Hey guys. Missed you. I know I said I wouldn't be back for a while, and I'm not planning any longer pieces at the moment, but holy hell, this season has been so good, I couldn't help but dash this off. Still working on other projects and having a ball, but I had to give Team Badass a send off. Special thanks to latbfan for a comprehensive beta that really made this shine, and to all of you for your lovely and kind notes and words of encouragement as I wander outside the world of fan fiction.

There was so much I still wanted to do.

I'm not complaining, though. Nobody cheated me out of anything—I did more than my fair share of living. Way more. I'd been on borrowed time ever since the night my wife begged to become a chew toy. But Isobel was looking out for me, in her own vaguely sociopathic way. She gave me more lives than a cat, and I did what I could with them. Tried to make the most of every second of that stolen time.

But I'm greedy. I'll admit that; dying strips all the bullshit away. I'm a greedy bastard. No matter how bad things got, I always wanted to live to see another sunrise. I always wanted to drink that next glass (or bottle) of bourbon. I wanted to help my students get all fives on their AP US History Exams. I wanted to write a book. Sounds stupid now, doesn't it? With all the craziness in my life, I wanted to write a novel, of all things. As if that mattered. But it did to me. It was going to be about the Civil War, about brotherhood and redemption and small towns and big dreams and too-soon endings. Inspired by true events, like all great fiction is.

But that's all so petty. The big stuff, the major regrets I've got are all about people. I'm lucky. I got to say my goodbyes to the people I love most. Who gets that chance? Who gets a deathbed reprieve to right all the wrongs and go out with grace and courage? I did. But it still wasn't enough. Greedy, greedy, greedy.

I wanted to help Jeremy become the remarkable young man I knew he could be. Can be. Because it's all right there in him, the raw materials of greatness—or, hell, plain old goodness, which is really more important. Anyone would be proud to have him as a son, with all his intelligence and resourcefulness and emotion wrapped up in a battered and bruised shell of teenage cynicism. All that kid needs is for someone to give him a chance. For someone not to die on him.

Fucked that up.

I wanted to see Elena be happy. That's all I want for her. For a girl who's loved by more people than anyone I've ever met, that girl has known too little happiness. I thought maybe if I could get Jeremy settled, if I could protect her, if I could help her cobble together some kind of home, that she could make the right choices in the rest of her life. That she could see that she has to stop trying to please everyone around her (including me) and just do what's right for her. Whatever that is. Even if the thought of her with either of those two...nope. What did I just say? Not my call. It's her life, and she's got to live it for herself.

And then Damon. The biggest asshole I have ever met. The guy who murdered my wife and murdered me for good measure. Twice. The guy who couldn't apologize to save his everlasting soul. The guy who always knew the wrong thing to say that somehow turned out right. With Damon, I wanted...well, I wanted to tell him something. But even now, I haven't figured out just what I needed to say and what he needed to hear. I've got time to think now. It'll come to me. I've got a long walk ahead.

I've already been walking for what feels like days. Where? You're not gonna believe me, but that white light at the end of a tunnel? It's one hundred percent real. Is for me, anyway. Maybe it'll be different for you. There aren't any voices, no heavenly choirs, just me and a long walk into a bright light. Which is new. I guess that's the difference between dying and Dying. All those other times I died, it was a nap. Or so it seemed. I know now that Esther was doing...something. I'm glad I can't remember the things she said and did that could turn me inside out and make me who I really am and who I tried so hard not to be.

But now I'm Dead once and for all, and you know what? I'm relieved. Never thought I'd say that, but if I'm dead, they're safe. Most of them. Elena...maybe I'll see her here. Tell her I'm sorry. Meet her parents and tell them I did the best I could and tell them that I'm sorry. But no matter how sorry I am about Elena, it means the rest of them are safe. That I failed at genocide, no matter how badly I wanted to succeed.

Something shifts on the other side of the light. A weird wash of dream knowledge gushes over me—that way you know something with every fiber of your being without understanding how. I know Jenna is at the end of that tunnel, somewhere just beyond. And she is so, so happy. Humming and vibrating and something about opening a bottle of tequila and so ready for me. There's an undercurrent of sadness that I'm coming to her now instead of in fifty or sixty years, after I'd led a good life and taken care of the littlest Gilberts, but she knows as well as I do that life doesn't always work that way, so we might as well celebrate.

Underneath Jenna's tinkly happiness is something else. A low-key rumbling, full of nervousness and spiked with regret but every bit as anxious as Jenna. Something familiar and deep and...Isobel. Weird. I was pretty sure that light was heaven, or something like it, so what's Isobel doing here? Guess that's not fair; not like I deserve to be there either. Wherever we are, she's here and she's waiting for me too.

I'm ready. I'm so ready for peace and quiet and love and an end to the fighting and the pain and the dying. I'm ready to be still. I walk faster, maybe I even fly. All I want is to reach the end and go to the place where it all stops and it all starts.

Then I hear it. A sound behind me, coming from a million miles away. Choking. I guess you'd normally call it sobbing, but Damon doesn't sob. Instead, he's trying to swallow all that pain so no one can see it, until maybe he can stop feeling it. But he won't. Not ever. It'll sit in the pit of his belly and fester until he explodes.

