Author's Note: Well, I'm back! Quite a bit of angst in the beginning here: don't worry, though, there's a happy ending. I firmly believe that no amount of angst is too much, as long as there's a happy ending to wrap it all up. It's only when the fic ends with tragedy as well that it becomes overpowering.

Warnings: first part is kind of heartbreaking. Slash. Pretty depressing for the first thousand words or so. Much happier second portion, containing a small serving of smut.

Disclaimer: Apparently, Ms. Friedman expected us to believe that Damien would have just moved on and been fine. Hah. Clearly, I am not the owner of the Coldfire Trilogy.

A.N.2: Fic is titled after the Garth Brooks song. Soundtrack is 'Every Now And Then' and 'The Red Strokes', both by Garth Brooks. This is an AU version of another way Damien might have found out what really happened to Gerald - a much more satisfying version, in my opinion.

A.N.3: This is the first time I've ever dealt with Gerald's revamped appearance from the end of CoS. I've always preferred the blond version - who wouldn't? - but I thought it was time to... ah, 'face the music', if you will.

Damien gazed out across the ashes of the Forest, and felt his heart break all over again.

With the defeat of the Hunter, the people of Erna had rejoiced. Celebrations were held and lavish balls were thrown: people danced in the streets, laughing with joy. All the land thrummed with triumph and optimism... save for a single priest, who in spite of the dawning of a new day, was still trapped in the darkness.

Only Damien cared about Gerald Tarrant, the man behind the fearsome mask of the Hunter. When the flames had devoured the Forest and the ashes had grown cold, only Damien was left to weep for a soul long lost in darkness. When the excited tourists flooded Black Ridge Pass, thirsting for demonic blood and eager to prove themselves in this new world, only Damien remained apart to grieve for all that had been lost.

He himself was lost, lost and wandering in the shadows. His will was broken, his faith destroyed, and his heart shattered beyond repair. What was left of his spirit still cried out in pain, aching from the void where his soul had been joined with another. He didn't know how to heal that breach; didn't know if it was even possible. Someone had said that time heals all wounds - but how can you heal a wound of the soul? Damien had spent so much of his life alone, untethered, just drifting... and then he had found Gerald. Their relationship had altered from enemies, to allies, to friends, to something that might one day have made them lovers, but the one thing they had always had was passion. The depth of their hatred had shifted into a depth of trust, friendship, possibly even love: but despite its alterations it had never diminished. Their very souls had been linked by the strength of that emotion, but with Gerald's death, his soul had been ripped away - and it had taken part of Damien's with it.

Damien turned from the ruins of the once-majestic Forest of Jahanna to look at the ground a few feet from the cliff edge. Here, on this lonely plateau far from the beaten path, he had erected a small memorial for Gerald Tarrant. He couldn't bear the thought that no one would ever remember, no one would know what the adept had sacrificed for the sake of humanity: the sad little stone wasn't much, but it was something.

Damien's legs gave out and he sank to his knees, dimly aware of the chill on his skin where the wind bit at the tracks of his tears. The words carved on the stone were simple, but filled with so much unspoken emotion the stone itself fairly glowed with it.

For a great man, who gave his life for the good of Erna.

Damien reached out and slowly traced the words, the coldness of the rock anchoring him to reality. He would never know the truth, he supposed - never know for certain, whether Gerald had loved him. He had loved Gerald, that much he knew: too afraid to admit it while the adept lived, Damien could hardly avoid the admission now that Gerald was dead. Their evolving emotions had always been a perfect mirror for each other: had Damien broken that pattern? Or had Gerald come to love him too, in those last desperate days? Of all the things he had ever done, in a long and complicated life, there were two things that Damien regretted more than anything else he could imagine. The first was lacking the courage to tell Gerald how he felt, when the adept was still alive to hear his words.

The second was allowing his misguided sense of duty to rule him, leaving Gerald that night in the cellars the Hunter's Keep.

What perverted demon of cowardice had possessed him, that made him walk away? He had known, deep inside, the depth of the betrayal he was committing: he just couldn't face the truth. Then, when he felt the sudden surge of fae, and the soul-wrenching agony of the broken bond - his world had crashed down around him then, as the truth slammed into him like a tidal wave.

He had denied his love for Gerald, and had left him to his death. Damien knew that he could never forgive himself for that, would carry that burden until his dying day: indeed, his dying day might not be far off. The crushing weight of grief and guilt weighed heavier every day, and now, Damien just wanted it to end...

Suicide might be a sin, but at least he would be reunited with Gerald in Hell. Maybe, in some way, that might make up for leaving the adept to die. Damien knew he wasn't thinking straight, but he didn't care: he was tearing himself apart from the inside out, and he had nothing left to anchor him, nothing left to live for. He would rather be with Gerald in Hell, than here on Erna without him.

