Title: Forever Is A Long Time (Care To Spend It By My Side?)
Category: The Vampire Diaries
Ship: Caroline/Stefan, some Elena/Damon, mentions of Bonnie/Jeremy
Word Count: 10,431
Summary: She knows, from that day forward, there is no letting go of him, not by her.
Forever Is A Long Time (Care To Spend It By My Side?)
Eventually, she has to pick a side.
They separate, scattering from Mystic Falls, from the supernatural net that seems to be cast over the people inside, destroying those caught under its spell.
They stand at a crossroads on the outskirts of town and they all need to choose who goes where with who.
Bonnie and Jeremy go one way, with Jeremy hugging his sister, promising he'll call her when they get settled.
Damon and Elena stand on one side of the road, their hands clasped, and the tilt of her chin is determined, certain.
Caroline takes a step back from them, her eyes falling momentarily, and then she's beside Stefan. It's partly because he's her best friend and he needs someone and it's partly because she needs someone and he's the only one she knows won't leave her, won't turn their back on her, won't pick someone over her if the cards fell and she was in the crosshairs.
She admires Damon's one-minded dedication to Elena, she does, even if she doesn't really like him. But she also knows that everybody else is just collateral damage in his mind. Perhaps the only other person that would give him pause before grabbing Elena first is his brother, and obviously he made the choice already that he'd go for the girl, backing it up with the idea that Stefan would want him to.
No words are exchanged; there's still a bitter taste in every mouth over how things came out. Stefan loves Elena who loves Damon who loves her back.
And then there's Caroline, who loves Tyler, wherever he is. And she tells herself that's the only one she loves, but if she's willing to admit it, and she's not, she's loved Stefan since the moment he promised he wouldn't let anything happen to her and saved her undead life. And okay, sure, she's seen enough Dr. Phil to know that's probably transference, but she likes to think that she knows Stefan well enough now, they've shared enough, that her feelings are more genuine than just hero worship. At least, that's the conclusion she comes to late at night, when the dark is so thick that she feels free to pick apart the feelings she's always known she shouldn't have. He was with Elena; he loved Elena. She loved Matt or Tyler or Klaus. Did she love Klaus? Another thing to ponder in the all-consuming shadows.
What she does know, and what she will proudly admit, is that Stefan is her best friend and she will not let him go on alone. Not when she knows how that loneliness can hurt and consume him. Not when she sees his perfect Elena making it clear, again, just to drive that stake home, that it's Damon for her, regardless of anything and anyone. Sire bonds be damned. She had feelings for him long before she was turned and she would have feelings for him long after Stefan was just a memory and Caroline too.
She wonders, as she stands there, if she'll ever see them again.
The strength with which Stefan grips her hand tells her no, probably not, he wouldn't ever want to after this.
"Be safe," Elena tells them with grave seriousness.
And Caroline knows that Damon wants to say something, he wants to add a little defensive snark because he obviously knows that this is more than just goodbye for now. But he doesn't, and maybe it's Elena squeezing his fingers or maybe he doesn't want Stefan's last memory of him to be him playing it off like it doesn't matter. For whatever reason, Damon merely holds a hand out. And Stefan shakes it, quick, hard, finished.
Caroline assumes Stefan will want to torture himself by watching Elena walk away, watching her and Damon drive off into the sunset, but he surprises her when he turns, tugs Caroline along, and opens the passenger seat for her to climb in. He circles the car and climbs into the driver seat, never casting another look back before he roughly pulls onto the road and they're moving, they're leaving, with nothing but Elena and Damon in their rear-view mirror, standing just short of the Welcome to Mystic Falls sign.
Caroline stares at them until they're just blurred spots.
"You could've gone with them," Stefan tells her, his voice deep, rough. "Or Bonnie and Jeremy."
She turns to him and puts on a sunny smile. "We're not even five minutes out of town and you're already tired of me?" she teases, brows raised. "This is going to be a really difficult lifetime for you."
It does exactly what she wants it to and draws a short laugh that he can't fight.
He looks at her then, from the corner of his eyes. "Thank you," he tells her, his voice heavy with sincerity.
She reaches for his hand, twists their fingers together, and doesn't let go.
Not when she turns on the radio and sings along.
Not when they pass hitchhikers and mile markers and small towns here or there.
She lets go briefly so he can fill up on gas and she can buy junk food for the trip that has no destination.
But when they're back in the car and she's got an open bag of Doritos in her lap, she returns her hand to his and feeds him chips with her free one and dances in her seat to the spotty radio before eventually plugging in her iPod and making him listen to the Top 20 versus his classical music.
She knows, from that day forward, there is no letting go of him, not by her.
They seem to drive forever; she considers a few times that years might've even passed.
She sleeps in the back seat some nights, others she convinces him to pull over and they get a motel. The seats are leather and they stick to her skin. She thinks if she were human, her body would ache with discomfort. She tries not to complain because he still looks haunted but she knows he knows it's not working.
She makes him stop at bars and they play pool and she forces him to dance with her. He's reluctant and he sulks or broods, but he always lets her pull him up by his hands that she settles on her waist or that she lifts up so she can spin under them. He always ends up smiling and she puts a tick in the win column. She congratulates herself for getting him out of his funk, even if it's only momentary.
Sometimes she gets hit on because she's pretty and flirty and she likes the attention even if she never takes it anywhere. She saves herself when men get handsy, because she's not delicate, not in the physical sense. And she knows that Stefan's tense, that he wants to intervene, that sometimes he wants to break bones and tear out hearts and drink their blood until their unconscious, or worse, but he also knows she can handle herself. So she does and she drags him out onto the dance floor to cool off, forgetting the pawing drunk, and they move on.
