Title: Won't You Dance with Me, Lover of My Soul? (To the Song of all Songs)
Category: The Vampire Diaries
Chapter Rating: Teen
Overall Rating: NC-17/Explicit
Word Count: 17,635
Summary: [Three-Parts] A journey toward 'someday.' Stefan moves on and falls madly in love without even knowing it.
The sun was setting, casting a muted glow over the sleepy town around them. It was quiet; though, if she tried, she was sure she could hear more. The voices not far off, laughter reaching a crescendo at Mystic Grill, the heartbeats of entwined lovers as they walked through the square, the bustle of cars driving down this road or that. But she didn't extend her ears, didn't search for life outside of the twosome they made, walking side by side, footsteps falling in tune with each other.
They had taken to doing this more often lately. Life had settled down in Mystic Falls, no danger lurking around every corner, and so they walked to fill up the empty time and space. No destination in mind really, just fidgety feet, needing to move.
"We can't stay here," he declared, with all the honest finality she expected of him.
She'd been waiting for this, really. It was only a matter of time.
Elena had left several months ago, stating that she needed a change of scenery if she was ever truly going to get over everything that had happened. She needed to find herself again and she couldn't do it in a place that only ever seemed to drag her down.
Bonnie had followed in her footsteps, though not in the same direction. She'd taken Jeremy with her and searched for somewhere they would be safe, where they wouldn't have to fear the supernatural destroying their lives.
Three months later, Matt had packed his things and decided he needed a break from Mystic Falls too; he'd decided to go back-packing across Europe. While she had worried and fussed, Caroline was reassured by Matt's smile, his easy acceptance that life would be different now and he had to grab hold of it and shape it to what he wanted.
Damon had left too, but they weren't sure where. After Elena's departure, he'd sunk into a depression, heavily encouraged by his drinking habits. And then, one morning, he just wasn't there anymore. He'd left the boarding house without an explanation and hadn't contacted them since.
It was just Stefan and Caroline now, the only two who remained from their group.
Caroline was trapped between finding comfort in the familiarity of Mystic Falls and the desire to be elsewhere, to know more than just the small town that had been filled with nothing but death and loss these last few years. She recognized that the others had made the right choice; getting out was good for them.
Bonnie called and emailed and reassured her that she was happy, that she and Jeremy were settling elsewhere, that there hadn't been any unusual events that might tip the weird scale against them.
Matt sent postcards, posted updates and pictures on Facebook, and texted often. He was happy, Caroline could tell. His smile had only grown and the weariness around his eyes had faded. He was free, he was better off outside of Mystic Falls, and she was happy for him.
They didn't hear from Elena or Damon, but Caroline thought, she hoped, they were doing okay. She wouldn't be surprised to find they were together but, given how certain Elena had been that she needed to be alone, she doubted it.
"Do you think you'll miss it?" she wondered, tucking her hands in the back pockets of her jeans as she turned her head to consider Stefan.
He cast his eyes around, brow furrowed, and took in the familiar landscape. The tree boughs hung heavy under thick, green leaves. The sky was a bright, cloudless blue. The air was cool, and the scent of blooming flowers passed faintly.
"Despite everything… it's home."
She nodded. Regardless of all that had happened, she had grown up here, and maybe it wasn't the town itself but the people that had come looking to destroy it. She had a lot of good memories in Mystic Falls; it was just the last few years that had eclipsed them with so many awful things. Things she never wanted to see again, things she was happy to have avoided this long. But perhaps staying in Mystic Falls meant living on a countdown. It was safe for now, but how long until it got bad again? Maybe if they left, everything supernatural and evil would leave too. And then, when she returned, it would be the home she wanted it to be again.
Besides, hadn't she always wanted to get out? Hadn't that been her dream back when Mystic Falls was just a tiny town that offered little to her in way of excitement? It had certainly filled more than its quota for that but it was never what she wanted. Now, she had the whole world waiting for her outside city limits and this was an opportunity to see it. Before, it had been a dream, a hope, and now reality was waiting for her.
"So where do we go?"
"Where do you want to go?" He turned to look at her, his lips curled in a faint smile. "You have the world at your disposal, Caroline… Say the word, we'll go there."
She eyed him thoughtfully before taking a few steps forward, trying for nonchalant as she asked, "And you'll be there the whole time…? You won't pull a Damon and leave me in the middle of the night? No warning or note or anything?" She wasn't sure she was hiding her anxiety well. They were the last two and, while Caroline had learned to adapt to a lot, she didn't want to lose him too.
His eyes fell, a muscle ticking in his jaw. He considered her concerns for a long moment before he reached for elbow, turning her so she faced him. "I'm tired of trying to do this alone," he admitted. "If there's anything I've learned it's how important it is to keep those I care about close… So, for as long as you'll have me, I'll be here."
She grinned then, her eyes softening. "Good, because I wasn't looking forward to being on my own. I'm a social creature! I like company."
He chuckled under his breath. "I've noticed."
She bumped his shoulder then, rolling her eyes. "Come on… Let's do some research, see what's out there… Maybe there's a road trip ahead of us. Or, ooh, we could pull a Matt and see how backpacking fits."
His lips folded in a knowing frown. "Somehow I can't see you sleeping in a hostel."
She gave an exaggerated shudder. "Okay, point taken. Sawthat movie, totally not looking for that in my life."
Smothering his urge to laugh, he waved an arm forward for her to walk ahead, set on going back to the boarding house.
As they made their way to his place, Caroline entertained him with a constant buzz of chatter, telling him about all the places she'd wanted to go as a child, most of them well-known cities all over Europe; Paris, London, Rome. She loved the idea of being a tourist, of exploring cities and taking pictures and having no real set destination. He walked beside her, arms crossed behind his back, smiling as she became more and more animated with each place she thought they could visit.
When they reached the boarding house that night, Caroline immediately made her way upstairs to his bedroom, taking a seat at his desk and loading his laptop eagerly. Stefan grabbed a few blood bags from downstairs before joining her, all the while wondering to himself just how long they would be away. If time would pass quickly, or slow and leisurely. He was happy to get away, to put Mystic Falls behind him for a while. It had been too long since he was able to relax completely, to go on an adventure like traveling without the pressures of being hunted or solving the next murder mystery that cropped up.
Stefan had the kind of income at his disposal that could take them anywhere, and he was fully prepared to do just that. Standing beside his desk, he watched as Caroline lit up while she looked through tourist logs, visiting sites with the top 10 places everyone should see in their lifetime. She researched each city she really wanted to see and then wrote down the best places to visit, like the Louvre, the canals of Venice, Sistine Chapel, the coliseum, and Stonehenge.
Looking at the screen over her shoulder, he nodded at her long list. "Book the flight," he told her simply.
Her brow furrowed. "To which one?" She looked up at him, her brows hiked. "There's so many, Stefan."
"Any of them. All of them."
She blinked, her brows hiking. "You're serious…?"
She stared at him a long moment, considering the situation, what all had happened, what it meant for them to do this, and, finally, she said, "Okay."
It was settled.
Two days later, Caroline stood on the porch of her childhood home, saying goodbye to her mother. A strong breeze blew past, rustling the trees, blowing a few leaves from their branches, and making the chains of the porch swing jangle. Her luggage was piled up next to her, just short of the two short, brick steps that met the cement path leading to the curb.
"I promise," Caroline emphasized, holding her mom by the shoulders and smiling at her encouragingly. "My phone will always be charged, you can call me any time. And I'll send postcards! And we'll email and text and everything, okay?"
Liz frowned, but nodded. "Don't get me wrong. I'm happy for you. I think it's great that you're getting out, seeing the world, but…" She stared at her searchingly. "It's so abrupt, and you don't even know where you'll be in one, two, three weeks…"
"That's the best part! We get to explore as long as we want. Maybe we'll get bored and want to move on." She shrugged. "All I know is I'm finally getting out of here, I'm finally seeing the world…"
Helpless to her daughter's excitement, Liz nodded, smiling. "Okay… Okay, as long as you're excited."
"I am." She laughed joyfully then and pulled her mom in for another hug, the third she'd given her in the last hour. She didn't let go until she heard Stefan's car pull up to the curb, and even then she simply stepped to the side, watching him walk up to her house, half-smiling.
He nodded his head in a hello to Liz before he pointed at the suitcases by Caroline's feet. "Is this everything?"
"Yes," she said, bending to grab them. "I can carry them. Is the trunk unlocked?"
He took them from her hands, shaking his head. "It's fine. I've got it." He walked them down to his car and Caroline couldn't help but appreciate that he understood how hard it was for her to say goodbye and that she didn't want to waste even a second of it. Yes, she was looking forward to this trip and she'd wanted out of Mystic Falls for a while, but she still felt sad about leaving her mom. And worse, with everything that had happened over the last few years, she couldn't help but worry that she wouldn't be there to keep Liz safe.
"I'm not Sheriff for nothing," her mother said, as if reading her mind. "I knew about vampires long before you did, remember?" She grinned up at her. "I can handle myself, Caroline… And besides, it's not up to you to keep me safe."
"I know, but… Some things are stronger than a gun… They don't slow down because you shoot them."
"Things have been quiet lately," she reassured before turning to face her. "Listen, I know you're worried, but your life doesn't need to be put on hold… This is a great opportunity for you. You've always wanted this, remember?"
"Of course, I just… I worry."
"Well don't." Liz took her hands and squeezed them. "Just call and email and take tons of pictures, okay? And when you get back, you'll see that everything was fine."
Caroline gnawed at her lip, but she nodded. "Okay. Well… I guess this is goodbye, for now…"
Liz pulled her in for another hug, squeezing her tight, running a hand down her hair affectionately. "Be safe over there… And have fun."
"I love you."
"Love you too, Mom."
With a heavy sigh, Liz finally stood back, smiling sadly before she brushed Caroline's hair back from her face.
Nodding, she turned and started toward the car.
"Call me when you get there," Liz told her.
"And maybe when you get on the airplane."
"Are sure you have everything?"
"Yes, Mom," she assured as she climbed into the car.
Liz bit her lip, but nodded, trying to let them go.
