So, October 30th was my birthday and I wished for Damon and Elena to go on an endless roadtrip for the rest of Season 4 since we all know that the best version of Elena is when she goes on these trips with Damon. It's even better if she's drunk! I actually tweeted to Julie Plec about my birthday request, so if that really happens on the show, then you can all thank me for it later. HINT: I like money and store credit. But since I don't live in the US, I'll take cash. *wink*

So, I am grateful for all your support and kind words. I must admit that I struggled with this chapter, hence the late update. I don't know what it was, but the words just refused to come out. I basically forced myself to just write…anything and everything and the result is this mess of a chapter. I hope you'll forgive me for it, but hey, I guess every writer has a writer's block they have to bulldoze their way through at one point or another, right? Just nod and go along with me, thanks!

Just a quick thank you nudge at my jaw-droppingly awesome beta, who's really a cheerleader cum sounding board. Everybody…hats off to Kristi (tukct81)! Now that we're all hat-less, it's time to settle down and read Chapter Three of A Woman's Worth. And oh, REVIEW will you? They make me really happy and it is my birthday, after all (in some countries anyway). Thank you in advance for your kindness.

A Woman's Worth: Chapter Three

Elena's POV

I love him.

I do. Isn't that all that matters? Isn't that what every girl dreams of and every woman wants? Someone whom we love and who loves us in return? Mason was that person for me; I even pictured us getting married one day. It was that kind of love, one that was eternal and unbreakable.

But if that was true, then why did I feel guilty when Caroline burst into the room just as Mason was apologizing? And oh God, when the door swung open and I saw him, Damon Salvatore….the look in his eyes; it was as if I had betrayed him too. I could see a world of hurt and disbelief as my gaze met his. I almost choked at his expression alone, but then he turned away before I could mouth an apology for the hurt I'd somehow caused him.

It didn't make any sense. Why should I apologize for wanting to work things out with Mason, my boyfriend? For allowing Mason to stay, for forgiving him yet again for something that just….happened?

It was an accident. It was an accident. It was an accident.

I kept repeating those words throughout the night as he held me, as Mason murmured how much he loved me, how much he regretted pushing me, how he didn't realize how much force he put into the shove that sent me crashing onto the side of the table. By two in the morning, I had already managed to convince myself that he didn't mean to cause me any harm; not the life-threatening kind anyway.

But what about the slap? There was nothing accidental about it, was there? It was deliberate, well aimed, and filled with so much rage behind the action. I could tell how furious Mason was getting, even while he was getting beer out of the fridge, when he was raising his voice. Perhaps my assumption that I could still attend the party without him, by using his car without his permission, was the last straw.

I knew what I was setting myself up for the moment he came home in a foul mood, and yet I had stubbornly refused to back off of him despite the warning signs I could clearly see. I should have just kept my mouth shut and did what he said, to stay home and just be a supportive girlfriend. Instead, I caused him to worry about me, to spend more money on me as I began my recovery in the hospital…knowing full well that I didn't have any health insurance.

I did it again. I imposed on Mason again. The truth was I couldn't afford any medical expenses on my own, and I was already spending his money on my college and our daily expenditure. And then there he was, on the bed next to me, telling me not to worry and that he didn't care about the money; he only wanted me to get well and to go home with him.

A small part of me rejected the idea. I didn't think that I could go back with him and act as if nothing had happened, not so soon anyway. But where would I go? I had no place to go, nowhere to run to. Besides, running wouldn't help and it wasn't the solution here. I owed it to myself and to Mason to stay and work this out. We were happy once; I was so certain that we could be happy again, as soon as we got past this rocky patch in our relationship.

By the time Mason woke up early that morning to go home and change for work, I had already made up my mind.

It was an accident.

"Well, I'm glad to see you're still alive!" my best friend announced as soon as she entered the room, swinging a paper bag with one hand and holding onto her boyfriend with another. Despite my medically-induced drowsy mind, I detected the note of sarcasm that accompanied her greeting but I chose to ignore her intentional jab at Mason and smiled at Tyler instead.

"Hey, E," he smiled back, calling me by the nickname he gave me when I started dating his uncle; his very young uncle. In fact, Mason was only five years older than Tyler. "I heard about the accident and I'm glad that you're okay," he went on as he came to stand beside the bed, reaching out a hand to pat my arm comfortingly.

I returned his easy smile, nodding gratefully as I started to thank him for visiting, but apparently, Caroline had other ideas. "Oh please!" she snorted in disgust. "I told you that it wasn't an accident! That jerk of an uncle of yours did this to her and if it wasn't for my pig-headed friend here, he would be behind bars right now!" She was glaring at me with her scary accusing eyes, and I sighed wearily, refusing to engage in a battle I knew I would lose, so I just shook my head at Tyler and kept quiet.

"Care Bear, obviously E doesn't want to talk about it right now, so why don't you drop it? The girl did almost die yesterday!" Tyler said defensively. I wanted to hug him then, if only I could move. Honestly, if I didn't love Caroline as much as I did, I would have killed her by now! Granted, I knew that she meant well and that she was looking out for me, but she never knew when to pick her battles. I thought I made it clear that the subject of Mason was off limits the previous night when she burst in out of the blue and interrupted us. I had to practically kick her out by asking her to bring over some of my stuff from home, which I assumed were in the paper bag she brought with her.

