A/N: This story diverted me from my other stories and insisted on being written, so here it is. It will be short (most likely three chapters) and is much more character/relationship-driven than plot-driven. It is a Damon-Alaric story that takes place after 3x11, so it does not include anything from the latest episode. I've tried to be consistent with canon except for one not-so-little detail, which is that Damon's not in love with Elena - he's in love with Alaric. (Stefan and Elena might also have ended up a bit OOC, but the story's not really about them anyway.)

This story is rated M for slash (mostly not too explicit) and language.

Disclaimer: I do not own The Vampire Diaries or any of the characters. This story is purely for fun.

Chapter 1

They found Damon right where Klaus had said they would, in yet another of the strange caves under the Lockwood property. A day ago, Klaus had apparently decided to stop playing nice in response to Stefan's threats, and he had decided that Damon might be the only person that Stefan still cared about. So he had taken Damon.

Tell Stefan that if he doesn't return my family, next time he'll find his brother in even smaller pieces. That was the first message that Klaus had given Elena, and it had sent them all into a frenzy of searching for any sign of Damon. Bonnie's locator spells turned up nothing, Caroline's vampire senses turned up nothing, Stefan still didn't return Elena's desperate calls – and Alaric was left with a horrible sense of helplessness. And guilt.

The guilt was because he hadn't forgiven Damon for snapping his neck in a fit of pique. He told himself that you didn't just forgive someone for killing you, at least not more than once, even if that someone was a vampire. And even if that vampire was crazy good in bed.

Damon had kept sniffing around, kept trying to apologize in his own way that was never quite an apology, kept flirting and buying Alaric drinks. Even Elena had noticed that Damon was upset. "I think he misses you," she had said to Alaric, and Alaric had known damn well that Damon missed him. He missed Damon, too, way more than he wanted to admit even to himself, but that wasn't the point. Damon wasn't stable and being with Damon wasn't safe, even if it had occasionally felt that way. Trusting Damon had been a bad idea, and how could Alaric be with someone he couldn't trust? So he hadn't forgiven Damon, even if he had to keep working with him on Operation Save Elena and Mystic Falls from the Biggest, Baddest Vampire of Them All.

And now as he stared at what Klaus had left of Damon, Alaric's guilt warred with anger and horror at the sight in front of him. Damon hung limply from chains bolted into the ceiling of the cave. His weight had dislocated both shoulders, but that was the least of their problems. Damon's body was riddled with stakes, probably a dozen total, and he had bled – was maybe still bleeding – from every one of those wounds. His clothes were torn to rags, and those rags were soaked in his blood. Blood had pooled at his feet, so his shoes and socks were black with it from where he dangled there, clearly long past being able to keep his feet under him. His face was surprisingly untouched, but he was shockingly pale even for Damon.

Impossibly, Ric thought he had seen Damon's eyelids flutter when they rushed into the cave, as though some remaining vampire instinct had said that they could be a threat and he needed to wake up, but now Damon was clearly unconscious. Ric thought that was a good thing because he couldn't even imagine the pain that Damon had to be in. He had heard the little sound of horror that Caroline had made at the sight of the sheer quantity of stakes and blood, and he was vaguely aware that Elena was now throwing up in a corner, with Bonnie trying to comfort her. He didn't think that any of the girls should really be there, but Elena was the one to whom Klaus had sent the messages so of course she had insisted on coming along. And with Damon captured, Caroline and Bonnie were what passed for muscle in their little group, so Ric found himself standing in a cave with three teenage girls – admittedly a vampire, a witch, and a doppelganger, and how fucking weird was his life? – staring at the bloody, broken body of the vampire who had been his friend and lover.

It was Caroline who spoke first, beyond Elena's choked "Damon" when they had first glimpsed his body. "We need to get the stakes out," the blond vampire said quietly, and Ric realized in horror that she was right. He was supposed to be the experienced hunter here, and he had been too shocked and stunned to help his friend. If Damon had any chance of surviving, they needed to get those stakes out. Caroline had moved forward to grasp the first of the stakes, but she squealed and jumped back as soon as her fingers touched it. "Vervain," she said, and Ric's heart sank even lower. If the stakes had been soaked in vervain, then Damon's situation was even worse than he had thought.

But Caroline's words and movement had woken Ric from his shocked stupor, and he immediately stepped forward and began to pull out the stakes, one at a time. There were an even dozen, nine driven into Damon's torso from the front or the back, two in one thigh, and one in the other thigh. Klaus had been careful to miss Damon's heart, but Ric didn't think that had been out of mercy. No, hitting the heart would have killed Damon and ended his suffering, and Klaus had clearly intended to maximize Damon's pain.

