Author's Note: You guys..! I'm so sorry I didn't get this up as quickly as I'd hoped. Last week was beyond insanity, though, and I wanted to try and get this right. I did write this, for the most part, before I'd watched the premiere - which... is probably a good thing. And that's all I'll say about that.
I've really appreciated all of your good feedback and support with this story - I hope you'll find this to be at least a somewhat satisfying conclusion. Thanks for reading!
Chapter Six: Verity
Damon Salvatore has watched thousands of sunrises, but he's never seen the beginning of a day full of so much finality.
He's tired of pining, and avoiding, and torturing himself. It's embarrassing, and it makes him feel weak. Watching the rays of light peek over the horizon, it seems like an invitation to close the last chapter and open a new one – one where his life isn't spun around a girl with brown hair and dark, unknowable eyes.
Moving on from Katherine hurt, but it never felt wrong, and Damon is an expert at biting through the pain. So really, moving on from Elena…
Well, it seems like it should be easier.
He spins the ring on his finger with an ironic smile, before jumping down from the upper eaves of the Boarding House – almost immediately regretting the loss of solitude, as the myriad sounds of the world come back into sharper focus.
Of course, the one sound he'd originally gone onto the roof to escape – the monotonous drone of his brother's incessant pacing – is suspiciously absent.
Still, they haven't been brothers for almost two centuries for nothing.
Damon finds Stefan in the basement, and the satisfaction he feels at locating him so easily fades at the look on his brother's face – cast in the eerie glow of the open cooler, packed to the brim with blood bags.
Stefan doesn't look at him, even as the tension in his jaw acknowledges Damon's presence.
"So," Damon leans against the opposite wall, "you ready to do this right?"
Stefan finally looks up, meets Damon's eyes with an expression not unlike the one he wore those many years ago on his first day of school. Or the day of their mother's funeral.
It's a look that makes Damon swallow hard, before nodding firmly.
I'm not going anywhere.
Stefan takes in a short, deep breath, stepping forward. Damon pours the crimson liquid into a stray glass, holds it out.
"C'mon," Damon grins with mixture of sadness and pride as Stefan drains it down, "I'll buy you breakfast."
Elena can't pull her eyes away from the scene – Damon and Stefan, throwing darts into the Grill's bull's-eye, for once managing not to look like they'd rather be tossing them at each other. She's not sure if she's ever seen them both smiling and laughing at the same time.
It would be disconcerting, if it didn't melt her heart. Even as it twists in a little knife of guilt.
"Hello…?" Caroline's voice cuts through. "Earth to Elena… you still with us?"
"Sorry," Elena pulls her focus back with an apologetic smile, trying to pretend like she's been listening to Caroline's chatter about possible prom themes.
"What's up with you today?" Caroline narrows her eyes. "You've barely touched your pie," she adds, gesturing at the plate in front of her and the idle fork in Elena's fingers. "Guilt-free desserts are one of the primary benefits of being a vampire, you know."
Elena laughs a little at that, but she doesn't feel like eating.
Jeremy glances up from his homework long enough to look between Elena's untouched plate and her line of sight. "Damon said Stefan's been thinking about going off the bunny diet," he offers, carefully casual, turning back to his textbook.
"Really?" Elena asks, curious when Caroline doesn't seem surprised by this news. She turns from her brother to her friend. "You think that's a good idea?"
"Well…" she searches Elena's expression thoughtfully. "He can't keep living in denial, you know? Besides, Damon will be there to help him."
Elena raises an eyebrow at these words coming out of Caroline's mouth.
"What?" Caroline shrugs, shifting to sit up straighter. "He does do some things right."
Elena smiles slightly. "Yea…" she almost whispers. "He does."
Caroline goes back to pros and cons of "starry night" versus "disco inferno," but Elena can't even pretend like she's listening anymore. The thoughts racing through her mind are running in rhythm to the rapid beats in her chest.
"I'll see you guys later, okay?" she stands abruptly, causing both Caroline and Jeremy to look at her with concern. "I'm fine," she assures them, "I just need to think."
She doesn't wait for a response, just books it out the service door and into the back alley. Being outside makes her feel like she can breathe a little bit easier, but it does nothing for the anxious energy coursing through her veins. So she starts walking.
It feels right to walk, slowly, deliberately, one foot after another. The pattern is a numbing distraction, so much so that she hardly realizes where she's going or how much time has passed. She doesn't really start paying attention until she recognizes that she's arrived at the little stretch of road where her parents picked her up the night of the accident, that little bend in the clearing where – she now knows – she first met Damon.
A feeling of belonging sweeps over her, and she sinks downward, the exhaustion seeping into her bones. Lying back in the road, knowing she shouldn't be – can't be –anywhere else right now, she watches the stars start to twinkle to life in the twilit sky.
"You can tell them not to worry, Damon. And you don't have to hide in the shadows," she takes a chance, trusting her sense of certainty that he's there – protecting her from a distance.
She can't stifle the smile that crosses her lips when his footsteps emerge from the trees, wishes his own expression wasn't so serious when he comes into view above her.
"Hunting someone?" he quirks an eyebrow at her prone position in the road.
"How's Stefan?" she counters instead of voicing her secret thoughts.
"Are we really here to talk about Stefan?"
It hurts a little that his tone is more resigned than disappointed.
"No," Elena affirms softly, patting the ground beside her.
Damon hesitates for a moment before joining her, sliding an arm behind his head.
"But I was right, you know," she continues, watching a cloud drift across the moon. "You are the one that's going to save him from himself."
She hates herself for almost screwing that up, too.
"Why are we here, Elena?" he asks after a moment, unable to completely hide the trace of bitterness in his words.
