Author's Note: Hello, my loves! I am so sorry about the long wait! I was hurt in an accident and working like crazy so I haven't been able to work on my stories as much as I hoped that I could, so I apologize for the long wait! I thank everyone for all of your kind words and I do hope that you forgive me and continue to enjoy this story as much as I enjoy writing it! Everyone, have a wonderful day! Enjoy!

Caroline gives Kol an incredulous look, wondering if she's somehow being punked right now or not. She's not sure what it is but this last year has been nothing but a complete mess. Her dad divorced her mom and came out of the closet. Elena's parents died at the end of the school year - after picking her up from a party that Caroline basically bullied her into going to. But Elena would never throw that into her face, despite how much Caroline thinks about it. They - Jeremy and Elena, Caroline means - stayed with Caroline almost all summer while their aunt Jenna got everything in her life as together as she could before taking them in full time. School comes around and it's like this massive fissure between Caroline and her friends suddenly can't be ignored into existence.

And since then, the night of that stupid party, Caroline has been so completely alone. She just didn't realize it, or how bad it was, until recently.

"You want to help out?" Caroline asks slowly, suspicion evident in her voice.

Kol's self-assured smile doesn't so much as twitch out of place. "Of course, darling. I wouldn't have offered myself if I didn't mean it."

Caroline isn't sure how much of that she's willing to believe but if he's offering to help, she'll use him. If he's going to insist on hanging around her for some unknown reason, she's going to make sure he's somewhere she can keep an eye on him, but also keep him at a respectable distance. No private time alone. No chance. Since the moment Caroline somehow got free of him she's been in survival mode and that suits her just fine.

So Caroline glances down at her notes and picks out something at random and sends Kol on his way. He doesn't complain, just flashes a charming smile and heads off to complete his task.

"He's cute."

Caroline jumps, her scream trapped in her clenching throat as she turns to look at the person next to her, eyes wide and jaw clenched.

Tiki giggles, brushing Caroline's arm. "Damn girl, sorry. I didn't mean to scare you." Caroline nods, swallowing down her scream, willing her racing heart to slow down as Tiki asks, "Who was that?"

"Kol," Caroline hears herself say, sucking in a deep breath. "He offered to help us out."

Tiki hums, rubbing at her chin thoughtfully, staring after Kol as he joins two seniors that Caroline had pointed out to him on the other side of the room talking to them like they are old friends. He seems able to fit in seamlessly, making it seem like they were long-time friends. "I wonder if he's from Whittmore."

"I don't know," Caroline mumbles, looking down at her scribbles, "I didn't ask."

Tiki glances over at her contemplatively, pursing her lips before asking, softly, "Are you... thinking about asking him out?"

Caroline shakes her head, glancing back over at her friend. The idea of trying to get close to someone else makes her feel sick to her stomach. She isn't even slightly interested in finding someone right now. She doesn't have enough energy to pour into herself, let alone into a relationship. "He's all yours."

Caroline expected that to be the end of that. With Caroline's needless permission, Tiki would be able to walk away to either do just that or go back to work and plan out her next move. And Caroline was okay with that. It was normal. It was simple. Not that Caroline wanted this stranger hanging around her friend, but the last thing that she could handle was the attention being on her. So long as nothing bad happened to Tiki, then Caroline was okay with it. Not that Tiki needed her permission to do anything. But Tiki did neither.

The dark-skinned teen stares back at her with beautifully sculpted eyebrows pulled together in worry. Tiki glances around a moment as if trying to decide if now was the time that she was going to do something or not. She chews on her bottom lip, warring with herself on what she wanted to do. She nods to herself, reaching out to grab onto Caroline's arm, and drags her out into the hall away from the doors and the nice inside.

"What are you doing, Tiki?" Caroline asks, perplexed by her friend's strange behavior, her own eyebrows pulling together tightly.

Tiki turns to face her, a frown pulling at her lips. Tiki studies Caroline for a moment before sighing and asking, "We're friends, right?"

