Though she never said it, Matt Donovan knew his mother never intended to have him. Thirteen months separated him from Vicki, and that was a small gap even under ordinary circumstances. But, as he learned when he was very young, he and Vicki had different fathers; Vicki's dad had been Kelly's husband, a bartender from West Virginia who took off six-months into her pregnancy and only popped up sporadically after that. When Matt asked about his own father, Kelly sighed, lit a cigarette, and only offered that his name was Barry Roberts, he wasn't a nice guy, and she had no idea where he was.
It bothered Matt that his dad hadn't been a nice guy.
He was born on Valentine's Day, an irony his mother never quite got over, and Elena Gilbert arrived two weeks later. Every baby picture Kelly Donovan had featured him and Elena together, usually in complementary outfits purchased by Miranda, Elena's dark head alongside his bald one. They shared a crib and a playpen and the daybed her parents bought when they figured out how to scale the bars of the crib. Matt's toys were Elena's toys; Elena's sippy cup was Matt's sippy cup. For all intents and purposes, Elena was his other half.
His mom worked during the day and sometimes at night, so he and Vicki were always at the Gilbert house. Every morning Kelly dropped them off before school and every evening she picked them up before bedtime, and in all the times in between, Matt liked to pretend he was a Gilbert. It wasn't something he would ever tell his mother or even his big sister, but Matt liked life with Miranda and Grayson so much more than he did at their house.
At Elena's house, Miranda made pancakes, eggs, or French Toast for breakfast; he never had to eat cereal without milk or half-stale Poptarts before going to school. At Elena's house, Miranda packed lunches in bright colored lunch boxes, always remembering what his favorite things to eat were, always tucking a note inside like she did for Elena or Jeremy; he never had to brandish his free lunch ticket on the days Miranda sent him to school, his cheeks flaming with embarrassment. At Elena's house, Miranda helped him with his work sheets and reviewed their spelling words; he never had to beg Vicki for her help if Miranda was there. And at Elena's house, everyone sat down at the table for dinner, glasses of milk poured and hot meals served while everyone talked about their day; he never had to make Ramen noodles in the microwave when he spent the evenings with the Gilberts.
And while Matt adored Miranda Gilbert with her patient smile and gentle touch, as far as Matt was concerned, the sun rose and set on Grayson.
The first time Matt realized how much he loved Grayson Gilbert, he was six-years-old and it was the last week of kindergarten. Like they had three weeks earlier for their mothers, the class was holding a Father's Day celebration and everyone invited their father/stepfather/uncle/grandpa to come in to receive their homemade card, drink punch, get their picture taken, and otherwise spend an hour with their child. Everyone in the class had someone attending, and Matt sat at his desk, dressed in the outfit he had worn because their teacher advised them all to look nice for their pictures, and stared down at his card, trying not to cry.
He watched them all out of the corners of his eyes, all of his friends with their fathers, and for the first time in his life, Matt hated his mom for not knowing where his dad was, for never trying to find him. He hated Vicki, who received sporadic birthday cards for her father and got to visit her grandparents in Wheeling. And most of all he hated Barry, who had never wanted to meet him even once.
Matt looked up to see Grayson standing beside his desk, looking impossibly tall from his seated position, dressed in an outfit Matt knew he wore under his doctor's coat. Instantly Matt looked around for Elena, spotting her by the class bunny talking to Bonnie and her dad, and he quickly wiped at his eyes so she would not see him crying.
Squatting down beside his desk, Grayson gestured to the card Matt had folded his arms over. "Is that the card you made?"
He nodded reluctantly.
"Would it be okay if I look at it?"
Matt slid the paper across the table to him, gnawing anxiously on his lower lip. He watched as Grayson studied the front before opening it up, reading the generic message Matt had painstakingly inscribed inside, knowing no one would ever read it but having been afraid their teacher would notice he wasn't working as hard as his classmates.
"This is really nice, Matt."
"Thank you," he replied because, even though he didn't want to talk, Miranda always told him it was important to be polite.
"You know," Grayson began, "I really like this card, and I have this big, empty bulletin board in my office. Do you think I could have this?"
Matt cautiously raised his eyes to meet Grayson's. "You want my card? Really?"
Grayson smiled with a nod of his head. "I would be honored if you gave me your card."
He sat on Grayson's left side, Elena on his right, and, when it came time to get their pictures taken, Grayson picked him up, playfully jostling him to get him to smile. When the teacher gave them the prints on the last day of school, Matt carefully slid them into his folder for safe keeping. During dinner, Elena rushed into the other room, pulling her pictures from her backpack, and Grayson looked expectantly at Matt, lips quirked into a smile.
"Don't you have something for me, too?"
A few months later, Matt and Elena were playing hide-and-seek when Matt ducked into Grayson's home office, prepared to hide under the desk. As he rounded the corner, he noticed the Fathers' Day picture in a small frame near the computer screen beside photos of Elena and Jeremy.
Matt gave him a card for Father's Day every year after that.
* * *
The summer Matt was eleven, his mother signed him up for Little League. Vicki was with her grandparents that summer, gone until the weekend before school started, and Kelly decided he needed to have something to fill up his days. Matt didn't mind spending the summer at the park, didn't even really mind playing baseball despite his relative disinterest in the sport, but he did mind the fact that Kelly stated for the start she did not think she'd be able to make his games.
