“Tell me something that I don’t know about you,” Alex said. She leaned on the edge of the table and the balanced dominoes shuddered at the movement but didn’t fall.
Hal started, grew stiff, and Alex pulled away from the table, hands up and palms out.
“Sorry,” she said. “Well?”
“There’s nothing more to tell,” Hal returned.
Alex laughed and Hal looked up at her, eyebrows raised.
“Of course there’s more to tell,” she countered. “Five hundred bloody years! You could tell me anything. What was your favorite food in 1754?”
Hal’s hand stumbled. A domino knocked against the table. She was worse than Pearl had ever been, more persistent, more determined to distract.
“All right,” Alex conceded. “Bad example. Something else then.”
Hal looked at her. She tilted her head and she smiled, nodded, urged him on.
Hal could still remember the taste of her on his tongue. Late at night he curled against his mattress and his body shook with the memory of it as he tried so hard to fall sleep. It had changed him, healed him and destroyed him. The scar on his arm, the scar that Tom had marked him with, was nearly gone now, but that wasn't all. He could feel it rising in him. He could feel his resolve slipping.
It had been too much and not enough and sometimes he couldn't look at her without wanting more.
She was empty now. She was safe and dry and dead. She resented him for it and she wanted him despite it. He resented her for that and he grew to like her despite it. It wasn't her fault that she'd died that way, after all. It was mostly his.
Was that what she wanted to hear? It was what she’d wanted at the start, but now he wasn’t as sure that she wanted it confirmed.
Rachel Cutler invited him to enter her home with a nervous smile. He flattered her to put her at ease and she blushed and stumbled and said she’d put the kettle on. The water was still cool when Hal made his move.
Did Alex want to know how Cutler had tried so hard to please him, even after Hal slaughtered Cutler’s wife and served her for dinner?
“You could tell me anything,” Alex said.
Lady Mary taught etiquette classes to young girls. She was convinced that, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, she was destined to be a spinster with teaching her only recourse.
Hal could tell Alex how he had courted Lady Mary, coerced her, fucked her, killed her, and continued to manipulate her even after she was dead, just to see if he could, just to see what would happen. Few victims had ever been easier.
Larry Chrysler was inconsequential, an excuse. Did she want to know how it felt to tighten the cord around his neck? To tell himself that he was doing it for Tom, for Alex, for the house? To tell himself that it was necessary, even required?
Did she want to know the list of lies that he told, even the ones that he’d told himself; the ones that he was still telling; the ones that he’d told so often that they’d really started to feel like the truth?
Five hundred years was a long time. A good man – a good vampire – didn’t last that long. A good man gave in after a hundred years, two hundred. A good man gave in as John Mitchell had done. He knew he could never win; he could never beat it.
Hal knew that too. Hal’d learned a lot over the years.
If you intended to live long – extraordinarily long – you started to get good at it. Lying was easy, yes. It was even easier when you had five hundred years in which to perfect a lie, to sort the details, to order them, even to convince yourself that maybe, maybe, it was no longer a lie at all.
Five hundred years was a long time, but even the best lies, the ones that were solid and structured, that really started to feel like the truth – even those lies weren't indestructible. They could crack and they could break. They could crumble into a pile at your feet. It didn't require five hundred years. It might only take moments.
Alex was right. There were centuries of things that he could tell her. The list was endless, but none of it was anything that she would ever want to hear.
Anything, she said, but what she meant was ‘something good.’ She wanted Hal to tell her something that might explain the way that she felt, the excuses that she made to herself.
They were alike in that.
Tom walked into the kitchen. He moved like he was bigger than he actually was. Sometimes Tom seemed to fill the entire room. He pulled a chair from the table and fell into it with a graceless thud.
“What?” he asked when he noticed that both Hal and Alex were watching him.
“Can we talk about something else?” Hal asked. “Please.”
“I don’t know what we were talking about in the first place,” Tom pointed out, as though the fact that Hal was looking at him meant that Hal must be addressing the question to him. Hal looked back down at the table.
“Is he all right?” Tom asked.
“What do you reckon Hal’s favorite food was in 1754?” Alex asked Tom, as though the question had already become some sort of running joke.
Tom smiled, excited to be let in on some secret, and then he thought about it and the corners of his mouth fell a little. His eyebrows pulled together and a touch of confusion registered on his face.
“Well, blood, wasn’t it,” Tom said.
There it was. And even Tom McNair knew the punchline. At least he didn’t seem to think it was very funny. Alex wasn’t laughing either.
“I don’t get it,” Tom admitted.
“Alex,” Hal warned. He held the domino tight in his hands, the corners of it digging painfully into his palm.
“Yeah,” Alex sighed, accompanied by a slight roll of the eyes. “Let’s talk about something else.”
I shall tell him I've recovered my forgotten moral senses,
And I don't care twopence-halfpenny for any consequences.
He could already taste it. His mouth watered and yet felt parched at the same time.
This wasn’t Hal’s fault.
Hal didn’t kill this man, but the man was dying anyway. The man would be dead soon enough. There was no one else there and no one had to know.
The man made a small noise in his throat and Hal paused. He was still alive. Maybe he could be saved.
The car wasn’t going to return. The driver wasn’t going to send help. The way the driver turned back, took in the man, then Hal – he calculated the scenarios, and then he ran. He shouldn’t have stopped at all. Hal saw the whole thing. Hal had the driver’s registration number. V769DTS. Hal would do the right thing. That car hit this man and Hal would call for help, he would go to the police, he’d report it –
The man would die before help arrived.
It was a car accident and Hal tried to stop the man from running. It was a car accident, that was all.
The man let out a raspy breath.
“I don’t need blood anymore,” Hal told the suit at the hotel, less than an hour earlier. “I’ve been dry for over sixty years.”
