Disclaimer: I don't own anything you recognise here. If I did, I think we all know Alaric would not be leaving the show. Virtually everything belongs to Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson. There is an obvious nod to Joss Whedon.

Summary: This is an alternate reality taking place after 3.21. I am not sure I can watch TVD without Alaric, so… this. Alaric has been dead five years and Damon misses him so badly it has actually changed him.

Warnings: Angst, slash, canon denial, Damon (mostly) being a much nicer person than usual because he's been lonely as fuck for five years.

It's nice.

There are other people here. It's like consciousness brushing against consciousness, more like that than having real people to touch and hold and see, but they are here.

It's Jenna who greets Alaric but that isn't a big surprise. He knew she was here. She brushes up against him like feathers.

Hey, Ric.

Jenna?

Without arms it's hard to explain how he feels as if he's being held but that is what it's like. Like being held. She's warm or she would be, if there was a temperature.

It's nice, isn't it? She sounds close. Inside his mind instead of his ear, but very close.

Is this heaven?

There is a laugh, echoing across vast space. No one ever gave me a harp. I never saw pearly gates.

I guess. He feels relaxed. His consciousness expands, brushes against other things. It's nice.

It's a relief, isn't it?

A relief?

Yes, she says, and again, it's like he feels the thought instead of hearing it. Knowing everything worked out? For the others?

Did it?

Of course it did. Stretch.

Alaric isn't sure what she means by stretch but he does that. He stretches. Brushes against the whole world and yes, she's right, looks like it all worked out. Beautiful. Wow. They're okay, they're all okay. How did it work out? How did they make it? What did I… what happened to…

It doesn't matter, Jenna says. All that matters is that it worked out. Can't you feel that?

He stretches again. There are no details. Nothing to explain how it all worked out. Nothing, even, to prove it did. No plot. No time. Time. How long has it been?

Time stops mattering. I was here on my own, and then I was here with John, and now you're here. Years. Minutes.

John is here. Alaric reaches for his hate but there is none. John brushes up against him.

You looked after them. Thank you.

Alaric can't quite picture 'them' but he knows he loved them, and was loved. A girl with big dark eyes, a broken boy.

Yeah. I tried.

And it all worked out. So thank you.

Feathers, tendrils, slim smoky fingers all brushing up against each other.

If Alaric had eyes that could close he would let them drift shut but he doesn't so he floats there for minutes and hours and years and tries to know, as they all 'know', that everything just simply worked out.

...

A couple of times a year Damon drifts into Mystic Falls. When he stays he stays in the boarding house but never in his old room. Every part of it wears a mark. Some mark of some memory. Only a little over a year, but so many memories.

He shouldn't have made so many memories.

One wall bears an imprint of Alaric's back and shoulders because at least one hundred times Damon threw him against it. Vampire language for I Like You, Let's Fuck. The bed is unthinkable. There are skin cells in the mattress which might still carry Alaric's scent, the soap he used, the clean smell of sweat and lust. The musk of that soft aftershave. Damon still doesn't know what that aftershave was but when he smells it on someone of the right height with the right sort of smile he turns around and walks away.

He travels widely. It is hard, to get a passport that works for more than identification but he does it anyway, relishing the challenge. He goes to Italy. The Netherlands. Mostly he travels across America and drinks from anyone who takes his fancy but he hasn't killed in five years because if there is some small part of Alaric floating around and watching (though he can't be, can't be, Damon would know. Alaric would tell him. Alaric would find a way to say hello) he doesn't want to have to imagine that sad, disappointed expression in Alaric's eyes.

Five years ago Alaric would have left Damon if he went back to killing. Alaric is long dead. Still Damon doesn't kill. He thinks about it, sometimes, imagines letting a limp body slip from his arms and walking away. Thinks about flipping the switch. And then he remembers what Alaric looked like first thing in the morning when he woke and his heart rate started to accelerate and his body warmed. When he did that yawn-stretch-grin and pulled Damon toward him for the first kiss of the day, like Damon wasn't even a vampire, just the dude Alaric was in love with. Eyes big and dark and expressive.

If he can help it Damon won't kill again.

There are favorite places and favorite towns. Damon likes slutty South Beach in Florida. So much flesh. Seattle with its weird, lonely music. Easy to get good weed in Seattle. Weed settles his head for long moments but not for as long as Alaric's body used to. He likes New Orleans but not as much as he did before Katrina. Still. Absinthe, and chartreuse, so whatever.

Damon has an odd fondness for Maine in general and Bangor in particular. He travels out to the islands sometimes. Catches a ferry from Winter Harbor to Bar Harbor and sits out for a whole day sometimes staring at the water at one of the docks where ferries and fishing boats come and go, all day, every day, to and from the many islands.

Damon can't remember why but he and Alaric had talked, more than once, about taking a holiday in Maine once 'all the craziness was over'. Maybe Alaric had fallen in love with it in a book. Sort of thing he did, fall in love with fictional locations and terrifying monsters. All those mystery novels. "No," he'd say, "this one's really good." But with Damon tugging at his belt buckle he could be persuaded to put almost any book down.

It's a big country and despite the fact that there are big chunks which are damn near empty there are a lot of people. A lot of people in America. They all have stories to tell, lives they are leading. They all matter. You can have a drink with one of them and talk for a minute or an hour or a whole evening. You can get drunk with one of them. Play that delicate dance with a man with big dark eyes and a lazy grace and let him plug the hole, pardon the pun, until you can almost convince yourself it's real. If you're lucky he'll have a mouth that is both firm and soft and maybe you'll bite him but he won't smell right and he won't taste right and no, actually, fuck it, you can't convince yourself of anything. So you follow a pretty girl back to her hotel room and fuck until the sun comes up, because even if that's not real at least it isn't some pathetic, pale imitation of something that once was the realest thing you ever felt, the realest thing you ever had.

The people. Millions, billions of them, across the states and continents and they all matter and they don't matter One. Fucking. Iota.

Most of them are nearly as lonely as Damon is. Some of them might be lonelier. Maybe some of them wake clawing at their chests some mornings the way Damon does.

Damon doesn't give a shit about a single one of them. If he didn't think Alaric might be able to see him he'd burn everything. Douse the planet in petrol and let it all go up in smoke.

Damon doesn't need a lot of sleep but he sleeps more than he used to because it uses up time and if he's lucky the dreams are good. Often they are not.

The best dreams are smoky and smell like bourbon. The best dreams are about two bodies clashing together ferociously, about biting into Alaric's hip and feeling him shudder as he comes, hot jets over Damon's hand and the flesh spread over his own muscular stomach. Or Alaric drinking from Damon, which he could be convinced to do if he was turned on enough. More, in the later months. Those were the nights Damon could forget Alaric was human, so strong were his arms and legs, holding Damon immobile against the bed or over the back of the elegant chaise in the library.

In the worst dreams Alaric is a vampire and also not. He is a vampire. But not. No access to his humanity and the drive only to kill. He couldn't be defeated until Elena herself died or every Original vampire did, along with every line.

Those nightmares are the worst because they are the pure unvarnished truth.

There's always a solution and Bonnie had eventually found it. In real life. Damon had driven across the country with her, not sleeping, because there was no way to get the stuff they needed for the spell back on a plane. Some of it was explosive. They had immobilized Alaric by stopping his heart, chained him up, and done the spell.

Damon thought there would be a body left at the end. There wasn't. Damon had noticed the concavity of Alaric's chest moments before his form lost all integrity.

There was ash and the ash was greasy and try as he might Damon couldn't convince himself the ash smelled anything like Alaric. It didn't smell like anything. Except ash.

The main reason Damon had hoped for a body was that if there was a way to get Alaric back in it he would do that, find a way. Turns out witches rock the social networks pretty hard and surely someone would know something.

For three days he sat by the lidless concrete box. He didn't speak; not a tear escaped. He'd lost Alaric a long time before and this was more like losing Alaric's favorite t-shirt. Except it wasn't anything like a goddamn motherfucking t-shirt. Because it was actually the last imaginable chance to get Alaric back.

"I don't know we could have done it anyway," Bonnie said. Why she of all of them had been sent after three days to bring Damon a blood bag and try to talk him around Damon didn't know. He supposed they had drawn straws. "There's no reason to believe he's on the other side, Damon."

"Shut up before I eat you," Damon said. "What makes you think I want to hear that?"

"The other side is horrible, Damon. Ask Rebekah about it some time. You don't want him to be there." Bonnie had been the first to notice what was growing between Damon and Alaric, what was growing in the silences between their snark. She was remarkably good at this stuff, the sounding reasonable. She waited for Damon to speak and when he didn't, she went on. "Esther told us Jenna went somewhere else, that she was at peace. You have to know that's where Alaric went too. They don't come back from there. And why would they?"

Damon said nothing, only breathed, deeply, quickly. Unnecessarily. Craving the peace it could bring, but didn't. Wishing Bonnie would go the fuck away, but she didn't. Nothing went the way Damon wanted, nothing ever.

Bonnie sat down against the crypt wall, close to where Damon sat, and passed him a blood bag and a bottle of bourbon.

Damon drank the blood quickly, and ignored the bourbon for a while, wondering if he'd be able to drink it again ever without thinking it tasted like Alaric's mouth used to.

Turned out, yes. Damon drank about a third of the bottle in one long pull. Still Bonnie sat. She didn't ask questions didn't fidget didn't speak didn't try to pass on some ridiculous fucking message from Elena or Stefan or some pathetic platitude from Elena's "Hope-A-Day" calendar. She just sat.

If she'd tried to talk he could have thrown her out. But eventually because she was so still Damon spoke and said things he shouldn't have.

"I didn't tell him I loved him."

"It wasn't him." She shifted where she sat, to angle herself towards Damon a little.

"Not Genuine Replica Ric." Damon narrowed his eyes. "Real Ric. The night he died. The night he changed. The night he nearly killed you. I didn't tell him."

Bonnie nodded. "You were with him until he went to sleep. He knew."

Stupid answer. Stupid answer. Bonnie was an idiot and she didn't know anything.

"You don't know that."

Bonnie didn't argue which maybe meant she was less an idiot than she seemed.

"Can we find out? For sure?"

"Find out what?" Her eyes were soft. She had a fondness for Alaric. Everyone did, Damon supposed, and why wouldn't they, but she had a fondness for Alaric.

"If he's on the other side."

"Jeremy tried. Remember?"

"It's different, now."

So Bonnie had brought Jeremy and they had used the ash and Damon's connection to Alaric but there had been nothing, just nothing.

That was five years ago and since then still nothing, just nothing. Not anything.

The determination to work out whether Alaric was really and truly and forever gone was how the country-crossing started. Every rumor of a real medium, someone stronger than Jeremy, Damon chased down. Every hint of a rumor.

Some of them were real. This, Damon knew, because sometime Rose showed up and she said the same thing every time. It's horrible over here and Alaric isn't here.

After a while Damon started visiting charlatans instead. They were great.

One said, "The woman you loved – she died at peace."

One said, "There is something important he wants to tell you. About a holiday you took."

Damon had smiled. "In Australia, or Italy?"

"I'm getting a very Australian feeling."

Damon hadn't even been gentle when he bit that one but he didn't kill her either.

...

How do you know they're okay?

Jenna sometimes answers in a soft sleepy way and sometimes Alaric can't feel if Jenna is even there.

I just know. Can't you feel it?

Alaric tries to feel it. Truth be told he can barely remember the names or faces of the people he is worried about. Can't remember why he is worried about them, either.

Jenna sighs and it is like wind in trees, just a rustle. I guess you have to take it on faith.

Alaric was never big on faith. He liked evidence, something you could test, when he was down there, and he supposes he has brought that here with him. He stretches, again, like that first time, feeling for something he can't name. He asks. Are they okay? Are they really okay?

The answers come back. Of course. Everyone is okay. Down there everything is wonderful, beautiful, they are loved and loving and at peace, same as us.

Prove it, he says. Show me.

They begin to turn from him, after a while.

...

Damon doesn't knock on the boarding house door, he enters, although he has insisted it is not his home for years, now. Stefan always knows when he is close, and gives him time to look around and see that everything is as it was. Everything is always exactly as it was so Damon slips into the library to pour a drink and sit and remember and wait.

Stefan comes eventually. He always comes eventually.

"Hello," he says, and he is solemn. "How are you?"

"Awesome. I am always awesome because I am the awesome brother."

He hates the pity in Stefan's eyes.

"How's the lovely Lena? Ready to switch Salvatores yet? Are we doing like a five years on, five years off thing?"

Stefan smiles because it is so ludicrous. "She's out with friends. She'll be home in a couple of hours."

"You must be looking a bit pervy together by now. Twenty-three year old woman with a teenaged boyfriend."

It occurs to Damon sometimes that his snark no longer has that quality. Sounds forced. Whatever.

Stefan pours a drink and tops up Damon's drink and then they drink.

They drink silently because Stefan has long since learned not to bother asking questions because no matter how many times he crosses the country or how many people he fucks on the way across it and back things Aren't. Getting. Any. Better.

Very carefully Damon places the glass on the side table. "I'm going for a walk."

"Join us for dinner tonight? The Grill?"

Damon grunts. It's a yes or a no, he's not sure. Stefan isn't either. The offer was made and Damon will be there or not. Without looking up he slips from the boarding house.

There should be a path beaten, now. But there's not. It's not beaten because Damon doesn't spend a lot of time in Mystic Falls. Still he takes the exact same path every time, between the boarding house and the crypt. Alaric died in the same place both times, those last two times. Once with a stake in his heart and once a pile of greasy ash and though he fought often and won generally Alaric Saltzman wasn't a violent man and shouldn't have died such violent deaths, each time.

He shouldn't have died so many deaths period. Twice at Damon's hands.

That is one of Damon's favorite things to beat himself with. His fault, at least in part.

So it's across the grounds and through the trees, over an hour's walk. Once you get to the old logging road you turn west a bit and if you need a landmark there is one – big tree with the face of an old man looking irritated on it, if you squint, and the light falls across it right. Then you follow a natural line down past the plantation house ruins and a few minutes later, there is the crypt.

Sometimes Damon goes inside the crypt and sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he stays for hours and sometimes he leaves right away without even looking at it. He has slept in it, screamed in it. He has punched into the wall until his bones break and his skin bleeds and it heals up almost right away again but it aches for hours, which is nice.

