Which Way To Go
Summary: AU: Elena's parents died when she was 17 – what if it happened at 22 instead? Slightly older, slightly more cynical, and slightly more dangerous, Mystic Falls is a very different place for university graduates than high schoolers, especially with dopplegängers and hybrids converging on the town.
Disclaimer: All character, locations, and situations belong to the CW and Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec, along with the original rights of the book series to L.J. Smith. No money is made in this story.
Author's Note: Story requires some suspension of disbelief, as being born in 1992 makes the year 2014 when the main core group is 22. Since at the moment we're not in 2014, things are slightly skewed by a year, with pop culture references at 2013 instead. Other changes and explanations will appear as exposition throughout.
Frances: Any arbitrary turning along the way and I would be elsewhere; I would be different.
- Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
Spring Break, last week in March
Caroline didn't understand what all the fuss was about. The Mona Lisa sure was a pretty picture, but it wasn't that large and it was under a thick cube of glass and several roped off areas to keep keen tourists from breathing too closely on it. Really, who would go to the Louvre just to see one painting and ignore that fact that there were thousands of other artifacts for them to see? The place was huge.
With a roll of her eyes, she quickly left the hall, moving past several different rooms of different artistic movements, until she passed the sculptures and zigzagged up and down floors until she was in a room relatively free of tourists. She was glad she ditched her Contiki tour guide on her final day in Paris, eager to spend time away from the other twenty-somethings on the tour with her, their gossiping, and desire to hit up the Parisian boutiques and a club later that night instead of taking in the cultural sights of the famous city.
She breathed deeply; her eyes closed and she felt the tension leave her shoulders as she stood in front of a rather abstract piece of art, in a darkened room to preserve the pigments in the paint, allowing the quiet hum of electrical lights and low murmurs of one or two other tourists a room over relax her.
Although she attended Duke University in North Carolina, Caroline had never left the state. It took months of cajoling and promises of safety before her sheriff mother even considered the idea of Caroline booking a Contiki vacation over Spring Break in her final year of university. Her promises consisted of maintaining her GPA (nearly perfect), maintaining her club and social activities (cheer captain of the university team, social calendar committee head, captain of the equestrian team, and usually on call for a theatre group when they needed an extra singer and dancer for their musicals), and maintaining her part time internship with a party planning business. Over Christmas, Elizabeth "Liz" Forbes had given her permission and the next day, took her daughter to the travel agency in the centre of town and they booked Caroline's vacation package to Europe.
Although Spring Break was only a week, Caroline took a 10-day trip, visiting Rome, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, London and finished her trip in Paris; the next day was her flight back to the States. Caroline loved Europe; it was old, full of life and history, mysterious and beautiful. Each city was different from the last, and Caroline long ago promised herself that she would see the world. Even as her trip was ending, she was thinking ahead to her next: perhaps Asia, to Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, or Hong Kong?
That wasn't to say that she didn't like her hometown: Mystic Falls was a rather quaint American Revolution-settled town of barely 50,000, previously a British outpost that was taken over and later, once the war was over, became Mystic Falls at the beginning of the 1800s. It didn't prosper until the mid-1800s, a decade or two before the Civil War broke out; those who helped the town grow and become the milling town of rural north-west Virginia were called the Founding Families, and Caroline could trace her history back to her ancestor, William Marshall Forbes.
Mystic Falls was home: her two best friends, Elena Gilbert and Bonnie Bennett, still lived at home and attended the local Whitmore College. Although she considered herself besties with Elena and Bonnie, the truth was that Caroline was outside of their circle of friendship. With Elena and Bonnie attending a local and living at home, they had far more time to spend together and Caroline's decision to attend a university in a larger city meant she was only home for holidays and rarely since the summer of her second year, due to her internship. Truthfully, Caroline was jealous of Elena's easy popularity and her relationship with Matt Donovan; she made everything look effortless while Caroline spent numerous attempts and long hours working to perfection.
There was also the fact that while they grew up, Caroline was everyone's second choice: the girl picked after Elena in sport; picked after Elena for partner projects; picked after Elena as a date for a dance when she said "no" to someone; picked after Elena by their friends who made plans with her first. It was why Caroline worked so hard to maintain her status in high school as social leader and the most popular girl in school – she needed to feel needed and wanted and in control (of a very out-of-control life).
Her control issues stemmed from her father's abandonment of the family to move to San Francisco and live with his partner, Steven; her mother took the news of his homosexuality badly, in terms of a failure of a marriage and friendship. She threw herself into her work as town sheriff, leaving a dejected eight-year-old Caroline often alone and fending for herself. From an early age, Caroline felt the need to maintain her independence and her control over what she could in a very unstable home life.
