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the lonely cool before dawn

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Elena's been arguing with them for twenty minutes when Damon interrupts with, "Listen. This way, when he comes for you, we'll be ready, and we won't have to worry about protecting you."

"Hey," Stefan says, reaching out, putting his arm between them. He was just as surprised by this plan as she was.

"It's the only way," Bonnie says. She sounds tired, desperate, and even though Elena doesn't want to believe her, to believe any of them, she knows they're right.

She finally backs away from Damon and leans against the kitchen island, head in her hands, and takes a deep breath. Stefan's palm is big and solid against the small of her back. It's supposed to be comforting, she knows, but it's not. Not right now.

"I just --"

"Yeah." Bonnie says softly. "We'll be right out here. But Elena? There's not much time."

Elena listens to their footsteps as they leave the room. Stefan presses a kiss to her hair and follows, a beat behind everyone else. And then it's quiet.

She breathes out, replaying the night, like maybe if she can sort it out in her head she'll find a way out of it, a different solution. The problem is, she can't. Klaus is coming. There isn't much time. She has to leave. It's the only way.

She catches her reflection in the window, nods to herself. The only way.

**

"Okay," she says, and it's like the entire room lets out a sigh of relief.

After that, everything switches into fast forward. Before she can process what's happening, Stefan's by the door, a packed duffel bag at his feet.

"It's okay," Caroline says. "Bonnie and I did most of the work."

"Thanks," Elena says, distracted.

"It's a new car," Alaric offers, handing Stefan a set of keys. "That way they don't know what to look for."

She smiles at him. They've really thought of everything. She can't decide if she's glad they planned all this without her or upset. Either way: it's done, they're doing this. The faster they go, the safer for everyone else, right?

"Ready?" Bonnie asks. There's a circle on the floor, salt or sand or something. She has the grimoire clutched tight to her chest. Elena and Stefan step into the circle.

Bonnie sets the book down and picks up a knife. Presses the blade into her own palm, and then Elena's. Elena sees Damon's grip on Caroline's elbow tighten as Bonnie presses their palms together, fingers splayed.

"Hey." Stefan takes Elena's good hand and Bonnie begins the spell, her voice low. The candle on the floor between Stefan and Elena flickers. "We'll be --"

He doesn't finish the sentence. The candle blows out.

"Did it work?" Caroline asks. Bonnie blinks, dazed.

"I guess there's only one way to find out," Damon says. "You two should go."

When they leave, Stefan claps him on the shoulder, says something low enough that only Damon hears.

Jeremy hugs her tightly, his chin digging into her shoulder. "It'll be okay," she says. He nods like he doesn't quite believe her.

Behind them, Alaric says, "Good luck," his hand caught mid-wave.

Stefan shuts the door behind them.

**

They drive in silence. Elena tucks her feet underneath her.

Thank you for visiting Mystic Falls! the sign says, dark and shadowed.

Stefan covers Elena's knee with his hand, his thumb resting in the groove of the joint.

They keep driving.

**

Elena doesn't ask where they're going. Stefan doesn't tell her.

She watches the sky turn from black to grey to pink to blue. She watches the mile markers pass by, counts them off in her head. The cut on her palm throbs in time with the beat of her heart. They're in Georgia.

**

Stefan checks them into a motel once the sun's fully up. "This way," he says, opening her car door for her, their bags hanging from his shoulder like they don't contain all their worldly possessions.

The room is bland. Hotel bedspread, hotel art, hotel carpet. Beige, beige, beige. Elena sits on the edge of the bed while Stefan moves around, checking things, moving things.

"Hey," he says, suddenly next to her. Elena leans into him, her head against his hip. Her breathing is shallow all of a sudden. "Come on," he says, and then he's pulling her up, moving her, until they're lying in bed and she's tucked up against him, his arm around her waist.

She falls asleep before she can start to cry.

**

When she wakes up, it's still light out. It's still light out, and she's still tired.

Stefan comes out of the bathroom, surprised to see her awake. He looks worried.

"Hi," she says, stretching. She tries to sound not-traumatized. She'll be fine. she just needs time to process... everything. Time to accept that they're on the run, that they've left almost everyone she loves back in Mystic Falls.

Stefan bends to kiss her, smooths his thumb across her cheekbone.

"You hungry?"

Elena nods.

