Disclaimer: All the characters belong to Toby Whithouse and the BBC, I only borrow them to have some fun with them. No money is made with this.
Hal stared at the domino in his hand. At the little piece of plastic with its blunt edges and polished gleaming surface, going round and round between his fingers. It was such a small, insignificant thing in the grand scheme of things and yet it held so much meaning in his own private world. Twirling it between his fingers whenever he needed to occupy himself, when his thoughts threatened to stray onto paths better forgotten, had become a habit he hadn't been able to break in fifty years. Now, staring at it, he remembered the day Leo had given him the set of dominoes in order to help him control himself. It had been the first time in over a century that someone had given him a present.
Hal swallowed and as the memories overwhelmed him, tried to ignore the stabbing pain in his chest that came along with them. Losing himself in the past wasn't doing anyone any good.
His gaze was still fixed on his fingers when the sun peaked through the clouds in the sky and cast its light onto his bed. Hal turned his face away and into the shadow. It had been a month since he had last drunk blood and his withdrawal symptoms had subsided, yet he was still sensitive to the light. It would take him a while to get his full resistance back, his body had to adjust to being without blood again. Still, he didn't close the curtains. He didn't want to forget, nor avoid what he was. That way disaster was waiting.
All of a sudden he heard a soft click; the key turning in the lock. He waited for Tom to come in, to bring him breakfast or tea, or to just chat with him about what weird people had come into the café yesterday, but there was nothing. Just the distinct, single sound of the lock opening, followed by Tom's resonating footsteps in the hallway.
This was it, Hal thought. The day had come that the monster was released from its cage, to be once again let loose in the world. He stood up and gripped the domino in one hand, the other trembling as he touched the door handle. He was still amazed at the amount of trust Tom was showing him and wasn't sure if he had the same trust in himself. What if he wasn't strong enough? He took a deep breath. There was only one way to find out.
Hal stepped into the kitchen and the delicious smell that he had already noticed on the stairs intensified. Tom was standing at the cooker and with a spatula prodded an unidentified clump in the pan. He couldn't suppress a small grin. "Is that supposed to be a pancake?" Tom whirled around and Hal raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Finally, took ya long enough! I'm making breakfast for ya."
"I can see that." Hal looked at the pathetic little heap of dough and swallowed the first words that came to mind. He didn't want to begin the day by hurting Tom's feelings. "It smells great." There, that was not even a lie, he thought.
"I thought since, ya know, it's your first day out and about, that I'd do somethin' special like. And I always wanted to learn how to cook proper, so I even bought a cookbook!" He waved a thin, bound book in the air with one hand, while he turned the 'pancake' with the other.
Hal snatched it from him and looked at the title: A taste of Scotland: The essence of Scottish cooking. "Um, Tom? Do you care to enlighten me why you would buy a book about Scottish cuisine? There are certainly better ways to learn the art of cooking and definitely better food to try it with. You know, maybe Italian or French…"
"I thought with Alex being Scottish an' all, that it'd be a good idea."
"She's a ghost. She can't eat," he replied dryly.
"But she can taste, through us, maybe it'll give her a feeling of home."
Hal dropped the cookbook on the kitchen counter, aghast. "She's certainly not getting into my head!" There was too much in there he didn't want anyone to see, ever. And he didn't trust Alex enough not to rummage around in his memories if she had the chance. And even if he did, he would never risk it. If she only accessed something by accident…no, he shook his head, the thought alone was unthinkable.
"Relax, Hal, don't get your knickers in a twist." Hal harrumphed, while Tom took a plate out of the cupboard and splashed the pancake onto it. "It ain't as if Alex said she wanted to, I just thought it might be nice, that's all."
He poured new dough into the pan and Hal averted his gaze too avoid having to look at the disaster that was Tom's pancake-baking ability. His fingers itched with the urge to grab that spatula, shove his friend out of the way and form the dough into a perfect, round shape, but he ignored the urge. It was just another opportunity to strengthen his control, he told himself and breathed deeply in and out. His concentration was interrupted when Tom set down the plate in front of him, syrup placed right beside it. Hal looked up and stared into Tom's grinning face. "Try it then, will ya?"