Every morning Matt woke up, got breakfast, and walked over to the park, meeting up with the rest of the guys from his team; they usually goofed around on the equipment or played basketball until lunchtime, when he'd walk over to Elena's house to check-in. Afterward, he'd head back over to the park for practice or a game and then head home for the evening, usually microwaving himself dinner and making sure there was something left in the freezer for Kelly.
He knew it worried Miranda, him being alone so much, but Matt was starting to get used to it.
One rainy afternoon, he and Jeremy were lying on the living room floor watching a movie, Matt idly tossing a ball into the air and catching it in his glove, when Grayson came home early. He pressed a kiss to the top of Elena's head and kissed Miranda in greeting before dropping down onto the couch.
"What are we watching?"
"Harry Potter," they both replied.
After a moment, Grayson leaned forward, catching the ball at its peak, surprising Matt, who turned over onto his stomach and pushed up into a sitting position, afraid he was about to be chastised for throwing the ball in the house.
Instead, Grayson nodded towards his hand. "Is that the glove you use to play?"
Matt looked down at the large, battered glove Kelly had bought him at Goodwill. It was too big for his hand and coming apart in some places, but Matt had managed to keep it together using pieces of duct tape and sheer perseverance. Some of the guys on the team hassled him about it until Tyler threatened to kick their asses; after that, Matt kept it hidden in his gear until the last minute.
"Yeah, it works alright."
Grayson frowned briefly before getting to his feet. "Come on."
They drove to the sports store in Grove Hill, Grayson telling Matt to pick out whatever it was he needed. Matt hesitated at the sight of the price tags, shifting uneasily on the balls of his feet, and Grayson bent down in front of him, a kind smile on his face.
"What's wrong, Matty?"
"You don't have to buy me anything," he mumbled, staring at his feet. "My mom can - "
"Your mom has a lot on her plate right now," Grayson interrupted gently, "and sometimes that makes it hard for extras. If you're going to play ball, you need the right equipment."
Matt lifted his face, swallowing back the emotion threatening to break free. "But I'm not even your kid."
Grayson sighed in understanding before standing upright, leading Matt over to a bench near the door and motioning for him to sit. Matt obeyed, afraid he had insulted Grayson, before Elena's father sat beside him, a contemplative look on his face.
"You know," Grayson began, his voice soft, "before Elena was born, Miranda and I didn't think we'd be able to have any kids. And that made us really sad because we wanted six."
"Six?" Matt echoed, his eyes bulging in shock.
Grayson laughed. "Yep, six. And we tried and tried but no babies came. And then, one day, we had Elena, and we thought she was going to be the only baby we had. Now, I love Elena more than anything else in the world, but I really wanted a son. So sometimes, when you and Elena were babies, I used to pretend you were twins."
Matt could not help but grin. "Really?"
"Really. I used to come home every day from work and ask Miranda where my babies were. And I'd pick you up and throw you in the air, and you'd just laugh and laugh."
It warmed Matt to hear the obvious affection in Grayson's voice; his mother never spoke of him so sweetly.
"Vicki never liked me very much," Grayson continued, "but you would crawl up into my lap the second I got home. Sometimes you'd even push Elena out of the way."
Matt blushed. "I did not."
"You did!" he insisted. "And then I'd pull you both into my lap and we'd read. And you always wanted me to read the same book over and over again. You remember that book?"
"There's a Monster At The End of This Book."
Grayson grinned fondly before sobering a bit. "Just because we aren't family by blood, doesn't mean we aren't family, Matt. As far as Miranda I are concerned, you're just as much as our kid as Elena or Jeremy. You don't have to be embarrassed when we want to do something for you."
Matt nodded in understanding. "Okay."
"Okay. Now, let's get you a glove."
For the rest of the summer, Grayson came to every one of his games.
The following year, he coached their team.
* * *
In eighth grade, Matt realized he was in love with Elena, and it scared the shit out of him.
For every moment of their lives, they had been together, and Matt never really gave it much thought; it was simply a fact of being. They were raised like siblings, treated like siblings, and treated each other like siblings. Matt always considered Elena to be as much his sister as Vicki was, and more than once Elena had told him he was the best big brother ever.
And then, one afternoon, they were doing their homework at the Gilberts’ kitchen table. Matt looked up from his notebook to ask Elena a question about the algebra problem, and, when she glanced up to meet his gaze, he felt his throat tighten. He knew he was staring, but it was only because she looked different.
“Something wrong, Matty?” she asked, pushing her dark hair out of her eyes, her gloss-covered lips turning down at the corners.
Matt suddenly had a nearly irrepressible urge to touch her hair. “Nothing.”
She chuckled with a roll of her eyes. “You’re being weird.”
He avoided her for the next week, horribly embarrassed, convinced he was some sort of pervert for having thoughts which one should not be having about someone who was practically your sister. Unlike crushes he had on other girls, Matt could not bring himself to talk about Elena with anyone, afraid they’d realize he was a freak; he definitely couldn’t talk about it with Elena, who had always been his go-to person to discuss the opposite sex.
Matt was in hell.
His salvation came on a Thursday. After baseball practice, Matt was sitting outside the middle school when Grayson pulled up in his new Camaro; Elena’s father had purchased the classic only a few weeks earlier, much to Miranda’s irritation, and Matt had been beyond excited when Grayson asked him to help restore it.
“I told your mom I’d pick you up,” Grayson explained as Matt got in, “so we could zip over to the auto store, pick up some stuff. Sound good?”
