BIG TOP

Elena's life is a circus, and she is a tightrope walker. On her right, a safety net; on her left, the abyss. Eventually she is going to fall.

Around her, the audience roars.

.

LION TAMER

Stefan keeps all his beasts in check.

She sees flashes of the hunter inside; at the historical society's weekend fundraiser, Stefan stalks beside her, soft as a predator in the Savannah. He has a century of violence lurking beneath his skin, but when a kid in a pointed hat claps him on the shoulder, he smiles genially and mouths a greeting.

"You're so lucky," girls giggle to her (all of them, and a few boys besides; Elena had no idea her love life was so interesting.) She always laughs and agrees - although some days, just sometimes, she sees them flinch and knows her own smile is too sharp. Sleeping with lions brings its own price; she is marked with new scars. She seeks enemies in every shadow.

Stefan plucks a flower from a passing float, offers it to her in the cupped palm of his hand. His gaze is steady and warm; she feels something open and blossom inside her gut. She tucks the stem behind her ear.

When Stefan puts his arm around her shoulders, she feels the hard, savage strength of his protection. He is watching the crowd.

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TRAPEZE ARTIST

Damon is the dancer in empty air; he swings and arcs and flashes, even when there is no one to catch him. He gets the most applause and the deepest, most terrified gasps.

He never looks before he leaps.

Elena is trying to read - a journal is dry and cracking in her hands - but Damon reeks of scotch and restlessness. "You're not helping," she says, irritated, and he pours himself another drink, starts stacking grimoires like card houses.

"Stop it," she tries again, but it's more of an exhale than anything.

A book falls to the floor. Damon sprawls across the couch, drops his head in her lap and stares up at her in unrepentant challenge.

Elena holds very still. She fingers the journal, unseeing, and remembers suddenly a story she'd read as a child, about a girl who tamed a wild stallion no one else could ride. She'd imagined for weeks - she recalls the sleek dark shadow, its imagined feral grace, ever and always hers.

She isn't nine anymore. "The bad boy thing is getting old," she says, and Damon closes his eyes, so they both can pretend he is not there.

Elena stares at faded pages, feels the rare and trusting weight of the vampire on her thigh. She drops down one hand, brushing her fingertips against his hair.

She can still remember the exact sound of her brother's neck snapping.

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ELEPHANT (UNACKNOWLEDGED)

There are certain things they never talk about in school hallways. Bonnie and Caroline run strict interference against teachers and the principal and that one concerned guidance counselor - they flank Elena like soldiers, all smiles and laughter, planning the next dance or the school fair or the weekend slumber party.

Stefan carries her books. He is handsome and courteous. They're starting to whisper his name for prom king.

Sometimes if Elena tries very hard and the light slants through the windows in just the right way, she can pretend everything is normal. She thinks about getting a haircut. She worries about the English test she hasn't studied for.

What awes her is that Caroline still honestly cares about kissing booths and poster campaigns and saving the trees. Caroline spends an hour on makeup every morning, tosses blonde curls with casual abandon, beams at every passing friend.

Caroline asks about gym decorations - "Can you help, Elena? Saturday, I mean; please?" Her face is guileless and alive.

Elena is failing almost all her classes (she has a B+ in history). Sometimes when Caroline laughs, Elena sees a flash of fang.

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FUNHOUSE MIRROR

The day Elena comes home to find Katherine in her room, she freezes in the doorway. She is not accustomed to the white hot flash of rage; for a moment, she cannot see.

La Petrova is in the process of trying on Elena's favourite sweater. She is preening in front of the mirror, posing in red cotton, and Elena sees herself, and then herself reflected; so many silvered images, so many barbed-wire smiles.

"Just shopping," says Katherine smoothly, and before Elena can even find words, the vampire continues, "And that is no way to talk to your elders."

An instant later, the room is empty and Elena feels only the kiss of an unnatural breeze against her skin.

The sweater is missing.

Maybe, Elena thinks, she makes Katherine just as uneasy. It's not a simple thing to see your own face shift with someone else's thoughts.