But no; she was like a dog with a bone. Once she bites on something, she never lets go. "Exactly! She almost died and she probably would have if I hadn't gone over to your uncle's house, insisting to see her!" Within half a second, her expression went from angry consternation to sorrow. "She was blue, Ty….blue! No thanks to Mason, I'm never going to get that image out of my head, seeing her lying on the bed, her face swollen and red, and-" she broke off and drew a shaky breath as if to calm herself down, tears welling up in her eyes.

It was then that I realized how much the incident affected her too. That it wasn't just me that had to deal Mason, but also people who cared about me, watching helplessly. "Care, I'm fine. I'm okay now," I managed to croak out, my throat still sore and dry from the extubation process. God, I hated that tube! I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

"Oh, Elena!" she exclaimed as she jumped up on the bed beside me and leaned in for a hug, uncharacteristically gentle to avoid tugging on the chest tube still attached to my side. "I can't tell you how relieved I am to know that you're okay! If anything had happened to you… you can totally count on me to cheerfully commit murder to avenge your death, you know that, right?"

Before I could assure her that I loved her too, the door opened and in walked my doctor and Damon, my personal bodyguard, or so he told me, holding a similar paper bag in his hand. I still wasn't sure what role he played in all this drama, but I did know that he managed to calm me down when I woke up stressed out and panicky the day before. I still hadn't allowed myself to think of Damon or how utterly charming I thought he was when I first saw him, but now that he was in the room with me, in the flesh, I found myself unable to ignore his enigmatic presence, especially when his eyes locked with mine immediately upon entering the room.

Did the room suddenly feel ten degrees warmer or was it just me?

Caroline lifted herself off of me when she heard the arrival of people into the room and I watched her face reddened as she smiled broadly at Damon as if they had been old friends. "Hi, Damon! Dr. Fell," she greeted with a wave and turned to a suspicious looking Tyler, whose eyes were shifting back and forth from her to the new arrivals. "This is my boyfriend Tyler Lockwood. Tyler, this is Dr. Fell and Damon Salvatore," she introduced.

"Lockwood?" Damon's eyes narrowed when they fell on Tyler for the first time. "As in-"

"As in Mason's nephew," Caroline interjected smoothly. "Mason's the youngest brother of Tyler's dad but they aren't that close," she explained hastily, making it clear that her boyfriend was nothing like his uncle. Surprisingly, I took offence to that. I always thought that they were more similar than I had initially thought, in terms of sense of humor, mannerisms, and personality. Mason was more or less a perfect boyfriend before all this happened.

"Now that we've established who I am, just who the hell are you?" Tyler asked rather rudely to my surprise. Apparently, Caroline was taken aback too, since she scolded him for his lack of manners with a reproachful "Tyler!"

"Me? I'm just the guy who has the power to put your uncle behind bars if he so much as lay a hand on Elena again," Damon responded dryly, not even fazed by the younger man.

"You a cop?" I was glad that Tyler asked since I was curious about it as well. Vaguely, I recalled an overheard conversation between Damon, Dr. Fell and Caroline while I was still semi-conscious that hinted at his identity.

I was almost certain that the answer was 'yes' but he surprised me yet again when he shook his head and said with a triumphant smile, "No, but one of my best friends is a detective and the other is the head of the Domestic Violence Network. I do, however, own a gun, if that is at all helpful."

Holy cannoli!He owned a freaking gun? Was it wrong that I found the image of him wielding a gun rather dangerous but yet hot at the same time? Belatedly, I noticed that the object of my musing was having a staring match with the boyfriend of my best friend and neither seemed to be backing off, but luckily, Dr. Fell intervened before they broke into a fist fight.

"Alright, this has been very interesting so far, but I think that you're forgetting that I have a patient to attend to and she's right here in the room, witnessing this little exchange," she informed them, and just like that, all eyes were now trained on me.

"Sorry," Damon mumbled, seeming to remember my presence after that testosterone-filled staring competition. He made his way towards me, scrutinizing me from head to toe as if checking for signs of torture, and then failing to find any, released a sigh of relief. He looked as if he had been worried about me, and I felt quite touched for some reason, that some guy I barely knew was actually concerned for my well being.

"Damon, did you hear what I said? I need to check on Elena's condition so you're going to have to leave the room…all of you," Dr. Fell said, this time her gaze swept over to the couple who was whispering among themselves.

I was expecting the three of them to obediently file out of the room, leaving me alone with my doctor, but I was wrong. Again. I've never been wrong so many times in a row before. "Uh uh, you threw me out of the room twice yesterday, both times against my better judgment, so I'm staying put today," the raven haired man said defiantly and proceeded to park his butt on the seat closest to me with his arms crossed for emphasis. Sensing the doctor's approaching dispute, he quickly made his argument. "Mer, you brought me into this case, and you should know by now how I work, so…" he lifted an eyebrow and looked pointedly at the other two visitors. Wait, so I was a case to him?

