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And Equal Partners We Shall Be

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And Equal Partners We Shall Be

Returning to her stall after a quick break, Caroline notices she has a customer.

There’s a dark-haired man munching on one of the mini hummingbird cupcakes she’d set out as samples. Enzo had offered to watch her stall while she ran to the bathroom; Caroline’s relieved to him chatting with the sampler. She always makes a decent amount, but that doesn’t mean she lets anyone mow down a whole platter.

When Caroline steps around a couple picking through a bin of apples, she spots the second man. He’s fairer-haired than the other, appears to be examining this week’s jam selection. His back is to her, and she kind of wishes she had time to slow her stride because he’s wearing an excellent pair of jeans.

Fortunately, she’s a businesswoman. Sales take priority over perving.

“The chili marmalade is this week’s special,” she calls out in her perkiest customer service tone. She’d invested in a cheerful pink awning after her first weekend at the market when she’d walked away with a plethora of new freckles. It shades three tables, two piled high with her jam and various baked goods. The third has a small fryer, griddle, and fridge for the items she makes onsite. She’s distracted by putting on her apron; arms crossed behind her back to get at the ties. “It would be great sweet or savory; I tried it in a bourbon vanilla layer cake and drizzled over fried chicken.”

“I’m afraid I don’t cook much.”

The voice is instantly recognizable and a major blast from the past. Caroline swallows a gasp, eyes flying up until they meet Klaus Mikaelson’s. His lips are curled with a faint hint of amusement, and she returns his smile, though hers might be a tiny bit shaky.

She runs her eyes over him, cataloging changes before she belatedly realizes that she should probably say something. “Klaus. Wow. It’s been a long time.”

About seven years. Though, Caroline’s found her mind wandering to him often over the last eighteen months or so. She’d figured it was only natural given all that had happened since her divorce was finalized. Her life has reverted to something like it had been when she’d been twenty-three and ridiculously in love with Klaus.

She’s leasing a teeny apartment in a building where the elevator groans so ominously that she’s come to prefer the stairs. He place is furnished with a mismatched collection of pieces she’d scoured from thrift stores and estate sales, even though it would have been simpler to dip into her divorce settlement and hit up IKEA.

Except Caroline has plans for that money.

Stefan had been generous even though he hadn’t needed to be. Giuseppe had insisted Caroline sign an extensive prenup before she married his son. Really, Stefan had probably too generous given the fact that he’d recently purchase an auto shop and a fixer-upper of a farmhouse outside a tiny town in Georgia.

Caroline thinks it looks like a money-pit, but she’s kept the thoughts to herself. It’s no longer her business, and she is glad that Stefan’s pursuing something he thinks will make him happy. He’d worked for The Salvatore Group purely because it had been expected of him. When his father passed away, and Damon had bought out Stefan’s shares, Stefan had been happy to wash his hands of the company.

Giuseppe’d death had been the beginning of the end of her marriage, but Caroline’s come to believe that had been for the best. She and Stefan have managed an amicable divorce, and they’re friendly enough to exchange regular emails and occasional texts. Ultimately, they’d wanted different things out of life, and she’s glad they figured that out before bitter feelings had been able to fester.

Caroline currently wants the money Stefan had put in her name to sit nice and cozy in the bank collecting interest. Her ten-year plan might have imploded, but that only meant she got to make new plans – bigger, better plans.

These days working towards her goals means she keeps odd hours due to the handful of jobs she’s cobbled together to support herself. She’s carefully padding her nest egg, wants it to be big enough to mitigate the risks of a new venture in the restaurant industry. She shares recipes online, has been slowly building her reputation, and has a few sponsorships. She’s been experimenting with recipes, new ones, and those she’d learned at Nana Forbes’ elbow.

Baking has always been her happy place but, she’d lost her passion for it while she’d worked Stefan’s family business, where her days became filled with a thousand managerial tasks that kept her away from the kitchen. She’s consumed by it again, relishing even the most tedious parts of the recipe development process where she’s trying to nail down the exact amount of spice or trying to figure out optimum oven temps and baking times. She’s happy like she hadn’t been since she’d finished culinary school and spent her days, evenings, and sometimes nights doing grunt work at busy restaurants. Her life is no longer predictable, significantly less luxurious, and occasionally lonely, but she goes to bed satisfied and wakes up eager to see what the day will bring her.

Caroline hadn’t expected today to bring her Klaus, but she’s not mad about it.

Klaus’ palms are sweaty.

It’s a sensation he hasn’t felt in ages. Possibly not since that morning, nearly a decade ago now, when he’d taken advantage of the crowd packing his usual coffee shop and asked Caroline if she would mind sharing her table with him.

She’d said yes. Then she’d spent ten minutes complaining about the scone that he’d ordered. That particular coffee shop, she’d insisted while waving around a cinnamon roll, was capable of wizardry with yeasted baked goods, but everything else was subpar. Klaus hadn’t ever before contemplated the science of scone making, but Caroline had many opinions. He’d enjoyed her rapid speech, the movement of her hands when she felt a point needed extra emphasis.  

Two weeks later, after four and a half dates, she’d spent the first of many nights at his place. Klaus had woken to an unfortunately empty bed. Once he’d noticed unfamiliar and delicious scents emanating from his kitchen, he’d been less upset. After biting into a sweet potato ginger scone, under Caroline’s smugly expectant gaze, Klaus had readily admitted her genius.

He’d been envious of her, even a bit resentful, though he hadn’t recognized it at the time. Caroline had been sure of her path and happy to run herself ragged in pursuit of her goals. Klaus, first toiling away on his MBA, then later at internships and entry-level positions, had been fueled by obligation and spite. Obligation, because his parents had been only willing to fund a small number of what they deemed proper degrees. The spite mainly had been directed at the man he’d thought was his father. Mikael had loudly and repeatedly scorned Klaus’ abilities, intelligence, and chances of success. Klaus’s determination to prove him wrong had fueled late-night study sessions and sixty-hour workweeks.

He’d hated nearly every second of it.

Klaus knows he’d hurt Caroline, in the end, because of how unhappy he’d been. It’s one of his biggest regrets.

Caroline’s reached down to fiddle with the jam jars on the table between them, twisting them minutely until the labels all face the same direction. “How have you been?” she asks, carefully polite in a way she’s never been with him before.

Klaus knows he deserves it, but he’s decidedly not a fan.

He’s searching for words, something that will put her at ease when movement distracts him. Caroline whips to the side, “Hey, customers can’t…”

His brother is immune to sharp tones, and Caroline doesn’t get the chance to demand he leave her stall before Kol sweeps her off her feet and spins her around. She shoves him when he sets her down but not with enough force, in Klaus’ opinion. “Was that necessary?” she asks.

“I thought so,” Kol says, darting backwards when Caroline makes to shove him again. He snatches another morsel from the tray Caroline’s set out, shoving the tiny cake in his mouth with an exaggerated hum of pleasure. “This is amazing, darling. You’ve not lost your touch.”

Caroline straightens her apron, “Of course I haven’t,” she sniffs.

Kol, never subtle, looks at Klaus, tipping his head in Caroline’s direction and widening his eyes in a way she cannot miss. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other soon, but might I say you look as scrumptious as your treats?”

Caroline’s nose wrinkles, “Still gross, huh?”

Kol laughs loudly and exits her stall, heading over to the neighboring one, probably to continue the conversation he’d been making with its proprietor. Something about potatoes that Klaus had quickly lost interest in.

Klaus sighs when Caroline turns back to face him, her expression suspicious. This is not going to plan. He should have insisted Kol stay behind but, strategically, he’d seen the wisdom in using him as an icebreaker.

Perhaps he needs a different approach.

Klaus collects two jars, the chili marmalade that Caroline had said was the special and one marked blackberry bourbon. He’s not sure if it’s the same recipe from years ago, but he hopes so.

He fishes $20 out of his wallet. “Keep the change,” he murmurs.

Which only increases her suspicion.

“Thanks,” she says slowly. She’s careful not to touch his skin when she takes the cash. “I’m going to guess you’re not here coincidentally.”

“I’ve never much believed in those.”

“I remember.”

She sounds almost fond, and Klaus’ nerves abate slightly. He straightens, “I knew you would be here. It’s on your Instagram.”

Caroline’s brows rise, “Kind of uncool that you’ve been stalking my social media accounts when you don’t seem to have any that are public.”

He’s pleased that she’s looked. “I’m flattered, love.”

Caroline sighs, her head tipping back. He’s certain her cheeks are a bit pinker than they had been, though perhaps that’s the pink of her awning reflected on her skin. “I shouldn’t have said that,” she grumbles.

“I’m here because I have a business proposition for you,” Klaus explains. He would also like to discuss what had happened seven years ago, when he’d stormed out after a fight and never returned, but he doesn’t know if she’s interested in hearing him out. It’s entirely possible that she’d considered herself well rid of him. She’d married less than two years later, after all.