**

She thinks breakfast -- dinner, it's almost five -- is supposed to make her feel better. The restaurant has pancakes twenty-four hours. Stefan orders Belgian waffles with extra whipped cream. He eats a few bites and then sticks with his coffee. He's quiet, like he's waiting for Elena to say something.

She doesn't. All she can think of is Jeremy's hands fisted at the small of her back as he hugged her goodbye, Damon's face as they were leaving, their silhouettes through the windows as they drove away. The memory hurts, like someone is squeezing her insides. Suddenly she isn't hungry anymore.

Stefan sets his hand on the tabletop next to hers, just close enough so their pinkies are touching. They sit like that for a long time, not talking, not eating, barely touching. Surprisingly, it helps. Sort of.

"Come on," he says, when the waitress brings them the check, a not-so-subtle hint. "There's something I need to show you."

**

"Here and then here, got it?"

Elena nods. The stake gun is surprisingly light in her hands.

Stefan watches her carefully. The parking lot is empty and crappily lit. No one's going to notice the two of them tucked behind an abandoned pick-up truck, going through impromptu weapons training.

"Try it." Stefan points to a bag of garbage lying next to the dumpster. He hands her a stake, watches her load it carefully. She'll have to get faster, she knows. Klaus isn't going to wait while she fumbles through the motions.

"Like this," he says, guiding her hand. The stake slips easily into place. He pops it back out and hands it to her to try again.

This time it goes in smoother. She cocks her wrist, press and release.

At least her aim's good.

She smiles to herself. Next to her, Stefan grins. And then hands her another stake.

"Again."

She practices over and over, until she's hitting the same spot every time. Until she's loading it smoothly and quickly. Until every motion of it is familiar.

The stars are bright overhead, the night air is still and quiet except for the hiss and thunk of stakes shooting through the air and into the bags. For a little while, everything feels calm.

**

"We should go," Stefan says when they get back to the motel.

"Yeah." They've been here long enough. She grabs her duffel and follows him back out to the car.

She tries not to think about how everything she owns fits in one bag.

**

Two nights later they're blindsided in the motel parking lot. Elena's adjusting the driver's seat so she can drive and Stefan's putting their bags in the trunk when two vampires get the jump on him.

"Elena, lock the doors," he yells, stupidly, because that's when the guys get the upper hand and one manages to stake him right in the gut. Elena watches in the side mirror as Stefan doubles over.

He's an idiot if he thinks she's staying in the car.

"There you are," one of the vampires says as she climbs out, stake gun at the ready.

"Here I am." She smiles as she shoots. It gets him a little too high, but it's distraction enough for Stefan to finish the job. He snaps the other one's neck just as efficiently.

"Shit." There's blood seeping through Stefan's shirt and she knows it looks worse than it is but still. She ignores the way her hands shake as she helps him into the passenger seat. Once she's in, too, she locks the doors and carefully pulls up his shirt too assess the damage. All his muscles tense and she can tell he's trying to mask the pain. She sucks in a breath. It's fine. He'll be fine.

"Don't move." She kneels on the seat while she fishes around the floor of the backseat -- she threw a shirt there yesterday, it has to be somewhere.

"Just drive," he says, gritting his teeth.

"I will," she snaps back. It's not like she's planning on staying here in the world's safest parking lot. Her hand closes around the shirt, finally, and she sits up. "Here." She presses the balled-up shirt against his stomach. "Hold that there."

He nods and takes over.

"You'll be okay," she says, turning the key in the ignition.

"Yeah." He closes his eyes and exhales steadily. Even in the dark she can see how his knuckles are going white where he's holding the shirt.

Elena lets out a breath she hadn't known she was holding as she merges onto the highway. She drives all night, until it's light out and Stefan's breathing is normal and she really believes he's going to be fine.

**

She's right; he heals quickly, all things considered. They put more and more miles between themselves and home. Time doesn't make it any easier, but it doesn't make it any harder, either. It just is.

**

They're forty miles west of Jacksonville when Klaus snaps Jeremy's neck. She watches his body crumple to the ground, right next to Jenna and Bonnie and Stefan. It all happens before she can even make a sound.

"Now you," he says. His hands wrap around her arms. She tries to fight him, but it's no use.

She closes her eyes.

When she opens them, it's Stefan who's holding her arms. There's light streaming through the windows.

"It's okay," he says, sliding his hand down her arm. He kisses her forehead, her temple. "It was just a dream. You're okay."