"All right." He took his breakfast and strode into the living room. As he sat down at the table, his stomach growled with hunger and Hal's eyes widened involuntarily. He was hungry, he was surprised to realise, hungry for actual food, not blood. At least not at the moment.
He met Tom's gaze across the table, mystified and amazed at the same time, before he started digging into the pancakes. "These are actually really good, Tom."
Tom beamed and Hal was once again reminded of how easy it was to make him happy. "I wanted to do somethin' different than make burgers all day. It's doing my head in. And when the café's empty, it ain't much better. I tried to keep busy with whittling, but there's only so much a fella can do."
"Whittling? Have you been making stakes again?" Hal's hazel eyes narrowed. "I thought we had been over this."
Tom crossed his arms in front of his chest and leaned back in the chair. "I've got to do somethin', haven't I? And I'm not gonna be startin' with setting up dominoes or any of that stuff you do."
"Why not? I have efficient, and if I might add, not unpleasant ways to occupy myself."
"Nah, and I wouldn't even know how to do that embroilery stuff you love so much."
"Embroidery," Hal corrected, his mouth twitching.
Tom either had not heard, or chose to ignore it, because he went on without pause. "So next I'll try out making haggis and whatnot. By the time you're back at work I'll be perfect at all things Scottish!"
Hal opened his mouth to speak, then paused, desperately thinking of a way how not to curb his friend's enthusiasm. He cleared his throat. "About that. I don't think I can go back to work any time soon, Tom. I'm not sure I should be so close to people just yet." I love ripping out their throats too much, were the words he didn't say.
"Don't worry, mate, I didn't expect ya to." Tom stood up and went over to the bar, fumbling behind it until he pulled something forward. "I actually made ya a new rota for all the time ya normally spend in the café."
"You what?" Hal's disbelief was evident in his voice.
"I made you a rota." He proudly held up a huge piece of cardboard, scribbled on with black marker. "Ya know, like the one Annie made us for Eve." A look of sadness flitted across his face, but as sudden as it had appeared, it was gone again. He walked over to the table and laid the rota down in front of Hal.
Hal placed his fork neatly in the middle of his empty plate before he inspected the schedule. He skimmed over it until something new caught his attention. "13.00 – 14:00: Play pick-up sticks. After finishing game, organize sticks by colour," he murmured. He lifted his head. "Care to enlighten me about this 'pick-up sticks' of yours?" The words sounded strange and foreign on his tongue and he frowned.
Tom laughed. "You tellin' me ya never heard of it before?" He walked over to the wall unit and pulled open one of the drawers. "McNair first gave it to me when I was little. Preparin' me for handling wooden sticks, he said."
Hal's frown deepened. "What was that?"
"Uh, nothing. I never said nothin'." He returned and threw a package of something on the table.
Hal picked it up, opened the string and then drew a long, sharp wooden stick from the bag. He looked at it for a long moment, holding it between his fingertips by one end, before his eyes travelled over to his friend. "It's nice of you to help me control my condition, Tom. I really appreciate it, but I am quite certain that I am not meant to handle these kinds of things."
"Rubbish, give it here." Tom snatched the stick from his fingers as well as the bag and overturned it on the table. Then he gathered all the sticks up, gripped them in one hand, and let them go in one swift motion. They fell down in a cluttered heap.
"That looks really…chaotic." Hal didn't like it, he didn't like it at all. It took all his self-control to not pick them up and line them up beside each other, but then, he realized, that was the point of it all, wasn't it? To help him keep in control. Still, those sticks looked really pointy…
Tom was still focused on the game. "So, now you try to pull a stick out of the pile, without touching the others. If one of them trembles, or falls away, it's the other's turn. Of course, ya can just play it with yourself. The more rings the stick has painted on them, the more points it brings ya. The person with the most points in the end wins. And," Tom seemed to really enjoy himself, being able to teach Hal something, "if ya've got your first stick, ya can use it to free others with it." He took a stick and cautiously wiggled it under another on the top, then with a quick jerk, flipped it into the air. He caught it and grinned at Hal.
