A/N: I'm not gonna lie, this chapter is complete emotional whiplash and rockets all over the place in terms of mood, so if you want to read it out of order (re: one set of characters and then the other), you probably could. There's a scene where they all come together in the middle, though, so it might take away from that if you do, but lmao whatever man it's a garbage fire either way. Also, TW for mentions of physical and emotional abuse. Also, this came out to 102 pages on Microsoft Word and I have nothing to say for myself outside of 'send help'. Thanks.


Six Mornings After

Chapter Seventeen: Once More, With Feeling


"Don't fuck up."

"Shut up."

"Everything's on the line."

"Shut up."

"Am I getting in your head?"

Bonnie's eyes thinned into focused slits.

"I'm getting in your head, aren't I?"

She slowly lowered the tweezers toward the liver.

"Any second you're gonna hear that buzzer."

"Kai, can you gag hi—"

"Zzzzzzz!"

Bonnie jolted at the sudden pair of hands that grabbed at her waist, heart nearly surging out of her throat. She somehow managed to avoid touching the edges of the preserved fetal pig Kai had programmed into the world's creepiest game of Operation, keeping the actual buzzer from going off, but it didn't make her gaze any less bloodthirsty as she shot it over her shoulder at Damon.

"I swear to God," she growled as he hovered behind her with a smug look, the living room antithetically warm and Christmas Wonderland-y as ever around them, "I will stab these tweezers in your eyeball."

"Do it."

"Mm," Kai interjected, wagging a perky finger from the other side of the coffee table, "in my experience, that gets messy."

Damon feigned a wince. "Too bad."

"Then how about I jam them in your ear drum?"

"That's fine!" Kai chirped and Bonnie held the tweezers up menacingly.

"Here's a thought—how about you jam them into that pig and prove you aren't a fraud?"

"Oh my God, how many times do I have to repeat that Operation has nothing to do with actual medicine?"

"Fraud."

"It's a game!"

"Fraud."

"Medicine is knowing that the vessel you just pulled a tag off of—"

"Perfectly, by the way."

"—is the left anterior descending artery."

He yawned.

"Medicine is knowing that the LAD gets occluded the most often in CAD and causes anterior wall ischemia and infarction."

He lounged back against the carpet, propping himself up with his palms.

"Medicine is knowing LAD-occlusion ischemia shows up as ST depressions and T wave inversions in the anterior leads of an EK—"

"Wow, you are really going full nerd."

"Oh," Bonnie placed a bless-your-heart hand against her chest, eyes glinting competitively, "you sweet summer child, you haven't even begun to see full nerd."

His mouth twisted up in manner that indicated he'd very much like to correct that.

"Right, Kai?" Bonnie tacked on, swinging a blind hand over the coffee table for a high-five from her fellow mad scientist, but it was met with silence. She glanced over her shoulder. "Kai?" The spot on the floor where he'd been perched like a roosting dove was empty and she turned back to Damon, bewildered. "Where does he go!?"

"I feel like he just kind of dissolves in and out of the time-space continuum as he pleases."

"Friends!"

Bonnie jumped at the sudden voice and Damon gestured pleasantly.

"Hey, look, he's back."

"I thought of a fun new idea!"

She whipped around to find Kai settled right back in the spot he'd just been absent from, legs folded in spiky angles beneath him. It was as if he'd never left, except now he was surrounded by a bunch of wires and a mini Tesla coil.

"This game was starting to feel too easy, so how about instead of a buzzer going off if you mess up, you get electrocuted!"

She blinked at him.

"I mean, not enough to kill you, obvi, but close. Otherwise where's the fun, you know?"

Damon glanced at Bonnie. "You want to take this one, or should I?"

"Here's the thing, Kai," she ventured, setting her hands down on the coffee table and leaning forward, "as a general rule, people aren't usually up for dying when they play board games." She glanced down at the petrified pig carcass. "Or, you know, cadaver games."

Kai's nose scrunched. "Then what's the point of playing?"

"To have fun."

"How can you have fun when no one's getting electrocuted?"

She glanced at Damon for an assist and he shrugged. "It's a solid question." Her stare flattened into one of the 'be helpful or be gone' variety and he sighed and redirected his gaze to Kai. "Look bud, us mere mortals are weak and don't like pain, and getting electrocuted hurts like a bitch. Ergo, we're not going to do it."

Kai considered the words for a moment before shrugging. "'Kay."

Damon smiled at the annoyed look Bonnie gave him as Kai flounced off to put the wires away. "I speak fluent Looney Tunes. You do too, actually, when you're drunk. In fact," he reached over and proffered his glass of whiskey. "Boom. Rosetta Stone for Crazy."

She fended it off with a nauseated look. "No, thanks—very much done with alcohol for the evening."

For the century, really. Honestly, she was amazed she'd even gotten two glasses of wine down after yesterday.

He shrugged and set the drink back down, and she couldn't help but notice it was still full from half an hour ago. In fact, she was pretty sure she hadn't seen him drink anything since their blowout at the table. For a second, she wondered if what she'd said about it had actually gotten to him a little…

And then promptly dismissed it—nah.

He'd been drinking for four days straight; even hedonists had their limits.

Still, it was a surprisingly appealing thought, the idea of having some kind of effect on him.

Snagging the unsnaggable.

Ruffling the unrufflable.

She liked to think she'd dealt with a fair number of guarded people in her life—her dad, her friends, her patients, hell, even her own self—but she was pretty sure no one came quite up to his level of slippery. It was like he was coated in oil, like his entire personality was adapted to glide through life without ever catching on anything around him.

Even the good things.

"It's not going to jump down your throat when you're not looking." Her gaze flicked up to his and she realized she'd been in a stare-off with his whiskey glass. "Actually," he mused, "given whose apartment this is, no promises."

She shook off the momentary weirdness that'd come over her. "I think the glasses are safe—this thing on the other hand," she gestured at the pig cadaver on the table they were sprawled around, "is going to come to life and bite us any second."

"You think?"

"Calling it right now."

"You want to know what I think?"

"Do I ever?"

"I think you're using that as an excuse to avoid playing because—"

"Jesus Christ," she muttered.

"—you're a medical fraud."

"What is it even like to be this annoying?"

A grin began spreading over his face.

"Is it a honed skill? Do you practice?"

"Born this way, baby."

"Your poor parents."

The words were out of her mouth before she could think them through and she instantly stiffened, regret lancing through her like a knife. Shit.

"I—" she managed, casting around for the right words—God, she of all people knew better than to make friggin' parent comments, "I didn't—"

"No, you're right, they didn't like me much," he replied, casual as can be.

She shook her head. "Damon—"

"But I mean, I put them in jail, so it was mutual."

His expression was light, countenance entirely unbothered—he was lounging back against his palms like he was on a sandy beach in Mexico, waiting on a mojito—and for some reason, despite everything she'd come to assume about the authenticity of his too cool for school routine, she found herself wondering if…. maybe things really did slide off him that easily. Maybe he genuinely didn't care.

Maybe that oil coat went more than skin-deep.

"Do you—" she hesitated, realizing it probably wasn't the most tactful question in the world, but something about him seemed to make her tact fly right out the window, "do you really not care when people bring them up? Your parents, I mean."

He seemed amused by the question. "It was ages ago, what's left to care about?"

She let out a small scoff. "I don't know, maybe the fact that they fucked up your childhood and you can never get it back?"

He shrugged.

"Really?" she pressed, genuinely baffled by the invulnerability of it all.

"I live in the present, kid."

She stared at him for a beat, mulling over the words. She honestly couldn't remember a time where the mere mention of her family didn't rocket her straight back to being thirteen years old. When getting sick at school wasn't something she fought till she passed out because she didn't want the nurse to ask her who to call about getting picked up. When friends asking if they could hang out at her house after soccer practice because it was right next to the field didn't make her stomach bottom out because she had to come up with yet another excuse that wasn't 'my dad's passed out drunk on the couch'. Even today, years later, when people asked about her family at work or on dates, she always got this inescapable moment of otherness, of alienating isolation, of 'you've never had a normal answer to this and you never will' that inverted the line her shoulders.

It was instinctive. She couldn't stop it if she tried.

She stared at Damon for a few more seconds before glancing down at her hands. "Must be nice."

He let out a small snort. "I wouldn't say nice."

"No, seriously," she said, tone void of any humor, "I wish I could turn it off like that." She traced the valleys between her knuckles with her gaze before offering a dry smile. "Not as strong as you, I guess."

Silence filled the air between them, and she realized she'd probably made the conversation a lot more awkward and feelsy than he cared for. Why was she even telling him this? He hated this kind of thing.

"I mean," he ventured after a long beat, and she glanced up at the shift in his voice—it was lower. Less breezy. "I don't know if anyone told you, but I kind of had a massive panic attack a few hours ago, so." His stare lingered on the grain of the coffee table for a beat before raising to meet hers. "Maybe I care a little."

She blinked, taken off-guard.

A long stretch of silence passed.

She pressed a hand against her chest. "Was that—vulnerability?"

His frank gaze immediately broke.

"Were those—emotions?"

"I hate knowing you."

"Are you okay?" She grabbed his shoulder bracingly. "Do you need some water?"

He sunk his head back against the edge of the couch with a sigh and she broke into a grin. It was strangely buoying, watching him steep in regret over the fact that he'd actually admitted something to her—almost like a victory, except victory felt too cheap. Victory made it sound like a game, and she didn't feel like she'd won anything. She just felt surprised. Strange. A little buzzy.

After a tired beat, he angled his stare to meet hers from the corner of his eyes, head knocked backward so that, for once, she was the one looming over him, and her eyes took on a warm glint in the fireplace light. "How does it feel to be a human being?"

"Stupid."

"That means you're doing it right."

His lips quirked despite themselves.

"Friends!"

She jolted again at the sound of Kai's chirp right behind her, feeling another three years shave themselves off her life. "Jesus, Kai."

"We've really gotta work on your entrances, buddy."

She turned and found their gangly host staring down at them with a puzzled look, gardening shears in one hand and a Samurai sword in the other. Because what else would he be holding. "Why? Are they too boring?" His stare took on a flicker of uncertainty. "Is Julian going to think I'm boring?"

'Julian?' Damon mouthed at her as Kai slid into a mini-panic spiral and she rolled her eyes and mouthed back 'his date'.

"—oh, you know I have a jetpack, I could always fly in on that! But I feel like that's kind of over the top, no?"

"Yeah, the sword's a lot more subtle—speaking of." Damon fluttered a hand at the collection of blades coming out of his sleeves. "What's with this Edward Scissorhands situation you've got going on?"

"What?" Kai glanced down at his hands. "Oh, I was baking."

Damon offered a considering shrug at Bonnie. "He was baking."

"That's actually what I came to tell you—ahem." He straightened his spine and swung his arms out in sudden, grandiose ceremony, nearly decapitating them both. "It's cupcake decorating time!" He held the stance for a few seconds before reverting to his wiry posture, grinning down at them. "Was that good?"

Bonnie stared up at him through Damon's arms, which she'd ducked under when he'd snapped his hands up to shield his face. "Um," she spat a strand of hair out of her mouth, wincing at the strain in her neck from their knotted position, "we'll work on it."


"Have you ever heard of Gazania daisies?"

It was the only thing Caroline could think to say.

She'd cast around for a dozen different openings to this story, considered all the reliable 'way back when's and 'once upon a time's, but for some reason, when her mouth finally parted after five minutes of silence, that was what came out of it.

She fiddled with an abandoned candy cane wrapper, not quite able to bring herself to meet Stefan's stare. The bathroom was quiet around them, draped in the hush of the falling snow, but even in the near silence, even in the echo of the bathtub they'd ended up in out of some frivolous attempt at symmetry, her voice still managed to sound small.

She hated it, so she cleared her throat.

"They're these wildflowers that grow all over Wimberley. Only open up their petals in the sun."

Stefan just listened, an origami collection of limbs on the other side of the tub. They'd thrown in a slew of blankets and candy to try and make it more comfortable, as if they were having a slumber party instead of a talk they'd rather turn their skin inside out than have, but the coziness was surface level at best. The room was stiff with anticipation.

"In the mornings," she continued, twisting the wrapper in her hands and watching the moonlight wink off the wrinkles, "when the light hits them, they come to life in this sudden burst of color."

She remembered the scores of them she'd pass along her drive to school, the way they brightened the misty morning horizon. She'd hang out of the passenger window of Matt's pickup and imagine that a sleeping dragon was slowly coming to, the rising sun slipping across its riotous red scales.

"In the afternoons, when the wind picks up and ripples through the fields, they look like a wildfire."

How many times had they snuck out of last period and spent the sunset lost in those flowers? They'd stop at the town's only 7-Eleven, pick up a veritable heart attack of snacks, snag a bottle of cheap champagne if Matt's sister was working the counter, and melt straight out of reality. Dissolve into a world of boundless feeling where Twinkies were a feast and kisses were too dizzying for them to even notice the mosquitos.

"But at night," she said, and her hands slowed their fiddling, "at night, they completely close up. The color's gone." Her fingers stilled. "And if you look out into those fields, you don't even recognize them anymore. All you see are these cold silhouettes." Her lips flickered into a joyless smile. "Like that brilliant fire just burned straight through them."

She stared at her hands for a beat.

Hands she'd used to playfully push the corners of Matt's mouth up when he was being a grump. Hands she'd used to swat at him when he'd nudge one of her perfectly placed things off-center. Hands she'd used to trace his bruises from football practice as he told her about his day, stoicism abandoned, the words spilling out like a bottle of ink only she could tip over.

She finally glanced up at Stefan. He was resting his arms atop his knees, expression calmly neutral, and she felt herself ease a bit at the lack of reaction. There was no judgment in his stare. No conclusions in the process of being drawn. He was just listening.

Disney prince.

"For a long time, I was Matt's sun." She cleared her throat, glancing back down at her hands. "He didn't come from the best life, but that didn't seem to matter when he was with me. When we met, it was like…" she shook her head, thinking of that first awkward high school party where he'd kept to himself the whole night, the shyest star quarterback anyone could ever imagine, "it was like two opposite ends of a magnet coming together. He spilled my drink and I overreacted and somewhere between him getting me a towel and me asking him how the hell he expected to play football with ham hands like those, we ended up on the porch swing outside. Talking. Laughing. Took us hours to realize everyone had left."

She still remembered that night in lurid detail. The insistent buzz of the cicadas. The thick, pungent smell of the jasmines vining up the porch wall. The fumbling innocence of him. The unexpected sharpness of his wit. The way he looked at her like the world had just switched hues.

Brightness up. Petals open.

"From then on, we were inseparable," she explained, mind whirring with the rose-colored reel of their highlights—him sneaking out of her room at the crack of dawn every morning so he had enough time to get home unnoticed, the way they'd pretend they hadn't seen each other since the day before when he'd pick her up in his truck an hour later, the oatmeal raisin cookie he'd get every day at lunch because she always insisted she didn't want one (and always ended up plucking right off his tray anyway).

"You know those couples that everyone knows about? That can't go anywhere without people asking where the other is? That was us. Matt and Caroline. Small town teenage dream." She shrugged. "Never occurred to us that being that dependent on each other wasn't healthy, and I guess it never occurred to anyone else either, because all we ever got told was how lucky we were to have found a love like that so young. As far as anyone was concerned, we were magic. And you know," she chewed the inside of her cheek, mulling over the memories, "maybe for a while, we were."

She stared at the side of the tub before lifting her gaze up to Stefan's. His face had changed a little. She realized he'd probably felt something similar with Elena, and for some reason, it made her feel oddly close to him. A flicker of intimacy based not on things they'd experienced together, but rather things they'd experienced apart.

"Anyway," she murmured, shaking her head and glancing back down at her lap, "I think you and I both learned the hard way that magic isn't real. Matt and I got older. The bubble that kept us insulated from all the problems around us started to crack. His family issues took a nosedive, and suddenly he wasn't the son of the family, he was the man of the house. He had mouths to feed and bills to pay and our plan of him getting a football scholarship and leaving Wimberley with me didn't work anymore. And you know, it'd be one thing if that was just a sad dream we had to give up on together, but it wasn't." Her fingers tightened slightly around the empty wrapper. "He started resenting me for it."

She could still feel the strain between them whenever she'd mention studying for the SATs or discuss the hassle of college applications with her friends. The easy air would stiffen, making his voice taut. She'd ask him if he wanted to talk about it and he'd take a hard swig of his beer and retreat to a different conversation. She remembered thinking it was her fault. She wasn't being sensitive enough. She was being selfish. She was being a shitty girlfriend.

If only she'd realized then how much of a trend that would become.

"Senior year was kind of a train wreck," she conceded, glancing up to watch the falling snow outside the window. "He dropped football to take on more shifts at his job, started drinking more. His mom started dating this total deadbeat that gambled away half their money. It was bad. We were still okay, though. Still us."

And they were. He'd still take her into his arms after a double shift she'd help him with, breathe in her hair, ask her what he'd do without her. His eyes would still crinkle when she laughed at his Matthew McConaughey As A Weatherman impression. He'd still climb out of her second story window every morning at the crack of dawn and pick her up an hour later. But it wasn't quite the bright, sunrise light of their first few years together.

It was afternoon light.

A few gusts of wind away from becoming a wildfire.

"I think the first time things really changed was the day we graduated. I'd just found out I'd gotten into NYU off the waitlist, and maybe it was stupid, maybe I should've known he wouldn't be happy to hear that, but when he called I was so excited and shocked that it was the first thing I blurted out. I didn't even say hello. And his response was that his sister had just overdosed and was in the hospital."

Her lips curled humorlessly. He'd never forgiven her for that. Hadn't even been able look at her when she'd rushed into the ER.

"He didn't talk to me for days after that, and when he finally did," she shook her head with tight press of her lips, "it was an eruption. All that tension that'd been building between us, the resentment, the anger, it just blew the lid right off him. I'd never seen him like that in my life—he was shouting, breaking things. It should've been terrifying, but you want to know what the really fucked up part was?" She glanced back at Stefan with a small, bitter smile. "I was just happy he was talking to me again."

A week without him had felt like an organ was missing. She remembered barely eating. Her stomach couldn't keep anything down. She'd never felt so destabilized in her life, even when her parents had gotten divorced, even when she'd fallen during cheerleading practice and broken her leg for two months. He'd integrated himself so thoroughly into even the tiniest details of her life that her entire body revolted to the notion of him not being it.

"Things got a little better after that," she continued, dropping her gaze. "We compromised with Emory, which was still pretty far, but at least he could drive there in a day. Things picked up a little with his home life. His mom started dating someone decent. Vicky sobered up. I remember heading to Georgia thinking that maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be okay."

Her fingers started twisting the wrapper again. She felt a cold swell slide up her shoulders, stiffening them, pulling them inward. This was the part she wasn't sure she could handle. The part that kept her up at night, that woke her up in a cold sweat even three years later. She didn't know how to talk about it. She didn't even know if she could. She just knew she had to try.

"Things weren't okay." She cleared the knot in her throat. "Not by a longshot. The first time he came to visit, we fought for the entire week. He thought I wasn't making time for him, that I was too wrapped up in my glitzy college life to care about anything else, and even though I was constantly late to class and bailing on people so I could spend time with him, I somehow ended up believing him." She shook her head. "It was ridiculous. I'd dropped the writing program I'd applied to Emory for because it was too time-consuming to balance with him. I was known by the few friends I'd managed to even make as the resident flake—me, the most punctual, type A person in the world—because I canceled on them so often."

She could still see her advisor's face when she'd told her she was quitting the program. The confusion. The incomprehension. She remembered feeling angry at her, this sudden, petty, nasty anger, because her advisor was obviously just a lonely old hag who didn't understand love. Didn't understand what she had at stake. Part of her had known even then that she was really just angry at herself.

"The—" she felt her throat lock up and she pressed her lips together, swallowing tightly. Her hands shook. She forced them to steady. "The first time he hit me was an accident. Or at least," she gave a stiff shrug, attempting casualness even though her lungs felt like they were full of concrete, "that's what I thought. There were so many 'accidents' that it's hard to know when they started being on purpose. Maybe they all were."

He'd been yelling about something she hadn't told him, something he was blowing out of proportion in his newfound ragey way, and when she'd asked him when she was supposed to have had time to call him, he'd thrust his phone up and asked her if she'd ever heard of a fucking text. It hit her right in the jaw.