Though, given her last confession, Klaus is optimistic that’s not the case.

Caroline appears skeptical, “I’m not sure where your business and my business could intersect. I don’t really cater fancy rich people parties.”

“I’m not one for those either, these days.”

He’d only lasted about nine months in Singapore at the investment management firm he’d left for.

Caroline’s blue eyes narrow, studying him more closely. Klaus resists the urge to scratch at the stubble he’s taken to leaving on his face, to tug at the sleeves of his casual cotton t-shirt. “Interesting,” she drawls, just before she presses her lips together.

He’s familiar with that look – it means she’s got about a million questions, and she’s struggling to hold them back. Klaus grins, laughs softly. Her eyes turn questioning. “It’s just great to see you, Caroline.”

He forces himself to swallow a few words of his own. It’s too early to tell her how much he’s missed her.

“This is not a date,” Caroline tells herself sternly, for approximately the six hundredth time, even as she shimmies out of a slinky black dress and dives back into her closet. She has an array of date dresses, gifted by Katherine once Caroline had decided she was ready to dive back into the dating pool. She’s too busy to get as much use out of them as Kat would probably like, but most have seen a night or two on the town.

She’s also got a whole pile of business-appropriate outfits, pencil skirts and sheath dresses, blazers and silk blouses. She’d flipped through them idly when she’d started the outfit selection process, and nothing had called to her. She makes a mental note to clean out her closet soon – clearly it’s filled with things that do not spark joy, and it’s not like she can’t use some extra storage space.

Her phone chimes, a welcome distraction. It’s Klaus, replying to the message she’d sent with her address.

Klaus [5:46 PM]: Got it. There seems to be a taco place that’s popular a few blocks away. Does that sound good to you?

Caroline clicks the link he’s sent, even though he has to be talking about Uno, Dos, Tequila. She’d had been skeptical when the sign had gone up, expecting little from a place with such a fratty name, but they’d surprised her. It’s become a regular venue for girl’s night (Caroline’s never met a discount pitcher of margaritas she didn’t like), and she usually treats herself to a couple of their breakfast tacos when she sleeps in on delivery days.

Caroline [5:47 PM]: Sounds great! It’s one of my favorites 😊

Caroline [5:47 PM]: And you know my taste is impeccable.

Klaus [5:48 PM]: Regarding food? Absolutely.

Caroline [5:48 PM]: Oh, them’s fighting words.

Another pro of Klaus’ pick is that it’s extremely casual. More casual than Klaus would have considered appropriate for a business dinner, once upon a time. Caroline shoves the dresses aside and slips a blouse off a hanger, a floral print that’s off the shoulder and just a little bit cropped. She’ll put her hair up and wear the high-waisted white shorts she’d just bought.

Shorts that her legs look freaking great in, but that is not at all the point.

Klaus was almost always early to pick her up when they’d been together. She’d appreciated it even though he’d generally distracted her from getting ready, often making them have to rush in the end. It appears that’s still his thing because a buzz rings through her apartment at 7:23.

Caroline grabs her bag and hits the intercom, “I’ll be down in a second!” She locks up, makes for the stairs, takes them at a slower pace than she might otherwise, not wanting to mess up her makeup by getting sweaty.

“Not a date,” she mutters to herself for good measure once she’s clattering down the last flight. “Strictly business.”

The door to the lobby creaks loudly, and Klaus looks up from his phone, lips parting when he catches sight of her.

Typically, if a client looked at her like that, Caroline would be making excuses for why she couldn’t take them on. She’ll make an exception in this case since, even though she’d deny it. Caroline had kinda been hoping to test what kind of effect she had on Klaus these days. He’d left the farmer’s market after they’d exchanged numbers and made rough plans. For the rest of the day, Caroline had been a distractable scatter-brained mess. A couple of her regulars had asked if she was okay, and Enzo, the stupid jerk, had thrown her dozens of amused looks, only adding to her annoyance.

Usually, she and Enzo grab dinner once the market wraps up. Caroline hadn’t even gotten the chance to beg off; he’d just assumed she had plans. And he’d been disbelieving when she’d insisted the were not date plans, his expression making it clear that he was humoring her denials. She’s fully expecting to get grilled next weekend when they’re setting up. Enzo’s a worse gossip than just about anyone she knows.

Klaus is dressed in a pair of darker jeans and a black button-up with the sleeves rolled up. She hopes he’s too distracted to notice that she’s checking him out - for all that she’s grown and changed over the years, apparently Klaus Mikaelson still really does it for her.

At least he seems to be in the same boat.

Klaus fumbles his phone, almost missing his pocket as Caroline approaches, and a wave of pleasure suffuses her, making her stride extra bouncy. “Hello again,” she greets.

“Hello. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

Caroline shrugs, unsure why he’s acting like they’re strangers. “I rarely say no to catching up with an old friend. Well, mostly. A couple of girls from my high school cheer squad keep trying to sell me diet shakes or crappy shampoo in my Instagram DMs. Them I’m not exactly eager to chat with.”

“Old friend,” Klaus repeats, so quietly Caroline nearly misses it.

She reaches out to loop her arm through his and tug him towards the door. Klaus offers no resistance, matching her gait easily. She lets him go but doesn’t stray far, perfectly content for their arms to brush as they hit the sidewalk. “Okay, fine. Maybe we weren’t ever really friends friends, but the principle is the same. I happen to have good relationships with…” Caroline glances up, doing a little mental math “…70ish percent of my significant exes. And tonight, assuming you quit looking at me like I’m going to toss a drink in your face, we can bump that number up to like 85!”

 She sees Klaus sneaking looks at her and can tell he’s skeptical. “We fought and I just left. I left the country. The continent.”

“And the western hemisphere,” Caroline teases, but Klaus flinches as if she’d snapped at him.

She nudges him gently with her arm. “Yep, you did that. And it was a pretty epic douche move.”

Klaus exhales noisily, “It really was.”

“I had some serious rage built up,” Caroline continues.

“As you should.”

Ugh, she kind of wants to hug him. “But when your brother stopped by my place and explained everything that was going on with your parents, or I guess your mom and her husband?” Caroline trails off, realizing Klaus has fallen behind. She spins to find him rooted to the pavement a few feet back, his expression the sort of shocked one would expect from someone who’s just found a leprechaun and a pot of gold.

Cautiously, Caroline walks back in his direction. “Did you… did you not know that Elijah came to see me?” It had never occurred to her that Elijah wouldn’t have told Klaus that he’d taken Caroline out for breakfast when he’d shown up to collect Klaus’ things and break his lease. Her family has its issues but, at least once she’d gotten through the rockier portions of her teen years, they’re pretty good at communicating about essential things.

Though, now that she thinks about it, it’s not surprising that Elijah had kept his mouth shut. Klaus’ family seems to enjoy hoarding painful secrets.

“Okay. So, Elijah told me… probably not everything. But enough. I was still angry, but I was also sad. I thought that we….” Her throat tightens, and she glances away. “Well, I guess I just thought that we were closer than we were.”

He makes a pained noise and reaches for her, grasping her hand and tangling their fingers together. Caroline squeezes, probably harder than she should, taking a deep breath.

Klaus had known her. Her insecurities, her fears, her wildest dreams. It had hurt to realize that he’d held so much of himself back. With time much of the hurt has faded, admittedly a fair bit slower than the anger, until she’d mostly been left with lingering worries. While her present circumstances have led to her thinking of Klaus frequently, it’s not like she hadn’t thought of him previously. Over the years, she’d periodically googled him, wanting some evidence that, wherever he’d ended up, he’d been okay.

It had come up with her therapist recently. Caroline had been assured that it hadn’t been within her power to make Klaus confide in her. That pushing her away had been his choice and that there had likely been nothing she could have done to change how they’d ended considering she’d been unaware of so much of what had been going on with Klaus.

She’s admitted that she tends to prioritize the happiness of the people she loves at her own expense, but she’s working on it.

He tugs her closer, “Look at me,” he pleads, and Caroline’s helpless to resist the request. “I was so happy with you. I hate that you ever thought otherwise.”

“But you didn’t trust me.”

Klaus’ head shakes immediately, emphatically. “It wasn’t about trust. I didn’t want everything that was happening with my family, with my career, to intrude on our time together. I thought I could enjoy you and the time we spent together and not have it touch us.”

She’d figured it was something like that. Klaus likes control, something they have in common. He’d also been hesitant to voice his emotions, better at showing her how he felt, and he’s got a world-class poker face when he tries.

Once upon a time, if they’d even have attempted this conversation, he would have been blank-faced and cold, would have stayed several feet away from her. His calmness would have made her more anxious.

They’d really sucked at fighting, but then they’d been very young.

“I’m sorry, Caroline. Leaving was a mistake. Not contacting you afterward was inexcusable.”

She’d forgiven him long ago, but she appreciates the apology all the same, is grateful for the confirmation that she’s not the only one that’s changed.