Caroline stares back at her, surprised by the question. "What?"

Tiki crosses her arms over her chest. "I mean, we've had classes together since forever, and we've been on Cheer together and do a lot of the same extracurricular activities so we've always been sort of friends, sort of acquaintances, right?"

Not really sure how to respond to that, Caroline just sort of nods. "I mean in the past, yeah." But not anymore. There was no 'kind of' anything. As far as Caroline is concerned, Tiki was without a doubt her friend.

"I think the same," Tiki agrees, a small, relieved smile working its way across her face. "This year we've actually become friends, right?"

Admittedly, Caroline has spent more time with Tiki this year than she's spent with Elena and Bonnie combined. And while Caroline has always liked Tiki - they get along really well - Bonnie has never really liked her so Caroline never really explored a possible friendship with Tiki out of respect for one of her best, and oldest, friends. Not until now. So... yeah. Tiki was her friend. At least, more than she's had in a while.

"Yeah," Caroline agrees, glancing down at the notebook still in her hands before looking back at the teen in front of her. "Yeah. We are friends."

Tiki smiles at that, relieved that they really were on the same page. "Good. So..." Tiki hesitates for a moment, trying to build up the courage to say what's been eating at her since they started on this topic. "Are you..." she says slowly, staring into Caroline's eyes, "..okay?"

"I'm okay." The lie slips easily from between Caroline's lips. A rehearsed line from the last few months. She keeps saying it to whoever asked in the hopes that maybe one day it'll be true again.

Tiki stares at her in utter disbelief, and it shocks Caroline. "Look," Tiki says slowly, "I know that I'm not Bonnie or Elena but you don't have to lie to me. I can tell that you've been a mess all year but I feel like now I have the right to say something. As your friend. Whatever you're going through, know that you aren't alone. I don't know what is completely going on but I know that you aren't acting like yourself and it's steadily getting worse."

Caroline stares at the girl in front of her, emotions slamming into her chest. Honestly, Caroline can't believe that someone noticed. For so long, Caroline has been secretly bitter about no one being none the wiser about her plight, but now... now someone has noticed. And it was Tiki of all people. The realization has left her breathless and stunned. "Wh...What do you mean?"

"You're depressed," Tiki states with such certainty that Caroline couldn't argue even if she actually wasn't depressed. Tiki's eyes are shining with worry and her face is twisted in sympathy. "You are scary levels of depressed. You fake it enough to fool people who don't really know you or aren't paying attention but you are scaring me. You don't smile anymore."

Caroline blinks. It doesn't surprise her that she doesn't smile anymore - she hasn't had anything to really smile about recently - but she's surprised that someone noticed it enough to make note of it. Something that simple. Something as simple as a smile.

"You don't spend a lot of time with your other friends," Tiki notes, staring into Caroline's eyes, her own dark ones flashing in concern. "You don't want to go home. You don't want to be here. Not just school, but everywhere. School, cheer, fundraisers, everything. It's almost like there isn't any joy in your life anymore."

Well, because there wasn't. At this point, Caroline was just going through the motions. There was no joy beyond the minute bits that she gets from Liz and whenever Bonnie and Elena offer her a modicum of attention.

And... Tiki too. Tiki makes her happy. Tiki is kind and present and better than Caroline could have ever hoped for. Tiki is this bright and shining light in the darkness of Caroline's life these last few months. Caroline doesn't want to think about where she might be without Tiki. The girl in front of her has been almost single-handedly keeping Caroline together, and she never even realized it. Neither of them did.

It doesn't take a lot of introspection for Caroline to know just how bad it's getting for her. And it is also becoming blatantly clear to Caroline that Tiki might have helped to save Caroline's life. Even if she hadn't intended to, or done anything overly impressive. Caroline is quickly learning that Tiki is someone worth living for.

