Author's Note: Hello, my loves! I know it's been a really long time and all of you hate me, but I'm back! I do apologize. I love hearing what yall have to say! Enjoy!

Caroline scoffs, sure that Kol must be losing his mind if he thinks that she - of all people - was strong. She felt anything but strong. Especially now, but also for a good portion of her life. It had always been accompanied by anything even slightly inconvenient in her life.

But when she realized that no matter how much she loved Elena, she would always be compared to the perfect brunette and would ultimately never be enough. For anyone. With everything. That was the real moment Caroline realized that she had absolutely no power. Despite everything she did, she was always compared to Elena and always fell short - in everything.

Caroline struggled against her helplessness for as long and as hard as she could, and sometimes she could fool herself into thinking that she was okay, that she wasn't hurt. But when her dad left, her parents divorced, and her metaphorical world blew up around her, she felt the helplessness seep deep into her bones and it never went away after that. It hangs over her like a dark cloud she can never get out from under. No matter how hard she struggles with it.

This whole situation with Elena, Stefan, and Damon... well this isn't helping her in any sense of the word.

But the blonde did appreciate that someone thought she could be strong. Even if he didn't mean it, Caroline still felt a twinge of warmth in her chest at just hearing it. She promised that she would try harder, so she will accept the compliment and maybe, someday, make it a reality.

"Why are you here, Kol?" Caroline asks, slumping back into her chair, feeling all of the fight and energy leave her. It all just seems so helpless now. He seems so nice, but so incredibly out of the blue.

Kol's all-knowing smile never falters from his lips. "Well, my brother Elijah asked me if I could swing by. He's a bloody lunatic when it comes to wounded little wolves." Caroline blinks, a question sprouting to her lips. Wolf? But before the thought could fully form, Kol continues, dark eyes staring off over the distance, as if seeing something deep in his memories, "That Elijah super-imposes anyone on Nik if he can. Honestly, I don't think that bastard brother of mine deserves it but, oh well, it's his life. If he wants to dedicate it to Nik, that's his prerogative."

Caroline didn't need to be overly observative to know that there was a lot of history in that loaded statement. She had to guess that it was something intense just by the look on Kol's face, but she has no idea what it could have been.

Caroline rubs the tips of her fingers together, suddenly anxious. Even though she doesn't know what the history is exactly, it feels heavy.

"Some people are like that," Caroline offers, slowly. She honestly has no room butting into anyone else's family drama, but it was nice to focus on something other than herself, even if for just a moment. She just hopes that this doesn't come back to bite her the way that it did when it was Elena and Bonnie on the other side. "Some people find fulfillment in helping others. They find it in giving themselves over to helping those around them. It makes them happy, makes them feel complete."

Kol offers a sideways grin, dark eyes holding a sparkle that Caroline isn't sure she understands. "You have someone like that in your life?"

Caroline nods. "My mom. She gives everything to her job because it's for the benefit of the people she loves. The people of Mystic Falls."

"Firefighter?" Kol guesses.

"Police officer," Caroline says, offering a tiny smile, still rubbing her fingertips together. While there is still an aching pain in her heart, she is finally starting to feel better again. She just hopes that nothing ruins it - namely herself - like she did with Elena and Bonnie.

"Ah," Kol says easily, his facial expression not shifting in the slightest. "That was going to be my second guess." He reaches his hands above his head and stretches out as far as his spine will allow him to before relaxing back into the booth. "But I can't be like Elijah. I'm too selfish for that."

Caroline feels a ghost of a smile growing ever so slightly on her lips. "Same here." She lets out a little sigh as the smile fades from her face just as suddenly as it appeared. "But I don't need your brother to look out for me. While I appreciate the thought," more than anyone would ever be able to understand, "I don't need it."

Kol turns dark eyes toward her, his expression is suddenly serious. "And why is that?"

Caroline stares back at him, confused by the abrupt suddenness of the question, not sure why he flipped the switch like that. She would normally be worried about someone flipping around like that, but the abruptness of the question is enough to distract her from any fear that she might have had.

