Damon flipped the coin, but it didn't matter. Everything was decided. He'd play the villain again, let Elena hate him, hurt him, rage at him. He'd take on all her hate, let it curl around his heart and seep into his bones and make him stronger. That was what he did best, after all.

Intentions were bullshit. Elena wouldn't care why he'd killed the Bennett witch, wouldn't accept that he'd done it to save her. And hell, it wasn't as if Abby were dead dead, or that anyone had even liked her. No, he'd gone and done the reckless thing again, thrown caution to the wind to save her. Because he was a selfish bastard who would always choose her. Abby, Bonnie, Caroline, Jeremy—he'd kill them all in a flash and sleep sweetly that night if it meant keeping her alive.

Damon had grown accustomed to her hate, craved it in some way. It was better than crushing indifference, better than the faint glimmers of affection that faded away the instant he let his monster show. Damon could deal with that look of disappointment in her eyes, because at least she was alive to look at him, alive to despise him.

It was illogical; it was irrational, but then, love always was. He tried to remember sometimes if it had been this way with Katherine, before he turned and emotions overwhelmed any sense he might have once had. But he couldn't remember. Maybe he'd always loved with reckless abandon. He'd been willing to sacrifice his family, his town, his honor, and his very soul to be with Katherine. Killing a witch was tame in comparison to that burning love of his mortal youth.

He could never be what Elena wanted him to be, never be the knight in shining armor she deserved. But he could be her dark savior, the one who made the decisions that sustained her and then slunk into the shadows. As the coin tumbled in the air, Damon accepted his lot.

The coin was tails, but it didn't matter.

More important than protecting her was protecting him. From the first time his mother had put tiny Stefan into his arms and he'd stared with solemn eyes at his baby brother, he'd only ever wanted to keep him safe. Something about him had always been fragile and ethereal, not entirely tethered to this earth. Damon protected him from bullies, accepted the blame for Stefan's childish transgressions and accepted the stripes from Father's belt across his own back. Father loved Stefan more, but Damon had never blamed him. Why wouldn't he love Stefan more, Stefan the Golden, Stefan the Good? Who would choose the mischievous, troublesome brother with the sullen eyes and the smart mouth?

Damon spoiled his brother, and he paid the price. Stefan took, and Damon kept giving until there was nothing left. Only once did he try to keep something for himself: Katherine. And in the end, Stefan won her, too. It was always Stefan.

In the end, Damon did his job too well. Stefan could never live without his brother, never let his protector and guardian slip into the death he so desperately craved. Damon had been weak and Stefan got his way. He'd vowed an eternity of misery, but settled for an eternity of separation. He couldn't bear to watch Stefan's self-destruction. He abandoned his brother to his own vices, accepting that this time, Stefan couldn't be saved. He'd watched from afar, employed spies and subterfuge to observe as his bother swung between the extremes of the Ripper and the Monk, how he loathed the world but hated himself most of all. And Damon's heart broke, but he kept his distance. He couldn't protect his brother.

Damon might have watched for eternity if the lie of Katherine in the tomb hadn't beckoned him back to Mystic Falls; he might have fled immediately if it hadn't been for a pair of dark eyes and a heart with an endless capacity to forgive hadn't been waiting for him there. But he knew Elena would never truly belong to him.

Damon loved her, but it didn't matter. Even after everything Stefan had done, Damon always believed in that golden boy he'd once been. It didn't matter how many people he'd torn to shreds and put back together in grotesque mockeries of life, Damon could only see that beautiful baby he'd vowed to protect. He needed to believe in the lie of Stefan's goodness as much as he needed to believe the lie of his own evil. Because that golden boy deserved Elena, and she deserved him.

Damon wanted her, wanted her touch and her respect and maybe even her love, but Stefan needed it. Without someone like Lexi, someone like Elena, tying him to the mortal coil, Stefan couldn't stay grounded, couldn't remember what was real and true and important. He'd lose himself again in the blood and the rage and the revenge and Damon would lose him. Just as he could bear her hatred, Damon could bear her loss. Oh, it hurt. But not nearly as much as losing Stefan would.

And it was still true: Damon didn't deserve someone like her. He couldn't be anything other than what he was, couldn't pretend that human deaths and concerns mattered. Because a blood bag could never compare to a warm, pulsing jugular on a sweetly perfumed neck, and nothing could compare to the utter control and release as the light faded from his victim's eyes. But Stefan could at least masquerade, could convince her and maybe even himself that people mattered, that humans were friends, not food. They could give each other the illusion of happiness, at least for a while. And that was the greatest gift that Damon could give.

He snapped Abby's neck and felt nothing. Collateral damage. The dark savior disappeared into the shadows while the white knight picked up the shattered pieces he left behind.