Disclaimer: Don't own anything, title inspired by Eric Clapton's song of the same name.
A/N: Yes, I am a terrible, terrible person. This sat unfinished for months – massive case of writer's block and real life infringement – so naturally I am wincing with fear that I will underwhelm you all but here goes nothing.
Thank you to my wonderful beta, Cathy, who pushed and prodded just enough and to all of you, wonderful readers, who have followed Caroline on this journey of self-discovery I forced her on. This isn't the last of me – I am irrevocably tied to this fandom now, so stay tuned for more. Thanks for reading!
"Commitment is an act, not a word."
-Jean-Paul Sartre (French philosopher)
It's an urge she always gets around the holidays...a pull on her heart that tugs and tugs without fail every December.
In the past, when she was alone, she had to come up with creative ways to alleviate the subtle ache. Some years she volunteered, others she would go to midnight mass. And once or twice, she compelled herself into family gatherings…her shame and guilt always quelled by the overwhelming feeling of belonging, of family, even if for the night.
But now, now that she isn't alone, doesn't have to search for a family, the desire is stronger than ever.
Everything else falls by the wayside as she stares at the calendar posted on the refrigerator and realizes that the year is almost over and she hadn't even noticed.
While that fills her with a sense of joy – the awareness that her life is fuller now than it has ever been – the pull comes back twofold and she speaks before thinking.
"I think we should have a Christmas party."
The second she blurts this out Caroline feels guilty, but it gets momentarily trumped by the temporary ache of arousal as Klaus steps away from where he was nestled between her thighs and fixes her with a suspicious but playful look.
She'd had him trapped before, one heeled foot against the counter, one on the fridge, with the hybrid comfortably in between. But now he steps away and she drops her legs, staring at him ruefully from her perch atop the kitchen isle, as he looks at her, half aroused and half curious.
"Is this because I crashed your art class last week?" He asks, head cocked to the side and jade eyes fixed on her apologetically. He doesn't wait for her to answer as he settles his hands on her bare thighs, thumbs tracing the hem of her pencil skirt, and making her lose her train of thought again.
It's remarkable, how after nearly two decades together, and ten before that chasing each other, he can still ignite every last of her nerve endings with just a simple touch or a promise-filled gaze.
Her lip still finds itself between her teeth as she wrestles with her explanation and Klaus' expression instantly changes as traces of playfulness disappear from his eyes and he furrows his eyebrows in concern.
His touch becomes less possessive and more soothing as he waits for her to elaborate and this patience of his, which Caroline knows is still a work in progress, makes her heart swell.
How did she get so lucky?
A part of her is afraid to admit her reasoning but Klaus definitely deserves the truth, especially since she interrupted something infinitely more pleasurable than party planning. However, she must be careful not to give too much away, because she would much rather let this be an interlude in their evening than a drawn out analysis of her psyche.
Her hands find themselves slinking up his torso and twining around his neck as she pulls him back against her. Klaus looks at her suspiciously for a second but doesn't deny her the proximity, falling willingly into the apex of her thighs as her legs settle around him again.
"I just think that with Stefan and Rebekah coming home in a couple of days, and Elijah on his way back already, it would be nice to have an official reason to get everyone together."
She settles her mouth right below his ear, a sensitive spot that elicits a groan from the hybrid, and as if he needs any more convincing, Caroline slides off the isle and to her full height right at the same time as her hands travel to his belt buckle.
They're at eye level now and she fixes him with a pout that he can only find adorable on her as she tugs at his belt.
"And we haven't all been together in so long…"
Her voice, tilted slightly for dramatic effect, tapers off and Klaus probably has a lot to say about this, especially since he's clearly being manipulated into hosting his siblings for the holidays…but Caroline knows that he misses Rebekah and Elijah terribly, has had an extra air of giddiness and playfulness about him for days now in anticipation of their arrival.
So she's not surprised when he acquiesces, mumbling something along the lines of her getting anything she wants at the moment and Caroline smiles devilishly to herself as she slides to her knees.
Thoughts of party planning put on hold for the time being.
