For Thot84, who made me want to be better. No compromises this time.

Atlanta Burns

Chapter 1: Blood

He'd done his time studying the circulatory system, hell, all vampires had. The curiosity to understand how you functioned, what made you tick, plus the time on your hands… all of them ran to the text books and the microscope eventually, lying to themselves the whole while that they were just 'interested' and not desperate, desperate to change what could not be. Two years, often three - so short a time to spend studying when facing an eternity cursed. Locked in a series of airless rooms, feverishly consuming the latest studies, pushing one step ahead, always on the 'crest' of some discovery - a discovery that is never made.

So yes, leukocytes and thrombocytes had revealed their mysteries long ago. He didn't have them. He didn't know what he had. Tell any vampire and they'd laugh that same hollow laugh. All of them down to the last man had spent the same years in the academic wilderness and shared the same red-eyed, twitching despair. What their bodies did with the blood nobody knew. What vampirism actually was nobody knew. And if you couldn't identify it, you couldn't cure it. It was almost laughable really. Other people's blood animated them, but their own systems were a mystery. The blood when it entered them was transformed into something else, but the hows or whys, remained a stubborn mystery. God's last joke.

So when Klaus' blood hit his system, pulsing through his veins like a tsunami, he knew it was not entering his system and filling him with antibodies, or attaching to his stem cells, or anything else that could be understood, explained or rationalized. It was simply the supernatural at work. The dark product of a were-vampire's twisted heritage that assimilated, teased and curled around the 50,000 miles of veins in his body, washing him clean of Tyler's curse.

Raising himself on one elbow he looked at Elena. He knew it and she knew it. The rules of the game had changed. That pure unbroken spell between them had dissipated the moment it was clear he wasn't dying any more.

He hated that phrase much beloved of romantic novelists 'he could still taste her on his lips', because it was a lie. He couldn't. He craved her, wanted more. But there she was standing staring at him, timid as a rabbit, chaste as a virgin, with Katherine's words burning shame into her heart. It was 'okay' to love them both, the female vampire had told her. He knew as soon as those words had left her mouth, that he had lost Elena. Katherine was a cunning little bitch. Granting permission to admit love, guaranteed it wouldn't come. Elena wouldn't want to be like her. She would bite it down, bury it under a blanket of worry for his brother.

Ahh, his brother. The elephant in the room.

Elena may have been here in the room with him, but he knew her mind was racing ahead to Stefan. In her practical, solution-for-everything way, she was already picturing rescue, homecoming and the moment of sweet reunion, where kisses would rain down on lips and hands would gently brush faces in that sweet, intimate, space that was the distance between two lovers. He grimaced, that shared 'sweet, intimate space' had been his only moments before. But that was all over now. The reality was her heart belonged to someone else.

He vaulted out of his bed suddenly, his feet landing heavily on the ground. He tested his weight and tried not to notice that she had taken a step back as he had risen. She was scared. He felt a stab of pure pain run straight through his heart. She expected the honesty of his death, not the reality of his unnatural resurrection.

"We'll find him and we'll bring him home." He said, his unwavering voice sounding more certain than he expected, given that what he said was both painful and probably untrue. He didn't want to bring Stefan home. Besides if wasn't here already, then they were probably already too late. They both knew it. She nodded once agreeing to his statement, but he could tell she was barely listening. The regret she felt at their previous closeness was obvious. She wanted to keep distance between them; her thoughts were focused on Stefan. It didn't take a genius to work it out.

He strode into the bathroom, determined not to let his heartbreak show on his face. He turned the faucets full on, let the hiss of steam vent his frustration for him. He steadied his hands on the wall. Took breaths in memory of when they used to do something. He tried to imagine his heart beating. Hurt flooded over him. He loved her and she had, at least for a moment, let that be enough. She didn't really love him back, but she had lowered her barriers, just let him need her and also let him believe in the possibility of more, even though their time had run out. It was pure, unselfish. Now he flung off both his clothes and his hurt, and let both disappear under a roll of steam. He stepped under the scalding water and let the sweat of his sickness wash away. The cascade poured over his dark hair and troubled face. He tipped his head back into the slipstream and let the water slide in and out of his open mouth, over his throat and across his shoulders. He wanted to be scalded just to feel a different kind of pain. He washed both his fevers away.

They entered Klaus' apartment. There was nothing here, nothing but debris. A scrap of paper here, a paperclip there - a worryingly large pile of blood bags oozing onto the floor – pathetic remnants of the whirlwind that had passed through this place and turned all their lives upside down.

He opened and slammed the refrigerator door just for want of a way to express his frustration. It made her jump; her slender shoulders bunched with sudden anxiety.

He apologized and her coal-black eyes flicked to him with the most tiredness he had ever seen in her. Poor Elena, poor girl. He had almost forgotten all that had gone before. She didn't want this strange new world she found herself in; she just wanted her boyfriend back and all that was familiar and comforting. What she was left with was him - a dark and dangerous vampire who brooded with love for her, filling up the room with his self-pity. He wished he could take her in his arms, but he looked at her instead. "We'll find him." He promised her. "I'll bring him back to you." Shoulders still hunched she looked at her feet. "It's my fault." She said and at that he could bear it no more. She was broken. When he enveloped her in his arms he told himself he did it for her, but she neither held him back, nor relaxed, so he supposed the comfort was his alone. He kissed the top of her head.

