LIFE IN PLASTIC

Caroline sits with Stefan on the hood of her car; above, the stars are numerous and glittering. She pulls her hoodie across her shoulders, settling her back against the windshield, and sighs. When she wipes her palm against her jeans, she knows it's clean but she can still smell the blood, feel it drying and sticky on her skin. She doesn't know whether or not she's revolted.

"Sorry," says Stefan. He hesitates, and then adds, "It gets easier."

"You don't have to say that just to make me feel better."

When Stefan doesn't respond, Caroline swallows. Eventually she draws her knees up to her chest, and says, "No more bunnies."

Stefan lets his head fall back, so he can look up at the sky, and he answers, "Okay," even though she's pretty sure he wants to say something else.

So Caroline goes there instead: "I kill a person and I barely care. But rabbits are too cute? There's something wrong with me." She tries very hard to will away the waver in her voice.

"There's something wrong with all of us."

"Oh my god, you are so helpful."

He almost laughs at that - his breath half-chuffs - but he turns his head instead, to look at her sidelong. "It's hard," he says, slowly. "But you can know right from wrong even if you can't feel it. That's where you start."

She can hear insects chirping half a mile away. The rustle of a squirrel. A fox, its heartbeat rapid, the rush of blood through its veins as it dashes fifty yards to the left. Beside her, Stefan is soundless and still. Caroline leans her shoulder against his. "I don't want to be like Damon," she confesses. "I want to be like you."

"Not me." Dark regret wends its way through Stefan's tone; he's staring at the stars again. He doesn't meet her eyes. "Don't be like either of us. You can do better." Moonlight carves shadows from his cheekbones, leaving his gaze in blackness. It's a death-skull, an accidental rictus; Caroline shifts, uneasy.

She offers him her brightest laugh. "Well, I can't be me. I've got bunny blood all over my shoes and I'm thinking about gym decorations."

The curve of his lips is perfunctory; Stefan doesn't move, and Caroline sits in uncertain silence, listening to the fox's steady retreat. Finally she adds, more quietly, "I can't. I killed something with my bare hands tonight. I felt it die, and all I want to ask is if I'm prettier than Elena. I know it's stupid. I can't stop."

That does make him chuckle, soft and startled; he looks at her then, and Caroline feels his elbow nudge into her ribs. It makes her feel disproportionately better, even before he grants her, "You're both pretty. It does get easier, Caroline. A little."

"Thanks," she says, and they keep sitting there, and they both look up at the sky. The stars are brighter, since Caroline died.

She thinks black and silver would be a good theme for the dance.

.

She knows she's supposed to be able to flip some switch, just turn all her emotions off, but she doesn't know how and she's never tried. Caroline doesn't know what she'd be without feelings. She thinks there'd be nothing left.

She's half an hour late for school because she can't decide what to do with her hair - because she spent three hours going through old Cosmo issues to find every hairstyle Angelina Jolie ever had, wondering if she could pull it off, wondering why the mirror was so shiny, wondering why she was so fixated. She had scissors in her hand before a text from Bonnie said hey where r u and that was it, she was out the door to math class and the quiz she likely failed.

High school is louder than before. She registers the heartbeat of everyone who brushes past her in the hall. She hears all the whispered conversations in corridors - her gossipy heart can home in on who kissed whom or who's breaking up or who's being reamed out in the principal's office. It might even drive her a little nuts except she loves it too much.

She's seventeen and so are all her friends.

"Black and silver?" says Grant Norris, dubiously, at the third meeting of the dance committee. Caroline has to suppress the completely irrational urge to yank his entire lower lip over his face but thankfully Susan Fletcher chimes in with, "I think it's classy!" and they are agreed.

"Okay." Caroline spreads her papers across the table; she sets down her pink highlighter and picks up the green instead, making careful colour-coded notes. "So we have the DJ and the gym's booked, but we still need flowers and streamers, and - I'll do the decoration sub-committee if Susan can get the money from the student association. Gina, how are ticket sales?"

She is the general and they are her glittery taffeta army.

Later, Susan says, "Oh my god, Caroline, you should be, like... a party planner when you graduate."

Caroline chirps, "Thanks!" She puts her markers away - a rainbow in her pencil case - and studiously ignores the pulse in Susan's throat.

.

She's glad she can still eat nachos, because it gives her something to do when Matt's working. Also, she's no longer very worried about her diet. She sits at the Grill, munching tortillas and browsing through a floral catalogue until Matt slides his arms around her from behind, nuzzles his face into the side of her neck.

"What are you doing?" he asks, and she flips between two dog-eared pages, holding up photos for inspection.

"Roses or lillies?" she asks him. "Which is the better white?"

"... they're both just white, Care," he laughs, but when it's Matt laughing she doesn't mind so much.

