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i don't have a choice (but i still choose you)

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Her hands flutter over his face, and he manages to wedge his eyes open. "We've got to get you out of here," she breathes, and then she jams her shoulder under his arm and gets him to his feet.

It must be a dream. It can't be real. She's crying, and there's something weird going on, but Damon can't really remember what the hell the problem is.

Elena's been mad at him for days now, the sweet tenderness they'd shared having evaporated into the ether with a few well placed words, his brother, and of course, Bonnie. It's funny how he can remember all that, but not what got him here, to this place, and why Elena's dragging his uncooperative body out of Klaus's house.

Oh, yeah. Klaus's house. Rebekah, and her pretty little knife, and her very angry flashing eyes. I liked you so much better when you were desperate to be fucked, he'd said. That hadn't been very nice and she'd gutted him like a fish for it. Ah well, as long as it kept her distracted from any real information, it was worth it.

Once they get outside, they're about halfway across the lawn before they fall down because Elena isn't strong enough to practically carry him to the car, though he has to admit her training has made her endurance level broaden. She's breathing heavily, but so is he. It finally occurs to him what's going on (rescue mission!), so he asks, "Where's Stefan?"

"He and Caroline are distracting Klaus and Rebekah."

"So you can save me?" he asks with a weezy little laugh.

"No," she says, her voice low. "I'm supposed to wait in the car. But you know how that goes."

He laughs harder, but that hurts, so he tries to control it. "Oh, God," he groans, and he feels her hair twisting into his hands. (Maybe it's his hands twisting into her hair, but either way, it feels nice.) Soft and lovely, his fingers comb through it the way he's wanted to do a million times, and it's bringing her closer, because suddenly her face is right next to his. "I love you," he blurts, still on the ironic laughter of one who has tried to boss Elena too many times to absolutely no good end.

Her hands flutter against his face again and he keeps his eyes open, though all he'd like to do is sink into unconsciousness. He must be bleeding out, but somehow he doesn't even care, because Elena's being nice, and her eyes are wet, and she's concerned and he can feel it like he did that one other time, and it's the greatest balm to anything that ails him. "I know you do," she murmurs, "but we're not having another death bed confessional here."

Damon shakes his head. "Oh, I know. No kissy-kissy. I'm not dying anyway, I just need to get home and get some blood in me."

"We don't have time for that," Elena says, her voice shaking somewhat. He looks harder at her, because he can hear layers in those six words, layers he never expected to plow through. "Stefan and Caroline will need your help, so you need to be better now," she explains, and then she's sweeping her hair aside, and it goes missing from his fingers, and he doesn't like it.

None of this is what it should be.

"No, Elena," he says, because unless he's totally misunderstanding her, the suggestion shows outright that she's gone batshit crazy. (Which would explain all the rest of this, obviously.)

"Yes, Damon," she replies and then he's shoving away from her, but he can't get far because they're already on the cold, hard ground. He's as weak as a kitten from Rebekah's decorative slices to his chest and belly and he has open, bleeding wounds that won't heal because he hasn't fed since the early morning. It's somewhere around dark-thirty now, and Elena is positioning her neck near his face and whispering, "It's okay. I want you to. C'mon, Damon, we don't have time to fight about this. Please," she begs, and he can't believe this is happening.

Elena Gilbert is pleading with him...to take her blood.

This has to be a dream. A nightmare. The fantasy he's had that he never even let himself know that he wanted. He wonders how it's possible to have a erection when he's bleeding profusely, but leave it to this girl to make him hard at the least appropriate moment.

"No," he grits out, clenching his teeth.

 

 

When Elena sees him, slumped on the floor in what seems to be a kiddie-pool of blood, her heart stops and then starts again, thumping so fast she feels light-headed.

(It's funny how she stood and looked right into Stefan's eyes, lying the whole time about what she would do. And he totally believed her. All she could think is that Damon would have known, he would have known and he would have found some way to prevent this, but luckily, it had been Stefan.)

(It would always be Stefan.)

