Stefan detoxes from the human blood just fine, but he doesn't want to put Elena at risk, so, two days after graduation, he tells her that he can't be with her until he's sure that he can maintain control and be the Stefan she fell in love with. He tells her that he's going leave Mystic Falls and travel to Italy, where he plans to hide out in a monastery and work on being Good.
Which is all fine and good for Stefan, but Elena's more than a little put out that her boyfriend is, you know, going halfway around the world, with no true estimated timetable for return. It could be six months, it could be five years, Stefan says, and he doesn't want her to wait—even though she says she will. Bonnie and Caroline tell her that she should take this time to make sure that this is really what she wants. Because while she's never felt like someone who's been defined by her boyfriends, she was also with Matt for forever and then, no matter that they were on and off and on again, given everything that happened between them it felt like she was way serious with Stefan way quickly, and... yeah.
She's not happy with the situation, but she can only argue for so long before there's not much else she can do but agree.
So, when she gets to college, she's technically free. She and Caroline go through rush and join the same house, and Bonnie goes to a small liberal arts school about twenty minutes away, and it's nice to just be able to focus on classes and house things and making new friends and being a college girl.
Still, when people ask about her social life—a guy in her history class who asks her out; the girls in her house wanting to know about their new sister—she says she has a boyfriend. Caroline frowns at her when she says it, but it's easier that way. It's easier for her to find out who she is if she's not just leaping into a relationship with someone else right away, right?
But anyway, the first house dance of the year comes, and while Elena's been to every sorority function and sisterhood—even the Dash-a-Date dinner, going with Caroline to the Pike house to drag unsuspecting freshmen back to their house with them—she's not planning on going to the formal, because that's not an evening to be spent mostly hanging out with the sisters. She escapes to the TV room pretty early on in the afternoon, hiding from the craze of makeup and hair, keeping the boyfriends company as they wait for their dates to come down. She's laughing at something on the TV when Caroline's voice comes over the intercom: "Elena Gilbert, you have a caller!"
Elena looks away from the TV, because what? She's wary as she goes up the stairs, because she shouldn't have a caller. She just shouldn't. When she gets to the entryway, though, she sees Caroline grinning from ear to ear and Damon standing right beside her.
"There was no way you were missing our first house dance," Caroline says. "So I took matters into my own hands."
Elena's pretty sure that Caroline shouldn't ever have forgiven Damon for everything that Damon did to her, but she seems to have done so—the fact that Damon saved her life during the attack on the Founder's Ball probably helped—and now their relationship is at a point where, apparently, Caroline can call Damon up and tell him that he's going to be taking Elena to their house dance.
Because Elena has no doubt that that is how the conversation went.
Elena says, "Care— Damon—" but Caroline grins and Damon just smiles ingratiatingly and holds out a single rose, because he knows how to play the gentleman. Those of Elena's sisters that are on the first floor are looking between Damon and Elena and Elena knows that they're wondering if this is the infamous Stefan. Maybe Damon knows it too, because he says, loudly enough for all the gossips to hear, "My brother wouldn't want you to miss this night because of him."
So, under Caroline's direction, Elena gets pulled back upstairs. Halfway up the staircase, though, they pause so Caroline can say, "Most of the guys are hanging out in the basement. Try not to eat any of them alive, okay?"
Once they get upstairs, Caroline sits Elena down and immediately goes to work on her hair and makeup, calling in her roommate for back up—"Elena is going to the dance tonight. Do you think you can find her a dress?"—and then, far too quickly it seems, Elena's ready to go, she and Damon joining Caroline and Matt and three other couples at dinner before the dance.
And, okay, so maybe Elena's been enjoying just being a real college girl, one who shouldn't have to worry about vampires and other things that go bump in the night, but she has to admit, Damon is still really fun. She's still not really sure when he went from being the cruel, rather sadistic Salvatore brother to one of her better friends, but there are very few people who can make Elena laugh like he can, his sense of humor still as biting as ever.
So, they go to the dance, get pictures, and at some point during the evening even Matt stops giving Damon weird looks and seems to accept that it's okay to joke around with him, at least for tonight. It's fun — enough fun that when it's over with, Elena and Damon go out to Denny's with a few other couples and chow down until about four in the morning. Well, Elena does. Damon laments the lack of alcohol on the menu.
When they finally get back to the house, after one of the girls has spent most of the last two hours hitting on him, Damon says, "I'd almost forgotten how much fun college can be," wiggling his eyebrows in a way that Elena recognizes.
"No snacking on my sisters," Elena says severely, which makes Damon sigh, as if his life is so hard. "But this was fun."
"Caroline tells me that you aren't having nearly enough fun," Damon says, and it's his turn to sound severe.
"I have fun," Elena says. "It's just, with Stefan—"
"He wouldn't want you waiting for him," Damon says. "He told you not to wait for him. You know him. You know he's not going to decide that he has everything under control until about five years after he really is back under control."
"I know," Elena says. "I do."
"And yet you're still going to wait," Damon says. "So obviously what I need to do is make it my new mission in life to see that you actually get out of the house and have fun."
"Damon," Elena says. "You don't—"
"I do," Damon says. And with that, he kisses her hand and leaves.
Elena doesn't actually expect to see him again anytime soon—he has responsibilities in Mystic Falls now, having somehow won a write-in campaign (that he swears he had nothing to do with) to become a member of the official town council, the one not just made up of descendants of Founding Families—but he shows up the next Saturday night, in Stefan's sports car, and takes her out to the movies.
Then, the next weekend, he tags along on her, Bonnie, and Caroline's girl's shopping expedition, even when Caroline threatens to make him carry all of their bags (a threat they all follow through on), then takes the three of them out for Indian food on the way back to Bonnie's campus.
He skips the next weekend—the planning for the next Founder's Day event is ramping up—but Elena has studying to do anyway. Still, midway through the week after, she finds herself smiling when Marie tells her that she has a phone call on line one, and barely protests when Damon tells her that he'll be picking her up in half an hour, because he just survived the meeting from Hell, okay—and if anyone knows Hell, he knows Hell—and that he needs to just get out for awhile.
So: they go for a drive, going way too fast around mountain curves as they head out of town. They stop near the summit of one of the nearby mountains and Elena listens as Damon tells her all about the latest idiocy that the Council is trying to perpetuate, about this shady real estate investment person that seems to have half of the Council wrapped around his little finger already and—
"—and you're only annoyed because you didn't think of his scam first," Elena says, and Damon looks righteously indignant for about two seconds before he laughs and agrees.
