Hello! Seriously, I'm so humbled by all your sweet words and the fact that you all are just as invested in this as I am. Thank you for all the ugly crying, too! ;)
A huge thank you goes to my beta, Layla Reyne, who is seriously phenomenal. She's also getting ready to update TWO of her stories, Four Tragedies (for all you angst lovers, like me!) and The Left Coast (which is seriously so fun to read, I'm LOVING it more than I can tell you.) Go read her stories. Seriously. They rock.
Okay, I hate to say this, but this is the final chapter of To Save a Sinner. *cries*
Elena stared at the white walls that had become home. Thirty days. Thirty long, hard, emotionally and physically draining days. She met with a therapist every day and a personal trainer every other day. Mason - her personal trainer - was nice and taught her how to redirect her anger, self-loathing and fear – all those bad thoughts and tendencies – into physical activity. Together, they would run miles on miles, eating up the distance and taking in the beautiful grounds of the rehab facility. Elena never knew she loved to run, but the release was better than anything she'd ever felt. It was up to her and her body alone to carry her all those miles; she couldn't depend on anyone else to do it for her, to make her feel good about herself.
She may have agreed to rehab voluntarily, but she never expected it to change her like this. She never expected to feel this good in her own body. She never knew she was so strong. In her therapy sessions, she'd been taken to the darkest recesses of her mind, explored the places she had gone to when she was hurting, the places where she had stored her most painful memories. Some days, it had felt like an exorcism. She'd go back to her room and not come out again until the next morning, trying to process the things she had uncovered about herself.
"You ready?" Jeremy's voice pulled her from her thoughts.
Elena glanced over at him and smiled. Or attempted to smile. She wasn't sure why she felt so melancholy about leaving. She knew she could stand on her own two feet now, that she could survive anything on her own.
"You don't look very happy about leaving," Jeremy said. She knew he was trying to disguise it, but she heard the hurt in his voice.
She sighed and looked up at him, amazed at how he'd transformed from a boy to a man almost before her eyes. He'd visited every family day, every Saturday, and she watched him grow week after week.
"I'm not sad," she replied, watching him cross the room and perch next to her on the edge of her bed. "I'm nervous, I guess. What if I get back into the real world and mess up?"
"Then good," he stated simply, shocking her.
Elena pulled back and searched his face for any sign of humor. She found none.
"Good?" she clarified warily.
"Elena, you're human. You're supposed to make mistakes. It's how you handle those mistakes that matters," Jeremy explained, and she stared at him slack jawed. When did her little brother become so smart?
"You know how to handle those mistakes now," he continued. "You have too many people who love you to let you go down that path again. And I think finally that you love you enough now not to let yourself go down that path again."
Tears stung her eyes and she blinked furiously to keep them from spilling over. He was right. He was so right. Her heart expanded and contracted almost painfully with the love she felt for her little brother. They'd done it. They'd survived together.
She pulled him into her arms and he went willingly, holding her while she squeezed the life out of him.
When they finally parted, Jeremy grabbed her bag, slinging it over his shoulder and leading her out. Doctor Martin, her therapist, and Mason stood in the lobby, beaming at her proudly. She would miss them, and there would always be a special place in her heart for them.
She hugged them both and thanked them for believing in her. They smiled back and wished her luck. She could see the faith they had in her in their eyes. They knew she could do it. She knew she could do it.
Outside, Liz was waiting by her SUV, smiling broadly. Elena hugged the woman who'd taken Jeremy in and who'd made sure they had what they needed to keep John out of their lives for good.
In the car, Liz and Jeremy excitedly told her that a letter from Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism had arrived for her in the mail. She'd almost forgotten that she'd been accepted their invitation to attend next fall. Jeremy also told her about spending more time with Bonnie, and Elena didn't miss the grin on his face when he talked about her.
They chatted about plans for Christmas, promising to do it up big since she'd missed Thanksgiving. They all laughed and smiled, but Elena sensed that everyone felt the elephant in the car.
She knew he'd spent a lot of time with them, eating dinners, playing video games with Jeremy, and even going to all of Jeremy's football games. He'd also been working with Liz on their case against John, keeping his promise to make sure Jeremy was safe. Elena's heart clenched. She missed him, missed him so much. She wanted him to see her, to be proud of her. Her love for him had only grown as she'd learned to love herself. She'd finally gotten to know the girl that he'd seen all along. And now she wanted him to know that that girl loved him beyond a shadow of a doubt.
