The late afternoon sunlight paints the world in glorious shades of amber and gold. It streams through the open front door, turning the otherwise ordinary hallway into something almost magical. Caroline smiles at the sight, pausing for an appreciative moment as she sets the shopping bags down. She can't help breathing a soft sigh as the door clicks shut, the stifling gloom of the house instantly rushing back to envelop her. All the curtains are closed, all the blinds drawn. No window or door is open even the smallest crack. The house is a fortress, huddled and close, the outside world kept firmly at bay. Caroline shivers. It’s too suffocating, too much like a tomb. She may be a vampire now, but in her heart she'll always be a child of sunlight and summer and the open air. Yet she would never dream of complaining.
Anything for her dearest friend.
Her smile doesn't falter the tiniest amount. If anything, she broadens it even further.
"Elena," she trills, stepping around the corner into the living room. "I’m-"
Shock fills her veins with ice water.
She just can’t seem to process the sight in front of her.
Two figures, locked together, wrapped around each other.
Doubled image. Twisted mirror.
Two sets of hands, clutching, tangled.
Spray of dark hair, straight locks mingled with curls.
Red velvet on black denim, the contrast like a spill of blood in the night, sudden and shocking.
Blood... The tang of iron and copper, faint but unmistakably *there*.
(How could she not have smelled it before?)
Lips smeared, mouths hungry, tongues seeking...
Elena and Katherine are *kissing*
‘Ohmygod, that’s *so* (hot) wrong,’ flits through her mind.
At first they seem oblivous to her entrance, lost in the moment (in each other), but then Elena (she knows it’s her and not the other) opens her eyes and...
...is abruptly halfway across the room, an expression of utter shock on her face. One hand flies up to cover her bloodstained (freshly-kissed) mouth.
“Oh my god!” she almost yelps, looking far more discombobulated than Caroline has seen her in years. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
Katherine just laughs. She sashays over to the sofa and settles onto it comfortably, seemingly perfectly at ease. Unlike Elena, she makes no attempt whatsoever to hide the evidence of her recent activities.
“Careful, Elena,” she drawls. “She hasn’t said what she thinks it looks like yet.” Deliberately meeting Caroline’s gaze, she draws a fingertip through the drying blood on her face, then delicately touches it to her tongue.
Ignoring the way her stomach lurches with (desire) blood lust, Caroline rolls her eyes at the display (because that’s all it is; all it ever is with Katherine) and turns her attention to Elena.
“It *looked* like the two of you were kissing.”
Elena winces. “Well... we were. But it wasn’t... It was a lesson, that’s all.”
Caroline can’t help the way her eyebrows shoot up, almost into her hairline. She plants her hands on her hips, resisting the urge to smooth her dress, to comb her fingers through her hair, to straighten her cardigan. She refuses to put her unease on display.
(It's nothing to do with the way Katherine is looking at her. And it's certainly nothing to do with the images that linger behind her eyes, persisting despite her best efforts to drive them away.)
“A... lesson,” she repeats. A frown creases her forehead. Force of habit makes her make a mental note to stop doing that, but if ever a frown was justified it's right now. (In any case, it's not like she's going to wrinkle, is it?) “A lesson in what, exactly?”
She doesn't miss the way Elena's glance flickers instinctively towards Katherine, looking for... what? Support? It doesn't come, of course. Katherine is having far too much *fun* with all of this.
(She always does, in everything she does. It's either one of her better qualities, or something that almost makes Caroline want to scream with annoyance.)
But the fact of Elena looking to their sometimes-enemy/occasional-ally/never-*friend* (and what is she even *doing* here anyway?) is like a dagger in her chest. After the initial sting of it, though, the barb eases gently into place. Just one more ache among too many to count.
And it isn't like she's surprised. Not really.
Okay. So. That's the way it is. She can feel the lines being drawn, redrawn, a new configuration emerging. But, paradoxically, with the acceptance comes a steely determination, the burning will to fight. No matter how hopeless the struggle, how long the odds, she's not just going to give up.
She doesn't give up on her friends.
Although it feels like an age has passed, in reality it's only been a few seconds. Elena is still struggling for words, though, so Caroline decides to give her a push. She takes a deliberate step towards her agitated friend, drawing her gaze.