It wasn’t true. Fifty-five years, four months. Fifty-five years and four months and then he took the glass that Nick Cutler offered because he thought it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do. At the time it really seemed like it was.
His mouth was watering and the man was dying and it would be so easy to give in, just a taste. No one needed to know. No one would know.
That was how it started.
Justify this, and then everything after it could be justified too. Another taste, then a bite, then just one kill, then the entire town. He'd want it all. He'd step in, exactly as the suited man at the hotel had suggested. And then what would he do? And then what would happen?
There was a flask of blood in his back pocket, sealed and safe and this man's blood was running from his body, wasted on the concrete.
Hal shut his eyes, his hands balled into tight fists. No one would know. Tom and Alex didn’t need to know. Two days he’d been free from that chair. He should have told them that he wasn’t ready. He should have told them that he merely needed a break, that was all. He wouldn’t have fought them when they went to tie him back up. He hadn’t had any sort of ulterior motive. It was just the house – he couldn’t stand –
No one would know.
Hal bit into his own wrist to stop himself. His own blood. It was better, wasn't it?
He didn't do this either. He tried not to do this. It didn't help. It only made it all worse, but it was this or the man or the flask in his pocket and this was the safest. And then his own blood was flowing and it dripped into a puddle, mingled with that of the man on the road.
"Please," the man gasped again. His eyes were bloodshot and very blue.
Jesus, Hal had killed him. Hal had scared him and he’d chased him and he’d killed him. He’d been out of that fucking chair for less than two days and things had already spun well out of Hal’s control.
“Please,” the man whispered and Hal stopped thinking and pressed his wrist to the man's mouth.
And Hal was bored by them all.
"What happens?” Hal asked. "What happens if a vampire abstains?"
"Jesus, Henry," his companion sneered. He went by Henry then. His companion’s name was William and he was older than Hal by fifty years at least.
"You don't know," Hal guessed.
"Of course I know," William said. "You starve and you die. Jesus."
It wouldn't be long before Hal tired of William. Hal was already tired of him. He often thought of killing William himself. He looked around the room, at the bodies of the three women, all dead, their ghosts dispersed and the room quiet.
Hal was thinking of trying it now.
He learned quickly that there was a system, an order even here, and that he was at the bottom of it. He learned quickly how to get ahead. A vampire climbed to the top with teeth and a talent for the right sort of lies. A vampire began with a clean slate and then the killing started, the marks on the board, the manipulations. Hal had always had a talent for lies. He'd been born knowing how to bite.
"I don't believe that," Hal said. He'd heard the usual stories. He'd heard the stories of vampires trapped, of forced famine, but never of starvation. A stake to the heart, decapitation, fire. These were the ways to kill a vampire. Starvation was never on that list.
"Try it then," William shrugged. Hal knew that William never thought of killing Hal. William lacked imagination.
Hal killed William that night, staked him, quick and clean, as William slept. And then Hal did try it, just to see what would happen.
He lasted six months, longer than even he thought he would, and then he tired of the pain and the pull, and he broke his fast and gorged himself on the patrons of a crowded tavern. He bathed in their blood, painted his name on the walls, and he laughed. It hadn't meant anything. It wasn't a move that he'd calculated, but it was bold and messy and it caught the attention of those up the chain.
He didn't contemplate any sort of restraint again for one hundred and fifty years.
Keep busy and suppress the poison, ignore the hunger. Keep busy and stop dreaming of locking poor Leo in a cage and tearing out his throat.
Sometimes it worked. Sometimes Hal went for days without thinking a single thirsty thought. He went days without having to ignore the things in his head, without having to lie to Pearl and to Leo, without the strained smiles and the tense nods.
He didn’t really have to lie, not to Leo. Leo looked at Hal and Leo knew. He saw past what Hal had become, right back to what Hal really was.
They grew comfortable together, but neither of them ever forgot.
Sometimes Hal would lie down on the floor of his bedroom, press his cheek to the wooden slats and listen as Leo spoke to his clients. Hal could hear the blood in their voices. If he pressed his nose to the cracks between the slats he almost believed he could smell it mixed in with their sweat and their spit. The smell lingered long after the last of them stepped out onto the pavement, after Leo locked the door to the street and unlocked the door to the flat. When Pearl found him like that, pressed to the floor of his room, she tutted and tsked and pulled him up by his arms.
It wasn’t always like that; it wasn’t every day. It wasn’t even often, but it happened. Leo knew. He looked up from his breakfast, glanced across the table toward Hal. Each morning Leo studied Hal, checked in. Hal didn’t always look back, but it didn’t matter. Leo noticed when it was bad.
“Maybe we’ll save that film for another night,” Leo would suggest.
“Yes,” Hal agreed. “Perhaps another night.”
“But I was looking forward to that,” Pearl countered. “It’s been weeks since we’ve spent an evening out.”
It took her longer to catch on. Sometimes she had no idea until she found Hal there, pathetic and pressed to the floor. It was only then that she realized that Leo had known and that Leo had locked them in.
“Get a hold of yourself,” she said as she brushed the dust from Hal’s trousers. “Come on. Help me in the kitchen.”
Pearl didn’t always understand him, she didn’t always like him, but she understood that there were rules that must be followed. There were precautions that they had to take.
Hal knew now that that was why it had worked for as long as it did. He understood now what had made their time together special.
It worked because Leo was never stupid enough to trust Hal, not entirely. Not even at the end when they had decades of good to crowd out those first years of bad. Leo knew Hal’s limitations and he knew not to test them. Leo knew the poison that flowed beneath the surface. He’d met the monster and he remembered.
Hal thought that perhaps they’d underestimated the importance of their start in their success.
