It's nothing like going to sleep. One minute she's drowning, drowning, drowning, and the next she wakes up naked on a cold steel table in the morgue, covered only by a plastic sheet.
No dreams, no gradual awakening, no memory gap. She opens her eyes and she knows this: she died, and she came back. She's not human anymore, and she never will be again.
There is regret in this knowledge, sadness, grief for a life she will never lead, experience she'll never be able to make, children and a family she will never have. But none of that is as overwhelming as she expected it to be. Down there in the cold fluorescent light, surrounded by the stench of formaldehyde and corpses that will never open their eyes and come to life again, it's hard to wish she was one of them. It's true, she never wanted to be a vampire, but up close, the alternative looks a lot worse.
When Stefan comes to her, a juice glass filled with blood in his hands, she takes it and only hates herself a little for it. She pretends she doesn't notice how Stefan averts his eyes as she drinks.
* * *
Stefan and Damon are fighting again. They are always fighting these days, and even though she knows it's because of her, there's nothing she can do about it. Stefan hasn't looked her in the eye once since she woke up from the dead – not when he handed her the blood, not when he apologized for not saving her in the river and not when she told him that it wasn't his fault, that he only did what she asked him to.
Damon, though... Damon can barely stand to be in the same room with her, and she wishes it was because of what she is now rather than for the choice she made when she went back to Stefan. A choice that, by all means, was rendered irrelevant mere minutes later.
Stripped from the restraints of compulsion, she remembers everything now: meeting him at the party the night before Stefan saved her, his confession of love. She hates him a little for taking those memories away, forcing her to forget what could have changed everything. And now that she remembers, it's too late and none of it matters anymore.
She's never felt this alone, not even after her parents died. At least then she had her friends. Now, though, Caroline has run off to God knows where, Jeremy is on a new vendetta against vampires in general and Rebekah in particular, Matt is oozing guilt from every pore of his body, and Bonnie is emotionally distant and often absent, busy with research she will not let anybody else in on. Tyler, shrugging off all inquiries as to how he's miraculously not dead and not in a hurry to rush off and find Caroline, keeps looking at Elena like he's angry with her, as if becoming a vampire was something she chose.
One time, she catches him confronting Stefan, yelling at him for not saving her instead of Matt.
Furiously, Elena steps between them and shoves Tyler away with a strength she still isn't used to possessing, sending him halfway across the room and crashing to the floor. "Stop it! He did it because I told him to. Because Matt is my friend and he was going to die. He's your friend, too, or have you forgotten that? What's wrong with you?"
Her fangs are bared, and every instinct in her screams to attack and rip into him. For a moment, Tyler's eyes glow dangerously yellow.
He only stands and dusts himself off, though, and his voice is bitter rather than angry. "It must be very convenient for you. You die and come back, Esther's schizophrenic vampire slayer is no more and no one is after your doppelganger blood because it's now worthless."
"No one would be after my blood anyway because Klaus is dead, and I'd rather have found a way to save Alaric instead of killing him." Behind her, Stefan tries to hold her back and soothe her, but she shrugs off his grip when she steps closer to Tyler. "You think I wanted this? Any of this?"
"You certainly don't act like it's a hardship."
"I'm trying—I'm trying very hard to hold it together. And you're not helping. None of you guys are."
She runs out and slams the door so forcefully that she hears the wood splinter. Stefan calls after her, telling her to come back, rushing after her, but she doesn't stop.
* * *
She hides in the forest for two days because she's tired of how her friends look at her. It's a bad idea, because while she doesn't get cold or tired, she does get hungry and she forgot to bring blood bags. It's an exercise in control, she tells herself. She needs to learn how to handle the hunger if there's not a convenient blood bag in the freezer that she can reach within twenty seconds of feeling the need to feed.
No one can claim that it's easy to ignore the hunger, but she's doing fine. She's doing perfectly fine until she runs into a pair of campers building their tent deep inside the forest where no human should have ventured.
