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A Heartbeat Away

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Tom was crashing around in the kitchen again. Hal gritted his teeth. The dominoes on the table in front of him were shaking. He took a deep slow breath and then continued standing the ivory pieces up. Each one was an exact even space apart from the one before it, just as Leo had instructed him.

 

Hal’s hand trembled. There would be no more instructions, there were only dominoes left now.

 

A mug slammed down onto the table, coffee almost sloshing over the sides. Hal glared up at Tom tightly, the urge to bare his fangs extremely strong. Instead he managed to grit out obvious furious words.

 

“I prefer tea, thank you.”

 

Tom shook his head. “Nah, you’ve been sat there for ages. You need a bit o’ life in ya.”

 

Before Hal could even begin to respond to that, Tom dropped something amongst the dominoes. It was an unopened pack of playing cards. “You could do with a change of scenery an’ all. Staring at them dominoes all the time’s gotta be really boring.”

 

Hal’s expression twisted. There were so many things wrong with those sentences – the very idea of more changes could send him in extremely dangerous directions. His hand twitched towards the cards though. Leo and Pearl used to play cards together, teaching each other games and laughing in the lamplight.

 

He swallowed. His hands closed tightly around the cards.

 

“I……thank you.”

 

He kept his eyes down as he began laying the cards out for Patience. Tom grinned and headed back into the kitchen, apparently intent on destroying more crockery. Hal winced at the noise, but he didn’t ask the werewolf to stop.

 

*

 

The café was crowded that afternoon. Hal was precisely washing dishes and humming a Four Seasons song, trying to block out the abysmal music playing on the radio. He wasn’t entirely successful.

 

Tom was laughing with the customers. How did he do that? He appeared to be genuinely enjoying human company. He apparently had a good leash on his animal instincts since he was able to easily do his job without once attacking the chattel he served. It was, Hal remembered, all that Tom knew. As far as Tom was concerned, the wolf had always been there under his skin. He wore it well.

 

Hal realised he was staring again and attacked the greasy pan with renewed vigour.

 

He was absolutely not listening to Tom’s off-key singing.

 

*

 

Annie had taken to smiling at Hal a lot. It made him want to bare his teeth. She was doing it again now. He could feel her gaze behind him. He tried to concentrate on placing another Jenga block onto the tower. He made a Jenga tower once a day now and then carefully dismantled it. It was another gift from Tom.

 

He was trying not to think about Tom.

 

Annie placed a cup of tea down near him. When he reluctantly lifted his gaze to thank her, he got a view of her warm understanding eyes. It made something sharp and painful needle at his veins. She didn’t say a word, just smiled and headed towards the sofa. That made Hal feel worse.

 

The TV clicked on. Hal shakily lifted another brick.

 

He missed the solid weight of Tom at his side.

 

*

 

Another magazine was left in the café. It was covered with familiar pictures of females in states of extreme undress. Tom wrinkled his noise and said he wasn’t going to touch it. Hal used a handful of his apron to throw it out.

 

Tom’s attitude to such things always took Hal aback. Tom was insistent on being respectful and talked about ‘courting.’ Hal doubted that many of their customers even knew what the term meant. Tom was always intriguing, even when he was being irritating.

 

The magazine sparked another conversation about dating. Hal listened carefully to Tom, between the barbs they threw at each other. He was trying to understand the layers, trying to understand his own fascination with the werewolf.

 

He wasn’t getting very far.

 

*

 

Tom’s heartbeat was surprisingly steady. Yes, Hal had learnt Tom’s heartbeat, and Eve’s, and the soft flickering sensation that indicated Annie’s presence. It was a necessity for safety, like the codewords Annie had come up with for times when one of them was a hostage but had a plan and the others needed to know. It had happened before, it could happen again.

 

He found himself listening to Tom’s heartbeat more than the others. It was…..soothing, in a deeply unnerving way. He’d become used to listening to it and dragging it into his dreams to ensure an actually restful sleep. Hal shut his eyes. He was not going to think about that. He couldn’t.

 

Sex and blood were too closely-linked for him to ever enjoy…..

 

He could imagine Leo’s reaction to his thoughts. His friend would have given him a look and a laugh soft with meaning. Their last conversation had included talk of Tom. Leo had said that Tom would be good for Hal. Leo and Pearl were safety for him, a cage now sometimes. But Tom, he could be the challenge, the shove that Hal would need out in the world.

 

“He’s…..rough around the edges,” Hal pointed out with marked understatement and heavy jaw-clenched meaning.

 

Leo chuckled. “Aren't we all?”

 

“Even Pearl?”

 

Leo’s eyes twinkled. “Trust me, Hal. This isn’t from the angel.”

 

“I know.”

 

Hal was dragged from his memories by the sound of sheets ripping. He’d ruined the bedclothes. How wonderful.

 

*

 

Hal grasped Tom’s hand. He was dimly aware of Annie shrieking in the background, the sound mixed with the indignant howls of slaughtered vampires. Eve was safely swaddled and tucked into a drawer. Annie was so furious at the vampire invasion that she was in danger of glowing blue again.

