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Standing Invitation

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Prologue

It mightn’t have been so bad, so painful, without such a large audience. Everyone who mattered saw what happened, estimated the fallout differently but recognised (correctly) that the fallout would be absolute.

In the fight, many were injured, but most would recover. Rapid healing was part and parcel for most of them, now. Sometimes, Elena wished they remembered that: the only person, really, who came close to dying that day, was her.

They won. Klaus was defeated. But that wasn’t the end.

One moment, Klaus was crumbling to dust. The next, Stefan was roaring like a great beast, leaping on Elena, intent on draining her dry. Some compulsion, no doubt left by Klaus to break Damon once and for all if Klaus himself was dead.

Stefan was high as a kite on a steady diet of girls-who-looked-like-Elena; Damon was cool as ice on a steady diet of bagged O-neg. There was never any question of who was the stronger, nor of who was the trickier, and Damon used the only advantage he had left to save Elena’s life. For the last time. A long stake, soaked in vervain and left to harden again in the sun, up beneath the ribcage, there by the spine.

(That’s the way to a vampire’s heart, he’d told Elena once.)

As Stefan turned grey and began to desiccate, some of the dust from his eyes fell into Elena’s mouth. It was Alaric who pulled her broken body out from beneath Stefan’s, even as she whimpered for Damon.

Damon, who dragged his brother’s body into his lap and keened for five hours. The expression on his face impossible to describe, but easy to interpret; regret. For what, no one could tell.

Nuclear winter, or its supernatural equivalent, fell across Mystic Falls.

**

She’d lost a lot of blood, dislocated her shoulder, hit her head hard. Jeremy and Alaric took turns watching her in the hospital, in theory; though in practise, neither left her side for very long.

Caroline came by, haunted. “I could give her some of my blood,” she offered, in a small voice. Alaric and Jeremy shared a look.

“No. It’s still touch and go. We can’t let her die with...” Jeremy looked older than he had yesterday. Alaric looked away. “She wouldn’t want to…”

Caroline offered the sleeping Elena a kiss, and left without a word.

**

Over the next few months, people started to leave. Damon was first. He waited until Elena was out of hospital. She woke up in the middle of the night and he was sitting on her bed, his back to her.

“Damon?” she whispered, putting a hand out to touch him. He tensed beneath her fingers. “Damon?”

“Stefan’s dead,” he answered, matter-of-fact.

“I know. I’m sorry. We were supposed to get him back.” She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say. “Thank you. For saving me.” He said nothing in response. She bunched her hand in his shirt, pulling him down onto the bed with her. He didn’t resist, but he wasn’t exactly participatory, either.

She didn’t mind. They had plenty of time.

She tangled herself up against him, favouring the still-injured shoulder. Kissed his jaw. He didn’t respond, just lay with his eyes closed.

A shot of grief and fear shot from her eyes to her heart.

“Do you wish you’d let him live? Let... me die?”

But he was asleep, or so it seemed. Elena cried hot, salty tears into his singlet and when she woke in the morning, he was gone.

He’d left a note. It read “I don’t know. Sometimes.”

(I will always choose you.)

He took just enough from the boarding house to make it clear he wouldn’t be back in a hurry.

**

Bonnie was next. She had enough credits for an early graduation and an early acceptance to UCSD. She moved to San Diego to find her feet, get a job, save money for a while before the fall semester started.

She promised to keep in touch, but Elena wasn’t that surprised when her cell phone number stopped working three months later.

Not that surprised. But, hurt.

**

Caroline and Tyler threw a graduation party with… just a little too much gusto. Everyone went. Elena threw up in the Lockwood’s water feature and was about to feel embarrassed when she realised it wasn’t the first time she’d done it.

Then she just felt like an idiot.

Alaric held her hair back.

“Best history teacher ever,” Elena insisted as he lead her to a bench in the cool air, fetched her a glass of water.

“Worst guardian even,” Alaric corrected. “Why so... full of cheer?”

“Because,” Elena said, sweeping an arm to indicate the revelry before them. “This isn’t a graduation  party at all. It’s a farewell. They’re leaving us, Ric. Why does everyone leave us?”

She had the hiccups, and also, she was right. As Tyler was no longer sired to Klaus – Klaus, of course, being dead – he and Caroline wanted to get as far from Mystic Falls as possible.

As Alaric poured Elena onto her bed that night, taking off her shoes, he thought that she was right. Everyone left them, eventually, one way or another.

**

During the summer before his senior year, Jeremy announced he wanted a year at a private prep school. A private prep school as far away as he could manage. He’d chosen one in Washington State, near the Olympic Peninsula, a sprawling campus that promised a better shot than Mystic Falls High School at getting into RISD.

Also, he claimed, Bonnie said it was supernaturally dead. No vampires, no werewolves. He said it so bitterly that Elena had to convince herself it was because he was missing Anna, missing Vicki, not full of hate because the last two years had been hell.

(He spoke to Bonnie? Bonnie wouldn’t speak to her.)

Elena raged, threw things at him. Jeremy stood his ground. Pointed out to her that since she hadn’t even applied to college, she wasn’t in much of a position to judge other people’s educational decisions. One year at a private prep school, then a good art school. She should be happy for him.

(Alaric felt ill; how had he failed to notice that Elena hadn’t done anything about college?)

(Worst. Guardian. Ever.)

As custodian of the Gilbert family’s trust, Elena had to sign for the bank draft to pay for the school. She did it, and then broke into the boarding house and drank herself to sleep.

It was Alaric who found her and brought her home again.

“You always come and find me,” she said when she woke momentarily in the truck, just as Alaric pulled into the garage.

Alaric said nothing.

**

Matt was the last. Elena helped him to pack up his things and drove with him to Duke that August. He didn’t need the help. She just wanted to absorb the last traces she could of one of the few people she could still call a friend. He promised to come back during term breaks.

She tried to convince herself she didn’t need him to, so it wouldn’t hurt when he didn’t.

**

And then there were two.

 

Chapter 1

Alaric and Elena, rattling around the Gilbert house like a pair of ghosts.

Elena worked at the Grill. Worked long hours, worked her fingers to the bone. Worked for wages and tips and worked so there was something to distract her from the desire to scream until her lungs bled.

Alaric gave up all pretence that he lived in his loft and moved the remainder of his things into the house. Pretended to spend the summer break writing a book about the history of Mystic Falls. In reality, spent the summer drinking heavily and thinking about Damon.

The school year started again and it cut down on the amount of drinking Alaric could reasonably do, but he still managed to do an impressive amount of it.

**

Some nights, Alaric would find himself sitting at the bar at the Grill, on his usual stool, the place beside him empty. He’d drink, and breathe, and stare at the empty place until he felt himself solidify into clay, and pretend he didn’t want to cry. Those nights, Elena had to wrestle his bulk into her car when she finished her shift.

One night, as Elena worked and Alaric stared at the empty stool, a burst of laughter that could only be Damon’s rang out, out of the mouth of a man with dark hair and pale blue eyes, as he came in the door. The resemblance was momentarily staggering, but an illusion.

Alaric propelled himself into the bathroom and vomited in the sink, bourbon and blood and bile. Elena followed him with a cloth and a glass of ice water.

Alaric sank to his knees. “You can’t be in here, Elena,” he said, as she put the cold cloth to his forehead.

“Actually, you’re in the girl’s bathroom. You’re not supposed to be in here.” She rubbed reassuring circles into his back, and he tried not to press into her hand.

When he thought he could stand again, he held her brown eyes for a moment. “He’s not coming back, is he?”

She hesitated halfway through shaking her head, and nodded fiercely instead. “He has to come back. He loves me.”

She didn’t see the flash of pain on Alaric’s face, and if she had, she would have wished she hadn’t.

Once they were home, she deposited him on the couch and poured them each a drink. Elena couldn’t bear bourbon, because it tasted like Damon smelled; Alaric couldn’t bear anything but bourbon, because it tasted like Damon tasted.

Elena drank gin.

They slept on the couch, which was nothing new.

