Whoa! Sorry, guys. I don't know how long I had the wrong chapter posted in this spot, but many thanks to the reviewer who pointed that out to me. Here's the real chapter two.


Elena woke the next morning feeling more invigorated and purposeful than she had in a long time. She bounced out of bed, threw her window open, took a deep breath of the fresh spring air, and turned on her radio before starting to get ready for the day. Most of the songs that played were ones she knew by heart, and she danced and sang along loud, proud, and off-key as she got dressed, put her hair up in a messy bun, and packed her gym bag for cheer practice. The final chords of "Big Black Horse and a Cherry Tree" were fading out as she slipped her diary into her bag, grabbed her purse containing car keys and freshly recharged phone, and left her room.

She was still singing, "No, no, you're not the one for me," as she bounded down the stairs and into the kitchen, where she found her mom and aunt sitting at the island, halfway through cups of tea.

"Morning!" she said, dropping her stuff by the counter. "Where's Dad?"

"He had to take the car into the shop. There was something wrong with the steering," said Miranda, pouring a third cup of tea and handing it to her. "Jeremy up yet?"

"It's barely nine," said Elena, taking a sip. "If he was, it'd be a sign of the apocalypse."

At this, Jenna let out a shrill, almost hysterical laugh. Elena frowned at her aunt as she pulled out two slices of bread from the bag on the counter and put them in the toaster. Meanwhile, Miranda reached over to touch her sister's arm.

"Sorry," said Jenna, placing her hand over Miranda's and squeezing, her eyes on her mug. "Ignore me."

Elena took another drink of her tea, rolling it over her tongue in an attempt to identify the unfamiliar flavor. "This isn't what we usually have, is it?"

"No," said Miranda, smiling. "I thought I'd shake things up. Do you like it?"

"It's okay," said Elena, setting the cup on the counter and turning to the fridge to get out the butter and the raspberry jam.

"What was that you were singing?" Miranda asked.

"Oh, just what was on the radio," said Elena. She snorted. "Funny coincidence."

"What do you mean?"

"Well," said Elena. "You heard the words, right?" Both sisters nodded. Elena took a deep breath and closed her eyes tight. "I'm gonna break up with Matt today."

"Wait, what?" said Jenna. "When did this happen? What did I miss?"

"This is what you get for living on campus when you could just stay here rent-free," said Miranda dryly.

"Please, and have a two hour commute every day?" said Jenna. "No thank you."

Miranda shook her head at Jenna before directing a very motherly look at Elena. "What went wrong?"

Elena shrugged and sipped her tea to give herself thinking time. "It was fine when we were just dating and having fun, I guess—actually it was a lot like when we were just friends, only with hand-holding and kissing and stuff, which is probably why it felt so comfortable, but lately…." She broke off with a sigh. The toast popped, and she got it out and started buttering it. "I went into it just to see if it could be more, you know? But I think he always wanted it to be. And now he keeps talking about all this big picture future stuff like marriage and kids."

"You know he doesn't really care about any of that yet," said Miranda gently. "He's just trying to figure out how you feel about him right now."

"Then I guess it worked," said Elena. Whatever remained of her happy mood was gone. She looked at her mom with pleading eyes. "Is it selfish of me to want to back out?"

"Oh, no, honey," said Miranda, her face full of concern. "I know Matt means a lot to you, but if you try to force feelings that aren't there, it'll only hurt both of you more down the road. Do you think you'll ever feel the same way he does?"

Elena bit her lip and shook her head.

"Then staying together wouldn't be fair to either of you. You should each be with someone you can love the same way they love you."

"What if he doesn't want to go back to being just friends? He's been there my whole life. I don't want to lose him."

"You're not going to lose him," said Miranda. "You're setting him free."

Elena considered this while she ate her toast. By the time she was halfway through the second slice, she felt slightly better about it all.

"Why are you all ready to head out so early?" said Jenna. "I thought practice wasn't until the afternoon. Or has that changed too since the last time I visited?"

"Mmph," said Elena, waving her hand. She finished chewing her last bite of toast and swallowed, then washed it down with the rest of her tea. "No, it is, I just wanted to spend a few hours at the library."

"Working on your story some more?" asked Miranda with interest.

"I'm still not sure how I feel about you basing a character off of me," said Jenna.

"Oh, come on, she's not really you," said Elena, rolling her eyes. "Just because it's about two sisters growing up in small town Virginia doesn't mean it's you and Mom."

