Elena wakes up and it's a day like any other, except that she's in a crypt full of dust and spider webs, and her head is aching like she'd had too much to drink the night before. For a moment, she experiences a sense of vertigo – there's a blink of an eye when she sees herself standing by the heavy iron gate, looking down on the coffin, but the illusion is gone when her vision clears.
It's easier than it should be to slip into a life of normalcy. 48 years should make more of a difference, should feel huge and monumental – all the things she missed, her friends' private moments of joy and tragedies, the global catastrophes, the supernatural mayhem. Instead, it's like nothing at all has changed.
She attends Bonnie's funeral. She listens to Caroline's stories of love lost and found, epic road trips and crazy adventures. She fights with Damon about the human life they both know he doesn't really want.
In the bathroom mirror, an 18-year-old girl looks back at her, and Elena feels like a fraud.
Katherine's sitting cross-legged on the closed toilet lid, filing her nails.
The towel slips from Elena's grasp, and she stumbles, a choked cry stuck in her throat. Katherine's long gone, to a place where there's no turning back. Whoever — whatever she's seeing now, it can't be Katherine.
"You're not real," she says, but her voice is shaking.
Katherine stops her manicure mid-motion and shoots a pointed look at Elena, lips pursed. "Whatever makes you sleep better." Her eyes roam up and down Elena's naked body, managing at the same time to look bored and hungry, making Elena grab the towel and wrap it around herself to cover up. Katherine snorts. "You're still such a prude."
She gets up and walks out of the bathroom. When Elena follows her into the kitchen, she finds it empty, but there are fresh wet footprints on the floorboards that go into the room and stop right in the middle.
Maybe she's slowly going insane. Maybe sleeping for fifty years left her human body unchanged but finally broke her mind. Maybe there's only so many times you can come back from something that's uncomfortably close to death before you bring something back with you.
It may well have been just a singular freak incident. Lack of sleep, PTSD, some crazy supernatural shenanigans casting their shadows.
It doesn't matter. It's not happening again. She's fine. Everything is fine.
If she tells herself that enough times, maybe she'll believe it.
Elena doesn't notice until Damon comes over and she goes to open it. He shrugs it off and quips about how it's not the kind of red he prefers anyway, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. But Elena knows she hasn't finished it, and the glass with the dark red lipstick stains in the sink isn't hers.
She should tell Damon. She wants to tell Damon. Instead, they wind up yelling at each other about the life each of them knows in their heart of hearts they cannot build together. He leaves with a slam of the door, and Elena imagines it's the loudest thing she's ever heard.
"Did you enjoy that?" she asks the empty room with vicious bite, through the tears and the anger, but there is no response.
In the morning, she wakes up from an alarm she didn't set, Katherine sitting on the edge of the bed next to her and fiddling with Elena's phone. "You're not going to spend all day in bed eating ice cream and wallowing in misery, are you? I don't want to die of boredom just because Damon Salvatore broke your itty-bitty heart."
Elena snatches the phone from her hands and hides her face in the pillow, hoping that Katherine will be gone when she looks up again. No such luck, of course.
Elena keeps her eyes fixed on the door, getting up to greet her brother when he enters. He looks good, healthy and strong for his age, but there's a part inside of her that hurts at seeing him an old man. A long white scar runs down the left side of his neck, so old that it's faded already, and Elena hates that she missed everything that happened in his life during the last few decades, the good as well as the bad.
"Can you see her?" Elena asks him, before they're sitting back down, almost as afraid that he'll say yes as she is that he'll say no. Either Katherine is real or Elena's going crazy, and neither option seems particularly attractive.
Jeremy frowns. "See whom?"
Elena turns around to where Katherine was just sitting but the seat is empty. "Never mind." She shakes her head and sits down, putting a smile on her face and pushing Katherine far from her thoughts. "Tell me about everything I missed."
She turns on her side to face her least favorite doppelganger, but her insensitive human eyes can barely make out her silhouette.
"Can't you haunt someone else for a change?" she asks, voice petulant and sleep-rough.
"Rude." There's a rustle, and Elena feels Katherine moving, turning towards her so that they're lying face-to-face in a parody of a couple's position sharing the marital bed. "I tried. It's not like I'm enjoying hanging around here with you, watching you live the most boring human life imaginable. But it turns out no-one else can see me. I've probably pissed off some witch, and this is my punishment."
Katherine laughs. "Only you would think that the most exciting thing that happened to you in months would be punishment."
There's an unfortunate kind of truth to that. She doesn't exactly miss those days when her life was a constant string of supernatural disasters and every day meant fighting for her life and another tragedy barely avoided, but even when the normal life she traded it for is what she wanted, sometimes she feels of tug of nostalgia for the excitement of the old days.
Maybe it's that Petrova blood running through her veins. Or maybe it's Katherine's presence, reminding her of things she lost that she can never get back.
"Go to sleep," she mutters, unwilling to share any of that with Katherine.
"I don't need sleep." It's hard to tell whether she sounds smug or mournful. Perhaps a little of both.
Elena huffs. "Well, some of us do."
"Go ahead, no one's stopping you. Or did you need me to tuck you in and give you a kiss goodnight?" Before Elena can quip back, Katherine leans in and presses their lips together, brief and dry. It's over as quick as it started and then Katherine's gone, vanished from where she was resting on the bed next to Elena, the only thing that remains the impression of her body on the sheets.
"Go to hell," Elena says into the empty darkness, with feeling.
Walking over to where her double has made herself at home, Elena takes the half-empty glass out of her hand and downs it, absurdly pleased when she sees Katherine's eyes gleaming in something like appreciation. She reminds herself that she doesn't care for or in fact want Katherine's approval.