She walks to the mirror, tilting her head as she lifts a hand to trace the line of her eyebrow. She imagines herself bitter and immortal - all hard edges and easy, secret laughter, scattering Salvatores behind her like broken toys.

Shivering, she moves to open the window. Standing by the curtains, bathed in daylight, she closes her eyes.

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THE AMAZING BROTHERS SALVATORE (COME ONE, COME ALL)

There are nights when she honestly isn't sure whether it's about her, or about winning. They fight over her the way she and Jeremy used to bicker over the last pop tart, or the front seat of the car.

Damon's breath brushes her neck, and Stefan's eyes flash, and she fights down a scream because this is so much bigger than all of them, but Stefan already knows and Damon never listens anyway.

"It's not safe," says Damon. Damon is angry, which means his shoulders are tight and his smile is roguish and he's making every extra effort to bore a hole through her with the sheer force of his regard.

"It's Elena's call." Stefan is beside her, just half a step in front, and she wants to hug him but she also wants to slap them both. They're hitting their cues, instinctive and circling. She wonders if they realize their own choreography.

"/No,/" snarls Damon, and then - too fast; blurring - Damon's fingers close around her arm and -

(she can't follow)

A wooden panel cracks, loudly, and for a sick moment she thinks it's someone's skull.

Stefan growls when his brother slides down the wall. When Damon grabs the thick splinter of wood, Elena snaps, "Stop it."

Stefan is the one she pulls outside (she knows he lets her pull him). Two vampires glare and all the air has gone sharp and still.

She lets the heavy door slam hard, to banish Damon's raw stare. Stefan unclenches his jaw, thus settled, and touches his lips to her forehead.

"I love you," she says, there on the doorstep, and she will not allow it to sound helpless. She adds, quietly, "Take me home."

On her right, the lion tamer. On her left, the flying trapeze.

She makes the smart choice.

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DOG SHOW

Rose sweated and swore in silk sheets, losing herself to time, losing herself to the creeping poison that blistered through and left her flesh black and peeling. Rose's eyes were vicious and shattered and tired.

The dog act, thinks Elena, is cancelled until further notice.

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RINGMASTER

The ringmaster is just as invisible as the elephant, but Klaus is still everywhere. His name haunts the edges of their conversations; he suffuses all their plans. Elena is mortal and warm but there are times when she tastes Klaus's presence like blood, or an oil slick behind her teeth.

The show must go on.

Klaus makes Stefan's hands clench, veins rising; if he had claws, she knows, they would rake the wall.

Klaus makes Damon grin, bright teeth too white and too quick.

Bonnie whispers, dark and arcane, a sudden stranger; Caroline tilts her head, cheerleader stare gone far too intent.

When Elena reaches the end of her tightrope - if Elena reaches the end - Klaus will be there.

She has no idea what she'll do then.

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THE STANDS

It's not a sold-out show. There are empty spaces. They get emptier every day.

Jeremy would like to do more than watch from the bleachers, but Jeremy is everyone's kid brother (except Bonnie's, because... no). They will not let him play.

But there are certain things only Jeremy understands. Like when some random woman passes on the street, wearing the same shirt Mom used to wear, and Elena blinks back sudden tears while her brother's fingertips skim her wrist.

Or Dad's favourite song comes on the radio, and Caroline hums along in the driver's seat, but Elena reaches for her phone and texts her brother something stupid and meaningless, because she just wants him to respond.

On their parents' anniversary, a molten weight sits on Elena's chest; she locks the doors and turns off her ringer and curls into the edge of the couch with her arms around a pillow. Jeremy makes popcorn. He shoves her feet out of his way and puts in some old cartoon movie, and they sit there staring at the screen until Elena pokes her toes into her brother's ribs and he throws a buttered kernel at her hair.

She laughs until she can breathe again.

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CLOWN CAR

There are so many acts (Alaric, she thinks, is the man who baits the bear, and that's saying nothing of the witch sideshow) but eventually they all come together. So many martyrs and such a small space.