"Yeah, sure," said Jenna. "I'm still gonna expect royalties when you get this thing published and become the next Beverly Cleary."

"Hey, if I'm that successful, I'll give you the royalty anyway," said Elena, setting her mug in the sink.

"Well have fun," said Miranda, walking over to give her a kiss on the cheek. "And call me after you talk to Matt. I'll want to make sure you're not being too hard on yourself."

Elena let out a shaky laugh as she gathered her stuff and pulled out her keys. "See you later."

X

Having been side-tracked on his hunt the previous night, Damon made up for it first thing in the morning. He could've fed off Zach's maid, but that would tip Zach off to his presence a little sooner than he'd like. Besides, it seemed like she was actually good at her job. The boarding house was spotless, and considering Damon's relatively good mood, he felt more inclined to sneak her a tip than use her as a meal. So instead, he went about a mile away and caught a leggy, twenty-something blonde out for an early run on deserted back roads near the city limits. She survived the encounter and jogged away memory free, with no noticeable signs of damage other than the wobbliness of her gait, and with instructions to wash the blood off her neck before anyone else saw her.

As much as Damon resented the people of Mystic Falls for what their ancestors had done, he wouldn't risk raising anyone's suspicions by causing a string of mysterious injuries, deaths, or missing persons in the area—at least, not until he got what he came for. Then he'd leave it to Katherine to decide the town's fate. If she wanted to burn it all to the ground when he freed her from the tomb, he'd gladly set the fire himself.

When he got back to his room, he noticed his cell phone still sitting where he'd left it on a chair the night before. He picked it up, but hesitated. After a good night's sleep and a decent meal, he was having second thoughts about the wisdom of staying in contact with Elena Gilbert. The urge to play it safe was fleeting, however. He was already erring much farther on the side of caution than he usually did with his feeding habits; what could this hurt?

He flipped the phone open and went to his contacts list. It was very short, with just Bree, Lexi, Stefan, Will, and Zach on it. Of those, the only two he had any good reason for keeping track of were Bree and Will. He made a point of always knowing Lexi's current contact info, no matter how hard she tried to keep it from him—there was nothing quite as funny as the sound of the line going dead with a crunch every time she realized who was on the other end. He had Stefan's number for similar reasons, and every now and then, Damon liked to call up his nephew just to make sure he wasn't getting too comfortable.

At first glance, there didn't appear to be any new names on the list, and for one second (during which he felt more disappointed than he would ever have cared to admit), Damon thought Elena might have actually taken that out he'd given her in the car. But then he realized what she'd done and let out a delighted laugh.

He did have a new contact, listed right below Bree: "Cynicism Detox Hotline."

X

Elena smiled and waved at the librarians behind the desk of the Mystic Falls Public Library as she passed them, and they both greeted her cheerfully by name. This early in the day, there were only a handful of patrons scattered throughout the place. Elena's favorite study spot, a cluster of armchairs near the young adult section, was completely deserted. Upon reaching it, she tossed her purse on the little table in the middle of all the chairs, curled up in the blue chair that faced the rest of the library, and opened her journal.

She'd only written about another page of the adventures of Danni and Laura Benson when her phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out and looked at the screen. The sight of the unfamiliar number attached to the text made her grin.

"What are you up to today?" it read.

Before responding, she pulled the number and saved it in her contacts as Damon Salvatore. Then she hit the reply button and tapped out: "Writing at the library, cheer practice at school, and then breaking up with my boyfriend." After a quick check for errors, she hit send.

His reply came seconds later, and she just knew he'd been smirking as he typed it.

"Breaking up with him, huh? I thought you said it was just a fight. Or is it that I've already ruined you for other men?"

Elena snorted. "You got me," she typed. "I've fallen madly in love with you. Where should we meet so we can elope to Vegas?"

She imagined she could hear his laughter when she read his next reply. "You, Elena Gilbert, are rapidly becoming my favorite human being."

"Ooh! Can I put that on a button for my school bag? 'Damon Salvatore's Favorite Human Being'"

"Yeah, right next to your 'Mrs. Salvatore' button. What was that about eloping to Vegas?"

Elena rolled her eyes and stretched out a little more in her chair, putting her feet up on the table. "Ask me again when I'm eighteen. I think my parents might object before then. In the meantime, when can I buy you dinner to thank you for the big rescue last night?"

"Still determined to keep score, are you?"

