"It's not the load that breaks you down... it's the way you carry it."
It was years since her death now, but Annie still hadn't learned how not to hope. When things got bad, she could be as tough as anybody. But when things were good, she felt like her heart was having a good long stretch, spreading out love all around, wishing for the best. It didn't take much, just a little joy. This time it was a full week of peaceful nights. Watching telly, bookended by her boys. Hal at her right side, knitting a jumper for Eve. Tom sprawled out to her left.
Leo hadn't mentioned it in his list, but if you put on a history programme Hal would grumble at it like a grumpy old man. He'd listen to the dialogue in a costume drama and mutter about how "we never spoke like that." Or say that the bodices in another show were all wrong for the time period. Tonight he was carrying on about a documentary on the Globe Theatre: the eminent professor being interviewed on screen was an "insolent youth" who needed to get his facts straight. Apparently Hal felt very strongly about Elizabethan theatre. Annie listened to him rant and couldn't stifle her giggle. She glanced over at Tom nervously; he'd fallen asleep earlier and she didn't want to wake him. He was still exhausted from the full moon yesterday.
When she turned back to Hal, he was giving her a quizzical look. "What is it?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
"Hm?" she replied, just as quiet.
"Oh. I was just thinking... you were around back then, weren't you?" she nodded toward the telly.
"Of course I was."
"Yeah. And you must have... well, I'm just picturing you in a pair of those," she pointed at the screen, "those ridiculous puffy trousers, hose, and a," she gestured at her own throat, "ruff." She giggled again, hand raised to her mouth.
"I can't say how delighted I am to amuse you, Annie," Hal deadpanned.
"Aww," she said, giving his shoulder a nudge with hers. "Don't be like that. I bet you were very handsome."
"The ladies did love a well-turned calf," he admitted, with a little smirk.
"Yeah," she could easily imagine that. "But you have to admit, all of it looks a bit silly now."
"Everything will be silly one day," he said, like it was a certainty. The sky is blue, what goes up must come down, and with time everything familiar will grow strange.
It made her feel uncomfortable, glimpsing all those years. "I guess you'd know," Annie replied, her humour gone.
"I've seen it happen often enough."
"Not a very good thought, is it?" she asked. She'd found the way Hal acted funny, but now it just seemed so sad. How long would it be until she was like him? Remembering a world no one else did. Grumbling at the telly because younger people couldn't really understand, no matter how hard they tried.
Hal frowned. "Suppose not," he said quietly. Reaching out with care, he patted her shoulder.
She felt warmed that he'd notice how she was feeling and try to help. "Let's see what else is on," she said, picking up the remote. It didn't seem nice to tease him with history programmes anymore. She clicked through the channels until they found a cooking show he liked. She sent covert glances at him as they watched; he looked like he was making mental notes about the recipes. It was cute. She found herself hoping that he'd still be around, if she had to face a world grown strange one day.
That had been a couple days ago. All of it somehow came together to make Annie expect good things: telly and the company of friends, her own small portion of peace. But tonight, when the boys came home, Hal went straight up to his room and Tom flopped down beside her looking morose. Annie gave it time, hoping they'd come out of this mood all on their own. But she soon grew impatient.
"Where's Hal?" she asked Tom. "The news will be on soon." Since he'd moved in, he'd rarely missed it.
Tom shifted, frowning. "I don't think he'll be down. He's having one of his bad days." He lowered his voice on the last two words, as if to signify their importance.
"What happened? Another rude customer?"
"Nah, nothing like that. Nothin' happened. He's having trouble, that’s all."
Annie tilted her head. "How can you tell?"
"It's the way he looks at people sometimes, yeah?" Tom explained with a half-shrug. "Or doesn't look at 'em, like it's dangerous just looking. And there was--" he trailed off.
Tom looked her right in the eye. "Promise you won't kick him out?"
Jesus. What had Hal done? Annie didn't feel comfortable giving that kind of blanket immunity. "I don't know about that..." Tom looked so downcast, she hastened to reassure him. "But I do know that if something's bothering you, it's better to talk about it. And if he hasn't hurt anybody--"
"--well, then we can talk it out." She gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze. "And it'll be fine."
