Tour de Sang
Elena makes the decision to turn to avoid being used by Klaus. She, Damon, Stefan and Katherine will run until they are caught. Elena/Damon and Katherine/Stefan primarily. AU diverging around mid-season 3.
part one: bargaining
Elena always wanted to see the world before she died.
Now she's doing it in reverse order, but she still gets to see the white hot sand of the Sahara Desert, the marshy swamplands of the Pantanal, the glaciers frozen in time in Greenland.
She's immortal, but she can feel the countdown bomb ticking down on her head.
One day Klaus will find them, and he will kill her. She will probably be last, so she can see the others who are dying for her. It will be slow, and it will be painful.
But she doesn't think of those things. There will be plenty of time to think of death when the Original vampire is upon her.
For now, she enjoys her brief eternity with her boys. And Katherine, who surely must be the last person she ever would have expected to spend an eternity with.
But Katherine's not evil, and Elena's not pure white, and somewhere in the middle is where they met in secret all those years ago, at a smoky bar in Virginia Beach.
No Stefan or Damon around, just a human girl and her vampire doppelganger, the only person in all the world who will give her a chance to do what she knows must be done.
Katherine couldn't offer her immunity; she couldn't even provide that for herself. But she could offer her knowledge of Klaus and her centuries of skill at evasion. Katherine could even supply a daylight ring, from one of countless favors owed her over the years by a network of witches around the world.
"Years," she'd replied when Elena had asked Katherine how long she could keep her hidden. "Decades."
That was good enough for Elena, whose only other real options were to be drained completely or to be kept as a Klaus's human slave for the rest of her mortal existence.
Katherine had only one demand in exchange.
Elena had shaken her head, and like the brothers' hearts were poker chips she could give and take at will, they had begun negotiating. They, the only girls to ever hold the hearts of the Salvatore brothers.
"Stefan will never abandon me," she'd told Katherine. "No matter how angry he is with me, he'll feel an obligation to stay with me. To protect me."
Katherine had hesitated, her sharp brown eyes flicking through a century's knowledge of her former lover. "I want to be first in his heart, then." She'd grimaced, as if acknowledging that Elena might have precedence was painful. "Let me have him."
Elena had raised an eyebrow in surprise, realizing what that meant. "You'll come too, then," she said, and Katherine had shrugged, an elegant pale shoulder rising and falling.
"I've lived long enough without him. I'm going for quality over quantity, here." She'd twisted her lips sardonically like she was trying to impress on Elena how utterly heartless and pragmatic she is, but Elena shares a soul with this woman, and she knew. Katherine did love him.
"And Damon?" Elena had asked, but she already knew the answer. What will always be the answer, with him.
"Will follow you," Katherine had finished. "Whether you want him to or not."
She'd opened her mouth to say she didn't want that, that Damon shouldn't have to be second-best to two women. But the words never left her lips, because the idea of being without the older Salvatore brother for the rest of her existence left a strangely huge hole in her heart.
Elena thought maybe he wouldn't be second-best after all.
Katherine had smirked, but for once, she hadn't said anything.
part two: denial
Elena waits until she is sure that they have no chance of defeating Klaus. But Damon and Stefan do not stumble upon a heretofore-overlooked critical weakness; Bonnie does not unearth an ancient spell able to destroy him. He is simply too strong, too clever, and has too many resources. His siblings will not betray him; nor will his hybrids.
Life isn't a game with carefully weighted skill sets on each side, and some enemies can't be beaten.
So Elena writes meticulous notes to her brother, Bonnie, Caroline and Matt. She begs them to forgive her, and to understand that her body is truly a weapon of mass destruction, and that she must think of the many over the few.
She tells them that she loves them.
She tells them goodbye.
In a messy studio apartment, Katherine offers her bloody wrist to Elena to drink from.
And then Elena Gilbert dies.
When she awakes, she is lying on the couch in the Salvatore boarding house. "Jesus fucking Christ, Elena," Damon says, and his voice is strained like he has been yelling. Or crying. He swallows down his entire glass of whiskey.
"Elena," Stefan says, and he's trying to keep his voice calm, but his eyes are manic. "What have you done?"