Damon whimpered once as Ric pulled out the stakes, but that and the blood that leaked anew from each wound were the only signs that he was alive – or whatever passed for alive among vampires. Ric felt another wave of fury at Klaus, and at Stefan for putting his brother in the middle of his feud with the Original. He tossed the last of the stakes viciously against the wall, needing an outlet for his anger. He had almost forgotten about the girls, but he heard Elena make a little squeak of surprise as the stake hit the wall hard. Then Caroline stepped forward again. She reached up on her tiptoes and easily snapped one of the chains that had held Damon suspended. Ric thought absently that the vervain on the stakes hadn't been only to torture Damon, but also to make sure his friend stayed too weak to break free.

Caroline snapped the second chain, and Ric grunted as he caught Damon. The vampire was dead weight in his arms, and another chill ran through his body. How much torture could even a vampire take?

"We need to get him out of here," Bonnie said, looking anywhere but at Damon's bloody form.

"I can take him," Caroline said, but Ric shook his head. He knew it would be easier for Caroline to carry Damon, but he wanted to do it himself. He felt another surge of guilt. He had left Damon alone. Rationally, Ric knew that he would have been worse than useless in preventing Klaus from taking Damon, but it didn't stop him from feeling terrible that Damon had had no one to help him when the Original had come for him. Damon was strong and fearless, but he hadn't stood a chance against Klaus and the proof of that was the heavy weight of his body in Ric's arms.

Ric followed Caroline and Bonnie from the cave, with Elena bringing up the rear. Damon's blood was covering his hands now and soaking into his clothes, but Ric hardly cared. "Hang on, Damon," he whispered even though he knew Damon couldn't hear him.

He heard Elena's voice from behind him, small with fear. "Is he going to make it?"

Ric didn't know what to say that wouldn't be a lie. Poor Elena had lost almost everyone she cared about, and he wondered if she could handle losing anyone else. He wondered if he could. "I don't know," he finally said. "He's tough," he added, as much to give himself hope as Elena. Damon had to make it. As angry as Ric had been at the vampire, he hadn't pictured a world without Damon walking around flirting with everyone and making his snarky comments. Damon had become a fixture of his world – a weird fixture, but still a fixture – and Ric didn't want to imagine Mystic Falls without Damon.

They finally made it to the car, and Ric realized that they really had too many people to fit comfortably even in the SUV that theoretically sat seven. The backseat would be too crowded with Ric, Damon, and one of the girls, so after a moment's hesitation he maneuvered Damon's body around to the back. "I'll hold him back here," he said. "My keys are in my pocket." He shifted his hip to signal to the girls, his arms aching too much to put Damon down and lift him again. When did Damon get so heavy anyway? He wasn't a big guy, after all.

Elena reached tentatively into Ric's pocket and extracted his keys, careful not to touch anything, and Ric suddenly thought about how Damon would do the same thing. How he would smirk, and make sure to touch everything he could, and make some comment that dripped with insinuation. . . . He shook off those thoughts as Elena hit the button to pop the trunk, and Bonnie moved the bag of weapons aside. All his weapons had been real helpful, Ric thought sarcastically as he finally set down his burden. In the light of day, Damon was even more pale and bloody and utterly, utterly still than he had looked down in the cave, and they all froze for a moment at the sight.

This time it was Ric who forced himself into motion first. "Caroline, you drive," he ordered. "Get us home quickly – but not too many bumps."

The blonde vampire nodded seriously, and Ric climbed into the trunk with Damon and gathered his lover up into his arms. It reminded him for a moment of all the times Damon had climbed onto him or curled against him after sex. Damon was surprisingly fond of cuddling, and he would make this sensual little purring sound as settled himself against Alaric. Sometimes he would try to rile Ric up for a second round, teasing Ric with hands and mouth and that flawless body until the teacher gave in, and other times he would just fall asleep, seeming utterly content in a way that Ric had never seen in another context. Ric had learned the hard way that Damon wouldn't take teasing about his tendency to cuddle after sex. Whenever Ric had brought it up, Damon would be up and dressed and gone within minutes – or throwing Ric out if they were at the boarding house – so Ric had learned to keep quiet and just enjoy the feeling of Damon's body against his. He had decided that Damon craved the connection of those moments after sex, even if the vampire would never admit it.

But all those other times Damon had been warm and squirmy and so very alive for someone who had been dead for 147 years. Now Damon was terrifyingly still and unresponsive as Ric held him. He stroked Damon's thick, unruly hair away from his temple like he had a dozen times before in far more pleasant contexts. "You're going to be okay, Damon," he whispered, hearing the desperation in his own voice and feeling the tears in his eyes. "You're safe now. We'll be home in a few minutes, and we'll get you some blood."