But what if he couldn't forgive her? She'd put him through hell, and she wouldn't be surprised if being apart from her had made him realize that he didn't deserve to be treated that way. She only hoped for a chance to apologize, to right her wrongs, to show him that she loved him and that she finally felt deserving of his love.
They pulled up to Liz's house and Elena froze. Outside was Caroline, smiling shyly and standing underneath a handmade welcome home banner. Last time she'd checked, Caroline hated her guts. And now she was welcoming her home?
Jeremy jumped out of the car and grabbed her bag before walking up the sidewalk, ahead of her and Liz.
Caroline was full of surprises because when Elena neared, she pulled her into her arms. Elena awkwardly wrapped her own arms around the blonde, patting her back once before pulling away.
"Welcome home! You look great!" Caroline chirped. Elena only smiled back tentatively and then followed the small crowd into the house.
After taking her things to her new room, they all sat down to the huge welcome home dinner that Liz, Jeremy and even Caroline had helped make.
The meal started off quiet, the awkward scraping of silverware against plates filling the room. Elena decided to be the one to break it, asking Jeremy about his football games. After that, conversation flowed easily, and even Caroline participated, laughing along with the rest of them.
After dinner, Elena excused herself to her room to unpack. It was nice to have some time to herself. So far she'd acclimated well, but it had only been a few hours. She folded her shirts carefully and placed them in her new dresser.
A knock at her door pulled her from her lost thoughts, and she turned to find Caroline standing in the doorway.
"Can I come in?" she asked.
Elena silently nodded, moving away from the dresser to her bed, gesturing for Caroline to sit next to her. She smiled a bit and joined Elena immediately.
"How are you doing?" she asked, while her eyes taking in the small room.
"Um, good," Elena replied. "It's only been a few hours though."
"I mean with... everything," Caroline said, gesturing with her hand in the air.
Elena dropped her gaze to her hands, unsure how to respond. Silence fell between them as Elena racked her brain for something to say, but Caroline filled it instead.
"Damon looks miserable without you," she mentioned casually. Elena froze, her eyes snapping to Caroline's. Her heart started pounding at the mere thought of him.
"He does?" she asked quietly.
Caroline smiled, obviously knowing she'd hit the jackpot. "Everyday at lunch, he just stares at your table, like if he wishes hard enough, you'll just appear." She paused. "Have you talked to him at all?"
As much as it secretly pleased Elena to hear that Damon seemed to be missing her, Caroline's question reminded her that maybe looks weren't what they seemed.
"No, I haven't. I don't think he wants to talk to me," Elena admitted.
"I doubt that's true," Caroline snorted. "Even after everything went down, he almost took Tyler's head clean off when he talked bad about you."
Elena dropped her gaze to her hands again, unsure how to process that information.
"Elena?" Caroline asked softly. "I'm really sorry for the things I've done to you and what I've said about you. I didn't know what was going on in your world, but that's no excuse. I shouldn't have treated you like that."
Whoa. An apologetic and humbled Caroline was a sight she'd never seen before. Feeling brave, Elena reached out and placed her hand over Caroline's, squeezing it lightly.
"It's over now," she whispered. Caroline's eyes lifted to hers and Elena saw tears in them. The blonde then surprised her once more by pulling her into her second hug of the day.
"Thank you, Elena."
The rhythmic pounding of her feet hitting the pavement soothed her. It'd been a week and a half since she'd left rehab, and she'd had a therapy session with Doctor Martin earlier today. However, it wasn't her session that had her three miles into her run and still going strong. It was her conversation with Jeremy in the car on the way home.
He'd insisted on driving her to therapy appointments despite her telling him that she could manage on her own. That being said, she had to admit that riding with Jeremy was nice and gave them time to talk, just the two of them.
Today, he'd finally brought up the subject they'd both been avoiding - Damon.
"So, when are you going to talk to Damon?" Jeremy had asked without warning, just blurting it right out.
"Jer," she had warned. Her heart wasn't ready to know if Damon would be able to forgive her.
"No, Elena," Jeremy had snapped, making Elena's head jerk up. "You have to stop letting fear hold you back where Damon is concerned. You haven't let it hold you back with anything else since you got home."
She knew he was right; it was what she'd told herself everyday. She missed Damon, and she was ready for him to be in her life again.
"What if he can't forgive me?" she'd whispered.
"Well, you'll never know unless you take the first step," Jeremy had replied.
Her feet pounded harder as Jeremy's words resounded in her head. Again, he was right. Damon had told her to come back to him when she was ready, and she was more than ready.
But fear gripped her, holding her immovable.
She ran harder, faster, letting that fear fuel her every step. She took it from her mind and imagined her feet pounding it into the pavement, just like Mason had taught her.