She closes her eyes, holds up a hand. Her gums ache and her head pounds like she has a hangover. Unthinkingly, she growls at the brothers when they crowd over her, and she reluctantly opens her eyes.
Her vision, normal one instant, flickers and changes, and suddenly she can see motes of dust sparkling in the sunlight, the smooth perfection of the brothers' faces, an area on the stair banister where the varnish has been rubbed away by the passage of hands over a hundred years.
She drops back down to the couch and holds her aching head in her hands. "I feel like shit," she says with a small moan.
Damon rolls his eyes, but tension is apparent in every movement he makes. "Well, you would, wouldn't you?"
Stefan clutches her hands. "Elena, how did this happen? Who did this to you?"
Before she can respond, there is a soft squeak as the front door opens. Her doppelganger is there in the doorway with two human men walking up behind her. They hold themselves loosely, obviously compelled.
"Katherine." The disgust and comprehension are palpable in Damon's voice.
Stefan and Damon surge forward as one to confront her, but Elena moves to stand between them, her hand on each brother's arm.
Then her eyes fall on the pulsing jugular veins of the compelled men, as she is actually able to hear their healthy, meaty hearts pumping delicious blood to the tips of their fingers and toes. Suddenly, the world is divided into two categories: things that Are blood and things that Are Not blood.
"We had a deal," Katherine reminds her impatiently, her stance untroubled but her eyes flickering warily between Stefan and Damon.
Yes. Elena struggles to concentrate, turning her eyes to the Salvatore brothers with extreme effort.
"Klaus is never going to stop until he captures me or I'm dead. This way, the doppelganger line ends with me. His ability to make hybrids ends with me." She makes eye contact with each brother in turn, pleading them without words to understand. To not hate her or be disgusted with her.
"Katherine agreed to help me hide until we're caught or Klaus is dead. Either way, it'll be a longer life than I could've had as a human, and I can't be used to hurt anyone else."
Damon sneers. "Katherine doesn't do a damn thing unless she gets something out of it."
Elena closes her eyes, which just makes her focus on the pounding blood in the men behind Katherine. She opens her eyes again, irritated with herself. She still hasn't figured out a good way to tell the brothers what the exact terms of their bargain is. Maybe there isn't one.
"She wants to be with Stefan again, so I promised that I won't try to keep them apart if he comes with me."
Her not-quite-back-together-with ex-boyfriend stiffens in surprise and locks eyes with the vampire he loved one-hundred sixty-four years ago. There is an awkward pause as Katherine and Stefan both try to act like they aren't watching each other's reaction.
Damon glances between them and rolls his eyes. "Lovely, good to get proof once and for all that the universe and all the ladies in it really and truly do love my baby brother best. I hope the three of you have a nice, kinky honeymoon together before Klaus kills you all. Don't forget not to write." With an annoyed toss of his head, he slams his glass down on the coffee table and spins to go upstairs.
"I want you, Damon," Elena says distractedly. Not because she doesn't mean it, but because with every passing second, her thirst for the blood in those two humans grows stronger. With an effort, she turns to face him, her thirst making her blunt and honest.
"Please come with me, Damon. I need you. I can't do this without you."
Damon looks at her then, and she holds her breath and she knows he knows how hard it is for her to keep her eyes on him, to not even glance at the delicious prey that is waiting for her not ten feet away. She waits.
Finally, Damon lets out a long sigh and squeezes the stair railing until the top edge splinters apart.
"Damn it all to hell," he says. "Let me get my cash."
part three: fear
While Elena adjusts to this new life she's condemned them all to, they head west and south from Mystic Falls, vaguely toward Texas, where none of them have any history for Klaus to follow up on. They hitchhike to make their trail harder to trace, and Elena gets lots of practice in at compelling people stopped at gas stations to give them rides.
The weeks pass in tense evenings spent in seedy motel rooms and days spent in the backseats of SUVs driven by strangers, Elena's hand clenched in Damon's so he can hold her back if she loses control and lunges for the humans' throats. Despite her best efforts with blood bags, Elena's thirst for human blood from the vein is almost uncontrollable. Katherine says she was the same way, but with Katherine there is no line between want and need, so who the hell really knows?
It horrifies Elena, to know that to live, she must cause pain to others, even if she compels away memory of the pain. She hates herself, sometimes, for the decision she's made. She wonders if Stefan and Damon secretly feel the same way.
