Alaric is distracted, and uncharacteristically quiet; has been distracted for weeks, and it's driving Damon mad.

Alaric doesn't respond well to being poked and prodded and asked what's bothering him; he tends to get grumpy and irritable, and much as Damon likes the grumpy, irritable face, the accompanying long absences bother him.

It's been three years. Three years of ferocious sex and equally ferocious fighting, sometimes with each other and sometimes against untold evil forces. For three years they've spent almost every night together – fighting of any type rarely being adequate to keep them apart – drinking heavily, laughing at their mutual genius, and contorting each other into impossible positions until Damon is bouncing off the walls and Alaric collapses in a heap.

(Though they're long past pretending it's just sex.)

They've been beaten up and stabbed and Alaric has died a frightening number of times. At this stage they have no idea whether his magic eternity ring has any more power left to it than a mood ring might claim. They've been kidnapped and imprisoned and tortured and how they are both still alive – how they are both still alive and still together – is a bit beyond Damon, if he's honest with himself.

But now Alaric is distracted, and quiet, and Damon wants to shake him until his ears bleed.

They are sitting at the bar at the Mystic Grill (they do this, as many nights as not), and Alaric has been sipping at the same beer for a ridiculously long time when Damon finally turns and punches him in the arm.

"Stop thinking so loud, Ric," he grumbles. "Or else think a little louder, so I can hear you."

This is intended to elicit a response other than "Sorry," but that is all Alaric says.

Damon groans, irritated. "Your problem is you're too fucking sober."

He reaches over the bar, taking a bottle from the speed rack. The bar staff have long since been compelled not to notice when he does this, and though it usually bothers Alaric, he is currently too preoccupied to pay much attention. Damon pours two good measures of bad bourbon, and pushes one into Alaric's hand, removing the warm beer first.

"Thanks," Alaric says, still a million miles away.

"Want me to tell you again about the time I fucked your wife?"

This gets a response, but it's not a very impassioned one. "Please don't. I'm sure you have a story or two I haven't heard."

Damon rolls his eyes. "There's one I know about a high school History teacher with a hot vampire boyfriend he keeps ignoring. It ends with the hot vampire boyfriend staking him in the gut just to get some attention." Grumbling.

Alaric looks up, amused. "Am I that bad? Sorry," he says, placing a hand on Damon's leg.

It's a rare, pure gesture, and it makes Damon run a little warmer. It's not as if they're a secret anymore, but still, they're pretty private, and the occasional public expression of affection is like a brightly wrapped gift.

The door to the Grill opens, and spews forth an assortment of supernatural teenagers. Not teenagers. Young adults, Damon has to remind himself; they're allowed to drink in bars and hire cars, now. Surreal. They're in town for a couple of weeks from their various colleges. Damon has no idea why.

Alaric grimaces as they approach. "Need a minute, if I have to deal with them," he mutters, slipping from his stool, heading for the men's room.

If Alaric is avoiding the Scooby squad, things are worse than Damon thought.

Elena Gilbert, sweetness and light, pauses to plant a kiss on Damon's cheek. It is a little disturbing that she looks older than her eternally seventeen-year-old boyfriend now (sort-of boyfriend. They're taking things slowly). Damon gives her a tense smile.

"You okay?" she asks. She's always been a little too observant.

"Peachy," Damon answers, less than half a smile on his face. Elena frowns.

"Liar," she says, closing one eye. "Ric still…?" she makes a gesture with both hands, one which defies comprehension.

Damon deftly sidesteps. The last person he wants to talk to about any of this is, well. Anyone. But certainly not Elena. He hadn't realised anyone else had noticed Alaric was behaving differently.

"I don't know what-" Damon imitates the gesture. "-that means. He's just Ric, Elena. He's weird and grouchy and he thinks too much," Damon grumbles, frowning. "Perfectly normal."

Behind Elena, Stefan hovers. Stefan hovers a lot, these days, still unsure of his place, looking at Elena like he can't work out why she still speaks to him at all. Stefan gives Damon a concerned look, but he won't ask questions.

Sometimes, Damon thinks he misses the cocky ripper douche. At least him, you could read.

"Want me to talk to him?" Elena is so sure of her ability to fix any problem, it doesn't even bother her when she doesn't know what the problem is. It's irritating and adorable in equal measure.