"The second time was during winter break. He, uh," she began twisting the wrapper faster, "he got really drunk at our friend's party and threw a bottle at me." She felt a phantom pang behind her ear. Heard the echo of the shattering glass. "It crashed into the wall beside me. Almost hit me in the face. And you want to know what my first thought was?" She began twisting the wrapper so hard her knuckles turned white. "It was 'did anyone see that?'."

No one had. The music was loud, the kitchen was empty. She'd cleaned up the shards and it was like nothing had happened.

"I was relieved no one had noticed," she hissed, stare dark with bitterness. "Relieved that we were still in the clear, that to everyone in Wimberley, we were still those perfect high school sweethearts that everyone wanted us to be. I went back out into that party and fucking smiled with blood on my neck. I took him home and told myself we'd duke it out in the morning, rehearsed everything I was going to say to him, and then he woke up charming and romantic and told me it was all an accident and I was so stupidly desperate to believe it that I just—" the wrapper snapped in half in her hands and she glanced down at it, eyes disoriented and sharp.

After a long beat, another hand entered her field of view. Bigger. Gentle. Offering itself in place.

She fought the instinct to look up at Stefan. She didn't trust herself to be able to handle whatever look was on his face.

"I might break your hand," she managed.

His palm remained open and steady.

She debated not taking it for a moment. Then she slid her fingers through his. She didn't give herself the chance to dwell on it.

"That sort of cycle continued on for a while." She cleared her throat. "The bad night, perfect morning thing. He'd started making these romantic breakfasts for me, and it was funny because you could tell how badly he'd screwed up by how elaborate the breakfast was."

She remembered the morning he'd made her a black truffle omelet. He'd almost crashed them into a tree the night before. She'd thrown the entire plate in the trash.

"I—" her voice cut again, body seemingly rebelling against the things she was trying to say, things she'd never fully told anyone before. She dug her nails into her palm. "I wish I could say that's as bad as it ever got. That I snapped out of whatever insecure, codependent bullshit I was caught up in and ended things there. But I didn't. I kept holding on to what we used to be, what I thought we were supposed to be. I kept hearing him out and letting him guilt me into understanding, and honestly," the bite of her nails sharpened against her skin, "if things hadn't gotten worse, I don't even know where I'd be right now. But they did." She glanced down at the hollow of the tub. "Me and Bonnie became friends with Tyler, and—"

She tightened her fingers around Stefan's hand.

Her entire body wanted to seize up into a ball but she fought it back.

"Tyler, um," she could feel the breakdown coming, visceral, immediate, "Tyler was one of my best friends, and Matt—" her vision started blurring, a storm of emotions she'd never fully dealt with surging beneath her skin, "Matt got jealous about the whole thing, and—" she shook her head as her body started shaking, voice growing tinny, and she let out a hoarse laugh, "I'm sorry, I'm probably going to sob through this, I just—no, no, no," she begged as she felt Stefan leaning forward, holding her free hand up to fend him off, "I have to get this out, just—" her breath hitched violently and she shook her head, "just let me get this out before I lose my n-nerve."

She forced her stare up to the ceiling to keep the tears from blurring her eyes, fighting down the spasms in her throat.

She could do this.

"He started letting his anger out in sex instead of fights." She felt the bile rising from her stomach and she tried to force it down. She'd never said that out loud before. Never been able to face the reality of what it made her, what category of person it put her into. "Which was actually pretty smart because, you know, he could disguise it as just liking things rough. He'd bruise me up and say these things that just—" she shook her head jerkily, eyes burning as she remembered how worthless she'd felt, how pathetically, powerlessly small, "I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror afterwards. And I just let him. I just—" Her voice cracked, eyes blurring with hot, disbelieving tears. "I just let him."

She'd felt ready to splinter into a million pieces during those days.

She'd hated herself so viscerally it stung.

Anytime anyone looked her in the eye she'd wanted to cave in on herself.

She'd lived like that for months, a blur of turtlenecks and concealer, of overbright smiles and obsessive thoughts, of guilt and blame and normalizing the abnormal, of questioning if what she thought was happening was actually happening.

Could actually be happening.

That was the worst part, she'd realized.

The self-doubt.

Feeling like she was crazy.

"What made you finally leave him?"

She glanced down at the unexpected words, the first ones Stefan had really said. His voice was throaty. She realized he was gripping her hand just as tightly as she was gripping his.

Even still, she felt the corners of her mouth lift. "Bonnie."

His brows drew in at the admission and she glanced down at their hands.

"She, uh," her voice softened a bit, "she doesn't know this, but he threatened her. She was starting to notice what was going on and he could tell, and one day he told me if she didn't stop sticking her nose in his business, he might break it."

She could still remember the shift in her at those words. It was a click. A hazy camera shot abruptly coming into focus. Because suddenly, his target wasn't her anymore. It wasn't someone he'd made her think deserved it, someone she couldn't even stand to see in the mirror.

It was someone she loved. Someone who deserved the world.

And even though it'd been lurking in her mind for months, the thought of taking that terrifying leap and leaving him for good, it'd never felt like something she could actually do until that moment. That split-second shift. That sudden beat where she looked up at his scowling face and didn't feel sad or stressed or scared or any of the bullshit things that always let him crumble her up like paper in his fist. She felt disgust.

"He told me it was a joke, and I told him he had ten seconds to get out of my apartment and never come back or I'd call the police."

He stared at her. "Just like that."

"Just like that."

"And he listened to you?"

"He saw my face. He knew."

And he had known. She'd known, too. Felt it in her bones, in the thundering beat of her pulse. He was staring at the old Caroline. The one he hadn't broken in. The one that ran on gall and instincts, that didn't dim herself for anyone, that'd jump in front of a bus for the people she loved. He'd been living on borrowed time with her for years, from the second he'd first raised a hand at her, from the second he'd gone from a field of flowers to a greedy fire that wanted to burn her alive, and in that moment, in that beat of fatal miscalculation on his part, she was there to collect. She'd grown back into her skin. Unshrunken till she was towering over him, a bright, brilliant light staring down at a meager lick of flames.

Fire couldn't burn a sun.

"He tried calling a few times. Sent a few long letters, but," she shook her head, "he knew."

Stefan merely stared at her, the silence humming around them.

"So, you know, when I say that Bonnie's my hero," she joked after a long beat, blinking residual tears back and meeting his gaze, "I really mean it."

His eyes were soft against hers. "Kind of sounds like you were hers, too."

The corners of her mouth flickered upward. "You would know."

For a moment, they simply stared at each other. His hand was warm around hers. Their skin was silvery in the moonlight. Their silhouettes overlapped in the dark bathroom, a child's crude drawing of a heart. She didn't know what she felt, exactly. She'd expected nerves. Regret. Shame—some of those things she hadn't even admitted to herself, let alone anyone else.

But instead, she felt strangely okay. Grounded, almost, like coming to terms with herself meant she didn't have to keep redistributing her weight to make herself feel lighter than she was. She could sink into her reality. Stop frantically floating just above it, terrified of touching the surface.

She cleared her throat. "Let's be real, though, Bonnie could probably beat us both up."

His lips flickered. "Definitely."

"Have you seen her krumping?"

"Terrifying."

"So terrifying," she chuckled, and much to her relief, she felt some of the heaviness draining from around her. She welcomed the shift, taking in a deep lungful of air and wiping her tears with her sleeve. "God, that was a lot."

"It was a lot."

"I feel like I need to take a nap."

"I bet."

"Are you okay?" she ventured, pressing her palms against her cheeks to cool them, and his faint stare lit with surprise.

"Me?"

"Yeah, that was kind of a lot to get thrown at you."

"I'm—yeah," he ventured after a beat, though his countenance seemed a little stiff.

She dropped her hands from her face and watched him for an assessing beat. Then, "If it makes you feel any better, my brother blew up his truck."

His lips flickered, an admission of the things she'd guessed he might be thinking. "I knew I liked your brother."

"My brother's the worst," she chuckled, glancing down at her hands. "But we're the only ones allowed to make each other's lives miserable, so."

"Only way to be a sibling."

She lapsed into a quiet snort. "Yeah, okay." He glanced up at her and she shot him a 'come on' look. "Like you've ever made any of your sister's lives miserable."

He feigned offense. "I'm a perfectly capable misery-inducer."

"Shut up."

"Ask Rebekah."

"You mean the sister you regularly let vent to you for hours?"

"I mean the sister whose graduation I wore a flannel suit to."

She shook her head. "No dice."

"She almost fainted."

"Still Brother of the Year."

"You're underestimating me."

"I wish you were my brother." He pulled a face and her nose immediately scrunched, eyes falling into a wince. "I didn't—"

"Nope."

"I just made that really weird, didn't I?"

"Yep."

She slipped into a laugh and he smiled as the sound bounced against the porcelain. It warmed the air briefly, a cozy shop door opening and closing in a blizzard, until slowly, inevitably, winter slid back over them. The air started to hum with things unsaid. She could feel it and it made her sense of ease wane.

After a long beat, he broke the silence. "Caroline—"

"Please don't," she cut in before she could help it. His brows drew in and she forced herself to meet his gaze with an uneasy one of her own. "Whatever nice thing you feel like you have to say about strength or bravery or whatever, it's okay, I really don't—"

"I was just going to say I'm sorry."

She fell quiet, holding his stare uncertainly. His eyes were frank, more grey than green in the moonlight.

"For the nightmare you went through that you didn't deserve, obviously, but also just…" he shook his head, dropping his stare, "for ever thinking you weren't worth getting to know. You… I mean, honestly, you—" he pressed his lips together, searching for the words, and after a beat his lips flickered helplessly. "I can't say brave or strong, right?"

She smiled despite herself. "No."

He nodded, seeming to understand that those words only meant something if she believed them, too. "Then I guess I'll just say this. I don't think you're a sun." She felt something tighten in her chest, something sharp and vulnerable that made her defenses instinctively brace, but then he looked up at her. "I think you're a universe. I think you're full of suns—and comets and black holes and everything in between. And when one sun burns out, you'll just flare into a million more, unapologetic and infinite, because nothing," he shook his head, "not pain, not heartbreak, not even the entire exec board of Emory apparently, can stop a universe from expanding." His shoulders eased into a shrug. "It just does."

She stared at him for a moment.

Her heart was beating a little faster in her chest.

Because the truth was, she wasn't sure she could ever be a sun again. Wasn't sure she could ever exist to keep someone else warm, to shine brightly and endlessly over the darkest corners of them, sacrificing her light for their shadows. And for the longest time, she'd felt broken because of it, like that part of her couldn't be fixed and she was going to go the rest of her life being some jaded, limited-functioning version of herself. A half-sun. A partial eclipse.

But something about what he'd just said—it couldn't help but make her feel like maybe she hadn't lost anything. Maybe she'd just outgrown it. Sprawled into something bigger, bolder. She wasn't a sun anymore, could probably never be one again, but a universe? An infinite, chaotic expanse of dazzling light and annihilating dark, of scary things and beautiful things weaving in and out of each other without seam, capable of anything but responsible for nothing outside of stretching out toward an invisible horizon fiercely, constantly, even in the face of billions of years of gravity pulling her back?

That, she could be.

Unapologetic and infinite.

That, she could be.

Maybe not just yet. Maybe not today.

But she could be.

"I—" she began, but she realized she didn't know what to say. She dropped her stare to their still joined hands. She could feel his callouses against her knuckles. "That was—"

"Whatever nice thing you feel like you have to say, it's okay," he deadpanned, and her mouth twitched at the echo of her words from earlier. She met his gaze and it was warm with amusement. "We can't all be poets."

"Actually, I loved it."

He snorted.

"No, seriously." He opened his mouth to say something skeptical and she ran her thumb over his, expression sincere. His words seemed to catch at the gesture. "Thank you."

He held her stare for a beat before glancing down at their hands. She'd meant to stop tracing her thumb over his skin. She hadn't.

"You're welcome."

They stayed like that for a long stretch—too long—before he straightened up and dropped her hand. She cleared her throat and followed suit, running her fingers through her hair a little hastily to give them something to do. "Anyway, enough about me. You're up." His brows drew in and her own lifted. "Shitty Exes, round two?"

"Oh, Jesus," he breathed, shaking his head, "I don't—I mean, I can't possibly follow that up with my dumb Elena drama."

"Hey," she chided, "not a competition. And what happened to you isn't dumb, Stefan—nothing that hurts people is dumb. Take it from someone who spent a long time writing off their own pain as stupid."

His stare flicked up to hers and held it for a few seconds.

And then, "Fine." He gripped the sides of the basin. "But first we've got to get out of this bathtub."

She smiled. "You don't like it?"

"Oh, no, I hate it," he clarified, lips twitching as he struggled to push himself to his feet, and her smile bloomed into a laugh.

"This is the best bathtub in the building."

"It's a torture chamber."

"I fought for this tub."

"I have no idea how you sleep here—my back still hurts from last time."

She shook her head in amused affront as he managed to get to his feet, all lank and limbs. "You have no taste."

"None at all," he replied, offering his hand, and she took it thoughtlessly.

"Where to, then?" she asked as he pulled her to her feet, and he shrugged.

"You have your safe space, I have mine."

She arched a brow at the mysterious reply, brushing herself off before meeting his stare. He was closer than she'd anticipated, the vintage basin forcing them within a foot of each other, and for a second, they hovered in the quiet heat of the other. He smiled faintly. She smiled back. Then, "Fire escape?"

His eyes flattened.

"Aquarium?"

"Heartless."

"You know, this building has a fifth floor."

"Why do I tell you anything?"

"Because I'm a universe."

She started laughing again as he wordlessly stepped out of the tub and began walking away.

"You can't escape me!"

He calmly pushed the door open.

"I'm unapologetic and infinite!"

He tossed a pleasant middle finger over his shoulder before disappearing down the hallway and despite the wringer she'd just gone through, despite the fact that her hands were still shaking, and despite it being the last thing she ever thought she'd do after finally coming to terms with the things she'd just said, she grinned.


"Oh, my God."

It was a deep, toe-curling groan.

"Oh, my God."

Breathy. Desperate.

"Damon."

Fervent.

"Damon."

Bonnie's hands flattened against Kai's kitchen island, eyes flying open in a flood of urgency, and Damon arched a baffled brow from across the counter. He'd once burned through an entire afternoon with Tyler watching videos of people who'd fallen in love with inanimate things—a woman who'd gotten engaged to the Golden Gate bridge, a dude who'd brought a recliner home to meet his family—and at the time, he'd thought it was all bullshit.

Now, though?

Now, he was pretty sure that Bonnie Bennett would marry a cake if she could.

"You have to try this."

She thrust the bowl of frosting they were supposed to decorating with in front of his face and he blinked at it, leaning against the countertop on his elbows. "I'm good."

"Try it."

"Bonnie, I don't care how many orgasms you have over frosting, I'll still hate it."

"Who hates frosting?"

"Me."

"Do you also hate joy?"

"I don't—mrrrmmph." He sputtered around the spoonful she'd stuck into his mouth when he wasn't looking, swatting it away with a harassed look. "Really?"

"Tell me that's bad."

His lips parted to spit out another 'really' when he promptly pressed them back together. And licked them. And reconsidered. "That's actually pretty good."

She shot him a simpering look. "See?"

"I mean, as far as frostings go, anyway."

"When will you accept that I'm always right?"

"You tried to talk me into buying a saber-toothed tiger from North Korea yesterday," he snorted, intercepting her hand as she made to draw it away and bringing the spoon back into his mouth.

"I was drunk! Drunk me doesn't count."

"Drunk you absolutely counts," he said through a mouthful of frosting. "I make my best decisions when I'm drunk."

"Your last drunk decision was trying to arrest Kai with Caroline."

"And now here we are, enjoying a lovely evening of blossoming friendships and light saber fights and Jesús Crisco," he countered, waving a whimsical hand. "So really, you're welcome."

Her eyes glittered with amusement as he licked his lips, all breeze and self-satisfaction. "Do you talk your way out of everything?"

"Absolutely everything."

"Doesn't that get exhausting?"

"Not when you're this good at it."

"What about being so humble, does that tire you out?"

"That one does take a lot out of me, yeah."

She shook her head, lips curling into a droll 'get over yourself' of a smile, and for some reason, something about the look stuck out to him a bit. He wasn't sure why. It wasn't that it was new or the first time she'd given it to him or anything—on the contrary, it was just so… familiar. Or rather, born out of familiarity. Familiarity with his insouciant ways and tendency to be a cocky shit, oddly intimate in that it presumed to know him.

For some reason, he liked it.

"Stop hogging all the frosting," she chided, freeing her captive wrist from his grip, and Kai chose that moment to flounce back into the kitchen from whatever planet he'd likely teleported to for cheesecake.

"Hi, friends!" he sang, balancing four trays of dinner leftovers on his arms like the world's most pleasantly homicidal waiter. "How're the cupcakes coming along?"

Damon glanced at the completely frosting-less cupcakes on the cake stand between them and pursed his lips. "We're taking kind of a minimalist approach."

"Mm," Bonnie agreed, scooping up another dollop of frosting and licking it off the spoon, bypassing the cupcakes entirely.

"Love it," Kai said, setting the trays down on the counter and turning to face them with his hip cocked out, all sass. "That's my new thing I'm trying—'love it'. I saw an article on twitter that said you need to change your catchphrase every three weeks to keep a dynamic personal brand, so." He snapped his fingers in an arc over his head. "Love it." Damon blinked at him, eyes bright with amusement. "You think Julian'll like it?"

"Oh, no, I think he'll," Damon snapped his fingers over his head, "love it."

Kai beamed, clapping his hands together. "Yay. Oh, and if you guys are done with those cupcakes, the smoking room is all set up for dessert!"

Damon glanced at the nearly empty bowl of frosting beside them. "Yeah, I think this is about as decorated as they're going to get, bud."

"Perfect, then follow me!"

He whipped around and flounced back out of the kitchen, but not before wincing, stopping abruptly in the doorway, and holding up a hand. "And by 'perfect', I actually meant 'love it'."

"Gotcha."

"Great!" He took another step forward and then faltered. "I meant—"

"Love it?"

"Yeah." He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "I'll get it."

"I believe in you, man."

He disappeared into the living room and Damon glanced at Bonnie, who'd seemed to have dissolved into her own little soundproofed world of processed sugar. "Yo, earth to Cookie Monster, we're moving."

She glanced up with a vague look. "What?" After a beat, she cast her gaze around the kitchen. "Where's Kai?"

He scoffed out a laugh. "Can you get it together?"

"Get what to—ow, where are we—"

He caught her by the wrist and led her out of the kitchen, but not before she reached back and grabbed the bowl of frosting with her other hand. "Are you kidding me?"

"I don't want to waste it!"

"You need help."

"I need help?" she scoffed in disbelief, stumbling behind him. "I saw you hump a traffic cone for twenty minutes last week."

"Did I really?"

"Yeah, when we were out with Caroline."

He struggled to dredge up the memory and largely failed. It was strange, though, thinking about Bonnie from before this whole blizzard Breakfast Club situation. All she'd registered as to him back then was this standoffish goody-goody who didn't particularly like him. He remembered showing up to meet Caroline at a club one night and there she was, all tiny and judgy, curls a mess from all the dancing, brows knitted over pretty green eyes that sized him up with mild disinterest. He hadn't thought much of it at the time—he was used to being the guy the best friend didn't like—but now that he knew what a genuine fucking weirdo she was, he was a little curious about what she'd actually been thinking.

The thought was interrupted by a tug on his wrist. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that she'd come to a dead halt in the doorway.

"I need a minute." She blinked at the smoking den, caught in something of a daze. "I need several minutes."

He turned back toward the room and broke into a laugh.

It was essentially a Willy Wonka factory.

Chocolate fountains bloomed up toward the ceiling. A hundred different kinds of cookies were stacked into mini-skyscrapers. An entire castle made out of meringue sprawled over a table. Cakes, pies, pastries, everywhere. It was like Martha Stewart had had a manic episode.

"Do you like it?"

Kai's voice drew their gazes over to the window. He was standing under a festive sprig of mistletoe with a three-layer cake in his arms, all skinny jeaned and be-Christmas sweatered, and for a second Damon thought he might've actually put together something semi-normal.

Then he saw the cake topper.

Or more specifically, the extremely life-like rendition of him, Bonnie, and Kai standing on the top layer. Wearing the same clothes they were wearing now. Holding hands.

"Surprise!" Kai sang, thrusting the cake forward with a sunny grin.

"Wow!" Bonnie exclaimed, leaning forward to peer at the uncanny cake topper with a bewildered look. He even got her one earring right. "That is so… wow!"

"Right?" He shot an eager glance at Damon. "What do you think?"

"Oh, you already know."