"I'm worried about you," Tiki says softly, staring at her. Caroline feels a tightening in her chest at that. "I'm not Elena or Bonnie... but you can talk to me. About anything, okay?"

Overwhelmed with emotion, Caroline pulls Tiki into her arms, squeezing the other girl and closing her eyes tightly. Tiki hugs her back as Caroline struggles to collect herself. She's not sure what she did to deserve Tiki but she is so thankful that the other girl decided to be part of her life at just the right time.

"Thanks, Tiki," Caroline whispers, vowing to herself to try harder. For Tiki, for Liz... she'll try. And maybe, when she's strong enough, for herself too. "I'm going to be okay. I promise."

Tiki squeezes her tightly but waits for Caroline to pull back before she does. Tiki's dark eyes are focused and filled with concern but Caroline gives her arm a squeeze with her free hand while the other one is still holding her notes.

"We should go back," Caroline says, offering a thin smile that felt more real than most of her more recent ones.

Tiki nods, turning and heading back toward the gym. Before walking in, she pauses, glancing over at Caroline, and asks, slowly, "Do you want to monitor this together? I don't trust Emily not to bail on me."

A little laugh escapes Caroline as she nods a bit, feeling a bit of the tension in her shoulders release, even if only marginally. "Sure." A small pause as Tiki turns away to head back into the gym Caroline hears herself whisper, "Thank you, Tiki." And either Tiki didn't hear her or didn't feel the need to react or comment, the dark-skinned girl kept going. Either way, Caroline is thankful.

True to her word, Tiki stayed close the whole night doing everything she could to make Caroline smile. She would crack harmless jokes, regaling humorous stories from her summer that Caroline enjoyed listening to. And maybe it worked to make her smile a few times. Maybe.

Kol hung around. Caroline almost forgot about him a few times but when she found him again, he was blending in perfectly with any group of people he popped into for a short time as he worked his way through the festivities. Caroline wasn't sure who he was or why he was really here but he seemed like the perfect chameleon. No one seems overly bothered by him being around and he didn't offer anyone prolonged attention as he made his way through the night.

He gave Caroline her space, to which she was very grateful. Whenever they would run into one another - which is bound to happen in such limited space - he was cordial, asked questions, or making statements. Or even offering a simple smile that has no doubt slain many women in the past before moving on without a word. Caroline's not sure what it is about him, but she's getting a lot of mixed emotions when it comes to Kol. She's suspicious of him, because, of course, why wouldn't she be? But there is something about him... something that she can't place just yet. She's wary of him, no doubt. But she's not as scared of him as she was when they first met.

Maybe that's because she's safe in a crowd of people. So, there is always that.

After the fundraiser was winding down, Caroline and Tiki gathered all of the volunteers together to undo all of their work from a few hours prior. It didn't take as long as Caroline feared it would, but even then she didn't manage to make it home until after midnight. Liz was already in bed, no doubt having to work early in the morning. So Caroline makes sure to sneak in as silently as possible as to not wake her.

Caroline groans as soon as she walks into her room at the sight of the laundry still sitting on her bed from the morning. She forgot.

Caroline wars with herself again. Normally she would put everything away as soon as it comes out of the dryer to prevent her clothes from wrinkling but it's already way too late for that and honestly, Caroline couldn't care less at this point. So it shouldn't matter if she leaves it for the morning, right? She's exhausted enough as it is, and she does have school in the morning.

Past Caroline screams as she places the basket onto the ground and turns off her light, kicking off her shoes and crawling into bed wearing her clothes from the day still but unable to muster the energy to care.


Caroline wakes up later than she normally would have liked, but she got ready fast enough to say goodbye to Liz for the day before going back into her room to put her laundry away. She could have just given up in frustration for having overslept and yet still feel like she hasn't slept at all, and still having to fold the laundry, put it away, and head off for another long day at school. But she doesn't, of course.

