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you know that black river water is as black as sin

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There is a body in the swamp.

The dark, muddying water has always been a place for disposing of things, poisoned game, tarnished gold rings from lying lovers, the rare uninformed vagrants who err beyond the invisible line, but those things are put there to sink and drown, settle in the uneven riverbed, encrusted like fossils. The body, not so much: it's flaunted, its throat slashed across; a blond, church-going boy at that. As innocent as people ever remain around here.

He must have died quickly, at least, they assure her; but they do not see that the bite on his skin is too sharp to be metal, to be from a knife or a sword, and if they do smell something unnatural in the crime they do not mention it. Ignorance is bliss, and in few places more than here. Oh, well, she says, and thanks them. People die everyday —except people like us, but that she does not add. He had refused the bite; maybe he deserved it, maybe this is God's way of punishing him from his lack of survival instinct. They say that God kills you to take you back to his arms, but that she does not believe; if it was true, then why her particular gift? Which it is —a gift—; she has had centuries to become sure of it, to perfect the notion.

"What about it, miss," asks the policeman, his face wide and red and uncaring, "want us to take the body?"

For a second it's like she hasn't heard them, like his sweet face, not yet bloated by the tart, dark water is calling to her. "No," she says at last. "We'll take him home and burn him."

They shake their heads, whatever. They don't care. The morgue's fuller than it ought to be anyway; people tend to die a lot in these parts.

 

 

So they hold a funeral for Matt; she has the boys build him a pyre, a high, geometric thing whose cracks the witches fill with thistle weeds and sage under Bonnie's supervision. Bonnie, ever perceptive, who asks Caroline if the weeds are for comfort —the sweet medicinal smell of them— or for the fumes to carry high and purple in the sky, warn their adversaries that this sin won't go unanswered; that there is a curse in the wind, heading their way. Caroline just shrugs. "They know we will come," she says. "They know how we work. This is what my mother would've done."

Her mother, who had her kingdom before her, who reigned over that dry and flammable land, the weeping willows, the fading white mansion with its fake-Greek columns and its hourly patrols of beasts hidden in men's skins; her mother, who taught her everything she knows, justice and scraps of mercy, who to fight to the death and who to kill on sight, whose blood to drink to become stronger; who needed no witch to read the tarot cards, who seemed to know the future, whose deep Southern twang she had inherited from her mother, who used to say that blood was stronger than any kind of love, who cherished her daughter most of all; her mother, who could burn down cities with a flash of her burnt-copper eyes. Her mother, who took off her ring one morning without warning, and walked into the harsh summer sunlight. Who left no note. When Elena had asked, Caroline had said that she believed all life should end and dust ought to return to dust eventually, even those for whom death is a reach, an outstretched hand.

"Maybe she thought she'd lived long enough," Elena had said, her voice bright with distress. Caroline didn't pretend to know what her mother had thought, what facet of the great beyond had attracted her. She thought Elizabeth might still exist in the hazy yellowish in-between whose door sometimes opens in dog's eyes when they are sick, in the pale restlessness of their dark pupils. She has held more wolves than anyone, when they were sick or wounded, has held their muzzles against her knee and put them out of their misery when they were too far to be saved.

Sometimes she thinks she catches the outline of her mother's silhouette, drawn in pale slants of light, in the corner of a mirror or in the suspended dust which hangs in the light streams. She doesn't talk about it. She has other matters to attend to now that her mother has left: namely, her legacy, that hard-fought for kingdom which she must now protect. Their neighbors, as proved this morning, are not benevolent. Elizabeth had called them unthinking and cruel; though Caroline had never asked, in what are they different from us, then?

The fire burns clear in the ink-black night. Tomorrow, Caroline has ordered, we'll go and wash ourselves in that swamp, and when the girls pouted and whinged she said, you know how water is, how pervasive, how alluring; where else could his soul have melted? So then we'll swim in it until we're glowing and glittering; that boy had a golden soul. Matt. All the girls were in love with him: half of them wanted to take him home to their parents and the other half wanted to taste his pure, untainted blood. How sweet, they cooed, and surrounded him like fruit flies. But he was in love with the same girl everyone is in love with, who always manages to stand where the sunlight falls, lovely and defiant, smile heady like honeysuckle; Elena Gilbert. Caroline had said, 'Come on, that girl already has too many suitors.' But there was nothing to do, Matt was bewitched, even though Elena isn't even the witch in their trinity; he'd said, 'You're her friend, why don't you introduce us?' And Caroline had said, 'No, I have too many things to do.' You can't really tell a boy that he'll be eaten alive; that'll only make him run faster.