She runs to his side, manages to get him on his feet, thinks her heart is going to pound right out of her chest because he looks so terrible, so deathly and she knows he can't really die, not without a stake in his heart, but it doesn't change the loop-de-loop rushing through her mind, don't die, don't die, don't die.

She can't lose Damon. She can't.

Outside, sprawled on the lawn, she knows it's a matter of minutes, maybe, before Originals will be upon them, before Damon's lack of strength could play right into their hands, and all she can do is say over and over, please, please, please and he keeps turning his head away from her, pushing her away ineffectually because she's finally stronger than him.

She looks around, trying to find something in the darkness that she can use to scrape her skin raw, bring her blood to the surface, anything, but her eyes can't focus. Where there is good light, across the finely manicured grass, is too far away. She can't leave him, won't move so that she can't touch him.

She wants to scream Stefan's name, wants him to come save his brother, because she cannot, and it's killing her. It will kill her, if she has to watch him die. (Those moments careen through her mind, the choice Stefan made, when he went with Klaus to begin with.)

She grabs Damon's face with both hands, dragging his eyes back to hers and he flinches under her palms. "I'll do anything you want, if you'll just drink," she says.

(This is making a deal with the devil if ever there was one.)

All those deals before, with Elijah, with Klaus, they don't compare to a deal she might strike with Damon. What he might ask of her—what he will ask of her, demand of her—from her, is the price that she must finally be willing to pay.

"Aren't you worried about my self-control?" he tries sneering, though it doesn't sound very convincing given his weakened state.

Elena steels herself, prepares for crossing the line she'll never be able to return from, for both of them. She will never pretend again that she doesn't know exactly what Damon's about, and he will never purposefully provoke her to the wrong conclusion. It all ends here, right now. "No," she says, pausing just a beat. "I've never been worried about your self-control when it comes to me. I know you would rather die than hurt me." She takes a deep breath. "And I would rather you drain me dry than have to watch them kill you."

His eyes are wild, the implications zinging back and forth between them in that charged space that they've inhabited for far too long. "Stop thinking, Damon, there's no time for it," she says, pressing her hand against his bare chest, where his shirt hangs open and oozing, ugly wounds rise up under her fingers.

His hands finally lift to grip her face, pulling her close. His lips brush hers in the gentlest of caresses and then he's tilting her head to the side, whispering, "This is all I want," which means everything and nothing all at once and then his teeth pierce her neck and she gasps—not because it hurts, but because it curls through her just as sweetly as his kiss had. Her eyes fall shut and her body flames, and she thinks all dying is...

...is really living.

 

 

When Damon opens his eyes, he sees Stefan running towards him with Caroline at his heels. Caroline's expression is beyond gleeful, but Stefan is just looking at the two of them, entwined on the grass, Elena's head tipped back against Damon's shoulder, blood dripping down her throat.

It was all for naught, and he knows it a split second before Caroline crows, "They're dead, they are all dead!"

With an assist from Wickery Bridge, all's well that ends well.

Except, not really.

Elena's eyes blink open sleepily and then she sees Stefan and she scrambles into an upright position. Damon can see when Caroline's words finally penetrate, because she looks all around, but never makes eye contact with anyone.

He feels the wounds on his torso closing up while Elena's blood sits heavy on his tongue and thrums through his system. It's like he could kill all the Originals with his bare hands, only there is no one to kill, just Stefan to face, just reality to examine.

For all the times he's talked himself out of this, all the back and forth, the one step forward, two steps back that has been him and Elena all along, he knows this moment—this one—is the real one. Because Stefan is finally witnessing it. Elena can't pretend, Damon can't deflect, no one can unsee what has just occurred here.

Damon wishes he had even one moment of elation, one glimmer where it was what he has always wanted—because it is, it so is, but it so isn't at the same time, and he has never understood the word dysfunction better.

Why does he always have to love his brother's girl? And why does she always have to want him in some way while she can't let go of Stefan? And why does Stefan have to matter at all?

(Because you're all I got.)