"Well?" she asks, softening her voice. Not demanding, just asking a simple, straightforward question.
Something shifts in Elena's eyes, something unreadable.
"Just... give me a minute," she mutters. "I need to get cleaned up."
Pulling a handful of tissues from the box on the coffee table, she crosses to the kitchen sink to scrub at the mess around her mouth. With an almost visible effort, she schools her features into something resembling calm. As long as you ignore the faint writhing around her eyes. And turn a blind eye to the way she's in constant, restless motion, seemingly unable to hold herself still. It about breaks Caroline's heart to see how hard she's trying (how badly she's failing).
What’s wrong with this picture?
But the sheer un-Elena-ness of her hesitation is by far the worst part.
(Though sometimes it's been hard to recognise the girl she used to know. Ever since the turn.)
If you don’t count Katherine being here, of course. She makes everything worse.
Clutching the soggy, bloodstained wad of tissues in one hand, Elena closes her eyes tightly for a moment, letting out a sigh that's almost a sob. Caroline is peripherally aware of Katherine shifting position slightly on the sofa, tilting her head to one side as she considers her double.
"You missed a spot," she observes, cheerfully. Her gaze flicks over to Caroline for the merest instant, the smile on her lips twisting into something wry and challenging before melting back into simple (like anything is *ever* simple with her) amusement. "Want me to help?"
"That's okay, I've got it." Caroline is in motion almost before the words are out of her mouth. A few quick steps take her to Elena's side where she hesitates, suddenly uncertain. "Is that alright, Elena?" she asks, deliberately making her tone soft and soothing. Elena nods once, jerkily. She keeps her eyes closed while Caroline gently scrubs at her face with damp kitchen roll, only opening them when she steps back and pronounces: "All done."
"Thank you." Elena's voice is low and hoarse. She makes a face at the soiled tissues that she's still holding, throwing them in the bin (with perhaps a little more force than is strictly necessary) and washing her hands in the sink.
Elena returns Caroline's smile faintly, briefly, before her face falls into serious lines once again.
"Control," she bursts out, suddenly.
Caroline blinks. "Excuse me?"
A twitchy, jittery shrug. "It was about control. The kissing, I mean."
Although she's decided to try ignoring the elephant in the room for the time being, Caroline can't help the way her gaze drifts to Katherine, trying to gauge her reaction.
Katherine laughs. "If you could only see the expression on your face right now, Caroline," she murmurs. "You look so *adorably* confused."
Caroline narrows her eyes. "I don't remember asking for comments from the peanut gallery." There's an edge to her voice despite her firm resolve not to let herself be rattled. But then, Katherine always does seem to know exactly how to get under her skin. "And aren't *you* going to clean yourself up?"
With a liquid shrug of her shoulders, Katherine unfolds herself from the sofa and stoops to snag a partially-full glass from the coffee table. "No, I'm good." She looks up, her eyes sparkling as they meet Caroline's. "Why, does it bother you?"
Caroline rolls her eyes. "I just thought you might want *not* to look like you should be on one of those Discovery Channel documentaries, that's all."
But that isn't a 'no'.
(And even if it was, it wouldn't be true. Not entirely. Crimson has *always* been one of Katherine’s colours.)
Smirking like she's scored a point, Katherine tops up her glass from the blood bag propped to one side and gracefully resettles herself amongst the cushions. Naturally, she doesn't spill a single drop. Half-closing her eyes, she inhales deeply of the rich aroma, her soft sigh drowned out by Elena's sudden, sharp gasp.
Concerned, Caroline half-turns to see Elena's eyes have become two shadowed pits in a nest of writhing worms. She's gripping the countertop almost hard enough to crack it, her whole body trembling as if it's at war with itself.
"Elena. Elena look at me." Caroline instinctively reaches out, but checks the motion halfway through. She wants nothing more than to offer a hug, or even just a comforting touch, but she knows from past, painful experience that it won't help. Elena can't bear to be touched when she's like this; can barely even stand to be seen. So Caroline soothes with her voice instead. "Just breathe. In and out, just like we practiced. Okay?"
"That's... the... problem!" The words are razor blades and broken glass, Elena's voice a harsh, rasping growl. "Every time I breathe in I can *smell* it."