She wants to ask, "Do you miss them?" but she knows what she means is, "Do you miss her?"
She asks about life before he was turned and what drew him to Katherine and what he thinks his life would be like if Katherine had never come to stay with his family.
"I would've gone to college," he tells her with a faint smile, just bordering on bitter. "Become a doctor, made my dad proud, come home, and opened my own clinic…" He shrugs. "Found a nice girl, fall in love, got married, had a few children… Died in my sleep," he sighs, almost wistful.
"What do you think she would've been like?" Caroline wonders, watching him, her head tipped on the headrest.
"Sweet and kind and gentle…" He half smiles. "Like you."
"Ladies were proper and refined back then," she reminds, her brows hiked. "Pretty sure my habit of saying the wrong thing would've ended with me as an old spinster."
He laughs, shaking his head, and remarks, "You're too hard on yourself."
She hums disagreeably but doesn't say anything. Partly because she likes the idea, of 1864 Stefan wanting her even if the present version never so much as considers the idea.
"Do you wish it was different then?" she murmurs and she holds her breath, even though breathing isn't necessary in her state.
He looks at her, the highway lamps flashing over his handsome face. "No," he admits, calm, simple, certain.
She wants to ask why, wants to pick his brain apart, because he's gone through so much, he's suffered so much, why not admit he wishes it were easier?
But she accepts it, because for her, Stefan is a gift that she can't imagine not having and she doesn't want to.
She turns her gaze back out to the highway ahead of her.
"What about you? You'd probably be happy with Matt if you hadn't been turned," he reminds her.
She shakes her head. "I loved Matt… But we weren't meant for forever."
It's all she needs to say and finally, she rests her head back and closes her eyes, letting the soothing movement of the car lull her.
When she wakes up, they're still moving.
They always keep moving, together, toward no exact place.
Until one day he takes a turn off the highway and asks her if she's ever considered college.
They get an apartment in New York; it's big and open and there's two bedrooms and an office. He makes the office a library and she feels ignorant when she sees all the books, just overflowing from the shelves; she adds it to the list in her head of why he never went for her and why he never will in the future.
She goes to college to learn the finer art of event coordinating even though she's fairly sure she could teach the courses. She learns better people skills and takes psychology courses and practices what she learns on Stefan every time she comes home.
"So guess what I learned about daddy issues at school today!" she sings as she walks in the door.
He lets her analyze him; he always does.
She learns the business side of things too and struggles with math until she breaks down and asks him to help her. Some nights, she's up with her books and her hair piled on her head and three pencils; one in her hand, one behind her ear, and another stuck between her teeth. She feels smarter for some reason.
"You look cute," he tells her, handing her a mug of coffee and smiling at her. She feels like sweet, girly Caroline from ages ago.
She accepts the coffee and huffs at her book. "It's like they're trying to make me feel stupid," she complains.
He laughs under his breath, in that way that says "You're so dramatic, Caroline," and "It's okay, I can help." It's not patronizing, really, it's not; it's oddly soothing. She likes it more than she should.
He sits with her and he breaks it all down in a way she can get. He sits so close that when she breathes, not that she needs to, she makes sure to do it deeply, so that her arms touches his each time. His brow furrows when he's in 'help Caroline study' mode and sometimes, when she can't help herself, she reaches over and smooths it out with her fingertips. It usually makes him smile and ask her, "Is it Tuesday?"
She likes that they have inside jokes and that he smiles more now. She thinks maybe leaving Mystic Falls and Elena and Damon and everybody was the best choice they've ever made. She misses them. Sometimes she picks up her phone to text them, tell them something that happened at school, and then she realizes that their lives are all so different now, so separate.
She doesn't know where Elena is. She knows that Bonnie and Jeremy settled in another small town but she doesn't know where or what they're doing. She just knows that they're together and they're happy and she's apparently the only witch in town. She doesn't hear from her often and she makes a point not to say where she is or ask if she's heard from Elena. Even typing her name makes her worry that somehow Stefan will know and that shadow of regret and heartbreak will cloud over him again.
She loves the life she has now. She feels like she doesn't have to look over her shoulder at every turn. Sure, there are probably werewolves and vampires in New York City, but they're not chasing after her and Stefan. They're not out to settle a vendetta or looking for the doppelganger or kidnapping her for the nth time that month. No. It's just her and Stefan and school.
They spend eight years in New York.
She doesn't realize that's how much time has passed, but it has.
Caroline finishes college and starts working with New York's elite as a planner for every kind of event she can think of. She loves every harried second of it, no matter how snooty or demanding her customers are because when it's done, she knows she's pulled off the kind of feat nearly nobody else could. She earns a reputation and her clientele builds and she becomes the most sought after event planner in town. It's only a little bit of problem, she realizes, as with her status comes city-wide recognition, which is why after eight years, she understands that they have to leave and she has to give up her small claim to fame.
Stefan spends the first four years in undergraduate school, another four in medical school. The timing works with her sudden too-big career boost and they move to Seattle for him to do three years of residency. She can't help herself and makes Grey's Anatomy jokes a priority. She also makes him watch it with her and is just a tiny bit proud of herself when he actually starts to really enjoy the melodramatic plot.
"Better on the TV than in real life," he tells her, and she can't agree more.
He teaches her how to cook.
It's a lot of laughing and burned food and, "No, not that much…" and "Uh… What'd you do? That's not supposed to look like that…"
She likes when he stands right behind her and he guides her hand as she chops things and teaches her how to flip pancakes with just the pan and a flick of her wrist the right way. She likes how she gets enveloped in the way he smells and his chest firm against her back.
She thinks this may be why all of her friends think they're dating or at least sleeping together.