...

Do they think about us?

Why do you ask so many questions?

But do they?

Of course they do. And then Jenna slips away again. Alaric wishes he had hands to hold her still and make her talk. Sometimes he wishes he could take it all on faith the way Jenna does. The way they all seem to.

But how do you know? He calls out. How do you know they think about us?

She never answers. No one ever does.

Hell couldn't be this bad.

...

Damon is never sure what will happen until he is close enough to smell the crypt, its damp smell and the greenery rotting around it. Sometimes the smell is enough and once he has smelled it he leaves.

This time it's not enough.

He stands at the edge of the clearing for a long moment. There were candles here once and a whole lot of people who loved Alaric. Alaric saw his own funeral. Few do.

This, Damon can't think about because it still hurts like a great fucking vise over his heart. Alaric had seen the candles and the mourning faces and he had nodded and bravely gone back inside the crypt to die.

It was darker then than it is now, still, the light has a quality which recalls that night so strongly that Damon feels the edges of his vision blur. If he squints he can imagine Alaric standing at the door of the crypt, nodding once, that last silent thank you and I'll miss you and please forgive me.

Yeah, one of those nights. Damon steps towards the crypt and pulls the small wrought iron gate open.

Where he sits, it's where he sat that night when Alaric's eyes cried and his face stayed brave. Alaric would fit alongside him if he was here. Damon could pull him in, the way he did that night. He could rest Alaric's head on his shoulder like he did that night. Kiss him one more time and taste their combined tears on Alaric's mouth.

This time while Alaric was still conscious Damon would make their eyes meet in the middle and he'd tell him he loved him, loved him, so Alaric could take that into the void with him. He wouldn't wait until Alaric was asleep and say it into his arm like a coward.

If Alaric was here Damon wouldn't be a coward again ever about any part of it. He'd take Alaric to Vermont and marry him. He'd kiss Alaric at the Grill in front of god and everyone.

Stefan must have known Damon would be coming. There is a brown paper bag with two bottles of bourbon in it on the little table covered in dripping candles. Damon drinks the first in about two hours.

"I miss you," he says to the empty crypt, and lets his eyes close, and lets Alaric's face be the only thing he can see.

...

Alaric can't find Jenna and he can't find John. He can't think who else to look for but he has the unsettling sensation that they all wheel away from him when he reaches for them.

Alaric does not share their faith that everything is okay. He hasn't shared it for a long time maybe ever maybe it's been days or weeks or months or fuck it could be years and there is this free floating panic all the time and the sense that maybe things aren't okay down there.

Jenna! He calls but her fingers are not close and he can't sense her mind. What if they need us?

Alaric thinks there is a sigh but there might not be. He's not sure of anything, not anymore.

Alaric envies Jenna so much that his stomach hurts. Or, it would, if he had a stomach.

...

Damon is actually a little drunk when he cracks the second bottle. He brings it to his lips.

He finds he liked that way that sounded so he says it again. "I miss you," he says. I really fucking miss you, man."

He takes a long pull from the bottle.

"Every fucking day, I miss you." Usually he is silent in the crypt but talking to Alaric is not unheard of. "I'm never going to forgive myself for my part in… what happened." This is a promise. It's one he makes some days when the weather's been good and his belly is full of blood and he's sexually sated, or nearly so. He promises again that he'll never forgive himself. It's like drawing blood from a cut in his arm. Settles him a little.

The bourbon is good, is of a good quality, and Damon realizes vaguely it is the one Alaric prefers. Stefan. He's not so bad, once you stop fighting over the same girl.

Damon relaxes with the flavor of the bourbon on his tongue and the cool stone at his back, and Alaric's face in his mind.

...

Alaric can't feel anyone, now, and he has the oddest sensation of cold. Hasn't felt cold or hot or wet or dry for the longest time and he feels cold now.

He stretches, reaches, and there is no one. Really no one. As if Alaric has floated away. He reaches out, stretches further, conjures the sensation of a hand and fingers.

Nothing, again nothing.

And then Damon, or Damon's mind, like a spark a long way away. If he has to hurtle towards something, Alaric thinks, he might as well hurtle towards that.

...

Damon has drunk half of the second bottle and vampire constitution or not, he is pretty drunk. He's not talking anymore, just swaying. Remembering some of the best moments because they hurt the worst.

There is a sound outside like broken branches, a soft thud. Could be a boar, they come out this far from time to time. Too heavy to be a deer.

Still it has a smell. Damon can smell bourbon and not much else but the smell is pleasant. Human. Campers. Except no because campers stay noisy and this was a thud, and broken branches, and then nothing.

It takes Damon a long moment to get to his feet. It's like that night. Getting to his knees and his feet beneath those, the leaning against the wall and then propelling himself toward the door.

On the ground a few feet from the entrance to the crypt is a body.

It's a completely familiar body. Damon knows every inch of it. He knows where to kiss it to produce glorious moans. He knows what it tastes like.

Except no because Alaric is dead and more than dead; he is the ash in the coffin in there, slowly being taken away by the eddies of air that sneak into the crypt.

It is Alaric. It smells like Alaric. It's wearing Alaric's clothing. The clothing he died in and was resurrected in for a final time. Damon falls to his knees and reaches out. Dances his fingers over the small of Alaric's back.

Perhaps Stefan snuck some sort of wonderful hallucinogen into the bourbon.

When Damon rolls Alaric onto his back the first thing he notices is that Alaric is breathing which is fucking incredible. Vampires don't breathe when they sleep. Not even unkillable Original-style vampires. Damon has slept with Rebekah enough times to know this. Damon shakes Alaric's arm, but Alaric keeps breathing and sleeping.

Damon speaks: "Alaric. Ric."

Nothing happens.

Damon presses his fingers to the pulse in Alaric's neck. It is strong, very strong. Steady and strong.

It can't be real, it really can't.

It is.

...

Damon sits for long minutes more, confused and worse than confused. His luck is generally bad. The idea that he could conjure someone loved and missing from across some void by sheer force of will is beyond ridiculous. But his fingers still rest against the strong pulse and the strong pulse is still strong.

If this was a fairy tale a kiss to Alaric's mouth would wake him, but Damon can't bring himself to even try.

He reaches for his phone, which is mercifully in his pocket where it ought to be, and calls Stefan.

"Damon?"

"Yeah. Where are you?"

"Dinner. You're coming, then? Sorry, brother, we ate…"

Damon shakes his head but it remains foggy. "No. I need you to come to the crypt. Bring the car as close as you can."

Stefan hesitates. "Are you hurt? I'll bring blood."

Damon misses mean, sarcastic Stefan so much some days. Instead there is this pity.

"I'm fine."

"Then…"

"Can you come? And bring the fucking car? How much do I ask for?"

Stefan murmurs something, to Elena, perhaps. Damon can hear them stand.

"I'll be there in fifteen."

It's only thirteen minutes that are still too long when there is the glimmer of a flashlight. Stefan has parked on the logging road, the closest he can get to the crypt without a four wheel drive.

He stops dead when the flashlight falls on the still form of Alaric there in the leaf litter.

"Jesus Christ, Damon," he says. "What did you do?"

Damon feels an irrational flash of irritation but realizes instantly the question is fair. Of course Stefan has it wrong, has it all wrong, but that doesn't soothe the sting.

"I didn't do this." He is pretty sure this is true.

With utmost care Damon collects Alaric into his arms, and he stands. He bundles Alaric close to his body, cautious with Alaric's fragile human neck. Stefan guides them to the car with the torchlight as guide.

Elena is in the driver's seat and then she is not, face agape. "Is he…"

"He's human," Damon says. It seems to be the only possible answer to any of the thousands of possible questions Elena might be about to pose.

Stefan opens the back door and Damon drapes Alaric over the seat. He arranges his own self so that Alaric's head is on his lap and only hopes that if Alaric wakes up he won't wake up disoriented and terrified. Damon can't help but trace Alaric's hairline with his finger as Elena drives carefully back up the logging road, carefully so the car won't bump so much.

The light is very dim. It's black outside with only the flash of streetlights and the moonlight but Damon feels his heart clench when he realizes that where there used to be a small scar on Alaric's face, there is nothing now. No. He's wrong. It's on the other side of his face. Must be.

At the house Stefan and Elena say nothing when Damon bundles Alaric into his arms and carries him up the stairs. They say nothing when Damon carries Alaric into his own room. His old room. He shuts the door behind him.

He realizes he hasn't even said hello to Elena though he hasn't laid eyes on her in six months. He supposes she understands.

The room is clean. Damon half expected an inch-thick layer of dust but it is as clean as if someone was living in it. No, cleaner than that. No smells. Good old Stefan has been keeping it ready for him.

Damon lays Alaric out on the bed, gentle as he can. Adjusts Alaric's clothing.

Alaric should be forty. He's not forty. He's thirty-five, same as he was.

Damon turns the lamp on and the overhead light off.

The scar is gone. It was on that side. It was. Damon had asked about it once and Alaric had been sheepish, claimed he couldn't remember where it came from. Then he'd sworn it wasn't a good story. Finally he'd admitted he'd once found a bunch of kids from a higher grade at school with an old dog cornered in an alley. They were throwing stones at it. Alaric had pushed his way through to break it up and they'd thrown stones at him instead. One had drawn blood.

Damon had been appalled. "So the martyr thing isn't even new?"

"Nope. Sorry." Alaric hadn't been sorry though, not at all, and he'd thrown Damon over the side of the bed and fucked him hard.

It's terrible, to think of all of Alaric's scars being gone. The fine network of pale white scars raised in tiny ridges, low on Alaric's hip, a year of bite marks that had marked him as Damon's own. Damon can't bear to lift the edge of Alaric's shirt to find out if they are gone, but he does, in the end.

Gone, all gone.

Alaric has been given a fresh body and it doesn't seem right. All the pickling Alaric had done of his liver, would it be gone too? Yes, it would.

Damon wants to climb onto the bed and pull Alaric close but it seems wrong, somehow, so he pulls an armchair close to the bed. He sits in it for a long time and then he propels himself out of it, out the door and down the stars into the library. He is on his second glass of bourbon before he realizes, really, that Elena and Stefan are sitting tense as tense on the couch.

"Is he awake?" Elena has been crying. It doesn't mean she's sad.

"No."

Really, if Alaric was awake, would Damon he be here?

Damon sits next to Elena, and it makes the couch too crowded, but he can't crawl onto the bed and be beside Alaric so this will have to do. He needs people close. Without realizing he has done it he has taken Elena's hand in his own and is gripping it hard.

Elena grips back.

"What can we do?"

They can unravel time, is what they can do. They can play percussion instruments in Damon's bedroom until Alaric wakes up yelling at them to shut up.

"Quick," Damon says. "Tell me what to do."

"Call Meredith," Elena answers, and it is quick. It is quick indeed. Damon snarks regardless.

"Does she have a lot of experience with resurrection?"

"More than any other doctor we know."

When did Elena Gilbert get smarter than Damon? Damn it. And also.

"She's married, if that makes a difference." Elena grips Damon's hand tighter. She still knows him too well. "They had a baby last year. He's nice. He's my vet." Before Damon can joke that Stefan has money and Elena should be able to afford a doctor, Elena qualifies: "Lexie's vet."

Oh, right, the cat.

"What do I even tell her?"

"She's well-used to the ridiculous. She can tell you if he's physically healthy."

"Do you think it's real?"

Damon blurts this before he can bite it back.

"It's Mystic Falls, Damon," Stefan says softly. "Anything's possible." Elena gives Damon's hand another quick squeeze.

Damon waits upstairs, wishing for the strength to at least hold Alaric's hand, but he doesn't have it because any minute this dream will be torn away from him. He sits close to the bed, though, and eventually there is a knock.

"Come in."

It's Elena. "Mer is here," she says, and pushes the door open.

Mer? Have they progressed to nicknames? Really?

Meredith looks half terrified and three quarters mystified and an extra third thrilled.

"He hasn't stirred?"

Damon is relieved she has decided to skip the small talk. "No," he says. "And he's different."

"He's also not different." Meredith noticed almost as quickly as Damon did. "He's the same age. Like he got pulled -"

"He doesn't have any scars." Damon pushes his chair away and rubs his eyes. Genuinely exhausted for the first time since the last time, which is to say, the night Alaric was suddenly a pile of greasy ash.

Meredith only nods.

"What's his blood type?"

This is good. He likes her manner. Brusque and professional.

"AB positive."

Meredith nods again, but she seems to know he doesn't need a transfusion or any such anyway. She draws blood, several vials. Tests heart rate, blood oxygen saturation.

"I could give him fluids. He's a little dehydrated. It would mean catheterizing him, though," and as she says this she gives Damon a little sideways look.

"He's been back two hours. Do you have to?"

"No. Not for a day or two." She takes a careful look at Damon. "I haven't seen you since…" The candles, the funeral Alaric saw.

Damon nods. "Congratulations. Married, baby, whatever."

Part of Damon can't forgive himself for, among other things, encouraging Alaric to pretend to cozy up to Meredith when they thought she might be a serial killer, nearly getting her killed, but whatever.

Meredith snorts. "Thanks." Unconsciously her hand reaches the spot where Fauxlaric stabbed her, where she should be wearing a scar, if not for Stefan's healing blood on her mouth that day.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it to sound like that."

Meredith nods. "I'll get the tests rushed overnight and I'll call as soon as they're done."

So efficient and cold. Damon likes it.

Then she touches Alaric's face and it isn't cold or efficient. "He's still so beautiful," she says. "Do you think he remembers?"

Fauxlaric, Evilaric.

"I hope not."

Meredith sinks onto the edge of the bed. Damon's teeth want to march right out of his head. "It never looked like him, you know," she says. "It never did. It knocked on my door that one night smiling and even smiling I knew it wasn't him. The posture, the face… the voice…"

Damon remembers and he doesn't want to remember.

"So I took a step back, and I didn't invite him in. Like if he could have, he would have. And he… it knew, and it was so angry."

Damon closes his eyes.

"I hope… he doesn't remember," Meredith says, and trails a finger over Alaric's hand. "You used me," she says, but there is no anger in it.

Damon winces. "I did. I…"

"It's okay." She stands. "I'll call in the morning. Your number…?"