"Nothing is your fault." He said. "He did this to keep me alive. I promise you Elena, I will get him back. I owe you both that." He relaxed his grip and she looked up at him and he realized he meant what he said. He wanted to bring him back, for her, to make her happy once more.

How sick was that?

They drove back to the boarding house in silence, she looked through the window at the drizzling rain and he felt the were-vampire blood curling like a dark-shadow through him. He twitched his fingers on the steering wheel and blinked more times than was entirely necessary.

"We are dead." He said, almost to the air, and she turned to him a puzzled look breaking through the pale misery. "Our bodies, they are dead. But the blood, it animates us."

"I don't understand…" she said, her voice barely above a whisper. He could hear how dry her lips were. She passed her tongue over them and tried again, "I don't understand what you mean."

"The blood. Klaus, thinks he's controlling him with it, but he isn't - not really. The blood just animates the body, not the mind."

"How can you say that when you've seen him on human blood, Damon? You know how out of control he gets." He shook his head.

"No. He wants to come home to you. It's all he wants, he can't think of anything else. That's what will keep him safe." She looked away, doubt and despair filling her whole body.

"He'll do things, things he can't control." She said sorrowfully. He nodded, thoughtfully.

"Maybe. He'll do what he has to do to survive, but the real Stefan – he's in there somewhere. He'll find a way, because all that keeps him going, is the thought of returning home to you."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because it's how I would feel too." He said quietly. He didn't add that it was how he felt. Elena was 'home' and he was on the outside looking in.

He pulled up at the boarding house and as soon the car stopped, she opened the car door and walked away.

He let her go.

Later that night, as a warm slick of whisky coated his throat, he sat back on his couch and watched the candles burn down. He intended to get himself good and drunk, as he couldn't bring himself to go to bed. Couldn't return to that room that had so nearly been his final resting place. He looked at the glass and realized his hand was shaking. He had come so close, so damn close. A feeling akin to nausea washed through him. He lowered his head between his knees and closed his eyes briefly, but flung them open again when he saw her face leaning in to kiss him; the moment seemed to be on tiresome instant replay. Maybe he had died, for this certainly seemed to be purgatory.

He could hear the sound then, faint though it was. He raised his head and strained again. Yes, it was the sound of her trying desperately to muffle tears in her pillow.

He roused himself and unsteadily walked up the stairs to his brother's bedroom and knocked gently on the door, his heart heavy. She sniffed; he could almost picture her putting her resilience together like a mask. He gave her a moment, then opened the door. She was sat in the heart of that big bed, looking lost and alone. She wore a cream nightgown that exposed her legs, it had deep lace cuffs at the breast and the hem. She had her knees pulled up to her chest with her arms wrapped around them. Her dark hair hang scruffily around her shoulders. The overall effect only exaggerated her pallor. She looked lost and lonely. A familiar ache passed through him. Seeing her like this only made the feeling worse. All he wanted was to make love to her.

"I just wondered if you needed anything." He said gently, trying to sound more reassuring than he felt. She shook her head. She had tears threatening to well over, but through sheer force of will, she muttered, "I'm okay." He nodded, turned slowly and left, closing the door behind him. He got almost all the way to the bottom of the stairs before he paused. He looked behind him at the door he had closed. Suddenly he ran back up the steps, taking them three at a time. When he reached the top he strode into her room unannounced. She was now under the sheets, her back turned, crying silently. He removed his shoes and moved to the bed. He lay on top of the cool sheets and shifted his body up next to hers. He put an arm over her and felt for her hand; when he found it, she allowed him to lace their fingers together. Maybe she was too tired to argue. He nestled his body against hers and they lay that way until they fell asleep.

When he woke, he momentarily didn't recognize where he was, but the sweet fragrance of Elena's scent brought him round. He was facing away from her on the other side of his brother's bed. He was hot. Way too hot. He clawed at his shirt and threw it off. He felt for sobriety and clear-headedness, but neither were especially forthcoming. Abruptly he sat bolt upright, a chill passed through him like ice. They were not alone. No. Correct that. Someone had been in the room, but now they were gone. Suddenly he was wide-awake, his vampire eyes scanning the darkness automatically even though he knew the intruder was no longer there. They had been watching them sleep and then had gone.

An incredible sadness passed over him. He knew who it was. Stefan.

He felt worry descend, his blurred mind crowding with thoughts that battled for supremacy. He tried to clear his mind, organize them into order. Firstly, if his brother had been here and had not announced himself, then he probably had been told he shouldn't be here and had risked much in doing so. Secondly, somewhat perversely, he knew that his brother would have taken in the scene before him and would have expected it. Probably even welcomed it in some way ('well at least she has him now'). That was who he was. Thirdly, and this was the hardest of all to realize: he knew with certainty that the risk-filled visit meant Stefan had in his own way said goodbye.

As he formulated that last thought, he turned to the woman sleeping soundly next to him. He stroked a stray strand of hair away from her face and she stirred. "Stefan?" She mumbled. He frowned, not for the mistake, but because he knew that in the morning, he would have to tell her that the object of her dreams was never coming back.