People don't leave because they can't sit still, because they don't want 'happy', but that's what Isobel does; she leaves. She packs two suitcases full of clothes and the things she can't bear to live without. She puts them in her car. And she sits on the couch waiting for Alaric to get home.

He has imagined it many times since, the packing. Deciding between making the space for another favourite book or including a framed photo of the two of them together and deciding every time that the book must go in the case; that every photo should be left behind for Alaric to stare at day after day.

When Alaric gets home Isobel's face is tear-streaked, but not because she has any regret; just because she hates confrontation. Alaric loves her enough to let her leave without one.

"I'm sorry," she says, looking back at where he stands leaning up against the kitchen bench, not looking at her, not looking at her so pointedly. "I'll get the papers drawn up…"

Alaric shakes his head. "Whatever, Isobel," he says. "Just go."

There are two years too quiet and too much alone where Alaric's friends try too hard to keep him close. He finds himself drinking more heavily and staring at his wedding photos night after night.

He applies for a job in a town close to where Isobel grew up in hopes he might find her again, sometime. Small town Virginia where nothing happens, a sleepy little berg called Mystic Falls.

...

Mystic Falls is nice enough; rather than get an apartment right away Alaric moves into a boarding house run by a guy a little younger than Alaric is, Zach Salvatore, who has photos of generations of his family on the walls in the library downstairs and through the halls.

"We were one of the founding families. This place has been in the family since it was built in 1867, after the plantation house burned to the ground."

There are two other boarders who Alaric rarely sees, as they disappear all weekend and keep odd hours. He has a large bedroom with an irresponsibly lush shower and a deep bath for soaking in and best of all, he burned all his wedding photos; so it's only his. Isobel has no claim over a single scrap of space anywhere.

It feels empty, though.

...

"Your old teacher. Mr Tanner?"

Jeremy Gilbert sneers.

"He had a jackass file. It's full of stuff about you."

Jeremy shrugs, and his eyes are haunted, as well they might be. Alaric has heard whispers of Jeremy's tragedy in the teachers' lounge but hasn't heard the whole story; probably won't, from them, because Alaric is From Away.

"Come on," Alaric says. "Follow me."

They go out to the emptying playground and set a fire in a rubbish bin. They take turns dropping sheets of paper in it, the whole file. Jeremy doesn't light up, exactly, but he looks a little lighter anyway.

"Clean slate," Alaric assures him; "But the year's half done. Half a fail is still not great. So write me a paper. Keep it local. No internet plagiarism, or I'll know."

Jeremy nods. He still smells a little like the pot he was smoking at lunchtime but Alaric decides, one thing at a time, just one, and he lets Jeremy leave.

There is one place in town in which to drink and eat and socialise and unfortunately, it is always too full of too many of his students but Alaric goes there anyway. The Mystic Grill. One night he is drinking bourbon at the bar when he hears a small voice.

"Mr Saltzman?"

Jeremy's eyes are wide and the shadows under them are a little like bruises but Alaric smiles and shakes his hand.

"This is my aunt," he says, indicating the pretty twenty-something smiling behind him. "Jenna Sommers. Mr Saltzman's the new history teacher," Jeremy explains. "He's. Um. New." Jeremy drifts away, none too subtle, and Jenna smiles and smiles.

"Please," Alaric says, indicating the stool beside him. Jenna sits.

They make small talk, and then they don't; "I'm twenty-seven," Jenna says. "I'm a grad student in psychology and I'm raising a sixteen year old boy."

"What happened?" Alaric wants to know, nearly as bad as he doesn't.

"My sister Miranda, and her husband, and their daughter Elena… Jeremy's sister. They died. In a car accident. About… I guess about eight months, three days and twenty hours ago."

He's not sure why he does it; Alaric is not prone to being overly familiar with anyone new, but he takes Jenna's hand. She squeezes back.

Days later and back at the Grill (but this time, at a booth, and Jenna with makeup on and perfume on and a silky red shirt Alaric wants to touch) they eat together. Always an interesting moment, the first time you break bread with someone you know you'll eventually be sleeping with.

"My wife left me. Two years ago." Alaric says this in answer to a question Jenna hasn't voiced, and maybe won't.

She nods. Picks at her fries. "Why?"

Alaric has asked himself this a thousand time until the answers he comes up with and doesn't believe are etched indelibly on the pinkest parts of his brain. "I think…"

Alaric picks at fries.

"I think…"

Jenna starts to look nervous.

"Isobel didn't want children. Didn't want to buy a house, didn't want to plan anything more than a year ahead." Alaric searches for something on Jenna's sweet face, this girl who maybe didn't like to plan to far in advance either but has to, now, because her sister is dead and her nephew needs a parent. "In the end, I think, she left because she couldn't sit still for a second longer."

Jenna nods as if this makes sense. Even though it really, really doesn't.

"Did you love her?"

Alaric nods. "I did," he admits. "But I don't anymore."

...

In the first month of their courtship Jenna and Alaric have sex three times, quietly, in Jenna's bed that used to be her dead sister's, across the hall from Elena's room that hasn't been opened in nearly ten months. It's not bad, as far as sex goes.

Alaric goes for long walks. He finds the ruins of the plantation house quite by accident one day and reminds himself to tell Zach he did. The steps are more or less intact so he sits on them for a long time, too long. At some stage Alaric realises that if he doesn't leave now the sun will set and he'll be lost.

At the foot of the stairs he stoops on an odd impulse and there, ancient, is an 1859 Indian head penny that seems to make his heart beat a little faster. He puts it in his pocket and wraps his big hand around it, a little dizzy, listening for some echo of 1859, but none is forthcoming.

For some reason or perhaps no reason at all Alaric never tells Zach about finding the plantation house, never shows him the penny.

For other reasons he doesn't quite understand he keeps it in his pocket, once it is clean, and turns it over in his hand.

...

Mystic Falls means: Founder's day events, almost one every weekend, and Alaric accompanies Jenna to some of these. Not all of them. Jeremy calls Alaric one Saturday afternoon, sounding stoned and scared.

"Jenna won't come out of her room," he admits.

Jenna's cheeks are tear-stained and her hair needs washing, but Alaric shapes his body around Jenna's on the bed and when she stills, hundreds of years later, he feels a small measure of relief.

"What happened?" His lips are at the shell of her ear.

"Nothing," she says. "Nothing happened. What should have happened is that my…" and she cries some more. "My beautiful, clever, talented niece should be dressed like Scarlet O'Hara right now, walking down the fucking stairs in Founder's Hall with her hair perfect because her mother knows how to do that, knows how to do perfect hair. In a couple of hours she should be crowned Miss Mystic Falls because she spends half her life doing volunteer work for this shitty town, almost as much as Miranda does. Nothing happened, Ric, because they're dead. And I -"

At this she turns and buries her face in Alaric's chest, and he pats her hair sort of uselessly.

"I am the worst parent in the world."

The Indian head penny feels warm against Alaric's hip and the woman in his arms is beautiful and the town is full of lovely people and it is All. So. Empty.

...

One night, Alaric wakes in the boarding house and something is different.

Alaric sits up quickly, too quickly, because the air smells different. Smells wrong. Smells good. Smells like wood smoke and pepper and something a little citric.

The duvet is too heavy, full of goose down which holds the heat. The sheet is also too heavy and too luxurious by yards. The room is dark, though not pitch, and Alaric looks around.