Matt nodded sadly; it sounded terrific, and he knew there was no way Grayson was going to want to restore a car with him once he knew what a pervert he was.
“Are you okay, Matty? You haven’t been around at all this week.”
Studiously keeping his gaze locked on his lap, Matt shrugged, trying to swallow back the emotion welling inside of him.
“You know, if there’s something you need to talk about…”
“Why can’t you?”
“Because you’ll hate me,” he gritted out, wiping at his eyes.
“Hate you?” Pulling into the parking lot of a gas station, Grayson put the car into park and turned to face him. “There is nothing you could ever do that would make me hate you, Matt, nothing. Now what’s going on?”
“I’m sick,” Matt finally divulged.
“Sick? Well, I don’t know if you know this, but I am a doctor so – “
“Not that kind of sick!” Tugging on the bottom of his t-shirt, Matt lowered his voice until it was almost inaudible before admitting, “I like Elena.”
“Of course you like Elena.” Studying Matt’s conflicted face, Grayson realized the meaning quickly. “Oh, you like Elena.”
Overwhelmed with shame, Matt nodded. “I don’t want to and I don’t even know why I do, but it’s sick because she’s like my sister, and what kind of guy likes his sister and – “
“Whoa, Matt, breathe,” Grayson cut in with a smile. “You’re not sick.”
Grayson shook his head, trying and failing to suppress his smile. “Elena isn’t really your sister; she’s your best friend, and sometimes best friends start to like each other even when they don’t mean to do it. And it’s a not a bad thing or something you have to be embarrassed about; it’s perfectly natural.”
Matt sighed in relief. “Really?”
“Really. How do you think Miranda and I got together?” Shifting the car back into drive, Grayson leaned over, his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “And, besides, Elena likes you the same way.”
The grin which filled Matt’s face lasted for the next two weeks, the length of time it took him to gather the courage to ask Elena to be his girlfriend.
* * *
In ninth grade, Matt and Elena were elected to Homecoming Court. Matt didn’t particularly care that they were the freshmen chosen for court, but Elena was ecstatic. He listened to her describe in excruciating detail the gown she had browbeat her mother into buying, dutifully helped her choose how to wear her hair, and patiently listened at lunch when she, Bonnie, and Caroline discussed shoes. Elena loved any excuse at all to get dressed up, and Matt knew she was flattered their class had selected her over girls who were more popular.
His mother and Vicki were amused by the entire thing, frequently referring to him as “your highness” around the house. Though neither said anything to him, Matt could tell they were confused by him, by his participation in sports, in town events, in his schoolwork. Kelly and Vicki were very much alike, and Matt often felt like the black sheep, a sentiment he expressed to Elena one night on the phone.
“Well, of course you feel that way,” Elena instantly replied. “You’re a Gilbert.”
Matt never felt less like a Gilbert than when he arrived at Elena’s house that Friday evening in his suit. Unlike his friends, Matt owned only one suit, which his mother had bought for him when his grandfather died a year earlier. He had grown since then, and the coat was too tight across his shoulders, the sleeves and pants a little too short. When he had tried it on earlier in the week and mentioned how ill-fitting it was, Kelly sighed, taking a long drag off her cigarette.
“I don’t have the money to buy you a new suit, Matty, so you’re just going to have to make do. Everyone’s going to be staring at Elena anyway; no one will even notice.”
The moment he entered the Gilbert house, Miranda and Grayson both noticed.
“Elena’s still getting ready,” Miranda explained in the falsely cheerful voice Matt recognized from when she would make excuses for his mother, “so you have some time. Gray, maybe – “
“You’re going to need a tie,” Grayson declared, clapping him on the back. “Come on upstairs and we’ll get you one.”
Matt followed him to his bedroom, which he had not been inside in years. As Grayson crossed to the closet, Matt stared at the collection of photographs on the dresser top; Grayson’s brother, Miranda’s sister, Elena, Jeremy, and himself stared out from behind the glass.
He was surprised when Grayson handed him a suit. The confusion on his face must have been evident because Grayson quickly assured him, “I have more suits than a funeral director; it’s a consequence of always having to go to Founders’ events. We’re about the same size, I’d guess.” When Matt didn’t move, he suggested, “Just try it.”
It fit him perfectly, and Matt felt overwhelmed with gratitude as Grayson showed him how to shoot his cuffs. He then pulled a red tie from the tie rack hanging on the door, slipping it under the crisp white shirt Matt had spent so much time ironing earlier in the day.
“Every man should know how to tie a tie,” Grayson began, carefully adjusting the sides before starting the process. “My father taught me John and I how to do it as soon as we could tie a knot.” Carefully adjusting the knot, he sighed, “I should have taught you sooner.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” Matt quickly assured him as Grayson undid the knot and began again, this time taking careful pains to show Matt precisely how to do it. “I mean, I don’t even wear ties that much.”
“You will,” Grayson stated authoritatively.
He had Matt practice tying it a half-dozen times until his hands could complete the motions without hesitation. When Matt was able to do it flawlessly, Grayson beamed.
“Now you’ll be able to teach your son.”
* * *
One afternoon after classes let out, Matt was digging through his locker when Elena came up behind him, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing a kiss to the back of his neck. He immediately turned around, pressing a kiss to her mouth.
“So I was thinking,” Elena began, ducking under his arm to stand in front of his locker, “we should go to your house instead of mine.”