Stefan wants to help her, but exposing him to his greatest addiction would be cruel. So she takes Damon with her to feed, his calm assurance in her ability to handle herself so much more than she deserves. She will never forgive herself if she lets someone else die because of her, and she trusts Damon not to let it get that far.
When they are alone, the forbidden knowledge of the memories Damon has compelled from her hangs heavily between them, unspoken.
Meeting Damon on the night her parents died.
Damon telling her that he loved her before he gave her back her vervain necklace.
It should probably surprise her more that with Stefan examining her worriedly when she comes back from feeding, with his brow perpetually creased in worry, with Katherine's hand on his arm in a monstrous parody of a concerned mother figure, Elena seeks out Damon to the exclusion of the others.
It's doesn't, though. She is comfortable with Damon. He doesn't treat her delicately, doesn't talk about the supernatural manhunt that must be after them, doesn't fear for her or what she is capable of.
That's okay, because she fears enough for all of them.
One morning at a motel in Dallas, Katherine deems Elena ready to sit on airplane without killing all the passengers. She books them a flight from DFW to Dubai, and then once they are through security, compels them onto a another international flight with four empty seats.
The seats turn out to be two pairs, and by unspoken agreement Elena goes with Damon, who is best equipped to handle her if she loses control.
Elena doesn't even know their destination until the plane pulls out of the terminal and the pilot's voice comes over the loudspeaker. "Boa tarde, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome aboard US Airways Flight 814, headed to GIG Airport, Rio de Janeiro."
Brazil. She is going to Brazil, and she will never be able to go home again.
She buries her face in Damon's shoulder and weeps.
part four: acceptance
The days fade behind Elena like old Polaroids as she adjusts to the life of a vampire nomad.
They settle on the outskirts of Rio, stopping for a few days at a time in modest hotels near the working-class neighborhoods, avoiding any hint of luxury or decadence that Klaus might be drawn to. Stefan always books them two double rooms, and they pair off by gender like they're at church camp.
Most of their days are spent walking the sprawling streets of the city edge, sometimes even wandering to Copacabana beach on the southern coast of the city, where Elena stares at the teal water for hours and wonders if she made the right choice.
Sometimes they play tourists, and Elena absorbs the sights and smells of the city with the fervor of a terminally ill person on her last vacation. All three of her companions speak Portuguese well enough to pass as people who have spent years living in the country, though Katherine, who is exceptional at languages, smirks and whispers to Elena when one of the boys slips up and uses a phrase that's a century out of date.
Their evenings before bed are spent together talking, fighting and planning their next move. Katherine points out that their lives would be longer if they stayed inside the four walls of the hotel room, where it would be almost impossible for Klaus's wolves to sniff them out.
Elena tells them that they're missing the point. There is no need at all to do this if they can't see at least some of what the world can offer.
Damon says that they could probably manage to hide well enough to wait for someone powerful enough to kill Klaus, but Katherine shakes her head, her expression uncharacteristically serious. There is no savior waiting in the wings to rescue them.
Klaus will win, in the end. He always does.
When the conversations grows weighted with silence, Elena offers, again and again, to let them go their own way, even to let them take her to Klaus in exchange for their own lives.
Stefan always look like she's stabbed a knife in his gut when she says that, and Damon slaps her upside the head. Even Katherine doesn't hesitate. "We made a deal," she says, her hand slipping into Stefan's (he doesn't push her away), and that is that.
That night, while Katherine lies sleeping in the bed next to hers, Elena realizes that somewhere along the way, while she grieved and cried for her lost life and clung to Damon, Katherine has gotten Stefan, just like she wanted. Elena doesn't think she's lost him, exactly - he still looks at her with love, but not like she's his personal angel from heaven anymore. In different ways, she thinks he loves them both.
That doesn't bother Elena as much as she thinks it ought to.
Stefan catches the scent of werewolves one day, and he tells Elena to wait in the room while he and Katherine investigate to see if it is one of Klaus's. Damon stays behind to make sure she doesn't try to follow them. Even though she is a vampire now, they still fear her self-sacrificial streak.