While sitting on the carpet in front of her bed, folding her clothes into neat piles around herself, she gets hit with that smell once more. That horrible smell of iron and rot. Caroline crinkles up her nose in disgust, looking at her laundry, unable to believe that it would be from there. She grabs the sweatshirt on top, bringing it to her nose, and breathes in deep.

Caroline recoils. She could smell the fabric softener that her mom used but underneath that she could faintly smell the forest. The dirt. And the stink of weed so seeped into its fabric that it will need a hundred more washes to fully get rid of it.

Caroline is forced to remember that first night. The first time she turned into a dog. It was so wild, so out of this world and completely unprompted that she was willing to believe it was all a terrible dream - she didn't know that she changed into a dog that time, though. There hadn't been any lingering effects to what happened that night. Nothing to prove that it had been real. Except for the sweatshirt. Caroline had forgotten all about it. If just a few days ago Caroline hadn't turned into a giant dog... she's not sure she would have believed it.

But... she can't deny it. She can't pretend that it didn't happen. She's not sure what to do about it though.

Caroline pushes to her feet, sweatshirt clenched between her hands as she runs out her front door and to the side of the house to where her mom put the waste bins that go to the street. She pulls open the lid, throws the sweatshirt inside, slams the lid down, and runs back to the house. She presses herself against the interior side of the front door, heaving heavily.

Caroline sucks in a deep breath and holds it, trying to calm her heart slamming against the inside of her chest, willing herself not to break down. Not here not now. She can do it. She can survive it. She promised Tiki just yesterday that she would be okay. That she would try. So she's not going to break down. She's not going to fall apart.

Right now? Right now, she'll breathe.


"Hey."

Caroline nearly leaps out of her skin for the second time in two days. Caroline turns and is honestly shocked to see Bonnie standing next to her.

"Bonnie?" Caroline gasps, surprised. "What's up?"

Bonnie gives her a strange look before frowning a bit, her shoulders slumping. She scrunched her lips over to one side. "Okay. I guess I deserved that."

Caroline slowly walks over to one of the lunch tables by the trees that they used to always go to. Bonnie, Elena, and herself, she means. When Elena and Matt started dating then he joined them and sometimes his best friend Tyler would join them too. Those days were fun. Those days were full of laughing and joking and plans for the future. They talked about college and dream jobs and moving away from Mystic Falls to see the world. Everything seemed to make sense and everything was perfect in its own way.

It was so much fun. Now it feels like a distant memory that belongs to someone else. Caroline from a few months ago feels completely different. The 'Caroline' the day leading up to the night Elena's parents died feels like a complete stranger. Caroline mourns that ignorant girl. And pities her. She looked to the future with nothing but starry eyes and passion unmatched. That girl would hate the person that she's become. Hate how she somehow drove her friends away so that now she's all alone.

Caroline looks over at Bonnie as she lowers next to her, confused about what she's referring to. "What do you mean?"

Bonnie gives her a look. "You're mad at me, aren't you?"

Caroline casts her a sideways look, not sure what the other girl was talking about. "Um, no. I'm not mad." Bonnie's stare makes her shift uncomfortably, so when the other girl didn't immediately react, she asks, "Why would I be mad?"

Bonnie tilts her head a bit, twitching her lips in thought, studying Caroline's expression, looking for something on Caroline's face but she's not sure what it is. "Because..." Bonnie says slowly, "...I've been a little MIA? We haven't really been able to do a whole lot together. There is just a lot going on with Elena and Grams. It's been hectic."

Caroline perks up, pushing her tray of food away in disinterest. The only reason she grabbed it was in the hopes that she would find enough of an appetite to eat something. But this is much more important to her.

"What's going on with Elena?" Caroline asks. Elena is connected to Stefan which means she's unnervingly close to Damon. Caroline is suddenly terrified. She has been so focused on herself that she forgot that Elena was in more danger than ever Caroline was. Elena was actually the center of weird obsession. And all she could think about was herself and how afraid she was without a thought to the danger one of her best friends was in. Selfish! Selfish! Selfish!