Now I do not want to perish by the sword or by the dagger,
But a martyr may indulge a little pardonable swagger
Protect the house, they said. What do we do? they asked. He’d never met George Sands. Was he as needy and helpless as Tom McNair? And Annie with her pushing and her pressing. And yes, he knew about Mitchell’s ties to Herrick and he knew about vampires and he knew about politics. He knew that all of those things were factors, but maintaining a controlled environment was crucial. Leo and Pearl understood that. Hal wasn’t sure if Annie and Tom ever would.
Hal had rules. He had routines.
“Keep him away from people,” Leo instructed.
“But you’ve been dry for over fifty years,” Annie countered, as though it just faded, as though that didn’t make it so much worse.
It took a week, that was all. A week before they started ignoring all of Leo’s instructions, all of Hal’s rules. They were provided with a list, but it might as well have been written in Greek for all the good that it did. It took a week before they started to push in at the walls of Hal’s cell.
The café was crowded and Hal was surrounded. The room pulsed with patrons, stunk of them, of humanity mingled in with frying fat and burnt cheese.
The café had no doors, an insufficient counter Hal’s only barrier, his only protection. Tom was there, and Tom tried to keep things under control, but for all Tom’s talk, for all the vampires that he claimed to have killed, Tom still didn’t get it. Tom still didn’t understand them. And Tom’s heart was – Tom tried to stay cold, but Tom’s heart was huge and it wasn’t long before Tom started to warm, before Tom started to trust Hal. Even worse, he started to need Hal.
Tom McNair’s hatred of vampires was generic, abstract. Yes, William Herrick killed his father, but William Herrick was dead, and with Herrick dead and Tom’s hatred unfocused, it was easy for Tom to forget. It was easy to win Tom over, to gain his trust.
Annie was a little better, but not much. Annie pretended to understand rules and rotas and routines, but she pushed him out of the house and into that café right away, and when there was a threat to the house, it was Hal she expected to take care of it. Threaten him, she reasoned. Just go threaten that human, no danger there.
They were good people. They might even be his friends, and so Hal tried. Hal really tried to deserve their trust. He really tried to live up to it. He tried to hold the door to his cage shut on his own, but he’d tried to hold it shut before. He’d never succeeded. He needed that push from the other side of the wall, and without it, the door inevitably began to creak open.
“The cleaning rota,” Hal nodded. “In fact, we did start that, Tom. Weeks ago. You were supposed to make the beds this morning.” Tom and Alex were sticking to Hal’s schedule so far, for the most part, albeit grudgingly.
“I did make the beds this morning, Hal,” Tom countered. His tone immediately lost some of its warmth.
They’d had a rough time of it recently. They fought and they bickered, they’d thrown food for God’s sake, and it all seemed childish and ridiculous in retrospect. Hal wasn’t sure how he could have let himself get caught up in Tom’s trivial jealousy, but it had happened, and for a time, things had been tense between them as a result.
And now Patsy had disappeared. Irresponsible, unprofessional, they’d returned to the hotel to find that she was gone. They received her telephone message regarding their rehiring, but as it turned out, she’d never officially fired them at all. No one else knew that they had been let go, and things continued as though the tea incident had never happened at all.
The hotel was bustling. The management was there, working to determine what to do now that Patsy was missing. From what Hal had overheard, they intended to assign a temporary replacement, should she return. Her family was worried. The police were involved.
“Anyhow, I don’t mean the cleaning rota,” Tom said. “I mean the one where I was setting tasks for you and that, like Leo. Like we talked about, you know, back at the café.”
Ah, yes. The rota that they were going to create so that Tom could watch over Hal, help him stay safe. The rota that would include tasks that they could do together, an exercise routine, scheduled game nights with Annie. The rota that would help them bond as a unit. It felt like so long ago that they’d discussed it, but it had been only a few months. Everything had changed since then. Everything was different now.
“Tom, I –“
There was a crash and a man in the dining room cursed. The smell of blood hit Hal’s nose, fresh and strong. Hal gripped the edge of the table.
Tom leaned back to check what had happened.
“Mr. Franklin broke his water glass,” Tom said. “Sam’s got it. He’s taking care of it.”
Hal stared down at the counter, tried to focus.
“Is Mr. Franklin hurt?” Hal asked, his mouth tight and his words choked.
“Nah,” Tom said. “He’s got a little cut, that’s all.”
Rook’s flask was at the house in the drawer of the table beside his bed. When Hal turned it on its side, the blood left a red film on the empty space within the glass container. It made Hal’s mouth water to watch it. He thought of it often here at the hotel, concentrated on it, as though knowing that it was there, an option, could keep him safe here.
“So about the rota,” Tom continued.
Tom was still standing there when Hal looked up, but now he was smiling a little, confused.
“What?” he repeated. “You don’t remember?”
“Yes, I – “ Hal started. He shook his head. Hal had a good memory. “It wasn’t that long ago. I remember the rota.”
“Well, good, then,” Tom said. “So I was thinking, we should sit down and write it out, right? Running behind my bike and all, like we said before. We can get Alex in on Antiques Roadshow. Jenga night like we used to have with Annie. It’ll bring us all together, make us a family. That’s what Annie always said.”
“Yeah,” Hal agreed. “Yes, good idea.”
Tom’s smile grew and Hal wanted to reach out, reach for him, pull him in, a wolf shield to protect him from the rest of the hotel, from the bleeding man in the other room. He didn’t do it. He stood there with his hands gripping the edge of the counter until Tom said, “Well, I better get back to it, eh,” and walked off.
It was shortly after the exchange, less than two hours later, that Hal was promoted to Manager in Patsy’s absence.
Tom didn’t bring up the rota again.
Hal guessed that Tom assumed it wasn’t needed, that Tom wasn’t needed, and that Hal was doing just fine on his own. Look at the new measure of Hal Yorke’s success.
Hal was doing just fine.
Peep with security into futurity
Sum up your history, clear up a mystery
He hardly thought about Cutler at all then, but he thought about Cutler quite a bit now.
