"Again."

Ugh.

They've been at this, whatever it is, for hours. In the middle of the forest, surrounded by a thousand bugs and animals she can hear crawling around out there. Gross. As if she doesn't have enough to deal with already, knowing what a million ants skittering along, or a deer rubbing against a tree half a mile away, sounds like seems really unnecessary.

Stefan is circling around with his hands up, waiting for her to make a move. When she does, body a blur, he counters the attack easily but doesn't see her other strike coming. His back hits the dirt with such force a flock of birds scatter from a near by tree.

He looks impressed, after the shock wears off, getting back to his feet with a rueful smile. For a second she's glad mom made her take that self defense class at the station last summer. (After the growth spurt, after boys started coming around more.)

"Good," Stefan says, dusting off his jeans. "Very good."

She smiles at the compliment, but is seriously getting tired of being out here in the middle of nowhere playing Fight Club with Elena's boyfriend.

"Are we done yet?" She asks, left hand flat against her stomach, the growing hunger fueling her impatience.

"Caroline," he starts, voice eerily similar to the one mom gets when she feels she's explained herself a hundred times already. "This is for your benefit."

Yup, exactly like mom.

"There are, urges inside of you now. A hunger that will try and control your mind. It will make you do things, make you hurt people."

She tries not to roll her eyes at every elongated pause in his words. Really, who talks like that? Nodding in reply, really not in the mood for an argument (or another lecture), not having the energy for it. But she is grateful for this, to him, helping her when there is just so much to learn about being a…

(She still can't bring herself to say it.)

Her stomach growls and she knows he hears lips curling into a knowing smile, but no matter what he tries to tell her about a great alternative, she is not feeding on animals.

/\/\/\

It seems like Elena does nothing but tip toe around her now.

Like she thinks the wrong word, or the slightest move, will send her into attack mode. It's weird because, they never really fought before, if anything growing up it was she and Bonnie who were always a little afraid of Elena's temper. (That disappeared the day her parents died, but whatever.)

In Stefan's giant living room, sitting on the big cushy chair she's only just remembering she favored when that thing with Damon was still going on. (He isn't here, thankfully.) Sipping casually off the plastic bit she likes to use as a straw, the bag of blood still warm in her hand, it takes a second to realize the sight of it is probably what's making her friend so uncomfortable.

"Oh my god," she says suddenly mortified, hands moving to cover her mouth. "This is like, totally disgusting isn't it?"

Elena, for her part, looks like she wants to say no. To be the kind and caring one who understands that her friend is now a bloodsucking fiend. (She'd have to right? She's been dating Stefan long enough; she must have seen him eat at some point.)

Caroline puts the bag on the little table next to the chair, body crying out instantly at the sudden lack of sustenance, and covers it with a magazine, her face contracting into a pout.

"It's okay," Elena assures. "You're hungry, you should…"

She watches with wide eyes as her friend reaches for the bag, handing it back with a look of determination, her acceptance a bit forced but still appreciated. Funny how Elena manages to surprise her, in ways she would never think of until it happens. Caroline sips daintily, the hunger demanding a longer pull, but what had Stefan said? She can control it, she can make it hers.

Elena doesn't watch as she continues to drink, but stays until Stefan comes back.

/\/\/\

Sneaking into the house is so much easier now.

In or out in seconds, her feet barely touching the floor or making a sound, senses now sharp enough to outwit her mother's cop instincts. Mom oddly, is asleep on the couch. Caroline doesn't know whether to be hurt or relieved that half of the Sheriff's department wasn't out looking for her, being out until dawn again, but assumes the get out of jail free card she's been given ever since the accident is still valid.

Funny, how mom is suddenly more lenient after what happened rather than clingy like she would have thought. (Convenient considering, but confusing too. Whatever.) The sun is coming up, and she has to figure out what to do about having to go back to school in a couple days. Bursting into flames for the sake of history isn't a winning scenario, and Stefan said he didn't have any more magic jewelry to share.

Mom shifts, but doesn't wake, and Caroline pulls the blanket atop the couch and drapes it on her sleeping form. It's weird to see her so calm, so used to the pinched faces and exasperated attitude when it comes to them interacting.

Reaching to pull her mom's hands from hanging over the edge of the couch, her fingers brush the bracelet that she's worn as long as she can remember. It burns the instant she touches it, mind immediately flashing to the hospital and how Elena's necklace felt exactly the same.

Up in her room before the hiss escapes her lips, examining the burn marks bubbling on her fingertips, eyes go black before she takes a minute to calm down.

Stefan told her what it was, vervain, how it's like poison to them. And Elena told her why she gave her the necklace, protection from Damon (for all the good it did), and the constant compulsion he put her under.

What she doesn't understand is why her mother would be wearing something similar.

/\/\/\

So, she killed someone.

She totally killed someone.

Sometimes it feels like the guilt will eat at her insides until she wants to throw it all away and step into the sun. Other times, if she thinks hard enough about how much she doesn't want it to hurt, the guilt simply fades and the act of drinking the carnie dry is just a fact filed in the back of her mind.

Damon mentions this, interrupting one of she and Stefan's training sessions, about flipping a switch and feeling nothing at all. All she can do is stare at Stefan, wondering why he wouldn't tell her that, after telling her so much, why he would want her to feel so bad about what she'd done.

His defense is that she needs the guilt. She needs to feel the consequences of what they are because if they don't, they're no better than Damon.

The elder Salvatore just makes some flippant comment about how awesome he is and wanders off. Caroline watches him go. He still wants to kill her, that much is obvious, for some petty hypocritical reason that just makes him the biggest jerky-jerk she's ever met.