"Elena and Stefan broke up..." Bonnie says slowly, giving Caroline a strange look. It takes Caroline a long, uncomfortable moment to remember that Bonnie, at one point, though that Caroline had a crush on Stefan. And that person was a lifetime away. Caroline was definitely interested in the new guy as a new face was rare in Mystic Falls, but she certainly wasn't in love with him. Now she feels like a fool for showing any sort of interest in him, to begin with.

"Oh..." Caroline says just as slowly. She forces herself to calm down. She knew that. She knew that Stefan and Elena had broken up. Not that Elena told her. Just something that she heard in the rumor mill around the school. "How is she doing?"

"She's sad," Bonnie says simply. "But she's okay. You know Elena. She's going to fake it until she makes it."

Caroline nods, looking down at her jeans, picking at the loose threads on her knees. "And what about you? You said things have been hectic? How are your Grams doing? Your dad?"

Bonnie offers a little crooked smile. "She's good. Grams, of course. And so is my dad. They are both good. And your mom?"

Caroline doesn't pull her eyes away from the rips on her knees. "She's good too."

Caroline feels a bit of a smile pull at her lips. She's always like Grams so it's nice to hear that she's doing good. Caroline knows how important Bonnie's Grams is to her. "And so what's been new?"

Bonnie shrugs her shoulders, looking away as if suddenly uncomfortable. Or at the very least, she's unsure about something. There is a sinking feeling in her gut. Caroline knows that look. Bonnie gets that ook when she thinks that explaining to Caroline about what's going on just isn't worth the headache. Or that she just wouldn't understand. Because Caroline isn't Elena. Because no matter what it is, somehow Elena is always the right person no matter what. And Caroline isn't. That's just how it is. How it has always been.

This festering wound that Caroline has been nursing for years gets cut a little bit deeper as Caroline is reminded once more that she isn't Elena. That she still isn't enough. As a hollow shell of who she once was, now she'll never be enough.

Bonnie hesitates, studying the look on Caroline's face before she chews on her lower lip, considering. She lets out a little sigh before leaning in close and whispering, "Not now. How about we talk at The Grill tonight?"

Caroline nods mutely, swallowing a few times to try and dislodge the pain and heartbreak from her throat. Bonnie didn't want to tell her. She really didn't want to tell Caroline what was new with her. Caroline has no idea what it could be about but her feelings are already hurt.

But she won't screw this up. Whatever it is that Bonnie has to say, Caroline is going to be attentive and supportive. And maybe she'll stop feeling like she's losing both of her best friends.

"Okay..." Caroline chokes out, raking her nails across her jeans softly, trying to work through her nerves without making it obvious that she's upset.

Bonnie opens her mouth to say something when Elena appears, lowering down next to Bonnie's other side. Bonnie glances over to her, perfectly manicured eyebrows pulling together. She turns toward Elena. "What's wrong?"

Elena runs a hand through her long brown hair, probing her head upon that hand, and glances between Bonnie and Caroline.

"I'm trying to figure out how everything got so weird. This year has been..." Elena trails off, as if not sure of the word that she should use to describe this year.

Thankfully, Caroline is at the ready. She has a lot of words that she would use to describe this year. Horrible, unbelievable, devastating, lonely, terrifying, and life-altering are just some of the words that Caroline would use but that opens the door to a really heavy, and uncomfortably, conversation that might be a little much over a cold piece of pizza for lunch at school. So instead, Caroline has offered the safest word she can think of with a firm, "Crazy. This year has been crazy."

Elena groans while Bonnie casts an understanding look at the brunette.

"Tell me about it," Elena grumbles, running a hand through her pretty pin-straight brown hair.

Caroline has never jumped on an offer so fast in her life. "Well!" Caroline practically yells, making her two best friends jump in surprise. Caroline mentally berates herself before continuing, "I mean, Bonnie and I are going to The Grill tonight to talk, if you want to come."