Elena takes a shuddering breath and curls into him. He rubs circles on her back, tells stories about sneaking into concerts with Lexi. Neither of them falls back asleep.

**

They're at yet another gas station in Florida when everything catches up to her and Elena finally loses it. It's so stressful, so monotonous, and she can't take it. Can't take the nightmares in stuffy motel rooms or the horrible meals or the endless hours trapped in the car with static-y music stuttering out of the radio. The constant worrying that someone's behind them, following them, waiting for them when they go outside. It's just too much.

She gets out of the car as soon as it stops, slamming the door behind her.

She isn't expecting Stefan to follow her, but there he is, sighing as he says, "Elena, I'm sorry, I know --" and she snaps.

"No, Stefan, you don't."

He grabs her arm when she tries to storm off. "Yes," he says, bending so they're eye-to-eye, "I do."

The thing is, she knows he does. She wrenches her arm out of his grasp anyway. This time, he lets her go.

**

There's a grassy field behind the gas station, emptiness stretching out into the distance. Elena sits in the overgrown weeds and listens to the low hum of traffic on the highway, watches the sun grow higher in the sky. She's sick of driving all night long, barely knowing what day it is or where they are. They should've stayed in Mystic Falls. At least there they'd know what was going on, instead of being stuck in this endless holding pattern.

They can't call, can't email. They left their phones behind, along with everything else. Klaus can't find her if no one knows where she is. Elena laughs bitterly to herself. She barely knows where she is.

Whatever. As long as they're out here, running, they're not at home, getting in the way. And as much as Elena hates that idea, hates that they think they'd need to protect her over themselves, hates that she can't live her life because of this whole fucked-up thing, she knows that Damon had a point. She still wishes they'd all gone on the run and left her behind to fight, but it's too late now. Plus, they can take on Klaus without her. She knows that she wouldn't have been able to do it without them.

The breeze picks up and Elena shivers. She tucks her hands inside her shirtsleeves and tells herself that this'll all be over soon. She's probably wrong, but it's all she has.

**

Stefan's sitting on the trunk of the car drinking coffee when she trudges back. He slides off when he sees her coming.

"I'm sorry," she says, because it's not his fault. He shrugs and sets his cup down so he can reach for her and pull her in. She loops her arms around his waist and leans against him, her face tucked against his neck. When she inhales her breath catches in her throat and for a second she thinks she's going to burst into tears. She doesn't, though, just stands there, leaning against him.

"Just.. don't shut me out, okay?" he says after a minute, and she remembers that he left everyone behind, too. They're all each other has left.

Elena nods and leans up so she can kiss him. She smiles, too, small, but it's more than she's smiled since they left, so. Stefan hugs her tighter. He kisses her again and then pulls back. "Hey, I got you something."

"Really?"

He laughs. "Yeah, look who's excited now." He moves around to the side of the car and reaches into the window. When he comes back, he unfolds a map on the trunk and hands her a marker. "Where should we go next?"

The whole country splayed out before them.

Elena thinks for a long minute before she says, "I've never been to Memphis."

Stefan smiles and curls an arm around her shoulders, tucking her close to his side. "Alright. Memphis it is."

**

It feels less claustrophobic this way, with the map folded up next to her, a thick black line tracing from Mystic Falls to Savannah to Pensacola, slicing through Alabama all the way up to Memphis. More like they're in control of the situation instead of running scared and aimless across the country.

"Woohoo, road trip!" Elena says as they cross yet another state line in the middle of the night.

"Woohoo," Stefan echoes, so unexpectedly that Elena bursts out laughing.

**

They stop in Birmingham for the day. They're both exhausted so Stefan pulls into the first motel they find and asks for a room, just one night.

"Check-in's not 'til three," the old man working the desk says, pointing to a sign behind him. Check-out: 11 AM, check-in: 3 PM. Elena checks her watch; it's barely noon.

Stefan leans in close, waits for the man to look up. "You can make an exception for us, though."

"I can make an exception for y'all, though," he says, already handing over a key.

They're both asleep within twenty minutes.

**

Elena wakes with a start. Stefan reaches out, touches the small of her back.

"Bad dream?"

She nods, runs her hand through her hair. Her skin's clammy, everything sweaty from the nightmare. She touches Stefan's knee, reassures herself that he's right here.

