I wanted to add a contribution of my own to my favorite VD relationship, and this is what resulted.

This is set sometime in an AU Season 3. Stefan turns off his humanity and tells Elena that he wants her and everyone else to leave him alone, and that he is leaving with Klaus with no intention of ever returning. The aftermath of that conversation is where our story begins.

Stefan is gone.

Not dead gone but emotionally, spiritually gone, which is even worse because she keeps looking for him in the stranger with his face.

She sits on her bed and stares into nothingness and tries to think about anything in the universe besides Stefan.

She's not very good at it.

Secondsminuteshoursdays pass, and she is vaguely aware that her friends and Jeremy come to see her, sit with her, set food in front of her. They try to talk to her, console her, but she imagines herself inside a steel cage that emotions and words cannot penetrate. They always leave eventually.

They don't matter. Nothing matters, because Stefan (her Stefan) is gone.

She knows she is expected to cry, but her eyes remain dry. If she cries, she'll lose control, and she might never get it back. Besides, new Stefan (horrible Stefan) would like it if she cries.

Her heart hurts even worse than it did when her parents died (no matter how very much she had loved them). After all, children know, deep in the dark recesses of their hearts, that they will outlive their parents. Such is life.

But she was never, ever supposed to live to see her immortal boyfriend, lover, other half gone.

Caroline and Bonnie are speaking in lowered voices outside her bedroom door one day, probably thinking she's too far gone to listen, but she pays attention when she hears Stefan's name.

"-gone, it's like she's a widow now, Bonnie."

"It's not natural, they met for the first time, what, a year ago?" Bonnie's voice is logical, worried.

"It's different with vampires," Caroline protests. "Everything is more intense. They were in love by the second week they knew each other."

Bonnie makes some retort, but Elena has grown bored with the talk of love and withdraws inside herself again.

Time passes, shadows lengthen, people try to talk to her and all eventually give up. There is a heavy pressure in her chest that won't go away, no matter how much she wills herself to move past the pain of knowing she's lost something precious forever.

Sometime later, Matt and Caroline are talking outside her door. Have they put aside their rocky pasts for her sake? They didn't have to bother; they're not going to be able to fix her.

There is nothing that can fix what's wrong with her but Stefan, and Stefan's gone.

"You couldn't find either of them?" Caroline's voice is frazzled. "Do you think they're somewhere together, drinking?"

Matt sounds hoarse. "I don't know, Car, but it's not right. They should be with her."

She knows they're both looking at her, but she doesn't flinch, just fixes her eyes on a blob of paint that was never touched up when her mom repainted her room when she was thirteen.

Sometime later, they leave. They all leave her, in the end.

Occasionally she sleeps, not meaning to, but she'll blink and when she opens her eyes it'll be a few hours later, darker or lighter outside her window.

Can she blink her life away like this?

Will she blink and be seventy and spotted and wrinkly when Stefan finally comes back, and so ugly he won't even be able to look at her? Will she be on her deathbed? Will she be a hundred years buried?

And does it matter, really?

She blinks again.

A door slams downstairs, and then Jeremy walks in, talking furiously to someone. "-can't believe you'd do this, you're supposed to be the adult, the responsible one, and you left her. For five days. Jesus, do you know what she's been like?"

"She doesn't need me." Alaric's voice is rough. Hungover? "I couldn't help Damon, and I can't help her."

"Oh, yeah?" Her brother's voice is cutting, harsher and more adult-sounding than she's ever heard it, even when he was pissed off at her for taking his memory of Vicky. "You're the only one she ever listens to, besides Damon. And god knows he's not in any position to help."

"She has to grieve, Jeremy. There's nothing anyone can do to speed up that process." His voice is louder now, closer.

Jeremy sighs in frustration. "She's not grieving, Ric, she's…catatonic." They are right outside her door now. "Bonnie and Caroline can't help her, I can't help her. But you can."

The door bursts open, and she can't stop herself from looking up, sees her brother looking resolved and years older than his age, and over his shoulder is Alaric, a few days' stubble on his cheeks, his eyes bloodshot and clothes wrinkled.

He stares back at her as if his heart is breaking, as her brother quietly shuts the door on them.

"Oh, Lena," he says finally, walking toward her. He smells like whiskey and beer, but she probably doesn't smell good either. She hasn't taken a shower since… since however long it's been since she realized that Stefan was gone forever. Five days, Jeremy said. It feels like months.

She leans back against her headboard and closes her eyes. After a minute, the bed dips down, and she looks over to see that Ric has sat down next to her, staring at her with worry in his blue eyes.

"It hurts?" he asks quietly, and she nods. Of course it hurts. It's never dulled, never fading.

Long minutes pass…half an hour? More? "I imagine it feels something like I felt, when Isobel left me," Ric says abruptly. "There was no closure. She was in my life one day and gone the next. And meeting her as a vampire… well, she existed, but that was the moment I realized that woman, my wife was gone. Forever. And-" His voice is becoming rough, and he clears his throat. "And it hurt. Sometimes it still does."

He hesitates, looking at her, then slowly wraps his arm around her shoulders, as if she will try to get away if he moves too fast. She lets him, not caring enough to do anything else at the moment. I'm so sorry, Elena," he says into her hair. "I know how bad it hurts, and I am so, so sorry."

At that moment, reality comes crashing down on her, and her retreat inside herself is no longer possible.

Suddenly, she is just a miserable, scared eighteen year old girl huddled on her bed, grieving because someone she loves has been taken from her. Again.

She leans into him, and he tightens his arm around her. She is surprised to feel tears sliding down her cheeks, and the pressure in her heart builds up even more until she is gasping for breath. She can't bear this pain, she can't-

The gasps turn into sobs, and she feels her heart cracking down the middle. "I can't breathe, Ric," she chokes into his chest. "I can't live without him."

He rocks her against his chest, back and forth, back and forth. "You can," he says. "You will."

She shakes her head, and for a time she can't talk anymore. Her whole body is shaking with sobs, and it takes all her energy just to keep living from one second to the next.

Sometime later, she says the words she's been trying to keep inside. "Stefan is gone," she whispers. It makes it even more real, and her hands start to tremble and she feels light-headed.

"Shhh," Ric says, holding her even tighter. He rocks until finally she drifts off to a restless sleep, dreaming of death and loneliness.

Caroline is there in the morning, lying on the end of her bed and playing a game on her phone. Elena wants Ric back.

"Good morning!" her friend says, in the chipper way that only Elena and Bonnie know is her voice for covering up what she is really feeling. "Shower time for Elena!"

Elena groans and covers her head with a pillow.

"Come on, get up," Caroline says without sympathy, pulling her blankets from her with vampiric strength. "You know I can get you in there by force if I have to."

Elena has to admit that being clean would be nice. Not being manhandled into the shower would also be nice.

She groans and sits up. Her heart is still heavy, but it's like she can think about other things now, like there's a little crack now that the other mundane things in her life can squeeze into.

Caroline grins victoriously and hands her a change of clothes. "Get in the shower, and then I'll come in to sit with you so you can't try to drown yourself in the toilet or anything." Elena sighs again, making sure Caroline hears her, but takes the clothes proffered and heads into the bathroom.

As she strips down, she examines herself in the mirror. She has always been fairly thin, but now she is bony and drawn from days of barely eating. Her hair hangs lankly and she has dark smudges under her eyes. In other words, she looks disgusting. She pokes at her now-jutting collarbone in dissatisfaction.

"Elena, get your butt in that shower," Caroline calls from the other side of the door. "I know you're looking at yourself in the mirror. You'll feel much better after you're clean."

