Part One




--

Coffee with Bonnie used to be something she did for fun. It’s become an interrogation and she hates that. This isn’t them.

“How’re Jeremy and Jenna?”

“Good,” Elena says, nodding. “Jeremy’s still a little raw around the edges, I think. He’s been spending a lot of time with Tyler, of all people.”

She and Bonnie make “that’s weird” faces at each other.

“Who knows, maybe they’ll be good for each other.”

Bonnie looks skeptical. “I hope so. I guess it’s good that they’re not beating each other up on school grounds anymore.

“Yeah, I’m gonna put that firmly in the ‘good’ column.”

She can see Bonnie steeling herself and Elena thinks, here we go.

“How are things with Stefan?”

“Good. We’re good.”

Bonnie doesn’t ask about Damon. She doesn’t have to. She’s made her position on Damon very clear and it’s very clear that she won’t budge from it. Her face is calm, set. The witch of Mystic Falls.

“They’re dangerous, Elena.”

“Life is dangerous,” she says.

She doesn’t say, my birth mother is a cold, unfeeling monster. She doesn’t say, I have a vampire doppelganger.

Bonnie knows these things.

She doesn’t say, I miss the days when the worst thing I knew was that my parents were dead. She feels awful just thinking it.

She doesn’t say, I kissed Damon. Not because she’s ashamed, and not entirely because she knows what Bonnie’s reaction will be. More because, in hindsight, it seems so inevitable. So obvious.

It’s fragile, this thing she’s building. She isn’t sure it will stand the weight of Bonnie’s disapproval. Bonnie’s completely rational concern for her welfare. Not yet.

She has to try.

--

Damon’s starting to regret his choices in nomenclature. He’s tired of writing out ‘Rachel’ and ‘Robert’ particularly. They could be changed pretty easily in the editing process, but Damon hates editing. Often refuses to edit.

He writes in a straight line, start to difficult, struggling finish and then he’s done with it. Moving on to the next thing. Something new.

All of Damon’s stories are essentially the same.

He refuses to admit this.

--

There’s a labyrinth in her dreams. A tangle of hedgerows like a Victorian garden maze grown wild. She’s looking for something, something terribly important but she can’t remember what.

It’s not something she’s lost, she knows. It’s something she’s trying desperately to save. She can’t remember what it is but she has to find it before… before what?

Elena runs panicking down the overgrown corridors, ducking the branches that claw at her hair, her clothes, her skin. Her sneakers catch on pavestones cracked and displaced by roots thrust up from the ground.

Somewhere off away in the maze she can hear the heavy drag of a lady’s dress and a pretend-breathless laugh like a child with a handful of poisoned candy.

It is terribly important that she get to the heart of the maze, that she find what she’s looking for before… before she does, and the laugh ramps up in hysteria.

A shattered pavestone snags the toe of her shoe and Elena goes sprawling, on her hands and knees in the middle of the labyrinth, and she can feel the sharp sting, the blood seeping through her jeans.

Somewhere, she knows, her rival has stopped and is listening intently, scenting the air. She has drawn her attention in some way by spilling blood.

Elena freezes, cold and still as though stillness will somehow hide her.

She hears this other searcher start to run. Fast and thoughtless like the brambles and the uneven footing hinder her not at all. As though, having been alerted to the competition, she is now that much more determined to win.

Elena scrambles to her feet, breathless with panic, and starts to run herself. She is slowed by the clinging, sharp edged vines that she sees now are roses. How could she have missed that before? The scent is cloying, strangling.

She can’t breathe, choking on the taste of roses in her throat and her blind headlong rush takes her stumbling into a dead end. Her shoes slide in the rubble of the once-neat stones and her momentum almost carries her into the wall of thorns across her path. She skids to a stop and when she spins to face the way she came the thorns catch at her hair.

Somewhere, the other woman has stopped laughing. Running now, deadly and silent, her dress discarded when it ceased to serve her purpose.

If she finds it first…

Elena tears herself free, ignoring the pain in her scalp, her palms, her knees. Her sense of terrible urgency redoubled.

If she gets it back she’ll ruin everything.

She jumps a root the width of her arm that turns the path into an obstacle course, takes a sharp left for no reason other that it seems to lead toward the center… and finds the paving stones under her feet smooth and whole. The hedges are still overgrown, but now they arch occasionally over inset statues of weeping angels and women holding flowers.