Bonnie slips at her side. Says, after a moment's silence, "We put gold coins on his eyes. For… whoever might be waiting, actually."

A smile quirks Caroline's mouth; she can't help it. "They'll melt in the fire," she says.

"Yeah. But he can't hurt now, can he?"

They watch the fire burn for a long stretch of time, praying under their breath at random intervals; people join them, their breath sweet with liquor, acting compassionate and cruel in turn; Tyler lays a proprietary hand on Caroline's arm and breathes at her with dark, heavy pained eyes, but she shakes him off. The flames lick the sky's edge, trying to mangle its unfraying tapestry; small like ants, at the foot of the crumbling pyre, people are dancing. Boys, girls: their shadows melt into the night until they become unrecognizable, shapes more than beings, so edgeless that they could slip back into their animals frames without it ever seeming irregular; then again, they are used to it. In the house you can always find wolves with luscious fur nibbling on the remains of some gargantuan feast, teeth worrying at the bones. Sometimes they condescend to lay at her feet, so that she may really look like a queen; they groan when they hear the police engines or smell enemies coming, miles off, coming up the yellow dirt path.

"Maybe it'll be Peter," Caroline says much later, when the fire has died and everyone has left, tracing ample signs of cross on their chests, or simply dropped unconscious in the yard. The nights are hot; humid. When it is going to rain —and the rains here are torrential, make streams of the dusty roads, sluice off the wooden roof; they make everything fresh and clear for a few days, until the sun dries away the damp and everything is heavy and hot all over again—, crows gather on the roof and the patio bannister. They know they won't be spared; it's a kind of tradition.

"What do you mean?" asks Bonnie.

"Saint Peter," says Caroline; "who Matt'll have to pay up to when he gets to heaven."

Bonnie only shrugs, her lips stretching in a mirthless smile. "Maybe," she says. "Him, or Charon, or Satan; what does it matter?"

 

 

Bonnie's grandmother knew them first. If you went to see her, slid past the double door and the mosquito net to find her at her table, tarot cards fanned in her withered hands, she'd tell you, "A pack of thieves and liars, all of them, but they've been here since the dawn of times. There ain't no making them go away." She would waggle her finger at you, her blind eyes strange and prescient. "They have roots when you can't see, under their steps and digging into the ground. They're already six feet under; there's no use trying to get rid of them. Sometimes you've gotta make do with vermin." She would offer you stale coffee and biscuits from a tin; sometimes tell your fate. Not many people want to know, though.

Whatever the Mikaelsons are, revenge is revenge, and revenge dictates retribution. They march to the plantation in the morning, while the sun is high; Caroline wears a crown made of brambles, the fruits gleaming red on her forehead like drops of fresh blood. They stop at the swamp, and Caroline watches as one after the other her disciples disappear into the mud, until only their mouth is showing, going through the prayers they know by heart even though God Hates Fangs posters have been vengefully picketed in every one of their backyards.

"We trained them well," Elena says, and Caroline laughs, pushes her forward.

"Scrub hard," she says around a crooked smile when Elena resurfaces, her long hair weighed down by tar-black mud. "Sin sits deep."

The witches make a circle in the water, more curses burnt in wood and slit across the body of snakes and rabbits, their insides spilling out in the hot sun; then they lead her to the river down the road, whose water is mercifully clean and cold as diamond, and wash the mud off her dress with reverent hands, holding her head underwater. When she comes out her dress clings to her breasts, hair dripping at her back like liquid gold.

"So what do you think," she asks Stefan when he proffers one hand to help her out the water, the other holding his straw hat in place, "am I absolved now?"

He tilts his head; she thinks, this is the grin that lures young girls in the woods to get eaten. Once upon a time she would have followed too, but that time is long past; besides, he is already good and well tangled in Elena's web, and there is no saving those boys. His brother, too, is lost to her, and if Caroline didn't love her so much she might consider bearing down some kind of justice.