Matt laughed, reaching around her to grab his history book. “Never in the history of our friendship have we ever hung out at my house.”
“I know,” Elena acknowledged, “but…”
“But what, you have a craving for ramen and tap water? Because that’s all we’ve got in the house right now.”
Elena playfully slapped him on the chest before lowering her voice, stretching up on her toes to kiss the hinge of his jaw. “But…my house has my mom, Jenna, and Jeremy. Your house will be just you and me.”
Matt swallowed hard as desire raced through his body. Very rarely did he and Elena ever get to be alone; between school and extracurricular activities, what free time they did have was almost always spent at the Gilbert house or on group dates with their friends. The last time they had tried to make out at her house, Jeremy had burst in, scaring Matt so badly he fell off the bed before gleefully recounting the story to Miranda, who almost immediately made the rule they were no longer allowed to hang out in her bedroom.
Matt had never been more grateful for the lack of supervision in his life until that moment.
He barely closed the front door before Elena had her arms around him, her hot, wet mouth against the tender skin of his throat. Matt dropped his backpack, finding her mouth with his own, as they stumbled towards his bedroom. Her hands were warm when they slid under his shirt, and Matt couldn’t help but trip a little as he lowered her down to his bed. He felt an irrational stab of embarrassment at the unmade tangle of sheets and blankets, but Elena didn’t notice as she slid up the mattress towards the pillows, unzipping her hoodie and tossing it to the floor.
There was nothing Matt loved more in the world than kissing Elena. From the very first time their lips met, Matt knew he wanted to do nothing else for the rest of his life. Tyler busted his balls all the time about his relationship with Elena, about how he was wasting the “best years of his life shackled” to her, but Matt didn’t know how to explain what Elena meant to him. It was deeper than friendship or love; Matt literally could not imagine his life without Elena and just being next to her gave him butterflies.
But Tyler would definitely never let him live that down, so Matt usually just told him to shut up.
“I love you,” Elena murmured as Matt removed her shirt, his fingers clumsily attempting to undo the clasp of her bra.
“I love you too,” he sighed against her breastbone, “so much.”
As Matt drifted down her body, Elena reached down, sliding her fingers through his hair. He looked up expectantly, sensing she wanted to say something, and he waited.
“Do you have something?”
Elena blushed prettily, squirming for a moment, before clarifying, “A condom?”
Matt froze for a second before quickly nodding. “Yeah, yeah, I do.”
When he made no motion to move, she asked with a teasing smile, “Do you want to get it?”
Springing into action, nearly face planting onto the floor as he got tangled in the blankets, Matt wrenched open the top drawer of his dresser, pushing past the socks and boxers until he found the box Tyler had given him for his sixteenth birthday. He had tried to give it back to his friend because he and Elena were not having sex, but Tyler insisted he keep it, swearing it would get put to use eventually.
God bless Tyler Lockwood.
He watched as Elena slid her jeans off, wiggling her hips to free herself, and, as much as he wanted her, Matt was seized with a sudden, sharp realization: he had no idea what he was doing. Like every guy his age, he knew the mechanics and had seen porn, but this was Elena and there was a huge difference between imaging what it would be like to have sex with her and actually having sex with her.
Returning to his bed, Matt shivered when Elena reached for the button of his jeans, his heart beating so quickly he was afraid it would burst from his chest. As he leaned down to kiss her, the slick wrapper on the condom cool between his fingers, they both heard the front door slam, echoing throughout the house.
Everything else forgotten, Matt and Elena began to pull on their clothes, panic reverberating through their bodies. Just as Elena pulled her t-shirt over her head, Matt’s bedroom door swung open to reveal Kelly, who blinked in surprise at the two flustered teenagers on the bed.
“Hey, Mom,” Matt greeted lamely, pulling his pillow over his lap.
* * *
Two days after Kelly found them in his room, Grayson showed up at their front door and told Matt they were going fishing. Given that it was neither fishing season nor did he have any gear with him, Matt quickly deduced they were not actually going to the lake.
Matt had never been so scared in his life.
They ended up at the falls, Matt following Grayson across the overlook and towards the path which would lead them to the top. A few years earlier they had made the same trek with Jeremy before stopping at the top to have a picnic. For some reason, Matt highly doubted this afternoon was going to end with a leisurely lunch at the top.
“I’m sorry,” Matt blurted out just as they reached the path, feeling so nauseated he wanted to be sick.
Grayson turned around, bemusement on his face. “Sorry?”
“I know my mom told Miranda about what happened on Thursday, and I know Miranda told you, and I’m sorry,” Matt rushed. “We didn’t mean – I would never – I swear we won’t – “
“Matt!” Grayson cut in, face alight with barely suppressed laughter. “Just calm down, okay?”
He nodded, crossing his arms over his chest, feeling strangely exposed. “I’m sorry. I just…I understand if you don’t want me to see Elena anymore.”
Grayson sighed before taking a seat on the ground, gesturing for Matt do to the same. “I’m not going to ban you from seeing Elena. You’ve been seeing each other every day since you were born; that would be cruel.”
Matt sagged in relief.
“However,” Grayson continued, “I do think we need to have a talk, and it is about what Kelly walked in on. You okay with that?”
The vomit feeling was back. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, I’m going to start off by saying as Elena’s dad: do not have sex with my daughter.”
“Yes, sir,” Matt repeated, certain he was never going to even consider having sex ever again, the humiliation so acute.