University eased many of her neurotic tendencies, however. First year was a radical change from small town life, and soon Caroline found that focusing on her studies and trying to keep her high school social calendar in university was not possible. Scaling things back, she found that she could manage one or two clubs in addition to her schoolwork and even found a few friends that picked her first.
The immediate increase of her confidence was notable when she returned to Mystic Falls the first summer after her first year; when she witnessed Elena and Bonnie ditch her to spend time together after an issue with Elena's parents, while she remained at the Grill. Back in high school, Caroline knew that she would have taken offense; now, she merely sighed, as it became rote. Upon her return to Duke, Caroline found a paid internship opportunity through her program (majoring in Event Management and minor in interior design) and immediately jumped on it. She didn't return to Mystic Falls until Thanksgiving and even then, she only saw her mother for one day before she was back at her rented apartment.
However, unfortunately, all those feelings of second best and loneliness and inadequacy poured through her as she viewed the abstract painting before her: the painting was medium-sized, traditional square filled with a swirl of dark blues, purples, and angry reds; the background was black and there were slashes of lighter blues that screamed lonely to Caroline. A few splatters of white, delicately flicked in a single, low corner on the right hand side, were the only bright part of the painting. Of course, Caroline was slightly more surprised at the idea of a modern painting in the Louvre, which predominantly focused on classic and infamous pieces of art history than modernism – wasn't there a Dali museum, in the city as well?
"What do you think of it?"
Caroline started at the almost-Cockney English accent, tinged with a touch of somewhere else. A tall, young man stood beside her, his hands clasped behind his back. He wore dark jeans, heavy work-style boots, and had a brown leather jacket over a thin shirt with graphic print of it. He glanced down at her, and Caroline caught a flash of bright blue eyes, a dimple, and smirk on incredibly, sinfully, pouty lips.
"Umm," she began intelligently, tearing her eyes from the figure to look back at the painting. While she understood art and was completing a double degree in an art-related field, she wasn't exactly thrilled to be quizzed on the metaphorical reasoning behind an abstract painting.
She tilted her head to the side, and began to slowly speak. "I think... lonely. That the artist is lonely, and frustrated and angry. That there's this... ocean of emotion in them and it's like a storm crashing onto shore: violent and dangerous. There's power and strength in them."
"Go on," he said, his voice low and encouraging.
"But," Caroline bit her lip. "But the lighter blue – that's sadness. Even in the middle of this hurricane of emotion, the artist is lonely. Predominantly angry, of course – but lonely. Like no one understands them, like there's no one else quite in the world ready to take a chance on them... but those splatters of white? Hope. The possibility of a future, but one that is so small, so finite, that there may be no possibility of it at all..."
Caroline felt the well of emotion as she spoke bubble up and she reached a shaky hand to her eyes to wipe at the few tears that gathered. "I'm sorry," she laughed self-consciously and shakily. "The painting kind of reminds me of my favourite quote from a book I really like."
"What's that, sweetheart?" the man asked, and she caught his eyes as she glanced at him shyly.
"Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby," she began, with a small smile. "Nick Carraway: 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.' It's like the painting, right? Constantly fighting, constantly beating angrily against what life throws at us, but always trying to move forward even if we're against the current and can't escape our past and past mistakes."
The man smiled, less of a smirk and more genuine now, as his eyes darted across Caroline's face. "Fan of the Jazz Age, sweetheart? Like the 1920s, do you?"
Caroline laughed. "One of my favourite eras, I'll admit. That and the American Civil War. I'm a sucker for the big hoop skirts and ruffles and lace."
The two stood in silence some more, her glancing at the painting, and him looking at her in curiosity and something else indefinable. Finally, Caroline shifted on her feet and fiddled with her museum map. "So, I've got about two more hours here before my schedule has me moving on to something else," began Caroline, apologetically. "I've got the Lower Ground Floor to see and I'm avoiding the Ground Floor in general..."
"Would you like a guide?" the words were out of the man's mouth before he had time to think, as evident by the surprise that briefly flickered on his face. Caroline caught it, unsure if she would take him up on an offer that he hadn't thought to make.
Finally, she thought back to her own loneliness and desire to see Paris. She eyed him warily at first, flapping the museum map at him in emphasis. "I've got a plan, mister, and there are things I want to see in a timely manner. You okay with that?"
He grinned, amused by her. "Of course."
"Right," said Caroline, with a firm nod of her head. She stuck her right hand out in front of him. "I'm Caroline."
His eyes darted down to her hand, and smoothly, his grasped hers; he then brought the hand to his mouth and gently brushed a kiss on the back of it. Caroline wouldn't admit it to anyone, but she was rather flattered by his old world charm.