It hasn't changed in five years. Damon heard about EVP, electronic voice phenomenon, and decided to keep that number forever in case Alaric tried to call. Ghosts on the line. He abandoned his policy of not answering the phone if he didn't recognize the number, and calmly told every telemarketer exactly what position he wanted them to fuck themselves in. He fervently wished compulsion worked over a phone line.

The phone doesn't ring much but Damon is cautious to keep it charged always.

"It's the same."

Meredith leaves.

Damon has had enough. He takes off his shoes and he climbs onto the bed. He wants to pose Alaric. Make it like it would be if none of this had happened. Arrange Alaric like they would sleep if they had just had a fantastic fuck lasting too many hours, which had eventually ended in Alaric pleading for mercy and reminding Damon that he was human and therefore eventually needed to sleep. Legs and arms tangled, Alaric with a mouthful of Damon's hair.

Instead he arranges them as if they had gone to sleep sleepy. Puts his head on Alaric's shoulder, pulling Alaric's arm across his waist.

The arm slips off because Alaric is unconscious and it makes Damon want to tear the house to the ground. But he just lies there, and hopes.

...

Damon dreams ridiculous wonderful dreams. It is the smell of Alaric that brings them. He dreams Alaric is helping to dig a trench in 1865 and it is a trench that hides only two people. He dreams his mouth on Alaric's cock, Alaric's mouth on his wrist, sipping and sucking and then rolling back against the pillows and taking every inch of Damon like they were made to fit that way. Which they were.

But Damon wakes when the sun breaks over the horizon, and Alaric is still asleep, all six feet of him.

Damon stays still a long time. Ideally, he would have had long moments trying to remember where he is, but no. He knows where he is and Alaric is limp beneath him.

Damon is damnably awake.

He lifts up onto his elbows and examines Alaric's face. No change.

Damon drapes himself further across Alaric's body, runs a brave but cautious hand over Alaric's ribs.

Damon doesn't know how much time has passed but the sunlight suggests he has had a good, healthy night's sleep. The light is bright. If Alaric was a monster he would have disintegrated, he would have caught alight. Alaric is still asleep.

Damon runs a cautious hand over the dips and planes of Alaric's face.

"I'm guessing god hates me and you're going to vanish any second," Damon says. "But if you could make the effort, wake up now…?"

There is a knock at the door. Damon climbs down from the bed and onto his feet before Elena opens the door. Her pretty face is cautious.

"He's still asleep," she says, and it's not a question. Damon nods. He ushers Elena out, pulls the door shut behind him. Stefan leans against the banister.

Because Elena is the type to hug and the previous night had been complicated by other matters she wraps her arms around Damon's body. "I missed you," she says. Damon hugs back, but not so tight.

"Did you miss Alaric?"

He shouldn't ask a question like this. It's not a fair question. But he is feeling bitchy, so whatever.

"If that's the real Alaric I miss him every day." Elena leans her head against Damon's chest.

Good answer. Elena pulls away.

"Can I sit with you?"

Damon wants to say no. He's only going to get half of this miracle, he's quite sure of that, and he's feeling less than inclined to share it.

Damon nods. Stefan excuses himself. Inside the room again Damon shifts another chair so he and Elena are both close to Alaric's sleeping form. Elena pulls her feet up beneath her. She smells faintly of citrus. Some hair product. When she shakes her hair out, the smell is stronger a moment and it makes Damon want to throw Elena out. The room should only smell like Alaric.

Elena doesn't straighten her hair any more and it falls around her face in soft, pretty curls. Still she doesn't look much like Katherine. She has an adult face. Katherine will always look like a little girl wearing too much makeup.

They say nothing for a long time. "This is lame," Elena says at last, "But have you tried kissing him?"

"Someone needs to talk to you about the difference between fairy tales and real life," Damon answers.

"Says the vampire over the newly resurrected body of his vampire-hunting ex-unkillable-vampire boyfriend?" Elena snorts, which is fair. Real life is relative.

His phone rings. A soft electronic chime. Meredith. "Hello?"

Meredith explains that Alaric appears healthy, but Damon knew he would. A couple of the blood tests will take longer. No, he hasn't woken up or moved. No, he didn't go up in flames when the sun came up. Yes, Damon will call, if Alaric doesn't wake up, if he does. Yes, she can administer fluids if he's not awake soon.

Damon pushes his chair closer to the bed and reaches out. He cups Alaric's face in one hand. Alaric is warm and his chin is a little stubbly. Damon traces the line of his chin, the roughness of freshly clipped soft facial hair (and if that makes any kind of sense Damon doesn't know what kind). The curve of his eye socket. The bow of his lip. Damon knows these lines so well.

Elena coughs softly. Damon has forgotten she is there. He wishes she would leave.

"You know he can't stay here, right?"

"Is this your house? Or mine? Of course he can stay." Damon pushes the chair back.

"Technically, it's my house. But that's not what I meant. Of course he can stay here, Damon, but he can't stay in Mystic Falls." Elena shakes her head. "There's not a person in Mystic Falls who wouldn't recognize him. He… There are people who would shoot him on sight and ask questions later."

She has a point.

"When he wakes up I think you should go to the lake house," Elena says, "Work things out from there. You know?"

She is right, of course, she's right. They need to be a long way from here. Liz Forbes was a friend and an ally until Alaric outed sweet Caroline as a vampire, and Caroline had to go underground to get safe, and then cross the country to stay safe, and Damon has seen her a couple of times – still a pretty, silly thing, and safe, but she misses Mystic Falls. Liz is no longer the Sheriff – but the deputies will remember Alaric as well, will remember the comrade Evilaric tore apart like paper.

Virginia. It's a state that is well armed. Evilaric had been shot several times by people who should have known better than to try. Alaric, resurrected and human, would draw that fire, now.

"I'll pack him a bag. Yeah?"

Damon nods, and Elena leaves.

Alaric's belongings, all but his furniture, are boxed up in one of the storage rooms under the boarding house. Damon can't bear to look at them or think about them so they are still there. The clothes should be fine. Elena can pack and as soon as Alaric wakes up they'll go.

Damon shuts the door and chocks it closed with a chair and when he is certain he can't be disturbed he does it, he tries. Puts his face close to Alaric's and presses his lips against Alaric's lips. Kisses him, like that.

Damon almost convinces himself Alaric kisses back, in the way he sometimes used to when he hadn't woken up yet but wasn't quite asleep. Back then. But Damon knows. It's not even an illusion, just a wish.

Christ, but this is pervy. Molesting Alaric while he is unconscious. Not that it's the first time. Hopefully won't be the last time. But molesting him when Damon doesn't think he will wake up is a little different. Those lips should move. Damon should feel the tip of Alaric's tongue in a second.

And actually no. Half a miracle is the worst most ridiculous fucking thing Damon has ever heard of. He sits back in the chair.

"Why send you back if you're just going to lie here?"

Suddenly spirited, Damon removes the chair blocking the door and bounds down the stairs.

Stefan and Elena are in the basement, selecting clothes. Lucky Elena is there. Stefan would have forgotten, as would Damon, that it's actually snowed a little in the last few days, that it is really, really cold out. Damon thrills a little to think of lighting a fire in the fireplace at the lake house, sitting on the couch. Talking and drinking until he has coaxed Alaric all the way back.

He realizes that although he can see the fire, and the couch, and Alaric, he doesn't really see or know exactly what Alaric will be like. Will he remember? Being an unkillable unbeatable monster? Will he think he died that night in the crypt surrounded by candles and people who loved him and with Damon at this side?

Will he remember before all that, even? Will he wake up with amnesia? What's my name? Will he be able to speak, for fuck's sake?

No, unthinkable because half a miracle is ridiculous. Stupid.

Elena is holding up a coat. Dark, earthy green. "I've never seen him in this," she says, doubtful, making Damon snort.

"You have. At least a thousand times. It just looks different without Alaric in it. Where's Bonnie?"

"London," Stefan and Elena say.

"What about her mom? Oh, right, vampire." Elena's glance is withering. "Do you have any witches?"

"We can call Elijah." Elena nods shakily. "He always has witches. Damon. Yet? Do you want to wait?"

Elijah. Damon should have thought of that. Elijah is good. Useful. Cooperative. Damon thinks.

Damon thinks because what he wants is for Alaric to wake up and soon but the thought of him waking surrounded by witches instead of just Damon and Damon's arms is quite awful. So, no. One more day.

"Tomorrow," he says, and ascends the stairs to resume the vigil. Realizes he never thanked Elena and Stefan for doing the packing but he figures they know.

The phone rings again as the sun begins to set.

"I could give him a shot of adrenaline." Meredith says it like it would be an interesting experiment.

Damon thinks. "Pulp Fiction. Mia snorted heroin. They gave her a shot to the heart. Was that adrenaline?"

Meredith doesn't hesitate. "Yes. Probably. Same effect."

Alaric waking with his heart hammering in his chest, waking screaming and hurting instead of just disoriented and afraid.

"No." Damon rubs his eyes. "Forget it." Meredith says nothing. "Not yet. Give him a day or two. Then you can rub his balls with poison ivy, if you think it'll work."

"If he's not awake by noon tomorrow I'm setting up a fluid IV, Damon. You can't let him dehydrate."

Damon hangs up.

"Hear that? Wake up or I'm going to have to let Meredith Fell stick a plastic tube in your dick. Fun."

At some point Stefan brings blood and Damon is grateful but he doesn't look up.

...

It's not a witch, or a needle, that wakes Alaric up.

In the end, Alaric only needs time. The sun is just starting to pink up the room when he stirs and stretches like it's any other morning, five years past and too many lives lost, Alaric's included. Damon hasn't slept. He's spoken little. He has barely moved.

His heart is beating like a drum.

"Hi," Alaric says. "Why are you over there?" Because obviously, he should be on the bed, with Alaric.

There is a glorious moment when the world is exactly as it should be, where Alaric only looks sleepy and safe and a little amused and then the horror rolls in like thunderclouds across those eyes, the memories flood in, and he starts to scream.

Alaric screams. It's the most terrible sound.

"What did you do? I was supposed to die! I can't be a vampire! I'll kill you all!" Alaric tries to get to his feet but he is too weak and Damon catches him and pushes him back onto the bed making nonsense soothing noises that don't work.

"You're not a vampire. You're not." Damon holds Alaric's shoulders down, but he doesn't have to do it hard. "You're human."

Alaric's eyes dart around, unfocussed. Terrified. He doesn't hear what Damon says. He tries to lift himself off the bed and although it is not how they were before Damon wraps his arms tight around Alaric's body and holds him still. "You're human," he insists.

Alaric slumps in Damon's arms. "The fuck happened?"

The door flies open – oh, fuck them both – and Alaric starts to scream again. "Katherine!"

"It's me, Alaric," Elena pleads. "Look at me. It's me."

Damon turns. "Get out," he commands, but Alaric has calmed.

"Elena? You look…"

Elena and Stefan leave, pulling the door shut.

"Why does she look like that?" Alaric gapes at the door but he has stopped screaming and struggling, which is good.

"She just hasn't straightened her hair. It's fine."

"She looks…" Alaric is pale, and leans almost unconsciously against Damon's body. "Old."

"She'll be thrilled to hear it." Damon can't help it, he tangles his fingers in Alaric's hair. Alaric sits up straighter and blinks.

"What happened?"

Where do you even start?

"Lots, Ric." Damon wants to kiss Alaric's mouth, wants to taste him again. There are tears pouring from the corners of Alaric's eyes. It is like that night, all over again.

"What happened?"

Yeah, so fuck it. Damon leans to kiss Alaric. Alaric tenses and pulls away. Stupid, stupid. Too soon. He is still scared, panicky. White all the way around his irises.

Pull the band-aid off. But no, don't. Fuck.

"It's been five years, Ric. You've been dead five years."

For a wonderful, long moment, Damon thinks Alaric is going to laugh. But apparently the adult wearing Elena's face is enough to convince Alaric that Damon is telling the truth. He takes a deep breath and in the unconscious way he sometimes does it, Alaric ghosts his hand over his side, over what should be the scars of a year of bites into his hip. Damon flinches. He's going to see, soon, that they are gone.

Alaric lies back again, exhausted. Damon doesn't know what to do. Keep sitting? Stand? Where will he put his hands? He wants to put his hands on Alaric, convince himself Alaric is real.

Damon can hear Alaric's heart beat and it is racing, racing, so Alaric is definitely real.

Alaric closes his eyes.

"'m not a vampire?"

"No."

Alaric rubs his temples. "What the fuck happened?"

"I don't know. You just… appeared, out of nowhere, the night before last."

Alaric shakes his head. "I don't think that's what I meant."

Of course it's not.

"A lot happened. I'll tell you all of it. I swear. But not yet. You need to eat. And we need to get out of here."

"Why?" Alaric bunches his hands into the bedcovers. Alaric feels at home, in the boarding house, on Damon's improbably large bed. He doesn't want to leave.

"I swear. I'll tell you. Just not right now. You've been dead five years, back… thirty-six hours or something and awake ten minutes. It can wait."

Holding Damon's pale eyes in his dark ones, Alaric nods at last.

Damon collects clothing from Stefan and Elena while Alaric showers. He is weak. His muscles look the same as they did but they are weak from underuse, apparently. Still he won't let Damon help him.

Damon hears the scream from all the way in the kitchen where Elena is cooking breakfast. (She is apologetic.

"We just thought, in case you needed us…"

Damon nods his head. And then there is the scream.) Damon rarely feels the need to use vampire speed in the house but he bursts into his own bedroom. Alaric is in the shower but Damon can't see him which can only mean, fuck, Alaric is on the ground. He is examining his leg when Damon comes around the corner. He looks young and vulnerable, naked and wet on the tiled floor. Limp penis curled like a snail between his legs.

Good to know he didn't come back a Ken doll. Damon has plans for that penis.

Alaric is pointing to a place on his shin.

"I had a scar here. Right here. I broke my leg. Compound fracture. Bone sticking out. I had a scar on my arm where a vampire bit me, back when I was learning to hunt. I had…" He touches his hand to his side. Damon turns the shower off. "Where are my scars, Damon?"