"Roses smell nicer," she says, decisively. "And maybe they can do silver edging? I'll -"

"Right! Oh, right, your dance." Matt's arm tightens around her shoulders. "Listen, they scheduled me to work that night -" (she sees red; she sees red and she smells hot metal and she digs her fingers into the table's edge) "- but I'll talk to Craig, make sure I get it off. Hey, that was good, you totally didn't freak out just then."

She giggles, cheery and sharp, and he doesn't see the splinters in her fingertips. "I'm getting better, huh?"

"You are the best. Hey, I got you something." He reaches around her, sets something puffy and white-gold on the table top. It takes Caroline a second to process: a slender doll, perfect princess face, all blue eyes and spun blonde locks and never-changing smile.

"Thought it looked like you," grins Matt, next to her ear. "I would've gotten a little me to go with, but all the boys had brown hair."

She's silent for too long, because she feels the uneasy way he stiffens behind her. He says, "Ah, it was a dumb idea. Sorry."

Sometimes there are things she wants to tell him.

Sometimes she wonders what he'll look like when he's old.

"It's perfect," she states, firmly. "You are completely sweet." She turns her head and kisses him, just to feel his lips move against her own. "Make sure you get next Saturday off, okay?"

.

In some ways, conversations with her mother have always been punctuated by things they don't say. Caroline gets home when her mom's on her way out the door, and that's par for the course; her mom plucks car keys from the side table and says, "Honey, there's salad in the fridge or pizza in the freezer - I have a meeting to get to."

Caroline doesn't answer, Yeah, the vampires have been busy, huh?... They've been down that road, and it ends with her mother's vacant smile.

She does say, "Sure," as she puts her coat away in the closet, pulling out a dark tough Sheriff jacket in the same motion. She holds it out, like a polite daughter. "Have a good night, okay?"

Her mom accepts the coat, shrugs into it. "Are you going out later?" (Subtext: You'd better be doing your homework.)

"Just to Bonnie's. We're going to study." (Spells and old journals, but I'll get on that essay as soon as Klaus is dead.)

"Hm," says her mother, dubiously. Caroline readies an expression of deeply injured innocence, but the moment passes with the parental verdict: "Don't stay out too late. Oh, and Caroline, I saw your note, but you really don't need another dress."

"Mom," begins Caroline, horrified - she doesn't have to fake injury this time - "Seriously, I -"

There's darkness slithering beneath her skin, and she's staring right into her mother's eyes. She doesn't even realize what she's doing until her mom says, with irritation, "That look will get you nowhere."

It's all so very normal, and thank god her mother's on vervain.

Caroline breaks her gaze away, and fights back the urge to vomit, or maybe just to sob out all her guilt into her mom's pressed uniform shirt, soak her tears into the polyester tie she hates. (I drink blood, I'm sorry, please love me, I didn't mean to.) "I," she says instead, and swallows. "Okay. I'll find something in my closet."

"Easier than I expected," is her mom's surprised response. "You're growing up, kid."

Caroline doesn't look at her mother again, not directly; she just smiles, and says lightly, "I already bought the shoes." Then she's heading to the kitchen, calmly, her nails pressing crescents into her palms. Behind her, she hears the front door close.

.

"Use a glass, Gidget. You look like you're sucking on a juice box." Damon leans against the banister at the top of the boarding house stairs; his shirt is half-buttoned and his hair is a mess and she's going to have to get past him to get down.

Caroline doesn't know how she feels about that, but Damon knows damn well how hot the bed-head makes him, because he flashes her that devilish, careless grin.

She takes the blood bag out from between her lips and enquires, "You practise that in front of the mirror, don't you. I mean, it's okay. I know all about vanity."

The grin vanishes; Damon jerks his chin toward her O-positive meal, instead. "Help yourself," he notes, blatantly not meaning it, and the bored derision of his tone makes Caroline feel small and stupid.

But she is not that girl - she is not what he made her into - so she says, in her sweetest voice, "Well, you owe me a few pints," and she watches his eyes flicker, like maybe he has the grace to be the tiniest bit ashamed.

He doesn't apologize, though, and the part of Caroline that is a predator knows he never will.

"Gonna start shredding the town for that stuff?" he asks instead.

Going to be Stefan?, is what he's wondering, and his ice-pale gaze is intent but Caroline just shrugs, looking down at the bag. "It's like Coke Classic," she says. "Instead of diet Pepsi. I guess." She pulls a face, and adds, "Except it's better warm."

So Damon relaxes, but then he says pointedly, "The fridge is downstairs," and Caroline waves the phone that's in her other hand.

"Elena forgot her cell," she explains.

"Knock next time."

"You didn't answer."

"I'm busy."