When they come over to visit, her girlfriends all talk about how handsome he is, how she's so lucky to see him every day, how they would jump on that ride and never get off. He can hear it all and she's not sure if she's amused or mortified.
He's polite with them and he learns their names and isn't offended when they try and fail to flirt with him. He makes them dinner sometimes and he drags her into the kitchen to help him and she spends most of it looking for ways to get him to touch her and be near her. She's pretty sure it's obvious to everyone but him but she can't stop herself.
She's intoxicated with him.
When all is finished and done, Stefan's a pediatrician.
She tells herself that his stories about the amazing children he works with don't make her chest ache, but they do. She's never realized how much she wants to be a mom until she can't. She hides it by asking him to tell her more, being eager to learn about his job and the kids that he remembers vividly.
She sits at the island with her chin perched on her hand and she watches him as he cooks, moving to and fro, easily chopping up garlic without even looking, adding it to the pot of sauce he has going. He smiles and laughs and tells her, "And then, Joseph…" He shakes his head. "He tells me this story about his brother…"
And she watches, the way his eyebrows move when he's happy and his hand gestures get excited and how he looks at her, with this warmth and joy in his eyes, and she melts.
She melts melts melts.
Because she loves him.
God, she's loved him for so long she can't quite remember a time when she didn't.
She loved him before they left Mystic Falls and when it was time to leave and the time spent on the road that seems like so long ago.
She can still remember Nacho cheese powder on her finger tips and too warm air slipping in the cracked open window and Taylor Swift crooning in the background while she sang along. She can still remember Stefan's fingers twined with hers and a map that leads to nowhere in particular. She remembers pit stops and gas stops and that hitchhiker they picked up one night because Caroline felt bad and Stefan is helpless to her 'please, please, please Stefan.' She remembers the ocean and the desert and the borders of Canada and Mexico.
She remembers dragging Stefan out into the crashing water as she demands, "Say I'm a bird!"
And he shakes his head, laughing at her.
She rushes him and he catches her, because he always does and he always will, and they twirl and the water crashes around them.
He stares up into her eyes, salt water dripping from her lashes, and he laughs, "You're a bird."
"We're birds," she tells him, her arms around his neck.
And when it's over, they walk back to the car, dripping wet, hands knotted together, swinging between them as she skips at his side, wiggling her toes in the sand. He tells her she's a romantic and teases her for the cheesy movies she watches but he's happy and carefree and she thinks being a bird is the best thing they could ever be.
That's the day she stops lying to herself; when admitting she loves him isn't only for the night and the dark. It's fully acknowledged now.
She loved him while she struggled through college and he'd get up in the middle of the night, plucking the pencil from her hair to correct her mistakes or show her an easier way to do things. She remembers lazy weekends when she decided homework was not necessary and she'd make him watch movies with her, either her head or her feet tucked in his lap. She remembers raiding hospitals for blood bags and the many, many times he'd wipe droplets from the corner of her lips with his thumb before sucking it off his own skin.
She remembers watching how he sulked and brooded for so long and how slowly that faded. How he started to smile and laugh again. How that image of Elena no longer seemed to be bitterly burned into his retinas, but instead it faded until it was gone entirely.
She loved him through her years as a planner and all the events she dragged him to. She loved how he always charmed everybody she worked for and talked her up to everybody he met. She loved how he calmed her down when something went wrong or a hitch in her plan caused a hiccup. How he took her hands and made her breathe like she did all those years ago in a crummy bathroom, her mouth ringed in blood and her mascara running. She loved how he'd pull her into a dance and they would just sway until she was ready and composed and could pull a miracle out of thin air.
She remembers drunkenly kissing him one night after she got massively, ridiculously drunk, and he carried her off to bed, tucking her under her covers. She remembers leaning up, her arms around his neck, and she says something incoherent about how pretty he is. She vividly remembers how warm and smooth his lips were and how he simply waited for her to sigh and fall back, head on her pillow. He tucked her arms under the covers and brought them up to her shoulders before he kissed her temple, whispered goodnight, and left. And she felt it on her skin, that 'Oh Caroline,' sigh. That 'You're not the one, I'm sorry,' imprinted from his lips. So she swallowed it down with the burn of her tears and she pretended it never happened. She woke up as his cheerful best friend, who wasn't in love with him, no, not one bit.
Only she was and she feared she always would be.
Always was a long time in her case.
They stay in Seattle for seven and a half years before he decides they should move again.
She thinks it's because one of the boys under his care died.
He refuses to acknowledge that's why.
But she finds him, drinking it all away, angry, wishing he could fix it.
Vampire blood doesn't cure cancer, but she wishes it did.
The boy's name is Phillip. Stefan doesn't tell her directly; she's a snoop, by nature, and she finds out.
Okay, she compelled a nurse, so what. She was worried.
Phillip was small for his age; he had dark hair and blue eyes and for a moment, looking at a picture of him, she thinks he could be a mini-Damon. Only, well, less murder-y.
So she packs up and she follows Stefan, because that's what she does and if he needs this, she'll support him.
She doesn't stop him when he kisses her.
He's drunk and angry and rough.
He pushes her against the wall of the apartment they're leaving behind; the apartment filled with very good memories.
She knows this is about Phillip and failing and the fact that he will live forever but that little boy never got a chance at all.
She lets him kiss her, lets his teeth gnash against hers. She lets his hands grip her hair so tight it draws a wince. And he stops, he buries his head against her shoulder and she feels his tears at her neck, and she strokes his hair and his shoulders and, "Shh… I got you… I know… I know." She kisses his neck, but it's soothing rather than romantic, and she tells herself that her mouth isn't buzzing from the pressure of his. She tries not to wish he hadn't kissed her for another reason entirely.