Stefan covers her hand with his. "Elena." His voice is rough with sleep and something else. It's instinctual, the way she turns into him. He meets her halfway, his palms sliding down her sides, pulling her closer as she kisses him. Her heart's still racing and she hasn't quite caught her breath yet. Everything still feels like it's part of a dream and there's an urgency pricking under her skin that won't go away no matter how many times she kisses him. She twists her fingers tighter into Stefan's hair and when he bites her neck in retaliation she gasps at the sharp sting of it but at least that feels real.

Stefan stutters out a broken curse when she sinks onto him, grinding her hips, sets a pace that rivals her still-pounding heart. He follows her lead, holds onto her hips hard enough to bruise. She closes her eyes and focuses on that, on all the points where his skin is touching hers, and lets it chase the remnants of the dream out of her system.

"You're okay?" Stefan asks after, when they're both drifting in and out of sleep.

Elena shrugs one shoulder and then twists around so she can look at him. "I will be," she says. She's getting there.

He brushes her hair out of her face and she falls back asleep, sweaty and warm. She doesn't dream.

**

It's dark when she wakes up again, late enough that the only light is coming from the dim red numbers of the alarm clock. Elena slips out of bed and tiptoes to the bathroom. She stays in the shower until her fingers are wrinkled and her skin is flushed pink from too much hot water.

When she gets out of the shower, Stefan's sitting up in bed watching cartoons. He's dressed so she figures he slipped out to hunt. She remembers passing a park when they pulled in yesterday.

"It was this or infomercials," he says, gesturing to the TV.

"Sure, sure," she laughs. "I mean, some people pick SportsCenter or --" He tugs on her arm, toppling her onto the bed.

"Would you rather watch SportsCenter?" he asks, reaching for the remote.

"Oh, no, if this is what you want, by all means." Elena extends her arm, faux-graciously, and he rolls his eyes. She laughs again and then sits up, reaching for the make-up bag she'd on the nightstand. She crawls into the vee of his legs, leaning back against his chest before she pricks the pad of her thumb, the whole process smooth and practiced. She offers it up to him without a word.

On-screen, Top and Jerry chase each other around and around the kitchen. It's weirdly soothing.

Eventually she says, "I wonder how it's going."

The "back home" is implied. She's been thinking about it a lot, obviously -- how could she not -- but this is the first time she's ever brought it up.

"No news is good news, I guess," Stefan says.

Elena sighs and runs her thumb over the scar on her palm. It's mostly healed now, just a thin pink line that twinges when she grabs her bag the wrong way. Elena doesn't know the specifics of the spell, only that it was supposed to protect her. She thinks it means she and Bonnie are bonded, that Bonnie at least knows that she's alive. That Bonnie will know if something happens to them. She doesn't know if it works both ways. There's only one way to find that out, really, so Elena hopes she never does.

Stefan pokes her in the side and Elena shakes herself out of her reverie.

"Just thinking," she says.

"Don't hurt yourself."

She elbows him in the ribs as he laughs. He wraps his arms around her middle, his thumb sliding along the curve of her hipbone, soothing. She relaxes against him and watches TV and tells herself that he's right, no news is good news.

**

It's morning by the time they finally work up the motivation to leave. Elena chucks her bag into the trunk and realizes how weird it is to be driving during the day. She likes it better already. When she slides into the car, the leather seat's already warm. Every time she looks over to check her blind spot, the sun catches on Stefan's ring and momentarily blinds her.

"You alright over there?" Stefan asks, watching warily as she makes a right, following signs back toward the highway.

Elena flips down the sun visor and exhales when she can see a thousand times better. "Yup. You?"

There's a pause, like he's thinking about it, and then he smiles. "I'm great."

Elena grins. It's the best she's felt in a long time.

**

They stop somewhere just north of the border of Alabama and Tennessee. Elena's standing by a rack of sunglasses when Stefan comes in looking for her.

"Did you get food?"

She holds up a can of Pringles and a Diet Coke.

"I'll get a salad when we get to... wherever it is we're going," she says when he makes a face. He just doesn't appreciate the sanctity of road trip food. "Here, try these on."

"Elena."

"Stefan."

He rolls his eyes but puts them on anyway. She can see herself grinning in the mirrored reflection. He shakes his head like he's exasperated and then hands them back to her. Gives her a little shove towards the check-out line. "Hurry up," he says, laughing. "I'll be in the car."

She buys the aviators on a whim, throws them in with her food and an Us Weekly. She passes them to Stefan as she slides into the driver's seat.