"Okay, Katherine, I bite." Elena almost winces at the unfortunate turn of phrase and presses on before Katherine has the chance to make the terrible pun that's no doubt waiting on the tip of her tongue. "What do you want?"
"What does anyone want? World peace, finding love, figuring out the meaning of life."
Elena frowns. "That doesn't sound like you."
Katherine rolls her eyes at her. "Really? You don't think?" she says with a snort, and Elena feels her cheeks heat up in embarrassment for having bought it, even for a fraction of a moment. "I want to have an actual body again that can fight and feed and fuck, and not continue living a pointless existence where the only interaction I have is with the dullest person I know. What else could I possibly want?"
She sounds angry, but beneath the bitchiness, there's also a frustration that evokes a sense of pity in Elena, and she imagines being forced into a position where she can only share her life with a single person who she knows can't stand her. "I'm sorry this is happening to you."
For some reason, her attempt at building a connection only serves to rekindle Katherine's anger. "Seriously? You're sorry? That's such an Elena thing to say."
"I was only trying to be nice."
Katherine makes a face. "And that's precisely what makes you so awful. I know you hate me; you don't have to go out of your way to be nice."
"You know what, fuck you." Elena fills up the glass again. She doesn't protest when Katherine takes the bottle out of her hands, drinking straight from it.
They get drunk while watching the back half of Breakfast at Tiffany's together. Elena's the one who gets properly drunk, anyway — Katherine just gets more sarcastic, but perhaps that's the movie and the company rather than the alcohol.
At half past five in the morning, Elena wakes up alone with a crick in her neck and a hangover drumming behind her forehead. There are red wine stains on the pale cushions of the couch that Elena will futilely try and wash out for days before resigning herself that they're here to stay.
Perhaps that's just Elena, though, because from the corner of an eye she sees Katherine slinking into the shadows, as if she's trying to put as much distance between herself and Klaus as possible.
There's a moment when Elena wonders if Klaus can in fact see Katherine because he fixes the exact spot where she's standing with a frown on his face. Katherine blanches, and Elena feels her fear like a physical thing, a strange kind of protectiveness almost making her get up and move between them. It's only when Klaus turns his eyes back on Elena and raises a quizzical brow that she understands that he was merely following her gaze. "You okay, sweetheart? Humanity doesn't seem to become you."
She shrugs it off. Her blood is useless to him with the cure running through her veins, and she has no intention of letting him try to find a way around it, but maybe there's another option.
"What if I can help you get another doppelganger? Someone who might be willing to donate a little blood in exchange for a... small favor?" Elena asks. She tells herself she's asking because she wants Katherine's presence expelled from her life, but the truth is, part of her genuinely wants to help.
On the other side of the room, Katherine makes her displeasure known, telling Elena that no, this is not going to happen, that she's under no circumstances to involve Klaus. But really, with Bonnie gone, it's not like Elena has an array of witches at hand to solve Katherine's dilemma.
Klaus makes himself comfortable on her couch, leaning back and spreading his arms over the backrest like he owns the place, looking like a spoiled little price trying out his father's throne. "Tell me more, love."
"What do you know about ghosts?" Elena asks, pleased when a look of intrigue crosses Klaus' face and she knows she has his attention.
Elena would roll her eyes, except that she doesn't want Katherine to think that she's adopting her mannerisms. "I don't know why you're complaining. You seem perfectly fine." Katherine seems to be more than fine, really. Beneath the glare and the scowl, she's positively glowing.
"It's a matter of principle." Katherine sniffs dramatically. "Invite me in, will you? It's the least you can do after essentially selling me out to my worst enemy. I even brought you wine."
She hands Elena the bottle. "It's empty."
Katherine shrugs. "I drank it on the drive up from New Orleans. The music sucked. I got bored. But it's the thought that counts, right?" Her tone is lofty, but there's an undercurrent of humor that's new, less harsh than it used to be. Something's different about her, and Elena realizes that this might well be the first time since Katherine was a human girl that she's not running from something.
Later, sitting on Elena's stained couch with the suitcase Elena pointedly doesn't ask about on the floor next to her, she talks about Freya's freaky ritual and how much she hates what's become of the French Quarter. Then, almost as an aside: "Klaus says to tell you he knows a witch who can fix your humanity problem."
"I have no 'humanity problem'," Elena says automatically. Being human is what she desperately wanted, during every conscious second of her existence as a vampire. She likes being human. And if she gets bored sometimes, if she feels alienated from everything she used to know, that's a small price to pay.
"No, sweetie, you're pretending you don't have a humanity problem. You really need to get over yourself. You're hardly the first person who got the thing she wanted the most only to realize it's not everything she hoped for."
"Speaking from experience?" Elena asks, sharper-tongued than she intended it to be, but she doesn't want to take it back. Perhaps it's time to accept that Katherine's been rubbing off on her. Perhaps it's not necessarily a bad thing.
Katherine's lips curl into a smile that's one quarter self-depreciating, three-quarters sarcastic. "You know me. I don't do regrets."
Elena decides not to call her on the lie, for now.
It's like they're playing an elaborate game of chicken, waiting for something that's got to give.
One day, maybe it will.
Until then, Elena huffs in annoyance even though she secretly finds herself reveling in the break from the boredom that eats her up sometimes and the routine of normalcy that still feels oddly fake.
Until then, Katherine offers biting running commentary on Elena's life choices, but quietly enjoys the novel concept of having a home and the company of someone who knows her terrifyingly well because she could almost have been her, if life had taken a different road.
It's nothing either of them would ever admit. But Katherine doesn't leave and Elena doesn't ask her to, and perhaps that's admission enough.