"You're really not going to like this," Bonnie says.

She's come a long way, just a year and a half; doesn't generally show a scrap of fear around Damon, any more, and she's not afraid now. She does, however, look sad and oddly powerless, which is unusual for her, and Damon doesn't like it.

"Spill," Damon commands.

"First things first," she says, handing Alaric his ring back. He settles it on his finger with a grateful look and Damon breathes a little easier. Alaric could find a way to die buying milk and he's been without the ring half a day and a whole night.

Alaric seems to breathe out, all at once. "Thanks, Bonnie," he says. "Did you find anything out?"

She hesitates, and this is rare, too. "The original spell isn't in any of the grimoires. I know one of Emily's friends wrote it. Maybe she took it back. Anyway. The bad news is that the ring does have a shelf life."

Damon nods. "So, what? Two hundred years or something?"

Bonnie holds his eyes. Juts her chin. "Nine lives."

Alaric slumps against his chair back, watching the roaring flames. Damon's mind goes blank. He feels sick. Had casually snapped Alaric's neck not two months ago, just to make a point. One not worth making.

It's Alaric who finally speaks. "So… How many times has it been used?"

Bonnie stands, slowly. "I think you have to work that out. And fast. You've used it twice in the last couple of months, Alaric. Your track record is abysmal."

Damon splutters. "That's all you've got to say? You can't re-spell it? Re-invent the spell?"

Bonnie doesn't take it personally; she knows Damon is speaking out of guilt and grief, needs someone to lash out at. "As far as I can tell the spell incorporates every part of the ring. I'd have to start from scratch. I'm not a jeweller and I have no idea where they even found the onyx. It has some weird properties. I'm gonna put out feelers, see if anyone knows where to get it – but no. Barring a miracle… I'm sorry, Alaric. I really am." She shrugs, lifts her bag onto her shoulder. "Maybe you could try not dying so often." Gives a small smile and leaves the library without another word.

Damon paces back and forth in front of the fire; Alaric sits, leaning back, thinking, turning the ring on his finger.

"What do we do?" Damon says. He feels uncharacteristically helpless. If one of them is going to ask the other that question, it's more likely to be Alaric. Not today.

Alaric sits up a little straighter, climbs carefully to standing. He looks exhausted. That last death had taken its toll; not physically, so much as emotionally. It amounted to suicide. Killing himself so Jeremy would survive. Alaric never voices a word of complaint but Damon can tell. He's had to be cautious, gentle, and he hates that, likes the strength in Alaric's arms, the rough push and pull that characterises every aspect of their relationship.

Alaric stretches, yawns. Shooting for nonchalant, and missing, somewhat.

"I'm serious, Ric. What do we do?"

Alaric takes a few ambling steps closer, reaches for Damon's belt. "Take me to bed," he says.

Damon bats his hand away. "Don't change the subject."

Alaric takes Damon's bottom lip in his mouth, runs his tongue over it. "'m not. We'll talk later. I've had a bad week. Want to feel good for a while. Take me to bed."

Damon never requires much convincing.

...

Later, post-coital and smilingly satisfied, Alaric lies on his back, hands crossed behind his head. Damon takes a deep hit from a messily-rolled joint, quietly confiscated from one of Alaric's students, and passes it over.

"How do teenagers afford pot this good?" Alaric asks, drawing back carefully.

"I've killed you twice." Damon answers. "Then there was the car."

"Weird kid. Bet he's got a grow-house. Maybe I could confiscate that."

"Werewolves. The pups. Jules' little friends." Alaric doesn't answer, passing the joint back to Damon, who pinches it out and places it on the nightstand. "Can you please be a little more participatory here? Try to take this seriously?"

Alaric groans. "Four times. I've died in this ring four times. New subject."

"No," Damon argues. "I want to fight about this."

"What's there to fight about?" Alaric asks, rolling over and kissing him silent.

...

Damon knocks on the door of the loft. Alaric lets him in.

"Five." Damon is angry, waving his arms in the air, spluttering. "Jonathon Gilbert." Knows he looks like a moron and he doesn't care.