"Happy road trip!"

"I can't believe you bought them," he says, shaking his head. He still puts them on, though, wears them until the sun's totally set and it's too dark to see.

**

They settle into a routine, driving all day, crashing in questionable motels at night. It's not glamorous, it's more like they're on the lam. Elena's gotten good with Alaric's stake gun. She's starting to hate Waffle Houses. She tries not to complain. It could be so much worse, she knows.

The markered route on their map gets longer. The pile of straw wrappers and napkins in the backseat gets bigger. Apparently every radio station in America plays Bon Jovi.

"God, again?" She reaches over to change the station, but Stefan bats her hand away. "What? I can't change the radio now?"

"Sure. You can also get out and walk to the next hotel."

He says it so seriously that she bursts out laughing. She shoves his shoulder. He turns the radio up and sings along. She's singing, too, by the time the get to the chorus, singing and laughing and reaching for his outstretched hand. They'll make it, he swears.

**

There's only so much monotony she can take, though. They're in Oklahoma when Elena reaches her breaking point.

Stefan mutes the TV when she comes out of the bathroom wearing makeup and jeans instead of her usual pajamas. He gestures at her outfit with the remote. "What's this?"

"I'm sick of late night TV. We're going out."

He shifts in his seat. She can see his eyes flick to the door, the car keys on the desk, the stake gun on the nightstand. Their bags on the floor, always packed and ready to go.

"Elena, we can't."

"Why not?

He holds up his hand like he's about to start listing reasons. Elena cuts him off. "We been driving all this time and we haven't seen a vampire in days. No one knows where we are. I just want to go out and pretend to be normal for one night."

He sighs, rubs the back of his neck. She takes a step closer to him.

"Please?"

"Okay," he says. She bounces up onto her toes and throws her arms around his neck, knocking them both onto the bed. Elena laughs and kisses him.

"I thought you wanted to go out," he teases, his hands on her cheeks. He looks happy. She kisses him once more for good measure.

Standing up, she holds out her hand. "Shall we?"

**

They find a bar just down the road from their motel. A wave of music overcomes them when Stefan pulls open the door and Elena blinks. She hadn't been expecting there to be line dancing. Or for it to be so crowded.

Stefan's hand on her back jolts her out of her trance. "Still up for it?"

"I forgot it was Friday," she says.

He makes a face like he's going to offer to leave, but that's the opposite of what she wants. So she takes a step forward. Tonight they can be normal. Two people on a real road trip and not... whatever fucked-up marathon this is.

It takes a few minutes, but they snag an empty table near the bar. Stefan comes back with beers and a plastic basket of peanuts.

"TGIF." She clinks her bottle against his before she takes a sip.

"Come on," she says, after a while. The floor around them is littered with peanut shells. Their table has more than a few empty bottles.

"What? No."

She nods and reaches for him, gets her hands around his wrists and tugs. "It'll be fun."

"I doubt it," he says, but he lets her pull him to the dance floor.

The beer makes her movements sloppy but she manages to keep up with everyone else. Next to her, Stefan is concentrating on which way to step with a ridiculous intensity. Every time she looks at him, she cracks up. It's not long before she's messing up the steps, too.

**

She's still breathless and laughing when they make their way home.

"Would you stop?" Stefan asks, laughing, when Elena distracts him from unlocking the door for the third time.

She steps away, holds up her hands. Stefan smiles. "Thank you."

He reaches for her as the door swings open, and then his hands are on her hips, pulling her towards him, and he's spinning them until he's got her back against the door. He deadbolts the lock, flips the second latch, and then he lifts her easily. She locks her legs around his waist and shifts deliberately, laughing when he groans.

He fists his hand in her hair and tugs. Her breath catches and then he's kissing her jaw, saying something that she doesn't even hear because she's concentrating on getting his shirt unbuttoned.

Stefan sets her down so she can step out of her jeans and then he's hitching her back up, quick enough that the whole room dips and spins and she has to hold onto his shoulders until it settles again. When he slides into her her head thunks back against the door.

"Fuck," she says, squeezing her eyes shut. He goes still, but that's the exact opposite of what she wants. She lifts her hips as best she can, her hand on the door for leverage, and Stefan gets the hint and starts moving, a slow, steady thrust of his hips. Elena curls one hand around his neck and pulls his head down so she can kiss him, catching his bottom lip between her teeth with just enough edge that he makes a noise low in his throat.

