After Jeremy dies -- somehow, beyond reason, there is an after -- Elena sits on the porch swing, staring blankly ahead and trying not to think about holding Jeremy's hand on the way into his first day of school, trying not to think about wrestling with him over the remote, trying not think about his stupid scowl and how he cried over Vikki and how he held her when she came back from the dead for him and how much she hates him for not doing the same for her.
Stefan is sitting beside her, trying to breathe as quietly as possible, careful not to touch her even when she lets out a choked sob. Damon is there too, standing somewhere in the shadows, hovering out of sight, like he's afraid to get close. Sometimes it feels like they've always been there, like those long years in the sun before she knew the name Salvatore are a distant dream. She takes a long breath, pushes her shaking hands into her lap, and tries to accept that they're all she'll ever have now. A dead girl like her could only ever be loved by dead boys.
When she says, "Can we go now?" (because this house and this porch and this swing and Jeremy), she doesn't wait for them to answer. She just stands up and makes her way out to the street.
She doesn't have to look back to know they're following.
"A road trip," Damon says from his room upstairs, loud enough that she and Stefan can hear him in the main room of the boarding house. "That's what you need. To get out of this god forsaken small town with its nosy council and endless community functions. If I go to one more barbeque, I swear—"
"All of her friends are here, Damon," Stefan interrupts as he walks over to the foot of the stairs to talk to his brother above. "We shouldn't cut of those relationships. We could... I don't know--plan a dinner or a night out with the whole group, Bonnie and Caroline and Matt and--"
Damon lets out an exaggerated sigh. "Fine, her friends can come with us on the road. I don't care just so long as we get the hell out of this town."
Stefan makes a face and Elena almost smiles because she knows they're both thinking that most of her friends would rather be in math class than stuck in a car with Damon. Instead, Stefan counters with, "Not really feasible, Damon. They're, you know, real people. With school and parents and lives and stuff."
Elena looks down at her hands and lets their voices wash into dull background noise. She doesn't need to listen. She knows every one of Stefan and Damon's responses.
First, Damon points out that none of her friends have parents anymore. Then, Stefan tries to make some case about Caroline's mom or Bonnie's dad, but Damon interrupts him to say that doing impulsive, stupid shit is the point of being young. Then, Stefan tightens his jaw and tries not to bring up something stupid Damon did when they were human that Stefan is somehow still mad about. She can practically hear the way Stefan has to try harder and harder to keep his voice calm, just like she can feel Damon's frustration getting stronger as his voice gets louder and he makes his way downstairs. They always fight just like this, back and forth and back and forth, until—
She looks up, sees Stefan and Damon standing together at the foot of the stairs, each of them focused on her.
"What do you want to do?" Stefan asks right on queue as Elena tries desperately to remember what her line is.
They both stare at her and wait and wait and wait and
Impulsive, stupid shit, she thinks to herself the next day as she steps off the bus in Atlanta. Damon would be proud, maybe, if he isn't too busy being hurt and angry. She can picture him now: calling her phone over and over and over again without leaving a single message, walking straight to the liquor cart when he realizes she really left him, drinking in front of the fire and on the front porch and in his room, drinking when Stefan leaves to look for her around town, drinking when Stefan comes home alone, drinking double when Stefan refuses to drink with him.
Atlanta is boring, so she goes to Miami. The sun burns so brightly there that Elena keeps her fist clenched to make sure her ring stays snuggly on her finger. She tries not to think about how Stefan probably went to each of her friends to ask if they'd seen her, how his chest must have ached with uselessness when he had to be the one to explain to them that she left town. She tries not to because it hurts to remember every time she watched him swallow down a comment to Damon about how running away is selfish, about how doing stupid shit just to make yourself feel better is selfish. He never would say any of that to her, she supposes, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.
Nashville is all tight blue jeans and dusty leather boots and hot fried chicken. It's drinking whiskey straight and dancing to the country music that she'd never really liked before and going home with some guy because he has an accent and plays guitar and calls her sweetheart. He tells her that she's beautiful, whispers it over and over again as his lips slide over her skin, whispers it the same way Matt did during their first time. She forces herself to be gentle and slow as she pulls him closer and she almost feels human again under his warm body. Almost.
She stays in Austin for weeks because she sees Jeremy everywhere. In every bar. On every street corner. He's the guy that's staying in the room across from hers, the one with hair that falls into his eyes when he looks down. He's the guy at the coffee shop who sits in the corner and sketches the street outside. He's the guy smoking outside the club, playfully arguing with his friends about the weed he got for them and laughing as they complain about the price. At first, it felt like a comfort, seeing him everywhere she looks, but when she leaves Austin it's because she grows tired of doing double-takes just to be sure and feeling angrier every time she realizes he's not really there. (She came back from the dead for him. It's the least he could do)
Phoenix is nothing but a dry city and a small motel room and the feeling that she's falling away from something or everything. She goes out and drinks and dances and tries, but ends up coming back every night to sit in the dark with the TV buzzing. She thinks about Damon when she's laying alone in the motel bed, watching the minutes on the digital clock pass by, opening and closing her hand and feeling nothing nothing nothing.