After a pause, Alaric nods, wry. "Isobel killed him at that benefit. I forgot. You're right. He was wearing this ring, not his own." Pours bourbon into two mugs that would match if the chips in them were more symmetrical.

Damon swears under his breath, drinks the bourbon back fast. "No, you idiot," he says. "1864 Jonathon Gilbert. Stefan killed him. Dammit. Dammit. I'm an idiot. Forgot about Isobel's stunt. That's six." Damon pours himself another drink and fights the urge to stamp his foot. "And by the way, why are you so fucking calm?"

Alaric pours himself onto the couch, all lazy grace. "No way to know which ring 1864 Jonathon was wearing at the time."

"So maybe five, maybe six? Which ring was Jeremy wearing when he died?"

"His own. So it's five, or six." He doesn't add 'that we know of,' but Damon knows he has to be thinking it.

Damon rubs his eyes. "I've killed you twice." He says this, sometimes, like he's hoping Alaric will disagree with him eventually.

"Too late to do anything about it now." Alaric shrugs because it is true. There is no point in trying to rewrite their history. The first time Alaric had challenged Damon, there was no question about the outcome. One had to die. Perhaps in the end it was better that the one who did was wearing a magic eternity ring.

Still his calm is frustrating in the extreme. Damon wishes Alaric would punch him. Not particularly useful but maybe it would make Alaric feel better.

No. It wouldn't. But maybe it would make Damon feel better. Damon slumps onto the couch alongside Alaric, who is gazing at nothing.

"I wouldn't have done it if I'd known," Damon says, humbler than he's ever felt.

"Known what?"

This time, it's Damon's turn to kiss Alaric silent.

...

After it's dark, resting in Alaric's arms, Damon tries to return to the subject at hand.

"The problem is, you don't care, right?" he murmurs into Alaric's neck.

"Don't care about what?"

"You don't care if you live or die."

Alaric pulls Damon a little closer. "Of course I do." He sounds irritated.

"If you knew the ring was totally out of juice, would you still have pushed Jeremy out of the way of that car?"

Alaric's chest stills suddenly against Damon's cheek. After waiting long moments for protests he knows will not be forthcoming, Damon snorts. "And I thought Elena had a suicidal streak."

Alaric grunts.

"Did anyone even thank you?" Damon runs a finger around Alaric's stupendously sensitive nipple. "I bet they didn't. You're just supposed to lay down your life every Thursday and be grateful they let you stick around."

Alaric moans, and not in a good way. "Are we still talking about this? Seriously? There's at least three lives left in the thing. So go to sleep. We can fight some more in the morning."

...

Damon plans to bully Elena into handing over the rest of the Gilbert journals but she agrees readily. Has them packed up in a box like she's expecting him to ask.

"Is there anything I can help with?" she asks. Knows something is going on but Alaric has sworn Damon and Bonnie to secrecy, on this; doesn't want his young ward worried about anything more than she has to be. Damon shakes his head, carrying the box back to his car.

Damon doesn't leave his bedroom for days, reading. Alaric is busy shipping his youngest delinquent off to Denver and drinking until he doesn't feel guilty about it any more.

The diaries are boring, for the most part. The Founders' Council seemed damn near disappointed when there were no vampires to kill. They puffed themselves up and talked preparedness like they were Virginia's own FEMA.

Jeremiah Gilbert was walking in the woods one night, enjoying the full moon and the stunning silver light it afforded when he was attacked by a wolf. He'd been certain he would die, but he lived. Had suggested, in the diary, that the ring worked against all sorts of deaths.

Motherfucking werewolves, is all Damon can think.

Damon swears and swears and breaks an expensive Tiffany lamp by throwing an equally expensive crystal whiskey glass at it, and then jumps in his car and heads for Alaric's loft. Alaric isn't home, so he breaks in with more care than he tends to display and sulks on the couch. He is particularly irritated by the quality of Alaric's booze (even more so than usual) and spends long moments considering ways to convince Alaric to allow himself to be a kept man – or at least, to let Damon take charge of the alcohol supply for the loft.

On opening the door and seeing Damon on the couch Alaric lets out a cry Damon plans to tease him about mercilessly later but for right now, there are more pressing issues.