"I know," says Caroline, a little tightly. She sticks the blood bag back in her mouth and she's really hoping to just leave, just get out before -

"Baby, I found a good - oh hi!" The reporter, the one whose name Caroline barely knows - Andie? - there she is, suddenly from the side doorway, with a leather-bound book in one hand and her palm already halfway slid into Damon's shirt. She's wearing some little silk thing and he's draping an arm around her shoulders, all comfortable, world's best boyfriend. Andie adds, to Caroline, "Oh god, I'm sorry, I didn't -" Laughing, a little embarrassed.

"That's okay." Caroline is just going to go - she takes a step toward the stairs, and they can all get out in one piece, except Damon leans his head down to nip at Andie's ear and he keeps watching Caroline, his eyes all crinkled at the corners like she's in on the joke, because he's just that much of an asshole sometimes.

So Caroline adds, brightly, "Is he reading to you? Wind in the Willows, maybe? Alice in Wonderland? That's sweet," and she sees Damon's face darken because he forgets that she remembers, that she has pieces of him, too. "I've seen him naked too," she notes to Andie, and okay, now she's just being a bitch but she can't help it; the thing inside her is writhing and cold. "It's not as impressive as he thinks."

Andie slams the bedroom door with remarkable force, considering. Caroline's halfway down the stairs before Damon catches her, a blink, his hand on her throat and her head hard against the wall.

"Hey," she chokes out, since he's right there anyway, "Can we make smoke? Mist? You know, like in Dracula movies?"

"... What?" Damon's grip is iron and painful; Caroline doesn't squirm. After a moment, he drops her. "No," he adds, in disgust. "Unless I set you on fire. Please, please say you would like me to set you on fire."

"Thanks for the snack." Her self-control does not allow for a dignified exit, though - she's fast, she's super-fast down the last steps, and then she's outside in the sunlight and blinking back tears because her throat hurts, and she's not sure who she hates more, Damon or his happy meal or the girl she used to be.

She realizes she's dropped the blood, but she shoves Elena's phone into her pocket and digs out her own, so she can text Susan: hey i was wrong we need a smoke machine after all. Then she climbs into the car, and drives.

.

She misses Tyler.

Caroline sits in history class and stares absently at the empty desk by the window, wondering. If he's okay, if he's in pain, if he's sorry.

(He had better damn well be sorry.)

And it's weird, because it's not like they were ever close, except when he was tortured and terrified and trying not to eat her. She doesn't know if she misses Tyler or just the way he looked at her - like she really knew things, or like her opinion mattered. She misses the way he listened when she spoke.

She's thinking about that - about his dead cell number and the way he never answers her messages. She's thinking, Lassie come home, and it almost makes her smile, or maybe it just makes her stomach hurt, but then the class goes very silent and Ric has just said something. She realizes everyone's staring at her with some horrible air of expectation.

"Um," she responds, intelligently, and the board reads 'The Great Depression' and she has nothing at all to say. "Sorry, Mr. Saltzman. May I be excused?"

Ric's expression is cautious; next to her, Elena glances over with a slight frown.

"I, ah, need to pick up streamers," improvises Caroline. "I have a note." She rips some random page out of her notebook, filled with looping handwriting and little hearts, and she folds it in half and holds it out for Alaric to take.

He stares blankly down at the paper, and then at her, and all she can beg him is please please please.

"Okay," he says, finally. "Next time plan something outside of class, all right?"

She could kiss him, but instead she grabs her bag and winks at Elena and heads out the door.

She really does pick up the streamers, though. Time's getting tight.

.

They still do Girls' Night sometimes, for old times or just for sanity. Caroline lies awake in bed, hears Elena's heartbeat next to her and Bonnie asleep on the floor. She's never been so aware of human life before, all the twitches and muscles and veins. She likes the sound of their breathing. The room is littered with magazines and scattered bottles of nail polish, all the things they do to pretend.

Elena jerks beside her, a sudden intake of breath; Caroline can feel the sudden race of Elena's pulse, a molten river flowing. "Hey," she whispers, and Elena mutters, "Mmph," and curls up tight, pulling at the sheets.

Caroline rolls to the side, and Elena does too, so they can face each other; Elena's eyes are dark and glittering in the moonlight that falls across her face. They're quiet, conscious of Bonnie's rest. Elena confesses, like a guilty secret, "I dreamed I was Katherine."

"It's okay," says Caroline; she reaches out, curls her fingers around Elena's hand.

Elena shakes her head, and says, "It isn't."

They lie there for a while in silence.

Just when Caroline thinks Elena's going back to sleep, Elena murmurs, "Guess you're not jealous of me now, huh." It's half a joke and half Elena about to cry, so Caroline squeezes her hand again.

"Yeah, I am."

