Disclaimer: I don't own them, I just like playing with their little lives.


It mightn't have been so bad, so painful, without such a large audience. Everyone who mattered saw what happened, estimated the fallout differently but recognised (correctly) that the fallout would be absolute.

In the fight, many were injured, but most would recover. Rapid healing was part and parcel for most of them, now. Sometimes, Elena wished they remembered that: the only person, really, who came close to dying that day, was her.

They won. Klaus was defeated. But that wasn't the end.

One moment, Klaus was crumbling to dust. The next, Stefan was roaring like a great beast, leaping on Elena, intent on draining her dry. Some compulsion, no doubt left by Klaus to break Damon once and for all if Klaus himself was dead.

Stefan was high as a kite on a steady diet of girls-who-looked-like-Elena; Damon was cool as ice on a steady diet of bagged O-neg. There was never any question of who was the stronger, nor of who was the trickier, and Damon used the only advantage he had left to save Elena's life. For the last time. A long stake, soaked in vervain and left to harden again in the sun, up beneath the ribcage, there by the spine.

(That's the way to a vampire's heart, he'd told Elena once.)

As Stefan turned grey and began to desiccate, some of the dust from his eyes fell into Elena's mouth. It was Alaric who pulled her broken body out from beneath Stefan's, even as she whimpered for Damon.

Damon, who dragged his brother's body into his lap and keened for five hours. The expression on his face impossible to describe, but easy to interpret; regret. For what, no one could tell.

Nuclear winter, or its supernatural equivalent, fell across Mystic Falls.

She'd lost a lot of blood, dislocated her shoulder, hit her head hard. Jeremy and Alaric took turns watching her in the hospital, in theory; though in practise, neither left her side for very long.

Caroline came by, haunted. "I could give her some of my blood," she offered, in a small voice. Alaric and Jeremy shared a look.

"No. It's still touch and go. We can't let her die with..." Jeremy looked older than he had yesterday. Alaric looked away. "She wouldn't want to…"

Caroline offered the sleeping Elena a kiss, and left without a word.

Over the next few months, people started to leave. Damon was first. He waited until Elena was out of hospital. She woke up in the middle of the night and he was sitting on her bed, his back to her.

"Damon?" she whispered, putting a hand out to touch him. He tensed beneath her fingers. "Damon?"

"Stefan's dead," he answered, matter-of-fact.

"I know. I'm sorry. We were supposed to get him back." She wasn't sure what she was supposed to say. "Thank you. For saving me." He said nothing in response. She bunched her hand in his shirt, pulling him down onto the bed with her. He didn't resist, but he wasn't exactly participatory, either.

She didn't mind. They had plenty of time.

She tangled herself up against him, favouring the still-injured shoulder. Kissed his jaw. He didn't respond, just lay with his eyes closed.

A shot of grief and fear shot from her eyes to her heart.

"Do you wish you'd let him live? Let... me die?"

But he was asleep, or so it seemed. Elena cried hot, salty tears into his singlet and when she woke in the morning, he was gone.

He'd left a note. It read "I don't know. Sometimes."

(I will always choose you.)

He took just enough from the boarding house to make it clear he wouldn't be back in a hurry.

Bonnie was next. She had enough credits for an early graduation and an early acceptance to UCSD. She moved to San Diego to find her feet, get a job, save money for a while before the fall semester started.

She promised to keep in touch, but Elena wasn't that surprised when her cell phone number stopped working three months later.

Not that surprised. But, hurt.

Caroline and Tyler threw a graduation party with… just a little too much gusto. Everyone went. Elena threw up in the Lockwood's water feature and was about to feel embarrassed when she realised it wasn't the first time she'd done it.

Then she just felt like an idiot.

Alaric held her hair back.

"Best history teacher ever," Elena insisted as he lead her to a bench in the cool air, fetched her a glass of water.

"Worst guardian even," Alaric corrected. "Why so... full of cheer?"