Why did she say that? She wasn't secretly hoping that someone would just continue to protect her from the shadows - at least, not really. There was something always flattering about someone caring enough about her to want to protect her, but this wasn't the case. She doesn't know who this person is, or how she even met him. Why would he care enough to ask his brother to come out and what? Befriend her? She's not even sure she has any idea what's going on there, and while Kol is extremely easy to talk to, he's also extremely difficult. He speaks in riddles and seems to know everything. Caroline's not sure why that is.

But Caroline doesn't want this mysterious stranger to try and protect her because... because...

Because she's done being afraid. She's tired of it. She's tired of living her life feeling like an inch tall. And if she simply sits back and lets someone else do all the fighting for her, she's always going to feel that way. She's always going to feel insignificant and weak. She's always going to feel unimportant, unnoticed, unloved. She doesn't want to feel that way anymore. She hates feeling like this.

She promised Tiki that she would try. She silently promised her mother to try. But most of all, she promised herself. Caroline doesn't want to keep living her life inside of a tiny box, afraid and pitiful. While it would be nice to have a knight in shining armor come and make all of her problems go away, not only is it unrealistic or impractical, it's not what she really wants. Caroline wants to feel better. She wants to be happy and enjoy her life. She's tired of making herself feel small and worthless because she hates herself more than anyone else ever could.

She wants to love herself. She wants to love her skin, her heart, her soul. It's not going to be easy, or maybe possible, but it's what she wants. And she'll never learn to truly love herself if she doesn't fight for herself. Because if she doesn't fight for herself in any and every way that matters, who truly will?

Caroline is her own last line of defense and she's got to start giving herself the opportunity to be strong. And while Caroline certainly doesn't think she's strong in the slightest, despite what Kol said earlier, she does want to be. And so what if words mean nothing? That's all she has right now.

And they don't mean nothing, do they? If 'no' still has power, then so does Caroline.

Caroline's blue eyes, glazed over with her thoughts, focusing on Kol's question, focus once more on the brown-haired young man in front of her. She sucks in a slow breath, bringing her shaking hands under the table to hide them as she says, "I'm not a damsel in distress. I'm not broken, just like you said."

She's not sure she totally believes that, but she wants to. And maybe wanting to was the first step. She had to start somewhere and that seemed like the easiest place.

Kol smiles suddenly, "No, darling, you are not."

Caroline decided that they need distance. And by they, she means Bonnie, Elena, and herself. It's not all that different than what was happening before except Caroline is accepting it as her choice. They aren't ignoring her, she is just giving them space. She isn't sure if she meant it to make herself feel better but it doesn't really.

Well, a tiny bit, she supposed. At least it made it feel like her choice. Which was only slightly empowering. Not much. Not really.

Mildly.

Just because she decided to think this way doesn't mean that evil little voice in the back of her head doesn't remind her at the worst times that she's alone. Thinking about it, focusing on it, makes her even more depressed than she already was.

Caroline instead tried to focus more on other things - specifically things that make her happy. She suggested one night when Liz got off work that they go out to dinner and a movie together. Liz was pleasantly surprised but agreed without hesitation. And their night was fun. They ate at her mom's favorite restaurant before going to see a movie. They got popcorn and soda - which Caroline usually stays away from but tonight she decided she was going to make the best of it

They watched some sort of romantic comedy. So they both got to enjoy it.

And Caroline spent a lot of time with Tiki too. A small part of her wanted to prove to her friend that she was trying her best to feel better and another part of her knew that being with Tiki would actually make her feel better too.

"Are you going to sign up for the Miss Mystic Fall pageant this year?" Tiki asks Caroline as the two sit on the former's bed doing their homework after Cheer that day. This has become the norm for them for the last week since the day at the Grill with Elena and Bonnie, and then right after with Kol.

Caroline glances over at Tiki contemplative. Caroline from last year would have lost her mind at the question. Last year, there wouldn't have been a snowball's chance in hell that she wasn't going to be participating but this year is so out of this world with everything that is going on around Mystic Falls with the 'animal' attacks and in her own personal life that Tiki's question isn't an unfair one to ask.