"I'm not worth this," is Elena's protest, and then Bonnie yells and Damon glares and Stefan broods and holds her hand. His grip is gentle, but she hasn't really tested it yet.

Once, in eighth grade, Elena fought with Bonnie about who got to ask Chad Grey to the dance. Elena stole Bonnie's best hair clip, but Bonnie held Elena's diary hostage. Elena had to watch her best friend waltz around the gym with the boy who was her heart's desire. (She can't remember anymore what he looked like.)

Now they're older, fiercer, and Bonnie's gaze is wise and weighted with ghosts. Elena let Bonnie dance with Chad, but she won't let Bonnie die.

(She is terrified of Klaus, but more terrified of empty spaces.)

(She is seventeen years old.)

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COME TO THE CIRCUS! SEE:

The Vampire Barbie

The Wolf in Chains

The Knight Academic

MARVEL! AT

The Fanged Doppelganger

The Witch Ascendant

STARRING

The Brothers Salvatore

The Gilbert Sacrifice

She envisions tattered posters, other names crossed off. FINAL SHOW.

.

TIGHTROPE

Stefan brings her hot chocolate when she's tired. She sits staring at old photos (camp, three years ago; an eternity). He stands behind her, strong hands massaging the lines of her shoulders. He smells faintly of cologne and Elena half-turns, slides an arm around his waist and buries her face in the softness of his shirt. Beneath worn plaid she feels the iron within him.

"Okay?" he asks; it's a simple question. Not a simple answer, but she hears the warmth in his voice.

"Okay," she says, muffled. And, "Don't move."

She takes two breaths. Three.

"Elena," he murmurs, and she draws back, tilting her head up as she smiles.

Her hand reaches to the desk drawer and she pulls out the knife. Nicking the blade lightly across her arm (she has had practice, now), she pretends she can't see his eyes change.

.

Damon brings her grief and a smile like black nettles, but it has been a long time since Elena has been startled to find him waiting on her porch. It doesn't make her less exasperated.

"Checking in," he says, and leans his shoulder against the house.

"I'm fine." Her reply is curt. He doesn't move. They both hold still for several long seconds, before Elena bristles like a cat. "Damon -"

He is watching her. In the frozen instant before he looks away, she sees only the little boy lost.

"Damon," she says again, and she doesn't know if it's a question or a sigh - but it doesn't matter, anyway. A leaf whips in the empty, shadowed space he's left behind.

His hands are full of death, she knows. Some of it is hers. All his ragged edges are unraveling.

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THE PLUNGE

Elena's life is a circus, and she is a tightrope walker. On her right, a safety net; on her left, the abyss.

In the dream, there is darkness all around her, but the glaring spotlight is hot on her skin. She is wearing something spangly and revealing. Exposed, she teeters, and the crowd jeers. She is infinitely high up, but popcorn still lands in her hair.

She holds her arms out to the side, for balance; she adjusts the little parasol in her hand. Squinting at the spotlight, she takes half a cautious step, but her legs shake and the rope beneath her is taut and slick with blood.

She thinks she hears Jenna calling her name.

The lurch is inevitable; the air rushes around her as she teeters, tumbles -

- wakes with a jerk, and stares into the blackness.

Beside her, Stefan rumbles; his arm snakes around her waist. He draws her closer, burying his face in her hair, and Elena worms in, clutching his shoulders. She can feel her heart beat, too fast, drum in her ribs - pulse enough for both of them. Stefan's skin is bare and smooth and still.

In the dark, she shuts her eyes, and knows she's hit the net again.

She makes the smart choice, and does not think of the dizzying fall.

.

Once I was happy, but now I'm forlorn
Like an old coat that is tattered and torn;
Left on this world to fret and to mourn,
Betrayed by a maid in her teens.

The girl that I loved she was handsome;
I tried all I knew her to please
But I could not please her one quarter so well
As the man upon the trapeze.

- George Leybourne