"Think you got a brand spanking new body," Damon says and he says it like it's nothing at all. "The old one is ash, so it's good, really." He hands Alaric a towel. "Still, scars are hot. We'll get you some new ones. 'kay? And your liver was probably in bad shape. Can't hurt to have a fresh one of those." Damon's voice sounds lighter than it should be able to.

"Ash," Alaric repeats. He still looks lost.

Damon steels himself. "Lena's cooking breakfast. Your clothes are on the bed. Need anything?"

Alaric gets to his feet slowly, wrapping the towel around his hips, ignoring Damon's offered arm.

"Damon. Tell me what happened. Please."

Fuck it. Damon reaches, pulls Alaric close, one hand on Alaric's hip, the other around his neck. He doesn't try to kiss Alaric again but their cheeks touch and Damon speaks directly to Alaric's neck. "It can wait. It can. Just trust me."

Alaric is very still, and then Damon feels him nod.

"We'll be in the kitchen," Damon says, and slips away.

...

"Are you going to tell him here? Or wait until you're at the lake house? Do you want me to pack up food? Or will you stop at a store?" Elena butters toast furiously. "You should take bourbon. Alaric likes bourbon." Yes. He does. "There are plenty of blankets and stuff. Don't forget it's cold, Damon. Alaric won't complain he's cold but keep the house warm anyway. Light the fire. Stefan chopped firewood a couple of weeks ago. There's plenty. Will you…"

Elena's run-on sentences, impressive at the best of times, get worse when she is stressed.

"How does he take his coffee? I can't even remember. I fixed Alaric coffee for over a year. I can't…"

"Black," Damon says. "No sugar. Same as me."

"He's sweet enough? I can't believe I just said that." She shakes her head, scooping eggs onto toast. Scrambled. "It's maple smoked bacon. Alaric likes maple smoked bacon."

"He does," Alaric says, from the door. Standing there, all six feet of him. He smiles, and it's a real smile, even if it is a little weak. "Hey, 'Lena," he says, and wonderfully, Elena pounds across the tiled floor to wrap her arms around him. No hesitation. Alaric looks surprised and grateful, pressing a kiss into Elena's temple. As she pulls away he threads a finger through her hair. "You don't look like her any more. I don't know why I thought. Just the curly hair, I guess."

Elena smiles and nods.

"You grew up."

"I did. Honestly I wasn't sure I'd survive my teens."

Alaric flinches.

"Did I hurt you?"

"You didn't hurt anyone, Ric." She smiles brightly as she says it but Alaric looks far from convinced.

Sitting up at the bench everyone eats, even Stefan and Damon, because it's weird not to. Alaric eats enough for two men, and looks better. He drinks coffee after coffee and looks better still and Elena squeezes oranges for juice because she needs something to do with her hands and Alaric looks even more better, though he continues to avoid eye contact for the most part.

Elena talks and talks. About finishing college and now she's doing graduate studies and no, she's still not sure what she wants to do but she's been writing this blog sort of thing about children's literature that gets a lot of hits so maybe journalism?

Alaric nods.

"Matt's gonna be a history teacher slash football coach. He starts at good ol' Robert E Lee in the Fall," she says.

Alaric smiles into his coffee. The quiet moments stretch into minutes.

"Where are we going?" he asks no one in particular but clearly it is Damon who is being addressed. Alaric has seen the suitcases by the front door.

"Lake house," Damon says. He wants to reach out and touch Alaric. He won't. Alaric is still too like a frightened animal. "Until we work out what to do."

Alaric nods.

It's the work of less than an hour to pack the car and leave Stefan and Elena waving on the porch. The sky is bright blue, the air is cold, and the drive is pleasant. Alaric takes his hood and sunglasses off once they pass Mystic Falls city limits, and stays silent, watching the world go by.

"It's been snowing. Not enough to settle on the ground." Please. Damon cringes at himself. Is he really talking about the weather? Apparently. "Very cold."

Alaric actually grins a little at this.

"I take it climate change is marching on, then. Nice to know."

"Yeah."

"Who's the President?"

Damon has to think. "Fuck. Sorry. Not sure."

Alaric laughs and it is not like his old laugh but the sound is fucking gorgeous nonetheless, the best thing Damon has heard in a really long time.

It's less than two hours to the lake house and pulling in to park the car, it occurs to Damon that Alaric hasn't been here before. He looks intrigued, impressed. Wraps a scarf around his neck and zips his jacket before getting out of the car. Damon pulls bags from the trunk and Alaric loops the handles of a large sports bag over his shoulder, lifts the box of groceries from the back seat.

"Pretty," he says. There is no wind, barely so much as a breeze, and the lake is like glass.

Inside, they drop the bags in the lounge and Damon shows Alaric around. Alaric seems to want space, keeps looking out the windows, the forest in one direction, the lake in the other. The nearest neighbor's home is well concealed by trees. Damon points out carefully and specifically that there is more than one bedroom but Alaric barely acknowledges it.

Damon only wants a clue, damn it all, as to whether he'll be sleeping alone tonight. Okay so maybe inappropriate since Alaric was five years dead two days ago but a man has needs and Damon needs Alaric.

Alaric lights the fire. He was the boy scout after all and clearly wants something to do with his hands. Damon loads groceries into the fridge, into the pantry. Puts five bottles of bourbon on the bench and the blood in the crisper so it won't go thick. Alaric sits on the couch, watching the fire.

"You okay?"

Stupid question.

"No," Alaric says, just that and nothing else. Damon warms blood in the microwave and makes coffee. He drinks the blood quickly, rinses his mouth and brings coffee to the couch.

Seeing the look on Alaric's face he brings a bottle of bourbon, and pours a good slug into the coffee. Alaric nods gratefully.

"Tell me," he says.

Damon takes a deep breath, and tells Alaric everything. It takes an hour. Alaric sits passively for the most part, taking it all in, but he asks questions sometimes.

"Bonnie's okay. She was okay?"

"I healed her. She's fine. She's in London at the moment."

Alaric pours a good slug of bourbon into his empty mug, drinks it quickly. Probably he wants to be so drunk he can't see.

"The Originals…"

Damon shakes his head. "We killed Klaus. Stefan and I. Well. We stopped his heart and dropped him in the ocean, anyway," Damon says. "No way to find him. I suppose technically, he's still alive."

"Rebekah?"

"Somewhere clichéd. Paris? She just got out, far as she could go. Now, Kol. Evilaric might have killed Kol."

"I killed Kol."

"Not you. And we don't know. No one has seen him since a few weeks before we… took Evilaric down." Alaric sits, dazed, staring at the fire. Fire always hypnotizes Alaric, a little. "He wasn't big on sharing. But I didn't hear about dozens of vampires dropping dead all over the country, so I really don't know."

"I don't even want to ask about Elijah."

"He's fine. Holed up in one of his estates. I've seen him, a few times." Damon fights a grin. "He knows how to treat a house guest."

Even Alaric has to smile at that.

"He helped. You know Elijah and his witches. It was one of his contacts that helped me and Bonnie with…"

"Evilaric." Alaric says the name slowly like he's wondering how it tastes. "Fuck."

"I don't think I can do this." As if waking up, Alaric starts to look around the room, slowly at first and then like he's searching. He stands. "I need a clock."

"It's just after three."

"No, I… so I'm not a vampire any more, Damon, so what? I was a serial killer before that. I tried to kill you. And not only you. I need a clock. I can't lose time."

He was like this, before, too. Started wearing a watch, but he never trusted it. He hung extra clocks. Checked a few times a minute to make sure he didn't miss anything.

"You won't. You won't, Ric. It's over."

"You don't know that. You want it to be true, that's all."

Alaric stalks out of the house and even Damon can feel the cool air that is sucked into the room as the door slams shut.

Well, fuck. And he does have a point, unfortunately.

Damon looks out the window and Alaric is standing on the end of the pier. Hoping Alaric won't jump off and drown himself in the icy water without a least a goodbye Damon goes to Elena's parents' room. There's a jewelry box in the closet. Damon, who had no respect for anyone's privacy, really, had explored the house far more thoroughly than Elena knew.

There's a watch in the box. A Mickey Mouse watch. Mickey's arms with their oversized, gloved hands point to the time. The watch is broken, the strap dangling uselessly from the bottom of the face. But once wound up, the face still works, so Damon pulls the broken strap off, sets the time to twelve after three and follows Alaric out to the pier.

"I don't think I can do this," Alaric says. His eyes are unfocussed. "Not after everything I did."

Damon hands him the watch face.

Alaric looks surprised and it hurts a little and Damon starts to wonder – what were they like, together, before Alaric nearly died? What would make Alaric doubt such a simple gesture?

Truth be told Damon can't remember too clearly, He's been too long consumed by the lack of it, has made something new of it in his head. Burnished by years of gentle buffing. Damon only knows he loved, and was loved.

There was a lot of sex, definitely, awesomely good sex, punctuated by vicious fighting. Damon couldn't resist baiting Stefan about stealing Elena away, even though he knew it made Alaric wince. They shared a bed at night as often as not, slept with limbs tangled, the honeyed, bourbon scent of Alaric's breath in Damon's nose.

The realest thing Damon had ever had.

Had he ever been clear? Ever told Alaric how he felt? That it was real? Had he done nothing but snark for a year?

"Thanks," Alaric says, and sticks Mickey Mouse in his pocket. His hands are tucked away out of sight but the rest of him is accessible so Damon puts his hand up on Alaric's shoulder and gives a quick squeeze.

Alaric steps away. "Don't," he says. "I don't even know how you can look at me, Damon."

"It wasn't you."

"See, you don't understand. It was." Alaric turns and his expression is wretched. Split open. "All those times I died, Esther was on the other side, cultivating the part of me that she eventually turned into vampire-me. Can you really not remember? I've killed vampires, Damon. You know that. I came to Mystic Falls to kill you." Alaric paces, though there's not far to pace. He gives the impression of a caged animal. Fuckety fuck. Damon is out of his depth. "It was me, Damon, it was," and then the Mickey Mouse watch face is in his hand. The time must be satisfactory because he tucks it away again.

Damon lets his breathing settle and just watches as Alaric paces. He can tell that Alaric is turning the watch face over in his pocket, that he wants to pull it out again. With Damon here he can't lose time though and anyway he won't lose time because he's fixed, hale and whole. Right? Just a little crazy, is all, and who can blame him?

"So that's your answer? The smallest, worst part of you is the real you? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. And Esther was a bitch. She used you, Ric."

Alaric shakes his head. "You really didn't do anything to bring me back?"

"I was getting drunk in the crypt and suddenly, there you were."

That stops Alaric in his tracks. "You were getting drunk? In the crypt?"

Huh. Magic words?

"Yeah. Drunk. In the crypt. I do that. Come back to Mystic Falls a couple of times a year and get drunk in the crypt. Remind myself of all the awesomely bad choices I made to get us to where we are now."

Alaric shakes his head. "Why?"

Maybe he's forgotten some things, then, but no, because he remembered about the scar.

"You do remember we were…" They were what?

Alaric nods and looks away quickly. "Of course I do. Do you remember? I stabbed you in the lung one night while you were sleeping in my bed."

Well there was that yes but there was other stuff too, awesome stuff.

"You don't remember that. It wasn't even you."

Alaric paces, maybe a little faster.

Damon searches for the words he needs. Every film he's even watched. None seem relevant but his own words also sound pale. Fuck it. "I missed you," is what he settles on, and it is less than one third of what he means.

Alaric shakes his head. Damon takes a step closer. "I did. I fucking missed you. I sit in the crypt and I drink and if I'm feeling particularly shitty I talk to a concrete box that holds what's left of your ashes." A few more steps. "I haven't killed anyone, not a single human, since you died, because I imagined your ghost floating around making bitch faces at me."

Alaric meets Damon's eyes then and they are sad, but direct; Alaric is present, listening.

Listening to what, Damon doesn't know. Maybe listening for something. Fuck. "We were on our way to something. Weren't we? Before you died? I lost you and I lost that, too."

"Damon…"

"Don't Damon me. Were we? Or were we not?"

"I don't think I can do this."

This is the third time Alaric has said this.

Damon wants to stamp his foot but he doesn't. "I've done much worse than even Evilaric did. And that was me. And I live with it. You didn't do anything."

Damon takes a cautious step forward and following an odd instinct he closes his hand around Alaric's arm, just a little above the wrist. He pulls the hand from the pocket, and yes, the watch face is in Alaric's hand. He drops it, closing his fingers against nothing.

"I'm your watch. If you change, I'll know. If you lose time. Just stay close."

Alaric shivers.

"I need a bit of space, Damon."

"Going to drown yourself?"

"No. Promise."

Damon nods sharply, and returns to the house.

Alaric stays on the pier for the rest of the afternoon. He sits with his knees pulled up underneath his chin, or with his legs dangling over the water.

Damon drinks and chops vegetables and watches. And he calls Elena and tells her he must be crazy because he has no fucking clue what he's doing.

"I don't fix people, Elena. It's not what I do. What am I supposed to do?"

"You've been there how many hours? Give him some time."

"How much?"

"As much as he needs. It might be weeks. Or months. Damon. It might be years. Can you handle that? Because if you can't, you should call Elijah. Elijah likes Alaric. He'll look after him."

Sure he will. No thanks.

So Damon paces and watches and chops the vegetables and slices beef into chunks he can cook for hours. When it gets dark it must get colder, too, because Alaric comes inside and stands in front of the fire.

"It's starting to snow," he says.

"Climate change," Damon agrees.

"You're cooking?"

"Curry. Hot. You haven't had a good curry in five years."

"Haven't had a bad one, either," Alaric says. Damon opens a bottle of white wine and pours Alaric a glass. Honestly, half-drunk might be the best way to spend the next few days. Alaric turns the glass by the stem, thoughtful. "You need help?"

"I'm fine. You warm enough?"

"Getting there." Alaric takes a sip, and then stays silent for several minutes. Damon fusses with chopping boars and cleans knives. "I wasn't on the Other Side, you know. What do you think that means?"

"It wasn't you. Told you." Damon sears the meat. It's a myth that this holds the juices in, but it gives a charred flavor Alaric likes. "Evilaric is, no doubt, on the Other Side. Probably playing an eternal game of cat and mouse with Klaus."

Alaric smiles at that and seems to consider. Maybe if Esther grew another whole person from one tiny part of Alaric's personality and sent it out to play, it's not in him any more. That's a cheering thought.