There are roses in the hedge now, huge, flawless, blood-red roses that fill the air with a scent both of roses and somehow of death. Like they’ve been persevered in alcohol against age and decay. Captured at the apogee of perfection in formaldehyde.

Elena slows, stops.

She turns and runs. Back the way she came as fast as she can manage.

The thorns are too high to see over, too sharp to climb or force. The other woman is focused now, only laughing whenever Elena hits a dead-end and is forced to double back.

“You’ll never have it,” she whispers in the back of Elena’s mind.

Elena runs all night without finding it. Down identical paths that lead every time to a different dead end, surrounded by thorns, hiding from the scent of roses and chemical death. The other woman doesn’t speak again, but Elena knows she’s there, can feel her hunting through the maze, unsure now if she’s after Elena’s goal or Elena herself.

She wakes up in her own wide, white bed, the sheets tangled and creased where she’s tossed and turned all night. There are tear tracks down her face, sticky on her cheeks and in her hair.

On her sidetable is one of Damon’s books. “Down the Garden Path,” (the editor’s title, he assured her, dryly, seemingly still irritated about it) written in 1892. Elena looks at the woman on the cover in the white walking dress, standing at the entrance of a perfectly tame garden maze, and scrubs the tears from her face.

“No more reading stories by vampires just before bed,” she tells her reflection in her bedroom mirror.

Her reflection looks doubtful.

--

That Damon is sitting at the bar in the middle of the day is not a particular surprise to Stefan.

The note book tucked under his elbow, where no one else could get to it even accidentally, is less expected.

“Going particularly well, or particularly poorly?”Stefan asks as casually as he can manage. He settles onto the stool beside him and folds his elbows on the bar. Points his chin at the battered Moleskine.

“Particularly nowhere,” Damon says.

Stefan raises his eyebrows briefly and waits. It’s an old habit, one he hasn’t fallen into in over a decade and he waits to see if Damon will slide a little, too.

“I can’t…” he drops off and looks frustrated. They don’t talk to each other like this, not this easily, not anymore. But Damon was always more willing to talk about his work than Stefan would have expected and really, who else is he going to discuss it with?

Stefan thinks idly that he could, maybe should, discuss it with Elena, and then he brutally strangles the thought. Or rather, he strangles the upswell of jealous concern it doesn’t provoke. He waits.

After a minute Damon relents, says, “I don’t know how it ends.”

“You seem to have this problem a lot.”

“Thank you, brother. No, I don’t… I don’t know what victory would mean here. I don’t see how it would work.”

Damon looks directly at him and either he’s been drinking much, much more than he should, or he’s trying to tell Stefan something important when he says, “It would be so much easier to just end it badly.”

--

Stefan goes home and does pull-ups from the rafters. Then he lies on his back on the floor and stares up at the ceiling.

Technically, this is Damon’s house. The home they grew up in was destroyed but the boarding house was built on Salvatore land and the land belongs to Damon.

He didn’t want it when they were young. When they were human. He hated the fact that being the eldest son meant he was stuck here, tied to the land. Trapped and caged in a way Stefan was not.

When they were turned Damon ran gleefully away from Virginia and traveled the way he’d always wanted to. Periodically he’d return to find Stefan and torment him, but he didn’t set foot back in Mystic Falls for decades.

Then without warning he went back. Reestablished his ownership of the land, his control over the family. Stefan was always surprised at how easily their nephews and grand-nephews acquiesced to Damon’s convoluted arrangements, but then, Damon is much more pragmatic than anyone would suspect, and Damon can be very persuasive.

So Damon owns this house. This house and quite a bit of the land the modern town of Mystic Falls is built on. Stefan is quietly dreading the day the owners of the Mystic Grill displease Damon in some way and he retaliates by raising their rent.

Stefan stares up at the rafters of Damon’s house, a house Damon never spent much time in before this year. He’s thinking about Damon and Elena and his own fears.

He’s thinking, I can’t do this anymore.

--

“It doesn’t matter, Stefan. It never mattered.”

It’s the only thing that ever mattered at all.

--

“There’s something I need to…something you should know.”

Elena thinks, very distinctly, oh no.

Stefan turns to look at Damon, like he’s asking permission. Damon looks at her with the unreadable expression he retreats behind when he knows he’s about to be outed as almost human.

“You never told her?” he asks Stefan without looking.

