He can't tell if it’s really a secret if no one actually cares about it but him.
Elena asks him about it once, sympathetic, distracted, eyes on her beeper, “so you guys still aren’t talking, huh?”
“Is it obvious?” he manages, sarcasm punctuating his words, raising his glass in a mock toast she doesn't see. In his peripheral vision Caroline is- something. Ignoring him, clearly, but he doesn’t know what else she's doing. Has no idea what the books and papers in her hand are for. Why she's at the bar that Elena had fixed as their meeting place. Doesn't know if she's skipping class. Doesn’t know her subject choices for the semester either.
It’s weird, the realization. Like that should be a standard marker of friendship; he should know her subjects. Maybe her schedule. He should know- have known- her schedule, so he doesn't- didn’t- end up calling her in the middle of journalism or fashion design or political science or something, when he calls- called- her out for coffee. He would have called her out for coffee.
And that voice in his head that sound like her sometimes- most times- says, yeah, well, you would have known if you’d stayed.
He’s basically justifying it to his own voice inside his own head, even if it does sound like her, and he has a psych degree from 1982 so he can accurately diagnose that he’s clearly fucking certifiable now. And he wants to know what those papers she's carrying are, with a burning, irrational curiosity that he’s fairly sure is starting to border on something dangerously close to obsession.
“Can’t blame her,” Elena says, already busy with her phone, her coat flapping behind her as she gets up, and he’s honestly proud of her, for everything she wants to do with her life right now, even though he’s a hundred years too old for hope, “you were kind of a dick to her. Actually, no, you were a dick to her. You picked up everyone’s calls but hers. You abandoned her. She still never stopped talking about you, you know. The entire time. Like you’d find everything that needed to be found. Like you'd somehow save the day. Like you were magic or something.”
“I’m glad,” he says, because it seems like a cue, even though he has no idea what to say, and he can’t remember the last time someone thought he could find anything that needed to be found, “the consensus is universal. On my status as the residential dick.”
Elena laughs, “with Damon back, that’s a pretty heavy mantle to carry.” Then stops, as she’s starting to do these days, disjunction between what she wants to say, how she feels, and how she thinks she ought to feel by what everyone tells her.
He just raises his eyebrows. She sighs.
Her voice sounds smaller when she speaks next, like she’s speaking to herself more than she is, “must have been nice, to have someone think you’re magic.”
It’s a stupid thing to fixate on, he knows, when Elena leaves, and Caroline’s long gone, but it’s not like he’s been winning any prizes for subtlety lately so whatever, but she hadn’t looked at him at all. Caroline hadn’t turned his way even for a moment. He knows this because he hadn't either.
Turned away, even for a moment.
The thing about Caroline Forbes being Caroline Forbes is that when she’s in your life, you tend to notice, he concludes.
She’s loud, she’s bright, she’s fixing something, someone, and needs all the help in the world so she doesn’t burn out in an organizational haze, and doesn’t need your help at all, thank you very much, because she managed the senior bake sale and the charity car wash, and the student council, and- god what are you, new?
Earlier- and he still doesn’t think of it as ‘that time that Damon died’ because yeah they’re making a regular habit of bringing people back from the dead, but Damon’s supposed to be indestructible, outside the realm of the possibility- he was too weighed down. Her absence filled in with grief, physical grief, like an extra gravitational pull. That left no space at all. And now it’s gone.
So maybe it’s funny- ironic, at the very least- that her presence is that extra gravity now. Eyes darting past him, smile slipping off whenever she catches his eye accidentally, the heaviness contracting into something solid somewhere inside him, till he thinks he can't keep standing straight, can't breathe. Or maybe it's better this way. Better to not have her look at him like she has been in the past month; like she has no idea who he even is.
(Fact is; he's never had an idea of who he is. And fact is; he's never wanted anything more than to be whoever she's always thought he already was.)
And here's the truth; he's selfish.
(I just want you to have space to breathe, she'd said once, he remembers. Sitting in front of him on his couch, a comforting hand on his leg, all undeserved sympathy and righteous indignation for his romantic failures and delusions with Elena.
Because I couldn't imagine why she'd let someone like you go.