“You’re forgiven. I vote we close that book. Start fresh, okay?”

“That’s… more than I deserve.”

They’re getting some weird looks, a few annoyed grunts from passersby who have to weave around them. Caroline lightens her grip on his hand, but she doesn’t let it go when she pivots to stand at his side. “I think you’ve always been bad at judging what you deserve,” she tells him firmly. “Honestly, compartmentalizing until explosion is both super arrogant and totally on brand,” she says, knocking her shoulder against his as she starts walking again.

“That’s fair,” Klaus admits. Which, again, is growth.

Attractive growth but Caroline's going to have to think on what that means. 

They have a lot more to talk about, but there’s no reason they can’t do it over food.

Caroline appears to be a regular at the restaurant, is greeted enthusiastically, and they’re taken immediately to a table near a window. Klaus glances around distractedly as they make their way through packed tables, registers, wood paneling, warm lighting, and brightly colored but mismatched chairs. Caroline orders appetizers and drinks without checking the menu, and Klaus lets her, his mind occupied with all that he’d just learned.

And felt.

He’d expected Caroline to be cold this evening, had half-thought she’d cancel their plans and block his number. He’d assumed that her earlier friendliness had been a side effect of him popping up unexpectedly and of the fact that they were at one of her places of business.

He’s pleased that he’d been wrong, but his mental agenda has been significantly derailed. He’s unsure where to go next. Caroline drums her nails on the table, “So…. how long are you in town for?”

He appreciates the easy opening. “I’ve been here for three months, I’m planning on making the move permanent.” Klaus has been staying in a penthouse that belongs to Ansel, though he’s been looking for his own place.

Caroline’s mouth falls open theatrically, and she places her hand on her chest in a decent approximation of outrage, “Well, now I’m offended.”

Her expression turns playful, and Klaus manages a smile, “I think you can figure out why I didn’t call earlier.”

She inclines her head, conceding his point. “Mmm, yeah. Are you still in investment management?”

“No. Haven’t been for ages now, thankfully.”

Caroline leans back, eyeing him curiously. “I sense there’s a story there.”

Klaus supposes it’s a good of an opening as any. “I only lasted nine months at Emblem Trust.”

That surprises her. “Wow. You worked so hard to get that offer. What happened?”

He laughs without any genuine levity. “I was miserable. I usually was, at work. I told myself it would be different when I was promoted, when I had a little more power. That turned out to be false. There were just more people to make happy, more threats to swat down, more dull office politics. Even longer hours. Also, as it turns out, I’m not really built for tropical climates.”

Klaus is pleased when a bright laugh spills from Caroline, and she quickly slaps a hand over her mouth, eyes crinkled as she struggles to control her amusement. “Sorry. I just remembered that you always got kinda cranky at the beach even if you tried to hide it.”

“I came around to aspects of the beach.”

“Yeah, the tinier my bikini, the longer you avoided complaining,” she shoots back.

A pale-yellow pitcher of margarita is plunked on the table, quickly followed by two glasses. “Thank you,” Caroline smiles up at the server. “We’re going to need a few more minutes to figure out our orders.”

The server is quick to insist that there’s no rush, that their appetizers will be out soon before she melts back into the bustle of the restaurant.

Caroline picks up her menu, “Basically, everything is good. Do you want to split a platter? That way, you can try a couple of different things.”

Klaus agrees; he’s not particularly concerned with food this evening. He grabs the pitcher and fills the glasses, takes a sip, and is pleasantly surprised. He’s not typically a fan of mixed drinks, he finds them overly sweet, but this one has enough of a bite from the lime.  “Good, right?” Caroline says, smug in the way she always is when she knows she’s correct.

“As I said, you’ve never steered me wrong with food or drink, love.”

“I feel like I’ve never steered you wrong, period.”

“I would disagree. I recall some questionable recommendations when we shopped for clothes.”

“That’s just because you hate colors. Which you are totally wrong about, by the way.”

She’s leaned forward, arms crossed in front of her on the table, her hair escaping its updo in wisps at her temples. Klaus cannot believe that more than seven years had passed since he’d last sat across from Caroline and bickered about nonsense. It had always been one of his very favorite things, and he’d often pretended to hold a contrary opinion to rile her up.

Soothing her ruffled feathers had always been so very enjoyable.

“And what about you? You spend every weekend at the farmer’s market, you supply a couple of restaurants and coffee shops with your creations, and you’ve got a blog, right?”

Caroline sighs and shakes her head. “Still kind of a stalker, huh?”

A few dates in, he’d confessed that he’d noticed her at the coffee shop they’d met at weeks before he’s managed to find an excuse to talk to her. He’s not at all surprised that she won’t let it go. “It’s a bit easier now, to be fair.”

“Promoting myself on social media is only good business.”

“Your neighbor at the market, the one with the potatoes, mentioned you sell out every week. You’re obviously doing something right.”

“I like to thinks so. And the guy with the potatoes? That’s Enzo. He sells more than potatoes, but he’s just a little obsessed with his cross-breeds right now. I quite enjoy taste testing them because there’s really no bad potato.”

Klaus ignores the faint thrum of jealousy that springs up at Caroline’s apparent affection. “He’s a friend of yours, I take it?”

“Yep. He was actually my first post-divorce date, but we realized we were better as friends pretty quick.”

“Ah, yes. You mentioned your stellar track record with exes.”

“Oh, no. Enzo doesn’t count in there. There hasn’t been anyone significant since Stefan.”

It’s absolutely none of his business, but Klaus can’t resist asking. “And is your relationship with your ex-husband friendly?”

“I’d say so. He texted me pictures of curtains last week, and I picked the least terrible option.”  

Brightly patterned plates land on the table between them, one with a heaping bowl of guacamole and piles of chips spilling over the side, the other featuring golden tostadas piled high with toppings. Everything smells delicious, and Caroline dives in immediately, a chip delving into the guac. “I have tried to recreate this at home, but it’s never as good. I can’t figure out what pepper they’re using. It’s definitely not just jalapeño.” Her gaze turns shrewd, speculative, “How do you feel about acting as a guinea pig for trials?”

He takes a chip of his own, chews, and swallows before he answers, lest his eagerness be too apparent. “Of course. That’s the opposite of a hardship.”

She nods, satisfied, “I suppose you should tell me about this business proposition.”

“Right,” Klaus says slowly. He reaches for his phone – he’s prepared a pitch, carefully calibrated to appeal with supporting numbers – but he finds he’s having trouble grasping his talking points. He’s rattled, in a good way, by how well this evening has gone.

He’d always suspected he’d never quite gotten over Caroline; it’s something of a relief to have that confirmed.

Klaus isn’t generally one for hope, preferring more tangible things - plans and measurable progress. He’s filled with an alarming amount of it right now. He hadn’t dared consider that he and Caroline could be more than associates but perhaps, he hopes, he’d been wrong.

“Oh wow,” Caroline breathes, spinning to get a better look. “This was a factory?”

“A brewery. It closed down in the 70s.”

They’d walked into a work in progress. A couple of scaffoldings are up, and it’s bare of furniture, the floor only half-installed. She can tell it’ll be beautiful once it’s done. There are high ceilings, brick, and a ton of light from the curved windows along one side of the building, though a few smaller panes are missing or broken.

“The plan is to put in some seating in this space. During the day, people can meet or relax, and then it’ll be sort of a reception area for evening events.”

She can picture it easily, the sun during the day will make it warm and inviting, and at night the lights from the city will be gorgeous. “And while they’re relaxing, they’ll be taking advantage of the menu you want me to plan, right?”

Klaus inclines his head, “Exactly.”

“Can I see the rest?”  

“Of course.” Klaus’ hand comes to rest on her lower back, and this time Caroline manages not to jump in surprise at the touch. She had when he’d done it the first time, earlier when he’d met her on the street outside the apartment and opened the passenger door of his SUV for her.

She doesn’t object to the touching. Not even a little bit.

Today is the second time she and Klaus have met in person, though they’ve frequently been texting, and he’s lost much of the uncertain formality he’d treated her with the last time. He’s still a bit hesitant, careful to gauge her reactions, and thinking carefully when he speaks at times, but it’s progress that she’s pleased with.

Klaus ushers her towards the back of the building. There’s sheeting covering an archway, and he holds it open for her to walk through. This space is significantly more extensive and further along. It has the same openness, but the light comes from above. The ceiling is slanted and covered in glass panes. The floors are a softly gleaming pale wood, and the walls are an intimidatingly perfect and unbroken white.

Absently, Caroline wipes her hands on her jeans. “And this must be the gallery space.”

“We have moveable dividers on order so we can subdivide it into exhibits as necessary.”

Caroline turns to look at him, “This is super cool, Klaus.”

He grins, rocking back slightly on his heels. “Thank you.”

Satisfaction is a good look on him, Caroline decides.

She hesitates for a minute, wondering if her next question will shatter the ease they’ve managed to develop.