She arches back against the wall when she comes and the whole room goes swimmy, the alcohol and everything hitting her all at once. Stefan follows soon after with a groan, his head bent forward, forehead pressing against her shoulder. They stay there, the door supporting them both, until it starts to get uncomfortable. She needs to take a shower -- they smell like smoke and sex and beer -- and the exhaustion is starting to set in. She he sets her down gently and she leans up to kiss him once, her hand on his cheek.

"I had fun tonight," she says, curling her fingers into the hair at his nape. It's so familiar -- him, them, this -- that it's easy to forget everything else for now. To feel normal again.

He smiles before he kisses her, slow and sweet, his tiredness starting to show. He cards his fingers through her hair, tugging on the ends as he pulls away.

"Me too."

**

Elena jerks awake to the sound of glass breaking. She goes from zero to sixty in an instant, scrambling for the stake she's taken to keeping on the floor next to her.

Stefan's up even faster, yanking bodies into the room.

"Get our stuff," he says. Unnecessarily -- she's already throwing their things together, cramming her feet into her shoes, searching for the shirt he'd tossed god knows where last night. She keeps a firm grip on the stake the whole time.

She hears the sickening snap of a neck breaking, the thud of a body hitting the floor. And then again.

"How'd you find us?" Stefan has the last one pinned against the wall, forearm against his throat.

"Just lucky, I guess." His laugh turns to choking when Stefan presses harder. "Okay, okay," he grits out, "we saw you out dancing tonight. It's been so long since I'd seen you, Katherine, I thought you'd --"

"I'm not --" Elena starts, but Stefan's driving a stake through his heart so she doesn't have to finish.

For a moment it's quiet, just the two of them breathing heavy. Elena exhales, steps over one body, then another.

"Let's go," she says, reaching for his hand as she walks out the busted down door.

**

Stefan drives. It's like those first nights all over again, uncomfortable silence and her heart pounding and mile after mile of dark roads.

"Hey," she says eventually, when she can't take it any longer. "It's okay. They didn't know. We're okay."

Stefan glances in the rear view mirror and then at her. "Yeah," he says, reaching for her. He doesn't sound like he believes her. She doesn't really believe it, either.

She falls asleep at some point, the crappy kind of nap where she never fully goes under, where she's still aware of the hum of the car, the dips in the road, Stefan's hand on her knee, the window cool against her temple.

She wakes up in time to see the grey beginnings of dawn.

"I've never seen so many sunrises before in my life," she says. Stefan laughs.

**

Two states without any trouble and they both start to settle back into the routine again. Not enough to let their guard down, but Elena sleeps soundly in Kansas. She doesn't feel like her muscles are one giant knot anymore. She figures that has to count for something.

She stares out the window at never-ending gray skies and corn fields. Halfway through fall and it's already starting to look like winter.

"I spy..." She hesitates, thinking. "Something orange."

"Key chain," Stefan says automatically. Elena nods. They've been playing for so long that the know all the answers by heart. "I spy something grey."

Elena makes a face and he laughs. "What?"

"Grey, really?" She makes another face. It's the one color with like, a hundred options.

"Yes, really. I spy something gray, come on."

"The sky? The seats? This sweater."

Stefan taps his nose and then her knee. "Your turn." She bites her lip and tries to think of something they haven't used lately. Something buried under their coats in the backseat, maybe. It's like a layered map of their trip back their, souvenirs from every stop piling up on top of each other like strata of rock -- magazines and postcards Elena keeps buying at rest stops, hotel pens, one million napkins, a Mizzou hoodie from that time they'd gotten caught in the pouring rain and two-thirds of Elena's wardrobe had ended up soaked, the bag of books Stefan bought for a dollar at a library in Kentucky. For two people on the move, they sure have accumulated a lot of stuff.

"I spy," she starts, and then Stefan takes the off-ramp. "Didn't we get gas like, an hour ago?"

"Yeah, but there's this..." he trails off, distracted by the street signs.

It's not long before they're pulling up in front of a sign that says World's Largest Ball of Twine.

Elena stares at Stefan as he climbs out of the car. He shrugs, smiling. "Wouldn't be a road trip without it, right?"

He has a point. Plus, it's not like they have anywhere else to be.

"So?" she asks, coming to stand next to Stefan. They both stare up at the twine.