"I really hate him," she says softly.

"Yeah," Stefan laughs. "Sometimes I do too."

/\/\/\

If Elena walks on eggshells, Bonnie just walks away.

Flat out avoiding eye contact nearly every time they're in the same room together, which sucks because they've been friends just as long and she and Elena, and it really isn't fair that could turn because of what happened to her.

Elena filled her in about how Bonnie hates vampires, all vampires. (Especially Damon.) Blaming them for the death of her grandmother, lying about the device she promised to deactivate, being the crux of nearly every bad thing that has happened since Founder's Day.

Caroline doesn't blame her. She'd been the shoulder Bonnie cried on all those weeks after her Grams died, and now that she's in the know some of the more cryptic answers Bonnie had given (sort of) make a little more sense.

She gets this look on her face, Bonnie, whenever Caroline is close. And this weird shiver like it's suddenly dropped a few degrees.

It hurts, the distance, because if she's ever needed all of her friends, it's now.

Other times Bonnie and Elena's eyes lock, and it seems like they're not telling her something, something important. But Bonnie usually walks away after, always on the verge of tears, and Elena never says why.

/\/\/\

She struggles the most around Matt.

No matter how much Stefan assures her control is a choice, one she can easily make, being around him sends the darkness inside bubbling up to the surface. When he touches her, wraps those big arms around in a loving embrace, she can feel the shift before even thinking to counter it. Burying her head into his shoulder, fighting the grimace of her eyes contracting and fangs flashing, she somehow manages to keep herself from hurting him.

It's a cruel joke, she thinks. He finally admits to feeling how she'd hoped since the whole thing started, and the only way she can offer anything in return is to shut a part of herself off so she won't rip his throat out. (It's getting harder and harder to resist.)

She's terrified he'll figure out something has changed. That, no matter how much coffee she drinks, he's going to notice that's she's always a few degrees colder than normal. Or how she never eats. (Stefan says she's still too young for her stomach be able to process regular food regardless of how much blood she drinks. Which is so completely lame, she always loved a good milkshake.)

It feels pretty awful that he doesn't know, that he can't, and that lying is a necessary evil.

But she loves him too much to just walk away.

(She isn't that strong.)

/\/\/\

Stefan refuses to let her fail.

To let her succumb to those urges that tempt and taunt her conscious every single moment her eyes are open. It's kind of weird because it can't just be that she's Elena's friend, or that his crazy ex is the one responsible for the whole mess.

"Why are you helping me?"

The cemetery is empty except for the two of them and the random townie she's spent the last forty-five minutes compelling (which she had pretty much gotten the hang of the first day.) Stefan doesn't answer at first, staring at his feet as they dangle over the edge of the tombstone he's perched on, ever the brooding anti-hero.

"Because I failed before," he says looking over to her.

She looks back at him, head tilted in curiosity.

"With Vicki," he starts, stops, and turns away. "She was turned, and she didn't want to listen," he continues after a few seconds. "She didn't want to learn, and because of that people got hurt." Another pause. "Because of that she had to die."

It hits her square in the stomach, the way he talks about killing Matt's sister, (who was a vampire too? God, no one tells her anything) voice tinged with remorse. Yet somehow she knows he'd do it again if he had to.

"Is that why Damon wants to kill me?"

"Partly," Stefan concedes. "Katherine killing you as a message to us is also a contributing factor."

She lets that sink in.

"Katherine," she repeats. "What's her deal anyway? Does really get her kicks ruining people's lives?"

"She takes pride in it," he replies, no hint of humor in his words.

Silence.

"So you both were in love with her?"

Stefan chuckles softly, head tilting toward the sky as he lets out a long sigh. "Damon was, absolutely. Me? I'm not so sure."

"Why not?"

He looks over the townie, staring starry eyed into the distance, Caroline's compulsion still holding strong.

"She compelled me," he answers. "The entire time we were together, and even now I can't figure out what was real, and what was her."

"Do you know why she looks like Elena?"

"I wish I did."

A breeze kicks up, blowing her hair into her face, bringing with it the stale tobacco smell of the townie still propped on the steps of the same crypt she's leaning against. Part of her doesn't want to let him go, to wait for Stefan to leave so she can…

"I know what you're thinking," Stefan says, following her gaze. "One little bite, one little taste, that's all you need."

A blush creeps into her cheeks.

"But the thirst only gets stronger the more you indulge, until killing becomes just an afterthought. You didn't have a choice Caroline, this was done to you. You can still be who you were."

Eyes blacken with shame, chin pressed against her chest, knowing it would all be so much easier if she would just let go.

"We can be people," Stefan goes on. "We don't have to be monsters."

A single tear slides down her cheek as she pushes off the crypt, moving to kneel in front the townie, placing both hands on his shoulders.

"It's time to go home now," she says, eyes focusing, her will becoming his. "And if anyone asks, you got drunk and passed out."

She watches him go, her gaze never leaving his form until it fades away into the trees. Stefan stands next to her, hands clasped behind his back, a proud grin on his face.

"I wanted to kill him," she says quietly.

"But you didn't," he replies, nodding toward the spot where the man disappeared.

"Thank you."

"No problem."

She turns to him, arms wrapping around his neck, cheek against his shoulder.

"No really," she insists. "You're like, the only one who doesn't treat me any different because I'm a vampire, so thank you."

He hugs her back, giving a reassuring squeeze.

"I think that's the first time I've heard you say the word."

She laughs softly against him, knowing he's right, about the word, about everything.

She didn't ask for this, didn't choose this life. It was done completely out of her control, but maybe, just maybe, it doesn't have to be the worst thing that ever happened.