Tom bit his lip, then nodded. Digging in his pocket, he pulled out a crumpled up letter. "As we were comin' home, he gave me this," he said, handing it to her.
Annie looked it over. "A utility bill? For..." she squinted, tilting the letter toward the light, "Sandra Kinney?" Annie was confused. "Who's she?"
"Our last customer of the day," Tom said. "Hal said he found it at her table, but... why didn't he put it behind the counter like we always do? An' when he gave it to me, he looked guilty."
"Oh." Annie looked down at the innocuous envelope with new eyes. This was evidence of some kind of... vampire stalking thing. Her lip curled in disgust. Setting the letter down in her lap, she spread her hands out on either side of it, not wanting to hang onto it, but she couldn't let go of it either. She felt passing anger at Hal for having a 'bad day' and making her have to think about this. It wasn't very nice, but neither was stalking women, was it?
"I could hurt somebody when I transform," Tom said, bringing her attention back to him. "Just 'coz it hasn't happened yet don’t mean it won't. I have nightmares about it. But I don't have to go around liking the idea of it while I'm me, do I? I don't know." He scrubbed a hand over his face, shook his head. "I don't know. What's that like? How do you live with that. She was," he nodded at the letter in Annie's lap, "the lady, she was so nice. She had her little son with her. An' I just... don't know how." He bowed his head.
Annie didn't know either, and she was honest enough with herself to know that she didn't ever want to know, even if she could. Just thinking about it was bad enough. But she couldn't say that to Tom, could she? She rubbed his shoulders. "But you were there and it was okay. He," she picked up the envelope, "was strong enough to trust you with this when he couldn't trust himself. And everything's going to be all right now."
Tom looked up at her. "You don't have to say things jus' to make me feel better." He was very kind when he said it, but it made her heart hurt. Sometimes she wished he was more of the young boy she tended to think of him as. Then she could tell him comforting stories and he'd believe them. It would be nice to be able to make him feel safe just a little bit.
"It's not wishful thinking if we can make it true," she said finally. It was the best she could come up with -- for either of them.
He seemed to take comfort in that, nodding. "Okay."
Tapping the envelope against her leg, Annie frowned. "I should go talk to him. Shouldn't I?" There wasn't anyone else to do it. It would be unfair to push it off on Tom right now.
"I dunno. What can you say about a thing like that? 'I'm sorry you're feeling like killing people more than usual just now'?" Tom looked so helpless. "I haven't been able to get more than a word out of him all day."
"Still, I'll try." She couldn't just sit here and do nothing. It would make her hopeful platitudes look empty, for one thing.
"All right," Tom agreed. "But let me watch her?" he asked, nodding at Eve's bassinet.
Annie glanced between the two of them, shocked. "Do you really think...?"
"Not worth the risk, is it?"
"Okay." She pulled him into a quick hug before she left. He looked like he needed it.
Annie stood outside Hal's door, working up the courage to knock. She didn't know what to say. It worried her. But she'd found, since she became the unofficial leader around here, that most of the time anything would do. Someone just had to step up.
Biting her lip, she gave a rapid knock and pushed the door open before she lost her nerve.
Hal was doing press ups in the middle of the floor. It was a familiar sight, but something looked wrong. He was still in his work trousers and white shirt, which was getting awfully sweaty. Looking closer, she saw that his arms were shaking.
He kept going. He usually gave off a sense of focus when he worked out, but his pace now was intense. Feverish.
"Hal," she said again, sharper this time.
He turned his head to look at her without pausing. "What?" he panted. His face was dripping sweat, and his eyes looked glassy.
"Stop," she snapped. "What are you doing? Stop it."
He froze, looking up at her. Instead of rising in a smooth motion, he crumpled in on himself, hands and knees on the floor, arms still shaking.
"What?" he said again, still looking dazed.
To give herself something to do, Annie grabbed a towel off the stationary bike. Bending down, she put it across his shoulders.
"We need to talk," she said uneasily. Backing off, she sat down on his bed.
He turned to face her, sitting on the floor with his knees drawn up. He wasn't quite hugging them.
"Okay," he said. Nothing else. He just stared up at her.
Monosyllabic was a new side of him.
"How long were you doing that -- doing the press ups?" she asked, trying to start out easy.
Hal blinked slowly. "I don't know," he said. "Since I got home?"
