All he ever wanted was to be loved.

Damon flicked on a lonely lamp in the corner of his bedroom. He didn't want to drag things out any longer than necessary, so he decided to just slip out quietly in the middle of the night and leave town. It had just gotten to be too much. A temporary vacation was not what he needed. He needed a permanent separation. He wasn't coming back.

He figured it would probably be days before anyone even noticed he was missing. The idea was amusing to him. He pictured it all in his head: Elena would figure it out first; he knew that much. She would realize that he was gone, but she would never know why. She might be sad at first, but she would get over it quickly. Stefan would be clueless as usual; he would shrug, and scratch his head like a monkey, and wait for his cue to hug Elena. "Business as usual," Damon mumbled to himself. He rummaged through his closet, careful not to make a lot of noise, and he pulled out a tattered old suitcase and laid it on his bed. Then he began to fill it up with blood bags, most of his favorite clothes, and a few personal items that he didn't want to leave behind. Meanwhile, angry thoughts gnawed away at his mind.

He was a hero, and he was hated for it. It wasn't like he ever wanted to be the hero; he only answered the calling in order to keep Elena safe. He would have done anything for her. If his life was required to protect her, he would have gladly given it up, and at least died with honor and dignity. At least then he wouldn't have had to come back to the boarding house and feel like such an outcast; a faceless soldier without a purpose anymore. It wasn't fair, but neither was anything else in his life. He was a hero. He saved the day. Klaus was dead. Elena was alive. Those were the facts that mattered. He set out to do exactly what he intended to do. He saved Elena's life, and he didn't even get himself killed in the process. It was an admirable feat of courage, wits, and strength. The victory was worth celebrating, but instead, he was packing a bag in the middle of the night. Elena had been "celebrating" with Stefan, three doors down the hall. As if he really needed to be subjected to any more of that. There's only so much hurt a man can take.

Once again, Stefan did none of the work, and reaped all of the rewards. Stefan was "the good brother" because he did nothing, and therefore kept his hands clean all the time. Stefan's primary concern was always to keep his own nose clean in order to maintain that image that Elena was so in love with. But it wasn't Stefan's pacifist rhetoric that kept Elena alive; it was Damon's iron fist, and his willingness to risk the rest of the world to save her. Damon didn't care about saving the world; only Elena. Elena was his world. Damon was the one who took charge, did the ugly things that needed to be done, and kept Elena alive. Of course, there were casualties. He had been a soldier on the battlefield, once upon a time. He was fully aware that soldiers die in war, a concept that completely escaped Stefan and Elena. They had the pressing need to save everyone, but that just wasn't realistic.

Damon knew the ugliness of war, and he knew his role as a soldier. Soldiers were just pawns to be used for some purpose and then discarded; that is, if they were not killed in battle. Damon knew his role, and accepted it willingly. He got little credit for what went right, but plenty of blame over what went wrong. Damon wasn't an unsung hero; he was a thoroughly hated anti-hero. But he didn't care about what anyone thought of him, including Elena. It was fine if she hated him, as long as she was safe at the end of the day. And the end of the day had arrived. The battle was over, and it was time to move on.

Damon realized that his only purpose in Mystic Falls had abruptly come to an end. Mystic Falls was no longer his home. It never really was a home in the first place. A home was supposed to be where the people who loved and cared about you lived, and Damon never had anyone truly love or care about him; at least not in the same way that he loved. His thoughts drifted to his father, the surly bastard who so blatantly adored Stefan and only Stefan. As far as brotherly bonds go, Damon's relationship with Stefan had been so messed up for so long that there was no point in trying to salvage any of it. They didn't even try to fake it anymore. Even Alaric seemed like more of a brother in the short time they had known each other. Caroline had become more like a sibling than Stefan. The very idea was depressing as hell.

Then there was Elena.