Stefan closed the door to Caroline's side and was about to circle the car when Liz called for him.
He walked back to her, smiling understandingly.
"I know she's strong and she doesn't need it, she's capable and smart and a lot more resourceful than I give her credit for, but…" She swallowed tightly. "Just promise me you'll keep her safe."
He nodded. "Always."
She stared at him searchingly before finally nodding. "Okay." She reached out and rubbed his arm. "You too, Stefan… You've been a great friend to Caroline and, a lot has happened but… I trust you, and I want you to be okay too."
His expression softened. "Thank you."
Caroline rolled down the window then. "Mom, I love you, but we really have to go."
Stefan laughed under his breath.
"Okay, okay. Go." Liz shooed them off and stood back, putting on a stoic face even though her smile was wavering and her concern shone clearly in her eyes.
Stefan joined Caroline in the car and looked at her. "Ready?"
"I think so." She turned her head out the window and waved.
Stefan honked as they pulled away.
Liz walked down the path, waving after them, watching them until they were out of sight.
The drive to the airport was filled mostly with the radio, and Caroline's occasional singing along. It wasn't until they were sitting in first class, en route to London, that she said what had been on her mind since they pulled away from her house.
"We're really doing this…" Her voice was low with shock.
Stefan grinned at her, reaching over to squeeze her hand. "We really are."
She knotted their fingers and smiled. "Thank you," she murmured sincerely.
He shook his head. "We're doing this together. You're doing me a favor by being here with me."
"You say that now…" Her brows arched. "You're going to regret it when I get distracted with all the pretty things they sell and make you go shopping."
He laughed, his head falling back, and turned a fond smile on her. "I think I'll survive."
Caroline leaned over and pressed her head to his shoulder. "I think we're doing the right thing."
He nodded. "We are."
Arriving in London, for Caroline, was both exhilarating and terrifying. This was her first taste of freedom and she wasn't sure what she wanted to do first. They had planned to spend two weeks and she suddenly felt the time restraint like a noose. She wanted to know and see everything London had to offer.
"Overwhelmed?" Stefan asked, resting their luggage on the ground next to his feet.
She laughed breathlessly. "Is it that obvious?"
He merely grinned reassuringly. "Why don't we head to the hotel first? We'll figure out where we want to go from there."
She nodded, glad that he was taking charge. It was usually her who had everything planned to a T, so it was nice to hand the reins over to someone else for once. She was sure she'd get back her 'control freak' streak soon, but for now, he was much more adept at traveling than she was, and she would let him take the lead.
Seeing as it was already quite late, they decided to have dinner and save the exploring for the following morning.
As they sat in her suite, a room service cart by their table, Caroline was already quick to make suggestions. "So obviously we're going to see Big Ben and the Eye and all of that, but would it be too much to get some shopping done, first thing?"
He grinned, raising an eyebrow. "You have the whole of London to tour around and your first thought is shopping?"
Caroline rolled her eyes. "We have two weeks, right? So why not get it out of the way?" She bounced in her seat and pouted her lips. "Please? Come on, we'll get you an I-heart-London shirt!"
Shaking his head in amusement, he said, "Whatever you want. Shopping it is."
"Yay!" She clapped her hands together happily.
The following morning, with the patience of a saint, Stefan sat on a cushy, red velvet couch, tapping his fingers against his knee as he waited for her. This was the fourth store they'd visited since they left their hotel this morning. All the rest, however, hadn't carried anything that caught her eye, so they'd quickly been dismissed. The opposite was true of this store.
Caroline had gone into one of the dressing rooms with her arms filled to the brim with clothing of every color under the sun. He could hear her muttering to herself over what she didn't like, tossing it over the door to be taken away by a sales person. She whittled them down to her favorites before opening the door to show them off to him. From sundresses to cute skirts, silk blouses to comfortable jeans, she twirled for him, smiling brighter with each find. He nodded encouragingly with every outfit, laughing when she came out wearing a huge, floppy, straw hat with a particularly nice yellow dress, tipping the brim at him as she winked.
Finally, she walked out of the dressing room in the clothes she arrived in, and let out a long sigh. "Lunch?"
He stood, nodding, and they walked to the front to pay for her many purchases before going for lunch down the street, bags swinging at their sides.
She wore the straw hat; she quite liked it.
If he was being honest, it looked cute on her, a throwback to summer days in the Virginia heat when he was human. He could imagine her in the bright green yard of the Salvatore plantation house, sitting with the other women of Mystic Falls, wearing dainty gloves and protecting her fair skin from the sun with her large hat or a pretty parasol. She would have fit right in back then.
After shopping and lunch, they headed back to her hotel suite to work out a more defined plan for their trip.
"We could just take it day by day, but we'll probably end up missing out on a lot of what we wanted to do or spending more time here than we originally planned," Caroline told him, as she gathered up her felts and her day planner. "So I'm thinking, maybe we'll each make a list of our top places to visit and I'll go online, find out all the times they're open, and plan it all out for us." She grinned up at him excitedly. "What do you think?"
"Are you going to make a pie chart too?" he teased.
Sticking her tongue out at him, she shook her head. "Just for that I'm adding another two shopping trips…"
"Okay, okay…" He laughed, holding his hands up in surrender. "I'll make a list."
Pleased, she handed him a sheet of paper and a pen. "Thank you."
Between their two lists, a number of places were the same, including Piccadilly Square, Big Ben, the museums, and Buckingham Palace. Caroline was the only one who wanted to visit Madame Tussauds, but she convinced Stefan he would enjoy it, so she added it to their final list. With her colored markers and the help of the internet, she was able to plan out their next two weeks in a flexible schedule so they could fit everything in. She didn't want to get military style stiff about everything; she wanted them to have fun, and she didn't want her inner-control freak to ruin it for them.
It turned out two weeks was just enough time. They managed to see everything, just as planned, and had a great time doing it, even if Stefan thought he might have gone temporarily blind from the flash of the camera Caroline brought with her everywhere. Despite his reticence, he even enjoyed Madame Tussauds, or, at least, Caroline's critiquing eye as she picked apart each celebrity with her large pop culture knowledgebase. He didn't even mind when Caroline convinced him to go shopping a few more times, going so far as to buy an I-heart-London shirt at her suggestion.
His favorite part of their trip didn't come until their last day though, when they found themselves on the London Eye. It was a 30-minute trip overall and they booked ahead, each enjoying a tall glass of Pommery Brut Royal champagne as they looked out on the scenery, lit by the setting sun. They stared out at the South Bank of the Thames, with Caroline nearly pressed up against the glass of the egg-shaped capsule they rode in.
"It's beautiful," she told him, pressing a hand against the glass, her other holding a flute of champagne.
He watched her, the onset of dusk sending shadows over her face. She was wearing one of the dresses they'd bought in town; a pale blue number that made her eyes pop and her skin seem powder soft.
She glanced at him and he cast his eyes away, raising his champagne to take a sip. "It is," he agreed.
For a half hour, they moved around the capsule, taking in the broad view of London from above. He pulled her into a dance as music played over the speakers and she giggled as he dipped her back. All the while, Caroline eagerly took out her camera and took pictures, making him pose for her, his champagne raised.
She never uploaded them to Facebook or sent them to their friends or Liz, and when he asked her why she took so many, the answer was simple. "Memories." She leaned into his side as the sun finally set and the lights inside the capsule lit up to accommodate it. "I don't want to forget anything… Fifty, a hundred, a thousand years from now, I want to remember this. Not because I won't come back, because I probably will, but I want to remember the first time I experienced it. I want to remember what it was like when it was new to me."
He stared at her thoughtfully before turning his eyes out at the dark landscape. He'd never quite thought of it like that, but she was right. Sure, he could revisit these places; he could come back here any time. There was no rush. But that first time, that rush of exhilaration at exploring something new, it was unique. He smiled then, because these memories, these first times, would be shared with her. And there was something comforting about that.
He clinked his glass with hers and let himself enjoy it, taking in every shadow, every building top, every noise and smell. And he promised he would continue to do so for the rest of their travels.
Next they went to Paris for a few weeks.
Still a little jetlagged from the flight, Stefan quickly found himself lying across his bed in their newly rented hotel suite. With his legs crossed at the ankle and an arm tucked behind is head, he simply laughed when an eager Caroline held up her day planner, a sheet of paper, and her bag of markers. When he nodded agreeably, she happily jumped onto the bed next to him, making herself comfortable on her stomach, and handed him his paper before she got to work on hers.
Just like in London, they each made their lists of where they wanted to go. Caroline put check marks beside each of the doubles, putting them at the top of the list for must-see sites. Stefan grinned as Caroline got to work; in full planning mode, she sat at his laptop, muttering to herself as she checked times and put together a color coded schedule they could follow.
They took the night off, but by the following morning they were in full tourist mode. For the next three weeks, they visited museums like the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay, they posed outside the Eiffel Tower, admired the gothic beauty of Notre Dame Cathedral, stood under the Arc de Triomphe, and took a boat tour on the Siene River.
Ironically enough, in their second week, they thought it only fitting to walk through Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, referred to by those in Paris as 'la cite des morts,' or 'the city of the dead.' For a better experience, they went later in the afternoon, giving the cemetery a darker glow. A cool breeze rustled the trees, the leaves and branches crowding together above their heads like eerie, reaching fingers. They followed the winding paths, reading names and dates off the tombstones, some of them faded or crumbling from age, others in surprisingly good condition, with moss creeping in around the edges.
"This is morbid," she told him, hugging her jacket a little tighter around her.
Stefan shrugged. "I like it."
Reaching over, she shoved his shoulder lightly.
He chuckled under his breath and caught her hand as it fell, tangling their fingers and pulling her into his side. "Death is supposed to fascinate us."
Her nose wrinkled. "I'm pretty sure it's supposed to scare us."
He shook his head. "Death is the end, yes, but it's not always terrible…" He looked over the headstones and paused on two, pointing to them in the distance. "You see them?"
She squinted, reading them off to him for confirmation.
"They were married, probably spent decades together. Had children, grew old, had a whole life. And when the adventure was over, when their kids were grown and they'd experienced everything they could, it was time to go."