She was strong.
She was worth it.
She deserved to be loved. She deserved to be loved by the man she was in love with.
She wanted Damon. Not to make herself feel better, but because her heart called for him. Because she could finally stand on her own and focus everything into loving him, not needing him like a crutch.
She took a turn at the next street, her feet finally carrying her to the place her heart called out to. She ran faster, pumped her arms harder needing to reach him as fast as humanly possible.
She approached the complex, took the stairs two at a time, and while her chest was still heaving with her panting breaths, she knocked on the door. Waiting for it to open was a monumental lesson in patience. It took everything in her to resist the overwhelming urge to pound on the door and scream until it opened and she could find her man.
It swung opened only seconds later, but the man standing there was not the one she was there to see.
"Elena?" Stefan asked, his voice full of surprise. "Wow, you look great!"
She smiled at the compliment that was becoming familiar to her ears.
"Where's Damon?" she asked breathlessly, cutting to the chase.
Stefan smiled knowingly, not looking a bit offended that she wasn't bothering with small talk.
"He's at the pool," Stefan replied.
The instant she knew where he was, she turned and bolted down the hall, only stopping to shout "Thanks, Stefan!" over her shoulder.
The run to the school was frantic and her technique was thrown to hell. She just wanted to find Damon, to take that first step. She needed to know if he could forgive her. If he could live with the things she'd done to him. If not, she'd be heartbroken, but she'd survive. That alone gave her the strength she needed.
Throwing open the aquatic center doors, she jogged down the halls, through the locker room and into the main pool area. The lights were all off except for the emergency overheads and the ones in the pool. Only the sound of Damon's strokes cutting through the water echoed through the building.
She stopped short, entranced by his body moving along the pool lane. His arms flexed with every pull and relaxed before he plunged them into the water once more. His powerful legs kicked out behind him, propelling him forward. Never failing, never slowing. God, he was magnificent. His flawless skin shimmered in the water - skin that she'd kissed, gripped and scratched. Heat pooled in her belly and her heart swelled. She loved him so much. She wanted him to see what she'd achieved.
She watched him until he finished, and then she stood riveted as he easily hoisted himself out of the deep end of the pool. Water droplets ran down his bare chest and the physical ache to touch him, to taste him, to be in his arms again was almost more than she could bear.
Towel in hand, Damon started moving toward the locker room, but when he looked up and saw her, he stopped dead in his tracks. Their eyes connected for the first time in over a month. His blue eyes shined even in the dim lighting. She just took him in, all the things she missed about him. Which was everything.
"Hi," she spoke first, a bit breathlessly.
"Hi," he replied warily.
"So," she said awkwardly, trying to fill the silence. "I completed rehab."
"I see that," he responded, his tone giving nothing away. "But what are you doing here?"
"I just... I wanted to say hi, I guess," she stuttered, his guarded reaction to her catching her completely off guard. "See how you're doing..." she trailed off when she realized she was getting nowhere.
"Elena," he said firmly, crossing his arms over his broad chest. "Why are you here?"
Why was she here? How could she possibly put into words all the things she was feeling? All the reasons why she'd wanted to come see him.
"Because I hurt you," she finally whispered. "And I'm so sorry. I know you can't forgive me for what I did, but I just need you to know how sorry I am."
Damon's expression didn't change; he merely looked at her with those indifferent eyes. "I never said that."
That gave her pause. "Never said what?"
"That I can't forgive you," he answered simply.
"I mean…" She floundered for words, her courage depleting with every second she stared into his closed off eyes. "You didn't have to, I just-"
"Elena," he interrupted, and this time his voice sounded desperate. "Why are you here? Why did you come looking for me?"
Suddenly, it all made sense. He was waiting for the truth, waiting for the words she'd desperately wanted to say to him, and he wanted her to say them willingly, without prompting. He wanted her to take the risk, to say them without knowing what would happen afterward.
She smiled a bit and noticed that his eyes warmed a few degrees. "Because I love you. I love you, Damon."
He started moving the moment those words came out of her mouth and had her face in his hands and his lips on hers just as his name left her lips. Her body sang, her blood ignited, her heart swelled. Wrapping her arms around his neck, her fingers combed through his wet hair as his body pressed into hers, wetting her shirt. But she didn't care. She had control of her life again, she had her man back, she had everything. And if tomorrow, she lost it all, she knew she'd still survive.
