A/N: The first third of this fic is basically a narration of the events in The Descent, with additional insight into Damon's thoughts. After the words "I'm sorry," the story takes a twist and becomes fully original writing, departing from canon.
Thanks so much to my brilliant beta, who both introduced me to the wonders of Delena and coached me through my first ever Vampire Diaries fic.
I don't own The Vampire Diaries and no copyright infringement is intended.
The door clicked softly behind Elena as she departed and, for once, Damon didn't find himself staring after her longingly. He didn't even notice her leave as Rose convulsed in agony, bowing her body inwards in a vain attempt to end the pain.
"Oh my God! Make it stop, make it stop!"
He was not a comforter. There were as many comforting bones in his body as there were heartbeats, but that didn't stop him from automatically edging onto the bed and drawing Rose's head into his lap.
She clenched the bedsheets in a death grip, sweat dripping into the hollows surrounding her thin body. "I can't take this anymore, make it stop!"
Her screams were like stakes, piercing parts of Damon that he refused to acknowledge still existed. It would have been so much easier—so much safer—to bolt from the whole situation and everything dangerous it was threatening to resurrect in him.
"Please, God, make it stop!"
Nothing in his life was ever easy.
Damon wrapped his arm around her writhing figure and smoothed the hair out of her face, preparing to ride this out for as long as need be. Comforting might not be his thing, but he excelled at enduring.
The woman reclining in his arms exhaled shallowly and her color, what little remained of it, leached away until she had the cast of a corpse that was somehow still breathing.
Will I see them again? My family?
His throat burned like he'd just taken a straight shot of vervain. Whenever his eternity on earth finally ended, there would be no hereafter filled with loved ones waiting. Belief wasn't part of his existence; it couldn't be. If such a place existed, he would never reach it. No great deity would take it upon him or herself to redeem him. Stefan, maybe. Not Damon. But Rose … Rose was different. Deserving.
I think you'll see whoever you want to see.
In the dream he'd created for her, Rose turned to look at him and smiled wistfully.
That would be nice. Maybe I'll see Trevor too. Her eyes went wide with surprise. I'm not afraid anymore.
Damon clenched his jaw so tightly that his own face went a grim shade of white. He gently disentangled his hand from the dying woman's grasp and pulled out the stake.
In the dream, Rose got to her feet, the folds of her dress drifting in the summer breeze he'd created just to make her happy.
I'll race you to the trees.
He aimed the stake at her heart, staring straight ahead to avoid seeing his hands trembling.
Well, you'll lose.
Rose smiled mischievously. I'm older and faster.
If he'd removed his ring and stepped into the sunlight, that would've been justification for how his eyes were burning.
Oh, you think? In the dream, Damon got to his feet. I'm controlling this dream. Maybe I'll cheat.
On the count of three. One, two...
He drove the stake into her breast, feeling the moment when her heart was pierced by it. Rose shuddered and jerked back against him, dying instantly. After so much suffering, the end was painless for her. Not for him.
Damon sensed her presence before even walking up the front steps and paused at the door to gather himself. Of course she had to come visiting. Following orders was no more Elena's strength than his.
Cursing under his breath, Damon stepped inside and took his time closing the front door before speaking. She got up to meet him, reaching for the bourbon she had waiting.
"You were supposed to leave," he reminded her, injecting a fair amount of annoyance into his tone. She wasn't supposed to be in his house at this hour of the night pouring nightcaps for him like a 1950s mistress.
"I did, but then I came back to make sure that you're okay." She proffered the drink.
Damon took the glass and nodded stiffly. "I appreciate the gesture. I'm just glad it's over." He knocked back the shot, more grateful than ever for the authentic burn which temporarily overrode the phantom pain he was feeling.
Elena propped herself against the table and pursed her lips. "You know I don't believe that."
Damn her. This was not what he needed. This was everything he needed.
He reached out to take her arm and decided immediately that was a very bad idea. Instead, he gestured at the door. "Go home, Elena," he said wearily. "Get some rest. It's a whole new day tomorrow."