Slipping an arm around his waist, she turned to look at him, her brow furrowed thoughtfully. "We don't grow old, Stefan… We have an eternity to do everything we could ever want…"
"But that's just it." He looked at her. "Their time was limited and they still probably accomplished more than we ever could. They fell in love, they had kids, grandkids, they left a legacy behind, they had the limits of age and death resting precariously close, but they didn't let it stop them…"
Her brow furrowed. "You think we take it for granted, being as strong as we are, living as long as we do."
His lips pressed in a thin line. "I think it's easy to forget what's important…"
She rested her chin on his shoulder and stared up at him. "So who says we will? We're traveling, we're not idle, we're taking advantage of life…" She shook her head. "I don't know what comes next, but I do know that there is no way we're going to waste our lives…" She held a hand up then, her pinkie raised. "Come on, I'll promise to make sure your life is filled to the brim, and you do the same for me?"
His lips curled as he stared down at her finger, breaking into a full grin when she wiggled it at him impatiently. He reached up and curled his around it. "I promise."
They stared at the two headstones a moment longer before Caroline said, "How do you know they had good lives anyway? Maybe they were really boring… Maybe they weren't even married! She could've been his sister and had eight cats. He could've been a gay man who never got to follow his heart and marry his true love. They lived out their days, depressed, bitter, and lonely."
He looked down at her, his brows hiked.
"Perspective," she said, shrugging.
He laughed, kissed her forehead, and started them moving again, his arm wrapped around her.
Regardless of what life the two owners of the tombstones led, he and Caroline had a brighter future ahead of them.
Much of their last week in Paris was spent shopping, which he'd soon realized was her favorite pastime. She did like tasting the local cuisine though and, one night in her hotel room, Stefan was never more amused than when she tried escargot, only to choke it back up and tell him it was awful before wiping at her tongue with her napkin.
"Shut up," she muttered.
He put the silver cover back on the dish and placed it back on the room service cart. Grabbing up a bowl of strawberries, he joined her on the balcony once more, where she was admiring the lit up EiffelTower in the distance, sipping from a blood bag to rid the flavor from her mouth and resting her feet on the wrought iron railing.
He offered her the bowl and she took a strawberry, passing him the half-empty blood bag, her lips stained red, and sunk her teeth into the fresh fruit.
"I like it here," she told him. "Even if they eat snails."
He chuckled. "Not all of them do, it just happens to be an acquired taste."
Humming, she wrinkled her nose. Tossing her strawberry top toward the table, she took another from the bowl. "Do you think when we're done exploring, we'll come back to certain places? Like maybe they'll stand out to us more…"
He shrugged. "Sure, if you want."
"Not just if I want to." Rolling her eyes, she turned to face him. "If there's ever any place we go and it just hits you, y'know, like this is the place… This is a place you want to be again! Then we'll come back."
He watched her, the way her chin was set and her lips pursed with determination. "If I find that place, I'll let you know."
"Good." She turned back to face the Tower. "I just want you to remember that this isn't just for me… I mean, yes, you're doing me a huge favor. There's no way I'd be able to see half of these places without you. But this vacation or adventure or whatever you want to call this… It's ours. Mine and yours. So you need to be just as active, okay? You have as much of a say."
He smiled at her, though she couldn't see it. "I'm enjoying myself, Caroline. I traveled a lot before; I've seen a lot of these places already. Not all of the tourist sites, and I can probably show you a few that are off the beaten path, but there're still some I haven't explored." He held out a ripe, red strawberry for her. "Trust me, this is the most fun I've had in a long time."
She grinned, and accepted the strawberry.
Settling back, she stared admiringly at the Tower.
"Did you still want to try caviar? I know you're still traumatized from the escargot…" he teased.
Laughing, she shoved his shoulder. "Shut up."
He chuckled under his breath.
They spent much of the night just like that, enjoying the peace.
Barcelona was their next stop. Florence, Rome, and Naples followed.
They met other tourists who told them where to go next, who encouraged them to visit smaller cities, with beautiful sights and histories that often went overlooked. Stefan was happy to show her some of the lesser-known attractions he'd found during his own travels. She found she liked them better; they weren't as crowded and they held some unique appeal that fewer eyes had enjoyed them.
Months passed, no longer counted, and that was all they did. They went where few had been, they followed the advice of others, both locals and expert travelers, and they searched every new place with a passion.
Caroline loved finding the markets, even if they were overpriced. He indulged her. Smiling as she swathed herself in silk scarves and jangled gold and silver bracelets on her wrist. She fawned over handmade jewelry and stopped to talk to everyone who encouraged her to see what they were selling. She sat and had a woman draw henna all up her arm, from the tips of her fingers to the curve of her shoulder, in intricate detail. She had her palm read by another. She made him take pictures, and posed for each one with a smile that only seemed to get brighter. She trusted other tourists to hold the camera as they stood together, her arms around his waist and her cheek pressed to his as she laughed joyfully as the flash went off.
Caroline was in her element when they traveled.
She looked happy when she explored, when she met new people and learned their stories. Even when they got lost in Tuscany, her brow furrowed as they sat on a bench with her looking at the map in confusion. The old, wooden bench was under a tree, the long branches of which blocked out the hot sun. A few feet behind them was a crumbled stone wall, part of a house that no longer stood there. They'd wandered off as they were talking, not quite paying attention to their surroundings, and now they weren't sure where they were.
Despite this being her first trip to Italy, she seemed to think that, given time, she would be able to get them back to where they started. If there was anything he knew about Caroline, it was that she was stubborn, determined, and couldn't be argued with if she thought she was right. So he sat back, his fingers knotted over her stomach, and enjoyed the sprawling yellow-green hills before him as she fussed over her map. Her cell phone had long since died so they couldn't rely on GPS, and he'd, not so conveniently, left his back at the hotel.
When she started muttering to herself, aggravated, he took out the camera and took a picture of it.
She frowned at him. "Seriously!?"
He grinned. "Memories."
She rolled her eyes, but her lips quirked with a smile.
"Want help now?"
She sighed and thrust the map toward him.
When they eventually found their way back, in part because he asked somebody for directions, she looked over at him and said, "Always looking out for me."
He laughed lightly. "You don't make it easy for me."
She bumped his shoulder with hers. "Well, how about I make it up to you then?" Her eyes lit up hopefully. "Dinner, dancing, some wine, awesome company…"
"Sure." He nodded. "Any place you have in mind?"
"Well… I was talking to this girl, Ilsa, she sells these pretty bracelets just down from our hotel, and she said that on Fridays there's a little restaurant that puts up tables on the street outside. They set up a projector and play a movie on a wall for everybody to watch and it's always a musical, so a lot of people end up dancing through most of it. What do you think?"
"Sounds like fun."
"Right?!" She bounced a little on spot, clapping her hands together happily. It never ceased to amaze him that after all this time, these things still made her excited. After all that she'd seen and done, the simplest of things still spurred the same joy inside her. It was refreshing. Leaving Mystic Falls had been the best decision; she was able to flourish.
They went down to the restaurant Ilsa had suggested and got a table near the middle. It was dressed in a blue and white checkered cloth, a small red candle burned in the center, and a bowl of sliced, freshly baked bread rested to the right of it, the scent of which made his mouth water. Ten or twelve other tables were set up, each filled with a couple in some stage of relationship, from old and long-married to young and newly in love.
The menu was strictly in Italian; it was all the waiters and waitresses spoke too. Stefan explained each dish to her and, when she decided what she wanted, ordered for them both. Handmade pasta and a bottle of red wine was brought out to them as they sat back and watched the movie, a love story without subtitles. Caroline followed it somehow, never even asking him to translate for her. She just watched their reactions, their body language, a smile pulling at her lips and tears filling her eyes as the two main characters fell for each other. She was always a sucker for a happy ending. Stefan thought he might have spent more time watching Caroline than he did the movie; she was so emotive. She clapped at the happy ending, whistling sharply in approval, not caring if anybody else appreciated her commentary.
When the credits rolled and the main song played, he stood, taking her hand and leading her out to dance with the others, swaying beside a couple who couldn't be younger than 80.
Dancing was kind of their thing, he found himself thinking. Both in and out of Mystic Falls, they somehow always ended up in each other's arms. They'd danced in London as they hovered at the top of the London Eye; in France as the hotel they were staying in celebrated 100 years; in the streets of Rome when a man played his guitar and shared a beautiful love song, his hat out for any tips. And now, here, on the cobbled streets of Florence, they swayed together, his hand on the small of her back, the soft fabric of her dress under his fingers. He held her other hand in the air, their fingers knotted together. Her hand curled around his shoulder, tugging lightly at his collar. The shirt he wore was unbuttoned down to the middle, the heat making too much clothing feel claustrophobic. A breeze, cooled by the blanket of night, rustled by, skating over his bare skin soothingly.
He knew the song that was playing, he noticed; "Tu Per Me." As he and Caroline moved together, he soon found himself singing under his breath, "Io con te saro per sempre giovane, e con te vivro un tempo utile, poi con te volero sopra le nuvole, con te mai freddo io avro…"
Caroline turned her head, watching his lips, and smiled gently.
She had a flower in her hair and the scent wafted over him, soft and sweet. His cheek found hers and their movements slowed. His eyes fell to half-mast and his fingers moved in tiny circles along her back.
He would look back later on that moment and wonder if that was when things changed, shifted, but he couldn't be sure. Sometimes he thought it might have been the same moment they decided to leave Mystic Falls together, other times he thought it was a slow burn that snuck up on him when he wasn't paying attention.
The couple beside them was talking, bickering Stefan thought, before the wife finally won.
In perfect Italian, the man wondered, "Sir? Pardon my prying… My wife is curious, you see… She enjoys a good love story." He smiled, the wrinkles of his face folding even more as he did.
Stefan raised a curious eyebrow but nodded. "How may I help?"
"She wonders… Is that your wife? You are newlyweds, yes?"
Stefan looked back at Caroline, who was watching them as they spoke, though she couldn't decipher what they were saying, as shown by the befuddled furrow of her brows.
He smiled back at the man and explained, "We are friends… Very good friends."