"Who knows," he says, nonchalant. The stray glint in his eyes flashes with a vengeance, as though to say, you were innocent once. But she shrugs —it was once, this is now: innocence is a word for little girls, and God knows she is everything but that. She tugs on his arms. "Come on now, Ripper. There is much damage to be done; even if we were absolved, it won't last long."

The Mikaelsons must hear them coming from miles off, as inevitable as the roaring hurricane; even the lost highway rattles with the deafening stampede of their bare feet on the ground. Messages pass in smoke, through the rusty landlines that go from neighbor's house to neighbor's house: is this a war? Who declared it? Is the little girl Forbes finally stepping into her mama's footsteps, to go get her throat torn out by the king? They must hear them coming from miles off, but Caroline doesn't care, welcomes it even. Let them know, she thinks; let them know we are coming.

Though she doesn't think to beckon —much goes into being a queen, as it turns out—, Elena and Bonnie slot neatly in her stride, flanking her off on both sides. They walk forward into the burning sun.

Hold onto your crucifixes, Caroline thinks vindictively, and bares all her teeth to smile.

 

 

The first crony they meet gets two syllables into "What do you—" before Damon snaps his neck, grinning his stupid smug grin all the while. "Wham bam, thank you ma'am," he says, whipping out his fangs, and that's how the rest of the road that winds up to the plantation goes, throats torn from side to side. Bonnie's sisters set fire to the lone witch they find, laughing with wide open hands carelessly casting deadly spells, a circle of high yellow grass flashing to ashes in a blink. 'Wreck havoc,' Caroline had commanded, and they will.

By the time they get to the door Caroline's dress is stained with black blood and her crown is askew, her mouth still dripping and she has never felt as alive as this, as vividly immortal. A tall blonde girl slides into the vacant doorway, one eyebrow arched; Rebekah Mikaelson.

"Can we help you?" she asks. Her nails are long, painted an unconcerning cream color; she ticks them on her hip, like a countdown.

Caroline's army stretches back into the garden, rings the plantation. If you can't kill them, break their heart, her mother used to say, or starve them out.

"Yeah," she tells Rebekah. "I think you can. How 'bout you take me to Klaus? We have some things to discuss."

Rebekah doesn't move an inch. "Usually our neighbors call ahead before dropping in."

Caroline resists the urge to watch when Elena throws her head back and laughs. They might be young and inexperienced —for a value of 'inexperienced'— but young and full of vital blood spells a better fate than centurial and dry as dust.

"This isn't a social call." Only the effect of surprise —manners and bad habits die hard in the South— allows her to push Rebekah out of the way and slide past her, but Caroline revels in it. "And we aren't your typical neighbors."

They have all heard tales of the throne room, so heavily guarded by superstition: that Klaus Mikaelson sits on a chair made out of the bones of his enemies; that you can't breathe in his presence without your lungs getting clogged full with the smell of blood and ghosts; that he has witches keep guard and sacrifice children over the threshold every morning to ward away intruders. And they've heard all sorts of things about him, too, him and his siblings, the Originals as they call themselves —another way to say, we were first in line. The way Caroline sees it, though, qui va a la chasse perd sa place. Except this time she's the one doing the hunting.

But there are no slaughtered babies to tread upon: instead a wide, high-ceilinged room with magic crawling all over the walls, and in a high-backed rattan armchair, lounging obscenely with his legs spread, lips quirked in a red, dangerous smile, Klaus Mikaelson, looking for all of God's grace like he just walked out of a mother's warning. Behind him, dressed in a black suit even though the heat could crush an ox, his brother, Elijah; in the corner, on a smaller chair, an upright skeleton, looking right at them with its vacant, sinister eyes. It would make less to make an ordinary woman shudder, but Caroline Forbes is everything but ordinary.

She takes a step forward. Even though they are holding their breath —all of them, whether they realize it or not; they know this is the minute dynasties are built upon—, waiting for something to break, for the skies to open and some mythical flood to come pouring down on them, it does not happen. Klaus smirks at Caroline and Caroline glowers back at him. They ignore the skeleton. The room is hot; the world is hot, sweating through all its pores, trying to purge that excess heat that smells like the beginnings of fire.

"What brings you to this distant land?" he sneers, amused.

She crosses her arms, rolls her eyes. "My mother's house is two miles from here, Klaus."

She sees his mouth twitch; sees him think, I am magnanimous, because I don't ask her, why is it still your mother's house?