His first thought is that he has drunk far too much and stumbled into the wrong room, but it's his room, definitely, certainly, which is precisely why there shouldn't be a naked man in it unless that man is Alaric.

And okay, Alaric is naked, also. And aching somewhat, and he suspects he has bruises pressed into his hips and his thighs and his ribs, the sort that only come with the kind of rough sex Alaric hasn't had since before he met Isobel. His lips are kiss-swollen and sore and that's fantastic.

It's a deep, sweet, satisfied ache.

The form on the bed beside him is still. Too still. Not breathing. Dead?

Alaric's heart skips a beat and he reaches to touch. Cool, but not cold. He can't help himself, splays a big hand over the small of the man's back.

What the fuck happened?

The man unfurls like a cat, turning over, and then he does breathe, and he speaks. "What?"

Okay, not dead then.

There is not a lot of light in the room but what there is reflects back from spun-silver eyes set in a pale face surrounded by inky black hair. Beautiful.

The man sits up with a strange look on his face. "Ric?"

"What…"

There are not enough questions in the world to cover an eventuality like this one and as Alaric's eyes adjust, he sees that yes, this is the right room, but it's not his precisely. The bedding is only the first clue. The bed is a second, because the bed is improbably large. There are other clues, too. Unfamiliar paintings and knickknacks. A rich history Alaric doesn't understand. Unfamiliar furniture, an armoire, different lamps.

"Who…"

The man narrows one eye. "Are you actually awake or are you babbling in your sleep?"

"Babbling?"

"Earth to Ric?" He actually looks concerned. Not concerned like 'why didn't I sneak out immediately after the sex?' Concerned like 'someone I care about is babbling.'

Strangely, Alaric's addled brain furnishes him with a name. "Damon?"

"Still. Always was. Ric?" He looks amused. Shifts his weight until he can stretch an arm across Alaric's body. Like he's done it a thousand times.

Alaric shakes his head and then Damon is actually on top of him, stretched out. His cock hardening against Alaric's stomach. "I told you not to each cheese before bed any more. Do I have to fuck some sense back into you?" He lowers his face to Alaric's, takes Alaric's bottom lip in his mouth, runs a gentle tongue across it.

Alaric kisses him back, hungry; finds his hands settling on Damon's jagged hipbones, sharp as knives. He wishes for a mad minute that all the lights were on, that he could see and explore every inch of Damon's body.

"I love it when you wake up horny. Though you did force me to promise you'd get a good night's sleep tonight. School night, and all. The kiddies have exams tomorrow, blah blah blah. It's cute you care. Still, since you're awake anyway…"

Damon mouths his way across Alaric's jaw and Alaric feels his eyes flutter shut; he forces them open, wants to see.

"Damon?"

He says it again, like a prayer, maybe.

"Still." Damon agrees, and in the next moments fastens his mouth (which seems to be getting hotter) over the juncture of Alaric's neck and shoulder.

Alaric's eyelids weigh a pound apiece, and his heartbeat is slowing. Dangerously close to sleep. Damon sighs. "Seriously? You're falling asleep on me? Granted this is just the kissing part but you're not usually hard to motivate."

Alaric's arms snake across Damon's back. It's more intimate than it needs to be but their bodies just fit, they just do. Like they've always been here, always been like this. Damon purring in his ear, delighted and delightful. Damon's elegant fingers in his hair, Alaric's big hands roaming Damon's back.

Alaric yawns before he can bite it back. Damon groans softly into his mouth, running his tongue over Alaric's lips.

"You're falling asleep." He sounds disappointed.

"I don't want to," Alaric admits, and it has never been so true, before. But fall asleep he does.

In the morning, it's only the smell he smells every day in the room, nothing else. No pepper or wood smoke. The duvet is not heavy; just cotton fill, no goose down, and Alaric's arms are altogether too empty.

...

It was true, what Damon said, there is an exam. Third period history. Alaric is tired, so tired. He distributes the exam to the class and gives them a brisk smile.

"Time starts now. You have one hour."

Coffee is inadequate so Alaric takes a few caffeine pills as well and wills them to work. They don't, not right away, and he props his head up on one fist.

When it slips off he realises right away that he has slept a second or two, so he leaps to his feet. Paces, some. Shakes his head. There is a quiet snicker, and Alaric turns to see the source.

The source of the snicker is a pretty, familiar girl sitting almost exactly in the middle of the room, with long, shiny, brown hair. She makes no attempt to conceal her amusement, but concedes to courtesy just enough to cover her mouth prettily before returning to her exam.

Alaric takes a step. Does this enough times so he is standing by her desk.

"Elena?" he says, because this is the face in the photographs at Jenna and Jeremy's house.

"Sorry, Ric," she whispers. Mimes zipping her lips closed and throwing away a key. The boy in the seat beside her doesn't look up but he smiles also. Stefan is the name Alaric's mind comes up with.

Numbly, Alaric walks back to the desk but he is determined not to sit down, won't risk sleep. He'll stay awake, stay here. Just stay.

And then suddenly there are pens all over the floor, because as he slept for less than one second, though more than half a second, Alaric's hand slipped and pushed the jar off the table. There are pens everywhere, but the jar didn't break, which is nice. And Elena is gone and poor haunted Caroline is in the seat she had been in moments before, looking alarmed.

...

Alaric is sitting in the library at the boarding house with the exams in his lap and a glass of bourbon in his hand when Zachary comes in, tidying.

"Zach?"

Zach's eyes are just a touch too small, and a touch too far apart, to be classically handsome; but he is kind, and has an easiness to him that Alaric envies.

"Yuh?"

There is no trace of Damon on Zach's face. Still the name Salvatore seems to sit by Damon's name in Alaric's mind.

"This is… ridiculous," Alaric starts. "But do you have a Damon in your family?"

Zach nods. "Yuh." He gestures for Alaric to follow him out into the hall. Halfway down he pauses. "Two, in fact. This is my grandfather," he says. "Just when my dad was born."

The man has more than a touch of Stefan in him but bears no trace of Damon.

Alaric stares for a long time anyway.

"And this…"

Zach leads him to the juncture of the two walls, to a framed tintype photograph in an oversized wooden frame. A young man in the uniform of a confederate soldier with slate-silver eyes and hair Alaric knows is the colour of night.

"Damon Salvatore, circa 1864."

Alaric is reaching for the glass over Damon's face before he knows he is doing it. "That's him," he says.

Maybe the silence is long or maybe Zach has been speaking, ignored by Alaric. When Alaric turns his head Zach gives him an odd look.

"That's who?"

There is a mild throb behind Alaric's eyes. "I guess. I must have."

He shakes his head, hard. Zach narrows his gaze.

"I dreamed about him. Guess I saw this. You know how these things get stuck in your head. What happened to him?"

"Killed in the civil war," Zach answers. "His brother Stefan was my great-great-great grandfather."

"Stefan."

Zach is silent for some time as Alaric stares at the tintype photo and turns the Indian head penny over in his pocket.

"Must have been some dream," Zach eventually says, and drifts away.

Alaric stares for a while longer, and then he returns to the couch. Rubs his aching eyes and just marks the exams like he planned.

...

Almost a whole month passes where Alaric wakes disappointed under his own duvet and doesn't see Elena in class.

Zach avoids him, at the boarding house; Alaric doesn't mind. He goes on dates with Jenna and sometimes, they sleep together after, and the sex is fine. Until the night he meets her at the Grill and her face has 'secret' written all over it in guilt coloured ink. He bumps their knees together under the table.