"That was half an hour ago," Annie said, concerned.
"Okay," Annie said, diving in. "Tom told me you were having a bad day. And I guess you really are. Because this," she waved her hand, encompassing the sweaty, shaking mess he'd made of himself, "isn't... normal."
"I needed to focus," he replied, skirting the issue.
Annie frowned. He wasn't going to make this easy. Glancing around the room for inspiration, her eyes fell on the photo Hal kept of Leo above the fireplace. The older looking man's smile calmed her and made her feel sad all at once. Leo would know what to do. She wished he was here for Hal almost as much as she sometimes wished George and Nina and Mitchell would just be here for her and Eve.
But they weren't. Hal once called them Eve's "make do parents." Looking back down at him, she guessed she could be a make do Leo in a pinch. Even though his list of instructions hadn't said anything about this, she thought with some bitterness.
Annie wasted time straightening a wrinkle in her grey wrap. "Okay." Time to bring out the big guns. "I saw the envelope."
Hal gave her the same line he'd given Tom. "I forgot it in my apron."
Annie nodded. "Yeah. I don't think you should lie to me about this," she said, as nicely as she could. "You can lie about drinking milk straight from the carton and whose turn it is to take out the trash and--and things like that. But not about this. Not about... how you were thinking about stalking some poor woman from the cafe. That's... that's not something you keep to yourself."
As she spoke, Hal had wrapped his arms tighter around his knees, his body language going full on self-protective. His gaze fixed on the wall behind her, he asked, "Do you want me to leave?" There was a flat, despairing quality to his voice.
"No!" she said, horrified at how badly this was going. "What? No! I'm trying to help. Okay?" She softened her voice, "I'm just trying to help. Talk to me?"
"Okay," he started. "That woman," he took a breath, flexing his hand as if was wishing he had a domino tile nearby. "I memorized her address the moment I saw it. I gave the envelope to Tom but," he raised his index finger to his head, pressed it hard against his temple, "it's still here. I remember... how she smells. Where she lives. And I keep thinking about it." He shuddered, exhaling a rough breath. "It's like I'm drowning. It's -- I just want it to stop, Annie."
He looked so young and scared, it made her heart hurt. She could see tears forming before he blinked them back.
"But you let it go," she said, grasping to reassure him. "You let it go, and you let Tom know what was going on, even if you didn't really say. That was good. Then you came in here and..." went a bit mental, "tried to focus. You did the right thing."
"It isn't enough," he said. Ever the perfectionist.
"Did this happen before, when you were with Leo?"
"Not often. It was a more stable environment," he explained. "Less people."
He didn't seem to mean it as an accusation, but Annie felt bad. He had told her things would get worse if he had to go out around humans, but she'd had to push him out there anyway.
"But you were doing better," Annie said, confused. "With the journalist and... Eve. You've been doing better."
Why was this happening now?
Shaking his head, Hal sighed. "It doesn't work like that. It's not a switch I have to flip on, or something that gets easier over time. It's an addiction. It's always going to be there. Better sometimes, but it can always get worse. Every day is a fight." He swallowed, the muscles of his throat flexing. "Do you know, I envy alcoholics?" He gave a bitter laugh. "I used to hear programmes about them on the radio and wish I had their problem instead. If I were an alcoholic, I could go to a meeting on a bad day. Talk to a sponsor. But I don't... there's no support group for this. No sponsors. I used to have Leo..."
"He didn't mention any of this in his list of instructions," Annie said, taking the opportunity to ask about that. "Why is that?"
"He wanted you to take me in," Hal said. "He was a good man, but he wasn't above leaving a few things out."
"But he seemed so nice," Annie marveled, glancing up at the photograph. "Grandfatherly."
Hal laughed for real now, a warm chuckle. "He was the strongest person I've ever met. And the fiercest. When he thought something was right, he'd do anything to make it happen." Hal shrugged.
"Well, since he didn't say, why don't you tell me what he'd do, if he was here?"
"He'd give me tasks to focus on," he said. "Orders, so I didn't have to think. Sometimes... on one of the beds, we had these straps..."
Annie made a face. "He tied you up?" It sounded wrong, to do that to your friend. Though there was that one time George bought a cage...