"I'm Nik," he said. "And museums – culture, art – are something of a speciality of mine."
Caroline smiled brightly at him, watching as his own smiled widened in response. "Well then Nik," she said, "It's good that I've met you, because I want to visit the Museum of Modern Art before my dinner show at the Moulin Rouge tonight."
"I think that can be arranged," he responded, and together, they explored the Louvre. They then explored the Paris Museum of Modern Art, argued about Dali as they walked along the Seine and argued some more about Frida Kahlo, and then shared a baguette along the Champs-Eylsées.
Caroline was surprised at how well they got along, even when they argued; he was respectful of her views and opinions, while having his own; they had numerous things in common (love for horses, history, design, and both enjoyed their debate of Steinbeck versus Fitzgerald). Caroline learned he lived in London and was an artist himself ("I have a painting hanging in the Hermitage, but it's a secret, don't tell anyone.") and he was a middle child ("Two older brothers, two younger brothers and a younger sister," he said and she replied, "Gosh, is your last name Weasley by any chance?").
Somehow, he cajoled her into joining her Moulin Rouge dinner and show ("But how did you manage to join me? I booked the dinner three months' in advance when I booked my trip!" and he replied, "It's a secret, love, if I told you – I'd have to kill you. And I'd rather not kill something as beautiful as you.") and spent the entire time scoffing at the show, saying how historically inaccurate it was, how Baz Luhrmann's film romanticised the turn of the century, and how (although it was bohemian and amazing) Montmartre wasn't as exciting, dazzling, glittering, as the show made it ("Why Nik, it's almost as though you lived through it," Caroline had said. "Maybe I have," was his arrogantly amused reply, which made her laugh).
Neither wanted the night to end – it was the first time Caroline had enjoyed herself so much, without feeling second best, without feeling like an obligation. She could see how, over the hours they spent together, he loosened up, began to relax and enjoy her company, and how he cracked jokes as well as breathlessly and effortlessly flattered and complimented Caroline at every opportunity. What started out, as two strangers touring Paris became two friends touring Paris, which quickly turned to gentle hand tugging and caresses.
Standing outside the Moulin Rouge, Caroline stared up at Nik, smiling gently. She didn't want to call a cab to take her back to her hotel.
"Thanks for everything today," she said. "It's been the best end to my trip."
He gazed down at her, the bright, flashing red and white lights of the famous windmill bearing down on them and lighting up Caroline's face. He felt the tension growing between them as the day progressed; he also didn't want things to end.
He leaned down while bringing a hand up to gently touch her cheek. He ghosted his breath across Caroline's face, giving her the opportunity and choice to back away. When she didn't, he pressed forward and slid his lips against hers, slowly. She sucked in a heady breath of air, and he angled his head, pressing deeper, harder against her.
And in the shining lights of Montmartre, kissing the most amazing man she'd ever met, Caroline fell hard and fast.
They ended up at his hotel, lips attached and clothing optional, fumbling in their haste as they banged against the coffee table (he swore), as he pressed her against the wall (she called out to God), as he dropped her on his bed.
His hands shook as they ghosted over her bare skin; her hands fluttered from the nape of his neck to his shoulders, to his broad back as their lips covered other ground and they found pleasure in each other; just as he traced over her sparrow tattoo with callused fingers, she traced over his on his right shoulder blade ("Seriously? A triangle? Is this a Deathly Hallows thing?") and left pectoral ("I guess we both believe in flying away," she whispered, looking at his ravens).
Caroline felt loved; cherished. Nik felt special, a connection. But both knew it wouldn't last.
It was Caroline's phone that blared her flight alarm, waking her from her sleep.
The young woman threw her left arm out, towards the bedside table. Her flattened palm whacked a few things (mainly the mattress, the side of the table) before she reached the phone. Her hand tightened around the device, and she shifted her body closer to the left side of the bed, despite the grumbling and tightening of the arm around her stomach.
Caroline blinked, propping up on her right elbow to rub against her eyes and glance at the phone screen. She then blinked again.
"Holy shit!" she yelped, throwing back the covers and coming instantly awake. She stumbled to the floor, her eyes darting back and forth as she began looking for her clothing from the previous day.
"What's wrong?" mumbled Nik, rolling onto his back and watching Caroline from hooded eyes.
"My flights' in four hours, I gotta get to the airport. No, wait, first to the hotel. Gotta shower, change, pack, and check out," Caroline began rambling. "Fuck! Fucking fuck, I'm going to be so late..."