Damon wants to laugh, but he doesn't. "No. Thanks. Talk about what? No." He steps from his bar stool and throws back the last of his bourbon. After considering a moment, he finishes Alaric's as well, and though it clearly confuses Alaric, who is ambling back from the bathroom, distracted as ever, he simply accepts it. As he accepts everything these days.

They stay a while, playing pool, and Alaric seems to rouse a little, temporarily. They trade quips and Damon teaches the kids a thing or two about basic physics.

"Seriously, 'Lena, I know you didn't pay attention to anything but history and English at school, but it's not complicated. Angle of incidence equals angle of refraction." He expertly sinks two balls.

"Shut up, Damon," Elena answers, but there is no menace in her tone.

Alaric sits in a nearby booth, staring at nothing, mostly, but more than once, Damon catches him watching the proceedings with a fond smile. When Elena and Stefan fail to beat Damon and Bonnie for the third time in a row, Damon sidles up to him.

"You want to leave?" he asks. "Or are you enjoying sapping all the energy out of the room?"

Alaric winces. "Sorry." He says it a lot, these days, and every time, Damon wants to hit him. They say their farewells.

"Lunch tomorrow, Ric?" Elena asks, shooting Damon a meaningful look.

"Sure," Alaric agrees, absently, and he and Damon take their leave.

"All that dancing on the table isn't good for your reputation as the local vampire-hunting badass, Ric," Damon mutters.

"Yeah," Alaric agrees, eyes unfocussed, ambling down the main street.

...

Once they are inside the loft, Alaric turns and tenses, preparing for the inevitable first step; within moments of the door being closed, Damon generally throws him against the wall.

Instead, this time, Damon stands in the middle of the room, arms crossed, strumming the fingers of one hand across the bicep of his other arm.

"Don't make me do this, Ric," he says, distinct warning in his tone.

"Like I can make you do anything you don't wanna do," Alaric answers, and it sounds like there's a joke in his tone, but there's something else, too.

"You're going to make me channel Caroline fucking Forbes."

Alaric narrows his eyes. "You gonna paint my toenails? Or make me watch The Notebook? Because, no thanks." He looks a little off balance, nervous. Crosses cautiously to the small kitchenette to pour them each a drink. If possible, he's been drinking even more lately, at least when they're alone. Damon rolls his eyes.

"What. The fuck. Is with you?"

Alaric slumps a little, swirling the bourbon in his glass. "Got a lot on my mind."

"Like?"

Alaric groans, rubs his eyes. "Can we not?"

"Apparently, yes. Because you've been distracted for weeks, and you've been refusing to talk about it for exactly as long." Damon splutters. "So seriously? Whatever the fuck it is, can we just fight about it and move on?"

Alaric puts down his glass with a soft thunk, takes a couple of steps towards Damon, regret and exhaustion twisting his features. "Nothing to fight about, Damon. Seriously. I'm just working through some stuff. Is that allowed?" Hands out in apology.

Damon nods manically. "Yep. It's fine." He turns on his heel and crosses to the door.

"You're leaving?"

Alaric doesn't sound pissed, just disappointed. Pissed would be better.

"Any special reason I should stay?" Damon has one hand on the doorknob, eyes narrowed on Alaric.

Alaric gives a small smile. "I can think of a few ideas," he says.

Damon pauses. "There's supposed to be more to us than that, Ric," he says, slipping through the door and closing it with a quiet click behind him.

Damon stalks down the hall to the stairs, and stops, torn. If he goes back, he's afraid Alaric will still be standing in place, looking lost, and he doesn't want to see that. He also doesn't want to think about how long Alaric might keep standing there like that if he doesn't go back.

He goes back.

Alaric is still right where Damon left him, and Damon feels his shoulders drop. For fuck's sake. When Damon fell in love with Alaric, Alaric was pointing a crossbow at him. And now there is this, and this fucking sucks.

Alaric rubs at his eyes with the back of his hand. "I'm sorry," he says. "I'll snap out of it, I swear. Just… stay."

Damon hates it; the thousand year stare, the long silences. More than once, he's considered compelling Alaric, just ripping that stupid vervain bracelet off his wrist and making him talk.

