Chapter Twenty: The Importance of Feelings

Stefan's last mocking words echoed in Elena's wake as she raced past. Damon only barely managed to step aside in time, heart wrenching from the brief glimpse he'd caught of her tear-streaked cheeks.

He heaved a sigh. Foolish girl. He'd repeatedly warned her not to go in there. Not yet. Not until he'd had more time. Forty-eight hours wasn't long enough to make any significant head way with an intractable case like his brother.

But telling Elena not to do something was essentially the ultimate exercise in futility. Which was both tremendously frustrating … and part of the reason why he loved her so incredibly much.

That's why, acting contrary to his strongly and repeatedly voiced recommendation, she entered the cell where Stefan was being held, clinging desperately to the romantic notion that the power of true love would be strong enough to overcome even the dark side of the Ripper.

No doubt she thought that her eyes would collide with Stefan's, something epic and transformative would spark between them, and, voila! Stefan's humanity would be restored.

But reality wasn't that neat and vomit-inducing. Reality was that Stefan with his humanity off was a vicious and callous dick who could care less about cooperating with Elena's hopelessly rose-tinted vision of things, and inside of two minutes, he'd reduced Elena to tears.

All of this, of course, could've been prevented had Klaus simply been decent enough to compel Stefan's humanity back on the way he'd compelled him to turn it off. But Klaus wasn't that decent, though it would've hardly taken more than a moment of his time and energy to be so. Instead, Klaus had trussed Stefan up like a turkey and returned him sans his humanity.

And it was rather obvious as to why. Stefan had no intention of flipping his switch, and he had no intention of remaining Damon and Elena's prisoner. As soon as he was free, he'd be off quicker than a dress on prom night. Klaus probably figured Stefan was on more of a loan than anything else.

Well, Klaus was wrong. Damon would be damned before he gave up and let Klaus win. Stefan was flipping his switch, even if Damon had to destroy the whole fucking world in the process. It was time to end this – and he knew exactly how to do so.

Luckily, he wasn't going to have to destroy the world – probably. But he was going to have to destroy something much worse.

Slowly, dreading what was coming next, Damon moved down the hallway. It was only a short distance that he had to walk. The cell door was close by on the right. His boots clunked on the dirt ground, echoing unnaturally loudly in his sensitive ears. Stefan would hear him approaching – would know who it was simply from the sound of his footsteps.

When he reached the cell door, he leaned close and peered through the tiny barred window. His brother was inside, slumped over, chin resting on his chest. Vervain ropes bound him to a chair. He looked haggard, emaciated. Starving. If Damon didn't know any better, he might almost be moved to pity by Stefan's plight.

Almost.

"Congrats," Damon said sarcastically, "you made a teenage girl cry. You've peaked as an evil villain."

Not an eyelash wavered on Stefan's face by way of reaction.

Damon pushed on the door. Elena'd been so upset, she'd neglected to lock it behind her when she ran out, so it simply scraped open upon a mere tap from his fingers.

Stefan didn't look over or so much as move a muscle. Perhaps that was due to weakness –he'd been bled to make him a more amenable prisoner – but Damon didn't think so. The feeble light filtering into the cell cast a clammy green pallor over Stefan's face. Sweat droplets beaded on his brow. One started trickling down his temple.

Damon took all of his hesitation and guilt and remorse and shoved it deep, deep down where it wouldn't interfere. There was no room for any of that right now. He let darkness take its place, so he could do what must be done.

Time to press that big red button – the one labeled 'Nuclear Option'. Because in order to bring Stefan's humanity back, Damon would need to destroy their 'unbreakable' brotherly bond.

So, the challenge was – find a weak spot. And push. Push so hard that Stefan broke. Even if it meant Stefan ended up hating him.

"Come on, Stef," he cajoled, "you can't stay this way forever. There's a girl that loves you waiting for you out there. Whatever you've done that you think is unforgiveable - it's not. Elena will forgive you. She'll understand, and she'll forgive you, because that's who she is." Still no reaction. Damon didn't intend to waste much more time on this or other lines of reasoning. He'd already tried them all in the preceding days and gotten nowhere. "I mean, if she can forgive an evil, murderous vampire like me, you have absolutely nothing to worry about."