"C'mon, Jenna," he says. "What's bothering you?"

She tucks her hair behind her ears.

"I left Mystic Falls because of Logan Fell," she says, and Alaric chuckles. Logan Fell is equal parts hair and smarm.

"The news guy?"

"We went to school together. We were on again, off again for years, until we were off-off."

Alaric nods, encouraging.

"We went to school with Zach, too."

"Nice guy."

"Hold that thought." She picks at her plate. "We slept together. Zach and me. A couple of weeks ago," she admits at last, and this is the sort of news that should make the world slant sideways suddenly; but it doesn't. Alaric nods.

"He loved me at school. He still does." Jenna won't meet Alaric's eyes, and maybe she should, so she would see it's okay.

"We want to give it a shot," she adds, finally looking up; and his expression must say exactly what he wants it to because she smiles, a little.

They are silent a good long while and then Alaric speaks, and what he says is "I hope it works out. Really."

"Friends?"

And they are better that way.

...

Every day Alaric wishes he would wake up and find Damon in his bed; and he doesn't.

...

Alaric is sitting at the Grill alone, tired and maybe a touch drunk, when Isobel slips in and sits on the stool beside him. He has been staring at the ring on his hand for a good long time, trying to think where it might have come from but when he hears Isobel's voice, he remembers; she gave it to him.

"Hello, Ric," is what she says.

Her skin is so pale.

"It's good to see you. You look good. I hear that you're a high school history teacher? How is that?"

Alaric blinks and wonders vaguely if the pain in his heart is likely to precede his death in the middle of the Mystic Grill. When he doesn't die, when his heart keeps beating, he speaks.

"Where have you been, Isobel?"

She answers a question he hasn't asked. "I don't have any reasons that are gonna comfort you. I don't have any explanations that are gonna satisfy you. I wanted this."

Oh, right, he remembers. She's a vampire, now, and somehow, it doesn't feel like news. This is the other reality.

He misses Damon.

They speak further, but everything hurts. His hair hurts. His shoes hurt. The ring on his hand is heavier than it ought to be.

"I understand that you know my daughter Elena and I hear that she's been looking for me. So…" She is scribbling on paper and weirdly, Alaric wonders where it came from. "I want you to arrange for a meeting with us."

On the paper is a phone number.

"You want me to deliver a message?"

Isobel gives her sweetest smile. "Yeah."

Alaric scrunches the paper into a wad and throws it. "Screw you," he says, and then like it's fact rather than the insult he needs it to be, he adds "You selfish bitch." He says it to the Isobel who left him to become a vampire and the Isobel who left him for no real reason at all. And he leaves the rest of the drink and Isobel and all of it behind. He just leaves.

Isobel follows him out, moving faster than anyone can because oh, right, vampire; throws him against his own truck, her hand around his throat.

"You better tell Elena that I want to meet or I'm gonna start killing the citizens of this town one by one and I'm gonna start with your history students. Got it?"

And then he is on the ground with a little blood in his hair, because Isobel threw him there. And Alaric wonders; is he divorced, or is he a widower? Or is he still just 'married' because they never divorced and she's not really that dead? But the ring has disappeared and the penny is in his pocket and he's just on the ground in the parking lot outside the Grill with a little blood in his hair and Isobel's words echoing in his ears, that's all.

He's not sure which Mystic Falls he likes better, because that one seems to be full of monsters. But this one is so empty.

The Indian head penny in his pocket is heavier all the time.

...

Alaric zones out in the cafeteria and when he becomes aware of his surroundings, Elena and Stefan are standing in front of him, looking amused. He beckons and they follow him to his classroom.

He explains about Isobel and is unsurprised to find the paper folded in his pocket. The classroom is familiar. Stefan is neat and controlled. But Alaric doesn't feel safe, not until Damon arrives, looking ropable.

Alaric is somehow able to stay where he is, leaning up against a column there by the front of the classroom. He is somehow able to keep his arms crossed there where they are safe. He is somehow able to stay awake so Damon doesn't disappear, so it all doesn't disappear. Here where Elena didn't die in the water under Wickery Bridge, where Damon wasn't killed in action in the Civil War (the war that was Alaric's first true love; he'll never forget reading history textbooks under the covers with a flashlight and wondering vaguely why he didn't prefer comic books).

He is somehow able not to reach across the ocean of space – a good foot and a half – and pull Damon in and up against him. He just stands there, like it's easy.

Oh yes. Isobel.

They make a plan, and Elena and Stefan leave. Damon stands for a long moment without smiling.

"You alright?" he asks at last.

Alaric looks and looks, wants to learn this face until he can sculpt it when it slips away again.

"What was I like yesterday?"

Damon narrows his eyes. "Yesterday?"

Because if he's not always here, if he's sometimes there, but he doesn't leave a hole; then there must be something that is quite like Alaric over here, even when he's over there.

Alaric's eyelids droop.

"Yesterday. What was I like?"

"Weird and grouchy. Just like today. No. Less than today, I suppose, since your psycho wife wasn't in town fucking with your head yesterday. Weird and grouchy. Vintage Saltzman." He says it a little fond, a little fierce; grounding, maybe.

Damon takes a step closer, but only one, and it's not enough.

Alaric keeps his arms crossed.

"Don't let her get in your head," Damon warns.

No chance, Alaric thinks. No room. My head's full of you. But he doesn't say it and then it's too late, because Damon is stalking out of the classroom.

Alaric makes a cup of coffee so strong it's undrinkable. Swallows half a bottle of caffeine tablets and still, his head dips a quarter of an inch halfway through sixth period and when he wakes, he has no ring on his finger, an Indian head penny in his pocket.

"Fuck," he says, and it's not quite under his breath; Jeremy smiles from under his heavy bangs in the back row, drawing monsters in his composition book.

...

In his room at the boarding house, Alaric paces. Tries to nap on the bed. Can't, now he wants to; he is perfectly awake, all six feet of him. He finds himself standing for a long moment in front of the tin type photo in the hall, considering the proud young man in uniform.

Jenna and Zach tumble through the front door of the boarding house, giggling into each other's mouths, and it makes Alaric smile.

"Good night?" he enquires, because you're allowed to ask things like that of your friends.

Zach's smile drops a little, but Jenna's broadens and deepens. "Yep," she says, a little tipsy. "And now we're gonna make margaritas, make it even better. Join us?"

And he does, for a little while; and then he returns to his room with the duvet that is nice but not full of goose down, and the bed that is big but not improbably so and he jerks off to the memory of the palest eyes he's ever seen, biting back a moan he wishes someone could have swallowed, instead.

Alaric drifts into sleep and wakes with lips pressed against the back of his neck.

"Don't pretend you're sleeping," Damon purrs. "I can always tell the difference." His hard-on settles between the cheeks of Alaric's ass.

Alaric turns to meet Damon's eyes and he's wearing maybe one third of the grin he should be wearing, and then he remembers that over this side he's had a pretty bad day. There's just enough light to see by, a lamp shining silver on the nightstand.

"Hello," he says, and because he seems to be allowed to do it over this side he pulls Damon close to him. "Hello." He says it the second time for no particular reason. Damon eyes him suspiciously.

"Thought you'd be in a much worse mood. What with… vampire wifey screwing with your head."

"Speaking of screwing."

Damon gives a little shiver and mashes his mouth against Alaric's; inelegant, all hunger and want and need. So much of what is so badly missed on the other side. The ring on Alaric's finger is impossibly heavy and the man in his arms fits against him like they were designed that way.