"What was it like?"

"I can't really remember," Alaric admits. "Soft. Sort of formless. It feels like Jenna was there, and John, too. If you can believe that." Alaric laughs. It has a rueful sound.

"Sounds nice."

"Like I said. I don't really remember."

It's almost the last thing they say, of consequence, for the night. Damon catches Alaric up on the goings-on in Mystic Falls, as far as he is aware of them, hints heavily that they should pick a state and relocate sooner rather than later and plies Alaric with enough alcohol to give his new liver a good breaking in.

It's barely ten when Alaric says he needs to sleep. Damon shows him to Elena's parents' room and Alaric only nods and smiles and says thank you, and goodnight, as he closes the door.

Damon runs a hand over his tired eyes and stretches out on the couch to read.

After midnight he opens the door to the room Alaric is sleeping in. Alaric is under the duvet and oddly hunched, twisted. One arm over his head.

Fuck.

He has found some electric cable ties and has secured his wrist to the bed head. The hand is cool, the circulation effectively cut off.

Tamping down the urge to yell Damon lets his teeth descend and settle into place, cuts through the plastic with a sharp fang. When his arm drops, Alaric wakes, disoriented.

"You don't need to be tied up, Ric," Damon says, settling his human features back over his face, even as his heart quickens. "I'll stay."

The light of the moon is strong, diffused through the heavy clouds, making the whole room a soft blue. Alaric looks doubtful for a long moment, and then he nods. "Thanks." He stretches the wrist out, wincing as the blood rushes back.

Damon strips to boxer briefs and climbs under the cover, ignoring, as he must, the treacherous twitch of his cock. Careful to leave a foot of empty space between them Damon settles in, putting a hand behind his head. The smell of Alaric is overwhelming in the small space.

Time has passed when Alaric turns over, facing Damon. "I don't think I can sleep any more," he confesses. "I feel like I slept for years. Or maybe it was minutes."

"Can you think of anything you'd rather do?" Damon purrs. "I have a list. I can go and get it."

Alaric shifts. "You can't really want to start this again. You can't want me back."

"Don't tell me what I can't want."

"I'm fucked up, man."

Damon wants to pull Alaric in and pull him close and closer than that, merge their cells. He doesn't. He shrugs. "And I'm not?"

They are silent a good deal longer. And then Alaric asks, "Why do you think I'm back?"

"Maybe it's my reward for not killing anyone in five years." And then Damon tells the real stories, visiting mediums all over the country, Rose's insistence that Alaric wasn't on the Other Side. The fake mediums, too, the shitty ones. The empty hookups in shitty motel rooms.

At some point, Alaric rolls over, stretches an arm over Damon's body. Leans his head on Damon's chest. Damon rubs circles into Alaric's back and shoulders.

"I'm fucked up," Alaric says again.

"I love you," Damon answers, before he knows he will say it. "I don't know how much that counts for. But I love you. Whatever you need, whatever you want to do, we're in it together."

It sounds ridiculous. Rehearsed. It is not rehearsed. It trips off Damon's tongue like it was just waiting for a chance to get free.

Alaric shakes his head. "We had a year together, and I've been gone for -"

"Hi. Damon Salvatore. Did you learn nothing from my hundred and forty-five year obsession with Katherine? And I didn't know her for a year. Just a few months."

Alaric is still for a long moment and then he nods, settling against Damon's body, nestling close.

"Seems only appropriate that you at least let me kiss you, after a heady declaration like that," Damon says. Alaric looks up with big dark eyes. He runs his tongue over his lips.

It's been so long since Damon kissed anyone and meant it that the sensation is alien, somehow; the mouths closing against each other, opening again, a little, the brief touch of tongues. Noses brushing together. Alaric's fine eyelashes catching moonlight. Impossible. Five years alone and then Alaric is back. Back in Damon's arms, back in his bed. The kissing is soft, and then it's not; Alaric pulls Damon closer like he's the cure for something terrible. The loneliness, Damon supposes.

Damon's never been the balm to someone's ache, before, he doesn't think.

Alaric is hard against Damon's leg, and though it seems risky, Damon reaches south, a long, hard stroke that makes Alaric moan and push against Damon's hand. Damon wants the stupid fabric out of the way, fumbles with the waistband of Alaric's boxers. Alaric shifts to let him and then tugs at Damon's underwear as well, and oh, it's too fucking good, too long alone and lonely and then looking down the barrel of weeks and months of frustration and here they are clinging together in the dark like nothing ever happened.

Alaric presses his mouth to the pulse point in Damon's neck and sucks, brings blood to the surface, a bruise which will fade too quickly as their hands find each other in the narrow space between their bodies. Gentle sex, each just rocking into the other's grip, just finding their way home for a good long moment. When Alaric breathes Damon's name Damon is transported back five years.

Yeah, he thinks, I can do this. Set up house somewhere and look after Alaric until Alaric doesn't even think about clocks any more.

Gasping into Damon's neck, Alaric comes, far too quickly, but it's been five years and who can judge when Damon follows short moments later, feels his balls swell and tighten, that sweet ache. Magnificent, sticky mess between their bodies. It's oddly alien, pulling Alaric closer, but it is what they both need, so whatever. Mess is just mess. Love and sex are equally messy, sometimes.

Love. Love. He'd said that. I love you, Alaric, etc.

He feels like saying it again. With Alaric tucked up against him, his head on Damon's chest. His arm looped over Damon's stomach. A mirror image of how they used to sleep. He does it. Says, "I love you. We'll manage. Whatever we have to do."

"You're different," Alaric says.

"Better, or worse?"

Alaric doesn't have to think too hard. "Better," he says. "You really prepared to stay in one place for a while? Lay low?"

"Long as it takes," Damon says, and he means it, means it with all that he is and twice what he has.

It's not what it was, though, a nagging voice insists. Damon doesn't care. They have time.

They settle into sleep.

...

It's been a week, eight days, and there is a cadence to their lives.

For months at a time Damon doesn't eat because he doesn't need to, really, only does it to fit in, or because he's bored or because food tastes good (what they put in the hotdogs in New York Damon isn't sure but it is crack of some kind, because nothing so artificial has any right tasting that good) but he eats with Alaric. There is an intimacy to a shared meal. Knees touching under the table. Pass the salt, and is that cilantro, and seriously, let's catch a fucking fish tomorrow. I haven't caught a fish since ye old boy scout days. Alaric looks less haunted.

It occurs to Damon that Alaric looks younger than he did and then he realizes: sun damage. All gone. Alaric is white. Like, white. And there's not even enough sun to do anything about it. Alaric's face is clear and unlined, when he is at rest, though his brow furrows when he realizes he hasn't checked the time in a while.

The watch thing is getting annoying. It's a compulsion. Alaric winds the tiny watch face every hour or so and checks the time every time he walks into a room with a clock, but if Damon squints, he can convince himself Alaric does it less than he did in the first couple of days.

The lake house has a couple of bookshelves, plenty of shitty mystery novels and some decent stuff, too. Alaric reads and grins and won't listen to Damon's insistence that Charles Bukowski or Mila Kundera are a solid choice over James Patterson or John Connolly.

There is a dynamic, hidden away from the wider world. Damon finds that if it occurs to him to touch Alaric he will do it, in a way he never would have, Before. Passing behind Alaric on the couch Damon leans and plants a kiss on the back of Alaric's neck and Alaric grins fondly. "Fucking girl, Salvatore," he says, which makes Damon pull him off the couch and onto the floor in front of the fire for a blow job, messy kisses, eternal adolescent make-out sessions. Come-splattered and entertained, they shower, after, usually together.

It is idyllic, and it is not.

There are the formless grey nightmares Alaric can't claw his way out of and can't remember. Damon has to hold him down and shake him until he wakes briefly, confused, and rolls over to sleep some more. There are the long silences Damon can't always pull him from. There is the guilt and the wanting to hear details Alaric Saltzman should never have to hear and Damon Is Not Good At This Shit and wants Alaric to be all the way better again right now. Nightmares, silences, guilt, and the small fact that Alaric is afraid of the rest of the world.

Alaric Saltzman, fearless vampire hunter, is afraid of the rest of the world. He is cautious and brief on the phone with Elena. He's not ready to speak to Jeremy, thanks. He watches the house next door and comments more often than he needs to that there is no one there. He speculates about who might own it.

Damon and Alaric are well rugged up and sitting on beach chairs at the end of the pier – Damon doesn't need the blanket but it seems strange not to participate – and they are catching snowflakes on their tongues, when a car pulls up to the feared house next door. Alaric watches the car stop behind the trees and walks back to the house. Too quickly and with a desperate air.

Damon follows him.

"It's fine," he says. "I'll prove it."

He calls Elena.

"The people next door have arrived. Any reason to be worried?"

Elena speaks quickly and carefully and Damon knows his smile is falser by the moment. Elena apologizes.

"They never go there in the winter," she swears. "I just didn't think." It is the family of the deputy Evilaric killed.

Before Damon even hangs up the phone Alaric is upstairs and packing.

"Where are we going?" he asks. Interesting. Damon was expecting him to ask Who are they or What should we do but, no, it's Where are we going?

Damon takes a deep breath. It's calming.

Alaric stills, and waits.

"I have no clue. Away."

And really, he Has. No. Clue. They are damnably low on allies.

Elijah.

Alaric strips the bed for laundry – meticulous and methodical in everything, he won't leave until the house is as it was – and Damon slips back to the kitchen.

"Damon," is what Elijah says, when he answers the phone. "It has been some time."

"Yeah. Uh."

Elijah is terribly patient, always is. It makes Damon want to punch him, sometimes.

"You remember Alaric?" What an unbelievably fucking ridiculous question after everything that has passed.

"Quite."

"He's back."

Damon can hear, hear Elijah still, on the other end of the line. "I see."

"It's Alaric. Just Alaric. Fresh body. No scars. Liver of a toddler, blah blah blah. No homicidal tendencies to speak of."

"You're certain?"

"I am. No idea why or how. Fuck, Elijah. I'll owe you forever. We need somewhere to go. Somewhere about a million fucking miles from Mystic Falls."

There is a silence. "I am rather closer than that. Still. Yes. Certainly. I'm in my Copper Harbor home. You remember how to get here, I trust?"

He can't be this calm. "Yeah. You. Uh. Got any witchy friends around?"

"Indeed."

"Because…"

Elijah sighs. "What did you do, Damon?"

The most vicious inquisition from Stefan, a barrage of accusations from Elena, the disappointed ravings of Damon's own father, none could ever make Damon feel so small and young and indignant as a question like that from Elijah.

"Nothing."

Elijah pauses. "When shall I expect you?"

"Minimum of three days driving, since Alaric has that adorable human addiction to sleep. We're probably fifteen hundred miles away."

"Perhaps you should arrange for him to fly to Madison. I can collect him from there, and you can join us when you get here."

Oh, smooth. "Can't fly. He's dead, Elijah. I'd like to keep him that way, officially."

There is a thoughtful silence. "When you're in the state, call back," Elijah says, and hangs up.

Damon turns, and Alaric is standing in the lounge, the hastily packed bags at his feet. "Elijah?"

Damon nods.

"What did I do to the people next door?" Alaric has the watch face in his hand and turns it over and over between his fingers.

Damon feels an overwhelming flash of irritation and for a mad moment he wants to attack. Punch Alaric. Tear at his throat. He does no such thing, simply balls his hands into fists kept carefully at his side. "Stop it."

Alaric looks at the watch in surprise and sticks it back in his pocket, looking nervous.

"I mean, the me stuff. It wasn't you. It was an asshole wearing your face, Ric. I'm clear on it. Stefan and Elena are clear on it. Why can't you get a fucking grip?"

He's being unfair and he knows it and he should stop but he Doesn't. Fucking. Care.

Alaric slumps. "I know." And that sucks because he should be arguing, fighting back.

Damon packs the car alone because it can be seen from the other house. Alaric is careful to ensure every window is latched and the fire is out. They've used half the firewood and have been way too caught up in each other to chop more. Damon can't bring himself to care.

Alaric calls Elena to ask if he can take some books. She assures him it's fine and it makes Damon want to break shit. How can Alaric think he might be harboring a vicious killer and still ask permission before stealing a book?

They are silent in the car. Alaric studies the map on Damon's phone.

"I know," he says, at last. It's been a good ninety minutes of gorgeous forest and bad moods. "Can you try and see my side of it? If I'd killed, I don't know, Elena. Stefan. Could you still look at me and make the distinction?"

Fucking ridiculous and entirely reasonable.

"Pick a town we can stay in."

Beckley, West Virginia, is full of buildings constructed from rough-hewn white rock, beautifully appointed streetlights, and flowerbeds. It could be Mystic Falls, except that Mystic wears its obsession with the Founders high on its sleeve, where Beckley is obsessed with its current status as technology boom-town.

Pretty, though. No doubt gorgeous in the Spring.

Damon quickly finds the nicest hotel and books a room. Not interested in getting followed up later he amuses himself by actually paying for it with a legitimate credit card.

"Nice," Alaric says, when they enter. He drops his bag. Should have a wallet, phone. Keys. Things to throw on the counter. The normal human ephemera. Damon fights the urge to rush out, find those things. Get a wallet and fill it with receipts and loyalty cards Alaric doesn't need. Buy him a key-ring and make copies of all of his own keys so Alaric can jiggle them in his pocket the way he used to. The fact Alaric needs him, though, that Alaric has no plan B and seems to be doing okay with that feels so much like trust that it gives Damon an odd, heady rush.

It's dark outside, quite dark. It occurs to Damon that Alaric needs to eat.

"There's a restaurant down the road," Damon says. "Come on."

It's as if he suggested Alaric take up puppy murder. His eyes go very wide and he shakes his head quickly. "I'm fine," he says. "I'm not really hungry."

His treacherous stomach has either ideas. It growls loudly as if on cue.

"Seriously, Damon, we're not even that far from Mystic Falls. I -"

"We're far enough," Damon insists, but Alaric's breathing goes strange and loud and he won't be talked around.

Damon orders pizza and doesn't press the point.

They sleep like spoons in a drawer but until Alaric is asleep, his heart never slows quite down. He wakes with nightmares, as he often does, but he calms to Damon's grip, as he always does.

...

