A/N: When I sat out to start this I never thought this would turn into what I have officially named "The Alaric Saltzman Appreciation Story". It has always bugged me how little Alaric reacted to whatever happened to him in the show and I wanted to change that and get into his head to find out. I did that and also added a little something to his character/the story line. The story mainly follows the canon happenings until that one point until it turns AU. Completely AU.

This story wouldn't have been possible AT ALL without the help of one person: pleasebekidding, my Starbuck. She held my hand, she plotted with me, she listened to hours of me crying my eyes out about recent episodes. She also made the art for this and I wouldn't have wanted anyone else to do it since she knows this story almost better than me and it shows. And I LOVE her for that and will be forever grateful that she's been at my side for this. I love you, hun. You have no idea HOW MUCH. Thank you so much for EVERYTHING. Paella!

In memory of Alaric Saltzman, badass history teacher and 2nd best hunter of the supernatural.

Does this place look different in the sunlight?

Alaric never comes here during the day, so he doesn't know. He never sees more than dark shadows where there should be scars burnt into the ground. In the dark of the night the trees surrounding the clearing look like silent sentries guarding a place of unspeakable horrors. They probably look different with sunlight streaming through their tops, no longer a dark, solid shape but hundreds of small leaves rustling slightly in the wind. Maybe there are animals here during the day. Squirrels in the trees and rabbits on the ground. All kinds of birds singing merrily in the sunshine.

The smell won't be different, though.

Whether he comes here by day or night, it will always smell the same. He will always detect a hint of burnt earth on the wind. A trace of blood that still lingers around the big stone near the foot of the hill. Maybe it's there, maybe it's real. Maybe it isn't. Maybe he smells it because he thinks it should be there, because it's one of the few things he still remembers clearly about that night.

He's found a log on top of the hill that's strong enough to sit on, close enough to the edge to be able to look down into the clearing. To watch the dark forest behind the thick grass. Sometimes he sits here for what feels like hours, watching the moon, watching the stars. Losing himself in memories of a past that seems so distant he isn't even sure if any of it ever happened.

Sometimes he thinks he shouldn't be able to come back here.

It should be physically impossible to set foot on this ground. There should be revulsion. Anger. Hatred. Cutting off his air, choking him with its intensity. He should feel sick to his stomach. Go blind with rage as soon as he sees the clearing. He should loathethis place; wish he'd never have to see it again. Never have to come back here for as long as he lives.

And if not that, then he should at least feel uncomfortable and sad. Like how you feel when you enter a graveyard. When the mournful silence descends over your senses and you instinctively lower your voice to hushed tones. When you walk slower and turn your gaze inwards, remembering all the people you have lost and buried. When you pay your respects to those who have come (and left) before you.

Maybe he shouldn't be here.

Maybe he shouldn't feel as relaxed—at peace—as he does.

Maybe he should be ashamed of himself for coming back as often as he does. For enjoying the silence, the solitude of this place.

He isn't.

To him, this place means safety. Some sense of belonging. He doesn't feel like an intruder here.

Not that he's not welcome at his current home. Elena and Jeremy both want him to stay at the Gilbert house with them. He looks after them, makes sure they have someone to talk to, keeps the fridge filled and does the laundry. Spends endless hours on the couch in the living-room, staring at the TV, not watching whatever's on. They don't talk a lot, but he never misses how Elena looks a little less tense whenever she finds him in the kitchen, ordering take-out for the evening. Or how Jeremy makes sure to be home early enough to keep some kind of curfew they never really set up.

They need each other to keep up at least some pretense of normalcy, of meaning to their lives. They need each other to be able to go on, to heal. So that they can start all over again.

Alaric sucks at starting over. When Isobel… died, he didn't leave his old life behind. He didn't move on, he didn't try to get over it and let go—no. He clung to it—to her—desperately, unwilling to give up any of it. He used his love for her to fuel him, give him strength to find her killer. Took what was left of their wonderful marriage and turned it into an obsession strong enough to get him through the days, through the pain. Through the loneliness.

This time it's different.

Sometimes he thinks that, maybe, he didn't love Jenna enough. That, whatever they had, it wasn't strong enough to last beyond the moment of her death. That, maybe, they had already been over—or never been close enough to mean something—long before the ritual tore her from his side.

When he hears Elena cry herself to sleep at night, even when he knows that at least half her tears are shed over the uncertain whereabouts of her boyfriend. When he sees Jeremy's empty, listless eyes in the morning before the coffee wakes him up enough to remind him to hide behind a sad smile.

Those are the moments Alaric feels like a traitor.

Those are the moments when he remembers Jenna's smile, how her eyes would light up whenever he entered a room.

"There you are." She'd beam at him, stopping whatever she was doing to kiss his cheek. And then, more often than not, that mischievous twinkle would creep into her eyes and she'd lean even closer. Whisper into his ear. "I can't wait for them to leave."

And he'd grin back, pull her close and kiss her until they both had to come up for air, mindless of Jeremy rolling his eyes at them whenever he caught them making out at the foot of the stairs. Or at the top of the stairs. Or in front of her room.

When he remembers this, now, he still misses her. But it's not with the mind-numbing flash of pure grief that had always stolen his breath whenever he thought back to Isobel. He misses Jenna like he would miss a distant friend, someone he would occasional spend some time with. Someone who never got closer than a friendly hug for a greeting, or a slap on the shoulder for good-bye.

Someone who could have become much more than this—but never did.

He hates himself for his lack of grief. Feels miserable for not being able to shed a single tear for Jenna's memory, for all the time they've spent together. Sometimes he doesn't want to get off the couch because he's hurting so much about not being able to hurt enough.

Sometimes he just wants to leave the house as fast as he can and never look back.