"Then focus on something else," Caroline urges, at the same time as Katherine says:
"Why don't you just have some, then? It's right here." Swirling the sluggish liquid, she raises the glass in a mocking toast (to Caroline? to Elena? to no one in particular?) and takes a small sip. The delicacy of the action is at odds with the blood painting her face, like a fur-clad barbarian using a knife and fork or a linebacker doing needlepoint. "Mmmm," she almost moans.
"Not *helping*, Katherine!" And if Caroline's own voice is edging close to a snarl, then that's surely because she's so (hungry) angry right now she could just *scream*.
But Elena's the one who's screaming. Wailing, really; a distressed, desperate keening that goes on and on and on. Caroline's (beloved) best friend is in pain, and it's all *her* fault. The interloper. The mischief-maker. She'll pay for this, and pay dearly, but not right now. Not when Elena needs help.
"Make it stop," Elena whimpers. "I c- can't *stand* this. Just, please make it *stop*."
"It's okay, Elena. You're going to be okay. You can do this."
"I don't kn- know if-"
"You *can*. I have faith in you." Ignoring the snort from the sofa, Caroline moves around until she's in the centre of Elena's field of vision. She places her hands on the countertop, near but not touching. "Now, look at me." Slowly, painfully, Elena lifts her head up. "Good." Caroline lets her smile turn mischievous, lets her eyes sparkle just a little. Shared humour, nothing that can be seen as mocking. (Elena can get awfully touchy these days.) "Uh oh. Looks like someone's going to have to re-apply her eyeliner when she's done vamping out."
There's a split second when things could go either way, but then Elena laughs. It's ragged around the edges and fades into a whimper, but Caroline's heart lifts at the sound of it. Despite appearances, maybe this isn't going to be one of the bad days after all.
"You're going t- to have to g- give me some tips." Her mouth twists again, breath hissing hard through her teeth. She looks away, then back again, the strain clear in every taut, trembling line and curve of her body. "I'm so *thirsty*, Caroline."
"Didn't you just have something to drink?" She doesn't mean it as a reproach, but she sees the spark of anger flare in Elena's haggard, haunted gaze. Caroline tilts her head just a little, eyebrows raised in a silent 'really?' and the flame gutters out again just as quickly. Elena shrugs, her sheepish expression saying more than a thousand apologies. Not that Caroline wants her to apologise: she just wants her to fight past her hunger-driven instincts, to learn to hang onto reason. It seems to be working. At least, she amends, it *seemed* to be working until today. Until Katherine's visit.
"I did," says Elena, answering the surface question, "but it doesn't help. It's not..." She releases her death grip on the counter top, waving one hand vaguely as language fails her.
"It's not enough for her." The same voice, but oh so different in tone. Not that Caroline would never admit to any comparison between them in which Elena comes out the lesser, but... (It's the difference between a diamond just after its first rough-cutting, and once it's been shaped and polished and set. The same base material, but only one has been honed to perfection.) "She's too much a predator to be easily satisfied with carrion."
And that almost sounds like... admiration. And almost like something else, too. Almost like... concern?
(But when is Katherine ever concerned about anything or anyone but herself?)
Either way, Elena visibly flinches at the words.
"Stay out of this, Katherine." Caroline's voice may be soft, but the warning is plain to hear. "You're a bad influence. I don't know what you're even doing here in the first place."
Katherine starts to say something, but Elena, of all people, overrides her. "Actually, I invited her," she says, her voice suddenly steady again and so much more like herself.
(It shouldn't hurt. Not when Caroline already knows how this goes. How it always goes. But it does anyway.)
Guilt is written across Elena's face, plain for anyone to see. On the plus side, she looks like she's regained control of herself. With an inward shrug, Caroline decides to be thankful for that, at least.
"Okay, then." Patting Elena's hand reassuringly (it's safe to touch now, and part of her softens at the relief in Elena's eyes when she does so), she pushes off the counter and steps back "Why don't we sit down, and you tell me all about it?"
There's the slightest hesitation, and then: "Okay."