"That would be true under normal circumstances, yes, except for how his plans involve some of the old Salvatore lands and I have a certain attachment to those, as you might be able to imagine."
Elena laughs and nods and breathes in the fresh mountain air. "I know," she says.
So Damon becomes somewhat of a fixture at Elena's house.
Elena doesn't quite realize how much of one he's become, though, until she comes home from class one Friday and finds Reesa in tears in the living room, telling Damon all about her breakup with her boyfriend. Damon's listening intently—which Elena will have to thank him for later—but then she's too busy trying to swallow back a comment when Damon offers, quite seriously, to go kill said boyfriend. It makes Reesa laugh, though, and Damon laughs, too, like it was actually a joke.
And then there's the way Caroline signs Damon up to head a team in the charity soccer tournament that their house is running, and Damon recruits six of the house boyfriends to join him. Elena didn't even know that he knew that many of the house boyfriends, but apparently he does. All the girls cheer really loudly when their team wins.
And then there's Damon's name showing up on the guest list to the TKE function without Elena putting it down. Emily says, "Well, you were going to bring him anyway, right?" and Elena saying, "I guess?"
She's almost sure that Damon's going to say no, because surely he has more important things to be doing than going to a frat party, but he shows up at 9:30 and escorts both Elena and Caroline the two blocks to the TKE house and dances with both of them, then with Reesa when her ex shows up hand in hand with a KD, then glares down the guy trying to encourage Marcy to go upstairs with him, even after she's told him no three times.
Then, in a change from the norm, Damon asks Elena to come back to Mystic Falls for the Founder's Gala, and it would be easy enough to get ready at her aunt's house there, but Caroline and Reesa take control of Elena's hair and makeup, and then she's making the grand entrance to the foyer with Damon standing at the bottom of the stairs, grinning up at her.
She's anticipating an awkward night, most of it probably spent with her aunt Jenna as Damon makes the social rounds; indeed, after the first dance and glass of champagne, Damon gets pulled away, first by Sheriff Forbes, then by one after another of the town matron's.
Elena would feel abandoned, except that there are too many people here that she knows still: some of this year's seniors requesting dances of their own, other former classmates that she hasn't seen in almost half a year to catch up with. About an hour in, though, Damon is the one to tap her dance partner—Evan, a guy two years ahead of her in school—on the shoulder and, say, "I think I'd like my date back now, if it's not too much trouble?" It's not really a question.
Evan backs up quickly enough that it's almost amusing, and from that point forward, Damon doesn't leave her side, playing the attentive date in the way that only Damon Salvatore can. At the end of the evening, close to two a.m., he drops her back off at her sorority house, walks her to the door, and kisses her hand.
"My lady," he says.
Elena just smiles.
In April, the DU's hold a blackout party, and Elena's not really planning on going—she has a huge history paper due the next Monday—but around 10:30, she needs a break, and Caroline and Reesa sense her moment of weakness and swoop in to drag her out for the rest of the evening. She's dancing with the girls, drinking shitty beer, when one of the seniors, one of the ones who Elena doesn't know very well, asks her where her boyfriend is.
"In Italy," Elena says, because it's true.
The senior looks confused.
"Elena can be a little dense sometimes," Caroline says. "She likes to pretend the rest of us can't see the sparks three miles away whenever Damon visits."
"There aren't—" Elena starts, but Caroline just shushes her, handing her a new can of shitty beer.
"You keep telling yourself that," she says.
In the beginning of May Stefan comes back.
He shows up on a Thursday night, when Elena's sitting in the dining room, helping Caroline with Greek Week signs. She hears the doorbell ring, hears one of her sisters go and get it, and then hears his voice.
"I'm here to see Elena Gilbert? Is she in?"
She's not supposed to use the door from the dining room to the entryway, not during quiet hours, but she has a feeling that the rest of the house will forgive her this one transgression.
"Stefan?" she says, even as her sister is asking Stefan to come in. His arms come around her so quickly she doesn't see him move and she doesn't quite cling, but it's a close thing.
"Hi," he says, and just like that, Elena feels like the last eleven months haven't happened, because he's there, he's real, he's there, and—
They go for a walk down Greek row, ending up at a park about four blocks away. They sit on the swings, looking up at the stars, as Stefan tells her about Italy, about how much better he's feeling, about how he just couldn't wait any longer to see her.
Elena doesn't really register the time passing, but it must be a few hours later when she and Stefan make their way back to her house, hand-in-hand. The sky is completely dark, the sounds of the pre-weekend parties already filtering out of the frat houses as they pass by. And then she sees the familiar red car parked out in front of her own house: a car that she knows wasn't there when she and Stefan left earlier, especially since Stefan just stops in the middle of the street and stares.
Then there's a voice coming from the front porch, and Damon's stepping out of the shadows. He's not smiling, but he also doesn't hesitate to pull Stefan into a hug the moment that he gets close enough.
"You're back," he says, and Stefan nods.
"I am. I am back. Hopefully for good."
Elena squeezes Stefan's hand then, because yes, hopefully it will be for good. Then she has a thought. "We weren't supposed to meet up tonight, were we, Damon?"
Damon laughs—and Elena could be imagining things, but she's also pretty sure that there's a bit more edge to it than she's heard in several months—and says, "No, no. Caroline called me." Then, by way of explanation, because Stefan is looking confused: "I've been making sure that your girlfriend has some fun at college and all, since she refused to give you up when you gave her the chance."
This time Stefan is the one to squeeze Elena's hand and he gives her a quick grin. "I can't say that I'm terribly upset that she didn't listen to me. And I suppose I should thank you for looking out for her." That comes out a little bit grudging and Elena thinks that Damon looking out for 'his' girl might be cutting just a bit too close to all the Katherine memories.
But she really doesn't want to worry about that right now, since Stefan is back.
All of which is to say, Stefan is the one who gets to accompany Elena to the spring Barn Dance, a duty that he seems to be remarkably glad to take on. Even if he does have to wear a cowboy hat. And plaid. Damon, Elena's pretty sure, would have sighed a whole lot more and acted far more grudging, even if Elena's pretty sure he would have agreed to dress the part eventually, if only to hold it over her for the rest of her life. He also probably would have spent the whole evening either making fun of everyone else in their finest farmhand regalia or saying 'y'all' with as exaggerated a drawl as possible.