When he accepted that second drink, took the glass from Cutler’s hand, he thought, well, if I’m going to go down, at least I’ll have this. At least he’ll be there. Hal didn’t think for a second that Cutler didn’t intend to stay once he’d won. Hal had made sure of that back when this story started. And maybe it would even be interesting, returning to his old ways after 55 years with Nick Cutler at his side. Maybe it would be different, maybe even fun.
It was the blood talking, of course, and he sobered up quick once he saw what Cutler had done, once he heard what Cutler had planned.
The girl – Alex – was one thing, unfortunate and painful, but he barely knew her then. But Tom on top of that. And Mr. Snow waiting in the wings. Hal couldn’t – Hal had destroyed himself so many times, and he would continue to do so again and again, but Tom was too new, too human. It would kill him. He would curdle and rot and Hal had known him long enough to know that he couldn’t bear to watch it happen.
There was a moment in the cellar, though. There was a moment as Alex was trying to rentaghost when Hal thought that perhaps he was relieved. Perhaps he could bear it and maybe it was what Hal had wanted all along. Maybe Tom’s destruction was the last step needed to tear down that cage that Leo had built around him. He’d thought he wanted the cage, and for a while he had. He’d felt safe there and loved, but maybe –
She told him the details of Cutler’s death while he was strapped to the chair.
“I almost wanted to stop it, you know?” she asked. “Like, I wanted him dead. I mean, he killed me, but then Annie had the stake and – it should have been me, shouldn’t it? I should have been the one.”
“Maybe,” Hal muttered.
Alex continued. “But I’ve never – I’d only been dead for a day!”
“Alex,” Hal started. His eyes were shut. He didn’t want to listen to her talk about Cutler. She didn’t know the first thing about anything. She was so new to all of this. She had no idea what she was talking about and Hal wondered why she was even here at all.
“You think if I killed him, that would have been it? That was my unfinished business, wasn’t it? And I was too chicken shit to go through with it.”
“I don’t know,” Hal said through clenched teeth. He opened his eyes and he looked at her. He saw her the way she was in that cellar, her throat torn and red. He wanted to press his tongue to it. He wanted to thank Cutler and he wanted to kill Cutler himself.
“Have you ever seen a vampire burn up like that?” Alex asked.
“He left bits of skin, just sitting there all gooey on the floor.” Hal was going to be sick. “It was – “
“Alex!” Hal shouted, his voice high, painful to his own ears. “Shut your fucking mouth! I swear to God, if you weren’t already dead, I’d - ” He stopped himself before he said any more. It didn’t matter. The end of the thought was clear and it hung in the room between them.
Alex was quiet for a moment, stunned, eyes wide and mouth pinched. Finally she relaxed, slumped back in her stool.
“Jesus, Hal,” Alex said, and then she was gone, disappeared, a faint snap of air in the room.
He wondered vaguely where she went when she disappeared. Had she chosen a room upstairs? Was she settling in? They’d been doing things upstairs, moving furniture, dragging it across the floors. He hadn’t asked what was happening. He didn’t care.
He stared at the rug. There was a spot on it, brown and sick looking. It was hidden a little by the hideous pattern of the carpet, but Hal still saw it, and if he concentrated on it, he thought he smelled it too. It was all that was left of Nick Cutler. He was sure of it.
Bananas and cereal churned in his stomach and before long he retched down the front of his shirt.
He took one deep shaky breath and then he called out for Tom. His voice sounded hoarse and defeated to his own ears, weak, pathetic.
Tom’s feet were loud as he clomped down the stairs and then Tom turned the corner into the room, stopped and took in the scene. His shoulders fell and he frowned at Hal, but he didn’t say anything, didn’t complain, merely turned and disappeared into the kitchen, returning after a moment with a tea towel and a bucket.
Tom’s touch was firm as he swiped the wet cloth across Hal’s chin. Hal’s beard was growing in thick and Tom’s fingers scratched through it.
“We’ve gotta change that shirt,” Tom noted. “I’ll get Alex and then we’ll untie your hands and get you out of it, right?”
“You don’t have to disturb her,” Hal sighed. “I won’t attack you.”
“It’ll be easier if Alex helps,” Tom insisted.
He unbuttoned Hal’s shirt, wiped the cloth over Hal’s bare chest. Tom’s mouth was tight, a concentrated line. His hands felt sure, purposeful. They completed their task and didn’t linger. But Tom was close, too close. Hal could lean forward and –
Tom pulled away then and dropped the cloth back into the bucket. He stood and wiped his hands on his trousers and then went to the bottom of the stairs and called up for Alex to bring down a new shirt.
Hal sat back, slumped against the wood of the chair.
When Alex appeared with a shirt in her hand, she stared at the state of him, guilt marring the features of her face, and Hal had to turn away, couldn’t look back at her.
She came to sit with him later, once Tom was asleep on the couch.
“He was your friend,” she said. “I forgot.”
He sighed and shut his eyes.
“I think that if Nick Cutler was your unfinished business, than the fact that Annie killed him while you were there should have been enough.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
They sat there for a long time, quiet and uncomfortable. Hal’s fingers tapped out the rhythm of the Gilbert and Sullivan song that had been running through his head throughout much of the evening. Alex watched him, studied his features until he felt no choice but to turn away from her again.
“You don’t have to stay here, you know,” Hal said after a while. “You aren’t tied to us.”
“Where else would I go?” Alex asked.
“Home,” Hal suggested and Alex laughed, loud and harsh.
Hal glanced over at Tom, asleep on the sofa. Tom stirred but didn’t wake.
“What, go back to them like this?” Alex asked.
Hal didn’t have an answer. He merely shrugged and then mentally started the song again.