Caroline intends to sit in one of the armchairs, but then Katherine *looks* at her. Maybe it's that insufferable, knowing smirk on her lips, or maybe it's the way that the devil herself seems to dance behind her eyes, but before she's consciously changed her mind, Caroline's steps have taken her to the sofa.
"Budge up a bit," she says, sitting down before Katherine can finish whatever it is she's starting to say. (Interrupted twice in a row, one part of her -- a smug, *smirking* part of her -- crows. That's got to smart.) Much to her surprise, Katherine actually does move over a little, making room for her to perch neatly on the cushions. From the look on her face, *Katherine* is somewhat surprised as well. Or maybe she's just amused. Either way, Caroline's counting it as a point to herself. "Thank you."
Elena looks from one of them to the other, her brow furrowed. For a moment, it seems like she's going to say something, but then she obviously thinks better of it. Taking a clean glass from the drainer (holding it with exaggerated care, as if she's afraid she might crack it), she crosses to the table and picks up the blood bag with a hand that only shakes a little.
"Would you like something to drink?" she asks.
"Yes, please." It's hard not to leap up and offer her help, to make it easier on Elena, but Caroline makes herself stay right where she is. 'She has to learn control,' she tells herself, all the while feeling like a terrible, awful friend. 'It's for the best.' Elena pours slowly, chewing on her lower lip almost to the point of drawing her own (stolen) blood. Her breathing is ragged by the time she's done, but she hands the glass to Caroline with a triumphant smile.
"Thank you," says Caroline, meaning: 'Well done.'
"You’re welcome," replies Elena. There's a single glass remaining on the table, empty but for the merest scarlet tinge. It's clearly her own. She refills it -- just as torturous a process as filling Caroline's glass -- and takes it with her to one of the armchairs, where she curls up with her legs tucked beneath her. Only when she’s properly settled in does she allow herself to drink. And even then, she sips slowly. Maybe not patiently, but at least she’s not giving in to her obvious desire to drain it in one gulp. That’s definitely progress!
Caroline’s so proud of her right now that her heart feels fit to burst.
Setting the glass aside, Elena takes a couple of deep breaths and smiles wryly across at Caroline.
“I’m just going to begin at the beginning.”
“That’s generally how it’s done,” Caroline observes lightly.
“How perfectly conventional,” Katherine drawls. That earns her a sharp look from Elena, in response to which she gives a lopsided smile and makes a ‘get on with it’ gesture. After bestowing another frown, Elena turns back to Caroline.
“You know I’ve been having trouble... adjusting.”
It’s not a question, but Caroline nods anyway. She doesn’t point out how much of an understatement that is. Elena’s transition has been difficult, far more than Caroline’s was. Not that Caroline’s was easy, but this is definitely worse. Elena’s thirst grips her tighter, and is harder to slake. Even with a daylight ring, the sun sears her eyes. She’s hyper-sensitive to pretty much anything and everything: smells, sounds, touch... Everything. And then there’s the emotional rollercoaster. The only consolation is the fact that she hasn’t actually killed anyone.
(But even though she prefers to dwell on the positive, Caroline doesn’t like to linger on that particular thought. After all, that’s an innocence she can’t claim anymore. And all the guilt in the world won’t change that.)
“Well, Katherine turned up out of the blue one day.” Elena grimaces. “And it was a Bad Day.” The capital letters are audible.
Caroline wants to let Elena continue uninterrupted. She wants to rush over to her and give her a hug. But what she actually does is turn to Katherine with a questioning (and slightly sharp) look.
“What were you doing here?”
Katherine shrugs, the motion lazy and feline. “I was in the neighbourhood and decided to come and say hello.” Her eyes glint wickedly. “I thought we could bond over the one more thing we now have in common.”
(Maybe the slight emphasis on the word ‘bond’ is all in Caroline’s imagination. Maybe.)
Elena shrugs, a minute twitch of the shoulders. “It doesn’t matter why she was here,” she says, simply. “The point is that she was. She saw what... She saw how difficult things were for me, and she offered to help.”
“You could have called me,” Caroline says softly, and to her own ears her voice sounds raw and vulnerable. She hates it, hates exposing herself like this in front of *her*. But the feelings cut too deeply to keep them inside. She has to let them out or they'll slice her to ribbons. “I would have tried to help you.”