Elena has hardly been alone with Damon since coming to Rio, as the four of them have sought out safety in numbers, though she is aware, as always, of his feelings for her. They have only increased in intensity in the months since she was turned, but what is shocking is how hers have risen in return.
She can feel the mutual attraction like a prickling ball of molten heat when they're together, yet neither of them has acknowledged what lies between them.
Damon has respected her unspoken cues, has been supportive and considerate but nothing more as she has struggled to gain the upper hand over her thirst and her fear.
The hours pass in near-silence, and Elena grows more tense with each passing minute. Every new second could be the one in which a hybrid knocks down the door, rips Damon's head off, breaks her neck in one ugly twist.
The fear makes her reckless, drives her to do what she hasn't had the nerve to do before.
Wordlessly, she walks over and wraps her arms around Damon's neck like they're going to dance. He opens his mouth to say something, but she stands on tiptoe and lets her fangs pierce the crook of his neck. He stiffens but doesn't step back, his hands falling to wrap loosely at the small of her back. She can feel his cock twitch where she is pressing her body against his.
The silence is now filled with the rushing, liquid sound of her slowly, languorously swallowing his blood. Having him is exquisite, like sex and power rolled together and she feels her body responding outside of her control, her eyes dilating, her groin clenching.
Finally, Damon groans, and his hands slide down her hips, tightening around her ass and pulling her against him so tightly she feels almost bruised.
She pulls away from his neck, her mouth warm and wet with his blood, and shoves him down onto the bed. A fraction of a second later, she is straddling him. He reaches up to rake his fingers through her hair with his nails, making her moan.
"Elena," he whispers hoarsely, just before she brings her mouth down to his. He bites down on her bottom lip hard enough to draw blood, and she gasps into his mouth as her blood fills both of their mouths.
A shifting behind her, and she realizes that Stefan has come back, entering the room quietly. "We're safe," he says when she pulls away to look at him, still panting. "I can tell how worried you guys were."
Elena rolls her eyes. "Good. Now get out, unless you want front row tickets to Vampire Skinemax."
Below her, Damon lets out a choked laugh. At her blasé attitude, she thinks. But she's a wanted woman, being hunted by one of the worst monsters around, and sure to be captured any day, and Stefan's seen it all before, a dozen times, a hundred. And she's pretty sure he wants to fuck Katherine, if he isn't already, and if that doesn't bother her, nothing really can.
She glances down at Damon. His eyes are wild with lust. One of the things she is struggling with as a vampire is that her wants seem so much more immediate.
And right now, there is nothing she wants more than Damon Salvatore. Ignoring Stefan, she flattens herself into Damon, pushing her core against his crotch and lowering her lips to his again. He is warmer than he should be, the blood borrowed (stolen) from a tourist earlier today making his kisses burn like fire. She opens her mouth to allow his tongue access as his fingers work their way under her blouse.
She hears a door creak, distantly, and figures it's Stefan leaving.
"Oh," Katherine says, and Elena doesn't think the surprise in her voice is feigned. Elena growls in frustration but pulls away from Damon again. Damon's hands still but do not withdraw.
Her doppelganger's carefully constructed pout is back as she smiles winsomely up at Stefan. "That mean housekeeper is cleaning my room. I'm bored."
Katherine probably expects Stefan to accompany her into town (there are half a dozen upscale clothing stores here where she adores playing dress-up with Stefan as her audience ), and her eyes widen as he steps forward purposefully instead, tilts Katherine's chin up to his, and kisses her.
Elena looks back at Damon, whose hands linger at the curve of her breasts. He gives her a shrug and flirty eyes, as if he's saying, I'm game if you are.
Elena rolls her eyes again but the allure of sex and blood and the thrill of just being alive for one more day overtake her, and she lets Damon roll her over. Lets him almost rip off her buttons opening her blouse, lets him nudge her knees apart and push her skirt up to her hips. Let his long fingers slip past her soaked thong, and then his hot, hard length presses inside her.
It feels like she has waited a thousand years for this moment.
Beside her, Katherine and Stefan are falling onto their bed, and her eyes lock briefly with her doppelganger's, and her satisfied smirk mirrors Katherine's own. Finally.
After that, they don't bother getting two rooms anymore.
part five: guilt
They have some close calls over the years.