Stefan's fingers flexed, digging into the arm of the chair for a brief moment before relaxing. "Since when do you care so much?" Stefan asked this like he didn't truly care about Damon's answer. "I thought you'd prefer me this way. I thought you'd prefer me out of the picture, so you can keep fucking my girlfriend."

Girlfriend. Stefan without his humanity didn't care about Elena – he'd simply chosen the word most deliberately calculated to hurt.

"Then, again," Stefan grinned, an unexpected flash of white in the dimness, "you never did mind sharing."

Even as he told himself not to let Stefan get to him, Damon's hands curled into fists. At that exact moment, the impulse came to do something completely unexpected, and he went with it. Strolling closer, he focused on the sores on his brother's wrists from where the vervain ropes dug in tightly. Open, oozing sores that cracked and bled out what precious little blood remained in his body.

Damon jerked roughly enough on the ropes to snap them.

As he freed Stefan, he talked. "Actually, brother, I'm glad you're back. You have no idea how tedious it got always having to rescue such a naïve and spoiled little brat. Good pussy only goes so far, and the truth is, she was starting to bore me."

He stepped back and tossed the broken ropes aside.

Stefan brought his hands to his lap, stared silently down at his irritated wrists. Green eyes glinted like brittle sea glass. "Then, kill her. Elena means nothing to me."

Damon went on as though he hadn't heard him. "Don't get me wrong – she's a fun little bounce between the sheets, a real sex kitten. Especially once I compelled away all of her inhibitions."

Something in Stefan's gaze flickered, the barest shift in demeanor. The smallest tell, exactly what Damon was looking for. The first indication that he was successfully getting under Stefan's skin. The first indication of Stefan's humanity struggling to resurface.

"Mmm." He bit his bottom lip, really milking it for Stefan's benefit. "After you left, she was so pitiful and lonely. Ripe for the plucking." He spread his hands wide, palms up, imploring. "How was I supposed to resist? And all I had to do? Make her think it was her idea. Mmm-mmm, Elena'll do just about anything - as long as she thinks it's her idea."

Damon saw the exact moment when it happened – it was like a light switch being turned on. There was an internal outburst of fury, surging up in a huge wave, engulfing everything in its path and utterly annihilating the walls Stefan had erected to keep his humanity at bay.

Stefan's head up snapped up like a whip, eyes burning with moss-green vengeance.

Damon smirked. Mission accomplished.

At the sight of that obnoxious crooked smirk, Stefan lunged up from his seat like a cork popping out of a bottle, hurtling across the cell so quickly Damon could barely track him. The force of impact knocked all the air from Damon's lungs. The back of his head hit an unforgiving ground, and for the next few heartbeats, all he saw were blinding-white stars.

Stefan loomed over him and took advantage of Damon's stunned state to commence whaling on him, ground and pound style.

By all rights, Stefan should be drained. Famished. Weakened from captivity.

But he was angry enough that it didn't matter, and he didn't hold anything back. He landed blow after blow until blood flowed freely from Damon's nose and mouth.

Though Damon saw each of the punches coming, he made no move to evade them, not even one. He simply allowed them to connect brutally with his unprotected face.

Stefan caught on to the fact that Damon was doing nothing to defend himself. He laid off striking him and grabbed great handfuls of his shirt, heaving Damon's upper torso off the ground and bringing their faces uncomfortably close together.

"What happened with Elena?" Stefan was out breath, but his voice was deathly clear.

Damon tried to speak, only to choke on his own blood, instead. Once he was able to clear his airway, he taunted, deliberately being as nasty as possible, "What do you think, dear brother?"

"You compelled her to sleep with you?"

Damon said nothing, did nothing to deny the accusation. Even if the details weren't exactly true, he deserved this, every bit of it. Never mind the way it hurt that Stefan automatically assumed the worst of him. And believed it. Like always.

Stefan shook him. "Answer me, Damon!"