**

Elena had a newspaper spread out on the breakfast bar, but she was drinking coffee and gazing out the window, not reading it. Alaric dropped a kiss on the top of her head as he padded to the coffee jug.

“What’s up, sports fans?”

She made a face at him, and he immediately wished he hadn’t said it. He wished he didn’t say a lot of things.

“Not sports. Properties. We have to find somewhere new to live.” She took another mouthful of coffee. “Jer wants to sell the house. Wants his half of the money for college.”

Alaric nodded slowly. “You’ll be going to college next year, too. I should get something by myself.”

He barely had a chance to look up when Elena’s empty coffee mug hit him in the chest.

(Feel that? It’s the sternum. Solid plate of bone.)

“What the fuck, Elena?”

“You’re not leaving me. Everyone leaves us. We can’t leave each other.” She had leapt up and was punching his chest, ineffectually but with real passion, when he finally caught her wrists in his hands.

“Calm down,” he commanded.

It was almost like compulsion. She calmed, though her tears continued to fall, and her breath still hitched. He pulled her close to him, stroking her hair. He lead her to the couch, curled her against his body and let her cry as long as she needed to.

“I snotted on you,” she laughed, after a while.

“We’ve cleaned up each other’s puke. There’s no coming back from that.”

“Don’t make me live by myself.” She rubbed her cheek against his chest. “I couldn’t bear it.”

“You’ll be going to college, Elena.”

“I didn’t apply.”

He froze, drawing away from her a moment. “You said -”

She shrugged. “I lied. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to go. Anywhere. I want to stay here with you.”

Worst guardian ever.

**

Jeremy called to say he wasn’t going home for the summer break. Had an internship.

“You could come and visit me.” He didn’t say it like he meant it. Said it like it was something he was supposed to say, like it was something he could say safely, because she wouldn’t take him up on it anyway.

“I have a job, Jeremy.” She knew it was lame.

He didn’t bother to argue.

**

Postcards came from Caroline and Tyler. They said ‘Paris is super.’ ‘The shoes in London are to die for.’

They said ‘Ric should go to Edinburgh some time. He would totally love it. Parts of it are like old.’

They said ‘Australia is so nice. They love Americans here.’

They never said ‘I miss you,’ or ‘I wish you were here.’

Each time one arrived, Elena put it on the fridge until she couldn’t stand to see it for another day. And then shredded it to dust between her fingers.

**

He walked into the bathroom one night and she’d just finished carving her own name into her leg. He dropped to the ground, grabbing for anything he could use to stanch the flow of blood.

“Jesus Christ, Elena. Are you trying to kill yourself?”

He mopped up the blood with toilet tissue and towels. She slumped passively against the bathtub.

“I’m just trying to remember who the fuck I am.”

He cleaned the wound, bandaged it properly. “Next time, come and ask me. I know who you are.” He carried her to his bed, wrapped himself around her and tried to hold her insides in as she cried.

**

Alaric arrived at the Grill, took his seat at the bar, staring at the empty stool beside him. Elena polished glasses. He looked up at her, curls framing her face.

“Why did you stop straightening your hair? I see you, sometimes, and for a second I think…”

She leaned across the bar. “No one cares if I look like her any more.”

Katherine had ruined more lives than Alaric could count. His wife’s, Elena’s mother’s life. He took a strand of Elena’s hair in his fingers. “I care.”

**

That night, as he stroked himself, lazily at first, he pretended it was Damon's hand on him. What they'd had wasn't always pretty but it was so real and raw. He remembered the feel of a rock-hard body beneath his, a hard ring of muscle around his cock. Remembered lips that were both hard and soft against his. A mouth that that was warmer than you might have expected it to be, but cooler than Alaric's own.

As he sped up, he conjured every detail he could of his lover's body, touched the scar low on his hip that marked Damon's favourite place to drink from.

(Well… sometimes, I do things I don’t have to do.)

As he brought himself to climax, he imagined Damon's mouth on his cock, humming happily. An insistent thumb on his anus, fingers tweaking his nipple just past the edge of discomfort.

"Damon," he breathed, as hot jets of come coated his hand and his stomach.

He might not have done that if he knew Elena was listening from the other side of the door.

**

She listened for longer than she should have, and when she heard Damon’s name, it told her all she needed to know.

She started straightening her hair again the next morning.

**

“I was a senior last year, Ric. I don’t know if this is any good or not. What should I be looking for?”

It had become almost a fetish, this desire of hers to mark his students’ papers. He thought, sometimes, that he should stop her. And then he wondered if it might be that she was bored, and maybe she’d decide she wanted to do something with her life.

She’d never tell him that she just wants to sit close, because Alaric’s skin has been closer to Damon’s than hers will ever be.

“Keep it simple. Grammar and spelling and shit. Anything obviously wrong. For example…” He thumbed at the space between his eyebrows, making Elena giggle. That always meant he’d found something ridiculous. “Lee Harvey Oswald was not a disappointed political opponent. Jesus.” He flipped to the front page again to check the name, realised with a pang that it was a friend of Jeremy’s. “Where do they get this stuff from?”

Elena took a red pen and started to indicate spelling mistakes, still smiling.

“Elena?”

She looked up expectantly.

“Am I a bad teacher?”

“No.” She cocked her head. “You were a great teacher. Way better than Mr Tanner was,” she added, voice husky, returning to red pen and missing commas.

A moment later, Alaric was still gazing absently into space. “Ric? What?”

“This was never the plan. I wasn’t going to be a high school history teacher. I was going to be a professor. Glasses, ugly-ass brown jacket, rousing lectures, the works.”

Elena wanted to tell him he still could be. Laid her forehead against his shoulder, instead, because she didn’t want to give him permission to leave Mystic Falls.

He finished his bourbon, poured another. She reached timidly for it, smelling it deeply, but couldn’t bring herself to drink it.

She wondered how Alaric could.

“You’re not just a teacher, Ric,” she murmured against his strong arm. “You’re a vampire slayer.”

Under the circumstances, she supposed he wouldn’t find that very comforting.

**

That night, she found herself reaching between her legs, wishing she could conjure up a memory instead of just a fantasy. She tried to pretend Damon was touching her like this, as she finger-fucked herself, as she thumbed her clit, so jealous of Alaric that she could have stripped the skin from his bones.

As she shuddered, she cried.

**

And then one night, she woke up to see a man sitting on her window seat.

“Damon?” she called, her voice breathy and heavy with sleep. He leaned forward, and she struggled, panicked, backwards in the bed until her back was against the headboard. “Elijah.”

“Hello, Elena.”

She screamed. Moments later, Alaric threw the door open, crossbow in his hand. Elijah was on his feet, arms up and conciliatory.

“Ric. How have you been?”

“Get out of her room.”

“You know that can’t kill me.”

“It could knock you out for a few hours. Get the hell out of here.”

Elijah sighed. “I just came to check on you. Both. I imagine you’ve been having a difficult time of it.”

By now, Elena was on her feet, standing behind Alaric with her hand hooked in the waist band of his pyjama pants.

“We don’t need any help from you,” she said, with as much scorn as she could manage.

“Any word from our friend Damon?” Elijah looked altogether too relaxed.

Alaric raised the crossbow higher, prepared to fire it. Elijah sighed.

“I don’t know why I bothered. Goodnight, Alaric, Elena.”

In one impossibly quick, graceful move, he dropped from her window. Elena crumpled to the ground. Alaric set the crossbow aside, stooped to gather her in his arms.

“There’s not a single vampire we know who can’t come into this house. We should have moved months ago.” He had one hand in her hair, the other tight on her waist.

She sobbed messily into his bare chest. “Elijah… Katherine… oh, fuck, even Rebekah. They’ve all been in here.”

“When was Rebekah here?”

Elena didn’t answer, just kept sobbing, her arms wrapped desperately around Alaric’s body like it was the only way she knew how to keep herself together.

“Sh, Elena. We’ll start looking tomorrow.” He kissed the top of her head.

“But…” She couldn’t say it.

“But what?”

“Damon.”