It's a rush of red, blood-lust that blinds her and takes over her mind almost completely.
She almost rips out their throats, sinks her teeth into their carotid arteries and drinks them dry. But she doesn't. The deer that crosses her path is less lucky, and when she's sated and her fangs retract, the skin around her eyes smooths and the fog of needhungerpainredkillblood lifts from her mind, she almost pukes at the sight of the mangled animal at her feet.
But a few hundred yards away, the campers roast their marshmallows and laugh, and they're alive, and all things considered this counts as a victory.
* * *
It's Tyler who finds her, half a day later.
Not Tyler, exactly, but a wolf that bares two sharp rows of teeth at her and makes her freeze when she remembers that it can kill her. Its bite will kill her, now that the only person whose blood worked as an antidote is gone.
Elena is contemplating running versus standing very still and hoping the wolf will ignore her when it transforms in front of her eyes, fur disappearing, spine straightening, jaw drawing back until he's Tyler. She breathes a sigh of relief even though she knows that he's not necessarily less deadly in his human form.
Standing up, Tyler brushes a couple of sticky leaves from his arms, and Elena quickly covers her eyes when the initial panic of dying a gruesome death by werewolf bite turns into a low level panic of getting an eyeful of stark naked Tyler.
Tyler laughs. "Really? Are you going to keep your hand in front of your face until we're back in civilization? Because I don't know if you noticed, but it's not like I brought clothes. I guess you could give me yours. But don't expect me to keep my eyes covered when you do."
If her vampire physiology let her blush, Elena would. She knows he's right, so she eventually drops her hand and tries very hard to keep her eyes focused on his face. It's the first time she remembers seeing him smile in a while. Since Caroline left, actually, and not for the first time Elena wonders if his strange moods have perhaps nothing to do with Caroline and are perhaps related to the fact that his sire died and he, against all odds, survived. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knows she's missing something, something important, but before she can reach for it and try to unravel it, Tyler speaks again, distracting her.
"They're looking for you. Everyone is, really: your two boyfriends, and your brother, and Matt, and they even roped the Sheriff into searching for you. You left them in quite a state. I think they're all afraid that you went all ripper and slaughtered half a town because they haven't been supportive enough."
He sounds casually amused, like none of this has anything to do with him. As if he's talking about a bunch of strangers rather than his closest friends.
He does, in fact, not sound like Tyler at all.
"What?" he asks, and she realizes that she must have been staring at him, frowning.
She follows him back to the boarding house where everyone crowds her and hugs her and tells her how worried they were, while Tyler watches on with an amused half-smile. She meets his eyes over Matt's shoulder and raises an eyebrow at him. His smirk stretches, his expression both foreign on Tyler's face and oddly familiar.
* * *
Caroline returns, just in time to lead the preparation committee for senior prom. She cries when she sees Elena, then she spends half a day hugging her and the two of them swap stories of what happened in the two months they weren't in touch. Caroline's stories are more interesting, tales of travels through Europe and Australia, nights at the opera and days at beaches and in galleries and high-end department stores.
The only thing Elena can offer in return is an account of how she woke up with fangs, all her friends were weird about it and she ran off and ate a deer and saw Tyler naked. She decides that she doesn't need to mention the last bit.
* * *
She walks in on Tyler and Bonnie arguing in hushed tones. When Elena enters the room, they abruptly fall silent, but Bonnie's glare is steely and Tyler offers a subtle nod, his mouth an unhappy downward curve.
Something is going on, but Elena doesn't even begin to understand the significance, not until later.
The same night, Caroline pounds at Elena's door, tears streaking down her face. "Tyler broke up with me," she reveals between sobs, wiping ineffectively at her eyes. "He wouldn't even say why, just that he couldn't be with me now. What's that even supposed to mean?"
Elena hugs her tight. "I think he's just having a hard time. His sire died, and I guess it did something to him. He's been acting weird ever since."