"Well, there's that, but maybe you're also fun to hang out with. :P"

"Okay, how about tonight? Won't you be needing comfort food and a shoulder to cry on by then, anyway?"

"Hopefully not, but do you have any food preferences?"

"Nope. Just as long as it's takeout."

"Okay, I can pick something up from the Grill. We eating at your place or mine?"

"I wouldn't be intruding on family dinner or anything if it was at your place, would I?"

"No, Saturday night is always my parents' date night, so they won't be home. And my aunt's in town this weekend, but she can't cook to save her life, so she and Jeremy'll probably just get a pizza or something."

"What time?"

"How about 7?"

X

Elena discovered very quickly that cheering with enough enthusiasm to satisfy Caroline Forbes is a difficult thing to do when your mind is busy rehearsing possible breakup speeches, especially with the football team scrimmaging a couple hundred feet away. Somehow, she managed to pull it together enough that Caroline didn't quite get irritated enough to insist she sit the rest of practice out, but she was still glad when it ended and she no longer had to keep a huge fake smile plastered on her face.

"Okay, girls," said Caroline, clapping her hands together when they finished going through the last routine, "we've already made it through tryouts for the varsity squad, but unless we step it up—," here, she looked pointedly at Elena, "—we could still lose our spots. Just because these are the last few practices of the year does not mean we get to slack off." She beamed her brightest Caroline smile at them, which Elena found more threatening than encouraging. "So! I'll see all of you first thing Monday morning."

As the other girls on the squad headed off to the locker rooms, laughing and chatting together in twos and threes, Elena hung back to gather up her phone and water bottle where she'd stashed them in the grass a few yards from where they'd been practicing. She checked her phone and frowned when she saw that there were no new texts.

"So, want to tell me why your spot on the squad is in danger?" came Bonnie's voice from behind her, her dry tone making it clear she thought Caroline's warning had been a little melodramatic.

Elena turned around and offered her best friend a weary smile.

"Is it Matt?" said Bonnie.

Elena nodded.

Bonnie reached out to touch her shoulder. "Did something happen at the bonfire last night?"

Elena rolled her eyes. "Nothing that hasn't happened before," she muttered.

Bonnie's eyes widened. "You're gonna break up with him, aren't you?"

"Yeah," said Elena. She tried to summon the resolve and confidence she sorely needed, but failed miserably. "I am."

"What?!" said a loud voice right next to them, making them both jump. It was Caroline. She had her own water bottle in one hand and the little blue boom box they used to practice their routines tucked under the other arm. "You're breaking up with Matt? But you two are like Mystic Falls High's golden couple!"

Elena grimaced and checked her phone again so she wouldn't have to reply to that immediately. Her inbox was still empty. Bonnie, clearly sensing Elena's discomfort—not that Elena was being subtle about it—stepped up. "Caroline…," she said.

"What?" said Caroline. "I can't be surprised when one of my best friends decides out of the blue to dump her boyfriend?" She looked at Elena. "So what happened?"

"It's been building up for a while, I guess," said Elena, shifting restlessly on her feet. "I think it only worked as long as it did because we were coasting on a combination of his feelings and mass validation from everyone else thinking we're so great together. Plus, I kind of loved the idea of living the childhood sweethearts story."

"I'm still not seeing the problem," said Caroline as the three of them started walking in the direction of the school.

"Well, there's no passion," said Elena. Or adventure or danger, added a little voice in her head that sounded remarkably like Damon's, but she shoved that thought aside. "There never has been. We're supposed to be boyfriend and girlfriend, but I feel just the same about him as I always have."

"Which is…?" said Caroline.

"That he's my friend, but I'm not in love with him." She checked her phone again (still no new texts), and when she looked up, she was surprised to see Bonnie smiling. "What?" she said as they reached the doors.

"You said it," said Bonnie as the three of them filed inside. "Yesterday you said you didn't know what you feel, but now you do. That means you're ready to do this."

Elena found herself returning the smile. "Yeah," she said. "I think I am."

"I'm proud of you," said Bonnie. "I thought it would take you much longer." She raised an eyebrow in an affectionate sort of way.

"What do you mean?" said Elena.

Caroline snorted. "Come on, Elena," she said. "You're not exactly the most decisive girl we know."

Elena frowned. Not because she was offended, although for a split second it had occurred to her to be. "I probably wouldn't have, but I kinda had help."