"Damon," she said gently, "I'm your friend."
The softness in her voice felt like sandpaper on his emotion-abraded skin.
"I'm well aware of that," he replied impatiently.
"And a friend usually knows when their friend is hurting."
"What do you want to hear?" he snapped. "That I cared about Rose? That I'm upset? Well, I didn't and I'm not." He looked away, fighting hard for control.
"There you go, pretending to turn it off, pretending not to feel."
Her reasonable tone made him want to break something.
"Damon, you're so close, don't give up."
"I feel, Elena," he snarled. "Okay? And it sucks!"
She recoiled, maybe at his fury, more likely at his admission. Damon shook his head grimly, refusing to let her off the hook now that she'd started this.
"What sucks even more is that it was supposed to be me." Remorse poured over him like a tidal wave and he struggled to keep from losing his grip completely. "Jules was coming after me."
"You feel guilty," Elena said slowly.
Damon took a step forward, crowding her deliberately. "That would be human of me, wouldn't it, Elena? And I'm not human." Her beautiful brown eyes held his steadily, refusing to blink.
"You're one to talk about giving up. That's all you've done is given up!" The words were cruel and unfair and he couldn't kill the additional surge of guilt that washed over him. Guilty. Guilty. He was so. Damn. Guilty. With a barely repressed shudder, he moved away from her warmth and waved again at the door. "Go home. It's been enough doom, gloom and personal growth for one night."
Elena paused for a long moment, oblivious to the war going on in Damon's brain.
Get out of here.
"Okay," she said quietly at last. "I will."
Damon said nothing, afraid of which voice would come out of his mouth if he attempted any form of speech.
She edged by him and he clenched one fist loosely at the very nearness of her strong, steady heartbeat. It would walk out of his home in just a moment and he would be left with the empty silence.
Elena paused and turned toward him again and he read her intent instantly.
Don't touch me.
She slid one arm around his shoulders and stepped in close to his chest. Damon shuddered as she effectively stripped him of any remaining defenses and left him exposed to the entire army of pain parading down his Main Street.
Elena pressed her face into his shoulder and held onto him tightly, refusing to let go even when Damon was unable to keep from flinching. He didn't hug her back. He didn't move in the slightest, just stood there completely rigid, frozen from the outside even as he burned alive within.
The tighter she squeezed him, the more he struggled, overcome by the desire to shove her away and speed somewhere she could never find him again, never lure him with the dangers of reclaiming his humanity, and that desire's evil twin, urging him to stay right here in the arms of the one person who believed that his weakness might just be his strength.
He gasped beneath the overwhelming weight, opened his mouth for one brief second, then closed it again.
Elena pulled away, looking into his eyes with weary grief. She waited a moment, as if expecting something, then sighed.
"Good night, Damon."
He said nothing, did nothing, saw nothing as she turned and walked out of the door unable to read his mind or hear the smallest of whispers as he lifted one hand ever so slightly and let it drop again, tears glinting at the corners of his eyes.
Strong as he was, nothing Damon had ever fought previously prepared him for this grief. Its vicious stranglehold bewildered him and left him flailing, trying to reason his way through the sorrow into something more calculating. More sane.
Rose had been his friend, yes, one of the few people who accepted both sides of his split personality. But one of the vampire's few truly good points was his total self-honesty, and he knew he wasn't solely grieving her death.
He'd been betrayed, abandoned, overlooked, time and time again, and he was tired of walking straight into the paths of oncoming trains for other people and then being left alone to deal with the aftermath of his injuries.
She should have stayed.
You told her to leave, the little voice in his brain droned sarcastically, slicing deep. When did Elena start learning to mind read, out of curiosity?
He turned his head, pressing his cheek into the gravel road in an attempt to circumvent the inner dialogue. At the periphery of his senses he heard a car brake, a door slam, followed by high heels running toward him, triggering an entirely new refrain, this one edged with warning red.
The girl hovered over him, oblivious to how her pounding heart was tormenting the vampire with its promise of fresh blood laced with the sweet kick of adrenaline.