"Well, if you're staying, then I'm staying too!" Caroline piped up, practically skipping over to take the seat next to Damon. "Tyler, will you please go get Elena a glass of water? Thanks!" she winked at the affronted man, who then turned around wordlessly to exit the room.

Damon seemed impressed with her, citing, "Wow, you have him so well trained! What other tricks does he know besides 'fetch'?" His teasing earned him an irritated look from Caroline, who proceeded to roll her eyes at him.

I couldn't help it. I giggled. It was difficult to do considering my aching chest and scratchy throat, but I succeeded anyway, albeit it sounded more like a chesty cough than a ladylike chuckle. Simultaneously, three pairs of eyes shot to my face, but I only saw one; the one that reminded me of clear blue skies on a perfectly cloudless and sunny day. His expression was a mixture of surprise and wonder, probably brought on by the unfamiliar sound accompanied by my wide grin.

Damon Salvatore had a fantastic sense of humor. He reminded me of…well, me, before I lost my entire family in one day anyway. It was a weird sensation, being able to laugh again. I was convinced that I had forgotten how, until now.

"See? Even Elena agrees with me," he quipped, winking at me as a gesture of solidarity. Unexpectedly, it made me feel warm and tingly inside, making me wonder why I was responding so strongly to someone I had only met less than twenty-four hours ago. "So, what's in the bag, Care Bear? You don't happen to have the head of our nocturnal intruder from last night, do you?"

Great, now even Damon was on Mason's case. And he called my best friend by her special nickname which I assumed she loved because she was positively beaming as she rolled her eyes at him. "I wish! I just brought some of Elena's stuff from the house - some clothes, toiletries, pretty underwear and make-up, you know, the usual girl stuff. I figured she should look presentable just in case she meets a dashing eligible bachelor in the hospital, preferably one who doesn't come with a side effect of pain….unless it's the good kind of pain," she added as an afterthought much to my mortification. She was discussing my unmentionables and meeting potential dates with – wait, what was that look Damon just flashed me with? Was he imagining me in a pair of tattered grannie panties or enacting potential scenes from the Fifty Shades of Grey movie?

I so wished Caroline had her own endotracheal tube right then, if only to shut her up. Why, God, why? Of all people I could have sat next to in fourth grade, why did it have to be her? Why couldn't it have been Bonnie Bennett, the strange, quiet little girl who kept on mumbling cryptic Latin phrases as she stared at everyone with judgy eyes, including me?

"Damon, this is highly irregular! I can't simply allow you to stay just because of our friendship! Besides, I'm sure Elena doesn't want you both in here as I'm performing her check-up," Dr. Fell spoke up, her brows furrowing with disapproval. So, they were just friends…which meant that they weren't dating. But why should I even care about that, right? I was still fuming over Caroline and her unfiltered mouth.

I shook my head slightly, intending to get the check-up over with so that I could delve into the reason Damon was here in the first place. What sort of 'case' was he referring to? Was he serious about wanting to put Mason behind bars? Did it have anything to do with Domestic Violence Network his friend was involved in? Was Mason in trouble?

"It's fine, they can stay," I heard myself saying, and then added when a random thought occurred to me. "I-I don't have to get naked, do I?" Suddenly, the idea of being naked with Damon in the room seemed ridiculously stupid, even with the curtains around the bed for privacy.

"A little naked, since I have to check the incision where the chest tube was inserted to make sure that there are no infections, and I'll also need to check the bruises on your chest. I'll pull the curtains, okay?" the doctor said while giving Damon the evil eye, seemingly still perturbed by his presence.

I must have been wearing an alarmed expression as well, because just as Dr. Fell was pulling the curtains around me, Damon hurriedly stood up and removed an item from his paper bag, then thrust it into my hands with a hesitant smile. "This is for you, in case you need some company at night rather than…well, it's just a small…umm….just, here," he stammered and then disappeared behind the curtain, leaving me staring in bewildered shock at what I was holding; it was a brown-colored teddy bear with a bandage around its head, with the words 'Hug Me, I'm Sick' sewn on its chest.

He was too-freaking-adorable. So was the bear. I couldn't help but to smile down at it, feeling my nervousness dissipating completely.

When I looked up at Dr. Fell, I saw her stunned expression as she was also gazing down at the gift from Damon and then a small smile tugged at her lips. She seemed as surprised as I was at his gesture, but she didn't say anything as she settled into her professional demeanor once again. By now, a nurse had joined her behind the curtain and she was reaching over to untie the back of my hospital gown and lower the top so that my chest was exposed. I released an involuntary gasp when I saw how purple and swollen my skin was. It looked as if it should hurt a lot more than I felt.

"What? What is it?" came the urgent voice of Damon, his dark silhouette just behind the curtain. I panicked for a split second, thinking that he was going to yank the curtain back and expose my bared upper body, so I clutched the bear tightly against my chest, letting out a painful wince at the added pressure. "Hey Mer, why is she in pain? Is something wrong?" he asked anxiously.