Stefan doesn’t smile, doesn’t make any expression at all. “It’s not only my story to tell,” he says.

There’s an awkward pause. Elena keeps her eyes on Damon.

“I need to be drinking for this conversation,” he says. He walks to the sidetable, picks up the scotch and hesitates, considering. “In fact, I think we should all be drinking for this conversation.”

Elena watches Damon and Stefan watch each other like they’re walking up the scaffold to their own executions and she already knows what they’re going to tell her.

--

Afterward, Elena lies on her bed with her diary and studies the inner workings of her pen for an hour.

For a while she thinks she’s listening to the rain, but then a glance out the window reveals the evening sky to be cloudless and she realizes she’s been listening to the static in her head.

Funny, she could have sworn there was a storm waiting.

It feels like there should be a storm. Or an earthquake. Something. Anything other than the peaceful, unbroken grayish-violet of the sky, the soft hum of the occasional car on the street. Some recognition from the rest of the world of the turn her life has suddenly taken.

Not, she admits to herself, that it wasn’t a turn she should have seen coming. Did see coming, if she’s completely honest.

Love is never wrong.

It comes to her just like that. Like a flash of lightning out of the cloudless depths of the sky. Love is never wrong. It doesn’t even seem like her thought. She’s wearing vervain but even if she weren’t she wouldn’t suspect Damon of planting it in her head like a seed.

It isn’t something Damon would think.

She is going to find Katherine and kill her.

You have to build this, she thinks, her mind racing ahead as though the decision were already made. You have to build this, brick by brick, step by step, the way you’ve been building it for months. And it isn’t going to be easy.

There’s a chance, she knows, if she just coerces them all into bed that this will fall apart in exactly the same spectacular way it did for Katherine.

Hopefully without the lynch mob, although she thinks of Caroline’s face and her ugly accusations and flinches.

“What, is this a threesome now? You and the Salvatore brothers?”

“Yes,” Elena says out loud to her ceiling. To the whitewashed planks of the room where she played dress up with Bonnie and Caroline, where she wept for weeks over the deaths of her parents, where she pinned Stefan to the bed and then dreamed of Damon.

“Yes, maybe it is.”

--

“I have to go run some errands in Alexandria,” she tells Damon the next day. “Come with me.”

“I…” he looks startled, then sort of resigned. “Okay.”

He drives silently, the radio turned low. She thinks that he’s watching her in the corner of his eye. He was expecting her to come to him, she realizes, and now he’s expecting her to warn him off. Waiting for her to burst out some horrible judgment. Make some demand of him.

He would give her anything she asked for, she knows. Anything except Stefan.

Damon escorts her uncomplaining to three different department stores, the central bank, a coffee shop, Jenna’s friend Maggie’s house to return some borrowed books.

Through another suburban neighborhood and past an old elementary school and she says, “Park here.”

“Elena…”

But when she looks questioningly at him he just shakes his head and pulls over.

They stand quietly in the deserted park. Empty swing sets and playgrounds, leaf litter tumbling across the path. She says, “If you’re waiting for me to condemn you, it’s not going to happen.”

A human would have jerked in surprise. In Damon it’s just a shift of expression. Something very slight around his eyes, marring his otherwise perfect inhuman stillness.

After a time he says softly, “I can’t explain it.”

“It doesn’t have to be explained, Damon. Not if it’s just something you need. Something you both need.”

He looks at her, finally, and for all his hard won experience there is something impossibly young and fragile in him.

Elena stands on the tips of her toes to press her forehead to his cheek. “Maybe it’s something I need, too.”

--

Damon and Elena seem to think this should be easy. This is not going to be easy. Should not be easy.

Stefan will not let this be easy.

“Don’t look so scandalized, no one’s getting pregnant, this is just us.” Damon steps close and there’s a note of bare pleading in his voice that he’d probably deny if he could.

Stefan used to try and tell himself this. That there was nothing wrong with them beyond bad wiring and bad genes and a disconcerting sense of being far, far out of their time.

“We are a disaster,” he says, and Damon smiles, wry and real.

“Not always, brother,” he says.

Behind him, Elena says, “Not anymore.”

Stefan can feel himself shaking his head. He’s thinking no, no, no. He’s thinking, we don’t deserve to get what we want.

Elena says, “You don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to give up everything you care about. Not anymore.”