She's probably right, so Elena grabs her toothbrush and turns the shower up as hot as she can stand it. She scrubs every inch of her body until it's all rubbed red, shampooing and rinsing her hair about six times until she's satisfied she's as clean as it's physically possible to be. She tries to imagine that she's also scrubbing away some of the pain from last night, at finally letting herself feel.

When she turns off the water, Caroline is there to hand her clean clothes through the curtain. She really is a good friend, despite her pushiness and neuroses.

Elena stumbles as she steps out of the tub, but thankfully, Caroline catches her easily and holds her steady. "I'm fine," she says quickly, when her friend looks at her in concern, and tries to fight back a sudden wave of dizziness.

"You're gonna get a change of scenery today, girl," Caroline says cheerfully as she leads her downstairs. "Today we'll be exploring the wild reaches of… the Gilbert living room!"

At the moment, Elena is just concentrating on not toppling down the stairs. She feels strangely weak and far away, darkness looming in the corners of her vision. Caroline is still talking, her back to her, and Elena hurriedly reaches out to clutch the railing and tries to keep a normal pace.

As she takes the last step onto the first floor, the light streaming in from the east-facing windows almost blinds her. She flinches and steps backward instinctively, tripping and falling with a thump on her butt, back onto the stairs.

She closes her eyes against the brightness, but that just makes the spinning in her head worse. She'd give anything for the room to just be still for a moment.

"Elena?" she hears someone say, but they're so far away. She feels a cool hand on her forehead, which is clammy and sweaty. Is she dying?

Would Stefan feel anything at all if she died?

"Ric! Ric!" Why is Caroline shouting? She has never heard her friend's voice sound so shrill.

Pounding footsteps come down the stairs behind her, and then Ric's voice. "What happened?"

"I think she's about to pass out," Caroline says worriedly. "Her heartbeat feels weird, like it's not pumping enough blood."

She feels arms under her neck and her knees, and someone is carrying her. She smells cologne and spicy soap.

"I can get her," Caroline says, but Ric is already moving, not upstairs but toward the living room.

"Go get her water and something easy to eat," he says. "Barely eating and drinking probably has her blood pressure low." He sets Elena down on the couch, and she curls into the fetal position. She wants to tell him to pull all the curtains closed, too, but for some reason speech is beyond her right now, so she just shivers and turns her back to the windows instead, feeling utterly miserable. Ric drops a blanket around her, and, when she doesn't move, he tucks it in around her

She hears new footsteps, and Caroline is back in the room. "I got her ginger ale, and I'm warming up some chicken broth."

"Thank you, Caroline," she hears Ric say. "How long was she standing up, do you think?"

"Maybe half an hour?" Caroline guesses. "I'm sorry, I didn't think about it. I should've made her get out sooner."

"No, no, it's not your fault. You've got other things on your mind. It's my fault for not being here for her." Ric sounds like he wants to punch himself in the face, and Elena wishes she had the energy to say no, it's not your fault. Whose is it though? Hers, probably. It usually is.

The microwave beeps, and Carolines comes back a few seconds later.

Ric takes something from her, probably a tray. "I'll make sure she gets some food in her." He hesitates. "I hate to ask, but… do you think you could check up on Damon? He's pretty out of control right now, but at least you would be able to keep up with him if he goes running off somewhere. Please don't let him kill anyone."

"Of course," Caroline says softly. Elena feels something on her forehead - a kiss, she thinks - and then the front door is opening and closing with supernatural speed.

A rustle, and she is pretty sure Ric is kneeling in front of her now. "Come on, Lena, you've got to drink something."

She tries and fails to summon the energy to obey.

She feels a hand sliding through her hair to grip the back of her head and tilt it up and then a straw slips between her lips. "Drink, sweetheart." She tentatively takes a sip, and realizes she's really thirsty. She gulps down what feels like half the glass before she lets Ric pull it away from her.

She risks opening her eyes, and thank god, her vision isn't spinning at the edges anymore. She still feels like she's just run a marathon instead of taking a shower and walking down the stairs, though.

"Can you feed yourself?" Ric asks, gesturing toward the bowl of soup on the coffee table.

She reaches out for the bowl and starts to say yes, of course, when she realizes that her hand is still shaking so badly she's never going to be able to get the spoon to her mouth without spilling it all. She jerks her arm back and huddles on the couch, trying not to cry. She is falling apart.

Ric notices too, and an expression she can't decipher crosses his face. "God, I did leave you too long. I am the world's worst guardian." He picks up the tray. "Do you mind if I sit with you?"

What a dumb question. Why would she? She just shakes her head, and he sits down next to her head, then scoops a spoonful of soup and brings it to her mouth. It makes her feel like she's about two years old, but she still doesn't have the energy to protest. The soup feels good going down, and suddenly her hunger flares to life just as the thirst had. She eagerly opens her mouth for another spoonful, and Ric chuckles and obliges.

They quickly realize that she doesn't have the energy to sit up for every spoonful, but when he holds onto her shoulders to help her sit up against the back of the couch, it just seems silly not to lean into him instead, when he's so warm and alive and good-smelling and right there. (Somewhere in the back of her mind, she notes that this train of thought leads to nowhere good.)

He stiffens and doesn't say anything, and for a scary moment Elena thinks he's going to push her away. Finally, though, he just reaches around her to tuck the blanket more snugly around her and continues feeding her like nothing has happened.

Not many bites later, though, she feels herself start to fade away. Not the wrong, distant, passing out feeling from before, just normal sleepiness. Ric makes as if to slide her gently off of him, but panic overwhelms her enough to make her feel wide awake again. He is going to leave her, just like Stefan did. And even Damon, whom she hasn't seen in days.

She is breathing rapidly, her chest constricting, that horrible, achey feeling of not being able to breathe coming back again. To her mortification, her eyes fill with tears. Everyone leaves her. Her parents (all four of them), Jenna, Stefan, Damon. Now Ric.

Ric stops moving. "Lena, it's okay. You're gonna be okay."

She shakes her head against his chest and clutches the material of his jeans with one hand. "I'm not. You're gonna leave me, too," she whispers into the crook of his arm.

His voice sounds strange when he finally speaks. "No, baby, I won't. Promise. Look, I'm staying right here. I'm not going anywhere." His tone is soothing, and she feels herself starting to calm down.

Can she trust him, though? The thought comes like a bullet out of nowhere. After all, she trusted in Stefan, and look where that got her.

Her heart starts to race again, and it seems that Ric can feel it, too. "Shhh, Lena. Sleep. I'll still be here when you wake up." This is Ric. She trusts him with her life. He runs his hand through her hair, and she can't help but relax against his chest. She has always loved her hair being played with. Did he know that?

She'll worry about all this when she wakes up, she tells herself. For now, she will allow herself to feel safe in Ric's arms, and sleep.

She is dreaming of Stefan when she awakens to the sound of the front door opening. It starts off like a normal, romantic dream, one of hundreds she's had that feature him, but instead of leaning over to kiss her in the park on a beautiful summer day, Stefan leans over to bite her neck and he's not stopping and not stopping and she is dying and terrified and screaming.

Just as suddenly, she is awake, gasping, and she feels arms tighten around her waist. Ric is still on the couch behind her, and he is shifting and blinking like he's just waking up, too.

Caroline and Damon step inside. Caroline looks uncertain and…thoughtful? And Damon looks like shit. His eyes are even more bloodshot than Ric's were last night, and he is haggard, grim as he walks over to them. "Morning, princesses," he says, with only a flicker of his usual brand of Damon sarcasm.

Caroline hovers in the doorway. "I found Damon," she says unnecessarily. "Um, are you gonna be okay for a while, Elena? Damon convinced my mom's to take the afternoon off, and you know how rare that is."

"Of course, Car," she says automatically. The residual horror from the nightmare is quickly fading, and she is feeling more like herself than she has in days. She even manages to say, "Thanks for everything," in an almost normal-sounding voice. Caroline smiles at her and lets herself quietly out the door.