The man's wife did not seem to agree and let out a scoff, tossing her head back, her silver hair swaying, and muttered disagreements under her breath.
Her husband merely grinned at her before turning back to Stefan. "A funny truth… The strongest love always starts with friendship." With that and a wink, the man swung his wife away, twirling her under his arm, smiling warmly as she giggled like a woman much younger than her years.
Stefan watched them go, mouth turned up at the corners with a smile.
"What was that?" Caroline wondered.
"Something to aspire to."
She didn't ask for him to explain further, leaving it at that, and he dipped her back until she laughed, forgetting all about it.
When the song ended, they parted, smiling at each other before returning to their table to pay and move on. They bypassed their hotel and took a walk instead, their hands twined together as they had often become in the months they'd spent abroad. It was second nature now and they rarely noticed. They walked through the dark streets of Florence, listening to the voices of others carry on the wind, and took comfort in the silence and the company of each other.
It was during these times that he wondered if eternity couldn't be happily spent just like this, with nobody else but her. No Damon, no Elena, no heartbreaking confusion at all. No Mystic Falls or werewolves or centuries old originals to try to turn things upside down. It was just freedom, warmth, and companionship in someone he knew he could trust.
Eventually, they made their way back to the hotel, and the following morning they set out for somewhere new.
He wondered if they would dance there too.
They were in Ireland, seven months into their trip, when his control slipped. He'd been doing well. But as they walked over a mossy, stone bride at Sneem River, enjoying the Ring of Kerry for its natural beauty, their attention was caught by a few tourists, climbing precariously on some of the large, jagged rocks, looking for somewhere to get a good picture of their daring. It was little surprise when one slipped, and both Caroline and Stefan immediately moved forward to see if they were okay. That was when the scent hit him.
During the time they'd been traveling, he and Caroline had been drinking from blood bags snagged out of hospitals. Still human blood, but it took the victim out of the equation. Here, however, he could see a man, his elbow sporting a large gash, blood pouring down his forearm and dripping onto the rock beneath him.
The metallic scent hit Stefan hard and his mouth watered. Before he knew it, the drive to drink was thick upon him. His breathing became labored and his hands twitched. He could feel as his eyes darkened, as veins spidered beneath them, and his teeth elongated, sharp and ready for a taste.
"Stefan," he heard, a faint buzz through the rushing in his ears. "Stefan, look at me!"
He shook his head, pushing the sound away, getting ready to leap down and grab the man below, sink his teeth into his throat and suck. He wanted to feel that warm blood flow freely down his throat, wet his lips and his tongue and dribble down his fingers. He wanted to tear the flesh open as wide as it would go and lick every drop that escaped.
And then Caroline was in front of him, her expression stern. Her hands rose up and cupped his face, firm and serious. She made him stare her in the eye and, when she was sure she had his attention, her face softened. "Breathe," she told him, mimicking her words as she took a deep breath. "Focus on me… You don't want that, you don't need that, you're stronger…" She nodded encouragingly.
At first, he didn't want to do that, he didn't want to breathe or focus, he just wanted to feed. But then Caroline was taking another breath, blowing it out between her lips. She didn't stop, waiting for him to join her. And, finally, he did. He let the scent of her shampoo, of her perfume, cover the blood still wet in the air. He breathed in the scent of apples and flowers and watched her lips pucker as she exhaled, smoothing out as she inhaled again. Her thumbs stroked back and forth over his cheeks soothingly and he leaned into her touch.
His teeth receded, his eyes cleared, and the desperation stopped clawing at him, but he was still shaking, blinking quickly.
"Good?" she asked, brows hiked.
He nodded, realizing suddenly that his hands were around her elbows, clutching at her, either to push her away or hold her close, he wasn't sure. Her hands fell from his face, pausing at his shoulders to squeeze reassuringly
"Come on," she said, turning on her heel.
"Doesn't he still need help?" Stefan wondered.
She shook her head, taking his hand and tugging him along behind her. "A few other people showed up; he'll be fine." Hooking her arm with his, she moved them down the bridge. "How are you feeling?"
"Not murder-y," he answered somewhat sarcastically, lips tipped wryly.
She laughed under her breath. "Always good."
He turned to look at her. "Thank you."
She shook her head. "I promised I would never let you lose control, remember?"
He smiled, nodding. "I think I promised you a traditional Irish stew, which a little restaurant we passed on the way in boasted was the best in all of Ireland."
She grinned. "Well, who could pass that up?"
There was something comforting, he realized, knowing that whatever happened, Caroline would be there. He was stronger, of course, and maybe if things had truly reached a point where he couldn't be convinced otherwise then she wouldn't have been able to stop him. But some part of him thought that just having her there, knowing that she would go to whatever lengths necessary to keep him from doing something he would regret, was enough.
They spent the winter in Switzerland, staying in a ski resort in Eiger village. Caroline was excited for the week-long World Snow Festival. Having arrived early, they spent much of their time skiing, or at least Stefan did. Caroline wasn't much of a skier, nor she did particularly like how cold it was. But she liked the look of ice and snow from the warmth of their suite, looking out the window while she stayed warm by the fire, a mug of hot chocolate in hand.
It was Christmas Eve when he'd talked her into going for a walk and they'd gone to the end of the village to admire Gletscherschlucht, or Glacial Gorge. Before they set out, Caroline had put on more layers than he thought possible; he was pretty sure she had three scarves on. Even with all the added clothes, she still told him it was cold. She'd bought all new clothes for this winter excursion, thick pants and heavy sweaters, thermal socks and snow boots.
Glacial Gorge was beautiful. Worried about slipping on the ice, she reached out and took his hand as they hiked, admiring the glacial mills and pink and green marble blocks. They followed a path of footbridges, enjoying the rock galleries and tunnels. They spent hours looking around. Her hand, tucked in a thick, wool glove, stuck to his the whole time, only pulling away to open the backpack she'd brought with her, handing him a few snacks and bottles of water for them to enjoy when they sat down for a brief rest. He wasn't surprised when her camera came out soon after, capturing every moment. By the time they got back, her hair was sprinkled with snowflakes and her cheeks and nose were a bright, rosy red.
He wasn't going to ask her now, but he'd already talked to a few other tourists who recommended hiking along the Öpfelchüechliwäg trail. He couldn't count how many times he'd been told to stop at Brandegg mountain restaurant at the end of their hike, apparently the apple fritters were highly recommended. But, considering how much she was still shaking from their earlier outing, he figured it was better to wait until she defrosted to bring it up.
Caroline had traded in her three layers for a pair of loose-fitting pants and an oversized sweater that hung off one shoulder. She curled up on a chair next to the fire and admired the small tree the hotel staff had set up in their room, mostly decorated in real candles and silver bells.
For the last week, children from the village had been visiting homes and, wanting to include everyone, even knocking on doors at the hotel to hand out small gifts. Midnight mass was popular and loud bells would ring to call everyone in. Afterwards, families handed out ringli, or homemade doughnuts, and mugs of hot chocolate.
Caroline loved every minute of it, but couldn't help a pang of nostalgia, wondering what her mother might be doing back in Mystic Falls. She'd already called her twice that week and promised she would call again on Christmas Day. So far as she could tell, her mom was busy with the usual festivities Mystic Falls put on each year.
"Feeling homesick?" Stefan asked.
She turned her head to look at him, smiling lightly. "A little."
"So what did your family do on Christmas Eve when you were growing up?" he wondered.
She tipped her head thoughtfully. "We usually went to the festival in town square and then when we'd get home, I'd get to open one gift. It'd take me forever to pick which one. I was careful because I didn't want to pick the best one, I wanted to save that for last, but I didn't want to pick something lame either, like a coloring book." She wrinkled her nose.
He ducked his head, chuckling to himself.
"And then we'd watch It's A Wonderful Life…" She smiled. "I always fell asleep before it ended…"
"What about you? What did you do?"
He shrugged. "My mom died when I was young, I don't remember a lot of what it was like when she was still there… My dad, he liked having parties, so we always invited people over, filled the house with noise… When I was a kid, he would send us to bed early, said we weren't old enough to be around the cigar smoke and brandy…" He rolled his eyes. "But Damon and I would just hide on the stairs and watch everyone. We'd try to guess what they were talking about, what made them laugh… When we got a bit older, we were allowed to stay but we realized that the stories we came up with were a lot more interesting than reality… Sometimes I'd go up and sit on the stairs and try to make them all seem more interesting again. But I guess when you know what's really happened, playing dumb gets harder."
"What about later, after you turned, how did you celebrate Christmas then?"
He shrugged. "It depended… If Damon and I were getting along, sometimes we'd get together, but those times were rare and things mostly just got worse between us… I think I spent most of the big holidays with Lexi."
She smiled sympathetically. "You must miss her."
"I do… She was my best friend for a very long time." He cast his eyes away thoughtfully and then shook his head. "This is getting depressing." Standing, he hiked his brows at her as he said, "I cheated."
Her brow furrowed. "Huh?"
"I called your mom. I figured you would probably be feeling homesick, especially around now, so I called to see if there was anything I could do." He disappeared into his room and came back holding something in either hand. "I had her send me a copy of It's A Wonderful Life in the mail."
Her eyes lit up. "No way!"
He handed it to her. "I already talked to room service and they're bringing up a DVD player to hook up to the TV."
"Stefan!" she cried, hopping out of her chair to hug him. "This is amazing! You're amazing!"
He hugged her waist and shrugged modestly. "I know what it's like to miss your family…" He shook his head. "I know you said you didn't want to go back to Mystic Falls, but I figure there are some traditions that can come with you anywhere."
Leaning back, she smiled up at him gratefully. "Thank you," she said, soft and sincere.
Squealing happily, she hugged him again, squeezing his neck.
"I've got one more thing," he told her. He waved one hand up, holding a wrapped present.
Releasing him, she held her hands out for it, smiling excitedly. When he handed it over, she said, "You're spoiling me."
"Is that a complaint?" he queried, eyebrow raised.
"No… Just, you know, pointing it out."
He laughed lightly and nodded at her gift. "Open it."
Happily, Caroline tore the wrapping off her present, and paused as she revealed a thick book, with tabs lining the side to separate sections. She thumbed through it and smiled. It was a scrapbook.