"Because," Elena said, sweeping an arm to indicate the revelry before them. "This isn't a graduation party at all. It's a farewell. They're leaving us, Ric. Why does everyone leave us?"

She had the hiccups, and also, she was right. As Tyler was no longer sired to Klaus – Klaus, of course, being dead – he and Caroline wanted to get as far from Mystic Falls as possible.

As Alaric poured Elena onto her bed that night, taking off her shoes, he thought that she was right. Everyone left them, eventually, one way or another.

During the summer before his senior year, Jeremy announced he wanted a year at a private prep school. A private prep school as far away as he could manage. He'd chosen one in Washington State, near the Olympic Peninsula, a sprawling campus that promised a better shot than Mystic Falls High School at getting into RISD.

Also, he claimed, Bonnie said it was supernaturally dead. No vampires, no werewolves. He said it so bitterly that Elena had to convince herself it was because he was missing Anna, missing Vicki, not full of hate because the last two years had been hell.

(He spoke to Bonnie? Bonnie wouldn't speak to her.)

Elena raged, threw things at him. Jeremy stood his ground. Pointed out to her that since she hadn't even applied to college, she wasn't in much of a position to judge other people's educational decisions. One year at a private prep school, then a good art school. She should be happy for him.

(Alaric felt ill; how had he failed to notice that Elena hadn't done anything about college?)

(Worst. Guardian. Ever.)

As custodian of the Gilbert family's trust, Elena had to sign for the bank draft to pay for the school. She did it, and then broke into the boarding house and drank herself to sleep.

It was Alaric who found her and brought her home again.

"You always come and find me," she said when she woke momentarily in the truck, just as Alaric pulled into the garage.

Alaric said nothing.

Matt was the last. Elena helped him to pack up his things and drove with him to Duke that August. He didn't need the help. She just wanted to absorb the last traces she could of one of the few people she could still call a friend. He promised to come back during term breaks.

She tried to convince herself she didn't need him to, so it wouldn't hurt when he didn't.

And then there were two.

Chapter 1

Alaric and Elena, rattling around the Gilbert house like a pair of ghosts.

Elena worked at the Grill. Worked long hours, worked her fingers to the bone. Worked for wages and tips and worked so there was something to distract her from the desire to scream until her lungs bled.

Alaric gave up all pretence that he lived in his loft and moved the remainder of his things into the house. Pretended to spend the summer break writing a book about the history of Mystic Falls. In reality, spent the summer drinking heavily and thinking about Damon.

The school year started again and it cut down on the amount of drinking Alaric could reasonably do, but he still managed to do an impressive amount of it.

Some nights, Alaric would find himself sitting at the bar at the Grill, on his usual stool, the place beside him empty. He'd drink, and breathe, and stare at the empty place until he felt himself solidify into clay, and pretend he didn't want to cry. Those nights, Elena had to wrestle his bulk into her car when she finished her shift.

One night, as Elena worked and Alaric stared at the empty stool, a burst of laughter that could only be Damon's rang out, out of the mouth of a man with dark hair and pale blue eyes, as he came in the door. The resemblance was momentarily staggering, but an illusion.

Alaric propelled himself into the bathroom and vomited in the sink, bourbon and blood and bile. Elena followed him with a cloth and a glass of ice water.

Alaric sank to his knees. "You can't be in here, Elena," he said, as she put the cold cloth to his forehead.

"Actually, you're in the girl's bathroom. You're not supposed to be in here." She rubbed reassuring circles into his back, and he tried not to press into her hand.

When he thought he could stand again, he held her brown eyes for a moment. "He's not coming back, is he?"

She hesitated halfway through shaking her head, and nodded fiercely instead. "He has to come back. He loves me."

She didn't see the flash of pain on Alaric's face, and if she had, she would have wished she hadn't.

Once they were home, she deposited him on the couch and poured them each a drink. Elena couldn't bear bourbon, because it tasted like Damon smelled; Alaric couldn't bear anything but bourbon, because it tasted like Damon tasted.