He’d drawn a little when they’d been together. She has a handful of napkin doodles tucked away in the Klaus box in her closet, and he’d frequently kicked ass at Pictionary. It hadn’t been a regular thing though, so she’s not sure how he’d gone from ambitious finance guy to opening a gallery.

“What’s on your mind, Caroline?”

She sighs, unsurprised he’s caught her waffling. “I’m just curious as to how all this came about. But I know that’s not technically my business.”

“I’m happy to tell you about it. Honestly.” He tips his head towards a set of swinging doors. “There’s some drinks in the kitchen. Would you like one? I’ll explain what I’ve been doing over the last few years, and then you can check out the facilities.”

He’s said the kitchen would need to be built from scratch. Part of the reason she’s here is to check the space out and recommend the necessary equipment to deliver the level of foodservice Klaus envisions. He’d said that money isn’t an issue (another thing she’s desperately curious about) and she’s got dreams of Vulcan ranges dancing in her head.

Caroline nods in agreement, and Klaus murmurs that he’ll return in a moment. She turns away as he leaves, walking into the center of the room and squinting up to examine the ceiling. She makes a mental note to ask if there’s usable space on the roof, she imagines it would be a draw. Klaus returns quickly with bottles tucked under one of his arms. He grabs two folding chairs and drags them over. Caroline takes water from him while he sets them up. Klaus gestures to the first one and smirks, “Ladies first.”

“Fancy,” she jokes, plopping down and cracking the seal on her bottle. She takes a sip to distract herself, Klaus had said he’d explain, so there’s no need to pepper him with questions.

He gets right into it, probably sensing her curiosity and taking pity. “After six months in Singapore, I received a letter from my biological father.”

Her eyes widen, that hadn’t been what she’d expected. “Wow. Was that the first time you’d heard from him?”

“Yes. My mother refused to tell me who he was, so I had no way of reaching out.”

Caroline’s expression must give away how much that pisses her off – she’d only met Esther and Mikael a few times, but she had not been a fan – because Klaus laughs softly. “No need to go planning retribution on my behalf, love. I’ve thoroughly made my displeasure with their actions known.”

“Sounds like they deserve it.”

“Mmm. That first letter was fairly brief. Ansel explained who he was and that he’d like to meet me, though he made it clear that any meeting would be absolutely on my terms. I took quite a bit of time to think it over. Nearly two months.”

Something he’d said at dinner clicks with Caroline, “So shortly before you left Emblem?”

“I’d been incredibly driven to succeed according to the parameters that Mikael set. To earn enough money to impress him, to attain a title I could rub in his face. To rise to the top of a field he thought I would fail at. I couldn’t admit that none of it was what I really wanted. Meeting with Ansel opened up a different path.”

She’s never met the man, but she immediately decides to like him. “So you quit.”

“And went back to school.”


“In Glasgow. The School of Art. I finished early and went to work with Ansel’s company. They have an auction house along with a few galleries in Europe. This,” Klaus explains, lifting a hand to encompass the room they’re in, “will be the first location in North America.”

“And it’s yours,” Caroline says, warm and probably excessively proud, considering they’ve only recently become reacquainted.

Klaus nods, “I lobbied hard for it, for a year and a half. I’m determined to make it a success.”

Caroline hefts her bottle, “We’ll have to toast with something better when it opens, but for now, here’s to your gallery.”

Klaus taps his bottle against hers, a small smile curling his lips, “To my gallery. And to catching up with old friends.”

Well, Caroline will definitely drink to that.

Klaus hears scraping, locks disengaging, and then Caroline’s in front of him, appearing frazzled. She’s got an oven mitt on one hand, and curls are escaping from a messy braid. She’s wearing a top with straps that he suspects would snap easily under eager hands, and very small shorts.

If Klaus hadn’t been convinced Caroline had forgiven him, he’d suspect she’s decided to torture him.

“Hi,” she says, slightly out of breath. “Come in. My tart shells are like six seconds away from being done.”

She whirls away before he can return her greeting, bare feet slapping against worn floorboards.

He follows her in, shutting the door behind him. It’s quite warm, and all the windows Klaus can see are thrown open. He takes a curious glance around, finds the space appears lived in, in a way that’s distinctly Caroline. She has a pink velvet sofa, more throw pillows than Klaus can understand, and he spies framed photos and probably scented candles dotted about the space.

He follows the sound of her humming, finds Caroline in a kitchen that’s larger than he would have expected given the size of the living room. There’s a single stool near a counter covered in food, Klaus assumes it’s for him and climbs on.

Caroline’s discarded the oven mitts. He spots a tray of the shells she’d mentioned cooling behind her, a piping bag filled with something bright yellow propped up in jar right next to it. She follows his line of sight and makes a face, “I made a yuzu curd, but I’m rethinking it. It reads as summery, and everything else I’ve put together is more autumnal since the opening should be in October. I just couldn’t resist buying them.”

“How shocking,” he deadpans, and Caroline tosses a tea towel in his direction half-heartedly.

“See if I invite you shopping again,” she sniffs.

“And here I thought I’d proved my helpfulness.”

Earlier in the week, he’d accompanied Caroline to a few of her favorite markets. Klaus had been content to trail behind her as she’d tasted samples and chatted excitedly to merchants, easily switching to haggling, even as he’d grown weighed down with more and more of her purchases. She’d lit up when she’d spotted what Klaus now knows to by yuzu.

He’d always found her drive fascinating, even back when he hadn’t understood what it was to love the thing that paid your bills. She’s more confident now, and it’s becoming more difficult to ignore his attraction to her. Klaus is leery of moving too quickly, refuses to fracture the warm relationship they’ve developed, though he’s nearly certain Caroline’s facing similar struggles.

“You are an excellent pack mule.”

“Such a compliment,” he drawls. He pushes up his sleeves, tugging at the collar of his shirt. Caroline’s eyes follow the movements closely.

Klaus notes her preoccupation but doesn’t comment. He rather enjoys the way she looks at him, after all.

She shakes her head, “Sorry, my AC is crap. I spent like two weeks in July lying on the floor naked and eating popsicles whenever I was home during the day.”

That’s a mental image that’s not at all helpful to Klaus. He clears his throat, “I’ll survive, don’t worry.”

“Oh, I made a cocktail!” she exclaims, pivoting to the fridge. “That’ll help. I hope bourbon’s still your fave because I sacrificed some prime peaches for this.”

“It is still my preferred liquor, yes.” She manages to do this frequently - remembering details about things he likes or stories he’d told her when they were still together. He’s come to realize that he hadn’t quite understood how fully Caroline had loved him. She’d said it, often, and he’d believed her, but part of him had thought he’d be easily forgotten. That last night he’d asked her to come with him, to build their life together, but she’d refused, and he’d taken that as confirmation of his worst doubts about them.

She tosses a few pieces of fruit into a tall glass, along with some ice. She pours from a pitcher and then slides the glass over to him. “Peach iced tea, laced with bourbon. Heavily, like my nana would do it.”

Klaus takes a drink, then a larger one, partly to watch Caroline’s expression brighten. “It’s delicious,” he tells her, and she preens.

“Why thank you kindly,” she says, leaning a hip on the counter and pouring a class of her own. “When I was a kid, Nana always made this, minus the bourbon of course, for my birthday. Peach tea and lemon-orange chiffon cake. Kind of a last summer hurrah, I think.”

“Ah, perhaps that’s the origin of your weakness for citrus.”

Caroline hums contemplatively, “That actually makes a lot of sense. I owe that lady a lot. She’s the one that convinced me to go to culinary school. She reminds me that she was right about that at least once a month too.”

Klaus’ brows lift. “I never knew you needed a push.” He’d known Caroline had studied marketing at Whitmore College, close to home, because her mother had been diagnosed with cancer the summer she’d graduated from high school. “Though, I’m not at all surprised that your love of ‘I told you so’s’ is also genetic.”

“Rude!” Caroline exclaims, but she’s laughing. “I wanted to get the hell away from Mystic Falls. I went to Whitmore because of my mom, but she’d been in remission for two years when I finished. On paper, getting my MBA would have been the smart play, so I applied to basically every program at schools in a major city on the east coast. Nana convinced me to sneak in a tour of a culinary school on a visit, and then she talked it up until I was convinced.”

“She must be very proud of you.”

Caroline makes a noise, low and amused. “Yep, even when she needs to step in with a stern talking to.”

Her eyes meet his, and she answers the question he’s been about to pose. “When I was working for The Salvatore Group, my job got more and more hands-off. I was interviewing chefs and approving room-service menus, and dealing with supply chain issues. I could deal with it, but then Stefan’s dad died.”

“I’m sorry,” Klaus says automatically, but Caroline quickly shakes her head.

“Oh, no need for that. He was awful and he hated me. Stefan and his brother, Damon, inherited equal shares in the hotels and… that did not go well. Damon wanted to make major changes, cater to higher-end customers. He wanted the most pretentious nonsense. Like, gold leaf on everything, freaking foams and calling everything deconstructed.”