But he has time. He can wait. Bunches Alaric's t-shirt in his fists and kisses him hard, grounding him, bringing him home, and for a little while, things feel okay again; Alaric is big and warm in Damon's hands, pushing against him, steering him to the bed. Damon is a little rougher than usual, trying to keep Alaric totally present, though it's evident with every touch that Alaric is right there, every inch of him. Alaric rolls Damon underneath him, holds Damon's hands over his head.

"How much do you hold back?" he asks, suddenly. Damon is confused.

"Hold what back?" breaking free of Alaric's grip to pull his t-shirt over his head. Alaric shifts to let him.

"Do you ever think you'll hurt me? By accident?"

Damon grunts, rolls them both over, pulling at Alaric's belt and buttons. "I've got better control than that," he says, airily, as Alaric shifts his hips to let Damon neatly remove his jeans, as he claims Alaric's mouth with his own.

Alaric tenses, pulls away. "No, I mean…" Alaric is suddenly distracted again, and Damon makes a deep growl.

"What?" Frustrated.

"Do you wish you didn't have to have control like that? Fuck," Alaric amends. "I'm saying everything wrong."

Damon pauses a long beat. "You're doing my head in, Ric."

Alaric shakes his head, pulling Damon in again. "Forget it," he says, and rolls them until Damon is underneath him again.

It's later, much later, and the sweat is cooling on their bodies, when Damon tries once more. Shooting for nonchalant and missing by yards.

"You can talk to me. Or, you should be able to. You know that, right?"

Lying alongside Alaric, feeling the imprint of Alaric's lips all over his body, tasting Alaric's blood in his mouth.

"I know." Alaric tangles the fingers of one hand into Damon's, putting the other behind his head. "I want to. I will. I just… can't, yet. Something I have to work out for myself."

Damon is silent a long time, finally rolling over, securing himself against Alaric's side. "Just tell me you're not going anywhere. I'm old. I can wait for almost anything. But if you're thinking about leaving…"

"Now you're channelling Elena. Not going anywhere, Damon."

Damon wants to play twenty questions, wants to poke and prod and compel and force until Alaric talks.

Instead, he snakes an arm over Alaric's chest, ghosting his fingers over the shallow bite in Alaric's side, not yet an hour old, and kisses his jaw, wondering if there's any chance at all that he'll sleep tonight.

Apparently not.

"Are you awake?" he asks Alaric, at least an hour later, knowing full well that Alaric's breath and heartbeat haven't settled into the sweet sleep pattern he knows so well.

"Yeah," Alaric admits, pulling Damon a little closer.

"I could compel you."

Alaric tenses. "That threat got old years ago. One, you wouldn't. Two, if you did, we'd be in serious trouble."

Damon rolls his eyes, reaches for the bedside lamp and switches it on. "It wasn't a threat, idiot. It was an offer."

Alaric snorts. "Sweet of you, but I'll pass." His tone is light, but his expression is still haunted. Damon rolls until Alaric is under him, head framed in Damon's arms, their faces an inch apart.

"You want to talk. I want you to talk. Might be easier." Damon leans until their foreheads touch, and Alaric's face relaxes, his eyes drifting shut.

Damon brushes his lips over Alaric's eyelids. "Just talk to me," he says again, softer this time. "Much as I enjoy violence, I'd rather not do you any real damage. I don't like it when you're pissy and uncooperative."

Alaric raises an eyebrow and cocks his head, running his hands over Damon's arms. Damon rolls his eyes.

"Fine. I don't like you uncooperative," he amends, taking Alaric's bottom lip in his mouth, sensing Alaric's quickening pulse.

Alaric opens his eyes again, and Damon holds them with his own. It's a challenge, maybe. Alaric runs his hands over Damon's sides. "I just need a bit of time, Damon."

"How much time? Seriously? You've been like this for weeks," Damon says, irritated again. Alaric frowns.

"That patience you were bragging about didn't last long."

"I said I can be patient. I didn't say I liked it." Rubbing soft kisses into Alaric's face, feeling the stubble, rough against his mouth. "Life's too short."

Alaric's eyes snap to Damon's.

"I know. Ironic," Damon says, rolling over to turn the light off again. "G'night, Ric," he says, settling his head on Alaric's chest, fingers splayed gently against Alaric's side.

"G'night, Damon," Alaric answers, settling against the pillows again, covering Damon's elegant hand with his own.