"It's... a big ball of twine."

"Biggest in the world, I hear."

He chuckles, wraps his arm around her shoulders and she leans into him. He presses a kiss into her hair. They stand there for a while, in the quiet. It's nice to be somewhere that isn't a gas station or a motel or a cheap restaurant with weak coffee. Get some fresh air. She takes a deep breath. Someone, somewhere, is burning wood.

Elena thinks she might like this place the most out of everywhere they've been.

**

"And you, sugar?"

"Just coffee, thanks."

The waitress gives her the once-over and frowns before she makes a disapproving face at Stefan. Like she hopes he'll talk Elena into ordering.

The sun is coming up on the horizon, glinting off their silverware in all directions. It's early, too early, but Stefan had gotten up to go hunting and when he'd come back, he'd noticed some people loitering in the parking lot, looking a little too interested in their motel room. They weren't going to stick around to see how it ended.

Elena stares out the window, her hands curled around her coffee cup. Only three cars go by between the time their food comes and they decide it's time to leave.

"I spy something white," Elena says while Stefan holds the restaurant door open for her.

"License plate," he says immediately.

Elena sighs. "We need a new game."

**

They're at an intersection, waiting for the light to turn green.

"Which way?" Stefan asks.

Elena frowns at the map, twirls the marker between her fingers.

"South," she decides, just as the light changes. If they're going to be forced to take this trip, the least they can do is enjoy it. The best revenge is a life well-lived, or whatever.

There's barely any traffic at this hour. It's just the two of them and the open road. Elena turns up the music and puts her feet up on the dashboard. If it were warmer she'd open the windows. She settles for leaning her head back and closing her eyes.

"How far?" Stefan asks. He has to yell over the music.

Elena turns her face towards him, grinning. "Until we hit water."

**

In a motel just outside of Dallas, Elena draws a star around Corpus Christi. "It's a pretty straight shot," she says, finger tracing the route.

Stefan comes over to look, leaning against her back and reading over her shoulder. "Not too bad." His chin digs into her shoulder when he talks.

"Just one more day," she says. She tries not to look at the dot marking Mystic Falls, tries not to eyeball the distance. She misses it so much it hurts sometimes -- when she wakes up in the middle of the night and can't figure out where she is, when they're stuck in traffic on some random highway, whenever she looks at a map and has to pick a place to go next, one that will take them farther away from the only place she really wants to go. Her life feels like it's in free-fall and going nowhere at the same time, caught in this in-between existence where all they're doing is running. No ball of twine is big enough, no promise of beaches bright enough to make her forget that.

"Tired?" Stefan asks.

Elena tucks her hair behind her ear and nods. In more ways than one.

**

Stefan's asleep, slumped against the passenger window, when they get close enough to smell the salt water. Elena rolls down her window and breathes in. She drives them straight to the beach, parks the car as close as she can and just watches the waves.

"Did we drive eight hundred miles just for you to look at it?" Stefan asks. Elena jumps. She hadn't known he was awake.

"Shut up," she says, once her heart's close to normal. "Someone was sleeping."

"How rude of him."

"Tell me about it." Elena reaches for the door handle, grinning. She doesn't waste any more time. As soon as she reaches sand, she kicks off her shoes and walks straight to the water. She hops in place, gasping when the waves crash around her ankles.

"It's freezing," she says when Stefan laughs at her.

"What'd you expect?"

She makes a face and kicks the spray at him. It misses, mostly. He darts at her and she ducks away, splashing through the water as she tries to avoid him. They play tag like that, the two of them versus each other versus the surf, until Elena jumps on his back and crowns herself the winner.

"Oh, really?" Stefan asks, wading deeper into the water. He's knee-deep when he bends backwards and twists like he's trying to drop her. Elena clings tighter to him and half-laughs, half-shrieks.

"Shh," he says, even though there's no one as far as she can see.

Stefan starts walking them to shore -- it's not far, five, maybe ten steps -- but with each one she kisses the nape of his neck, the soft skin behind his ear. Slides her hands under his shirt and rakes her nails across his stomach. It makes him shiver.

"Cheater," he says when they make it to dry sand. Elena unhooks her legs and slides down his body.

"Winner," she corrects. She tugs on his belt, turning him around.

He makes a face. "Agree to disagree." She can feel him smiling as he kisses her, the taste of saltwater on his lips almost overwhelming.