With the seed planted, however, Caroline isn't surprised to find herself sitting in the middle of their completely transformed living room a week later, thinking that it looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
She's curled into her favorite upholstered couch in front of the roaring fireplace when a drink is pushed into her hand. Caroline looks up then to find the warm jade eyes of one of her closest friends peering knowingly at her as he takes a seat next to her.
"And what are you thinking about so intently, Ms. Forbes?" The younger Salvatore brother asks playfully as he takes a sip of his drink and leans against the opposite arm of the couch.
"Nothing much, Mr. Salvatore." Caroline quips back with a smile before bringing the lowball glass to her lips as well.
Stefan watches her take a sip and then bites the side of his lip to keep from laughing as she noticeably grimaces.
"What is this?" She sniffs the glass, looking at the milky contents for the first time.
Stefan suppresses a chuckle as he leans forward and whispers, "Rebekah's attempt at eggnog."
"Don't tell her," he continues conspiratorially, "but it's not very good."
Caroline actually giggles as Rebekah's voice travels from the kitchen, "I heard that!"
"Love ya," Stefan shouts back almost automatically and gives Caroline a playful wink before finishing the contents of his glass and reaching for the decanter of whiskey perched on the table by the loveseat.
Caroline watches him silently, mulling over whether she should ask what's on her mind. But the hesitation lasts only a little while. She hadn't realized up until now how much she has missed Stefan. How integral he had been to her immortal beginnings and how much of her strength and growing confidence she owes to his belief in her.
She regrets how sparingly they kept in touch throughout the years but is thankful that their friendship has survived a century and secretly, she kind of loves the fact that he and Rebekah have found their way back to each other…if for no other reason than that Caroline now has even more of an excuse to see him.
He is happy though, there is no denying that, and to Caroline, it is remarkable, that after all the hurt he has experienced (a large portion of it at the hands of her seriously indecisive best friend), Stefan's heart is still open, and he seems so fearless with it.
"How do you do that?" She asks almost breathlessly.
The sheer curiosity in her tone must tip him off, because Stefan pauses uncharacteristically with the decanter still in his hand and gives her a knowing side glance, before returning the crystal vessel to its resting spot.
He reclines back against the couch and Caroline can see that he's carefully measuring out his response; brows furrowed just slightly and she recognizes yet again how much she's missed him, his calming presence, his thoughtful advice, and his straightforwardness.
Always so straightforward, she muses while Stefan contemplates.
He has never lied to her. Has never tried to avoid telling her the truth and that is invaluable in her mind, almost as important - if not as important - as loyalty in a friendship; which Stefan Salvatore is in no shortage of either.
The observation pushes her into further musing, which she only snaps out of when Stefan nudges her to capture her attention.
"Take a walk with me?" He catches her off guard and for a second Caroline is confused, until he nods his head silently toward the kitchen and then realization washes over her.
Currently, there are two Originals with a heightened sense of hearing lounging in the next room, and though Caroline is a little wary of what Stefan has to say that he would prefer his fiancée and her brother don't hear, she nods in agreement and follows him through the hall to the back patio.
The Mikaelson plantation is attached to several acres of farmland that have since been transformed into a very pleasant garden that happens to be Caroline's pride and joy. It reminds her of the sprawling forests in Mystic Falls, minus the slew of bittersweet memories and heartache.
She doesn't feel heavy at all, a spring in her step as she leads Stefan onto the property, walking mostly without direction because she knows the path like the back of her hand. This is her home now.
They walk mostly in silence for a while, her choosing not to push Stefan to speak until he is ready, and when they find a stone bench, she follows his lead and settles beside him.
When he starts to speak, Caroline understands immediately why he wanted to be out of Rebekah and Klaus' earshot.
"When I found Rebekah in Cairo, she was the worst I had ever seen her."
Caroline fights hard to suppress her guilt as she studies Stefan's face. It's physically painful to be reminded of the ordeal Rebekah went through at the hands of those witches – one Caroline was responsible for - but Stefan's faraway gaze keeps her grounded somewhat.
This isn't about her right now, but about him and whatever wisdom he wants to share, so Caroline fixes him with a careful smile when he glances at her from the corner of his eye.
Somehow though, he still picks up on her discomfort.
