“Hal,” Annie says, “we need to talk.”
She hooks one foot around the leg of a chair, sliding it out from under the table and sinking into it in a fluid, practiced motion, both hands cupped around a steaming mug of tea. “About Tom, Hal.”
Ten seconds pass in silence. Fifteen, and Annie sighs. “Hal?”
Twenty, and Hal looks up from the newspaper he's been hiding behind. He folds it in half once, then again before carefully placing it on the table in front of him.
“Well,” she starts again, her tone a little forced-nice, a little plain annoyed. She may be getting used to Hal's habits, learning to ignore the ones that harm nothing and tolerating those that simply mean things are never where she leaves them anymore, but she doesn’t actually have to enjoy them.
She sets down the mug, her favorite these days, and Hal bites back the urge to reach across the table, turning it so that the handle is parallel to the mural wall. “As you probably know, tonight's the full moon, and Tom's decided he wants to transform here, in the house, rather than in the woods.”
“I'm aware,” Hal says, and he is. In fact, he had spent most of the afternoon down in the cellar, cleaning. Preparing things, once Tom had left for his shift at the cafe and Annie had taken Eve to the park. “What of it?”
“Only that it's the first time he's transformed since George left us, and I'm wondering if, just maybe, he shouldn't be alone?”
She turns the mug herself, just a fraction, so that it's almost parallel – almost, but not quite, which is somehow worse. Hal's fingertips tap out a practiced, code-like rhythm on the underside of the table. “I mean, I know he's done it loads of times. His whole life, actually. But I think tonight might be extra hard on him because of, you know. Negative associations.”
“So I was thinking, I know it's not on the rota, but,” Annie pauses, turns the mug back in the opposite direction. “Perhaps you could look after Eve tonight, and I could offer to, you know, sit downstairs with Tom? I did it for George sometimes, and it's not as if Tom can do me any real damage if he breaks out of the cage.”
“I'm sure he'll appreciate that very much,” Hal replies, flatly.
“I mean, we're a family now, yeah?” Annie continues. “And that's what family does. They watch out for each other, take care of each other, especially when one of them is going through something difficult.”
“They tell each other everything,” she says, louder. “There are no secrets!” She puts a flourish on the last two words, shaking her index finger emphatically, like she's scolding Hal, a man over five hundred years her senior.
Hal narrows his gaze at her slightly.
“Are you feeling alright, Annie?” he asks.
The sound of her palms coming down hard on the tabletop startles him back into silence, a splash of tea overspilling the rim of her mug, raspberry-red sliding down the side of the porcelain in rivulets to settle in a tiny pool. “Hal!”
“Jesus!” He blinks at her, twice. “What is it?”
“I heard the pair of you in your room last night,” she says. “I know he asked you to stay with him. How long were you going to let me prattle on about it before saying something?”
“How long were you going to pretend you didn't know?”
Annie lowers her voice, a bit, folding her hands in front of her, mindful of the spilled tea despite the incorporeal nature of her cardigan. “Fair enough.”
“You shouldn't go about listening to people,” Hal says, slowly, testing what she actually knows. “Even if it is your house.”
“It's our house,” Annie corrects him, “and it wasn't intentional. Not like I was hanging on the window ledge or anything. So, what's going on, then?”
“Are the two of you,” she pitches her voice lower, “the two of you?”
“Tom was being kind, that's all.” Never mind the fact that his kindness had led to kissing, or that the memory of that has been replaying in Hal's mind all day, technicolor vivid, so intense that he had done an extra half-hour's worth of press-ups in an attempt to work through his frustration.
It hadn't helped much. And frustrated, he has known for centuries, is not a good state for him to be in.
Annie arches a shapely eyebrow.
“He's very generous,” she says, “isn't he? Very sweet, our Tom.”
“I suppose he is.”
“Sweet, and inexperienced.”
Hal swallows thickly. His gaze flicks down to his lap, back to Annie's face, a pie-chart of emotions ranging from concerned to proud, interested to affectionate, uneasy to strangely pleased.
Annie's mask, Hal thinks. She's become something of a shape-shifter recently.
He considers her words for a long time, watching the tea-splash crawl slowly closer to Annie's sleeve with each thrum of his fingers. She doesn't seem to notice it at all anymore, her dark eyes fixed on Hal, waiting. “Tom is an adult,” he finally settles on. “I don't believe he's as naive as you think.”
“Maybe he's not as worldly as you think,” she replies, mask distorting again, shifting into that of the protector, the appointed guardian, and Hal can't stop the smile that splits his own face, then. If there's anything in the world Tom isn't, it's worldly, and the idea of Annie giving him, either of them, “the talk,” as it were, is almost too absurd to handle.