Stefan just smiles and nods and tells everyone they talk to that he's glad to meet them, finally, that he's heard so much about them, that yes he's glad to be back in the States, that Italy was wonderful, thank you for asking.
Only three of the boyfriends ask Elena where Damon is, although another two ask her to tell Damon something for them, yeah?
After the second message to pass along, Stephan asks, "Exactly how much was Damon around?"
"A lot," Elena says, because Damon was. Enough so that she got used to it. Enough so that she's actually noticed Damon's absence for the last two weeks.
Stefan nods. He seems to bite at his lip, as if he's trying to keep himself from saying something.
"Because you weren't here," Elena says, and she thinks it's true for both her and Damon. She has no doubt that Damon enjoys spending time with her, but she also knows that if he'd had Stefan around to bug, he probably wouldn't have bothered.
"I know," Stefan says. He doesn't apologize—and as much as Elena would like him to, she knows he won't. He will never tell her that he's sorry for trying to keep her out of harm's way. And after seeing him with his control in tatters, she can't say that she blames him.
But even though she has a feeling that they're heading towards a fight where she tells him exactly what she thinks of him going off on his own for eleven months—of him telling her not to wait for him—they're at the dance to have fun and she doesn't want to spend tonight having that fight, so she says, "You're back now."
He kisses her, deeply enough that one of the seniors actually tells them to get a room. Elena laughs.
Then the year is over and Elena's heading back to Mystic Falls, the back of her car seeming much more crowded than it was when she made the initial drive to school in August. That night, she, Caroline, and Bonnie meet up at the Grill for dinner and gossip, like they haven't seen each other in months, rather than just a few hours or weeks, (as is the case with Bonnie), because, well... It's not a tradition yet, but it should be.
It's a good night, their quote-unquote 'last hurrah' before they all have to start the hunt for summer employment the next morning, and Elena thinks that life could be a lot worse.
And it is a good summer, because Bonnie and Elena both get jobs at the bookstore downtown, with Caroline working at the clothing store two blocks over, so they're able to do lunch, dinner, evenings out whenever they want to. Plus, more often than not, Stefan is there to meet her after work, as solid a presence as she'd come to depend on him being before, well, everything.
It's during the second week of summer vacation when Damon makes his first stop at the bookstore. He saunters in like he owns the place, says hello to the owner, and then proceeds to spend the next hour sitting on top of the counter, offering unsolicited advice to anyone who looks even remotely unsure as to what to buy. When in doubt, he suggests The Great Gatsby, until they sell out.
"What's up with that?" he asks, looking offended by the very thought. "You can never have enough copies of The Great Gatsby."
"We would have had enough," Bonnie says, "if you hadn't mojo'd everyone into buying it."
"I didn't mojo," Damon says. "I didn't even strongly suggest. I was just able to convince people that it's still one of the Great American Novels and that they should really give it another shot. Because it seems to be remarkably under-appreciated in these days and times."
"Please tell me that you have more important things to be doing than discussing the relative merits of The Great Gatsby for the rest of the afternoon," Elena says.
Damon grins beatifically. "Nope! This afternoon I am all yours."
"Lucky us," Bonnie says.
And Elena's not quite sure what happens, but after that afternoon, Damon starts spending more time with them again. Joining her and Stefan for dinner. Bringing coffee and doughnuts to the bookstore at break times.
And then there's the time when he shows up on her front porch, looking about ready to punch something, saying, "Remember the real estate investor person that I thought I'd gotten rid of? He's back. With threats about exposing me for what I am."
"He knows you're a vampire?" Elena asks.
"No. He thinks I'm a conman," Damon says. "He thinks I've managed to wrap the town around my little finger, just like he wants to do."
If Elena were still at school, she thinks that they'd already be halfway up a mountain by now, Damon pushing Stefan's car to go as fast as it could go. Instead she says, "Do you want to come in?"
Damon does. He's brought his own fifth of Jack, and he drains the whole thing telling her the sorry tale.
It's close to one a.m. when he finally stops raging, and he grins sloppily at her. "If I'd known responsibility was going to be this much of a headache, I would have laughed in the Mayor's face when he told me about the write-in thing."
"It's hard when you care," Elena says, which makes Damon snort.
"I don't care. I don't even know why I'm spending so much time thinking about this. I mean, I don't owe this town anything. I should just let this guy do what he wants. Or maybe I should just kill him."
Elena punches his shoulder lightly, because while she has no doubt that he's not entirely joking, it's best not to encourage him in that line of thought.
Later, Elena wonders if that was a mistake.
Not that she condones killing in any way, shape, or form, but.
Okay, see, shady real estate investor guy turns out to be not so much a regular old guy and more a scary ass sorcerer intent on taking Mystic Falls in all of its supernatural powered glory and making it his own personal playground of evil. Which means that at the end of July, Elena's happy college girl existence shifts back into scary mode. Because first—and this is so getting old—the sorcerer kidnaps Caroline and swears to kill her if Bonnie doesn't do some heavy mojo and Damon doesn't turn over some bracelet that apparently no one has seen in seventy odd years.
Then, after they rescue Caroline before Bonnie does the mojo, but not before the sorcerer takes the bracelet from Damon, the sorcerer decides that really, Elena is the one he should be going after, which Elena doesn't appreciate at all, but she is even more furious about when Stefan and Damon come to her rescue. Not furious about the whole rescuing part, but because Stefan only takes one look at her, at the ropes around her wrists, before launching himself at the sorcerer and tearing his throat out.
He drains the sorcerer dry.
Elena can't watch, because she can't do Stefan on human blood again. She doesn't have the strength to force him into the detox room, isn't sure she can wait another eleven months or five years or however long it'll be before Stefan thinks he's got everything under control again.
Indeed, two nights later, Stefan knocks on the door to her aunt's house, but he doesn't come in.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I've got to go."
"I know," she says.
"I don't know if I'll be back."
"I know," she says.
Then, because she truly trusts Stefan not to hurt her, she throws her arms around him and hugs him for all she's worth. He hugs her back, so tightly that she can still feel it an hour later.
She can still hear his goodbye echoing in her head a week after that.