Honestly, if Elena was to join in, Caroline would be signing up for more assured heartbreak. That's not to say it's Elena's fault or anything, it's just that it has become so ingrained into Caroline's brain to focus on everything that Elena manages to get over on her. Whether the sweet brunette realizes it's happening or not. And Caroline figured that long before any of the Salvatore drama began. Now? Well, the thought of both subjecting herself to more humiliation and pain makes her physically ill.

"No," Caroline admits, shrugging her shoulders and turning her attention back to her homework, ready for that to be the end of it.

Tiki presses her lips together, pulling at a loose thread from her comforter in thought for a moment.

"You've wanted to be Miss Mystic Falls since we were kids. It's all you would talk about at this time of the year..." Tiki says slowly. "Are you sure?"

Caroline nods. She's trying to learn how to feel better, that doesn't seem like the proper way to go about it. A popularity contest that she is ill-prepared for? And somehow grossly unlikable? A foolish, childish notion dreamt up by a naive girl who thought that she could quantify and justify her own likeliness by winning some stupid pageant. Yeah, no. She would rather live in the wonder than risk the floundering bits of her sanity that remain.

Tiki wilts a bit, staring at her sadly before steeling her expression, lifting her chin, and offering an easy purse of her lips. "Well, it's still a ways off so you have time if you happen to change your mind."

Caroline wasn't so sure that was going to happen but maybe? Maybe in her journey to feeling better, she will change her mind on that. So, Caroline offers a noncommital grunt and lets it go. She's not so sure that she's going to change her mind, but it's sweet of Tiki to keep the idea alive if Caroline was interested in doing it. Caroline has wanted to be Miss Mystic Falls forever and had things been different, she still would have wanted to, but it's nice to know that someone was still in her corner and wanted her to live out her long-time dream.

Caroline isn't sure she'll change her mind, especially since she doesn't feel anything like her former self, but she doesn't know if she is fully ready to give up on her dreams. It's a stupid dream, but it's something that she's had forever.

Maybe... it's not so completely out of the realm of possibility for her to change her mind.

Tiki and Caroline continue to do their homework in silence for almost an entire minute before Tiki closes her book and turns to look at Caroline.

"Can I talk to you about something?"

Caroline glances up at Tiki, curiously. "Sure. What's up?" She hoped it wasn't about Miss Mystic Falls. If Caroline was going to change her mind about it, she was going to need time.

"It's kind of stupid," Tiki says, looking down at her pretty pink comforter, picking at a loose thread. "It's about my grandpa. Well, it's about Stefan Salvatore. Um, maybe it's a bit about both of them." Tiki chews on her lower lip, indecisively. She's mentally warring with herself on what she wants to say and what she thinks is silly to say.

But the mention of Stefan Salvatore is enough to put Caroline on edge. With Stefan comes Damon and that's dangerous. Elena was somehow caught between the two of them and is trapped in such a way that she's safe, for now. At least, that's how it seems from an outsider's perspective. And despite the fact that Caroline and Elena aren't exactly talking right now, Caroline is still worried about the brunette's safety.

Caroline's been very fortunate in hiding from the Salvatore brothers since the night she finally separated from Damon. Caroline is literally becoming a Salvatore bloodhound - get it? She turns into a massive dog. - when it comes to their proximity to her. Stefan doesn't bother her when she walks away from him as if not having seen him and Damon? Well, she's avoided him like the Black Plague.

"What happened?" Caroline asks, feeling a pit forming in her stomach. What was she to do if they were causing problems? Was there anything that she could do even if they were doing something?

"Do you remember Sexy Suds?" Tiki asks, glancing up at Caroline with enviously long lashes.

A strange way to connect to her, her granddad, and Stefan Salvatore together, but sure. She's following so far. Sort of. She remembers that day, easily enough. But it wasn't so significant that she felt it deserved a special note, but okay. She was following so far.