"Who from?" said Caroline. "The whole school—practically the whole town—has been planning you and Matt's happily ever after from the second you agreed to go on a date date with him."

Bonnie shot Caroline a repressive look that did just about as much good as it ever did with her. They reached the door to the girls' locker room, but didn't go inside.

"I talked to Mom and Aunt Jenna about it this morning, and they were really supportive," said Elena. "Mom said that if I can't feel the same way he feels, then staying together isn't good for either of us."

"She's right," said Bonnie.

"I know," said Elena, though her stomach still squirmed and writhed with guilt. "But talking about it and actually doing it are two completely different things." She checked her phone again. Still nothing. What wouldn't she give for a little of Damon's humor right now? If she could just laugh about something, she'd feel so much braver about what she had to do.

"Why do you keep checking your phone?" said Caroline suspiciously.

"No reason," said Elena, but Caroline wasn't going to give up that easily. Before Elena could do anything to stop her, Caroline had shifted her water bottle to her boom box laden arm and snatched the phone out of her hands.

"Hey!" Elena protested, trying to get it back while Caroline danced backwards out of reach.

"Caroline, cut it out," said Bonnie.

At last, Elena managed to steal it back, but the damage was done. "Who's Damon Salvatore and what's happening at seven?" asked Caroline in a teasing voice. "Is he the real reason you're breaking up with Matt?"

"No," said Elena, shoving her phone into her pocket and scowling indignantly at Caroline. "He gave me a ride home last night after the bonfire when I was stranded with a dead phone, so I'm buying him dinner tonight as a thank you."

"Oh, please," said Caroline. "You just happen to meet this hot guy and the next day you're breaking up with Matt and having dinner with said hot guy?"

"I didn't say he was hot," said Elena. She could feel heat rising in her cheeks.

"You didn't have to," said Caroline. "He can't have a name like Damon Salvatore and not be hot."

"Is he hot?" muttered Bonnie on Elena's other side, clearly fighting a smile.

"You guys!" Elena burst out in frustration. "That is so not the point. Even if I wanted dinner tonight to be more than a thank you, I'm not going to go there. His girlfriend died in a fire, and he's still grieving, okay?"

Bonnie's face filled with sympathy, but Caroline was undeterred. "Well maybe he just needs someone to comfort him," she said slyly.

"No," said Elena, who was starting to feel very annoyed now. "What he needs is a good friend. Besides, the girlfriend who died? Apparently I look just like her, so the last thing I want is to be his weird twin replacement girl."

"Whoa," said Bonnie. "That's kinda creepy."

"I know, right?" said Elena. "How does that even happen?"

"Whatever," said Caroline, pulling the door to the locker room open. The other two followed her through it. "I still say that you meeting Damon and wanting to break up with Matt even though it's going to shatter that big, sweet heart of his into a thousand pieces are not two entirely unrelated things."

"Caroline!" said Bonnie sharply as Elena's expression crumpled. "We're supposed to be being supportive." The main part of the locker room was deserted; all the other girls had already gone to the showers.

"This is supportive," Caroline insisted. They all reached their lockers and started working the combinations. "Elena has to be able to be realistic about the repercussions of this breakup."

"Thanks, Caroline," said Elena, pulling her stuff out of her locker with unnecessary force. "If it wasn't for you, I would've expected Matt to be thrilled when I dumped him." She slammed the locker door shut again and stalked off to the showers.

X

As late as the talk with Bonnie and Caroline had made her getting to the locker room, Elena raced so quickly through showering, dressing, and doing her hair and makeup that she was still the first one back out. She walked outside, but the football field was deserted, so she went and dumped her cheer stuff in her car before heading back into the building and down the hall to wait outside the boys' locker room instead. Resisting the urge to check her phone yet again, she pulled her journal out of her purse and reread the new pages she'd filled at the library to keep her mind off what she was about to do.

After about fifteen minutes, the football team began to reappear. A few said hi to her as they left the locker room, and she smiled and said hi back, though every time the door opened and it wasn't Matt, her nerves would ratchet up just a little more, until she was on the verge of cracking and fleeing the scene. She could always hold off until Monday to break up with him, right? But the next guy to come out was Matt, laughing with Tyler Lockwood about something that had happened on the field earlier.

"Hey," said Elena, stepping forward. The boys sobered up at once. Matt's mouth was twisted in a distinctly uncomfortable expression and Tyler's eyebrows were raised as he glanced back and forth between his best friend and Elena.