The first part of sophomore year can pretty much be summed up thusly:
First, during the third week of September, Trace, a guy who sits next to her in her Music Appreciation 102 class, asks her out.
She starts to say no, thinks that she should say no, and then says, "Yeah, I think I'd like that."
Trace is a computer engineering major, a really nice guy who laughs at her jokes even when they aren't all that funny, and treats her pretty much like a princess. Emily accuses her of having all the luck: Damon, Stefan, now this guy. Elena doesn't say anything about Damon or Stefan, but she agrees that Trace has the potential to be a keeper.
Second, when house elections roll around, Elena somehow ends up being elected secretary, which is rather amazing, actually. Caroline is elected social chair and couldn't be happier about it.
"We are going to have the best functions next year," Caroline says. "My cousin in Maine? Well her house had this Slip 'n Slide party which we are totally bringing here."
Third, Reesa talks Elena into taking an intro to women's studies class with her, and it only takes her half a quarter (after she gets her second A-worthy paper back) to decide that that should maybe be her minor—or possibly a new major?—right there.
Mostly, though, the first part of the year can be summed up this way:
Stefan is gone and Elena's not waiting.
"You're doing the right thing," Bonnie tells her more than once. "There was life before the Salvatores, there will be life after them."
"There is," Elena says and each time she says it, the words feel a little more real.
In November, Elena comes back from her Poetry 204 class to find a familiar red car parked out front and Damon ensconced on one of the sofas in the living room, surrounded by sisters and even a boyfriend or two. She sees that Reesa's pretty much hanging on his every word, that Emily and Ali are both flirting it up with him, and suddenly it feels like forever since Damon's been here, like this. Damon's still acting like he fits, though.
"Elena," he says the moment he sees her, smoothly disentangling himself from the conversations going on around him. "I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop by to see if I could interest you in some dinner?"
Which is how she finds herself sitting in a booth at La Toscana less than an hour later, listening to Damon tell her how Sheriff Forbes was at the Salvatore house the day before, asking Damon if he'd ever considered running for mayor. Damon's laughing like it's the most hysterical thing he's ever heard—"It's like sheep suggesting that the wolf run for sheep office, you know? So that he'll have the right to lead them to their certain and utter doom!"—and Elena laughs, too. Because on the one hand, yeah. But on the other, if Damon really decided that he was going to do right by the people of Mystic Falls, then she knows that they'd be in good hands. She can definitely see why Sheriff Forbes suggested it.
"I'm almost tempted," Damon says. "It's so tempting."
"But if you were mayor, then you couldn't just pack up and leave," Elena says. She doesn't mention that he's on year three of living in Mystic Falls again and that she hasn't seen any indication that he's planning on heading out into the great wide world again anytime soon.
"Point," he says, shuddering. "But it could be so much fun." His grin is more than a little wicked.
Elena kicks him under the table. He pretends like it actually hurts.
In December, her house has a winter holiday party: white elephant gift exchange, apple cider in front of a roaring fire, dates. Elena signs Trace up to attend and doesn't think anything more about it, but three days before the party, Emily comes into their room nearly in tears, because her date backed out on her, and she already has the present, and she can't go alone, El, she just can't. Does Elena have any ideas about who she could take? Does she still talk to Damon?
"It's a bad idea, Emily," Elena says, but then Emily looks hurt, like Elena thinks she's not good enough for Damon, so Elena sighs and, after promising Emily she'll ask, picks up her phone and walks down the hall, dialing.
When Damon answers she says, "I'm so sorry, really, but what are you doing on Thursday night?"
Elena's sure that two years ago, Damon would have laughed a lot and said no, hell no, tell me why I should care that your sorority sister is suddenly dateless? And yes, it's true that he was her escort to almost everything that the sorority did the year before, but she and Damon have Stefan and shared history and Emily... doesn't.
"Do I get to meet your new boytoy?" Damon asks.
Elena wants to say no. She wants to say that she and Trace suddenly have other plans, but she says, "As long as you play nice."
"I'm never nice," Damon says. "Tell Emily I'll see her on Thursday."
And Elena does, but not until Damon's been there awhile, apparently, given the way he and Emily have snagged two of the better seats in the living room.
"Pull up a foot stool," Damon says, gesturing at the over-sized one just a few feet away, and he's looking at Trace in a way that makes Elena want to say no, thank you, they'll be sitting all the way on the other side of the room, no worries. Trace, though—poor, sweet Trace—just smiles and nods and gallantly pulls said footstool over for him and Elena to share. Elena sits.
"Damon," she says.
"Elena," Damon says.
"It's good to meet you," Trace says, sticking out his hand, and he only winces a little when Damon shakes it.
"The pleasure is all mine," Damon says. "I've been insanely curious to meet you, to make sure that you're good enough for our little Elena."
"Damon's an old friend," Elena says. She's told that to Trace already. Told him that Damon is her ex's older brother and that he'd been there for Elena through a lot. Trace had said that he understood, but, well, there's really no possible way to understand Damon, not without meeting him.
Damon's smile is tight, but it loosens as soon as he turns back to Emily, bringing her back into the conversation, and just like that, the tension drains out of Trace's shoulders. Elena just pats him on the back and leans her head on his shoulder and thinks that the introduction could have gone a whole lot worse.
Or course, before Damon leaves that night, he pulls Elena to the side and says, "If he hurts you, I'll kill him. Just so you know."
"Damon," Elena says.
"Elena," he says.
"He's not going to hurt me. He's just a nice, normal boy."
"And eternally boring because of it."
"He's not boring—" Elena starts, because Trace isn't.
"Is dull a better word?"
"He's safe." Because that's what Trace is. He's safe. And that's what Elena needs right now more than anything.
Damon sighs, shaking his head. "He seems to be. But listen to me. If he does anything, you let me know. I will take care of it."
"He won't," Elena says. "Now get out of here before my boyfriend decides you're up to no good."
"I'm always up to no good," Damon says, laughing, but after she takes a swipe at him, he does, in fact, leave.
The problem is, Damon's right. Trace is rather boring. He likes watching movies and baseball games and he's never had to run for his life out in the middle of the woods. He doesn't understand why she never takes her necklace off, why she never says the words "Come in," why she pays attention to every little bump in the night.