"I'm still not convinced these aren't a safety hazard," he mumbled.
"It's not dangerous," Tom countered. "Ok, there was that one time where one of them got stuck in my hand, but that was really my own fault and it only happened the once."
Hal grimaced, but he had to admit, the game did seem to be quite reasonable for managing his control issues. Tom had obviously put a lot of thought into this, so he decided to throw him a bone. "Maybe I can try this out with Alex when you're at work. Though I'm worried whether she will be able to withstand the temptation to prick me with one." As soon as the words had left his mouth, he knew there was something bothering him. "Where is Alex by the way?" he asked. "Shouldn't she normally be fluttering about, nagging me about something?"
Tom shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable, his eyebrows drawn down in concern. "Alex's not come out of her room since last night," he mumbled in an almost unintelligible way.
"What, why? And why haven't you told me?"
"I dunno why. I thought I'd give her some privacy. She just came home last night and went straight to her room. Ain't come out since."
"And you didn't think this was worth mentioning because…?"
"It's your first day out of the room. I wanted to get you started on a routine and that. Didn't wanna worry ya."
Hal sighed. It was times like these where he couldn't decide whether Tom's considerate behaviour was a great quality or plainly frustrating. "Well, I think you've given her enough privacy. I'm going to see if she's all right."
He stood up and made his way up the stairs. Tom was right of course, he did worry. As much as he hated to admit it, over the last few weeks, Alex had been a great help in keeping him sane. She had kept him on his toes, frustrating him, baiting him, but it kept his mind from focusing on other things, other…cravings. And even though he knew she had enjoyed herself, he had sensed her purpose behind it and he was grateful.
Hal reached her door and knocked carefully. There was no answer, but that wasn't going to put him off. Alex rent-a-ghosted everywhere she wanted, disregarding any sense of privacy, and he would be damned if he wouldn't do the same. He opened the door and spotted her on the bed, her knees pulled up to her chest. She looked up, shocked, and quickly turned away, wiping at her cheeks.
That's when Hal realised she had been crying and his first instinct was to just close the door again. He didn't know how to handle crying women. Normally, he was the one making them cry, not the one comforting them, so what was he supposed to do? But he couldn't leave now, it would be cowardly and she deserved better. Alex had endured more threats and insults from him than any reasonable person could be expected to, so the least he could do for her was to man up and face her tears.
He took a step forward and closed the door behind him, but before he could say anything, Alex was already speaking. "Tom finally let you out, then."
"Good, I'm bloody tired of being your servant." Alex might have looked like Alex, but the bite was missing from her words and that alone would have told Hal that there was something seriously wrong. She looked at him for a moment, seemingly considering something, before she turned away to stare out the window.
"Is this about your family?"
Alex's head whipped around, her beautiful eyes wide in her face. "How do you know?"
Hal sat down beside her, leaving a noticeable amount of space between them. "I might be self-involved sometimes, but five-hundred years have taught me something about human emotion." If a vampire wanted to live as long as he had, studying human behaviour was essential to one's survival; being perceptive meant staying alive. It also meant that the eventual destruction of a human being was that much sweeter, but that was something he'd rather forget. However, there was only one thing that could upset Alex like this, and that was her family. She had practically raised her brothers and they were what she valued most in the world.
"Why do you even care, Hal?" He took it as the rhetorical question it certainly must have been and didn't answer. She sighed. "Fine." Her fingers started fiddling with the bow on her dress. "My family has left town." Her voice trembled and she swallowed. When she continued, it sounded stronger. "I went to our trailer yesterday, watched them pack up our stuff, and just...leave. I know they couldn't see me, but it still...hurt. They still haven't found my body after those men took it away and I know they can't stick around forever, but I didn't want them to go. I wasn't ready to say goodbye."
"You could go with them."
Alex laugh was dry. "Aye, and live with them when they will never know I'm even there? Not bloody likely." Her next words were soft, but tinged with bitterness. "As much as I would love seeing my brothers grow up, that wouldn't be any existence at all." Her brown gaze met his. "And what about my unfinished business? Am I just stuck here forever? They will never find my body now, I'm sure."