"Sir, are you okay?"
Damon groaned, torn between the absurdity and the need.
I'm lying in the middle of the road. What do you think?
"What happened?" she gasped, almost cartoonishly.
You wanted someone to worry, sunshine. Well, here she is.
He fumbled for some kind of response that might send her on her way. Make her stay. "I'm… lost."
What kind of idiot jumps out of the car in the middle of the night to check on a dead body? You could be kidnapped, raped …
"And you're lying in the middle of the road?"
Worse yet, you could meet me.
Frustrated at the total innocence in her voice and the things it was doing to him, Damon sighed. "Not that kind of lost."
He sat up and glared at the bright headlights for a moment.
This would be a good time to flee, little girl.
He glanced up at her.
You might stand a chance if I'm not up before you start running.
The sincere concern on her young face was so tragically amusing. The girl was totally unaware of the danger she found herself in.
"Do you need help?"
It would help me if you went away. Or if you just came a little closer.
"Well," Damon drawled, feeling the darkness slide over him like a cape. He pulled a flask from his pocket. "Yes. Yes, I do. Can you help me?" The alcohol did nothing to quell his rising hunger.
For the first time, doubt entered his would-be rescuer's voice. "You're drunk."
Now you're starting to get it.
"No. Well, yes," he admitted wryly, "Just a little, maybe."
She started back toward her car.
Unexpected panic floored the accelerator in him. "No, please don't leave."
No, please don't leave, the voice singsonged mockingly. Run! Which is it, already?
"I really do need help," Damon cried out, despising himself for daring to plead.
Unconvinced, the girl looked toward her vehicle.
Damon sprang forward and covered the ground between them before she could take another step. The girl gasped in shock as he materialized between her and the car, grabbing her under the arms roughly and yanking her toward him.
You wanted to help me.
Her voice was tremulous and high-pitched. "I don't want any trouble."
No good deed goes unpunished.
"Neither do I." Damon stared into her petrified face. "That's all I got is trouble."
He lifted the flask once again to his mouth before changing his mind and offering it to her instead.
Wonderful table manners, Damon. Your mother would be so proud of her fiend.
He retracted the drink just short of her lips and poured it down his throat.
A slight note of hysteria edged her next question. "Why can't I move?"
Fast food isn't really my thing.
Damon put the flask away and took a step forward, reaching out to grasp her arms to steady his step. She trembled and he slid his hands unthinkingly up and down her arms.
You never should have stopped the car. Ever heard of dialing 911 from somewhere safe?
Realizing what he was doing, he stopped and squeezed her shoulders instead. No need to frighten her to death. He at least had a track record of being polite to the majority of his victims.
"What's your name?"
She cast a frightened glance at his lips. "Jessica."
Ah, yes. It's always so much easier once you know their names.
He tried out a smile but decided that, from the look on her face, it hadn't matched the vision in his head.
"I have a secret," Damon announced, fully aware that he'd lost all control of this ship and was in a fatal tailspin. "I have a big one. And I've never said it out loud. I mean, what's the point?"
Good idea. She's gonna die anyway. Why not use her for a little psychotherapy? Clear your conscience and all that bullshit.
Tears filled her eyes, smudging the heavy mascara she'd probably applied for some party.
Anger tightened Damon's chest.
Don't you dare cry.
"It's not gonna change anything. It's not gonna make me good. Make me adopt a puppy. I can't be what other people want me to be. What she wants me to be."
Ah, c'mon. Dye your hair blonde, feed on bunnies; tell a careful lie or three. How hard can it be?
"This is who I am, Jessica."
Why doesn't anybody ever choose ME?
Her lips quivered as she came face to face with his insanity. "Are you gonna hurt me?"
Why? Because you're a pathetic excuse for a vampire, like you were a pathetic excuse for a man. Even your victims think you're a fake. WWSD. What would Stefan do, Damon? He wouldn't be spilling his guts to his dinner date. He'd already be neck deep in Type B.