His face rumpled with confusion and Damon snapped a finger in an arc over his head.

His eyes lit up with glee. "Love it!"

"Love it," Damon echoed with a grin. Bonnie glanced between the two of them with a blank look and he shrugged. "It's his catchphrase."

"He has a catchphrase?"

"Yeah, you'd know that if you didn't go into a catatonic state over frosting," Damon replied.

"What's your catchphrase?" she asked Kai, ignoring the jab, and Kai dutifully snapped his fingers over his head.

"Love it."

She blinked. "That's… surprisingly innocent."

"Well, my last one was 'Time to kill Chad' so," he shrugged, "I thought I'd go a little more peppy for this one—keep the fans guessing."

"Who's Chad?"

"I don't know," Kai chirped, "but wouldn't it be funny if it caught on and suddenly a bunch of guys named Chad were found dead everywhere? That was my goal but it didn't work."

"Bummer." Bonnie shot Damon an exasperated look and his face rumpled. "What? I have a co-worker named Chad and he's a total douchecanoe—nobody would miss him." He glanced back at Kai. "I vote for reinstating 'Time to kill Chad'."

"I could just take him out for you," Kai offered, scrunching his nose. "Chad Pembrook, 31, B-positive blood type, 17 Cooper Street, Apartment #7, right?"

He could feel Bonnie's pointed stare on his profile and okay, maybe her 'don't encourage him' looks had some merit. "Maybe some other time."

Kai shrugged. "Let me know if you change your mind!"

"Can we just," Bonnie gestured at the ocean of desserts around them, redirecting the conversation like the addict she was, "go through what all of these heavenly things are, because I may look calm, but I'm actually losing my mind."

"Absofruitely!" Kai sang, setting the giant cake down and wiping his hands against his skinny jeans. "So this table over here are all the Latino desserts." He waved a hand at the gourmet bakery display of pastries by the window. "You've got your standard flan de coco, flan de queso, tres leches, guava cookies..."

Damon snuck a glance at her as Kai prattled on and marveled at the fact that she already had a plate with three different things on it.

"Then this table over here," Kai took a loping step over to the next setup, which had a five-foot Eiffel Tower made of macarons, "are all the French ones! Chocolate eclairs, madeleines, fondue—oh, my personal specialty: crème bru yay!"

"Amazing," she said through a mouthful of dessert, shamelessly grabbing more things to put on her already overflowing plate. "In fact," she snapped a finger over her head, hitting them with a sassy look, "love it." Damon winced and Kai just blinked at her, vaguely uncomfortable. She frowned. "What?" She glanced between him and Damon. "Isn't that the catchphrase?"

"Yeah, but you can't really pull it off."

"Excuse me?"

"Maybe you can practice," Kai offered, and Bonnie gestured at Damon with an offended look.

"How come he can do it but I can't?"

"He makes it look cool."

"And I don't?"

"You make it look like a jazzercise commercial," Damon offered helpfully and she pushed his smug face away with her hand.

"Kai, continue with the Parade of Nations, please."

"So the next table's obviously the American table," he said like a merry little tour-guide, waving at the explosion of red, white, and blue desserts arranged into a giant U.S. flag, "which means all the pies—apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, Boston cream pie."

"Incredible."

"Then if you move over here," he scooted over to the next table, shooting his arms out in a grandiose gesture. "Benvenuto a Italia!"

"This is unquestionably the best day of my life."

"That's so sad."

"I hear your unnecessary pity and I intend to address it, but right now there are way better things to be doing with my mou—is that baklava?"

She pushed him out of the way and he watched her zoom across the room with a wildly amused look.

"Four different kinds!" Kai replied as he sidled up to Damon. "I couldn't decide on a recipe so I made them all."

"First one's bomb," she called back, holding a thumbs-up over her head.

Damon felt a nudge against his shoulder and found an uncomfortably close Kai eyeing him. "So she forgave you, huh?" His voice had the cadence of a whisper but came out at full volume.

"Looks like it."

"What'd you do?"

"Apologize."

"That works?"

"I'm as surprised as you are."

"Second recipe's bomb, too!" Bonnie called out again, busting out some kind of shoulder-undulating happy dance, and Damon couldn't help but snort at how weird she was.

"Do you love her?"

His gaze snapped over to Kai, thrown.

It took him a few seconds to remember him and Bonnie were supposed to be dating.

For some reason, that loosened something in his chest.

"Uh," he began, pulling a hand up to rub the back of his neck, "yeah. Super in love. Can't get enough."

Kai nodded, turning to serve himself a piece of pie. "I thought so. I just wasn't sure 'cause I'm generally not very good at those things."

"Right."

"And then there was the added layer of you guys pretending to be in love—"

He froze, unsure if he'd just heard him correctly.

"—which made it hard to tell when you started actually being in love, you know? But I'm thinking it was after being stuck in the wine cellar." His gaze shot back up to Damon's, bright with eagerness. "Am I right?"

Damon just blinked at him.

"Was it after being stuck in the wine cellar?"

"Uh—"

"Third recipe is once again, unsurprisingly, bomb dot com," Bonnie sang over her shoulder, entirely oblivious to the M. Night Shyamalan movie of a conversation happening behind her. "You should seriously open a bakery, Kai."

"Thanks!"

"You need to try these, Damon." She bit into another square as she turned to face them and her brow promptly furrowed over her eyes. "Have you tried anything?"

He opened his mouth and then closed it, still thoroughly blindsided, and she glanced at Kai.

"What's wrong with him?"

"Not sure—we were just talking about the moment you guys fell in love."

"Oh," she replied, her chewing slowing a bit as she flipped into creative mode. "Right, yeah, it was pretty magical, we uh…" she took another careless bite of her baklava, casting around for some kind of bullshit story, "we just kind of knew, you know?"

"Was it in the wine cellar?"

She frowned as she swallowed the mouthful. "Your wine cellar?"

"Yeah, when you were trapped."

"That was a few hours ago."

"Yeah."

"We fell in love two days ago." She shot Damon a furtive look of doubt, as if to go 'right?', and Kai shook his head like an exasperated tween whose parents couldn't keep up.

"No, I mean the real time!"

Her face drew into a puzzled look and Damon quickly intercepted the conversation before it could start making sense. "Hey, why don't I try that—"

He turned toward Kai just as Kai turned toward him and the plate of pie in his hand took the brunt of the collision, smashing flat against his Christmas sweater. They both glanced down in surprise—thick apple filling was oozing from the edges.

Damon winced.

Well, that wasn't good.

"Sorry, bud."

Kai merely kept staring down his chest, seemingly in some kind of daze.

"Hope that wasn't your favorite."

He didn't even blink. It was like he'd entered an entirely different zone.

Damon frowned. "I can buy you a new one if—"

"I thought this moment might come," Kai interjected in a murmur, scarily still, and Damon's brows ticked up at the sudden creepiness of his voice. "I wasn't sure it would, and I almost didn't prepare for it because I calculated a less than five percent chance of it happening, but now that it's here…"

Damon glanced at Bonnie, who was staring at Kai with a mixture of wariness and alarm, and Kai promptly broke into a blinding grin.

"I'm so glad I did—you bitches are going DOWN." He dropped to the ground and grappled for something under the table, and by the time he'd scrambled back up to his feet he had a mini-rocket launcher mounted on his shoulder. "Okay, here are the rules," he grabbed a bunch of cupcakes and started loading them into the gun, "there are three flying robot cookies roaming around the apartment—the gold one's worth 100 points, the silver's worth 50, and the bronze is worth 20. Everyone starts off with a hundred points and every time you get hit, you lose five, every time you hit someone, you gain five. The game ends when all of the flying robot cookies have been captured, so if you're about to grab the last one and your point count is low, you should probz rethink your strategy. Winner gets free waffles for life, loser has to swim naked in my piranha tank so," he cocked his cupcake gun and broke into a wicked grin, "get moving, friends!"

Bonnie shot Damon a baffled look and he snorted. "Don't look at me."

"Kai, the pie was just an accident," she tried, lapsing into a laugh. "We weren't actually having a food fi—"

A cupcake hit her right smack in the face, effectively cutting her off, and Damon choked on a laugh.

"Food launchers are under the tables—catch you on the wrong side of the piranha tank, losers!"

And with that, he let out a wild cackle and sprinted out of the room.

Damon stared at the door with a wildly entertained look before glancing back at Bonnie. She was glaring at him, eyelashes coated in frosting. He gestured at her face. "You have a little something."

"We're not playing this game."

"No?" He lowered himself into a crouch. "Cupcake Quidditch seems kind of fun."

"Damon."

He reached a hand under the table and felt around till he found the launcher.

"It's stupid and dangerous, not to mention a giant waste of food."

He slid it out and turned it over in his hands, inspecting it.

"Plus, this apartment is essentially one giant booby trap."

He frowned and reached beneath the table again, finding the other one.

"So someone's definitely going to lose a limb and believe it or not, I'm really not in the mood to sew it back on."

He pulled it out and got back up to his feet with a launcher in each hand.

"And that's not even taking into account the mess it'd make or the fact that in involves a friggin' piranha ta—"

"Bonnie, you lost at Checkers, you lost at Candyland, you lost at Operation, you even lost at resisting me—are you sure you're not just afraid of losing again?" he interjected, offering her his most glinting, insufferable smile.

A flash of gold suddenly drew their attention to the doorway.

The golden robot cookie.

It hovered just outside the door like a little hummingbird, galling and glinting and daring them to catch it, and then it drew back sharply and zipped down the hallway. They watched it in silence before looking at each other.

She reached a hand out. "Give me that launcher."

His mouth slid into a grin as he tossed it to her—he knew that competitive streak couldn't stay down long. "You're going down, kid."

She caught it easily and slid the chamber open. "Did I ever tell you I grew up in Georgia?"

"And?"

"And," she began, loading in a giant stack of cinnamon buns, "that means my high school had a pretty great shooting team."

His stare glittered in amusement. "Let me guess—you were on it?"

She smiled, slid the chamber shut, and lifted the launcher onto her shoulder. "I was captain."

The cinnamon bun missed him by a hair as he dodged to the left, lifting his own gun that'd he'd been loading behind his back to take a shot at her. She ducked at the last second, rolling behind the table like some kind of wannabe marine as he dove behind a nearby bar cart for cover.

"Aw, don't be shy, Bon," he taunted, eyes thinning to track her shadow as she moved behind the table cloth. "It's not very captain-y to hide."

She aimed a shot over the top of the table and he ducked again, barely missing the splatter of cinnamon.

"It's not very captain-y to bathe in the tears of my enemy either but hell if that's going to stop me."

They traded a barrage of shots from their makeshift barracks, some wide misses and some narrow, and after five solid minutes of trench warfare, she suddenly stood up unarmed from the other side of the table. He immediately aimed his gun at her.

"Temporary timeout!"

He snorted as his finger went for the trigger. "Yeah, sure."

"I'm serious." She lifted her empty hands up to emphasize her point, and after a suspicious beat, he lowered his launcher by a few inches. But only a few.

"Talk."

"Okay, so while we're in here wasting ammo and time and effort on each other, Kai's out there finding those robot cookies unchallenged without so much as a smudge on him."

His lips pursed as he considered the words. She had a point.

"Now, I know I can beat you without breaking a sweat—"

His brows ticked up in amusement.

"—but I really want those waffles, and I'm under no illusion that I can beat whatever kind of Black Ops assassin ninja spy Kai is. Unless," she lowered her hands, stare taking on a shrewd glint, "we team up."

He lapsed into an immediate laugh. "No."

"Damon, the game only has to have one loser."

"Right, and it's going to be you."

"Or it can be Kai."

"I'm going with you."

He aimed his launcher back at her face and she lifted her hands again. "Temporary timeout!"

"You have three seconds to get back behind that table."

"No."

"Three."

"I'm standing here unarmed," she reiterated.

"Two."

"Truce."

"One."

"Truce."

He made to shoot her but she suddenly hit him with this look, like Bambi and Tiny Tim and sixteen puppies and every Pixar character ever created had been thrown into one of those face-combining apps, and he faltered despite himself. It wasn't even so much that it was cute, it was just absurd.

"What are you doing with your face?"

"Team up with me."

"Stop," he laughed, unable to believe someone was capable of being that cartoon-character expressive.

"Damon."

"No."

"It'll be fun."

"Yeah, especially the part where you shoot me the second I let my guard down."

"Well, the only one holding a gun here is you."

"For now."

"Please?"

He opened his mouth to say no and his stare momentarily snagged on her face. She was looking straight at him, all earnest and pretty and orphan-eyed, and even though she'd bitten, scratched, elbowed, and thrown literal daggers at him before, it was the first moment where he recognized her as remotely dangerous.

A beat of silence passed.

"Fine."

The word was out of his mouth before he could process it and his face immediately collapsed in bewilderment—what?

"Yes!" she sang, pumping a fist into the air. "I knew you'd come around."

He just blinked in confusion, unsure of what the hell had just happened.

"So here's what I'm thinking," she said, circling the table and walking over to him, and he forced himself to shake off his shock. "One of us is going to have to act as the bait, which should probably be you because I'm the better shot."

He blinked at her before aiming his gun at the three-layer cake and shooting the cake topper clean off. "You sure?"

"I'm sure."

He nodded his head at the macaron Eiffel tower. "Hit the top macaron off."

"My launcher's across the room."

He held out his and she stared at it for a beat before grudgingly taking it. "This is a waste of time."

"Just the top one."

"Easy."

"Prove it."

She balanced it on her shoulder and narrowed her eyes, zeroing in on her target. He watched the way her fingers ghosted over the trigger as she calibrated the position, teeth disappearing into her full lower lip, and for a second, he couldn't help but appreciate the badass sexiness of it all. "First rule of shooting club," she murmured, cocking the gun succinctly, and in the split-second before she spoke, he suddenly knew exactly what was about to happen, "never hand over your gun."

She turned it on him and shot him five times in a row.


"Honestly, I thought your safe space would be the kitchen."

Stefan smiled at the words, gaze raking over the constellations of glow-in-the-dark stars stretched across Bonnie's bedroom ceiling. She'd had them since she was seven—he'd gotten them for her birthday and like the sappy sucker for tradition she was, she'd brought them with her to every new place she'd ever had. She always glued them up all haphazardly and he'd spend hours rearranging them to something resembling the actual Milky Way.

"Close second."

Caroline turned her head to look at him, sprawled beside him on Bonnie's floor like a parallel line, the cat curled up at their feet like a blanket. He could feel the probe of 'why here?' in her gaze and he lifted a hand to gesture at the ceiling. "It's the closest we can get to being outside."

A quiet second passed before he met her gaze. Her hair was fanned around her head like a lion's mane and it added a wild quality to her face. "I mean…"

He frowned at the curl pulling at her mouth.

"There are technically other ways to be outsi—"

"You're so annoying."

"It's literally outside!"

"We're not going on the fire escape."

"I'm just saying."

He rolled his eyes as she laughed, begrudging smile slanting his mouth, and after a quelling beat, their gazes eventually settled back onto the ceiling. The stars had faded over the years, no longer the shock of phosphorescent green they used to be. He thought about getting Bonnie a new set and dismissed the idea swiftly—she'd keep the old ones. She'd clung onto every gift she'd ever gotten for as long as he'd known her.

Besides, they'd just fade again after a few years.

Bright things faded.

"So," Caroline prompted after a lingering silence.

"So," he replied, fingers drumming against the shadowed blue of Bonnie's carpet. His lips flickered vaguely. "This is hard."

"Right?"

"I don't know where to start."

"The beginning's a thought."

His eyes crinkled a bit, stare sliding over the points of the Cancer constellation like a slow-motion pinball machine. "The beginning, huh?"

"Yeah, it's this new experimental trend in the writing world. Very avant garde."

His mouth quirked briefly before slowly smoothing back into vagueness. The beginning. What even counted as their beginning, really?

Was it the first time he saw Elena, curled up in a corner booth at his favorite on-campus coffee shop, pencil caught between her teeth, hair pulled into a messy braid that sloped down her shoulder like a ribbon of ink? Was it the way she managed to look impossibly graceful even in a ratty Henley and an old pair of jeans, like some kind of homeless ballerina, the grit and bustle of NYU finals week inexplicably soft and haloed around her? Was it the fact that they had to call his name three times before he realized his order was ready because he was so instantly, stupidly, earth-mutingly struck by her?

Or was it a little later, when she caught him staring at her and offered him an uncertain smile, like she wasn't sure if she had something on her face. Like she wasn't aware that she was halt-traffic beautiful. Like everyone else in that packed coffee shop wasn't a complete idiot for not stopping to do the same.

Or maybe it was later still, when he almost left because he was running late for his class, when he caught her eye through the foggy glass as he passed by the window and she smiled again, this time warm, this time deliberate, and his legs abruptly stopped moving. And his class feathered away into the snowy air. And he went back inside. And he wove his way to her table. And he offered her a dumb, besotted, hello-I-might-love-you smile.

"Hi."

"Hi."

She had gold flecks in her eyes. The tufts of hair sprouting loose from her braid caught the light in mahogany flares. Everything about her looked warm, radiant. He couldn't remember how words worked.

"I—" he shook his head, tongue-tied, eyes crinkling as she slipped into a laugh. "Hi."

"Hi."

He brought an embarrassed hand up to ruffle the back of his hair, heady, smiling, brain a hum of gold-plated sounds. She nodded at the seat across from her with an amused look.

"Want to sit?"

And he did. And they talked. And they talked more. And they laughed. And he walked her to her apartment. And he asked her if she wanted to get dinner. And she did. And they did. And on the way home he called Lexi and she hung up on him because after five minutes she was nauseous.

That was their beginning.

Dumb smiles and snow flurries and vomit-inducing magnetism.

That was their beginning.

"Sounds like you and me," Caroline murmured thoughtfully as he finished recounting the memory, and he broke into an unexpected laugh. "You said scowls and blizzards and vomit-inducing disdain, right?"

"Exactly that."

"There you go," she said with a mirthful wave of her hand. "Happens every day."

"Not even special."

"Mundane, really."

He smiled at the levity, wishing it were true.

Wishing that in hindsight it had all been just another day, just another moment.

But it'd been singular. Non-replicable. That day, that moment, her smile—it'd been a knife to the gut, the happiest of daggers. Even afterwards, with all the residual heartbreak and bitterness charring the memory, with all the awareness of how much he didn't know about her, how much he'd idealized in that first conversation, how absurd it was that he'd fallen that fast for a complete stranger—nothing could diminish the drug-rush feeling that'd flooded his veins. Nothing could ever make him forget that he was capable of feeling that much.

"You know, the stupid part is, I fully understand that wasn't love," he mused, stare casting over a crude approximation of Orion's belt. "Not yet, anyway. It was too fast, too baseless—you can't fall in love with someone you don't know. But even knowing all of that, I just…" he slipped into a pathetic chuckle. "Once you've felt something like that before, illogical or not, it's so hard not to want to feel it again."

Caroline hummed vaguely in agreement and he turned his head to look at her. Her profile had a thin line of moonlight silvering the edges.

"Do you?"

She glanced at him. "Do I what?"

"Want to feel it again? That knife-to-the-gut rush?"

She stared at him for a long moment. "No."

Even though he'd known the answer, he couldn't help but feel a little disappointed.

"But I'm scared I will anyway," she continued, lips flickering into a faint smile. "And you're scared you won't. We're opposites."

He held her gaze until she glanced back at the ceiling. Her eyes were mulling and drawn, still a little red around the rims from earlier, and despite the fact that it was off-topic and dangerous, he wanted to ask her why. Why she was still so afraid of letting herself feel things. Why she was so willing to sacrifice her potential for happiness forever. Why she thought everyone would end up being some version of Matt.

But he already knew why. It wasn't that they would, it was that they could, and for her, that was enough.

"So what was your middle?" she prompted, breaking him out of his thoughts, and he sighed, turning his head back up to face the ceiling. "That's the part of the story between the beginning and the end, in case you were wondering."

"Thank God for all this exclusive writer knowledge."

"It's pretty insider stuff."

He felt her eyes on his profile as he struggled to piece together what he wanted to say, realizing belatedly that the beginning was probably the easiest part. It was so definable, so pinpointable. What even counted as the middle?

"We were pretty much together within a week," he offered after a few seconds. "Basically lived together within a month. Everyone thought it was fast but it felt so natural at the time, like we were always supposed to be that way, like rather than starting something new, we were actually just finally clicking into place, you know? It's—" he shook his head, unsure how to really describe it, and Caroline nodded beside him.

"I know."

