---Deadly beast captured.
All is well in Mystic Falls.
Jeremy runs, and she wishes more than anything that she could follow after him.
She’d give almost anything to never stop running, to weave her way through the trees and feel her feet make contact with the ground until her bones turned to dust and the world ended in flames.
(Contrary to popular belief, she’s never been afraid of fire, not really. Not until she and Damon laid together in the ashes of the restaurant she feigned choking in to hide that she was too young, too stupid, and too drunk to play perfect little daughter for Grayson’s amusement when Matt’s hand around hers seemed like the safest place in the world. When she thinks about it now, it’s all she can do to stop herself from speaking to her father’s shadow where it lingers, promise him that there are only so many secrets she could hide in somebody else’s rib cage, let alone her own.)
She’s certain it would be easier, more pleasurable, and the thoughts continue in her mind as she and Ric try to track him through the forest. Everyone’s calling his name, but he calls out for Bonnie, as if she’s going to suddenly materialize between the trees, full of apologies and good intentions. Elena’s certain he’s already imagined their reunion ten times over, if only to give his feet the strength to move. She focuses on his cries, on the scent she can only associate with her brother, and tries to find him. He doesn’t want to be found, not right now, but he’s Jeremy, and she’s Elena, and what’s left but to chase each other? No Bonnie. No Damon. No drive. No desire.
Passion seems like the cruelest of thieves.
He falls at least twice.
Ric’s new Original status makes him faster than she is, but she always seems to be a few bounds ahead, always waiting for him to catch up. She isn’t why, but she’s grateful to hear the sound of his steps behind her, calm and steady. Her tears have all dried, but she knows he’s waiting for her to break again, for Jeremy to, too. (That’s what Ric does, she’s learned; he picks up the pieces.)
Eventually his legs will tire and his lungs will burn from the exertion; it’s only a question of whether they will find him before they do. It seems almost silly, for them to spend so much time running from their problems. As her feet come to a slow halt, she begins to think she understands why Katherine never gave up, never stopped moving. Maybe she was looking for the same things they are. Or maybe she was simply running, and Elena’s become too obsessed with comparing the two to really come to any sound conclusions. She’ll ask Damon, she thinks--the only one who knows Katherine better than her is him. She’s apart of him in a different way than she is, but her blood runs through his veins all the same. Damon is not Katherine, but she’s never too far away. And then she remembers: Damon’s gone. He’s as gone as Katherine is now.
She shouldn’t be so surprised. He spent nearly two centuries following after her; no reason for him to linger in a world she could no longer survive. They came together. A packaged deal. They always had.
They find Jeremy in the time that it takes him to make it from one side of the forest to the other, and that’s all she knows. There’s no accurate perception of time here, and there’s nothing left to do but stare when she does find him. There are no words. They’ve never needed them, but she’s sure he does now, and it’s perfectly in character for her to deny him those same words, like she’s denied him everything else. A normal life. A normal girlfriend. Parents. A sister who doesn’t snap necks and die on altars. There hardly seems any reason to start being generous now. Instead, her hands fall over the bones of her cheeks to find that there are no tears left, only flesh, and only bone. Jeremy’s cheeks are also dry. She wonders if that’s how they were always meant to be: empty. Bones coexisting among bones. No soft tissue, nothing linking it all together. Nothing linking them together. Not even blood.
The Gilbert kids know how to survive.
That’s never been the problem.
She almost wishes he’d cry now, get it over with. That’s what they’ve been taught, after all. Cry. Bury. Bury them all. And if you can’t do it fast enough, bury yourself along with them. Save them the trouble. (I don’t want any trouble. But it’s all I got: trouble. ) Gilbert legacy ensues.
And it sucks.
Alaric drives them home.
He looks as if he’s expecting another crying session, or some fucked-up version of a well-deserved teen-life crisis, but no tears come, and Elena’s hand finds Jeremy’s in the dark and pulls him off the ground as if he hadn’t picked her up the bathroom floor several times and she hadn’t felt slightly victorious in these brand new feats (I still have you.) It’s effortless.
What matters about Ric is that he doesn’t look like he’s about to leave them, and Elena’s never hated him more. “I’ll kill you,” She should say. “I did it once. I’ll do it again.” It would only be right. She’s gone too long washing the blood off her face to pretend she’s any different. Little things like “I loved you” and “I didn’t mean to” don’t mean anything to the Petrova fire. The fire still burns, and people still die.
She keeps her mouth shut, hands him the keys, and lets him drive.