He’s far from an expert, but that sounds like the exact opposite of Caroline’s style.

“I pushed back and got nowhere, just Damon insisting I get with the program and Stefan nicely asking me to make it work. Stefan didn’t particularly care about the hotels, even less about the restaurants and room service. He wanted to rebuild his relationship with his brother, so I felt like I was fighting alone. And then he sold his shares, and I really was fighting alone.”

“And your grandmother encouraged you to quit?” Klaus asks. He'd never had the opportunity to meet the woman. She’d been away on a cruise when Klaus had accompanied Caroline on a visit to her hometown, and he’d been back in London during the Christmas holiday that she’d come to spend with Caroline. He finds himself hoping he’ll get the chance.

“She was all for me quitting in a blaze of glory, but I did it very properly, two weeks notice and all that. I started the blog and reached out to old friends. One of them was opening a sandwich place and thought he could sell some small desserts, another was having trouble with his bread delivery place. I started small and, thanks to good word of mouth, managed to build up my client base.”

Klaus takes a large drink, steeling himself. “What happened with your ex-husband?”

Caroline blows out a breath. “Nothing dramatic which, yes, is wildly out of character,” she jokes. Klaus relaxes because he’d been afraid he was poking something he shouldn’t, that he’d cause her pain by asking. “Stefan was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, and I was really busy, kind of rediscovering my career and falling back in love with it. We were growing apart for months but not really talking about it because it was hard. Then he decided he wanted to leave, to live a little more rural. When he brought it up, I realized I had no desire to walk away from what I was building, not even for him. We couldn’t avoid talking then. We talked a lot, and there was only one conclusion. We were moving in different directions. So we separated, he moved, and now we’re divorced.”

“And still friends,” Klaus says. “Which is impressive.” Though not surprising. Klaus had tossed his chance at Caroline’s friendship away hastily and had always known it had been a mistake.

“We were friends first, actually. For years. His uncle lived in Mystic Falls, and Stefan used to visit in the summer. Post-divorce, it’s been weirdly easy to go back.”

Klaus’s fingers tap at his glass, shifting it back and forth. “I owe you another apology, sweetheart.”

Caroline blinks, surprised. “What for?”

“That last night, when I asked you to go with me. I said some things I shouldn’t have. I treated your career like it was lesser, acted like you should have been happy to drop everything you’d worked for, and follow me. I was wrong, and you were right to refuse. You’re brilliant and so talented, and I should never have belittled that.”

Caroline doesn’t answer immediately, her lip caught between her teeth. “Thank you. That means a lot. Back then, I knew I loved what I was doing, but I doubted if I was good enough.”

“It’s long overdue. I hope those doubts no longer trouble you.”

Caroline shrugs, eyes dropping to the counter. “Mostly, but I’m only human, you know? Starting over felt like failure, in a way.”

That’s something Klaus can relate to. “I had never felt more out of place than I did when I showed up at my first lecture.”

A small smile crawls against Caroline’s face, “I bet you just loved hanging out with a bunch of teenagers, huh?”

Klaus returns the smile, thrilled he can still lighten her load. “I have stories, but they’re traumatic,” he jokes. “I’ll need more bourbon to talk about it.”

Caroline tops up his glass, and her tone turns contemplative, “I was tempted, you know. To leave with you. You probably could have convinced me, had you taken a different approach. You were always good at that.”

Oh, that would have been a disaster.  

“Perhaps, for once, my less than stellar temperament was beneficial.” She would have ended up hating him, resenting him, had she come with him. As much as he’d missed her, he knows, deep down, he hadn’t been equipped to make her happy then.

“Klaus Mikaelson, admitting to his flaws? Gotta mark that one down,” her brows wiggle at him playfully, and she turns to grab the tray of shells. “I hope you’re hungry. We should be good to start tasting.”

Caroline focuses on her task, hands sure and deft as she expertly fills the tart shells, ending with a neat little swirl. He watches contentedly, finishing his drink.

It may take a while, but he’s going to convince Caroline that things have changed, that he’s changed. He’s far from perfect, but he’s not afraid of hard work. When she’s ready, he’ll spend every day ensuring she’s happy.

She’d made up trays, and they’d migrated into the living room, taking advantage of the pillows on the floor, conveniently located under a vent, to make the most of her AC’s weak cooling power. Klaus’ hair had grown even curlier than usual, and her hand’s itching to play with it.

She’d done that often when they’d been together. Waking up with Klaus, lazy and warm, had often been the highlight of her week. He’d been at his most touchy-feely in those moments, pressing into her wandering hands and making soft, sleepy noises of contentment.

They’ve finished eating, had another few drinks. Klaus insists that everything was delicious which is good for her ego but not exactly helpful. She’d watched him carefully however, had noted when he went back for a second serving of something. Plus, she’d once thoroughly enjoyed cataloguing Klaus’ expressions, looking for hints that he enjoyed something.

Be it food or other activities.

Activities that she does not need to think about right now.

He’s not drunk, but he’s relaxed some, leaning back against the wall. She’d stretched out her legs, and he’d pulled her foot into his lap. His thumb has taken to absently tracing her ankle bone and Caroline’s fighting shivers, knows he would notice. Given the mugginess that’s settled over her apartment, and the fact that Klaus has always been good at tuning into her mood, he’d easily attribute such a reaction to arousal.

Tonight had reminded her of the best things about being with Klaus. There hasn’t been a moment of awkward silence, even when they’d delved into heavier topics. She knows more about his relationship with Ansel, how it’s tentative but that he’s trying to be the sort of father Klaus hadn’t really believed existed. She’d talked a bit about the café she wants to open, confessed that there are days when she’s exhausted, and wonders if it wouldn’t be easier to suck it up and take on another soul-sucking corporate job to bulk up her savings.

He'd always managed to give her his full attention, even when he’d had other things on his mind. He still does that, pokes and prods or backs off as needed. He doesn’t mind her bluntest opinions, has a healthy enough ego to take her teasing and toss it back.

She hasn’t laughed so much in ages.

As the evening had worn on, and the physical distance between them lessened, memories of those other activities had nagged at Caroline.

She’d had good sex before Klaus, of course, and after. But he’d been her first long-term relationship where there’d been no roommates or curfews, where they hadn’t had to get off, get dressed and go to their separate homes.

With Klaus, she’d been confident and knowledgeable enough in what she liked to give direction, and comfortable in asking to try new things and, to his credit, Klaus had always been very enthusiastic about trying new things, diligent about getting them just right.

She hasn’t been celibate since her divorce but, sadly, Caroline would rate those encounters as slightly better than mediocre and mostly a waste of time.

Naturally, she’s wondering if she and Klaus would spark now in the same way they did then. He’s been starring in her fantasies since the night they’d gone out for dinner. She’s human, with perfectly healthy urges. She’s so tempted to see if he’s willing to make them a reality now that he’s right in front of her, his shirt clinging to him, lazy-eyed and seemingly content to lounge with her until she gets sick of him.

Caroline’s pretty sure the likelihood of her getting sick of him is nil.

God, she’s in so much trouble.

Klaus is just wrapping up his conversation when he hears the rapid click of high heels in the hallway. He sets his phone down just as Katherine Pierce waltzes into his office. She throws herself down in one of the chairs across from his desk without waiting for an invitation.

All the while glaring at him like he’s a particularly loathsome insect she’s scraped off her shoe.

She’d come along this afternoon, with Caroline, who’d been excited to show her friend around now that they’re just working on the finishing touches. The kitchen’s lagging a bit behind the gallery space, but Klaus had just been assured that everything will be delivered by the end of the week.

He’d let Caroline play tour guide, so he’s surprised that his office is now being invaded. Curious, too. Katherine plays fairly nicely when Caroline’s within earshot, but Klaus is convinced she doesn’t like him. Caroline had laughed when he mentioned it, assured him that Katherine didn’t really like anyone, that it took some time for people to grow on her but, once her shell cracked, she was the most loyal person on the planet.

He's got his doubts.

Katherine leans back, making herself comfortable, her head tipped to the side like she’s waiting for him to say something.

“Can I help you?” is what Klaus settles on, managing to deliver the question cordially.

“Caroline’s wrapped up with the build foreman. So it’s shovel talk time.”

Ah. If nothing else, he appreciates a person who gets to the point. Perhaps it says something unfavorable about him, but he’s pleased by the pronouncement. He’s delighted to have the confirmation that Caroline’s openness to rekindling their romantic relationship isn’t just his wishful thinking.

“You’ll murder me if I hurt her, I take it?”

“Slowly. Painfully. Creatively. They’ll never find the body.”

Katherine delivers the threat casually, glancing at her nails. Klaus absolutely believes she’d do anything in her power to ruin his life were he to cause Caroline pain. “Understood,” he replies.