Alaric shifted, kissed her forehead, her temple. “He’ll find us. He’ll walk around town until he catches our scent, and then he’ll find us. Or we’ll be in the Grill, and that stool suddenly won’t be empty any more.”

She didn’t want to sleep in her own room, didn’t want to sleep alone. She curled up in the foetal position on Alaric’s bed and he curved himself around her, his face at the nape of her shoulder, and let her cry until she slept.

He left for school before Elena woke up, and she started her shift at the Grill before he came home. That night, he sat vigil at the bar. Stared at the empty stool beside his and didn’t say a word.

**

It was small, but they didn’t need a lot of space. Two bedrooms, a small kitchen. Shared bathroom. Closer to both the Grill and the high school than the Gilbert house was.

“You can’t take five hours doing your makeup, you know, if we take it.” He joked. She’d never been vain, and these days, she barely bothered at all.

“You can’t take five hours doing your hair.”

“I do not take -” Elena’s eyebrow was cocked just so, and there was no point in arguing. They signed a joint lease.

“I feel so grown up,” she said, but her hand was shaking and her chin quivered just a little.

**

The house sold, fast. To a founding family heir and his new wife. Children on the way. Elena catalogued their crimes for months.

“They’ve painted it the most horrible pink colour. They say it’s salmon, but it’s pink. It’s horrible, Ric.”

“There are bars on the windows upstairs! Bars! On my bedroom window!”

Finally: “They tore out my mom’s rosebushes.”

That night, she cried and cried into Alaric’s chest as he rocked her to sleep.

**

In the morning, Elena was sleep-lovely and smelled like a baby. Alaric smelled like a distillery. Elena burrowed her face into his chest, and when he tried to pull away, she gripped his arm tight.

“Five more minutes.”

“I have to go to school.”

“It’s not like they can start without you.” She pulled away from his chest and held his eyes a long time.

Impossible to know, now, who noticed it first, but their mouths were about to meet when they both sprang back, apologetic and embarrassed. Elena ran from Alaric’s bedroom and into her own, slamming the door behind her. Slid down until she sat with her back to the door, breathing hard.

“Elena?” He knocked gently.

She tried to sound calm, but all she could think about was what his mouth would feel like on her breasts. “Yeah, Ric?”

“Do we need to talk about this?” His hand was on the doorknob, and she could hear it shift minutely under his touch.

What she wanted to say was, talk about what? Nonchalant, like she wasn’t a twenty-year old girl with quivering thighs.

“Um. No. Not really.”

He was still standing on the other side of the door when she gathered breath to say “I’m on a long shift tonight. So I won’t see you until tomorrow.”

“Might see you there anyway.”

“’Kay.”

He took a step away, another back. “Are you sitting on the floor in there?”

She sighed. “Go to work, Ric.”

**

And yet again, Jeremy called to say he wouldn’t be home for Thanksgiving. For Christmas. His voice sounded hard.

“You could come to me, Elena. I just don’t want to be in Mystic Falls again, ever.”

She cursed him over the phone. Yelled. Called him a traitor, accused him of every crime against family that she could come up with.

“Talk soon, Elena,” he said as he disconnected.

**

Elena crawled into Alaric’s bed. He wrapped his strong arms around her.

“Jeremy’s never going to come home.”

“It’s not his home, anymore.”

I’m supposed to be his home.”

“You could go and see him.” She could feel Alaric’s lips on her ear. She shook her head.

“I can’t. What if Damon comes?”

Alaric ran his thumb over her collarbone. “He left, Elena.”

“It doesn’t mean he’s not coming back. He can’t have left me. Not really.”

“He left us both.”

“Yeah, well,” she said spitefully. “He wasn’t in love with you.”

Alaric froze. Elena rolled over in his arms so they were face to face.

“You knew?”

“I know now.”

He nodded. “In that case, that was a shitty thing to say.”

He rolled over and away from her, but didn’t resist when she curved around him. Neither slept well.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

On Elena’s twenty-first birthday, she cooked French toast for breakfast while Alaric read the paper. He looked up, a fond expression on his face.

“Are you working tonight?” She shook her head, turning the toast over on the grill pan. “Do you want to do something? Seems like we should.”

“Yeah. I’ll have a big party. Invite all my friend.”

“Let me take you to dinner, at least?” Her back was to him, and he didn’t realise at first that she was crying. He took the pan off the stove and wrapped his arms around her.

(It’s your party. You can cry if you want to.)

“Mom and I had plans for today. And then Jenna and I did. Jesus, even Stef…” But that was the name she never said out loud, if she could help it.

“Nothing’s the way we planned, Elena.” She relaxed, just a little, into his embrace. “Let me take you to dinner.”

“Not the Grill?”

“Not the Grill.”

**

When Alaric got home from work, Elena wasn’t there. Neither was her car. Her cell phone was on the table.

There were only three or four places she was likely to go if she wanted to hide. He picked the right one first. Her little red car was parked haphazardly on the driveway of the boarding house. She was curled up on the love seat on the porch. She’d drunk half a bottle of gin, and was fast asleep.

He shifted her so her head was on his knee and waited for her to wake up.

The sun had nearly set when she moved at last. “Ric?” Her voice was huskier than usual, sleep and drink heavy. She nestled against him. “You always come and find me.”

“What’s going on?” He sifted through her hair. “I thought women didn’t start freaking out about their birthdays until they turned at least thirty.”

She struggled into a seated position. “Damon wants his house back.”

“You saw him?” Alaric’s heart thumped madly in his chest.

She shook her head. “Messenger brought me the papers to sign.”

Ouch.

That meant that Damon knew where they lived. Hadn’t come. Had he planned for the papers to be delivered on Elena’s birthday, or had he forgotten completely?

Elena leaned in to Alaric’s side. “I have a headache.”

“I bet you do,” he said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and drawing her face to his chest.

“He’s never coming back, is he?”

Hope is the most essential, and most useless, of all human failings. Alaric wanted hope. Missed his friend, their strange love affair. (It had been love, of a sort.)

(You can’t deny it. We were badass.)

“No. He’s not. Are you… are you going to be okay with that?” (Am I?)

She was still for a long time. Then, “take me home.”

**

That was the night they made love for the first time. Cautious, on his part, until he realised she didn’t want cautious. She nipped at his lips, his jaw, his nipples, pleading and cajoling until he took her with deep thrusts. He tried to be gentle, but she set a punishing pace.

A strange balm for a broken heart.

She kept her eyes open. Wanted him to know she knew who she was with. Moaned his name, when he grazed the underside of her breast with his teeth, when he rubbed against her clit just so, when he took her glorious hair in his hand, exposing her throat to be kissed and teased and licked.

When he knelt at the alter, devouring her thighs, the cleft of her legs, when he drove into her with his tongue, she anchored him to her, her hands in his hair, groaning, sometimes almost shouting. And when they were both sated at last, she draped herself artlessly across his body like a rag doll.

They lay like that for a long time.

“I’m too old for you.”

“You’re too old for me.” She giggled at this. “I haven’t been young since I met the fucking Salvatores. I’m older than Jenna. Sometimes I think I’m older than you.” She sighed, started licking at his mouth like a cat. He groaned at the sensation, took her tongue in his mouth.

“I’m your guardian. I’m the closest thing you’ve got to a parent.”

“No. You’re the debauched godfather who drinks too much and fucks me on my twenty-first birthday.”

“And I’m your teacher.”

“Not any more.”

They slept, however restlessly, and when Alaric woke up, it was to find her already on him, wrapped around his morning wood like a succubus. They found their rhythm easily in the half-light of a glorious Saturday morning in Mystic Falls, as she groaned “good morning” into his open mouth.

“So far,” he agreed.

In the shower, she discovered his scar, perfect replica of Damon’s teeth. She ran her thumb across it. He was embarrassed. She was jealous.

**

She called in sick to the Grill and he took her for a slightly belated twenty-first birthday dinner.

Alaric was self-conscious. “They probably think I’m your dad.”

Elena mouthed his ear, kissed the corner of his mouth. “Not any more they don’t.”