This side is better, even with all the vampires. Especially, maybe. Of the vampires he's met so far Alaric likes this one best.

The dips and angles of their hips, their cocks tucked alongside each other, tucked beautifully and neatly between their bodies, all too good. Alaric groans, snaking an arm over Damon's back and up onto his shoulder. Damon starts to lose the veneer of cool calm, growling against Alaric's mouth as he grinds his hips into Alaric's.

This side is the best goddamn side anywhere, of anything.

"Why are your eyes like that?" Damon asks, and Alaric can't answer because he doesn't know how his eyes are. So he makes something up that's true anyway.

"Because I'm about to fuck so hard you black out."

Damon smiles in a way that makes Alaric think about sharks and lions and hawks.

"Crazy women are good for you, Ric," he says, and there is so much predator in Damon's tone that Alaric is unsurprised when a wicked fang pierces his lip. Damon clears the blood away with his tongue. Eyes all red-black and the delicate tracery of the capillaries beneath them beautiful, if chilling. "And will I be snacking before, or after?"

"Both," Alaric says, because those teeth have to be sharp enough to keep him awake and keep him here.

Damon rises over him, runs his tongue over the fine network of scars that have built up over… Alaric's memories of this side aren't strong enough, they're just not. A while, months. Low on his hip.

He's here, now, and wide awake. When those elegantly curved fangs pierce his skin he is definitely fully awake; when Damon sucks lazily at the wound every inch of Alaric is, definitely, fully, awake.

It hurts, it does. But it feels perfect, too, and the endorphins that flood his system are a bonus.

Instinctively Alaric reaches for the lube in the nightstand. His fingers know exactly where it is because he has reached for it about a hundred thousand times before. Damon's mouth has barely left Alaric's hip when he flips them both, and Damon looks delighted, beneath Alaric, cool and pale and chiselled.

"You're sort of… extra pervy, tonight, Ric. I like it. The manhandling thing is… hot."

"Shut up," Alaric answers agreeably, because this feels like their dynamic; and he takes Damon's impressive, demanding cock in his mouth all at once, which elicits a string of obscenities and variations on the word 'Alaric', but he doesn't satisfy. Won't, not yet.

Alaric starts slow, while his mouth continues to tease and torture and lick and suck, slicks one finger, pushes all the way in and up, moves it just a little, until Damon arches his back off the bed and groans, clenching down hard, hands fisted in the sheets. Two fingers gets an even better response, as Damon fucks himself down hard against them, eyes closed and fluttering in the soft moonlight.

Part of Alaric thinks I haven't done this since college and another part thinks I haven't done this since the night before last. That part is his favourite part.

A little scissoring action gets Damon's mouth to fall open so wide Alaric is tempted, momentarily, to abandon this and just stick his cock halfway down Damon's throat; but the rippling of capillaries in Damon's face gives Alaric pause. Capillaries like that are usually associated with fangs.

More lube, and three fingers; and Damon gets a little sloppy, arms and legs twitching helplessly; it doesn't last. He's strong, fantastically strong, regains control fast.

(Alaric wants to stay here, right here, forever; but he's not sure who he should speak to about doing that, so he decides to focus for now on the task on hand.)

Damon's eyes open and his pupils are so dilated there is scarcely a ring of silver around them. Alaric grins.

"How are you doing there?"

Damon doesn't smile, really, because he's so turned on he's forgotten how to.

"Ric. For fuck's sake."

Alaric takes the hint. Lubes his cock, generously, slowly, while Damon watches, hips still grinding against nothing.

"Are you having fun?" Damon's expression is incredulous.

Alaric nods. "Yep." Halts his tease and lifts Damon's hips just slightly off the bed, angling himself perfectly to bury himself all the way in one thrust. Like it's something he does, often enough to be habit.

Here, they fit, as well. Damon is a tight ring of muscle exactly where Alaric needs it, a firm clench.

Damon starts to move, but Alaric holds him still.

"You. Are. Killing. Me," Damon says, so Alaric starts to move; slowly, at first, with Damon's eyes on his, and then a little faster. From this position he can see every twitch on Damon's face and it might be the most beautiful thing he's ever seen; everything is Too. Fucking. Beautiful.

He knows what he's doing perfectly and specifically with this body, this pale sculpture. He knows this body well.

Alaric speeds up, shifts until he is looming over Damon. Speeds up again until Damon's head hits the headboard over and over, a drumbeat.

"Jesus," Damon says. "Jesus fucking fuck." It's poetry. The beginning of a haiku, maybe. Sort of. It drips from his lips like honey Alaric wants to lick up.

On the one hand it feels like it's been so long since he really felt good that Alaric shouldn't be able to hold on, but over this side apparently his sex life is awesome; because he keeps going, lets his orgasm rise slower than biology generally allows. He traps Damon's cock between their bodies, lets the friction do his work for him. Damon's lips are swollen and his eyes keep drifting shut, though he opens them again; he always opens them again, unerringly finding Alaric's eyes as soon as he does.

Harder. Harder and faster, and Alaric relishes the slap of hard body on hard body, thinks absently about how much he's missed this.

It's probably the expression on Damon's face as he comes that tips Alaric over the edge; as his balls tighten and swell, even his toes curl, and he shouts, indelicately, emptying all that he has and a little more into Damon.

He should collapse but he doesn't. He's afraid he'll sleep.

As his sadly softening cock makes its own escape, Alaric shifts until they are side by side again. Lets his lips rest against Damon's arm.

After a long beat, Damon speaks. "What was that about?"

"What was…?"

"Well…" Damon furrows his brow. "I just mean. What was that about? Just wondering if I can recreate the conditions. Experiment. Science, you know."

"I missed you," Alaric admits, knowing it won't make sense.

Damon says nothing, but he shifts, crawls, reattaches his mouth to Alaric's hip. Bites, just as gently. Sucks lovingly at the wound as Alaric rubs circles into his shoulders. The sharp pain keeps him where he is.

"I just wanna stay here," he says; to Damon maybe, a little, but also to no one in particular.

"Fine by me," Damon says, licking away the last of the blood that wells from the shallow wound. "If you're good, I'll let you give me a blow job in the shower in the morning."

Alaric grins. "I'll be good," he promises, and pulls Damon into his arms; this is not quite right, not quite their dynamic, but he doesn't care much, because his eyes are getting heavier by the second and soon, he will be asleep.

When Alaric wakes, the ring is gone, Damon is gone, it's all gone. He jerks off in the shower, but it's no substitute.

...

Jenna is curled up on the couch in the boarding house, with a book. Alaric looks into the fireplace; converted to a gas heater. Fake logs. In his mind's eye he sees it roaring with real flames. Alaric can almost smell it. He closes his eyes and hopes when he opens them again he'll smell the smoke for real, but he doesn't.

"Jenna?"

She looks up.

"Do you believe in stuff?"

It is the dumbest question Alaric has asked since grade school.

"Firm believer in many things, Ric. Brocade. My inability to parent. Lucky charms being a key part of a balanced diet. Windscreen wip -"

Alaric throws a cushion at her and she laughs.

"I don't believe in God, if that's what you're asking."

Alaric shakes his head. "No. Ghosts?"

Jenna is equivocal. "Never seen one. Be cool if I did. Not sure…"

"Think there could be real monsters?" One step at a time.

"Ric, what's…?" Alaric cocks his head. He wants an answer. "Just the ones that drive us to follow our worst impulses."

