Caroline would like to believe that she had grown out of her age-old insecurities, but she hadn't. She still felt that clawing fear that she did not measure up in, well, everything. It was what led her to overachieve in everything she ever tried her hand at and, yes, that did occasionally turn out for the better. Nobody could say she didn't persevere and survive through the mountain of awful that had faced her and her friends for far too long. But some things were harder to overcome, and invisible demons were one of them.
So while she stood on the outskirts, feigning a smile, nodding to something Matt was saying, she let her eyes continually stray to the sight that would possibly always haunt her nightmares. Stefan was dancing with Elena. There was a bonfire and flickering shadows that followed each of their movements as they laughed and moved together, the look on their faces reminding her of Matt and Elena, of old lovers reliving a history that could never be matched. Of course, Stefan would remind her that "old" lovers was the keyword there, putting he, Elena, and their relationship firmly in the past. But if ever there was a person who made her insecurity flag wave, it was the beautiful and perfect Elena Gilbert. Of course, that flag was also perpetually white, as she'd long ago given up any hope of comparing to her, and instead took it, trying and failing to accept herself for who she was and not measure herself against her best friend in every situation.
She'd done well until now. In fact, for a little while, she didn't even remember what it felt like to be jealous, to feel that raw fear gnawing at her gut, to wonder if this was the beginning of the end of her relationship with Stefan. And that was it, wasn't it? That was the whole thing. Because she and Stefan had been something for a while now, longer than she really liked to pay attention to. Putting emphasis on it, defining it, meant that she was letting herself be in it, one hundred percent, and this, right now, right here, watching him as he and Elena twirled around the fire, reminded her of why that was a bad idea.
Somebody should have applauded her for holding back, really. Caroline was the girl who always jumped in, heart on her sleeve, desperate for somebody, anybody, not to break it, and always wound up picking up the pieces and gluing them back together on her own. But at some point, after Damon and Matt and Tyler and Klaus, the pieces stopped fitting back together perfectly, some had been broken too much, so now they were a little jagged, a little sharp to the touch, and anybody who thought they were going to hold it had better be gentle or it was going to cut them to ribbons. A defense mechanism, yes, and a good one, she thought.
Only, Stefan snuck up on her. He was an infatuation that turned her down, so she moved on. She accepted that he would be Elena's and she would find someone who fit her. And then Stefan became her friend, he became her vampire coach and cheering section. Along the way, he became her best friend. He was who she relied on through family drama and heartbreak and who had her back when emotionless-Elena painted a target on it and played to kill or not to kill with her whenever she was bored. She got him through the worst of his blood addiction pains and played sober coach to his clean and trying. She picked him up when Elena kicked him down, when he watched who he thought was the love of his life fall for his brother, and she dusted him off and told him he would move on, find someone new, and fall madly in love.
She didn't expect that a few years down the line, those eyes would turn her way and that smile, that protective streak, would be aimed at her. She didn't expect that he would see anything but a neurotic, control freak on crack when he looked at her. So she didn't know what to do when he took a chance and he kissed her, when he said he wanted more, when they tested the waters of something more. She didn't use labels, she didn't introduce him as her boyfriend, she didn't plan their future or a June wedding in blue. She just waited for the inevitable fallout. And here it was, for all to see.
She couldn't blame Elena.
Smart, beautiful, kind-hearted Elena, who was still, for some reason completely unknown to Caroline, in love with Damon. She didn't ask for Stefan to keep his heart firmly turned in her direction. She didn't tell him to wait for her. She moved on and she let go and it wasn't her fault that he hadn't. He'd tried.
Caroline thought he did, anyway. She would like to think that he was trying to love her when they were together. But she couldn't say for sure. Maybe she'd been a little too busy trying to keep him from getting too close to her heart that she couldn't pinpoint for sure what his feelings were. But she knew that in the morning, when she first woke up, he was always there, his fingers buried in her hair or tenderly stroking her neck. At night, he was who slept beside her, with her head buried against her chest or his face pressed into her hair as he spooned her from behind. Hers was the hand he reached for as he walked down the street, the person he immediately covered if there was danger in sight, the name he whispered in his sleep and called out as he had her spread across his bed or bent over his desk or pinned to the cool, tile wall of his shower. It was her lips he kissed and her eyelashes he counted as they lay cuddled up in bed, avoiding the day. So yes, there was tenderness and affection and a thousand moments where he looked at her and she knew no one else ever had or would look at her quite like that, but she was a romantic and she'd been fooled by sweet words and false promises before.
"You empty? I'm gonna go grab another beer," Matt said, knocking his bottle against hers.