"Yeah?" Caroline says, pushing down the dread that builds up in her chest and works its way up her throat every time that the Salvatore brothers are brought up. Normally she would shut down and run for her life but this was Tiki. She was safe here with her friend. She just needed to calm down and breathe.

Tiki pulls at the loose threads of her comforter, still trying to piece together what she's trying to say. She sucks in a slow breath before turning her pretty brown eyes to Caroline. "So, granddad met Stefan at Sexy Suds and won't stop talking about how he's seen him before some odd fifty years ago or something. I don't know. He's really starting to worry me. He gets like this sometimes but never this bad."

It makes sense to Caroline. If Caroline is remembering the small fragments of what she's willing to remember of her conversations with Damon, it was of him telling her about his life - most of which she's blocked away as he was very graphic in his escapades in both killing and sex - but she vaguely remembers that he's been around for about a hundred years. Maybe more? Maybe less, she doesn't fully remember. Caroline supposed that it would make sense that they would be familiar with Mystic Falls.

Other things try to push beyond the wall in her mind but she manages to push it all back, managing to hold onto the only thing that mattered to her at the moment: Damon said that he - and Stefan by extension, she's guessing - used to live here, as Salvatore is one of the founding families. So Caroline actually believes Tiki's granddad.

She doesn't know the Salvatore Timeline so who is to say when the last they were in Mystic Falls was?

Not knowing what else to say and certainly not wanting to put Tiki on any path that would lead her to the Salvatore brothers and their deadly secret, Caroline just shrugs her shoulders as nonchalantly as possible. "Maybe Stefan just has one of those faces."

It was lame and vague, but thankfully Tiki was looking more for validation and not conspiracy theories so she accepts Caroline's words without argument. Good. Caroline has no idea what she would say if her friend pressed the issue.

Tiki runs her hands up and down her thighs, chewing on her lower lip for a moment. Despite believing Caroline - or at least not arguing with her weak logic - she still looks a bit troubled.

"It's okay," Caroline says, touching Tiki's hand. "Just... stay away from them. I don't... have a great feeling about Stefan or his brother."

Tiki gives her a curious look. "I didn't know that Stefan had a brother. In case you weren't aware, Stefan Salvatore is too good for us little people. Except for Elena Gilbert, not so surprising," Tiki informs Caroline with a knowing look. Caroline isn't sure if that look was for Caroline's benefit or if Caroline isn't the only one who is keenly aware of how great Elena is.

Er, no, she didn't mean for it to sound that way. Elena is great. Sometimes... just too great.

Caroline squeezes her friend's hand, offering a little smile that doesn't reach her eyes. Pushing away how she feels about any of that, she says, "It is what it is. Just promise me that you'll stay away from them. They are... bad news."

Tiki stares at her blankly. "Stefan and Elena?"

Caroline gives her a playful look, ashamed to find amusement in a joke at her longtime friend's expense. "No, Tiki, I mean Stefan and his brother."

Tiki shrugs like it didn't change a whole lot either way. Despite the jokes, Caroline prays that Tiki stays the hell away from the Salvatore brothers.

Damon is the problem. He is the one that hurt Caroline and no doubt planned to kill her at some point. No... she asked him. He... he said that he would, He would kill her at some point. He just never got around to it. She has to stay away from him, just in case he changes his mind.

Well, more than he already has, that is.

As far as Caroline has seen, Stefan hasn't done anything, which is part of the problem.

Stefan might not have been the one to abuse Caroline but he knew what was happening - probably better than even she did - and didn't do anything to help her. He may not have been actively abusing her, but by ignoring it he was helping her abuser. And that is just as unforgivable as Damon's actions.

Flickers and flashes in the back of Caroline's mind that threaten her from beyond the wall paint a picture without sound or words. She knew... somehow, that Stefan wasn't as strong as Damon. That for whatever reason, Damon was just the superior of the two. So maybe Stefan wasn't strong enough to fight Damon's actions against her directly, but in response, he decided to do nothing.

A bystander's silence might not directly abuse the victim but it does benefit the abuser.

Caroline will never forget that.

"How are Bonnie and Elena?"