Nik sat up, watching Caroline shimmy under the coffee table to retrieve her t-shirt and enjoying the view as she did so. She then sprinted towards the chair in the corner of the room and snatched her shorts.
"I'll drive you," said Nik. "I'll make sure you get to the airport in time."
Caroline fluttered to a stop, her shorts and t-shirt clutched in her hands to her chest as she stood in just her underwear – a lovely matching pale blue combination that Nik had enthusiastically commented on the previous evening – staring at him. "You're staying in a hotel room in Paris, but you have a car?"
"I tend to prefer the freedom to travel whenever I visit cities," responded Nik evenly.
Caroline hummed her agreement and slowly let her clothing drop from her chest. "But you'll get me to the airport on time?"
"Of course," he laughed. "You've got class on Monday – tomorrow. I wouldn't want you to miss it. It's important to you."
Caroline smiled at the words. "Thanks, Nik."
"That said," he began, eyeing her clothing. "We do have some time before going back to your hotel..."
She laughed and moved back towards the bed.
An hour and a half later, Nik was driving her towards Charles De Gaulle Airport, his fingers entwined with hers as they rested between them on the centre console. He waited with her in the American Airlines check-in line, and even helped her load her suitcase on the conveyor belt, frowning as the male attendant commented on its slightly overweight contents in a rather flirtatious manner.
Caroline flushed red, mainly in embarrassment and only a little in pleasure, and began rooting through her purse to pull out her wallet and pay the overweight fee. Finding it, she pulled out her near-maxed credit card and began to hand it over.
"Oh, no need," began the attendant, slightly monotonously and without the flirty tone he used before. "We'll let it slip this time."
Caroline's brows furrowed. "Really?"
"Oh yes," the attendant said.
Caroline turned to Nik, who just threw his hands up innocently and said, "I would just let it go, love."
She shrugged in return and put away her credit card and wallet, received her ticket stub and directions to her gate and her boarding time.
Outside customs, Nik and Caroline stood facing each other.
"So I guess this is goodbye," began Caroline awkwardly, hitching her backpack straps on her shoulder.
"I guess so," replied Nik.
The two stared at each other, Caroline biting her lip and him twitching his fingers. Finally, Caroline reached for his hand, tugging it to her. "Got a pen?" she asked.
Amused, Nik gestured with his free hand (who, me?) and Caroline rolled her eyes. "You're so not a planner," she muttered, sliding her backpack from her shoulders and opening a front compartment to retrieve her pencil case. Once a pen was in her hand, she took Nik's hand and began writing on the back of it.
"Sweetheart, what are you doing?" he asked, patiently.
"I don't have a free sheet of paper on me," answered Caroline, looking down at his hand, her blonde hair shielding whatever she was writing from Nik's eyes. "There!"
She let go of his hand and he curiously looked over it. A smile touched his lips. "Caroline Forbes, Mystic Falls, Virginia. An email and a phone number? I'm flattered."
"Choice is yours," she replied. "I had a great time yesterday, and this morning, Nik. You're fantastic, and our time together was fantastic. But I'm also not going to expect to hear from you again unless you want to get in touch – as pen pals, as friends, as whatever you'd like. No pressure."
"Thank you, sweetheart," he replied softly. Caroline had learned during their time together that while she had control issues, Nik took them to a new level.
"No problem," she said back, grasping the lapels of his leather jacket and yanking him down to her height, drawing his lips to hers. Their kiss was soft, lingering, but heated. She slowly pulled away – she was tingling down to her toes – and took one, then two, steps back, putting her backpack on again.
"I'll see you around," she whispered.
"Not if I see you first," he whispered back.
She kept her eyes on him until she joined the customs line, knowing he stood in the same spot. Once she was through the metal detector and had gathered her backpack, she turned back to see him staring at her, a faint smile on his face. She lifted a hand to her lips and blew him a kiss.
His smiled widened, and she held that image in her mind until she met her mother at the arrivals gate in Richmond and Liz Forbes said, as straightforwardly as she could without emotion colouring her voice, "Elena was in a car accident yesterday. Her parents are dead."
First week of April
The funeral was held on Thursday, the day after Elena left the hospital. The weather was clear but chilly, typical March weather, and Elena could name almost everyone in attendance.
Her parents' friends, as well as the Founding Families of Mystic Falls, made the majority of those at the funeral: Caroline, her mother, and estranged father to represent the Forbes; Mayor Richard Lockwood, his wife Carol, and son Tyler; Pastor Young and his daughter April; Zachary Salvatore, Brian Walters, and the Fell family and their extended cousins.