"Our first year together was perfect." He reached up to absently rub his jaw, unable to think of a more nuanced word. It was just perfect. Every second of it. And he knew Caroline was probably rolling her writery eyes at him for giving such a cheesy description but it was the only one that felt accurate. "Or at least, I thought so—Elena obviously didn't since she spent the entire next one cheating on me, but that aside," he offered mordantly, "pretty perfect." He shook his head after a second, averting his stare. "I swear to God, Caroline," he lapsed into a helpless chuckle, "I'm not trying to be one cliché after another, but it felt like a movie."

And it had. A soft, slow-paced Sundance film with an earthy sepia filter, with bokeh and sun flares and wide, sweeping shots of stolen kisses in bustling college hallways. In the mornings, he'd wake up to her nose pressed against his, dark eyelashes fluttering with sleep, fingers wrapped around loose fistfuls of his shirt as the slow spring sun began to slip up his dorm room curtains. He'd stir milk into his coffee while she sipped her green tea, long legs folded beneath the fraying hem of one of his flannels, and they'd debate over whether they actually had time to make it the local farmer's market or not. (They never did and she'd always insist they try anyway and he'd always end up carrying a bag of bruised reject fruit home while she beamed proudly.)

She was warm. Compassionate. Wildly creative—she used to spend hours in the Art department experimenting with different styles and mediums only to straggle home at two in the morning covered in paint. She made it a point to see the best in people. She had an innocence about her that made her absurdly empathetic, to the point where she'd sit with dangerous-looking people on subways, attentive and at complete ease, just to hear their stories. She always wanted to hear peoples' stories, particularly the outcasts. She had a soft spot for the people the world had written off.

She had a darkness to her, though, even then. Shadows of boyfriends past, a complicated relationship with her parents, a brother she hadn't seen in years. She didn't talk about her home life very often, but the loneliness of it clung to her like a second skin, so ingrained that it was easy to miss if he wasn't looking closely. It showed in the way she sought him out in crowds, antsy, hurried, like she couldn't fully relax until she'd laced her fingers through his. It showed in the way she doubted herself in making decisions, the way she sought his opinion even when hers was the only one that really mattered. It was almost like he anchored her to the present, like without him, she'd be free to wander into the beckoning darkness that was always lingering in the distant periphery of her life.

But all he saw was a girl who clung to happiness with everything she had. Their happiness. Their gold-lit life together. And he was happy to be her anchor to that for the rest of their lives if she needed him to be.

"That trip I told you about, the one where we went to Colorado for our anniversary," he said, sliding his hand up his forehead and threading it into his hair—he could still feel the brisk bite of the December air, still see the mirror-clear reflection of the trees rippling in the lake water, "I almost asked her to marry me." He glanced over at Caroline, mouth twisting helplessly. "After one year. We were barely juniors. I was that stupidly, unbelievably happy."

"Was she?"

Her mild voice did little to disguise the loadedness of the question, and for some reason, he felt the barest flicker of defensiveness shoot through him. The moment passed, though, and instead he thought back on the trip, at the sight of Elena gasping for air from laughing so hard at his pathetic attempt at ice skating, at their clandestine three AM gift shop break-in because of her sudden craving for oreos, at the multiple nights they'd spent knotted up by the fire, skin indistinguishable from each other's, a hungry, heady tangle of limbs.

"At that point? Yeah, I think she was."

Caroline hummed thoughtfully. "And later?"

He sighed, casting a searching gaze around the room. "Somewhere along the road, it changed. I've just… never really been able to figure out when." A mirthless curl pulled at his mouth. "Probably when she met Liam."

Her brow furrowed.

"I mean, it would make sense—or at least, as much sense as the idea of her and a guy like Liam will ever make to me," he elaborated, feeling the old, unattractive bitterness he'd never fully managed to get rid of slinking into his veins. "Maybe she got bored with me, you know? Maybe his cherry red quarter life crisis of a corvette was exciting by comparison."

"I don't think that's what happened," she replied mildly, and he frowned at her certainty, gaze flicking up to hers.

"Why?"

"Because I think ruining good things is usually a symptom of something else," she replied. "At least in my experience. And that doesn't make it any better, really, but at least it makes it make more sense. Matt," she swallowed a little quickly, seemingly still uncomfortable bringing him up in casual conversation, "Matt didn't start getting aggressive with me out of boredom—he did it because his life took a dive. It was a reaction. If Elena was bored, she could've just left you, but she didn't, so…" she shrugged, "maybe there was another reason."

He averted his stare, thinking about the things Elena had said to him when he'd finally found out about Liam—things he could barely even hear over the high-pitched, tea kettle hum in his head. He'd been too stunned to think, too fixated on the sudden, tectonic shift that'd ripped a fault line straight through his chest. He just remembered shaking. Shaking hands gathering his clothes in a duffel bag. Shaking legs carrying him down the stairs. Shaking arms hailing a cab to somewhere, everywhere, anywhere that wasn't there. But as the months went by and the resignation set in, he'd slowly started being able to hear them. Her words. They unblurred in his memory, broke through the hum blocking them out.

"She said—" his jaw tightened, the words catching uncomfortably in his throat," she told me she couldn't handle the pressure anymore. That when we first started dating, no one had ever looked at her the way I looked at her, and it made her want to be the person I saw. So she tried to be."

"Stefan, you're the best person I know," she'd sobbed, her voice raw, fraying, hands frantically trying to grasp his face as he zipped up his suitcase, "you're the b-best person I know and I hate myself for this but I can't—" she choked on another sob, chest heaving wildly from the strangled effort to breathe, "I can't be who you want me to be, it's—it's not who I am, it's not who I'll ever be, don't you see that!? I'm messed up! I'm selfish and I'm insecure and I'm not always a good person and I just—when Liam came along," he remembered the bile rising in his throat at the name, "it was like all those awful parts of me were allowed to exist again and I could finally breathe and God, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm s-so—" her voice cracked with emotion, violent sobs racking down her body, and that was when he'd walked out the door.

Got in a cab.

Took the next plane out to Georgia.

His throat was thick as he sightlessly stared at Bonnie's ceiling. Even now, nearly three years later, he had so many things he wanted to say to her. So many questions, so many problems with the assumptions she'd made. He'd walked out so fast he hadn't even realized he might never get another chance to confront her, and by the time he got back to New York, she'd cleared all her stuff out from their apartment.

"Why did she think she had to be somebody else?" he murmured helplessly into the darkness, feeling old emotions seeping in again. "Why did she think she needed to hide things from me? When she smiled at me in that coffee shop, I had no idea who I was looking at, I just," he slipped into a desperate chuckle, "I just knew I couldn't stop. I just knew I had to know her. Any her. I would've loved any version of her, I—"

"Would you have, though?"

The question caught him off-guard, and he turned to look at Caroline. "What?"

"Would you really have loved any version of her?"

She just stared at him and he stared back, their faces shadowed and grey in the moonlight. He opened his mouth to reply and then closed it, brows drawing in over his eyes. Something about her voice was raising his guard a little. "I would've loved the real her."

"You didn't know the real her."

"I knew enough, Caroline," he replied, feeling the flicker of defensiveness shoot through him again, this time a little stronger. "I lived with her for two years—hell, I almost proposed."

"Yeah, to the version of her she tailored to everything she thought you wanted."

His eyes thinned a bit at the look on her face. "What are you getting at?"

"I'm not getting at anything, I just—"

"I mean, do you think I wanted that?" he pressed, unable to keep his shoulders from tautening with slow, reactionary tension. "That I wanted some imaginary perfection, that I wanted to feel like the biggest idiot in the world for putting every last stupid piece of my heart into something that wasn't even real?"

"No."

"Because it ripped me to shreds, Caroline."

"I know."

"It ripped me to goddamn shreds and I—"

"Hey," she cut in, twisting upward and planting a hard hand against his chest before he could get any more worked up, eyes steady against his, "you didn't deserve what she did to you. Let's just get that out of the way right now because that seems to be where you think I'm headed and I'm not. What she did was selfish and weak and honestly, I'd probably throw a drink in her face if I ever met her because I'm petty, but that's my point: it was selfish and weak. Those are parts of her—the real her you're claiming you would've loved just as much."

He watched her for a few seconds, unsure what to make of what she was saying, her hand a warm pressure over his rapid heartbeat.

"And who knows, maybe you would've," she continued. "Maybe whatever it was that drew you to her was strong enough to overcome all the things about her that weren't what you thought. But if she was right, if the real her wasn't someone you would've looked at the same way, wasn't someone you would've loved the same starry-eyed way you did, that still doesn't make you the bad guy, Stefan. You don't have to convince yourself you would've loved her anyway in order to not deserve what she did—we don't owe people love just because they want it." Her stare thinned a bit, gentler, searching. "You get that, right?"

His stare slipped down to the ground between them, greyed out, processing. Everyone around him—his sisters, Bonnie, his college friends—they'd always treated him with kid-gloves when it came to Elena. They were so fiercely on his side that they rarely acknowledged any truth in her words, and even when they did, it was usually in a snap moment of frustration that rocketed to the other extreme and turned it all into his fault. Both extremes had always felt a little wrong, but for some reason, he hadn't been able to reconcile the idea of both of them being a little right. It'd always felt like one or the other. A zero-sum game that he was cycling between, never knowing which one was completely true.

Neither, it turned out.

He hadn't realized he'd needed to hear it out loud. That even if Elena wasn't completely wrong, even if so much of their perceived happiness was because of the changes she'd been making to meet some impossible perception of his standards, even if there was a chance he wouldn't have actually fallen as hard for the unfiltered version of her, that didn't mean he deserved what happened. That didn't justify all the lies. It didn't make him blameless either, because fuck, how did he not notice that someone he claimed to love was cracking apart right in front of him, but it didn't make what she'd done okay.

In hindsight, that seemed obvious.

He glanced up at Caroline, scrutinizing, appreciative. "You know, I feel like I was a lot better at the 'silently listening' thing than you are."

She smiled at the jab, slipping her hand off his chest and dropping back down onto the ground beside him. "Sorry."

"No, it's… thank you," he said, lifting his gaze back up to the pearly stars. "I needed that."

He stared at the constellations for a long, wandering stretch. Cassiopeia. Ursa Major and Minor. Leo. Andromeda. Perseus. That had always been Elena's favorite story, Andromeda and Perseus. "It's the only one with a happy ending," she'd laugh, hair fanned over his shoulder as they stared up at the Savannah night sky. She used to say she felt like Andromeda sometimes, and stupidly, naively, he'd always taken that to mean that despite the early tragedies in her life, she'd finally found her happy ending. But now, looking back on those moments in his head, at the note of sadness that sometimes darkened her eyes when she said it, it made him stomach twist. Because maybe that wasn't what she meant at all. Maybe she meant she felt like she was strapped to a rock, trapped by the vanity of someone else, waiting for something to finally set her free.

Maybe he wasn't always the Perseus of her story.

Maybe sometimes, despite all his self-indulgent hero bullshit telling him otherwise, he was the rock.

"She must've been miserable."

Caroline glanced over at him. "Elena?"

He nodded distantly, feeling himself sinking into the familiar backswing of guilt that always followed his anger. "Trying to keep her balance on that sky-high pedestal I put her on. Trying to live up to all that pressure."

"I'm sure it wasn't all like that."

He shrugged limply. "How can I really know?"

Caroline frowned. "Because you didn't force her to be with you, Stefan," she said, propping herself up to one side. "She could've left at any point, but she didn't."

"Maybe she didn't feel like she could," he posited, thinking again about the way she used to rely on him for so many little things, the way she'd cling to him with clenched fists as they slept. He'd always found it endearing. "Maybe she felt dependent on me for stability, and maybe I was too okay with that."

Caroline shoulder eased up mildly. "Maybe. But that would've been her problem to fix, not yours."

He chewed the inside of his cheek, unable to stop thinking about all the times he'd felt valuable and needed when she'd turn to him for help, when she'd ask for advice, when she'd cajole him into going on even the smallest errands with her. Was that who he was? The type of person that needed to feel like a hero all the damn time, even at the expense of other people?

She must've noticed his face because she frowned. "Stefan, regardless of the reason, she chose to be with you, alright? She chose to stick around and she chose to try and be someone different because that's what she wanted. And yeah, maybe it wasn't sustainable, and maybe it wasn't always healthy, but that doesn't mean she was trapped in some endless loop of misery, either. Those were all choices." He just kept starting listlessly at the ceiling, increasingly disillusioned with himself, and she broke into a pronounced snort. "Okay, now you're just indulging."

His distant expression broke. "What?"

"This whole self-loathing villain thing you're doing," she waved a hand at him, eyes faintly lit with humor, "you're too much of a Boy Scout to pull it off."

"Caroline, I genuinely did things that—"

"She cheated on you, Stefan." He opened his mouth to respond and she tacked on, "For a year. With a douchebag. Who owns a corvette."

His mouth closed.

He considered the words for a few seconds.

"Yeah, you're right." She laughed and he dropped his head back against his arms with a sigh, shaking his head ruefully. "It was a convertible, too."

"I mean, how else was he supposed to compensate for the micro penis?"

He struggled to suppress a grin—it was exactly the kind of petty thing Lexi would say that he'd completely fail at trying to be above.

"And I mean, as far as Elena, maybe you can think of it all as a twisted kind of compliment," she offered whimsically, riding the wave of levity that'd momentarily washed over them. "You inspired her to want to be a better version of herself. I mean, a fake one, but still—inspirational as hell."

"Nah," he said, smile fading into something a little milder. "I don't want to be the guy that makes people feel like they have to pretend around him. That guy sucks."

Her nose scrunched for a considering beat. "That guy does kind of suck."

"He totally sucks."

She stared at him for few seconds, the mood of the room sobering again around them, and her gaze softened a little. "You're not that guy, Stefan. Or at least—it's not really…" she shook her head, searching for the words for a second before sighing. "Look, I don't think it's necessarily that you make people want to pretend, alright? You just—you may have a certain gooey idealism about you that makes people want to, I don't know, believe in good things." His stare drew back over to hers, surprised by the words. He was pretty sure they were the nicest ones she'd ever said to him. She looked a little awkward, as if uncertain how she wanted to proceed, and for some reason, that made him value them even more. "I mean, to be fair, it can also come across as super annoying and self-righteous," there she was, "but still, point is, you have a thing, and with, you know, great Disney-eyed power comes great responsibility. Or something."

He stared at her for a long moment. She was hovering half-over him, body twisted off the floor, hair catching the moon in a silvery halo around her face, and he couldn't help the slow smile that flicked up the corners of his mouth. "Did you just bastardize Spider-Man to me?"

Her brows drew in. "Was that from Spider-Man?"

He clasped a hand to his heart. "Take it back."

"I could've sworn that came from somewhere important."

"Take it back."

"Spider-man?" she echoed, face scrunching in distaste, and he shook his head.

"I can't be in this room."

He started to push himself up to a sitting position and the cat, curled so silently at his feet for the past half hour that he'd forgotten she was there, roused with a disgruntled yowl at all the jostling.

"Right?" he echoed, gesturing at Caroline with a 'can you believe her?' look. "No respect for greatness."

The cat blinked sleepily at him before turning her gaze to Caroline, and the latter instantly glared. "You broke my bronzer, you terrorist."

The cat yawned out a squeaky little yawn before rising to her feet, stretching, and in true feline DGAF fashion, padding over to Caroline. He watched her with an amused look, expecting Caroline to bristle and get all malfunctioning android again over the proximity, but to his surprise, she merely offered up a resigned hand that the cat instantly surged beneath. His brows couldn't help but tick up.

Someone was warming up a little.

Caroline caught his expression and rolled her eyes. "Shut up."

"Didn't say anything."

"You didn't have to."

He smiled, reaching a hand out to scratch between the cat's ears. She started purring merrily, basking in their combined attention, and after a few seconds, he saw Caroline smile a little, too. She caught his eye again and groaned.

"Stop."

"Told you you'd come around."

"Whatever."

"Guess you're not the only one who can read people."

She shook her head and he smiled, thoroughly amused by her denial, though after a second, a flare of curiosity struck him. She'd sorted out Rebecca's migraine of a social situation in less than an hour. She'd immediately identified the cracks in his issues with Elena. "How did you get so good at reading people, anyway?"

She considered the question for a surprisingly long time before shrugging. "Honestly, it's kind of what happens after getting manipulated for so long." His brows drew in at the answer, not quite expecting it, and she averted her gaze, watching the cat glide beneath her hand. "You start paying closer attention to people."

He wasn't sure how to respond. Her mouth was caught between a line and a smile, a little bitter, a little drawn, and not for the first time, he felt a quiet anger start simmering through his blood over the things that'd happened to her. The things she'd been robbed of. Trust. Optimism. Innocence. Peace of mind. The fact that she had to keep such a tight, frightened lock over that fierce heart of hers because of how violently it'd been broken into, that she'd resigned to never being able to feel something as soaring as love without something as crippling as fear to drain the joy out of it.

"You know, that rush you got when you met Elena," she ventured after a long silence, easing back down against the carpet and folding her arms behind her head, "I don't actually think that's the most you can feel." His brows ticked up at the unexpected assertion. "I know you felt it the second you saw her, and sure, that's exciting, but I think the real knife to the gut is going to be when you feel it about someone you do know. When all their flaws and ugly secrets are right in your face and suddenly, despite all of that, bam," she mimicked stabbing a knife into her stomach, lips flicking up wryly at the corners, "goner." She glanced up at him with a faint glint in her eyes. "I'd imagine that's when you're really fucked, so," she shrugged, "best is yet to come for you, Salvatore."

He held her gaze for a mulling beat. It could be for you, too, he wanted to say. A reminder that she could still choose that for herself, that opening her heart up was scary as hell but closing it off forever was, too. She was gambling with her happiness either way.

But instead he offered her a not-quite-smile. "Maybe."

Her nose wrinkled. "Definitely." His smile fully realized and she matched it briefly before glancing away, stare distancing a little as it landed on the foggy window. "I feel like we're still sad."

He sighed, settling back down onto the floor beside her. "We're pretty sad."

"I'm tired of being sad."

"I'm tired of being sad, too."

"Cat, how do we stop being sad?" she asked, and upon receiving no response, waved a hand. "I'm telling you, she's a sociopath."

"We could always try Google again." He reached into his pocket and fished out his phone, swiping an absent thumb across to bring up the home screen. "She had so much to say about non-intimate lip biting."

"Do you seriously not have a passcode?"

He frowned, glancing over at her. "No, why?"

"Aren't you worried someone's going to hack into your phone?"

He snorted. "And see what? That my boss wants extra whipped cream on his latte?"

She just blinked at him, thoroughly bemused. "You and I have very different phones."

"Why?" he asked, stare darkening with mock-intrigue. "What's on your phone?"

She arched coy brow. "Wouldn't you like to know."

The corners of his mouth ticked up, head unable to stop from fuzzing a little bit.

He would.

He'd very much like to know.

She held the look for a long, sly beat before nodding her head at his phone. "What does Dr. Google say?"

He blinked to clear the lurid thoughts from his head, locking them straight into the mental black box he'd been using all night. Rezoning her to a purely platonic place in his head wasn't the easiest thing he'd ever had to do, but honestly, considering they'd had sex less than a few hours ago, he thought he was doing pretty well. A few more days and he was to determined to have it be instinct. "Alright, so according to the distinguished and highly reputable happy4eva dot com," he said, eyes scanning over his phone screen, "we have to one: talk about what makes us sad, two: tackle our fears, and three: forgive ourselves."

She pursed her lips. "Hm."

"Yeah."

"Okay. Well, I definitely think we covered the first one."

"Yeah, I'm sad-talked out."

"So, I guess next up is facing our fears?"

A long, speculative silence filled the room, both of them casting around for what the hell that could even entail, until her face suddenly lit up. And her gaze snapped back over to his. And she grinned.

He frowned at her for a puzzled second before his entire face went flat.

"No."


"So let me just recap a little here—since I've been trapped in this apartment building with you, you've gotten me attacked by birds."

"That was Kai."

"Socked me in the jaw."

"I barely grazed you."

"Got my hand cut open."

"That was all drigh you."

"Stepped all over my feet."

"We were dancing."

"Stabbed my open wound with tweezers."

"I was cleaning it."

"And now, after all of that trauma, after we were almost what I'd consider to be friends, you not only turned on me at the first possible chance at betrayal during the food fight of our lives, but for your final blow, for your pièce de résistance, you threw a screwdriver at my face?"

Bonnie rolled her eyes as she dabbed at Damon's eyebrow. "That's so not what happened."