"Uh, no, I'm fine," she replied, shaking off her distant thoughts and focusing on the man in front of her.
He offered a knowing half-smile and cast his eyes over to the picture that had her captivated. "It's not what you think it is," he said, that hint of understanding she knew all too well coating his voice.
She raised an eyebrow at him. "And since when are you a mind-reader, huh? Don't tell me we have a psychic to add to our repertoire…"
He ducked his head, chuckling under his breath. "No…" He grinned, that all-American, boy next door smile that used to make her weak in the knees and now only filled her with warm, friendly affection. "But I know that look… That's your 'I'm not good enough and I never will be' look…" He pointed at her, his brows hiked high. "And you always got it when you never needed to."
She scoffed under her breath, rolling her eyes. "Yes, right, because my history doesn't argue that at all."
"Car, when me and you got together, it was a lot of things that screwed us up… We didn't work together, for one, but it was more than that. Bad timing, baggage, and, I mean, yeah, I still had feelings for Elena." He shook his head. "But that was me. That was on me; it was nothing you did wrong."
She chewed her lip, but nodded, because Matt needed to know that she didn't blame him, he wasn't the source of her misery. She'd long forgiven him for the train wreck that their relationship became. "Yeah, I know… You can't help who you love, right?"
He sighed, his face falling in that way it always did when he knew his pep-talk hadn't gotten through. "Look, whatever you and Stefan are, and I have a pretty good idea what that is… Don't throw that away over this." He frowned. "It's a dance. They're friends. Whatever they had, it's over. Elena's with Damon. And Stefan… I've seen the way he looks at you, all right? And I'm telling you, as a friend, as somebody who cares about you… Don't leave the ring before the fight's even started."
She stared at him, at the earnest expression on his face, and she wished it was as easy as saying 'yeah, sure, I'll fight and I'll win.' But it wasn't. Especially not for someone who was already pretty sure they lost.
"Okay," she told him, forcing a smile.
He smiled back, but it was strained, and he knew just as much as she did that he hadn't gotten through to her.
"You were empty, remember?" She tapped his beer bottle. "That refill's waiting on you."
He nodded, licking his lips, but he had no more pearls of wisdom to share, so he walked off to get a refill. He nodded his head at Damon, who was "manning" the cooler, and by manning she really meant that he was sitting next to it, casting disdainful looks at any who came to get a beer while he kept a bottle of expensive whiskey to himself and refused to share. Which was so not out of character, really.
With Matt now busy digging a beer out of the ice, Bonnie and Jeremy all wrapped up in each other, and Stefan still dancing away the night with his true love, Caroline decided she needed a breath of fresh air. While she was standing in the woods, pretty much the ideal place for that, she wanted to breathe in air that wasn't tainted with oncoming loss. Turning on her heel, she moved through the woods easily, stepping over fallen logs and avoiding the reaching snare of thorny bushes. She didn't stop until she couldn't hear their voices anymore without extending her hearing, until all she could hear was the rustle of the wind in the leaves and the scampering of furry feet.
She stood in a clearing, this one untouched by campfires, instead leaving a bed of wet leaves and twigs. Crossing her arms loosely over her stomach, she tipped her head back and peered up toward the sky, through the branches to the stars and the half moon. She hadn't thought of Tyler in a while, but the moon usually dredged up those memories. Of the girl who thought it was only Klaus, only Tyler's exile, that was keeping them from being perfectly happy together. But even when he was allowed to come back, to be with her, Tyler, like all of the 'loves of her life' was just another name added to the list. She hoped he was happy, and not in an Alanis Morissette kind of way either. She really hoped that he was okay and he'd made a life for himself, far away from the chaos and mayhem and death that Mystic Falls was consumed with. He would always have a place in her heart, but he was no longer her leading man. She'd let go of that years ago. She'd let go of him and Klaus and Matt, storing them away in neatly titled boxes in her mind and her heart.
Closing her eyes, she stood silently, feeling nothing but the cool breeze gliding over her face like satin. It wasn't so bad being alone. She'd done it before and she could do it again. She was a trooper. She would survive without the tea Stefan brought her when she was sad, made just the way she liked it. Without the warmth of his body next to hers or the way his fingers slid between hers, knitting together like they'd been there all along. She would forget the sound of his voice, raspy with sleep in the morning, deep and dark at night, and the way that laughter filled it when she said something particularly "Caroline." She would live forever. She would watch this song and dance a million more times. And she would smile and support him when he eventually got the girl, again, and cheer him up when he inevitably lost her to his brother, again. An ongoing cycle. Because even if she wasn't meant to be Stefan's lifetime love, she was still his best friend.