The grin Damon forced was macabre and blood-stained. "You know me, Stef - why wait for what she was going to give me in the end anyway?"

Stefan let go of Damon's shirt and smashed him in the face with two quick, ruthless fists. Blood spurted from Damon's already broken nose in a crimson rain.

Then, Stefan rocked back on his heels and stared down at his beaten sibling with fury-contorted features. "You are not my brother. You are dead to me. If I ever see you near Elena again, I'll kill you. This is the only warning you'll get." He leapt up and flashed out of the room.

Damon lay on the ground, blood running down the sides of his face. He had not the will left to move, not for a long while. Eventually pushing himself upright, he scooted over to the wall for support and let out a wince as his smarting skull fell back and made contact with the hard bricks.

Trying to gather some consolation from this turn of events, he told himself that it was for the best. It was all for the best.

Sure, keep saying that all you like. Maybe you'll even convince yourself it's true.

It was true, he argued with himself. Elena and Stefan could be together now. Elena wouldn't have to keep secrets from Stefan, because Damon knew her well enough to know that there was no way in hell she was going to be able to keep from spilling her guilty little guts; Stefan could direct all of his newly burgeoning anger and blame at Damon and Damon alone, and rightly so; and Damon would … well, he would … figure something out. Just like he always did.

For starters, Caroline could make herself useful. He sent her a text to let her know that Stefan was more or less, but mostly less, himself again and wandering around Mystic Falls unsupervised.

Right away, she replied back that she was on it - thumbs up and smiley face emojis included.

Good, that was taken care of. If anything could successfully keep Stefan on the straight and narrow, it would be the combination of Elena and Caroline's support and redeeming grace, for sure.

He inspected his split lips with a probing finger. The wounds were smaller, almost gone. His face was still in the process of healing, and it hurt like a bitch. Broken bones and cartilage realigning, torn ligaments regrowing, shredded flesh rebuilding itself.

Still, better than being human and healing the long, hard way.

With a groan, Damon rose to his full height with what was considerably less than his usual panther-like grace and trudged up two separate flights of stairs, seeking only to be alone with his misery and a full bottle of bourbon or two or ten. Or twenty. As many as it took to forget everything that had just happened.

When he swung the door to his room open, he wasn't prepared to find Elena waiting within. She sat on the edge of his enormous four-poster bed, looking so terribly young and vulnerable, a quiet and subdued contrast to the warm, golden waves of sunshine streaming in through the windows on the French doors behind her.

Upon seeing her, his heart started pounding painfully. The memory of her in his bed not that long ago for an entirely different reason, naked and pliant and seductively sweet, was like a perfect photograph in his mind. All that lush flesh and that beautiful, mysterious smile, driving him absolutely wild as they made love, as he made her his .…

No. Not his, never his. Her heart had always belonged to Stefan.

The memory evaporated like smoke on the wind.

He could only imagine how angry she'd be once Stefan had a chance to tell her what was said in that darkened basement cell. Or maybe she'd be grateful that he'd made it easy for her to move on as quickly as possible without a backward glance. He wasn't really sure.

He was also so drained that he couldn't even summon the wherewithal to ask what she was doing there. He could only stare, knowing, without a doubt that no matter what happened, his heart and soul and very life would always belong to her.

As soon as Elena got a good look at him, she blinked in surprise. Whatever she'd been prepared to say flew right out the proverbial window. Hopping up, she rushed towards him, concern writ large on her delicate features. "Damon? What happened down there?"

"Don't worry – your boyfriend's fine." He shouldered past her. "In fact, you should probably go find him, considering he took off looking for you."

"He took off," she echoed as though he'd spoken in some foreign language rather than perfectly plain English. "Wait - what do you mean, he took off? You let him go? But … why would you do that? Does that mean – he's back?" With dawning bewilderment, she turned in his direction. "Damon, is he - ?"

"Yes." He disappeared out of sight, into his big and luxurious bathroom. "You should leave, Elena. I know for a fact you're the first person he's going to want to find, so leave," he reiterated with vicious emphasis.