"Don't worry," He says with a humorless smile, "she bounced back faster than I'd ever seen anyone do. I was worried at first that she wasn't dealing, that even an Original wasn't immune to PTSD or trauma."
Stefan pauses then, swirling the amber liquid in his glass and uncharacteristically avoiding her glance. She realizes then that it's highly likely that Stefan has never told anyone about this and she immediately scoots closer to him, arm wrapping instinctively around his shoulder.
Stefan leans into her – with a familiarity and ease only their type of bond can precipitate.
"I constantly pushed her to talk about it, worried that she would snap at any minute. I can see now in retrospect how for someone as independent and willful as Rebekah, having me around would have been beyond suffocating but I always justified it by the fact that she never asked me to leave."
He says this with an almost self-deprecating tone and Caroline gently interjects.
"I'm sure that regardless of how overbearing you became, the alternative of loneliness for her was much scarier."
Stefan looks up at her then, his green eyes filled with concern, and Caroline quickly reminds herself that she needs to stop bringing her own experiences into this, "besides, what girl in her right mind would say no to eye candy the likes of you?"
She playfully elbows his side, hoping to infuse the moment with levity, and while it works, it's only temporary and Stefan smiles briefly before staring ahead again.
"Well, actually, she did tell me to 'get the hell out of her sight' once. We were in Madrid and she made some friends with a few art students in the fashion district. They all decided to go clubbing one night – all girls, so I followed them, couldn't stop myself, which sounds ridiculous now, but back then –"
He pauses then, finishing the remainder of whiskey – looking the most distressed that Caroline has seen him since Rebekah and he arrived in New Orleans five days ago. A part of her is glad her innocent inquiry from before has triggered Stefan's desire to open up; it seems like he's been keeping this bottled up inside since it happened.
She gives him a light encouraging squeeze, which seems to snap him out of his state and he shoots her a quick, grateful smile before continuing.
"Anyway, I didn't plan on intervening, just lingering in the background. I wanted her to have fun too – a part of me recognized how irrational and overprotective I was being, but the other part of me – well it didn't quite get the message, so when a few guys became too handsy for my taste, I stepped in and let's just say Rebekah was not pleased."
Caroline lets out a snicker in spite of herself, unable to disagree, having seen how the blond Original reacts when she's treated like a damsel in distress without her consent.
"She was furious with me and for good reason. I overstepped my bounds…at that point we weren't even-" Stefan pauses then, a hint of blush rising on his cheeks that spreads warmth through Caroline's heart.
A man in love is hard to miss – and she's looking at one right now.
"I was curious how that came to be." Caroline grins at him conspiratorially, as if they're two old friends dishing on each others' love lives, which in a way they are, because at the end of the day she wants to know how Stefan can open his heart up so unabashedly, so fearlessly, when there's an eternity of potential heartbreak stretched out before them.
It's something she struggles with every day – an insecurity that she is afraid she may never part with and one that does such a disservice to her relationship with Klaus, to the hybrid himself.
Because she's happy…God, she's so happy that it's almost disgusting, but that fear lurks just beneath the surface and Caroline is afraid that when she least expects it, it will rear its ugly head and consume her whole, ruining everything she and Klaus have built together.
She can't let that happen. They've come too far. She stiffens beneath the urgency and Stefan must sense it, because he casts a deeper, longer stare at her, before breaking the silence.
"That night, in a way, was the catalyst for bringing us closer together, but at the moment, it felt like I was about to lose her. She was harsh but fair in her assessment of the situation. Even in her rage, I could tell she was disappointed in me, upset that I had handled her like she was a piece of property to protect, instead of my equal. Even though I had already suspected that it was my inability to move on from what happened to her that was making me behave so irrationally, it wasn't until that night that I realized I would lose her if I didn't deal with my own issues."
Caroline doesn't want to draw comparisons but she understands Stefan in a way that only comes from having dealt with it in the same way. It wasn't a coincidence that their friendship could withstand decades of radio silence. When two people saw life through a similar lens, the bond was solidified.
It was one of the pillars beneath her relationship with Klaus – and she could see a facet of it in her friendship with Stefan as well, especially with this new revelation.