"Jeez, Damon, you scared her, that's all! Nothing's wrong, it's healing….slowly, but healing. Now sit down quietly and let me do my job or I'm calling Ric," the exasperated doctor reprimanded, shaking her head at me. For the next ten minutes, she checked on my injuries, changed the dressing for my wounds and checked the incision at my side. And then she pressed a stethoscope to my chest, asking me to breathe deeply a few times, which hurt and caused me to cough, which in turn caused discomfort with the chest drain in place. Tears sprang to my eyes as I allowed myself to feel sorry for myself, wondering how much longer I could tolerate having the tube in me, being in the hospital, in pain and confused over everything.

Dr. Fell watched me struggle with my emotions with sympathetic eyes and patted my arm comfortingly as she leaned in to whisper, "It's okay to feel overwhelmed, Elena. You've been through a lot these past couple of days, and I know it's not easy pretending like everything's normal when it's far from it. I'm actually impressed that you're not constantly in tears!"

I shook my head with a sad smile, knowing that my next words would cause a pitying look from the doctor. "Trust me, I've been pretending ever since my parents died, and my injuries this time…they're nothing compared to the pain I felt then." I was right; Dr. Fell's eyes were wide with sympathy…before they narrowed suspiciously.

"Wait, you said 'this time'? As in you were injured by Mr. Lockwood before?" Her voice was loud enough to be heard by the people on the other side of the curtain, as proven when two shadows appeared right against the fabric.

"Elena! Why didn't you tell me?" came voice number one; my best friend.

"What? When was this? How badly were you hurt?" came voice number two; my personal bodyguard, and bear-giver.

Crap. Poop. Manure. Dung. Shit. Turd. Stool. Feces. All the synonyms of the word I could recall at that point in time. I didn't mean to disclose that little secret, not like that! I could just imagine the next few moments of my life flashing before my very eyes.

"Mer, let me in. Now!" Damon's dangerously low voice made me shiver as I clutched my hospital gown around my neck, fully expecting to see a head with a patch of dark hair poking over the edge of the curtain at any moment. I was half-right; there was a head poking through, all right, but it was covered with blonde curls.

"Elena! Seriously, were you ever going to tell me? I'm your best friend! You're supposed to tell me these things so that I can kill Mason!" Caroline burst out indignantly, her face red from suppressing her anger and impulse to do exactly what she just said.

Okay, denial-time. "N-no, I didn't mean it like that. H-he didn't-" I stuttered stupidly, hating my inability to lie straight-faced to the person who knew me best. Or even the person who knew me least, apparently.

"Elena, stop lying to protect him! He's a repeat offender! That means that he'll keep on-" Damon broke off, swearing softly. "Are you decent? I'm coming in! Three, two, one…" he warned as I peeked down at myself to check if I was covered, just in time, too, before he pulled back the curtain back with his eyes closed. "Ready? Three, two, one…and open," he said and peeked through a half-opened eye first and then both when he saw that I was fully clothed.

"Damon! We weren't finished yet! You shouldn't have done that! I ought to kick you out right now!" Dr. Fell scolded crossly, glaring at him for his intrusion in the middle of an examination. But he didn't seem to care as he came to stand next to me, grasping my hand, his attention on me and me alone.

"Never mind that. Elena," he regarded me seriously, his intensely blue eyes trained on mine. "Tell me the truth; how many times has he hurt you?" For a moment there, all I could do was to blink at him, completely distracted by the feel of his hand on mine; a strangely familiar sensation. I couldn't think, I couldn't speak, I couldn't do anything other than to gape at him like a fish out of water.

Luckily, my doctor came to the rescue. "Back off, Damon," she said slowly which emphasized the seriousness of her tone. Right then she wasn't Damon's friend; she was my doctor and she wasn't about to let anything jeopardize my road to recovery. "I mean it! She's been though a horrible ordeal and we have to focus on her getting better, not send her BP skyrocketing! Do you hear me? Back off!"

Nobody spoke for some time. Damon just continued to stare right at me while I gripped the stuffed bear with my free hand even tighter against my chest. And then his expression softened, his entire body losing its rigid stance as he sagged against the edge of my bed. His gaze slid down to my chest and for a moment there, I wondered if he could see through the fabric but then his abrupt change in topic threw me off.

"You're suffocating Mr. Cuddles," he gestured towards my chest. I was about to open my mouth to reprimand him for naming my breasts and also for being completely inappropriate when I looked down to see that he was merely expressing concern over the bear, which was distorted from my ministrations.

"Mr. Cuddles?" I repeated, loving the name that he came up with. I found myself being constantly surprised by my new friend, and the intrigue surrounding him deepening the more I got to know him. Oddly enough, he was acting as if we had been friends forever, the way it had seemed so easy and comfortable whenever he was around me. It was…nice.

"Yeah, I took the liberty of naming the bear. It's important to bond as soon as possible, you know? Isn't that the start of every beautiful relationship?" his smirk hinted at some inside joke to his question that he wasn't sharing with the rest of us.