He eventually stops leaning on her enough that she can maneuver him back. She takes his hand and walks him to his room. She tucks him in like he did her and she wonders as she sits behind him, brushing his hair with her fingers, if in the morning he'll pretend he didn't kiss her, just like she did. He's exhausted, physically and emotionally, and she strokes his temple until he drifts to sleep before climbing off his bed and returning to the living room.
She finishes packing and fills the trailer they rented with their things. When he wakes up in the morning, looking haggard, she offers him a bright grin and hands him a mug of warm blood and tells him that everything's ready to go.
He smiles back gently and kisses her hair before telling her he'll grab a shower before they go.
She tries not to be disappointed but when he's out of sight, her face falls, and she wonders if she'll always just be the best friend.
They spend a few years just jumping from city to city, never really settling down, and she knows it's the ghost of Phillip and the fear of it repeating that keeps him from finding peace anywhere. He struggles and he beats himself up and she has to push and push for him to come out of his shell. She makes him go out with her; she physically drags him away from all of his pity parties. They join book clubs and she makes him help with her event planning duties but she knows he's holding himself back still.
"It's not up to you, you know?" she tells him, watching as he broods in their living room, a glass of bourbon at his elbow. She sits beside him and rests her head on his shoulder. "It's not on your shoulders to save the world."
"I should try though," he argues. "With the abilities I have. There has to be a way to fix things. Things like little boys who just want to grow up and play baseball!"
"Stefan…" She turns and stares at him, taking his face in her hands. "You made a difference." When he opens his mouth, she shakes her head. "Listen to me... You make a difference." She rubs her thumbs over the tears that fall. "You're a good person and you always try, but you can't save everyone… There will always be casualties." She leans up, pressing their foreheads together. "You can't blame yourself for every one."
She's not sure she gets through; she's not sure she can change the way he's always thought.
But one day she finds him looking up houses online and she sees roots; she sees a beginning that won't end as soon as she makes a friend or two. She thinks she sees that he's ready; that he accepts that Phillip is not his fault and there's no changing his fate, but he can't mourn it forever either. He has enough people to mourn as it is.
They move to a small town and she can't help but like it. She joins all the committees and digs her hands into every event they have. It's not long before she's running the show and she's quite proud of that. Stefan opens his own family clinic and Caroline can't help but think it's sweet how they can't walk down the street without one child or another recognizing him… and subsequently asking if he has any suckers or stickers on him. What's even sweeter is that he always does.
The town thinks they're married and neither of them has ever corrected them. Maybe it's the lapis lazuli rings that seem to match or the fact that she always holds his hand when they're out together. It's a habit now and one she doesn't feel like breaking. She doesn't think he does either because half the time, he reaches for her hand first.
He buys a new motorcycle and her favorite nights are the ones where she just sits on the back, her arms wrapped around his waist, her head on his shoulder, watching the world blur as they drive and drive and drive. She tells him she doesn't need a helmet because hat hair, but he gets her a pink one and she smiles every time he plunks it on her head and does the strap for her.
They have a nice house; a two story with more bedrooms than they need, one of which, predictably, becomes his library. She often finds him writing in his journal at the desk he set up. Sometimes her inner snoop begs her to find it and read it, to drink in every word and pick them apart. She wants to know if he writes about her. If he still misses Elena. If he remembers the kiss.
But she doesn't. She doesn't look for it even though whenever she walks past the room her hands twitch. Even though she knows he'll be at work for hours and there's no way he'd catch her.
He trusts her and she doesn't want to break that trust, not for anything, especially not her ego. So she lets him keep his secrets and his journals and she tells herself she's happy with what they have; that it's enough.
It's not enough and she decides she needs to stop.
She needs to be his best friend and not the unrequited love.
"You look nice," he says, looking up from the book perched in his lap. He tugs the ribbon into place so he'll find his page.
She twirls for him. "Right?" She pats her dress down. "I found it on sale. Isn't it pretty?"
It's blue with tiny white flowers embroidered on it. She adds her leather jacket to it and some high-heeled black boots to make it look just a little bolder. She doesn't want to be sweet, innocent Caroline tonight.
Stefan's brow furrows. "Did I forget we had somewhere to be tonight?" he wonders. "Because I wrote down all of the events you have scheduled for the year." He reaches for his planner and she smiles. Because he's such an old man sometimes, he just plain refuses to put any of that stuff into any handheld electronic when he can write it down hardcopy.
"No, don't worry, you're off the hook," she reassures, waving her hand.
Now he's just confused and she decides to put him out of his misery.
She walks to the mirror hanging on the wall and checks her make-up, rubbing her lips together. "I have a date," she announces simply.
She's not expecting a reaction and she's not doing this to get one. She's doing this because it's time for her to move on. She's been in love with Stefan for what could possibly be just about twenty years. They have shared two kisses in that time, both of which involved one of them being drunk, while one was just for comfort. She's not dumb, no matter how many times her hair color brings in jokes.
Stefan doesn't love her how she loves him.
He will be with her for the rest of her life, or at least until the earth finally craters under maltreatment and they eventually die from not having any blood left to consume. Or some big supernatural war breaks out and they become casualties of it. But he won't be anything more than her friend and companion during that time. So she lets go.
And maybe it's stupid, dating a human when she knows it won't work out. But he's really just a stepping stone; he's her first step toward independence. He's her white flag of surrender; her 'I give up' after all her years of pining, hoping, wishing, and lying to herself along the way.
She swallows back the part of her that would much rather lay down on the couch, put her feet in Stefan's lap, and see what's on the E! Network or work on plans for the Christmas festival around the corner. Because she is going on a date. The first one since the few she had in college that were disastrous and boring and always ended in her pretending she had an emergency at home which was really just her rushing back to her apartment to join Stefan for dinner or listening to him read passages from his books to her.