As she speaks the words, something nudges the back of her mind. Klaus died. Tyler didn't die, even though he should have. They all should have, unless Klaus lied about Katherine being his blood lineage. No one dropped dead, though, not even Tyler, who they know for a fact was turned by Klaus.
Tyler, who's behaving like he's not himself, who's talking in secret with Bonnie and who got angry because Elena's blood was useless after becoming a vampire.
Stupid, Elena thinks. How could I have not realized this for months?
She should probably share her suspicions with Caroline, but she's pretty sure that telling a heartbroken friend that her boyfriend didn't really break up with her but was actually bodysnatched and may in fact be dead won't make her feel better, so Elena keeps it to herself.
* * *
She finds him sitting at the counter of the Grill, head bowed over a glass of something that looks like Tyler shouldn't have been able to legally order.
Matt pulls Elena aside when she steps towards the bar.
"He's on his sixth glass. Hybrid or not, he's pretty wasted, but when I try to cut him off, he threatens to kill me. He says he broke up with Caroline, but that's all I can get out of him."
"I'll deal with it," she promises.
When she approaches him, Tyler looks up, humorless grin curving his lips, and he spreads his arms in mock invitation. "Well, if that isn't our lovely doppelganger. Sit down, have a drink with me."
It's like he's not even trying anymore.
"What happened to Tyler?"
He blinks, clearly confused for a moment, as if he's too drunk to remember that he's not actually Tyler, or perhaps he's merely blindsided by the way she cuts to the chase right away. "Ah, Tyler. Don't worry, sweetheart, your little friend is fine. He keeps yelling in my brain that he's going to kill me if I touch his girlfriend. It's quite hilarious, really. His threats are a lot less effective than the ones our feisty witch makes."
He turns to Matt at the other end of the bar and holds up his glass. "How about another one, mate?"
"I think you've had enough." Elena reaches over and takes the glass from his hand, surprised at how easy he lets her get away with it. Instead of protesting, Tyler (Klaus, she reminds herself) slumps at the counter.
"This life sucks," he proclaims, and Elena doesn't feel sorry for him, she doesn't. But he sounds so utterly miserable and he wears the face of her friend, and she cannot find it in her heart to hate him even when she knows that she should, for everything he's done to her and the people she loves.
* * *
It may be a breach of trust not to tell the others about Tyler not actually being Tyler, but Elena doesn't see the point in it, as long as the situation persists. She does, however, confront Bonnie.
There are no apologies, and not much by the way of an explanation. "We all did what we had to do, Elena," Bonnie says.
"Did you even ask Tyler whether it was okay to just use his body as a vessel for Klaus?" Elena wants to know, because she doesn't understand how Bonnie can be so cool and calm about this.
"How about you come down from your moral high horse for a moment, Elena? If Klaus had died, Tyler would have died too and everyone else along with him. I saved the day, and if that makes me the bad guy, so be it."
Bonnie is right, of course. But the scary thing is that Elena can barely recognize her friend anymore, and unlike with Tyler, Bonnie's head holds no person but herself.
* * *
Rebekah comes back to town, and it takes the combined forces of Elena, Tyler (except not) and Damon to stop Jeremy from taking the white oak stake and killing her. Then, just when they think they have the situation under control, Stefan walks through the door, stops as sees her and slams her into the staircase, fingers closing around her throat.
Everyone is shouting and Rebekah is crying, going limp under Stefan's grip.
"She had to die to kill Alaric. Don't you get it?! He wouldn't have stopped before we were all dead. He killed Klaus is front of my eyes. I watched my brother go up in flames."
Elena's eyes flick towards Tyler for a moment, who looks pained.
"Let her go, Stefan," she says, tone firm even though she's so, so tired of all of this. "Rebekah is right. He had to be stopped. It's not like I wasn't willing to kill myself to make it happen just a few days before she took the decision out of my hands. Everyone knew that was the only way. Even Klaus knew it and was ready to give up on his precious supply of doppelganger blood."