“And then I’m going to say, for the rest of this conversation, let’s pretend I’m not Elena’s dad.” As Matt carefully lifted his gaze, Grayson elaborated, “We’ve always been able to talk, Matt, and that’s one of the things I like best about our relationship. And I’m willing to bet that, right now, you have a lot of questions and things you need to talk about when it comes to Elena and relationships. I don’t want you getting your information from Tyler Lockwood or Jeff Hamilton. So you can ask me anything right now, and I’ll answer it, no matter what.”
Cautiously Matt ventured, “Anything?”
“Anything,” Grayson confirmed.
Matt was quiet for a moment before stating, “Elena and I aren’t having sex. I mean, we’ve talked about it and…and the other day we were going to try but we haven’t…We’re both virgins.”
He couldn’t help but notice the relief which filled Grayson’s features. “It’s good that you’re talking about it rather than just rushing into it.”
“I really love her,” Matt swore, slowly regaining his confidence, “and…and I want…” He faltered for a moment before pushing forward. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
“Supposed to do?”
Tugging at the grass, he explained, “Ty says it hurts girls the first time. But I don’t want to hurt her. I want to make her feel good.” Blushing brightly, realizing what he had just said to his girlfriend’s father, he mumbled, “Can we talk about something else please?”
Grayson sighed. “Do you remember a few years ago when we had the puberty talk?”
Begrudgingly, Matt nodded. “Yeah, you took me to the batting cages.”
“Do you remember what I told you about sex?”
“It changes everything.”
“Exactly.” Running his fingers through his thinning hair, Grayson said, “I don’t want you think sex is a bad thing; it’s not. Sex is one of the greatest things in the world, and it can make you feel more connected to a person than you can imagine. But once you do it, especially once you do it with someone you love, it will change everything.”
“You think we should wait?”
“I think you love Elena and Elena loves you, and you want to be as close as two people can get. But I also think you need to know that the first time, you aren’t going to feel connected or complete. It’s going to be awkward and uncomfortable, and you’re not going to be paranoid the entire time that, no matter how long it lasted, it wasn’t long enough.” Reading Matt’s horrified expression, he added, “But if you can get past that, if you both can, it’s wonderful. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I think so.”
“Good.” Getting to his feet, Grayson added, “Oh, and Matt?”
“Don’t have sex with my daughter.”
* * *
Vicki was the one who told him Grayson and Miranda were dead.
He had stayed home that night with a fever, so god-awful sick Kelly was threatening to call Grayson and make an appointment for him; after taking two Nyquil early in the evening and calling Bonnie to let her know he wouldn’t be coming to her party, Matt settled in for the night.
At just after midnight, Vicki came in, her face wet with tears and streaked with eye makeup. Matt was about to make a comment about which one of her boyfriends had upset her when he heard the sound of his mother sobbing in the kitchen.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s the Gilberts,” Vicki got out before devolving into tears again.
Instantly Matt reached for his cell phone, prepared to call Elena immediately, when he noticed he had unread text messages from her, sent about an hour earlier.
Hey, my ride fell through. I know you’re sick but could you come pick me up?
Don’t worry about picking me up. Mom and Dad are going to come get me. Feel better.
I’ll come by tomorrow and nurse you back to health
He vomited on his blankets.
* * *
The hospital released Elena the next evening, clearing her of anything serious. Matt was already at the house with Jeremy while Jenna and John went to pick her up. He and Jeremy had always been on relatively good terms, but the younger boy said nothing to him, too dazed to really register his presence; the only hint of life in Jeremy came when Vicki stopped by to drop off food from the Grill.
Elena moved gingerly when she entered the house flanked by her aunt and uncle, and Matt was so overwhelmed with guilt he could barely stand it, especially once she wrapped her arms around him and began to cry into his chest. With Jenna’s permission, he helped Elena up the stairs, her battered body aching, and, once behind her bedroom door, she began to sob so hard, her entire body quaked.
Matt pulled her into his lap, his own tears making their appearance, and together they cried, two orphaned children.
* * *
The night before the funeral, Jenna let him spend the night at the house despite John’s protests.
As he spooned Elena, his face buried in her hair, Elena asked in a voice so tiny it barely sounded like her own, “Who’s going to take care of us, Matty?”
“We’ll take care of each other,” he vowed.
He knew it was what Grayson would have wanted.
* * *
Two months after the accident, Elena asked him for space, tears streaking down her cheeks. She explained she needed to figure out some things but that she still loved him; she swore it wasn’t because of anything he had done.
He agreed because he couldn’t argue, not now. Instead, he kissed her on the forehead and promised to be there whenever she was ready again.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Matt realized the gnawing feeling in his gut was loneliness.
He had never been lonely before; he had always had the Gilberts.
* * *
Seeing her enter the Grill with Stefan Salvatore was like finding out Grayson and Miranda died all over again.
Matt knew Elena was not a cruel person; he knew her better than anyone else in the world, and Matt understood the almost limitless amount of love within her. But seeing her with Stefan, watching the way she smiled at him the way she had once smiled at Matt, made him ache with hurt and bitterness. All Matt wanted to do was walk over to the new boy and punch him squarely in his face, growling a warning to stay away from Elena.
Instead he introduced himself, offering his hand the way Grayson had taught him and welcoming him to town.