Except it kind of was.

Not intentionally, obviously—she'd honest-to-God thought she'd grabbed an unusually sturdy spatula from that utensils rack—but she couldn't deny that she'd hurled something at his head to stop him from getting the golden robot cookie.

Whatever. It'd hit him handle-side first.

"In my defense, you goaded me into playing."

"Yeah, well in my defense, I didn't know I was releasing the fucking Kraken."

Her lips twitched as she turned his chin, inspecting his cut in the yellow bathroom light. There was a chance she'd gotten a little out of control with the competitiveness. Like when she'd barricaded the hallway with file cabinets. Or thrown Damon's launcher into Kai's pet black hole. Or locked Kai in an air vent (to be fair he'd crawled into it on his own). But hey, a win was a win, right?

"So," he ventured, and she could feel his gaze briefly flitting down her face. He was leaning back against the sink at an annoyingly pronounced angle, feet shot out about two feet in front of him to make up for their height difference, and in an incongruous twist of events, Kai's bathroom was so tiny that she had to stand between his legs to fit. "Was the victory worth it? Broken trust, ruined friendships, damaged property?"

She pretended to consider the question. "For a lifetime supply of waffles, I would burn this entire building to the ground so," she shrugged at him, "yeah."

He smiled. "You're kind of a maniac, you know that?"

"Oh, like you didn't hit that anti-gravity button on purpose?"

"I might've grazed it."

"There were explosives in there."

"Yeah, and why is that?"

"I told you, it was a scare tactic—I wasn't actually going to use them."

"You should've."

She shot him a surprised look and his mouth tugged up. "Didn't say I wasn't a maniac, too." They smiled at each other for a second, bonded by their mutual weirdness, before his hiss cut through the silence.

"Sorry," she said with a wince, forcing herself to refocus on his forehead. "This cut's a little deeper than I thought."

"Of course it is."

"And you have some bruising."

"Of course I do."

"And you might need stitches later."

"You know, for a doctor, you're really bad for my health."

She smirked as she dabbed at his eyebrow. "Not a doctor yet."

"Thank God for that."

She shot him a flat look and his lips hitched up at the corners. It was the kind of smile he'd been giving her in brief bursts all night—different from his usual smile, more instinctive, almost, like he hadn't remembered to compose it into something cooler—and now that she had a second, she couldn't help but linger on it a bit. There was no slant. No sly tug of one corner over the other. Just a boyish middle part of a smile. And maybe it was that, or maybe it was the fact that he had licks of frosting all over his face and his hair was sticking out in about fifty different directions, but she suddenly felt a little struck by the authenticity of it. The guy looking back at her wasn't some suave, sexy mystery.

He was a nerd with lemon meringue pie in his hair.

"So why medicine?"

The question drew her out of her thoughts. "What?"

"The whole doctor schtick." His irises were saturated in the bathroom light, the pale blue warmed into more of a teal. "You know, long hours, boxy coats, rectal exams?" He waggled his eyebrows and she felt her lips twitch. "What made you want to do it?"

"Nothing too original, honestly," she said, setting the cotton ball down and reaching for an alcohol pad. "Heal the sick, help the helpless, that kind of thing."

She felt him staring at her, his proximity adding a palpable warmth to his gaze, and for some reason, it took her a second to bring herself to meet his eye.

"What?"

He shrugged.

"No, don't shrug all mysteriously," she countered, setting the pad down. "What is it?"

"Nothing."

"What is it?" He smiled and she pursed her lips. "What, you think it has to be about my parents?"

"What?"

"'Cause I'm just 'such a cliché'?" She waved her hands around in limply sarcastic emphasis and he snorted.

"Who said I thought you were a cliché?"

"Oh, please, Damon," she said with a good-natured roll of her eyes. "I know what you think of me."

"Really?"

"Yep."

"And what's that?"

"You think I'm a stereotype who thrives on feeling needed for the sake of my own abandonment issues."

He'd said it himself multiple times—it was hardly a mystery. Textbook, he'd called her.

"And you know what, maybe you're right," she ventured, ignoring his lack of reply. "Maybe there's a part of me that likes being the person someone needs at the end of the day, but if there is, it's because I trust myself to actually be there. I know what it's like to have no one in my corner and I'll fight like hell for my patients because of it, so…" she shrugged, plucking the alcohol swab back up, "if you think that makes me predictable, then good."

She shot him a breezy look and was surprised to find his face void of any smugness. He looked thoughtful. "Actually, I think that's what makes you so surprising."

She held his stare for a moment, searching for any note of irony. She didn't find one. In fact, she wasn't sure what she found, but it made her pulse a little weird. Was that even a compliment? It kind of felt like one. But Damon wasn't really a genuine compliment kind of guy—or at least, he hadn't seemed like one before today.

She cleared her throat. "You're just being nice because you know this is going to sting."

"What's going to—ow," he hissed, drawing a sharp breath between his teeth as she pressed the alcohol pad against his cut. It wasn't the smoothest response but tension wasn't her forte and she hadn't known what else to do.

"Don't be such a baby."

"Baby my ass, that hurts."

"It's just a little—"

"Ow!"

She couldn't help a laugh as he pulled his head away from her. "Damon."

"It's clean enough."

"No it isn't, I have to—" she slipped into another disbelieving laugh as he ducked away from her again—what was he, five? "Didn't you just give me a—"

"Ow!" he bit out as she dabbed his cut again.

"—giant list of all the ways you've gotten hurt in the past few days?"

"What's your point?"

"My point is you can clearly handle pain!"

"Well, maybe I've handled enough!" he replied, harassed, and even though she knew he'd meant it harmlessly, just a whiney diva being dramatic, she couldn't help but stop to consider the words.

Maybe I've handled enough.

Her gaze dropped to his shoulder. Unsettlingly, there was a bloom of red food coloring right above the spot where his scar was hidden by his shirt. It lingered for a beat before flitting down to his hand, to the cut he'd shredded up in his desperation to get out of Kai's cellar because whatever he'd gone through before was worth crushing a hand over. Worth crushing bones over.

A soft furrow formed between her brows. She didn't know why, but part of her had just assumed that someone who'd had the life she suspected he'd had was so used to pain that he wouldn't even flinch in the face of it. She suddenly realized that was stupid. Loss hadn't made her stronger. In fact, in a lot of ways, it'd made her softer, but mostly? Mostly, she was just terrified of ever feeling it again.

"I can just use the ointment," she said after a beat, averting her stare before he could notice any kind of shift. "It doubles as an analgesic."

"You couldn't have done that from the beginning?"

"It's not broad enough spectrum on its own."

He sighed, stare veering up to the ceiling as she uncapped the tube and spread a bit of its contents onto a Q-tip.

"You won't feel a thing," she assured him as she stepped back up to him, nudging his chin down to tilt his head toward her.

"I'm feeling a lot of things."

Her lips twitched at his surly tone. "You won't feel any physical things."

He ran his gaze over her face as she began dabbing the ointment over his eyebrow, taking care to linger in places that made their proximity unnervingly obvious, and she could actually feel his annoyance shifting into something slyer. "I don't know," he ventured, voice slipping into a luring quality, "I think I'm feeling some physical things."

Her mouth took on a begrudging curl. "Walked right into that one."

"Feeling a lot of them, actually. In fact…"

She felt the sudden pressure of his hands on her hips.

"I think we should focus on fixing those first."

He began easing her toward him.

"And then we can get to the cut."

A familiar flare of heat curled through her, lured by his voice and his shamelessness and all the stupidly Damon things that turned her on about him lately, but it was less intense than usual. Less mind-numbing. She didn't feel like some shallow, horny teenager was taking over her body and making her lose control.

"You have cake in your hair," she replied after a second, focus still zeroed in on his eyebrow, and his lips quirked.

"You like it."

"And you smell like eggs."

"Well-known aphrodisiac."

"And you have chocolate frosting all over your neck."

His mouth parted to deliver some slinky line.

"Mixed with ketchup."

His mouth fell closed in reconsideration. He opened it again briefly, casting around for something to say, then closed it again.

"Go ahead," she goaded, humor lighting her gaze as she dropped it to his. "Try to make that sexy, I dare you."

His eyes took on a glint of challenge. "I can do it."

"Sure."

"Give me a second."

"Thick, clumpy ketchup," she cooed. "Curdled with chocolate frosting."

"Let me think."

"Oooo, give me that chunky sour frosting, daddy."

He slipped into a laugh despite himself.

"You're a ketchupy chocolate sex god."

"Christ."

"Dip me in that chocolate-flavored salsa."

"You're so weird."

"See? It's impossible!"

"It's totally possible."

"How can chocolate ketchup be sexy?"

"Because I'd lick anything off you," he offered, countenance shifting back to silky as he drew her hips into him. "Ketchup… chocolate…" he moved his mouth over the shell of her ear, "anytime, anywhere…" his voice dropped into a velvety rumble, "anything."

She considered the effort for a beat, appreciating the subtle dig of his fingers into her thighs. Then, in a cooing murmur, "Still gross."

"So gross." She started laughing and he tossed his head back with a rueful sigh. "I really thought I had it."

"Can't win 'em all."

"There's no way to make that combo work."

"Um, yes, there is—you say 'dip me in that chocolate-flavored salsa, daddy'."

A laugh bubbled from his throat. "With a side of that chunky sour frosting?"

"You need the 'daddy'." He swiped a hand against his neck and her laughter sharpened into a squawk of protest as he tried to wipe it on her face.

"I thought you wanted it?"

"Damon!"

"I go by daddy, actually."

"I'm going to—" she shrieked as he got some on her cheek, fighting him off with an effort that was completely offset by her laughter. "Stop!"

"Keep going?"

"Damon!"

"It's dadd—" he sputtered as she managed to get some in his mouth.

"Ha!"

He spat it out, face screwed up in disgust. "Oh, you're dead now."

"Truce."

"My ass."

"Truce!"

"You have the goddamn nerve—"

She yelped as he pulled her into a sloppy hold that had his chuckle right up against her lips, attempting to get the taste on her mouth, and for a second, a light, heady magnetism that felt markedly different from their usual kind flashed over her skin. Bright, warm.

Strangely innocent.

But before she could process it, she was processing something else.

A series of muffled yells coming from people outside.

People who sounded a lot like Stefan and Caroline.


"Why are you like this?"

"Isn't this great?"

"Why are you like this?"

"We're embracing the great outdoors!"

Stefan stared over the railing of the rusted fire escape with a miserable look, hands shoved into his pockets and coat done all the way up to his chin. Caroline couldn't help but laugh at how tragic he looked—it was like a cat being forced to take a bath.

"This is definitely not what they meant by 'tackle your fears'," he muttered, breaths coming out in wintry puffs in the December air.

"Well, they didn't specify emotional fears, so," she shrugged, smiling cheekily. "Besides, maybe it subconsciously makes you sad that you can't handle being five feet off the ground. Definitely makes me sad for you."

He couldn't help but snort at the heartlessness. "And you call the cat a sociopath?"

"Takes one to know one."

"And back-up: what fears are you facing right now?"

"Hello, fear of hypothermia? Fear of the fact that this fire escape hasn't been cleaned all winter? Fear that you might faint on me and—"

"I'm legitimately never telling you anything ever again."

She slid into a laugh, a bright, brassy thing that she gave him full permission to hate her for because God, she could be an asshole. "Okay, you're right, I'm sorry."

"No, you're not."

"No, I'm not."

He shook his head with a begrudging twitch of his lips.

"Would it help if I said I'm proud of you?" He shot her a flat look and she started laughing again. "I really am."

"Can we just do whatever it is we're here to do?"

"Yes," she declared, forcing her amusement down and turning toward the snowy alleyway beneath them. She grabbed the ledge with her gloved hands and lifted her chin. "Okay. Fears faced."

"Just mine, but sure."

"Next up, forgiveness." She cast around blindly for a moment, drumming her fingers on the railing. The worst of the blizzard seemed to have passed already, rendering the night oddly calm and quiet around them, and it made her thoughts sound louder in her head. Scarier. She turned to Stefan and waved a hasty hand. "Go for it."

"What?"

"Forgive yourself for something."

"No way, I'm already taking the massive brunt of the 'face your fears' hit."

She sighed and turned back around to face the alleyway, and after a few restless seconds, her lip curled in distaste. "This is stupid."

"It was your idea."

"I'm stupid."

"Just pick something."

"I don't know what to say."

"Forgive yourself for dragging me onto this fire escape." She shot him an amused look and he scoffed. "Actually don't, because I don't forgive you."

"You know, maybe we just need to keep it general," she offered, waving a hand. "Blanket forgiveness. Something like," she turned to face the street again, squaring her shoulders and adopting an important stance. "I, Caroline Forbes, forgive myself."

A beat of silence stretched between them, anticipatory and humming, and he arched a brow. "Feel any different?"

She sighed. "No."

"Oh, well—we tried."

"No, no, no," she blustered, reaching a hand out to stop him as he turned to head back inside. "We're just doing this wrong, we need to commit."

"To an institution?"

"To a goal."

"Can the goal be to go inside?"

She sighed and hit him with a hard look. "Stefan, do you want to be sad forever or not?"

He eyed her for a measuring beat. "No."

"Great, me neither, so let's at least try this."

He shook his head and took a wary step toward the railing. "I can't believe we're listening to happy4eva dot com."

"We're not, we're listening to me."

"Is that any better?"

Her lips twitched as he settled beside her—she'd never admit it to him, but his sassy streak was starting to become a favorite of hers.

"Alright, what am I doing?"

"Forgiving yourself." He shot her a 'cool what does that mean' look and she sighed, digging her hands into her pockets. "It doesn't have to be about Elena or anything, just start with something small. Something easy, like," she gave his pea coat a considering once-over. "Forgive yourself for your taste in jackets."

His brows drew in. "What's wrong with my jacket?"

She winced. "What isn't?"

He glanced down at the boxy coat in confusion and she shook her head.

"Look, that's a self-improvement project for another day."

"Self-improveme?"

"Right now we need to focus on this," she urged, nodding her head at the railing. He eyed her for a second before begrudgingly abandoning the topic and turning back to face the alleyway.

"Okay. Self-forgiveness. I, uh…" he rocked back on his heels a little awkwardly, casting around for something to say, "forgive myself for using the last of the ink in the office printer last week."

She just blinked at him and he shrugged.

"You said start easy."

"I can't deal with you."

"I thought I did a good job."

She rolled her eyes and cast her gaze out to the snowy street, fingers curling into determined fists in her pockets. After a beat of thinking, her shoulders squared. "I forgive myself for making excuses for things I knew I shouldn't." For a split second, she felt an actual flash of vulnerability shoot through her shoulders. It faded quickly, though, and by the time she met Stefan's impressed look, she merely offered a haughty shrug. "Some of us are capable of taking this seriously."

"What makes you think I wasn't serious about the printer ink?"

She just stared at him and he glanced back down at the alleyway. He looked apprehensive at first, still clearly not comfortable with the height, but after a few seconds his face drew into a pensive look. Then, "I forgive myself for not seeing the things I didn't want to see."

Her eyes searched his profile. "Do you actually?"

He considered the question for a long beat. "I think so."

She knocked her head toward the alleyway. "Then say it like you mean it."

He lifted his hands around his mouth and yelled out an emboldened, "I forgive myself for not seeing the things I didn't want to see!" His voice bounced off the buildings in a magnifying echo, ruffling through the still night air like a flock of pigeons, and he turned back to look at her with an odd look. Surprised. Alight. "That… actually felt pretty good?"

"Really?"

"Do one."

She thought about it for a second before tossing her head back. "I forgive myself for taking too long to recognize things!"

He followed suit. "I forgive myself for being unrealistic!"

They glanced at each other, a low hum of adrenaline starting to course through them now, spurred by the strange thrill of yelling their insecurities into the world. The city was hibernating around them, cloaked in a blanket of darkness and snow, but something about it felt inexplicably alive. Aware. Anticipatory, almost, like at any second it could wake up. And then suddenly, before they could even process what had come over them, they were yelling their throats hoarse.

It was an eruption. A symphony screamed at the top of their lungs. Names and dates and fears and failures, ribboning out into the powdery night—two werewolves howling their pain at the moon. She felt dizzy, wild, her body vibrating with a feeling that she couldn't even place, couldn't even identify as good or bad. She saw Matt's face in her head. She saw the truck, the daisies, the look her mom used to give her because she knew, she just knew, she always knew. She saw the empty tubes of concealer scattered across her vanity, saw Tyler's fraught stare as he wiped the blood from his nose, saw Bonnie agonizing between saying and not saying anything while she silently frayed at the seams.

She had to let it go.

She had to.

All of it.

How long it'd taken her to leave him, how many horrible things she'd ignored, how easily she'd almost thrown away her life—it didn't matter, none of it mattered, it was over. She was here. She was fucking here and despite everything telling her otherwise, despite every article in every magazine reassuring her that she was strong and brave and beautiful like that was the criteria for mattering in this world, like the universe wouldn't know what to do with her if she just accepted the fact that most days she wasn't any of those things—'here' was all she needed to be.

Broken and here.

Scared and here.

Struggling and here.

But fucking here.

That was enough.

God, that was enough.

"Shut the fuck up!" an angry voice called from across the alleyway, wrenching her back to reality, and it wasn't until her voice cut out that she realized she was still yelling. They both had been. Not words. Not declarations of forgiveness. Just raw, throaty, desperate yells, tearing into the night air and carving it up like a knife.

The light from a window about thirty feet away promptly extinguished, seemingly content with their silence, and she looked over at Stefan with a disoriented expression. He looked similarly flushed and wild-eyed, like he'd just come out of his own feral state, and for a long beat they just stared at each other. And then suddenly they were laughing.

"What the hell just happened?"

"I don't know."

"When did we start screaming?"

"I don't know!" she managed through hitching breaths, and his laughter deepened into something reckless and full, the kind that rattled ribcages and hollowed out lungs.

"That was like a death metal concert."

She was struggling to breathe. "A horrible one."

"Are you kidding me?" he gasped. "It was amazing! In fact, thank you, Boston!" he yelled, waving a hand out to their invisible audience, and her eyes thinned so hard from laughing that it almost felt like she was crying.

Her throat spasmed so tightly it almost felt like a sob.

And then suddenly it didn't just feel like one, it was one.

She clutched a hand to her hitching chest, tears flashing down her cheek—what the fuck?

Stefan's movements slowed, glowing expression snagging at the shift.

She didn't know what was happening.

She didn't know when the hell she'd stared crying, Jesus, what?

She turned around blindly and caught the railing with her hands, her shoulders starting to shake with the force of her tears. She felt overwhelmed, suddenly, like all the bottled-up emotion of the night had finally caught up to her—like all the bottled-up emotion of the past three years had finally caught up to her—and there was nowhere for it to go but out.

The sobs started racking through her body like a storm. Her knuckles grew white beneath her gloves. She couldn't remember the last time she'd cried like this, so openly, so freely—it didn't feel like the bathroom or any of her other drunken breakdowns. Those were desperate, frantic, the frenziedly fought sobs of a broken girl trying to keep it together. This was almost cathartic. She felt inexplicably liberated with every seize of her lungs.

"I d-don't know what's happening," she gasped out, and to make things even more confusing, she felt herself choke out a bewildered laugh. "What the hell is happening?"

"I think you might be forgiving yourself," Stefan offered quietly.

She stared hard at her gloved hands as her body seized, vision blurring with tears, the cold night like a washcloth against the feverish heat of her skin. She closed her eyes. Her voice dropped to a desperate whisper.

"God, I hope so."

And then for what felt like a long time, neither of them said anything. A light drizzle of snow began falling again. She felt her breathing slowly start to grow a little easier. Her grip began to loosen on the railing. The snowflakes mixed into the tracks of her tears.

Then: "Can someone please explain what just happened to me because I don't get it."

Her eyes snapped open at the unfamiliar voice. She whipped around frantically and it took her a second to make out the shadowed forms of Bonnie, Damon, and Kai poking their heads out the window to the neighboring fire escape. She just stared at them, completely rigid, every last inch of her skin screaming with vulnerability.

"Is she happy or is she sad?" Kai asked, frowning at her like she was some kind of math problem, and Damon nudged him with his shoulder.

"Tact, bud."

Bonnie just stared at her, seemingly in something of a daze. "Sorry, we just," she aimed a vague thumb over her shoulder, "we were inside and we heard shouting."