(Did you expect anything else?)
“Home” seems to be a moot point.
They can’t go back, they can never go back, and they end up in a Motel 6, Elena, Alaric, Jeremy, Caroline, and Stefan all holed up in one small room because none of them want to be alone right now. Matt and Tyler get a free pass, promise to stay behind and get their shit together, and Jeremy hasn’t let go of Elena’s hand yet, so it only makes sense this is the way things turn out.
(This is the way everything turns out.
--- Too many orphans. Too many graves. And now they’re down a general to come up with an escape plan. Too little. Too late.)
There’s got to be somewhere else to run, but they’re tired, and the friendly old lady at the front counter with cookies and chocolate toffee and unsuspicious gaze is too beautiful to pass up. Through her tears, Caroline orders an extra room, because she’s efficient like that, and after an hour of sitting without talking, looking without seeing, she and Stefan go. Elena’s glad. She can’t look at Stefan, Stefan can’t look at her, and God, all she can think about is how they’re both making lists in their heads, who they could trade and who they could lose. The only difference is that Stefan will disappear within is guilt, and Elena won’t feel a thing; they ruined her, all of them.
Caroline watches both of them, waiting for them to break. She doesn’t know yet that Stefan doesn’t break silently; he breaks impossibly loud, with earth-shattering clarity and his fangs in someone’s neck.
Elena hopes she never will.
It ends the way it always ends.
Elena and Jeremy sit. They wait. They watch. Sometimes, they talk.
They talk the way they’ve always talked.
“Do you understand what happened?” Elena asks, and prays that he does, because she doesn’t have an answer this time, not with her mind making lists and hands ticking off the things she’ll later lose.
Alaric waits in the background. Steady. Unbreaking. But she swears she sees pain in his eyes.
It comforts her, just slightly.
“No, I don’t understand,” He answers, and she holds her breath, unsure if the moisture on his face is his or hers. After a moment, she’s sure they share it the way they share everything, and he’s the only family I have left and a simple ‘no’ seem like detailed enough explanations.
And then she’s frightened because he does know, he does understand, and no, no, no, she’s never wanted this for him. Him for this. They aren’t supposed to coexist here, and yet they always do.
She remembers how when their parents died, Jeremy was there the second she woke up. No teenage rebellion, no fifteen year old angst, only his eyes on a monitor she swears even now was lying and lips chapped and ready for questions he doesn’t want to answer. She’s sure the doctors say they can tell her, offer him an out he so desperately needs, but I’m the man of the house now and She’ll want to hear it from me are too good of excuses to deny. When she wakes up, she’s scared, confused, lost, and his hands are there holding her wrists when he looks her in the eye and says, with a startling amount of clarity: our parents are dead. He doesn’t tell the story, doesn’t start with you’ve been in an accident like they do on shows about a girl and a boy and a cheerleader and a football player and books she’s read far too many times. He skips to the end, and she prefers it that way. It’s how she knows he knows, how he knows she knows, and in the end they both know:
What you don’t know can hurt you. But there is worse pain.
The Gilbert kids know far too much about it.
“They’re gone,” Elena says with an alarming amount of clarity and measures Ric’s breaths--one… two… three…
Not dead. Gone. Final.
Goodbye to the girl whose hand she’s held longer than she can remember. From the sandbox. In the halls. This can’t be us, she’d said. But it is.
Goodbye to the honesty and the ‘I know’s and that stupid summer love that lasted for three years of her life. Goodbye to almost home and almost right and almost our time. Goodbye to taste and touch and I’ve been starving and I didn’t even know it. Goodbye to I’m not sorry and I will never leave you again. Goodbye to sitting in the dark and hiding her skeleton’s in his rib cage and I love you hate you hate you love you hate you love you. Goodbye to his lips on her lips. Goodbye to his hands on her hands. We’ll survive, she’d said. But they don’t.
Whoever said that love wasn’t meant to hurt was full of shit.
The girl and the boy and the broken dolls in a box hold each other together. There’s supposed to be a survival guide in there somewhere, but she hasn’t found it, not yet, and their general didn’t leave any instructions, not even in a snarky catchphrase on a wilted sticky note or a last insult to their intelligence. Gone. Without a trace. Location not found.
“I’m sorry,” she doesn’t say. “You lost them, too.”
She says nothing, and so does he.
They do what they do best.
