Disclaimer: The Vampire Diaries isn't mine. Though I do have a secret plan to change that and make Damon my very own… *cackles evilly*

A/N: Only an epilogue to go after this chapter! O _ O

Chapter Eighteen

As soon as Damon left, Elena turned back to the mirror and started to wash the wounds on her neck again. She didn't look at Stefan as he stood silently behind her, though she was highly conscious of his presence. It had been five years since they'd been alone together, and part of her wanted to turn around and hug him hard enough to break all his ribs.

But another part of her didn't want that. It wanted her to go after Damon, who had trudged upstairs alone, and kiss him. Probably even do more than kiss him, despite her bloody throat.

Needless to say, she was feeling incredibly conflicted.


She turned off the faucet and turned to face him, hugging herself with both arms. "You look better," she said. And it was true. Even more color had returned to his pallid face; drinking the chicken blood Jeremy had given them had improved his health tremendously.

He nodded.

"I'm…I'm glad you're finally free from Katherine," she said, feeling more uncomfortable by the minute. "She, um, held you captive for a long time."

"Yes," Stefan said softly, "she did."

"So…what did you want to talk about?" She bit down hard on her lower lip as she waited for his reply.

He hesitated. "You and Damon."

Even though she'd been expecting it, Elena couldn't keep from wincing. "Listen, Stefan, I can explain–"

"While Damon and I were locked up in the basement together," Stefan interrupted, "he told me that the two of you kissed. Several times. And that…" He paused for a few seconds, apparently having trouble going on. "Damon didn't admit it out loud, but I could see it on his face. He loves you, Elena."

She suddenly felt like her heart had exploded into millions of tiny birds that had begun fluttering around inside her chest. "Really?" she asked, unable to keep the hope out of her voice. The Damon she'd known long ago never would have returned love to anyone, much less her, and she probably would have never loved him in the first place. To know that he actually cared for her – loved her, even – was the best news she'd had in a long time.

Stefan nodded in response to her breathless question. "Yes, I really think he does. And we all heard what you said when the three of us were tied up on the front lawn…"

"I'm really sorry, Stefan," she blurted. "I just…I feel something when I'm with Damon, something I haven't felt in years. I tried to tell myself it wasn't there, but I…I can't."

"I know," he said quietly. "That's why I'm breaking up with you. Officially, I mean. I know it's been five years since we dated and everything, but…" He shrugged helplessly.

She stared at him. "Breaking up with me? I thought you'd be…" Angry, she finished silently. Or at the very least start shouting at me. To see Stefan so calm about this, not even trying to change her mind about her decision, was startling.

"I can see it, too. I'd be blind not to," Stefan said. "When you and Damon look at each other, there's something on your faces. It's not just chemistry, or a spark. It's…love." He grimaced, averting his gaze from hers, but went on nonetheless. "You and I had something special, Elena, but that was too long ago. It would take me an impossibly long time to regain my feelings for you, which are so dim and colorless after being locked up without substance for so long. And you're human. I don't want to steal what's left of your life from you, trapping you in a relationship with me. I just want you to be happy."

Elena blinked several times, finding her vision suddenly blurred my tears. "Stefan…" she whispered.

"I mean it, Elena," he said. "My brother certainly wouldn't have been my first choice for you, but he's…different when he's with you. Better. You're like two sides of the same coin." He tried to smile at her, though he ended up looking even sadder than before. "Sorry, I know that's...cheesy. But my mind's not at its best right now, understandably."

Impulsively, she threw her arms around Stefan and hugged him tightly. "Thank you," she said into his ear, voice full of meaning. "Stefan, I'll never forget this."

He didn't relax his rigid stance until she let him go and stepped away, then offered her the smallest of smiles. "Could we still…be friends?" he asked uncertainly. "That would probably be hard on all of us, but I really don't want to lose your friendship, Elena."

She nodded without having to think about it. "Of course." She glanced past him into the hallway. "Um. I guess I'd better go check on Damon," she said awkwardly. "He's been gone for a while."

"Probably eavesdropping on this whole conversation," Stefan said, evidently attempting to lighten the moment with a joke.

"I wouldn't doubt it." Heart feeling lighter than it had in a very long time, Elena walked to the foot of the stairs. "Damon, you can come out now!" she called.

Something moved in the shadows at the top of the stairs. There was a strange sound, like someone choking.

Elena froze, brow furrowing deeply. For some reason, goosebumps broke out across her skin. "Damon?"

Then Damon's limp body tumbled down the stairs, falling head-over-heels through the murky half-darkness. Elena screamed, just as he slammed so hard into the front door that he nearly burst right through the wood and incinerated himself on the front porch. Thankfully, whoever had built the door had made it sturdy.