"They were the same straps we had us use on him during the full moon, Annie." His posture was straighter now; he was ashamed of a lot of things, but not this. "We took care of each other. The times he did it... it was a kindness. I was fighting so hard, and it was only when I was restrained that I could finally breathe. It was the only way I could stop being so afraid."
The question was so awkward it made Annie cringe, but she had to ask. "Do you need something like that right now?"
Hal shrugged. "It doesn't work if I'm the one to decide. When I can't trust myself, I need someone else to..." he raised his hand, fluttered it vaguely in midair, and then dropped it back down to his knees, "make the decisions."
"Okay." The whole idea was too uncomfortable. She really wanted to save it for a last resort. "I think we should try something else first."
"You said tasks, orders?" she ventured.
Annie wasn't sure how to go about giving a grown man orders. She'd never been in the military or police, where that kind of thing happened. She guessed it happened in prison, too. Did that make her his jailer?
Putting aside the unsettling thought, she focused on the most obvious task. "First, take a shower. A quick one. Fifteen minutes?" Annie flicked her fingers in his direction. "You're a mess."
He actually smiled at her, one of his disarmingly sweet smiles. It made her feel terribly responsible. Without another word, he got up and walked out, his steps sure and smooth. He looked confident for the first time since she'd come up to talk.
Annie stood and paced the room. She had to figure out what was next in this odd game of Simon Says.
When Hal came back in, she could feel the damp warmth of the shower coming off him. He smelled citrus-y, too, like the cheap shampoo he and Tom used. There was a towel around his waist, and one over his shoulders.
"Um," Annie said, distracted by how low the towel was riding on his hips.
He raised his eyebrows at her. "I need to dress."
"Oh!" Blushing, Annie turned her back. "Go ahead," she mumbled, wondering if she should rent-a-ghost out. Or would that ruin the authoritarian image she was supposed to be cultivating?
He didn't seem bothered by her presence. She heard him rummaging around for a minute, and then he said "Done."
Turning back around, she saw he'd put on a black Henley and trousers. He was rubbing a towel through his hair casually, his feet still bare. Minutes passed in silence. When he was done with the towel, he fidgeted with it. "Is there... a plan?" he asked.
"Yes!" Annie said, relieved to have him start the conversation. "Yes. There is definitely a plan," she tried to sound very confident and went a little overboard with it. "And a very well planned plan it is!" she enthused, then winced at herself.
Hal nodded at her like he was humoring a crazy person. "Do I get to know what the plan is?" he asked. The words themselves were abrupt, but his voice soft and controlled. She guessed he was making an effort not to snap at her.
"Um. Yeah!" Annie grabbed up the knitting she'd found. Holding it out to him she said, "You promised me this days ago."
"I did," he admitted. "I'm sorry?"
Annie waved her hand, brushing apologies aside. "How long would it take you to finish it?"
He pursed his lips. "At this stage," he said, looking at it thoughtfully, "-- about three or four hours."
"Okay. Good," she said. "You're going to take this," she stepped forward, pressing the unfinished baby jumper into his hands, "sit there," she pointed to his small white couch, "and finish it."
Looking down at the item in his hand, he seemed unconvinced.
"...is that not distracting enough? I'm going to be Taskmaster Annie and supervise. Like, grrr! Eyes on your task!" Her impression of Taskmaster Annie was met with a nonplussed look from Hal. "...It will help if I'm here, right?" She just figured it would.
"Yeah," he said. "Thank you." He walked over to the couch and settled in.
"Can I borrow one of your...?" Annie asked, gesturing at his small bookshelf.
"Feel free," he replied without looking up from the knitting needles.
Annie picked a book at random and then sat crossed-legged at the end of his bed, trying to focus on the words instead of the situation.
"Ugh," Annie harrumphed, shutting the book decisively.
"Is something wrong?" Hal asked, looking up. His eyebrows were furrowed in concern.
Feeling silly, Annie said. "It's just... this book," she held it up in his direction so he could see the title: 'The Brothers Karamazov.' "I forgot how depressing it is."
The tension around his eyes relaxed. "Life is depressing," he said, like it was some kind of deep thought.