"So you've bonded with my bear, named him and now you're giving him to me?" I asked, amused beyond anything. "The poor guy might have some serious abandonment issues, so who's gonna pay for the therapy sessions?" At some point, it would hit me that I was freaking out over accidentally spilling the truth about my previous incident with Mason one minute and the next, I was practically joking with Damon over a teddy bear! I guessed that Dr. Fell's warning did pay off…..or Damon was really good at distracting me from my woes.

Before he could respond, however, Tyler came back into the room, his attention zeroed in on our clasped hands through the half-opened curtain. I had almost forgotten that Damon was still holding onto my hand, looking entirely too comfortable doing so, if I was being honest. What worried me was that I didn't even think about how it would seem to Tyler, my boyfriend's nephew…until this moment.

"What's going on, and what the hell do you think you're doing with my uncle's girl?" he asked disapprovingly. Immediately, Damon's hand disconnected with mine as he turned to face the younger guy. Guilt filled every pore of my body when I thought about how disrespectful I was being to Mason, being that close to another guy and then to do it in front of other people….I felt so ashamed of myself.

"Ty, don't be rude! Damon's just trying to help Elena. Besides, it's Mason's fault that 'his girl' is in the hospital in the first place," Care tried to deflect but her boyfriend was having none of that.

"Will you just shut up about that?" he roared, taking all of us aback at his sudden anger. "I don't believe for a second that Uncle Mase would do that to Elena, or anyone for that matter! I think you're trying to pin this on him because you've never approved of him, but guess what, Care? It was an accident!"

It was…sort of. I mean, it was.

"What the hell are you talking about? You weren't there! You didn't see what I saw, or the way that monster refused to get help for her! Look at Elena, Ty. She's our friend and now she's got a tube running into her sides because of what your uncle did to her, so why can't you see that Damon's not the enemy here but Mason is?" I knew that Caroline was growing angrier by the second, judging by the fists at her sides but unfortunately, Tyler wasn't backing down, not without putting up a fight. I could sort of see her point of view, but I also didn't like the way she painted Mason as the only guilty party here. I was as much to blame as he was. I was the one who made him angry in the first place. I was responsible for what happened to me.

"Because he's my family and I don't appreciate random strangers poking their noses in where they don't belong, trying to frame my uncle for something he didn't do! Did you guys even bother to ask E her version of what happened or did you two just jump to conclusion based on what you thought you saw at their house?"

I saw both Damon and Caroline's faces snap to mine, studying my reaction to Tyler's question. But instead of a defensive remark from my blonde friend, it was Dr. Fell who leaped to my defense. "It was a conclusion based on my professional medical opinion, and as for Damon's involvement, I called him in because I suspected abuse when I treated Elena yesterday. Regardless of whether that's true, my main concern is Elena's well-being and her speedy recovery without the additional stress of having to go through the entire emotional ordeal again right now. So I suggest you three either get with the program or else don't let the door hit you on your way out."

I loved my doctor! I loved her no-holds-barred approach in such circumstances while being rather scary in a caring way.

"Look, Ty, why don't you just go home and I'll call you later, okay?" Caroline, feeling properly chastised for the moment, suggested with a sheepish look at me.

"Fine. E, get well soon, 'kay?" Tyler sighed and left after I nodded with a grateful smile.

While I knew that Care was only being overprotective out of concern for me, I really didn't want to deal with anything other than just focusing on getting well and getting discharged from the hospital. That was all that mattered to me. I didn't want to worry about the aftermath or the fact that I had to face Mason on my own soon; I just wanted to bury my head in the ground and hide for a few months, in all honesty.

"Damon?" Dr. Fell's attention shifted to him now that one half of the male-testosterone had left, leaving the only man who could see into my soul when his eyes searched mine, perhaps looking for a clue as to whether I wanted him there or not. My uncertainty must have been obvious as he decided to drop the issue, for now at least.

"Anyone up for a game of Monopoly? I'm assuming that Twister's out," he commented dryly while reaching into his paper bag to reveal the board game and held it up questioningly in a rather abrupt change of subject.

I smiled at him gratefully, which he then returned before declaring that he was the banker and had every right to "borrow" money whenever he wanted. Ha, he still lost, anyway! But then, so did I.

Thankfully, the rest of the week passed by without a single utterance of the A-word; abuse - for anyone keeping track. Though Mason had stopped by to visit every single evening without fail after office hours, he never stayed the night again. He did, however, raise an inquiring eyebrow at my new toy, only for me to lie through my teeth as I told him that it was a gift from Caroline.

So my days were filled with daily visits from Caroline, Damon, and scattered visits during the day from a few of my college mates who heard about my 'accident', and then Mason would turn up, exchange glares with my new bodyguard without fail as the latter left and my nights were spent with Mr. Cuddles, who quickly became my source of comfort whenever I woke up in the middle of the night from nightmares.

They were mostly filled with a fear of suffocation, being unable to breathe. I would wake up, lurching forward, gasping for air. Other nightmares involved images of an unrecognizable monstrous face, with red and terrifying eyes just staring at me, judging me, taunting me. Those scared me more than anything else, even more than the thought of dying from suffocation.