In her rumination, Caroline didn't notice Stefan's transformation. His face has lost some of its tension and he seems overall more at ease as his mind's eye gazes back into the past. He has broken the seal of silence, has opened this door into his psyche and Caroline is secretly pleased that her innocent question perpetuated all of this.
He even chuckles to himself out of nowhere, and Caroline is instantly curious.
"What?" She pokes him, disregarding how childish her action is.
"Nothing, just thinking about some of the things Rebekah said to me that night; you'd probably appreciate them." He explains teasingly and Caroline rolls her eyes, though only slightly annoyed.
"Yes, yes I know. Klaus never fails to point out how similar Rebekah and I are."
Her expression must be on the cusp of comedic because Stefan's face breaks into a smile and he shakes his head.
"It's kind of creepy. I mean think about it, having your boyfriend compare you to his sister? Eww." She almost physically shudders but for some reason her explanation makes Stefan full on laugh.
"What is so funny, Salvatore?" She nudges him in the ribs, this time a little harder than before – as if it could actually cause him discomfort. He's got like 150 years on her.
"I'm sorry," Stefan raises his hand up in defense, but his laughing does not subside, "it's just funny that after everything, you refer to Klaus as your boyfriend…my god Klaus as anyone's boyfriend is a hilarious concept."
The onslaught of varying emotions hits her unexpectedly: a twinge of jealousy at the thought that the hybrid would be with anyone else but her, followed by dread at the realization that Stefan has nailed the root of her problem without even realizing. The awareness subdues her a bit but she refuses to let it crumble the lightness she feels completely.
"Well what else do I call him? My beau, paramour, significant other?"
None of these terms appeal to her; doesn't do justice to what she and Klaus share. Although she suspects that it's all part of her inability to let go of her past completely, she throws the inquiry to Stefan, a childish part of her wanting someone else to voice what she is too afraid to admit.
"From what I understand, you could call him your husband if you wanted to."
A cold shiver skitters down her back as Stefan's seemingly innocent comment hangs heavy in the air between them.
She stares straight ahead, a heavy knot forming right beneath her ribs, filling the lightness inside her with dread. Stefan's gaze lies heavily on her as she struggles to keep her tells under control but she refuses to meet his eyes and he knows, of course he knows.
"Didn't know this was a topic you guys broached during your male bonding." She comments petulantly, like a child.
Stefan is undeterred – can see right through her defense mechanisms better than anyone.
"We don't, but you shouldn't be surprised that he talks to his sister. I think if anything, you should be glad. It's helped fix their relationship a lot over the years."
"Glad I could be of service then." Caroline replies dryly, but the remark doesn't have the usual bite to it. She feels chastened by the revelation, but also as Stefan predicts, extremely glad that Klaus and Rebekah are on better terms, even if it's at her expense.
It's good that Klaus has a confidant, even if it's in ways she can never be.
This knowledge deflates her a bit, diffusing her pride somewhat and she turns her head to look at Stefan finally.
She hates that she's about to burden him like this but knows that if there's anyone willing to be invested, it's him.
"How can I accept Klaus' marriage proposal, when I haven't even said I love you to him since the day I moved into this house?"
Stefan does a good job maintaining his poker face, but his eyebrows rise almost imperceptibly as the weight of her confession settles between them. Caroline feels instantly guilty for unloading on him like this.
It's entirely selfish of her and she's about to apologize, take it back if necessary, so as not to completely spoil the relaxed state they were in before, when Stefan's expression dissolves into a rueful smile and he places his hand comfortingly on her shoulder.
"Words are meaningless on their own, Caroline. You know that."
She nods, even though she's unconvinced, and looks down at the ground; feeling incredibly ashamed, irritated at herself as well for letting her insecurities linger and infect the best parts of her existence.
Sensing her doubt, Stefan continues.
"Do you know why I never gave up on searching for Rebekah?"
Caroline instinctively shakes her head, even though she knows this is just a rhetorical question – one that Stefan is about to answer for her.
"Because I simply saw no other alternative."
"It wasn't about being in love with her, at least not at that point. I had only seen her a handful of times since they left Mystic Falls for New Orleans. Being in love with her came later, probably around the time she threatened to dismember me in Madrid if I didn't stop treating her like a porcelain doll."
They share a laugh over that – it cannot be helped.