Caroline felt her hands curl into such tight fists that she could feel her nails through her gloves. She felt searingly exposed, like she was naked on an exam table with a gallery of strangers inspecting her. It didn't matter that it was Bonnie. It didn't matter that the only two other people were a serial killer and an emotional black hole who didn't ask questions. The shock of being caught with her defenses down felt like a battering ram to the chest, so much so that for a second, she couldn't remember how to breathe.

She forced herself to clear her throat. "Yeah, sorry." She smiled shakily. "We were just being stupid, nothing's wro—"

"Care."

It was soft, frank, and Caroline's stare dropped to the ground. She couldn't bring herself to meet Bonnie's eyes. She knew she'd start crying again. Hell, she might've already.

She heard some rustling, the creak of old iron, and without even looking up she knew Bonnie had climbed out onto the fire escape. She was barefoot. She hated the cold. "Bonnie, it's freezing, you should go back in—"

"Do you actually?"

Something about the weight of her voice made her look up. She'd come all the way up to the railing, tiny frame shivering in the cold, eyelashes fluttering as the snowflakes caught in them, but her eyes were charged with emotion.

"Do I what?"

"Forgive yourself?" she asked, the words loaded in the thin air, and for a second, Caroline felt the knives of vulnerability slicing right back up her chest. She hadn't been sure how much they'd heard. That question made it seem like probably a lot.

But then she remembered that she was looking at the girl who'd held her sobbing, bruised up body in a bathtub more times than anyone. The girl who'd stayed up all night to help her pass her micro econ final after a fight with Matt had totally destroyed her. The girl who'd go into month-long study crazes and barely take care of herself, but never once stopped checking in on her. The girl who never let herself get pushed away, even when Caroline tried, even when she had every reason to write her off as a lost cause.

So her shoulders just edged into a small, razingly vulnerable shrug. "I think I might."

Tears began to prick Bonnie's eyes. "Really?"

"I mean," Caroline slipped into a hoarse little laugh, "no promises, but I'm trying."

Bonnie broke into a smile before leaning over the railing to grab her, pulling her into a hug that was all chin and elbows, and Caroline let out a throaty laugh. "Oh my God, ow."

She just tightened her arms around her.

"You're freezing."

"It's fucking cold!"

"Why aren't you wearing shoes?" she laughed, and she felt Bonnie scoff against her shoulder.

"Because the stray dog you brought home didn't give me a chance to."

"We're still on this?" Damon drawled from the window, and Caroline looked up in surprise, almost having forgotten anyone else was there.

Kai was still squinting at her like some kind of baffled zoologist. "What's she forgiving herself for? What'd she do?"

"Might be best to just sit this one out, bud," Damon replied, and when she glanced at him he offered her a faint smile. "Hey, Locks."

"Hi."

"Rough night?"

She smiled at the levity.

"How rough?" He nodded at Stefan and waggled his eyebrows and her watery gaze slitted—well, so much for that little moment. It was comforting though in a way, knowing that no matter how awkward or intimate the situation, she could always count on Damon to be a shithead.

She disentangled herself from Bonnie and took in a deep breath, trying to settle her nerves at being caught in such a vulnerable moment. "How's your date going?"

"Horribly," she said with a smile, and Damon cleared his throat behind her.

"Kai."

"Oh," Bonnie started, whirling around with an instant look of regret—Kai looked stricken behind her. "No, no, no—the dinner party itself has been incredible, Kai, like easily the most elaborate, well-planned thing I've ever been to!" She whipped back around to Caroline with a mystified look. "But actually, though, like you should hire him for one of your events." She turned back to Kai. "I was talking more about the company. Or at least, half of it."

"She's just a sore loser," Damon offered to Caroline by way of explanation and Bonnie shot him a thin look.

"Shouldn't you be in a piranha tank right now?"

"Nah, Kai and I agreed that getting a screwdriver thrown at my head was punishment enough."

Kai frowned. "No, we didn't."

"Sure, we did."

"When?"

"Earlier." At Kai's puzzled look, he waved a hand. "He's confused."

Bonnie turned back to Caroline with an exasperated look and Caroline couldn't help but think she looked different, somehow. Brighter. She looked at Damon and found him smiling at the back of her head, the curl of his mouth also a little different. Between that, the easy chit-chat with Kai, and the casual mentions of a piranha tank they were throwing around, she knew she was going to have to grill Bonnie for the details of this night.

Not that she'd be willing to let her do the same.

She suddenly realized that Stefan had yet to say anything and glanced over her shoulder. He nodded his head at her quietly. "You okay?" he asked, low enough that only she could hear, and she considered the question before shrugging faintly.

"Hey, Steffy-bear."

His gaze flicked over her shoulder to Damon, lighting with a glint of humor. "Hey, man."

"Pretty quiet over there."

Stefan shrugged. "Just marveling at the fact that Bonnie's lasted this long in the cold, to be honest."

"On the plus side," Bonnie offered, teeth starting to chatter, "I'm pretty sure my nerve endings have frozen off so I've stopped feeling anything."

"Girl, go inside," Caroline said with a forced laugh and Bonnie shook her head.

"We're not done."

"What?"

"I've decided that if you guys had to be vulnerable, we all have to be vulnerable."

Caroline's brows drew into a furrow.

"You jump, I jump, Jack."

Her drawn expression loosened. It was their phrase. Their 'if you're going to do this stupid scary thing then I'm going to do it with you' motto. They'd said it before moving to Boston. They'd said it before signing a lease they could barely afford. They'd said it before signing up for 6 AM Pilates. They'd said it before agreeing to wear white spandex for Halloween. They said it before attempting to cook literally anything. And now, apparently, they said it before screaming their insecurities into the void.

Bonnie's lips flickered into a supportive little smile.

She knew Caroline still felt shaken up and this was her way of fixing it.

"Look," Damon drawled, and Caroline's eyes flicked up to the sight of him climbing onto the fire escape with a blanket in one hand and an oversized pair of boots in the other, "if you're going to stand out here like a crackhead, you're going to need some shoes."

"Oh, my God, I love you," Bonnie exclaimed, surging into the blanket and wrapping herself in it before he could even let it go. Caroline noticed he looked momentarily perturbed by the words and tucked the observation away in her head for another time.

"Bon," she tried, shaking her head, "you really don't have to—"

"Nuh-uh," she interjected, dropping the boots on the ground and hastily stepping into them—they dwarfed her feet by four sizes, "I have shoes, I have a blanket that doubles as a cape, I have a solid thirty minutes of this sugar coma left to keep me warm—I am ready to go." She straightened up and lifted her chin toward the alleyway, shaking her curls out of her face. "Okay. What do I do?"

Caroline glanced at Stefan with a hesitant look and he seemed to be thinking the same thing she was—the last thing Bonnie needed after her drunken bender was this. "Forgive yourself for something," he supplied.

"That's it?"

"That's it."

She shot them both a skeptical look. "That's what had both of you screaming your lungs out?" They glanced at each other again and her stare flattened, catching onto their thoughts. "You don't have to protect me, guys—what do I actually have to do?"

"Forgive yourself for something you've never been able to forgive yourself for before." They all glanced over to Damon, who was leaning back against the brick with his hands in his pockets. "I mean, I'm assuming. Right?"

Caroline bit her lip. "Yeah, basically."

"Okay." Bonnie turned back to the alleyway. "Okay," she repeated, this time more to herself, and Caroline felt the wariness creeping up inside her. She didn't know if she could handle being the reason Bonnie went into another spiral right now.

After a long beat, Bonnie lifted her chin and cleared her throat. "I forgive myself for not always believing I'm enough." The words were steady and even, but even from a distance, Caroline could hear the vulnerability in them. Her heart tightened a little in her chest. She just couldn't reconcile a world where Bonnie wasn't enough and it killed her that anyone had ever made her believe that.

But it also reminded her how easy it was for even the best people to think the worst of themselves.

"I forgive myself for not always being strong enough to handle the things I've been through," she continued, this time a little shakier. She reached up to swipe a curl from her face and Caroline noticed her hand wasn't completely steady.

"And lastly," she said a little hastily, as if ready to be done, darting her hands back into the blanket and pulling it tighter around her shoulders, "I forgive myself for the things I've done because of that—Jesus, that was terrifying." She immediately whirled away from the railing and let out a sharp, uneven breath. Her fraught stare flicked up to Stefan and Caroline. "It sounded so easy."

"Told you."

"I want to jump off this fire escape."

Caroline couldn't help but smile—it was exactly how she'd felt.

"Damon," Bonnie said, planting a hand against her heart to try and slow it down.

"What?"

"Your turn."

He snorted. "Are you kidding me?"

"Do I look like I'm kidding?"

They held each other's stares for a beat, his disbelieving and hers steady, before he lapsed into a laugh. "Bonnie—"

"What do you forgive yourself for?"

"I'm not—"

"Damon," she repeated and he scoffed.

"I forgive myself for ever getting stuck in this crazy ass apartment."

She chewed her lip as she stared at him, and Caroline could see the strategy gears churning in her head. "You owe me."

"You threw a screwdriver at my face."

"You were mean to me earlier tonight."

"You also shot me seventy-three times."

"Yeah, but that was all in good fun—"

"Fun for who?"

"—you were like, genuinely mean to me."

He opened his mouth for his routine rebuttal and then, much to Caroline's surprise, slowly closed it, face catching a bit. Her brows drew up. In the entire month she'd known him, she'd never seen him drop a chance at a witty response.

Bonnie just continued to stare at him.

"What do you forgive yourself for?"

"Kid—"

"What do you forgive yourself for?"

He stared at her for a long, disbelieving beat before sighing and shaking his head. "I can't believe you're making me do this."

"Karma's a bitch."

"We're even after this."

"Yep."

"No more guilt trips."

"Nope."

He loped up to the railing and squinted down at the alleyway, rubbing the back of his neck. Everything about him looked pointy and uncomfortable. It was the least Damon-like Caroline had ever seen him.

She shot a glance at Bonnie and wondered for the millionth time exactly what had gone down during this dinner.

"I forgive myself for…" he cast a vague, searching gaze around, as if hoping for something heavy to fall from the sky and crush him, "I don't know, being too cynical sometimes."

Bonnie stared at him. "And?"

"And… I guess for," he gestured distantly, "not always fighting for the things I want."

Another beat, this one longer, before she spoke again. Her voice softened a bit. "And?"

He sighed, dropping his hands onto the railing and leaning forward. "How many do I have to do?"

"Just one more."

He cast an irritated gaze over the snowy alleyway, shoulders hunched, and Caroline felt the last of her self-consciousness desert her at the sight of him like that. It was just so wildly different from anything she'd ever seen from him that suddenly, her breakdown didn't seem that crazy.

He dropped his stare to his hands, and the next few words surprised her a little.

"For being my mother's son."

A long silence followed the words. Caroline looked at him, then looked at Bonnie, then looked at Stefan, who was the only who actually looked back. He seemed as surprised as she felt.

A stiff clearing of a throat made her turn back around. Damon was backing away from railing with rigid steps. "Kai?"

The serial killer in question popped his head back out the window. "Yep?"

Damon's tone grew simpering. "What do you 'forgive yourself for'?"

"Oh, I don't really regret anything."

That seemed to be enough to break Bonnie out of the pensive silence she'd fallen into, and she shot him a blunt look. "You literally almost shot us with a crossbow a few hours ago."

"Yeah." Kai blinked, as if waiting for the relevance to be explained, and Damon stared at him for a long second before whipping back around.

"You know what?" He strode right back up to the railing with new conviction. "You're right." He stepped on the ledge and threw his arms out. "Fuck you, world, I'm perfect!" Caroline couldn't help but laugh at the unexpected declaration and he turned to look at her, face breaking into a grin. "See? This is more like it. Try it, Locks."

"Oh, I'm Scream-Into-The-Voided out."

"Locks."

"I'm serious."

He lifted a baffled hand. "Where's the girl who beat me in three different shot contests?"

She held his dancing gaze for a beat, feeling the infectiousness of his sudden energy prickling the air, before whirling back to the railing on an impulse and throwing her head back. "Fuck you, world, I'm perfect!"

"Yes!" he cried, spreading his own hands out again. "Fuck you, we're perfect!"

"We're perfect!" she echoed, chest filling with something buoyant and buzzy, and suddenly eager to share it, she turned to look at Bonnie. "Bon."

"Bon-Bon," Damon sang, offering a hand to pull her up on the ledge, and she stared up at them with a disbelieving laugh.

"You guys are nuts."

"Completely."

"Nuts."

"Come, little grasshopper." He waggled his fingers and Bonnie took his hand with a grin, hoisting herself up onto the ledge.

She cupped her mouth. "Fuck you, world, I'm perfect!"

"Once more, with feeling!"

"Fuck you, world, I'm perfect!"

"Yes!"

She slid into a bell-like laugh and threw hands out like Rose on the Titanic, basking in the lunacy, and Caroline whirled around to Stefan—he was watching them all with a bright look of amusement. She nodded her head at the railing. "Feeling perfect, Disney Prince?"

His hands shot up warily. "Oh, no, I'm—"

"Steffy bear!"

"Stefan!" Bonnie cheered, throwing her hands up.

"Guys," he shook his head with a laugh, "it's okay, I don't—"

"Tell the world how perfect you are, you glorious barista."

"Come on, Stef!"

He shot a helpless glance at Caroline and she shrugged, grin entirely unapologetic. "If you can't beat 'em…"

He held her glittering stare for a second, likely figuring out if there was any actual way to get out of it, before rolling his eyes and tossing his head back. "Fuck you, world!"

The rest of them let out rowdy cheers.

"I'm perfect!"

"Yes, you are, honey!" Damon sassed, making Bonnie's bright laugh even louder, and in the exact moment, with Damon's hand caught in some kind of Z-snap and Bonnie gasping for air and Stefan's eyes crinkled from the size of his grin, she felt something shift in her. A click. A lock snapping undone. Something like that, or maybe nothing like that—she didn't know, all she knew was that it had happened. And looking at the laughing faces surrounding her, their movements arrested into some kind of vibrant slow-motion, the glint of the flurrying snow glittering around them like magic, she couldn't help but think that it had to be something good.

"HEY!"

The muffled yell broke through the moment, drawing all four of their gazes to the alley.

The light was back on across the street.

An angry silhouette was hunched over the window.

"It's one in the goddamn morning! None of you are perfect! Go to fucking sleep!"

Damon cupped his hands around his mouth. "You seem angry, sir, are you okay?"

Bonnie scoffed out a laugh. "Damon."

"What's he going to do, call the cops?"

"Uh, yeah," Stefan said, and Damon turned back to the neighbor, completely ignoring him.

"Sir," he yelled, "please confirm that you don't need us to send someone to retrieve the stick from your ass—we have a doctor here!"

"I'm calling the police!" the voice threatened and Stefan lifted a 'what did I say?' hand.

"Please advise them to send a helicopter," Damon yelled back, "as Boston is currently under twenty feet of snow."

"Fuck you!"

"Also please advise if you would like us to sing a stirring acapella version of La Cucaracha to cheer you up."

The silhouette promptly disappeared from the window and Damon lifted his hands in victory, shooting Stefan a smug look. "See? Harmless." The sound of a shotgun being cocked snapped their attention right back to the window. "Oh, shit."

"Still think you're funny, asshole?"

The four of them immediately scrambled to find some kind of cover and somewhere in the melee of it all Kai managed to climb onto the fire escape. "I got this, friends!" He planted his feet on the ground, heaved a giant bazooka gun onto his shoulder, and grinned. "Hey, neighbor!"

The man immediately raised his arms and started backing away from the window.

"How about you leave my friends alone?"

"Sorry, sorry, I—sorry!"

"No worries! Just know that if you do it again, I know that you're Giovanni Maggio, 53, thrice-divorced, tax evader, and no one would notice if you went missing, okay?"

"Okay," the man gasped before disappearing from the window and shutting off the light, not even bothering to close it.

Kai nodded pertly and eased the bazooka off his shoulder. "He seems nice."

Caroline choked on a laugh, staring up at the guy she'd always considered a nuisancey threat to her life with an entirely newfound appreciation. "Kai!"

"Hi, Caroline!"

"That was amazing!"

"Thanks! I still don't understand you."

She snorted. "Honestly, me neither."

"Love it." He snapped a finger over his head and face flickered with confusion.

Okay.

"Hey." She felt someone lightly grip her arms from behind and glanced over her shoulder. Stefan's eyes were soft and amused. "You're shivering like crazy. Want to head inside?"

She smiled at the easy boyfriendiness of the gesture, leaning a little into his grip.

And then she stilled.

And her smile caught.

And suddenly, she was pretty sure she knew what had shifted in her earlier.

She blinked, struggling to process the new awareness. "Yeah," she said, pulling her coat tighter around herself. "Yeah, let's go inside."

She needed a second.

She needed to think.

Now.

"Guys," Stefan said, lifting a hand to wave at everyone, and she became acutely aware of the way his other hand fell to the small of her back, "we're calling it a night."

"What? Lame."

"No, not lame, we should do the same," Bonnie chided Damon. "You heard our BFF over there—it's one in the morning."

"Which is exactly when an afterparty should start."

"I like afterparties!" Kai chirped, and Bonnie shook her head with an exasperated look.

"We're cleaning up and then we're going—we've imposed enough."

Damon sighed and glanced at Kai. "You heard your mother."

Caroline only half-processed their conversation as she pulled up to the window, mind racing with a million other thoughts. In fact, if Bonnie hadn't literally reached out to touch her wrist, she probably wouldn't have heard the quiet, "You sure you're okay?"

She glanced over and found her staring at her, green eyes all concern and sincerity. For a second, she didn't know what to say.

"I can come home right now if you need me," she offered. "Just say the word. Damon and I can clean tomorrow."

Caroline forced herself out of her hesitation—she needed to be alone for this. "No, stay and clean," she said, mouth pulling into a smile. "Have a few more drinks. I'm totally fine."

"You sure?"

"Completely."

Bonnie eyed her for a deliberating beat before slipping into a grin, and Caroline knew she was in the clear. "Want me to bring you some eclairs?"

Caroline scoffed as she climbed into the window. "No."

"So two?"

"Three."

She heard Bonnie laughing behind her, but after a few seconds the quiet hum of her dark room fell around her, eclipsing the distractions happening outside. And after a few more, she heard Stefan climb in behind her and shut the window.

And then it was just them.

And she wasn't 'pretty sure' she knew what had shifted anymore.

She was completely sure.


"Trooz?"

"Yep."

"Trooz."

"Mm-hm."

"That's not a word."

"It's absolutely a word."

"That's a sound people make when they sneeze."

"Look it up."

Bonnie stared at him with a thinned gaze from across the scrabble board, Kai's festive living room dark and firelit around them. It'd been her idea to play 'just one game!' of Scrabble before they left since according to her, knowing a bunch of medical jargon gave her an advantage, but now here they were, sprawled on Kai's living room floor, two hours and seven games deep, and judging by the fact that she'd lost literally all of them so far, Damon was pretty sure she'd underestimated him.

"Close-fitting tartan trousers?" she read aloud from her phone, bewildered stare snapping up to his. "Why would you know this?"

"I'm something of a trouser aficionado." Her lip curled up in annoyance at the flippant reply. "What?"

"You're cheating."

"I'm not."

"Why did Kai stop refereeing—Kai?" she called behind her, glancing over her shoulder, and her gaze was met with the sight of him passed out on the couch.

"He's been asleep for the past hour," Damon said with a snort, eyeing him—his body was curled into a tight little ball and he had a glitter of drool on his chin. "For a future doctor, your situational awareness isn't great."

"How do you know what trooz is?"

"I already told you, I played a lot as a kid."

She scoffed. "Were you a world friggin' champion?"

"No, but I was basically playing one." Her brows ticked up, puzzled, and for a second he debated not saying anything. Then, casually, "Mother dearest was a big fan of words."

He wasn't entirely sure why he'd said it. All it did was nudge the door open to a conversation about Lily, and given the little windows into his past he'd been inexplicably giving her all night, he expected her to jump straight into psychoanalysis mode to try and eek more out. But to his surprise, all she did was scrunch her nose for a considering beat. "My mother dearest was not." She glanced at him, amused. "Get it? Cause she hasn't said one to me in eleven years?"

His brows couldn't help but lift at the unexpectedly dark humor.

"Well, eleven years and six months, but hey, who's counting?"

"Clearly not you."

"Nope."

A thick beat passed. He watched her as she squinted at the board, trying to tease out a move, and ironically, he found himself struck by a desire to know more. He couldn't help it. She had a lot going on below that put-together surface, and the more he got to know her, the more he wanted to know. Hypocritical? Absolutely—but he'd never pretended to have any integrity, so why start now?