"I'm not sure." Damon swallowed hard and stroked Jessica's hair gently. "Because you are my existential crisis." Unexpected tears filled his eyes, only adding to his self-loathing. "Do I kill you? Or do I not kill you?"
To do something … or not to do. I think somebody beat you to that line already. Give me a break. Even your one-liners lack originality.
Jessica's face crumpled and she pleaded. "Please, don't."
Damon stumbled backwards, away from the scent of fear that hung like a shroud over her trembling, sweating body.
"But I have to, Jessica, because I'm not human, and I miss it." Feeding upon all the debris in his subconscious, the original ember of rage ignited his brain until all he could see was a furious red haze. "I miss it more than anything in the world! That is my secret."
The long lost memory of his human days glistened like a mirror in Jessica's terrified eyes. She was brave. Most other people would have been hysterically sobbing, while she was somehow clinging to some shred of composure even in the face of increasingly certain death. She was kind. Most other people would have driven right by his body. She was everything he had had the potential to be until he threw it away to chase a vampire who preferred his brother anyway. Pathetic.
Damon's voice cracked. "But there is only so much hurt a man can take."
Death reached out to reclaim the body which temporarily eluded it by supernatural means. Damon stepped forward, fangs lengthening, skin drying, eyes beginning to change.
And still the girl stared at him, weeping, but without a shred of anger or hatred directed at the man about to end her days.
For a moment he was frozen in place, as though he was the one under compulsion, and he saw the face of another innocent before him. So similar. Did she have someone waiting at home like Jeremy? Were there parents, cousins, best friends who would weep over her lifeless body? How far would the ripples in the water from her death reach?
And if you died, Damon? Would anybody even bother to grieve?
A shudder ran through him and he lifted his eyes from the pulse at her neck, barely seeing her face through the tears clouding his gaze.
"You're free to go."
She gasped as the compulsion broke and hurried away. He clenched his fists and stared off into the distance, trying not to hear the blood rushing so close to the surface of her skin.
So similar. Brave. Kind. Foolish.
So different. Wrong eyes. Wrong hair. Wrong nose, cheeks, chin, lips.
Slowly, Damon turned, his last hope evaporating as he realized she wasn't in the car yet.
He went rigid, feeling the transformation take place.
She reached for the door.
"You're an idiot."
Elena froze at the sink, almost swallowing her toothbrush at the sound of the accented English voice. She glanced up at the empty bathroom mirror and saw only her own face.
"Ghosts don't have reflections, apparently."
The voice was so close she would have felt the person's breath on her neck. If the person had been breathing. Elena spun around, fingers clenched around the toothpaste tube.
Rose stood just inside the doorway, arms crossed across the bodice of an indigo blue dress that was definitely from some other century. "500 years of seeing myself in glass as a vampire and then I come back and there's nothing … rather creepy."
Elena's usual self control reasserted herself and she managed to croak out a relatively calm, "You came back as a ghost?"
"Obviously." Rose scowled. "I can't understand a word you're saying." She held up a hand as Elena moved to get rid of her toothbrush. "That's a good thing. That way you can't interrupt me."
In spite of everything she'd been through in the last two years, fear hovered at the edges of Elena's senses. Being caught in her pajamas only made her feel more defenseless.
Elena put the toothbrush down and wiped her mouth with a hand towel, buying time until she was more in control of her faculties. "Why did you come back?"
"I didn't actually come back. That would mean I left."
"You mean you didn't …"
"Oh, I died," Rose chuckled dryly. "Damon killed me."
Elena would have physically recoiled if the sink at her back hadn't kept her from moving. "He killed you? But I thought … I thought he …"
Disappointment fell like pebbles into her subconscious, raising the waterline of disbelief and betrayal until she felt herself choking. Believing in Damon was such a difficult thing—every time she found some small measure of faith in him he did something to turn the cup upside down and to leave her empty all over again. She'd believed … really believed …. "I thought he—That's why he felt guilty. It wasn't just that he made Jules angry-"
"Like I said." Rose's green eyes were the color of a precious stone and every bit as hard. "You're an idiot. So shut up, stop saying stupid things and listen, Elena, before you really make me angry. I don't know my own strength in this new body." The vampire-ghost moved further inside the room and the door blew shut with a loud bang.