She remembers waking up tied to a chair, the blood seeping from her veins as Klaus was leaning over her. It seems like a lifetime ago. She senses Tyler's gaze on her, but doesn't turn to look at him.
"We all lost something, and we need to stop pointing fingers at each other over it."
Stefan's death grip on Rebekah's throat eases, and on the other side of the room, Jeremy doesn't move to pick up the stake again when Damon and Tyler step away from him.
* * *
The first time Elijah lays eyes on her, the mind-numbing sadness and disappointment in his gaze feels like a punch to her stomach.
Never before has she felt the loss of her human life, so raw and painful, until this moment.
She turns around and flees before he can say anything.
* * *
"Are you hiding, love?"
She doesn't bother turning around, pouring herself another glass from a bottle of cheap bourbon Alaric had hidden in his room. "Go away, Klaus."
Unsurprisingly, because Klaus rarely does what others tell him, he doesn't leave but flops down next to her on the floorboards.
This used to be Jenna's room, Elena reminds herself. Klaus killed Jenna, ripped out her heart and let her die in a fiery circle in the forest. He shouldn't be allowed in here or in this house at all. He shouldn't be in Elena's life, and she shouldn't let him take the bottle from her hands and take a swig from it. But Klaus looks like Tyler, and he's the only one who still treats her the same way he did before she grew a pair of fangs; her only constant in an ever changing existence. It's confusing, too complicated for her alcohol-addled mind to sort out.
"Elijah hates me, what I've become," she says dejectedly, and even as she's wondering why she's telling him this at all, she can't miss the way his eyes flash at the mention of his brother.
He takes another swig, all but emptying the bottle. "Trust me, there's nothing you could do to make my brother hate you."
He sounds bitter, and she thinks she understands why. She thinks he's jealous of her because he believes Elijah to be so forgiving towards her when everything Klaus does is held against him. She thinks it's about Elijah being willing to go against his family for her (even though he really didn't).
It's not until Klaus leans forward and kisses her that Elena realizes that she didn't understand at all.
* * *
Life will go on.
One day, a few months into the future, Bonnie will figure out a way to get Klaus back into his own body. Tyler will be back, angry at Bonnie and furious with Elena, full of apologies for Caroline, who will not talk to either of her best friends when she finds out what happened.
Bonnie will spiral downwards on a dark magic induced power trip that almost makes her kill Stefan, and will leave her bereft of magic for years to come.
Elena will sort through college acceptance letters and pretend she's just a normal human girl. She will dance with Stefan at prom night, and they will finally let go of what once was and might have been, if circumstances had been different. When they return home, Damon will have left without so much as a goodbye. Rebekah may or may not have joined him. It will make Elena's heart ache, but not as much as she expected.
In the summer break before college, Matt will be killed in a hit and run accident. He'll be dead before the ambulance even arrives – before any of his friends can save him by opening their veins and feeding him their blood. Elena will almost fall apart over it, at the unfairness of it all, because she gave up her human life in exchange for Matt's. It was the greatest sacrifice she ever made, or ever will, and Matt would have deserved to grow old and live a full, happy life on her stead.
At the funeral, Klaus will turn up at her side, the first time she'll see him in his own body since the day he tried to drain her blood, before her life was turned upside down and inside out. He'll reach for her hand and she won't pull away.
"Let's get you out of here, love," he'll say, and she'll let him lead her away, towards the car where Elijah is waiting.
* * *
She doesn't know any of this now.
The future lies ahead, a vast, uncertain eternity, and the past is too far gone to matter anymore.
She's drunk and lonely, sitting in a room inhabited by the ghosts of her family, and her feelings for Klaus are a tangled mess somewhere between enemy, friend and something else that he's become to her in those last couple of months.
He leans forward to kiss her, and Elena closes her eyes and kisses back.
* * *