And it was okay. She could be that. She would not wallow in the pain of another broken heart. She would get out the broom and the dustpan and she would clean up this mess too. She would superglue and tape back together what her heart had become this time and she would be even more careful the next go around. She would take some time. Maybe a few years, or a decade or two, and she would make sure that whoever she fell in love with was so, so over their ex.
Taking a deep breath, she searched for that well of strength she'd long ago had to keep stocked up for times like these. She wondered if she should be the one to break it off or if she would go the selfish, masochistic route and stick it out as long as he would have her, until he couldn't deny his feelings any longer. Maybe one more night… One more week… Just a little longer. Just a few more mornings and a few more nights, a few more afternoons of dancing and laughter and making him smile. She deserved that, right? Just a little bit more.
She didn't hear him approach, but she knew it was him as soon as the jacket covered her shoulders and his arms wrapped around her waist. She smelled him, the faint scent of his cologne coming from both him and the fabric of his coat. It was comforting and warm, enveloping her every sense and infusing it with calm.
Her lips curled up at the corners. "You know I'm a vampire, right? I can live through a little cold."
"Just because you can, doesn't mean you should," he answered. His hand lifted and he brushed her hair back, his fingertips dragging over her neck gently, before he rested his chin down on her shoulder and his hand slid back down to her stomach, thumb rubbing back and forth softly. "You left…"
"Just needed a minute alone." She shook her head. "Sometimes it feels weird. I mean, no attacks, no mysteries to crack in two months… I guess I'm still waiting for the next homicidal freak to make their move."
"So you thought you'd walk off into the woods alone?" She could hear the grin in his voice. "I'm not sure you thought your plan through too well."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well, I've always made good bait."
"Caroline…" he sighed, in that way of his.
"I know, I know. Don't joke about it. It's not funny."
He turned his head and she could feel his eyes scanning the profile of her face. "You want to talk about something?"
"It's nothing; it's stupid." She tipped her head back to rest on his shoulder and found herself staring at the sky again. "Having everybody together and happy feels nice."
"But you don't think it'll last…?"
Her lips turned down in a frown. "I think most nice things don't last… They fade or chip or somebody breaks them." She blinked quickly as she felt the sting of tears. "Wow, okay, I think I've had a few beers too many." Forcing a smile, she tipped her head back up. "We should head back. Who knows what Damon's doing, unsupervised…"
He shook his head, tightening his arms around her. "Yeah, I'm sure whatever it is, it can wait a few more minutes… What's going on?"
"Nothing. I'm just… tired. That's all. I'm fine."
"Okay, I think I know you well enough to know that when you say you're fine, you're not."
"And I think I know myself well enough to mean I'm fine when I say I'm fine," she argued stubbornly.
He exhaled, loud and long. "How long have we been together?"
Her lips pursed. "I don't know."
He squeezed her. "Caroline, I know you wrote it down on your calendar. You keep track of dates, you're organized; it's cute."
She rolled her eyes. "Fine, it's been…" She turned her eyes up thoughtfully as she counted back. "A little over ten months."
"Right, ten months that we've been…" he let it trail off, waiting for her to add the definition she'd carefully avoided.
She shrugged, her eyes wide with irritation. "Dating, seeing each other, regularly having sex." She huffed. "I don't know…"
"Why is it so hard for you to just admit we're together?" he wondered, the warmth of his cheek felt through her hair as he pressed his face against her neck.
She gathered the words up, but her lips trembled as she said them, "Because I don't see the point."
She could feel his jaw flex. He swallowed tightly. "That hurt more than I thought it would," he murmured.
She closed her eyes. "That's not…" She blew out an agitated breath. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Okay, so what do you want?"
Her face fell. "It doesn't matter." She shook her head before finally lifting her chin and turning it, asking him, "Look, can we just forget this whole conversation? Just rewind to when you came up and found me and you put your coat around me. Can you just be sweet, nice Stefan, who tells me I look beautiful in the moonlight and jokes about sneaking home before a drunk Damon beats us there? Can we do that?"
His head tipped back as he licked his lips. "You're beautiful tonight," he told her, and she relaxed a little, even as her heart constricted in her chest.
She'd asked for this, for it all to be swept under the carpet. So she'd get her day or her week and then she'd tell him it wasn't working and she'd step out of the way, she'd get off the train tracks, avoiding the Stefan/Elena/Damon Express coming to mow her down.