"Good answer," Alaric says. Jenna returns to her book after checking the time.

"What about vampires?"

Jenna laughs. "Well, obviously. Why do you think I cook with so much garlic?"

Alaric flicks through a small rolodex of facts in his mind. Garlic does nothing. Damon loves garlic. Crucifixes are not a problem; holy water tastes just like what comes out of the tap.

Stakes, beheading: fatal.

Can't go out in the sun, unless you've got a snazzy day ring. No sleeping in coffins. Breathing's necessary for speech, and heavy breathing significantly improves sexual performance for no apparent reason, but breathing is otherwise a waste of effort.

Alaric thinks of Damon's breath on his lips and he shivers, a little. Aches for the sleep that will see him wake up on that side, or bring back the dream. Whatever and whatever.

"Ric. No one believes in vampires," Jenna says, amused. "Except lonely goth teenagers. And they have to, it's their job."

"Yeah," Alaric agrees.

After a long beat, she speaks once more. "Are you okay, Ric?"

"Not sleeping well," is what he allows; and then Zach is there, and he and Jenna leave, on a date; and Ric is alone again.

...

It's been weeks and it's getting harder to smile.

...

And then Alaric nods off on the couch and wakes to the smells of wood smoke and bourbon and leather and with a pair of slim, pale feet poking into his thigh. Before he even looks up to see the perfect aquiline features that live at the other end of the body the feet are attached to, he closes a hand over one of the ankles.

But all at once Damon is an aggressive, squirming heap on Alaric's lap, and Alaric pulls him tight. "Fuck, Damon," is what he says, and he means it with all that he is and twice what he has.

Their mouths meet almost violently and their lips, teeth and tongues fight like they can't both win but it's absurd; of course they can both win. Until Alaric falls asleep again.

"Take me to bed," Alaric demands.

Damon grins. "You've got that look."

"What look?"

But they both know, so they just go. Upstairs to the heavy goose down duvet and the acre of mattress. Alaric steps Damon into the wall and Damon lets him. Alaric unbuckles Damon's belt, pulls at his shirt until a couple of buttons tear satisfactorily off and hit the floor.

"What happened?" Damon demands urgently as he grabs at Alaric's clothing. It's taking too long so Alaric helps.

"When?"

"Downstairs." Alaric kicks his shoes off. "We were talking. And then. Oh, fuck." Alaric has a hand on Damon's cock, there against the wall, and he's pulling expertly, twisting just enough to be maddening. He knows how Damon likes it.

"What did I do?"

"You zoned out, and when you got back you were all… Jesus fuck, Ric," and there is something very satisfying about turning on a vampire so much he can't hold himself up; Alaric is a little proud, but proud is second to turned on so he kisses Damon hard, watches Damon's eyes glaze over as he comes between their bodies, hot jets Alaric plans to taste once he has Damon on the bed.

Damon slumps against Alaric, his forehead on Alaric's shoulder.

For reasons he doesn't want to look at too closely Alaric puts a hand on the back of Damon's head, and again thinks this isn't quite right, this isn't how we are but it feels nice so he sifts through Damon's hair a moment.

"You're still wearing socks," Damon says.

"Whatever," Alaric says. "I'll take them off in a minute."

Damon lifts his head. "You zoned out. And when you came back you were different."

"I'll stay like this," Alaric promises. "Just keep me awake."

He fucks Damon hard from behind because it's his favourite angle, presses impossibly black bruises into skin that is frustratingly pale and pristine again almost right away and after, they lie together for a while.

"Soooo…" Damon says. "What?"

Alaric shakes his head. "So what?"

"What happened in the Alaric version of our little scene downstairs?"

Problem is, he doesn't know which side is real; has to be the other one, he supposes. Since he's there the most.

Alaric shakes his head. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you," he promises.

Damon scoffs; "Now that werewolves are real, I'll believe anything."

Oh, right. The werewolves.

Memories settle into Alaric's mind like fragments of ash. He closes his eyes. Throws them open again. "You have to keep me awake," he says. "Just keep me awake."

...

When he wakes alone with no ring on his finger, Alaric doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. He does neither. Instead he showers miserably and by himself.

"Ouch," he says, to no one at all; because there is a faint wound on his hip. A ring, fang marks. The relief is almost enough to make him black out. Alaric presses his fingers into the bruises that surround the wound, and it hurts and it feels absolutely fucking wonderful, so he does it again.

He's been in the shower a long time and his face hurts from the smiling. It has to be real, the other side, has to be, if he's carried the impression of a lover's bite across the chasm.

Unfortunately, over the next couple of weeks, it heals and vanishes.

Alaric starts experimenting with sleeping pills. Still he wakes up on the empty side of Mystic Falls where he sleeps alone every night.

He 'confiscates' Jeremy's stash of weed and smokes every last shred of it, and still when he sleeps it's still nothing but a confused jumble of stupid images and no Damon.

...

Jeremy misses more classes than usual, and then one day Jenna calls Alaric, hysterical.

"He got beaten up. By drug dealers, Ric. You have to come and talk to him."

Alaric goes to the hospital. He is stopped by a young woman with a pinched face and big doe eyes who immediately checks his left hand for a ring. "Dr Meredith Fell," she says. "Are you family?"

"Yes," Alaric says. And he goes into Jeremy's room because it's true enough, he and Jenna are the closest thing to family Alaric has, on this side.

Jeremy's face is stitched and bruised and he has a fair amount of skin scraped away from one cheek and obscenely, Alaric wonders how the skin just there could possibly have been torn away. Alaric settles into a chair to wait, and a little time later, Jenna comes inside. Alaric holds her for a long time, letting her weep into his shoulder about what a terrible parent she is.

Alaric thinks parenting teenagers might be the shittiest job in the world and he tells Jenna that.

"It was the guys who sold Vicki the stuff she overdosed on." Jenna blows her nose. "I think he was trying to be a hero."

Jeremy stirs on the bed and Jenna schools her features to pissed. Jeremy opens the eye that isn't swollen shut, registers Jenna's expression and closes it again.

There's nothing much to say, so they say nothing.

...

Alaric wakes in the middle of the night, pulls Damon closer and drifts asleep again.

...

And when he wakes, Damon is still there. He rolls over and fixes Alaric with an incredulous look.

"Cuddly, Saltzman," he says. Alaric starts to pull away, not because he wants to, but because it's morning, and the dream should be over.

"Why am I still here?"

Damon grins. "Because I'm irresistible? Because you were way too drunk to drive home?" He rolls, and Alaric is miraculously under his weight. "Incidentally, the fact that you can keep it up for that long with that much drink in you is one of the best things ever. Also, I'm hungry."

Alaric laughs.

Damon nuzzles into his neck, or maybe he doesn't. A nuzzle implies something gentle, and it's not gentle.

And then he is gone.

Alaric sits up in the wrong room, in the wrong reality, with his phone buzzing horribly on the nightstand. He answers the phone, and hates the stupid telemarketer so much he wants to track him down and kill him an inch at a time.

...

Alaric gets increasingly self-destructive. Drinks far more than is prudent, starts combining sleep meds experimentally. Perhaps the lack of natural sleep is what keeps him held wretchedly to this side, but natural sleep doesn't seem to help either and it doesn't come easily.

He and Zach prepare a meal for Jenna and Jeremy, who are coming for dinner. There in the kitchen Alaric sways a little. It's nice.

"You okay there, Ric?"

"Obviously not," Alaric answers, cheerfully enough.

"Need to talk?"