And while that's what she thought she wanted right now, he's not someone who she feels she can talk to about, well, Bonnie's witchy ways, or the fact that she was dating a 162-year old for most of a year, or how the 162-year old's older brother seems to have appointed himself her defender. There are just so many things about her past that she can't tell him, and—
Midway through April, she sits down on his couch and tells him that it's all her, that it has nothing to do with him. She just... needs to figure some things out. That it really has nothing to do with him, she swears.
Afterwards she drives back to Mystic Falls and shows up at the Salvatore house, knocking on the door as loudly as she can until Damon finally answers. She can hear the giggling and footsteps before the door actually opens, and when it does, she's face to face with a Damon who's shirt is most of the way off, his hair all mussed.
She starts to say "I'm sorry," to turn around and leave, but Damon's got a grip on her arm before she moves more than a few inches.
"Elena," he says. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," Elena says, still trying to leave. "I'm sorry. I should have... called."
"Stop," Damon says, and Elena does. From inside the house she can hear movement again, a voice. "Damon, are you coming? You should come back to bed..."
"Give me just a moment," Damon say, and he speeds away. Elena thinks about leaving, driving away, going to see her aunt for ice cream and boy moping time, but then the girl from inside the house is stumbling outside, looking dazed in a way that Elena recognizes as the after effects of Damon's mind whammy, and Elena wants to feel angry or disgusted or something, but all she feels is tired.
The next thing she knows, Damon's leading her into the house and sitting her down on one of the overstuffed couches in the living room.
"Do I have to go kill someone?" Damon asks and Elena shakes her head.
"It was me. I ended it. I'm just—"
Damon places a glass of something into her hand and Elena sips it. It has a strong bite, but it makes her feel warmer inside than she has in a few days, since she made up her mind that she was going to break up with Trace.
"He wasn't good enough for you," Damon says.
"He was," Elena says. "I thought he was what I wanted—"
"But once you go Salvatore, you can't ever go back. It's just a sad, sad fact of life."
Elena snorts wetly into her drink.
This year, Damon does come to the barn dance with her. And yes, he complains just as empathetically about the hat, plaid, and boots as Elena suspected he would, but he also tugs at her pigtails and joins in the line dances (a fact which Elena is never going to let him forget), sits on a hay bale with her when she needs some air, and sings along with Ke$ha songs at the top of his lungs.
On the way back to her house, due to a lack of seats on the bus, Elena has to sit on Damon's lap, and his hand totally feels up her thigh twice. She slaps him away each time, which just makes him laugh.
"Some day, Ms. Gilbert, you will give in. Just you wait."
"Never," Elena says.
She actually believes it.
Elena remembers hating Damon.
She remembers feeling sick about the things that he's done—to Caroline, to Stefan's friend Lexi, to her mom. She remembers wanting him to leave Mystic Falls and never come back. And then she remembers how glad she was that he was around when Stefan lost control the first time, how he'd saved them all when the conclave of vampires hiding outside of town tried to overrun the Founder's Ball and kill them all. She remembers the sharp stab of worry she felt when she saw Damon take a bullet for Caroline, saving her life for once instead of playing with it. Later, he'd staked a vampire that was trying to get it's fangs into Bonnie and—
There are days, still, when she thinks that she should be disgusted with him, unforgiving of the fact that he still drinks human blood (straight from the neck at least part of the time), and that he's probably killed people more recently than she'd like to know, that he's completely unrepentant about it.
She wonders that she lets him get away with things—and still calls him a friend—that would have had her running from Stefan so fast he might actually have chosen not to follow.
Then there are nights like the second night of her summer vacation, where Damon opens the Salvatore house to Elena's friends—Bonnie and her new boy, Matt and Caroline, Jeremy and Anna—so they can have a John Hughes marathon. He provides the alcohol, the popcorn, five pounds of m&m's, and somehow knows a good portion of the words to The Breakfast Club.
"What?" he says, when Elena catches him mouthing along with Bender for the fourth time. "I lived through the 80s."
"Twice," Jeremy says under his breath.
Damon tosses an m&m at his head.
On the surface, the summer before her junior year is pretty similar to the summer before. She and Bonnie both get their old jobs at the bookstore back, and this year, they actually get a little bit more responsibility. Caroline trades in her job at the clothing store for an internship down at Channel 9, which she's thrilled about. Elena expects the shine to wear off in the face of early early mornings, but instead Caroline starts carrying around a notebook so she can jot down story ideas.
Plus, Bonnie has her new guy and Caroline and Matt, well. It's not like they haven't been pretty serious for, well, since the summer after their senior year, but while they're both home this summer, something shifts between them, and suddenly they're serious and really only seem to have eyes for each other. Elena remembers being that way with Matt, once upon a time, and sometimes it's impossible not to miss it.
But on the plus side, Damon comes to meet her after work a few times a week, and he still brings snacks to the store when he's not busy with Council meetings, and he lets her crash at the Salvatore house on the nights when she just can't take living under someone else's roof again, not after spending nine months of the year without having to answer to anyone.
It's Matt who calls her on it, while she's out at dinner with him and Caroline.
Well, not so much calls her on it, as says, "So how long have you and Damon been dating?"
Elena just stares at him, because what?
"Oh, come on, Elena," Caroline adds. "We know you. And Damon's not the most subtle person that's ever lived. If anyone should know that, it's me. You have to know he's totally gone one you. I mean, he has been for months. I mean, he went to our barn dance. You got Damon Salvatore to wear plaid."
"We aren't—" Elena starts. "I mean, Stefan—"
"Is probably not coming back," Caroline says. "That's what you told me, right? And I'm being serious, Elena. Plaid. And he was smiling while wearing it."
"Damon's just a friend," Elena says.
Caroline levels her with a steady look. "Damon doesn't have friends. You should know that better than all of us."
Which... used to be true, anyway. Elena would place a money bet that Damon considers Sheriff Forbes to be a friend. And Alaric has become a friend, sort of. And Elena is absolutely his friend.
Except for how Damon does meet her after work four days a week (at least) now, if only to give her a ride home. Except for how Jenna invites him to stay for dinner at least one of those days; how Damon usually ends up cooking for her at least one other night during the week. Except for how Elena has no problems showing up at the Salvatore house unannounced — and since the night she broke up with Trace, she hasn't seen Damon entertaining anyone. She knows that he must be indulging, because he's not one to subsist solely off of blood bank blood when there's no need to lay low, but...