His reflection in the mirror above the sink was grim, the pallor of his handsome features distorted by pain and his own blood. There was even more of his own blood on the front of his shirt. It was extremely obvious against the dark gray collar.

He shucked off the shirt, letting it drop in a heap on the floor, hoping to god Elena would just do as he asked and leave, sparing him the need to have to deal with anything else right now. He felt too raw and reactive, and with the current mood he was in, that was a surefire recipe for disaster.

Turning on the water, he scrubbed away at the blood using a wash cloth, pausing periodically to wring it out and watch the pinkish water swirl down the drain. When he was done and there were only a few swollen and sensitive places left on his mostly healed face to remind him of the beating he'd just received, he twisted off the faucet and dried his face and neck with a clean white towel.

Bracing his hands on the marble counter, he stared down, concentrating very deliberately on the fingers he'd spread out on either side of the white basin. Deep breath in, deep breath out. His chest completed its rise and fall motion, and then, he stood completely still, lean, hard body corded with tension, the air cooling damp pale skin. He might've been a statue carved from marble, his profile perfectly sculpted by a master's hand. Might've been, but the locks of raven silk slipping slowly, rebelliously down his temples and across his forehead spoiled the effect.

In the ensuing silence, it was easy to hear the soft swish of her footsteps as she came nearer, appearing behind him. It was easy to hear the strong and steady thrumming of her heart, the rushing rhythm of her blood. The whisper of each one of her breaths through pink, parted lips. Sounds that all resonated through him viscerally until he could feel her everywhere inside of him. There was no escaping her, even if he'd wanted to.

Her gaze on him was equally visceral, as tangible as a touch, an inquisitive caress that slid over the exposed muscle rippling across his back.

His head came up; stunning ice blue eyes met dark and fathomless ones in the mirror and locked there. He fought against drowning in those beautiful brown eyes, but such efforts proved to be in vain. Even the most limpid of streams lacked her sparkle.

Another memory, another perfect photograph indelibly engraved on his mind's eye – Elena in his tub, sultry and slippery and open fully to him, dark hair like wet silk wrapped around his fist as he thrust into her over and over and over. As she begged him never to stop.

She blinked, and it brought him back to himself. Stop it. Stop torturing yourself. It meant nothing. His mental order lacked conviction. None of it meant … anything.

But then, Jesus, why did it hurt so much, especially since he'd known all along this was coming?

She drew even closer in the mirror. It registered for the first time that she was wearing the vervain locket Stefan had given her. The one Damon had returned to her when she stupidly followed him to New Orleans.

She should be wearing it, he thought, ignoring the claws of jealousy that ripped through him with vicious savagery, sparing not one of his internal organs. She should. She needed vervain on her at all times. That way she'd be safe, and Original vampires like Klaus couldn't compel her into revealing things that were best not revealed.

"What?" he demanded, making sure to inject as much unpleasantness as he could muster into his tone, hoping against hope that maybe this time she'd take the hint and scram. He attempted to school his features to nothingness, tried forcing himself back to that cold, hard, unfeeling place he'd descended to in order to make his own brother hate him. The tightness in his chest warned him that he wasn't succeeding. "Why are you still here?"

"I knew you'd be the one to save him from himself." A gentle inclination of her head. "How did you do it? How did you get through to him?"

He glared. "Elena, what I really don't want to do right now is relive the last twenty minutes or so of my life. Maybe another time." Maybe never.

"Right. Sorry." She sounded genuinely contrite, which didn't help his mood, as now guilt was added to the mix of emotions he'd rather not be dealing with at the moment.

"You really should go." Please. Before I fucking lose my ever-living shit.

She anxiously brushed a strand of hair into place behind her ear. "Will you be okay? You were bleeding."

"I'm fine." He made a dismissive gesture towards his face. "See? As insanely gorgeous as ever."

"Right." She didn't sound convinced.

Weariness overlaid his tone when he spoke next. "Stefan is with Caroline. She's agreed to be his sober sponsor and to help him through all of the withdrawal symptoms. If you reach out to her, she can tell you where they are."