"See you later, Ty," said Matt, his eyes on Elena.

"Yeah," said Tyler. "See you, Matt, Elena." He clapped Matt on the shoulder and strode off down the hall, a bulging gym bag twice the size of Elena's slung over his back.

"So," Matt began awkwardly. "Uh, if this is about last night, I didn't mean to make you so mad. I mean, we've talked about all that stuff before, and I thought you were cool with it."

"I know, Matt," said Elena, though privately she wondered how he could've mistaken her unenthusiastic responses as being "cool with it" the previous times he'd brought up his grand future plans for them. "I'm sorry I blew up over it. Still…." She hesitated. "I'm kinda glad it happened."

"What do you mean?" said Matt, looking confused but clearly not yet suspecting what was coming.

"It…it made me come to terms with some things I haven't let myself admit for a while now."

"What things?" said Matt with an uncertain laugh.

Elena swallowed hard and forced herself to keep looking him in the eye. This was it. "You know you're one of the most important people in my life," she said, reaching out and touching his arm, "and you always will be, but…I can't do this anymore."

Matt staggered back a little, looking like he'd taken a heavy blow to the face. But blank shock was quickly replaced with the most heartbreaking expression Elena had ever seen. His shoulders sagged and his eyes filled with tears. She felt like the most horrible person in the world. "Are you…are you breaking up with me?" he asked, his voice cracking.

"I am," she said. Her vision blurred with tears too. "I'm so sorry, Matt. The last thing I wanted was to hurt you, but I don't feel the same way you do and this isn't fair to either of us." The fact that she was parroting what her mom had said made her feel even worse.

"What can I do to fix it?" said Matt, stepping closer. "Please, I love you. Tell me what I can do to fix it."

"You can't fix it, Matt," she said. She looked down at her feet and brushed away her tears. "I just hope you'll be able to forgive me, and that we can be friends again."

Matt didn't say anything. He just stood there. After a few seconds, she couldn't stand it anymore. She took several steps back, then turned and walked away.

Bonnie was waiting just outside the door that led to the parking lot. Elena took one look at her before launching herself into her arms, sobbing so hard she could barely draw breath.

X

Elena spent the next three hours crying her eyes out on Bonnie's bed while Bonnie rubbed her back and told her everything would be okay. She called her mom and managed to choke out what had happened in between heaving sobs, but nothing either of them said made her feel any better. She couldn't get the image of Matt's devastated expression out of her head.

When she glanced at the clock on Bonnie's bedside table and realized that it was already six, she jumped up and grabbed her phone and keys.

"Where are you going?" said Bonnie, surprised.

"I have to go pick up dinner at the Grill if I want to be back home before Damon gets there," said Elena.

"Are you sure you don't want to just tell him to postpone? You can still do your non-date payback dinner thing with him another night. We could have a girls' night instead."

"No, it's too late notice to reschedule. Besides, I think it'll make me feel a little better to do something nice for someone, and anything that can stave off complete emotional collapse right now is of the good."

"Fine, but we're still doing a girls' night, soon," said Bonnie firmly.

Elena gave a feeble smile and let Bonnie hug her one last time before she headed out.

X

Word of the breakup of Mystic Falls High's golden couple was already spreading, which Elena was sure had something to do with Caroline. She felt many eyes on her while she waited for her order at the Grill's takeout counter, but she studiously avoided all of them, her face burning and her eyes stinging with the threat of more tears. Ten minutes seemed to stretch on forever before the cashier handed over the large paper bag full of hot, delicious-smelling food.

She turned to leave in relief, only to find her path blocked by Vicki Donovan. "Vicki," she said. She took in the older girl's set jaw and icy glare, and her spirits sank even further. "I…I guess you heard," she stammered, wishing heartily that she'd gone somewhere—anywhere—else to pick up dinner.

"Heard what? That you ripped out my little brother's heart and stomped on it?"

Elena flinched and dropped her gaze. "I didn't want to hurt him."

"You sure about that? Because you just did the one thing that would hurt him the most," Vicki hissed, advancing a couple of steps. "Matti's been in love with you his whole life. What did you think would happen?"

"I'm sorry!" said Elena in a very small voice. "I don't feel the same way. It's not something I can help."

"You couldn't have figured that out before you started dating him? Did you think you could do better than him? Perfect little Elena Gilbert with her big house and her wonderful happy family couldn't settle for the guy from the broken home who'll have to put himself through college—is that it?"