"You look beautiful every night, and every morning, even on the days that you hate your hair or your skin or you think, somehow, against all vampire logic, you have wrinkles… You're beautiful when you just wake up and you have morning breath and your hair looks like a bird's nest. You're beautiful when you get dressed up for galas and when you're just wearing sweatpants around the house. You're beautiful right now and you were beautiful yesterday and the day before that. You'll be beautiful five minutes from now and tomorrow and every single minute of every single day from now until forever. You are beautiful, Caroline. And I know you don't always think it, you don't always believe me when I say you are, and you definitely question it when you're standing next to Elena or Bonnie, but I'm telling you… Even if I wasn't completely in love with you, I'd have to be blind not see how beautiful you are."
She went still.
Not just from that very touching speech he'd just made, but because he'd said it. He'd said it. And her heart wanted to leap out of her chest and do an Irish jig, it was so happy, but she stopped the excitement before it could manifest too soon and swallowed it back. "Don't say things you don't mean," she told him. "Stefan, please, please don't be the guy who says he loves someone because she's broken and needs fixing and you're just being your usual heroic self, because I don't want that. I don't need false words an-and promises. I—"
"You are strong and smart and perfectly capable. You don't need me to tell you I love you. Definitely not because you're broken." His chin rubbed against her shoulder. "Caroline, you don't need to be fixed. You fall in love easily, yes, but that's not a bad thing. You have the biggest heart. You love with all of yourself and it's… It's amazing. After everything you've seen, everything you've been through, and you still put your heart out there, you still try."
Her eyes burned and her throat clogged with emotion. "Stefan…"
"I know you don't think I mean it, you think I'm still in love with Elena, and I get it. I get that I just need to show you, I need to try harder, and I will… You're worth it, okay? So I'll do it. Whatever you need me to do until you get it. But I'm not taking it back. I'm not going to ignore it when you're obviously hurt about something. I'm not going to play dumb because you're scared of whatever it is that's going on in that very complicated head of yours." He squeezed her, his hands on either side of her hips. "I love you, Caroline. It's that simple."
She lifted her chin and bit her lip as she inhaled shakily and the noise seemed so loud in the stillness around them. "I'm afraid…" She closed her eyes as her tears threatened to fall. "I'm afraid I'm going to do this, I'm going to put everything into this, and you're going to turn around and realize that I'm not Elena. I can never be Elena. And you're always going to want her. She's always going to be that perfect match for you." She felt a few tears escape and dribble down her cheeks. "But I can do this, I can put myself back together if we stop now, okay? I… I won't hold a grudge and I'll get over it eventually and I'll even smile when you get back together. But this is as far as I can go. Maybe I'm not broken, but I will be… I will. I know I will, Stefan. Because I already know that if I let myself, I'm going to fall for you so fast. I'm so close already, I'm right at the edge, and let's face it, I don't just step off of it, I leap!"
"So jump," he told her. "Caroline, I want you to jump. I want you to fall as quickly and as deeply as I have for you. I want us on the same page, not chapters apart. I want you to be right next to me and not watching from the sidelines, making assumptions about how I feel or where I want to be."
He turned her then, so they were face to face, and he stared into her eyes sincerely. "I danced with Elena because she's my friend. Because now, when we're standing just feet apart, it doesn't hurt to look at her, it doesn't make my heart hurt or my guts twist. She's just a familiar face, she's a friendly smile, she's a part of my past that I can treasure instead of regret. But she is the past." He reached up and cradled Caroline's cheeks in his hands, swiping his thumbs over the tear streaks that were still warm and wet. "A part of me will always love Elena, but I'm not in love with her. I've let go, I've moved on, and I've fallen madly in love with my best friend…" He stared at her searchingly. "Who I'm really hoping will take a chance and love me back."
Caroline didn't slip off the edge, she didn't teeter or check to see what jagged end lay at the bottom. She took a running leap with her arms out and her eyes closed, blind hope propelling her as it always had and always would. And this time, someone caught her, falling just as completely, giving themselves wholly to it, no holding back.
The dustpan, broom, superglue, and tape would go unused. Her heart needed no repairing. In fact, as time would go on, those sharp edges from the previous heartaches would begin to smooth out, buffed down by the gentle hands that cradled it, one hers and one his.
Caroline fell in love with Stefan that night, but she wouldn't tell him for a while yet. He waited, calmly, patiently, for her to catch up to his chapter in their on-going book. There would be moments of insecurity, but she would fight them. She wasn't perfect, but she was strong, more so than she ever gave herself credit for. And when the ending of their book came, it was in the form of an epilogue. It didn't end in the words 'happily ever after,' but it might as well have; it was the vampire equivalent, after all.