He wasn't sure if it was his imagination, but he thought maybe Damon had whimpered again and moved ever so slightly, pressing closer to Ric. The noise of the engine and the road as the SUV zoomed along the rough back roads of Mystic Falls made it impossible to know for sure. But a moment later, Ric realized that Damon had started to shake uncontrollably in his arms. "Can vampires go into shock?" Ric asked aloud, not really expecting an answer. "Because I think Damon's in shock."

"I don't know," Bonnie answered seriously. "Caroline?"

"I don't know either, okay? I've been a vampire for like five minutes." The stress and fear was audible in Caroline's voice.

Elena had turned around in the back seat, and Ric made the mistake of meeting her eyes for a moment. Her big, brown eyes were terrified as she saw the tremors wracking Damon's whole body. "Maybe he's cold," she said. She sounded like she might be in shock, too, but Ric didn't have enough emotional strength to worry about Elena just then.

Ric could hear her rummaging around on the floor of the backseat, and a moment later she was passing him an old blanket. Ric took it and draped it over Damon's shaking form, drawing him even closer in the process. He had never known Damon to feel the cold, but there was a first time for everything. "Hang on, Damon," he murmured again, his arms locked around the vampire.

They had been fools, Ric thought, not to bring blood bags with them for Damon. He knew that he and Elena had both had vervain in their coffee that morning – it was one of the few precautions they could take to protect themselves against Klaus, after all, especially after what he had done to Jeremy – and he would never ask Bonnie to let Damon feed from her. He was pretty sure the witch wouldn't agree even if he did. And in truth, it would be risky as hell to let Damon feed from a living person when he was starving and unconscious. He could very well drain someone dry without even being aware of what he was doing. But if Damon died because Ric had been too stupid and panicked to pack a cooler of blood bags . . . well, he didn't even want to think about that.

The drive seemed to take forever, even though Ric knew they were moving far faster than the police would have approved of. It was a good thing that the truck was being driven by a vampire who was also the sheriff's daughter, he thought slightly hysterically. Panic was rising in him at the thought of Damon dying in his arms, bleeding out in the back of his truck. How much blood did vampires have? Because Damon had lost a ton of blood. Ric moved aside the blanket and part of the ruin of Damon's shirt, trying to see if his wounds were healing, but it was too dark to tell in the back of the truck.

He could hear Elena on her phone, leaving a message for Stefan. "We found him, Stefan," she said, and her voice broke. "He's . . . he's in really bad shape. Please meet us at the house. This is all your fault, and Damon needs you." Ric thought she had hung up the phone before whispering the next words. "I need you."

The car was silent after that, and Ric was pretty sure this was the longest Caroline had ever been voluntarily silent. Damon was still unconscious and shaking like a leaf, and Ric could still only hold him helplessly as he felt the tears start to fall.

Ric had tried to tell himself that this thing with Damon was just temporary. He was grieving Jenna's death, and Damon was hot and interested. Not to mention a century and a half of practice had made the vampire a fucking revelation in bed. He was scratching an itch, Ric had told himself at first, and he would get it out of his system and things would calm down and he would get his life back on track and go back to dating humans. He had never answered the question of how exactly he would extricate himself from his affair with Damon, especially since Damon was, after all, a vampire who was prone to obsessions. But he had told himself that he didn't really feel anything but lust for Damon – nothing real, anyway.

He had, of course, become increasingly aware that he was lying to himself, that for all of Damon's flaws, he was falling for the sarcastic, narcissistic bastard. And he had begun to strongly suspect that Damon had feelings for him, too. Of course, their relationship hadn't changed much. They still argued and drank too much and snarked at each other, but the sex became more frequent and so did spending the night afterwards. He got used to waking up with Damon, to blue, blue eyes and a very talented mouth and a quickie in the morning before school. But then Damon had betrayed his trust in the most horrifying, inhuman way possible. Cheating he would have understood – they had never said they were exclusive, and Damon was probably the biggest flirt Alaric had ever met. But no, Damon had killed him.

And Ric had been forcibly reminded that Damon was not, and never would be, human – or trustworthy. He still wasn't sure why Damon had done it, what he had been thinking, and in truth, he wasn't sure Damon even knew himself.

But now Damon was probably dying, and he would die thinking that Alaric hated him when the reality was just the opposite. As he held Damon's bloody, mangled body, Ric realized that his feelings had never gone away, no matter how strongly he had tried to suppress them. He was in love with Damon fucking Salvatore.