Technically, he still has his apartment. He's been there a couple of times, to get some of his stuff. Always with Damon tagging along to watch his back. Not that he would be of use if they'd accidentally stumbled into an Original meeting, but he's moral support. Well, as much moral support as Damon ever provides. Most of the time it comes in the form of bourbon that tastes too good to decline and results in a pleasant evening of drinking—and passing out on the couch.

"There are bedrooms upstairs," Damon tells him, every time Alaric is about to drift off. "If you need to drool on something while you're asleep, you might as well do it where I don't have to watch you."

He doesn't remember what he answers, but apparently he turns down the offer, since he wakes up on the couch each and every time.

He keeps drifting between two places. Elena, Jeremy, Damon, those are the three people he sees over the summer break. And Caroline, sometimes, when she picks up Elena and tries to distract her for a few hours by taking her to the movies. Bonnie spends the summer with her father's relatives and she and Jeremy phone every night. With the supernatural threat gone, they behave like teenagers again. Traumatized teenagers who cry themselves to sleep at night or spend the whole evening on the phone… but teens nonetheless.

Alaric doesn't sleep well anymore. He falls asleep—and wakes up maybe half an hour later. Jerks awake with his heart racing, pounding so hard against his ribcage it hurts. At first he thought it had to be nightmares. That his mind is processing all the horrors he's been through, waking him up if they get too bad. To protect him. A normal reaction to having been used as a meat-suit by a thousand year-old vampire and losing his girlfriend in a bloody ritual.

The problem is there is no way to find out what a normal reaction to all of this would be. There is no support group for people like him, he can't just pick up the phone, dial a number and talk about what's happened to him to someone on a crisis hotline. He has to figure out a way to deal with this on his own.

So far he's found out that he sucks at trying to help himself. He's never been particularly good at helping others, so this didn't really come as a big surprise.

And it doesn't help that, most of the time, he's so tired he could just fall over, close his eyes and go to sleep. He's used to not getting enough rest; he can go for two days without any sleep at all. Three with only a little shuteye at a time if he reallyhas to.

But this?

It's driving him nuts. He's so wound up inside he feels like his head is buzzing constantly, he just can't catch a break and relax for a moment.

The combination of little sleep and his usual less-than-healthy drinking makes him tense on his better days. Irritable on his worse. Downright mean, bordering on anti-social on the worst days. On most days, sadly. Things he normally doesn't even think about suddenly cost him a lot of patience. Going to the supermarket and having to stand in line, having to wait at the cashpoint—it requires a sort of concentration it never has before. He repeatedly finds himself scowling at people who take longer. Has to hold himself back again and again to notsnap at them.

But it's always with people he doesn't know. He's never been rude to the kids or even Damon, no matter how much his best friend sometimes tries his patience. It's a small relief, but at least he's not driving away the few people who still care about him.

If he isn't busy behaving like a jerk, he zones out. All the time. All of a sudden he will become aware that he has been staring off into space for god knows how long, usually when he's doing something that requires at least some sort of concentration. He's burnt more than one meal because he didn't notice in time that it had started smelling weird. Had to start it all over again. Or order take-out for dinner because that's less of an effort.

Sometimes his body acts up. Twice now, he's felt his heart being crushed in a merciless grip, the pain so intense it had taken his breath away, sending him to his knees.

Heart-attack, he'd thought dimly, gasping for breath as he'd writhed on the floor. Scared to death that this would be it, that a natural death would just take him and he'd lived through all the horror for nothing.

It's the ring. Has to be. Dying and coming back from the dead, twice in one year? It must have damaged something. Something the doctors in the hospital didn't pick up. Something supernatural. Maybe it's the price he has to pay for yet another chance to make the most of his miserable life. It doesn't make sense, why bring him back from the dead only to kill him again?

Maybe the ring is broken. Who knows how centuries old magic works? Maybe the ring has a use-by date and gets wonky after that. Maybe his days are numbered and he'll simply drop dead and that's it.

Sometimes he is desperate to believe this. To blame everything that is happening to him on the ring and the dying and the stress and the mess they are in.

It's easier this way. It's easier to pretend it's the ring. Or the dying. Or the stress. All of that is easier to accept than the truth.

There's a place in his heart, deep down, somewhere close to where his body and soul become one. A place where he keeps his secrets, his most private thoughts. Like the fact that he's always known Isobel wasn't dead-dead. That, once he'd found out that vampires are real, he'd known she'd been turned. That he was looking for a killer who had never taken her life.

And right there, right next to that ugly part of his life is the latest shocker, the frightening truth about everything that's wrong with him.

It's Klaus.

It's his blood.

It's still there, pumping through Alaric's veins. It shouldn't be possible, it should have been out of his system weeks ago—but it isn't. He can feel it. It's there, inside him.Burningjust beneath his skin. It's doing all those things to him, not letting him sleep through the night, making him lose his self-control, bit by bit. It's hurting him, every fucking day, poisoning his mind with every beat of his heart.

Klaus's blood means pain, it hurts when they force it into your body. The more they give you, the weaker you get. You start to lose yourself, slowly, so slowly, sluggish thought by sluggish thought. No matter how hard you try to fight. You start to drift, you begin to realize how tired you are, how exhausted… how little strength you have left. How little of your will—of your self is left. A voice—hisvoice will start whispering in your mind, promising to look after you, to keep you safe. You don't believe the voice, you know that you will lose everything if you listen to it, if you do as it says, if you give in and let it take over.

You know that you will be gone, maybe even forever and you don't want that, your mind struggles against that with all that's left and you promise yourself to not give in, to never give in—

Then the blood kicks in and what you want or not want doesn't matter anymore because it drags you down, into oblivion. It floods your mind like the tide overrunning a sand castle at the beach, destroying it beyond recognition.

Hisvoice following you down into the darkness.