“No. Now they think I’m a pervert.” She giggled, and it was like tonic. They drank champagne. They both wanted hard liquor (Elena had too high an alcohol tolerance for a girl of twenty-one, thanks to the last few years, thanks to Damon, thanks to Alaric) but they did have to drive back to Mystic Falls.

The food was great, but the absences hurt. Individual stakes in her heart. Jeremy, who had texted her a birthday greeting and promised there was a gift in the post. Bonnie, who had not. Caroline and Tyler, who had sent a postcard from Louisiana.

(If they were that close, couldn’t they come and visit?)

Matt she would see tomorrow, for a drink.

Jenna. Her parents. John. Isobel. Stefan. Dead, all dead.

(Damon.)

But Elena and Alaric had each other, now. They couldn’t wait until they got home, made out in the back seat of the truck like teenagers. After a brief and ferocious fuck, Alaric rubbed his eyes while Elena adjusted her clothes.

“I’m going to hell,” he said. “I’m going straight to hell.”

She kissed the exposed flesh at his hip, the scar there. “We’ve already been to hell. Things can only get better.”

**

The next day, she signed the papers, stuck them in an envelope and posted them off. Gave back the boarding house. Even told herself she was relieved.

She and Matt got drunk at the Grill, talked about old times. A corner booth.

“Sounds like Bonnie’s doing well. I don’t understand what she means about going to England for a year, though. Is that a year off school? Or… Elena? What?”

“You talk to Bonnie?”

Matt shrugged. “Every couple of months.”

It was a crushing blow.

“You don’t?”

Elena finished her drink, called for another. “She never even gave me her new number. I haven’t spoken to her in nearly two years.”

“Want me to give it to you?” Matt’s face was honest, open, like a children’s book. Elena shook her head. Matt pretended to understand.

“She has mine, if she wants to speak to me. I don’t want to butt in on her life.” She shook her head, clearing the cobwebs. “This is weird, huh? Being allowed to drink in here now?”

Matt didn’t speak for a long beat.

“Are they… mad at you?”

Elena nodded.

“Why?”

There is no obvious way to answer this question.

“Because before I was the doppelganger everyone’s life was normal. It’s nothing I did. It’s just who I am. Because of who I am, Vicki’s dead. Bonnie’s Grams is dead. Jenna’s dead. John. Isobel, if she counts. Stef -” Deep breath. “Stefan’s dead. Caroline’s a vampire and Tyler’s a hybrid. If I hadn’t been born… Or if I’d died with mom and dad in the accident…”

Matt didn’t let her finish.

“None of that was your fault.”

“I… know that. Sort of. But I was… fault adjacent. I fucked up their lives and -”

“Stop it. You didn’t fuck up their lives. Bonnie’s a witch. You had nothing to do with that. The Lockwoods are werewolves, sort of.”

(Elena took a beat to think about what he was saying. Not that long ago, Matt was in denial about everything. Now he sounded for all the world like Alaric.)

(Alaric. Just the sound of his name made her feel less insane.)

“You never fucked up my life.”

“Vicki…?” And at this, she can’t look up. Vicki was the first casualty. Of Damon. Of Stefan. (Of drugs and misery, before that.)

“No one could blame you for that.” He shakes his head. “Hey, I got you a present.”

“You didn’t have to -”

“Yeah, I did. You got me one. You’re my oldest friend, Elena.” He passed a small box across the table. “It was my mom’s.”

“Oh, god, Matt. You can’t -”

“She’s been dead a year, Elena, and dead to me a lot longer. I gave her this when I was a kid. I’d rather you had it than it sat in a box in storage.”

She opened the box. It was a necklace, a slender silver chain with a pendant, a book that opened with a tiny latch.

She hadn’t worn a necklace since she’d returned Rebekah’s to her.

“You got your mom a book pendant?” Elena smiled lopsidedly. Kelly Donovan was never exactly bookish.

“What can I say. I used to be an optimist.” He opened the tiny charm. “You always said you were going to be a writer.”

“Best-laid plans.”

“You could still go to school. Or just write, you know?”

“Problem is, these days, I only know one story.”

“So write that.” Matt said it quietly enough that Elena could ignore it, if she wanted to, and she wanted to ignore it.

She put the necklace on, smoothed it over her shirt. Leaned across the table for a one-armed hug. “I love it, Matt. Thanks.”

“Am I interrupting?”

A pretty blonde girl, reminiscent of Caroline, but with a distinctly studious look, stood nervously by the booth. Matt took her hand easily, drew her down for a kiss.

“Jenny, this is Elena. The first girl I ever kissed.”

Elena smiled at the absurdity. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, holding out her hand.

“And this is Jenny, the last girl I’m ever gonna kiss.” He entwined his fingers with hers and they both smiled broadly.

“You are such a sap. Nice to meet you, Elena.” Her accent was bright, sweet. Californian.

Elena felt a pang, and hoped Matt was right. They drank together, and the past was forgotten, because at twenty-one it should be all about the present and the future.

**

Alaric arrived. Unsure of himself.

Matt raised a startled eyebrow. “Hey, Mr Saltz- Ric.”

“Hey, Matt.” They shook hands. Very manly. He smiled grimly at Jenny. “It’s not Mr Saltzric. It’s just Ric.”

She shook his hand as well. “Jenny.”

Alaric sat down cautiously, a safe distance from Elena. Letting her know she was in the driver’s seat. She rolled her eyes, gripped his wrist. Kissed him, soft and sweet and almost chaste, bare lip to lip. Said, “Hi.”

Matt’s eyes turned to saucers. “When did that happen?”

“He was my birthday present to myself.”

“Yep,” Alaric said. “I’m definitely going to hell.”

**

By unspoken agreement, his bedroom became theirs; he bought a pair of desks, bought Elena a laptop computer to replace the one she’d smashed when Jeremy left, and her bedroom became the study.

“I’m not letting you waste your life, Elena. If you won’t go to college, write.”

**

They fought. They called each other the most vicious names they could invent.

She’d say, “No wonder Isobel wanted to become a vampire. Life with you would have bored a saint to suicide.”

He’d say, “You think you’re a grown woman, but you’re still a pathetic little girl. Throwing yourself a pity party at least once a week.”

She’d say, “You’re lucky I’ll even have you. You’re old. You’re a fucking high school history teacher, and you even suck at that.”

He’d say, “You’re a fucking waitress, Elena. You’re gonna criticise my career decisions? I should have left years ago.”

And she’d cry, and he’d apologise, and they’d fall into bed.

**

They would invoke Damon’s memory only when nothing less painful could suffice.

She’d say, “What could you possibly have offered him to make him want to stay?”

He’d say, “He left because of you. Because you forced him to choose between you and his brother.”

She’d say, “He didn’t give a shit about you. You were a snack he’d reach for when he was too stoned to find something he actually wanted to eat.”

He’d say, “He obsessed over Katherine for a hundred and fifty years. He got over you in about a hundred and fifty seconds.”

And she’d cry, and he’d apologise, and they’d fall into bed.

**

There were also things they’d never stoop to saying.

You’re the reason I’m still a high school history teacher.

I’m your wife’s daughter.

If you’d died, instead of Stefan, Damon would still be here. I could have been his comfort.

We defile Jenna’s memory every time we fuck.

**

Morning sex. She’d crawl all over him, insinuate herself over his body, beg him to take her, and he always did.

“I’m sorry,” she’d whisper against his throat. “I bet he was in love with you. I bet he thinks about you more than he ever thinks about me.”

“You’re killing me, Elena,” he’d whisper back.

**

Days past her twenty-second birthday, they were both working in the study. Both online.

She sent him an instant message.

I love you.

It was the first time she’d ever said it. He twitched, about to turn to her. She leaned further in to the keyboard, reluctant to make eye contact. He smiled.

I love you, too.

Chapter Text

Alaric drank, rubbed at the spot between his eyebrows with the pad of his thumb, thought about things he would rather do than tell Elena what he thought about the first three chapters of the book she was currently working on.