My eyes are fully open to my awful situation
They’d help him if he asked. Tom would do whatever needed to be done if Hal just told him what that was. Tom wasn’t Leo. He wouldn’t know unless Hal told him, and he trusted Hal to go to him with this. He trusted Hal to tell him when it got too hard. It was what Tom needed, really, to have it confirmed that Hal needed him, to know that he was needed by someone. It was the lift Tom was searching for, if Hal could just bring himself to admit it.
They’d help him, both of them. Alex wouldn’t waste words. She’d take the flask, dump it down the drain and that would be the end of it.
“We’re all equally responsible,” she said. It wasn’t true. It was ridiculous, but for some reason they seemed to believe it. For some reason they clung to him; they wanted him.
Hal should push them away. He should tell them the truth. He should tell them how pathetic they were, how ridiculous with their love and their trust. He should tell them how stupid they looked to him.
Each day he felt the bars of the cage that Leo built for him grow weaker.
He should really tell them everything.
Hal's eyes fell shut and he rested his cheek on the top of Tom's head. If he focused, if he tuned out Ian's voice and Bobby's questions, Hal could hear the rush of Tom's blood beneath his skin. He heard every pump, every push. The blood coursed and raced and Hal could smell it,
faint and distinct. The scent of werewolf blood smelled deceptively similar to a human. There was just a touch of sourness, a touch of spoil that turned in the nose and hinted at the blood's underlying secret, at the lie of it. It wasn't enough of a deterrent. It wasn't supposed to be - that was the trick. Hal's mouth filled with saliva and he swallowed, tried not to think on it.
Sometimes Hal looked at himself now and he laughed. The man who pushed Leo into a cage that first time laughed long and hard at who he'd become. He remembered the countless werewolves who had come before Leo. He remembered the humans he'd purposely shoved into the path of a wolf's claws. He tasted their blood as it changed and it curdled, and now less than a century later, here they were: a werewolf resting his head on Hal's shoulder, trusting him above everyone else.
It was funny, really, how oblivious Tom was. If things were different – if Hal was different – Hal knew he would find this very funny. Hilarious. The things that Tom didn't know about Hal stretched on for years, centuries. Tom would kill him in an instant if he knew the whole story. He would turn his back on Hal and then he would ram a stake into Hal's heart and Hal would deserve it. Hal had reveled in it and he'd earned it.
It didn't matter. Tom would never know. Hal could fall, he could suck Barry dry tomorrow and he was pretty sure that even then his blood-engorged heart would twist a little when he thought of Tom, would balk at the look of betrayal on Tom's face, would squeeze and threaten to break as Tom's expression twisted with hate.
Hal turned his head, his cheek sliding rough over the blunt tips of Tom's hair until it prickled against Hal's lips. He opened his eyes to find Alex looking back at him, a smile playing at her lips.
He looked at her and he tasted her blood as it flooded his mouth. He remembered the taste of her and he wanted her again. He could smell Tom and he wanted more, and Ian was there, playing his game with Rook’s werewolf at their dining room table, Hal’s penance for Larry Chrysler, but even that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough distraction and guilt and Hal couldn’t do this. He couldn’t sit here snuggled up on the sofa with Tom and with Alex. He couldn’t do it without craving more, all of it, everything.
He stood fast and Tom jerked back, surprised by Hal’s sudden movement.
“What happened?” he asked, oblivious. He looked over toward Crumb and Bobby. They didn’t even flinch, didn’t notice that anything had changed at all. Tom looked to Alex and she merely shrugged before she looked away.
It was clear that she thought Hal’s reaction had to do with her, and it did, but it wasn’t the way that she thought. Or maybe it was. Maybe it was exactly the way she thought it was, with her and with Tom. It was so hard to tell the difference when the two things had mixed themselves together for five hundred years.
He should tell them. He should say something. They would listen and they would help.
“Hal?” Tom asked.
Hal felt a sharp retort rise in his throat. He would tell Tom that he couldn’t stand the stink of him, the press of Tom’s body, hot against his own. He’d watch Tom’s face fall, his eyes go dark. He saw the way Tom sat, crumpled in the forest by his father’s grave and Hal felt anger fill his chest, felt his hands wrapping around Larry Chrysler’s neck.
Jesus, they were dangerous. The two of them were as much a danger to Hal as –
He shut his eyes and he shook his head.
“Nothing,” Hal said. “Nothing, it’s fine.”
An Old One doesn’t recruit lightly, they said. It meant something, choosing a protégé. It meant family, kin, and descendents. There was a connection, a bloodline.
It was a bunch of romantic bullshit.
Oh, he tried it once in a while. He’d tried it with Nick Cutler, but he had to work at that connection. He had to create it. It didn’t just happen. There was no blood pull, none of that nonsense.
Tearing Nick Cutler down felt a lot like tearing himself down, though Hal was never anything like Cutler. Still, it was satisfying. He’d enjoyed it. He enjoyed it right up until he succeeded and then it wasn’t long before he grew bored with it. He wished that it hadn’t been so easy and he moved on to something else. That something else happened to be a werewolf that he’d locked up six months earlier.
Leo was more family to Hal than anyone who had come before.
Hal was recruited on a battlefield by a surgeon whose name he’d never even learned.
He was born in a brothel to a mother he could never pick from a crowd.
Family didn’t matter. Bloodlines didn’t count for much. It was actions that were important.
And in that moment, Hal knew for certain that it was pointless to continue trying to shape Ian Cram. In that moment Hal knew he would either have to push Ian away again, or kill Ian once and for all.
Hal dreamed of killing Sylvie right from the start. He dreamed of it for months, imagined the taste of her, and imagined her cries. To say it was sudden, the changing of a coat, was a lie. He’d hoped that that would be the part that Ian might understand. It was a lie that he told to himself the same way that he told it to Ian Cram centuries later as they sat together on the floor of Honolulu Heights. Hal had known. He’d known how it would end right from the moment that he met her.