Ugh, she's lame and she never realized how much before.
She hears the car pull up and turns her head toward the front window.
"Why would anyone ask you out?" Stefan suddenly wonders.
And, okay, that hurt.
"Wow, a stake might not have done as much damage as that statement," she declares, turning on her heel to walk away, purse clutched tight in her hand.
"No, Caroline…" he sighs, following after her. "I meant, because everybody thinks we're married… Why would anyone ask you out if they think you have a husband?"
She's standing just short of the door; she can hear her date's footsteps approaching. Stefan is standing on the other end of the hall, brow furrowed, lips pursed, his hands tucked into the pockets of his pants.
"He's new to town, he didn't know, and when he saw my ring, he asked if I was married…" She stares at him. "I told him I wasn't."
And that, she thinks, sounds very heavy.
I'm not married. We're not married. You're not mine and you don't know I'm yours.
His jaw ticks and he turns his eyes away.
There's a knock at the door and Caroline turns her head toward it. "Stefan…"
But when she looks, he's not there anymore.
Sighing, she shakes her head and pulls the door open, greeting her date with a smile.
It's fake, but he doesn't know. He can't tell.
Stefan would have.
The date is easy.
She's charming and funny and he's enthralled. She can see it in his eyes. He hangs on her every word and he laughs automatically when she does. He smiles because she's smiling.
He's handsome and nice and…
He's taller, a little more wiry. He's blonde and his eyes are blue and he kind of vaguely reminds her of Matt.
His lips are thinner than Stefan's and he doesn't have the right kind of eyebrows for brooding. And seriously, when did that even become a requirement?
He travels for work and she can't help but ask him if that's just code for "I have three families and no one knows my real name but me." He laughs and promises her he doesn't have a wife or kids hidden anywhere.
She thinks if she was human and she'd never met Stefan, she could actually really like him.
But she's not and she did and she can't.
He drops her off at the curb and kisses her in the car, his hand on her cheek, fingers reaching into her hair. His lips are firm and he smells woodsy. There's no spark but she doesn't care, maybe it'll grow in time and maybe it won't; she tells him to look her up when he swings through town again. She climbs out of the car with no regrets and walks up the path to her house, with its pretty green lawn and manicured flower beds that she spent hours on in-between work. She lets herself into the house and finds it silent.
Stefan was always the quiet roommate. She was the one who blasted music to all hours of the night, dancing in the living room in her underwear, laughing when he stumbled out of his room, half-asleep, hair in all directions. She made him dance with her until he woke-up, smiling and shaking his head at her antics.
There's a fire going in the living room; she can see it flicking off the hallway wall. She wonders if he fell asleep reading or going over patient files and considers where the throw blanket is to tuck around him.
She slips her boots off and hangs up her jacket before padding silently into the living room to find he isn't where she expects him to be. Her brows furrow; his book is on the table, seemingly still tagged in the place it was when she left. There's a glass and a bottle of bourbon on the end table. Stefan only drinks when he's upset; he tries to avoid it, and with the easy access to blood bags given his job he rarely needs to fight off thirst.
She casts her eyes around but the living room is empty. She turns, going in search of him, and climbs the stairs to the second floor after she finds the dining room and kitchen are dark, the lights turned off. She checks his office and then his bedroom, but he's in neither. The bathroom door is half-closed but there's nobody inside.
It's not until she reaches her room that she finds him, lying on her bed, hands stacked on his stomach, staring at the ceiling.
"Stefan?" She walks inside, lips pursed. "Hey…" She moves to sit on the edge of the bed, looking down at him curiously. "Are you okay?" she wonders, reaching across to touch his forehead even though she knows vampires don't get sick. Twenty years but habits die hard.
He's quiet a long moment and she's getting worried. She strokes his hair back and wonders if she should tell him about her date. Not to boast, but because that's what friends do and she wants to make an effort to be that way. To be Caroline, best friend, not in love with him behind the scenes.
He closes his eyes at her touch and sighs. When he opens them again, he's still not looking at her, but he starts talking. "June 22nd, Caroline and I have been on the road for eight months now. She doesn't complain that we never stop even though I know she hates sleeping in the car and the lack of a good shower or a place to plug in her hairdryer…"
She laughs under her breath, helpless against it, even though she's confused.
"Sometimes I wake up and I look at her and I wonder why she chose me and if she ever regrets it."
His journal. He's reciting his journal.
She blinks, her brows furrowing as she shakes her head. "Stefan—"
"August 9th, I've decided we're going to stop. I can't keep dragging Caroline around with me. She deserves somewhere stable, safe, where she can make friends… I'm going to get her settled and when I'm sure she'll be happy and okay, I'm going to leave. She'll be better off without me holding her back."
Her throat closes up.
"September 3rd, Caroline made me breakfast this morning. I've never known anybody who could burn scrambled eggs, but she managed to… She was so excited, I still ate them. I could see how proud she was in the way she smiled and I didn't want to be the reason that smile ever faded."
Her mouth opens but no words come out.
"September 25th, Caroline's flourishing in college. She's smart and she makes friends so easily. People love being around her. She doesn't even realize it, but she has the brightest soul of any person in any room."
He won't look at her still.
"October 4th, I can't leave her. I need her."
Her hands are shaking.
"December 26th, we shared our first Christmas. We went door-to-door and handed out Christmas cards and candy canes. She tried singing carols but after the third door closed in her face, she quit. She sang them to me instead. I don't think I'll ever tire of her voice."
Her eyes were starting to burn but he wouldn't stop.
He spanned her whole college experience; how proud he was to see her working so hard, how she was doing such an amazing job in school, how Liz would be so happy to see the person she'd become. He wrote about how she struggled sometimes and how he hated it when she doubted herself, that he wished she could see herself the way he did.