Elena laughs, a quick, disbelieving exhale. "You can't be serious, do you really -"

"Not the doppelganger thing." Caroline lets her head rest on the pillow; she studies the lines of Elena's features, in the darkness. She doesn't think about blood. "Not the hot brothers. Not even your hair, anymore." She's gentle, earnest when she says it. "But we're gonna get you through this, Elena. I mean, it sucks, it does, it sucks so hard - and that's not a vampire pun, oh my god, that's terrible - but everything'll be okay."

"Thanks," says Elena, after a few breaths. "Thanks for believing that."

Caroline is honestly startled. "Of course I do."

And she thinks the whole thing's over, that maybe they can end there, only Elena's brow is furrowing. "Then, why...?"

"Oh. It's not you, so much." Caroline keeps her voice low, keeps a smile hinting on her lips; she rubs one foot against the other, beneath the covers. "You just... have a pulse, you know? And I have high school and then I spend the rest of eternity getting carded in bars."

"Caroline..."

Elena is quietly, genuinely stricken, and Caroline loves her for it (she loves them all so hard), but she hastens to add, "And I'll never lose that five pounds, I guess. But it's all right. I'd rather be here than not."

"... You so don't need to lose weight," replies Elena, nonplussed, and Caroline muffles a laugh in the blankets. Then they're okay again.

A peaceful stretch passes in the dark room before Elena mutters, "There's only one hot brother," and Bonnie says, "Whatever," from the floor, and Elena throws Caroline's pillow at Bonnie's head.

The banners they've made for the ticket sale are stacked against the wall; there's glitter on the carpet, and on the bed, and in Bonnie's hair. And it's so overdone, the girls and the pyjama party and the ensuing feathered fight, but Caroline can't stop giggling anyway.

.

She's used to the chill by now, but there are things she's still learning about her body. Like how to keep herself at bay; how fragile the world is and how much care she needs not to break it, or how she can move in a blink if she wants, or how hunger isn't a stomach thing so much as all her skin and bones constricting.

There's only half a moon above, and the wind is loud in the whispering forest branches, but Caroline is sleek as a deer and faster than - well, faster than bunnies, because it's ridiculously easy how she flits between trees and dodges left and scoops her hand down. Poof. A handful of soft fur and little bones and scared rabbit eyes, tiny pulse throbbing.

"Shhhhhh." Caroline doesn't know if she can compel animals, really, but she tries, and she holds the bunny close and strokes its smooth warm ears for just a little while, until it is very still. Then she nicks her razor teeth just behind its neck, and latches onto warm salt life.

The rabbit's paw jerks once, twice, spasmodic against her ribs.

One swallow. Two.

It's really hard to stop.

"Shhhh," says Caroline again, and she pets the bunny one more time before she sets it back down in the sod. "It's all right. You're all right." She listens to the panicked heartbeat skip, sees the tiny spot of crimson on white fur; for an instant, she is stricken with regret. But then the rabbit's gone after all, a flash of puffy white tail bounding through the trees.

"I named you Fluff-a-lot," she tells it, belatedly. "I mean, not that you care."

Maybe she can find a bear, or something. She smiles, and the night is beautiful.

The sky is getting bright, though, so Caroline turns toward home. On the way back to the car, she pulls out her phone, remembers to set an alarm. She needs to pick up flowers.

.

"It looks great, Caroline!"

The gym is done in black and silver; dark streamers hang delicately. There's a misty layer of smoke on the floor, lit by soft spotlights. Caroline can smell the roses; she can hear toes tapping to the cheerful rock beat of the sound system. She flashes a pleased grin at Grant Norris, Mr. Doubting Thomas, but then Matt's arm is snaking around her waist and he's leaning in to murmur, "You look great," in her ear.

She's wearing last year's cream silk, but he looks at her as though she's made of sunlight. She arches into him, runs her thumb over his chin. "I like you in a tie."

"Caroline!" That's Susan, blue dress and flustered face, winding through the press of bodies from the door. "Did you want to run the door prizes now, or -"

"No," says Matt, firmly. "She wants to dance."

"It's just the DJ wants to know, because -"

"Oh, right." Caroline shakes her head, stretching up on tiptoe to peer toward the side table, but Matt jiggles her elbow.

"Dancing," he insists. "Enough work. Hey - we're only young once."

Caroline pauses, for the slightest shiver of a beat. But Matt is grinning down at her, and the music's pounding, and her shoes are really cute, after all. "Half an hour," she says to Susan, then. "Tell Gina to do it, okay?"

She takes a minute just to check the room. She can see Jeremy at the punch bowl, ten feet away; he's handing a cup to Bonnie and they're wearing the kind of shy, baffled smiles that make Caroline want to pinch their cheeks. Across the crowd, she catches Elena and Stefan, half spotlight-illuminated, holding each other like the whole world doesn't exist. Like there's just this one moment, forever.

She laughs. Then she takes Matt's hand, and lets the music whirl her.