The rain was pouring down, and the car was solidly stuck in the mud. The wheel juddered in Caroline's hands. The rain slicked down the window on her side and the window on Elena's side, turning the woods outside to twilight greyness.
Caroline let the wheel go with a little releasing flourish of her hands, before she snapped the damn thing off. "I'll get out and push."
"I'll help you," Elena offered.
I've had enough of your help teetered on Caroline's lips. Oh, sure, it wasn't exactly Elena's fault that Caroline had ended up in this position. It wasn't Elena's fault that her Uncle John had always been kind of a dick and turned out to have a murderous streak, or that Tyler Lockwood... had also always been kind of a dick and also turned out to have a murderous streak, though for some reason Caroline felt a lot more sympathy for him than she used to. It wasn't Elena's fault that she had a queen-bitch vampiric double who enjoyed making Caroline's life miserable.
But if Caroline hadn't been Elena's friend, Caroline wouldn't have got involved in any of this. Caroline's hands tightened around the ghost-shape of the wheel she was no longer holding.
If she was honest... and the only way to control the emotions that had been raging inside her ever since she was turned was to be honest... when Katherine turned up, raising hell on a grand scale and crafting precious tiny bonbons of malice and all of it with that sweet-as-pie smile on what looked like Elena's face, it had felt kind of familiar.
Four-year-old Elena and Caroline had bashed each other over the head with dolls. Seven-year-old Caroline had seen the new boy in class cross out 'Jason Loves Elena' on the back of his book and write 'Jason Loves Caroline' and felt a warm swimmy happy feeling inside, which was weird to think about now that Jason had beer-bottle glasses and terrible skin and was president of the AV club. Eleven-year-old Elena had got a tankini to wear to the swimming hole when Caroline was still in a stupid babyish one-piece with Strawberry Shortcake on, because Caroline's mother didn't have time to shop. Fourteen-year-old Caroline and Elena... the rivalry of that year had been epic. Caroline was kind of surprised that Lindsey Lohan hadn't optioned the movie rights.
"Are you OK?" said Elena, leaning forward and wiping the shining dark curtain of her hair back from her face.
"No, there's a witch outside giving me an aneurysm," snapped Caroline, and then saw Elena's face and wished for the hundredth time since this morning that she had the vampiric superpower of keeping her own mouth shut.
Elena didn't know what it was like. Elena didn't have to deal with the minute-by-minute problems of being an overly emotional basket... corpse. Stefan understood, but that just made it weirder, because it made Caroline feel like Elena was somehow her stepmother or something.
"Yeah, whatever," said Elena, shaking her head. "I'll help you push. Come on. We'll both go out and get soaked to the skin and muddy to the kneecaps. On three. One..."
"You won't be any help," Caroline said. "You may as well keep dry. I mean, I'll be doing all the pushing anyway. And it's not like anyone's going to look at me when we get there, not with you around."
Elena's brown eyes snapped wide open. "Why are you being such a bitch?"
"Because I am a bitch," Caroline said with a kind of weary vehemence in her voice that made her hate the way it sounded in her own head. The car radio carried on tinkling out some stupid song about love, or coming to Jesus, or something. She slammed the heel of her hand down onto it. It stopped. And there was a caved-in place on the dash where her hand had smashed through the plastic.
Eh, she'd wanted an iPod dock and speakers instead of the stupid radio anyway. And the words kept on coming out of her mouth, like she couldn't stop them.
"Seriously, Elena. Haven't you met any vampires before? Damon's like the king of the bitches. Katherine's their queen. All the others I've heard about, Pearl, Anna, bitches, bitches, bitches. Even Stefan's kind of an emo bitch." She clapped a hand over her mouth to silence a disastrous giggle. "Sorry. Sorry."
Elena looked away, out of the window, her whole body one twist of tight control. "Have you ever thought about not saying every last stupid thing that comes into your head?" she said.
Caroline rocked back in her seat. The rain outside was pouring down like an apocalypse. "All the times I do keep my emotions in check, no one notices," she said. "But every time I mess up, I get told I must not be even trying."
Elena looked out of the window. The lines of her body changed, got even tenser. Caroline noticed that stuff automatically now, even when she wished she didn't. "Oh, crap," Elena said.
Expecting anything from a landslide to an enraged werewolf, Caroline sharpened her senses to the outside world. It came more easily to her every time she tried it. She tuned out the constant thunder of the rain and scanned for footsteps or the creaking of tree roots or, God forbid, Tyler howling at the moon.
But there was nothing stirring in the woods, not even a squirrel. Maybe Stefan had eaten them all. Caroline folded her hands in her lap. "What do you mean, oh, crap?" she said in an I'm-ready-to-stop-fighting voice.