The second day is a long one. Seven hundred miles. Close to twelve hours. They leave the hotel before six in the morning. Alaric drives first, and after the first hour a smile hooks his lips gently. Damon chooses road trip music, AC/DC, Smashing Pumpkins. Queen.

"I've never driven long-distance with someone else," Alaric says, and Damon smiles. Incredulous and amused.

"Seriously?"

It strikes Damon as odd, as it did five years ago, that there could be things about Alaric that he doesn't know. Alaric has been alive such a short time. Weird. Cool, though.

"I've done it by myself. It's boring." His right hand settles against his leg, and Damon can't help it, tangles their fingers together. Alaric gives a squeeze. "This is sort of fun." He turns and smiles and the smile is vintage Saltzman, lazy and relaxed.

Until they are pulled over by Highway Patrol and it occurs to them both for the first time that Alaric has no license.

It takes some nuanced compulsion but the patrolman eventually drives away quite convinced that everything is in order but can they make sure and fill those tires, soon, the back ones are low. After that Alaric cannot be convinced to drive any more and sits worried in the passenger seat.

This fucking sucks, is the long and short of it.

Alaric doesn't speak for hours and Damon only asks for directions from time to time. At some point Damon notices the snow is thick on the ground beside the highway, and that he can see Alaric's breath. He turns on the heater without comment.

"You know what's a good look for you?"

Alaric blinks slowly. "No."

"Pissed off. Wielding a stake. Trying to kill me. Fighting vampires." Damon sighs, slowing down a little; the air is swirling with a light snow. "Staring down werewolves."

Alaric says nothing but in his pocket, his hand moves minutely, turning the watch face over, and again, like that. A talisman. He grunts.

"Fell for you like that," Damon says. "With a crossbow in your hand. I wasn't sure if you were going to shoot me or that ugly motherfucker from the tomb. I'm glad you picked him."

"Please." Alaric shifts awkwardly in his seat. "You were in love with Elena."

Damon shakes his head. "I was in love with the idea of Elena."

Alaric studies Damon's face for a long moment, eyes curious, perhaps a little suspicious. "What are you trying to say?"

It takes Damon a while to articulate his point. "This fucking sucks."

"I'm sorry I don't know what I'm supposed to be like or how I'm supposed to act, Damon." This is actually an improvement. He sounds sort of pissed.

"Like you. Is that so complicated?"

"And who the fuck am I? History teacher? Vampire hunter who sort of tends to fuck a vampire a lot of the time? Am I a serial killer? Unkillable original vampire? Fuck you, Damon."

"What, you can't be more than one thing?"

"Right now I'm a fucking ghost. No driver's license. I'm dead. I don't exist, Damon. So fuck you if I'm not meeting your expectations."

Alaric slumps, and Damon feels like shit, but the Great Lakes loom, and just after the sun sets they arrive in St Ignace.

St Ignace is full of tourists, thanks to generous snowfalls and good weather, and only a generous tip (and some regrettable compulsion) secures Damon and Alaric a room.

They don't talk about the argument, but it's there in the background like an insect bite Damon wants to scratch, though he knows he should leave it alone.

As he does in any new room Alaric gravitates towards the window. The streetlights illuminate the snow rather beautifully. Alaric doesn't comment.

Fuckety fuck. Damon stands alongside Alaric, silent a long moment. Arms crossed over his chest.

"I could try to be less of a dick," he says.

Alaric grins. "Don't strain yourself."

"You know I won't."

...

"We're nearly a thousand miles from Mystic Falls," Damon says, when Alaric has had a long shower, let the hot water warm his bones. Damon doesn't want to have to spell it out but there is no pizza in their immediate future. He makes his grumpiest face and everything.

Alaric laughs softly and shakes his head. "Fine. Dinner. Your treat," he adds, and though Damon listens closely he can't hear an edge to it. Alaric's heart rate is steady. Perhaps distance was all he needed. That would be fucking awesome.

The restaurant is in a traditional ski lodge, roaring fire and all. Once they have eaten they find a lounge close to the fire and order mulled wine.

As a vampire everything is intensified. Every touch, every taste, but especially every smell. Frankly there are far more unpleasant than pleasant ones in the world and it is for that reason that for a hedonist like Damon, something that smells really good, really good and complex, is irresistible. The mulled wine contains cloves, nutmeg. Cinnamon. Red wine, obviously something fresh, and a tawny Port Damon is quite sure comes from Porto itself. He savors every sip.

Alaric is relaxed, and present, and wearing a soft expression. Half hypnotized by the fire. Damon takes his hand. Because he feels like it and he wants to and by the way fuck the fuckers who might look sideways at them.

Alaric is startled, a moment, but he smiles.

"Bold," he says quietly, gripping back.

"Fuck the fuckers," Damon says, just as quiet. "I told myself if I got to do this over again I'd be bold every day."

Alaric grins at that so Damon kisses him. Not showy, or over-long, just firm and possessive. Eyes find them but Damon doesn't care. The whole world is just snow outside and mulled wine in the glasses and on Alaric's lips, and the roaring fire, and besides, the eyes look mostly approving, as they should be, because Damon and Alaric are both hot as fuck. Fuck the rest of them. By some miracle Damon dragged Alaric back across the void – how, he's not sure – but he's not going to fuck it up now by letting him float away on guilt and nightmares and fear. He's going to hold him down and hold him still, tethered to the world. Where he belongs. In Damon's arms and Damon's bed, until he stops doubting he belongs here at all.

...

There is a short walk across snowy cobblestones back to the hotel and Alaric pulls his coat tight over his shivering body and asks Damon to remind him he needs to buy gloves. It is all so magnificently domestic.

In the room Damon turns the heat right up. It is true what Elena said, Alaric won't complain, but even Damon can feel the chill in the air here, and if he couldn't, the swirling eddies of snow in the street would have served as a reminder that it is cold.

Alaric's lips are at the back of Damon's neck. Damon rolls his shoulders. Sighs. "I can't even tell you how badly I want to fuck you," he says. "Like, actually fuck you."

He can feel Alaric smile against his skin. "You'll have to be gentle. I'm guessing I haven't done this before. Not in this body."

Oh, dear god, what an intriguing idea. Perfectly new body but with Alaric's musculature. Impossibly, magnificently tight and ripe and fuck, Damon has a boner just thinking about it. So best not to waste any time, although once their clothes are gone (terrible things, clothes, they get in the way of everything, although a well cut shirt is always nice) Damon is careful to spend a good long while rendering Alaric incoherent with his lips and tongue.

Every part of Alaric is both familiar, and shockingly new. His skin is perfect, undamaged. His hands, still big and warm, are softer than they were, un-calloused. Every inch of his flesh responds as if Damon is touching raw nerves instead. Hands, Jesus fuck. Hands everywhere, Damon's hands, Alaric's hands.

It wasn't like this at the lake house. There, they were finding their way back to each other. It was fun, but it lacked the intensity of what they had, more than five years ago and a million years ago.

This, on the other hand, this is like homecoming. Alaric's body responds they way it always has. The swipe of Damon's tongue over the hollow of Alaric's pelvic bone still produces that stuttering groan, still makes Alaric tangle his hands in Damon's hair. Everything is slow and formless and turned up to eleven.

Alaric's head rolls as Damon nuzzles into his neck, sucking at the pulse point, inhaling the rich smell of the blood that is just there, beneath the surface.

Damon feels his face change before he knows it will. Alaric's hand is on his jaw when it happens, and he knows right away, and immediately, their eyes find each other. The room is dark but a lamp lights everything soft and low, lovely.

It is just like, and nothing like, the very first time Damon bit Alaric. Pressed chest to chest, clutching at each other in the near-dark. Alaric runs a considering thumb over the capillaries beneath Damon's eyes, the tiny ridges, and just like that very first time a million (six and a half) years ago, he looks unafraid. Curious. He runs a thumb over Damon's jaw, over his lip.

"Do you… want to?"

"Is that a serious question?" Damon's gums ache with the thought of it. Blood fresh from the source is always preferable. Add the heady blend of sex hormones and it is ridiculously fucking good. Add love to the mix and it is better than New York hotdogs by about a thousand billion percent.

"It's okay," Alaric says. "Do it."

Like a schoolgirl Damon feels like double checking, qualifying, are you sure, stop me if it hurts, blah blah blah, but actually, no. He kisses Alaric's mouth one more time and shifts them both until he is looming over Alaric, running his tongue from Alaric's jaw, to his nipple, and to his hip, and then yes, he is biting perfectly over the place where Alaric's skin should already wear a tracery of fine white scars.

They have time. The scars will be back. Damon will bite Alaric five times a day. Well not that. But one day soon Alaric will have a fresh brand, proof he belongs to Damon and no one else.

Alaric winces at the pain and shudders a moment but it is a known, familiar pain, one Alaric always enjoyed, and seems to again now; his hips roll, in that way they do.

And fuck but Alaric tastes good. Damon sucks lazily at the shallow wound, laps at the blood that trickles across Alaric's skin.

"I fucking love you," Damon says.

Alaric smiles, and pulls Damon up for another kiss, deeper now, the taste of his own blood in Damon's mouth. Should be disgusting, for a human, but it never bothered Alaric then and it doesn't seem to bother him now.

Ever the optimist Damon procured a tube of his favorite lubricant more than four hundred miles ago and he spends a good long time preparing Alaric now and holy fuck, though relaxed and willing Alaric is Tight. As. Fuck. The first finger Damon breaches him with, the first finger shallowly inserted and massaging Alaric's prostate, makes Alaric shudder and wince and reach for Damon's shoulder, press against Damon's hand.

Fucking magnificent.

Damon adds a second finger, though it isn't easy, and shifts until he can take Alaric in his mouth. The long, heavy, perfect weight of all of Alaric against his tongue, between his lips. Too good. Damon is slow and enjoys every moment, scissoring his fingers, relishing the familiar stretch. Alaric clutches at Damon's shoulders and whispers, and grunts, and struggles between the twin urges to fuck Damon's mouth, and fuck himself back against Damon's hand.

Seems unfair to make Alaric choose. He's still new to the world.

Damon takes a long moment to lube up while Alaric resettles into their favorite position like he never spent five years being dead and gone from Damon's bed; half on his side, half on his stomach, so Damon can throw one arm over Alaric's shoulder, anchoring him in place, while the other hand slowly, achingly so, kneads Alaric to gorgeous climax. Damon whispers nonsense into Alaric's neck. Alaric's neck seems to understand.

Damon is slow, cautious, letting Alaric take him an inch at a time until they are perfectly anchored together, joined by Damon's slow rhythm, Alaric pressing back against his chest. Perfect, perfect. Alaric's head rolls back against Damon's shoulder, perfectly trusting. Perfectly hot and tight and pushing back hard against Damon's hips, their ferocity building up over long minutes. Damon's lips on Alaric's shoulder, on his neck. Home.

More than sex, then. An exchange of some sort. Damon will take away as much of Alaric's pain as Alaric is willing to give up.

They come together, a trick it took months to perfect, once upon a time, a skill easily recalled now they are so beautifully in sync again, and as Damon rests his mouth against Alaric's shoulder, he promises himself that no matter what happens next, he will not fuck it up.

They lie together a long time, but eventually, Damon has to withdraw. Alaric sucks a little air through his teeth. A little sore. For some reason this amuses Damon.

"Totally punched your V-card, Ric," Damon says, and Alaric laughs, turning in Damon's arms.

"You can add it to your collection."

They kiss another long moment, and then settle back into the pillows, holding each other's eyes.

Damon places an incautious hand against Alaric's cheek. "Are you going to be alright?"

It's a stupid question, but Damon wants an answer. Alaric averts his eyes a moment, but only a moment. "I don't know," is what he says, and it's the sort of thing that would usually irritate Damon – what he'd wanted to hear was 'sure! I'm fine now!' – but it's what he gets so it will do for now.

Warm and safe, sharing breath, and with Damon's leg slung over Alaric's hip, they sleep.

...

It's less than six hours to Copper Harbor so Damon and Alaric start the morning slow, order huge breakfasts with six different meats, strong coffee and fresh orange juice. In the gift store downstairs after they check out Damon buys Alaric a pair of gloves, leather so soft they feel like skin.

They are not far down the highway when the Straits of Mackinac loom bright blue ahead of them. "This is why we did seven hundred miles yesterday," Damon says. "Instead of skirting around Lake Michigan. Look."

The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspended bridge between anchorages in the western hemisphere. Five miles long. Before it opened in 1957 the only quick way across from Lower to Upper Michigan and back was by ferry, which is pretty too, but Damon likes this bridge. Gazing out the window at the straits, you could half convince yourself you were surrounded by sky from all angles. The snow that falls lightly is whipped between the cars and lends the whole thing a fairy-tale air. As if they are in a snow globe.

No. If they were in a snow globe there wouldn't be a fat kid in the car alongside them beaming at Damon like that with chocolate all over his face, picking his nose, sticking his tongue out. Damon flashes black eyes and dark veins, frightening the kid right into the middle of the back seat.

"Was that necessary?" Alaric asks, and Damon shrugs.

"No. Fun, though."

Alaric laughs and watches the endless stretch of blue and grey above and beyond the horizon, settling back against the head rest, lost in thought. It's over too soon, and Alaric turns with a strange smile on his face.

"We drove the long way around so you could show me this?"

Damon hesitates, thinking. Somehow it had sounded cool when he first thought of it.

A couple of years back Damon had visited Elijah in Copper Harbor.

Damon had been in Minneapolis, visiting a medium who had looked disappointingly businesslike with her neat blonde bob and black slack suit. Damon had sat across from her at a huge teak desk which looked like it might have suited an accountant a little better. He had been about to introduce himself when the woman raised a hand to silence him.

"Rose wants to know how long you will keep doing this," she said, her voice a surprising husky breath torturing a strong French accent. She says you waste your money. I don't mind if you waste your money. You wish to stay?"

Damon had taken a deep breath.

"Tell Rose to stop following me around," he'd said. "She is ruining my buzz." He'd dropped the woman's fee on the desk and then he'd driven to Elijah's Copper Harbor home, where it had been made clear some time back that Damon was welcome any time.

Well, anytime Elijah was in residence.

It was a memorable few days, though the similarity in height and build between Alaric and Elijah had made it almost painful. Matching dark eyes. Elijah held himself quite differently, though, was cautious where Alaric was reckless, controlled where Alaric was wanton.