Zach is clearly uncomfortable.

"Nope," Alaric says. "What are we going to do about Jeremy?"

"Something," Zach says, concerned and kind, because that's who Zach is. For a second, Alaric thinks that if there was the slightest bit of family resemblance he'd throw Zach to the ground and fuck him until he couldn't walk. But it's just the eyelashes, and that's not enough.

The light begins to shift. The artificially bright fluorescent light of the kitchen appears in narrow strips alongside something duller and more natural.

Alaric puts the knife in his hand down on the cutting board, alongside the vegetables his shaky hands have started to cut into haphazard strips. Sometimes the vegetables and the board vanish suddenly but the knife is always there, and Alaric's hands are always shaking.

"Alaric?"

Sometimes, Zach is there, and sometimes he's not. Like a ghost, maybe.

Zach takes a step closer, or perhaps it's Alaric who does that.

"Alaric. Are you…?"

Alaric laughs because he can hear something in the other room and thinks it might be Elena shrieking delighted on the couch, perhaps with Stefan pinning her down. Absently he thinks that Jenna will be there soon and it will be nice for her to reconnect with Elena, a nice family moment.

"I'm…"

He's something, that much is clear.

"I have to go." He feels sick and light and he really does have to go. For a second the kitchen flickers entirely and instead of the modern appliances, there are just vast, clean surfaces. Damon cooks the old fashioned way, when it occurs to him to do so.

"I'll move," Alaric promises the air where Zach might be standing. "I'll move out. I'm sorry." He doesn't want to. If he wakes up in another place who will be there with him?

"You don't have to, man. Just…" Zach looks cautious, scared, when Alaric can see him. He looks like the air in front of a brushed aluminium fridge when he can't.

"Can you tell Jenna I'm sorry? I think I'm getting sick. Flu." Or maybe some previously undescribed psychotic disorder, he thinks but doesn't say.

The stairs are the same on both sides though the quality of the light continues to flicker, making it hard to step right; the carpet on the stairs is sometimes Persian and sometimes a dusky blue. Alaric stumbles twice and wonders what will happen if he meets someone who is descending as he ascends; will he walk through them, or past them? Will he even see them?

Alaric makes it to his own bedroom at last; neatly sidesteps an oversized armoire than definitely doesn't belong to him and something else, perhaps a wooden chest. He doesn't get a good look at it. He staggers to the bathroom and turns the shower on all the way, and cold. He steps under the shower fully clothed because he hopes the discomfort will make the light stop changing and flickering like that.

"Ric?"

Damon's face is incredulous and also, it's not always there. Sometimes there's a dark smudge for a second where his face was.

"You're in my shower with all your clothes on why? Is that cold water? Are you very high? Did you eat the brown acid? Ric?"

Sometimes Damon's voice is dialled all the way down to mute, a bare buzz.

Alaric gropes blindly for him but it's hard because he has to lean against the wall of the shower in order to keep upright. It's a problem, combining the leaning and the groping, but Damon gets it eventually; with a sort of irritable half-fond frown he steps forward and takes Alaric's elbow. He lets himself be drawn into the shower but executes a very stealthy move to turn off the tap.

Alaric pulls him in, pulls him closer. Rests his face against Damon's reassuringly present shoulder, dripping water all over Damon's clothes.

"This is… new," Damon says, startled.

Alaric starts to sink to the ground.

"I don't think so," Damon says, hooking an arm around Alaric's waist, shrugging under his shoulder. Dragging him to the bed. Alaric opens his eyes a touch and thrillingly the light has settled, is dull and natural and darkening as the sun begins to set.

Damon drops him inelegant, sprawling, onto the bed. Pulls his shoes off, which is nice. Alaric grabs at Damon again, pulling him in, pulling him down. Wraps his arms around him.

Damon lets him.

Time passes, ten minutes, a week perhaps, before Damon speaks again.

"This is new," he says, again.

"What's new?"

Damon keeps his eyes narrow and fixed on Alaric's. "You're different, sometimes."

"Better or worse?"

"Different," Damon insists. "All this cuddling is a bit odd."

"I'll disappear, soon."

Damon doesn't argue. Alaric slips his hand under Damon's shirt, runs trailing fingers over the skin on his back.

"There's no vampires, on the other side."

Damon tenses.

"No Stefan means Elena died with her parents. You never compelled Jeremy to get his shit together so he's a total druggie. This is an actual boarding house, run by Zach, who is still very much alive, and dating Jenna. This is my room."

After a long beat, Damon says "What?" Confusion and doubt and yes, a little guilt vie for dominance on the planes and dips of his face.

The light flickers. "I'll be gone in a moment. I don't know who will be here but I'll be gone."

"You're making no sense." Damon reaches to pull at Alaric's eyelids, check his pupils. "Maybe you have a brain tumour."

"I sort of wish I did."

Damon worries Alaric's bottom lip between his teeth. Alaric groans, kisses him back.

"Vicki Donovan died of a drug overdose."

Damon winces. "This is… all very interesting." But Alaric can't stop now.

"Fell's Church is a historical landmark."

"What about the plantation house?"

Alaric shakes his head. "Burned to the ground just after you died. I found this there." He reaches into his pocket for the Indian head penny.

At the same time that he realises it shouldn't be there, he realises it is.

Inexplicably there and real and warm between his fingers. The ring is on his hand, too. Two things that never occur together, like it's all folding in over itself.

"This…"

Damon takes the penny. "This is the first year they were made." He sees the expression on Alaric's face. "What?"

What is he supposed to say? This penny doesn't exist on this side?

Tears burn his eyes and he doesn't want them there so he reaches for Damon again, kisses him again, kisses him harder. This is more familiar ground.

"We have to get you out of these wet clothes." It's a line Damon usually uses when Alaric's clothes are entirely dry, but that doesn't make it less relevant now.

Damon rolls Alaric's clothes into a wet ball and throws them neatly across the room into the bath. Shrugs out of his own shirt and pants quickly; he points out, sometimes, that this is more efficient.

Damon covers Alaric's whole body with his own, pressing him into the mattress. "What else is different?"

He runs kisses over Alaric's left shoulder and nips playfully at his neck, just a scratch, licks the blood away. Alaric groans, shifting their bodies until he can take Damon's cock in his hand.

"You died in the war. No Katherine to make you want to stay home." Alaric shivers as Damon draws blood again, over his collarbone this time.

"Sucks to be me," Damon says.

"Isobel and I are divorced."

Damon snickers. "Does it make me a horrible person, that I find that funny?" Gasps a little as Alaric's hand finds just the right rhythm.

"You're a horrible person regardless."

"See…" Damon's hips start to buck, pushing up against Alaric's hand. "That's more us. I'm offensive, you're snarky."

"Is that all we are?"

Damon comes hard, shooting over Alaric's hand and stomach with a grunt and a short series of expletives.

"No," he says at last. "But that's the way we do what we do."

Alaric thinks he understands.

...

In the morning he trots miserably into the kitchen to make toast and Zach is there, looking altogether normal.

"I'm sorry about last night, I really am," Alaric starts, but Zach looks puzzled.

"You seemed fine after your little nap."

Alaric lets the memories resettle and fall into place and yes, it turns out he came back downstairs smiling and polite and enjoyed a nice dinner with Zach and Jeremy and Jenna. Jeremy seemed better, Jenna was sweet.

"I meant before. I'll see you tonight," he says, all dismissive, leaving the toast to cool in the toaster so he can't say the wrong thing and blow his cover.