Elena turns back to see Damon staring down at Ric pointedly, as he pulls himself upright and gently pushes her to a sitting position. "She didn't want me to leave," Ric says uncomfortably into the silence.

"Ah." Damon's voice is flat. She wonders what's going on between the two of them.

"I'll be upstairs, Elena. Call me if you need anything," Ric says finally. She starts to protest, but he cuts her off, gently but firmly. "No, really, it's no problem."

Once Ric leaves, Damon sits down beside her. She looks at him, the man who alternately infuriates her and makes her feel…well, no use going there. That way be dragons, missy. Right now he looks uncharacteristically embarrassed, ashamed, even. "I told you I wouldn't leave you, Elena," he says without preamble. "And then I did exactly that."

"You came back," she says. "That's all that matters." It's true, she realizes. She can, has and will forgive this man for anything.

There is tension in his face, his posture, that she doesn't realize is there until they fade away at her words."I won't leave you again, Lena," he says sounding sincere. And we'll do whatever you want to about Stefan."

Something inside of her goes very still, like the frozen stillness she felt when she first realized her boyfriend wasn't coming back in her lifetime. "Stefan's gone, Damon," she says softly. Hearing herself say those words to him makes her heart break even more, but she forces herself to continue. "He's made it perfectly clear that there's nothing we can do. We have to let him go."

Damon's shoulders slump. "Ric's spent the past few days trying to convince me of that, too. I didn't want to believe it." He runs his hands through his hair. "Stefan wouldn't have given up on me, never did give up on me for 150 years, Elena. How can I just abandon him?"

She squeezes his hand. She can't believe that just a day ago she was a quivering wreck, and now she's the strong one, holding it together for her boyfriend's brother.

No. Stefan's not her boyfriend anymore, because the Stefan she fell in love with is gone. You can't date someone who isn't there.

"You're not abandoning him," she tells him, more firmly than she would have imagined she could. "He has to find his way back from this on his own. And I hope he will, I think he will. Someday. But for now, he's made his choices, and I won't spend my life waiting for something that might take centuries." She shakes her head. "I can't, Damon. Life's not worth living like that."

Damon closes his eyes for a long moment, then opens them and looks at her, a stare so full of despair and self-loathing that she fights the urge just to hug him, hold him tight.

Then he asks that terrible, awkward question that she's been waiting for him to work up the courage to ask. "Do you wish he'd just let me die, Elena? It's okay if you do. I'd deserve it."

She doesn't have to think about it "How can I regret that you're alive? You're okay and Stefan will be okay, one day." She laughs shakily. "There weren't any good outcomes possible with Klaus around."

Damon won't let it go so easily, of course. He never has."But if he'd let me die, he'd be here with you right now." He looks vulnerable, more open than he's ever allowed himself to be in front of her. So determined to punish himself.

"No, he wouldn't, Damon," she says. "He'd be out of his mind with grief. He'd either kill himself or go away for a few decades, and we're back to the same result." There was no way Stefan could have come out of this and still be her Stefan. Their time together was at an end any way it turned out.

Realizing that helps. A little.

Damon blinks at her. "When did you get so smart?" he asks her in a teasing voice, but underneath it he sounds genuine.

"I've always been smart. You're the dumb one," she says with a smile of her own. "Damon…we'll get through this, yeah?"

He scoffs. "Of course we will, kid." His voice shakes a little, though, and she scoots closer to him. She doesn't protest when he puts his arm around her and holds her close, and lets him pretend that he's the one reassuring her.

A few months ago, she couldn't have imagined doing this, her and Damon comforting one another, but she's tired of everything, including pretending that the connection she shares with Stefan's brother doesn't exist.

She closes her eyes and tries to feel hopeful and positive and optimistic, and all the other things they tell you to do when you're grieving. She and Jeremy had been assigned a few sessions with a social worker after their parents died, and the woman had told her to say to herself when she was feeling like she'd never feel happy again - "If not today, then tomorrow." She'd thought it sounded stupid when she first heard it, but she finds herself repeating it to herself now.

"We'll be okay, Damon," she whispers, as she presses her cheek against his chest. "If not today, then tomorrow."

It takes a lot of tomorrows before Elena is feeling anything like herself again.

Over the next few weeks she feels like a big faker, forcing herself to smile and laugh and do her homework and talk to her friends like old times. She passes her tests, if barely, and makes dinner for her and Alaric (and Jeremy, when he deigns to show up) and generally just tries not to fall apart in front of anyone. Really, though, she's just waiting for someone to call her out on it and tell her they can see right through her pathetic routine.

No one does, though. The others are mostly too caught up in their own lives to look too deeply into hers. Caroline stresses over Tyler and her mom, Matt stresses over trying to live a normal life and make enough at the grill to cover the mortgage payments, Bonnie stresses over witchcraft and Jeremy.

She hardly even sees her own brother, these days. He and Bonnie have found someplace to sneak away and spend the nights together, she thinks at Bonnie's Grams' still-empty apartment. She doesn't begrudge them for finding happiness, but she's more lonely than she can ever remember being in their big house.

It hurts to know that her friends, even her brother, can only be sad for so long about Stefan. It's not fair to blame them, of course. With the rate that people die and disappear in this town, it's only natural to develop truly stunning coping mechanisms, but it still makes her feel like something's wrong with her because she can't just shake off her grief and loneliness.

It doesn't help that Damon doesn't come around much, either these days. She knows he wouldn't break his promise and go after Stefan, but if she knows him at all he's either tracking Stefan's movements or brooding somewhere. Probably both. She finds she misses him when he's not there – somewhere along the way he's insinuated himself into her life, and it feels like there's a hole in her when he's not around to make snide comments or be a general pain in her ass.

She doesn't try to examine the reason for that emptiness too deeply, afraid of what she'll find.

What's even more surprising is how lost she feels when Ric's not with her. He has become her stable ground when everything else around her is crumbling, her support when she wants to crawl under her covers and never come out again.

She has begun seeking him out when she wakes in the middle of the night from one of countless nightmares of Stefan torturing her and killing her friends. On those nights, when she can't be alone for one more minute in her dark bedroom thick with twisted memories of Stefan, she goes to him. He sleeps on the couch downstairs because he won't sleep in Jenna's old room or in her parents' master bedroom, and she curls up with him while he's still half-asleep, carefully wrapping his arms around her so he can't get up with waking her.

If a voice whispers in the back of her head that this might be inappropriate, she squelches it. She refuses to give up a source of comfort when she has so few these days, and fuck anyone who says otherwise.

When she first started sneaking down, Ric would protest and try to convince her to let him sleep on the floor of her bedroom instead, but she's starting to hate being in her bedroom more and more. Her visits become more frequent, and now he just sighs when she comes downstairs and scoots over. With him, she's always asleep within minutes.

On this occasion, the next morning is Saturday, so Ric's cell phone alarm doesn't go off and they sleep late into the morning. She hides her face against his chest when late morning rays begin to reach the couch, and he grumbles in agreement and pulls the covers over both their heads.

Not long after though, she admits defeat. Wide awake, she is about to pull off the covers and get up, when she reconsiders.

Ric is still asleep; she can feel his heartbeat and breathing, slow and steady and comforting. He smells like the cologne he uses and earthy and warm. The shirt under her hands is a thin white undershirt, covering a chest and shoulders that are muscled from years of combat training.

She can feel a blush spreading across her face and realizes that she thinks Ric is hot. Holy shit, what the hell is wrong with her? He's older and Jenna's and she's Stefan's, only…they're not, anymore. The ones they loved have left them forever.

Ric shifts and wakes up, pulling his arms from around her to stretch over his head. She sticks her head out from under the covers and smiles good morning at him, trying not to show on her face what she was just thinking.