The fervor with which Klaus pursues them seems to rise and fall, perhaps depending on the other schemes he has going on at the time.
When he does want to hunt them down, he usually sends his wolves. They come in pairs, and in a battle of pure strength, four vampires would be a good match against two werewolves. But the werewolves have a deadly trump card. One touch of their venom into a vampire's bloodstream, and the vampire is dead. Painfully.
The few times they run into a member of Klaus's sporadic search efforts, their only goal is to escape at all costs. They leave behind what few belonging they have accumulated, what pieces of civilization they have built up around them, and run for their lives.
Luckily, they are better long-distance runners than werewolves. By a hair. The first time they have to flee is after they have been slowly circling the edges of Rio for six months. They sprint halfway to Uruguay that night before they feel safe enough to slow down.
And they learn to adapt, so next time it will be longer before they are found again.
They realize that people remember twins much more than sisters. Elena and Katherine have one of their worst fights in months arguing who will have to sacrifice her beautiful hair so they will look less alike. Both Stefan and Damon try to mediate and calm them down, but they turn on the brothers in unison and lock them out of the hotel room, leaving them to book a second room for the first time in months.
Finally, they agree that Elena will cut her hair into a soft bob while Katherine will dye hers a lighter shade of brown. Once the difficult matter of hairstyles is settled on, the agreements on makeup, clothing styles and heels to make one of them look taller fall into place.
Stefan and Damon timidly enter the room a few hours later to find Katherine and Elena curled up together on the bed, watching Pride and Prejudice on the TV, fresh polish on their fingernails.
"Girls," Damon says, rolling his eyes.
Elena looks up, her eyes flicking between the brothers who have spent their entire immortal existence alternately hating, loving, saving and rejecting each other. "Boys," she retaliates.
They glance at each other and shrug unrepentantly.
The next day, they leave for Kiev. Katherine says she is passable at Ukrainian, and anyone asking around for twin girls speaking English will not trigger people's memories of two similar but not identical sisters speaking Ukrainian.
In Kiev, they see ballets and operas, soccer matches and ice hockey games. They laugh loudly and speak playfully, but their backs are always tense, ready to run if one of them has so much as a bad feeling about a place.
Elena has never been good at sitting still, and she gets bored reading the newspaper and watching TV like the brothers do in the afternoons, so Katherine accompanies her on long walks in the city. Invariably, beautiful women are approached by men, and so she and Katherine perfect a routine to fool the men into thinking they both speak the language.
Elena will keep a knowing smirk on her face as she turns to Katherine, who will speak to her in Ukrainian and cue her with facial expressions to either shake her head and frown or nod and smile. When they walk away, Katherine will whisper to her exactly what the man suggested, and they will giggle over the idea of any human man being able to tempt them away from Stefan and Damon.
One day, Elena realizes she's not pretending to be friendly with Katherine anymore.
Hatred has always been a foreign emotion for her, and Katherine is the only female companion she will ever have for the rest of her days.
Still, Elena books her own room at the hotel and sulks for two days straight. She feels like she's been tricked into wanting something she never meant to.
Stefan is the one who cajoles his way into her bedroom, pleading softly, gently until she gives in and unlocks the door for him. He climbs up on the bed with her, stroking her hair, and they spend hours talking about Katherine, how she's changed and how she's stayed the same. Who is Katerina Petrova and who is Katherine Pierce and who is the unhappy girl who died 500 years ago.
"How is it okay for me to love her," Stefan asks her finally. "But not for you?"
To that she has no answer.
She eventually falls asleep in his arms, and she dreams of the four of them walking in Central Park on a clear spring morning. In the dream, they are safe and loved.
One of those things is impossible, but the other does not have to be.
part six: depression
Every year on the anniversary of her death, Elena feels a bleakness overtake her as she relives the life she has lost.
Her companions always try to comfort her, and they have learned that "D-Day", as Damon calls it under his breath, is a day for reflection and mourning and quiet conversations in bed.
Elena doesn't want to be alone for her grief; she wants nothing but to be with the ones she has left. Who won't leave her behind, despite the half-life she has condemned them all to. They curl up around her, four vampires in a queen-sized hotel bed. It should feel ridiculous, but all it feels is right.