There was one occasion though, when I was dreaming that I was running from the monster, just running for my life until my legs gave out from underneath and I was falling and falling, until a pair of strong arms caught me. They belonged to a man whose features were too blurry to make out, but one thing stood out; it was a pair of brilliant blue eyes that were now more familiar to me than my own.

Without a doubt, Damon Salvatore was my dream-time savior.

* * * Abuse is a form of bullying * * *

On the sixth morning of my stay at the hospital before any of my daily visitors dropped by, Dr. Fell came into my room with a broad smile on her pretty face, announcing that it was time to have my chest tube removed. I almost jumped for joy or even attempted to moon walk across the hospital room floor had it not been for my prohibited movements due to the length of the suction tube. I could have settled for a crotch grab and thrust ala the late King of Pop if I wasn't so worried of Damon walking in during the performance.

So, it was with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation that I clutched my bear tightly to my chest and waited for the morphine to kick in while the nurse pulled the curtains around me again and adjusted my bed into position, all the while explaining what I should be doing during the actual procedure. I barely understood a word of the medical jargon being sprouted at me, but I was always pretty good at taking instructions, so I did what I was told with minimum fuss. I had already tuned out by the time she finished talking, just in time to feel the calming effects of the drugs. I was also secretly hoping to get a lollipop as a reward.

The actual procedure took less time than I expected; barely five minutes had passed and to my immense relief, I was tube-free. Dr. Fell continued to monitor my respiratory status to make sure that the removal process went without a hitch and then I was being pushed towards the x-ray department to make sure that my lungs were still expanding. That particular process took more time and so when I was finally rolled back to my room, Damon was pacing up and down, worried out of his mind, judging by the messy dark locks on his head, no doubt from running his fingers through them.

His terrified gaze snapped to me as soon as I entered the room in a wheelchair with a nurse behind me. "Elena!" he gasped and hurried over to kneel down in front of me. "Thank God! I thought something had happened! I asked the nurses and they wouldn't tell me anything, and then I-" he stopped abruptly when he finally noticed what was missing. "Where's your chest tube? Did you pull it out? Does Meredith know?"

I was too happy to be rid of the limiting medical device to even take offence that he doubted my self-control, so I just smiled and shook my head. "No, she doesn't, so don't tell her! I only did it because I wanted to go outside but this mean nurse caught me and forced me back here," I joked, feeling a little of my former self returning in light of this latest development. It was as if I had my freedom after being grounded for a year. Or a decade! I would never take the ability to move around unrestricted for granted again. "Hey, Damon, wanna see the big gaping hole at the side of my chest?"

I saw the light bulb going off in his brain, and then he was holding back his laughter at my teasing comments. "So you're free now, huh?" he asked excitedly, as if he had some kind of plan to whisk me off to the ends of the earth to celebrate my freedom.

"Not quite yet. I have to stay a few more days to make sure that everything's working properly and that there are no infections, but other than that, I can move around a little," I told him, wriggling my feet for effect. I wanted to stand up and twirl around the room, but Dr. Fell thought that I should take it easy since I hadn't been on my feet for a week, except for potty breaks and physiotherapy. But even then, I was always supported by a nurse just to make sure that I didn't accidently pull the chest tube out or cause a reverse flow.

Damon nodded with relief, and then turned to address the nurse. "Can I take her for a walk? I'll make sure she gets back safely, I promise." What? He was asking permission to take me somewhere that wasn't my room? Where should I sign up?

I almost burst out in tears of joy when the kindly nurse nodded her consent, warning him to 'keep an eye on me or Dr. Fell would hear about it'. I waited impatiently as she adjusted the brakes of the wheelchair and then folded the footrest so that I could stand up, which I did, shakily with Damon's support. He was holding me so close to him that I could smell his aftershave and see the short stubbles on his chin and neck. I was the kind of girl who liked a clean-shaven guy, but even I had to admit; Damon was hot with a stubble. It emphasized his strong jaw.

It felt really good to be on my feet for a change, and with Damon's right arm wrapped securely around my back and the other holding my left elbow; we slowly made our way out of the room and down a busy corridor. I couldn't help the happy grin that appeared on my face as I took each step, and my expression was mirrored in his as well as we somehow made our way towards a colorful corridor this time. I assumed correctly that it was the pediatric wing when we were greeted with murals along the walls; a clown's antics, a red bus filled with animals, a white rabbit hopping into a hole, a tooth fairy….all emblems of childhood that brought back memories of a happier and simpler time.

At first I thought that we were merely passing through, but then Damon surprised me when he steered me towards one of the children's wards and into a room where a fair-haired little girl around the age of six was playing with a Raggedy Ann doll at a low round table. I raised my puzzled eyes to his, silently questioning who she was and why we were there.

"I wanted you to meet my special friend, Annabelle…..Anna for short," he announced by way of explanation. He led me over to the small table and helped me sink down onto one of the plastic chairs that were only as high as my ankles before he did the same on a seat next to me. "Hi, Anna. It's me, Damon, remember me?" he asked the little girl, who showed no sign that she heard him. In fact, she didn't acknowledge our presence at all, instead just continuing to braid the shockingly red hair of her doll.