On the other hand, it is Tom.
“Don't worry,” Hal says, smile fading, quick as it had appeared. “I won't let it happen again.”
“Oh!” Annie shakes her head, dark curls spilling over her cheeks. “I didn't mean that. Of course I want you, both of you, to be happy. And if that means –”
She stops. “What does it mean, Hal?”
“I'm not –” The knob on the front door rattles.
As always, the very air in the room seems to thicken with anticipation, vampire and ghost falling silent immediately, eyes locked together, both tensed to rise from the table. To flee, fight, whatever the situation might call for. Seconds feel like hours until they hear the familiar sound of keys in the lock, tension finally dissolving when Tom announces himself. “Only me!”
Annie and Hal breathe once more. For what it's worth.
With a warning look, Hal rises from the table before Tom enters the room. He finds a stray dishtowel on the bar top and occupies himself with it, avoiding Tom’s eyes as he makes his own way over to Annie, unceremoniously dropping a stack of three polystyrene boxes on top of Hal's newspaper, falling into his abandoned seat with significantly less grace. He shucks off his long coat. “Alrigh', Annie?”
Hal finds Annie's eyes over Tom's shoulder, shakes his head. A silent plea for mercy.
“No major catastrophes,” Annie says. “Although this one,” she cocks her head toward Hal, “forgot it was his turn to do the washing up.”
“I already told you, I'll do it tomorrow,” Hal clips. Annie purses her lips.
“Long day, Tom?”
Thank you, Hal mouths, and rejoins them, lifting Annie's mug with one hand, wiping up the spilled tea with the other.
“The longest,” Tom says. “I brough' food.”
“Lovely!” Annie perks up. “Oh, I've had the weirdest urge all day to smell some chips.”
“It smells like grease and salt and oil,” Hal mutters, finally looking at Tom, a cursory glance that finds Tom's eyes lifting to meet his. Trapping him, as easily and effectively as he had last night with four seemingly innocuous words.
You could use me.
Several seconds crawl by, and Annie shoves back from the table, nearly knocking Hal against the wall in the process. He clears his throat loudly and moves aside.
“Well,” she says, “you boys have fun tonight. If anyone cares, I have got a ripping evening planned myself. Chamomile, and I think it's time Eve was introduced to a little program called The Real Hustle.”
Before either Hal or Tom can respond, Annie is gone, replaced by empty space, nothing left between them. No distractions.
“We should... probably talk,” Hal eventually says, same as Annie had with him, only stilted and awkward. But she had been right; this is what one does in situations like this, at least as far as Hal is able to remember. You talk, so that things don't go unsaid, aren't left to fester, turning confused and leading to misunderstandings.
The mottled skin on his arm where Tom's blood had burned him seems to sing out in protest. “Do you actually want to talk?”
“I want,” Tom says after a long pause, “to take a shower before it starts.”
A wash of relief, and Hal nods, once, in understanding. “I'll be downstairs when you're ready.”
He carries Annie's abandoned mug into the kitchen, sets it in the sink before taking the stairs leading down into the cellar two at a time. The motion evokes a string of memories, some disturbing, some bittersweet.
It's hardly the first time he's babysat a wolf.
Leo would never have allowed Hal to follow him into the woods, on those rare occasions when he transformed outside of his safe room. When the wolf needed to run. If he scented a vampire, he would say, he would attack it, whether he loved that vampire or not. And he had not loved Hal well in the early days.
He first elected to help Hal, his captor, his tormentor, not out of kindness, but because it was a way out. Otherwise, he would have died in a fight, at the hand of another wolf, or a human. Whatever the vampires found most entertaining that particular month. Or, Hal himself would have killed him. Snapped his neck the moment he stopped being amusing in the ring.
Even now, it astounds Hal that Leo was ever able to see goodness in him. He always had, he would confess much later. Right from the start. But it took years for Leo to begin forgiving him.
It was more than Hal deserved, and once that happened, Leo had trusted Hal and no one else to make certain he was secure, safe during his transformations, though the cage (and the straps that came later, when Leo's health began to fail) would always be a sore reminder of their beginnings.
That much, Hal thinks, he did deserve.
Now, he crosses the cellar, touches the steel bars of the cage before him. He curls his fingers around two and rattles them, testing their strength for probably the twentieth time. Tom is stronger, much stronger, than Leo had been near the end. Maybe even stronger than Leo in his prime. And, their recent intimacy notwithstanding, the two of them aren't half as close.
The bars are secure, Hal thinks. And there's Annie, just upstairs.