He smiles at her but it turns into a frown, so she frowns back, sensing an impending Talk coming on.

"Morning, Elena…" he says, and trails off. "Um, we should probably talk." Yep, she called it.

She sighs but pulls herself upright beside him. "Go ahead," she says.

He looks surprised at her calmness. "Alright, well, I know you're grieving and I'm here for you, no matter what. But… this… sleeping together… it isn't really appropriate."

"Why not?" she asks, like she doesn't already know what he's going to say.

He looks uncomfortable but barrels on. "Well, for starters, I'm your guardian. You're also eighteen and I'm thirty. You're in pain and I want to be here for you… but Elena, god, I don't know how else to say it. You don't want me as anything but comfort, which I'm happy to give, but I'm afraid if you keep doing this... I'm still a man, Elena, god help me."

She can't meet his eyes. "I know," she says in a quiet voice, remembering how hard and strong his chest felt under her hands. "But I need you, Ric. Not just 'cause you'll hold me, but for…you."

He gapes at her, and she stands up before he can respond, fighting back another blush. She doesn't want to hear anything more about how he has to leave her, even if that's not the words he uses, even if he says it's for her own good.

Because he will, just like everyone else does, and she just can't bear it right now. She can't help but adding, "And honestly, Ric, in the grand scheme of all the supernatural shit we deal with everyday, you really think a twelve-year age gap is worth worrying about?" His expression turns even more shocked, she is satisfied to see.

"I'm going out, I'll be back later," she says over her shoulder. Not even bothering to change out of her pajama bottoms, she grabs her purse and walks out the front door. She'll go to the one person who swore never to leave her.

Damon is a little drunk when she walks into the boarding house, which completely fails to surprise her, though it's not even noon. "Little Lena," he says, holding out his glass to her. "I was wondering when you'd come see me."

She shakes her head at the proffered glass and sits down in the armchair near him."I could say the same thing," she says, and he grimaces.

"You've got Ric to take care of you, my sweet." There is something bitter in his tone. She wonders if he has been missing his friend. She knows he took care of Damon in those horrible days right after Stefan stepped out of their lives forever, but she hasn't really thought much about it beyond that. She is so damn selfish.

"I need you, too, Damon," she says honestly. "I need both of you, or I'm going to go crazy."

He tosses his head back and finishes the glass in one long swallow. She finds herself fascinated with his neck, his throat, his collarbones and looks away quickly. "Damn it to hell, but I'm yours, Elena," he says with intensity. "Whatever you need."

She can't quite bring herself to acknowledge the wordless promise in his eyes, so she says the first thing that comes to her mind. Something that will distract her, hopefully make her feel remotely normal, at least for a little while.

"Watch a movie with me?"

He snorts, clearly surprised, but nods. He walks over to the TV cabinet and pulls out some vampire movies that he claims are some of his favorites, mostly, she thinks, just to see her giggle at the ridiculousness of a vampire liking vampire movies. She finds poptarts in the pantry (Stefan loves/loved poptarts, but she's not ruining her day by thinking about him now) and curls up with a blanket in the darkened living room next to Damon.

They watch the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, which she has never seen. Afterward, Damon gets up for a blood bag and hands her an Interview with the Vampire DVD when he comes back, which she has seen and is pretty much the opposite in every way of the chilling cinematic masterpiece of Dracula. "You're kidding, right?" she asks, and he just smirks and puts in the DVD himself.

Somewhere between Queen of the Damned and the 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, Elena finds herself laughing as Damon quotes along with some of his favorite lines. She feels more lighthearted than she has in weeks. Something compels her to count the days in her head, and she realizes that it's been two months since she lost Stefan.

I'll be okay, she suddenly knows. What a strange thought.

When she comes back into the living room after fixing herself a sandwich for dinner, she yawns and lies down on the couch again, this time with her head in Damon's lap. She does it without thinking, and doesn't realize what she's done until Damon stiffens under her.

She doesn't move, both because she's comfortable and because of one of those nameless thoughts she refuses to think, and Damon doesn't say anything. After a minute his hand comes down and rests gently on her side, as if he presses down too hard she will slip away. He grabs the remote and the Night Stalker begins playing.

She falls asleep around halfway through, and wakes only when her phone vibrates with a call. She groans and pulls the phone out of her pants pocket, not bothering to check who it is before accepting the call. "Hello?" Her voice is still a little groggy. One of Damon's hands is still draped over her shoulder, she vaguely notices.

"Elena?" Ric sounds worried, and she feels a little guilty. She had been trying to block this morning out. "Where are you? Are you okay?"

"I'm with Damon," she says. "We're watching movies."

Ric's voice changes, subtly. "It's almost midnight. Do you need me to come get you?"

"Um, no," she says, confused. "I'm okay. I might stay here for the night."

Damon taps her on the shoulder then, and she looks up at him. "Let me talk to him, Lena," he says. When she doesn't hand the phone over right away, he adds, "please."

She lets him take it and Ric says something that Elena can't hear. Damon rolls his eyes but doesn't say anything. Ric keeps talking, and Damon finally interjects, "She's fine, Ric. Honestly, you'd think I'd compelled her over here. She came of her own free will, I assure you."

Ric says something else, and Damon responds angrily. "Of course I do. But thanks so much for reminding me, I'd almost forgotten."

Something else from Ric, and the vampire moves out from under her, blazingly fast, and her phone is off and on the other side of the room.

"You'd better get home," Damon says as he stands in front of her, trying to look uncaring and failing. "Daddy's waiting up for you."

Elena's temper flashes and she stands up, too. "Don't call him that."

Damon takes another step toward her. "Why not? You do know you're pretty much all he thinks about, right?"

She falters. When Damon's feeling mean, his lies have as much strength as the truth, and she can never tell them apart.

"We've only got each other, now, Damon," she pleads instead. "Me and you and Ric. Please don't fight with him." She has never felt so adrift in her life, with so few people she can count on.

Damon's eyes blaze. "Don't lie to me, Elena! And don't try to pretend it's all for one and one for all here. You're using me against him. I know that trick well; Katherine used me as a tool against Stefan for years."

She looks at him in shocked outrage, unable to even speak for a moment. "I'm not using anyone, Damon Salvatore! I thought we were friends. I thought I could trust you."

He takes another step into her personal space. "Are we friends, Elena? It seems like friends should be honest with each other, right?"

She can't bring herself to meet his eyes, too sure that he will be able to see the truth in them that she is unwilling to admit even to herself. With only a few inches distance between their bodies, she can feel his energy, his passion. It draws her, and it terrifies her.

"I'm leaving, Damon," she says finally, striving for righteous indignation but only managing a kind of quaver. "Don't try to follow me."

He doesn't get out of her way immediately, but she keeps her eyes on the ground, and finally he moves. "This discussion isn't over," he tells her. She just shakes her head and keeps walking.

For some reason, alone in her car on the way back to her house, she has to keep fighting off the urge to break down. It doesn't make sense, that was nowhere near the worst of the fights she and Damon have had, and those have never made her cry. But try as hard as she can, she can't help a few tears leaking out as she gets close to her house.

She lets herself in the front door, intending to wash her face and go to sleep, but Ric's voice stops her in her tracks. He is sitting on the couch with a boring-looking book about the Civil War, staring at her over the top of it. "Lena. Can you come here for a minute?"

She could ignore him, of course, but he was worried about her. Guilt makes her turn and walk toward him, keeping her eyes fixed on the ground so he can't see she's been crying.

It turns out to be a futile wish, of course. "What's wrong, sweetheart?" he asks with concern, sitting up straighter and pulling her down to sit beside him. She shakes her head. If she tries to talk, she will start crying again, and she's tired of looking ugly and snotty in front of Ric.