"Yet you never made the trip. We could've done with a 'welcome to the neighborhood' pie, Caroline," he turns to his brother, "especially from you." Then he adds, though she knows he meant something else, "What with you taking over the family business and all."

"I'm here now."

He hums; his gaze sharpens, focusing his mind's eye outside, on her army. He knows he is surrounded, but he isn't worried. She'll teach him to worry. "Come to wave the white flag, are you, love? I have to say, this falls severely short of baked goods."

"Yeah, well, you killed Matt."

Klaus smiles. "Let's call it even?"

And on this, Caroline thinks, hedges all the precarious length of her career in this country; her crown; all the future bodies half-sunk in the mud, the ones she put there. She knows what her mother would've done: she would've bowed down to Klaus, bent her spine and sneered at him under her breath, and kept the peace; and made for Matt a funeral that lasted ten days, with alcohol and greasy food and everyone dancing and crying in turn, until they were about to fall down. Caroline sees Klaus and she sees through the skin of his head, through his skull, all the way into his thoughts: he is thinking that if she didn't have the heart to call hers her mother's house then certainly she is not going to defy him; and he has already moved on, written her off as plain and servile like the others, and he is bored of her.

"Let's not," says Caroline.

Everything on the room tenses up like a thread taut on the reel of fate: even the skeleton's head seems to snap up. Caroline thinks, if I took a match to his breath…

And hear him laugh: watch him jump out of his chair, feline and imposing —one spark and it would all be over— and stop right in front of her, presenting his hand like a rope for her to hang herself on; and saying, with infuriating laughter in his voice, "Pleased to meet you, Caroline Forbes."

She hisses at him, tongue sharpening to strike.

 

 

They tell you this about the South: that time moves slow as molasses, halted down somewhere between the earth and the body by the heavy suffusing heat; that by the time someone draws a gun their enemy's shadow has already eaten the bullet.

Klaus blinks, would murder Matt all over again in a heartbeat for the amusement of an irate Caroline Forbes in his living-room; Caroline wishes she could pluck his eyelashes one by one before she ripped his spine out of his back.

"I will make you dig your own grave," she says calmly, "and then I'll stake you with the shovel, and I will bury you. Don't think I won't."

Klaus doesn't seem overly alarmed. If anything he seems charmed, awake; as if she had raised his interest at last, when he didn't expect it. "I thought you burned your bodies," he says. He must have seen the smoke, then.

"Not for people like you," she snarls, wanting to explain: our people we burn so that their souls can rise up and meet God. But she doesn't believe enough to say such things. The God she knows is indifferent and vindictive: he is a god of vengeance and righteousness, the same god who strikes down heathens and sets fire to bushes to shock into believing. They keep their ashes in cardboard boxes and urns and mason jars and give them to people when they go to the coast, miles and miles of travel; they say, it doesn't do good to stay in here forever. You've to let the bones breathe, taste the sea. "We like to keep the bones of fiends where we can see them, locked tight."

He's amused. "People like us," he rolls in his mouth, laving his tongue over the insult. Only he doesn't do it the way an animal licks his wounds; he wants to worry it with his teeth, suck the marrow out of it. "What kind of people would that be? We really aren't so different. We mustn't fight; we're overdue for a bit of goodwill."

"What?" she sneers. "Are you afraid?"

He laughs. "I could snap you like a twig," he says. "If I wanted to I'd have you quartered and drawn. I could make all your people my slaves. I'd drink in the skulls of your women and children. No, Caroline," he lays, honeyed-sweet, nauseating, "I'm not afraid of you."

He doesn't know me, she thinks; he thinks because my mother didn't want to fight she was weak, and we are all weak. He does not know that I have a hundred people that will leap and take him if he so much as moves a finger to hurt me. He does not know what goes on at my house, the killings and the enchantments, the blood that runs thick and loud and fortifying, the way they scraped their forehead on the ground bowing when they crowned me. He only knows what he's seen: a lonely human boy with a tender heart wandering alone at night, when anyone would know better. Well, it's a good thing — we'll take him by surprise. They will never expect us. We'll torch his fancy plantation, burn it to the ground, to glittering ashes; we'll stomp over their corpses and dance, and then we will be the sole rulers of this place. Though sometimes she wonders: what is there to rule over? It's all dry land razed by the scorching sun and churches every two miles, more churches than grocery stores; and beasts of all shapes and sizes, bugs and swamps and bad weeds. But it's their home. Maybe that's all there is to it: where they were born, where the Lord has seen fit to make them kings and queens. There is no reason to want it; but there is a reason to keep it, at least.