“I know.” Now Elena's voice is pained. She meets and holds Caroline's eyes as if they're the only two people in the room. As if Katherine's presence wasn't filling the space between them. "I know you would. I was going to -- even made it as far as pulling out my phone -- but... But." She sighs. "You've helped me so much, Caroline. And you haven't given up on me. Not even when I... Even when I was awful to you."
"You weren't aw-"
"Yes. I was." Her expression this time is fond, but firm. (And, really, she's kind of right. Even if she is exaggerating a little.) "You keep telling me how much progress I'm making, and sometimes I even believe it. But on the Bad Days..." Her hands start to tighten on the arms of the chair, but she visibly checks the motion, folding them loosely in her lap. Her voice drops almost to a whisper, to the point where, if Caroline (was normal) wasn't a vampire, she would have had to strain to hear the next words. "I didn't want to you to see me like that, not again. I didn't want you to think that I was a lost cause."
"Oh, Elena..." Caroline's eyes prickle, but she blinks back the unshed tears. "I would *never* think that. You know that, don't you?"
"Yes." Elena's eyes are also shining a little, but she's back to a normal speaking volume. And if her voice quavers, just the tiniest amount, then Caroline isn't going to draw attention to it. "I do *know* that, but..." She chews on her lower lip a little, something she used to do when she was younger, but outgrew years ago. Until recently. "On the Bad Days, I don't *feel* it. And I just..." She shrugs, helplessly.
"It's alright," Caroline says, smiling gently. "You really *are* doing better than you were." Most of the time, even. (She only hurt Caroline that one time, and she didn't even mean to. But that was the worst it's ever been, and it's *never* gotten that bad since. Anyway, that wasn't even all that bad, not really. Not in the grand scheme of things.) "There may be bad days" -- she refuses to weight the phrase like it's a Thing, like it's something more than a mere descriptor -- "but you'll get through them. I'll help you. I will *never* give up on you. Okay?"
Elena's answering smile is like the sun breaking through storm clouds, like a warm fire after the bite of winter's chill. "Okay."
"Is it time for the group hug yet?" Katherine's sarcasm is almost a palpable force, hitting Caroline like a slap in the face.
Elena jumps a little, and Caroline has to stifle a twitch. She'd actually managed to -- not forget that Katherine was there, exactly (like that was even possible) -- tune out her presence as she focused on Elena. 'Stupid, Caroline,' she rebukes herself. 'So stupid.' You don't take your eyes off a snake in the room. No matter how distracted you get.
"There's no need to be snippy," Caroline says stiffly, crossing her legs at the ankles and smoothing down the skirt of her dress.
"Oh, *I'm* sorry," Katherine replies. "I didn't realise we were back to being children again. Are we going to start braiding each others' hair and gossiping about *boys*?" She slides a sly, sidelong glance at Caroline. "Or maybe girls."
Caroline blinks, biting back her first, instinctive retort as a realisation hits her. She's angry. Katherine is *angry*. It's the little things that give it away: slight tension in the graceful sweep of her neck, the way the glint in her eyes has hardened, her smile grown just that bit tighter. None of it obvious (unless you've become adept at watching others from all the time you've spent on the sidelines, at the edges), none of it telegraphed. But then, this is Katherine. If she was anyone else, she'd be *incandescent* right now.
Elena frowns. "Katherine," she says, reproachfully.
"Elena," replies Katherine, with the exact same intonation.
Perplexed irritation flutters across Elena's face. "What is your *problem*?"
Katherine's smile could cut glass. "My *problem*," she sing-songs, "is that you're supposed to be learning right now. *Not* having a heart to heart with your little cheerleader here. This is a lesson, not a slumber party."
'She really is pissed off,' thinks Caroline, wonderingly, almost too bewildered to be afraid. 'But where is it *coming* from?' Because if she knows anything about Katherine (and she knows a few things about Katherine), whatever she says aloud is unlikely to be the whole of it. (If what she says even has anything at all to do with the truth.)
"I didn't think they had slumber parties back in your day," she says lightly, covering her realisation with humour. This is *not* the time to play amateur psychiatrist with Katherine. Unleashing a literal 'monster of the id' was so not on the schedule for today.