* * *
He had never really liked Caroline Forbes. From the moment she moved to Mystic Falls when they were six up until the party at the Grill, Matt tolerated her because she was Elena’s friend and because, underneath it all, she was nice enough. She was a little too intense for Matt’s preferences, and she could never just…be.
But then she drunkenly asked, “Do you ever feel like there’s not a single person in the world who loves you?”
And while once upon a time Matt had felt very well loved, he knew it that moment Caroline was just as lost and lonely as he was.
He tried to love her as best he could, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t replicate the bond he had with Elena.
* * *
The day of Vicki’s funeral, he returned to the cemetery after everyone had left.
There was no headstone yet, the earth only recently replaced. It upset him to think of his wild, lively sister buried beneath the soil, forever trapped in a box. He had always known it would end like this for her, that she hadn’t wanted to be saved, but it didn’t make it easier, didn’t make the house feel any less empty.
He walked through the rows until he reached the Gilbert plot, headstones of varying ages all bearing the name he had wished so often as a child was his own. Grayson and Miranda’s stone was still shiny and slick beneath his fingers, the same way it was the first time he visited. He was wearing the suit and tie Grayson gave him years earlier, still the only suit and tie he owned, and Matt traced the letters of his names.
There were always flowers on the Gilberts’ grave; the whole town missed them acutely. Matt doubted anyone besides him or Jeremy would ever put flowers at Vicki’s.
“I need you,” Matt rasped, pressing his fingers more harshly against the stone. “You said any time I needed you, you’d be here, and I need you.” He knew he would not get any response but he found himself repeating the words, a broken mixture of pleas and wants, the tears rushing so hard down his cheeks his eyes burned.
When he felt someone touch his shoulders, Matt spun around, prepared to explode, but then he saw it was Elena, still in her black dress, eyes wet. The rage left him immediately as he sank into her arms, shoulders heaving.
He liked to think Grayson sent her to him that day, a sign he was still watching, still cared.
* * *
A week after he shot his werewolf best friend and dumped his vampire girlfriend, Elena showed up at his door.
He knew from Caroline that John and Jenna were dead, that Mr. Saltzman was now their guardian, that the psycho vampire who wanted to sacrifice Elena had left town and taken Stefan with him. Matt hated how he knew those things, that the world had become such a scary and unbelievable place overnight. And even as he stared at Elena, trying to remember the last time they had even really talked, Matt knew he would forgive her far easier than he ever would anyone else.
“Caroline told me you know everything,” Elena began once they were seated in the living room.
“I wanted to protect you from this.”
“Great job,” he sniped, and it was the meanest his tone had ever been towards her.
Elena winced. “The reason I’m here is I thought you’d want to know.”
“What really happened to Vicki.”
And so Matt sat and listened to an accounting of the last few days of his sister’s life, from Damon killing her in a fit of boredom to her drinking Logan Fell’s blood to trying to kill Elena at the Halloween dance. Matt listened and listened as Elena explained, cried, and rationalized, and, when she was done, he finally asked what he had needed to know since finding out the truth.
“How can you be around Damon knowing what he did to her?”
Elena swallowed, wiping at her face. “Damon drank her blood and Vicki drank his not knowing what it would do to her, and Damon killed her. And all of those things are Damon’s fault, and there’s a part of me that thinks about that every time I’m with him. But…”
“But what?” Matt challenged.
“But Vicki knew if she drank human blood, she’d turn. She could’ve made the choice to die and she didn’t. And maybe that’s because the blood lust was too strong and maybe there wasn’t a choice at all, but the choices Vicki made after turning, including trying to kill me, were her own. Stefan wanted to help her, to teach her, the same way he did Caroline, but Vicki didn’t want it. And…”
“And Damon didn’t compel her to stay in the boardinghouse that day, Matt. She chose to stay and party with him, to drink his blood like it was just another drug.”
“You’re blaming the victim,” Matt growled.
“What Damon did to her was wrong,” Elena stated unequivocally, “but I can move past it because the rules in our world aren’t the same as the rules in yours.”
“There’s only one world, Elena.”
Elena sadly shook her head, looking years older than she was. “And the fact that you believe that, is the reason we didn’t tell you.”
Deeply wounded, Matt gritted out, “You really think this is what your parents wanted for you and Jer? What they wanted for me and Vick?”
“Don’t,” Elena ordered, her voice trembling.
“There is only one world, ‘Lena, and that’s the world we were raised in, the world your parents taught us about. If you think the rules are different because you play with monsters, you’re wrong. I know Caroline isn’t evil and I know Tyler isn’t evil; monster or human, they play by the same rules we do. Stefan and Damon, they don’t get a different measuring stick because you need to believe they’re different when you’ve got the proof they’re not.”
Elena’s tears began to fall quickly, and Matt felt his heart ache for the pain he was causing her. He hated Damon Salvatore more deeply than he had ever hated anyone, and intellectually he knew there was a reason Elena trusted the vampire, why she cared for him. But all he was ever going to be to Matt was the reason his sister was dead, and he needed Elena to see that.
“I should go,” Elena decided as she got to her feet.
For the first time in their lives, Matt didn’t ask her to stay.
* * *
She returned to his house a few days later with a box in her hands. Matt was confused at first until he realized everything in the box had once been his, left behind at the Gilbert house. He had a box in his closet of Elena’s things, gathered after she and Stefan had first gotten together; one evening he had thrown everything which was possibly related to her into a cardboard box with the intention of giving it back, giving himself closure. He had made it as far as the porch before Matt realized he wasn’t ready to give everything back, to fully cement their separation.