She squares her jaw. "You should."

He has been watching her, his large black pupils trained on the infinitesimal details of her face, probably, she thinks, cataloguing the outline of a future battlefield; but the words seem to remind him where they are. The pupils turn to steel.

"Right," he says. "Well, if that's all, and there's no pie forthcoming, I think you should go."

Caroline laughs, she can't help it; does he think she's going to be dismissed so easily, when she just threatened him in a room full of people at his beck and call? She leans forward —a whir of speed, her body pushed to unimaginable limits— and there she is, sitting in his throne. She throws her leg over the arm.

"Comfortable," she says. "Does this mean I can tell you what to do too, now? Because I," she licks her lips, for the drama of it, sees Elena's eyes sparkle in approval out of the corner of her eye, "think you owe me."

Klaus turns to his sister, playing incredulity. She raises an unimpressed eyebrow from where she had been inspecting her nails. "Owe you? For what?"

"For killing one of mine."

"Isn't that the law of land? He crossed into my territory. He was alone, human —we don't all have as much self-control as you, love." And damn him if that doesn't sound like a threat, that 'self-control' pouring out of his lips hot and saccharine, but she's too deep in now. She was too deep the moment she lit that fire underneath Matt's pyre.

(Besides —besides, it only takes one act of suicidal recklessness to become a hero, doesn't it? Caroline can't say she would object to becoming one of those legends of the South, more than what she is now, an ineffectual placeholder for a peaceful sovereign —for a value of peaceful, of course, this place being what it is. The point being: Caroline isn't naïve enough to think it doesn't take some blood-spilling to become a true queen. It's all good, though. There's always confession to wash your soul clean afterwards, begin again good as new, so to speak.)

When Caroline was a kid, her mother used to ground her for being impulsive: she climbed up too-high trees, chased after animals she'd better not, and once or twice drained outsiders she found lost in the bordering forest. That accounts for this: for rising up and calling Bonnie to her, and watching those brown eyes crackle and flash as a dark, thunderous mist descends on the room, the king, the plantation. See, Caroline thinks, looking at his face as it shadows with anger, I can change the weather.

He goes to snap her neck, but she's faster: dodges, a step on the side, like a dance, Caroline always liked dancing; Elena and Rebekah are at each other's throats in the corner, Elijah the only brother who's still standing there still and sour while the others —Kol and Finn, if she's not mistaken—, growl and advance on the doors, ready to tear through the Caroline's crowd. Damon has advanced to shield Bonnie bodily while she raises her hands to the heavens, the whole sky resting in the palm of her hands. Her father was a preacher.

Klaus looms over her, his voice magically amplified. The wind is whipping at him, everything dark and damp and menacing, a swirl of hurricane around his body. She thinks, why doesn't he try to kill me? But in the end she doesn't really care. One of them will end up with a stake through the heart, and it won't be her.

"If you don't leave in the next minute I'm going to have to kill you, darling," he says, fangs pearling with blood from someone —one of hers— she just watched him grab at blindly and decimate, teeth and tongue and the crack of bones, his lip curled ugly and cruel, "and your little—" he sneers at the mist, Bonnie's disproportionally imposing shadow on the wooden floor, "shenanigans haven't made me particularly inclined to be merciful. I'm afraid you're no longer welcome here."

All Caroline has to do is snap a finger: outside the crowd huddles, the boys stamping their feet on the ground, the girls with their hair draped wetly over their shoulders, laughing, teeth pearly white. Oh, she is proud: she is proud of who she has, who obeys her, who her mother has left her to command and offer up in sacrifice. She loves them all, really.

"Makes two of us," she flashes a smirk at Klaus, and then she's gone.

 

 

(There are stories, after that. Klaus Mikaelson has been saying that she is glorious, great, and full of light; the word has spread that this strife is his form of decadent courtship. Elena laughs and calls him a pet; says, He'll lay bodies at your door. Stefan tells her to be careful, and there is nothing to do but shake her head and laugh. Stefan, those are only rumors —and besides, do you really think British and murderous is my type? Whenever his people cross the border Caroline tears them apart, burns crosses on their foreheads, hangs them onto trees that he can see from his window in the morning.)