But when they're out together, Damon acts like a gentleman, pulling out her seat for her, listening intently while she talks about bookstore drama or whatever. He doesn't bring her flowers, but he does let her pick out chick flicks to watch at his house. He makes nice with Jenna and Jeremy, asks after Reesa and Emily (even though Elena knows that he really doesn't care), and is just... Damon.
She can maybe sort of understand how other people might think that they're dating.
She starts to wonder about it herself.
Except for the fact that it's ridiculous, because as far as Elena knows, Damon doesn't date.
Not unless his date's name is Katherine, anyway, and he's so ridiculously devoted to her that he waited a century and a half to break her out of a tomb beneath a church, with a crystal dependent on 150-year old magic.
Elena is not Katherine and never will be.
Besides, it's not like she wants to date Damon. Because for one thing, she dated his brother. For another, Damon isn't just a scourge on bunnies, chipmunks, and birds like Stefan was. For a third, while Damon has seemed to be behaving relatively well for the last few years, she knows it won't last. One day he'll grow bored with Mystic Falls again—or maybe he'll decide that he really does want to track down Katherine—and he'll leave, and there will be no reason for him not to re-embrace his old ways.
Still, it doesn't stop Damon from showing up at her house the day after she returns to school, with a selection of chick flicks and two boxes of popcorn. It doesn't stop him from actually eating at the house one night a week now, rather than dragging her out to dinner; or from helping her little sis Lisa with her history homework; or from joining several of the sisters in a not-so-subtle huddle when Reesa's new date comes by the house to pick her up the first time.
When Elena says, "If you're not careful, my sisters are going to stop believing me when I tell them you're really not my boyfriend," Damon just laughs.
"Maybe I want to be your boyfriend," he says. "Did you think of that?"
He manages to keep a straight face for all of five seconds—four of which Elena spends speechless, staring at him—before he bursts out laughing.
"You jerk," she says.
"Evil vampire," he says. "Plus, you know, there's the small matter of the fact that I don't date. I'm really much more of a user."
"I know," Elena says.
This time, she's the one to ask Damon to come to the formal with her.
Well, she doesn't so much ask as tell him when the dance is going to be, and he says, "So I'll need to break out the suit?"
This time, she and Caroline both help plan the pre-dance dinner. This time, Damon actually brings her a whole bouquet of flowers, from which she pulls some of the baby's breath to use in her hair. In the half hour before the bus comes to pick them all up, to take them to the venue, Damon joins in with her and Caroline in commenting on how young all the freshmen look, how puffed up their dates all seem to be at the thought of going to a sorority house dance.
It's a great night. Damon keeps her on the dance floor long after she's given up on the whole heel thing. He joins Emily and Kara in the middle of the circle dance when someone decides it'd be fun to request the song 'It's Raining Men.' He even puts up with all the giggling and girly chatter with only a little bit of rolling eyes.
And when a slow dance comes on, he wraps his arms around Elena and dances with her, as close as any of the other couples on the dance floor.
That night when he leaves the house, he pulls her into a sideways hug and kisses her cheek, and later Caroline says, "Okay, seriously, you need to tell him that enough is enough with this gentlemanly crap, okay? It was true two years ago, it's still true today: sparks! Three miles away!"
And yes, Elena can maybe acknowledge that now. Because when she's over at his house watching movies, they end up sitting more closely together than they used to. And one night when she falls asleep during the movie, she wakes up with her head in his lap, his fingers running over the lines of her neck. And after a particularly hard day of town council nonsense, when he picks her up to go for a drive so that he can vent, they end up standing on top of a mountain, looking up at the stars, and he wraps his arms (and coat) around her when she shivers. They're pressed together and part of Elena is thinking no, no, this isn't right, no, but Stefan— and the rest of her is noticing just how close they are. How they'd only have to move a little to be kissing, how—
They don't, but Elena truly believes it was a close thing.
Close enough so that she can almost imagine it.
She starts to think that there's a strong possibility she won't have to imagine much longer.
So, the next week, of course, when she's back in Mystic Falls for the weekend, out to dinner with Damon at the Grill, Damon gets a phone call.
He looks at the number, frowns as he picks it up, and says, "Hello?" Then, Elena's pretty sure that if it was possible for a vampire to turn even more white, Damon would have done so. "Who is this?" he asks. His voice is a harsh whisper. Then, "Katherine?"
Elena feels something akin to the bottom dropping out of her stomach, and her appetite is completely gone. Still, she waits as Damon says, "Where? When?" and is quiet as he hangs up.
"That was—?" she starts, and Damon, looking shell-shocked, nods.
"I've got to—" he says.
"Go," she says, and her voice sounds flat to her own ears, because this is Katherine. The woman Damon's been in love with for going on two centuries. The woman Stefan was in love with. The vampire who made Damon everything that he is. She can't compete with that; she doesn't want to compete with that.
"Listen, I'll give you a call later, okay?"
"Of course," Elena says.
She drives the half hour to Bonnie's school, not actually registering much of the drive, not registering much of anything until she's knocking on Bonnie's door and Bonnie's saying, "Elena? What's the matter? Oh, honey, come here."
Half an hour later, Caroline shows up in Bonnie's room too, and they all curl up on the bed, watching the Daily Show on TV, while Elena says, "I don't even know why I'm feeling this way. I mean, it's not like we were ever together. Or like it would have ever been possible for us to be together, what with the fact that he still drinks human blood and who knows how many people he's killed recently and... Stefan. And, I mean, it's always been Katherine. It's just because I look like her, you know? He could pretend..."
"He hasn't been pretending in a long time," Caroline says. "If only you could see the way he looks at you."
"And don't you think we would have heard if he was still out there doing the whole evil vampire thing?" Bonnie asks. "You know as well as I do that the area's been quieter recently than it has been in years."
"Well it doesn't matter now," Elena says. Because Katherine is back, and Katherine has always been Damon's one, and it was stupid for Elena to entertain the thought that there might be something more between them, even for a minute.
"That *dick*," Reesa says after word spreads that Damon has apparently broken up with Elena. Even though Elena still insists that they were never together. She tells them all that his old girlfriend, the one he's been in love with for nearly forever, came back, and Damon went with her.
"You want me to beat him up for you, Gilbert?" Reesa's boyfriend asks, and that makes Elena laugh.
