It's been less than a month, and Alaric's car has run errands into Herschelle and around Bon Temps but he hasn't driven more than sixty miles in any direction, and he comes back each time, parks alongside Sam's truck. They work hard and they drink hard, too, and they fuck like teenagers. And if Alaric is still 'that one working at Merlotte's, from away' and 'Merlotte's new boy-toy, and Christ, neither of 'em a been seen in church, either church, though the Lord don't take that type and everyone knows it', well, neither he nor Sam care much.

Alaric hasn't done such physical work in a long time and Sam loves to spend hours working the soreness from his body with hands and lips and tongue, loves it when Alaric does the same; they rarely sleep late because with a few hours free in the morning, they go for a swim, instead, and when Sam is a dog Alaric still calls him 'dog'.

Alaric sits down one day with a brand new phone and calls his people. A girl called Elena and a boy called Jeremy, and Sam sits alongside him, topping up his bourbon, as he lets them yell at him. He apologises fifty times apiece for making them worry about him.

Elena asks if he has called Damon.

After a moment of hesitation, Alaric says "no."

Elena tells him he has to, that he owes it to Damon. Alaric says "maybe."

And a few days later, Sam holds Alaric's hand while he does it.

"I'm fine, Damon. I'm safe," he says, and holds the phone away from his ear as Damon levels an uninterrupted three minutes of curses and accusations. Alaric closes his eyes, and Sam kisses him, because it is all he can do.

At last, Alaric puts the phone back to his ear. "Don't come looking for me, Damon," he says. "I mean it."

"Is this about the killing-you thing? Fucking hell, Ric, it's not like it was the first time."

"No," Alaric says. "It was the last time." And he hangs up, and he and Sam make love until they are too tired to do it any more.

...

Sam reflects later, when it is too late, that Alaric should have been a little less trusting about Damon doing what he was asked, 'specially since he didn't even agree. Sam is listening to Sookie prattle on about living with two vampires and the hellish trouble it causes, and keeping a vague eye on the whole bar, a less vague eye on Alaric at a booth, laughing with Jason Stackhouse and Hoyt Fortenberry. No question who was winning that battle of wits.

"Sam Merlotte, are you even listenin' to me?"

"Course I am," Sam says. "Sounds like you're having quite a time. 'Scuse me," is the line he exits on, as he collects two of the large rubbish bins from under the counter, takes them out the back to empty.

No sooner has he done it than there is a rough hand on the collar of his shirt, and he is thrown against the outside wall of his own goddamn bar, for Christ's sake. Strong arms, too strong, Vampire.

A menacing voice growls in his ear. "Who the fuck are you, and why can I smell Ric all over you?"

"You'd be Damon Salvatore, I reckon," Sam answers. And he shifts.

He saw a wolf once so big it wasn't to be believed; covered with the scars of fights he'd clearly won, fur distended over the puckered flesh. Mouth torn wide and gums visible. Only way to get away had been to become a bird, so that's what he'd done, but he'd catalogued the beast first, and now – with the shreds of his clothes falling like ash around him – this is the form he takes.

Clearly, the right one; Damon's eyes are ringed in white, as Sam snarls, as he takes careful, menacing steps forward.

Damon's lip curls in a sneer. "I'll rip your heart right of your chest, you filthy hybrid," and the words don't make sense but even vampires have a fear-scent, so Sam is not worried. He exposes his teeth.

And then Alaric is there; throwing himself through the back door.

"Damon!" he calls. "What the fuck?"

Damon doesn't drop Sam's eyes.

Alaric yells again. "Sam. Back off."

Sam doesn't back off, not precisely, because Sam wants to taste blood. But he knows this voice and knows to obey it, with some part of his currently tiny frontal lobe.

Alaric steps forward, fixes his hand into Sam's fur.

Damon splutters, enraged. "You hooked up with a fucking hybrid?"

"Something like that. What the fuck are you doing here, Damon?"

"What does it look like I'm doing?" Damon narrows his eyes, and Sam remembers most of the reasons he hates vampires. "I'm taking you home."

Like Alaric is a teenager who ran away because mom and pop wouldn't let him out past nine of a weekend.

Alaric shakes his head.

Sam can't think too clearly as a wolf, and Alaric must know this somewhere in the parts of himself that know Sam so well, because he crouches, fixes his hands in the fur on either side of Sam's face.

"Sam. Go. Get dressed. Come back here when you're decent."

Sam growls low in his throat and looks up at Damon.

"He won't hurt me. He's a dick, but he loves me."

And then it's Damon who growls because Sam's nose rests in the crook of Alaric's neck and shoulder.

"Go," Alaric whispers, and Sam bows his huge head, pads away after one last pause to show Damon his teeth.

Sam dresses faster than should be possible and returns to a conversation conducted in low, muttering tones, Damon almost supplicant, Alaric angry and raw. Then Damon defensive, deflecting, magnesium hot, focussed. Sam hears words like 'fucking world class education' and 'fucking pious rednecks' and 'fucking bartender' as he closes the distance between them.

"Sam. Merlotte. I'd say I was pleased to meetcha, but I am a fuckin' useless liar."