"Did Damon say something?"

She shakes her head, and then nods.

"Tell me," he says intently.

When she shakes her head again, he fixes her with a look, and she realizes he's not going to let it go."He says I'm using him to make you jealous," she says reluctantly. "That's…. I'd never do something so vicious."

He squeezes her hand. "He didn't mean it, Elena. He loves you. Anything else is just Damon being Damon."

"He did, Ric," she says hopelessly. "He hates me. Everyone hates me, it's my fault everyone's lives suck so goddamned much. If I were never born, my mom and dad would still be alive, and Jenna, and Jeremy wouldn't be a walking ball of angst, and Caroline wouldn't be a vampire, and- and Stefan…" Her sobs are making it impossible to continue.

He pulls her closer and wraps his arms around her. "It's not your fault, Elena," he whispers into her hair. "You've done nothing wrong. You can't take responsibility for what other people do."

She closes her eyes and tries to shut out his comforting words. "You hate me 'cause Jenna's gone," she whispers.

"I hate Klaus because Jenna's gone," Ric says, slowly and clearly. "Not you. You tried to save her."

"I suck at saving people."

To her surprise, Ric snorts. "You save me, every day since Jenna died," he says, looking down at her. "You've saved Damon every day since he met you. You've saved your brother, and your friends, and probably dozens of other people you will never know about."

She suddenly feels so drained, like she's a wrung-out sponge. "You save me, Ric," she says truthfully. "I don't know what I would do without you or Damon to keep me sane."

An unrecognizable expression flits across his face, but he shuts it off before she can figure it out. "Come on, you look exhausted. I'll help you get to bed."

He's right, so she doesn't protest when he leads her up the stairs and into her bedroom. He pulls back the covers and glances at her, waiting for her to get in. As she does, she pulls him down with her, as hard and fast as she can. He grunts in surprise as he lands face down next to her.

She can't help smirking a little at the expression on his face when he turns to look at her. "Stay with me, Ric," she says. "Nothing inappropriate, I promise. Just don't leave me." When he doesn't protest, she wraps his arms around her like she's gotten so used to doing on the couch with him, only it feels even better here with so much more room in her bed.

She could do this every night, she thinks, then freezes. Which is an utterly ridiculous thought because that would never happen.

He doesn't say anything for a minute, and she fears that he's going to leave after all, but he finally wraps his arms even more tightly around her and buries his face in her neck.

"One more night," he says, more to himself than to her. "I am a bad, bad man."

She awakens in the morning to a knock on her door, which immediately excludes Damon, since he would be more likely to come in through the window and watch her sleep, crazy stalker that he is.

Alaric didn't leave during the night, she is at first pleased to see, then panicky at whoever is knocking seeing him. She's not ashamed about whatever they are – or aren't – doing, but Ric probably would be.

She opens her door just enough to slide out, making the motion look as natural as possible. Bonnie and Jeremy are standing together outside her room. She hasn't seen them outside of school in over a week.

"Hey guys," she says uncertainly. "Sorry, my room's a wreck. What's up?"

"Don't be mad, okay, Lena?" Jeremy blurts out, and she immediately clicks into high alert.

"What is it? What's happened? Is everyone okay?"

Bonnie gives Jeremy a reproachful look. "Nothing like that, Elena," she says in a gentle voice. "But we do need to talk to you." Her next thought is that it's an intervention about her and Ric, or perhaps even her and Damon, but if that were true, they probably should have been suspicious about who was or was not in her room.

Once they are all in the kitchen, she can't take the tension anymore. "Spill, guys," she says, her heart still racing.

Bonnie and Jeremy look at each other, and then she sees it in their unspoken communication. Oh no. "The two of you are going somewhere, aren't you?" But she knows she's right, and she doesn't need their guilty expressions to confirm it.

"Elena," Bonnie says, reaching over to touch her hand. "Listen to me. I will always be your friend. Your best friend, if you'll have me. This won't be like when I left last time. But I can't stay here anymore. There's too much supernatural stuff going on here, and with Grams gone, I need to learn how to control it. I mean, I think I'm powerful, but there's so much I still don't know."

Elena shakes her head, her eyes already filling with tears. Bonnie gives her an apologetic look but continues, "Grams had friends in San Francisco, hippies mostly, but they're like, masters of this stuff. They said they'll teach me." She looks pleadingly at Elena. "You get it, don't you? I need to understand this part of myself. I probably won't even be gone that long, maybe a year or so…"

A year without Bonnie, one of only a handful of people who know the truth behind everything that's happened in Mystic Falls. She fights back the tears that want to spill down her cheeks and tries to be understanding, for Bonnie's sake. For her best friend.

"Okay," she says hoarsely. "I get it. But Jeremy?"

Her brother looks like he's about to cry, too. "We have a… connection," he says. "Not just a boyfriend-girlfriend connection, but one that we think is from Bonnie resurrecting me. The witches in California want to study it, study me. Besides…" He trails off, looking at Bonnie with more fondness than she can ever remember seeing on her brother's face. "Besides, I don't want to be anywhere without her. I'll finish up high school online while I'm there."

"But…" She's trying furiously to think through a list of objections, trying to think which one will give her the best chance to stop her best friend and little brother from leaving her.

"But nothing, Lena," Jeremy says. His voice is gentle but firm. "We've got the plane tickets. We're taking off in a few hours."

Her shoulders slump in defeat. There's nothing left to say, it seems. They've waited until it's too late for objections.

"I'll miss you," is the only thing she can manage, and both their expressions turn soft with concern. She hugs Bonnie first, then Jeremy. Long, tight hugs from two of the people she loves best in the world. "We love you," Bonnie says, pulling back for the final time, and then they are out the door.

To her surprise, she manages to keep the tears back until she has the front door locked behind her again. Only then does she collapse on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest. She thought she had no more tears to cry, but she was oh so very wrong.

Ric finds her a few minutes later. He crouches down beside her, white-faced with worry, and it takes her a few tries to make him understand.

Bonnie has left her.

Her brother has left her.

(And despite what they said, maybe forever. She could see it in their eyes. Who wouldn't want to have Mystic Falls in their rearview mirror forever?)

Ric doesn't ask any more questions, just puts his hand under her arm and guides her out the door. She's crying so hard she can barely see, and he has to help her into the passenger seat. She thinks for a moment he's taking her to the airport to stop them, but she soon realizes they're going to the boarding house.

Her hands are still shaking too hard to open the door herself when Ric pulls up the front drive, and he has to come around and help her out. Damon is suddenly standing out there, brows drawn in alarm. "What happened?" he asks, and the concern in his voice starts her crying all over again.

She doesn't let herself think, just follows her instinct and wraps her arms around him, sobbing into his chest, not caring how weak it makes her look. For once in Damon's life, he doesn't make a snarky comment, just tightens his arms around her.

She can feel him looking over her head at Ric, though as far as she can tell, Ric doesn't say anything. "Let's go inside." Damon says, half-leading, half-carrying her into the living room, where DVDs are still scattered on the floor from their movie marathon not twelve hours before. Somehow the thought that she was almost…happy not long ago is too much to bear.

Damon sits her down carefully on the sofa and takes a seat beside her. "Tell me," he says, his intense eyes looking like he is compelling her, but he is just asking. He always looks like that when he talks to her.

"It's stupid," she gasps out. She's worrying him unnecessarily; he probably thinks it's about something important like Klaus or Stefan. But nope, just her stupid little heart breaking a little more.

"Tell me anyway, Elena," Damon says, almost sounding pleading, if this were anyone but Damon.

"They left," she whispers. "Jeremy and Bonnie… they left me. Who's gonna be next?"

He is in the doorway in the blink of an eye. "Where are they going?"