Anger poured off of her like steam, crowding the room, magnifying Rose's already impressive height, and leaving Elena with the distinct impression that she was about to die. She had a brief moment to feel regret for all the mistakes she'd made, all the people she hadn't protected, all the wrong choices made—
Then, abruptly, the fury was gone, as though the ghost had pressed a switch. Sadness softened her features and she seemed to shrink, like an old woman whose shoulders were sagging. Elena automatically reached out to touch her arm, to offer some kind of comfort. Rose's gaze broke away and wandered off to distant corners of the room, as though searching for something to rest upon.
"He killed me to end my suffering. And then I watched him sit there for 30 minutes afterwards, holding me with tears running down his face and his fingers still curled around the stake."
Her eyes met Elena's again and through the ghost's gaze Elena saw everything. She was in the room as Damon comforted the dying woman, his heart breaking with every cry of pain that he couldn't ease. She knew the moment he made the decision, gathering up the courage to carry it through in spite of the price it would exact upon him. She saw him lift the stake, his features freezing into a rigid mask as he drove the weapon home precisely. Watched him paralyzed on the bed, holding Rose, unable to bring himself to release her dead body, too exhausted to fight against the human emotions overtaking him. Heard the muted gasp as tears started down his face.
The absence of everything she'd ever associated with Damon—cruelty, selfishness, outright evil—left Elena bewildered and suspicious. There was nothing of that in the glimpse of the scene she'd briefly touched through Rose's gaze.
"Are you compelling me to feel this?"
"Not at all. I don't even know if that's within my ghostly abilities. All I did was allow you to step back into the memory and experience it exactly as it happened. It's a handy new parlor trick." Rose got to her feet, carefully drawing the long folds of her dress up so they didn't snag on anything. "You're feeling his emptiness because you've always been aware of its existence. You've just always managed to make excuses for why his bad behavior justifies his eternal pain."
"Damon is not a nice person," Elena insisted, struggling to come to terms with the depths of the pain she'd shared momentarily. "He killed Jeremy."
"He did," Rose shrugged. "And others. What about Stefan? Has your little boyfriend ever told you about all the people he once enjoyed ripping to pieces?"
Before Elena could protest that Stefan was different, Rose's eyes bored into hers again.
This memory was episodic. As an invisible passenger in Stefan's mind, Elena rode with him across battlefields and through forests, into villages, apartment buildings, the back alleys of bars. Centuries flashed by, to the soundtrack of human beings screaming as their bodies were ripped apart by an animal enjoying the pain of his prey. Time and again, she watched him let his quarry almost elude him, allowing them to believe they were going to escape before closing in and entrapping them just short of safety. She heard him laugh at the desperate pleas, felt the terror, watched as he reduced each victim to a mass of barely recognizable human remains. When a small child wandered into the hunter's path, Elena backed out of the memory with a horrified cry.
"Stefan isn't like that! Not anymore."
"He's changed," Elena insisted, trying futilely to erase the image of Stefan's cold, mocking eyes as he pursued a lone teen. "He gave up human blood because he knows he can't control it."
"I believe you. But what you saw did happen." Rose's unforgiving eyes continued to hold her prisoner. "Damon at least comes by his evil side honestly. He's never lied to you about what he is."
Even as the truth of this touched Elena inescapably, she felt herself falling into another memory, this one of Damon lying in the middle of a roadside trying to find his place in the night sky just as he was always trying to find his place on Earth. She watched him dig his hands into the dirt, press his face into the gravel, reaching for some sort of physical pain to distract him from the inner torment. Felt the need to have his choice understood by somebody, the eternal loneliness expanding to consume him like a black void—
"He's so alone," Elena whispered, shaken.
Rose's lips thinned to a tight line. "Completely."
In the darkest of Stefan's memories, Elena hadn't felt that kind of all-consuming pain. Without Rose's help this time, she flashed over to the memory of the boarding house earlier in the evening and the way Damon had stood there as she hugged him, unyielding, so afraid of losing control and revealing his need that he didn't even react as she walked away. She could almost hear the warring voices in his head.