There was always a part of him that wanted to continue to believe that their separation was only temporary, that one day he would wake up and find the Salvatores had never come to Mystic Falls. So he put the box in the closet and hoped one day he could take it back out for use.
“I thought you’d want this back,” Elena explained, “since…”
Voice cracking she finished, “Since you hate me now.”
“I don’t hate you,” Matt immediately objected, stepping closer to her. “I could never hate you, ‘Lena.”
Her bottom lip trembling as her eyes welled, Elena whimpered, “I don’t…I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, Matty. I’m so scared. I don’t even know who I am anymore.”
He pulled her firmly into his arms, the box forgotten beside them, and Matt felt her clench her hands into the soft material of his shirt. “You’re Elena Gilbert,” he soothed as he petted her hair, his voice steady despite the turmoil inside him. “I’ve known you literally since the day you were born. When Jeff Hamilton pulled the wings off of a butterfly in kindergarten, you wouldn’t stop crying until I punched him. You’ve made me oatmeal raisin cookies for my birthday every year since we were eleven. You are the most loyal and kind person that I know. That’s who you are.”
“I don’t feel like her anymore,” she whimpered against his chest.
“Then we’ll fix it.” Brushing his lips against the crown of her head, he repeated, “We’ll fix it.”
* * *
It happened on a Monday, five months after Stefan came back, four months after she decided she could not be with him again. They were sitting on the couch in the living room, both working on math homework, when Elena suddenly leaned over and kissed him.
Matt froze before gently pulling away, giving her a moment to apologize, to admit she was on the rebound and only feeling lonely, but instead she followed him, her hands tugging him back to her. It was all Matt needed to push her back into the cushions, their papers falling to the carpet.
“I missed you,” Elena moaned against his mouth as he slipped his hand beneath her shirt, palming her breast.
“I missed you more,” Matt found himself sighing, the words tumbling from his lips before he could catch them. “You don’t even know, ‘Lena.”
“I do know, Matty,” she assured him before whispering, “We should go upstairs.”
Afterward, as the late afternoon sun shone through the curtains, Matt lied on his back, Elena tucked tightly against his side. She drew invisible circles on his chest, her lips occasionally meeting his skin, and Matt could not stop kissing her.
“Why did you break up with me?” When Elena said nothing, he finally voiced the fear which had plagued him since that terrible night in May. “Is it because I didn’t pick you up?”
“No!” Elena immediately objected, turning her body so she could look in his eyes. “God, Matt, I never thought that. If you...It still could have happened only it would have been your truck in the water. It was just an accident, just wet road and bad tires.”
“Then why…why did you tell me you needed time and then get with Stefan?”
“Because it hurt too bad to be around you,” she admitted after a moment. With a mirthless chuckle, she said, “You know, my dad, he always said he wished the rest of the world was half as good as you were. Sometimes Jeremy would get so jealous when he’d talk about you because he felt like he’d never measure up.”
Matt felt a lump quickly rising in his throat.
“But the thing is,” Elena continued, “he didn’t realize that all the things he was praising in you, were all the things I loved so much in him.” Wiping at a stray tear on her cheek, Elena stated, “You’re so much like him, Matty, you don’t even realize it. And I missed them so much and I knew how much you missed them, and I just started feeling…so sad because when I was with you, I’d remember everything, and I needed to stop remembering so I could survive it.”
Matt nodded in understanding, recalling how difficult those first few months were, remembering how painful it was to come into the house and see Jenna in the kitchen rather than Miranda, to walk around the square and see the shades drawn over Grayson’s office.
“I’m sorry I hurt you,” she said, her voice rich with sincerity, “but I’ll do anything to make it up to you.”
Matt pulled her back down against his chest, resting his head atop hers. “Let’s just start fresh.”
* * *
On his wedding day, as Tyler and Ric encouraged him to sip from the flash in Tyler’s coat, as the guests filed into the church, all Matt could think about was Grayson and Miranda.
Once, when he was in elementary school, he and Elena had been playing in the backyard when he went inside to get them something to drink. Grayson and Miranda had been in the kitchen, Miranda’s back against the refrigerator, her arms linked around Grayson’s neck as they kissed. Matt had been embarrassed for interrupting, stuttering and stammering his way through an apology while Miranda blushed and Grayson laughed.
Later, when Grayson was driving him home, Grayson said, “I’m going to give you the very best advice I can give you.”
“What?” Matt encouraged, eager to hear something exciting.
“When you meet a girl and all you want to do is kiss her every minute of every day, that’s the girl you marry.”
At eight-years-old, the advice had seemed particularly anticlimactic, but, at twenty-three, it filled Matt’s mind to the bursting point.
“What are you thinking about?” Jeremy asked after entering the room where Elena was getting dressed, his hands tucked into his pockets.
“Your parents,” he answered honestly, turning away from the window.
Jeremy smiled sadly before removing a box from his interior pocket. “Yeah, Elena figured.”
Matt accepted the box, opening it in confusion to reveal a pair of cufflinks. “Not really my style but…”
Jeremy laughed briefly before explaining, “It’s a Gilbert family tradition. Every man wears those on his wedding day. She figured Dad would have wanted you to wear them.”
Matt stared at the gold links, struggling not to let his emotion get the best of him. “Thank you.”