He didn’t tell Ian that she tasted better than he’d ever imagined that she might. He didn’t tell Ian how he’d stayed there afterward, covered in her blood, knowing that she would see him. He didn’t say how he ignored her ghost as she stared down at him. He ignored her when she reached out and touched her fingers to his cheek. Her touch felt cold, dead.
He didn’t react. He didn’t look at her. He didn’t let her know that he could see her, but her body, her corpse, still lay beside him, and he turned to her, to her empty eyes, her parted lips and her torn throat, and he said, “It went just as I planned it. Just as I planned it right from the start.”
He’d loved her, that was the truth. He tried to tell himself that he loved her enough that he could never hurt her, but it didn’t stick. He never really believed it. He’d known exactly how it would end. And he loved her too much to leave her and he didn’t love her enough to let her go.
The truth was that Sylvie wasn’t special at all. She was exactly the same as the rest. And that was why he thought of her. He thought of her because she was the same as Leo and Pearl. She was the same as Tom and Alex.
It wasn’t that she meant more to him than the others. It was because he looked at them and he felt that very same ache in his belly and in his heart. He thought that he would go crazy with it, that need for them.
Hal dreamed of draining Tom, of draining Alex, just as he had with Sylvie. He dreamed of ripping their throats out and tasting them on his tongue. He dreamed of making them want it, making them beg him like some ridiculous romanticized monster in a film. Tom McNair with his mouth on Hal’s, his breath heavy against Hal’s lips, begging Hal to rip out his throat, and not because he knew that his blood would likely kill Hal well before Hal could kill him. No, in his dreams Tom wanted it, wanted Hal, and nothing else mattered. In his dreams Alex was spread out before him, an offering, a willing sacrifice.
Hal loved them too much to leave them and not enough to leave them alone.
The only difference between Sylvie and Leo, between Sylvie and Tom, between Sylvie and Alex was that Hal couldn’t give in. There was no blood to be tasted there. There was nothing else to be had.
Then, if you plan it, he changes organity
With an urbanity full of Satanity
Vexing humanity with an inanity
Fatal to vanity
Driving your foes to the verge of insanity
“That’s what it is, isn’t it?” Mr. Snow whispered in Hal’s ear. His voice was soft, seductive. He was poison. “That’s where the fascination starts; the one creature in this world that you can never taste.”
“It isn’t fascination,” Hal returned. “It’s boredom.”
“Of course,” Mr. Snow repeated with a slow stained smile. “Boredom.”
Hal held Snow’s look for mere seconds before he couldn’t bear it any longer and had to turn away.
“Perhaps,” Mr. Snow offered as he leaned in close, his lips brushing the shell of Hal’s ear. “We can make the world a bit more interesting, hm? Together, you and I.”
Ian was going on about being bummed, and then he came at Hal, shoved and shouted, and Jesus, this was about Alex, about Alex and Hal, of all the trival, petty grievances.
He’d recruited Ian with little thought. He’d neglected to stake him the first time that it all went sour. He should have left him there, bleeding on the pavement. He should have left him a pile of dust for Rook to clean up off the office floor. He should have drank his fill at the start and been done with it. It wasn’t working. It was a mistake; a lapse of judgment, and Ian Cram had brought Hal nothing but trouble.
He meant to help him, to prove that it could be done. He meant to help Ian, and in helping Ian, Hal would help himself. Hal had recruited Nick Cutler and tore him down, tearing himself down in the process. Hal had hoped to accomplish exactly the opposite with Ian. He recruited Ian Cram to raise him up in an attempt to raise himself up too. He hadn’t thought it through. He hadn’t thought at all.
No one could help Ian. No one could help Hal. Not really, and not for long.
And so Hal tried to work with what he had left. Tied to a chair in the cellar of his own home, Hal told Crumb the truth. He told him the truth wrapped neatly in lie.
It was easy. People did it all the time. Humans, yes, but vampires, werewolves and ghosts too. Everyone told themselves little lies to get them through the hardest, the longest and the loneliest of their nights. It wasn't difficult or uncommon. It was part of being human. It was part of being present. There were times when it was simply required.
It was easy, and by the time Hal decided what to do, he found that he had already begun.
It worked and it disgusted Hal that it worked so well and he instantly hated himself for it. He intended to stake Crumb. As soon as he escaped his bonds, he would break the chair and drive the leg of it through Ian’s heart. That would be the end of it.
It wasn’t Hal’s fault that Ian was hit by that car, but it was his fault that it had come to this, and it was up to Hal to end it.
He didn’t anticipate Ian’s next move. He didn’t anticipate the ultimatum.
In the end, Crumb proved himself the better man.
And in the end, Hal learned that a lie that worked so well on Ian Cram would likely work just as well on Tom and Alex.
Another man entirely.
It was surprising how close it felt to the truth.
You're a regular wreck, with a crick in your neck, and
no wonder you snore, for your head's on the floor
And you've needles and pins from your soles to your
shins, and your flesh is acreep, for your left leg's asleep,
And you've cramp in your toes, and a fly on your nose,
and some fluff in your lung, and a feverish tongue,
and a thirst that's intense,
And a general sense that you haven't been sleeping in
“Organizing the cupboards?” he asked. He’d organized the pantry recently, but these cupboards hadn’t been touched in months and he’d never understood Annie’s system.
“No, not the cupboards. The creepy chanting.” She waved her hand at him for emphasis of something, though he wasn’t sure exactly what.
Hal frowned, confused, and then realized that he must have been reciting the song out loud. And you've a cramp in your toes, and a fly on your nose, and some fluff in your lung, and a feverish tongue.
“It isn’t chanting,” Hal said. “It’s song. It’s called a patter – it’s singing.”
Alex smiled and nodded. “Okay,” she said, her eyebrows raised. “Whatever you say, Spick-and-Span. The creepy singing then.”
And a thirst that's intense, And a general sense that you haven't been sleeping in clover.