Beside the chair – one of the good ones, from the living room – he's set up opposite the cage, there's a small, polished table, supporting a lamp with a brand new bulb and Hal's copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Five minutes pass, and he thinks about picking it up, then decides he wouldn't be able to get through a chapter before Tom comes down. The very notion of that nags at him until he starts to chew his fingernails, stopping only when he hears the familiar groan of pipes indicating the shower has been turned off.
Nearly fourteen minutes later, he counts Tom's steps as they carry him down the hall, then down the big staircase.
The door at the top of the cellar bangs open, closes more carefully, and then there is Tom, shirtless and no longer smelling like the cafe.
He smells like Tom now, Hal thinks, sense-memory of his scent filling Hal's nose, followed shortly by the phantom sensation of Tom's skin beneath his lips, his mouth working against Hal's, clumsy and hot at the same time. There's something else, too: sharp spice of shaving cream, softer smell of soap.
Tom stops at the bottom of the stairs, hands resting on his hips just above the waist of his low-slung trousers. He scans the room, not looking at the cage in the far corner. Ignoring it, the vague threat of it, much like Hal had initially tried to ignore him.
Old furniture stashed away by the bed and breakfast, when it had actually functioned as advertised, had been stored down here with little attention to detail and even less care for those items that might be considered antique. Chairs with torn upholstery were stacked in puzzling pyramids, bookshelves pushed against walls with their shelves facing inward – rage inducing. Lamps without bulbs and bedside tables with unreliable legs, mattresses with curious stains have all been rearranged since, reassembled so that now the room more closely resembles a secondhand furniture shop than a skip.
“So?” Hal asks, standing to meet him, “what do you think?”
“Brilliant,” Tom says, grinning, moving toward him, “cheers.”
When he's close enough to touch, Hal reaches out, mostly to prove that he still can. His hastily spoken words to Annie, his stern warnings to himself not to let this... whatever it is, go any further, are forgotten as easily as he lifts his hand.
There – the backs of his fingers brush the inside of Tom's elbow, skirt down his forearm to the soft skin of his inner wrist, clasping it loosely. Tom follows his lead and steps up closer, so that their chests are separated by an inch's worth of space. Less than that. Hal looks down and sees Tom breathing, that subtle rise and fall, but mostly he sees Tom's face and is reminded fiercely of the day they met, when they faced-off in that filthy pawnshop.
How badly he'd wanted to kill that day. The shopkeeper or Tom, either would have sufficed.
Things have changed so much since then, it's frightening. In that moment, edged by grief and hunger, splitting the skin of Tom's throat would have been entirely worth the pain of his blood. Now, like some Pavlovian experiment, Hal does not salivate at the thought of blood in Tom's presence; his body reacts in other ways instead.
“I'm going to kiss you again,” he says, his instinct to protect, to be gentle with Tom momentarily overriding the more powerful urge to throw him bodily against the wall opposite and simply have him, “if that's alright.”
“Wicked,” Tom says, his voice a little lower, more lust-fueled than Hal is expecting. The wolf vibrating under the surface of his skin, the first stage of the change. Hal leans down and presses his lips to Tom's, once, quick, then again, lingering. Tom opens his mouth almost immediately, offering Hal his tongue, sweet and wet. He tastes crisp, clean like toothpaste and something else, something Hal is coming to associate exclusively with Tom. A forest stream after the first melt of snow in the spring.
Hal drops Tom's hand and brings both of his up, palming up Tom's sides, moving around to his back and pulling him in flush. His skin is warmer than it was last night, almost feverish. Another indication that the transformation is close.
They shouldn't waste any time, then.
With a soft moan, Hal lets go, licking into Tom, mapping the planes and ridges of his teeth, the roof of his mouth with his tongue. It's wholly different to the first time, but familiar all the same. Familial. Tom breathes hard and fast when they break apart, eyes roaming Hal's face frenetically, and Hal brings one hand to curve around the back of Tom's neck, holding him still.
He wants to say something, anything, to calm the wolf down, so they can draw these moments out, make them last long enough for Hal to memorize every facet. A fantasy to draw on later, when the wolf is all there is, raging against those bars, wanting to kill him. But he feels disarmed, like he had when they were on his bed, clever mind and witty tongue failing him, leaving few adequate words to choose from.
He bows his head, presses his lips chastely against Tom's temple.
“I'm sorry if I did anything... untoward last night,” he says, and promptly feels like an idiot.
“I don't – ah –”
Tom clutches his midsection, just briefly, doubling over in Hal's grasp, reeling for a moment before straightening again. “Not sure I minded much.” Hal frowns.