Her dark eyes flick up, a hint of shock she quickly hides, “You know you’d deserve it, right? She doesn’t talk about you much, but that’s only because of how much it crushed her when you left. Somehow, you’ve made her fall for you again. If you fuck that up, you’re a moron.”

A sentiment Klaus agrees with wholeheartedly.

He hears footsteps in the hall again, softer but familiar, and he knows Caroline’s about to join them. “I won’t,” he says, quiet by sure. “Not ever again.”

Katherine’s expression remains skeptical, but she nods grudgingly, just before Caroline pokes her head around the door frame. She glances between them worriedly, “This is a weird vibe. What’s going on?”

Katherine rises and turns away. Klaus can hear the smirk in her voice. “I thought you wanted me to be nice to your new boyfriend. Why so suspish, cupcake?”

Caroline groans, reaches in, and grabs Katherine’s arm. “Forget everything I said about this one being a good friend. She’s the worst.”

They’re gone before Klaus can reply, which is just as well. He’s hate to give Katherine Pierce the satisfaction of hearing him disagree with Caroline’s assessment.

“I am in love,” Caroline says, her tone soft and reverent. She runs her hand over the oven’s handle admiringly.

Klaus makes a strangled noise, then coughs. “Shall I leave you two alone? Perhaps watch the door so you can have your moment?”

“Don’t be silly. I could never defile her like that. She’s got a higher purpose.”

“Excellent. I’d hate to have to be jealous of a piece of kitchen equipment.”

“No, you only have to be jealous of…” Caroline cuts herself off, lips sealing to keep in the truly awful joke she’d been about to make about the stand mixer’s vibrations. She’s been spending too much time with Kol.

And maybe she’s a teeny bit sexually frustrated. Not enough to start straddling kitchen equipment, obviously, but objects that vibrate are totally saving her sanity these days.

It’s been six weeks since Klaus had shown up at her farmer’s market. Somehow, he’s managed to slot into her life like a missing puzzle piece, working his schedule around hers as the gallery opening looms. He listens to her advice, asks her opinions even on things that are technically outside her area of expertise. He’d even shown her his apartment before he’d signed the final paperwork. He’s integrating into her friend group, trading caustic but hilarious barbs with Kat, and letting Enzo educate him on the nuances of bespoke vegetable creation.

Klaus had begun bringing Kol around, who’s also helping with the opening, so it’s his fault that she’s been negatively influenced by his brother’s excessive pervyness.

Never mind that Klaus has always inspired such thoughts.

“Jealous of?” Klaus prompts, smirking at her in a way that’s distinctly goading.

Ugh, how does he always manage to be so freaking attractive? So not fair.

“None of your business,” Caroline shoots back, which is far from her best comeback. Klaus eases closer, and Caroline turns, so her back is to the oven. Her breath catches when Klaus’ legs brush hers. She’s been going back and forth, driving herself crazy over Klaus’ intentions. She’s fully willing to dive right in, but he’s kept things friendly.

She’s not quite sure what to make of it – Klaus has never hesitated to go after what he wants.

He tucks her hair behind her ear, fingertips lingering on her jaw. “And if I wanted it to be my business?”

“I would have questions.”

Klaus inches ever so slightly closer, Caroline inhales sharply when his hips come to rest against hers. “But not objections?” he murmurs.

She shakes her head, pushing off from the stove just as Klaus’ free arm snakes around her and pulls her tightly to him. Caroline’s lips part when they meet his, and he groans harshly, his hand sliding into her hair as he kisses her deeply, hard and fast like he’s been holding himself back.

He tastes her like he’s starving, tongue stroking hers sensually as his thigh slips between her legs.

The heat between them flares so quickly it’s dizzying, but Caroline keeps up, relishes it, matching Klaus stroke for stroke, heart beginning to pound as she presses as close as she can. A low whine of protest spills from her when he pulls away, and he laughs breathlessly, “Wait,” he gasps, and she pries her eyes enough to look at him, to note how dark his eyes have gotten, how flushed and wet his mouth is. “I had planned…”

Caroline doesn’t care, rising up on to her toes and yanking him closer. He offers no resistance when she pushes into his mouth, welcomes her hotly, using his hand on her back to pull her impossibly closer. He stumbles back, turning them clumsily, and Caroline jumps when his hands land on her hips and urge her up. She lands on a countertop, winds a thigh around him, gripping his shirt to resist the nearly overwhelming urge to touch him.

There’s still a worker or two in the building, and then there’s the health code to consider. Clothes need to stay on.


Klaus’ mouth drags down her throat, easily finding the spot that makes her back arch and her nipples tighten. She moans, and his teeth press into her skin. “I’ve missed that sound,” he rasps.

Something crashes out on the gallery floor, and Caroline freezes while Klaus jumps back. He runs a shaky hand through his hair. “I’m afraid my timing leaves something to be desired.”

Caroline’s hand comes to press against her swollen lips. She inhales deeply, telling her body to freaking cool it. “Again, no objections. But why now?”

“The soft opening is tomorrow, and, should all go according to plan…”

“Which it will,” Caroline interrupts, firm.

He smiles at her, “…we’ll be fully operational a week after that.”

“Okay?” she asks, not quite getting his point.

Klaus looks away, “At that point our business would be concluded.”

Never has Caroline experienced such diametrically opposed but equally forceful urges – she wants to smack him until he starts making sense, but she also wants to drag him into his office and rip off his clothes.

It’s kind of a lot.

She blows out a breath, decides to be direct. “Okay. First of all, my birthday is in two weeks. I will be highly offended if you don’t come to my party.”

Klaus’ lips twitch, and he shifts his weight, eyes tentative as they swing back in her direction. “I would hate to displease you.”

Caroline slides forward, hopping off the counter. She takes a second to straighten her top and smooth her hair. “Good. Are we on the same page now? The page that says I still want you in my life even if I’m not on your payroll anymore?”

Klaus grins, “Yes. I quite like this page.”

Caroline presses back into the counter until it’s uncomfortable. She needs the distraction because the pants ripping urges are only gaining in strength. “That page also says you should ask me out, FYI.”

She leaves while Klaus is still gaping at her, resisting the urge to whistle. She's far from satisfied but, with that gauntlet thrown, at least she knows that'll change soon.

Klaus enters the kitchen at the gallery, expecting to see Caroline making sure the food is up to her exacting standards. Instead, he finds Kol gorging on the appetizers, artfully arranged on round trays. He’s out of the way, at least, hovering near a counter built into the wall and away from the kitchen’s main passageway.

“Leave some for the rest of the guests, if you please.”

Kol swallows before he speaks, a marked improvement in manners. “Just quality testing,” he says. “I extended a great amount of my charm to ensure you’d have a full house of the hoity-est toity-est citizens this city has to offer. Can’t have my reputation besmirched by you serving subpar food.”

“Tonight’s just friends and family,” Klaus reminds him.

“Right. Rebekah sends her regrets, but if I were you, I’d brace for a visit soon. Elijah should be along though. Might dim the mood a bit, but what can you do?”

Klaus’ mouth falls open, closes. He’s well accustomed to Kol’s nonsense, his brother’s never been one to say less when there’s the opportunity to say more. It’s Kol’s primary revelation that has thrown him. “Elijah’s coming? How did he…”

“I told him, obviously. Told him you wanted him to come, which wasn’t technically true but isn’t untrue, right?”

Kol’s watching him knowingly, still snacking, irritatingly casual. Probably relishing Klaus’ discomfiture.  “I…”

“Have some weird idea that we’ll disapprove of this part of your life since it’s so closely tied to Ansel? It’s quite offensive that you’ve lumped us in with our oh so lovely parents, I’ll have you know.”

“I…” Klaus swallows hard, emotion clogging his throat. “Thank you,” he manages after a moment. He takes a deep breath, knowing Kol will complain endlessly if he dares say anything more heartfelt.

Perhaps they’ll have to work on that.

“No need to thank me, Nik. I’m sure I’ll think of a way for you to repay me soon enough.”

Once upon a time, Klaus would have assumed that was a threat but not now. “If you ever want a job,” Klaus offers, only half-joking.

Surprisingly, Kol appears thoughtful. “I’ll think about it,” he says.

The swinging doors are pushed open, and Caroline walks in. She’s changed into a stunning gold dress, flapper-esque in style, except much less modest than the period would have allowed. The neckline dips low enough that there’s a sheer panel keeping the bodice together and the fringed skirt hits a few tantalizing inches above her knee. Her lips red and glossy, twisting into a scowl as she stalks towards them.

Which, in Klaus’ opinion, makes them no less distracting.

“Kol,” she hisses, “if you don’t quit messing up my trays…”

Kol sidesteps her, shamelessly popping one last bite into his mouth. “Don’t frown so, your face will freeze like that,” he taunts.