He wrote about how she helped him cope with the stress of med school and how coming home to her made things easier, lighter. About how she was getting better at cooking under his steady guidance and how nice it was to come home and see that she'd cooked dinner.
"April 12th, I don't think it's the apartment that's home, or Mystic Falls, or anywhere I've ever been before. I think it's Caroline."
He wrote about the day she kissed him.
"May 13th, Caroline kissed me tonight. She was drunk and laughing and beautiful. When her lips touched mine I felt like I was alive for the first time in years. I just wish she wasn't drunk when it happened."
"May 14th, She doesn't remember. I don't know if I should be relieved or not. I don't know what I'm feeling, but it was something. I think I lost her before I had her."
He wrote about the day he kissed her.
"January 11th, I was desperate. I was angry and hurt and I needed to stop feeling that way. The only person who has ever made me feel better, who's ever pulled me out of that, was Caroline. It was reckless and I wasn't thinking. All I wanted was to stop thinking of Phillip wasting away, of his parents crying and begging for some way to save him. I kissed Caroline and for a moment, it really was okay. Because I had her. I had her and I always would. I would have her forever. But when I pulled back, I remembered that Phillip had no one and his parents didn't have Phillip and it was too much. Caroline did what she always does. Took care of me. I pretended I didn't remember but I fear I'll never forget."
He even wrote about the day he knew he was in love with her.
"May 17th, Somebody asked me how my wife and I liked the town… It never occurred to me to correct them. I'm not sure when exactly it happened but Caroline has become such a necessary part of my life and me that she is an extension of it. I'm in love with her. I can't even remember when I wasn't. I can't remember when I didn't reach for her hand or smile when she laughed or wait, every morning, to hear her footsteps as she walks down the stairs. I can't remember not feeling like my day begins and ends with seeing her. And I want her. I want her in a way that physically aches. But we've been here, together, for twenty years, and I'm afraid that my feelings are not the same as hers… She is my best friend. She is everything I hold dear in this life. I cannot risk losing her."
And the last entry, written shortly after she left.
"December 3rd, She went on a date tonight. I was taken off guard. I don't know why. She's beautiful and charming and she stills looks young and alive and why wouldn't someone ask her out? I just didn't think she'd say yes… She's on a date and the only think I can think of is tearing out this anonymous man's larynx with my teeth. The idea that he's touching her, that he's making her laugh and smile, that he might even kiss her… I hate that I took this long. I hate that I never said anything. What if she falls in love? What if she moves on and away and I become a distant memory? What if I missed my chance?"
She's not sure when they started falling, but she swipes at the tears that are slipping down her cheeks. She can't speak for a long moment; her throat is tight and burning and she's not even sure what she wants to say.
He sits up and he takes her face in his hands; he wipes at her tears with his thumbs, expertly, like he has many times in the past.
"Caroline," he begins.
She shakes her head and he winces, his eyes falling closed. "I think you've said plenty," she says, her voice thick.
He laughs humorlessly under his breath.
"September 8th, 2009," she says. "There's a new boy at school. Stefan Salvatore. He's handsome and mysterious and if I don't get anything else but this, I'll take it."
She swallowed tightly.
"September 9th, He wants Elena. Of course he does." She laughs, rolling her eyes. "Who doesn't?"
"February 20th, I killed a man today. I took his life and Damon nearly took mine. Stefan saved me. Stefan promised he wouldn't let anything happen to me." She stared up at him. "I trust him."
He brushed her hair back from where it clung to her tear-wet cheeks, tucking it behind her ears. Her eyes searched his face.
"Every day up to present date…" She shakes her head. "I shouldn't be in love with Stefan, but I am. I should stop but I can't. Everything he does, everything he says, the way he smiles, how his eyes crinkle at the corners…" She reached up and touched the corner of his eye with her fingertips. "He's so helpful and warm and nice and caring and I would happily spend every year of my undead life next to him."
Her breath leaves her on a heavy shudder. "I picked him because I will always pick him. I will always love him. He will always be my best friend in this entire world…" Her brows hiked meaningfully. "But I went on this date because I didn't think he'd e-ever see me as anything other than faithful, loyal, friend Caroline and I can't…" Her voice broke on a sob. "I can't be in love with him and not have him. I'm selfish and I want all of it. I want all of him all to myself. I—" She squeezed her eyes shut.
"It's not selfish," Stefan tells her, his forehead pressed to hers. "We'll have all of it." He nods, making her nod with him. "All of it," he promises, and then his lips are on hers.
They're warm and salty, but she thinks that's from her own tears still clinging as their mouths slant and her tongue dabs at his lips and the roof of his mouth and flicks at his teeth and drags over his tongue. He's not drunk and she's not drunk and he tastes like heat and blood and freedom and friendship and love and passion and half of these things aren't even tastes, they're just the feelings he evokes when he's got his hands buried in her hair and his lips are nearly bruising with their intensity.
They fall back on the bed and then it's just a shuffle of clothing and wandering hands and she briefly wonders how long it's been since she's had sex. She goes with 'too long' because just his lips on her skin feel like they might set her off. He drags her dress off and nearly tears it; she thinks that has more to do with the fact that she wore it on a date with someone else than it does passion.
His fingers are crooked around the sides of her underwear while his mouth works its way over her stomach, all teeth and lips and tongue. She undoes her bra and throws it far away; she doesn't plan on wearing anything for a long while. They have a lot of lost time to make up for.
His fingers dig into her hips as his mouth wanders up to wrap around a nipple, tugging with sharp teeth and stretching his tongue over puckered flesh. She grips the hair at the nape of his neck and arches into his mouth. He shoves her underwear down and out of the way and palms her cunt, his thumb rubbing her clit, hard and fast. She slips over the edge so abruptly, she scrapes her nails down his neck and comes with a cracked cry.