Get out of here.
"I should have stayed with him. He told me to leave but I shouldn't have. He needed somebody."
Rose drifted over to where Elena stood, a cool air emanating from her and raising goosebumps on the human's skin. "Not just somebody. Damon killed me because he loved me, Elena. He chose to take on all that pain to spare me further suffering. Me. A woman he'd known for less than five minutes. And here you stand cluelessly getting ready to go beddy-bye," Anger dripped from each clipped consonant, "completely oblivious to how much more he loves you. How much more he needs you."
She'd known it. She'd always known it, somewhere in the back of her mind, though she'd chosen to pass it off as Damon transferring his obsessions from one unavailable woman to the next. The knowledge of how powerfully he loved her was so overwhelming that she'd purposefully refused to see it. How could any one person be deserving of that much devotion?
"You don't deserve it."
Elena blinked, drawn from her thoughts by the sardonic comment. "Are you reading—"
"Your face," Rose interrupted dryly. "I don't do tea leaves. Nobody deserves that kind of love, Elena. You just accept it, or don't, and he'll go on loving you either way. But it's not about you at the moment. It's about whether Damon can even be pulled back from the edge he's about to fall from at this very minute."
Realization hit home with a sickening thud. "Oh no."
"You said it yourself, Elena. Damon, you're so close. He is close. As close to regaining his humanity as he is to losing it completely."
"Do you still have vampire speed?" Elena asked, only too clearly seeing the results of this bad choice unfolding in her mind.
For the first time that evening, Rose smiled. "Better than that. I don't exist in this dimension anymore, so, technically … I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously."
That made no sense to Elena, but it didn't matter because one second she was in the bathroom and then the next she was standing on a darkened road watching Damon hover over a girl obviously in the grip of a compulsion. He seemed to stare at her unfocused for a long moment, before stepping away. A second later, the girl shook herself, as though waking up, and hurried toward a nearby car.
It took a moment for understanding to sink in before Elena fully grasped the fact that he had let her go. In the middle of all his anguish, he'd somehow found the strength—more importantly, the desire—to break his own compulsion and let his prey escape.
That was only just beginning to digest in her brain when she saw the internal struggle that convulsed Damon. Even from her vantage point several yards away, she could see how hard he was trying to do the right thing, without knowing anybody was watching. His whole body went rigid, fists clenched, eyes fixating on some distant point as if to try and hold on just long enough.
Afraid to say anything aloud for fear of breaking his fragile grip on sanity, Elena screamed silently at the girl, who by now should have been speeding off into the distance if she had had any brains.
Run! He's trying so hard, you idiot! Get in the car and drive away before he breaks!
Damon's self-control snapped. His entire posture changed, going from frozen, desperate human to hungry predator. Elena's mouth went dry as his face transformed and he pivoted toward the girl who was only just now fumbling for her keys.
The vampire jerked upright from the neck his fangs had only just penetrated, fingers clenching on Jessica's upper bicep to keep her from running. Through the angry fog of bloodlust, he saw a small silhouette walking toward him, hand outstretched.
"You don't want to do this."
Jessica whimpered in his iron grasp and Damon slammed her up against the car to make her quiet. Fear for Elena's safety and shame at what she was seeing made him doubly angry.
"Get out of here, Elena."
"Let her go first."
Again, Jessica whimpered and Damon twisted her arm and snarled a warning.
"Elena, go. Just, get in your car—" He looked around, trying to figure out how she'd snuck up so quietly on him, "Drive away. This isn't any of your business."
"It is my business. You're my friend and I never should have left you tonight."
The freshly spilled blood on Jessica's neck demanded Damon's attention and he barely managed to drag his eyes away and back to the woman continuing her slow, steady walk toward him.
"I told you to leave. If you hadn't decided to go on your own, I would've pushed you out the door myself. I didn't want you around, Elena. Go away."