After briefly levelling a hard, assessing look at Caroline (who does her best not to wilt under the weight of it), Katherine shrugs languidly. The flash of temper is gone as if it had never existed in the first place. (And maybe it hadn't. After all, it wouldn't be the first time that Caroline has misread someone. Or that Katherine has deceived.) "Maybe not, but I like to think that I move with the times." The smile she flashes now is all teeth. "And sometimes you have to blend in with your apparent peers."
"Here was I thinking you went your own way," Caroline can't help but sniff. "Don't you prefer playing the lone wolf? So to speak."
And then the world tilts as Caroline is twisted sideways and backwards, her back and shoulders hitting the cushions with an audible (tangible) thump. It all happens so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that there's no time for her to even *think* of trying to resist. Let alone to actually do so. And Katherine's face is inches from hers, a one hand resting lightly, so lightly, on the side of her face.
(For a brief, heartstopping moment, Caroline is sure that Katherine is actually going to kiss her.)
(But then that's never been her style.)
Katherine isn't physically holding her there, beneath her, but she doesn't have to. Caroline couldn't move if she tried. Her heart is pounding like a drum, her pulse almost deafening in her own ears (surely Katherine can hear it, is despising her for her weakness, for her fear, for the other thing that makes her breath catch in her throat) and she can't help thinking, crazily, dizzily, that the drink Elena served her not more than a few minutes ago must have been propelled halfway around her body by now.
"Oh, Caroline, Caroline," Katherine purrs, her breath tickling Caroline's lips, the scent of the blood on her face suddenly, teasingly (mouth-wateringly) strong. "You do say the *funniest* things."
"Katherine!" Elena's voice is closer than Caroline expected (not that she was expecting anything at all, not really), sharp and angry and *demanding*. "Leave Caroline alone."
"Oh, hush, Elena." She draws the name out like a caress, rolling it around on her tongue so that it emerges liquid and soft. "Caroline and I are having a conversation. I do fear I've been neglecting her *terribly*, but it will be good to reminisce about old times."
(And it's just apprehension that makes Caroline's stomach tighten at the way Katherine's voice slides into a lower register, the last words ripe with something that could be threat or promise. Or both at once.)
Katherine leans in even further, sliding her hand down from Caroline's cheek to her shoulder (sudden prickle of goosebumps, despite the stifling heat), now using her greater strength to press Caroline's body deeper into the sofa. (Using just enough strength to let Caroline know that she *could* break her, that she merely chooses not to.)
"I mean it, Katherine."
Caroline's thoughts are a skittering, stop-motion jumble, but a part of her is coherent enough to feel warmed by Elena's ready defense of her. Against Katherine. Even though Caroline is only-a-friend, and Katherine is... whatever Katherine is to Elena. Even after Katherine has given her a clear warning to back the hell off.
But that's Elena to a T. Threatening her only serves to make her more stubborn. And she always stands up for her friends.
(Apart from those times when she doesn't. And Caroline isn't really worried that she'll be abandoned. Except for the small part of her that always is.)
Elena isn't even *finished* yet. After a moment's silence, heavy and full, perhaps to give Katherine time to respond, she continues in a voice colder than Caroline has ever heard her use. She's never known that Elena -- hearthfire, bonfire, occasional inferno -- even holds that much ice within her.
"Let her go right now, or I will *make* you."
'Uh oh,' Caroline thinks. Because that's a challenge, that's a command, that's an *ultimatum*. You don't need to be psychic to know that this isn't going to end well.
Just like that, Caroline can breathe again. The paralysis fades from her limbs, leaving her free to move, free to act, free to defend herself from Katherine (from anyone). Free to defend *Elena* from Katherine. But her options are limited. She's pretty much certain she can't just push Katherine off her; she's just not strong enough. So what can she do?
Katherine tilts her head up slightly, her cheek brushing softly against Caroline's as she looks up and to the side a little, presumably to where Elena is standing. Caroline can only see part of the expression on Katherine's face, but it's enough to know that just because their lips are stretched and their teeth are showing, that doesn't mean someone is *smiling*.
When Katherine speaks, a second or two (a lifetime) later, her voice is steel under velvet, a knife in the dark. It's as smooth as molasses and poisonous all the way through. "So *make* me," she breathes.