 

 

The night is hot, sticks to her skin and drips, though mosquitoes don't dare bite her for fear of poisoning themselves on her blood. There is nothing: her people sleeping, outside the vigil, in the next room over Stefan and Elena giggling like schoolchildren, somewhere in the depths of the house Bonnie and Damon having another one of those conversations about realms that elude her. One day she will ask if they have encountered her mother, if she has given them a piece of advice to give her daughter, how to be regal and happy at the same time; not now, though.

Now there is a phone ringing somewhere in the house, and no one to answer it. Caroline tries to close her eyes and ignore it, without success; when it's annoyed her enough that she wants to kill someone, she puts on her dressing gown and goes to the kitchen to answer it.

Something crackles on the other end when she picks up, maybe laughter; breathing she can't recognize. The heartbeat is steady. Caroline's isn't, for some reason.

"My lady disdain," says the voice softly, smilingly, "it's been a long time."

Caroline feels something jump inside her, but won't show it; will not let him win, ever. (Though the truth is, there have been dreams, dreams that looked as though they had been sowed through with a witch's needle: hazy and green with his face right at the center of them, his thumb touching her cheek and smearing it with blood; dreams from which she would wake up with a beating heart, hoping he hadn't heard it all the way across the swamp and the dirt paths littered with rocks.)

"I've sent you presents. Didn't you get them?"

He laughs. "Yes. I have to thank you for that, sweetheart. You know what they say about bad weeds: one shouldn't keep them with the bouquet."

"Is that you? Sorry to break it to you, but you and your siblings are hardly a bouquet, Klaus."

"I think Rebekah would take exception," he says, and then nothing —the silence— she would think he had hung up on her if she couldn't still hear the minute details of his existence, breath passing through his lips, the steady flow of blood, a fluttering of eyelids.

"I was calling," he says after a stretch, his voice warm all of a sudden —Caroline presses her knees together, a shiver trickling down her spine, fear, anticipation maybe—, "to ask you to meet."

"Didn't you take the hint from what I did to your messengers?"

He dismisses it. "Those weren't messengers, love; they were offerings. Are you still angry?"

"In case the storm hadn't clued in, yes. You killed one of mine —do you think I'll just forget? I know my mother was a champion for peace, Klaus, but I will kill you if necessary."

A burst of laughter on his part, like shards from an axe hitting beautiful glossed wood. "All the better," he says. "Make this interesting." Then: "It's a beautiful night."

"To die?"

"To do all sorts of things," he drawls —then a click, a hurried and yet somehow languid, "the swamp, ten minutes," and that's all.

So there she is: left standing with the receiver to her ear, still in her silk nightgown, trying to convince herself she hadn't decided to go the minute he said he wanted to meet. What does he want, anyway? He knows as well as she does that the swamp is neutral territory: but if something happens to either of them it means death waiting on the other side for the winner, it means centuries of war. Maybe that is what he wants. He seems like the type to enjoy it.

She slips out of the house unnoticed, tiptoes around the wolf on vigil —Hayley, a mountain girl Tyler brought home a few years back and whom Caroline's mother took in, no questions asked. Maybe she sees —it's hard to tell, with those eyes. But she won't tell; she can't, not with that debt hanging to her foot like a prisoner's ball.

Klaus is already there when she gets to the swamp, her shawl catching in the brambles as she walks. His eyes are glowing in the darkness, a preternatural amber: the tantalizing glimpse of an oasis in the middle of that dry, thirsting land that the swamp is only there to taunt —that, and to lure stray voyagers in to dip their feet in and drown. But Matt hadn't drowned; she does not forget.

"Hi," she says as she comes into sight, wary.

His face lights up. It's a strange sight: she thinks, a man who has done the things he has should not be so beautiful. It's true that most of those things are only rumor; but unlike some Caroline is able to weed out of the truth, and there are enough horrors there to make heaven refuse him forever.

"Hello, love. Thank you for coming."

"What do you want?"

"Just a chat." A breath, a whisper, and he's there next to her, too close for comfort. His fingers almost touch her thigh; Caroline spares a thought to wish she'd dressed more. The cicadas crow with a vengeance. "You've made quite an impression."