But Alaric steps in front of him, puts a hand on his chest. "No, Damon. We have to let them make their own decisions."

Damon's stares at him flatly. "They hurt her."

"I know." Ric's voice is steel, and Elena realizes that he is just as strong, as scary, as Damon, in his own way.

"It's okay, Damon," she says to her floor. "They have the right to… escape this place." They don't say anything to that. She looks from him to Ric. "You both do, too." She almost can't believe the words that are coming out of her mouth, but she knows it's the right thing to say. "Please don't stay for my sake."

Damon crouches in front of her, expression uncharacteristically gentle. "You are my world, Elena. I know you don't want to hear it, but you are. I said I'd never leave you, and I meant it."

Ric clears his throat. "Same for me, Elena. We're in this together, if you'll have me." For some reason, he's looking at Damon, too, when he speaks, and Damon nods slowly, like they're having an entirely different conversation from the one she's hearing.

"I will have you," she says fervently, then, more softly, "both of you." After a long moment, Ric bows his head in acceptance and Damon nods. She's not entirely sure what they've just all agreed to – well, she thinks she might have an idea, but surely she's wrong. Possibilities flutter on the edge of her mind, but she ignores them. (She's good at ignoring things she doesn't want to deal with.)

To distract herself from her own thoughts, which are treading very dangerous ground that she is in no mental state to navigate at the moment, she stands up and says to no one in particular, "I need to see Caroline." Which has the added bonus of being completely true. Her friend has even bigger abandonment issues than she does. Caroline will need her right now.

Ric stands immediately. "Of course. I'll drop you off." She doesn't miss another shared look over her head though, and Damon touches her arm, expression still gentle and…something more? Hopeful?

"I'll see you soon, Elena." She nods and follows Ric out the door, feeling Damon's eyes on her back the whole way.

Caroline is red-eyed and blotchy when she opens the door, just as Elena had feared. She waves goodbye at Ric and lets Caroline fall into her arms and leads her back to her room, only struggling a little bit with her taller friend's weight.

"She's left us for good, Elena," Caroline wails, falling back on her bed. "I hate this stupid town. I swear, only bad things happen in it."

Elena sits down on the bed beside her. "Yeah," she says simply. "I know."

Caroline gives her a guilty look. "I'm sorry, Elena. No one knows that better than you do."

She shakes her head. "No, it's fine, Caroline, really. I mean, it's not fine, but… you know. We'll make it through. We always do, right?"

Caroline curls up on her side to look at her, blinking away tears. "I guess we do."

She stays with Caroline for a few hours, her focus on comforting her friend keeping her own grief under control. They talk and watch trashy MTV reality shows and plan their dresses for prom and cry a few times each and make promises to at least go visit Bonnie and Jeremy if they're not back by this time next year.

Caroline asks Elena never to abandon her, and Elena's eyes are wet again and she says of course, as long as Caroline makes the same promise. "I would never, Elena," she says earnestly. "We'll make it through this." Just like it hadn't been Elena trying to convince her of that only an hour before. "And I've got my mom and Tyler, and you've got Ric and Damon. We'll make it."

Elena nods and lies back on Caroline's bed, staring at the ceiling. Then Caroline leans over her with the devious look in her eye that Elena knows so well and says casually, "Speaking of Ric and Damon-"

"No, Caroline-" Elena laughs and huffs in exasperation at the same time. "It's late, I've got to get home." She sits up and reaches for her shoes.

Caroline is utterly unfazed, her eyes avid. "'No', my romance meter is misfiring, or 'no', I'm right, but you don't want to talk about it?"

Elena feels her cheeks flush and deliberately keeps her face hidden as she reaches for her purse. "Goodbye, Caroline."

She can hear Caroline cackling all the way down the stairs.

Damon is at her house when she gets home that night. She doesn't know why that surprises her. He and Ric are talking on the couch, so involved in their discussion that neither of them hears her open the front door. She hovers in the doorway to watch them, just curious about what they talk about when she's not around.

They are both leaning forward as they half-argue, half-talk in that unique way the two of them have, always so intense when they're together. "-you know it's more than that, Ric," Damon is saying. They are sitting so close that their knees are touching, she sees.

Then she sees.

Oh god. She takes a step backward in shock, and her foot step landing hard on the tiled floor makes both of them turn to stare at her.

"Trying to sneak up on us?" Damon asks with a wry smile as he stands up, but he doesn't look guilty or like she's caught them doing anything unusual.

She starts chattering, trying to get up the stairs as quickly as possible without looking like she's running away from them. "Hey guys, I'm tired, just gonna go to my room, try to call Bonnie and see if they've landed yet..."

Damon's amusement turns to confusion, then wariness, then settles on comprehension. "Oh, no you don't, missy," he says, and is suddenly right beside her on the stairs, his hand under her elbow as he hauls her back down. "We need to talk."

"We really don't," she says quickly. She feels so embarrassed and stupid and wishes she could sink through the floor right here. How dumb was she to think this had anything to do with her? "Honestly. I get it. No discussion necessary."

Damon exchanges glances with Ric, who still hasn't said anything, and she tries to pull away again. Instead, she finds herself being manhandled to the couch beside Ric.

"Really?" Damon asks with an arched eyebrow. "I don't think you do."

She flushes. "I won't try to…come between the two of you or whatever. Message delivered, point made. Can I go now?"

He responds by grabbing her by the forearms, leaning forward and kissing her.

He's not shy, not asking her to let him kiss her, just assuming she wants to, and he's oh so very right. She doesn't even know she's been waiting for this until she feels his mouth, soft and cool and electric sparks on hers, and it feels even better than she imagined it might be (not that she's ever thought about him that way, no sirree Bob.)

She instinctively opens her mouth and yields to him, feeling goosebumps run all the way down her arms as he takes possession of her mouth, one hand on the racing pulse in her neck, as he kisses her with that strange mix of passion and gentleness that he has.

Just when she is about ready to rip his shirt off, pride and reason be damned, he pulls away. To her embarrassment, she can't help but regret the loss of contact and run her tongue over her bottom lip, trying to get another taste of him. He smirks at her, but he looks as dazed as she feels, she is pleased to see,

Ric is still sitting next to her, having gotten a front row seat to the action. He looks uncomfortable, which she would expect, but also more than a little… interested? Which, well, she did not expect. She looks at him wordlessly, unable to form complete sentences for the moment, and notices how his eyes keep flickering to her lips, like he wants to kiss her too. And yeah, okay, she wants him to. God, she is unbelievable.

"Now that I've got your attention," Damon says dryly, and her eyes snap back to him. "This isn't about me and Ric, which was the conclusion you so rudely catapulted to. It's about…" he gestures vaguely. "Us. The three of us."

She looks to Ric, waiting for him to deny this, laugh and say it's all a massive joke to make her feel like even more of an idiot. Because something is bubbling up inside her, more than just physical desire, that this feels strange but also… exactly right. (The only way that makes sense.)

But Ric just nods seriously, his eyes back on her face, expression under control once more. "We don't have to talk about this right now, Elena, not after everything you've been through today. But we didn't want you misunderstanding, either."

She stares at him in surprise. "I thought after this morning you didn't want me."

Damon snorts out a disbelieving laugh, and Ric looks genuinely confused. "Do you know how hard it's been to sleep with you in my arms and not let myself do anything else to you? To convince myself that you don't want me like that?"

"I do want you," she admits in a tiny voice. "But I was afraid of going there… afraid I would remind you of Jenna, or something, and upset you."

He tilts her chin up so she's looking into his steady blue eyes. "Jenna's gone, Elena," he says, and it's so similar to her own mantra it's eerie. "The only two people who keep me getting up every morning are you and Damon." She can feel the desire in his expression, and it sends another tingle down her spine.