So far, he’d come up with: Justin Bieber concert. Dogfight (him against a dog. Him against Mason Lockwood). Parent-teacher conference. Explaining to Jenna’s ghost what he’s doing with her niece.

Driving nails into his own eyes.

Driving nails into Elena’s eyes.

Suddenly, she was there, tugging at his belt. He held her wrists. “Don’t.”

Her face collapsed onto itself. “Is it terrible?”

“It’s not terrible.”

“But it’s not good.”

“Elena…” She shifted her weight, collapsed onto the couch.

“It’s terrible.”

“I already told you, it’s not terrible.”

He fiddled with her hair, separating the strands. “I don’t want to upset you when you have to work tonight. Can we talk about this tomorrow?”

“No.” She was irritated, resolute. “Tell me now.”

He drew her into his lap, knowing she wouldn’t resist. If he’d learned anything by now, it was how to tell when Elena Gilbert wanted to be comforted.

“You have to write what you know, Elena. Or be prepared for a lot of gruelling research. You don’t know enough about normal, mundane, human life to write this character.”

“I’m a doppelganger, Ric. My last boyfriend was a vampire who tried to kill me. I was sacrificed so that a thousand year old werewolf-vampire hybrid could break a curse. I’ve been dead. Forgive me if I don’t know about college romance.” She tried to pull away. “Sorry that I’m not mundane enough for you.”

To Elena’s surprise, Alaric laughed.

“You’re not mundane enough for anyone, Elena.” Against her protests, he covered her mouth with a kiss. Deepened it, made her feel it, didn’t pull away until she relaxed into his embrace. “You’re not mundane. Fuck, I’m not mundane. Things have been quiet, the last few years, but it’s not that long ago I was fucking the vampire who killed and turned my wife. I have an underwear drawer full of weapons.”

She curled into the curve of his body, tucking her face into his neck.

“I only know one story, Ric.”

“So write it.”

“Matt said that.” She stretched her neck, rubbed her cheek against the stubble on his chin.

“Matt was right.”

**

Every second that Elena wasn’t working at the Grill, she wrote. Sometimes she made love to Alaric, waited until he was asleep, and returned to the computer.

One night, he stopped her, amused. “Elena.” She was about to return to the study.

She relaxed back into his arms.

“You don’t have to write the whole thing in a month.”

**

She disappeared, again, left her cell phone, and this time, like every time, Alaric checked the boarding house first. What he saw surprised even him. A ‘sold’ sign and evidence of construction work.

“Damon’s sold it?”

Elena nodded. She was sitting in her car, drinking gin again. Distilled tears, Alaric’s mother used to tell him, because you drink it when you want to cry.

Elena wasn’t crying.

“It’s going to be a bed and breakfast. I spoke to the real estate agent.” She took another mouthful.

**

Sitting apart on the couch an hour later, they tried to talk.

“Do you still miss him?” Elena asked. She stared at his face, looking for any hint he might be trying to lie.

“Yes.” He exhaled. Brought the bourbon to his lips. “Do you?”

“Yes.” She curled into his side. “Every day. Do you still love him?”

“Elena…”

“It’s okay if you do.”

She took his glass, drank deep. He poured another.

“Yes. I still love him. Do you?”

She was crying, now, as she took the bourbon from his hands and drank again. “Yes. I still love him. But I never had him, not like you did.”

As she said it, she reached for the scar on his hip. The scar that burned sometimes, when Alaric thought about Damon.

“Do you wish he’d turned us?”

Alaric shook his head. “No.”

Elena, who could read him like a book, said “so do I, some days.”

**

Maybe it was the taste of bourbon on Elena’s mouth. Perhaps it was all the talk of Damon, the symbolic breaking of his last ties with Mystic Falls – selling the boarding house – or perhaps it was something else entirely. But that night, he turned Elena onto her side, put his thumb over her anus. Paused, to see if she’d object.

She didn’t, so he carefully stretched her, with one finger, then two, then three, and then he lubed himself up and carefully entered her. The sensation was at once completely new, and sweetly familiar. She tensed briefly, but accommodated him, and he kissed her shoulders and back as he found his rhythm.

Their rhythm. His and Damon’s. He hated himself for this, a little, but when he came, it was Damon’s face he saw.

He withdrew, but she stayed lying on her side.

“We’re sharing this bed with a ghost,” she said sadly.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She rolled towards him, placed her head on his chest. “I am, too.”

He swore to himself he’d never do it again. Treat her like a substitute. (He never did.)

**

Founder’s Day. They decided to go, for the first time in years.

Alaric accepted their invitations with all the grace he could muster. Elena wore one of her shiny dresses and it was a sight so familiar and forgotten that Alaric felt giddy.

“I can’t believe this still fits me,” she said, in front of the mirror. She wasn’t a teenager any more, and some weight had settled into her curves, making her look for all the world like a piece of juicy, ripe fruit. Alaric ran appreciative hands down the length of her body, pausing to weigh her breasts, kiss her throat. She made a sound low in her throat.

“Maybe we could skip the party, just see where this goes?” she said, familiar huskiness and the curl of her lip almost enough to break his resolve.

Reluctantly, he took his hands off her hips. “We both know where this would go.”

**

Carol regarded him like a fly regards a spider.

“It’s inappropriate. Not just because of the age difference. She’s the only member of the Gilbert family left standing, Mr Saltzman,” she started, cornering him by the banquet.

Carol always called Alaric ‘Mr Saltzman’ when no one else would hear. Her way of reminding him that he wasn’t part of the fucking Founding Family Tree. She knew what he’d done for the town, she just couldn’t acknowledge it.

Alaric watched as Elena spoke quietly to one of the Lockwood cousins. He couldn’t keep them straight in his mind, only knew that to the last, each one was unrepentant about raking their eyes over Elena’s body at every opportunity.

“That’s not quite true. Jeremy’s in Rhode Island. It’s not really that far away.”

“You’re her teacher.”

“I was her teacher. A long time ago.” He took a step back and sideways. “Liz,” he grinned, grateful at last for a friendly face. “How’s Caroline?” He kissed her cheek.

The Sheriff took his arm. “Can we talk?”

He made as if to follow her. “Not here,” she said, eyeing Carol awkwardly. “Tomorrow night?”

He nodded, wary.

“Have you been reading the papers?”

He hadn’t been. He and Elena stopped reading the paper when they realised it was an unhealthy obsession, combing the pages for evidence of animal attacks, praying they might find Damon hidden between the lines.

**

That night, as he and Elena prepared to go to bed, there was a knock on the door. Alaric checked the peephole.

“Who is it?” Elena whispered.

No point in pretending there’s no one home when vampires can hear the hair growing on your head. Alaric opened the door. “It’s Elijah.”

“Hello, Ric. Elena. Are you going to invite me in?”

Elena crossed her arms. “No.”

“Very well. I have information you need. After your meeting with Liz Forbes tomorrow night, I imagine you’ll want to speak to me.” He held out a calling card and Alaric took it.

Elijah hesitated, which was odd, because Elijah never hesitated. Every movement he made seemed to have been calculated a year or more in advance, telegraphed from a chain of similarly calculated moves, a dance only he understood.

Alaric made an irritated sound in his throat. “We haven’t seen him,” he said.

Elijah left.

**

“The Founders’ Council’s been running for nearly four years without me, Liz. You don’t need me.” Elena brought their drinks. She was behind the bar, alert, listening as hard as she could, a few steps away.

“We do. It’s been four years of planning streetlights and memorial sculptures. That’s not the priority any more.” She rubbed at her temples. “Elena, you shouldn’t be listening to this.”

“Anything you say to me,” Alaric said, carefully, “She’s gonna hear it as soon as I get her alone. So you might as well talk.”

Elena flashed a grateful smile, and stood close by. Liz groaned.

“The vampires are back, Ric.” Liz was nervous and tired-looking. “And possibly some hybrids. It looks like recon. We’ve taken a few out, but… The Founder’s Council needs a different kind of leader, right now,” she said. “And we also need you back. See where I’m going with this?”

“I’m not from one of the Founding Families, Liz. I’m not even local. I’m ‘from away’. They’ll never accept me. Carol Lockwood hates me.”