Elena drank gin.

They slept on the couch, which was nothing new.

Elena had a newspaper spread out on the breakfast bar, but she was drinking coffee and gazing out the window, not reading it. Alaric dropped a kiss on the top of her head as he padded to the coffee jug.

"What's up, sports fans?"

She made a face at him, and he immediately wished he hadn't said it. He wished he didn't say a lot of things.

"Not sports. Properties. We have to find somewhere new to live." She took another mouthful of coffee. "Jer wants to sell the house. Wants his half of the money for college."

Alaric nodded slowly. "You'll be going to college next year, too. I should get something by myself."

He barely had a chance to look up when Elena's empty coffee mug hit him in the chest.

(Feel that? It's the sternum. Solid plate of bone.)

"What the fuck, Elena?"

"You're not leaving me. Everyone leaves us. We can't leave each other." She had leapt up and was punching his chest, ineffectually but with real passion, when he finally caught her wrists in his hands.

"Calm down," he commanded.

It was almost like compulsion. She calmed, though her tears continued to fall, and her breath still hitched. He pulled her close to him, stroking her hair. He lead her to the couch, curled her against his body and let her cry as long as she needed to.

"I snotted on you," she laughed, after a while.

"We've cleaned up each other's puke. There's no coming back from that."

"Don't make me live by myself." She rubbed her cheek against his chest. "I couldn't bear it."

"You'll be going to college, Elena."

"I didn't apply."

He froze, drawing away from her a moment. "You said -"

She shrugged. "I lied. I don't want to leave. I don't want to go. Anywhere. I want to stay here with you."

Worst guardian ever.

Jeremy called to say he wasn't going home for the summer break. Had an internship.

"You could come and visit me." He didn't say it like he meant it. Said it like it was something he was supposed to say, like it was something he could say safely, because she wouldn't take him up on it anyway.

"I have a job, Jeremy." She knew it was lame.

He didn't bother to argue.

Postcards came from Caroline and Tyler. They said 'Paris is super.' 'The shoes in London are to die for.'

They said 'Ric should go to Edinburgh some time. He would totally love it. Parts of it are like old.'

They said 'Australia is so nice. They love Americans here.'

They never said 'I miss you,' or 'I wish you were here.'

Each time one arrived, Elena put it on the fridge until she couldn't stand to see it for another day. And then shredded it to dust between her fingers.

He walked into the bathroom one night and she'd just finished carving her own name into her leg. He dropped to the ground, grabbing for anything he could use to stanch the flow of blood.

"Jesus Christ, Elena. Are you trying to kill yourself?"

He mopped up the blood with toilet tissue and towels. She slumped passively against the bathtub.

"I'm just trying to remember who the fuck I am."

He cleaned the wound, bandaged it properly. "Next time, come and ask me. I know who you are." He carried her to his bed, wrapped himself around her and tried to hold her insides in as she cried.

Alaric arrived at the Grill, took his seat at the bar, staring at the empty stool beside him. Elena polished glasses. He looked up at her, curls framing her face.

"Why did you stop straightening your hair? I see you, sometimes, and for a second I think…"

She leaned across the bar. "No one cares if I look like her any more."

Katherine had ruined more lives than Alaric could count. His wife's, Elena's mother's life. He took a strand of Elena's hair in his fingers. "I care."

That night, as he stroked himself, lazily at first, he pretended it was Damon's hand on him. What they'd had wasn't always pretty but it was so real and raw. He remembered the feel of a rock-hard body beneath his, a hard ring of muscle around his cock. Remembered lips that were both hard and soft against his. A mouth that that was warmer than you might have expected it to be, but cooler than Alaric's own.

As he sped up, he conjured every detail he could of his lover's body, touched the scar low on his hip that marked Damon's favourite place to drink from.

(Well… sometimes, I do things I don't have to do.)