"Have you ever tried looking for her?"

Her stare flicked up to his, a faint bloom of surprise lighting the green. "Did you just ask me a personal question?" He rolled his eyes. "One that has nothing to do with threesomes or orgasms or my favorite sex position?"

"I mean, now you have to answer those, too."

She smiled, dropping her gaze back down to the board, and for a second he thought she'd just pulled a him and dodged the question. She lifted a hand and began rearranging her tiles into different words. "Once," she offered after a long beat. "Right after she left. I couldn't drive so I hitchhiked down to Miami by myself, which in hindsight probably wasn't the smartest thing for a black thirteen-year-old girl to do in Florida, but," she shrugged idly, "I just needed to know what was so much better than me, you know? Figured that if maybe it was something amazing it'd hurt a little less."

He presumed that hadn't gone well. "Did you find her?"

"Yep."

He eyed her for a second. "Do you wish you hadn't?"

She looked up at him after a thick beat, mouth ticking into a dry smile. "She was a waitress. At a bar. One of those sports ones where they play fifty different games at the same time and the most exotic thing on the menu is a tequila sunrise. She had this," she glanced down, smile widening bitterly as she dredged up the memory, "this table of drunk frat bros she was serving, and they were ordering round after round of beers, and you could tell they were in love with her. Just bathing her in attention, toasting to her, getting on their knees for fake proposals." She bit the inside of her cheek, eyes thinning sightlessly, mouth still curled into a poor approximation of a smile. "And she was just basking in it."

He watched her for a long stretch, the zip of the toy train and the faint croon of Ella Fitzgerald the only noises in the room. She looked shadowed, cooler, the hollows of her face darker than they normally were, but even with the bad memories locking up her eyes, even with a cloud of bitterness stiffening the air around her, she still managed to seem vulnerable. It showed in the slight sag of her shoulders. The way her gaze could only sustain anger for a few seconds before rejection started creeping in. He thought about the fire escape, about the things she'd claimed to forgive herself for, and dwelled in the awareness that they'd all been just as performative as his.

"Anyway," she said eventually, shaking herself from her thoughts, "that was pretty much the moment where I went from being a kid to a human embodiment of teen rage, so…" she glanced up at him. "Yeah. I'd say I wish I hadn't found her."

He nodded, sorting the information into the growing concept map she'd somehow become in his head. He wasn't sure when she'd started taking up actual real estate in his thoughts, but it was kind of a disorienting realization. "How did you know where she was?"

Another question—what was he, her shrink?

"I put a tracking app on her phone a few days after she came back," she admitted with a snort. "Guess I always knew on some level that she'd leave again."

"Smart."

She shrugged, as if not really sure if she agreed. "Oh, by the way, no one actually knows about the whole Miami thing, so on the 0.1% chance it somehow comes up around Stefan, can you just," she waved a hand to signify nixing the topic and his brows drew up in curiosity.

"You never told him?"

She sighed, pushing a few stray curls off her forehead. "I just didn't think he'd get it at the time. He's always had his perfect family and was all about being the bigger person and forgiving people and I just," she pressed her lips together, shaking her head. "I just wanted to feel my anger, you know? I didn't want to explain it to anyone or make it palatable, I just wanted to feel it. All of it. And now it's been forever and we never really talk about my mom, so…" she shrugged, glancing up at him. "It's just never come up."

He gave a vague nod, familiar with the sentiment. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd indulged in his rage back when he was a teenager. He used to let himself feel every last lick of it, blistering and white-hot, bubbling up in him like an explosion that didn't have anywhere to go. It'd bite and fester at the inside of his skin till it wore itself out and slowly bled out of his pores. That was all before he'd met Katherine, though. Before she'd shown him how to turn it all off instead.

He glanced back at Bonnie. Distantly, he realized he now knew something about her that no one else did, and even more distantly, like Neptune distantly, he realized he kind of liked it.

"What about you?"

He broke from the thought. "What?"

"Your mom. Ever seek her out?"

He snorted. "My mom's been in the same place for seventeen years—kind of how prison works."

She just blinked at him, a slow, pointed, 'are you really going to make me clarify what I meant or can you grow up and admit you already know' blink.

It was actually kind of impressive, how much she could say with her face.

He dropped his stare to his letter tray. He considered lying—it was the easiest solution and he was pretty damn great at it—but after a few seconds, she seemed to have deemed the question a lost cause and moved on, taking instead to laying a word out on the board.

AXIOM

Triple letter score on the X.

"Boom," she said, face spreading with a smirk. "Take that, Encyclopedia Brown."

She started tallying up her points, caught up in her victory, and he glanced back down at his letters.

Bullet dodged.

No answer necessary.

"I saw my mom last week, actually."

She looked up from the board, movements slowing to a halt. He kept his stare absently fixed on his tiles, thumbing the corner of an 'E'.

He didn't know why he was saying anything. She'd moved on from the question. He'd had an out. But for some reason, he had this weird, anxious feeling, like an opportunity was flashing past him and he didn't want to just let it. So he kept going.

"She's trying to get out early on 'good behavior', which is," he slipped into a throaty chuckle, the sound hollow and uneasy as it hit against his teeth, "fucking hysterical, honestly. But the lawyers needed me to re-testify to remind everyone she's a psychopath, so." He smiled faintly. "That was my week."

She blinked. "Wow."

"Yep."

"Damon."

He glanced up.

"You okay?"

He opened his mouth for an automatic 'why wouldn't I be', shoulders poised for a shrug, but something about the way she was looking at him made the words snag. There was a surprising lack of pity in her stare. None of the wincing tentativeness he'd come to expect from people. Her eyes were steady and dark, mouth pulled into a harder line than it usually was, and the reaction was so strangely, unexpectedly genuine that he struggled with a reply.

She looked protective.

He wasn't sure anyone had ever looked protective of him before.

"No," he found himself saying before he could really think it through, mouth edging into a thin smile.

And he wasn't okay. Of course he wasn't okay. He didn't even know what okay meant—the closest he'd ever come to understanding it was as a sociological category, a tier of existence that he wasn't and would never be in. 'Okay' was for stressed out college students checking in on each other's progress during finals week. 'Okay' was for people who got into fender benders and had EMTs banging on their window, asking how they were doing. 'Okay' was for 'how was your day at work today, honey?'

He didn't exist in 'Okay'.

He existed in 'Here'.

Things happened to him. He wasn't okay. He was just here.

"Did something happen?" she ventured, her voice the same kind of steady it'd been in the wine cellar, and he saw a flash of her down there with him, her hair a mess from her effort to calm him down, hands curled around his cheeks, barely tall enough to reach his chin.

"Not really."

"Did she say something to you?"

He chuckled. "We didn't even talk. I saw her for a second from twenty feet away—it was all very boring."

He felt her staring at him from across the board. It was normally the type of look that'd piss him off, that kind of scrutinizing, probe-y look that 'good listeners' tended to give people, but for some reason, it felt a little different coming from her. Less sanctimonious.

"She, uh," he scrubbed a hand over his face, letting it pull at his jaw for a few seconds before dropping it entirely, "she gave me this look, like a proud mom." His mouth flicked up bitterly. "Proud of her son."

Her brows notched. "Is that the worst thing?"

"From Lily?" He scoffed out a laugh, head filling with an acid wash reel of her greatest hits. Drowning a family over a couple pounds of blow. Manipulating the homeless schizophrenic man who always used to give him candy into taking the fall. Cutting the fingers off a famous cellist because she couldn't square her debt on time. Tracking down high-profile recovering addicts and forcing their drug of choice back into their system so that they'd be in her pocket. "You have no idea."

A long silence stretched between them. It took him a second to realize his shoulders were tensed, apprehension welling in the stretch of his tendons, ready to spring at the first sign of a saccharine response, but when she spoke, her voice was gloriously void of any pity. In fact, it was thoughtful.

"Do you know what I just realized?" He glanced up at her. "Kai could probably find them both and blow them up if we asked."

He broke into a surprised laugh at the suggestion.

"I'm totally serious."

"That is dark."

"I'm telling you," she said with a smile, "you didn't know me when I was fifteen."

"I kind of wish I did."

"You don't."

Something about the way she said it made him eye her a bit. She'd averted her gaze to the board, smile fading, and he could practically see the embers of self-loathing kindling inside her. He was surprised by how much it bothered him. It just didn't suit her—she was supposed to be all idealistic and annoying. After a few seconds, she seemed to realize the focus of whatever weird emotional shit they were doing had shifted back to her and nodded her head at the board. "Your turn."

He looked down at the game, barely cognizant of it. She grabbed a few new letters from the bag to replace the old ones and promptly slipped into a laugh.

"Oh, man." She glanced at him with a wholly amused look. "You'd better make it a good one because my next word's going to blow your mind." He merely kept staring at her and she frowned. "What?"

"Why are you so scared of that side of you?"

He honest to fucking God didn't know where the hell these questions were coming from.

"What are you talking about?"

Now it was his turn to give her the 'are you really going to make me clarify what I meant or can you grow up and admit you already know' blink, and she held her bemused expression for an admirable few seconds before sighing, face waning in resignation. "You didn't know me back then, Damon. The things I did, the people I hurt—"

"Try me."

Her stare flicked up to his at the challenge. He held it with a steady one of his own, loose, bold—a veritable 'do your worst, kid'.

"Alright," she said after a beat. "Fine. I got a guy expelled from school by stashing my drugs in his locker." Her shoulders lifted into a shrug. "He had a full scholarship to this great college his parents couldn't afford and he lost it because of me. And I didn't do anything to stop it, I just watched it happen." She gave a tight, hollow smile. "I also had sex with a bunch of married men because I got a high from knowing that the concept of family was a lie for everyone, not just me, and I ended up breaking one my former friends' parents up because of it. Bonus points for that one." She pushed a hand through her hair, visibly tense despite the even tone of her voice. "I… helped steal a car from my 72-year-old neighbor," she offered lightly, as if just remembering, "which was super cool because she lived alone and couldn't get to her doctor's appointments without one, but hey, we needed a free van, so," she pressed her lips into an uneven line, "priorities."

After a second, she glanced down at her hands, shoulders pulling in a little around her neck. She looked like she was trying to continue but couldn't, and for some reason, he felt compelled to intercept the conversation.

"Did you at least leave her a thank you note?"

She shot him a dark look and he realized her eyes had a sheen.

Something tightened a little in his chest.

"Look, I mean," he ventured, unsure what to say, "those things happened years ago."

"They didn't 'happen'," she corrected a little stiffly, blinking to try and hide the tears, "I did them. I actively ruined those people's lives."

"Okay."

Her stare flicked up to his, darkening with disbelief. "Okay?"

"Yeah, okay."

"What part of breaking up a family is okay?" she asked, beginning to get a little heated. "What part of ruining a kid's future is okay?"

"None of it, I just meant 'okay, it happened, noted'."

Her brows notched up. "And that's it for you? You do something bad, 'note it', and move on?"

"This isn't about me."

"Then what's it about?"

"You," he answered, hearing his own voice get a little harder. "You and your weird fear that if you accept all of yourself—"

"Those things are not who I am," she cut in and he scoffed.

"You don't get to define who you are, you just are."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It means that coming to terms with the parts of yourself you don't like isn't suddenly going to turn you into a bad person," he replied, exasperated. "In fact, it's not going to change you at all—they're already part of you, they've always been part of you. I'm not saying they're shiny or pretty but honestly, fuck shiny and pretty." He waved a contemptuous hand. "Shiny and pretty is fake. Shiny and pretty is boring. People don't exist to be shiny and pretty—we just exist, and ignoring entire parts of ourselves doesn't actually change who we are. You did what you did regardless of if you talk about it or not, so what's the point of avoiding it?" he asked, leaning forward on his elbows. "If anything, that just erases one of the most impressive things about you, which is that you chose to be who you are today. Goodness wasn't default coded into you by having some perfect life that never tempted you to be anything else. You had rage. You had pain. You suffered. And after searching around for who you wanted to be, you chose this. To me, that's a hell of a lot prettier and shinier than someone who never had ugly as an option."

He sank back against his seat with an air of finality, and it took about three seconds of silence for him to realize he'd gotten a little carried away.

The air hummed strangely around them.

The toy train let out a merry little 'choo choo'.

She just stared at him, inscrutable, the tears now stale in her eyes.

He cleared his throat. "And you know what, fuck it, knowing how to steal a car comes in handy."

Her lips twitched despite themselves.

He reached up to scratch the back of his neck, unsure how he was managing to feel this awkward this many times in a single night, and after a few seconds, she dropped her gaze to her hands. "Um—"

"Sorry," he interjected before she could really say anything, figuring he should just nip the weirdness in the bud. "I'm not usually much of a ranter—don't really know what happened there."

"No, I was…" she gave a vague shake of her head, "I was just going to say thanks, actually." She bit her lip. "I think I needed to hear that."

He shrugged. "I'm pretty wise."

"Yeah?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Wise enough to know that it goes both ways?" His brow furrowed and she raised her brows. "Accepting the good parts of yourself also doesn't change who you are?" His stare flattened as hers took on a mocking glint. "They're already part of you."

"Christ."

"They've always been part of you."

"Your desperation to paint me out as some kind of reluctant hero is your real flaw—in fact, that should be the part of yourself you're ashamed of."

"You don't get to define who you are, you just are," she quoted airily and he rolled his eyes, mouth tugging up at the corners. "Besides, who said anything about a hero? I'm just saying there's a chance you aren't a complete supervillain."

"I'd be great supervillain," he mused.

"Eh."

"I'm really hot and let's be honest, that's half the criteria."

"Eh."

His face crumpled at her indifference. "Yeah, okay girl-who-can't-stop-having-sex-fantasies-about-me."

Her brows drew inward at the comment, as if puzzled by it, and he snorted.

"What, now you're going to deny it?"

She looked confused, stare running over him in sudden scrutiny.

"What?"

"Oh, my God."

He blinked at her.

"Oh, my God."

"What?"

"Get up," she commanded, excited, scrambling to her feet like a little kid who just got told it was recess, and despite the intense feeling of whiplash, he followed suit.

"What are you—"

"Do something sexy," she cut in as she stood in front of him, face shadowed by the way his tall frame blocked the fireplace light. She looked all small and bubbly and eager, the trace of residual tears making her eyes extra bright, and he just squinted down at her.

"What?"

Impatient, she grabbed him by the collar and pulled his face close, surging onto her tiptoes to attempt to close their height gap. Her nose bumped up against his, the proximity intimate and sudden, and for a few seconds, she held him under an intense green stare, waiting for the rush of hormones.

And then her face lit like a firework. "Nothing."

He blinked at her.

"Nothing!" she sang again, voice bright with glee. "Like I could probably kiss you right now and it'd be nothing. In fact," she swooped forward and caught his mouth in a brief, unexpected kiss, over as quickly as it'd started—he'd barely even had a chance to process before she'd pulled back with a delighted laugh. "It's like kissing Stefan! Oh, man, this is the greatest day of my—"

He wasn't sure what made him do it. Wasn't sure if it was a pride thing, a contrarian thing, or a product of whatever weird mindfuck of a thing had been brewing between them over the course of the night, but before he even knew what was happening, he slid his hands up her face and caught her mouth in a swift, deliberate counterargument.

She stilled against him, caught off-guard. Her exuberance faded into something else, something quieter—a plume of smoke trailing a suddenly blown out candle. Slowly, almost involuntarily, he slid the pads of his thumbs over the swell of her cheekbones, willing the surprised stiffness out of them, and after a few seconds, he felt her eyelashes flutter closed against the tips of his fingers.

And then she was kissing him back. Softly. Uncertainly. So wildly differently from any way she'd kissed him before that it was doing something to his pulse. He tried to force himself to intensify it, sex things up, slip them right back into their typical hot-and-bothered tango, but no part of him cooperated. The moment felt too fragile. He found himself clinging to it, to the fact that there was no tequila blurring her brain, no decade-old rage charging her skin, no sex fantasies egging her along.

He was just kissing her.

The slipper enthusiast with horrible taste in music.

The sugar addict who would throw a screwdriver at his face for waffles.

The paradox of a girl who couldn't see the fact that her best friends were screwing in the next room and yet somehow, despite all the glossy layers of bullshit he'd draped over himself throughout the years, managed to make him feel like she was seeing glimpses of him. The messy him. The tedious him. And that even without the varnish, even with all the bitterness and fear and anxiety bursting through his cracks like light, he was worth seeing.

He drew her in closer, seeking out the warm press of her, the hopeful hum of her heartbeat. It wasn't their usual handsy magnetism. He didn't want to hoist her up against the closest wall or goad her into a carnal rush for more. He just wanted to kiss her, stupidly, quietly, for as long as she'd let him, to pretend, if even for just a few dumb seconds, that he was the type of person who could do that.

That he was the type of person who should.

A hand to the chest made him pull back. It was a slow break, reluctant enough that he could still feel the warmth of her mouth, and for a second, neither of them seemed to be able to move. The air thrummed between them. Their breaths came in unsteady, syncopated flutters. The fireplace crackled faintly behind them. He realized he had no explanation for what the hell had just happened, and when her eyes finally flickered up to his, framed by his hands, hands that easily spanned the length of that Pixar face of hers, a shot of nerves flared through him.

"Don't worry," he managed through a thick throat, "speechlessness is normal."

It was intended as a breezy line, a default to the evasive shithead setting he flipped to whenever he felt off-balance, but his voice had too much of an edge to pull it off. She just stared up at him, visibly trying to make sense of what had just happened, and he swallowed tightly.

Good fucking luck.

"I, um," she blinked a few times, uncertain, a little fluttery, and her body eased down a few inches in his hands. He realized she'd been on her tiptoes. He didn't know why that did something to him but it did. "What was that?"

He started shifting a bit under her gaze. The daze was starting to clear from it, giving way to the scientist stare, the one that saw through things and wanted answers, and he felt annoyed suddenly—why did there need to be an explanation?

"I—sorry," he offered after a beat, dropping his hands from her face and taking a quick step back. The air around him cooled a bit and he welcomed it. "I just," he waved a hand, offering her a cocky look, "you said it felt like kissing Stefan and I couldn't take that lying down—I've got a sex kitten reputation to uphold."

It was bullshit and they both knew it—there was nothing remotely sex kitten-y about that kiss—and as if confirming his thoughts, her eyebrows ticked up. "That's what that was?"

"What else would it be?"

The abruptness of the response seemed to throw her a bit. "I don't—I mean," she cleared her throat, clearly not expecting the burden of defining what just happened to suddenly shift onto her, which was exactly the reaction he'd been banking on, "nothing. Just, you know," she pushed a hand through her hair, "a little different from your usual… style."

He blinked at her. "I have more than one style."

"Right," she offered, a little too quickly. "Obviously. I just meant—it was unexpected. The style, I mean. But hey, it works for you," she added, waving a hand, "like it's—you're," she offered him a wary thumbs up, "good. With that." She immediately spun away from him but not before he caught her wince in the darkness.

He felt a flicker of resentment over the charm of her awkwardness.

"We should finish up here and head back," she said over her shoulder as she approached the dining room. "It's almost three and Kai's asleep. Plus, Stefan and Caroline are probably mad that we've kept them up this late."

His lips ticked humorlessly. "Doubt it."

"Oh, trust me," she said as she fumbled with a few glasses, clearing the table, "they're wide-awake."

"Don't doubt that."

She seemed oblivious to the implication as she busied herself with stacking the leftover plates, back to him, movements a little tense, and he tried to focus on something else. Anything else. Anything that wasn't her bare feet or the way she kept tucking back her ridiculously curly hair even though it was already behind her ears. He knelt down and began picking up the letter tiles she'd scattered in her haste to get up, unable to make sense of his thoughts—he wanted to kiss her again. He wanted to bolt. He wanted to book it out of the building and forget he ever knew her. He wanted to forget he ever hadn't.

Fuck, he needed to get grip—the hell even was this? If he didn't know any better, he'd think it was the beginnings of another panic attack, but the tension charging his skin was too different. Too directed. Panic attacks made him feel like he was spinning out, like all the loose ends of him were unraveling—this felt like he was magnetized. Like the iron in his blood was all being pulled in one direction.

He shouldn't have told her about Chicago.

He shouldn't have told her about Lily.

None of it, any of it, Jesus Christ, what the hell had he been thinking? He barely knew her. He didn't know her middle name or her favorite color or what city she was from and he didn't want to. They were strangers. But between the bondy chit-chat and the fire escape and the fucking wine cellar he'd just—

INEVI

He drew to halt.