Bonnie sat with her father and grandmother; Matt sat with his sister (who looked like she wanted to be anywhere but there) and his mother Kelly, who was Miranda Gilbert's best friend; several of her Aunt Jenna's friends and schoolmates, like the local news reporters, Logan Fell and Andie Starr, attended.
Jeremy sat awkwardly between Jenna's boyfriend and his old high school history teacher, Alaric Saltzman, and his Uncle, John Gilbert. The two were glaring at each other over Jeremy's head, both glowering and doing their best to ignore each other at the same time, jostling for the position of new Head of the family.
Elena sighed. It was an incredibly awkward situation between herself, John, and Alaric, given the discovery she made regarding her past and family history. When she was seventeen, just about to head to Whitmore for her first semester, her parents took her to the Lake House while Jeremy spent a week with their maternal grandparents in Colorado.
Her parents sat opposite Elena on a couch, clutching each other's hands tightly. At first, Elena thought that there was a death in the family, or her parents were divorcing, but then realised that Jeremy would be with them for that. What her mother admitted, though, surprised Elena speechless.
Her father, Grayson, explained how his brother John fell in with Isobel Flemming when they were sixteen and she became pregnant. How Isobel gave her daughter up to Grayson and Miranda, who had been trying for a baby and couldn't conceive; how just days later after Elena's birth, Isobel disappeared from John's life.
Elena was stunned. Her biological father was her arrogant, shrewd, and cruel uncle, John. Her mother was a statistic and no longer in her uncle's life and it was unknown if she was alive or dead. Jeremy was her cousin, not her brother.
Then, they dropped the second revelation on Elena: vampires and other supernatural creatures existed. Jeremy wouldn't be told until he was eighteen (Elena was special because she was going away to college), and Elena couldn't tell him until then. Her parents showed her the stakes they had in the house; the crossbows, what vervain does to vampires, and what wolfsbane did to werewolves. They read her stories from her ancestor's journal about the trapping of the vampires in the old, burned church.
Elena didn't believe it for a second. She was a modern girl, a product of the twenty-first century. She mentally made jokes about sparkly vampires and owning bars named Fangtasia. She humoured her parents, who took their job as a Founding Family (which was to eradicate all vampires from existence) far too seriously.
Then, she got home and Bonnie told her that she was a witch. She ripped Elena's pillow and made the feathers inside float. The two swore never to speak of the Founding Families and their genocidal goals ever again. Vampires were once people, too. And if there were bad people out there, just like there were good ones, it was a fair enough assessment to think there were bad and good vampires too.
Life at Whitmore College took over and soon Elena pushed thoughts of vampires and werewolves and Bonnie as a witch behind her as she concentrated on writing styles, literary devices, and exposition. Elena's mother gave Elena her first diary when she was young, about to start high school, and Elena never went a day without writing something in the leather-bound journal. Her writing gave her a sense of reflection and purpose and with her parents encouragement, Elena decided that English was her choice of major, with hopes of working at the Mystic Falls Tribute in the summer and once she graduated.
When there were creative writing exercises, her parents suggested using her ancestor's journals and that she write about vampires and the Mystic Falls history; whether Elena thought they were trying to encourage her to be more active with the Founding Families, or whether they wanted her teachers to think she was working on a fantasy novel, she never knew. Until her third year, Elena carefully and firmly rejected her parent's suggestions – because in her third year, she met Alaric Saltzman.
She was back in Mystic Falls for a Reading Week, and Jeremy was gushing about his amazing twelfth grade history teacher, who took over for Coach Tanner when he decided that coaching the men's football team was enough and he was ready to retire. Alaric was interested in the history of Mystic Falls as well, and when he, Miranda and Grayson began chatting about it at Jeremy's Parent-Teacher interview night, it sparked a mutual, shared interest (although the supernatural stuff came later).
Elena met Alaric when he joined the Gilberts at their house for dinner one night; he and Jenna immediately hit it off and Elena found him quite nice as well – until a random comment started Elena's brain.
"Did you grow up around here, Alaric?" Miranda had asked, passing over a large bowl filled with mashed potatoes to her husband, glancing at the history teacher as she did so.
Alaric had laughed. "No," he said, "I grew up in Boston. I attended Duke University in North Carolina and after gaining my teachers certificate, ended up in Washington DC for a few months and then Roanoke."
"My friend Caroline attends Duke," Elena has said, reaching for her drink.
"It's a good university," Alaric had admitted, although he looked awkward in doing so, like he was holding back. "I knew someone there who was a parapsychologist."
"Parapsychologist?" Jeremy had asked. "What's that?"
"Someone who studies and researches the effect that supernatural experiences have on humans," Elena's father Grayson had said evenly.