Damien was jolted from his heartbroken misery by the sound of an approaching horse. Not just any horse, either; as a foot came down on a stray rock, he recognized the distinctive ring of a true horse's hoof. Bewildered, he looked up: what was a true horse doing here? Hadn't they all perished when the Forest burned?

He was confronted by the sight of a jet-black horse being guided skillfully around the last hairpin turn of the trail up to the plateau. The rider reigned up a few meters away, and dismounted: as he looked up, Damien got a good glimpse of his face.

A young man, early twenties probably, with strikingly handsome features. Slender, a couple inches shorter than Damien, lean and rather delicately built. Olive skin, hair as black as True Night that was pulled back into a thick braid, and eyes like the fire of the dark fae, so black that they seemed to drink in the light. He was dressed in blatantly expensive clothing, the finest cloth and the latest style: a rich, spoiled young noble by the looks of things. The question that remained unanswered, though, was what such a type was doing all the way up here.

Damien forced himself to his feet, not caring if it was obvious that he had been crying as he asked hoarsely, "Who are you?"

The young man just stared at him for a moment, expression unreadable - then their eyes met, and the world seemed to tilt under Damien. The look in those eyes... the color had changed, that much was true, but the look was the same. The veneer of sardonic indifference, shielding a depth of emotion that outreached the Novatlantic - the only person who had ever had that look was Gerald Tarrant.

The young man spoke, his voice soft and almost musical. "I think you already know that, Damien."

Damien gaped. He must have finally snapped and lost his mind - either that, or he had somehow wandered into a waking dream, because this simply could not be...

"Gerald?"

But then the man was smiling, a familiar, ever-so-slightly self-mocking smile that had once appeared on a paler, haughtier visage: he stepped forward, reaching out, and before Damien even knew what had happened he was holding the young man in his arms, his tears soaking into the expensive shirt.

"Gerald, it is you, thank God..."

"Oh, Damien..." the adept's voice was soft, and choked with more emotion than Damien had ever heard there before. Slender arms wound around him, clinging with a fierce strength that was markedly reminiscent of his former body. "I'm so sorry... you must have been through Hell this last week. I came as soon as I could, but I was so worried..."

Gerald's voice trailed away, and for several long minutes, they just held each other and reveled in the knowledge that they were both safe - and they were finally together again. After a while, Damien drew back just enough to meet Gerald's gaze, cupping the adept's new face gently between his hands.

"Gerald, what happened? I thought you were..."

"I know." Gerald whispered, reaching up and laying one slim hand on Damien's chest, over his heart. "I'm so sorry for that, Damien. I didn't realize... when Andrys tried to kill me, one of the Iezu interfered. Saris. She said that someone had asked her to intervene - a young woman I once spared, who fell in love with Andrys and wanted to save him from Calesta's plot. Saris calmed Andrys down enough for him to listen, and we worked out a deal. I - I sacrificed what was left of my identity. I am no longer a Tarrant at all. Whatever you saw - it was an illusion that Saris worked. Everyone needed to believe that I was dead... but Saris let me keep my memories, so that I can still work 'for the betterment of mankind'. Also... she said that I could tell you the truth. That I could find you and try to explain..."

The adept's voice faltered, but the look in his dark eyes said the rest. The strength of affection and yearning there took Damien's breath away, and he felt himself smile through his tears as he whispered, "I should have told you before, but - I love you, Gerald. I have for a long time."

Now there were tears in Gerald's eyes as well, clinging to his ridiculously long lashes, his slender hand lifting to frame Damien's face as he breathed, "I love you too, Damien."

Damien moved to kiss him, desperate to know if those curving lips were as soft as they looked, but Gerald halted him with a gentle fingertip against his lips. "Wait - there's one more thing. The bond isn't permanently gone: Saris said that it would only be restored if we acted on our feelings for each other. Otherwise, you'd never know it was still there. Are you absolutely sure, Damien?"

Damien felt an immense swell of emotions run through him, and he smiled. "Gerald - I was well on the way to killing myself because I was stupid enough to walk away that night. Trust me: I've never been more sure in my life."

The night-black eyes warmed immeasurably, and Gerald tilted his head back slightly in invitation. An invitation Damien was only too happy to accept.

The adept's lips were indeed as soft as they looked, sweet and warm: a human warmth that seemed to soak into Damien's bones, finally chasing away the aching cold that had plagued him for so long. As their mouths met, a dam in the back of the priest's mind burst: emotion flooded through him in a roaring torrent, affection and longing and fear and sorrow and desire all tangled together and woven into an impossible webwork of love as the bond surged to new life. The strength of Gerald's emotions left Damien breathless, and he responded in kind, pouring himself through the the link that bound them. For a moment, all boundaries between them seemed to dissolve: the world faded away, leaving just the two of them, shielded and cradled and enveloped by their love.