"Jeremiah Gilbert," he says, arms crossed, standing in the middle of the loft while Alaric catches his breath.

"Boundaries," Alaric counters. "Look it up. The first sentence will probably have something about not breaking into people's homes."

Damon tries for a smirk but it falls flat. "It's not really breaking in if you've already invited me, is it?"

Alaric shakes his head. "Forget it. Who's Jeremiah Gilbert?"

"Eaten by a werewolf in the 1920s."

Alaric nods slowly. "So between five and seven times. Still," he says, sanguine. He toes his shoes off, drops his satchel by the kitchen counter. "Seven's not nine."

Damon is suddenly there, Alaric is suddenly against the wall. "That. We. Know. Of." Damon's hands are curled into fists in Alaric's shirt and his body is curved against Alaric's.

Alaric should look at least nervous, but he curls one corner of his mouth up into a grin. He relaxes in a way that is not altogether unbecoming, pliant under Damon's hands.

"Almost sounds like you care if I live or die," Alaric says, mouth up against Damon's. "I'd be flattered if you weren't constantly yelling at me about it." He breaches Damon's mouth with his tongue, with urgency and with real affection, and Damon wants to punch him but instead he kisses him back, pulls his shirt over his head, growls a lot and drags him to the bed.

When they are at last perfectly, beautifully naked, Damon sits up, his legs straddling Alaric's hips. While Alaric grips his hips, Damon kneads their cocks together in a rhythm that makes Alaric bite his lip in a way that is perhaps a little more appealing than it needs to be. They are both men, for fuck's sake, and Damon would prefer it if the word 'adorable' didn't so much as enter his mind.

To banish the adjective he shifts his weight, leans and bites gently down on Alaric's hip, re-opening the last barely-healed wound there, sucking lazily at the blood that wells shallow in the bite. Alaric breathes in sharply through his teeth and tangles his hand in Damon's hair.

"I'm planning to keep you," Damon says, when his face is again up close to Alaric's, after a detour to run his tongue from the base of Alaric's cock to its straining, weeping tip. "One way or another."

"Nice. Threatening, but subtly so. Very vampirey." Alaric rolls Damon onto his back, begins to open him up with all the time and lube available to them, then belies the gentle fingers by fucking him at a ferocious pace. It is almost enough to make Damon black out and more than enough to give him terrible bed hair, but with Alaric's face, too open and trusting and too fucking beautiful above him, he doesn't care so much about the bed hair.

And after, they lie silent.

"I mean it," Damon insists, appalling himself by tangling Alaric's fingers tightly in his own and curling close up by his side. The thought of Alaric's mortality has him clutching at anything and everything to keep him close.

Alaric rolls until their hips and foreheads meet. "I mean this. Do anything to me without my permission and I don't care how pure your motives are – you'll never touch me again. I know you, Damon. You're torn between locking me in your little dungeon basement and turning me. Do either and that's it for us."

Damon sighs, and believes him. Between five and seven, he thinks, and seven is not nine.

...

Of course, there's a serial killer in Mystic Falls. Not the usual bitey kind, as far as they can tell, but one who is using the Gilbert family arsenal to kill humans.

Elena calls Damon, sounding nervous and unsure.

"Spill or I'm coming after you, wherever you are, and forcing you to spill."

"I killed Ric," she confesses at last.

Because this makes no sense, Damon blinks at the phone for a good long time. "What?"

"He asked me to," she insists.

Damon blinks again. "What?"

Elena pauses a beat. "Someone tried to kill him. Not very effectively. Or maybe it would been, if I didn't get home… anyway he asked me to kill him so there was a chance for the ring to bring him back and I did." The words come out in a tumble, and Damon can hear the shake in her voice.

"Is he okay?" Damon asks, after a long beat. "I mean, are you okay?"

Elena sighs, seeming to collect herself somewhat. "He's in the hospital. He's alive but he's weak and he lost a lot of blood. Damon?"

Damon nods into the phone, and feels like an idiot. "Yeah. What?"

"I'm not entirely stupid, Damon. I know there's something going on between the two of you."

Damon says nothing, waiting for her to go on.

