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“I know what you probably think of me,” Tom says, “but I'm not a complete idiot. I get what it must be like for you.”

“I don't think that,” Hal replies, slowly, “about you.”

His voice is low and smooth, thick – like honey, Tom thinks, somewhat inexplicably, or velvet, like one of those old Jesus hangings you sometimes see in caravans – hovering in the air between them like heavy fog or cigarette smoke in a pub. “But you don't understand.”

The vampire's fist clenches and releases, the corner of his mouth twitches. “You can't possibly.”

“Sure I do,” Tom presses. “Way I see it, you're like an alcoholic, yeah? Or an addict. You're like... a blood junkie.”

Hal's eyes go dark, then. Not dark-dark, but incredulous, annoyed in that sort of sad but dignified way Hal has of looking annoyed. “Why don't you tell me how you really feel, Tom?”

“I ain't tryin'a insult ya,” Tom insists, and he means it, he does, “but you can't be around blood at all, righ’? Can't taste it, can't see it, can't smell it, can't even think about it.”

“That's the general idea, yes,” Hal clips out – because it's one thing, this new habit Tom has of visiting Hal's room nightly, always knocking but usually opening the door at the same time, entirely defeating the purpose. But asking Hal personal questions, not about sex or death but blood – that's something else.

It's bad enough he's shared so much of himself, his past, with Tom, with Annie, already.

“I was just thinkin',” Tom says, and Hal bites down hard on a number of obvious retorts, none of them kind, “it's too bad none of your lot have developed something like, I dunno, a blood patch, or like, some kind of liquid substitute, like non-alcoholic beer.”

“Don't be ridiculous. Have you ever even tasted non-alcoholic beer?”

“When me dad was quittin' fags once,” Tom continues, “he chewed a kind of gum.” Whatever flavour it was, it had been disgusting. “Or like, the end of a pen, or a stick.”

“You're not seriously suggesting I put a filthy stick in my mouth, are you?”

“If you'd quit being a dick and lemme finish.” Tom draws a deep breath, a motion Hal watches closely from his vantage, back pressed to the wall, knees pulled in close to his chest; as far away from Tom as he can get without actually evacuating the bed. “I was going to say, you can't exactly line up your dominoes every day now you've got a full-time job, can you?”

“Full... time?”

“And you won't be able to avoid people no more, so you need something new. Me and Annie was chattin' about it, earlier, but she just kept suggesting more housework, and since I know how much you hate washing up other peoples' dishes and things – ”

“Look,” Hal cuts him off, because this has to stop, now, before it meanders any further down the path to absurdity, “it's not that I don't appreciate this... offer, or whatever it is. Sort of. But if you really think that any kind of replacement, anything in the world would suffice, make it so that I don't have to do those things, don't have to think about it, fight against it, constantly, I'm sorry,” he pauses, “but you're wrong.”

He shifts on the old bed; it creaks in protest and tilts, just a bit, so that Tom is drawn closer. “The system I built up with Leo, we worked on it for decades, and during those decades, there were setbacks. Slip-ups. Budgies and Kia-Ora. It took ages to get it all right, and now –” He stops abruptly.

Now Leo is gone.

Pearl is gone, and there is no more system, no more ritual to sustain him, through the days, the long nights. Annie and Eve and Tom have seen to that with their seemingly endless needs, their problems. Their chaos tearing down his walls, messing up his things and destroying his carefully cultivated routines as easily and effectively as a hurricane.

But he needs them, still, doesn't he? So he forms new routines, follows Annie's rota. Tracks Tom's steps through the house like a hunter, recording them – that's actually come to be fairly ritualistic, lately.

“Now,” Tom continues for him, “Leo's gone, and there can't be no more slip-ups.”

“Yes,” Hal says through his teeth. He knows this like the sharpened stake on Tom's dresser knows this. “Alright. What are you suggesting?”

“You could use me,” Tom says, quickly, not because he's afraid he might lose his nerve, but because he thinks Hal might interrupt him again if he doesn't spit it all out at once, and as fond as he's grown of Hal's posh voice recently, the promise of coveted social interaction – attention – that comes with it, he's not interested in talking all night.