"Damon, oh my God! Are you okay?" Elena dropped to her knees beside him as he groaned and tried failingly to sit up. She cupped his face in one hand, peering down into his half-lidded eyes. "Damon, what happened?"

He squinted at her, eyes glassy and blood trickling from a small cut on the side of his face. Five red marks covered the front of his throat. "Katherine…" he croaked.

Elena froze and glanced slowly towards the stairs, dropping her hand from Damon's face. Her almost-twin stood at the top of the stairs, face concealed with shadows. "Katherine," she whispered, throat constricting on itself with horror.

"You didn't really think I'd give up that easily, did you?" she purred.

Stumbling to her feet, Elena put herself between Damon and Katherine, trying to seem brave. "I won't let you do this," she said waveringly. "Just leave Damon and Stefan alone. Please."

Katherine tilted her head to one side, almost like she was considering. Then she flashed her gleaming white teeth in a sinister smile. "No, I think not." Before Elena could react, she blurred down the stairs with an inhuman speed, headed right for the still-stunned Damon–

Stefan was there. He slammed into Katherine just in time, and the two tumbled sideways. They both crashed into the wall before hitting the floor, and left a person-sized dent in the sheetrock. Katherine was back to her feet instantaneously, a snarl of pure rage curling her lips. Her eyes cracked and darkened as she hissed at Stefan.

"Don't do this, Katherine," he pleaded quietly, flipping to his feet and making soothing motions. "There's no reason for us to keep fighting like this. You've lost. Just leave Mystic Falls, and let the rest of us get on with our lives."

Dark fury snapped like lightning in her eyes. "No," she growled, the sound making goosebumps rise on Elena's arms. "I don't lose, Stefan. Not ever. I refuse to let you take this town away from me."

"Listen to yourself. This town belongs to the people who live here," Stefan said. "Not you, not any of us. Can't we just try to forget that this ever happened? I'm willing to forgive you–"

Katherine roared. That's the only way to describe the sound of animalistic rage, which bubbled up from her throat and filled the air. Then she threw herself at Stefan, clawed fingers outstretched and reaching for his throat. He tried to step out of the way, but wasn't fast enough. They collided with a terrible crashing sound, slamming through the wall and into the living room.

Elena choked with horror, and listened for a moment, completely paralyzed, to the sounds of terrible struggle that she could hear in her own living room. Then she bent over Damon, whose eyes had slipped closed. She started shaking him, trying to jolt him back into awareness. Stefan couldn't fight Katherine on his own; she was far too powerful. He needed help!

"Damon, wake up! Damon!" she shouted, fingernails digging into his shoulders. Still he didn't stir. He seemed to be out cold.

She frantically glanced around for something that could help. Her gaze landed on the doorway into the kitchen.

Damon gasped awake as a stream of cold water hit him directly in the face. His eyes flew open, revealing nothing but a large gray blur. He blinked several times, then realized the blur was actually Elena, standing over him and holding an empty glass. An expression of terror was on her face. "Damon, get up!" she cried.

"Who taught you such appalling manners?" he asked irritably, struggling to sit up. He could barely breathe through his bruised throat, and his head was spinning.

She didn't seem to hear him, continuing on like he'd never spoken. "Katherine's going to kill Stefan!"

Her words sank in almost instantly, and he staggered to his feet. He almost fell over again, bare arm passing dangerously close to a patch of sunlight that trickled in through a window. He noticed for the first time the sounds of battle that came from just out of sight, in the living room: a shattering lamp, a splintering table, a tearing curtain.

Everything came back to him then, despite the fogginess of his mind. Katherine had ambushed him in the upstairs bathroom, choked him to unconsciousness. That was all he remembered, up until now, but it was more than enough.

"Elena, stay here," he said quickly. "I'll take care of it." He didn't want to chance her getting hurt; she was just a fragile human, and Katherine could all too easily snap her neck or impale her with a chair leg. If something like that happened, he would never forgive himself.

"Don't–" she began desperately.

He ignored her, racing into the living room without giving himself time to think that it could possibly be the last time he ever saw her. If Katherine killed him, which shouldn't be too hard in his weakened state, then he and Elena would never get the chance to be together. He forced such depressing thoughts from his mind as he rounded the corner into the living room.

Katherine had pinned Stefan by a window, where sunlight was filtering in freely through the broken glass. Blood streamed from a cut on the side of his head, and Katherine was trying to pull off his ring. It was obvious how she intended to kill him.