Elena seems to decide Damon won't say anything else useful. "Dr Fell says one of us can pick him up tomorrow. By the way," Elena adds. "She gives me the heebie-jeebies. And not in a good way."

Damon doesn't bother asking how it is possible to give someone the heebie-jeebies in a good way and he doesn't want to hear Elena's explanation either, so he thanks her and hangs up the phone. And then he drinks a bottle and a half of bourbon and falls asleep on the couch.

...

And then there's a god damn formal ball, of all the ridiculous fucking things, and Damon drinks far too much. Figures he's made such progress in discovering the effects of binge drinking on undead liver tissue that it would be a pity to stop now.

Apparently undead liver tissue manages well, but undead decision-making is significantly compromised.

First, Damon fights with Elena, irritated beyond the telling of it with her newly-resurrected suicidal streak.

"I'm mad at you because I love you," he insists, low and growling.

Elena cocks an eyebrow. "Is it really me you should be saying this to?" she asks, shaking her head.

A statement like this doesn't require a sensible response so Damon jumps off a roof, killing Kol (regretting all the time having killed Alaric not once, but twice, thereby getting them into this stupid situation in the first place).

And because he can't really get himself into any worse trouble than he's already in he fucks Rebekah (missing all the time Alaric's firm musculature and rough kisses).

To top it off, Damon realises in the wee small hours of the morning (with Rebekah's soft sleeping form beside him) that not only has he not collected Alaric from the hospital but he hasn't bothered to find out if anyone else did it, either.

As he falls into a distracted sleep, Damon wonders why anyone in Mystic Falls even bothers with parties. The body count alone should be enough to put everyone right off. And it must take them hours to compel everyone to forget everything they've seen.

...

Damon knocks on the door of the loft, as he always does. Alaric opens it, as he always does. Alaric has his eyes narrowed as he examines Damon from his messy hair to his scuffed shoes.

"You look like you fucked a woman six times your age last night, and you can't work out whether you regret it or not." Alaric rubs his eyes and takes a step back, the tension in his arms belying the calm his voice suggests.

Damon does a double take. "Elena told you?"

"Of course she did," Alaric says, taking a few steps towards the kitchen. "And?"

"And what?" Kicking the door shut because he can't kick himself.

"Do you regret it?"

Damon crosses his arms. "Depends. Are you pissed?"

Alaric twists his mouth, cocks an eyebrow. His tone doesn't match his calm demeanour. He actually sounds a little sad. "Should I be? We've never said what we are. Or what we're not. So I suppose you're free to do whatever or whoever you want. Coffee?"

Damon flinches because in part, this is true; they're not prone to writing each other's initials in tree bark or on bathroom walls. But Alaric wears the scars of Damon's teeth low in his hip and that should mean something. Damon is about to shape words to this effect when he reminds himself he literally tore Rebekah's dress off her the night before and that probably, Alaric won't respond right now to a fit of Jealous Vampire Boyfriend. Wisely, Damon shuts up.

Alaric's ability to take ridiculous things in his stride might be his least, and most, appealing attribute.

Damon accepts the coffee, tastes it. Wrinkles his nose and tops it off with too much sugar and plenty of bourbon, reaching across the bench to do the same to Alaric's.

"Why are you so tense?" Damon asks at last, not entirely sure he wants to hear the answer.

Alaric shrugs, turning his ring on his finger. "Minimum of six. Could be eight. That we know of," he adds, before Damon can say it himself.

Damon strums elegant fingers on the faux marble countertop. "Sooo…" he says, taking a few steps around to where Alaric is standing.

Damon thinks he has it planned out so beautifully but apparently he's as transparent as ever because before he even gets his freshly-torn wrist up against Alaric's mouth, Alaric stakes him in the gut, and Damon hits the ground with a pained moan.

"Ouch," he says emphatically.

He grips the stake in both hands and tries to pull it out. Blood loss and pain and the saddening realisation that Alaric had the stake on hand before he even opened the door make this difficult.

"Here," Alaric says, on his knees, gripping the stake hard. "On three. One." He pulls the stake out.

"I knew you were going to do that." Damon coughs, and wipes the back of his hand over his mouth. It comes away wet and bloody. "Also, why did you do that? The staking part," he adds. "Not pulling it out again. By the way, they both hurt. A lot."