He pauses momentarily, looks up at her with his brows raised in surprise.
"Shut up, it's been a while," she tells him, rolling her eyes.
He chuckles, resting his chin on her boob, and she can't help but think things are comfortable. Not in a boring way, but easily intimate. She brushes her fingers over his hair and down behind his ear and she likes it. She likes that she doesn't feel uncomfortable with him; doesn't feel insecure about her body or like she has to compare herself to whoever else he's been with over his lifetime.
His fingers slid inside her, slow and deep, curling, and he moves his mouth to her ignored nipple, letting his fangs play with it, around it, scraping against her skin. She doesn't climax as fast this time, but getting there is half the fun. He replaces his fingers with his mouth and his tongue is educated; he knows how to make her scream and whimper and beg him for release. He's licking, licking, sucking, and he shows her the edge only to bring her back from it. So close, so close. And his hands grip her thighs and squeeze, holding them apart as he keeps going going going until she's pressing herself up against him and whispering "Pleasepleaseplease." He laughs and kisses his way down her slit, making her twist and arch and reach for him, desperate and half out of her mind.
She draws blood, nails digging into his shoulders, when he finally lets her get off.
She returns the favor, with her hands and her mouth; she explores every exposed inch of skin, from his temples to his toes. He's beautiful and hard and she molds her fingers to the shape of his shoulder blades and fits her palms over the plains of his chest. She lets her teeth and her tongue lick and bite everywhere, occasionally drawing blood, watching as the muscles play under his skin as he arches into the sharp scrape of her teeth. She sucks at his lips as her hand twists and strokes his cock, her other hand pinning his wrists above his head. And when she's ready, when she's sure he's as worked up as he got her, she sinks down to her knees and slides her mouth down the length of him. His fingers tangle in her hair and he comes panting her name through grit teeth.
After that, it's a tangle of limbs; she's kissing and biting and he's squeezing and rubbing everywhere he can reach. Finally, he's inside her and she's gasping, her head thrown back. She's sitting in his lap, her arms around his neck and he's guiding her hips, biting at her chest and licking at the blood that beads before her skin fades back to perfect, healed.
She's fairly sure the first three times they do it is just out-of-their-minds fucking; they have twenty years to catch up on. He's rough one minute and gentle the next and his thumb is heavy on her clit as he pounds into her. At one point they're against the wall and the next she's perched on the edge of her end table and then he's got her bent over the bed, her hand gripping the blanket as he takes her from behind, his hands soothingly massaging her back.
The fourth time is slow; it's morning and they're both tired and there's empty blood bags laying on the bed, spilling here or there. She's licking blood from his skin, where she poured it, nipping lightly at his skin, not quite enough to break it but enough to sting a little. He sucks the blood off her lips and her chin and her fingers as he slides inside her. He kisses her nice and long, no need to stop for air, as he sinks inside of her and their hands tangle on the bed above her head, sticky with drying blood.
He makes love to her in a haze of bliss. They move together like practiced lovers, anticipating some moves and laughing lightheartedly when things aren't perfect. Her bedspread is destroyed; there's no way that blood's coming out. But she likes it. She likes that here they are real, they're themselves. They're not human, they're vampires, and that plays a part in everything. Because they do have forever. Their time on earth could be endless and why waste any of it? They're at their happiest when they're together and this will only add something more to it.
Later, when they lay in her bed with the afternoon sun creeping in, he plays with her fingers as she lays her head on his chest.
"December 4th," he marvels. "She loves me back. I think we destroyed her sheets celebrating. Definitely worth it."
She laughs, closing her eyes as he kisses her hair.
She feels weightless and she never wants it to change.
When her one-time date comes back around, Stefan answers the phone. "Caroline's married," is all he says.
A dial tone replies.
It's not official, there was never a ceremony, but she thinks she's been his wife since college.
He makes it official a week after they leave their sleepy town and three years after they first started dating.
He takes her to the beach that she made him act out the part of The Notebook.
They're walking through the surf, hands knotted together, when he tells her, "I have another ring I want you to have… There's a specific finger it's supposed to go on."
She says yes before he can actually form the question and he laughs because she's eager and she's Caroline and he expects no less.
They get married in New York because she feels like that's where it really began.
They don't stay there, though. They find a house that overlooks the ocean and she wakes up to the salty breeze every morning. She teases that it's all an excuse to see her in a bikini but she loves it.
She loves him and their life together and the matching rings that fit on their fingers.
When they see Damon and Elena again, they're visiting Venice.
Stefan likes to return once every few years; he says it makes him feel in touch with his Italian roots.
Caroline spots them first; they're sitting at a table outside of a café. Elena looks like she always has; gorgeous, flawless, perfect. She's laughing, her head falling back, dark hair sifting over her shoulders, and Damon is smiling at her in that lovesick, devoted way he always has.
She turns to Stefan; part of her wants to turn them away, walk in the other direction, avoid what's coming. Another part wants to know how he'll react in seeing his precious Elena for the first time in thirty years. If there's a subject they never talk about, it's sitting in front of them.
Stefan spots them and a genuinely affectionate smile pulls at his lips. He squeezes Caroline's hand and looks at her. "You want to say hello?" he asks.
She appreciates that he doesn't just make the decision, even though that's his brother. His brother and who he once thought would be the love of his life. She nods and now it's not because she wants to know his reaction to Elena, it's because he deserves to reunite with Damon. Despite everything, that is his brother and family goes deeper than anything else.
Elena sees them first and Caroline can hear her exclamation from a mile away.