He stands up and hauls Elena with him, giving her a little shove towards his brother. "Well, this sucks," he spits. "I didn't even get to see Klaus wither. Typical."

Elena's head turns toward him and her hand goes to her neck. Her eyes are screaming at him, but there's nothing to say. There never has been. This is what he tried to forget when Stefan was gone, when Stefan was the cocky, ripper douche, but he can't ever, not really.

All he can do is stand aside. All he can do is walk away.

So he does.

 

 

Elena lies in bed, thinking of Damon. Stefan. Damon.

Stefan. She lies in bed and thinks about how to tell Stefan that she's in love with Damon. Thinks she won't tell him, won't tell anyone, she'll just love Damon, but never be with him.

Then she sobs into her pillow, imagining that. Because, really, she's already done that, and as painful as it was to let Stefan go, she can't envision that with Damon. (She cannot let go of something she's never really grasped?)

It should be so much easier. It shouldn't be hard at all. It shouldn't feel like the worst possible thing that could happen to her when so many truly terrible things have happened to her.

It makes no sense.

(It makes perfect sense. How many times does Damon have to almost die for her to accept she can't live without him? Oh, she could exist, she's been doing that all along. But she doesn't want to live without him, regardless of what it means.)

(She's so selfish.)

So she can't, she just can't. The answer is to do nothing. The answer is to forget everything that she's finally accepted.

She has to do the impossible, be the better person. Be the one who sacrifices everything on the altar of love.

She hears the fluttering of her curtains. Sitting up quickly, she gasps not because she's surprised there's a Salvatore in her bedroom, but because it's not the one she expects. "Sorry if I scared you," Stefan says softly, and he sits down on the window seat. He studies her face in silence, then asks, "Are you alright?"

She nods. (Let the lies begin now!)

"You don't look alright. You look like you've been crying."

She snorts. "It's been a rough week. Month. Year." She shrugs. Looks away. Forces herself to breathe normally and meet his gaze. "How are you?"

"Okay," he says, inclining his head. "Damon's alright, too. Back to normal. Thinks he can just go back to how it was, and that you'll do the same."

Elena's mouth opens in—protest? Not really. She doesn't know what to say, what to feel, how to not say or feel anything that currently resides in her head.

"You know what I've always wanted, but didn't know I wanted?" he asks, as though she hadn't attempted to speak. And then he goes on as if the question were merely rhetorical. "Someone who loves my brother as much as I do, even though. Even though he's Damon, and he's sometimes cruel, and terrible, and wonderful and the only person I've ever really wanted on my side. And he finally is, on my side. He's helping me, and teaching me, showing me the better way to be since I have to be this." He gestures with his hands, indicating his body. "This is what I am, Elena. A vampire. And you never loved this me."

"Stefan, I—"

"It's okay," he interrupts. "You know why? I never loved this me, either. But you do love Damon. Just as he is. For just what he is. And it finally added up in my head, you know? That that's just why I love him. Because he found a way to be this, and to be okay. And I still need to do that. I have to do it, if I'm ever going to be happy. And that has absolutely nothing to do with you."

He stands up, and Elena clutches her blankets tighter against her chest. "I just wanted you to know. I needed you to know. I'm going to go away for a while. Not forever, just a while. And when I come back—whatever is here, will be fine. Whatever you decide, is fine. And I mean that. I'm not saying you have a choice so you'll choose me, Elena. I'm saying you have a choice, and you should choose what will make you happy."

He smiles, something soft and frightening leaking over his features. "Own it, live it, love it, Elena. Words to live by."

She blinks, and he's gone.

 

 

Damon finds a folded piece of paper in the library, a very Stefan-esque note that says nothing important, just everything irritating, except for the P.S. that reads, I'll be in touch. Soon.

He guesses that means they aren't estranged. Maybe after 146 years, Stefan's really growing up. Damon sips his bourbon and wonders what that means for him. After a century and a half, what will finally happen to him?

"Damon?"

He turns, and sees Elena in the doorway.

She smiles. (Promises everything.)