"Aren't you coming? You are his brother. What if he needs you?"

The idea of Stefan needing him after their most recent exchange was so ludicrous, one corner of his mouth actually twisted upwards. "I guarantee he won't."

She brushed again at her hair, though it hadn't moved an inch. "What will you be doing?"

When he didn't answer immediately, she edged towards him nervously. "Damon?"

"Relax." He surveyed her reflection with a wary eye. "I'm not gonna explode if that's what you're worried about. Or at the very least, if I do explode, it won't be here, so it won't make any difference to you what I do."

"That's not reassuring." Elena suddenly frowned. "What do you mean you won't be here? Why won't you be here? Where will you be?"

He straightened and crossed his arms. "Getting the hell out of this town. Something I should've done a long time ago." Something he would've done if Elena hadn't needed him to keep her safe. But she had Stefan for that now. "Something tells me a change of scenery will work wonders."

"Oh." If he'd socked her right in the gut, she couldn't have looked more stricken.

"Isn't it for the best?" How was he able to sound so normal and glib when he felt like he was dying inside? "Don't you think it'll be just the tiniest bit awkward if I stay?"

"Of course it's not for the best." Her breath caught audibly in her throat. "How could it be for the best?"

Really? Did she really have to ask that?

He turned towards her, resting his backend on the bathroom counter. He caught her gaze straying briefly down his chest, his flat stomach, following that line of dark hair trailing from his navel and disappearing beneath the waistband of his pants.

He quirked an eyebrow. "All signs say, time to go." Her eyes snapped back up to his. He adopted a cocky grin. "Physically, I'm here, but mentally, I'm already on a beach half way through my third margarita, and the sexy cocktail waitress is on her way over with a fourth."

His mocking remark visibly disturbed her. "So, you're really just going to leave? Just like that?"

"Just like that. Wasn't that the deal?"

"We told Klaus you'd be my protector," she argued.

"A mantle Hero Stefan will be more than willing to assume once more with his typical insufferable white knight glee."

A moment of silence. "Are you still coming to my birthday party?"

Oh, like that was fair. He was trying to harden himself against her, because it was easier, and safer, but he couldn't hold on to his protective anger, not when her obvious anguish found such a reverberating echo in him. "If that's what you want." Soon, she might not.

His assurance was too trite to deceive or comfort her. It was a good thing he was already leaning on the counter, otherwise the sight of her crumpling face would've driven him to his knees. He went on a bit desperately, "Me leaving - it won't be right away. I'll make sure Stefan settles back in properly and that we find a way to take care of Klaus and end this magical curse affecting you, but after that ... I can't stay here, Elena."

"But I don't want you to leave, Damon. I want - " She took a wobbly breath, bit her bottom lip. "I want you to stay. You promised you wouldn't leave me."

Her words were like tiny serrated arrows embedding themselves in his heart, their aim straight and true. "You think I want to do this, Elena? You think this is fun for me? I love you so much it hurts."

Elena's mouth fell open, and her hand rose to her throat.

He went on, regardless of her reaction. "I know I shouldn't, I know you don't want me to, but …," he sighed, deflating a little, "I do. I love you. And I want you to be happy, more than anything in the world, I really do, and you have to know by now that I would do anything for you. All you have to do is ask." Pathetic was so his middle name, he'd crawl on his belly over broken glass at the merest word from her. "But I can't stick around and watch you be happy with someone else. I can't watch you be happy with my brother." A lump rose in his throat. "Please don't ask that of me."

Tears welled, glittered on long black lashes. "I'm not okay with you not being in my life," she whispered. "You're one of my best friends."

Anger returned, surging through him. "No, Elena, I'm not your friend. Not even fucking close."

She flinched, and the first tear fell. Whirling, she ran – away from him. Away from him and back to Stefan, leaving behind a deep and abiding emptiness, a loneliness he couldn't even begin to bear.

Commence the despair that swept through him at the finality of this moment. He couldn't let her leave like this, even though he should. Everything would be so much easier if he could just be hard and ruthless the way he needed to be, if he could just make her hate him like he'd made Stefan hate him. But he couldn't bear the thought of her hating him. Not even a little.