"Anna, I brought a friend to meet you. Her name is Elena and she's staying right here in the hospital too. Can you say hello to her?" he went on, his voice so soft and gentle as he regarded her. I didn't expect her to respond, and she didn't at first, but then she raised her shy gaze to me, providing me with a full-on view of her face. She was adorable, with a pixie cut-hairstyle that made her look like a cheeky elf, except that she had a bald spot on the left side of her head, where a dark ugly scar was visible. Her eyes were also blue, like Damon's, but there was a tinge of green in them as well. Oddly, she reminded me of a smaller version of Caroline. Her arms and legs were covered with pink-colored pajamas, that seemed too big for her tiny body.

Anna took me by surprise when she raised the arm of her doll in a wave at my direction; her version of a hello, I supposed. I waved back, pleased that she didn't shy away from me or threw a tantrum, which some children does upon meeting a random stranger. "Hi, Anna. That's a really pretty doll you've got there," I told her with what I hoped was a friendly smile. Being an only child, I wasn't particularly comfortable with kids. To be honest, they frightened me a little, perhaps because I could never predict how they'd react and they seem to be able to see things in a straightforward view, cutting through all the pretenses.

That was why I was taken aback when she shifted to a seat nearer to me and hesitatingly stroked the ends of my long hair, her fingers so petite and gentle. "I think she likes you, or more accurately, your hair," Damon commented, his expression pleased as he watched over Anna protectively. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if she was related to him…a niece or a friend's daughter. Otherwise, why would he have introduced us?

As if he could read my mind, he provided me with an answer to my unspoken question. "Anna was one of my charges. Ric, my best friend who ran the DVN, assigned her case to me and we've been inseparable ever since," he explained, further enhancing my curiosity.

"One of your charges? You mean she's -" I trailed off, my heart thudding with fear for the little girl beside me. I was beginning to feel nauseous at the thought of what I left unsaid at the end of my sentence.

"…a victim of abuse, yes," Damon confirmed with a nod. I stared at the angelic little girl and felt bile rising in my throat at the thought of someone capable of hurting someone so young and so innocent. I couldn't understand it.

"What happened to her?" I asked, and then immediately regretted it. I didn't really want to know, but yet, I had to know. I was torn in two, but my curiosity won out.

"It's a long story, but if you really want to hear it, we have to move over to the couch over there," he told me, gesturing to a corner over by the windows. I nodded and he quickly came over to help me up, this time, supporting me under my armpits with both hands until I was standing straight up. "Anna, sweetie, Elena and I have to talk alone, okay? Will you stay right here and play with your doll?" he asked her, his hand reaching out to stroke her smooth cheek. It was a very sweet and loving action, one that demonstrated the close relationship that they shared. It was obvious that Anna trusted him, as proven when she returned to her initial seat and resumed braiding her doll's hair.

We moved over to the PVC couch and Damon took a seat right beside, his body turned towards me with his elbow resting on the backrest. "Anna's father, Alan, was a useless a-hole who liked to take out his anger at his family members, starting with his ex-wife, Pearl," he began the story in a soft tone, keeping a watchful eye on Anna all the while, for fear of being overheard. "He used to beat up Pearl until her hospital visits were so regular that she actually had a room that was sort of reserved for her. Most of the hospital staff was on first name basis with her and everyone had come to care about her so much that they frequently advised her to leave Alan, to divorce him and start a new life with her daughter. Anna was only a year old at the time."

It was only the start of the story, and I was about to bawl my eyes out already. I was so sure that I had a red nose and red-rimmed eyes by now, but thankfully, Damon didn't comment on them.

"Pearl didn't listen and decided to stay for their daughter's sake because she didn't want to break the family up. Cut to a year later, Pearl was admitted to this hospital yet again due to a fractured wrist, some broken ribs and a concussion from Alan's latest violent rage, only to return home after being discharged to find him in bed with their next door neighbor. That was when she finally decided that enough was enough. She proceeded with divorce proceedings against Alan and they fought for full custody of Anna for the next year, until the court awarded custody to Alan due to the fact that Pearl had no income, with no means to support her daughter. Apparently, the judge didn't take physical abuse as an issue, since Pearl hadn't lodged any police report against her husband at the time of the attacks. He also came up with a lie that she was having an affair behind his back and that it was her lover that attacked her."

Through my unshed tears, I watched Damon swallow as he took a ragged breath in the midst of recounting Anna's story, and I instantly knew that the worst had yet to come. "So the judge believed him?" I asked incredulously.

"I think it was more like he didn't have a choice than to let Anna stay with her father, since Pearl had no job, no house, and what little savings she had left, she had spent it all on legal fees to battle out the divorce. Pearl figured that she'd leave, find a stable career, get herself sorted out first, and then come back for Anna. That was her best bet at the time. She also had a good relationship with Alan's mother, who had agreed to keep an eye on Anna on her behalf, to make sure that she didn't come to any harm, but soon after Pearl left, he started using his own mother as a punching bag as well, only this time, he was always careful that she didn't end up with injuries serious enough to be hospitalized.

