Caroline runs at a pace just a few steps ahead of him, their combined speed kicking up dirt and rocks that ricochet off the surrounding trees. It's more of an exercise than necessity, keeping the skill sharp and combating the boredom of the couch.
At the last second, the rabbit they're chasing zigs when Caroline thinks it'll zag, ducking into a hole and leaving her scrambling for balance when halting to a stop. He's got a hand on her elbow before she face plants on the ground, which has her laughing, the sound echoing off the otherwise silent wilderness.
"Trix are for kids," she says looking back at him with a childlike grin.
The scent hits his nose a second before hers, her eyes widening with the fear that they could get caught up in it. Stefan shakes his head, the wordless assurance that they're far enough away to not have to worry. He starts toward the source and, after a few seconds, she follows.
They walk quietly side by side the few minutes it takes to reach a cliff overlooking a valley below, the night suddenly alight with fire below. Orange and yellow turning lush green to gray. The last time Stefan had seen such a blaze was because of that cow in Chicago.
Caroline takes his hand, eyes reflective of the flames flickering across the land, and for awhile they just watch it burn.
Golden locks fanning across his pillow is the first thing he sees when his eyes open to the impending morning that shines through the window. A hand smooths across the sheets, not at all surprised at the lack of blanket, as she always hogs the covers when choosing to sleep in his bed. Something, he notes, she never takes initiative with when Katherine is around.
Grabbing an exposed corner of the blanket draped across her shoulder, he tugs gently, trying to pull enough free. She rolls with the motion, eyes closed, but pinched shut from the disturbance. A hand reaches out and flattens against his chest.
"Snooze," she mumbles sleepily. "Need more snooze."
He doesn't disagree, own eyes still heavy, and pulls so that her cheek replaces the hand while they drift off once again.
In the kitchen drinking coffee and reading a news feed on the tablet Katherine left behind, when Caroline bounds down the stairs.
"Morning," she sing songs, walking across the tile and all but snatching the cup from his hand before taking a sip.
Leaning back in the chair with his arms folded, he frowns at the antics.
"I made a whole pot," he says, nodding toward the maker on the counter.
She just giggles at him over the rim of the mug, eyes alight in a way that's impossible to stay mad at her.
Stefan pushes a cart down the aisle of what is probably one of the last remaining bookstores. Restocking shelves and whistling along to the concerto Mickey has playing over the loudspeaker. He wasn't looking for a job when he came across the establishment, it was genuine curiosity that one of these places was still standing, but twenty minutes into a conversation about Kazantzakis Mickey took a liking to him and made the offer.
The old man sits at the counter with a cup of tea cooling in front of him, an old tome in one hand, and unlit pipe dangling from his mouth. The work itself isn't difficult and Mickey, who hasn't told Stefan how old he is but at best guest is pushing seventy, is grateful for the help. It also passes the time, which can tend to drag with eternity always on the horizon.
The clientele, mostly collectors, are not en mass but those who do come tend to drop tidy sums for the privilege of running their fingers along type pressed into aging yellow paper. Perks include being able to read as much as he wants, something he takes advantage of quite often, still preferring the flip of a page to the scroll of a screen despite how archaic the practice might be viewed.
Head down with hands in pocket, he walks to the station on a cold damp night, idly thinking about where Katherine had done, and what old movie Caroline might be playing when he walks through the door.
The scream echoes off stone and mortar, terror carrying on the chilled air, and he's running toward the source without a seconds hesitation.
A man in dark clothes and gloves, a back alley where no can see or dare step in to help, and a damsel whose only defense in the shrieking fallen on deaf ears. All your cliched ducks lined in a row. The man advises, in a less than polite manner, that he mind his own. Stefan sends him flying across the alley before the sentence is complete, the last word elongated as limbs flail before crashing into a wall and falling still.
"Are you alright?" He asks, keeping his distance because the woman is clearly frightened of his little display despite it being in her favor. She shakes her head, slowly backing away, but he's on her before she can run.
"You were never here," he says, eyes focusing into hers, taking away all the fear and pain captured inside them. "This never happened. Now run home as fast as you can and don't look back."
She's off like a dart as soon as he lets her go.
The man groans as Stefan turns back to him, slow careful steps at the scent of blood protruding from his forehead. Fists clench as he kneels down, before pressing a finger against the wound, as the man groans louder at the touch.
"Now," he says with a tilt of his head, bringing the finger to his lips. "What am I going to do with you?"