After she has run out of tears, Elena speaks into the silence about her parents and Jeremy. Her mother's kind brown eyes and steady hands, her father's booming laugh and tight hugs. And Jeremy, who needed her the most. Her baby brother, who she swore she would protect forever, who she abandoned, who probably thinks she's long dead by now.
This year Elena would be 43 if she aged, and she cries for hours when she realizes that she is now older than her mother ever got to be.
They have just moved to Adelaide, Australia when Damon sprints into the condo they have rented, his eyes blazing with news.
Elena is dyeing Katherine's hair, this time to a brown so dark it's almost black. She steps back from the bathtub, taking the rubber gloves off her hands, and helps Katherine sit up carefully so the dye doesn't get flung everywhere.
"Tell us," Katherine says as Stefan comes in from the bedroom. She slips her hand into Stefan's, and Elena doesn't let go of Katherine's other hand.
News is almost always bad. One day, she is sure, they will get the warning too late.
"There's a rumor that Klaus was killed," Damon says hoarsely.
Stefan shakes his head. "We've heard similar rumors before-"
"With a special 'white' stake and the help of a powerful witch," Damon continues, speaking over him.
For a minute, no one speaks. They have not heard a rumor with such a ring of authenticity to it before. Elena tamps down the unfamiliar bubble of hope inside of her. It is too good to be true.
"Even with a witch's aid, no human would be strong enough to stake Klaus," Stefan argues, ever cautious.
"The rumor is that it was done by a 'Slayer', one of five in the whole world, created for the sole purpose of destroying vampires." Damon shrugs. "Sounds like a fairytale to me, but what do I know?"
Katherine goes very still. "I've heard of the Five," she whispers, and Elena can hear it capitalized in her words. "Not for centuries, but…one of them could do it." Another silence, and Elena can almost feel them all fighting to stay detached.
"No," she says suddenly, and they all turn to look at her. "Klaus is clever enough to create a rumor of his death to draw us in to investigate."
One by one, they nod reluctantly. Yes, Klaus would do such a thing.
"Still," Damon insists, "it would be a risky move to tell others about his only real weakness. There's some chance…" He trails off and glances at her, his expression softening.
Elena lets go of Katherine's hand and steps into Damon's embrace, her fear battling for control with her hope. "We wait," she tells them, dropping her head to Damon's shoulder. "If we hear word that Klaus is alive, or if the rumors change, we stay away. We will not let Mystic Falls be our downfall, not after we've survived this long."
They all bow their heads in agreement.
The details of the rumors vary, but the end result is always the same.
The Original is held forever in desiccation, says one. He is alive but trapped in a casket at the bottom of the sea, say others. A white stake spelled by a witch was his undoing. No, a dagger used for centuries by the Five.
For three years, they wait and listen, never mentioning Mystic Falls and the chance of being able to return home out loud.
Damon, normally so reckless, is the most determined of all to wait for years longer. He is terrified of losing her, Elena knows, so she doesn't get annoyed with his reluctance to talk about them ever being free again.
Elena doesn't trust her own thoughts on the matter, knowing that her longing to see her brother and her friends again could overwhelm her objectivity.
Above all, they rely on Katherine's instincts. Her doppelganger has survived for five centuries on the run, and has kept the four of them alive for a quarter of another one.
And Katherine says wait, so they wait.
Until the day that they are walking along Henley Beach, enjoying the fall of twilight over the ocean, when a dreadlocked vampire that Stefan has met once before emerges from a beach house and wants to swap news of the supernatural.
He mentions Klaus's death, of course; that will be news for decades. Then he mentions, in passing, the Slayer and the witch's names.
He says they are called Jeremy and Bonnie Gilbert.
part seven: hope
Though she thinks of the seventeen-year-old brother she left behind all the time, Elena does not often dwell on what Jeremy could have become since she left. She supposes she's terrified of hearing that he killed himself, got hit by a drunk driver, died in a ditch, alone and unhappy and cursing her name.
She knows she has no right to worry about him when she abandoned him, and she did pretty well at avoiding him even in her thoughts, for almost thirty years.
No more. Now that she knows something of the man he has become, she wants to know more. Everything. She begs the others to get her on the next plane to Virginia, and damn the consequences. They don't have to come; they can stay safely behind. But she must go.