Those were the five tiles were grouped together on Bonnie's letter tray, the other two pushed off to the side. He glanced at the board and knew before he even saw it what word he'd find, and it did nothing to change the way his throat tightened when he did.

TABLE

He stared at it for a long, hard beat, fingers gathering into a loose fist around the bag of letters.

He needed to get the hell out of this apartment building.


Stefan came out of the kitchen with two steaming mugs of tea in his hand.

Caroline was standing in the middle of the living room, leafing through something on the coffee table, her hair still a little wet from the snow. They'd both changed into some dry clothes to try and chase away the cold that'd settled into the bones, but he figured tackling it from the inside out was probably the best approach.

"Peppermint," he said as he held a mug out to her, and she glanced up with a vague look, as if having forgotten she'd even asked for it. She'd been acting like that ever since they'd gotten inside, which was strange considering how effusive she'd been right beforehand. Laughing on that fire escape was the happiest he thought he'd ever seen her.

"Thanks," she said, taking the mug from him and taking a tentative sip.

"It's hot," he said just as she drew back with a wince.

"Ow."

"Might need a few minutes to cool."

She blew on it a bit before setting it down on the coffee table, and he noticed that the pages she'd been reading when he'd walked in were from the contract. For some reason, the realization made him stiffen a little. He wasn't sure why. He just didn't know what to make of it.

"Probably shouldn't leave that lying around the apartment," he joked, setting his own mug down on the table.

She barely cracked a smile.

"Hey, you okay?" he asked after a second, eyeing her in the dying candlelight, and she nodded. Her stare was vague and faraway, seemingly churning with thoughts, and on instinct, he lifted a hand to her arm and gave it a light squeeze. "You sure?"

She didn't say anything for a beat, gaze fixed to the side, and he wondered if she'd even heard him. And then her mouth opened, voice a little quiet. "More okay than I've felt in a long time, actually."

His brows ticked up at the unexpected answer. "Really?"

She nodded again and his mouth curled, warmth softening his probing expression.

"That's good."

She hummed vaguely in agreement. Her stare remained averted, fixed to some unidentified space behind him, and he pressed his lips together in a scrutinizing look. She was off.

"What about you?" she asked after a beat, eyes finally shifting up to his. "Feel any different?"

He considered the question for a moment. "Yeah, actually. Lighter."

She smiled distantly. "Lighter's good."

His lips ticked up. "Definitely good."

"Guess happy 4 eva knew what they were talking about."

His smile widened. "Guess they did."

She glanced away again and he watched her for a bit, taking in the strange hum buzzing around her. It wasn't her usual kind of withdrawal—there was no current of volatility lingering beneath the surface, ready to snap out. Her head was just somewhere else.

"Can I, uh…" he finally ventured, unable to keep his curiosity at bay, "can I ask why you don't seem particularly happy right now, then?"

She chewed her lip for a beat. "Just thinking."

He waited for her to elaborate but all he got was silence. Seconds slid by, stretching into nearly a minute, and just as he was about to move on to something else, she released a sharp breath.

"I'm out of reasons."

His brows drew in. It was an unexpected admission, falling from her mouth like a confession, and he didn't know what to make of it. "Reasons for what?"

"Pushing you away."

He blinked at the response, surprise stiffening his frame. Distantly, he felt something start kindling in him, something indefinable and preemptive, and it took him a second to break loose from it. "What?"

"I've burned through them all," she explained, stare sliding up to his. Her eyes were frank, defenseless. "First it was because I didn't know you, then it was because I didn't trust you, then it was because I didn't want to feel vulnerable around you, and now…" her shoulders eased into a shrug, damp eyelashes catching the candlelight in glitters. "Now I'm out of reasons."

His felt his throat tauten, blood pumping a little faster. He was suddenly very aware of the heat of her, of the curve of her shoulder beneath his palm. It was a stupid reaction—he didn't even know what any of that meant—but something about her voice, the glow of her stare, it was charging his skin. "You're not, though." He cleared his throat. "Pushing me away, I mean. You've been opening up all night. In fact, I feel like I know more about you tha—"

The sudden brush of her hand against his abdomen made his body go stiff. Her fingers were a tentative pressure. Soft. Uncertain. Her voice slipped down to a murmur. "Not really what I meant, Stefan."

His jaw flared, brain veering off-kilter—shit.

Shit.

This was what he'd been worried about. Exactly this. That somewhere along the course of the night, something would change her mind, some dizzy moment of magnetism, and the burden of keeping things platonic would fall on him.

Him, the one who didn't seem capable of saying no to her.

Him, the idiotic moth to her better-judgment-numbing flame.

The room suddenly felt tight around him, and when he spoke, it took effort to push the words out, as if the air was resisting them. "I—" he swallowed thickly, stare shooting down at the hand trailing up his chest. He felt dumb, a little paralyzed. "Caroline, we—"

He could only imagine how uneven his heartbeat must've felt as her palm skimmed over it.

"We made a deal earlier."

She began moving closer. "I know."

"And we—" his voice caught in his throat as her fingers slipped up his neck, his own hand tightening around her shoulder in a way that made it unclear whether he was keeping her back or pulling her closer, "—we made it for a reason."

"I know."

Her hand slid into his hair and pulled him closer and his eyes fell shut in restraint. This was a bad idea. This was such a bad idea. They'd just gone through one of the best nights he'd had in years, a night of laughing and soul-searching and being the most honest they'd ever been with themselves, and it was as friends. They were better as friends. Infinitely. Unquestionably.

But even more than preserving that, he needed to preserve himself, because he wasn't stupid enough to pretend getting physical again after a night like the one they'd just had wouldn't affect him. It'd affect the hell out of him. They'd bared their souls to each other. He'd stood beside her as they shouted their deepest insecurities at the top of their lungs. He couldn't do meaningless right now if he tried.

"Look, I can't—" he shook his head, jaw flaring as the heat of her breath struck his lips. She was a heartbeat away. Warm. Destabilizing. A tilt of his chin and he'd be kissing her, losing himself in a haze of lavender. "I can't give you what you want, Caroline. I wish I could, I really do," he swallowed the thickness in his throat, "but I'm not that guy."

"Stefan."

"I'm never going to be that guy."

"I know."

"No, you don't know," he countered in a swell of frustration, eyelids tightening against the urge to open and look at her, "'cause you've made it really clear you want cool and unattached guy, and I'm the guy who can barely breathe right now because of the smell of your shampoo."

She fell quiet and he swallowed unevenly. Heat was flaring up his neck, thick with dread, but he had to get through to her, had to make her understand exactly who she was dealing with, so he steeled himself for the things he was about to admit to the most sap-allergic girl he'd ever met.

"I'm the guy who literally can't open his eyes because if I look at you right now, I'm going to kiss you," he managed. "No questions, no hesitations, and I'm going to feel a lot of things you don't want me to feel."

Her voice was quiet against his lips. "Stefan."

"I'm the guy who's a few involuntary stares away from having the exact pattern of your freckles memorized—in fact, I honestly might already. Six on the right, six on the left, rebel freckle."

He fought the urge to lift his hand and thumb the mark just to the left of her mouth to prove it. He wouldn't have even needed to open his eyes.

"And if you really knew that," he pressed on a little helplessly, "if you really understood the degree to which I'm the literal opposite of what you're looking for, I'm pretty sure you'd be running for the door, 'cause no part of you would still think I could follow that contra—"

"I don't want the contract."

The unexpected declaration managed to draw his eyes open. She was staring back at him with a determined look, disorientingly close, but even in his total state of distraction he caught the wavering line of her jaw. The shaky flutter of her eyelashes. She was all nerves.

"Screw the contract. And screw unattached guy." She shrugged a little jerkily. "I don't want unattached guy—I'm sick of unattached, I'm sick of rules, I'm sick of walls, I—" she swallowed unsteadily and eased back a bit, dropping her stare to the ground. "I don't want that."

His gaze slipped over her face. The humming feeling was rising again in his blood and he felt it making him stupid. "Then what do you want?"

She glanced up and held his stare for a long beat before the corners of her mouth fluttered up. It was a disarming gesture, small and vulnerable. "To do something just because it makes me happy?"

His chest stirred at the lure back to that night in the bathtub. It felt like two months ago. It was two nights ago. Two illogical nights ago that pulled the indifferent threads of their lives into a sudden, destabilizing tangle. It wasn't the kiss in the bathroom that did it. It wasn't even the night he was high. It was the night they fell asleep in a twine of limbs, their skin sanguine in the glow of the morning sun.

"And tonight," she continued in a determined voice that pulled him back into the present, chest lifting as she took in a slow, shaky breath, "I'm pretty sure what's making me happy is you."

He tried to stay focused, to keep himself from getting wrapped up in the magnitude of what she was saying, in the urge to sweep away all of their issues because of how badly he wanted to hear it. He forced himself to swallow. "And what about tomorrow?"

Because that was the real problem, wasn't it? Their shifts didn't have any staying power. So much so that in a way, a buried part of him couldn't help but feel like this wasn't so much a new leaf for them as a continuation of an old one—one where they couldn't seem to stick to a single definition of what the hell they were for more than an hour.

Her shoulders lifted into a powerless shrug. "I don't know." Disappointment flared hot through him, taking the words as confirmation that they were, in fact, right back at square one, but then she continued. "Because for the first time in I don't even know how long, I don't want to go ten steps ahead in my head. I don't want to fast-forward to all the worst-case scenarios and make decisions based on protecting myself from them. It's exhausting and isolating and I can't… it's not…" she shook her head, voice thick with emotion as she seemed to steel herself for her next few words.

After a quiet beat, her eyes flicked up to his. "I had fun tonight." She smiled a little helplessly. "You made me have fun tonight, and laugh, and open up, and feel, and when you asked me if I wanted to go inside just now, you said it like a boyfriend would and I—" she slipped into an unsteady laugh, "I didn't feel any panic, Stefan. I didn't want to run. I felt safe and…. and happy, and… I think I might finally be at the point where I'm more scared of missing out on that than I am of what letting it in might do."

He felt the protest slipping away in his head.

"So if it's okay with you, regardless of tomorrow, I just… want to be here." She eased a little closer. "Now." Her stare flickered down his face. "Happy." Her throat seemed to close a bit around the word, as if she still wasn't used to the idea. "And not with cool guy," she scoffed, shaking her head and dropping her gaze to his chest, not quite able to meet his stare. "Not with unattached guy. With… knows-all-the-words-to-The-Princess-Bride guy."

An unexpected laugh slipped out of his throat, and it flicked the corners of her lips up. She lifted a slow hand to fiddle with the hem of his flannel.

"With gets-really-fired-up-about-knife-safety guy."

His voice was a dazed rumble. "Somebody has to."

"Nobody has to."

"Yes, they do."

"No, they don't."

"Do you know how many ER cases a year come down to people not knowing how to use a kitchen knife?"

"No, but I hate that you do."

"Really?"

She glanced up and held his warm stare with a lingering one of her own, and after a beat, the humor faded into something quieter. Affectionate. "No."

His heart began humming in his throat at the way she was looking at him.

"Honestly, you've… made it kind of hard to hate anything about you." She swallowed, dropping her gaze. "Which is actually pretty rude, considering how hard I tried to." She gave him a watery little smile. "I tried really hard."

His lips flickered distantly. "I know."

Her stare averted again, and he regarded her for a long time. Comical, really, considering how completely and inevitably he knew he was going to give in to her.

"No contract," he eventually said, the thickness of his voice melding the words together, as if he were speaking in cursive, and her gaze flickered back up to his. The hope in her eyes grabbed his stupid heart by its stupid heart throat and why the hell did he even pretend he had any actual choice in any of this?

"No contract," she murmured back.

Slowly, almost by its own volition, his hand skimmed up to her hip. "No rules."

She gave a small shake of her head, and Christ, his head was starting to fuzz up, he wanted this so badly. "No rules."

He began pulling her frame into him, thumb sliding over the bare stripe of skin below her shirt, nerve-endings firing wildly against the friction. "No banning of the full spectrum of human emotion."

Her body bumped against his in a flare of adrenaline, and she gave him a nervous smile. "Do your worst, Disney prince."

His hands lifted to cup her face and he dropped his forehead against hers in a warm press. "Don't know if you can handle that." He slipped a kiss between murmurs, head spinning. "Probably start at 50%." Another swift kiss. "Ease you into it."

She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into her in resounding rejection of that plan, and from there, words grew scarce.

Clothes slowly followed suit, fluttering to the floor like snow.

A scattered path formed behind them as they disappeared down the hallway, the sleeve of his abandoned shirt reaching toward the hem of hers in a chain link of fabric, trailing them all the way to her bed.

They landed in a sigh of sheets. Her body was a pool of heat beneath his, curling around him like quicksand as he headily, carelessly sunk. What little clothing remained fell prey to their need for the other's skin, for replacing cotton and lace with fingers and mouths, with thick sounds and sharp breaths that slid down the slopes of them and gathered in the valleys.

They went slower this time. It was a deep, shivering pace, a pace that gave them time to lose any sort of anchor to the world blurring around them. Her feet dragged up the length of the sheets as his mouth glided between her legs, dizzy, unfurling, toes rucking the fabric in a cascade of furrows. He raked reverent, reckless hands through her hair as they moved together, drunk with indulgence, with the freedom of not having to hold anything back.

He still wasn't sure this was a good idea. That it wasn't just another moment of weakness being framed as something new, a mistake they'd recognize the second they could think straight again. But if it meant he got to have this, got to feel her like this, artless, earnest, her hands wrapped tight around his neck, bodies caught in an vulnerable rhythm that was more about connection than seduction, that just wanted to feel something, even if just for a night, even if just for an hour, then he didn't care.

Fuck it.

He'd deal with the fallout later.

He slid her hands above her head in a glide of friction, knuckles brushing up against the wood of the headboard, and on an impulse, drew back to look at her. She looked split open, like someone had dragged a hot knife down the length of her and all the secrets and fears had come spilling out, and for a second, he marveled at the fact that this was the same icy stranger he'd met in a bar three years ago.

After a beat, her eyes slid open to meet his.

He felt the shift before he saw it. Her fingers loosened their tight twine around his. The molten give of her body tensed. Her unguarded stare locked instinctively, deflecting to the side a fraction, and he felt a flicker of apprehension shoot through him—he knew that look. He'd seen it before. The one that struck without warning, that didn't care if it made sense—the one that took over her regardless of logic or consistency or anything he could rationalize. The too much too fast look.

She was trying to ignore it. He could tell. She surged up to catch his mouth in a swift kiss, arching herself against him, but all it did was make the rapid staccato of her heartbeat more prominent. Guilt momentarily swept through him—was she pushing through this for him? Had he made her feel like she had to? He started to pull back but she caught him by the neck before he could, hand curling into a hard refusal against the nape.

"No."

He barely heard it. It was a breath more than anything, a soundless projection of determination so palpable it bent the air into a word, and he realized that she wasn't talking to him. She was talking to herself. The resolution to keep going, to push through her fear—it was to prove something to herself, not him. His blood began thrumming, head clouding with the desire to help. Her breaths were unsteady. Her fingers were tight against his skin. What could he even do?

Then, on a bit of gamble, he slid his arms beneath her and switched their positions.

She idled on top of him in an uncertain silhouette, seeming thrown by the shift, by the reigns he'd just handed over without any kind of prompting, and he just slipped a hand up to her face and kissed her. She found comfort in control. If there was anything he'd learned about her with complete certainty over the past few days, it was that. And even though this particular moment was about letting some of that control go, it didn't have to be all of it.

He just needed her to meet him halfway.

He reached his other hand back to push them up in an attempt to mimic their first time, hoping the familiarity of the position might help steady her nerves, and for a few moments she merely hovered there, a little stiff in his arms. And then she began easing back into him. Her hands slipped into his hair. Her hips found a rhythm that made his head blur. Their breaths grew uneven, sharp against the other's lips, and before he knew it, she was pushing him back down onto the bed, hesitation entirely abandoned.

The pace spiked. The heat rose. It wasn't long before his body started tensing, tendons rising, unable to sustain the overwhelming friction of it all, and then just as he felt himself rushing toward a tipping point, she did the last thing he was expecting from her.

She slowed down.

The rush quelled.

His eyes flickered open.

And slowly, quietly, the edges of the universe drew inward till they were the only two heartbeats in it. He felt himself caught in something of a daze as they moved together, intimate and slow, fingers twined, fixed under her stare like a butterfly on a pin. Her hair was a rope of opal in the moonlight. Her breath was a flutter against his lips. Her eyes were mosaics, art made out of jagged pieces—chipped trust and cracked pride glued together into something flawed and lovely.

She looked brave.

Vulnerable.

A little frightened.

And within a few moments, he was, too.

Because after her mouth buried a ragged sound in his shoulder and his head fell back in a sharp, flooding intake of breath, there was no damning moment of clarity that followed. Their seemingly inevitable this-was-a-mistake routine didn't kick in. Neither of them pulled away. They merely lay there in a moonlit photograph, sheets tangled, bodies twined, chests rising and falling like a cool, quiet tide.

And he felt the knife go straight through his gut.


"Did you lock the—"

"Yeah."

"And you put in the code?"

"Yeah."

"Because you know he'll freak out if he wakes up and there's no—"

"I did all the bells and whistles, Bonnie."

Bonnie nodded as her and Damon walked down the hallway to 2B, hands a little stiff against her sides. The air was stilted and cold around them, the walls almost aggressively barren in comparison to Kai's Christmas wonderland of an apartment, and she couldn't help but feel like the distance between their places had doubled somehow.

Unspoken, skin-tightening tension tended to do that, she guessed.

They'd barely said a word to each other over the past half hour. There hadn't been a whole lot left to clean in Kai's apartment—his militant fleet of AI Roombas had done the bulk of the work—but it'd taken enough time to make their silence notable. She didn't know what to say. She also didn't think it should be on her to say anything—he should've been the one talking.

He'd kissed her.

He'd cupped her face.

He'd held her in his hands like she was something he wanted to scoop up, like at any second she could slip through his fingers and he just needed to keep her close to him.

She didn't have to say jack.

Annoyed suddenly, she increased her pace and turned the corner rapidly, ready to be home and away from his silence. She just needed to sleep. Sleep fixed everything. Well, that and her newfound lifetime supply of waffles, which she intended to cash in on first thing in the morning.

"Stefan and Caroline are probably sleeping, so keep it down," she said as she pushed open the door, more out of autopilot than anything. He was essentially mute. What was there to keep down?

She walked into the apartment and immediately felt easier in the wash of familiarity. It was her doormat on the ground. Her and Caroline's random typography prints they'd bought from a sidewalk sale on the wall. Her gingerbread cookie air freshener sweetening the air. They were back in her territory, and for some reason, she felt like that leveled some kind of playing field.

She flicked on the light as he closed the door behind them and her brows ticked up at the slight disarray. It wasn't anything egregious—just some clothes lying on the floor, a couple of abandoned mugs and a scatter of papers on the coffee table—but it was a little weird for Caroline's standards, especially considering she'd been boredom cleaning for the past three days. Boredom cleaning usually meant an apartment Bonnie could perform surgery in.

She sighed and walked over to the coffee table, scooping up the mugs on her way to the kitchen, and in her exhausted and vaguely agitated state, she almost, almost didn't see it.

It was the 'coital' that snagged her gaze.

She frowned, setting the mugs down and picking up the stack of papers, and somewhere behind her she heard Damon take in a slightly sharper breath. "Oh, uh—you might want to…" he trailed off as she stared at the title, bolded and centered over the front page like a brand.

Terms and Conditions of the Pre-Coital Agreement between S. Salvatore and C. Forbes.

She blinked, the comforting familiarity of her surroundings disappearing in the flash of an instant.

"What the fuck."


A/N 2.0: I'm so tired. I feel like I've been in labor for three days. I know you guys have been waiting for my disastrous ass to update for over a year now and I just want to say that every message and like and review and reblog was what kept me writing, so thanks so much for keeping me going. First year of med school was a wild and busy ride, but having this little community and creative outlet to come back to was so needed and it wouldn't exist without y'all being rad. I know this chapter is gargantuan and as a result, probably exhausting to even think about reviewing (where to start? so much to criticize! lol just kidding but am I), but not going to lie, 35K words took a lot out of me so I'd love love love to hear back from you guys :) I tried to tackle some big-ish things and I tried to do them justice but I'm still learning so without feedback I'm in the dark. Anyway, this bitch is TIRED and has to go to clinic and listen to some lungs. Love you all. Hope it lived up.