As he brought himself to climax, he imagined Damon's mouth on his cock, humming happily. An insistent thumb on his anus, fingers tweaking his nipple just past the edge of discomfort.

"Damon," he breathed, as hot jets of come coated his hand and his stomach.

He might not have done that if he knew Elena was listening from the other side of the door.

She listened for longer than she should have, and when she heard Damon's name, it told her all she needed to know.

She started straightening her hair again the next morning.

"I was a senior last year, Ric. I don't know if this is any good or not. What should I be looking for?"

It had become almost a fetish, this desire of hers to mark his students' papers. He thought, sometimes, that he should stop her. And then he wondered if it might be that she was bored, and maybe she'd decide she wanted to do something with her life.

She'd never tell him that she just wants to sit close, because Alaric's skin has been closer to Damon's than hers will ever be.

"Keep it simple. Grammar and spelling and shit. Anything obviously wrong. For example…" He thumbed at the space between his eyebrows, making Elena giggle. That always meant he'd found something ridiculous. "Lee Harvey Oswald was not a disappointed political opponent. Jesus." He flipped to the front page again to check the name, realised with a pang that it was a friend of Jeremy's. "Where do they get this stuff from?"

Elena took a red pen and started to indicate spelling mistakes, still smiling.


She looked up expectantly.

"Am I a bad teacher?"

"No." She cocked her head. "You were a great teacher. Way better than Mr Tanner was," she added, voice husky, returning to red pen and missing commas.

A moment later, Alaric was still gazing absently into space. "Ric? What?"

"This was never the plan. I wasn't going to be a high school history teacher. I was going to be a professor. Glasses, ugly-ass brown jacket, rousing lectures, the works."

Elena wanted to tell him he still could be. Laid her forehead against his shoulder, instead, because she didn't want to give him permission to leave Mystic Falls.

He finished his bourbon, poured another. She reached timidly for it, smelling it deeply, but couldn't bring herself to drink it.

She wondered how Alaric could.

"You're not just a teacher, Ric," she murmured against his strong arm. "You're a vampire slayer."

Under the circumstances, she supposed he wouldn't find that very comforting.

That night, she found herself reaching between her legs, wishing she could conjure up a memory instead of just a fantasy. She tried to pretend Damon was touching her like this, as she finger-fucked herself, as she thumbed her clit, so jealous of Alaric that she could have stripped the skin from his bones.

As she shuddered, she cried.

And then one night, she woke up to see a man sitting on her window seat.

"Damon?" she called, her voice breathy and heavy with sleep. He leaned forward, and she struggled, panicked, backwards in the bed until her back was against the headboard. "Elijah."

"Hello, Elena."

She screamed. Moments later, Alaric threw the door open, crossbow in his hand. Elijah was on his feet, arms up and conciliatory.

"Ric. How have you been?"

"Get out of her room."

"You know that can't kill me."

"It could knock you out for a few hours. Get the hell out of here."

Elijah sighed. "I just came to check on you. Both. I imagine you've been having a difficult time of it."

By now, Elena was on her feet, standing behind Alaric with her hand hooked in the waist band of his pyjama pants.

"We don't need any help from you," she said, with as much scorn as she could manage.

"Any word from our friend Damon?" Elijah looked altogether too relaxed.

Alaric raised the crossbow higher, prepared to fire it. Elijah sighed.

"I don't know why I bothered. Goodnight, Alaric, Elena."

In one impossibly quick, graceful move, he dropped from her window. Elena crumpled to the ground. Alaric set the crossbow aside, stooped to gather her in his arms.

"There's not a single vampire we know who can't come into this house. We should have moved months ago." He had one hand in her hair, the other tight on her waist.

She sobbed messily into his bare chest. "Elijah… Katherine… oh, fuck, even Rebekah. They've all been in here."

"When was Rebekah here?"

Elena didn't answer, just kept sobbing, her arms wrapped desperately around Alaric's body like it was the only way she knew how to keep herself together.