She ignored this last. “This is a new threat, Ric. You can’t ignore it any more than I can.”

**

That night, Elena made Alaric stay still while she undressed him.

“Elena…”

“Do you know what my dad would say about me dating the head of the Founders’ Council?” She sat him down as she slipped his shoes off, and his socks.

“Dating?”

Straddling his legs on the bed, she started to unbutton his shirt, pausing to lick and bite at the places on his stomach and chest that could be relied upon to make him moan. She pulled the shirt off.

“If I say ‘fucking the head of the Founders’ Council’, I see a whole different expression on his face.”

He let his eyes slip closed.

(Sometimes, he hates it when she talks like this.

She was seventeen, when they met. You can’t encase a girl in amber. You can’t stop her from growing up way too fast, with vampires around.

Regret is a close second to hope, on the list of essential and useless human failings.)

He opened his eyes and accepted, anew, the reality of their lives.

“Your turn,” she said, pupils dilated to black holes.

“Sit down.”

She did. He unlaced her tall boots, peeled off the skinny jeans she was wearing.

(He hated them – knew they drew eyes to her curves – but they brought her better tips, and he couldn’t decide if telling her not to wear them sounded more like a complaint from a lover, or a father or brother.)

“We’re all uneven.”

He still wore pants, she still wore her shirt. She removed her shirt, and he slipped off his pants.

Still seated, she reached for his hips, taking his erect penis whole in her mouth.

**

Afterwards, as they lay with sheets crumpled around them, he reminded her “I didn’t say yes, Elena.”

“Oh, yes you did. Several times.” She giggled. “You said, ‘oh yes, Elena, right like that’ and ‘yes! yes! Fuck, yes!’”

He grinned, running his lips across the top of her head. “I didn’t say yes to the Council.”

“I noticed that.” She tightened her grip around his waist, tugged gently at his pubic hair. “Why?”

Alaric tangled his fingers through Elena’s. “Don’t you think vampires have ruined our lives about enough? Don’t you want to get on with our life together? Without…”

“Fat chance of that, while we’re living here.”

“Great. So let’s leave.” He’d wanted to get out of Mystic Falls the moment Klaus was dead. Stayed to put Elena back together. Stayed out of habit, in the end.

“But this vampire thing has to be bad, if Elijah’s in town.” She shook her head. “And what if… what if they all come back?”

He didn’t have an answer for that, except to rub his thumb over Elena’s collar bone.

“Thought we agreed we weren’t sharing this bed with a ghost anymore, Elena.”

She sighed. “We’re not.”

**

Alaric became head of the Founder’s Council. Eyebrows were raised, but he’d been an honorary Gilbert for long enough that the eyebrows didn’t stay raised for long.

He taught classes, marked papers, but burned with a new fire. He trained, made Elena train with him, every moment neither was working. She got faster, stronger. Learned to love the feeling of muscles that could carry a great weight, legs that could carry her a long distance.

When he realised that sometimes, when he was working and she wasn’t, she would run, pump weights, train without him, it set him on fire. Those were their best nights. Passionate, desperate, the realisation they’d come to (separately, and together) that this was a life worth fighting for. He loved the feeling of her muscles under his, stronger by the day.

They whittled stakes, assembled vervain grenades, wolfsbane grenades. Liz captured a vampire and locked him in the Lockwood family cellar. Had to stake him before they got anything out of him.

Between breaths, Elena worked on her book.

Alaric called Elijah. Elijah helped, resentful and amused by Elena and Alaric’s refusal to let them into their home. “Why are you helping, Elijah?” Elena asked mildly, one night, at a war cabinet meeting at the Lockwood’s.

He leaned back in his chair. “Klaus was my brother. The hybrids are his responsibility, and he’s dead, which makes them my responsibility. And, of course, because of Damon.”

Elena quirked an eyebrow.

“He destroyed my brother, when I couldn’t. I owe him the greatest imaginable debt. If I let his favourite humans die, what sort of a man would I be?”

**

Elena and Alaric lay tangled in sweaty bedsheets. “I don’t know how I feel about Elijah calling us Damon’s favourite humans,” Elena breathed, fingers trailing slow circles on Alaric’s chest.

“It doesn’t matter.”

Elena lifted herself onto her elbow, planting soft kisses on Alaric’s face. “Oh?”

“It only matters that we’re each other’s favourite humans,” he said.

Elena smiled, a sneaky smile, one that assured Alaric that his night wasn’t over. “Well, you’re definitely my favourite human,” she said. “I love you.”

“Yeah, you too.”

**

Alaric sat in the sun at the Grill, waiting for Elena, when Katherine leaned in to kiss him.

“Katherine? What the hell are you doing here?” He pulled away before her lips got anywhere near close.

Katherine looked bemused, but bored. She sat down. “How can you tell?”

“Because Elena’s twenty-three and built like an Amazon, and you still look like a seventeen-year old twig.”

“Can’t believe I bothered straightening my hair. I was hoping hijinks might ensue.”

“What are you doing here? And before you lie, remember I’m packing heat.”

“I bet you are,” Katherine purred. “I came to help with the new big bad.”

Cautious, Elena sat down as well. So focussed on the threat at hand, Alaric hadn’t noticed her approach. “No you didn’t, Katherine.”

Katherine raked appreciative eyes over Elena’s muscular frame. “See what you mean,” she mused.

“Katherine…” Elena warned.

“Fine. I came to see if Damon might be here. Helping with the big bad. Since he’s all about the good deeds now.”

“We haven’t seen him in years. He sold the boarding house.” Alaric said this with no tone; no regret. Elena smiled small.

“I know. I’m staying there. It’s weird, without our boys.” She leaned back in the chair, blowing hair out of her eyes. “I’m sleeping in Damon’s room.” She threw her arm across the back of Alaric’s chair.

“Don’t get comfortable, Katherine.” He pushed her hand away from his neck. “We haven’t seen Damon, but if we do, we’ll tell him where you’re staying.” Alaric spoke with a tone that brooked no argument.

“Fine,” she said, stalking away.

**

In the end, it was nothing more than a poorly executed attempt to reignite the supernatural fire that had so long burned under Mystic Falls; but by the time it was over, Elena had a publisher.

**

Alaric made lazy love to Elena, mouths sloppy, skin quivering, thighs aflame.

“I can’t believe I’m your epilogue.”

Elena let her orgasm rise, fall, fill her with warmth, clamped hot, silky muscles around Alaric’s cock.

“I prefer to think of you as my happy ending.” She grinned against his throat.

“Then I think you should marry me.”

“Okay,” she said, quietly delighted as he claimed her mouth with his.

Chapter Text

Elena held a copy of her book in her hands, unable to believe it was quite real. Alaric poured champagne. Liz admired the cover, the stylized image of a hooked fang and dark, spider-webbed capillaries.

“I still don’t know if this was a good idea. It’s a big risk, you know.”

“Not so big. No one would ever believe it was a true story.” Alaric draped a lazy arm across Elena’s shoulders. His new wife’s shoulders.

The book, it must be said, was the story of a girl, loved by two brothers. Two vampire brothers. It was melodramatic, full of major character deaths, and it ended with almost everyone the girl had ever loved, or who loved her, leaving her; dead, or just gone.

The epilogue, though, told of the man who stayed.

It was published under a pen name. If the denizens of Mystic Falls knew Elena had written it, the town would have emptied overnight. But it would never be a best-seller; few in town would ever read it, save those who knew it was true. Those who could be replied upon to keep their mouths shut.

Elena put the book down, trying to mask a proud grin. She twisted the wedding band on her finger.

“You have to sign mine, of course. And one for Caroline.”

Elena giggled, reaching for a pen. “How is Caroline?”

Liz didn’t answer, but took Elena’s hand in hers. “I’m sorry, Elena. I don’t think I ever knew how hard it was for you when she left.”

Elena shook her head. Did not let the tears fall as she signed two copies of her book (her book!). “I missed them all. But I wanted them to have their lives. I wanted them to do what they wanted. And besides, I’m fine now.” She leaned against Alaric’s side. “I’m… perfect.”