"Like that show Ghost Hunters?" Jeremy had innocently asked.
"Sorta," Alaric had awkwardly interjected, before changing the conversation completely. "Gilbert is an old name – did you family settle here a long time ago?"
And with that, Elena's interested was sparked; for someone who knew about the supernatural world, Alaric's rather hesitant and vague response made her think that he knew more than what was let on. A few weeks later, Jenna let slip over coffee at Thanksgiving that Alaric was previously married to a woman who grew up in the town over from Mystic Falls, but Isobel was dead.
Knowledge of the supernatural; a dead wife named Isobel who came from a nearby town; a friend interested in parapsychology – Uncle John's old girlfriend named Isobel from the town over, who went missing after Elena's birth; the strange Jonathan Gilbert journals and the family ring her father and uncle wore...
Elena couldn't drive down to North Carolina to visit Caroline on a whim (they weren't that close that Caroline wouldn't see through the ulterior motive without questioning it) and she didn't have any university contacts. Bonnie, on the other hand, did: her grandmother Sheila was a visiting guest lecturer at Whitmore and shared an office with Atticus Shane, a fellow Occult and witch specialist who had contacts with others in similar, shared fields. He might know of Isobel.
"I remember her," Shane said, as Bonnie and Elena sat across from him at his desk in a rather dark and over-flowing office. "She was interested in more than parapsychology – that was her PhD field, but her interests travelled more into the paranormal than psychological."
"How so?" asked Elena.
Shane laced his fingers together and rested them atop of his desk, leaning forward to speak to the two girls. "She believed in vampires and werewolves. In witches and magic. She didn't really participate in the academic community towards the end, before her disappearance. Stopped going to conferences, writing journals, you know – academic stuff. Instead, she spent her time travelling the States and Europe, following leads of old vampire stories and local histories of witch burnings."
He shrugged, sitting back against his chair. "Maybe she found something and was killed for her knowledge. Or maybe she just left – she and her husband had several domestics. Who knows?"
"Do you have a picture of her?" Bonnie asked, when Elena failed to comment on Shane's rather indecisive final say of the matter.
Shane shook his head, his brown curls bobbing as he did so. "No," he said. "But you can easily Google her and find her academic profile on the Duke website. Her graduate assistant still runs things out of her office. She's the only one in the parapsychology department nowadays, anyway. Vanessa Monroe."
Feeling rather Nancy Drew, Bonnie and Elena returned to Mystic Falls and Googled "Isobel Flemming." The search results yielded a young-looking woman with long, brown hair, cold brown eyes, and pale skin, who at twenty-nine, never returned home to her husband of seven years Alaric Saltzman. Articles detailing the disappearance chronicled her leaving an unstable home life, to being kidnapped and murdered. Elena wasn't sure what she thought, but in the end, she knew what her birth mother looked like, knew that she was (technically? Possibly?) a step-daughter to Alaric, and that her parents could have found out about Isobel if they wanted to – it wasn't like it was difficult to Google her or anything.
Afterwards, Elena drifted from her parents, and even Jenna; she became more and more reliant on Alaric and his advice. They became good friends, it was Alaric's influence, which helped Jeremy decide to attend an art college out of state versus remaining nearby, and attending medical school like Grayson wanted.
It was her gravitation towards the man who knew her birth mother that caused some of the contention between him and John Gilbert, who felt that Elena was throwing her true parent's love and affection away for a substitute. That further bled into her guilt at their funeral, especially as she knew that Ric would never want her to choose between Grayson and Miranda or himself.
The tension was visible for everyone at the funeral; it mattered not if it came from John and Alaric, or from Jeremy, or Vicky, or someone else; Elena could feel the heavy air, the breathless quality of it all, causing her to take deeper than normal breaths, to wipe her sweaty palms on her black dress.
The past four years had been a rollercoaster of emotions, hidden secrets, and discoveries, since she learned she was adopted. She hoped the next four years wouldn't be anything like that.
Elena wasn't entirely sure how she managed her last month at Whitmore, but she did. She had spent four years of her life working towards her English degree, and she wasn't going to disrespect her parents' memories by falling apart with four weeks of classes and two weeks of exam to go until she finished. While she was sure she'd never become a world-famous novelist, her mother encouraged her writing and diary-keeping, and her father never made her feel poorly for decided against medicine.
Summer, however, was a blur. She avoided Jenna, Alaric, and Matt – going so far as to break their relationship off; Jeremy avoided everyone and the last she knew, he was dating Matt's sister Vicky. Bonnie would sit with Elena in her backyard, but her summer job working in the morning at her grandmother's holistic shop and then in the evening with Professor Atticus Shane at Whitmore kept her busy. Caroline, who did her best to cheer Elena up when she didn't want to be, was also busy working for the town in the city hall office. She had taken over many of the town's responsibilities and liaised between the many charities in Mystic Falls (which she knew intimately inside and out) and the town to plan events.