Ric watches, takes care of the kids. Takes the bottle away when he catches Jeremy and Elena drowning their sorrows and pretending they’re sixteen and rebellious (she’s nineteen now, he’s seventeen, and rebellion’s only fun when they’ve got someone to catch them.) Good job, fuckwit, he mutters to himself. You’ve managed to keep two broken teenagers out of the liquor for five minutes. Guardian of the year. It’s hardly entertainment, but days pass, and they do what they do best.
Elena leaves a sticky note on the refrigerator in the foreclosure they managed to purchase since they can’t go back to Mystic Falls, her sloppy penmanship and horribly drawn smiley face bringing a small, barely there smile to his lips. They’ve had practice at this, and even she knows now that the fridge is the only way he’d see it (that’s where the beer is, after all.) Jeremy’s birthday in two weeks, it says. Because he needs two weeks reminder. Buy cake. They’re good at this.
Stefan and Caroline spend more time together. They’ve got their own place, too, now, although Caroline swears there’s nothing going on, nothing at all. Elena hardly has the audacity to do anything but believe her, and she nods along like she cares, and pretends she isn’t glad when her friend finally becomes satisfied with the smoke and mirrors and stops waiting for her to break. They’re supposed to stick together, she knows, but they’ve never felt farther apart.
She and Stefan still can’t look at each other; not without biting back you left him, you should have stopped him, and he chose you until their tongues bleed. Caroline, in all her optimism, is sure that it’ll pass (it always has, always will; it’ll pass, pass like the days, and they’ll be fine, just fine--always have, always will.) Elena doesn’t tell her that she’s sure it won’t, because Stefan chose Damon, too. They both did, and I’ll always love you’s that hold as true as full-blown eternities of misery leave nothing, and everything, all at once.
Jeremy draws. Finishes high school online. He tries to draw them all, painted in their grief, in their loneliness, but the second he thinks he’s got it, Bonnie’s face appears in his mind. He can’t begin to draw their last few days together, so he ends up crumpling up the paper and throwing it out before he’s ruined it, too, just like the universe ruined them.
Elena’s the wild card. She’s beginning to think she always has been.
A bomb. A grenade. And there’s no way to minimize the casualties. She knows that now.
She can’t make it back to Mystic Falls to recover his body, or throw his ashes off the Wickery Bridge in some Damon-ish, particularly melodramatic fashion, so she writes, instead, writes about doing it, and then burns that, too. After that, her journal’s left untouched. Every time she tries, it’s Damon and Bonnie, Bonnie and Damon, and they’ve got no time for that, no time when the barrier’s still up and Ric’s still learning how to live without killing. It’s almost comical how she’s been drafted as the one to teach him--she still hasn’t figured out how to live without killing, and she isn’t so sure she ever will. ‘Killer’ isn’t written in foot tall letters of blood on her bathroom mirror anymore, but the water still runs red, and as long she she remembers that this is what it means to survive, she can climb out without kicking up any sort of fuss.
It’s what they expect, and she won’t live up to anyone’s expectations.
Sometimes, Ric’ll share the bottle with her if Jeremy’s not looking, and they’ll come up with survival plans, prepare for natural disasters, and if she’s lucky, he’ll watch a particularly horrible chick flick with her, all for the promise of over-salted popcorn and Chunky Monkey afterwards as a reward. They don’t do a lot of watching, but it’s all for show--just for show. Anything to keep up the illusion that they’re down a lover and a drinking buddy, that they aren’t still saving beds and seats.
“They’re gone,” She doesn’t say.
“I know,” He doesn’t answer.
She sleeps sounder on his shoulder, anyways, and it’s nice to watch people find their happy endings, even if she’s certain they’ll never find theirs scouting for witches and ignoring Enzo’s phone calls. It takes weeks to track down Luke and Liv (they didn’t waste time with backroads), and Elena promises herself she won’t kill them, and won’t leave Liv without a brother, won’t leave Luke without a sister, but he’s gone, and you’re not, is a loud battle cry, one that hardly seems capable of being stifled in Ric’s SUV that doesn’t know the quiet crawl Damon’s camaro made on endless stretches of highway.
“I want them to hurt like I hurt,” She doesn’t say.
“I know,” He doesn’t answer.
(Ric pretends not to notice their blood under Elena’s fingernails the entire ride home.)
(“Home” is a moot point.)
She hears Damon’s voice in her head.
It isn’t the first time.
She left you, he’d said. She sucks.
“I hate him,” She says, and means it. You left me.
He doesn’t answer, and that’s how she knows that nothing has changed.