Alaric, still with the stake in his hand, leans against the kitchen cabinets. "You know why."

"Is this about Rebekah?"

Alaric snorts. "Do you, Damon Salvatore, deny that you were about to force your blood down my throat and then snap my neck?"

Really, Damon is bleeding and in quite a bit of pain and all these accusations, however justified they may be, are doing nothing to improve his mood.

"Sort of," Damon allows. "I still can't believe you staked me." He draws himself up to seated, absently licking blood off his fingers.

Alaric snorts. "It was my turn. Bed?"

...

"You did it again," Damon says.

Alaric nods. "Twice, in fact. Give me an hour to nap and I'll do it again."

"I'm talking about the fact that every time we start talking about this you distract me with your naked body." Damon rolls over, begins to lick and kiss his way over Alaric's chest.

"Are you gonna blame me for the fact that you're easily distracted?"

Damon shrugs. "Be indignant, if it makes you feel better. Indignant is one of my favourite looks for you." Without warning, he bites down on Alaric's hip again. Alaric winces, but with little conviction. "So are we going to fight about this? Please?"

Alaric snorts. "Since you said 'please.' But what is there to fight about?"

Damon licks at the blood still welling from the bite. "My not-so-secret plan to turn you into a vampire," he says, carefully clearing away the rivulets dripping over Alaric's hip.

Alaric pauses, tangling his hand in Damon's hair. "Still don't see what there is to fight about," he says carefully, shifting the hand to rub slow circles into Damon's shoulder. "Stupid ring's out of juice. Elena needs a guardian. Jeremy, too, if he ever comes back. Mystic Falls doesn't have enough people in it who know how to use a stake." His eyes are unfocussed.

"And?"

Alaric sighs. "And what?"

"Any reasons that are actually your own?" Damon raises himself onto his elbows, holding Alaric's dark eyes in his own silver-blue ones. "Or are you one hundred percent martyr?"

Alaric thinks for a moment. "The thought of competing with Rebekah's vagina dentate for all eternity does nothing for my mood. Are you asking me if I'd stay for you?"

Damon pauses. "Perhaps."

Alaric sighs. "Either we've got all the time in the world to work our own shit out or we're nearly out of time, period."

Damon considers. "True," he admits. "And it's not a competition."

"No?"

"The fact I slept with Rebekah last night means nothing apart from the fact I drink too much when I'm pissed with everyone. And that I double that when I'm pissed with myself."

Alaric raises an eyebrow. "How very introspective of you. Also, not good enough."

Damon groans and lets his head settle against Alaric's chest. "Sometimes I do things I don't have to do."

Alaric laughs so hard Damon is neatly dislodged.

"That's the third time you've tried to pass that ridiculous declaration off as an apology. It didn't work the first two times, either." Alaric shakes his head, and saddens suddenly. "Just do it," he says. "Before I get a chance to change my mind."

To Alaric's surprise and, for that matter, Damon's, Damon sits up. "No," he says. "I'll do it after you've had a chance to change your mind."

He swings his legs off the bed, and reaches for his pants.

"Where are you going?" Alaric asks. "Stay."

"Why?" Damon turns his head, wanting to be convinced.

"Because something worse than you might come in here and kill me," Alaric answers.

Damon stays.

...

Damon always knows, the instant Alaric wakes up. His heartbeat changes. His breathing shifts, after a deep sigh. He warms a little.

Damon rolls over, stretches his body over Alaric's. Nestles his face in the crook of Alaric's neck.

"Good morning," he says, as he always says.

"So far," Alaric answers, as he always answers, and wraps his arms across Damon's back.

"Changed your mind yet?" Damon murmurs against Alaric's ear.

"No. Have you?"

Damon snorts. "Hilarious, Saltzman." Damon runs lips and tongue over Alaric's neck.

Alaric tenses. "I hate it when you call me that," he complains. "So… how do we do this?"

Damon narrows his eyes, searching for doubt. There's no doubt. There's resignation, and that hurts a little. "You have a shower. I'll make the coffee." Alaric blinks several times, and Damon rolls his eyes. "I'm not doing this here. You have neighbours you'll probably want to eat, and probably shouldn't. I suspect you'd rather the blood bags I have at the house."