He came here for a reason, this reason. “My blood is toxic, so I know you won't bite me. You could just sort of... I dunno. Pretend.”

His lips turn up in a small, sweet smile. “Like chewing on a stick.”

“I... don't think you know quite how that sounds.” Hal tries to return the smile, but finds his tongue wetting the lower swell of his lips instead, intrigued, and of course, the innuendo is completely lost on Tom anyway, who's looking at him, expectant.

That anyone would offer themselves to him this way, knowing what he is, is baffling to Hal. That it should be a werewolf, not only inclined by his nature to hate vampires but specifically trained to kill them, is more so. That it's Tom...

He does have a point, though. About the blood. No danger of biting there.

In a second, Hal has seized Tom by the thinning fabric of his t-shirt and yanked him back, back so that they're sitting beside each other properly. “There would still be some risk involved,” he says lowly, close to Tom's left ear, “biting, or pretending to bite, may still awaken some violence in me. I could try to hurt you without drawing your blood.”

“You could try,” Tom repeats. Clever boy. “Besides, I take risks for you all the time now, don't I?”

“Yes,” Hal says, releasing the fabric clenched between his fingers, smoothing it with his palm as he moves his hand up to rest against the side of Tom's neck, “quite right.”

He stops breathing, stops everything, and feels for the rhythm there. He finds it beating soft and steady, not fast or fearful. A delicate thrum beneath his fingertips. He thinks of the blood that flows there, how badly it had burned when it touched him, and feels hunger, but not the way he's accustomed to experiencing it.

He wants to feel that pulse against his lips, smell the skin that encases it, but not bite into it, releasing that poison.

Like smelling perfume; was it really possible to experience this in every sense but taste? Could he have had this all along? The answer, of course, is no, because he hasn't had Tom until now.

Tom, who is still and waiting, not nervous in the least, trusting him completely. Such a change from when they'd first met. Hal's not sure why it surprises him so; Tom would trust anyone until they gave him a reason not to. Then again, they are what they are.

“Are you certain about this?” he asks, because he must, and his voice is faintly trembling. He feels disembodied.

“Go on, then,” Tom says, and Hal obeys.

He doesn't touch his lips to skin, not right away. Doesn't touch that spot where neck turns into shoulder – a cliché, perhaps, but the blood doesn't flow quite the same from anywhere else. Instead he hovers, same as he would before the domino spiral, daring himself to breathe, not to breathe, to breathe, and when he does, Tom's reaction is immediate. A subtle shift so that they make contact before Hal means them to, before he's ready. The push he needs.

He almost seems to enjoy pushing him, Tom.

Hal shifts the werewolf, sturdy but light, surprisingly easy to move when he wants to be, so that he's fitted between his knees, his back flush to Hal's chest, and Hal is holding him like he would hold a victim, one arm secured around his chest, the opposite hand on Tom's jaw, turning his face to the side.

“It's been so long,” Hal says, “I didn't think I could do this. Touch. Not ever again. Now you,” he pauses, hovers. Breathes. “You got your claws into me. You and Annie, but you most of all. I should have hated you, but you fought your way in, somehow, and now...”

If sex and blood must always be connected, he thinks, perhaps he can train himself to connect not biting with this. With him. “You go and do something so stupid and brilliant...”

He brushes his lips over Tom's without thinking, just gently, gauging his reactions the entire time.

Hal's lips on his are like firecrackers, Tom thinks, all lit up under his skin. No one's ever kissed him like that before, on the mouth, soft and nice, and that, this, is not what he had planned at all.

But before Tom can even think about responding, whether to kiss back or shove off the bed, he hasn't decided, Hal's turning Tom's face away again, so that he's back staring at the wall opposite. His hand on Tom's face is cold, but his lips are warm, moving down, barely brushing the line of his jaw, the skin behind his ear. Ghosting over scars until they find that place on the side of his neck where vampires like to bite and latch, tearing through skin like tissue paper, ripping out veins and ligaments with those teeth, those fangs, sharp as wolves', until all the blood and life comes spillin' righ' out

He tenses. Hal's grip on him loosens, just perceptibly. “Second thoughts?” he whispers.