Rebekah, for all her faults, is a force to be reckoned with and something of a kindred spirit to Caroline, even if it's a tough thing to admit.
"I searched for her because I knew that I could never fully live until I knew she was safe, until I knew where she was. It's that single-minded determination that kept me going, it's what Elijah and Klaus both saw in me that gave them faith that I would find their sister."
Immediately, Caroline is transported back to her tiny loft in Paris, a balmy summer evening, Klaus in the middle of her kitchen telling her that Stefan found Rebekah. Even then the hybrid gave off an "I knew it all along" vibe that Caroline found a little fabricated.
Now, she can't help but agree with Stefan.
"It's also the same drive I saw in Damon whenever Elena was around – even in the beginning." Stefan pauses then, tugging on her shoulder a bit, urging her to look at him as he speaks.
"And it's the same drive I see in you when you're around Klaus. And if I can see it, well Care, he can see it too, regardless of how stubborn he can be."
They share a secret smirk then, two people who have seen Klaus' darkest and most unappealing side but have grown to love him anyway. Only a few share in this rarity and Caroline instantly feels empowered – a rush of adrenaline as her heart alights with the possibility that Stefan is right, that words are meaningless on their own – that actions speak louder – volumes even.
Hers could fill up a novel.
And it seems that fate wants her to hold onto this hope, this renewed sense of rightness, because before the inevitable seed of doubt can foster, their tranquil silence is interrupted.
"There you two are."
They both instantly look up to find Rebekah leaning against one of the Sycamores obstructing the bench from sight. Caroline's gaze shifts to Stefan's while his eyes remain on the Original and she can't help the burst of warmth that blooms in her belly as she watches her friend's expression immediately alight.
A part of her thinks Stefan is a fool if he thinks that his feelings for Rebekah didn't factor into his dogged search for her, but Caroline can't deny that he is right.
That at the end of the day, if it were Klaus who was missing, even back then, she would not be able to carry on with anything until he was safe – her life would be at a literal and figurative standstill.
Her mother was right – eternity is one hell of a long time to be alone – and in this case, to be crippled by your insecurities.
The thought brings her back to the present, just in time to see that Stefan is no longer sitting beside her but rather standing next to Rebekah, arm slung loosely around her shoulder, as if to belie the shared intimacy between them.
"You coming, Caroline? I fear another minute of your absence and my brother will call in his invisible cavalry."
Rebekah's teasing mention of Klaus fully snaps Caroline out of her reverie and she's on her feet in a minute, making her way over to the couple.
"No need for that," She quips back to the other blonde, "you know how difficult it is to clean up after his nonexistent army."
Rebekah's laughter echoes for minutes after. The silent exchange of gratitude between Caroline and Stefan passes unnoticed.
There's nothing in the world that centers her more than hearing her best friend's voice. Caroline feels instantly soothed when she hears Elena's sleepy greeting – so familiar, so close, as if they're not thousands of miles apart.
"Care? Is everything okay?"
Through her concern, Elena immediately sounds more alert and Caroline feels guilty – having not realized that it must be really late, or very early in London. Her remorse is somewhat mollified by indistinct grumbling that comes over the line – Damon is apparently not very pleased that Blondie woke him up.
Caroline smirks to herself.
If someone had told her a century ago that she would ever actually miss the older Salvatore, she would have laughed in their face, but then again, if someone had told her she'd still be alive in 2115…
Elena's reprimand to her husband (yes, after eighty years, Elena Gilbert finally became Elena Salvatore – and even Caroline has to admit that it was a very tasteful wedding – she planned it after all) rouses Caroline from her musings.
"Everything is fine, I just..." She pauses then, not wanting to worry Elena but also not wanting to keep her on the line unnecessarily.
It was such an impulse to slip out here as the evening wound down and phone her friend even though she will see her in a couple of days. Apparently, even a hundred years of wandering on her own can't break old habits - some decisions inevitably require support from the person who has known you the longest.
Stefan may understand her the best – but a large part of that is due to their similarities.
Elena, on the other hand, could not be more different from Caroline and yet she gets her all the same, if not better. Just hearing her voice gives Caroline the strength and confidence she needs to take the final leap.