Elena found herself, quite often, at the cemetery where her parents were buried, staring at their grave, and wondering why she didn't die with them. She was in the backseat, behind her mother; they had come to pick her up from a party she and Matt attended in Waynesboro when they argued and she required a new ride home.
She remembered the throbbing pain of her head, as it hit the back of her mother's headrest; she remembered the agony of knowing she needed to take a breath but knowing she couldn't. She remembered her father turning in the front seat, his eyes locking on hers, both of them realising that that might be their last moments together. She remembered his hand reaching back over his shoulder to her...
But then she was found on the far bank, shivering and wet and alone.
Her parents drowned.
Elena knew her mother was knocked unconscious and had probably drowned rather painlessly and quickly, given the situation; but her father was conscious and had attempted to unclip himself from his seat belt to reach her. If he managed, he would've been on the bank with her, even if he tried to go back for his wife. The car had hit the sandy bottom of the river – it was stuck and there was a very small current. So where was he? Why did he go back in?
Elena was horribly confused and guilty. She was the one who made her parents come and get her, nearly an hour's drive away from Mystic Falls because she freaked out when Matt began talking to her about marriage and forever and commitment. At twenty-one, she wasn't ready for forever, yet.
Hastily, Elena brought the heel of her right palm to her face and wiped the tears off her cheeks roughly. How dare she feel sorrow when she had no right?
Elena jumped, gasping as she spun to face the voice. Standing beside her, a few graves over, was a tall, handsome man with dark, nearly black hair, and very light blue eyes. He wore a dark jacket – leather – with a black shirt underneath and dark jeans. A rather extravagant ring on his thumb caught her attention and her eyes focused on it rather than his piercing eyes.
"Katherine, where have you been? I've been looking for you," the man continued, taking a step closer, keeping his eyes focused on her face. He frowned, noticing the tear tracks.
Elena took a step back. She shook her head slowly. "My name is Elena."
The man stopped walking, the frown and confused look on his face fading away into a pleasant mask instead. "Sorry. I thought you were someone else."
"Yeah, I figured," she replied softly, turning back to her parents' headstone.
She noticed him walk towards her out of the side of her eye. In response, Elena wrapped her arms around her torso tightly, chilled despite the rather balmy late-August weather.
"Did you..." he cleared his throat, and she turned to face him. She felt a tiny shock of fear and thrill race through her as she realised just how tall and masculine he appeared close up. "Did you know them...?" He gestured to her parents' grave.
"They were my parents," she answered, her voice bland. She was still having difficulty overcoming her role in their deaths, but she was numb to the consolations people continued to throw at her when they saw her pale and drawn face around Mystic Falls.
The man closed his eyes, and bowed his head briefly. They stood in silence before he finally said, "My parents are buried here too."
Elena looked at him strangely. Was he trying to bond with her in the cemetery over the fact that their parents were both deceased?
"It was a long time ago, though," he continued, lost in his own thoughts.
"Mine was barely five months ago," Elena found herself saying.
What are you doing? She thought to herself, mentally whacking herself on her head. Are we sharing sob stories about how our parents died?
The man cleared his throat. "I find that I only come back to Mystic Falls for funerals now. There are a lot of memories here."
"Problems with small towns," agreed Elena, and the two shared a small smile.
"Yeah, gossip," he said, a tilt to his lips. He turned to face her.
"The nosiness," Elena bit back, turning to face him.
"Lack of privacy," he continued.
"Oh, God, tell me about it," moaned Elena, thinking back to the numerous times Jenna caught Matt sneaking out in the middle of the night.
The man laughed, startling Elena. She peered up at him, and, amused by his amusement, began laughing too. It was funny to look back on.
"I'm Damon," the man said, extending a hand for her to take.
"Nice to meet you, Damon," replied Elena, shaking his hand. "Do you often begin conversations with people in cemeteries?"
"Not usually. I come here mainly to hide the bodies," he replied and she rolled her eyes.
"Ah, you're one of those," she mocked.
He quirked his lips in response, and she took in a deep breath, letting it out slowly. It felt nice to laugh and joke about Mystic Falls without thinking painfully about her parents.
"Thanks for making me laugh," she said, tucking a strand of straight brown hair behind her ear. "It's been a long time since I last did."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Damon said quietly in response.
"Me too," breathed Elena.