"I had some of the thousands of pictures you've taken developed," he explained.
The first section was London and she opened it to see the page covered in shopping bag drawings. She laughed and admired the pictures of her wearing a few outfits and one of Stefan wearing four pairs of sunglasses, stacked one on top of the other, the price tags hanging down the side of his face. She flipped the page and found one of her outside of Big Ben, blowing a kiss at the camera. Another had them smiling up at the camera while they rode the London Eye. She flipped further into the book to see them in Paris, comically eating either end of a supersized baguette, their eyes wide. She kept going and smiled as she saw herself standing with her arms out, a geyser erupting behind her as they admired Te Puia, New Zealand. Nostalgia warmed her as she paused on another, when they had a tourist take a picture of them in front of the colorful Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.
The whole scrapbook was amazing. He'd even added a room service menu from the hotel in France with escargot underlined. She laughed, her eyes stinging with sentimental tears. There was a dried blue flower tucked into the seam in the Italy section that still smelled faintly of spring.
"Stefan, this is…" She shook her head. "I love it." She closed the book only to hug it to her chest.
He smiled. "Good." He hugged an arm around her shoulders. "How about we call room service? Dinner and a movie."
She nodded agreeably, and he let her go to walk to the phone.
While they waited, Caroline sat down to look through her scrapbook a little more.
Her homesickness faded as she sat with him on the couch, watching the movie she remembered so well from her childhood. Some traditions really couldn't be avoided, however, and she fell asleep before it ended.
Stefan tucked her book away and carried her to her bed, kissing her forehead before padding off to his own room. He had to admit, he'd had some good Christmases in the past, but this was one worth remembering.
They were in Byron Bay when they decided it was time to go home.
Over the last two weeks, they'd gone air ballooning, scuba diving, taken a helicopter tour, kayaked, and bushwalked through the rainforest of Nightcap National Park to see Minyon Falls.
Finally, resting on the beach, Caroline lay on her stomach, her sunglasses and floppy straw hat on as she tanned her back under the hot sun. Book in hand, he sat beside her in a long beach chair, his own sunglasses blocking out the strong rays. Families, both local and visiting tourists, were spread out all down the beach, many of them enjoying the stunning blue water or building sandcastles.
Stefan wiggled his toes to get some of the gritty sand out from beneath them.
Humming, she turned her head to look at him. "Am I burning?" she wondered.
He checked her back and shook his head. "You want the sun screen?"
He reached around the chair to grab the large bag she'd brought with them and pulled it into his lap. She'd packed fruit, bottles of water, and a few snacks to last them the morning. Their hotel keys, wallets, and passports sat at the bottom, alongside their phones and the camera that he rarely saw leave her hand. Finally, he found the bottle of sunscreen. Being a vampire, she would heal quickly if she did burn, but they didn't have any blood on them to help the process along and the sun was a sore spot with any vampire to begin with.
He turned in his seat, resting the bag on the sand between their chairs, and turned the bottle over, giving it a shake before he squeezed. He rubbed the lotion over her shoulders and down her back in circles, sliding under the ties of her bikini. He spread them down her sides, feeling as she breathed in deep and squirmed as he hit a particularly sensitive part of her ribs. His lips twitched as he purposely did it again.
He laughed under his breath and rubbed his hand down low, over the small of her back, back and forth.
"Arms too," she said, holding one out for him.
Shaking his head, he squeezed some more into the palm of his hand and rubbed it from the top of her shoulders to the tips of her fingers, kneading her skin absently, following the bones of her hands to her fingers.
She hummed appreciatively. "Don't even need to go to a spa with you around…"
"Good to know I'm needed," he joked back.
He stood, reaching for her other arm and rubbed it down quickly before returning to his seat. "Legs?"
She pushed up to her elbows and looked back at herself, lifting one foot into the air. "When I was little, I wanted to be a mermaid…"
"I'm pretty sure, after The Little Mermaid came out, everyone did."
She grinned. "What about you? Did you want to be a mer-man?"
He chuckled to himself and reached out, catching her by her ankle. He started applying the sunscreen, looking back at her as he replied, "Can't say it ever occurred to me."
"Always have to be different," she sighed, lips twitching with a smile.
He rolled his eyes and rested his hand at the back of her knee. "So what happened then? Why'd you decide you didn't want to be a mermaid?"
She shook her head, her brow furrowed. "I don't know… I guess I grew up, stopped believing they were real, making it impossible for me to be one…"
He hummed, nodding. "You know what else aren't supposed to be real…?" He wiggled his eyebrows at her.
She laughed. "Right… Somehow I think vampire-mermaids are even less likely…"
He shrugged noncommittally and returned to his task, but now that he was paying attention to it, he paused, his fingers curled around her thigh. Caroline had soft skin. Skin that smelled like coconut now and was slick and shiny under his hands. She'd always been pale, but with all of their traveling and their time spent on the beach, she had a warm, golden tan.
"Hm?" He looked over at her.
She raised a brow curiously. "Distracted much?"
He shook his head. "Just noticing your tan."
She grinned then. "Right!?" She lifted her other leg and swung her feet back and forth. "I'd say the same back, but you were always tanned."
"Good genes." He reached for her other leg and started at her ankle again. "What were you going to say?"
"Oh, I was just wondering if you missed home… We've been gone a while."
He nodded, his smile easing into a frown. "How many places do we have left to go?"
She shrugged. "Three or four."
"But you're ready to head back?"
She chewed her lip. "I don't know… I miss my mom. Talking to her on the phone isn't the same."
"We can go back any time you want."
She turned onto her side and looked up at him. "I want to."
He stared at her searchingly, considered all the time they'd spent away, the amazing places they'd been, and how different he felt since he'd first left Mystic Falls. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was time to go home, see what, if anything, it offered. It wasn't like they couldn't come back, couldn't pick up where they'd left off.
She smiled. "Okay."
It was settled.
In the end, they spent thirteen months traveling. There was something bittersweet about returning to the States, even though it was completely up to them whether they wanted to or not. They picked Stefan's car up and made their way back to Mystic Falls, intent on reuniting Caroline with her mother. Much like when they left, the ride was filled with the radio and Caroline's soft singing.
As they drove into town, instead of being filled with that old nostalgia, that warmth for home, Stefan couldn't help but feel like he didn't fit there and was helpless to the stab of suspicion, waiting on something to attack them. Their time away had been a relief; it had been without injury or death. Now, returning, he wondered if life might be looking to make up for lost time.
But, according to Liz, life in Mystic Falls had been easy since they'd left. He sat down with her in the kitchen of her house and caught up on the last thirteen months from her side of things.
"No attacks, no suspicious deaths; it's been as boring and slow as it was before everything went haywire." She half-smiled. "I guess… Maybe you were right, maybe it was time everyone moved on."
Stefan nodded, curling his hand around the mug of coffee she'd offered him.
Caroline was in her bedroom, going through her wardrobe, putting away her new clothes and tossing others that she deemed out of fashion.
"Have you heard from anyone else? Has anyone else returned?"
He didn't have to say their names; Liz seemed to know exactly who he meant. Elena or Damon.
She frowned sympathetically and shook her head. "No… I'm sorry. I haven't seen or heard from either of them."
He cast his eyes away thoughtfully. He'd called Damon, left messages, texted him with each new place they went to, half-hoping he would just appear, but nothing had ever been returned. He didn't know where his brother was, but he knew Damon hadn't been okay when he left. He'd been broken when Elena told them she was leaving and, for a time, he was that angry, bitter man he'd been when he first arrived. Stefan truly hoped he hadn't stayed that way.
"Caroline seems happy," Liz said then, drawing his attention once more.
"She is." Stefan nodded. "She loved it over there. If she could, I think she would make traveling her profession."
She laughed under her breath. "Traveling and shopping, apparently."
He sat back in his chair, grinning. "She has an eye for fashion, or so my bank account tells me."
Liz raised an eyebrow. "It must get expensive…" she probed. "You guys were gone a while, you visited some very… luxurious places."
"It's fine," he assured her. "I've had more than enough time to build up a comfortable living."
She stared at him thoughtfully. "Do you mind me asking…? I mean, what you're doing, taking Caroline traveling, that's wonderful, but… It seems so extravagant, so- so beyond just friendship…" Her brow furrowed. "I guess what I'm wondering is… what are you two… to each other?"
"Caroline's my best friend," he told her honestly.
She stared at him, waiting for further explanation, and her hard, demanding eyes were not to be disappointed. There was a reason Liz Forbes was Sheriff; she may only be human, but she was strong and unwavering when she wanted something.
"I care about her," he continued, wanting to put her at ease and, at the same time, being completely sincere. "I… don't know what I'd do without her."
Liz gave it some thought before apparently deciding that was good enough and finally nodding.
"So, I've done my best, but there is no way all of that is fitting into the closet," Caroline said, her eyes wide with emphasis as she joined them in the kitchen.
He smiled up at her. "There's always space at the boarding house."
She lit up thoughtfully. "True…"
"Well, before you head over there, I'd like to take you two out for dinner. As a welcome home, my treat," Liz offered.
Caroline grinned. "I won't say no to that."
Stefan shook his head. "You two should go together, catch up…"
"Are you sure?" Caroline walked toward him, her brow furrowed.
"Yeah." He stood from his chair, reaching for her, his hand falling to her waist. "You haven't had any time together in too long." He kissed her temple as he moved past her, taking up his jacket. "We'll get breakfast tomorrow, all right?"
She nodded and moved to walk him to the door. "It'll be weird," she admitted as they moved down the hall side by side. "We haven't been apart this whole time…"
He turned to face her at the door, smiling. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."
She snorted, rolling her eyes. "Somehow I don't think they meant one night apart."
"Depends on the people."
"Uh-huh." She reached out, smoothing down the front of his leather jacket. "Well, try not to get into any trouble without me. No vampire wars, werewolf grudges, hybrid maniacs…"
He laughed under his breath. "I'll do my best."
"So tomorrow, meet at Mystic Grill?"
"How's nine sound?"
She nodded. "I'll be there."