She finally halted just a few feet away, standing in the glow of the car's headlights. "I saw how hard you fought your instincts."
Damon shook his head in confusion. How long had she been watching? "How did you even find me?" He looked her up and down, taking in her bare feet, the tight little black tank she was wearing, braless of all things, the black pajama pants clinging to every curve. His body tightened jealously. "And what are you not wearing?"
"It doesn't matter. What matters is that I know you really don't want to do this."
He laughed harshly and yanked Jessica forward, pushing her in front of him and bending her body like a ragdoll. "That's where you're wrong, Elena. I do want this." His fangs lengthened again, coarsening his speech. "Every day I want this. Every single second this is what I crave."
"And yet you fight it in your own way. Without letting anybody else see."
"Don't do that, Elena," he warned. "Don't go trying to make the Stefan costume fit me."
He dipped his head and inhaled the thick, sweet scent, ignoring Jessica's by now catatonic state and resting his chin in the blood, deliberately smearing it. Damn Elena and her stubbornness—he knew the only way he might manage to send her running was to disgust her, and even that was only a slim possibility. "This is who I am, Elena. I enjoy feeding. Bunnies and blood bags don't give me that buzz I need."
True to form, she didn't budge. "That may be." She crossed her arms in front of her chest, unaware of how much of her soft skin she was suddenly exposing. "But you don't enjoy causing people pain."
Panic warred with hunger in Damon. She was digging too deep. "Elena—"
"Or killing unnecessarily. Or ripping apart human bodies."
That momentarily silenced the static in his brain. "Stefan finally came clean?"
"In a manner of speaking. I know what he did in the years before he met me. And I know what you did for Rose this evening."
Damon stiffened. "Don't go there, Elena. You have no idea—"
"You ended her suffering because you loved her."
He hurled Jessica aside and shot over to Elena, grabbing her by the shoulders. "How do you know that?"
She looked up at him calmly, completely unperturbed by the manhandling. "Rose visited me."
"Wait." Damon frowned. "What?"
"Her ghost showed up in my bathroom while I was brushing my teeth."
Feeling like he'd completely lost his grip on reality, Damon released Elena and stared at her. "Rose is a ghost?"
"Was. I think her unfinished business had something to do with you and me and when that was finished she could leave. Damon, she showed me things."
"Things," he repeated.
"She let me see how you helped her while she was dying."
Damon leaned his head back and glared at the sky before raking his fingers through his hair.
Thanks so much, Rose. Really.
The last thing he needed was for her to go getting ideas about his stellar moral character. "Look, Elena, whatever you saw—"
He felt her hand on his chest and looked down reluctantly.
She reached up to touch his bloodied cheek and Damon couldn't help but cover her hand with his. The unfamiliar warmth in her eyes made his heart do strange things and brought forbidden thoughts to his head.
"I know what I saw."
"Elena." He drew her fingers to his lips and kissed them. "Don't go getting ideas. Okay, yeah, I killed Rose and ended her misery but it was only because I couldn't take the whining for another minute."
"You're lying. You never lie to me, Damon. Don't start today."
A terrified sound caught both their attentions and they glanced over at the car, where Jessica had finally managed to stumble to her feet.
Elena's fingers fisted around Damon's shirt, as though she could somehow keep him from going after her again. "Just get in the car and drive away."
"He—he—" Jessica stuttered, wild-eyed and disheveled. "He bit me!"
"You're imagining things." Elena's voice was firm and steady. "You hit an animal in the dark. You got out to see how badly you'd injured it and it attacked you. You managed to get away."
An unusually soft smile touched Damon's lips, offsetting his irritation at the interruption. "Not bad." He couldn't resist pressing a light kiss to her hair. "You're just missing a little vampire magic."
He broke free from Elena and strode over to Jessica. Easily cutting off her escape attempt, he glared into her eyes and delivered the same message.
"You hit an animal in the dark. You got out to see how badly you'd injured it and it attacked you. You managed to get away. Now you're going to drive home and go straight to bed."