"Oh my God! Caroline!" She leaps from her chair and rushes toward them, throwing her arms out and wrapping them around her in a tight hug, nearly taking her off her feet.
Caroline hugs her back, fiercely, more so than she expected, but in that moment, as tears bite her eyes, she realizes that no matter what the history, she loved and missed Elena.
Elena's wiping away her own tears as she steps back but she's laughing still, giddy with the reunion. "Damon," she says, but stops, because he's right beside her in a flash, his arm falling naturally around her waist.
"Brother," he greets, staring at Stefan, searching for anger or hatred or some sign that things are still rocky.
But Stefan grins, reaches for him, pulls him in for a one-armed hug that has him clapping Damon's back hard with affection.
Caroline thinks she sees honest to God relief spread over Damon's face as he sinks into the hug for a moment before returning to his usual self.
As they take a step back from each other, Damon looks to his left and his brows rise. "You're still around, Blondie."
"Every step of the way," Stefan says, his voice heavy with adoration as he turns to look at her.
She takes his hand and squeezes and Elena's gaze drops. "Are those…?" She smiles brightly. "You're married!" she exclaims.
"You're married," Damon repeats, his eyes wide.
"Seven years," Stefan reports, nodding simply.
"What about you guys?" Caroline wonders curiously.
Damon flashed his hand, wedding band present. "Twenty… five years," he says, brows furrowed.
Elena rolls her eyes and slaps his arm. "It's twenty-six and he knows it, he just chooses to pretend he doesn't."
"There is a lot to remember," Damon argues, giving Stefan a 'what can you do? Women, right?' look.
Stefan's hand releases hers to slide up her back, settling at the nape of her neck and kneading it gently.
"How long are you guys here? Or did you set down roots?" Damon queries.
"Just visiting," he answers with a shrug. "We should have dinner, catch up."
And Caroline smiles, because Damon is eager. He's happy to have his brother back in his life, even if it might only be for a night or two.
"Here. There's this great place we just went to," Elena says before she pulls out a pen and walks a few feet away, using the wall of a building to smooth out a receipt, and writes down the address, handing it to Caroline. "How's seven sound?"
Caroline nods. "Sure, seven's great."
Elena takes her hands then and squeezes before letting out an excited noise. "I'm so happy we ran into you…" She stares at her sincerely. "It's been too long, Car…" She shakes her head. "I know we all agreed that it'd be best to go our own ways and try to find happiness, but I never expected it to be this long."
Her smile is light. "I know. I don't think any of us did. There's just… A lot has happened, you know?" She raises her eyebrows. "Really! We have so much to catch up on."
She grins and pulls her in for another hug. "Promise me we'll stay in touch this time," she half-asks, half-demands.
Caroline pats her back and closes her eyes. "We will."
As she draws away, she only has one last thing to ask, "Are you happy?" She searches her eyes for the honest answer.
A few feet away, Caroline can hear Damon asking Stefan his own version of the question.
"Vampire Barbie, really?"
Stefan ducks his head a little before turning to look at her, half-smiling in that lazy way that tells her everything she ever needs to know about how he feels about her.
"She's a bird," he says, though he knows Damon won't get it.
She smiles, a breathless laugh escaping her, and her eyes tear up a little. When she looks back to Elena, she answers, "Happy doesn't even cover it."
They walk through Venice like it's their first time there even though they've been many, many times in the past. He's always touching her; holding her hand, his arm around her shoulder or her waist, his fingers tangled in her hair, thumb stroking her neck.
They have a few hours before they meet back up with Elena and Damon and trade their stories of what's been going on for the last thirty years. They wander in and out of stores and follow groups of tourists on occasion, though they don't take pictures themselves. They have no need to. They can and will return; they always do.
She leans into his side. "Are you happy we ran into them?" she wonders as they walk back toward their hotel, where she knows they'll share a shower and get distracted with each other and probably be late for dinner.
"It's been a while," he says. "We should've looked for them earlier."
She hums. "They looked happy."
He turns his head down to see her. "Damon was always who Elena was supposed to be with," he tells her. "I didn't get it when it was happening. I didn't understand what that meant or how much she really meant to him… How good she was for him…" He shakes his head. "I'm glad it happened the way it did. I'm glad he has her…" He strokes her hair and kisses her forehead. "I'm even more glad that I have you."
"Yeah?" she asks, her old insecurities peeking through against her will.
"Caroline, I wouldn't trade you for a million Elena's."
He says it with such sincere conviction that she knows it's true.
She wraps her arms around his waist and smiles. "About what we were talking about before we saw them…"
"You mean adoption," he reminds with a grin.
Her brows hike and she meets his eyes. "Yes."
He pauses and looks down at her searchingly.
She nods. "Let's adopt. We'll figure out the rest as we go."
He kisses her, in the middle of a busy street in Venice, with the promise of dinner with the past and a child in their future. He kisses her and she knows that thirty years ago she picked the right side. It wasn't always easy and it took them far too long to figure out their mutual feelings, but it was all worth it in the end.
They adopt a little girl and name her June. They let her decide when she's old enough if she wants to turn.
They even keep in touch with Elena and Damon, because those ghosts no longer haunt them.
And they live happily ever after in a way she'd hoped for as a child, forgotten about as a teenager, and believed in again as a thirty-seven year old vampire who could still easily pass as the seventeen year old girl she once was. Only that girl was lost and hurt and desperate for any kind of love, while the woman she became was grounded and healed and in love with the right man for the right reasons.
"Every day, always," he whispers into her hair. "I love you."
She smiles and traces the tattoo on his chest, where his unbeating heart lay; an etching of two birds, blue as the ocean, the tips of their wings forever touching.
And she knows.
She knows she knows she knows.
He does, he will.
Forever is a long time, and she spends it all with him.