"I'm fine, really," she says. "Really. For his sake, I'm glad she's back. He missed her more than you can ever know."
She doesn't say that she's sure that the Damon her entire house knows is long gone, lost in the whirlwind of mayhem and death that follows Katherine around. She tries not to pay any attention when the reports of animal attacks in nearby communities—but never Mystic Falls—start surfacing, until the day that Caroline corners her in her room and says, "There's a detail that they haven't been releasing to the papers. You've probably already guessed it, but the bodies? They've all been drained of blood."
Elena bites at her bottom lip and nods, thanks Caroline for the information, and tells her that she's fine, really. She's sure that Katherine will want to leave the area soon and Damon will go with her, and then Elena can completely move on with her life; she can pretend that the Salvatore brothers were just a long, drawn-out nightmare.
When Caroline leaves, though, Elena cries. And cries.
And tries not to miss what she never had.
Elena's pretty sure that that's supposed to be the end of the story.
Because Spring turns to Summer and Summer turns to Fall and suddenly Elena's a senior, which is completely unbelievable, actually. Because surely she hasn't finished three years of college already. Time just shouldn't go that fast.
But, it's Fall, and she's taking three 400-level classes and one 300-level class and it feels like she spends most of her time at the library these days, studying and writing papers and between those and all of the 'get to know your new sisters' sorority activities, she's pretty sure that there is just not enough time in the day. Which is why she's surprised one night, two days before Halloween, when Caroline sticks her head into Elena's room, says, "Oh thank god you're here," then slips inside and shuts the door behind her.
Caroline's looking a little pale, but her eyes as bright as Elena's ever seen them, and she's pacing almost frantically around the small room.
"Care," Elena says, "Calm down. What is it? What's the matter?"
"I, um," Caroline says. "I—I want you to hear it from me, okay?" And with that, she sticks her hand in her pocket and pulls out a ring. A diamond. It's not a huge one, but the setting is gorgeous and Caroline's hand is shaking and she seems to be near tears.
"Matt asked. He just asked. And I wanted you to be the first person I told."
Once upon a time, Elena would have been the one getting that ring. Once upon a time she thought that she'd wanted that ring. Now, though, she can't help throwing her arms around Caroline, hugging her as tightly as she can.
"Caroline," she says. "Congratulations!" Then she drags Caroline downstairs and into her car so that they can drive to Bonnie's apartment and share in this together, because that is what best friends do and Elena is pretty sure that she's never seen Caroline look this happy, ever.
They have the candle passing two days later, on Halloween, before the girls in the house head off to help man the haunted house that they're co-sponsoring with the Phi Delts. It's maybe not every girl's dream candle passing; most of them occur before Monday night dinner, after all, with everyone in their semi-formal best. Tonight there are costumes: witches, vampires, a Cruella de Ville. Caroline's dressed as Little Bo Peep.
Their house president called this informal meeting—ostensibly to give out last minute details about Halloween plans—so all 60 of their sisters are gathered in the living room, chatting amongst themselves. It's only when the personnel chair brings out the wreath and candle that there are shouts of joy. Immediately everyone starts looking to all the girls with serious boyfriends, trying to figure it out.
They all shuffle into a circle and begin singing one of their sorority songs, one of the ones that is meant as support to sisters entering the big, wide world. The president lights the candle, then begins passing it to her right. Two times around and it's a promise ring, three times and it's an engagement. Muted squeals interrupt the song when the candle completes it's second lap.
Caroline made Elena and Reesa stand on either side of her—for moral support, she said—so Elena is the one to pass the candle to Caroline for the third time. She watches as Caroline passes it on to Reesa, and then just before it leaves Reesa's hands again, Caroline leans over and blows the candle out.
Suddenly all three of them are being crushed by a mob of sisters wanting to hug Caroline, congratulate her. They make Caroline stand up on a chair and tell the story of how Matt had six of his friends present her with roses, all with notes attached listing reasons that Matt loved her. Then he appeared and got down on one knee. Caroline apparently said yes before he actually asked her, so then she made him actually say the words so she could say yes again.
It's so very Matt, so very Caroline, and Elena's pretty sure that she's not going to stop grinning—so, so happy for both of them—for the rest of the night.
Technically she doesn't.
Technically Damon shows up at the house after midnight, after Halloween is already over with. November 1st.
Elena hasn't gone to bed yet, even though she's mostly ready. Instead she's sitting in her room, writing in her diary: about Caroline and Matt, about the past and future, with maybe a little bit about the haunted house and the subsequent Halloween party thrown in. She's just about ready to call it a night when Kara knocks on her door and sticks her head through the open space.
"Elena? You have a caller? I think it's Damon?"
Elena frowns, but gets up from her beanbag chair and pulls on a sweatshirt. She tries to be quiet going down the stairs, but she stops completely when she's far enough down to see who it is, because it is Damon, and he's wearing a familiar leather jacket, looking just the same as he did the night he left her at the Grill in Mystic Falls. It's been seven months.
"Damon?" she asks.
"Surely you haven't forgotten me already," he says. "I know I'm more impressive than that."
"What are you doing here?" Then, because it's a sudden, scary thought: "Katherine's not here, is she? You didn't bring her here."
Damon frowns, in a way that Elena would interpret as 'what do you take me for?' if she thought that she knew Damon at all anymore. Which she doesn't. It's a perfectly legitimate question, though, because the Damon that she met four years ago would have had no compunctions about slaughtering her entire house. For a moment she remembers just how scary she used to find him.
"No, Katherine's not here. Katherine's not even in the States anymore, as far as I know. The last time I saw her, she was on her way up to Canada."
"And you aren't going with her? You're not meeting her up there?"
Slowly Elena starts walking down the stairs again. Kara's gone back into the dining room, for which Elena is grateful, but she hears other voices coming through the doors, and she's starting to think that she doesn't want an audience for this conversation. But then again, she's not really sure what she and Damon have to say to each other.
"Katherine never changes," he says slowly, like that's supposed to mean something. Last Elena knew, that should have been a good thing for Damon. The woman he'd known, loved, exactly the same despite their 150 years apart. "And I— I haven't changed, okay, and I am never going to change, but I might, possibly, have decided that there is more to life than causing death, violence, and mayhem. Maybe."