Bonnie nods. "Yeah, definitely."

Elena looks between them curiously, before offering a small smile and a nod. "Okay, sure."


Caroline's excitement was so palpable throughout the second half of the day that even Tiki commented on it. Caroline excitedly told Tiki about her plans and Tiki smiled back, hoping that she had fun. Caroline thanked her and ended Cheer early that day, for the first time in weeks, which pleased the rest of the team, showered and headed off to The Grill.

Bonnie and Elena were already there when Caroline arrived, huddled together in a corner for privacy. Elena waved her over as soon as she spotted the blonde. Elena moved over to Bonnie's side of the booth so that Caroline could face both of them.

Caroline drops into the booth, grinning from ear to ear. She looks between the two of them, trying her hardest to contain her excitement. "Have you ordered yet?"

"Just drinks," Bonnie says. "We got you some water. That okay?"

Caroline nods. They could have ordered her a cup of ice, forcing her to wait until it melts before she can drink it, and she would still thank them for thinking of her. She gets herself situated while they make small talk. How is everyone doing? How's the family? How is school going?

And everything was good. Caroline didn't mind it being a little awkward because they just hadn't seen one another in a long time. It's not unusual that there would be a little bit of awkwardness considering they haven't spent a whole lot of time together these last few... months. But hopefully, this was going to be the beginning of the end of that. Caroline had to squeeze her hands tightly under the table to stop herself from shaking in excitement. She has to hold herself together. Nothing has changed yet.

But the thought of things slowly getting better...? It's too good to resist.

"Okay," Caroline says, swallowing a mouthful of water and picking away at the shared basket of fries that they all ordered, without really eating any. She turns her blue eyes to the shortest of the three of them. "So what's going on, Bonnie? What didn't you want to talk about at school?"

Bonnie hesitates, sparing a short glance to Elena, either seeking permission or affirmation, Caroline isn't sure, but it happened too quick for Caroline to overanalyze it like she knew that she would, if given the chance. But she did feel a strike of worry hit her square in the heart before Bonnie turns her dark eyes to Caroline, carefully, guarded.

"You know how Grams has been teaching me all about our family history?" Bonnie asks.

Caroline blinks, perplexed. Did she know that? No, not really. Maybe Bonnie made mention of it in passing, but Caroline isn't completely sure she knows what the other girl was talking about, but for the sake of ensuring that the shorter girl doesn't clam up on her for not really knowing for certain, Caroline offers a little nod and a soft, "Yeah. Why?"

Bonnie stares at her for a moment, catching the lie, and lets out a little sigh, tucking some loose hair behind her ear. "Grams has been telling me that we have ancestors that came from Salem," Bonnie informs her and Caroline vaguely remembers Bonnie having mentioned something about that before. "They were there around the time of the witch trials."

Caroline nods, running her hands up and down her thighs. "Oh wow, okay."

"So..." Bonnie says slowly, glancing around The Grill to see that now that school is out the place is filling up with people far more interested in what they are doing to even offer single care to Caroline, Bonnie, and Elena's conversation. Elena offers Bonnie a little encouraging nod and a minute smile, and it hits Caroline that Elena already knows. Whatever it is that Bonnie is about to say, Elena has already heard it. And Caroline has no idea how long Elena has known, but once more she feels that wound being picked away at.

"So..." Caroline mumbles, trying to cover her hurt by pushing the conversation along.

"So, it turns out that we are," Bonnie says, staring into Caroline's eyes.

Caroline stares back, having no idea what her friend was talking about. "We are what?"

"My family. Grams. Myself," Bonnie says. "We are witches. I'm a witch. Magic, spells, stuff like that. I'm a witch." Bonnie sucks in a deep breath, staring at Caroline closely, gauging her reactions based on her facial expressions.