Damon holds her as she punches him, fists pounding into his chest. Not now, not yet, he says, and Katherine and Stefan agree.
"It's worth it!" she screams at him. "It's worth it to see him, even if it's the last thing I ever do."
"Damn it, Elena," he shouts back. "I've gotten twenty years with you I never thought I'd get. But fuck if I don't want to make it two hundred, or two thousand."
She closes her mouth, spellbound, as always, by his never-sated passion for her. "Me too," she admits in a tiny voice. "I want that, too."
He takes deep breaths to calm himself. "Alright, then," he says, giving her a dazzling smile. "Then let's plan how this is going to go. Carefully."
Elena Gilbert has been a vampire for twenty-eight years when she steps off the airplane in Richmond, Virginia. Her hair is short again, her eyes tinted blue with contact lenses that Damon insisted on for security's sake, even though he can barely stand to look at her without her natural brown eyes.
Caroline Forbes, as perky and blonde as she was when Elena last saw her, is one of the last people Elena expected to see, and here she is waiting for them outside the terminal.
Elena glances at Stefan and Damon, her mouth gaping but nothing coming out. Both brothers studiously avoid her gaze, and Katherine winks at her.
Elena is crying before she is past security, her mascara is running and she might pop out of her stupid, heavy contacts. Caroline engulfs her in a hug that makes her back creak, and other airport passengers give them plenty of space and fond smiles.
"I missed you," she says into the crook of Caroline's neck. It feels so strange to be close to someone who isn't Damon or Stefan or Katherine. But wonderful.
They finally step apart, and Caroline grins up at Stefan, giving him a long hug. She looks between Damon and Katherine doubtfully, before hugging them both, as well.
"It's all true, then?" Elena asks breathlessly. "Klaus is gone?"
"Yep." Caroline smiles at her, and it is genuine, but there is something sad in it, too. She leads them outside to a sleek red coupe that the five of them squeeze into with difficulty.
"I was kind of a double agent," she explains. "Klaus was a psychopath, but I really do think he loved me. As much as someone like him could, anyway." She swallows hard before continuing on merrily. "Anyway, he was furious with you, of course, Elena, and he stayed in Mystic Falls for years, convinced that you would eventually come back home. He had spies all over town. Eventually, though, he left. I know he was in France for a while, and then South Africa."
"And Jeremy?" Elena wishes her voice didn't sound so desperate.
Caroline shrugs. "Most of what I know about Jeremy come from Bonnie. Pretty soon after you guys left, he started being hunted by vampires." Elena winces, curls in on herself at what she has abandoned her brother to.
Caroline rushes on. "So he went to this dojo in California and trained for like two years. And later he went to New York to be taught by another master. And then he started killing the vampires who were hunting him.
"And then, one day, he killed a vampire and this tattoo that only he can see appeared on his hand. And he was suddenly stronger and faster than a normal human. And then when the tattoo was complete, he came back to Virginia and found Bonnie. She was teaching at the community college in Roanoke. And he told her that he was going to kill Klaus, and she was going to help him, even though she hadn't done any magic in, like, ten years."
Caroline smiles proudly, glancing at Elena. "And then she called me, and we started planning. It took us almost four years, but we finally did it. Klaus is in a casket with about a hundred enchantments on it, in a place that only Bonnie knows about, and she's going to take that secret to her grave."
There is a long silence after Caroline finishes her story. Even Katherine, normally so aloof around anyone but the three of them, looks impressed.
"That's…incredible, Caroline," Elena says finally. "You guys are amazing. You must hate me so much for abandoning you to him."
"No, of course not," Caroline says with a quick smile, but Elena wonders if that has always been true. "You had no defenses against him. He was never going to hurt me, and he wouldn't have even tried to mess with Bonnie unless he was forced into it. And Jeremy was safe, too; Klaus had him watched in case you ever made contact with him."
But she hadn't, of course. She hopes that was the safer choice for Jeremy, but she will have to live with never knowing for sure.
"We were going to run until Klaus or one of his wolves killed us," Elena says, trying to explain without sounding like she's making excuses. "But we always stayed far from Mystic Falls to keep everyone here safe."