"Maybe it's not about your body, maybe it's something else."
She threw up her hands. "Great. And how am I supposed to find out?"
"We'll find a way. I've known many ghosts and somehow there's always a way." Hal's thoughts flitted back to Pearl and Leo, and how Pearl had finally crossed over, at peace with herself. He had always known that Leo and Pearl loved each other, so it had never crossed his mind that that could be her unfinished business. Maybe with Alex it was something unexpected as well, something that would pop up and resolve itself in some way or the other. Sometimes that was the only thing one could hope for.
"And until then I'm stuck with you," Alex moaned. It was said with great suffering, but when Hal looked up, he saw a trace of the old sparkle in her eyes.
He would never admit it to anyone, on his worst days he wouldn't even admit it to himself, but Alex reminded him a lot of Pearl. In some ways they were blatantly different, Pearl had liked to make a point of her femininity whereas Alex valued her own tomboyish qualities, one had been very high maintenance whereas the other was easy to get along with, but in other ways, they were quite similar. Alex's teasing and bickering, the merciless nagging, it was so familiar that it gave him a warm feeling of home.
"No, I am stuck with you," Hal replied. "Which is infinitely worse. And poor Tom has to suffer us both, which makes him the most patient person on this planet."
Alex lips formed an amused smile. "I think that is the first time we can agree on something. Mind you, only on the last part." She stood up and smoothed her dress down, her grief pushed to the back of her mind for the time being. "I still don't understand how I ever wanted to go on a date with you. Must have been some temporary delusion on my part, considering you only ever wanted to drink my blood."
Hal growled low in his throat and shot her a dark look. Alex' mouth twitched. Her words didn't have the same edge they used to have in the first days after her death, but he still hated to be reminded of his unwitting role in her murder, and she knew it. He gritted his teeth. "I did not want to drink your blood, I just wanted some normalcy."
"Oh, now look how well that turned out." She opened the door and threw him a look over her shoulder. "Now that I can't tempt you anymore, being already dead and all, at least I'll get you to look at my face and not my neck. That's an improvement."
Hal knew that making fun of his blood lust was the only way Alex was able to deal with it, but it still grated. Ever since the day she had seen him licking her blood off the floor, she had been different, more aware and understanding of the need that controlled him, but in his darkest hours, when he had watched her watching him from the corner of the room, he had caught a glimpse of the fear that lay deep under the surface.
Hal didn't blame her, sometimes he even scared himself, but it made him sad, knowing that he had exposed her to the darkness that lurked in the recesses of a person's soul; the evil that people could be capable of. Of course, she had already experienced it first hand, but he had hoped she could have been shielded from any further revelations. Sometimes people were better off living in ignorance.
Alex must have noticed his expression, because her smile died. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He pulled his shoulders back and straightened his posture. "Nothing." He joined her at the door. "Let's see what Tom has cooked up in the kitchen. He's trying out Scottish food, just for you."
"Really?" And with that she disappeared. Tom's consequent yelp in the kitchen told him exactly where to. A minute later, Hal entered the kitchen and saw Tom and Alex standing in front of the cooker. Tom dipped his finger into what was left of the pancake dough while Alex had her hands on his head. A brilliant smile lit up her face as he stuck the finger into his mouth. "Tom, this is delish! I can't wait for you to make meat pie."
Tom laughed, happy at having made her happy and stuck his finger into the dough again.
Hal leaned back against the wall and watched them. Seeing the two of them together like that, enjoying the simple things in life, warmed him from the inside out. The void that Leo and Pearl had left in him would never be filled, but for the first time he believed that something else could make up for it. For the first time in a long time he felt that life would be good again.
Tom bit into a finished pancake, Alex sighed with pleasure and Hal...Hal smiled.
A.N.: So I hope you all liked the second chapter. Originally this wasn't planned but all the lovely reviews and story alerts made me write this follow-up. The little tid-bit where Tom says a pick-up stick got stuck in his hand actually happened to my brother, so I thought it would be funny to put that in there.
Like always, every author loves reviews and they are much appreciated. :)