"No!" Elena protested. "That's not what it was at all!"

"Good," said Vicki, her livid face mere inches from Elena's now. "Because you will never find anyone better than him." With a final look of disgust, she stormed away, leaving Elena to flee the restaurant with her order and what little remained of her composure.

She made it home with five minutes to spare before seven, noticing that her parents' car wasn't the only one missing from the driveway; Jenna's was gone too. Laden down as she was with her purse, gym bag, and the food from the Grill, it was tricky to manage the front door, but she finally got it open and went inside, kicking it shut behind her. "Jeremy?" she called loudly.

"What?" came his voice from the kitchen. Elena followed the sound, dumping her purse and gym bag at the foot of the stairs along the way. She was unsurprised to find her brother standing at the island, a quarter of the way through a recently delivered pizza.

"Where's Jenna?" she asked, setting the bag from the Grill on the counter and starting to pull things out.

"After Mom and Dad headed out, she said something about needing to get very drunk and took off," said Jeremy with a shrug. He caught sight of Elena's face and frowned. "Have you been crying?"

"Yeah," said Elena. "I broke up with Matt."

"You okay?" His eyes fell on the food she had just unpacked. "That's a lot of food."

"Oh," she said, "yeah, I have a, uh, a friend coming over."

"Good, because for a second there, I was worried you might be doing some kind of binge thing."

Elena rolled her eyes and smacked him on the arm before heading out of the kitchen to go put her stuff away. She had barely thrown her workout clothes in the hamper and shoved the gym bag back in her closet when the doorbell rang. "I'll get it!" she yelled. She took one quick look in her vanity mirror and despaired over her obvious post-cry face—at least her makeup wasn't smeared—, then dashed out of her room. She descended the stairs two at a time, rendering her slightly flushed and out of breath when she reached the door.

Thinking she probably looked like a complete mess, she smoothed a few stray strands of hair away from her face and pulled the door open. There stood Damon, looking just as gorgeous as he had the previous night—more so, even, because the light was better, though the bad boy vibe was very slightly diminished by the fact that he'd swapped out the black shirt and leather jacket for a well-tailored black button-up today.

"Hey, heartbreaker," he said, teasing smirk firmly in place.

Elena groaned. "If you start up with that, then this really will end up being about comfort food and a shoulder to cry on," she said, in spite of the fact that she was already smiling more than she had in hours. "Come on in," she added, stepping aside, "I've got everything set up in the kitchen, and we can watch a movie or something if you want."

"Sounds good to me," said Damon with a grin. Elena led the way to the kitchen, where Jeremy was currently on his fourth slice of pizza. He froze when he saw Elena's company.

"This is your 'friend'?" he said, staring at Damon with no small amount of mistrust.

"You must be the little brother, Jeremy," said Damon, unfazed by Jeremy's reaction to him. "I'm Damon."

"What are you, like twenty-five?" said Jeremy. "What are you doing hanging out with my sister?"

"Jer," said Elena. "Knock it off!"

"If you must know, Elena and I are making plans to elope to Vegas," said Damon, throwing an arm casually around Elena's shoulders as if he did it all the time. Heaving a dramatic sigh, he looked at Elena, who was now fighting back giggles at the appalled look on Jeremy's face. "I guess we can't count on him to cover for us with your parents like you were hoping, baby."

Elena pouted. "That's going to make it much riskier," she said, placing a hand on Damon's chest and looking into his eyes with the soppiest expression she could muster, though her entire body was shaking now with the effort not to laugh, "but we can still make this work. Our love can overcome anything!"

"What the hell?!" said Jeremy furiously.

It was too much. Damon and Elena both burst out laughing. Elena hadn't expected to laugh at all today, but now she had to cling to Damon to keep from falling over.

"You guys are such losers," Jeremy grumbled, taking the pizza box over to the table instead.

It took at least a minute for them to recover.

"Nice improv," said Elena when she could finally speak again, now holding herself up with the edge of the counter.

"Messing with younger brothers has been my specialty since the turn of the century," said Damon.

"Clearly not your only specialty," said Elena. "I'm supposed to be your beacon of optimism, not the other way around. You're totally stealing my thunder."

"I told you I was competitive," said Damon smugly. "You shouldn't underestimate me."

They were still standing very close to each other. Their eyes met, and the grin faded off Elena's face. After a couple of seconds, her gaze was drawn to his lips, which were still twisted in that smirk. If she just leaned a little closer, she'd be able to kiss him. But the thought had barely entered her head when everything about just being his friend and the fact that she looked like his dead girlfriend came flooding back like a bucketful of icy water.