Jessica nodded, her eyes dulled by the compulsion. "I hit an animal. I got out to see if it was injured. It attacked me and I got away. Now I'm going to drive home and go straight to bed."
Damon released her, watching as she climbed into her car immediately and sped away. As the headlights receded, he turned and found Elena a foot away, gazing at him with that same unfamiliar softness.
He sighed, torn between dragging her into his arms and pushing her as far as possible from him. "Elena, don't—"
"You let her go."
"Okay, okay." Damon waved his hands dismissively. "That doesn't mean tomorrow there won't be another victim and another one the next day and another one the next."
"You were going to kill her," she pointed out bluntly. "Not just feed. And you didn't."
Damon clenched his jaw. The evening's emotional turmoil had taken its toll on his already very limited supply of patience and self-restraint. "Yeah, well, it's hard to talk with my mouth full and you were being awfully chatty," he snapped. "Elena, I can't be this person you're suddenly imagining. Stefan's already got top billing in that play. I'm the villain who ties people to railroad tracks, remember? Straight out of central casting."
"If I was suffering like Rose, would you kill me?"
He caught the impact of her unexpected question somewhere in the region of his solar plexus and reacted in kind, feeling the breath leave him.
"What the hell are you doing, Elena?"
"If I had an incurable disease and no pain medication would ever stop me from hurting, would you make that choice for me?"
"No! Yes. I don't know." It was hard to figure out what was worse, imagining her actually being so sick that he had to make that kind of decision, or thinking that she really didn't know what his answer would be.
"You do know," she insisted. "Would you, Damon? Would you take that pain for me?"
"Dammit, yes!" he exploded. "Yes, yes, I would, okay? I'd kill you to end your suffering and then I'd walk outside and throw myself into the nearest river of vervain or something!"
"You'd take on that pain because you love me."
"Yes." Damon covered his face with a hand in a hopeless attempt to short circuit her effect on him. "The one thing Stefan and I actually agree on is our taste in women. And, yet again, I'm in love with a woman who chose my brother over me. But you obviously knew that already."
She tugged at his hand until he reluctantly looked down at her.
"Why are you doing this?"
"I let my judgment be swayed by circumstances and other people's opinions without even giving you the chance to explain your actions. I never tried to get to know you for you, instead of as a script that other people were writing."
Damon scrambled to get his bearings on a suddenly unfamiliar planet. He reached for some trite remark to hurl like a fastball, but came up empty as he stood there just taking her in, from the total lack of makeup and dots of toothpaste at the corner of her lips to the pajamas she hadn't bothered to change as she rushed to save him.
She wrinkled her forehead with worry, apparently suddenly just realizing that he might be misreading her intent. "I'm not—I'm sorry—I didn't mean—Damon, I still have to figure things out with—"
He touched her lips. "I know. Shhh."
Whatever Rose had or had not shown her, Elena clearly still had no idea that she was his sunlight, the only light he could survive in without his ring.
"It's okay." It wasn't, but it had to be.
"I'm sorry I haven't been a better friend."
He wanted so much more from her than friendship.
"Damon, I'm sorry—"
"Stop apologizing," he interrupted gruffly. "Or you'll get me started and that'll take, oh, the next three centuries."
Elena's smile was equal parts hopeful and shy as she reached out to touch his arm lightly. "Can we start over?"
She was offering him a new beginning. He didn't ruin things by asking questions or giving her dire warnings about his personal failings.
"Consider the reset button pressed," he muttered, reaching out with an arm to invite her closer to him.
She stepped into him, so trusting. Damon sighed and pulled her closer yet, locking his arms tightly at her waist so she stood no chance of escaping.
Her words whispered into his chest. "You were hurting tonight and I should have been there."
"You're here now." Rose was still dead and Stefan was still in the way and his life was no less of a mess than it had been five minutes ago. And yet, an unfamiliar feeling of peace drifted over him. Damon rested his forehead on her bare shoulder and closed his eyes. "You're here now," he whispered again. "That's all I need."
A/N—I realize that ghosts only appear to those who have died and come back. Rose's appearance was me exercising creative license.