Damon still wondered if Elena ever really cared about him, or if he was only stringing himself along the whole time. Why did she bother to reach out to him the way she did, back when he first came to town? He certainly hadn't done anything to deserve her compassion or sympathy. Why did she care? Why did she find him worth saving? Why did she bother to look through his facade? Why did she so desperately want him to be "the better man?" Damon picked up his glass of scotch from the nightstand and threw back a big gulp. He had a few thoughts on that matter, and none were pleasant. She did it because she loved Stefan, and because of that, she would always have to put up with the jackass older brother. That's why she did it. She did it because it would have been too inconvenient for her and Stefan to have that loose cannon of a brother running around town, causing mayhem. That's why she did it. She did it because he had a knack for saving her life and he was useful to have around as a faithful bodyguard. That's why she did it. Not because of love or any of that crap that he wanted to believe in. Elena didn't care about Damon Salvatore; she cared about Stefan's brother. He was nothing more than a friend; a useful friend. A friend was the best he could ever hope to be with her, and he didn't want any more unbearable reminders of that. She had no clue that her hug was like a dagger through his heart; another puncture wound to remind him of the love he could never have. Why did she show him how to feel again, when all he had to feel was hurt? It got to the point where he either had to push her away completely, or pack up and leave. Leaving just made the most sense.

"Goodbye, Elena," Damon sadly muttered to himself. He picked up his glass of scotch in a lonely toast and killed it off with another large gulp. He was a damn fool for believing that Elena might ever love him. And even if by some miracle she did, she couldn't possibly love him the way he loved her. What would Elena ever do if he truly evolved into that "better man" she always wanted him to be? She wouldn't know what to do with him. She'd run away like a frightened schoolgirl, cowering back to Stefan's lukewarm companionship and sweet nothings. Perhaps Elena lacked the maturity needed to comprehend the love that Damon carried for one hundred and forty-five years; the love that drove him to get into that tomb to save Katherine. It wasn't a fuzzy, warm, fairy tale kind of love. It wasn't pleasant, or pretty, or convenient, or comforting. It was a raging flame that consumed every aspect of his being. That love was his life force; it drove him, it always threatened to overtake him, and at times, it very nearly killed him. How could Elena possibly even get a handle on the idea of something like that? Damon shook his head. She couldn't. He looked for it, he wanted to find it, but maybe she just never had it in her. Elena could never accept his love, much less return it. Katherine might have been capable, had she not been such a heartless, duplicitous bitch. Katherine had the passion, the experience, and she had the fire, but "it was always Stefan." That made two of them. The two doppelgangers were more alike than they would ever know.

"Going somewhere?" a soft voice cracked through the silence and prompted Damon to look up from his folding of clothes.

She leaned in the doorway, striking a casual but sultry pose as her pale, bare leg emerged from the folds of her black satin robe. Her shiny brown hair had regained its natural curl again, and gracefully fell over the same shoulders that the robe just barely hung upon. At least she wasn't pretending to be someone else anymore.

"Straight to hell. Thanks for asking," Damon quipped. "If you're here for a booty call, I'm not interested, Katherine."

"I saw your light on," Katherine explained. "I just thought I'd stop in to say... thank you."

Damon frowned incredulously. "What?"

"I just wanted to thank you for what you did," Katherine said.

"I never expected to hear those two words coming from your mouth," Damon asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "You're the first, anyway. Apparently, everyone else would rather berate me for the collateral damage."

"I've been running from Klaus for over five hundred years," Katherine explained. "And now that he's dead, I'm finally, truly free. And you had a big part in making that happen. So thank you, Damon."

"I didn't do it for you," Damon said bitterly.

"I know," she said. "But I thought I'd offer my gratitude anyway. You got me my freedom back. I don't take it lightly."

Damon sighed and piled a few extra shirts into his suitcase. "Well... enjoy it. Have a nice life."

"You're just going to pack up and leave in the middle of the night without telling anyone?" Katherine asked.

"It's not like anyone will notice," Damon said. "Besides, I'll feel a lot better when I'm halfway across the world."

Katherine tossed her hair back. "Want some company?"

Damon pulled back a chuckle. "You've got to be joking."

Katherine shook her head slowly as she sauntered into the room and sat on the end of his bed. "Oh, I'm not joking... let's get out of this awful town. Let's go somewhere far, far away... maybe France, or the Netherlands. Just you and me, and... no rules."

Damon glared at her suspiciously. "Why would you want that?"

"I know why you're leaving," Katherine said. "It's the same reason why I'm leaving."

Damon's attention perked up and he stood perfectly still. "How's that?"

"Elena will never accept you," Katherine said, "just like Stefan will never accept me."