After what might have been a heartbeat or an eternity, Damien drew back, cursing the mortal lungs that were demanding air. Gerald looked stunned, his dark eyes glazed with passion as they stared into each other's eyes, seeing their love and desire reflected back at them. They both smiled in the same moment, and Gerald whispered, "I couldn't agree more."

Damien couldn't help but laugh: it felt as though the weight of the world had just fallen from his shoulders, his heart lighter than it had been since the Dark Ones first came to Jaggonath. He wrapped his arms around Gerald, pressing the adept tightly against his chest as he murmured, "Don't you ever scare me like that again, alright?"

"I won't." Gerald promised softly, melting into his arms, head resting against his shoulder as naturally as if they had done this a thousand times before. He exhaled softly, warm breath ghosting across Damien's skin as he added, "I'm not leaving you ever again, Damien."

Damien sighed as well, feeling the last traces of shadow lifting from his heart, giving way to the radiant light of his love for Gerald. The grief and suffering of the last few days faded away, leaving only the pure fire of his love for Gerald.

He brought a hand up to Gerald's chin, tilting his head back gently and kissing him again. The adept's mouth opened willingly under his, a soft, delicious moan escaping Gerald's throat as the kiss deepened. Damien explored his mouth eagerly, reveling in his responsiveness.

Gerald's lean body was pliant and unresisting in Damien's arms as he drew the adept down into the soft, lush grass. Despite having only known the adept in this new form for the space of a few minutes, Damien couldn't quite shake the feeling that this was how it was meant to be: Gerald's body felt right in his arms as they tumbled to the ground together, Gerald somehow winding up on top.

They broke the kiss for a moment in favor of gazing at each other: Gerald was smirking slightly, a wicked gleam in his dark eyes that made Damien's pulse skyrocket. Thanks to that, it took a moment for Damien to notice that the much slighter adept had somehow managed to more or less immobilize him. That realization dragged a few others in its wake.

"Hell. This isn't your first time, is it?"

Gerald laughed breathlessly and leaned down to catch Damien's mouth in another searing kiss. "Hardly." he murmured against the priest's lips, fingertips tracing teasing patterns across Damien's chest before setting to work on the buttons of his shirt. "My marriage to Almea curtailed my... entertainments... somewhat, but in the preceding years I was rather - adventurous, if you will."

Damien took advantage of the adept's momentary distraction and flipped them over, pinning Gerald's lithe form underneath him as he grinned down at the adept. "Well, that makes getting jealous rather pointless: I can't even hunt them down and kill them, they're already dead."

As he spoke, he was busily divesting Gerald of the stubborn layers of clothing that insisted on separating them. Gerald chuckled softly. "Who would have thought you'd be so possessive?" he said, a soft light in his black eyes as he smiled up at the ex-priest. Damien smiled back, tenderness mixing with desire as he said firmly, "I fought too hard to get you, Gerald. I'm never letting you go."

Damien had had a lot of lovers in his life, heaven knew, but none of them could hold a candle to Gerald Tarrant. Not just because of his experience, either: the feeling of being with each other, the strength of love between them, the way the bond let their desires feed on each other and bring them even closer... it was sheer bliss, and Damien knew that this was why none of his other relationships had ever worked. This was what he had been waiting for. Somehow, on some level, he had known that Gerald was his soulmate - somehow, he had been waiting for Gerald even before they met.

This kind of love, of perfection - it couldn't be an accident. Destiny, fate, divine intervention: whatever it was, it was meant to be, and Damien knew that what he had said was true. He was never letting Gerald go again.

Afterward, they lay wrapped in each other's arm, quite content to simply rest and watch as the approaching sunset made the heavens glow with orange and purples flames. Gerald sighed softly, nestling closer against Damien's side, his expression one of pure contentment.

"Did you have any plans in mind for where you were heading next?" he asked, voice slightly slurred with sated exhaustion. Damien smiled faintly.

"I was borderline suicidal, Gerald. I wasn't really thinking about the future."

"Mmm. I suppose you would have no objections to accompanying me to Jaggonath, then?"

"No, but dare I ask why?"

"I have no intentions of giving up my research on the Iezu." Gerald said, reaching for Damien's hand and lazily intertwining their fingers. "I seem to recall Mer Reese mentioning some research he had done: there's a chance that his fiancée still has his notes. As good a starting place as any."

Damien smiled at him. "Sounds good to me." he murmured, pressing a tender kiss against the adept's silky black hair. "Hell of a lot safer than your last few ideas."

Gerald chuckled, and they lay in silence for a few moments, relishing their closeness. Damien closed his eyes, basking in the knowledge that he had Gerald back, and this time nothing would come between them. It seemed they had both gotten a second chance in the end.

Now, like the tourists flocking into the hotels and daes of Black Ridge Pass, he had a reason to rejoice as well. Suddenly the new world they had created seemed a lot more promising - all because he was facing it with Gerald at his side.