She's not really sure how she ended up here, in this road, but she knows now that it's important, this place of endings and beginnings. "I remember this place," she answers as best she can, "I remember you in this place." Elena steels herself when he doesn't respond. "I was so angry with you, you know."
"I'm sure I deserved it," he answers darkly.
She turns to him, wishing he would look at her. "You took those memories from me," she says – it's a fact, not an accusation. "You took away a chance for me to know you – know all of you, not just the mask you show the world."
He frowns, finally turning towards her, opens his mouth to protest – no doubt to tell her she didn't seem all that interested in knowing him.
"Don't tell me you don't want the expectations," she silences him with a finger to his lips. "Don't tell me you don't want people to count on you – don't want me to count on you. Because I do count on you, Damon, we all count on you, and now…" she lays back again, the cool air on her hot cheeks. "Now," she holds her hand to her chest, feels her heart beat with all of her heightened emotions that she still has a hard time keeping in check, "I understand a little better, I think."
"You shouldn't rely on me," he speaks quietly after a moment.
"Yes I should," she answers, reaching out to take his free hand in hers, scraping their knuckles lightly against the pavement. She's relieved when he doesn't pull away, turns back to look at him. "How many times have you saved my life, Damon?"
There's a flash of pain in his eyes as his fingers tighten around hers. "Not when it mattered the most."
"It's never mattered in the way you think," Elena bites her lip. "You've always tried to help me be better… see more truth."
A line creases his forehead and in a flash he's pulled away from her, sped ten yards away. She feels the sudden absence like a slap across the face. "Don't make me into a saint, Elena," he mutters, his back to her, arms crossed. "I've hurt you too many times for that."
Elena isn't letting him walk away from her this time, though. It's taken a long time – too long, maybe, but the longer they keep talking the more she feels like this is what she's been missing for years, and she refuses to believe she's too late.
She's can't have messed this up again.
"Yes," she acknowledges, speeding around to make him look her in the eye, "you've hurt me. But I've hurt you, too. And I'm so sorry for that – I'm so sorry that no one ever told you that you're good enough – that I never told you that you're good enough."
When he finally meets her gaze, there's enough turbulent power in those bright blue depths to knock the breath out of her.
"I know you have your faults," she goes on gently, "but so do I. And one of mine – one of the very biggest ones that I regret the most – is not listening to my heart, and just hiding behind what's familiar and safe."
Damon seems to take this all in guardedly, and it kills her that this isn't easier for him to accept.
"Why now?" he keeps his arms crossed.
Elena takes a deep breath, struggling to find the right words. She's only just allowed herself to see things clearly, after all. "When my parents died, I put up these… these blinders. Everything just felt so hopeless, and I was afraid of what damage I could do. I stopped trusting myself when it came to what I wanted, or needed – what I really felt. But when I became a vampire, it got harder and harder to ignore those feelings, and to hold onto the comfortable life I'd constructed for myself."
"I'm not sure I'd call our lives 'comfortable,'" Damon interrupts her with a hint of smirk.
She smiles tentatively, sensing she might be breaking through. "You know what I mean," she goes on, a hitch growing in her voice. "I did what was safe. Easy. But you always saw me – from the first moment we met, you knew me."
Elena feels the single tear escape the corner of her eye, leans into Damon's touch as he instinctively reaches out to brush it away.
"And it took me awhile," she struggles to continue, looking down apprehensively, "but I finally realized that the way you love – that fierce, loyal, consuming love – it isn't something to be so afraid of, because it's the same kind of love that's in me. I know it won't be easy – but I don't want easy anymore. I want to be honest with myself. I want to know you as well as you know me. I want to give this – give us – a chance."
His hand hasn't moved, his whole body seems frozen in uncertain contemplation, and she lifts her gaze to see him staring down at her with such intensity that she can't look away. They've moved impossibly close together now, and she can't stop herself from reaching out to touch him.
His fingers ghost over her face, her neck, her shoulders – even as her hands snake their way into his hair.
Their eyes never break contact.
She gasps when he places the slightest pressure to the small of her back, pulling her against him. As his lips finally close the distance to hers, it feels a little like Denver, only she isn't so scared anymore – and it doesn't feel so much like they're operating on borrowed time.
Mostly, it just feels like everything she was ever searching for, even when Damon was the only one who could see it.
"Okay," Damon feels the mischievous grin inch across his features as they finally pull apart, just a few seconds shy of finding the forest floor a suitable bed. "Ready to try something fun?"
"I kind of thought this was fun…" she grins up at him, and so help him if he doesn't find her incredibly sexy. But there's also a vulnerability in her features that she rarely lets anyone see. It's the same vulnerability he knows is inside him, too, because he doesn't know how this works out, doesn't know what this means, or how they do this.
But he's going to try. And he's going to try it his way – what he hopes is still their way.
"This other thing first," he promises with a kiss to her forehead, turning and leading her at a dead run through the woods without further preamble.
And she follows him without question, which feels like the right start.
Elena stops when he does, takes in the view around them with a gentle sense of awe – moonlight cascading across the trees below them, and illuminating the precipice they're standing on.
"Damon?" Elena shouts over the rushing water of the falls that give their town its name.
"Yea?" he turns as he leads her forward.
"I love you," she mouths, with an honest smile that lights up her whole face.
Something clicks into place inside Damon at that moment, and for a second he can't see anything else but her – can't feel anything else but her hand in his.
"You ready?" he raises his eyebrows as they come up to the very edge, teetering on the slick rock.
Elena looks wide-eyed for a moment as she realizes what he means. But then a rush of adrenaline-filled, nervous laughter escapes her, and she grins, nodding.
"One!" he yells, as she squeezes his fingers tighter. "Two…! Three!"
And they jump.