The day is half over when he rediscovers the Indian head penny in his pocket. He turns it over and over in his hand.

...

When Alaric opens the boarding house door, Damon is on the other side of it.

"You're that one," he says. Maybe the shock on Alaric's face is enough to make him certain; there is no Damon on the other side.

Alaric reaches into his pocket for the coin, shows it to Damon. Damon pulls its perfect twin from his own pocket and holds it aloft.

Alaric steps over the threshold. Most of the photos and paintings are gone and the piano is a grand, not an upright; the lights are low, the carpets Persian.

He hands Damon the coin (why, he's not sure) and Damon slips them both into his pocket before reaching for Alaric's belt and pulling their hips into alignment. Kissing him, perhaps a little tentative.

Somehow he is able to stay for hours. Damon cooks an intriguing risotto and the truffle salt is probably what makes it the best thing Alaric has ever tasted, though the shredded prosciutto is also very fine. They drink wine over dinner while Alaric shares stories of Mystic Falls without vampires.

They drink bourbon on the couch after, and Damon unwraps Alaric like a present, kisses and licks him from head to toe.

"Stefan and Elena are at her house," Damon says, and it's a secret password that means they can fuck on the floor in front of the fire; Damon's cock is more intriguing even than his risotto and Alaric is effectively grounded for as long as it takes for them to come twice each, over a protracted evening spent nude and worshipful.

Alaric on his hands and knees and getting rug burns from the Persian carpet, Damon pushing him further with every deep thrust, bruising handprints into Alaric's hips. Damon's eyes watching him from where his face is buried in Alaric's crotch, smiling obscenely with his lips sealed neatly over Alaric completely and beautifully, squeezing Alaric's balls until Alaric can't keep his eyes open and on him any more. Damon's legs wrapped hard around Alaric's hips so Alaric can time both his thrusts and his clever hand to ensure they come together.

They lie in front of the fire with throw cushions under their heads and Damon rolls, bites into Alaric's arm (with teeth, not fangs, and not hard; a fond, possessive gesture).

"I think I like you better," he admits.

"I'm not the same?"

This should seem obvious. It isn't.

Alaric wakes alone in the bed he climbed into with Damon however many hours before, and there is a coin on the dresser.

...

Alaric zones out in the classroom and barely notices the bell, but his students leap from their desks and Alaric waves them out. It takes him a moment to register that Elena is standing in front of his desk, Stefan a step behind and to her left.

In his pocket is another coin.

"Are you alright, Ric?"

Alaric fights the urge to nod off on his desk. He notices the shoes he is wearing are not the ones he put on, this morning, but it's no bother.

"A little out of it."

It's such a miracle that Elena is here, beautifully alive.

For a second the light falters and the posters on the wall change, but they change back, too. Alaric grips the coin hard in his hand and feels the edges bite in hard. Following an odd sort of instinct Alaric hands Elena the coin.

"Here," he says, unnecessarily.

"It's… a coin?" Elena looks confused.

"It's an Indian head penny. They're rare."

She smiles and nods, a little concerned, and they go.

The boarding house is just the boarding house and Alaric's room is full of Alaric's things; and he's tired, so he naps a while, waking with Damon straddling his body.

"The fact that you've never surprised me by sneaking a nap on my bed tells me you're that one," Damon says. "Are you?"

Alaric nods.

He reaches into his pocket and the coin is there, so he gives it to Damon.

"Where do I live?"

He can't quite see it.

"A loft in town. Staggering distance from the Grill. You… do have the Grill?"

Alaric nods.

"Got anywhere else to drink?"

Alaric shakes his head.

"Pity," Damon says, teasing a kiss from Alaric's lips. "Seems like that side sucks altogether."

"Should I go? Home, I mean."

"If you wake up there, you could find yourself in bed with almost anyone. Probably a good idea if you stay here. Anyway I'll want sex later, and a bite to eat. It's good you're able to serve both purposes. Does that make you feel like you're living up to your best self?"

"You say the most romantic things," Alaric deadpans.

"I can say them in Italian, too." Damon drops a kiss on Alaric's lips, and then rolls away, grabbing at a book on the bedside table and settling in to read.

Alaric doesn't even worry, just lets his eyes drift shut again.

...

It starts to be that Alaric gets long moments on the other side, instead of long moments here where he belongs, and it's definitely preferable. Though he also spends long moments suspended between worlds, and that is awkward as fuck, and results in shin bruises far more often than he'd like.

...

"I have a lot of these," Damon says, pointing at a jar on his nightstand full of identical Indian head pennies. "Or, I have one."

"There's one in my pocket." Alaric hands it over and Damon drops it in the jar with no further comment, but he screws the lid back on the jar in a way that communicates volumes.

They waste an afternoon to mutual pleasure, first and third on the bed and second with a brief sojourn to the shower, where they each ensure the other is quite clean.

...

Alaric watches Zach tidy the library distractedly.

Damon nudges Alaric's arm. "You there?"

Alaric nods. "I'm there. But I'm mostly here."

"I'm not sure that's what I meant. Still, mostly here isn't all bad, right?" Damon leans in close, says these thing directly to Alaric's earlobe.

Alaric nods, and though he listens to Stefan speak, he watches Zach.

Much later, Damon and Alaric stretch out on Damon's bed, letting the sweat cool on their skins.

"There has to be a way to stay here," Alaric says.

"Mm-hmm," is Damon's considered reply.

"I hate it over there. Everyone hates it over there."

"Well, there's no me," Damon snorts.

"No Elena. No Stefan. No Bonnie, even. The only person better off over there is Zach."

"If I admit that killing him was sort of a dick move, can you stop mentioning that?"

Alaric grunts his agreement, watching the light around him flicker and change. He rolls over, rolls on tops of Damon, pinning him to the mattress. Biting at his neck, because the way it makes Damon shiver is one of the best things ever.

"How much are you over there?"

"Not that much," Alaric admits, and also, "too much."

...

The jar is totally full of coins. All identical. Alaric wakes one morning (under the goose down quilt but alone) and he pours them out across the bed, studies two or more at a time, comparing tiny nicks and scratches and determining each time that they really must be the same coin.

Surely, he's paid the price of admittance by now. Paid for it in need and want and sex and Indian head pennies. Paid for it fighting alongside Damon, killing the bad vampires, the occasional werewolf.

(Still sometimes he wakes in bed alone and shivering under a too-thin duvet or becomes suddenly aware he is sharing a meal with Zach. Or negotiating an extension for an assignment that Caroline (poor Caroline; on this side so drab and sad and broken, and on the other, so spectacularly alive, if a vampire) hasn't finished, because she misses her best friend, and her grief is ugly and overwhelming.

(Alaric wonders sometimes why there is no Bonnie over this side, and he wishes there was one, for Caroline's sake.)

Watching out for Jeremy, when he is around to be watched for.)

Alaric pours the coins back into the jar, lies back against the pillows and thinks.

...

Alaric watches Elena accept a cheque for her mother's foundation, watches Damon slip into a side room with Elijah. Speaks distractedly with John Gilbert, who is definitely his least favourite thing about this side.

Elijah discourteously stabs Damon in the neck with a pencil and Alaric drives him home before anyone can point out that Damon is covered in blood. At the boarding house they sit on separate couches, too far apart, discussing Elijah's much-needed demise.

"He is one scary dude," Alaric says, distractedly. "But with nice hair."