He reached for the door to go, but she stopped him, a hand on his shoulder.
He looked back at her curiously, a brow raised.
She opened her mouth to say something but nothing came out. Instead, she moved forward and hugged him. It was quick, brief really, and she reached up to kiss his cheek. "Goodnight," she said in way of explanation.
He nodded, saying nothing, and finally left.
Hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket, he pulled out his keys, and made his way to his car. His cheek was warm where her lips had pressed and, despite knowing that he would see her in the morning, he still felt something of a loss. Thirteen months they'd been together, hand in hand, side by side. It felt odd not to have her there, her constant stream of chatter or her easy laugh, her warm smile and her bright blue eyes.
Shaking it off, he drove back to the boarding house, finding it empty and quiet. The air inside was stagnant and musty. Dust had collected, dulling the usually polished wood. It was depressing and gloomy, so far removed from everything he had gotten used to in the last year. The clean white of the hotel rooms they'd been staying in were a far cry from the boarding house, which had never seemed so large and dark before now.
He made his way up to his unused room, his suitcase in hand. It wasn't nearly as packed as Caroline's, who had to buy an extra two just to accommodate all of her new purchases. He left it by the door as he walked to his bed, deciding not to unpack for now. Everything was just as he left it, but he didn't feel the same as he sat on his bed and kicked off his shoes.
This wasn't home. Maybe the town was; it was where he'd grown up, lived, died, and lived again. Where he'd fallen in love, fallen out of it, been betrayed and hurt and known sorrow, the likes of which he'd never want to repeat. It was memories, but not the kind he wanted to hold onto, not that he'd want to remember in fifty, a hundred, a thousand years.
He lay down on his bed and considered what that meant. Had they left only to return or were they supposed to stay gone?
He fell asleep pondering the possibilities.
Caroline felt a stab of nostalgia as she and Liz sat down for dinner at the Mystic Grill. Everything was so familiar and, at the same time, so distant. It felt like it'd been ages since she'd been there and, yet, everything was still just as she'd left it.
"You look so tanned," Liz told her, shaking her head.
Caroline laughed and looked down at her arms. "Yeah, well, I spent a lot of time outside… Stefan and I only left Australia yesterday. The beaches down there are… amazing!"
She smiled. "Sounds like you had fun… All your emails, I don't think you've been that excited in a long time."
"Mom, you have to travel. I mean, some of the places we went, the things we saw… I saw a geyserjust explode behind me. When we went scuba diving, the fish were so colorful. I mean, there's IMAX and then there's the real thing, you know? And the clothes!"
Liz chuckled at her enthusiasm.
"We found these markets just all over the place, the jewelry and the clothes were hand-made and they were so, so beautiful."
The waitress interrupted them then, asking for their orders.
Caroline eagerly shifted in her seat. "The pasta I just ordered, Stefan and I got it when we were in Italy!" Her eyes widened, brows arched. "The noodles were made in the restaurant. Like, no boxes at all, they made them themselves. And Stefan ordered in Italian which was just, wow. I've heard some really beautiful accents and languages while we were traveling but that one takes the cake."
Liz considered her thoughtfully as she took a sip of her drink. "You and Stefan sound like you got really close."
She shrugged. "We were close before. He's one of my best friends."
"What?" she asked, laughing curiously.
"Nothing, it's just… I haven't seen you this... happy. Not for a long time. I mean, when you were with Tyler you smiled more, you laughed more…" She stared at her searchingly. "Stefan is a really good man, Caroline. I just… I want you to be sure about what you're getting into."
Her smile faded into a frown. "What's there to be sure about? We're friends, we went on vacation together, that's completely normal…"
Liz clasped her hands on the table. "Maybe it isn't becoming something, maybe I'm overanalyzing… What I'm really trying to say here is that it's nice. It's really nice to see you moving on. I mean, between Tyler and Klaus leaving and then all your friends going too…" She shook her head. "I know that was hard on you. You were still in love with Tyler and, well I'm not sure what was going on with Klaus but I know that his leaving for New Orleans made you pretty upset…"
"It sucked," she admitted. "Everybody else was getting out and it was just me and Stefan, but… It's fine now. I get why they left… Traveling, being out there in the world, it's… It felt amazing."
Liz smiled gently and nodded. "And what about now? Being home…"
"It…" She cast her eyes around. "It's familiar."
"Car, honey, why did you come back?"
Her brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
"You were happy there, you had no reason to stop traveling, so… Why did you come home?"
"I don't know, I… I missed you."
"Is that the only reason? You didn't miss home, you weren't tired of traveling?"
She shrugged. "Maybe a little, I guess. I just… I don't know. It—It started to feel less like I was free and more like I was running… I loved every second of it, don't get me wrong, but… It was like my life was on pause. I was there and I was exploring but I wasn't really going anywhere."
"So what do you want?" Liz wondered. "You're back now, what's the plan?"
Chewing her lip, she shook her head. "I don't know… I have to talk to Stefan, see what he feels about being home."
Her mother stared at her a long moment, her lips pursed slightly. "Have you ever thought about what that means? That where you go and what you do depends on someone else."
She scowled then. "What do you mean?"
Her expression gentled. "Not like that. I just meant that… You consider him, you ask yourself what's in the best interest of both of you… It's not just about you anymore and that—that's good, in some ways. It's selfless. But do you ever wonder why...? Why is it so important that whatever future you get into has a place for Stefan in it?"
She swallowed tightly. "I don't know, we're friends, of course I want him there."
Liz looked down at the table a moment and considered what she wanted to ask before finally shaking her head. Maybe it was women's intuition or knowing her daughter so well, but she knew that Caroline wasn't ready for it. Though it hung at the tip of her tongue, the words, "Are you in love with Stefan?" didn't leave Liz's mouth that night. Instead, she turned the topic of conversation back to her travels and listened as her daughter joyfully tried to relate every detail to her of her time away.
But one day, she was sure, she would ask that question, and Caroline's answer would be an unequivocal 'yes.'
At 9 am the next morning, Stefan found himself sitting down at a table in Mystic Grill. It wasn't Matt who served them; in fact, he didn't recognize the waitress at all. He wondered briefly if April was around, but didn't see her amongst the staff. Caroline strolled in shortly after and smiled as she spotted him, taking the seat across the table.
"How was your night with your mom?" he asked, passing her a menu.
"Great!" she told him happily. "It was nice catching up. There was so much to tell her, so many stories, you know?" She nodded. "It felt good to see her."
The waitress returned to get her drink order, but Caroline had already decided on what she wanted to eat. As she walked away, Caroline crossed her arms on the table top and leaned on them.
"How was your night?" she wondered.
She smiled sadly. "No Damon?"
He shook his head, sighing to himself. "Is it weird I kind of thought he'd be there when I got back?"
She reached across the table, covering his hand with her own. "I know you miss him."
"It'd be easier if I just knew where he was, that he was okay…"
She nodded, her gaze falling. "Do you…?"
He raised an eyebrow, encouraging her to continue.
"I just… I wondered if you were happy being back. I—I mean, I know it's only been like, a day, and maybe I just miss the excitement or the freedom, but… I feel like I'm stuck again. Last night, my mom asked me what the plan was, what I was going to do now, and it just struck me… It feels like I'm going backwards somehow. After everything we did, being over there, it was great, but… What happens now?"
"We can't travel forever," she murmured. "And I'm sure if we did, eventually it wouldn't be fun. It wouldn't be an experience anymore; it'd just be a way of life…" She shook her head. "I don't think I fit here anymore. I don't think I'm supposed to be here."
He stared at her. "So what do you want to do?"
She bit her lip, casting her eyes down. "Have you ever thought about college?" she wondered, the words bursting from her suddenly, like she'd almost considered not voicing them but they escaped anyway.
"Sure," he agreed. "I've taken classes. Even planned to be a doctor when I was still… human."
"Well, what if we did it then? What if we sent off applications and moved to a city somewhere…?" She smiled hopefully. "What if we started over as Caroline and Stefan, college students?"
He grinned slowly. "A new adventure."
Her eyes lit up. "Would you want to?"
Sometimes Stefan thought he might just do anything she asked of him. Just to see the way she brightened, to see her smile. The truth of it was, though, that it wasn't hard to say yes to what she propose. He liked the idea. He could see himself in college, in lecture halls, studying to all hours of the night. He could see himself as that student, working toward a future. And, more importantly, he could see himself doing it all with her.
"We can look at colleges after breakfast, see what's out there, even take a few road trips, check them out in person."
She let out a high-pitched squeal of excitement and launched herself out of her chair, wrapping her arms around him in a hug. "It's going to be great, Stefan. I promise!"
He laughed, hugging her back, and knew in his gut that she was right.
They ended up sending out a lot of college applications and visiting almost every campus they had any chance of being accepted to. Half the fun was the road trip to each, exploring the cities they were based in. He couldn't be sure how exactly it was decided, as they received a number of acceptance letters, but they ended up going to the University of Chicago. He had been hesitant at first; he didn't have the best track record with Chicago. But then he realized that this was meant to be the beginning of their lives; it was a new and fresh start with better memories. He accepted that there were bound to be lingering ghosts from his past, but he wouldn't avoid them. He would just have to make sure the good outweighed the bad.
That September, they were college freshmen. Caroline wanted to get a business degree; she'd had so much experience running things as it was, working on committees and putting together events, that she thought it was the right direction. It would open doors for her, whatever she decided to do. Stefan wasn't so easily decided, so instead he chose to take a number of classes in a broad scope of fields. He wanted to taste everything and see what fit.
They got an apartment off campus, a two-bedroom that, to Caroline's constant complaint, did not have enough closet space. Stefan would spend the next year regretting telling her she could use some of his closet for whatever didn't fit in hers. In part because just about every morning he woke up to find her looking for something to wear and she was rarely wearing more than a tiny slip of a nightgown or, occasionally, just her underwear.
With a groan, he would roll over, bury his face in his pillow, and tell himself not to think about it too much.