"That sounds like such a ringing endorsement," Elena says. "Really."
Damon glares and a part of her—the part that considered Damon one of her better friends, the part which led her to start wondering 'what if?'—wants to apologize. But the rest of her is still feeling too mad, too betrayed.
She steps closer, close enough so that she can say what she wants to say without being overheard. "You left. You left and you never called, not once, and I know what you've been out there doing, Damon. All the 'animal attacks'. I can read. I can connect the dots. And you just expect me to be okay with everything? To just welcome you back?"
Damon stares at her for a long moment, and he's never one to look hurt—he just won't; that's not who Damon is—but his lips go a little bit tighter.
"I just wanted you to know I was back," he says. "At least for now. I'll be staying at the boarding house, if you change your mind."
With that, he turns around and pushes the button to disarm the door, and leaves.
Part of her still wants to go after him, still, but she makes herself turn around and head back upstairs. She doesn't let herself look out the front window, but she does listen for the sound of an engine starting up, driving away.
She actually feels okay about everything until three days later when Caroline steps into her room and shuts the door and sits down at Elena's roommate's desk and says, very seriously, "I'm not saying that you did the wrong thing, okay? Because he left you to go off with Katherine and for that I will never forgive him, okay? Because no one hurts any of my best friends like that."
"But?" Elena says, because she can tell there's a 'but' coming.
"But I was talking to my mom about the animal attacks in the area? And she told me something that I thought you should know." Caroline looks at her hands, twists her still-new ring back and forth on her finger. "All the bodies? They all had the same teeth marks on them. Just one set. All of the bodies they found? Were drained by one vampire."
Elena just stares at her.
"And, I mean, I can't swear to anything, but—but if I had to guess, from everything you told me? That was probably not Damon."
"He's never going to change," Elena says, but the words sound weaker in her ears than she means them to. They falter just a bit under a sudden surge of hope.
"He's never going to admit to changing," Caroline says. "But there were no 'animal attacks' for three years. He could have left town any time, especially after Stefan left the second time, and he didn't. He wore plaid for you, Elena. I think that says something."
The hope flairs.
"I've got to—" she starts. Caroline just nods and watches her leave.
It takes her twenty minutes to drive to Mystic Falls, but she spends another five sitting in her car, watching the Salvatore house, trying to gather the courage to go in. She waits too long, because the next thing she knows, the door to the house is opening and Damon's stepping outside. There's a blur and then he's opening her car door.
"Elena Gilbert," he says. "I can honestly say that you were not the person I expected to show up on my doorstep tonight."
She steps out and leans back against the passenger door, because she needs some sort of support here. Because this very well could have been a bad idea. But it's too late to turn back now.
"You didn't kill anyone," she says.
That makes Damon raise an eyebrow. "I've killed lots of people," he says. "Hundreds, if not thousands."
"Not in the last seven months," Elena says. "They only found one set of teeth marks on the bodies. They all belonged to one vampire. Katherine."
Damon looks away.
"I'm never going to change," he says. "But I told you. I might have discovered that there was more to life than—"
Elena kisses him. Because she knows he'll never admit to changing his lifestyle for her—and for all she knows, tomorrow he could decide to take out after Katherine again; he could leave a trail of destruction in his path, one he'd feel no remorse for—but for now, he's here, with her. He came back for her. And she wants. It takes him less than a moment to bring a hand to the small of her back, pulling her closer, the other hand raising to trail fingers against the skin of her neck, and it's been seven months, she's mourned him, and now he's here and—
She lets herself get lost, just for a little while.
"You've stopped with the killing," she says again when she pulls back, because that seems to be her deal breaker. That is the one thing she can't get past.
"I'm considering trying to limit my actions to self defense," he says. "Maybe. Unless they really, really deserve it."
Which is about as good a promise as Elena thinks she's going to get out of him. She knows Damon and it's a better promise than the words imply.
"Why did you come back?" she asks. Then, because she's already gotten the whole 'mayhem, violence, and death' speech, she adds: "Why did you come find me again?"
Damon shrugs. "I told you before," he says. "You're not the worst company in the world."
And that, from the guy who doesn't date, who only uses; the guy who apparently let Katherine go up to Canada and didn't follow; the guy who wore plaid for her... is actually a pretty good declaration.
It may be the most she ever gets, for however long this lasts, and she's pretty sure that she's okay with that.
"Occasionally you aren't so bad yourself," Elena says, which makes Damon laugh and pull her back against him.
The next time Damon comes by the house again—midway through the next week—Caroline threatens to stake him if he ever pulls something like that with Elena again. The next time they see Bonnie, she tells him that she has enough power to mojo his brain to mush if he even thinks about stepping out of line.
Damon seems mostly amused that these two 21-year old women are threatening him with bodily and mental harm.
Reesa and Emily spend two weeks glaring at Damon every time he comes over until he manages to charm his way back into their good graces. He swears up and down that he didn't so much as think of doing a mind whammy on either of them.
Mostly Elena spends her time thinking that it shouldn't be this easy. She's expecting a fight about how he's still drinking from people—except for the way that he's suddenly got a whole fridge of blood bank grade in the basement of his house. She expects him to get bored, to try to prove to her (and himself) that he's still the evil vampire he took such pride in being. He hasn't yet. She expects him to accuse her of trying to make him change, even though she hasn't asked for anything so far, except for the moratorium on killing. He doesn't.
Instead, he keeps coming over to her house, playing the dutiful boyfriend with enough sincerity that Elena's not 100% sure anymore that it's all an act. He makes nice with her sorority sisters, listening to their woes with unexpected grace. And yet somehow, he's still the same Damon: the one who makes her laugh at inappropriate times with snide comments behind people's backs, the one who she knows will do anything to protect her, the one who has apparently decided that, for this century at least, there are worse things than being on the side of the good.
Finally, one night when they're alone in the TV room, she asks. "Why are you doing this?"
Given his sudden silence, she knows that he knows what she means. Why is he doing what it takes to be with her? Why her and not Katherine? Basically: why?
"You told me once that it was difficult to care," he says, which is about as close as he's gotten to admitting feelings since the first night. Aside from, well, the fact that he came back for her. The fact that he's still here with her.
"It is," she agrees.
"But I've also heard that it's usually worth it in the end," he says, wrapping his hand around hers and squeezing.
She agrees with that, too.
It usually is.