God, Stefan thinks, they’ve talked about this, and he can feel the hysteria crawling up his spine.

Damon steps close again and Stefan checks his immediate urge to back up. He will not run from this like a frightened animal. Damon’s hunting instincts are too sharp to make that a good idea.

“Enough of this, Stefan,” Damon says. His voice is tired, something Damon rarely admits to. Not his carefully constructed exasperation with Stefan’s moralizing, but something more genuine. Damon, he thinks, is tired of being alone.

And that is when Damon rakes his teeth over his own lower lip, and all of Stefan’s high ideals vanish like a smoke screen.

Damon kisses him with blood on his mouth and Stefan just loses it. Digs his hands into his brother’s hair and holds him still while he sucks and bites and tries to crawl inside him. Damon is laughing against his mouth when Stefan finally lets him breathe.

Elena’s eyes are wide and a little hesitant, but there’s something like a smile at corner of her lips.

In this moment, Stefan thinks wildly, still half drunk on nothing more than Damon’s sheer proximity, she looks absolutely nothing like Katherine.

--

Elena tips her head against Damon’s shoulder and says, “This is dangerous, isn’t it?”

“Lying in bed with two vampires? A little.”

“I didn’t mean that, I meant…this.” She waves a hand, vaguely indicating the three of them. “Us. Together.”

“Think we’re headed for a tragic Civil War reenactment?” He packs an impressive amount of irony into the single sentence. Like he expects them to put on corsets and hoop skirts and tall boots and jackets and have a knock down, drag out fight.

Actually, in this town that wouldn’t be much of a stretch.

Elena smacks him in the chest with her only free hand. While he pretends to be fatally wounded she says, “No. Because we’re going to be very careful.”

Damon presses a kiss beneath her ear. “Yes, Miss Gilbert,” he murmurs against her skin and Elena forgets her concerns for a time.

--

Elena has lunch with Bonnie at the Grill.

“You seem happier,” the witch says cautiously.

You, Elena tells herself, are not Katherine. Bonnie is not Emily. This is something new.

Elena smiles, secretive and pleased over fries and milkshakes and says, “I am.”

The past has no hold here. She will not allow it.

--

Waiting for disaster to befall in a flood of tears and recriminations and (knowing Damon) probably bodies, grows more and more tiresome until Stefan finally gives it up.

He has other things to focus on, school, for instance. And other things, like the frankly ridiculous amount of times a week he has to change his sheets, now. The thought is distracting and he dutifully drags his attention back to school. School is important, he tries to convince himself, with little success.

He hears a muffled scrape of furniture from downstairs and gratefully leaves his trigonometry homework to investigate.

Down the stairs and into the hall he finds Elena perched on the edge of the mail table, knees hooked over Damon’s hips.

It says something about him that his reaction to this, this thing that on paper sounds like a bad soap opera turn, his brother and his girlfriend in the hall of their opulent family home, is to smile, soft and fond, and go to join them.

Stefan slides his hands down Damon’s ribs, pressing his chest to his back and Damon takes a long, unnecessary breath, tilting his head back to rest it on Stefan’s shoulder. Elena smiles at him, flushed and disheveled, and she presses harder against Damon so that they can kiss, slow and sweet over Damon’s shoulder.

“Hello,” she mumbles into his mouth.

“I was doing homework,” he pretends to complain.

Damon’s chuckle rolls through the press of all three of them. Stefan feels his grin against his cheek.

“This is much more important,” he says. And he snaps his teeth in Stefan’s ear, laughing.

--

“No biting,” she says.

“No fun,” Damon whines. “Sex without blood is so cheap and tawdry.”

--

Sex with your brother and your girlfriend is all well and good, but Damon does have other things to do. Much, much less important and less fun things, but still.

He goes back to his still-untitled story. It’s starting to bug him.

He adds a flashback-subplot with some Civil War ancestors. The Southern Literature genre is rife with Civil War ancestors and the aptness is not lost on him. He makes them brothers on opposite sides of the war. Readers have been eating that one up since… well, since the war, actually.

Nice.

It dovetails thematically into the present tense problems of Rachel and Craig and Robert and the dead ex-girlfriend haunting them all.

Damon has Rachel take both Robert and Craig to the Prom. It’s an unmitigated disaster. The townspeople do everything short of actually burning them all at the stake.