Farther away, so faint I may be imagining it, I hear a boy in an empty house. The emptiest house anyone's ever known, the house of the dead only he can see. Jeremy's rattling around like a bean in a tin can. Not even knowing what's coming or who's leaving.

I stop and look back. In a single instant, I see it all. There's Jeremy, washing out an empty mug in the sink and looking, if not happy, at least satisfied. Blissfully ignorant. Then there's Damon shoving my body into his car like I'm a sack of wet cement. Thanks, dick. He starts to slam the trunk, then thinks better of it. He closes my eyes and makes another choking sound. Then it all cuts to black.

There, bathed in angelic light while the two great loves of my life wait for me, there's only one choice I can make. "Put the tequila on ice, Jenna," I say, hoping she can hear me. "It'll have to be another day." I put the white light at my back. With every step, I feel Jenna behind me, rapidly cycling through the stages of grief. But she gets to acceptance quickly. She understands. Gives her blessing. Isobel doesn't.


So that's me. The man who couldn't die became the man who refused to die and walked away from heaven for his two lost boys. Maybe I'm being a narcissist; maybe they don't need me at all and my death will be just one more blip on the radar. It could be. But then I'm in that too-empty house with Jeremy—don't know how that happened, lots of ghost stuff to learn about—and he sees me. And he knows what it all means. Smart kid, figures it all out on his own. And the look on his face...yeah. I can still make a difference here. Even if he doesn't always see me and Damon will never see me again, they'll both know I'm here. Looking out for them. Doing what little I can.

I made the right call. Even if I can never find my way back to that white light and that forever that was waiting for me, even if I'm doomed to wander, it'll still be worth it to help them know they're not alone.

The next few days blur together, time running too fast and too slow. Being a ghost is lonely business. Except for Jeremy, I'm invisible. Persona non grata. I get to watch all the pain around me and am completely impotent to do anything about it. Guess it's not so different from when I was alive. What could one alcoholic teacher ever do? Nothing, it turns out. Absolutely nothing but die.

I'm with Damon when he finds out what happened to Elena and can only watch his grief and confusion, his anger at his brother and his blind rage at Meredith. Oh, Meredith. Didn't we already go through this once with Bill Forbes? Didn't we see that if you dose people with vampire blood, you really should let them know so they can do their best to avoid dying? And yes, Meredith, I see you there mourning me with a crying jag, a pint of rum raisin ice cream, and a handle of actual rum, and I approve. The dosing patients with vampire blood without their consent? Less approval.

I watch as Elena wakes up, as she licks blood from her fingers, as she nibbles on Bambi. And even though I hate what she is with a white-hot rage that pulses through me and makes me remember those hellish last days, I still love her. I'm there every step of the way, mourning her lost humanity and cheering her on—out loud, because I'm an idiot—as she adapts to this new life. Is it what I would have wanted for her? Of course not. But I'm glad she's not here with me. I'm glad she gets a chance to figure it out. That she's still got a shot at happiness. If she listens to the right people (cough, cough, Caroline), she's going to be fine.

I skip the Council funeral. I hate all the black and the singing and "I'm so sorry for your loss" and the congealed salads afterward. I especially hate it when those deaths are kind of my fault. Another fuck up to add to the pile. So I skip the rending of garments and get back from peeking in on a group of my old college drinking buddies just in time to see Stefan light that first lantern. They're nice. Specks of light drifting on an uncontrollable breeze and rising higher and higher into the darkness? Yeah, I'm pretty okay with being remembered like that.

Damon stomps off and I let him go. Really, buddy, they're the children? I give him a head start, because I know where he's going. Same place he's gone every night since I bit it. I watch the lanterns float until the flames flicker out and they plummet back to earth, then I head for the graveyard.

I have to give it to him, I never thought I'd have a headstone quite this nice. Trust Damon to go top-of-the-line. He's right though. Date's wrong. I have no idea where they got that birthday, but it's the thought that counts. The thought that maybe in a thousand years, when Damon's still raising hell, he'll be able to come back here and remember the year and a half where we hated each other and we...

Love isn't the right word. I'm not sure you love Damon Salvatore. You're pulled into his orbit and you do your best not to burn up in the atmosphere. Hanging out with him is risky business. Physically, emotionally, you name it. Things are going to get broken. But you know what? It was worth it. Even knowing how it all would end, I wouldn't change that night I tried to kill him, or anything that came after. I'd try to die less, maybe, but the road was always going to lead right here.

Here. Sitting on a bench erected in memory of some random Fell and listening to Damon pour his heart out to no one. To a rock. To me. And I'm useless, voiceless. I can't tell him to sack up and stop whining about getting the girl, because the girl isn't what's going to make him happy. I can't tell him how glad I am that he's here, that he stayed to babysit because without him, they'd all be dead in days. I can't tell him how stupid he is for leaving half a bottle of Glenfiddich 50 Year Old on my grave for some teenage kid to find and spit out because it doesn't taste nearly as good as a Jager bomb.

I know now what I was supposed to say to Damon when I had the chance. The only thing Damon's ever really needed to hear but has never been told.

"I miss you too, buddy."