Neither Sam nor Damon extend a hand to shake, and Damon curls his lip in a vicious sneer.

Lafayette pokes his head out the back door, and his tone is menacing; "the fuck goin' on out here?"

Damon takes in his clothes, his earrings, his makeup. "Have some fucking dignity, would you?"

Lafayette balls his hands into fists and steps forward. "You did not just say that, bitch," he sneers.

"He's a vampire, Lafayette. Just git on, now," Sam says, and Damon sneers.

"Who idn't?" Lafayette says, but he withdraws, eyes haunted; Lafayette's history with vampires has not been an easy one.

Damon shakes his head, narrows his eyes further, and Sam thinks about vipers. "Tell me, Sam Merlotte, do you have to be dumb as a pail to live here, or does it just make it easier?"

Alaric steps between them.

Damon tenses again, ready to push Alaric aside and tear Sam apart, though he knows he can't. Sam doesn't want Alaric standing between them but he knows this is Alaric's fight, and you don't take a man's fight out of his hands, or you're not treating him like a man. He takes a step back.

"C'mon, Ric. We're leaving." Damon starts to step away, with a quick beckoning wave. Alaric stands firm.

"Go away, Damon. We can talk tomorrow. And I mean talk. You come in here with your teeth out and I won't give you the time of day."

Damon grits his teeth, paces. Glares at Sam when he can tear his eyes from Alaric. So much anger, in such a neat frame, and if Sam's honest, he can see, understand; Damon is achingly beautiful, in the way vampires are, all luminous skin and sharp angles, and Damon's eyes are ice blue and intense.

The air between Damon and Alaric seems to crackle with energy, like the electrical pole by the high school that always makes folks teeth ache, and Sam wonders what would happen if he wasn't here with them.

Yep. Definitely gotta get this one the fuck out of Louisiana.

Sam speaks, then, and tries not to sound too like an Alpha; but he does. "Bar opens at eleven. We'll see you here then."

Damon grunts, runs a hand through his hair. "Oh, for -" But he makes no move to leave. Alaric shakes his head like something's come loose, looking tired, looking like he did on the side of road so many weeks before, like a man who lost something.

Finally he stands up straight again; fixes Damon with a cold stare, and nods sharply.

"Just go, Damon. See you tomorrow." And perhaps it's because Alaric has his arms crossed over his chest just so, or perhaps it's something else, but Damon knows he's lost; so he stalks away, back to his car, and raises dust as he fishtails out of the lot.

Sam collects the scraps of cloth that were his clothing, puts them in the bin like it's punctuation. Alaric collects the sole of a sneaker, too neatly removed from the canvas, and stares at it.

"Sorry," he says at last. Kicks a can that hits the side of the rubbish bin with a satisfying clatter. "He probably compelled someone at the phone company to trace the call I made. That was…"

Sam shakes his head because he should have thought of this himself, and didn't; and it could cost him. "Not your fault. Nothin' to be sorry fer."

"Sam…"

But Sam shakes his head. "Closing in a couple of hours. Let's just…"

What, he's not sure, but they do it, and the bar empties eventually, as it always does.

...

In bed, Sam and Alaric lie apart. "You said he loves you," Sam said, when he could.

Alaric nods, cautious like a spooked rabbit; "he does. He may suck at it. But he does."

Sam hoists himself up on one elbow so he can see Alaric's face, see if he lies. "Do you love him?" and cautious, reluctant, Alaric nods.

"It doesn't just go away," he admits, and Sam feels something poisonous shift in his heart.

There are one hundred thousand fantastic reasons not to ask this question and number one on Sam's list is that the quickest way to kill a relationship is to try and takes its temperature; still, he asks it, and wants an answer. "Do you… do you love me?"

"Come here," Alaric says, and draws him close, presses their lips together. "I could. This is new. I could," he repeats, drawing Sam's tongue into his mouth. "It could be so easy, here with you."

Sam drapes himself over Alaric's chest. Meets his eyes, looming.

"Are you going to go with him?"

And the smile that cracks Alaric's face open is genuine, and Sam breathes out, didn't know he had so much spent air in him. "No," Alaric says. "I don't know about next month or next year. I'm being honest, here. But I won't be going with him tomorrow. So don't worry about it."

So Sam puts it out of his mind, and he spreads Alaric wide with his fingers and tongue and all the lube on God's green earth. Deep in Alaric, Sam rolls his hips, kissing Alaric whenever their faces get near enough to touch, and hopefully, he thinks, as Alaric shudders to climax between their bodies, he puts it out of Alaric's mind, too.

...

When Damon stalks into Merlotte's the next morning at eleven a.m. precisely, his sneer is even more pronounced.

Sam nods. "Get you a True Blood?"

Damon shudders. "Not if I'm dying of thirst. I've eaten. I'll take a bourbon, though. And then you can fuck off and let Alaric and I talk in peace."

Likely, Sam thinks, but he puts a bottle of bourbon and two glasses on a table. Alaric is in the office, counting change.

"He's here."

Alaric tenses and nods, and shakes his head and tenses further. "Better go talk to him."

