my brother would've found a way to turn this place into drama central. By not coming here in the last years you've kept out the whole mess caused by Klaus and Katherine and Kol. So somehow, in your memories, there's never been any human or vampire drama here. I get that. What I don't understand is why, Elena. If this is your 'happy place,'" he made sarcastic air quotes, "your safe space, why would you finally disturb the peace by choosing to bring me?"
Elena listened to his rant, seemingly unperturbed. "Damon—"
"No. You're not thinking. You don't think, you just act rashly and then you have to be rescued from your bad decision making." Damon dragged a hand through his hair in frustration, trying to show her everything she was throwing away. "Elena, you do not want me here. This was a terrible idea. Once I set foot in that space, everything changes and there won't be any fixing it."
"What if I want it to change?"
He groaned. "Elena, you don't—"
"Stop telling me what I don't want." She planted her hands on her hips and scowled. "I can't explain it, Damon, but you and I, we have this understanding … we've had it since the very first day."
He was suddenly back at the beginning, the one only he remembered, seeing her walking towards him on that darkened country lane. There'd been that moment she was the ghost of Katherine, but even before she'd corrected him, he'd known already that she was somebody different. It had taken him close to a year—a year of being tangled up in Katherine's games— to realize the specific physical disparity was that Elena's heart had a different rhythm. His responded to it in an entirely new way.
Elena went on, unaware of the diverging paths of their memories, "It's like we really see each other when the rest of the world somehow misses things."
She'd been confused by the stranger in the middle of the road, weirded out, and yet totally unafraid in a way that left Damon as baffled as he was intrigued-and a little worried. The worry had bothered him. Why should he be concerned about this young girl blithely wandering around oblivious to the monsters lurking?
Now, of course, he knew that if she had known what he was, she would likely have stood her ground and tried to talk her way out of it, trying to find some common ground between them. Risking her life while trying to reach the predator's humanity.
So what do you want? Nobody before her had ever bothered asking.
Elena touched his arm and he blinked, finding himself back on a darkened path with her and she was still so beautiful, her lips parted in the slightest hint of an exasperated smile, her eyes warm and so. Damn. Trusting.
"You drive me crazy half the time, but even at his most tormented Stefan doesn't feel this intensely." His eyes darted to her hand resting on his forearm, that small, delicate hand that was causing such disproportionately large shock waves through him. "Damon, you and I need this place. We need an escape from … everything."
"What if I told you you're my escape?" He leaned in close to her ear, his lips whispering just above the sensitive shell. "My everything."
She trembled but didn't pull away, her eyes locked with his. "Damon …"
The bushes exploded around them raining debris every which way. He yanked Elena behind him, throwing up a screen with his body. The intruder plowed straight into the pair, unaware of the mere seconds he had left to live as Damon transitioned into a snarling beast, intent on protecting his Only.
Already plunging toward that tender neck, the vampire caught himself in midstrike, his fangs retracting marginally even as his fist tightened around the prey dangling in his inexorable grip.
"Damon, he's a kid." Her voice carved a path through the callous fury, pleading. "He's just a kid in the wrong place."
The scrawny boy writhed against the ever-tightening hand about to rupture his larynx, eyes bulging. His feet kicked desperately and he clawed at Damon's inhumanly strong fist, the reddening of his cheeks only accenting the acne pockmarking his skin.
"It was an accident, Damon. He didn't mean anything." Elena shoved her way forward as the kid started to go limp.
For an endless moment, he warred with undead need—kill, feed.
"I'm okay. Nothing happened." She wrapped her fingers around his wrist and tried to pry his stranglehold free. "Damon, please."
An even stronger instinct took over, one he couldn't come close to naming. Not in this place.
With a muted growl, he dropped the kid to forest floor. "Someone needs to teach you not to come between a predator and his prey."
Elena knelt beside the boy, her heart rate still double the average rate. "Are you talking to him or to me?"
Damon crouched and nudged her aside. A quick examination confirmed no broken bones. Accelerated pulse and ragged breathing, semi-conscious, but unmaimed. "He's okay. I'll take him back to the road. Compel him to forget everything."
Her less-than-convinced look told him everything he needed to know about how this date ended.
"I won't hurt him," Damon snapped irritably. "Pimply boy scouts aren't nearly as appealing as sorority chicks."
"What about me?"
"You?" He lifted the kid with a grimace and tossed him over his shoulder. "You're always appealing, even with that Will he or won't he permanent tattoo on your pretty face."
"What do I do, Damon?" She got to her feet slowly, eyes trained on the boy. "I can't keep up if you're going to do the vampire speed thing. Should I wait here or –"
"Or try and find your way back without me?" He snorted derisively. "Don't even think about it, Elena. Your GPS memory magic was valid for one use only. Sit tight. Eat. I'll speed you back to the car soon as I dump him."
He vanished into the trees, a familiar angry, broken voice of regret drumming through his head.