"Pearl met someone else and eventually got married a year and a half ago, and now she has a baby boy with her new husband, but she always had the intention to come back for Anna…so she did, a few months ago," he paused, dragging his palm over his face wearily. "I will never forget the night I got the call at the center from my other best friend, Elijah, the one who is a cop, telling me that he had Alan in his custody after he admitted that he had attacked someone; his daughter. What happened was that Pearl and Alan got into a huge fight about Anna at his house, and after Pearl left, he took out his frustrations at a small, defenseless child, kicking her viciously on the floor before lifting her up against the wall and shook her violently. Then he lifted her up to his full height and threw her on the floor, where she landed hard, her head slammed down on the ground. Anna was unresponsive after that, and several minutes later, the cops and an ambulance showed up after a neighbor reported about a commotion, and she was rushed to the hospital. That was when I got the call."

Tears were streaming down my face by then, and I tore my horrified gaze from him to the little girl who had somehow survived from the ordeal. I thought about how close she'd come to dying, but thanked God that she had a guardian angel looking over her, since she was able to come back from such a brutal attack. I couldn't understand what would make a person, any person, let alone a parent do what he did to her.

"Oh please tell me there's a happy ending to this story!" I pleaded when I returned my attention to Damon, who seemed as distraught as I was. To my dismay, he shook his head sadly.

"No, there's no happy ending to this story, Elena," he declared mournfully. "That's the thing; it could have been a happy ending if Pearl had left Alan when Anna was a year old, but instead, she chose to stay, putting herself and her daughter at risk because of some noble notion that they had to remain together as a family."

"But then Alan's in jail, right? I mean, he confessed about the attack, so surely Pearl would gain custody over Anna now, wouldn't she?" I glanced over at the blonde girl again, feeling a slight feeling of hope swelling in my chest. There ought to be a silver lining to every cloud, right?

Unexpectedly, Damon shook his head again. "The judge decided to grant temporary custody to Alan's mother, citing that Pearl already had a baby boy and her own family, and that it would be disruptive if Anna were to join in the family now. You see, Anna had a fractured skull, a blood clot in the brain, many fractured ribs and it had also left her with brain damage. She would sometimes just zone out completely and her responses are so much slower now. She also hasn't spoken since the attack…not a word," he finished sadly, his eyes filled with pain over the plight of the little girl.

Everything became crystal clear to me then. Anna was now deemed as a burden to her family, unable to attend school, would require special education classes, physical and psychological help, not to mention complete attention, which Pearl was unable to give since she had another baby that would require her full-time supervision. So, the court decided on the next best thing; her grandmother. But what would happen when and if Alan got released from jail? The potential tragedy sent uncomfortable shivers down my spine at the thought.

"Listen, we should head back to your room before Mer comes after me," Damon suggested as he gathered me closer to him, his hands rubbing up and down my arms as if he was trying to warm me up. I would have blushed to the roots of my hair if I had registered the overly familiar gesture, but I was too emotionally upset about the fate of the little girl whom I just met. So, I nodded mutely and allowed myself to be pulled up and then we were standing beside Anna again while Damon said our goodbyes. Impulsively, I leaned down to gather her frail little body into my arms and hugged her tightly, trying to ignore the fact that my previously sutured incision hurt like hell.

She didn't struggle, nor did she hug me back. When I released her, she went back to playing with her doll as if nothing happened. I wondered if she even realized that she was hugged by a stranger. Somehow, the thought made me want to cry, so I turned and exited the otherwise cheerful-looking room without another word, my tears threatening to spill out from my eyes. As I stumbled along half-blindly along the corridor, I felt Damon catching up with me and then he reached out an arm to halt my stride, and pivot me so that I was facing him. Then we were hugging in the middle of a crowded hallway, full of parents, fussing children and busy hospital staff.

"You're going back to him, aren't you?" his deep voice sounded louder than usual against my ear, filled with concern, resignation and disapproval. He hadn't broached the subject of Mason since Dr. Fell's warning earlier in the week, so I was taken aback that he decided to do it then, out of the blue. Then I realized that the whole exercise with Anna, the unexpected visit with one of his charges, the story of how Pearl should have left before the attacks got worse, and how Anna's life was forever ruined by her abusive father….it was all for my benefit.

He was wrong, though. Mason was not Alan Asshole. Mason would never intentionally hurt me like that. He lost control in the heat of the moment. He loved me. And he was sorry.


I can hear the yelling already! Yes, yes, stupid Elena! If she wasn't so blindly loyal, would she be our favorite heroine? Hmm? Anyway, if she knew better, this story would be three chapters long and I'll have free time on my hands again. So, for my sake and for you wonderful readers, let's all pretend as if we're happy that she's acting stupidly just so the story can go on. Done? Done.

BTW, the Alan story is based on a real occurrence that I just found out recently. My ex-colleague whose real name is ALAN, is now in jail for abusing his son, ex-wife and mother. And what happened to Anna in this story was what happened to his son in real life. I was disgusted when I heard that someone that I knew personally had such darkness in them to do such a thing. And yes, the real judge was as stupid too.

Thank you for reviewing :P