Alaric shakes his head. "You were prepared to turn me on the kitchen tiles yesterday."

"Yesterday, you weren't cooperating. And I was slightly irrational." He leans to kiss Alaric's mouth, and Alaric kisses him back.

"You know this is really fucked up, right?" Alaric asks, eyes soft and a little mournful, tugging at the soft curls at the nape of Damon's neck.

Damon considers. "Better than the alternative. Now get in the shower. You stink of sex."

...

Alaric hesitates at the threshold of the boarding house, and Damon jostles him inside and straight for the stairs. Neither speaks, until they reach the landing.

"You realise this amounts to me killing myself in order to avoid dying?"

"No, it doesn't." Damon shakes his head, pushing Alaric into his bedroom. "Vampires aren't dead."

Alaric snorts. "You died."

"Not as many times as you have. My heart beats. Your heart beats. What's the difference?" Damon shrugs, unsure whether even he believes this.

"Damon…" Alaric slows. "You can't let me kill anyone."

"I'll do my best." Damon pushes him inside.

"Okay, seriously, Damon, I'm…" He pulls away. "I can't do this. Not right now. Not like this."

Damon wants to stake himself, punch Alaric in the mouth. Go on a killing spree.

"I knew it," he says, instead. "I knew it." Says it lightly, like it's a joke.

"Do you really want it to be like this?" Alaric says. "I'm pissed with you, you're panicking. Dumb decisions have been made under better circumstances."

"I'm not panicking. Vampires don't panic." Damon leans against the back of the door.

Alaric nods. "You're panicking. You're feelin' like a dick after what you pulled the other night and you're looking for some grand gesture. If we weren't here you'd be out trying to find a dragon to slay. Or dropping headless hybrids on my front porch like the scariest fuckin' tomcat on the block."

Damon's answering grunt is eloquent. Alaric sits on the edge of Damon's improbable bed.

"So. You really are pissed with me? I suppose I should have known."

Alaric scoffs. "Would have been a reasonable assumption."

They are silent a long time. It is Alaric who breaks it. "It might be six," he says. Reassuring, hopefully. "It might be."

Still by the door, Damon is hurt and pissed. "Yeah. Could be. Could be nine. Sure you won't reconsider the basement dungeon?"

Alaric is silent for so long Damon starts to wonder if he is. Reconsidering it.

"A compromise, maybe." Alaric looks up at last and Damon notices he's shaking. "How long does vampire blood last? In your system?"

Damon shrugs. "Twelve hours, maybe. Depends how much you take."

Alaric nods slowly. "Precautionary dosing. Call it prophylactic."

"Vitamin V?"

"Something like that." Alaric cocks an eyebrow. "A warning, Damon. If you're the one that kills me, you'll never see me again."

"Sure." Damon crosses the room slowly. "A warning, Alaric," he says, mocking. "Might be hard to concentrate."

"I've had your blood before."

"When you needed it," Damon agrees. "When you were hurt. You burned it off fast and didn't notice the effects."

"What effects?"

But Damon has drawn sharp fangs across his bottom lip and is kissing Alaric, and Alaric is swallowing, eyes widening as he sucks, anchoring Damon's face there where it belongs.

Alaric shudders, and Damon smirks. "See? Try marking freshmen papers on that," he says, and Alaric flips them so Damon is underneath him.

"Shut up," Alaric answers, grabbing at Damon's belt, sucking again on his lip. Suddenly he pulls away. "No more Original Slut."

"Original Slut? I thought we were calling her Barbie Klaus." Damon grapples with Alaric's shirt, and Alaric lets him.

"Call her whatever the fuck you want. And don't. Ever. Fuck her. Again."

"Deal," Damon agrees. "Meanwhile, you keep thinking about… this. It. Changing. I don't really want your life to be subject to the whims of a piece of metal and stone."

"Sweet talker," Alaric says.

It's all they say for now but it's enough, and as Damon strokes Alaric's prostate to orgasm he reminds himself that it still isn't a no.