Caroline looks up from her spot on the other side of her mom's desk, organizing some things for Carol Lockwood for some upcoming work for the Historical Society. They had been working in relative silence for some time that Caroline was surprised when her mother spoke up to break it.

"Huh?"

"Elena and Bonnie," Liz says easily, but watches her daughter through long lashes, "I was asking how they were. I haven't seen you girls together in a long time. I've never seen you girls go this long without a sleepover or a shopping weekend.

Liz is careful not to probe if Caroline shows signs of pushback lest the good relationship that they have been rebuilding get destroyed from innocent concern.

Past Caroline would have bitten her head off if nothing was wrong or lied if something was, but it isn't like that for them anymore. At least, as far as Caroline is concerned. She's done being mad about something that wasn't her mother's fault. She's done being a brat when it's not needed or welcome. She's wasting time and creating memories she would be broken up over as an adult to remember all the terrible things she said and did to her own mother.

That's not her anymore.

"They are mad at me right now so neither of them is talking to me. It's not the first time that I've done this."

"Did what?" Liz asks, putting down her pen to offer Caroline her full attention.

"Made them mad at me," Caroline says, sifting through some more of the papers on her lap, making sure that everything is in order. A small part of neurotic Caroline shining through.

"I heard that part," Liz assures her with a look. "What did you do?"

"I honestly don't know," Caroline admits, shrugging her shoulders like it didn't matter all that much. At Liz's worried look, Caroline half-jokes, "I'm very mean and thoughtless, mom. You, of all people, should know I lack compassion. I can very unlovable at times." It's true. Caroline has never been meaner to anyone in her life than Liz. Much to Caroline's immense shame.

Honestly, Caroline knew that her mom wouldn't like the self-deprecating joke in the slightest, but she didn't expect to see the sadness and pain etched on her mom's face.

"Mom?" Caroline asks, surprised by the look.

"Do you really think that? Do you really think that you are unlovable?"

"It's a joke, mom," Caroline says softly, reaching out to touch her mom's hand, figuring that would illicit her mom's annoyance and be the end of this conversation.

"Is it?" Liz asks, not even slightly assuaged by Caroline's words.

Caroline nods. "Of course it was." Caroline offers a smile that she hoped was enough but instead Liz looks more distressed. She pulls her hand from Caroline's, stood up, and walked around her desk to stand before Caroline. She reaches out to take Caroline's hand again and pulls her into a hug, not minding any loose papers falling from Caroline's lap to the floor.

"Mom," Caroline offers a little laugh. "You are being so dramatic, even for me, and that's saying something."

Liz squeezes her tightly, whispering softly into her ear. "I hope to God that it is a joke, Caroline because nothing is more painful than learning that the person you love the most in the world doesn't love themself."

"I'm sorry, mom," Caroline says softly, hugging Liz back. "I won't say that anymore. I promise."

Liz squeezes her tighter still before pulling back to look into her eyes. "It's not the words that are the problem. I don't want you to feel like that, ever. You're my favorite person in the world. I want you to stay in it as long as possible."

Caroline can't believe it. She was the worst to her mother for so long, she can't believe that her mother would think of her as her favorite person. But maybe that's a mother's love. Not that Caroline knows anything about that.

But still, she offers a small smile. "I'm okay, mom."

Liz's eyebrows pull together, still concerned for Caroline. "Sweetheart, if you still want to be friends with Elena and Bonnie then I support you. But never let anyone make you feel like that. Your life is so precious that you have to cherish it. And that starts with loving yourself."

"I know, mom," Caroline says softly, feeling bad for inciting this sort of worry from Liz. Maybe Caroline wasn't hiding how bad it was as well as she thought.

Now she feels even worse. She didn't mean to be a problem for anyone.

"Talk to me," Liz says, staring into Caroline's blue eyes with her own identical ones. "No matter what. I'm here."

Caroline nods. Even though she now has a secret that she's terrified to tell anyone about, she still looks into her mom's worried eyes and says, "Yes. I will."

The lie accompanied a distant, familiar scream in the back of her mind.