 

Hal was guarding the others, but he was focused on Tom. He knew that Tom was bleeding and that he might have broken some ribs. It wasn’t life-threatening, but Hal felt frozen to the spot. He couldn’t look away. Tom didn’t look away from him either.

 

“God, that hurts,” the werewolf moaned.

 

“It smells worse.”

 

Tom snarled against the pain. Hal’s breath hitched, and his thumb started moving gently against Tom's palm. Time blurred, Hal lost track of how long they were crouched down together, until Annie was suddenly there, patching Tom up and talking quickly and quietly, filling the taut silence. She made them both tea and then hurried off to see to Eve, ordering Hal to take care of Tom.

 

It was only once they'd been watching TV for some time and Tom’s heartbeat had gone back to normal that Hal felt some of the rock-hard tension in his own body start to melt away.

 

When Tom slid into sleep, Hal finally untangled their hands. He watched the werewolf for most of the night.

 

*

 

Tom healed quickly. It was only a matter of days before he was back to frying chips and throwing condiments at Hal. Hal tried hard not to be his shadow. He had plenty of other activities to occupy his time, less dangerous activities. But his eyes kept being drawn back to Tom, checking and rechecking, and his body soon followed.

 

Annie called it sweet and looked far too knowing.

 

Hal felt compelled to say something, anything, to break those looks. “He’s infuriating.”

 

“He’s Tom.”

 

As though that explained everything. It probably did. Something must have shown on his face because Annie was wearing an expression similar to those worn by irritating therapists on the chat shows she liked watching occasionally. Therapists who advised feuding couples. Oh God......

 

Hal coughed, words jarring in his throat. Did Annie think he and Tom were......? That was utter madness, completely ridiculous. Only, Tom’s actions, the eye contact, the gifts. Yes, it could be a reasonable assumption from a certain skewed and very impossible perspective. A terrifying one that could get both them killed and probably others as well. If he had a heartbeat, it would have sped up. He bit his lip and tried not to draw blood.

 

Annie clearly felt the need to talk despite the clear warnings that Hal’s body language was giving off.

 

“I know he’s……”

 

“Impossible.”

 

Annie glanced at him. Whatever she saw in his expression made her simultaneously soften and gain a sad faraway look that usually appeared when Mitchell or George were discussed. But there was something else in her face too. Something new. Her mask had slipped.

 

“No, it’s not.”

 

Before Hal could retort, she swept out of the room, saying she had to nurse Eve. Hal methodically scraped his nails down his arms and took deep and even breaths. Hours later, he was still no closer to calm and stable. Annie hadn’t returned. And Tom had gone out. The absence of his heartbeat made everything worse.

 

*

 

Pearl would have scoffed at him and told he was being daft. Leo would have laughed long and hard and said that surely he and Pearl had taught him that he shouldn’t wait around before saying something, that there was such a thing as too late.

 

Three nights later, Hal shuffled the playing cards and thought in fragments – Tom’s dead mum and dad, McNair’s unconventional parenting and the vendetta he’d bred into his son, vampires and bloodlust. It shouldn’t work. But Tom was calming, for a messy, innocent, impossible werewolf. He helped Hal centre better than any Leo-taught technique. The universe was laughing at Hal. He was sure of it.

 

Tom’s pulse suddenly changed. He was moving about upstairs. In fact, he was moving closer to the living room. Hal’s body didn’t know whether to tense or relax. There was a strange noise accompanying Tom.

 

The werewolf appeared in the doorway, dragging a duvet behind him. That was unexpected to say the least.

 

“Move over.”

 

Tom didn’t wait for a reply. He shoved his way onto the sofa, pulled the duvet over his legs, and curled up against Hal. Hal froze, too surprised to resist.

 

“Can’t sleep. Neither can you,” Tom answered the obvious unasked question.

 

“And this is your solution?”

 

Tom grabbed Hal’s hand and pressed it to his own chest, over his heart. How did he know that helped? Hal swallowed. He should move. This was an incredibly bad idea. But his body and mind were already beginning to respond to Tom’s nearness and to his heartbeat, rapidly sliding from tense to pliant. It was the most relaxed he’d felt in days. It felt wonderful.

 

It really shouldn’t.

 

“Stop thinkin’, will ya?” Tom murmured close to Hal’s ear.

 

Before Hal could reply, the werewolf pulled him further down into the sofa and pressed a kiss to his cheekbone. He sniffed once, twice, radiating contentment. It was intoxicating. Hal could move away – a small part of his blissfully-quiet mind yelled that that was exactly what he should be doing – but right here was the calm he’d been desperately seeking for years. How could he move away from that?

 

Tom was already drifting off to sleep, his body firmly entangled with Hal’s. Hal concentrated on Tom’s heartbeat. It was regular and reliable and steady. It was perfect.

 

Who better to understand a wild animal than another wild animal?

 

Maybe it was the late hour, but the universe was making an odd and terrifying sort of sense, and it definitely hadn’t stopped laughing at him.

 

Tom squeezed him. Hal ignored the smug and very amused voices of Leo and Pearl echoing in his head and held on just as tightly.

 

-the end