Damon's eyes darted around the room, landing on a wooden rocking chair in the far corner. He ran over, picked it up, and raised it above his head. Then he charged towards Katherine, just as she pulled the ring from Stefan's finger, and swung the chair like a baseball bat.

He ignored the excruciating pain as his arms and the side of his face began sizzling. The chair contacted with Katherine's head, and she collapsed to the carpet. He threw the chair aside and grabbed for Stefan, who was already burning from the toxic light. More pain exploded through his body, but he continued to ignore it, dragging Stefan to safety. The ring lay in the pool of sunlight, unreachable.

Katherine got to her feet, breathing heavily. Blood matted her curls, and she looked positively murderous. "You," she said in a voice that sounded demonic, "are going to pay for that."

What felt like tongues of fire sizzled up and down his arms. Damon spared them a small glance, and saw that they were a strange gray color. He couldn't risk exposing himself to any more sunlight, or his luck would finally run out. Stefan looked even worse, covered in blistering burns, but he was alive, and that was what mattered.

Pushing thoughts of his own pain to the back of his mind, Damon stepped between his brother and Katherine. He fixed a charming smile onto his lips. "Come and get some, Kathy," he sneered.

She lunged at him, fangs flashing as she tried to latch onto his neck. He dodged her just in time, using an expertly-aimed kick to sweep her legs out from under her. She regained her balance before she could fall and spun at him again.

Damon stood and waited for her, careful distance between him and the windows, allowing the smallest of smirks. When she was almost on him, he reached for the rocking chair again and threw it at her. It broke into scraps of wood as it bounced off her chest. She was too angry to feel it, and only paused slightly before continuing forward.

She crashed into him, hands immediately going for his throat as her momentum carried them both to the floor. Damon's back hit the carpet hard enough to knock the breath from his lungs, then he threw both arms up to hold her off him. She hissed and slashed one hand over his face. A burst of pain blossomed across his left cheek as her nails drew blood, then he brought one knee up into her stomach and forced her to the floor.

While she was still stunned, he rolled over to lie on top of her, holding her down. "Just like the old days, eh?"

She tried to scratch him again, but he easily caught her hand in one of his. "Simmer down, Katherine. This is it. You've lost."

"No," she snarled, and butted her head against Damon's. He saw stars, and fell backwards. It took a few moments before his vision cleared, then he found himself lying on his back, Katherine standing over him and holding a broken leg from the rocking chair to his throat. Its splintered end was more than sharp enough to skewer him, as he was uncomfortably aware of.

She smiled coldly at him. The thrill of winning shone in her eyes. "Give up yet, darling?"

He didn't break eye contact with her, even as he noticed the movement behind her with his peripheral vision. "What if I don't? Are you going to kill me?"

She nodded, still smiling. "Of course. You know the rules."

"Not really," he said. "Aren't you going to…explain them to me?"

Now that she was sure victory was firmly in her grasp, Katherine looked bored. "What do you want, Damon? You know I can't possibly let you live. You've only been here two days, and you've already torn down everything I've been striving towards for five years."

He slowly reached towards her face, brushing the back of it against her cheek. He forced himself not to show what he really felt for her on his face, trying to convince himself that the woman above him was actually Elena. "I want things to be like they were before," he said eloquently. "Just the two of us. We could be immortal together, rule over Mystic Falls and crush those like my brother who dare stand in our way."

Her bottom lip came out in a pout, and her grip on the chair leg loosened slightly. "Why should I believe you? Everything you've done since escaping the tomb has been against me."

"I thought you liked it when I made things…interesting," Damon murmured. Now he pulled her down towards him, and she didn't resist. His cold lips whispered against her cheek. "So what do you say? Should we dispose of my pathetic brother and rule wretched this town…as one?"

She still looked reluctant. "I don't know, Damon…"

"Sure you do. Listen." He pressed his lips to hers, fighting to keep his expression smooth. Years before, he would have given anything to be in this situation: Katherine straddling his hips, lips working against his. But now…now he wanted to fling her aside like a rag doll. She was nothing but a power-hungry monster, he could see that now. It was Elena he loved, sweet and human Elena. He wanted nothing more than to be with her for an eternity.

"Damon," Katherine murmured against his lips. She sounded slightly dazed.

He didn't answer, instead deepening the kiss. He ran one hand through her long curls, stroking her hand with the other. The hand with her ring on it.

Stefan chose that moment to wrap his arms around her from behind and throw her across the room. Her lips were torn away Damon's, and she gave a strangled shriek of rage. She lay on her side and glared venomously at Damon as he flipped nonchalantly to his feet, holding her ring. "Missing something?"