Just like that, Caroline makes up her mind.
"I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas and to tell you I can't wait to see you."
She bites the inside of her cheek, holding unnecessary breath as the silence on the other line stretches. Even miles away, she can sense that Elena is unconvinced – knows that there's a reason why Caroline called and the latter is about to cave, when Elena exhales notably into the phone.
"Hmm okay, well I can forgive you for waking me up, because I miss you too, like crazy and I can't wait to see you either."
"I'm sorry to have woken you up."
Caroline audibly exhales and feels a sense of relief – which is precisely why she's entirely unprepared for Elena's next comment.
"Oh and Care?"
It's Caroline's turn to pause as she considers Elena's (not so) ambiguous felicitations. In a way, this is exactly what Caroline was looking for – a blessing of sorts if she's honest with herself – which is ludicrous because she's long since stopped looking to her friends for approval on her happiness.
But she immediately recognizes that this isn't about approval at all.
It's about letting go of her fears and saying good bye completely to her old life. And who better to give her away than the woman she has admired, loved and on occasion competed against her entire (and very long) life?
Caroline definitely doesn't miss Damon's clear approval of the situation.
"It's about damn time, Blondie." He speaks clearly now, having wrestled the cell phone from his wife's hands, "now let the good people sleep, you and Elena can gab all about this in less than 72 hours."
She's not even pissed when Damon abruptly hangs up on her, though Caroline is certain Elena will have something to say about that. That's the last thing on her mind, however, as she steps back inside their bedroom and walks quickly to the antique desk sitting in the corner of the room.
It's rarely used and if not for her, it would be gathering a thick layer of dust on its oak surface – but Caroline knows it's all a diversion tactic.
Even though New Orleans has been peaceful for nearly half a century now, Klaus' paranoia has never fully dissipated. So he keeps everything of importance in a locked drawer of the unassuming desk that would be the last place arrogant supernatural enemies would look.
It's a brilliant plan in its simplicity but tonight, Caroline is interested in something that has nothing to do with any potential war and everything to do with her future with the hybrid.
She knows Klaus and Elijah have gone for a walk around the property. Having not seen each other in close to a year, the brothers have spent the last couple hours since Elijah's arrival catching up.
So Caroline knows she has a few precious minutes to do this without alerting Klaus.
Picking locks has never been a problem and this one is no exception. There's only a moment of hesitation as she retrieves the object in question and takes it out of the box.
It's beautiful, mesmerizing, and when she slips it on, it fits without resistance, as if it's finally found its true resting place.
On her ring finger.
Caroline doesn't expect the tightness in her chest or the dryness in her throat – and she most definitely doesn't anticipate the prickle of tears blurring her vision as she stares at the ring.
Her fascination with it takes her breath away, completely blocks everything out and she only notices that she's no longer alone when Klaus is already inside the room, eyes trained on her with an intensity she hasn't seen in a while.
It's not a mask but rather a complete exposure of the vulnerability and fear he's experiencing in this moment. It occurs to her then that he had pretty much abandoned all hope of this ever coming to fruition, that he had started to accept that she may never give him the type of commitment he wanted.
And it breaks her heart before fusing it back together – leaving her just as speechless as she had been before.
But she knows he's waiting for her to speak, to say something, to let him know it's not a dream or a cruel joke.
"Merry Christmas?" She shrugs, biting the inside of her cheek as she's suddenly reduced to the insecure, seventeen year old who was simultaneously intrigued and disturbed by the thousand old creature when she first met him.
Caroline doesn't have much time to contemplate her less than stellar delivery because in an instant, Klaus flashes in front of her, invading her space as he seeks her mouth and kisses her with every bit of force and vigor she anticipated.
She gives into it, arms wrapping around his neck out of habit, guided by instinct and familiarity. She gets lost in the feel of his lips as they slant over hers, his tongue tracing hers as he holds her to him possessively, as if he's afraid to let go.
He pulls away only for a moment, only long enough for them to make eye contact, and Caroline does her best to communicate everything with one glance – words can come later, she decides before making the move this time and fitting seamlessly into his arms, kissing him with all the fervor she can muster.
It never gets old, which is good…
Since they have all of eternity.