**

It would be months before she saw any money, so Elena was still working at the Grill.

She was sitting at home, working on a new book – no vampires – when her cell phone chirped. Alaric’s name flashed on the screen.

“Where are you?”

“Well, hello to you too, husband. I’m at home, weaving literary brilliance. And wishing you were here taking my clothes -”

“You need to come down to the Grill,” and she was surprised, because Alaric could usually be counted on for at least a few minutes of phone smut.

“I’m not supposed to be working tonight. ’Sup? They getting slammed?” She sat up straight.

“Just come down.” He disconnected.

**

Alaric met her outside, stalking the pavement. Elena’s heart beat like a bass drum, in her chest, in her mouth, in her stomach.

“You are completely freaking me out. What’s wrong?” When she was panicked, Elena’s voice was huskier than usual, and it was almost enough to unravel him.

Alaric took her in his arms, and held her close. “Caroline’s here. With Tyler.”

The world took on an unrealistic tint; Elena staggered.

“Because of the book?”

“Because of the book.”

**

Caroline and Tyler were sitting at a booth with Liz Forbes, who was uncharacteristically silent, watching her daughter with a look that somehow balanced awe and fear. Caroline was relaying some thrilling tale, no doubt, but the sight of Alaric approaching with his arm draped over Elena’s shoulder shut everyone up fast.

Caroline rose to her feet.

After a long beat, she spoke. “I’m so sorry, Elena,” but as Alaric had predicted, the sombre mood lasted about forty-five seconds, before the girls were crying, hugging, and shrieking.

“You look so different,” Caroline was saying.

“You… really, really don’t,” Elena answered. “I’m jealous. You’re going to look like that forever.”

“You got to grow up. Jesus, Elena, you look amazing.” She eyed Alaric. “And you seem to be getting younger.”

Alaric gave a wry grin, didn’t tell her he drank about a fifth of what he used to.

(Elena was twenty-four; Alaric was forty. In the last year he’d realised that at some point, Elena would be a widow. Decided on the spot that he wanted that to be a long, long way into the future. He ate better, exercised more, drank far, far less.)

Tyler stood with his hands in his pockets. “Hey, ’Lena,” he said, and she drew him into a hug. After a beat, he returned it. “I’m sorry, too.”

“Hey. You escaped a life sentence as Klaus’ bitch. I wanted you to have a life, too.”

A voice came from behind them.

“Well, this is awkward.”

Jeremy was taller than memory allowed, and had appeared in their midst like an unbidden ghost.

Elena threw herself at him, holding his huge chest. “My baby brother,” she breathed, between sobs. “I’m so sorry, Jer… everything I said to you. I’m so sorry.”

(Years of sporadic, terse emails and text messages, and he was here with her at last.)

“I’m sorry.” He held his sister close, breathed in her scent. “I should have come back to you.”

“I should have gone to you. I couldn’t…” She was crying hard, as she pulled away from him, taking his hands in hers. “I was too scared to leave here, in case someone came back.”

Jeremy put a thumb on her wedding band, looked at Alaric. “Shit, man. I thought you were gonna end up my step-dad. Or is it step-uncle? Not my brother in law.” He shook Alaric’s hand. “Congratulations.”

Caroline hadn’t noticed the ring, so another round of shrieking ensued.

“You know your mom was our witness, right?” Elena held her hand out, so Caroline could examine the simple, knotted silver band. “Us humans have to stick together.”

**

Elena called Matt from the bathroom.

“Caroline, Tyler and Jeremy are here.”

“Because of the book?” He chuckled.

“Because of the book. Can you come?”

“I’ll be there in a couple of hours.”

**

They ordered drinks, ordered food. Swapped stories. Jeremy was drawing comic books for a writer he described as ‘moderately famous, if you’re into comics’.

Liz said what Elena couldn’t; “you should turn Elena’s book into a comic.” Jeremy smiled, blushed, saying without words that he’d already given it some thought.

Caroline and Tyler talked about their travel exploits. They’d seen half the world. Got married in an Elvis chapel in Las Vegas, and then annulled it, in case they decided to do it properly some time. At one point, they’d planned to climb Mt Everest, and then decided that sounded really boring. Went back to Paris instead.

**

Matt arrived, with Jenny in tow; more shrieking ensued.

Jenny whispered into Elena’s hair. “You got married?”

Elena nodded. Glanced at Jenny’s hand, the tiny diamond sparkling there. “When are you guys tying the knot?”

“March. Don’t worry, you’re invited.”

**

At home, in Alaric’s arms, Elena laughed, cried, kissed every inch of his skin. “They’re all staying at the boarding house. I sort of wish we were, too.”

Alaric thumbed her clit, buried himself in her, licked her neck. “This is our home.”

“It doesn’t have to be.” She tightened her muscles around his cock, nipped at his ear.

“Do you mean…?” Alaric held her eyes, daring her.

“Yes, Ric. I mean it.”

**

In the morning, as Elena began her morning ritual of violating her husband’s mostly-sleeping form, there was a knock on the door.

She collapsed onto Alaric’s chest. “Let’s ignore it,” she begged.

“Normally, I’d agree with you, but given the week we’re having, that’s probably Bonnie.” He smiled against her lips.

Elena’s heart quickened as she pulled on sweatpants and a singlet.

She opened the door with unnecessary flair.

“Hey, Elena,” Bonnie said, chin quivering.

**

After a day that Bonnie and Elena spent catching up, they had a repeat of the previous evening’s performance. The whole gang, plus Jeremy’s girlfriend, Charlotte; Bonnie’s girlfriend, Magenta; and Jenny. The ‘significant others’ knew the story, knew every word in Elena’s book was true, and it was an odd feeling, to share such memories without the Salvatores there.

Charlotte maintained a look of mild panic a lot of the time, and stared fearfully at Caroline and Tyler, but Jeremy calmed her. She, Magenta and Jenny bonded like a newly formed fan club.

To be in the midst of the people Elena loved most again was equal parts pleasure and pain. Laughter won out over tears, but it was a close call. Pool was played, moments were shared. Elena groaned at requests for book signings, but filled them regardless, filled them with a cheesy grin.

**

It was different, this time, when they all rolled back out of town. Everyone had everyone’s number, and a solemn promise to keep in touch. A promise Elena actually believed, this time. They made tentative plans to meet back here in a year’s time. They made noises about booking out the whole of the boarding house. There were just enough rooms for the whole gang.

Elena leaned into Alaric’s side and felt for the first time in years like a girl who didn’t carry a curse.

**

It had been years since they’d done it, but Elena and Alaric made love in the back seat of his truck, unable to wait until they got home.

“I think…” Alaric whispered into Elena’s throat. “I think I like being the happy ending.”

“I like being your happy ending.”

They lay on the back seat, sated and lazy. “Wedding bells now, and in a couple of years they’ll be pushing baby carriages.”

“You know I won’t ever have children, right?”

The declaration came out of nowhere. Alaric tensed.

“The Petrova line. It dies with me.” Elena’s expression was fierce. Alaric nodded.

“I get that. We can adopt. Foster. Or just make love six times a day until we die of old age.” His head was tucked against Elena’s breast, his mouth moving against the silky flesh there.

“It’s pretty great when plans A, B and C are equally perfect. You definitely don’t mind?”

He answered by covering her mouth with his.

After a night of revelry, reunion and revelation, neither could safely drive, but the walk wasn’t long.

**

Neither expected to find Damon on the couch, drinking bourbon, when they got home.

Already preparing for round two, Alaric swung Elena into the wall, sucking on her bottom lip, making her shriek, pushing her shirt up over her breasts.

Damon coughed loudly. “Don’t mind me.”

It was as if the air in the room dropped ten degrees.

Elena and Alaric froze like stones, for a moment. Only a moment. Alaric took an automatic, protective step forward, shielding Elena from a threat that didn’t exist.