"I've missed you so much," he whispered as he peppered kisses all over her face, his arms moving to curl around her waist, holding her closer. Her smile was so broad that it almost hurt. She pulled his mouth back to hers, moaning when he sucked her bottom lip between his teeth, nipping it gently. She lost herself in him and their kiss, exploring his mouth with her tongue. He tasted just like she remembered, maybe even better.
When she pulled away after a few minutes, they were both breathless and smiling like idiots.
"There's one more thing that I wanted to tell you," she said softly, holding his face in her hands.
"What?" he asked, searching her eyes.
"I'm leaving. Moving, actually. To Arizona," she announced.
"What?" he asked, leaning back a bit.
"Well, I told you I got into school there, and I accepted the invitation," she explained, her hands gliding down his neck and resting on his chest. Excitement buzzed through her, everything was falling into place.
"Wow, Elena, that's… That's amazing," he said, his eyes dimming and his smile no longer seeming genuine. "I'm… I'm really happy for you."
This time, she smiled even bigger. Her hands curled into his shoulders, making sure he couldn't try to back away any further.
"Come with me," she whispered passionately, imagining the life they could have together in Arizona. In a new state, a new place that didn't hold any bad memories, just a future full of good ones.
The longer Damon said nothing, the more her smile faded and her nerves grew. She'd never taken into account that he might not want to go with her.
"I know you have a life here now," she said quickly, removing her hands from his skin and backing away. "And friends and school and Stefan, but…"
"Elena," he interrupted, his hands digging into her hips to hold her in place. "You are my life. I want to be where you are."
Overcome with joy, she pulled Damon into her, wrapping her legs around his waist as he lifted her feet off the ground.
Her heart filled almost to bursting as she held the man who'd seen the real Elena since the moment their eyes had first met. In the man who loved her enough to let her go, who knew that she needed to grow on her own, to save her herself. No longer held back by fear, self-loathing, or addictions, she was free. Free to love the man in her arms. Free to live her life, make mistakes and survive. Free to run when it was all a little more than she could handle. Free to smile, free to love, free to look forward to a future that held no pain.
That's it. That's the end of To Save a Sinner. But never fear, this story was written with the knowledge that there would be a sequel, in fact, I wrote their outlines at the same time.
Since you all have been such amazing readers, I'm going to give you a little gift... :D I know I've been hinting at a new fic about Damon being a rocker and I'm happy to tell you it's going to start posting next weekend! BUT I have a little sneak peek for you guys for being so awesome. Here's a snippet of the first chapter of Rock Hard, Love Harder. Enjoy!
"Checking in, please," I tell the lady behind the counter. I am so ready to get these boys into their rooms and get my ass to bed. I've been dead on my feet for the past twenty-four hours. My body is shutting down, and I am thankful Phoenix is one of the last stops on our tour. We've been on the road for almost three months now, and I am so looking forward to escaping to the after-tour vacation home the band has rented.
My brother's band, The Mystic Republic - a homage to our hometown of Mystic Falls, Virginia - hit it big a few years back when I was still in high school. Since then, they've recorded three more albums and won five Grammy Awards.
My guys hold a special place in my heart, world-famous rock stars or not. They all stepped in to raise me when my and Jeremy's parents suddenly passed away six years ago. At twenty years old, my brother made no complaints and asked no questions; he and the rest of the band flew home from their first world tour to take me in. I finished high school online while I traveled with them, and now, at age twenty-two, I am their unofficial band manager.
"What's the name?" the woman behind the hotel reception desk asks, looking bored.
"Gilbert. Elena Gilbert," I reply, glancing around the lobby. It is significantly less upscale than most of the hotels we've stayed at, but it's clean and so far I haven't spotted a single photographer or crazed fan girl. Thank God for small miracles.
"Five rooms, all on the fourth floor. You can use the elevator to your right," the woman says, sliding the key cards in individual paper slips with the room numbers handwritten on them across the counter top. I thank her and trudge back out into the parking lot and onto our tour bus.
"You have a radio interview tomorrow morning. The car will be here at 6 a.m. so no funny business tonight," I explain to the boys, eyeing each of them as they file past me, taking a key card and biding me goodnight. They are such large men, all of them tall and muscled. They look like typical rockers, each sporting some sort of piercing, tattoo, or both, but I know they are all big softies at heart. Jeremy drops a kiss on my hair, the ring in his eyebrow reflecting the low lighting on the bus. Matt Donovan, my childhood best friend and the newest member of the band, having joined as their drummer after graduation four years ago, gives me a hug, and Stefan Salvatore, our bassist, ruffles my hair and gives me a sweet smile. Stefan, while the largest of the four, has to be the least intimidating. His green eyes dance with innocence and he spends way too much time coiffing his hair to be taken seriously. I watch Stefan trot down the tour bus stairs before stepping out of the doorway and back into the common room, falling gracelessly onto the couch. My head feels like it is going to implode and just thinking about the trek to my fourth floor room with my bag dragging behind me is painful.