Caroline is on the couch when he steps through the door, and springs to her feet at the sight of him. It's the blood, he knows, scent still fresh enough to make her concerned.
"I'm fine," he says with a hand on her shoulder.
She doesn't believe him, brows knitting together, but doesn't push. Instead she pulls him into the kitchen, sits him down, while she tears off a few paper towels and moistens them in the sink. There's no qualms on her part about taking a seat in his lap, another liberty she'd never take if Katherine were here.
He tells her the whole story as she nods along, understanding coming clear as something similar happened to her almost a month ago.
"We should totally get costumes," she teases. "If we're going to be superheroes."
Stefan laughs, head tilting up to the last wipe she takes with a towel.
"Why are you so good to me?"
For a second he doesn't think she's going to answer, gazing down at him with an exasperated look, but then just rolls her eyes and presses her forehead against his.
Katherine calls in the middle of the night.
His right hand flails wildly against the nightstand, blindly searching for the source of noise pulling him from a dream.
"Hey," he answers, rolling onto his back.
"Where are you?"
She actually giggles in his ear, and he knows there's a playful grin to match it even though he can't see her.
Where the sharks are abundant and lions walk along the highway.
"You took my copy of the Jungle Book, didn't you?"
There's a pause, he can hear something going on in the background, muffled and scared but he doesn't ask.
Got to go, just wanted to say hi.
The telltale click echoes in his ear.
He's reading a book on the couch when Caroline sighs for the sixth time in ten minutes, eyes glancing his way more frequently than that. Waiting until the end of the chapter before acknowledging her restlessness, he looks over with a curious arch of his brow.
"Something on your mind?"
"Is this what we're going to do all day?" She asks, turning toward him and throwing her hands up in a dramatic gesture. "Really? It's a big bold world out there Stefan. Don't tell me you'd rather sit on this ratty old furniture than go out and explore it."
Hiding a smile behind his hand as she tosses a throw pillow at his head, it hitting squarely against his nose.
"Don't laugh," she pouts. "Cabin fever is a serious medical thing."
Not hiding the laughter now, she turns away with a fold of her arms.
"What did you have in mind?"
The smile she gives when looking back could stop a train.
A few hours later Caroline is dozing lightly against his arm as the train makes his way tunnel, the smooth rock of the mammoth machine lulling her eyes closed.
A few more and they're walking arm in arm along the Seine, she beaming brighter than the sun shining down. She wants it all. Art and poetry coupled with coffee and croissants at the tiniest cafe they can find. A beret atop her head, with a fresh baguette tucked under her arm, she speaks broken French and flushes profusely when incorrect.
There's the Louvre, the Arc, and the Tower of course.
On the observation deck, the few visible stars coming into view, she kisses him and he can't think of a reason for her not to.
There are things to factor in like, what does it mean, what comes next, and what happens when Katherine comes back because she always comes back.
Caroline doesn't let it get weird through sheer force of will.
"So we kissed," she says casually, body language trying so hard to be nonchalant. "It's not like we haven't before."
Which is true enough, but the difference is this particular time was felt by both, the shift subtle but clear.
They keep distracted.
They do things. Go places.
Talk about everything. Talk about nothing.
Sleep in the same bed.
Have breakfast together before work.
Live for the sake of living.
Katherine calls just as he exits the station, scanning the surrounding crowd because it's a trick she's pulled before.
She's jumped continents again. Down under. Gone walkabout. Fed off natives. Gold Coast. Fed off pretty blondes at the beach. She talks about a bloke name Rick with salt and pepper hair and the crescent moon of a sharks jaw scarred across his thigh. She talks more than she normally does and he knows the travel is getting lonely.
"When are you coming back?" He asks when the stories run dry.
Careful, Stefan. I might start to think you actually miss me.
Here's the thing.
He really does.
Caroline is sitting on the floor when he gets home, a few bottles of nail polish spread in a semi-circle before her. He drops his bag next to hers in front of the stairs, before walking over and sinking to his knees at her side, kissing the top of her head before shifting to rest his own in her lap.
Fingers run through his hair and there's the fleeting hope that her nails are dry.
"How was your day?" She asks softly. "Tell me every little thing."
He grunts a reply, for a moment just enjoying the sensation of her hands gently combing over him, and thinks of that bridge in St. Petersburg however long ago. Remembering the way the snow collected on the ends of hair spilling out from the knit cap she wore. How surprisingly glad he was to see her again.
He's less broody with her around.
Less likely to curl into a ball and hide away from the world.
Someday he'll find a way to thank her for it.