“The scene at the Grill was touching. I couldn’t bring myself to ruin it.” He was pouring another drink. “I bet you’re asking yourselves how I got in here.” Damon raised his glass to his lips. “I was surprised myself. I heard a rumour, once, years ago, about ‘standing invitations’. If the occupants of a home actually love you, and bear you no ill will, believe that you bear them no ill will, and if, despite the fact that you’re a vampire you actually bear them no ill will, you might get a standing invitation. Which means you can get into any place they call home. It’s really rare.” Somehow, he got through this with barely a hint of snark. Actually sounded a little sad.

Elena placed a hand on Alaric’s waist. Silently begged for guidance.

“The fact that I walked in here with no resistance made me feel like a complete ass for staying away so long. But it’s nice to know you don’t hate me. Which you should.”

“Damon.” It was Elena who actually spoke, to Alaric’s surprise. “What are you doing here?”

Damon drank slowly, slower than necessary. Alaric tangled Elena’s fingers in his own. So much to say, and no one could speak, no one could move.

Damon stood slowly. “I shouldn’t have come.”

Elena took an awkward step forward, took him into her arms. Alaric watched as Damon nestled his face into his wife’s neck, held her tight. He wasn’t surprised that when he pulled away, Damon’s eyes were wet. His mouth twisted in regret as he held Alaric’s eyes, his arms twitching with the need to take his friend in his arms.

Alaric nodded, and a moment later, six years were rewound. Damon’s faintly smoky smell and slightly cool skin were at once shockingly alien and achingly familiar. “I’m so sorry,” Damon whispered against his ear, before drawing his head back, just enough to plant a soft kiss on Alaric’s lips.

“Me too,” he answered.

Elena poured drinks; bourbon for her boys, and gin for herself. She hadn’t drunk bourbon again since the night she learned the boarding house had been sold.

It was late, after three in the morning, but they sat up and talked. Damon kept his eyes low, much of the time, as if he was ashamed.

“I had a brother for a hundred and sixty four years, and then I killed him.” He shrugged, his attempt at nonchalance a total failure. “I did the right thing, and I’d do it again.”

Elena took his hand. “Damon…”

He squeezed her hand in his. “It hurt like… Fuck. I did the right thing. I know I did. But I lost my fucking mind, after.”

“How could you not have?” Alaric spread an uneasy arm across the back of the couch, but could not quite reach his friend.

“You don’t look like Katherine any more.” Damon gave Elena an appraising look. Took in her strong arms, and more.

Elena giggled. “Yeah. She pretended to be me once, last year, tried to hit on Ric, but she didn’t fool him for a second.”

“I read the book.”

Elena nodded. “What did you think?”

Damon shrugged. “It was well-written, for a teenage romance novel. But the brothers were a pair of douchebags. I don’t know what Eleanor saw in either of them.”

“They had their moments.”

Impulsively, Damon placed his head in Elena’s lap. Alaric rested a hand on his shoulder, and Elena ran soft fingers through his hair. “I’m so tired. I’ve been tired for six years. I’ve been alone for six years.”

“That was your choice, man.” Alaric spoke more softly than Elena could ever remember him speaking. The anger was long gone.

“I made the wrong one. Can I stay? Just for a while?”

“Stay as long as you like.”

(It doesn’t matter who said that. They spoke as one, now.)

They were packed like sardines onto the couch, and it felt remarkably like home.

Damon breathed in Elena’s scent, Alaric’s scent. The combined scent that made up their home. “I shouldn’t have left the way I did.”

“Damon,” she breathed into his hair. “We know why you left. We know.”

“I shouldn’t have left you that note.”

This, she couldn’t argue with. The note that she’d carried in her wallet for four years, unfolded and refolded, until the words were only ideas; I don’t know. Sometimes.

She’d burned it the night she’d discovered he’d sold the boarding house. Burned it in the ashtray of her little red car.

“I couldn’t have chosen Stefan over you. You know that, right?”

She couldn’t help herself, tracing the contours of his face with her thumb. Hoping Alaric understood.

“He was your brother, Damon. You loved him. You -”

“Once he was the ripper again, there was nothing left of our Stefan. I could never have chosen that… shell over you. Please, Elena.”

She tightened her hand in his hair. “It’s nice to hear it.” What shocked her about this was the realisation that she’d never missed Stefan, in all these years; only the brother she held now.

Damon ran his thumb over Alaric’s wedding band like it was a talisman. “I’ve been keeping tabs on you two. But I didn’t know about this.”

“You have?” Alaric was surprised. He’d always thought that if Damon was ever close enough to pay attention, he’d have felt it, somehow.

“I just wanted to know you were both safe and having a life. When I saw you were together, I thought it was…” He wrapped a hand around Elena’s waist. She tried not to notice that he could smell her arousal, lying against the top of her thigh the way he was. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I thought. But it’s real, isn’t it? It looks real.”

Alaric snaked his arm tighter around his wife’s waist. The tangle of limbs was getting ridiculous.

“It’s real,” he said. Elena leaned into him, but couldn’t take her eyes off Damon’s face. “We love each other.”

Damon laughed, so full of regret.

“I thought I ruined you both.”

“Life ruined us both, Damon. We put each other back together again. It took years. But we’re good.”

“We’re better than good,” Elena added.

**

Alaric and Elena lay curved against each other in their bed.

“I can’t believe he’s here.” With his thumb, Alaric mapped the swell of Elena’s hip. She leaned in to kiss him, as if to say it didn’t matter, that nothing had changed.

They were almost asleep when Damon came in. He was naked. Climbed under the sheets, shocking a half-asleep Elena awake.

“Damon? What are you doing?”

He answered by closing his mouth over hers. She (sort of) resisted, until Alaric put his hand on her arm. Silently granting permission, though he couldn’t have been sure he wanted to share his wife. Nor share Damon.

Damon stretched across Elena’s body, turned to Alaric, then, and kissed him as well. Elena sat up, a hand over her lips, stunned into silence.

Cautiously, she reached a hand out to touch Damon’s cool skin.

He turned to her. “Just one night, Elena. Just one time.”

She looked to her husband. His eyes were clear, cautious and hopeful. “No ghosts in this bed,” he said, as she ran a thumb across his lips.

Six legs, six arms ending in six wonderful hands. Three mouths. One aching, throbbing clit; two glorious cocks; more than enough holes to stick them in. Somehow the math worked perfectly and Elena had the sense she’d been given something back that she didn’t even know was missing.

At times, she didn’t know who she was touching, who was touching her. At one point, she was aware that she was lying apart, watching her men devour each other while she brought herself to climax with one gentle finger. At one beautiful moment, with Alaric buried inside her, his hands on her breasts, she kissed Damon over her husband’s shoulder, and thought Alaric might be exactly where he belonged for the first time ever, quivering, needy and needed.

When at last they fell asleep, it was Elena between them.

**

In the morning, Damon was gone, but the bed didn’t feel empty. He left a note.

“See you both soon, D.” He’d also left his phone number, which made Elena smile.

Life went on.

 

Epilogue

The day after Elena’s twenty-fifth birthday, she and Alaric hitched a trailer to his truck and put Mystic Falls in their rear view mirror. Alaric would start teaching at his alma mater in the fall semester and Elena would start a writing course at the same time.

Elena found herself grinning irrepressibly. “I never thought I could do this.”

“What?”

She punched Alaric’s arm lightly. “You know what.”

“Yeah. Still wanna hear you say it, wifey.”

“You’re an ass.”

“Yeah.” He pulled her across the bench seat, mashed a kiss into her temple. “Come on, Elena. You’re the big-time writer. You’re the girl with the words.”

Suddenly sombre, she gripped his leg. “I didn’t think I could leave here, ever. Have a life away from Mystic Falls, leave my parents’ graves behind...”

“We’ll be here once a year until us fragile humans are all dead. That was the promise, right?”

Elena nodded. “Once a year. The whole gang.” She sighed. “Plus, total bonus, no more Founders’ parties.”

“No regrets?” he said, changing gear and pulling out onto the highway.

“No regrets,” she smiled back at him.

Damon would always find them when he needed them, and there were no more ghosts in the bed.