Annie rolled her eyes. As if she didn't already know that! Who exactly was spending her night keeping her friend from killing people? While dead? This girl! Annie Sawyer knew depressing as well as anybody. "Yes!" she said. "That's my point. Life is depressing. I don't know why you'd want that in your books, too. Why not read something nice?" she asked, genuinely curious.
"Reading can help you escape," Hal said. "Or it can help you look at yourself. I prefer the latter."
That made sense. If anybody was a dark introspection kind of bloke, it was Hal. "You're a bit Russian, aren't you," she joked, crinkling her nose.
The corner of Hal's lips quirked. "Far worse than that, I should think," he joked back. Only it wasn't that funny because it was so true. He could be far worse than a lot of things in his way.
"Yeah," Annie replied, pushing that thought away. She got up to check the bookshelf for more options. "Do you have any Austen or is it all doom and gloom in here?" she mused, running her fingers over the titles.
"You'll find a copy of 'Persuasion' on the second shelf," he offered.
"Sounds about right," she said, picking it up. "Broken promises and regret. Darkest thing she ever wrote. I can see why you have it!" She gave him a smile to ease the sting of her words.
"I consider its conclusion the most hopeful of all her work," Hal defended, appearing unruffled by her teasing.
"Oh?" Annie settled back down on his bed, sitting cross-legged. She brushed her fingers over the book's green leather cover. "Why do you say that?"
As he spoke, she watched his hands work steadily on the jumper, "Austen didn't shy away from the... 'doom and gloom.' Because of that, the reconciliation feels earned. If a writer is going to ask you to believe in a hopeful conclusion, it has to feel earned. Otherwise... it has no weight. It's just an empty lie. You might as well read about Father Christmas."
He seemed earnest, but he was calm about it. He spoke as if they were at a book club and he was just letting her know his opinion. "You've thought a lot about this," she said, impressed, even though she disagreed. What was wrong with Father Christmas exactly?
"I've had a lot of time on my hands," he replied, giving her a wry smile.
Annie grinned back, opening the book.
'Persuasion' wound along its familiar path, years of regret carried forward into reconciliation, and all of Anne Elliot's sorrows finally swallowed up in joy. Except... Annie read aloud from the last passage, "'the dread of a future war was all that could dim her sunshine.'" Looking up at Hal, she said: "Most hopeful ending? I don't know..." As she spoke, Annie saw that he was leaning back against the couch with his hands resting on his knees, a finished baby jumper beside him. He was giving her one of his disarmingly tender looks. It always made her feel warm and a little flustered when he did that.
"You've been waiting?" she asked.
"Not long." He gave her a sweet little smile. "I didn't like to interrupt you two."
"You and Jane," he clarified, pointing at the book in her lap.
"Ooh," Annie said, delighted to think of it like that. Her and Jane, having a chat across the centuries. "She's good company, isn't she?"
"The very best," he agreed. "I've nearly lost count of the times I've read that book, in one edition or another."
A thought occurred to Annie. "Did you get to read it when it first came out?"
Hal's expression froze. "I..." His hands flexed against his knees. "I was occupied with other pursuits."
It was obvious from the careful way he said it that he'd been wreaking havoc. Annie felt her heart sink. "You know," she said, "it's silly, but I was pretending that we were just ordinary people. Friends sharing a quiet evening, knitting and reading together, because it was nice and we wanted to instead of..." She brushed her hair back from her face, shrugged. "Silly of me," she repeated.
"Not silly at all," he assured her, leaning forward. "It can be that, too. It was. But it doesn't help pretending the rest of it isn't there as well."
"Doesn't it?" Annie asked. "Since I've died, and even before that, I can't tell you how often denial has been the only thing that let me feel okay." She gave him a self-deprecating smile. "I've grown rather attached to it."
As she spoke, his expression softened. "I can understand that," he said, "but it's different for me. I can't have that. It's not safe."
"It would be too easy to start making excuses for myself. Justifications for the things I've done. From there it's a slippery slope to the way I used to think. Before." He shook his head. "You'd be amazed at what can be rationalised."
Annie pondered that. "When you've wanted to talk to me before," she said, "is this the kind of thing you meant?" It wasn't bad at all.
"Why?” he asked, giving her a searching look. “What were you expecting?”
"I don't know," she said, feeling relieved. "Less psychology and more... gory details, I guess?"