Caroline stares back at her friend, processing her words carefully. Had this been six months ago, or a year ago, Caroline would have somehow thought that all of this was a joke. That somehow Bonnie and Elena came up with this silly story as a way of messing with her. But the Caroline of right now believes it. She's seen enough crazy and scary things that she believes what Bonnie is saying. And besides, why would Bonnie lie? She looks anxious, worried about Caroline's reaction.

Plus, Caroline turns into a dog. She's not sure why she does or what caused it to start happening, but she does. If she is willing to believe that she turns into a dog - and she does believe - then why shouldn't she believe that Bonnie is a witch? Damon is a... well, he's not a regular human, and now it turns out neither is Caroline and Bonnie. Which means...

They have something more in common!

Finally, like a threat of fate weaving them together, Caroline feels hope surge into her chest. This is the first tangible connection that Caroline has had with either of her friends in what feels like forever. And if Elena already knows, then that means that they both would be able to accept her. Because Caroline's guess is that being a witch isn't any less weird than turning into a dog, right? That means that they can get through this! Elena, Caroline, and Bonnie. Elena is accepting of this witch thing that Bonnie is going through, and Caroline can definitely accept it - even though she doesn't fully understand what it means yet - which means that they can both accept her weird dog thing, too.

Blindingly happy, for the first time in ages, Caroline says, "And I'm a dog! You're a witch and I'm a dog! We're the same!" Caroline gasps, clasping at her chest, feeling like a weight has been lifted. Thankfully, even in her excitement, her exclamation wasn't loud enough for anyone around them to hear her. But she did mentally remind herself to keep it down.

Caroline is so relieved to finally admit the truth to her friends, that she expected them to be relieved too. That somehow, despite not having said anything, they felt that there was something off about her too, and was also worried. Now that all of those secrets were out in the open, they weren't alone anymore. Bonnie, Elena, and Caroline. They all had each other. The thought of that was such a relief, Caroline could feel relief washing over her in waves.

She lets out a little, breathless laugh, pulling her eyes from the ceiling - that she looked up to in her excited exclamation - back down to her friends, expected them to share in her relief. Bonnie's face twisted in anger catches her off guard. Caroline blinks in confusion, her smile falling from her lips.

Bonnie's eyebrows have the beginnings of a crease forming between them as she tries to control the upper half of her face, while the lower half suffers for it. Her lips are pressed into a thin white line as she tries to control her anger. Caroline is so flabbergasted at the look on her friend's face that she can't even form words as Bonnie whispers, "It's not a joke, Caroline. It's not funny."

Caroline's mouth opens, closes, opens again as she tries to find the words. Funny? No, it wasn't funny. It was a relief. She wasn't making fun of anything!

Bonnie shakes her head, looking over at Elena, who was staring back with sad brown eyes. Bonnie grinds out, "I need to go."

Elena quickly pushes out of the booth so that Bonnie could leave, after grabbing hold of her back and racing off out of The Grill. Elena stares after her for a moment, chewing on her lip before glancing down at Caroline and saying, softly, "That wasn't nice, Care."

"I didn't - " Caroline starts but Elena is already grabbing hold of her back and racing off after Bonnie, leaving Caroline sitting there, stunned. Her mouth hanging open, eyes fixed on the place her two friends were just moments before, with her head racing, trying desperately to pluck out the moment where Caroline messed up. Where she somehow messed everything up again. But... Caroline was so relieved. She was happy! This was the most honesty that they had between the three of them in months! She would never ruin that! Not intentionally, at least.

Yet somehow she did.

Caroline felt her lips trembles as tears slid down her cheeks. All of the happiness and relief and hope that had been building up in her chest all soured into pain and despair. All the racing in her mind turns to a horrible, gut-wrenching scream that only she can hear. How could she have done this? How could she have screwed this up? She has no idea what she did wrong! She was so happy just a few moments ago. She was so relieved. She hasn't been this happy in so long and now... now she feels like...

"Breathe."