Caroline smiles at her, reaching back to squeeze her hand. "I know, Elena. But you made it! You get your happy ending."
Her happy ending. The words sound strange, and for the first time Elena allows herself to relish the thought that it is Klaus, and not they who are dead.
The route becomes more familiar and she knows that in a few miles she will see a weathered wooden "Welcome to Mystic Falls" sign. Elena leans against Damon, three decades' worth of tension slowly leaving her body.
She is home.
Jeremy has kept their old house, Elena is surprised to realize as Caroline leads them up the sidewalk. The siding has been repainted recently, and there are potted orange trees on the porch and a tasteful blue welcome mat at the front door.
Elena's hand is shaking so much that she can barely knock. She has taken the contact lenses out with a sigh of relief and has pushed back her sunglasses. Now she clutches Damon's hand and tries to keep from crying again until she knows exactly how much Jeremy wants to drive a stake through her heart.
Her baby brother opens the door, and for a moment Elena just stares at him. He looks like their dad, his shoulders broad, his demeanor confident. She always thought her dad could handle anything. Jeremy is 45 now, a couple years older than their dad was when he died. He has their mother's cheekbones, and his heavily muscled arms are his own, but he looks like everything she's ever loved. He looks like family.
"Jeremy," she breathes, even though she told herself she would let him talk first, let him set the pace.
"'Lena?" he says in a choked voice as Bonnie walks up behind him, her hand settling on Jeremy's arm. She looks like Abby, but she has her grandmother's strength in her carriage. Bonnie's mom always looked like she was hiding from something, but Bonnie's grams knew her purpose in life, and, Elena suspects, so does Bonnie.
She takes one glance at Elena and her eyes fill with tears. "Come in," she says, smiling through her tears. "All of you, please come in."
Elena doesn't let go of Damon's hand as they walk through the door into her childhood home. This is too easy. There should be yelling and hitting and slamming of doors. She doesn't deserve this kindness, this gentleness.
She sits between Damon and Stefan, Katherine still uncharacteristically silent on the other side of Stefan. Bonnie and Jeremy sit on the couch across from her as Caroline takes the armchair.
"I'm so, so, sorry," Elena says into the silence. "This was all my doing. You must hate me so much."
Jeremy looks up, a wry expression on his lined but still handsome face. "I did, for a while. Hell, for years. You left me, Elena."
She nods and covers up her face, trying not to start crying all over again.
"But I know why you did it." Her brother's voice is gentle. "You were trying to keep everyone safe. I forgave you a long time ago." He reaches over to wrap his arm around Bonnie, his eyes gentle as he looks at her.
Bonnie picks up a framed picture Elena has not noticed on the coffee table. "And we had to decide whether we wanted to teach our girls bitterness or forgiveness." She smiles, holding out the picture for Elena to see.
Numbly, Elena looks down at the photograph. A thin girl of around ten or eleven with Bonnie's eyes is swinging in what Elena recognizes as her backyard, though the playground set is unfamiliar. Clutching the baby swing beside her is a fluffy-haired toddler in rainbow-colored bathing suit.
"You have kids," Elena says unnecessarily when she can breathe again. She is an aunt.
Jeremy and Bonnie are smiling at her, and Caroline is practically vibrating with happiness, and Damon wraps his arm around her and holds her tight.
"We do. Carrie Elena and Rose Sheila," Bonnie says. "Our girls' names." Elena buries her face in Damon's shoulder, not able to hold back the tears this time.
"See, sis?" her brother asks, and his voice is gentle. "We never forgot you. We love you."
"I love you too," she manages to choke out past her sobbing.
It shouldn't be enough. She has been out of Caroline and Bonnie's, out of her brother's life longer than she has been in it. She should have to work for years for their forgiveness, for abandoning them without looking back. For her eldest niece (her niece) hitting middle school without ever having met her father's sister. For her best friend having two kids, going through two pregnancies, without her support.
Instead, Elena smiles so hard she feels she might burst.
She rests her head on Damon's shoulder and Stefan holds her free hand. Even Katherine, who normally tries so hard to look unimpressed at everything, smiles at her and leans around Stefan to squeeze her leg.
And Elena smiles, for she is safe and she is loved and she is finally happy.