“Dunno,” is all Tom can manage, because he doesn't know what he's thinking anymore, if he's even capable of forming thoughts, first or second. Hal's tongue, wet and soft and somehow more alive than Tom expects, pushes forward experimentally, dampens Tom's skin, then he withdraws, a fraction of an inch, to blow lightly on the same spot.

The sound Tom makes is completely unexpected, not like any sound he's made before, and the way it feels – he's not equipped to describe it, is scared to even try. He doesn't want to hear his own voice tripping over the words, saying the wrong thing. Spoiling the moment.

His eyes slip shut and he tries to inhale slowly, but it comes more like a gasp, a hiss.

The warmth of Hal's breath seeps into him, spreading through him, saturating him like water soaked up by a rag, wrapping around his spine and squeezing, eventually settling in the pit of his stomach. His fingers find Hal's sheets, as scrupulously clean and straight as everything else in the room, and rend them, rucking them up from where they're tucked in. Hal's arm around him is tight, strong, but he still feels like he might somehow slip away if he doesn't hold on to something for dear life.

“I can't bite you,” Hal reminds him. His voice is damn near shaking, like Tom has never heard it, not when he's talked about his past, or even when he saw that shopkeeper's blood. “Remember. I can't bite you, and this, for me, is also new. I haven't done anything like this in almost three of your lifetimes, Tom. Think about that.”

The vampire sounds almost panicked, desperate, and the thought that he, Tom McNair, has been the one to make him sound this way – and not because he's got the point of a stake pressed up under his ribcage – both thrills and frightens the shit out of him.

Not that he believes Hal would turn on him. Even if he did, the blood would stop him before he could do any real damage, and Tom is fast. It scares him the way he was scared the first time he saw the city, or when he found out his dad wasn't really his dad (even though he was, always would be), or when George asked him to stay with Eve and Annie. The first time he killed a vampire on his own.

Like his life as he knows it is being stripped away, shored down and shaped into something new. Something his dad wouldn't even recognize.

There are three layers that comprise human skin, Hal knows, because he's had a lot of time to study. He's read Gray's Anatomy front to back – a reference guide for torture, once upon a time. He knows about the epidermis, the dermis and the subcutaneous tissues, knows exactly how much pressure he can apply before all three layers are ruptured. Of course, no edition has ever included a section on werewolves.

He wonders how close to the surface the blood would have to be for it to start to hurt him. Hal parts his lips the smallest amount he can manage before touching them to the side of Tom's throat, sucking a tiny red mark there, rubbing his tongue unhesitatingly over the spot. It stings, barely. Or perhaps he's imagining things.

Just kissing, then, to be safe. Lips and tongue, no teeth that might scrape. No sucking marks onto Tom's skin, leaving his own brand upon him. Hal presses a line of kisses to Tom's neck, his nape just below his hairline. The tops of those brutal scars on his back – how vicious wolves could be.

Tom tastes clean, though, the faintest hint of sweat, tinge of minerals and pheromones. Strong, like Tom's blood is strong. A single drop ingested could end Hal, end all this. The notion holds a morbid sort of appeal, only he's never actually wanted to die. If he had, he would have given up ages ago, when he'd first made the choice not to feed anymore.

He's clung to life all these years. Those habits he's quit, by choice or circumstance, and the ones he still manages to keep up with, have been his way of doing so. He could bite Tom now and it would be over in a single, painful instant. But he won't.

He won't.

He pushes his face into the crook of Tom's neck, kisses him there, licks and nuzzles him. Tom makes a sound that's very nearly a growl, hands releasing Hal's sheets, coming up to grip the arm Hal has around his chest instead, and Hal wonders for the first time if this is about something more than just helping him.

Touch-starved animal without a pack. He's seen the look before, in the eyes of those wolves he'd once helped put in chains, but never quite recognized it in Tom until now. Or he hadn't wanted to. Poor little thing.