Caroline glares until he retreats, turning to the trays and shifting a few things, until they’re symmetrical once more. She casts a look in Klaus’ direction. She’s in work mode, likely triple-checking her mental list, so she hasn’t noted that he can’t seem to look away from her. “Aren’t you going to change? I saw a suit in your office.”

“You changed in my office?” Klaus says, immediately wincing at how inane he sounds.

Caroline smirks, “Sure did. You picked a great couch, by the way. Looks super comfy.”

She’s teasing him and, as much as he likes it, he’d been looking for her for a reason.

 He wants to enjoy tonight knowing that he has even better plans for tomorrow.

Klaus straightens, pulls her hand away from the food, and laces their fingers together. “Tomorrow night,” he says. “Would you like to have dinner with me?”

Caroline’s head tips to the side, “No business?” she asks.

“None,” Klaus promises.

“Not as friends?”

“I’ve enjoyed your friendship immensely, but I want much more.”

Caroline nods, seemingly satisfied. “Me too. Pick me up at 7?”

He agrees, knowing he’ll be early. It had been a tactic, in the beginning, Caroline had complained extensively during their first conversation about an instructor she’d had that was always late. He’d correctly surmised that she was a woman who valued punctuality, and so he’d made it a point to be early to their first dates. Gradually it had become a habit, not just to impress her, but because he liked watching her get ready, found it a challenge to distract her, to make her laugh even as she scolded him.

He can’t wait to resurrect the tradition.

Caroline’s stationed at the peep hole, already dressed and ready to go, determined to beat Klaus at his own game.

She throws the door open as soon as she spots him in the hallway, rolling her shoulders back because she’s wearing a brand new date dress. Technically she’d bought two dresses, but the gold number from last night had served a different purpose (and had performed its job valiantly). She’d thought one final nudge couldn’t hurt, though Klaus hadn’t needed it. She’d still enjoyed the way his eyes had tracked her all evening, how his gaze had felt like a caress on the skin she’d been flaunting.

She’d decided that new beginnings deserved new things. Tonight’s dress is a bit more demure, in a royal blue shade that she knows she looks good in. It’s slimly cut and hits below her knees, baring one shoulder and belted at her waist.

Klaus looks just as dumbstruck when he spots her, which is gratifying. Caroline’s glad she’s chosen good underthings.

She’s about to make her own perusal of his person, but her attention is snagged by what he’s holding. She peers closer, trying to make out what it is. There’s a red ribbon, but it’s not flowers, Caroline sucks in a breath when the familiar shapes register in her brain.

She reaches out, her hand just a bit unsteady. “That’s a measuring cup,” she says. “And a wooden spoon. And… a cookie scoop?”

Klaus looks nervous, but an excited kind, without the strain he’d shown when they’d first been getting reacquainted. “Yes. And a few other things. The woman at the store was quite helpful. I’m sure you have them all, but you mentioned renting a commercial space. I figured it would be easier if you had a set you could take with you, without having to rummage around in your kitchen every time.”

It might be the best gift she’s ever received and they’re so not making it to dinner. Assuming Klaus is onboard.

Caroline takes the gift from him, walking backward slowly and setting it down securely on her hall table.

Klaus has followed her in, and closes the door. Caroline steps forward, into him and he exhales sharply, head bending towards her when she reaches passed him. They’re both breathing faster than normal, but the locks clicking into place seem impossible loud. Klaus’ palm skims over her bare shoulder, then lower. Caroline licks her lips, “My page says we should stay in.”

“A great page,” Klaus breathes, and then his mouth is where his hand had been, delicately brushing the skin of her throat. She clutches at his jacket, eyes squeezing shut.

“For sex,” she manages unsteadily because hey, directness seems to be working so far.

His mouth lifts to hover over hers, “The best page.” He kisses her, Caroline shoves at his jacket, uncaring when it hits the floor, stepping back blindly when Klaus urges her to.

She’d given him a quick tour the first time he’d come over, and he must have been paying attention because he leads them unerringly to the bedroom. His hands roam over her body and Caroline’s skin prickles, wanting more. She gasps when her shoulders hit wood, reaching for the buttons on Klaus’ shirt. She gets a few of them before she grows too impatient, reaching down and yanking the fabric from where it had been neatly tucked in. “Off,” Caroline insists, hands slipping underneath. He shivers under her touch, the lean muscles of his stomach clenching. His teeth scrape her ear, and her head tips to the side, encouraging his explorations.

“You too,” he rasps, before his hands leave her. He grasps the shirt at the back of his neck, discarding it. His hips press into hers, but it’s not enough, her skirt prevents the friction she wants. Caroline twists her torso, scrabbling for the zipper under her arm. It gives easily, and she rolls her shoulders, shimmying the sleeves off her arms.

Klaus brushes a kiss over the top of her breast, spilling over the cup of her strapless bra, his tongue peeking out to taste her skin. “Bed,” he says, wrapping an arm around her waist and using his free hand to turn the doorknob.

Caroline grins, mapping his newly bared skin greedily. He steadies her as they cross the threshold. “Do you have something against walls now? I remember having a good time with you against a number of them.”

Klaus groans, and Caroline laughs as her knees hit the edge of her mattress, collapsing back against it. She’s disappointed he doesn’t follow her, reaching up to try to tug him down. “As I recall, that worked best with me behind you.”

“I’m okay with that.”

Klaus dodges her hands, one hand hooking under her calf and pulling her leg up. “Later.”

Caroline’s also okay with that.

He makes quick work of the clasp on her shoe, tossing it aside, then the other. “Now, though. I want to see you.” His hands move up, passed her knees, eyes intent.

Caroline exhales shakily, and grasps the top of her dress, shoving it down. Klaus grips the skirt, pulling, and it eases over her hips, slipping away and leaving her bare, save for a few scraps of sheer pink lace.

“Beautiful,” he says, so softly that she wonders if he knows he’s spoken.

His lashes dip, and his hands find her skin again, gliding upward, this time unimpeded by any fabric. Caroline shudders when his thumb scrapes against her inner thigh, legs parting without conscious thought.

He makes a harsh noise, “Love, you can’t…” He doesn’t finish the sentence, head dipping, mouth opening over her thigh as he sucks a mark there. Caroline moans, reaching down to thread her fingers through his hair. He glances up, “Is this okay?” he asks, and she nods frantically. Klaus smiles, slow and hungry, dropping another kiss a few inches higher. “Can I taste you?” His mouth brushes the front of her panties, right over her clit. “Can I make you come, Caroline?”

She barely recognizes her own voice, shaky and high, “Yes. Please. Klau… oh!”

Caroline is left gasping as she arches into his mouth. He’d moved quickly, shoving her leg over his shoulder, tugging her underwear aside, and swirling his tongue over her. Caroline draws her free leg up, knee falling to the side, giving him more room. He hums his approval with his lips wrapped around her clit, and Caroline shakes, and moans again. Klaus’ thumb strokes her entrance, a too light tease that has her clenching down. She can’t gather the words to ask for more, not with his careful attention to her clit, building her up slowly. Her thighs tighten and hips arch, then retreat, in time to his movements. Her grip on him loosens, both her hands twisting in the sheets.

He takes a breath, rubs his stubbled cheek on her thigh, probably leaving a mark. “I have wanted this so badly,” he confesses roughly. “Never just this, of course. But the way you taste, sweetheart. How you feel. It’s…”

She can’t be mad that he doesn’t finish his sentence, not when his mouth returns to her, nearly devouring now. She sighs in relief when he slips a finger inside of her. “More,” she begs, knowing she’s slick enough, beginning to ache.

He obeys instantly, easing two fingers inside of her. Caroline’s eyes flutter closed when they curl, and  his thumb begins to rub tight circles over her clit. He nips her inner thigh. “Look at me,” he urges. “I need to see you.”

She suspects he also needs her to see him, for her to know that he’s the one making her fall apart. Caroline will have to deal with that bit of insecurity later but, right now, she doesn’t have it in her. Her thoughts are barely coherent, her body’s demands too insistent.

It takes real effort to pry her eyelids open. She’s so close, breathing heavily. Klaus’ eyes are have darkened, there’s a flush on his cheeks. When she focuses on him, he smiles, “Watch,” he rasps. “I want you to pay attention, love.”

Caroline pushes herself up, onto her elbows, head rolling forward. His head between her thighs had admittedly featured heavily in her recent fantasies, but the reality is indescribably good. Klaus’ head lowers, and he licks a broad stripe through her soaked folds. “I want to make you feel good,” he murmurs.

Caroline’s lips part, a noise of disbelief spilling out. “I feel… very good. So good,” she says, the words slurring. Klaus’ grip on her thighs tightens, and his motions grow faster, harder, paying attention to where she’s always been the most sensitive. She whimpers, eyes going hazy as her entire body starts to quiver.

She doesn’t close them, can’t when his lift, catching her gaze as the first wave of her orgasm ripples down her spine.

The hard suction of his lips paired with a light flick of his tongue pushes her over, and Caroline falls back, crying out his name again.