**

"We could follow the coast," Stefan suggests that night while they're lying in bed. They'd kept the windows open far too long and now the room's freezing. Everything still smells a little like the ocean, though, so. Worth it.

"We could." They'd have to go east to do it, though, and they're not in the habit of doubling back. Even though they'd be in different cities it feels risky.

Elena sighs and presses her face into his chest. He still smells beach-y, too. Maybe they could try it for just a little bit. One more day, hit up New Orleans and then cut west, clear across Texas. She's heard good things about Colorado.

Colorado. Her chest hurts just thinking about it. It's so far. At some point they're going to run out of places to go and then what?

"I thought we'd be home by now," she says quietly. It feels like a confession in the dark stillness of the room.

There's a hitch in Stefan's breathing, barely noticeable, before he says, "Me too."

Elena closes her eyes and curls into him as she starts to cry.

**

"Good morning," someone says when Elena opens the door to leave the motel. Stefan's double-checking the bathroom, making sure they don't leave anything behind this time. She left her hairbrush in Nebraska and hasn't stopped complaining about it yet. The one they picked up at CVS just isn't the same.

"Fuck." She reaches for the stake she keeps at the ready, fumbling for only a second. "Stefan."

"Been waiting for you," the vampire says. "Kl--"

She drives the stake into his chest before he finishes. She doesn't care about what he has to say.

"Nice," Stefan says, impressed.

They make it to the car without any more incidents. She can't decide if it's a good thing or a bad thing, how unfazed they are by these attacks now. A little of both, she figures.

**

"Utah," Stefan says, pointing.

"I already got that one. Besides, trucks don't count."

"That rule is stupid."

She laughs. "You made that rule."

He makes a face. "It's terrible."

"If only someone had said it was terrible when we were making the rules. Oh, wait."

Stefan makes a noise, mimicking her. There had been a twenty minute argument over the rules and how all they ever see is trucks. Whether or not Canadian plates count. Stupid shit.

"Whatever, you're winning anyway," she says, folding her arms over her chest. The seatbelt pulls tighter, digging into her skin. She fights with it, suddenly annoyed. She's sick of this stupid car, this stupid road, this stupid trip to nowhere. They should just go back to Mystic Falls and deal with whatever happens then.

"Ohio," Stefan says, breaking the silence. Elena reaches into the cup holder for the hotel notepad they're using to keep a running tally. She makes a note in the column under Stefan's name.

"Twenty-three to go."

She wonders which'll come first: the end of the trip or all fifty-one license plates.

"Iowa," he says; Elena writes it down.

Probably the plates.

**

She's wrong. They're stopped for lunch, chicken tacos and virgin margaritas at some place claiming to be the best in the state, when words appear on Elena's napkin.

"It's over," it says. "Come home."

Elena blinks. She looks up to make sure Stefan's seeing it too, that she's not hallucinating all of a sudden. His eyes are huge, his face frozen in a mask of half-shock, half-joy, and that's when her whole body relaxes, every last ounce of tension tension she was carrying seeping out of her bones. She clutches the napkin to her chest and laughs giddily and then she can't stop, the kind of giggles she used to get in school when she wasn't supposed to be laughing.

Stefan throws money on the table without even waiting for the bill. There's no way they're waiting.

She calls Jeremy from the pay phone outside the restaurant, listens with her heart in her throat while he tells her about Bonnie and the power of a hundred witches, about Damon and Caroline and Alaric and a fight that sounds ten million times worse than what they've gone through out here.

"It was unreal," he tells her, half-laughing. She can feel Stefan smiling into her hair.

"Are you okay?" Jeremy asks. Elena tries to speak and chokes, has to start over.

"Yeah," she says. "We're okay. We're good."

He exhales, relieved. Elena leans into Stefan's chest, holds the phone tighter to her ear. "I'll see you soon," she promises, right before she hangs up.

She and Stefan walk back to the car, their fingers twined, hands swinging between them. Everything feels warmer, brighter all of a sudden. Stefan arcs their hands into the air and loops his arm around her, pulling her close against him. She tilts her head onto his shoulder and laughs at nothing, at everything. They're going home.

When they reach the car leans inside and pulls out the marker and the map. She lays it out on the roof and traces the straightest possible path to Mystic Falls.

Stefan twirls the keys. "Ready?"

She caps the marker. Leans over to kiss him, the curve of the bumper warm against her side.

"Ready."