"Funny how that works out," Damon said flatly. He picked out a few books from the bookcase to take with him; some rare first editions that had great sentimental value.

"So how about it?" she asked.

"Oh... I think you've already burned that bridge," Damon said playfully. "You know, what with the 'I never loved you,' and 'it was always Stefan.' Oh! And that whole letting me get killed with the magic dagger escapade. It's all a bit much, don't you think?"

Katherine wore a sly smile. "Come on, nobody's perfect," she teased. "I offered make-up sex, but you refused."

Damon smirked. "Not good enough."

Katherine sighed. "Like you, I've done things I'm not proud of," she said. "I've realized just how much the threat of Klaus has influenced my life and my decisions. Now that he's finally gone... well, I don't have to live that life anymore."

Damon nodded deliberately.

"Is it really too late to reconcile?" Katherine asked. "Can't we turn another page?"

"I guess that all depends... are you still a psychotic bitch?" Damon quipped.

"Yeah," Katherine fired back. "Are you still a sarcastic dick?"

"Yeah," Damon snarled with authority.

"Good!" Katherine purred. "I like that. And unlike Elena, I don't want you to change."

"That's refreshing," Damon said. "But you've made it quite clear that you're always going to love Stefan."

"Just like you're always going to love Elena," Katherine said. "So what?"

Damon angrily threw a pair of jeans into the suitcase. "I dedicated a hundred and forty-five years to you," he said, trying hard to maintain his composure. "I died for you. I gave you everything I had. I thought you loved me, too."

"Would you rather I lied to you?" Katherine challenged.

"At this point... I don't know... maybe," Damon sighed. "Maybe living a lie would be preferable. Less torturous, at least."

She stood up, and stealthily stalked around behind him. He wanted to recoil from her touch, but he was in such a dire state, he couldn't quite find the will to move. She leaned up against his back, rested her cheek on his shoulder and spoke into his ear: "What do you want to hear, Damon? Huh? What do you want to believe this time? Do you want to pretend that I'm her? Would that make you feel better?"

Damon felt her lips brush up against his neck, but he had no response, physically or verbally.

"Do you want me to say those three ridiculous, empty, pointless little words?" Katherine asked. "Would you believe it? Would it give your life meaning again?"

He remained silent.

"Nobody loves you, Damon," she said quietly. His eyes instantly slammed shut, and he winced as if she had just stabbed him, but he held back a curse and let her finish.

"You and I are cut from the same cloth," Katherine continued. "They'll never understand. They'll never know us. They only know what they want us to be. But we can never be what they want." He felt her hand touch the side of his face and slip downward, past his shoulder, down his chest. "We're the outsiders. We're the forsaken ones," she continued, hushing her voice. "We have no one. We never did. We're all alone... but we could be alone together."

He didn't even know how it began, but his fingers got tangled in her silky brown curls, and her chewy lips were exploring his, and her hungry mouth tasted like traces of fresh blood, and his free hand found the small of her back, and her robe effortlessly slipped off her shoulder, and her creamy flesh invited him to taste and reminisce once again. It was a violent dance when she pushed and he pulled, and she got thrown up against the end table which sent an antique vase crashing to the floor before they both crashed onto the bed in a twisted heap of desire, and she had to be on top. Just like always, she was right where she belonged, and he knew his place. They helped each other to remember, and forget, and to find their way back again. And it was all alright.

It was such a strange twist. Elena, in her innocent ignorance, had caused him more pain than Katherine ever did. But just like Damon set Katherine free from Klaus, Katherine set Damon free from Elena. His heroism was not without reward.

At least with Katherine, he knew what he was getting. With Katherine, he didn't have to be the so-called "better man." With Katherine, he didn't have to live up to some impossible standard. With Katherine, he didn't have to live in his brother's shadow. With Katherine, he didn't ever have to seek forgiveness, or feel undeserving, or unworthy. He didn't even have to love her, but he still did, and always would. They were the exiles, the outcasts; always alone, but together. And when they strolled the cold streets of Paris at night, he was aware that Katherine might not ever love him, but it didn't sting so much anymore. Now, it was liberating. Katherine had already hurt him so badly that the next time she ripped his heart out, he thought he'd be too numb to even feel it.

There was a special kind of beauty in that.