She meets a movie star in Los Angeles. He's good-looking in that generic sort of way, tall and built and brown hair and a nice smile. He buys her drink after drink after drink as she asks about the movies he's been in which all seem to be those romantic comedies that Caroline would bring to sleepovers. He asks if she wants to leave with him and she nods her head yes as her stomach grumbles with hunger. (She kills him just so he will become a headline that Caroline reads back home, like a bloody, mangled postcard sent across the country. Wish you were here.)
It rains in Seattle. Her clothes are soaked through within the first hour and she never really dries off. On one of the days of heavy downpour, she stays in a hostel all afternoon and plays pool in the common room with some kids her age on a summer cross-country road trip before they start college. They laugh as they recount stories of their drunken endeavors on prom night and Elena makes up her own stories to tell. Later that night, she pulls her phone out of her pocket, turns it on for the first time in weeks, and calls Bonnie. It rings and rings and rings and goes to voicemail.
Chicago is Stefan's. She had been expecting that much, had been counting on it. She goes back to his old apartment and opens his trick closet, wanting remember the way he stared at her when he found her standing inside. It feels like a hazy memory now but at the time it was a familiar tug in her chest and air in her lungs... it was Stefan. Now she presses her back against the wall beside his list of the dead and squeezes her eyes shut and tries, but all she can think of are his teeth in her neck and his foot pressing the gas pedal and his eyes turning away from her when he left her at the bottom of the river to drown.
New York City doesn't feel like anything or remind her of anyone. As soon as she steps off the bus, she gets caught up in a crowd of people pushing forward to cross the street. Her feet carry her in step with them and she feels nameless, faceless, invisible, unimportant.
She feels small.
She never wants to leave.
Near the end of her second year in New York, she buys a collection of blank journals. She hadn't really intended on ever writing again, but they were in the window display of some shop in Brooklyn and she decides to engage the nostalgic whim. She starts carrying them with her everywhere and pulling them out to write on park benches and coffee shops and city buses.
She can't quite bring herself to write about her life. Her last diary entry was before she drowned in the river that night with Matt and she has no intention of continuing that story. The idea of putting the words Jeremy died on paper makes her hand start to shake.
She chooses fiction instead. She writes a story about a make-believe world with no vampires or werewolves or witches. It follows a brother and a sister as they grow up and grow apart, slowly, painfully.
"Why?" asks the man who sits next to her sometimes in the coffee shop down the street from her apartment. He's writing a book too, spends hours upon hours typing furiously away on his keyboard.
Elena thinks about the question as she looks down at the page she just wrote where the sister tries calling the brother, but he doesn't answer. "I don't know," she answers at last. "Just... life, you know? They're so set on finding themselves that they lose each other."
"Does it have a happy ending?" the man asks, already half-turned back toward his work-in-progress.
Elena shrugs and puts her pen back to the page. "It doesn't have an ending at all."
She goes out on her twenty-first birthday because, if she stays in, she knows all she will do is think of Caroline and Bonnie and how much she wants them there with her. Ordering her first legal drink is the first time that she wishes she hadn't thrown away her entire wallet after she left Mystic Falls. It would be nice to pull out her old driver's license and hand it over to the bartender when he asks instead of just compelling him like she always does.
After the third boring guy buys her fourth strong drink, she decides it's time to find a different bar. She's pushes her way out of the crowd, showing slightly more strength than a girl her size should, but no one notices much in the dark. When she finally reaches the side exit, she pushes against the door and stumbles out into the alley. She's trying to decide if she wants to find a place to dance or if she just wants a bite to eat when she turns to head out to the street and sees Stefan leaning against the building just a few feet away, a lit cigarette in his fingers.
He's staring right at her, wide-eyed, like he never expected to see her again. She stares back and there's that tug in her chest that she won't allow.
"Stefan," she says meaning it to be a curt greeting of sort, but her tone surprises her by settling on disbelief. Maybe she never expected to see him again either.
Stefan recovers first. "Damon's looking for you," he says before hello or how have you been? or nice haircut and she's not surprised. Not really.
She is surprised by how it feels like a blow to her chest--this new knowledge that Damon was still looking for her but Stefan wasn't anymore. She should have known, probably, that Stefan wouldn't try to follow her after she left them in Mystic Falls. He's probably been filling his days searching for someone like her, someone lonely and broken that he can love and hold and fix. He wouldn't want her now that she's beyond repair and learning to live with it.
Elena sighs at Damon's name, brushes her bangs out of her eyes, and asks, "So what? Do you think I should let him find me?" as she takes a few steps toward him. She thinks she sees him flinch at her nonchalant tone and that's something. That feels like something.
She expects him to sound disappointed when he speaks next and he does and she hates it. "What are you doing, Elena?"
She shrugs with an ease that surprises even her. Her ears are still ringing from the music in the bar, the alcohol is pulsing through her veins, and the ground is steady under her feet. "Becoming Katherine," she answers as she takes the cigarette out of his hand and puts it between her lips. The moment hangs as Stefan looks at her intently and she blows smoke in his face, refusing to look away, refusing to drop the act, refusing to be the sad girl she's sure he still thinks she is.