"On who?" He can feel it: the way something ripples inside her when his fingers brush her skin as if by accident, because he is leaning in to listen… An enemy, she remembers, who will do anything to get his way. "On you?"

He tilts his head. "I do seem to be the main victim," he says, almost pouting, and she has to laugh, because if that's his idea of seduction… boy.

"What do you want, Klaus?"

"I already told you. A chat, that's all. Friends—" he amends at her glare, "cordial adversaries conversing… isn't that what one does?"

"At four in the morning?"

When she was a child Caroline was afraid there were monsters in that swamp; things who would rise up in the dead of night and creep to her bed to strangle her in her sleep. That was before her mother told her, we are the monsters, honey. We are what people fear.

"When fancy strikes," he says, not a note of apology in his voice. "Besides, you wouldn't want your friends knowing you're here, would you?"

Caroline squares her shoulders, but that only serves to bring him closer; she sees his eyes follow a bead of sweat that falls from her brow, disappears down in the crescent between her breasts. "I'm not doing anything wrong."

Klaus smiles. "Not yet."

And he is like a snake, when he kisses her: he slithers and shimmers and then he is there, against her lips, warm and ferocious and unrelenting, his fingers bruising down on her thigh and it is venom that she cannot refuse, the kind of drug that addles with one touch.

He pulls away to say, slightly breathless though it can only be an act, "Am I forgiven now?" and she has time only to say, "No" before, against her will, she is the one to dip down and swallow whatever his response was, something cruel and sacrilegious no doubt. He rests a hand at the nape of her neck, reverent, and she thinks: I have seen that tenderness of touch, in men with their Bibles and their God, when they kneel.

"I really did leave an impression," she whispers, and he winks as though to say, did you doubt it? before his hands are pressing at the small of her back, pulling her forward and she has lost her crown somewhere and she doesn't even care, he is kissing her breasts, her stomach, that thin silk fabric that hides nothing and ripples on her body like water, so white…

She gasps.

He looks up. "What is it?" He looks disoriented for a moment, almost genuine; then his smirk slides back in place. "What is it, love? Are you having second thoughts?"

She thinks, I didn't know what I was walking towards, when I came here; but for all that it is true, she isn't sure he would believe her.

So she says, "Me? Second thoughts?"

—and he looks stricken for a second, then bursts into loud-bellied, open-mouthed laughter, so utterly delighted by her that it makes something roil in her stomach, makes her pull him back into the fold of her body. He slams them against a tree and she knows the bark will leave indentations on her skin, scars that will bear his name; in vengeance she scratches a long tear up his throat, blood seeping on her fingers. It is bad blood, blood that will choke her if she puts her tongue to it. He doesn't scream; merely grinds his teeth, but it's enough.

"Kiss me," she orders.

And kiss her he does: fast as quicksilver his tongue and the plush redness of his lips and the faint aftertaste of blood that he has let rot behind his teeth —he really should floss, Caroline thinks to tell him, and grins into the kiss—, a bitter-candy sweetness. What's one more sin after all —wasn't it Stefan who commanded her innocence? (And wasn't it him, too, who warned against the devil on the throne?)

Well, Caroline has always been bad at following advice.

She is thinking too much, trying to justify her strayings to herself —so that she can justify them to others, later—, that the press of her lips takes her by surprise, a spark, low in her stomach and achingly bright, the ember of some unimaginable fire roaring up: he is kneeling in the mud and has the fabric of her nightgown bunched in his fists, an electric grin that she can feel in her flesh.

"God—"

He tears away for a short, sarcastic, "Don't take the name of the Lord in vain, love."

—and he is back: and she is above him and finds nothing and everything wanting, and grasps at sensation, and seems to explode in parcels at every infinitesimal movement; and contains the sun and the stars and the rivers, and the glowing moon, and her mother's ghost, and love she has never felt, for anyone; and could not stop if she were urged, if lightning were to strike down in front of her and a bush to catch on godly fire.

She feels it sneak up on her, crest like the highest wave of oceans she has only ever heard of; teeters, walking on a rope, hanging—

The moon is not yet full. The cicadas have quieted. Dawn is peeking, dark red like a dead man's blood.

Well, Caroline thinks, maybe war isn't so bad after all.