He shrugged with a smile. “Yeah, well, take good care of him. I’ll be needing them soon enough.” Clapping him on the back, he asked, “You ready to go marry my sister now?”
Matt could not remember a time when he had not been ready to make Elena Gilbert his wife.
* * *
When Elena was six-months-pregnant with their first child, Matt decided to look up his father.
Kelly told him it was ridiculous to go looking for Barry Roberts after twenty-six years was ridiculous and that he should be grateful he had never met the man who had left them without so much as a postcard. But as Matt watched Elena’s stomach expand, he could not help but be curious as to what his father was like.
Given the shoddy information Kelly had about him, his search was going nowhere until the day Elena gave him a slip of paper neatly printed in Bonnie’s handwriting, one of the few bits of magic Elena still allowed in their lives. It took him almost a month to gather the courage to drive to Charleston, and, when he got there, he did not know what it was he was hoping to find.
Barry Roberts was an electrician who lived in a house very similar to the one Matt had grown up in. He had three ex-wives and five children, all younger than Matt, none over the age of sixteen. When Matt introduced himself to the man he bore such a startling resemblance to, he seemed more than just startled; he seemed completely and totally unprepared.
“Kelly and I only dated a few months,” Barry explained over beers. “I was doing construction in Virginia, was in a bad marriage. I told her I was going to leave my wife; when we decided to give it a try again, Kelly got pissed, scratched the hell out of my face, told me to never call her again.” Taking a long pull from his bottle, he admitted, “I used to be a pretty terrible guy.”
“So you didn’t know…?”
“About you? Nah, she never said a word, but I guess that makes sense. She really hated me when I said I was coming back here. I’m a lot of things but I take care of my kids.” Gesturing towards his hand, Barry said, “How long you been married?”
“Our first is due in September.”
Barry nodded silently, picking at the label on his bottle for a moment, before venturing, “Maybe when it’s born, I can come up, meet your wife, see the baby. I mean, I’m its grandpa, right?”
Even as Matt wrote out his phone number, he knew he was never going to hear from Barry Roberts ever again.
* * *
Grayson Matthew Donovan was born on the last day of August, a dusting of blond fuzz on his head, his eyes as dark as his mother’s; he was followed two years later by the twins, Lily and Madeline, and, eighteen months after that, Tori.
Some evenings, Matt found himself standing over their beds as they slept, afraid to let them out of his sight; other evenings, he’d come from work to find the house destroyed, noise cacophonous, and all the children in vile moods, and those were the nights he loved Elena and her even temper more than ever.
Tori was always sick; between her allergies and asthma, her sleep was almost always disturbed, and, as a result, Matt spent countless nights with her in his arms, shushing her as she cried, playing with her when the breathing treatments kept her wired, and rocking her towards sleep. One evening, after having spent hours walking laps around the carpet, Tori whimpering in her arms about her inability to sleep when she was lying down, Matt slipped into bed at three in the morning, exhaustion weakening his body, dreading the alarm which would go off in less than three hours.
Elena turned towards him in the dark, her voice slurred from sleep as her hand found its way to his heart.
“Thank you for being such an amazing father to our kids.”
It was the best compliment he had ever received, and he was almost too tired to appreciate it.
* * *
In all their time together, Matt had never quite adjusted to the endless parade of Founders’ events, but, as he did every time one arose, he went into his closet and pulled out one of his suits, prepared to squire Elena around town as she represented the Gilbert legacy.
That evening, as Elena got ready in their bedroom and the girls giggled downstairs with the babysitter, Grayson wandered into the bathroom where Matt was finishing dressing. He had turned nine a few weeks earlier, already two heads taller than his classmates and so painfully smart both he and Elena often joked they weren’t sure where if he was really theirs; unlike the girls, who were overwhelmingly social to the point of making Caroline look shy and reserved, Grayson was quiet, his dark eyes always studying a situation before making a decision, and the only person Matt ever saw him engage with enthusiastically was his cousin Emily.
“Do you guys have to go tonight?”
Matt chuckled. “You don’t want us to go?”
“Every time Kayla baby-sits us, she has us vote on what movie we’re going to watch, and the girls always beat me,” Grayson complained, playing with the tie hanging on the towel rack. “I like it better when Uncle Ric watches us.”
“Well, Uncle Ric is coming with us tonight, so it looks like you’re stuck tonight, buddy.” Turning away from the mirror, he crooked his finger at his son. “Come here and bring the tie.”
Grayson dutifully complied, handing the silken fabric to Matt as Matt lifted him to stand on the step stool his daughters used to reach the sink. Stepping behind Grayson, he draped the tie around his neck and took hold of both ends.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m teaching you to tie a tie.”
Grayson chuckled. “Why?”
“Because every man should know how to tie a tie. Your grandpa taught me and now I’m going to teach you and someday, a very long time from now, you’re going to teach your son how to do it.”
That was how Elena found them, fifteen minutes later.
* * *
Every Friday, before he came home from work, Matt stopped at the cemetery and put flowers on the graves of the people he had lost.
A rose for Vicki.
A rose for Miranda.
A rose for Grayson.
And then Matt would drive to the home he and Elena had built together, his children greeting him at the door with kisses and smiles, and he would find Elena, kissing her every time like it was their first.
It was not always the most fun of lives or the most exciting, but his children were happy, healthy, and well-loved.
And if that was good enough for Grayson Gilbert, it was good enough for Matt Donovan.