"So, uh," she said, shaking herself, "I got us burgers." She gestured to the counter with all the food from the Grill laid out. "If you need more condiments, they're in the fridge door."

"I'm hurt, Elena," said Damon, "I rescue you from a very long and boring walk home and all it's worth to you is burgers?"

"You're the one who specified that you wanted takeout," said Elena loftily. "In Mystic Falls, that doesn't leave me with a lot of options." She opened the bag of fries and popped one into her mouth. "Besides, maybe I'd rather return the favor in multiple installments."

"I accept these terms," he said, making his eyes do that playful flashing thing and snatching a couple of fries for himself. As he did, Elena noticed the rather huge silver ring with a blue stone in it that he was wearing on his middle finger.

"Wow," she said as she unwrapped her burger. "That's quite the ring you've got there."

"Oh, yeah," said Damon, holding up the hand and wiggling his fingers, "we Salvatores are a little old fashioned."

"Then I guess the same goes for the Gilberts," said Elena. "My dad has this huge ring he wears, too. It's been passed down since like the eighteen hundreds or something." She bit into the burger, then wrinkled her nose and lifted the bun.

"You don't like pickles?" said Damon, watching her remove the offending dill chips while he unwrapped his own burger. "What's wrong with you?"

"If you want mine, you can have them," said Elena with raised eyebrows.

They were just finishing their food when Jeremy came back to put the remaining pizza in the fridge, and when they noticed his wary expression, they couldn't resist teasing him a little more. They started doing sickeningly sweet couple-y things like feeding each other the last few fries while calling each other ridiculous pet names.

"You two better pay me back for that pizza when you make me puke it all up," he said, scowling.

Elena laughed. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry. We'll stop," she said.

"Thank you," said Jeremy, heading into the living room.

"Spoilsport," Damon muttered in Elena's ear, but he withdrew to a more respectable distance anyway. "If you want to get that movie going, I can clean this up."

"I don't know," she said, looking at him suspiciously. "I'm already on the installment plan; is that gonna count against my score?"

"Only if you pick anything by Mel Brooks or Michael Bay. Something about those initials seems to render directors incapable of subtlety. But I'm a neat freak, so you get the cleanup for free."

Elena snickered. "Okay," she said.

Jeremy was sitting in the recliner when she went into the living room. She frowned at him. "You staying?"

"Until he goes," he said, a very stubborn expression on his face.

Elena rolled her eyes. "Don't be so paranoid. We're just friends."

"I don't care," said Jeremy.

Feeling slightly guilty for harassing him so much in the kitchen, Elena made her movie selection partly for his benefit. She popped the disk in, grabbed the remotes for the TV and DVD player, and flopped down onto the big couch.

Damon was back by the time the menu screen came up. "The Princess Bride," he said approvingly. "Haven't seen that one in a while." Instead of taking the unoccupied love seat, he shot Jeremy a wicked grin. Before either Gilbert sibling could say a word, he had seized Elena by the ankles, hoisted her legs up off the third cushion, sat down, and dropped her calves across his lap.

"Seriously?" said Jeremy, throwing his hands up in exasperation.

Elena rolled her head around on the armrest to look at him and shrugged, but offered no other reaction to Damon's move.

X

The Princess Bride was as fun to watch as it always was, but Elena found herself wishing now and then that she'd picked something she couldn't recite word for word instead. While she and Damon had been talking, eating, and messing with Jeremy, it had been easy to avoid miserable thoughts about Matt, but the movie wasn't nearly as good of a distraction.

There were a few moments throughout the ninety-eight minute runtime when she glanced over at Damon and was struck by a suspicion that he was as preoccupied with his own problems as she was with hers. When Westley said the line, "Death cannot stop true love; all it can do is delay it for a while," there was something about the set of Damon's jaw that made Elena sure he was thinking about Katherine, and when Inigo talked about ultimate suffering, Damon's eyes flickered with grim understanding. It made Elena want to sit up and put her arms around him, but she wouldn't draw attention to his reaction with Jeremy in the room.

She suddenly felt like the most awful, selfish person in the world. What right did she have to be miserable? The only thing wrong with her life was that she was the dumper in a breakup. Matt was hurting because of her, yeah, but nobody she cared about had died—well, her grandparents, but she'd been too young to remember them—, and there Damon was, estranged from his brother and grieving the girl he loved.