From bad to good to bad to worse. Alex hanging in the basement of Cutler’s club, her throat torn out, ragged and dripping. The empty flask upstairs, a few drops that refused to fall onto his tongue. He’d nearly smashed the glass to get at them, to lick what remained from the shattered shards.
“It’s stuck in my head,” Hal said, the words difficult, sticky in his throat. His shrug was apologetic.
“Sure,” Alex nodded. “Sure.”
Hal’s mouth was tight, but he tried to return her smile, tried to return her nod. He wanted to get back to the cupboards. He’d settled into it, had hardly thought of the empty flask upstairs at all since he’d started. He’d thought of nothing else since she appeared.
“Did you need help with something?” Hal asked, trying to push her toward her destination.
“No,” she said. “Nothing.” She settled back against the counter.
Hal nodded and tried to turn his focus back to the task at hand.
But the darkness has pass'd, and it's daylight at last, and the night has been long, ditto, ditto my song -
Alex slid down the edge of the counter to sit with him on the floor of the kitchen. Hal froze, but she didn’t say anything, just sighed softly from behind the open cupboard door.
The house had six colanders, four or five more than Hal would have expected to find.
“You were going to drink it, weren’t you?” Alex asked beside him.
Hal set the last of the colanders into the cupboard, then sat back and sighed, let his frustration at her continued interruptions show.
She pushed the door to the cupboard shut so that they could see each other better, so that she could slide across the floor closer to him. She set a hand on his knee and he started, but she didn’t pull back, didn’t remove it.
“You can tell me,” Alex pressed.
Hal pulled away. Her hand fell to the floor between them. He opened the door to the next cupboard and began removing the contents.
“Were you? Were you going to drink it?”
“I don’t know,” Hal said. He shook his head. “I’ve told you. I really don’t know.”
Yes. He was going to drink it. Yes, of course he was going to drink it.
She nodded. It was the absence of answer that she expected. She knew the answer as well as he did. She wouldn’t have flung the glass against the wall if she really believed he planned to abstain.
“What if you’d chosen the other glass?” Alex asked next. “What if you had been the one holding Tom’s blood?”
What if he had been holding Tom’s blood. That was what he really wanted, wasn’t it? If he was holding Tom’s blood then perhaps he finally would have had them both, tasted them, both Alex and Tom. Even as he crumbled into a pile of dust on the floor, he would have had them both and it would have felt fitting, complete. He’d wondered about it afterward. He wondered how it tasted to Crumb in those seconds before it started to do its work on him. He sat there with Rook’s flask in his hand and he wondered, and he felt jealous that Crumb might know and Hal never would.
It never could have happened the way that Alex imagined it. She imagined opening the cellar door just as Hal fell into dust in Crumb’s place. As though Hal didn’t know from the start which glass it was that he held in his hand. As though he couldn’t recognize the difference after five hundred years.
Alex knew nothing of vampires. She had no idea what it was that Hal was fighting against.
Alex cleared her throat. She opened her mouth and then she closed it, and when she opened it again she stumbled uncharacteristically over her words.
“Hal, do you – do you need, I don’t know – do you want me to - ?“
Hal shook his head. “I don’t need anything.”
He needed to focus. He needed her to leave. Didn’t she see how hard he was trying? Couldn’t they see how he struggled? How had they forgotten so quickly? Why did they think he was strong enough to beat this?
Rook claimed to have a supply of blood. Human donors. There was a program, a system, he could still accept Rook’s offer. He could convince Rook to help him. He would force Rook to help if that’s what was needed.
Tom and Alex wouldn’t need to know. They were easy enough to fool. They hardly looked at him, hardly saw him even as they stared. They took their success in his rehabilitation for granted. Alex sat there and she focused, not on Hal, but on her own confused feelings. If Hal went to Rook, if he just had a little more blood, he could start living his life again, he could help Alex, he could have her. He could –
This wasn’t – he wasn’t thinking clearly. It was all wrong. His head was full of lies. He didn’t need Rook or Alex or Tom. He just needed to focus. He needed Alex to stop with her distractions.
“I need to finish with the cupboards,” Hal concluded. He turned away from her.
He saw Alex nod out of the corner of his eye, and then she stood and stepped away from him. She stopped just as he was sure she finally intended to leave him alone.
“What is that anyway,” Alex asked. “’You’re a regular wreck, with a crick in your neck?’”
“It’s Gilbert and Sullivan,” Hal said. “It’s from Iolanthe.”
Alex stood there and stared at him for a long time, eyes wide like a character on one of the cartoons Hal had to watch when Tom had control of the television.
Finally she said, “Wow. Just when I thought you couldn’t get any lamer.” And then she left him alone in the kitchen.
This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter
Isn't generally heard, and if it is it doesn't matter
He lied because he wanted to prove that he was worthy of their trust when he knew all along that he wasn’t, that he never would be.
He lied to them because he didn’t love them enough to tell them the truth and walk away.
And when it fell apart around him, when they gave up on him and pulled that trust out from under him, he latched on to it, the excuse he’d needed all along. He latched on and he turned his back and it was so easy. It was so easy to tell himself that he’d never really cared at all, to let them believe that his lies had been the truth all along.
He let them believe that he turned like a switch.
“Your friend is dead.”
It was kinder to let them believe that, wasn’t it? Even now, full of fresh blood with eight vampires falling to dust at his feet, even now he was capable of kindness.
Hal knew that Tom would come for him. Tom acted on emotion, rarely thought until it was too late. There was no question that Tom would search for him, sniff him out, come at him like the attack dog that McNair had raised him up to be.
Hal feasted and prepared and found that he was looking forward to it, found that his heart raced a bit, alive with the anticipation.
“Night follows day and I follow him.”
Tom and Alex wanted so badly to believe that it was true, to believe that the man that stood before them shared nothing with the man that they had grown to love. It would break them to know that they were one and the same.