"I mean I remembered what happened last time you went off the road in a storm." Elena reached over and took one of Caroline's hands, holding it firmly between both of hers. Her hands felt so warm. Blood heat. Blood strength. Caroline could feel every single soft curve of their skin. "I'm sorry. I'm a bad friend. Not that you're not a bitch," she added. "But it was the night of that storm last year when you found Vicki, right? I should have remembered."
"Yeah. Vicki." Caroline took a breath. She didn't technically need to, or so Stefan told her, but it helped to unstick some of the feelings in her chest. "I keep thinking... how like me she was. I don't mean I was a skank," she added hastily.
Elena stifled a warm little giggle. "You did kind of go through boyfriends like tissues last year."
"Yeah, and that was before I actually could go through boyfriends like tissues," said Caroline, flexing the muscles in her other hand. "No. I mean, what happened to her... that was kind of an accident too, and she woke up with Damon's blood inside her, and Stefan tried to teach her, I mean, really tried..."
"Yeah, he did," said Elena. Her voice was quiet.
Caroline adjusted her hearing again. Now she could hear the rain and the distant booming of thunder, and over it all the steady beat of Elena's heart. Steady and unafraid. She was in a car with a vampire who could snap her neck in an instant, and her pulse and her heartbeat were rock steady.
Not like me, Caroline thought. Look how well I dealt with vampires back when I was a mortal. The answer, in case anyone was wondering, being not too well at all. She didn't want to think about the weeks she'd spent being Damon's little chew toy. Ugh. But Elena made all the right choices, Elena was always the golden one...
Elena was the one holding her hand right now, and looking at Caroline like Caroline mattered.
"Stefan tried with Vicki and he failed, and she ended up dead," Caroline said. It felt good to spill her feelings to Elena, all the things she'd been thinking and not saying. "I know, it's not like I was cutting school all the time like Vicki, or like I'd be dumb enough to sleep with Tyler Lockwood, and I never... partied. I mean, a drink now and then. But not like her."
"You're nothing like Vicki," said Elena, her hands a warm pressure around Caroline's hand. "Why would you think you were?"
"I am, though," Caroline said wearily. "You know what the guidance counsellor always used to say when Vicki screwed up? Acting out. Looking for attention. Low self-esteem."
She heaved a sigh. "You can't say that's not been the story of my life. Can you?"
Elena looked thoughtful for a minute; and then she looked determined and practical, in that Elena way that always made Caroline's heart tip over with pure liking of her, whatever the balance to the reverse.
Maybe more than liking. Since she was being honest.
"I esteem you," Elena said with a little lift of her chin like a queen bestowing a gift. "I now hereby esteem you."
The queenly look made her face look almost like Katherine's. And Caroline wished she hadn't thought of that, because Elena was looking straight into her eyes. And then Elena was looking at her lips, and up at her eyes again with her own eyes dark under those long, long lashes, like a guy did when he wanted to kiss her.
Oh. Oh. Okay. Maybe that wasn't something just guys did. Caroline closed her eyes and leaned closer. Elena's lips caught the corner of her mouth at first, and then between them they righted themselves and Caroline's lips were opening to the warmth and the blood-sweetness of Elena's tongue, and her hand was in Elena's hair.
She felt like something had finally fitted into place inside her. Eight-year-old Caroline and eight-year-old Elena teaming up to show eight-year-old Matt that it wasn't true that only boys could play sports and girls had to cheer, thirteen-year-old Caroline and thirteen-year-old Elena discovering that cheering was actually damn awesome in its own right, fifteen-year-old Caroline and fifteen-year-old Elena getting drunk, properly drunk, for the first time and staggering home with their arms round each other because they couldn't walk straight, all of that was just as true as the other stuff.
All of that had been leading up to this.
Caroline opened her eyes. She was looking straight into Elena's face, and Elena looked rosy and soft and surprised, and Caroline felt a different kind of hunger sliding its way like silk through all of the borrowed blood in her veins. And if she knew Elena – which she did, she knew Elena better than anyone – then Elena was feeling exactly the same way.
"So," Caroline said. "What do we do now?"
Elena grinned at her. "I guess eventually you're going to have to use your vampire strength to get this car out of the mud."
Caroline had meant what do we do now on a longer time scale than that. But now that she thought about it, she didn't want to get into that, not right this minute. Because whatever happened, someone was going to get hurt.
How would Stefan take it, when he found out his fledgling was making time with his girl? And then there were all the stupid frat-boy jokes that people like Tyler would make about girls who kissed girls, as if he didn't have a suspicious possessiveness about Matt.
Maybe Tyler wouldn't say anything, not these days. But if there was one thing Caroline knew, it was that there were an endless supply of Tylers out there, all of them as confused as each other.
But she didn't have to think about that now. She made the smile come back to her face.
"Oh, no." she said, and shook her head with a little grin. A little Elena-like grin. "Like you said, if one of us gets soaked to the skin, we both do." She reached for the car door, and made a careful gentle effort not to wrench the handle off. "On three. One... two..."