"He's gonna be hard to kill," Damon agrees. Ego bruised. "It would be nice if you could stick around and help with that."

"Doing my best." Alaric grins. "I'd better go. I said I'd pick Jenna up."

Damon gives him a look. "You did?"

Alaric thinks. "Yeah."

"This side or that side?"

It's a reasonable question. "I don't know," Alaric confesses, and for the first time he really doesn't. He tries to remember what Jenna was wearing, when he promised. "I should go, right?"

Damon waves him off. "Come back later."

"Since you asked nicely." Alaric stands. The fire flickers in and out. "Fuck."

Damon eyes him with altogether too scientific an interest. "Brown acid?"

"s'okay," Alaric insists, because he knows the routes, now, can avoid barking his shins on furniture all too suddenly there. "I'll show -"

The leather couch is gone and the heavily upholstered, overstuffed red couch of Zach's boarding house is there in its place. Damon is gone, altogether gone, and Alaric puts his hand over his face, heading out of the library.

The boarding house is not silent enough.

There is a sound like drawers being opened in the entrance hall where a series of tallboys haunt the corridor edges.

A manic chuckle tells Alaric the hooded figure closest to him is a teenager, not yet fully accustomed to his adult voice.

"There's silverware. It actual silver? Can you tell?" A second figure reaches into the drawer, rattles cutlery and holds it up to what little light streams through the window. Alaric holds his breath because he hasn't been noticed and shouldn't be, maybe. He thinks of taking a step back, but the figures flicker a little which means there might or might not be a standard lamp with a glass shade over it behind him.

"Naw, man. Can't sell that shit. Get small stuff. Check the rooms."

"You sure there's no one…?"

"Gilbert kid said no."

Alaric's heart stutters wildly but it is enough to make him decide suddenly and all at once that he should make his presence known. 'Gilbert kid' can only mean Jeremy and if he stops all of this right the fuck now maybe he can stop Jeremy from getting into any more trouble.

The light on this side is silver, just now, and it flickers horribly against the red-orange glow afforded by the lights on the other side.

"Hey!" he shouts, and then it's not three kids rifling through drawers; it's a blonde woman and two men he is running towards.

The kid (one of the men) turns, startled, with something long and sharp (blunt, a stake?) and takes one long, determined step towards Alaric.

Whatever it is, sharp and wicked or dull and delivered with altogether too much force, it penetrates Alaric's body with ugly determination; it fucking hurts, more coming out than going in.

The kid runs, screaming at his friends to follow him.

The man does not.

All at once Damon is there, spun silver eyes torn up in rage, as Alaric makes one frantic attempt to hold his blood inside his body where it belongs. The last thing he sees is Damon with a syringe in his neck, almost all the way down on the ground.

It is all so horribly unfair.

...

Alaric wakes with a panicked, snatched breath.

"Took you long enough."

Damon sits cross-legged beside him, covered in blood. His own, mostly. Behind him lie bodies with hearts torn neatly out, and the hearts are neatly stacked like horrible Jenga on the sideboard.

"Damon?"

Damon nods. "Still."

He is paler than he ought to be though it may be the blood streaked around his neck that make him seem so. He has dark shadows under his eyes and looks almost a little less than perfect.

Alaric relaxes against the ground.

After a long beat Damon speaks again. "Are you…?"

Alaric reaches into his pocket, but no coin is forthcoming. Still.

"I'm that one," he answers, and Damon nods. He reaches a reassuring hand across Alaric's body, settling it across his ribcage not too far from the place where Alaric's insides recently became acquainted with his outsides.

"Not to be indelicate. Did you…?"

"Stabbed by a kid. In a hoodie. In a hoodie. I think it was one of Jer's lovely drug dealer friends. Kid knows how to pick 'em." Alaric places his large hand over Damon's more elegant offering, gentle. Then less gentle as he gives it a squeeze. "Why am I alive?"

"Magic decoder ring." It decodes nothing but keeps Alaric alive, and as the memories he needs to make sense of this flutter into place he finds himself turning the ring on his hand.

"I hate to be blunt." Damon sways a little. "But I am fucking starving."

"You love to be blunt. Try not to kill me," Alaric answers, affecting boredom. "I'm aiming to limit dying to once a day." Damon needs to feed, not taste, so he bites gratefully and respectfully and with no small degree of awe into Alaric's wrist, and Alaric pretends he's not half-hard with the sensation of it, blood drawn fast and thick and rich into Damon's needy mouth.

"I recently lost a lot of blood," he reminds Damon. "So if you could leave me some?"

Damon lets go only reluctantly, and when he is quite well, he bites into his own wrist. "Here," he says. "Medicine."

It seems like an altogether fantastic idea so Alaric sucks tentatively at the wound, and then less tentatively. He pulls away with fireworks going off in his brain.

Damon shapes his body around Alaric's side, lets him ride the fireworks, twitching and healing and remembering all the reasons this side is better.

"I wonder what's going on over there?" he asks, and Alaric doesn't bother answering.

...

They go to Damon's room because life needs to be reaffirmed and lived but they pause to shower, careful that no inch of flesh might retain any horror. Damon presses Alaric's body into the cool tile, running careful, exploratory fingers over every clean inch. When they are all the way clean and somewhat dry and entirely turned on Damon marches Alaric all the way to the bed, presses him into the mattress. He spends less than a long moment declaring Elijah a genius and vows he will learn the technique to rip still-beating hearts from the bodies of his foes and then is quieter a long moment with his mouth full of cock, only wet hungry noises escaping his delicious mouth.

Alaric feels Damon's blood in every cell, brilliantly alive and awake, comes hard halfway Damon's throat, curving his body into a perfect arc, with Damon making slippery sucking swallowing sounds.

Damon stutters and stops and his eyes should be on Alaric's, but they are not.

"What?"

It's almost irritable, the way Alaric says it. No distractions right now. He wants to stay put, and the fact the light around them stays a soft gold glow is a relief, but not much of one.

Damon sits up, frowning.

"What?"

It's very annoying, this combination. Damon is neither speaking nor getting ready to be fucked to within an inch of his unlife. Alaric can't tear his eyes from Damon's baby blues so he still doesn't know what the distraction is, only that he Doesn't. Like. It.

Finally, Damon points a confused finger at the dresser. He descends from the bed, standing and studying, and it's sort of adorable, the way he does this with a monster hard-on he's not paying any attention to. His cock curves back against his belly, nearly touching, and his hand reaches for the jar.

Empty.

Damon shakes it and there is only one coin inside, though some could argue there was only ever one.

...

When Alaric wakes with Damon's hand carefully curved over his morning wood he really wakes.

"Are you…?" Damon's eyes are exquisite, and curious.

There's no coin, and there's no pocket, but Alaric wraps his arms tight against Damon's back and tells Damon's neck, "I'm that one."

...

After that, Alaric just stays, here where he belongs. Elena is brilliantly alive and Jeremy is a hard-working kid with a future as an artist if he survives that long, and they have a witch, which is great, and she has an acerbic wit Alaric enjoys thoroughly. And Caroline is made of every colour and shines bright as a beacon, even if she is a little wearing at times, and sometimes Alaric marks her work a little higher than she deserves because he remembers what she was like, on the other side.

(He does the same for Jeremy.)

And it's hard, because there are monsters; and it gets harder, because monsters beget monsters, but what matters is that this side is not empty. It's brilliantly full of fangs and life and Damon and Alaric and truffle salt.

And nothing is empty, and it is All. Too. Fucking. Beautiful.