Somehow, sometime over the past few minutes, they've started to rock together. Whether it's Tom moving him or the other way around, Hal doesn't know. He's been so careful about physical contact, and now he's submitted to it, he's not sure he'll be able to stop. More so, he doesn't want to stop.

Tom's body feels good, and Hal's own blood is stirring. It has been since they'd started, if he's honest, but now the ache is more persistent, familiar and alien at the same time. He has a hard-on, encouraged by the mild friction of Tom pressing back against him – he must be able to feel it, know what it means. Sex and blood. They've talked about it.

He must have known this would happen.

Hal stops attacking Tom's neck with his lips and moans, or something like it. Swipes his tongue over Tom's earlobe and feels him shiver. If they keep going like this much longer, Hal's going to come in his slacks, and as much of his dignity as he's sacrificed for Tom, he's not sure either one of them is prepared to handle that. Not yet, anyway.

Not tonight.

Not tomorrow night, when the moon is full.

“Enough now,” Hal exhales. “Enough.”

And here is his true test, pushing Tom away. He does so quickly, a bit too roughly, but Tom reacts like he's been waiting for it, drawing back and half-turning so that they're facing each other once more.

They're both of them panting, and Tom's lips are parted and shining, flushed bright like he's been chewing on them, hard. “Tom,” Hal starts, “I –”

It's Tom who lunges forward this time, catching Hal's face in his hands and kissing him.

Now it's Hal's turn to make a surprised noise, and for a second, despite the closeness they've just experienced, it seems like he's going to pull away, or worse, shove Tom with more force than before. His arms come back up, and Tom is prepared to defend himself, even if his hands are shaking like he's freezing. But Hal's hands are treacherous, not violent, closing around Tom's shoulders and pulling him closer.

His lips slide against Tom's, then part, and they're suddenly joined at the mouth, kissing properly, like couples on telly, or in clubs. One of Hal's hands moves to the back of Tom's neck, long fingers pushing up into Tom's short hair, mapping the path of his worst scar. Their tongues find each other, touch experimentally and tangle, and if Tom weren't worked up enough before, now... now...

It's too much for him.

Too intense. His cock is swollen, straining against the front of his trousers, and he has to go. He has to, or he never will. Tom places his palm in the center of Hal's chest and pushes. They break apart, and Hal moves back in so that they kiss again, quickly, twice, before Tom pushes harder and slides backward at the same time, propelling himself off the bed and halfway across the room.

“Sorry,” he says, once he's steadied himself. “I can't.”

“Alright,” Hal replies, blinking rapidly before looking down and away. Giving Tom leave to exit, to save them both some embarrassment, only he doesn't. Not right away, because there's one more thing.

One question, then Tom can fly back to his own room. One question before he can even begin trying to sort this all out in his head.

“Tomorrow night,” he starts, somehow more shyly than when he'd offered to let Hal nibble on him, “it's, you know, my night.”

“Yes,” Hal confirms, his voice still strange and laboured, but calmer now. “So it is.”

“I was gonna transform in the woods,” Tom continues, “but with everything that's happenin', I think maybe it's a good idea if I stay here with you lot. In the cage, of course.”

“I shall sit with you,” Hal says.

“Will ya?”

“Of course I will.” As if he would say anything else. As if he could.

The way Tom's face lights up, Hal decides, is entirely worth one night spent in the cellar.

He'll have to tidy up down there first, but that, at least, can wait until morning.

“Cheers,” Tom says, and for a moment, Hal is certain he's going to say something else. But he doesn't, and the moment stretches on, on and on until they're just kind of staring at each other, and the awkwardness that had persisted before... before, threatens to return with a vengeance. “Well,” Tom says, finally, “good nigh' then.”

“Tom,” Hal says. “Wait.”

Tom pauses in the doorway, looks back over his shoulder. Hal clears his throat. “Thank you.”

Tom nods, once, and forgets to shut the door behind him when he leaves.

Hal closes his eyes and listens as Tom moves down the hall, faster and faster as he goes.

Seventeen steps spirit him away.