"I'm going to enjoy killing you, Damon," she said in a voice that was dangerously quiet. She got up, chair leg lying broken and forgotten at her feet, and clenched her hands into fists.

Damon slipped her ring casually onto his finger, smirking at the look on her face. If looks could kill…well, he'd be much deader than he already was. "Thanks for the save, brother," he told Stefan, who was circling just behind Katherine. His gray skin still looked scorched, but much better than it had been.

Stefan nodded silently, giving Damon a small smile of acknowledgment.

Katherine ran at Damon, apparently unable to stand another second in their company. Damon darted lightly backwards, into the hallway beside the stairs. As she came right at him, he grabbed the banister and swung himself around, delivering at forceful double-kick to her stomach. She went down with a roar as Stefan appeared behind her, carefully staying away from any traces of sunlight.

She got back up, but slower this time. She was bleeding in several places, from various wounds, and was growing decidedly weaker. She wouldn't be able to stand up to both Salvatore brothers for much longer.

"Give up yet, darling?" Damon asked blatantly, copying her words from just minutes earlier.

She didn't reply, chest heaving up and down as she tried to catch her breath.

"Well, not that this hasn't been fun, but I think it's time to wrap things up," Damon decided, making a show of cracking his knuckles. He glanced around for something he could use as a weapon to end his ex's prolonged vampric existence.

"Damon, catch!" Elena, standing at the far end of the hall, tossed him a black-handled knife from the kitchen. He expertly caught it, brandishing the blade like a machete.

"Sorry, Katherine," he said, tone conveying just the opposite. "You know how it is. You've just been meddling in my plans, and I don't like that." He flashed a crooked grin, glancing towards Elena. She was watching him with a hopeful look on her face. "So I'm afraid it's time for you to–"

Katherine leapt forward while he was distracted, and grabbed the knife. It slipped from his hand before he could react. She whirled and plunged the knife into…


It entered the side of his throat, and a small squirt of blood spurted freely, splattering the wall. Everyone stood frozen, staring with horror at Stefan. He seemed more surprised than anyone else, mouth wide open and hand slowly reaching up to touch the protruding knife.

Damon couldn't breathe. His throat felt like it had closed up completely. His vision was suddenly obscured by tears as he stared at Stefan, who was staring back at him with shock. "Stefan–" he choked out, wanting to look away but unable to. His eyes were glued to the horrific sight, to all the blood that was wetting Stefan's shirt and the carpet. His little brother was dying. For good, this time. There was nothing he could do.

And it was all his fault.

Elena was making strange gasping sounds. But Damon didn't let himself look at her. He knew he would break down completely if he did. A single tear trailed down his cheek.

Katherine laughed, breaking the horrified silence. "Well, what do you know! Damon Salvatore can cry."

He felt himself shaking, hands hanging loosely at his sides. A strange deadness was sweeping through his entire body, followed closely by a white hot rage to launch himself at Katherine and tear her to pieces. But despite these intentions, he couldn't move. He had been frozen in place, and it had nothing to do with a witch's spell.

Stefan's dark eyes met Damon's. They were starting to go glassy already, his stubbornness the only thing holding him to the fragile thread of life. One hand was slippery with his own blood where he touched the jutting knife. His white lips moved as he tried to say something, but the only thing that came out was a trickle of blood. He looked towards Damon's hand, where he wore Katherine's ring.

"No–" Damon exclaimed, but it was too late.

Stefan grabbed the unsuspecting Katherine by her wrist and jerked her towards him. He still had enough strength to fling himself out the window just beside the front door, glass shattering loudly as he and Katherine fell out to the porch. She kicked and fought, shrieking with fury, but Stefan didn't let go as he rolled down the steps and out onto the sidewalk. They were completely exposed to the brutal rays of sunlight streaming down.

"No!" Damon shouted, every bit of anguish and horror he felt exploding out of him in that single word.

Stefan and Katherine both froze, jerked several times, then burst into flames. Unnatural fire crackled all around them, turning their bodies into dry ash. They were both screaming in pain, Stefan's cries tearing what little remained of Damon's heart from his chest.

The whole process took only a few seconds, though it felt like forever to Damon as he watched. When it was over, the flames abruptly dissipated, leaving two large piles of gray-white dust on the sidewalk. Stefan and Katherine were no more.

Damon's legs shook, and he grabbed at the railing of the staircase to keep from falling over.

Elena raced past him, stumbling to a halt at the shattered window. Her scream only made things a hundred times worse for the one surviving Salvatore brother. "Stefannnn!"

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*collapses to the ground*

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