Stefan doesn't say anything right away, but there's a sense of finality to the way he drops her gaze, slouches back against the brick wall, and takes out another cigarette for himself.
"Damon was looking for Katherine for a hundred and fifty years," Elena continues in his silence, rubbing salt in old wounds just because she can, just because she wants to prove to him that she's still under his skin.
"Do you think I can beat that?" she pushes. They both know the answer. She just doesn't know if Stefan will say it, if he'll admit that his brother will always love Petrova women more than he loves him.
She knows she's won when Stefan just shrugs like it doesn't bother him, lights his cigarette, and says, "Three down," without looking at her.
It only takes Damon two more years to find her. In her defense: she'd forgotten she was supposed to be hiding.
It's a cool, cloudy day and she's on the beach of Breezy Point, walking up the sandy bank and watching the waves hit the shore. There are only a handful of people out that afternoon, walking their dogs or jogging along the walking path.
And then, suddenly, she's not.
Damon is standing in front of her, staring at her the way he always does, like she's the answer to some question he never will ask. "Elena..." he says with some uncertainty that she supposes is warranted. She's not the only woman with this face.
He reaches out slowly to cup her cheek in his hand and she's struck with the odd urge to break his fingers, just to prove a point, but she settles for saying, "Stefan said you were looking for me," because salt and old wounds and Salvatore brothers is all she knows.
And there it is. The slight flicker of Damon's eyes and the way his hand falls back to his side like he's holding a heavy weight. "Stefan found you?" he asks, forgetting himself for a moment.
She nods and says, "A couple of years ago." She thinks about adding I'm surprised he didn't tell you, but decides it's not necessary. The point's been made and Damon is already struggling not to look hurt.
It takes him a few seconds to recover. Finally, he asks, "Do you live here?" He motions vaguely with his arm to his side where the city skyline is visible through the fog. "New York, is this where you..."
Elena looks at him and thinks back to her beloved apartment in Brooklyn, to the mismatched assembly of furniture and her purple bedspread and the closet that, while spacious by city standards, never seems big enough for her ever-growing collection of jackets. She thinks of the magnets on her fridge and the fire escape that she sits on in the mornings while she drinks her coffee and the drawer where she keeps her old phone and how one of these days she's going to actually, really call Bonnie or Caroline or Matt and tell them where she is and have them come visit her. It's home, the only home she has.
"Just passing through," she says at last and only feels a little guilty because she didn't ask for this. She didn't ask for him.
He looks like he's going to say something else, but she can't quite bear to hear it. She's sure it'll either be a smooth proposition for sex on the beach or an earnest request to stay by her side forever. Both options make her feel sick, make her feel like tearing him apart with her bare hands, make her feel like saying yes.
"Damon?" she says before she finds out what he's going to ask.
"Yeah?" he asks like he knows what's coming.
"You found me, okay?" she says, making sure to keep eye contact so that he can't misunderstand her.
She leaves before he can say anything else.
The next time she sees them, they're together.
It's a decade later, but her city is the same, just loud and hectic enough to let her breathe easy, just big enough to make her feel small. Her boys are the same too, walking down the path in Madison Square Park side-by-side, bickering about something.
They're just across the street from where she's sitting on a park bench when Damon stops walking and Stefan turns toward him. Elena looks on without bothering to move out of sight. Damon has his back to her. He's got one hand on Stefan's shoulder, leaning toward his brother like he's imparting some crucial life lesson that Stefan doesn't want to hear. She sort of wishes Damon would turn around. It's been so long and she wants to know if he'd still look at her the same way he did on the beach all those years ago, if he'd still leave his little brother behind without a thought just to get to her and make some clumsy declaration of love. It doesn't matter though because he doesn't turn around and she doesn't call his name to get his attention.
Stefan sees her, of course. He always does. He glances over his brother's shoulder and catches her eye almost immediately. She pushes her lips together as he stares. It feels like it always feels when Stefan looks at her, when their eyes meet across so much distance even after all these years. It feels like fate, like inevitability, like the next page of that fairytale romance their lives used to revolve around before she became a monster and ruined everything. Sometimes she thinks that that's the real reason Stefan didn't want her after she turned. She went off-book.
But maybe that's not fair, she thinks as she and Stefan stare at each other and he doesn't wave or smile or move toward her. Damon's the brother who wants a grand fairy tale with dragons and true love and a happy ending. Stefan's wants a boring love story filled with coffee dates and family dinners and arguing over bills. Damon wants a fantasy and Stefan wants the real world and neither of them want her. Not really. Not anymore.
She feels a smile start to form on her lips as Stefan rolls his shoulder into his brother's touch and returns his attention to whatever Damon is telling him, nodding his head like he hears him even though he probably doesn't. She doesn't smile yet though. She holds it off as she watches Damon drape his arm over Stefan's shoulders and steer him down the path away from her.
She smiles only after she takes a deep breath, puts her journal and pen into her bag, and gets up to walk the other way.
She doesn't have to look back to know they're not following.