Her eyes flicker to Damon, and he's looking at them with so much unguarded passion that she drops her eyes from the intensity. He's leaning back against the couch and with his legs stretched out on the table in front of him, so casual, like he and Ric haven't just proposed the craziest thing Elena's ever heard in her life. She knows him well enough to know that he is a master of keeping his thoughts off his face, though. "Ball's in your court, Elena," he says. "But we have to get one more thing clear, or this won't ever work."

"What?" she asks, instantly suspicious.

"If we're gonna try this, it's gotta be one hundred percent. And… you have to let Stefan go." He says this all so calmly, like he's telling her he's going to the store.

She stares at him, unable to process all this at once. "Stefan's gone," she says automatically.

He sighs. "I know you know that, but have you given up on him in your heart? I… we won't go down this road knowing that if Stefan comes back one day you'll go running into his arms."

"He's gone," she repeats. "He's my past, now." Her mind reels at what she's saying, but she knows in her heart it's true.

Damon looks at her intently before nodding. "Okay," he says, and that's it.

They sit in a comfortable silence for a moment, the men on either side of her. They're obviously just trying to follow her lead, but with this huge unknown gaping in front of her, what she really needs is some time by herself.

When she tells them that, they don't push her. Ric just nods, and Damon says, "Take all the time you need, Elena." His attitude tonight is all cool calmness, but there is something bright in his eyes, like he is daring to hope after years having to go without it.

Not surprisingly, it takes her hours to fall asleep. She lies in her bed, staring at her ceiling fan as she lets her mind pick at her problem.

What she told Damon is true; Stefan is her past. She loves him, will always love him, but she's letting him go. Somewhere in her heart she knows, has known for a while, that regardless of how anything else turns out, he's not what she needs anymore, and she's definitely not the girl he first fell in love with. But it still hurts to realize that there will never be a Stefan-and-Elena again, no signing Mrs. Stefan Salvatore on wedding thank you cards, or any of the other stupid things she daydreamed about over the past year.

Letting go of that dream is liberating but terrifying at the same time, like she doesn't know for a minute who she is if she isn't Stefan's girlfriend.

But if there's one good thing that's resulted from the ongoing disaster that is her life, she knows who she is, what she stands for now. Being forced to grow up all at once sucks, but there's some truth in the old saying that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

She lets her mind wander to the crazy, ridiculous proposition waiting downstairs. Two of the world's most emotionally damaged men (two of the people she trusts most in the universe), and they're proposing her and… them?

Could they be better together than they are separately? She thinks it's possible. Will people talk? Hell yes. But they talk about her already, her living with an older man, her immoral liaisons with the unnatural and mysterious Salvatore brothers, how she always seems to be nearby every time something bad happens in this town.

The old Elena would have cared very much about what the sheriff or Mrs. Lockwood thought about her, but the new Elena really has a hard time sparing them a second thought.

Whatever she decides to do about RicandDamon (they are already linked inextricably in her head), it will be because she wants it or doesn't want it. She refuses to live her life by anyone else's rules. Especially since she's already broken so many of them. What's one more?

She idly wonders if Ric and Damon would do anything together downstairs while she's up here lying in bed, and then tries to fight back a blush and a familiar tingle in her panties as she tries to pretend that she wouldn't love to watch.

Have they done anything together before? How much, how often, details please. She should feel jealous, she supposes, but one of the very few things she hasn't doubted in the nightmarish past few months is how much both of those men care about her.

She feels goosebumps again as she remembers what kissing Damon felt like, finally knowing after months of wondering (even while she was dating Stefan, a girl is allowed her imagination) while Ric's eyes burned bright and watched them both.

God, now she's soaking wet but totally unwilling to do anything about it with a man with vampire-enhanced senses downstairs. She's pretty sure she can never look him in the eye if he knew she was doing that over him and Ric. Oh, god, what if he can smell her from up here?

She forces that thought away and finally falls into a restless sleep, for once dreaming not of Stefan but of Ric and Damon, and what they might, possibly, could be together.

She wakes up feeling more rested and normal than she thought would be possible, and somehow the worst of her grief over Stefan has faded, like it was just waiting for her permission to let itself out the back. She takes that as a sign that it's time to start living her life again. It's been long enough.

So she takes a shower and puts on a nice top and jeans, and even a little eye makeup for the first time in months. She does her homework and cleans up a little downstairs, and revels in the normalness of everyday life.

She texts Bonnie and Jeremy both to tell them she loves them and to call her if they need anything. Then she puts them out of her mind. They have the right to make their own choices, but she also has the right not to let their choices burden her.

She surprises a grateful Matt, whom she has neglected for the past few weeks, at the grill with lunch, and they talk about school and movies and everything un-supernatural. He introduces her to his new girlfriend, a fellow waitress, when she comes on shift. The girl is a petite brunette with a sweet smile and contagious laugh. Elena can't stop smiling at how warm and wholesome this girl is, and leaves soon after, wishing them all the best together.

She stops to pick up two gigantic m&m cookies from the bakery that she and Caroline love and drops by her house. Caroline squeals in delight as she lets her inside. Bonnie never really liked sweets, but if there's one thing Elena and Caroline can bond over, it's chocolate.

"I feel like the world is a happy place again when I'm eating these," Caroline says a few minutes later through a mouthful of gooey cookie.

Elena giggles through her own bite. "It will be again, Car, it really will be."

Caroline nods contentedly. "If not today, then tomorrow."

Elena just stares at her. "What did you say?"

"Oh," Caroline says, looking a little embarrassed. "It's just something that the counselor I had to visit when my parents were getting divorced used to say. "It'll be okay, if not today, then tomorrow.'"

"Mine, too," Elena says softly, and Caroline reaches over and puts her arm around her.

"Yet another thing we have in common," she says, and Elena smiles. Bonnie is gone, but she still has her other best friend. Things change, but life goes on.

For a time they just gossip about normal high school things. Then Caroline says out of nowhere in a mock-serious voice, "I'm afraid I'm going to repay your kindness with best friend-allowed prying! Inquiring minds need to know – is there really something going on between you and those two eligible bachelors?"

Elena can't help blushing and looking away, and Caroline squeals in delight. "Ohmigod, really? The three of you? Tell me tell me tell me." She bounces up and down on her bed with excitement.

"Nothing's happened…yet," Elena says, feeling a warm bubble of happiness rise up in her chest. "We talked, you know, and the two of them had obviously talked about it before, so it's my turn to think about it."

Caroline rolls her eyes. "What's to think about? You're obviously in love with both of them."

She opens her mouth to deny it, but realizes she can't.

She is in love with them, and has been for a while – Damon's charm and wit and underneath it his truly unbelievable capacity for love. Ric with his kind eyes and unshakeable resolve and the way he looks at her like she's the most wonderful thing on the planet.

No more hiding from how she feels, she decides. Even if it might make her already messy life even messier.

"Yeah," she settles for saying instead. "I guess I am."

She leaves Caroline's house soon after, when Tyler drops by unannounced with flowers and a movie to take Caroline's mind off of Bonnie leaving. Elena didn't even know he had it in him to be that thoughtful, then feels bad for thinking that. People change when they love someone. Sometimes dramatically.

She hugs Caroline goodbye, then, after a slight hesitation, hugs Tyler, too. "Take care of her," she tells him, and he nods, understanding the meaning underneath the simple words.

If a vampire and a werewolf-vampire hybrid sired by their mutual enemy can try to make it work, she can take a chance on her own unconventional relationship. Life's too short to live without love. It's as simple as that.

She calls Damon on her drive back to her house. "Come over?"

She can hear the smile in his voice. "Your wish is my command. What do you want to do?"

"Another movie night? I never saw the end of Night Stalker!"

Damon laughs. "Be there in half an hour."