"I don't think gory details would be good for either of us."
"Well that's okay, then." She smiled. "You can talk to me whenever you want. If it’s like this."
"You're very kind," he said. It was a common enough phrase, but he said it like he meant it, awkward intensity in full swing. And his expression... Annie felt her heart give a little jolt. He was looking at her like she was wonderful.
"Well, I've got you slaving away all night, haven't I?" she joked, changing the subject. "That doesn't sound very nice of me. Speaking of... let me get a look at the new jumper?" she asked, patting a spot beside her on the bed.
He came over and sat down close enough that their arms brushed. Annie liked that, but wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. Or the adoring looks.
"I have yet to add buttons," he said as he handed her the lilac jumper.
She spread it out over her knee, admiring his work. The main body of it was done in a loosely knit pattern which closed into a tighter design at the collar and cuffs. "That's okay. It looks great. I like the, um...?" she brushed her fingers over the tighter knit, and looked at him questioningly.
"Garter stitch," he said. "It's quite easy. And the openwork," he continued, "is a ribbed eyelet pattern of only moderate complexity."
"Oh," she said, not entirely following the technical terms. "Why do you do that?"
"Do... what?" he asked, looking between her and the jumper. "Garter stitch? I find that the effect, when combined with openwork is--"
"No. Um. I mean -- when you make something, you always tell me that it's not that special or you point out some flaw I'd never even notice. Why do you do that?"
"Oh." He smoothed the fabric of his trousers and then clasped his hands together. "I suppose I don't want you to think it's better than it is. I'm afraid you'll be disappointed."
He was talking about more than baby clothes, and they both knew it. "You haven't disappointed me yet," she said.
He closed his eyes, as if he was soaking up her words. "It will happen," he said quietly. He took a breath and opened his eyes, looked straight at her. "It can hardly be worth the effort."
Annie reached out, clasping his hand. "It is."
He moved his hand. She thought he was going to pull away, but instead he just tilted it as if admiring the way it looked beneath hers. Then he said, "You have such lovely hands," and that was when it happened. That was when all his admiring looks and the sheer simple human need to reach out became too much. Annie felt a swell of affection for him and darted forward, pressing a kiss low on his jaw. Even in the heat of the moment she wasn't brave enough to go for his lips.
He stilled, and then sighed. He turned his hand over, stroking his thumb across hers. Taking that as encouragement, Annie continued, pressing soft kisses along his jaw, making her way to the tender spot beneath his earlobe. He smelled good--up close the citrus shampoo he used had a note of mint --and he felt nice too. Warm and solid. Not sickly hot the way humans and werewolves felt, just... cozy.
Annie lingered against him, all but nuzzling his neck, but she didn't go further. It didn't seem right. They were both feeling vulnerable; they might need to act like this never happened tomorrow. And anything short of lip to lip contact was deniable in Annie's book. Besides, it was kind of nice to be in control, just enjoying the sensation of wanting and touching at her own leisurely pace. As she went along, she heard him making a soft, delighted sound low in his throat and it was so delicious she wanted to climb into his lap and devour him. When it got too frustrating to continue without turning this into a proper snog, Annie brought her other hand up, stroking it gently through the soft hairs at the back of his neck and then pulled away. It was a clear signal that they were done, and he took it as such.
"Um," he said. He turned to look at her, his eyes bright and a bit dazed. He looked so pretty like that."What's... uh." He cleared his throat. "What's next? The next... assignment."
He was really trying to collect himself. It was sweet. "Oh, bed, I guess," she said.
His eyes widened. "Bed?" he choked out, pulling his hand away from hers.
Annie winced. "To sleep!" she clarified. "For sleeping. Just sleeping. You should sleep." He thought, what, she was going to jump him when they hadn’t even had a proper kiss? Please! She was not a cheap date, no matter how cute the bloke. "It's gone midnight," she added, standing.
"Well, goodnight, then. I'll just," she waved at the door, "go, then."
Hal picked the jumper up of his bed, held it out to her. "Don't forget your..."
"Oh! Yes. Thanks." She took it from his hand, nodding. "Thanks. Thank you." She gave him a tight smile and then didn't so much open the door and leave as flicker, losing her solidity, and pass straight through it in her haste.