The thing about Caroline Forbes being Caroline Forbes is that when she’s not in your life, you tend to notice.)
“I think you’re magic too.” He’s slurring, which he knows, in some sane part of his mind, a tiny, barely-there part, that’s still somehow hanging on, somehow, means he’s had too much to drink. Far too much. The kind of too much that spells trouble that doesn’t just end in an awkward conversation. Caroline Forbes, my best friend. You’re much hotter in person.
Tell me how.
“Excuse me?” voice cold. She isn’t dressed up; jeans, and a shirt that looks like it belongs to someone else.
Caroline Forbes isn’t dressed up for a party. He wants to know what changed. Wants to make it unchange, somehow. Wants to know if she didn't feel like it. Or Elena dragged her here, just like she did him. Wants to know if she got too late. He's starting to want too much.
Get over yourself , the voice in his head says, and it’s disconcerting when they’re both together, like this, her and her voice in his head, not everything is about you.
“I think,” he says, slower, deliberately, and if he can deliberate he isn’t drunk enough for this. So maybe that’s just another excuse, “you’re magic.”
Tell me why.
She doesn’t know what to say to that, he can tell, because he learned how to read her. A while back, yes, and he’s rusty, and Caroline’s- complicated, at best- but enough to be able to bet on this one.
“I think,” she says, finally, and he can’t read her any longer, can’t figure out if the indifference is an act or it isn’t. And he’s glad he can’t read her. So fucking glad. “I think you’ve had too much to drink. And you’re an asshole. And I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Tell me how I—
— didn’t say that.
“I have no idea what I’m talking about either.” The vulnerability, he decides, is what sucks the most. He wasn’t built for it. Didn't know it was a thing he could still feel.
She stares at him for a beat longer, the lines around her mouth softening just a little. Just enough that he notices. Or maybe makes it up in his head because god knows he isn’t the standard of sanity around this place, “good. We’re on the same wavelength, then. It's been a while.”
“If I’d stayed,” he begins, as if conversationally, and he has to force the words out and hope she can't tell. Which she can, he knows, because she learns faster than he does, “what would be different?”
She keeps her glass down, busying herself with the place mats. The angles are exact when she’s finished, he measures them because he can; “guess we’ll never have to know.”
“Would you be dressed up? Right now. If I'd stayed”
Which is such a stupid thing to- her mouth tightens again, and he is such a fucking idiot, seriously, and he doesn't mean that at all, that's not what he- “do my sartorial choices not live up to your sensibilities, Mr. Salvatore? Why didn’t you tell me that my being in your line of vision was causing you so much-”
“I’m trying,” he interrupts, and it’s like he can’t help being an ass. Like she’s supposed to understand because she’s his best friend. But that isn’t fair to her. This isn’t fair to her. He isn’t fair to her, maybe he never has been; a modicum of respect, is that how this works? “Caroline. I’m trying.”
“I have,” she says, voice low, and here’s the thing, he hadn’t missed that second of hurt either, that second when she’d looked at him and hadn’t said what's wrong with this? because she thinks he'd think it stupid. And he wants to tell her that obviously she’s goddamned beautiful, like there’s ever been a second opinion on that. And he didn't mean to make her feel this way, that isn't what he meant. And doesn’t think it’s stupid, he’s never thought it stupid. And he’ll listen if she wants to say it, and he wants her to say it if she wants to say it. Wants her to ask him to justify himself, ask him why he's such a jackass, anything, just, please, “no idea what you’re trying. But just— stop, okay. Please.”
I deserve better than that. His mouth feels dry.
(So here's the truth; she's always deserved better than that. He's always known that.)
The walking away- the watching her walk away- maybe that's his thing.
(This is what he almost says in reply then, in the sterile hospital atmosphere, on autopilot, a long desperate nanosecond before she turns away: I could be better than that.
He doesn't, obviously. Hence the almost. He’d maybe have gone down on his knees in the moment if it made any difference, talk to me, okay, Caroline, please- just talk. It wouldn't have, though.
She’d have been too far away before he even finished speaking, anyway. She could have heard, he knows, she’s got super hearing, she hears everything, but she wouldn’t have been listening.
So it’s probably just as well she turned away first.)