She reaches for him desperately, nails scraping his shoulder, wanting to pull him up.

Klaus, bless him, remembers this part too and climbs onto the bed. Caroline mumbles her pleasure when his weight sinks into her, grounding her as she quivers with sensation. She wraps her arms around him, and he whispers sweet, heated, perfect nonsense into her skin. Caroline’s eyes close again, this time in contentment.

“Somehow, I think you got better at that,” she says, once her brain is nearly firing on all cylinders. Klaus props himself up on his elbow, reaches to smooth her hair from her face.

“Well,” he says, faux-modestly, “I’m not the sort to turn down a compliment…”

Yeah, she’s going to have to nip that in the bud.

His jaw goes slack, and Caroline grins up at him deviously. All it had taken was a slight roll of her hips, and he’d forgotten his smugness. He’s hard behind his jeans, and she grinds lazily against him, thigh bending upwards to improve the angle. She moans, arching her back until her bra, barely hanging on before, shifts down until it’s no longer covering anything. Klaus’ head rolls down, riveted on her breasts. “You should probably take off your pants,” Caroline tells him.

He doesn’t seem to hear her, bending down, lips wrapping around her tightly peaked nipple. Her head digs into the bed, and she squirms as his mouth toys with her, shooting new thrums of need through her.

She stabs her toes into the back of his knee. “Pants. Off. Now,” she grits out.

Klaus rolls off of her with a flattering amount of haste. She watches him shamelessly, notes how his hands fumble, the slight sheen of sweat on his skin. “I have condoms,” she tells him. “But I also have an IUD.”

Klaus’ shoulders heave as he absorbs her meaning, stilling with his fly only half undone. Caroline plucks at her bedding and explains. “I haven’t been with anyone since my last physical, where all my tests were fine. If you’re also fine…”

Oddly, she feels more exposed now than she had when she’d been coming under his mouth.

“I am… fine. And I trust you. But, if you need proof before we… I’m happy to use the condoms.” His eyes drift down her body. “More than happy to,” he assures her.

Caroline shakes her head, beckons him forward, “I trust you.”

He practically dives onto the bed, winding a hand into her hair and drawing her mouth up to his for a lazy kiss. “Thank you,” he says when he pulls back, and she knows he’s talking about more than just the condoms.

He doesn’t believe he deserves this second chance, another thing they’ll have to work on. Caroline’s more than up for the challenge, of course.

 Caroline rolls to her side, pressing her palm to his chest to urge him onto his back. “I should probably be thanking you,” she replies, eager to move on to more pressing matters. Her nails scrape through the hair on his lower stomach. Klaus sucks in a breath when she wraps her hand around his cock. Caroline kisses his shoulder, stroking him lazily. He pulses in her hand, and she presses her thighs together to relieve the growing ache inside. “No witty comeback?” she teases. “Another first.”

He writhes against her sheets, face twisting in pleasure, while she relearns his body. When his breathing grows ragged, he stills her hand. “Enough,” he rasps, and Caroline wholeheartedly agrees. He reaches for her thigh, urging her to straddle him. His fingers slip easily through her folds, and he hisses, sitting up until they’re chest to chest, her knees snug against his hips. She grips his shoulders, gliding against his length, teasing them both just a little bit more.

When he begins to sink inside her, Caroline throws her head back, enjoying the slow, perfect stretch of her body welcoming his. Klaus’ mouth drags hotly down her sternum, his hands tight on her hips.

He lets her set the pace at first. She rocks back and forth until she’s taken all of him, he’s still and straining underneath her.

His control has always been iron, she can’t wait until it slips

Caroline can feel his heart beating rapidly under her palm, knows hers is pumping just as fast. Klaus looks up at her with something like wonder in his eyes, and she swallows hard, because she’s about half a second away from blurting out something she shouldn’t at this juncture.

It’s too soon. And Klaus would absolutely doubt such a proclamation if blurted out during sex.

She ducks her head instead, brushing her lips over his. “I need to move now,” she tells him, leaning forward and arching her hips until he slowly begins to slip from her body.

He moans her name when she slams back down, bites out a rough curse at her next slow retreat. She can’t blame him, she’s driving herself crazy, knows it’s the best way to stop thinking.

Luckily, his thumb finds her clit, and soon they’re frantic, moving fast and rough and messy, chasing their highs, and Caroline can’t think or speak.

She comes with a shout, falling heavily against Klaus, and he grinds up into her, her name on his lips as he shakes through his release.

When they’re catching their breath, Caroline draped over Klaus and his hand buried in her hair, the words ‘I love you” are still there.

And they’re not going anywhere.

It’s the day after Caroline’s birthday, and he’d invited her over for dinner.

They’ve eaten together nearly every night since the gallery’s soft opening, a trend Klaus hopes to continue indefinitely. An occasion like a birthday deserved a special invitation, however. There’s a pile of presents waiting on his coffee table and he’s got the menu for her favorite Italian place ready to go.  

While Klaus is perfectly capable of cooking, he’s not especially proficient, and he hadn’t wanted to risk screwing up the cake he’s baking.

The cake that’s in the oven, about ten minutes away from being done. He’d just finished whipping the frosting, and he thinks it’s appropriately fluffy (though, in his opinion, ‘fluffy’ is an odd descriptor for food). Klaus consults his notes one last time, making sure he hasn’t forgotten anything. The doorbell chimes and Klaus glances at the clock in alarm.

Caroline’s early. He should have expected she’d beat him at his own game.

He drops his papers on the island, wishing he had time to tidy up. He hurries to his front door, finds Caroline outside, pink-cheeked with windblown hair. She smiles, steps into him, pressing a kiss to his mouth. “Would you believe there was no traffic?” she says, eyes wide with feigned innocence.

“No,” Klaus grumbles, but he helps her out of her coat, turning to hang it up. “But I’m happy you’re here.”

“Something smells good,” Caroline says, making her way towards his kitchen. Her scarf slips off the hanger, so he bends to grab it, makes sure to wind it securely before tucking her coat away.

When he joins Caroline, he’s unsurprised to see she’s picked up the recipe.

A faint flutter of nerves hits Klaus, and he hopes he hasn’t overstepped.

Caroline looks up at him, “This… this is my grandmother’s lemon-orange chiffon cake recipe.”

He rubs the back of his neck. “That’s the one she always made you on your birthday, right?”

Caroline drops the papers, glances around her, taking in the messy countertops. She sticks a finger in the bowl of frosting, tasting it. Her eyes widen. “This is…”

He’s alarmed to spot a faint sheen of tears in her eyes. “No, no, it’s good,” she assures him, before she takes another taste. “Klaus, how did you get this? And there’s notes?” she points at the recipe.

“Katherine helped. And your grandmother walked me through everything on Zoom. I took notes.”

She laughs, the sound watery and disbelieving, and Klaus is about to start apologizing when she barrels around the island and practically throws herself at him.

He’s happy to catch her, happier still to let her lick into his mouth, for her hands to creep under his sweater so her fingers can dig into his skin. He lifts her onto one of the barstools, taking her face in his hands and plundering her mouth until she’s gasping and flushed.

He glances at the timer on the microwave, sees he’s down to two minutes. Regretfully, he tries to disentangle from her but Caroline’s hand is clutching his shirt, and she won’t let him go. He glances down quizzically, finds that her lip is trapped between her teeth. “What?” he asks, thumb gently ghosting over her mouth.

She releases her lip. “New page,” she says, a quiver in her voice. “Or, well. An old page.” She pauses, Klaus is about to ask what she means, but Caroline takes a deep breath. “I love you,” she says, in a rush, eyes huge and apprehensive.

Silly of her, really. It’s more than he’s dared hope for, the best news he can imagine receiving.

Klaus wraps his arms around her, pressing a kiss to her hair, another to her neck. “I don’t think I ever left that page,” he tells her, voice thick. Caroline’s arms wind around his back, and she tucks her head into his shoulder. “I love you, too,” he says softly, because she deserves the words.

The microwave startles them apart.

He takes a second to wipe away the few tears that had escaped her, to steady his shaking hands.

He starts to explain as he removes the cake from the oven, tells Caroline he’d bought everything needed for the peach iced tea but that he’d decided to leave making it to her. Her grandmother had insisted that bourbon was something you poured with your heart, and Klaus has not a single clue what that means.

She bustles around his kitchen, and he’s warmed to notice how at home she looks – he’d selected this place because she’d been so enthusiastic about the kitchen. She doesn’t need to ask where utensils are, working while grilling him about what else her grandmother may have said.

Klaus admits he’d taken advantage of the opportunity and finagled a couple of embarrassing stories. Caroline’s outraged, exclaims that she can’t believe her grandmother had betrayed her. He teases her that another thing she’d inherited from her grandmother is a weakness for accents and dimples.

She scoffs, then.

At Christmas, when Klaus meets Nana Forbes and charms her in about 5 seconds flat, Caroline grudgingly admits he may have had a point.