The next morning found them al back at the boardinghouse. After the previous night's rain, the sunshine had a fresh quality to it, and everything felt bright and damp and clean, despite the smel of smoke that permeated the boardinghouse and the charred remains of the garage that could be glimpsed through the windows of the den.
Elena sat on the couch, leaning against Stefan. He traced the burn lines, nearly entirely faded, on the back of her hand. "How do they feel, heroine?" he asked.
"They hardly hurt at al , thanks to Damon."
Damon, on the other side of Stefan, gave her a brief, blinding smile but said nothing.
They were al being careful of one another, Elena thought. She felt - and she thought everyone else probably did, too like the day looked: shining and freshly washed, but slightly fragile. There was a lot of quiet murmuring back and forth, exchanged smiles, comfortable pauses. It was like they had completed a long journey or a difficult task together, and now it was time to rest.
Celia, dressed in pale linen trousers and a silk dove-gray top, elegant and poised as always, cleared her throat. "I'm leaving today," she said when they al looked up at her. Her bags sat neatly on the floor beside her feet. "There's a train to Boston in forty-five minutes, if someone wil drive me to the station."
"Of course I'l take you," Alaric said promptly, getting to his feet. Elena glanced at Meredith, but Meredith was frowning at Celia in concern.
"You don't have to go, you know," she told her. "We'd al like it if you stayed."
Celia shrugged expressively and gave a little sigh.
"Thank you, but it is time I get going. Despite the fact that we destroyed a priceless rare book and I wil probably never be al owed on the Dalcrest campus again, I wouldn't have missed this whole experience for the world."
Meredith grinned at her and raised one eyebrow. "Even the brushes with death?"
Celia raised an eyebrow of her own. "Was there a part that wasn't a brush with death?"
They laughed, and Elena was grateful to see that the tension between them had evaporated.
"We'l be glad to have you anytime you want to come back, dear," Mrs. Flowers said to Celia earnestly. "I wil always have a room for you."
"Thank you," Celia said, looking touched. "I hope I can come back and see you al again someday." She and Alaric left the room, and soon the rest of them heard the sounds of the outside door shutting and a car starting up.
"Good-bye, Celia," Bonnie chirped. "She turned out to be okay in the end, though, didn't she?" She went on without waiting for an answer. "What are we going to do today? We need to have an adventure before summer ends."
"You haven't had enough adventure yet?" Matt asked her disbelievingly from where he was sprawled on a rocking chair in the corner.
"I mean a fun, summery kind of adventure," she said. "Not al doom and gloom and battles to the death, but fun-in-thesun stuff. Do you realize we've got only about three weeks before it's time to start school again? If we don't want our only real memories of this summer in Fel 's Church to be one disastrous picnic and a horrific battle with a phantom, we'd better get started. I vote we go out to the county fair today. Come on!" she urged them, bouncing in her seat.
"Rol er coasters! Fun houses! Fried dough! Cotton candy!
Damon can win me a big stuffed animal and take me through the Tunnel of Love! It'l be an adventure!" She fluttered her eyelashes at Damon flirtatiously, but he didn't take her up on her teasing. In fact, he was gazing down into his lap with a strained expression.
"You've done very wel , children," said Mrs. Flowers approvingly. "You certainly deserve some time to relax."
No one answered. Damon's tense silence was fil ing the room, drawing everyone's eyes to him. Final y, Stefan cleared his throat. "Damon?" he asked cautiously. Damon clenched his jaw and raised his eyes to meet theirs. Elena frowned. Was that guilt on Damon's face?
Damon didn't do guilt - remorse wasn't one of his many qualities. "Listen," he said abruptly. "I realized... while I was making my way back from the Dark Dimension..." He stopped again.
Elena exchanged an anxious glance with Stefan. Again, stammering and having trouble finding the words to say what he wanted to say were not typical of Damon. Damon shook his head and col ected himself. "While I was remembering who I was, while I was barely alive again, and then while I was getting ready to come back to Fel 's Church, and everything was so painful and difficult," he said, "al I could think of was how we - how Elena - had moved heaven and earth to find Stefan. She wouldn't give up her hunt, no matter what obstacles she faced. I'd helped her - I'd risked everything to do so - and we were successful. We found Stefan and we brought him home, safe and sound. But when it was my turn to be lost, you al left me on that moon alone."
"But Damon," said Elena, reaching out to him, "we thought you were dead."
"And we did try to move heaven and earth to save you,"
Bonnie said earnestly, her big brown eyes fil ing with tears.
"You know that. Elena tried everything to bribe the Guardians to get you back. She almost went crazy with grief. They just kept saying that when a vampire died, he or she was gone for good."
"I know that now," Damon said. "I'm not angry anymore. I haven't been angry about it for what seems like ages. That's not why I'm tel ing you this." He glanced guiltily at Elena. "I need to apologize to al of you."
There was a tiny col ective gasp. Damon just didn't apologize. Ever.
Elena frowned. "What for?"
Damon shrugged, and the ghost of a smirk passed over his face. "What not for, my princess." He sobered. "The truth is, I didn't deserve saving. I've done terrible things to you al as a vampire, and even when I became human again. I fought Meredith; I endangered Bonnie in the Dark Dimension. I endangered al of you." He looked around the room. "I'm sorry," he said to everyone, a note of sincerity and regret in his voice.
Bonnie's lips trembled; then she threw her arms around Damon. "I forgive you!"
Damon smiled and awkwardly patted her hair. He exchanged a solemn nod with Meredith that seemed to indicate that she also forgave him - this time.
"Damon," said Matt, shaking his head. "Are you sure you're not possessed? You seem a little... off. You're never polite to any of us but Elena."
"Wel ," said Damon, looking relieved at having gotten the confession off his chest, "don't get used to it. Matt."
Matt looked so startled and pleased that Damon had cal ed him the right name for a change, instead of "Mutt" or nothing at al , that Damon might as wel have given him a present. Elena saw Stefan give his brother a sly, affectionate nudge, and Damon elbowed him back. No, she wouldn't get used to it. Damon, temporarily drained of his jealousies and resentments, was as beautiful and intriguing as ever, but a heck of a lot easier to get along with. It wouldn't last, but she could enjoy it for now. She took a moment to real y look at them, the Salvatore brothers. The vampires she loved. Stefan with his soft dark curls and sea green eyes, his long limbs and the sensitive curve of his mouth that she always longed to kiss. Sweetness and solidity and a sorrow she'd had a hand in lightening. Damon, leather and silk and fine chiseled features. Mercurial and devastating. She loved them both. She couldn't be sorry, couldn't be anything other than sincerely, whol y grateful for the fate that had thrown them in her path.
But it wouldn't be easy. She couldn't imagine what would happen when this new comfort and friendliness between the brothers, between al of them, ended. She didn't doubt that it would dissolve. Irritations and jealousies were just a part of life, and they would build up again. She squeezed Stefan's hand in hers and smiled past him at Damon, whose dark eyes warmed.
Inwardly, she sighed a little, then smiled more widely. Bonnie was right: Col ege was just around the corner, a whole new adventure. Until then, they should take their pleasures where they could find them.
"Cotton candy?" she said. "I can't remember the last time I had cotton candy. I'm definitely up for Bonnie's idea of adventure."
Stefan brushed his lips against hers in a kiss that was as sweet and light as cotton candy itself, and she leaned into the comfort of his arms.
It couldn't last. Elena knew it. But she was very happy. Stefan was himself again, not angry or fearful or grieving, but himself, the one she loved. And Damon was alive, and safe, and with them. Al her friends were around her. She was truly home at last.
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