The first year of college was hectic. Finding time to study and make friends wasn't always easy. And, as he was well aware, Caroline was a social butterfly. She decided they needed to join groups at the college to meet like-minded people whereas he enjoyed spending his time on his own, what little he had that wasn't consumed with studying anyway. More than once, she'd come home to find him simply sitting at his desk, writing in his journal, music playing in the background, content by himself and, eventually, she stopped bugging him to join in and let him be, accepting that he enjoyed his loner status.
Friendships grew and faded for Caroline. She met people through classes and clubs, but she didn't hold on to them tightly. It was hard for her to look past the obvious elephant in the room. They were human and she was not. They would age and die and she would not. When those melancholy feelings started to set in, she would often find other things to do, becoming too busy to nurture those friendships, usually resulting in their end.
Regardless of what happened with her other friendships, her and Stefan's bond was as strong as ever. More often than not, she would return to the apartment and curl up on the couch next to him, asking what book he was reading or what class he was studying for. Some nights, she would lay her feet in his lap and watch reality TV, blocking out the rest of the world. It didn't escape her that Stefan was her stability; he was whom she relied on, whom she always returned to, and she imagined it would always be like that.
"Where do you think we'll be in a hundred years?" she asked him one night, interrupting whatever it was he was writing in his journal.
"The world or us?"
She rolled her eyes. "Don't get political on me, Mr. Salvatore." She looked over at him, her hands stacked on her stomach. His journal was folded over the couch arm, his hand on top of it. "You and me… Where are we going to be then?"
He tipped his head, his brow furrowed in thought. As he considered her question, he nodded. "Together," he said.
She watched him a long moment, wanting to pick apart that one word and understand what it meant in its complex totality.
His lips twitched at the corners, like he knew what she wanted. He sighed, his hands falling, wrapping around one of her feet, and he began to rub, his thumbs sliding up the arch of her foot. He did this often, giving her a massage when she was tense or aggravated. She wondered sometimes if it was his way of getting that human touch he craved. He'd dated a few girls he'd met through classes but nothing ever stuck. In the end, the only constant in his life was her, and she wasn't complaining.
"I don't know where we'll be… I don't know if the world will still look the same. I know it's constantly growing, changing, so I can't say we'll be in Chicago, London, Toronto… They might not be there. I just know that a hundred years from now, wherever I am, you'll be there..."
It struck her then that he was right. Barring an unexpected staking, she would be there with him. Maybe that was the depth of their friendship. Maybe, no matter who came or went from their lives, they just knew that they would always be there to support each other… Was that friendship? That unfailing certainty that, whatever happened in this world, however life turned out, they would have each other? Some days she thought what she felt for him went beyond friendship. All she knew for certain was that it went deeper than anything she'd ever known.
The complexities of 'together,' of 'them,' often left her confused, troubled, and a little scared. She'd seen what love could do, how it ruined beautiful things, broke good people, how it died.
If she wanted to be beside Stefan in a hundred years, maybe loving him was the wrong way to do it. Or maybe it was supposed to be a different love. Maybe they could love each other and never be in love. Perhaps that was the trick to keeping tragedy out of their story.
"You know what else I know?"
She raised a curious eyebrow.
He smiled and stood from the couch, reaching for her hand and drawing her with him. He carried her hand over his shoulder and pulled her away from the crowded area of their living room with its overstuffed couches and sharply cornered end tables wearing her fashion magazines and his many books.
Turning, he pulled her close to him, his arm fitting around her waist. "We'll probably be dancing," he said, leaning down to say the words softly, as if he wanted only her, and not the rest of the world, to hear him.
She laughed, curling her hand around his shoulder, and looked up at him.
"I have to say… Doesn't sound like the worst future."
Nodding, he started them moving, swaying to an absent song, nothing but their bodies brushing together, the flow of their breaths coming and going, and the familiar warmth of each other to fill the moment.
Leaning in, she rested her chin on his shoulder and let her eyes fall closed. It felt right, being there, with him, breathing in his scent, leaning into his chest, his fingers braided with hers. She wondered if she'd feel the same in the future, if there was any way for them to be any closer than they already were. And then she wondered when her life came to involve Stefan Salvatore so absolutely.
That summer, after their first year of college was finished, they made plans to visit Bonnie and Jeremy. It was the first time they were going to see them in nearly three years.
Piling into Stefan's car, the trunk filled mostly with her luggage, they drove down to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Bonnie and Jeremy had set down roots. The two of them had been attending Wake Forest University while working in town, and living in a small apartment.
Outside a quaint little red-brick apartment building, Bonnie greeted them with a high-pitched scream of excitement that only Caroline could, and did, rival. Stefan stood back and grinned as they embraced, squeezing each other tight. Jeremy wasn't far behind, amused, his hands tucked into his jeans. He nodded hello to Stefan, walking over to shake his hand.
The two women left the guys behind as they talked, walking arm-in-arm up the cement stairs to the front door of the apartment building, talking over each other as they caught up. Jeremy and Stefan trailed behind them.
Bonnie and Jeremy's apartment was modest but homey. It was a simple one bedroom with a small bathroom, average living room, and slightly cramped kitchen. There were pictures all over and the paint was fresh enough that Stefan could tell they'd recently renovated a little.
"The couch pulls out if you guys wanted to stay here," Bonnie offered, looking between them. "I know it's not much, but it's comfortable and cheap."
"We already booked a hotel," Caroline assured. "But thank you!"
"You guys are here for the week though, right?"
Stefan nodded. "We're heading back to Mystic Falls after to see Liz and, after that, Caroline wants to see what Canada has to offer."
She shifted in her seat on the couch excitedly, explaining, "We're going to start in Newfoundland and then make our way straight across to BC," she told them, her eyes wide and happy. "We were going to do the touristy thing here, but then Stefan said that we should see the Great Lakes and we ran into this really nice couple and they said that if we wanted nature, we should try Canada. Well," she waved a dismissive hand, "mostly she just said BC for its forests, but we have so much time before fall semester that we thought we might as well get in as much as we can."
"That's a long trip," Bonnie said, surprised.
"I know! Isn't it great?" She grinned. "We thought since we'd had so much fun traveling before that it made sense to keep doing it." She shrugged. "I've already done some research, so we've got it all mapped out. There are so many sights to see and we want to make the most of it without rushing."
"That sounds great. It must be nice, after all that time in school."
"Ugh, yes!" Caroline leaned forward and looked at her curiously. "That reminds me, Bon, tell me all about what it's like at WakeForest! Oh my god, you have so much to catch me up on!"
Bonnie grinned and settled into the conversation easily.
They spent the better part of the afternoon talking while Stefan and Jeremy caught up, eventually deciding to take a walk down the road to a local pub and chat over a beer.
"You look happy," Stefan noticed, tipping his beer at Jeremy.
"I am." He smiled widely, nodding. "Feels good here. Fits, y'know?"
Stefan nodded. "I do."
"So what's it like in Chicago?" he wondered.
With a shrug, he took another drag of his beer. "Big city, lots of life, personality, history. I like being in school, feels good, fills my days…"
"Yeah, Bon said you're not taking a program, just kind of feeling out a little of everything."
His head bobbed agreeably. "A couple Lit courses, philosophy, psychology, anything that gets me thinking, really."
"You have eternity to think on the complexities of life and death…" Jeremy reminded wryly.
He laughed under his breath. "It's always good to understand how people think… The world might change, but I find most people's motivations stay the same."
"Sure. Love, money, power, sex. Makes the world go 'round."
"You sound a little cynical, Jeremy… Has death and resurrection jaded you?"
He shook his head, smiling. "No. Don't get me wrong. My life is good here. I'm happy, I have Bonnie, school's good, I couldn't ask for anything better… But the world itself, even outside of Mystic Falls, it's still motivated by the same things as everything we faced there… Everybody —human, witch, vampire, werewolf— they all want the same things. You figure out who they are when you know which motive comes out on top."
He nodded thoughtfully. "You'd fit right in to my philosophy and psych classes."
Jeremy laughed, shaking his head. "I prefer drawing… Starving artist, you know?"
He grinned. "So what motivates you then? Obviously not money…"
"Love," Jeremy said seriously.
Stefan stared at him a moment. "Bonnie."
"Yeah." His brow furrowed slightly, mouth curled up at the corners. "It's crazy to me, how far we've come, after everything. There's history there, not all of it good. Even now, sometimes she has nightmares about what happened, about me dying. And even being away from Mystic Falls, we can't guarantee everything will be perfect. But we've got each other, and that's all that matters. Doesn't matter where we are, where we work, if we're not anything like the people around us… It's just us. And that's enough."
Humming, Stefan stared down at his beer bottle, picking at the label. They sat there a long moment in silence, just thinking.
"Elena called Bonnie," Jeremy finally said, watching him for a reaction.
Stefan let the words sink in, showing no outward sign. His first thought, and it was a telling one, was if Damon was with her, if he was okay. It wasn't if they were together romantically, if Elena was okay, if she was happy, although he wondered about those things after. What he wanted to know was if his brother was all right. He hadn't heard from Damon since he left and it worried him.
He struggled to voice the question he really wanted answered, but Jeremy continued without his encouragement.
"She's been traveling. She was somewhere in South Africa when she called, but she's probably moved on by now…"
Stefan nodded silently, briefly thinking of when he and Caroline went on a wine tour in Cape Town. He fought off a smile as he remembered just how drunk she'd gotten, and turned his attention back to Jeremy.
"She was alone. I know some of us thought maybe Damon was with her, but she said she hadn't seen or talked to anyone since she left. We told her we hadn't heard from Damon but that you and Caroline were in Chicago…" He paused again, letting that sink in before adding, "She sounded happy."
He smiled then, faintly. "I'm glad."
And he was. He was glad that she was okay, that maybe she'd found what she was looking for while she was away. That pit that he expected to feel, a gnawing at his gut, a clawing desperation to be with her, to see her, was absent. His smile grew wider then. It was in that moment, knowing that Elena was out there, that she was okay and ready to connect with her friends again, that he realized he had moved on. He wasn't sure when, wasn't sure how his heart had gone from desperately needing her to accepting that she wasn't meant to be the central part of him, but it had.
"We should head back," he said then. "Caroline and I still have to register at the hotel, put our things away… We should get dinner tonight, the four of us."
"Sure. I know a place."