It’s not like Damon actually cares what the inhabitants of this pointless little town think. He can always leave for fifty or sixty years, come back and be the town darling again. Other people are not his main concern.

Personally, he’s betting on inertia tearing this apart. Centripetal force. He’ll be unable to change, Elena will get tired, Stefan will suffer and suffer and finally say he’s had enough. Damon’s heard that before. He’s lived this before, he thinks.

Damon feels terribly old. Tired. He’s exhausted from trying and failing to give Stefan what he wants. He’s afraid of being wrong about Elena. Maybe she isn’t the one thing that keeps them all afloat. Maybe she’s going to get dragged down with them. Maybe she’ll be the last piece of the struggling, stagnant mess that is him and Stefan, the piece that finally ends them.

He taps his cracked pen thoughtfully against the edge of his notebook and has his characters take Robert’s classic Cadillac away from the town in the dark, worn out with tearful recriminations and drowning under the weight of their combined misery.

It all ends badly.

--

Jenna’s lying in wait in the kitchen when she comes down the stairs heading for the door.

“Elena.” Damn.

“Jenna.”

Jenna pauses and Elena feels guilty. She’s been so wrapped up building this relationship with Damon and Stefan that she’s neglecting the other people who care about her. She never wanted to be that girl. “What are you doing?”

Elena sighs, turns around. Her arms full of coats and overnight bags. She drops them on the couch. “I don’t know. Okay? I don’t know what I’m doing, I just know that this is what I want and we’re working it out.” She makes a mental note to have one or both of the boys over soon. Secrecy will destroy them just as surely as anything else.

“Elena… Elena, they’re brothers.”

“We’re working it out.”

--

Damon decides that when D.A. Saveur wrote Love Like Blood and The Curse of the Obsidian Mirror in the seventies he could have been only twenty or so. He never gave the publisher an age and he likes the name.

The critics call it a staggering revitalization of the Southern Novel and Professor Candace Waid of "Southern Literature, Language, and Culture" puts it on the reading list and gives a scattered lecture about incest as a representation of stasis and decay, and men working together to bury the female body, and men dying when women speak.

Damon laughs himself sick when he hears this. Analysis of the book always hinges on Katherine, and Katherine was never the point.

--

Elena has always been a careful planner and one night Jenna comes home and is treated to the sight of both Salvatore brothers in her kitchen.

Stefan is a little hesitant in the face of her obvious reserve but Damon just pours her a glass of wine to match his own and goes right on extolling the virtues of his tomato sauce recipe. She doesn’t know Damon well enough to see the edgy discomfort in the line of his shoulders.

Elena catches her eye and smiles shakily.

She’s been happy, Jenna thinks. She ignores the Psych major in the back of her head and forces herself to at least try to accept this.

The kitchen smells like tomato and basil and homemade pasta and Jenna sits on her dead sister’s counter and watches her niece’s boyfriends, boyfriends, Christ, cook her dinner and fight over whose tomato sauce is vastly superior. Frankly, she agrees with Damon about the unnecessary inclusion of sausage and when she voices this opinion he crows in victory and tops off her glass while Stefan rolls his eyes and looks long-suffering.

Damon shoos Stefan away from the stove to take control of the simmering pots and when he brings Jenna a spoon to taste he looks up at her from under his lashes. In spite of everything he is, she thinks, still ridiculously hot.

She feels something cramped inside her unbend and straighten and she smiles back at Damon as much as she’s able and says, “Superb.”

Stefan, banished to the island to chop basil into a neat chiffonade, shoots Elena a look of exaggerated desperate appeal and Elena laughs.

“No accounting for taste, “she says.

--

Another hot summer night in Mystic Falls, another pointless Founding Families event. Damon seems to find them endlessly amusing which is good for everyone. Damon is so much less predictable when he’s bored.

He’s slipped away at the moment. Off to find the bar without his underage companions in tow.

It’s amazing, Elena thinks, how she can have ten thousand other things on her mind and still find time to worry about Damon’s drinking. And she does worry. She’s seen how bad it can get.

She leans back against Stefan’s arm and he smiles down at her.

As long as you have a Salvatore brother on each arm, you’re doomed. Katherine was smart.

Damon winds his way back through the crowd toward them, bourbon in hand. No, Isobel, Elena thinks as he throws his arm around Stefan’s shoulders rather than her waist, Katherine was an idiot.

And all the rest of you are the ones who are doomed.

--

fin
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