I jump at the sound of his voice. I'd figured he was already off the bus and searching for the nearest bar by now. Instead, Damon Salvatore, Stefan's older brother and the love of my life, is leaning in the doorway to the back bedroom. The man is a god in a mortal world. His porcelain skin is perfect despite the ink I can see peeking out of the collar of his T-shirt, his blue eyes shine bright against the dark frame of his eyelashes and his perfectly imperfect midnight hair falls carelessly across his forehead.
This is the first time in two days he's spoken to me.
"Yeah, I'm fine," I murmur once I recover from my shock. I toss him his key and stand to grab my bag.
He looks like he wants to say more, but simply nods and watches me exit the bus. I know because I can feel his gaze burning holes into my back. To say things between us have been strained would be an immense understatement, but it's the last thing I want to get into tonight. All I want right now is a bed, a real bed that isn't attached to a moving vehicle. That sounds heavenly.
The moment my head hits the pillow there is a pounding at my door. I groan and crack open my eyes, squinting at the bright sunlight streaming in through the window.
Damn, it is morning already?
My name now accompanies the pounding, and I roll out of bed, fighting waves of nausea and dizziness with each step.
"What?" I bark as I swing the door open, revealing Stefan waiting in the hallway, dressed in jeans and a band t-shirt, hair perfectly coiffed and ready to go someplace I can't seem to remember at the moment.
"It's 5:45 a.m. We're supposed to be in the car at six and you look like shit," he says, eyeing me with concern.
"Thanks, asshole," I mutter before turning back to my room, leaving the door open for him to follow me in if he wants to.
"Are you okay, Laney?" he asks seriously, hot on my heels. Anytime they use my childhood nickname, I know they aren't messing around. "You're always so on top of this stuff."
"I'm sorry, Stef," I say while digging through my bag for a fresh change of clothes. "I guess I'm just burnt out."
Stefan opens his mouth to reply as I stand up straight, but I cut him off with a hand to his chest, steadying myself as a wave of nausea hits me hard and then sends me bolting past him to the bathroom so I can heave my guts into the toilet. Having dealt with plenty of puking people, Stefan reacts quickly, following me into the bathroom and pulling my hair out of my face. Once my stomach is empty, I slump onto my ass on the cold tile, and it feels so good that I decide to lie the rest of the way down and press my cheek against it. Germs be damned.
Stefan wets a washcloth and carefully wipes my face. "What's going on, Elena?" he asks softly.
"Please don't tell the other guys about this," I croak, taking the cloth from his hand and slowly rising to my feet. Stefan watches me the entire time with his arms outstretched like he is waiting for me to collapse into a heap on the floor.
"Elena," he warns, but I hold up my hand, not wanting to hear any more from him.
"I'm fine, Stefan. Like I said before, just burnt out from traveling. I'll be down in ten minutes," I tell him, trying my best to act like I have it together. He seems mollified and makes a quick exit, leaving me to take the world's fastest shower, brush my teeth, dress and call down to the front desk to check out. True to my word, I am downstairs in exactly ten minutes.
The boys are all gathered around the car signing autographs for the few dedicated fans who showed up at the crack of down. I load my bags back onto the bus, which will meet us later at the arena.
"Sorry, guys. I dropped the ball this morning," I apologize as I join them by the car.
Matt shrugs before tugging me into his side. "It's okay, Laney. You work too hard anyways. You deserve to sleep in one day. My God, you are burning up!"
I try to pull away, but it only makes him fuss over me more. Shit, this is not my morning.
"I'm fine, Matty. I'll take something for it, okay?" I say in a low voice, praying he'll just let it go before the rest of them notice. I hate when one of them goes mother hen on me, because when one goes, they all go.
Thankfully, Matt, like Stefan, is easily satisfied, but I'll have to do a better job of keeping my shit together. If Damon or Jeremy suspects anything, they will see right through my excuses. So I gird my loins, so to speak, and corral the boys into the waiting car before jumping into the passenger seat.
The day drags at a glacial pace. I often find myself asking what I've done wrong to deserve feeling this shitty. We go from interview to interview and then straight to the Arena for sound check. I've puked twice without anyone noticing and that alone gives me the strength to see this day through. After tonight, I can sleep until our show in Vegas two days from now. A small coma sounds really good right about now.
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