"Ric…" Sam thumbs at the spot between his eyebrows. "Do what's right for you. Leave me out of it. Hell, leave… him out of it." Can't bring himself to say Damon's name, just sees that weird spark between Damon and Alaric that he saw out the back the night before, under the stars, with torn rags under his feet.

Alaric nods, and closes the door behind him.

Sam, as dog, follows moments later, after fixing Lafayette and Arlene with a glare they understand well enough. When he arrives at the table he tucks himself alongside Alaric's bench, and hears the words "- fuck's sake, it was a good long nap. You're acting like I actually killed you."

Almost frantic, Alaric tangles his hair into the fur on Sam's neck. Perhaps he can sense the coyote that Sam would be if he snapped.

"You did. You killed me."

But Damon isn't listening. He's staring at Sam. "That's just… unsanitary. Shouldn't your boyfriend come chase him out?"

"This is my dog. He's fine in here."

"You got a dog? What's his name?" Like this is the part of the conversation that doesn't make a lick of sense.

"Dog."

Damon throws his arms in the air, growling worse than Sam on a good day. "Jesus Christ, Ric. Did you wake up brain damaged?"

"I have no idea. Maybe. Something you could have thought about before you killed me again."

And there's a lot of muffled arguing, and Sam hears words like 'abandonment' and 'duty' and 'council' and some names he recognises, and some he doesn't. And Alaric keeps his hand firmly attached to Sam's fur, and he doesn't argue back.

"Are you done?" he says, when given the chance to.

"No," Damon answers, and begins the same tirade again. Lafayette drops a basket of fries and a plate of onion rings on the table and fixes Damon with a glare. Damon pauses just long enough to say "nice lipstick" and he launches back into it.

"Are you done now?"

Alaric applies enough Tabasco sauce to the fries so that even Sam is impressed, and eats them two at a time.

"Am I getting through to you at all? Look," and Damon changes tack. "Let's just go home. Talk more. We can work this out. This isn't – this can't be – over," he splutters.

"Maybe," Alaric says, but he scratching Sam on the head to keep him calm. "I know we're done for now. I'm not going back to Mystic. I'm staying here."

"For how much longer?"

"Maybe a month, maybe a year. Maybe five months. Maybe forever." Alaric shrugs. "I just don't know." He reaches across the table to grasp Damon's hand. "I do know… you need to leave."

Damon grips Alaric's hand so hard, so hard. Alaric doesn't flinch. Damon growls, low. "I love you, Ric. You know I do."

"I do," Alaric agrees. "I also know you're violent."

"Whereas you sit down with a cup of tea and talk about your fucking feelings?" Damon's voice drops a little. Not flirtatious precisely but seductive, maybe; worming his way back. "I've seen you kill plenty, Ric. Don't forget it. Best foreplay ever. Remember the -"

Alaric shakes his head. "Bad guys, Damon. I'm talking about you and me. You seems to think having had a bad day is good enough reason to lose your shit and break my neck." Alaric sits back in his seat, hardens his expression.

"I'm a fucking vampire! We're – impulsive."

"And I'm a human. We're mortal." Alaric pulls his hand away from Damon's and Sam relaxes at last, settling on Alaric's feet. "The ring's been fucking up, and you knew that. And you killed me anyway. So I need you to leave."

Damon flexes and tenses and resettles, cataloguing his options. Apparently finding none. He pushes back from the table, and Sam looks up in time to see him cross his arms.

"So this is it. It's over."

Alaric says nothing.

Damon leans forward in his seat again. "Will you call me?"

"Not soon. And not often. But I'll call."

There's a long silence, longer than a hot bayou night when the mosquitoes won't quit, and then Damon concedes defeat.

And when Sam is Sam again, he joins them once more; standing out the front of the bar, this time, and Damon swallows all of his considerable pride to shake Sam's hand.

"Anything happens to him," he promises and threatens, "And I'll rip your heart out of your chest and eat it. Fried up in garlic butter."

Damon crosses the front of the lot to where his car is, frightening off a bunch of kids who have never seen anything so expensive in their lives. He stands and turns and the expression is painful to see; loathing, love and loss. With a sharp nod he climbs into the front seat, pulls away with a screech.

Alaric relaxes, a little, then. Crosses his arms over his chest, determined set to his jaw. Gives Sam a strained smile.

"That's that, I guess," he says. There's a long moment of silence which needs busting up so Sam cocks his head, catches Alaric's eye.

"So, Ric… the fuck is a hybrid?"

Alaric laughs. "Werepire?"

"And again, I say, the fuck?"

Alaric bumps Sam's shoulder with his own, pointing them back to the bar where they belong. "Can't tell you all my best stories in one go. I'll explain over a bunch of drinks sometime. Epic story, thousand or so years in the making." His smile falters. "Too many major character deaths."

And maybe it shouldn't be, but this is the first inkling Sam has that Mystic Falls might be even more fucked up than Bon Temps.

"We got a lot to talk about," Sam says, soft, and they step inside.

The bar is filling up so they don't talk, not then. But they'll talk, Sam knows; and they'll swim, and they'll fuck, and every day he'll give Alaric a new reason to stay, until it's just habit, and he just stays.