She was surprised by how contemplative and soothing the two of them, standing in silence, could be. She rarely felt comfortable around strangers – it was a small town issue – but with Damon, it seemed like he understood her. Or maybe, he understood the Katherine girl he thought she was and some of his familiarity transferred over. Feeling curious, she was about to ask about the girl she looked like, when he phone began to chirp out an incoming call ringtone.
Matt Donovan rolled across the screen and Elena winced. Since their rather awkward breakup a few weeks after her parents' funeral, Elena had been avoiding Matt and the Mystic Grill, where he worked. Although initially respectful of her decision, Matt had slowly begun innocently calling and sending her texts, asking to hang out or meet up with Bonnie and Caroline for drinks.
She wasn't ready.
She ignored the call and slipped the phone back into her skinny jeans pocket, squaring her jaw and rolling her tongue across the back of her bottom row of teeth in annoyance.
"Boyfriend?" joked Damon.
"Ex," replied Elena. "We broke up after..."
Damon seemed to understand. "So why did he call?"
"He wanted something more from me than I was ready to give," answered Elena quietly, her gaze fixed on a large angel statue far over Damon's left shoulder and nestled underneath a willow tree. "We argued the night my parents died. We were at a party in Waynesboro and he wanted marriage and the future and I wasn't ready. I walked away and my parents picked me up and on the way back, they—" She broke off and sniffed, her eyes darting back to the familiar headstone. "I guess I just don't know what I want."
"That's not true," said Damon, just as quietly as she was speaking.
Her head jerked from the headstone and her eyes caught his.
"You want what everybody wants," he continued. His blue eyes bore into her brown, electrifying her with his words. "You want a love that consumes you. You want passion, and adventure, and even a little danger."
She gave a tiny laugh. "Maybe I did then. But now? This changes you."
"Does it?" countered Damon, with a small smile.
Elena immediately began to say "Of course it does," but as soon as she opened her mouth, she stopped and really thought about it. Did her parents death change her desires and goals and dreams? Did she no longer wish to be a famous author? Did she no longer wish to spend time with Bonnie? Was she ready to give up everything her parents wanted for her because of her depression and guilt?
Surprised at the direction her thoughts went to, she blinked in shock at Damon, whose small smile gentled.
"You learn to live with it," he said, referencing her parents. "But it doesn't stop you, or hold you back. You just learn how to move forward with it."
"I guess so," replied Elena, a smile growing on her face. She turned back to her parents' grave, lightness in her that she hadn't felt before. Maybe she was ready to move on now. She turned back to Damon to thank him. "Thanks so much—"
He was gone, and she was alone in the cemetery.
"How long are you gonna stay?" Zach asked, leaning against the door frame as he watched his great-great-great-however many more times-uncle unpack his suitcase on his rather dusty bed.
"I'm not sure yet," the young man replied, glancing up from a pack of shirts he scooped into his hands.
"Are you here for a reason then?" Zach continued. "Uncle Stefan, Mystic Falls has been quiet and peaceful for many decades – since your last time here in the fifties – and the Founding Families won't want trouble. You should leave."
"I can't," Stefan argued, moving away from the bed to the large wardrobe. "There's something a need to do here first."
"Someone I need to see," continued Stefan, hardly elaborating.
Zach snorted, his arm muscles straining against his shirt as he crossed his arms. "Like I didn't see you at the Gilbert funeral, Uncle Stefan. You were watching the family."
"Not the family," the other man replied, absently, as he turned from the wardrobe to his rather cluttered desk. His fingers ghosted over the dusty, covered typewriter, the stack of hardcover books, to the open, gold, hinged two-panel photograph frame that lay on the desk.
His fingers briefly touched the face of the young woman in the photograph: her coiled hair, her pouty lips in a small, cruel smile, the high-lace neck of her dress. Although the photo was black and white, Stefan could picture the woman in colour – and if he ever forgot, he just had to visit 2104 Maple Street and look at Elena Gilbert to see Katherine Pierce's face.
Zach signed. "So you're not going to tell me how long you're here for? I can't keep the whole Founding Family council off your back if you start leaving bodies everywhere."
"I don't do that," Stefan said, glancing at Zach with flashing brown eyes, cautioning him to remember he was dealing with a hundred-year-plus vampire. "And like I said, I have something I need to figure out first."
Like whether or not you're just like Katherine, Elena. I need to know that you were worth saving.
(Klaroline makes my shippy heart beat. Some other canon pairings to come, but when it comes to Stefan I'm rather up in the air with him and 'ships. Update will come when possible; finishing Masters thesis ATM along with a paper to present at a conference in October. Will update [hopefully] within the month. Same with Harry Potter fanfics)