Of course he lied. Of course he did.
He did it because he loved them and he hated that he loved them. He did it because he didn’t deserve their trust and yet he couldn’t bear to lose it. He did it because that ache was back and he knew that there was only one way to be rid of it.
It should be easy, killing Tom. Alex was more difficult, but with Tom gone and Hal changed, there would be nothing left for her. She would give up and fade and he’d be free of the both of them, Leo’s cage entirely dismantled and nothing holding him back.
He lied to himself almost as often as he lied to those around him.
It would break his heart. It would break his heart and in two hundred years he’d close his eyes and he’d remember what he’d done to them, just as he remembered what he’d done to Sylvie.
Your friend is dead.
It was easier for everyone.
And you're playing round games, and he calls you bad
names when you tell him that "ties pay the dealer"
He looked down at the pale knobby bump of her knee, covered it with his hand and felt her leg bend like it was reflex as she pushed up into his touch.
“There’s nothing more to tell,” Hal said. He kept his voice low and casual.
Alex laughed and rolled her eyes.
“Oh, come on,” she said, her smile wide and her eyes bright.
Hal turned to look at her and shrugged.
“It’s different now, isn’t it?” she reasoned. “Look at us. We’re human, for God’s sake.” Her face lit up as she said it as though she still couldn’t believe that it was true. She was human again, alive, throat closed up and pumping full of blood.
“It’s a fucking miracle,” she said once, early on. Hal thought of it often, heard the words replaying in his head.
“None of it matters,” Hal insisted. “Nothing that came before this matters anymore.”
Alex nodded, her face a little pinched now, rejected.
“I really don’t know the first thing about you, do I?”
“No,” Hal agreed. She said it as though that wasn’t one of the reasons she was interested in being here with him at all. “You know the things that are important.”
Hal merely shook his head.
“Someday you’ll let us in,” she insisted.
“If you knew what you were asking you wouldn’t want it,” Hal admitted, his voice lower now. He traced patterns across her shin with his fingertips.
“Isn’t that all the more reason that I should want to know?” Alex asked. “Listen, you were a vampire. No one’s forgotten that. I’m not expecting sunshine and flowers here. I just want to know you.”
“You don’t know what you want,” Hal said, and he immediately regretted it. He knew she’d think that he was trying to throw the first punch.
“If you think that then maybe you don’t know very much about me either,” Alex countered, strong and stubborn and sure.
They stared at each other for a long time, Alex’s face dared him to contradict her, dared him to push back. Hal didn’t push. He backed down, nodded, turned his eyes back toward his hand where it rested on her bare leg.
What would she say if he told her the things that she asked? What would she say if he told her that the first time he kissed her (and again later when they were human and she kissed him) he thought immediately of Nick Cutler, the last person that he’d kissed before her. It was a little funny, wasn’t it? A bit ironic, perhaps? He’d laughed when he thought of it again later on.
What would she think if she knew that that soft moan he made when she pushed her tongue into his mouth was because he was filled by the overwhelming urge to scrape his teeth against it, to taste her blood mingled in with her kiss.
His teeth were blunt and his senses dull, but a surprising percentage of what he’d been before remained the same.
It had been so long since he’d been human that he was caught wondering if this was how he’d always been, if his heart had always been a little twisted, a little curdled and a little wrong.
He heard the sound of Tom’s feet clomping gracelessly down the stairs and then Tom burst into the room and crossed to the other couch. He still moved as though he was bigger than he actually was, still stretched out as though he contained something so much larger than himself.
“I’m starving,” Tom announced with a groan. He rubbed his hand over his stomach for emphasis.
Hal watched him, watched as his hand pushed up the bottom of his vest, scratched over the stretch of skin there.
Did Alex want to know how much he missed that tension, the rivalry, with Tom? Over time it had become almost sexual to him, that pull and shove. Sometimes he caught Tom watching him now and he thought that Tom missed it too, that Tom had been a bit aroused by it as well, but was too naïve and stupid to understand what was happening between them.
Alex wasn’t naïve or stupid. He guessed that if he mentioned it, she would roll her eyes, scoff, and say that it was something she’d picked up on right from the start.
And maybe that was his answer. That’s something that he could tell her, a secret on which she could be let in. And perhaps she would grab a hold of it, perhaps she would push in that as she did everything else. Perhaps in the end it would lead to something even more interesting than this.
He should tell her that he thought that it would be different, that he thought he’d feel different, less dangerous. It was easier, now, that was true. It was easier to control it, but he still felt –
He should tell her that he was sure he could still smell Tom’s blood when he sat real close to him. He should tell her that now that Tom was human too, now Hal could have that taste, could complete this trinity. Tom’s blood would taste dull and metallic, it wouldn’t be the same, but it was something. It was more than he had before.
He should warn them that he was never a good man, not really, not even before he became a monster. Hal had been born knowing how to bite.
“None of it matters,” Hal said again, with more conviction this time. He smiled. It was easier to smile now.
“What?” Tom asked, having walked in at the tail end of the conversation. “Why are you looking all funny?’
“Nothing,” Hal said. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“Yeah,” Tom agreed immediately. “Let’s talk about food.”
What was Hal’s favorite food in 1754?
“All right,” Alex said. Her knee slid out from under Hal’s hand. She pushed herself up off the couch and she stood.
“Takeaway, then, yeah?” Alex asked, pointing to Tom. “How about Chinese? Hal, are you hungry?”
He really didn’t have any idea who she was. Not anymore. He didn’t know who any of them were now. Hal looked up at her, at her face flushed with blood and he knew that it couldn’t possibly be the same blood that he remembered. It really was some kind of fucking miracle, just as she’d said. A miracle or –
“Hal?” Alex asked again. “Hello? I asked if you were hungry.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He shook his head and then he smiled. “Yes.”
He was always hungry. Some things never changed.