It was spring, then, and the grounds of Elijah's home were glorious and there was no snow left anywhere but under the heaviest thicket. The sky seemed impossibly large.

That last morning, with the sheets tangled between them, Elijah had asked where Damon was going next. Damon shrugged. "Bar Harbor, maybe. I keep ending up there."

Elijah had looked amused, but then, he often did. He bit into Damon's shoulder, lapping at the wound.

"I know our sort doesn't cross water, if we do not have to," he had said, when the wound had closed again, the blood all cleared away with a thorough swipe of Elijah's tongue. "But since you're going that way, follow the coast east, if you like, and cross to St Ignace via the bridge. Extraordinary."

"You're giving me tourism advice?"

"You'll do as you wish," Elijah said, extracting himself from Damon's tangled limbs and the sweat-soaked bed sheet. Standing languid and unselfconscious and nude and indescribably lickable by the side of the bed, as if waiting to be posed and set in stone. "Still. It is worth seeing." With a gentle nod of his head he had crossed the bedroom to the luxurious ensuite bathroom to take a long shower.

Very hungry or tired, crossing water was unpleasant, but with his system flush with blood (and somehow, human food helped too) there would be nothing more than a faint mild nausea; and besides, Elijah was right about most things (he'd been right about half a dozen brand new things that week, which had been a pleasant surprise). So Damon had crossed the strait with the top down and only a little dizziness. The world was a brilliant blue, though it was doubtless cold, and at the midpoint of the bridge, with the odd sensation of flying, and with no thought to the hundreds of cars all around him, Damon had suddenly thought it:

I wish Alaric was here to see this.

And now, they have done it. Crossed the bridge. And Alaric is wearing the strangest expression, and Damon thinks suddenly that he's pitched it wrong. That Alaric doesn't get it.

"Don't you get sick crossing water like this?"

Damon shrugs. "It's not that bad."

"We took the long way around? So you could show me this."

Damon shifts in his seat. "Yes."

Alaric turns the watch face over in his pocket. He continues to gaze out the window, as the views are not yet stolen away. He is silent, a beat, three, five. "Damon?"

"Yeah?"

"I will be alright. It just might take a while."

Their eyes meet, briefly, and Alaric's smile is real, if cautious. Sort of perfect.

Cool. He gets it.

...

Elijah meets them standing out in the cold, on the wide stone porch, by the heavy front door. The grounds are meant to be seen all year round and they are currently under close to a foot of soft snow. The trees are bare, for the most part, ghosts. The driveway has been cleared for their arrival. The rose bushes that line the drive look nicer stripped bare by the ice than they do in the spring, in full bloom, Damon thinks. Sort of spooky and classic, like Elijah himself.

Elijah is serious and cautious, but pleased to see them. He embraces first Damon who simply tolerates the intrusion and then Alaric, who seems grateful.

"Welcome," he says. "Please come in."

The foyer is huge and well-appointed, rich tapestries on the walls. A Da Vinci sketch Damon is sure has never been recorded anywhere, of an angel sporting a very impressive erection. The angel has a wicked smile which brings Elijah's face to mind. Rumor has it Leo and Elijah had a Thing, but Damon's never wanted to ask. Too cool imagining it's true.

Elijah leads them up a curved stairway. Elijah's houses are cool. They all are, but this one is Damon's favorite and, he suspects, Elijah's too, as it has the largest library. It is also the most private. You have to know how to get here to find it. Rebekah doesn't know about this home and Elijah has indicated that if she ever shows up here, he will happily blame Damon and twice as happily stake him. Much as he treasures his sister, a hidden location has its appeal.

Damon's happy to keep quiet. Rebekah is pretty and has a mouth like a Hoover but there's only so much of her a person can take at one time.

Elijah pauses at the door of a bedroom in an impossibly long hallway and indicates they should take it. He holds Damon's eyes a moment, as if to ask if one room is enough, and Damon nods, eyes communicating just as clearly, yes, one room, and I'll talk to you later.

"I would like it if you would both join me for a meal," Elijah says. "Eight o'clock. I trust you remember how to find the dining room…?"

Damon nods.

Elijah turns on his heel and walks away, and Damon closes the door.

"So -" he says, but with no idea how to follow it up.

Elijah has had a fire set, long enough ago so the room is noticeably warm. The room is large, luxurious. The bed has four posters and a canopy. The entire manor has very high ceilings. Nice, if you like that sort of thing.

As he does in any room, Alaric drifts towards the window, taking in the grounds. "Nice," he says. From here they can see the way forest lies. From Elijah's room, they would see all the way to Lake Superior.

Damon elects not to share this tidbit.

"You and Elijah, huh?"

Alaric is smiling, so Damon smirks. "Yep. It was fun," he adds, careful his tone doesn't betray anything else.

Alaric shakes his head and gazes out the window another long moment.

Damon runs his fingers over the small of Alaric's back, and then up Alaric's spine, to his neck. Alaric tips his head.

"Is that a problem?"

Alaric chuckles. "No." He turns away from the window and sits on the bed, relaxing back onto it, stretching out. Damon joins him, after a moment. Lies close to Alaric, close enough so their arms brush. Damon fights the urge to make the twin points that Alaric was dead at the time and also, it was only sex, but Alaric is very smart. He knows.

"Do you have a plan?"

It is the first time Alaric has asked, but perhaps he's been thinking it a lot. The voice comes out slow and tired.

"Sort of. Not really."

Damon rolls until he is stretched out across Alaric's body, framing Alaric's face in his hands, and begins to kiss Alaric's neck, Alaric's eyes drift open and shut.

"We weren't like this, before," he says, as Damon's attention and lips shift to his jaw.

Damon's voice comes out low and graveled. "Does it bother you?" Truth be told Alaric doesn't seem bothered, not with Damon kissing him like this, grinding his hips down. Still he is silent a long moment, only whispers of breath and fragments of Damon's name escaping his mouth.

"I could get used to it," he promises, so Damon blows him hard on the big bed in the beautiful room before they join Elijah for a meal of soft shell crab and seafood bisque.

...

Elijah is courteous and the meal is excellent, though he apologizes for it, in a very Elijah-esque way. "I'm afraid I have a skeleton staff at present," he says. "I wasn't expecting guests. I rarely entertain at Copper Harbor."

Alaric smiles. "We appreciate it, Elijah. Thanks."

Damon hears the words beneath the words. They have been invited into Elijah's home. They should understand it is a compliment of the highest order.

Elijah can barely take his eyes off Alaric. Damon suppresses a growl. Elijah ignores it. "Do you know how this happened?"

Alaric shakes his head, sips at his wine. "When I woke up, the last thing I could remember was passing out in the crypt."

Elijah nods slowly.

"I remember more now. Bits from where I was. Nothing distinct."

"And do you feel quite yourself?"

The question seems to confound Alaric and Damon can't bear to see his face like that, so he turns back to his meal.

When he speaks, he says "I have no idea how I feel."

"If you consent, there are a couple of witches I would like to examine you." Alaric nods. Good old Elijah. He always has witches. He's respectful, kind to them. It is part of how he has managed to stay safe for hundreds of years. Mutual protection. Elijah is intensely moral, will not stand for the death of one of the guardians of nature while he can raise a hand to prevent it. He won't stand for any unnecessary death when he can prevent it.

He only helped to kill Alaric because there was so much at stake.

"And if he doesn't consent?" Damon frowns.

"Don't be a dick, Damon. If anyone can work this out, I want them to. It's fine, Elijah. I appreciate it." He glares at Damon.

"It will take them a couple of days to get here," Elijah says. "In the meantime, please, enjoy the manor. Enjoy the grounds. Chef will prepare anything you like, though I would be very honored if you would take your evening meals with me. Your choice, of course."

"Sounds nice," Alaric says. "Elijah. Why are you doing this?" Damon raises a hand to quiet him, but Alaric keeps speaking. "Didn't I try to kill you?"

Elijah nods, amused. "Yes. I can assure you I was quite safe, though I am touched by your concern. It was part of the plan for Bonnie and Damon to... Take you down, you might say."

"Do I want to hear the details?"

"Perhaps not." Elijah lays his cutlery on his plate and sits up straighter, regarding Alaric curiously.

"I killed your mother. Not Evilaric. Me."

Damon wants to kick him.

"Evilaric. I had forgotten they called him that." Elijah chuckles. It means something, that Elijah can be amused, at such grizzly talk. "You did. But since her most fervent wish was to see me dead, along with my siblings, I can only thank you. Alaric." Elijah temples his fingers. "Perhaps you can start forgiving yourself for things you had no control over. My brother wore your skin, for a time. My mother abused you terribly. Perhaps I should be asking your forgiveness, on behalf of my family."

Alaric shakes his head. Elijah's voice stays gentle.

"At least, you can enjoy my hospitality. Please."

Alaric nods.

Elijah is cautious to steer the conversation away from difficult topics, after that. He doesn't ask awkward questions. He barely takes his eyes off Alaric, but Alaric doesn't seem to notice. Elijah enquires after Elena and Stefan, Mystic Falls, even Bonnie. He asks about Damon and Alaric's travels. Alaric mentions the Mackinac bridge and Damon's heart gives an odd stutter.

When Damon presses his leg against Alaric's under the table, Alaric presses back, with a small smile. Good enough.

They retire to the library. Usually Elijah would entertain guests in one of the parlors, but perhaps he knows Alaric feels more at home in a room where he can smell books. Alaric stands with a glass of bourbon in his hand, quite relaxed, reading the spines he can read. He can't read many. He touches the gold gilt.

Elijah doesn't mind.

Around midnight, Elijah politely takes his leave, and Damon and Alaric are left on the big couch in the library.

"I thought you wanted me to talk to the witches," Alaric says.

"I do." Damon stretches out on the couch. "I'm just feeling ornery."

"Ornery."

"Yep."

Alaric thinks and drinks and watches the fire burn down to embers. "I haven't traveled much. I don't know where I should go."

"Where we should go."

"You know what I mean. The places I know, I can't go back to them."

And it doesn't fit and it fits perfectly so Damon leans into Alaric, his back against Alaric's chest. "Just so we're perfectly clear – I'm in love with you. We're in this together. We'll work it out," is what he promises, and after a long moment Alaric relaxes.

...

After a long, hot shower the following day Alaric excuses himself to take a walk around he grounds. Damon, hungry, raids the blood fridge in the kitchen and then finds Elijah in the sitting room. Elijah is standing by the picture window.

"Appreciate what you're doing, Elijah," Damon says, feeling bold. Elijah turns. "But I'm not sharing."

"Your over-protective, Alpha male posturing is acknowledged. And quite unnecessary. Though, frankly, it's a good look for you." Elijah smiles, amused, and turns back to the window. "He… seems remarkably well."

Alaric has paused to kick at some snow by the tree line, but he soon disappears into the ghostly woods.

"He's not."

Elijah indicates the couch. Damon sits. Elijah folds himself into an armchair opposite.

"He feels guilty as fuck about everything. He's scared of the outside world. He wakes-"

"Screaming, from nightmares. I noticed last night. Does he remember them?"

"He doesn't even remember waking up." Damon rubs his eyes. Not tired. Frustrated. "I suck at this," Damon admits, and thinks for a moment it is nice to ask advice from someone who isn't Elena or Stefan from time to time. Not that he is asking, per se. More hoping Elijah will get the hint. "Beyond the telling of it. I've never done this before. It's not exactly my style. Broken humans are just less interesting snacks."

Elijah isn't fooled. His lip curls north.

Damon averts his eyes.

"Tell me the story, please." Elijah sits neatly, legs crossed at the knee.

After a moment's hesitation Damon sets it out, as much as it can be told. Elijah nods. "Alive, the same age, with a brand new body," Elijah repeats. His expression is a little wistful. "I've never seen such a thing before. Though I've heard rumors," he adds, eyebrows cocked.

"Ric had a point at dinner last night. You're helping. Why?"

"You asked me to. We are friends, are we not?"

Damon nods. "But you're awesome and a million years old. I'm guessing you have plenty to do. So I'm asking you again. Why did you agree to help?"

Elijah shrugs. "In a thousand years, I've never found myself less occupied," he admits. "With Klaus effectively immobilized and the rest of my family more or less accounted for... I find myself bored."

It's like hearing mountains get bored from time to time and wish, suddenly, that they could be oceans.

"And frankly, I find Alaric intriguing. And it is also true that he has suffered terribly at the hands of my family. Perhaps I wish to do what I can to remedy that." Elijah regards Damon somewhat warmly. Perhaps it warmth. "It appears that the... dynamic of your relationship has changed, somewhat," Elijah says.

"So he keeps telling me."

"You appear solicitous. Affectionate."

"Starting to think I've been sort of a dick."

"Perhaps." Elijah stands again, slowly. He gazes out the window with something like longing in his eyes. "I envy you, Damon," he says. "I do. I've been alone a very long time." He blinks slowly. "I have things to do. I have people coming tomorrow evening. They will want to spend some time with Alaric the following day."

After a nod, Elijah leaves.

Damon thinks hard for a good long time.

For fifty years Damon did nothing but pursue a way to retrieve his lady love from the tomb beneath the church in Mystic Falls. The next ninety five he mixed up with mayhem and murder and things Alaric might not be able to forgive him for, if he really knew and understood it all.

And then Damon learned Katherine was just a manipulative little slut who favored Stefan anyway. But there was Elena, and the idea of her had been sustaining, for a while. She'd forced him to feel again and he'd always owe her for that. Owe her flowers, or a broken tooth. Maybe both.

In the midst of all that was Alaric. Damaged and lonely in a way few understood but Damon. Lover of a faithless woman, wielding a stake, full of piss and vinegar. How they'd ended up in bed together the first time was anyone's guess, written in blood and dust and the imperfect biology of memory. How it happened a second time a deeper mystery still. How they had begun to seek each other out, begun to be more than a quick fuck on a cold night, neither could have explained then and probably couldn't now.

Perhaps Damon hadn't even realized he was in love before Alaric had disappeared from his life.

Damon hadn't expected to find Alaric. And when he'd lost him, he'd never expected to get him back. Freewheeling across the country and further he'd only hoped for a glimpse.

"Fuck me," Damon says.