When it got to the part with Westley and Buttercup's final kiss before they rode off into the sunset with Inigo and Fezzik, Damon let out a loud snort.

"What?" said Elena.

"I don't think I've seen a less passionate and pure kiss in my life," he scoffed, "and that was supposed to have left all other kisses in the history of kissing behind?"

"They're just actors," said Jeremy. "It's not like it was real."

"No, I'm with Damon," said Elena. "That performance broke the cardinal rule of writing. Show, don't tell. We should be able to see the passion, not just have the grandpa say it's there and then accept it blindly."

"You are such a writing nerd," said Jeremy. "But the whole story is just what the kid is imagining. What does he know about passionate kisses? He started out wanting to just skip those parts."

"So?" said Damon. "I'd rather see the real deal than stay in the whiny ten-year-old's head for it."

"What, so you think you could've done it better, then?" said Jeremy.

"Hell yes I could've!" said Damon indignantly. He look over at Elena and waggled his eyebrows. "What do you say, wanna be my demonstration buddy?"

"Why not?" said Elena, swinging her legs down so she could sit up and scooting closer to him.

"Okay, I am so done here," said Jeremy loudly, before jumping up and practically running out of the room.

Elena wanted to laugh this one off like they had the other fake couple pranks, but it seemed that all the humor of the situation had fled with Jeremy, and she was left painfully aware of the fact that she was once again within kissing distance of the most attractive man she'd ever seen. Jeremy's presence had made it all safe and easy not to think about the implications of anything, but now the air was thick with tension and Damon's beautiful, piercing eyes were locked on hers and all she could think about was how amazing of a kisser he probably was. They leaned closer. One of Damon's hands came up to cradle the base of her neck, and her eyes drifted shut.

But then she felt his lips on her forehead. She pulled back, looking up at him in confusion.

"Elena," he said quietly, his eyes flickering back and forth between hers. "If I do kiss you, it's not going to be after you've spent half the day crying about another guy."

For two seconds, she just stared at him, and then the dam broke. All the hurt and remorse and sympathy pain for Matt that she'd hoped she was done crying about came rushing back in, and the next thing she knew, she was in Damon's arms, her face buried in his shoulder, getting tears all over his probably very expensive shirt. His posture was rigid at first, but quickly relaxed, and his grip on her tightened.

She didn't know how long they stayed that way, but she was vaguely aware that the movie had rolled into the credits. When the opening notes of "Storybook Love" started up, she tore herself away from Damon and made a mad grab for the remote to shut the TV off. "I'm sorry," she said. "How many more burgers will it take to pay for that shirt?"

"Oh, at least a dozen," said Damon. This was gentler and less lighthearted than their previous banter, a way of acknowledging what had just happened without actually addressing it.

Gravel crunched outside, and Elena stood up. "I think my parents are home," she said, wiping her eyes.

"Want me to go?" said Damon, also getting to his feet.

"Wait," said Elena. "I'll introduce you. They'll want to know whose car is parked out there anyway."

He nodded, and they started to make their way towards the door, but it opened before they reached the hall. "We're home!" Grayson called loudly.

"Thank God!" came Jeremy's muffled response from upstairs, which made Damon smirk and Elena giggle in spite of herself. Another couple of steps and they were in the hall. Grayson and Miranda broke off whatever they were talking about when they saw Damon.

"Who's this, honey?" asked Miranda.

Before Elena could answer, Grayson noticed her puffy eyes and red nose. "Have you been making my daughter cry, young man?" he said, his expression stern and a hint of a threat in his tone.

"No, Dad," said Elena hastily, "it wasn't his fault. Just more Matt-related waterworks."

Grayson seemed unconvinced until he shared a glance with his wife. "Fine," he said, nodding once.

"Anyway," said Elena, mustering a smile, "Mom, Dad, this is Zach Salvatore's nephew, Damon."


The reason I picked "Big Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" for the song at the beginning of the chapter is that I had a funny experience with that song recently. A guy I really didn't want to go out with asked me out. I have a rule that I always agree to go on the first date, because a first date isn't a relationship, so there's no harm in it. By the end of the date, I was still very convinced that I didn't want to go out with him, and the first song that played on the radio when he was taking me home was that song, which prominently features the lyrics "You're not the one for me!" I had a very hard time not bursting out laughing in the truck.