They stood, paying for their beers, and started up the road back to Jeremy and Bonnie's apartment. He sent a text as they were leaving and wasn't surprised to find Caroline standing outside when they got back. She was leaning against his car, her hands clasped in front of her. She smiled as they approached. There was a thud in his chest as he walked toward her. The sun was setting and the street lights made shadows dance over her figure.
"Have fun?" she asked him, tipping her head back as he reached her.
He nodded. "Ready to head over to the hotel?"
"Mm-hmm. I told Bonnie we'd meet her for dinner in an hour. Gives me time to freshen up." She smiled excitedly. "I can't wait to show her one of the dresses I got in Paris last year. She's going to freak!"
He chuckled under his breath and reached for the door, opening it for her to climb into the car.
Caroline filled the ride to the hotel with her excited chatter. He couldn't help but compare it to how quiet Jeremy's company had been. It wasn't unwelcome, however. He'd long become used to Caroline. She loved talking and he enjoyed listening.
Truth be told, her voice calmed him, put him at ease. There had been a few times in Chicago and abroad where his limits had been tested, like in Ireland that fateful afternoon, when his bloodlust reared its ugly head. But Caroline was a soothing force in his life; she was a cool, stroking hand on the back of his neck, a voice at his ear, making him focus, making him hear her, breathe with her, instead of focusing on the blood, the rush of it through easily accessible veins. And later, she was the hand holding the blood bag to his lips, encouraging him, trusting him. She was his guidance and support, and he welcomed her constant talking. He listened to every word, smiling at her hand gestures and the inflections she used.
He didn't wonder what that meant; he simply accepted it as it was and hoped it would never change.
The week they spent in Winston-Salem passed quickly. Bonnie and Caroline spent much of it shopping, gossiping, and falling back into the easy flow of their friendship. When either Bonnie or Jeremy were busy with work, Stefan and Caroline became tourists once more, learning the city inside out.
"I missed Bonnie," she told him one afternoon, as they sat outside a small café. "I've made friends in Chicago, but… I don't know. They're not her, not Elena. I thought maybe it was just nostalgia, you know? We grew up together, of course it'd be hard to make friends and get as close to them, but… I think it's Bonnie. I think she's special."
"She is," he agreed. "And so are you. Sometimes, certain friendships are stronger, deeper, and those are the ones that last."
She smiled at him. "Even when we're apart?"
"You don't have to be standing beside each other to be friends, Caroline. You and Bonnie talk all the time, you Skype, you text… She's the person you turn to, who you trust; she'll always be your friend."
She nodded, biting her lip. "She's not the only one… I turn to you, I trust you. I think of you even before I think of Bonnie. I mean, when I'm upset, when I need somebody to reassure me, tell me things are going to be okay, talk me down from another freak-out over my grades… I find you."
"I'll always be there."
"Yeah," she murmured. "You will."
She cast her eyes away and smiled as she saw a set of tables. "Look…"
He turned his head and laughed under his breath. Somehow, she always managed to find someone selling something and she was always willing to buy. They left the café to check out the display and then wandered around, window-shopping for the most part. At some point, one of them had reached out, their hands tangling, and it wasn't until they met Jeremy and Bonnie for dinner, the latter of whom looking at their hands curiously, that they were aware of what had happened.
Bonnie didn't ask, not then anyway. It wasn't until their last night, when they returned to the bar down the road, a house band playing and a surprisingly good dinner menu to be enjoyed. Jeremy had asked Caroline to dance as a fast song came on and she'd joined him, laughing as he twirled her around playfully.
Bonnie turned to look at Stefan, staring curiously for a few long seconds. "So you and Caroline," she broached, not bothering to hide her interest in the least.
"Me and Caroline," he said, lips twitching with amusement.
"Is that like… a thing now, or…?" She shook her head questioningly.
"You'd be surprised how often I'm asked that."
Her brows rose. "If you guys act the way you do here everywhere else then no, not really surprised."
He laughed under his breath, short and quick. "Caroline is my best friend. She's all I have... There's you, Jeremy, Damon, wherever he is, but the every-day stuff… She's the one who's always with me. Everything I do, everywhere I go, I share it with her."
Bonnie nodded, brow furrowed thoughtfully. "So just friends, huh?"
He turned to look at her. "Jeremy told me about Elena…"
She sat up a little straighter, her lips pursed, brow furrowed. "And?"
He shook his head. "I don't know when it happened, or how, but I moved on. I didn't realize it until then. Being away from Mystic Falls, it gave me time to heal, to let go… I'm happy for her, that she's found herself again, but I don't want to be the one she comes back to." He licked his lips and nodded. "Me and Caroline, I don't know where that will go… I know I need her, I want her in my life, and I won't risk that. Not now."
Bonnie relaxed, seeming to take what he said as a good sign. "Maybe later then, after it's all sunk in… It's not like you don't have time, right?"
He chuckled. "No, I have lots of that."
She grinned back. Ducking her eyes for a moment, she told him, "It's good to see you, both of you. I wasn't sure what would happen after everything in Mystic Falls… I wasn't sure any of us were going to move on, you know? How do you forget things like that?"
He shook his head. "You don't." He turned to look at her. "I think it's a matter of accepting it, trying to live a happier life after, without all that… death."
She stared at him searchingly. "Are you?"
"I'm happy." He smiled at her. "Really."
"Good," she told him sincerely. "You deserve it."
"So do you. I'm glad you and Jeremy finally have that."
She grinned, turning a fond look at her boyfriend. "I still get worried something's going to happen," she confessed. "I'm still waiting for him to just disappear, for this whole thing to just be a dream…"
He covered her hand on the tabletop and squeezed. "It's real."
She stared at him a long moment before smiling. "Ugh. This whole reunion is making me emotional." She reached up to swipe at her eyes which had become thick with tears. "I'm going to go to the bathroom. Let Jeremy know?" She shrugged, rolling her eyes. "He worries."
As she walked toward the bathroom, the song changed. Stefan stood, pushing away from the table, and walked out onto the dance floor. He tapped Jeremy's shoulder and said, "Bonnie went to the bathroom."
He turned his head back and nodded, but his eyes searched out where the bathrooms were just in case, showing his worry.
"You mind if I cut in?" he wondered.
"No, that's fine. I'm pretty sure I stepped on her toes enough for one night." He handed Caroline's hand over to Stefan before making his way toward the washroom to wait on his girlfriend.
Stefan's arm slid around Caroline's waist and drew her close in a familiar embrace. They moved in tune with each other, as they always did, anticipating which way the other would move. He found himself paying attention more now than ever before. The way Caroline's fingers slid between his, how her hand settled near his neck, fingers lightly curled around the collar of his shirt. He noticed how his hand settled low on her back, his thumb stroking back and forth.
Bonnie had voiced things he often chose to ignore. Yes, he had time. He and Caroline may just have eternity. But what was any of it if not enjoyed? Every moment captured and lived to their limits. He didn't know if he and Caroline were ready for that, or if she even thought of him that way. What he did know was that his feelings were changing and forever sounded much better with her in it.
They shared two more dances, their twined hands resting against his chest, her head falling to his shoulder, feet shuffling in tune with each other. When the music picked up in tempo, they finally returned to the table. Bonnie shot him a knowing look, which he chose to ignore, instead ordering a round of drinks for them, which they promptly used to toast each other for having a great visit. Much of the night was spent drinking and talking about the better times in Mystic Falls, being sure to avoid anything that would bring the mood down.
It was well after two in the morning when they parted ways, Jeremy and Bonnie returning to their apartment while Caroline and Stefan caught a cab to their hotel. While the vampires of the group would suffer no hang-over, thanks to a few blood bags and their enhanced healing abilities, Bonnie and Jeremy were both looking pretty haggard the next morning.
They met outside of the apartment building to say their goodbyes, Stefan's car already packed with their luggage.
Caroline lingered, hugging Bonnie tight, and when they finally parted, each girl had tears in her eyes.
"We'll try to stop by here before we head back to Chicago," Caroline promised, smiling brightly.
"You better!" Bonnie said, laughing emotionally.
With one last squeezing hug, Caroline waved and climbed into the car.
"We'll come back," Stefan promised her as he turned the ignition.
"I know," she murmured, nodding. She waved at Jeremy and Bonnie as they pulled away and reached over, taking Stefan's hand. "Goodbyes are always hard."
He twined their fingers and silently agreed.
The thing was, as much as he cared for Jeremy and Bonnie, and he wished them the best, his life was not dependent on them being in it. He didn't feel a great, overwhelming loss when he didn't see them. He was happy when he did, he enjoyed their company, but he was content knowing that they were safe and happy where they were. They would always be his friends, but he was beginning to understand that his life was taking a different direction than theirs. They were happy in North Carolina, they would probably live out their days together, finish college, find careers, maybe have children. They would know all of the happiness a mortal lifetime could offer.
One day he would come back here with Caroline and Bonnie and Jeremy would be old, they would be wrinkled and grey. And maybe then Caroline would cry for a different reason. But what he also knew was that it would be him and Caroline. She wasn't going to be one of the people that came and went in his life. She wouldn't be someone that Jeremy told him he'd heard from in passing, some distant memory, a person he'd loved and watched walk away. She was not Elena.
As he left Winston-Salem, he smiled to himself. He felt lighter than he did when he'd arrived. His history with Elena was now put to rest. Wherever she was, he wished her well. He was moving forward, in every sense of the word, and, as he took in the girl next to him, he knew it was for the better.
[Next: Part II – Madly In Love.]
Author's Note: Phew! Wow, okay, so originally, after that lovely dancing scene between Stefan and Caroline (you all know what I'm talking about), I felt like I had to write a future-fic of them moving on and falling madly in love and getting their epic June wedding. But then as I was writing, I wanted to fill in everything before, hence, you get a giant three-part fic! I hope you liked this first part, I really enjoyed writing it. We'll be getting into the more romantic side of things next chapter! ;)
Huge shout-out to Shannon (arkfall), who was amazing enough to get me this back to me as quickly as she did. I start back at college for my spring semester tomorrow and I really wanted to post this beforehand.
Please leave a review!
- Lee | Fina