“It's coming, isn't it?” he asks, and Tom advances on him, suddenly, seizing his shoulders, momentum carrying both of them across the room, back to the chair. Hal falls to sit, and Tom jumps on top of him like it's nothing, poised above like a predatory animal. There's just enough room for him to bracket Hal's waist with his strong thighs, pinning him, hands pressing Hal's wrists hard into the chair's arms. The reaction this provokes is intense and unexpected, and Hal has to close his eyes for several seconds just to find his bearings.
When he opens them again, Tom's are right there, wild, searching Hal's face, for permission or validation. He gets both; Hal sucks in a deep, desperate pull of air and nods. Tom bends his face down, brushes his cheek against Hal's.
“I can feel ya,” he says, barely louder than a breath.
“Oh,” says Hal, “yes.”
Tom growls, grinds down against him, hard as Hal is and twice as eager. It gives Hal pause; moving too fast could be dangerous. Already Hal feels it, burning through his blood, his gut. Lust that for centuries meant the same thing as death.
He could throw Tom off in a second, but he doesn't. A whole new exercise in self-control. “Is this you,” he asks, “or the beast?” Wondering aloud more than anything.
“Same thing, innit?” Tom finds Hal's lips with his, kisses him roughly, almost too roughly – and Hal isn't the only dangerous one. Tom's toxic blood, the threat of it and the wolf, both so close.
“Wait.” Hal frees his hands easily, wraps his arms around Tom's waist and slides them both forward in the chair so that Tom can better straddle his hips.
He slides one hand under Tom's right thigh, slots the other into the small of his back for support. “There.” In this position, they can rock against each other, cocks pressed up close. Tom moans his approval into Hal, and Hal hitches him up, meeting his pressure with equal opposing force.
The untempered pleasure of it wraps around him tightly, sends his mind spinning, and there's no point fighting this, he thinks, none at all. “You feel so good,” he mumbles, barely registering the sound of his own voice. It's been decades since he's said anything like that to anyone, and the words are foreign, strange, like speaking a language he's no longer fluent in.
Tom doesn't respond, is beyond response, rutting against Hal faster, more urgent, eager to beat the clock, and there's a sharp spike of disappointment in Hal that they aren't able to take their time. This writhing creature in his lap does not match up in his mind with the Tom who'd come to his room last night, trusting yet hesitant, willing and reluctant in equal measure – no. This Tom is all hunger and impatience, and he makes Hal want to lose control. The risk they take is intoxicating.
Tom is intoxicating.
They're both of them making noises, and Hal tugs Tom in closer, kissing him deep and long, stifling the sounds. Then Tom's motions go uneven, stuttering, his eyes slip shut, and he's trying to speak.
“Not yet,” he says, when Hal's mouth leaves his, moving down to the curve of his neck, that tempting vein that pulses with poison. “Not now.” Whether he means to delay his release or he's talking to the wolf, Hal does not know, but he kisses Tom's neck lightly before lifting his face to whisper in his ear.
“Yes,” Hal says, quiet but sharp, like it's an order, “now. Go on.” He pushes up with his hips, cock straining against the few, maddeningly thin layers of fabric that separate them, and Tom shudders with his entire body.
Hal feels it, passing through Tom and into him where they're joined. He's not there yet himself, not quite, but he's had centuries of practice, and decades of training himself to hold back. It hardly seems to matter, anyway. Tom's broken-off sigh, the choked way he starts to say Hal's name then stops, is rewarding enough.
Tom drops his forehead onto Hal's shoulder, trying to catch his breath, and Hal soothes him through the aftershocks, rubbing idle circles on his back, tracing the lines of his scars until Tom lifts his face again.
“You –” he starts, and it's all he can manage. The next wave of pain nearly pitches him off the chair, only Hal is still holding him.
“Alright,” Hal says. “It's time.”
Pushing off the chair, he half-carries, half-drags Tom over to the cage, their mouths finding each other's several more times between Tom's agonized moans, losing his soiled clothing along the way. Hal will deal with them. Later.
He's starting to think there isn't much he wouldn't lower himself to do for Tom. “I'll be here,” he says, softly, ushering Tom into the cage, “right on the stairs.”
The chair, still warm from both of them, is displaced from their coupling, but he feels no pull to readjust it. More so, he doesn’t want to sit there while Tom is like this. “I'll stay all night. I promise.” Like it's Tom's first time. Only prison is never easy for the beast who wants to run, however often he might lock himself away.
Suffer well, Hal had used to whisper, sometimes, with venom in his voice and the taste of some innocent's blood on his tongue, taunting the chained wolves before turning off the lights, leaving them alone in the dark. “See you,” he says now, securing the cage door and backing away, “in the morning.”
He retreats to the bottom step, unable to look away as Tom's bones begin to break.