She smiles at Ric when she walks in, and there's no awkwardness, like nothing at all unusual is going on between them. "Movie night, the three of us?" she asks.

"I don't know," he says hesitantly, looking at his little pile of history books that have gathered at the house. "I just got a new one on the Spanish American War..."

Her face falls, and he chuckles and comes over to hug her, intentionally touching her for the first time that she can remember that she hasn't been an emotional wreck. His arms are warm and strong around her. "I'm just kidding, sweetheart," he says, resting his chin on top of her head, and she half-heartedly hits his arm. "What are we watching?"

"Damon likes the most god-awful vampire movies you can imagine," she says.

He laughs and lets go of her, and she feels a sudden loss without the physical contact. "I'll make us some popcorn, then," he says, smiling at her over his shoulder.

She goes upstairs for a quick shower and to change into pajamas. If she also puts on some more makeup and a top that's a little tighter than what she would normally wear to bed, well, she's an adult and entitled to make her own choices.

Damon's just getting there, DVD in hand, when she comes downstairs. "We have to start back at the beginning, for Ric," she tells him playfully, and is amazed that the levity in her voice is not feigned. She really is that happy right now.

She's figured something out, finally. Bad things happen all the time, and often to good, innocent people. The only way for the good guys to be victorious is to live and be happy and love despite all the bad things in the world. She's going to try that, starting, oh, right about now.

She walks up to Ric, who is standing in the kitchen, pulling out beers for Damon and him and a coke for her. She reaches up on tiptoes to wrap her arms around his neck, and he sets his drinks down to slide his arms around her waist. "What's this for?"

"To say thank you," she says, "for being here for me and Damon." She tilts her head up, just to see what he'll do, and he doesn't disappoint. He kisses her slowly, languorously, and she moves even closer to make it easier for him. His lips on hers are a little less sure than Damon's, probably due to him still being convinced that she couldn't possibly want him, and he has a little more stubble, but she feels that same spark of attraction go down her spine, making every part of her body feel super sensitized.

"Hey, you two, get a room." Damon is standing near them, holding a beer as he eyes them. His tone is joking, but she can tell that underneath it all he's a little worried. Insecure.

She's going to have her hands full managing two men with deep-rooted insecurities. Are they worth it? Yes.

Before she can think better of it, pause to worry, she grabs her coke and walks over to Damon, sliding her hand in his and pulling him with her to the couch. "Come on, whiny butt," she teases, and he pretends to be affronted, but the anxiety is gone from his eyes.

He slides his arm over her shoulders, and she leans into him comfortably. She laces her other hand through Ric's when he joins them with the popcorn bowl, and they sit and watch the movie in peace.

This time she makes it about three-quarters of the way through before she falls asleep with her head in Damon's lap, her legs in Ric's. She wakes to Damon shoving her up the stairs, laughing as she stumbles around sleepily.

Instead of going to her bedroom, though, she walks into her parent's master suite. Both Damon and Ric hesitate at the doorway. "It's the only bed big enough for the three of us," she says, and they share yet another inscrutable look. Boys and their secrets. "Come on," she says, crawling to the middle.

"It's just…defiling their only daughter in their own bed," Ric grumbles, finally climbing in beside her. Damon shrugs and gets in on her other side.

The moon is bright enough tonight that she can see them fairly well. She's suddenly wide awake with the realization that she's in bed with two attractive men, both of whom are staring down at her with desire and fondness.

"Yes, by the way," she says abruptly, just to break the intensity of the moment.

Ric tilts his head. "Yes?"

But Damon just reaches out to trace her collarbone, making her shiver. "Yes, you'll give us a chance?" He starts running his fingers though her hair, and she can only nod. He chuckles, obviously satisfied.

In a split second, the mood among the three of them changes, and she switches from sleepy to wide awake anticipation in a heartbeat. Damon moves on top of her, arms braced on either side of his head, and she is eagerly arching upward as he brings his lips down on hers, forcing her mouth open and tracing every inch of her from the inside out. She feels Ric running his hands up and down her body, making her arch up even more into Damon's mouth.

She finally has to pull away to catch her breath and notes with satisfaction that Damon is breathing heavily too, though he doesn't technically need to.

Then Ric is pushing Damon out of the way and threading his fingers behind her head so he can lift her mouth up to his, and somewhere between his lips meeting hers and Damon leaning forward to kiss her neck and shoulders, she just melts. This is what she wants - what she needs - to put her back together again.

Damon finally pulls Ric off her and kisses him fiercely, his hand on the back of Ric's head. Watching them makes her stomach to do a strange little flip. They're rougher with each other than they are with her, like each is trying to get the other to submit. When they pull apart, they both look at her warily, like they are expecting her to shriek in disgust and run away, but she can only small lazily at them, feeling herself soaking through her panties again.

One of Damon's hands comes to rest on her hips, and he raises his eyebrow at her in unspoken question. She lifts her hips up to let him slide her pants down, and opens her legs for him, begging him wordlessly to see to her suddenly aching pussy. She feels so exposed but also completely safe with them.

Ric pushes up her tank top to reveal her tits, her nipples already flushed and perky with desire. He keeps his eyes on her as he takes one in his mouth, tonguing it, and she tries to arch again, but Damon's iron-hard hands on her hips stop her. Damon finally licks her where she wants to be touched, and she can't hold back a long, breathy moan. Ric pulls away from her tits and swallows her moan, his fingers still squeezing a sensitive nipple.

It doesn't take long at all before she's a trembling pile of goo underneath them, and Damon finally pulls away from between her legs and leans over her to kiss Ric again (who is now all naked and hard muscle), sharing her taste with him. Just watching the two of them makes another round of aftershocks course through her, and she opens her legs wider, hoping one of them will take the invitation and fill her. She needs more, and now.

Ever the gentleman, Ric kindly sees her need and moves on top of her to thrust into her in one movement. She's so wet and the pressure feels so good that she cries out, and Ric closes his eyes. "Dreamt about this, Lena," he grunts, and starts a fast, hard rhythm inside of her.

Damon leans over her, kissing her lips and face and neck, and Ric is talking non-stop dirty phrases that make her blush and pant, and Damon laughs at her reactions and then she feels that pleasure mounting again and suddenly Ric is collapsing on top of her, laughing and apologizing to her as he recovers his breath.

Damon nonchalantly rolls him off her and takes Ric's place. "Let me show you how it's done," he says cockily, and she lifts her hips eagerly, wanting him to finish her again. But he goes more slowly than Ric, sliding in her inch by torture-slow inch until she is begging him to go faster, harder. "Waited so long for this," he says in a strangled voice. "I'm taking my time."

She responds by wrapping her legs around his waist and forcing him deep into her. His eyes open wide in surprise, and he stares down at her satisfied smirk. "You playing dirty, little girl?" he asks her, and her responding giggle turns into a moan as he takes her hard, and Ric, seeming to sense the turn in the tide, takes her nipple between his teeth and gently worries it. It doesn't take long before her toes are curling and she is screaming their names to the ceiling.

Damon finally empties himself inside of her, and collapses on her other side. She lies between them, her two men, and waits for her heart to slow. She feels more relaxed, full, and happy than she can ever remember being.

She's getting sleepy again, and Ric pulls the blanket over them all. Without warning, Damon leans over her and kisses her gently and then Ric, as if he's been doing it every night for years. She turns to kiss Ric, her lips sliding against his in a way that feels shockingly right.

She slides back against Ric, fitting into his body in a way she hasn't realized until now has gotten to be an entirely natural feeling. She reaches out for Damon and wraps her arm around his chest and intertwines their legs.

"Don't leave me," she says. "Either of you."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Damon says, and Ric mutters sleepy agreement into her hair.

She falls asleep with the men she loves holding her.