He hastened after her, pinning her in place against the bedroom door in one fluid move, blocking her from leaving, his chest to her back, the only point of contact his cheek on her soft hair. She couldn't leave. Not yet.

God, please, not yet.

Elena turned her head and rested her left cheek on the door. A tremor coursed through the length of her body.

Being with her like this, so close yet so far away, was a special kind of torture. More than anything, he wanted to take her in his arms, to hold her close and never let her go. He wanted to beg her to stay and choose him. But what could he say? That he was the better choice? That he could give her a normal, happy life? That underneath it all, he was capable of being a hero and not just the villain in her story? That he could make it all up to her, every horrible mistake he'd ever made?

None of it was true.

There was no happy ending for someone like him, especially not with someone as special and amazing as her.

So, he stayed silent. Pressing his nose to her hair, he inhaled the hint of lavender and sunshine that was ever-present.

"Damon," she whispered, her voice breaking.

His lips brushed over the curved shell of her ear. "If you ever need me, I'll be there for you. Always. I promise."

A wild twisting of her body, so that she was facing him. As soon as she looked up at him and their eyes met, she dissolved in tears. She pressed her palms against his chest, and they burned his bare skin like forge-hot brands, scalding and sharp and so tortuously good.

"But I do need you, Damon. I do."

Cupping her face with gentle reverence, he brushed his thumb along her cheek, through the stream of tears, the clear fluid as warm as blood. "But not like you need Stefan." There was both pain and tenderness in his voice.

"I don't - " She stopped, mouth trembling, as it dawned on her that this was the moment where she finally had to make a choice. Out loud. On her exquisite features so many tangled and confusing emotions revealed themselves – despair, desire, fear, regret.

The hand he'd laid on her cheek drifted lower, down to the vervain locket hanging on its slender silver chain. He rubbed his thumb across the textured surface, numb to the way the vervain was singeing his flesh. He felt strung out, taut as a bow, the discomfort of a bit of reddened, irritated skin nothing compared to the excruciating agony of waiting for her answer.

At last: "Damon, I don't know. I do love Stefan, and I can't bear the thought of hurting him. I don't – I don't know what I'm supposed to do. Can't you tell I have no idea what I'm doing? I don't know-"

"Yes, you do," he interrupted before she became too impassioned – he actually feared she might start hyperventilating. His words were soft, but his hand clenched around the vervain locket strongly enough that the metal shape started to warp in his grasp. He barely even noticed that his palm was sizzling or that smoke was escaping his closed fist.

He really, really didn't want to do this.

He didn't know if he could.

But this was Elena.

So … he had to.

He had to do the right thing.

He had to.

Do.

The right thing.

She belonged with Stefan. The good guy.

Not him.

This devastating tug of war within him lasted for the span of a single heartbeat. Upon its conclusion, he released his hold on the locket, letting it fall back down above her cleavage with a bounce. Then, because he was, after all, evil and selfish, he grabbed her face and pulled her close, kissing her one last time with all of the longing that was inside of him. It was a dazzling, intense, unbelievable kiss. An soul-shattering kiss.

When it was over, they stared at each other, breathless, stunned. Lost. Needing more. So much more.

But it was too late.

It had always been too late.

He collected his wits and pulled back a fraction. "Go." His voice was gravel-rough. He cleared his throat. "Go. Now. Your epic love is out there, and he's going to need you now more than ever to get through whatever existential crisis he's inventing in his head as we speak."

Choking down an agonized sob, she opened her mouth like she meant to respond. He didn't know if he'd be able to bear it if she did. When she ended up saying nothing, there was some relief, but mostly just pain, cutting sharply like a knife. She spun and yanked the door open. He stepped back to make space.

This time, when she ran from the room, he let her go.

He let her go, even though it was the most miserable thing he'd ever forced himself to do in his entire eternal life.

He let her go, even though she was taking with her the very last remnants of his blood-stained and broken heart.