"Sure," comes Alaric's voice, amused in the doorway. Damon jumps. Rare for him to be caught out like that. "What are you doing?"

"Contemplating my own flaws."

"Could take a while."

Damon smirks. "I've been at it ages," he says. Alaric settles on the couch beside him. Their arms close enough to touch. "Good walk?"

Alaric nods. "Bracing," he says. "'m freezing. Gonna go have another shower."

Damon nods, and Alaric climbs to his feet, ambling across the room. After a lazy smile over his shoulder he is gone.

...

Damon stalks irritably around the manor while Alaric is poked and prodded by witches. He finds Elijah in the library, looking amused.

"Do cease stomping about. You're giving me a headache."

"Vampires don't get headaches," Damon scowls, crossing his arms.

"Nevertheless. You are giving me a headache."

A witch enters the room. She is tall, as tall as Damon. Slim as a boy, with café latte skin and long hair as thick and dark and curly as Elena's. Some distant relative of the Bennetts', Damon suspects. She has Sheila's superior expression and Bonnie's arrogance. She drips with such power it makes Damon's teeth ache.

"Tabitha Miles," Elijah says. "Damon Salvatore."

The witch pointed ignores Damon's offered hand. "You want to wait for dead-boy?" she asks Elijah. "Or should I start?"

Damon frowns. "We're waiting for Alaric. And don't call him dead-boy."

"I wasn't talking to you," Tabitha growls.

Elijah rubs at his temples. "Hush, children," he says. "We'll wait."

A few minutes later, Alaric arrives, looking tired. Bags under his eyes you could pack up for a trip to Europe. Optimistic, though. He crosses his arms. Uncrosses them again, hands held to his sides like he doesn't know what to do with them.

"That was quick," Tabitha says. "Thought you'd be out a while."

"Out? Did you roofie him or something?"

"I asked Elijah to make me sleep." Alaric's voice is quiet. Alaric hates compulsion. He must have been terrified, to ask Elijah to do something like that. Alaric edges towards Damon, eyes fixed on him.

Tabitha twists a tendril of hair around her finger. "Want the good news, or the bad news?"

Alaric crosses his arms. Determined, like. "Good news," he says.

"There's nothing metaphysically wrong with you." Tabitha's eyes are kinder on Alaric. "No spell brought you back. In fact there's no trace of any kind of magic on you anywhere. You've never been affected by any kind of magic."

Alaric shakes his head. "No, I -"

Tabitha raises a hand. "In this body. Sorry. Never saw your old one." Tabitha shrugs. "We tried everything I can think of. Whatever brought you back, it wasn't one of us. Wasn't magic of any kind. Never heard of anything like this. But whatever. It's a big, weird world."

Which is totally awesome, Damon thinks, because it means this is fine, safe. He just has to find somewhere for them to live. "So what's the bad news?"

Tabitha raises her eyebrows at Alaric, who turns his head. "Well, isn't it obvious? Dude's kinda fucked up." She sits down, crosses her legs at the knee. "His psychic energy is all over the fucking place. His aura's, like, red. Never seen that before, but whatever. I'm a research psychologist, when I'm not brewing mugwort tea and mixing love potions. Acute stress reaction. Prelude to post-traumatic stress disorder, if he's not doing better in a few weeks. Hyper-vigilance, nightmares. Who can blame him?"

"I didn't think psychologists diagnosed people fucked-up." Damon reaches for Alaric, presses his hand to the small of his back. Alaric doesn't pull away.

"There's a reason they don't let me near patients." She tucks her hair behind her ears. "If he'd been in a car accident, I'd say give it three more weeks and if he's not improving, send him to therapy."

Alaric rolls his eyes and pours a drink. There's more booze here than in the boarding house, Damon thinks. Alaric looks irritated. "I don't need fucking therapy," he growls.

"I concur. Which is lucky, really, since therapy relies on you being honest with your therapist and frankly, if you were honest with almost any therapist you'd get locked up faster than you could say 'vampire boyfriend'."

Damon wants to eat her but Elijah would disapprove.

Elijah stills Damon with a look. "Tabitha. Some tact would not go astray."

"You didn't call me to write an advice column, Elijah," she says, and then sighs. She turns to Damon, conciliatory. "Chill, dude," she says.

"Witch's blood tastes even better than human," Damon growls.

Tabitha actually laughs at this. "I'd like to see you try, fang."

She climbs off the couch, and takes a few steps, until she is standing in front of Alaric.

"Go somewhere nothing's gonna try to kill you, or wear you, or turn you into a monster. Sleep as much as you need to. Don't drink yourself to death. Talk, if you want to." At this, she casts a doubtful glance at Damon. "If you're not doing better in a couple months call Elijah. I know someone who could treat you. She's expensive but I'm sure you'll manage."

Not that Alaric will ever need fucking therapy but if he does, Damon will pay to have Freud and Jung brought back from the dead to fix him, if that's what it takes.

"Another thing." Tabitha draws herself up to full height. "You need to know this sort of thing comes with a price, you know? No guarantee Alaric is quite normal. He might, I don't know, age super-fast, or just, I'm sorry, there might be a use-by date. He might just die, no warning. I don't know. Sorry I that sounds harsh or whatever. I'll keep asking around, find out if anyone's seen this before. So frankly, if I were you, Ric? I'd seize life by both testicles and squeeze hard."

Damon and Alaric make their eyes meet in the middle, the way eyes do, and Alaric smiles, a touch.

"Now," Tabitha says. "Elijah. House full of hungry witches. We having a party or not?"

Elijah nods. "Indeed. You all have your rooms. Freshen up. Dinner will be served at eight."

...

They have time so Damon and Alaric neatly remove each others' clothes and Alaric pushes Damon into the mattress, kissing him everywhere he can reach.

"I liked her better when she was just being a witch," Alaric admits, as he pushes two fingers unexpectedly into Damon, making him groan. When Alaric had managed to lube up, Damon isn't sure. "Maybe I just need this," he says. "Every day." He bites, not gently, into Damon's shoulder.

"This, I can do," Damon says, angling himself to take Alaric's thrusts, more and more perfect, Ferocious, until they are both breathing hard, and they come together, because they like it best that way.

Because they have time they lie together a long time, and talk a little.

"Where do you want to live?" Alaric settles his face on Damon's chest, splays a big hand over Damon's ribs.

"I don't care," Damon says. "Somewhere with no vampire population. Somewhere we can lie low." One hand behind his head, the other on Alaric's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Somewhere I can hold your hand when we're walking down the street." He surprises himself, saying this.

Alaric laughs. "You're not a hand-holder," he says.

"Didn't say I wanted to hold hands. Just, it would be cool to live somewhere we could."

...

Two days after the witches, Damon and Alaric enjoy a quiet meal with Elijah. Afterwards, in the library, Elijah produces a slim leather satchel. From it, he pulls documents. Alaric frowns.

"A passport," Elijah says. "Driving license. Other forms of identification. More than enough to stand up to anything but the most intense scrutiny."

"It's in my own name, Elijah -"

"Your own name, with a new birth date, to suit your apparent age. It will be fine." Elijah settles back into his chair, pours a glass of cognac. "I have had all the police databases thoroughly searched. You are not wanted for any crime in any state. No one in Mystic Falls wishes to alert any Federal agency to the goings-on there. I wouldn't run the risk of spending time in Virginia, though."

"How did -" Alaric looks up, at last. No point in asking Elijah how he does anything. He's just Elijah. He's cool. He can do anything. "Thanks," is what Alaric settles on.

Elijah nods. "And where will you go?"

"Figured we'd just drive," Damon says. "Somewhere will appeal."

"I would recommend you avoid any employment that requires you to pay taxes," Elijah says. "To be on the safe side. It might raise a red flag."

Doesn't matter. Alaric will never have to work again.

Elijah clears his throat. "I hope you'll keep in touch. I hope you will visit." A profound sentence, coming from Elijah's mouth, and Alaric smiles. Nods.

...

It's snowing lightly the next morning when Damon and Alaric pack the car to leave. They plan to drive no more than three hundred miles a day, take it easy. Stop for a few days in any town that appeals. No rush.

Elijah stands in a perfect imitation of his posture a week before. Hands slung low in his pockets. Hair set perfectly. After a fond embrace, Alaric considers a moment.

He leans forward and kisses Elijah. The earth doesn't move. It is just warm lips pressed together. Still Elijah looks surprised and Damon can't help but wonder how long it has been since a human actually managed to surprise him. "Maybe you'll come and visit us some time. Thanks again, Elijah," he says, heading down the steps and crunching the snow beneath before climbing into the driver's seat.

A pair of terrifying monsters regard each other, searching for something to say, and in the end it is Damon who speaks. "Sounds like fun," he says, "but don't hold your breath. Thanks, Elijah, you're a mensch," he says, and smirks.

"Good luck," Elijah answers, smiling. Amused. Very Elijah.

...

It takes less than six weeks.

Buffalo is grey with dirty, melting snow when they stop for a weekend to see what they can see and by some miracle they manage to land in Allentown, which seems initially sort of hip and turns out to be something considerably cooler than that. After a lazy afternoon drinking coffee and pretending they'll visit a gallery Damon and Alaric find a good steak restaurant for dinner.

It feels a little like old times. They are hilarious, genius, wrapped up in each other, laughing at jokes that wouldn't be funny if anyone else told them. Suddenly, Alaric stills.

A gorgeous young couple, not thirty, are waiting to be seated. Touching each other, fingers on hips and brushing over elbows. Faces close, totally unselfconscious. Laughing. Both hot as fuck, Damon can't help but notice, ripped and lean. He casts an eye around the restaurant. No one bats an eyelid. When they are seated, their legs tangle under the table.

The sight of them together makes Damon want to drag Alaric back to the hotel for hours of naked fun. He supposes he should let Alaric eat, first.

"Fag heaven," Damon says. "I think I like it here."

They buy a house, a beautiful old Victorian on Park Street (close to the best restaurants and staggering distance from the most fantastic Tequila bar Damon has been to outside of Mexico) a few weeks later, offering over the asking price so they can close quickly. They send for their belongings and for the first time in a hundred and fifty years, Damon sets up house.

Ridiculous, fucking glorious.

...

They are just Damon and Alaric, and no one bats an eyelid, not ever. They make friends. Alaric watches football with the couple next door. Damon makes very good friends with a vampire who runs the local blood bank. She is a compelling public speaker, pleading with the public often to do their bit and the local hospitals are very well stocked, with plenty left over.

Alaric stops waking with nightmares. They slow, over time, and then just stop altogether. Fuck you, therapists! Sex, loads of sex, and love, and good neighbors and Damon is what Alaric needs. Damon needs Alaric and plenty of blood, and the occasional jaunt to the state forest to kill something big, when Damon's instincts threaten to overwhelm him. He's brought home venison more than once. There is a chest freezer in the basement for this very purpose.

Stefan and Elena visit in the spring, and they bring Jeremy. Alaric has spoken to Jeremy on the phone but this is the first time they've been face to face. Alaric looks fearful, for a moment, but Jeremy laughs and hugs him tight and slaps him on the back. It's a nice week and everyone is sorry when it has to end. Damon and Alaric stand on the porch to watch the taxi pull away, Damon with his chin on Alaric's shoulder.

Damon and Alaric's home is Mecca. They all come eventually.

Slowly, over a couple of years, all the old connections are re-forged. Even Caroline and Bonnie visit. Two of the people Evilaric hurt most but they come. Caroline presses her face to Alaric's chest and promises there's nothing to forgive.

...

Alaric is shaving one morning, fresh out of the shower, with a towel knotted around his hips, when Damon slips into the bathroom to watch.

"Pervert," Alaric says, as he shaves the first strip of foam away.

"Was your father bald?"

"No," Alaric says.

"Grey?"

Alaric nods, and keeps shaving and frankly yes maybe Damon is a pervert somewhat because that shit is hot and it makes him want to bend Alaric over the side of the bathtub and fuck him until he can't see. "Started in his thirties."

Damon nods slowly.

He has a photograph in his hand. It should have been a nice photo. They'd been smiling for a camera at a fucking birthday party or some shit when suddenly Damon had started feeling like an idiot and turned and stuck his tongue in Alaric's ear. So instead Alaric wears a grimace and Damon's eyes sparkle darkly.

It is Damon's favorite photograph of the two of them. He'd declared at the time that he was going to put it on a fucking Christmas card, but Alaric hadn't been worried. Damon didn't really do Christmas cards.

He presses it up against the mirror and into the frame. It stays put. Alaric grins, one side of his face twisted wryly. "What?"

"When was that taken?"

Alaric is about to answer when his eyes narrow and he understands. His gaze flicks from the mirror to his own reflection. His smile disappears.

"Was that – five years ago?"

"Eight."

Alaric takes the photo down, holds it between thumb and forefinger. "I mean, I get exercise, you know. I eat okay. I -"

"Drink five bottle of bourbon a week." Damon leans against the towel rack. Alaric's eyes continue to flicker between the photograph and his own reflection.

He hands the photo back to Damon and wipes his face clean. Leans over the sink. "She said there would be a price," Alaric says.

Damon leans against Alaric's back, props his chin on Alaric's shoulder. Their eyes meet in the mirror. "If this is what I think it is? That's not a price. It's a gift with purchase."

There is a long silence where Alaric's mouth curls up, one side, then the other. "You've been watching Buffy again."

"Fuck you," Damon says, amiably.

"Sure," Alaric laughs, nodding. "I don't say it enough. But I fucking love you. Couldn't have imagined a life like this." He doesn't drop Damon's gaze.

They don't make it to the bedroom because such declarations need to be consummated where they occur.

It really comes home when a couple of years later, Elena and Stefan come for Christmas and it is impossible to say who looks older, out of Elena and Alaric. Stefan doesn't comment but Elena looks heartbroken.

...

It's all tongues and blood and flesh and holding hands in the street in a world where now, they could get married, in any state they chose, but don't particularly want to. It's the possibility of forever. It's Alaric running the annual Buffalo film festival and Damon reading Elena's third novel out loud while Alaric keeps the bourbon flowing. It's messy makeouts in front of the fireplace in a home where Damon designed the goddamn fucking kitchen, of all things, everything denied so long and maybe now exactly as it should be, forever; and whatever fuckery they had to survive to get them to this, they're here now, and it's perfect.