Caroline, whose eyes were blurring from the fountain of tears sliding down her cheeks, blinks a few times to see Kol sitting across from her, arms folded neatly on the table, staring straight at her.

Kol's dark eyes level with her. He sucks in a slow, deep breath and whispers, "Breathe, darling. You have to breathe."

Caroline's eyes find Kol's and she registers the pain in her chest that she thought was all the emotions she's feeling crashing into her, but it just so happens that her lungs were burning. She sucks in a shuttering, painful breath, her hands trembling as she brings her hands up to her face to cover it from the world, feeling like a fool and that a gentle breeze would turn her to nothing but ash.

Caroline hates this. She hates all of this. She hates everything around her. She just wants to disappear forever. She just wants this pain to come to an end. How could it have been like this? How could this have happened?

For the first time in forever, Caroline was happy.

Caroline drops her hands onto her lap, leaning back in her booth to stare at the young man in front of her, tears streaming down her face as she whispers, "What did I do wrong?" She's not sure why she's asking him. It's not like he would know. She's not even sure why he's there or if he even heard any of their conversations or just so happened to have seen her crying at the table and came over to her. She doesn't know, she doesn't care. She isn't asking, expecting an answer. She's moreso asking the universe. Not that she expected that to have an answer.

Kol doesn't respond for a moment, contemplating her words before asking, softly, "How do you feel right now, Caroline?"

Caroline stares at him, thankful for the momentary distraction from the painful tightening of her chest. "I don't know. Weak. Powerless." She not sure why she's even talking to him, but anything to distract her from the way she's feeling right now because it scares her. Scares her more than there are words.

Kol offers a small nod, lacing his fingers together on the table. "Sweetheart, you're scared, not powerless."

Caroline's laugh is cold and lifeless, as she finally reaches up and rubs roughly at her face, hating how she sounds, but mostly hating how she feels. So small. So worthless. She feels like an ant compared to gods. Powerless is the perfect word to describe how she feels.

"Can I hold your hand?" Kol asks, surprising Caroline.

She drops her hands and looks at the brown-eyed young man in front of her, eyebrows pulling together. Two separate answers jumping to the front of her brain. The polite answer you would give to someone who she thinks is trying to comfort her, and the real answer she wants to give. And for a moment, she wars with herself on which she was going to give. Kol has been nothing but nice to her since she met you, but she doesn't know him. She's scared to trust him.

Before she can force herself to choose one, Kol offers a charming half-smile. "Give me your real answer, Caroline. Not the one that you think is socially acceptable, or the one that you think I want to hear. Just say the answer that is in your heart. Don't worry about what I may think one way or another. Just say it, it'll be okay, I promise."

Caroline stares back at him, the screaming in her mind quieting down as she blinks through more of her tears. Her trembling lips part and she whispers, softly, "No. No, you can't."

Kol smiles, then. A pretty, confident, and proud smile that almost hurts more than what happened with Bonnie and Elena. "Good girl. See? You aren't powerless, Caroline." He pulls his hands off of the table and drops them onto his lap while leaning back. "I'm not sure when you started to think that you were powerless, but you aren't. Remember, despite what anyone else in the world may try to make you believe, you are not powerless. 'No' still has power. So even if you feel weak and powerless, start from there. Start with a question. When someone asks you something - whether it be for you to do something that you don't want to do, or for something you don't want to be done onto you - remember that 'no' still holds power. No matter what."

Caroline stares at the brown-haired man trying to understand what he was saying to her. "No... still holds power?"

Kol nods. "You're not powerless, darling. You're scared. And because we are, by our very nature, animals driven by a baser instinct in moments of extreme pressure, we are ruled by that nature. We fight, we flee, we panic and freeze. And we feel weak when we do. That doesn't mean all your power is stripped from you. It just means you need to take a step back and regain control. You are stronger than you realize, sweetheart. And I pity the fools that stand in your way the moment you realize just how strong you are."