"Sh, Elena. We'll start looking tomorrow." He kissed the top of her head.

"But…" She couldn't say it.

"But what?"


Alaric shifted, kissed her forehead, her temple. "He'll find us. He'll walk around town until he catches our scent, and then he'll find us. Or we'll be in the Grill, and that stool suddenly won't be empty any more."

She didn't want to sleep in her own room, didn't want to sleep alone. She curled up in the foetal position on Alaric's bed and he curved himself around her, his face at the nape of her shoulder, and let her cry until she slept.

He left for school before Elena woke up, and she started her shift at the Grill before he came home. That night, he sat vigil at the bar. Stared at the empty stool beside his and didn't say a word.

It was small, but they didn't need a lot of space. Two bedrooms, a small kitchen. Shared bathroom. Closer to both the Grill and the high school than the Gilbert house was.

"You can't take five hours doing your makeup, you know, if we take it." He joked. She'd never been vain, and these days, she barely bothered at all.

"You can't take five hours doing your hair."

"I do not take -" Elena's eyebrow was cocked just so, and there was no point in arguing. They signed a joint lease.

"I feel so grown up," she said, but her hand was shaking and her chin quivered just a little.

The house sold, fast. To a founding family heir and his new wife. Children on the way. Elena catalogued their crimes for months.

"They've painted it the most horrible pink colour. They say it's salmon, but it's pink. It's horrible, Ric."

"There are bars on the windows upstairs! Bars! On my bedroom window!"

Finally: "They tore out my mom's rosebushes."

That night, she cried and cried into Alaric's chest as he rocked her to sleep.

In the morning, Elena was sleep-lovely and smelled like a baby. Alaric smelled like a distillery. Elena burrowed her face into his chest, and when he tried to pull away, she gripped his arm tight.

"Five more minutes."

"I have to go to school."

"It's not like they can start without you." She pulled away from his chest and held his eyes a long time.

Impossible to know, now, who noticed it first, but their mouths were about to meet when they both sprang back, apologetic and embarrassed. Elena ran from Alaric's bedroom and into her own, slamming the door behind her. Slid down until she sat with her back to the door, breathing hard.

"Elena?" He knocked gently.

She tried to sound calm, but all she could think about was what his mouth would feel like on her breasts. "Yeah, Ric?"

"Do we need to talk about this?" His hand was on the doorknob, and she could hear it shift minutely under his touch.

What she wanted to say was, talk about what? Nonchalant, like she wasn't a twenty-year old girl with quivering thighs.

"Um. No. Not really."

He was still standing on the other side of the door when she gathered breath to say "I'm on a long shift tonight. So I won't see you until tomorrow."

"Might see you there anyway."


He took a step away, another back. "Are you sitting on the floor in there?"

She sighed. "Go to work, Ric."

And yet again, Jeremy called to say he wouldn't be home for Thanksgiving. For Christmas. His voice sounded hard.

"You could come to me, Elena. I just don't want to be in Mystic Falls again, ever."

She cursed him over the phone. Yelled. Called him a traitor, accused him of every crime against family that she could come up with.

"Talk soon, Elena," he said as he disconnected.

Elena crawled into Alaric's bed. He wrapped his strong arms around her.

"Jeremy's never going to come home."

"It's not his home, anymore."

"I'm supposed to be his home."

"You could go and see him." She could feel Alaric's lips on her ear. She shook her head.

"I can't. What if Damon comes?"

Alaric ran his thumb over her collarbone. "He left, Elena."

"It doesn't mean he's not coming back. He can't have left me. Not really."

"He left us both."

"Yeah, well," she said spitefully. "He wasn't in love with you."

Alaric froze. Elena rolled over in his arms so they were face to face.

"You knew?"

"I know now."

He nodded. "In that case, that was a shitty thing to say."

He rolled over and away from her, but didn't resist when she curved around him. Neither slept well.