Disclaimer: sadly they're not mine, I am borrowing from the marvellous Toby Whithouse and promise to return unscathed.
It's two days after the last full moon, and Leo is still in bed. Hal's long since given up hoping that his friend will recover after each new transformation, and though he would never say as much to Pearl, he's amazed that the werewolf is still alive. The shop is closed; the regulars have gone elsewhere, and there is nothing to do save nurse Leo and keep the routine going. Pearl spends too much time cooking, making vast pots of soup and dishes of lasagne and more cake than either of them could ever eat. Both of them are clinging on to the vestiges of the only life they've known for the last 55 years.
When the doorbell rings, Hal looks up from his Tolstoy and waits for it to stop. On the fourth ring, Pearl sticks her head around the door and demands that he answer.
"It's only someone wanting a haircut," Hal argues, his finger on the line he's reached. "I can't help them and neither can you. Leave it and they'll go away."
The bell rings again. "It's disturbing Leo," Pearl says. "Answer it, Hal. Get rid of them."
He finds a bookmark, puts it in the book, and gets up. "Politely. I'm getting rid of them politely."
"Well, yeah." Pearl gives him a scowl. "How else would you do it?"
Hal decides it's better not to answer that question, and goes downstairs.
He gets a feeling that something's up when he enters the salon, but he's promised Pearl now, and goes to the door. Whoever's ringing is hidden behind the blind, but he hesitates just one moment before flicking the Yale lock and opening the door.
"We're closed ..." he begins, and then sees who the visitor is.
Half a millennia previously, Hal had been sitting in the hall of a newly-won castle. The walls had only been cleaned of the blood drenching them a day or so before, and he was still relishing the taste of victory. The castle had been the culmination of a long journey home across Europe, in which he had learned the power of what he had become and the joy of slaughter; choosing a fiefdom and taking it on his return to a place where he had previously only known poverty and drudgery had been an equally potent drug. He was looking forward to the future, particularly as the castle's former lord – bones now mouldering at the bottom of the moat – had been both rich and miserly, and had amassed chests of coin.
He was in the process of counting, slowly and carefully, the contents of one of these when one of his new and newly-terrified servants crept into the hall to announce a visitor. Hal had not been expecting visitors, but he straightened his doublet, adjusted the collar of his shirt and nodded for the guests to be brought in. If useful, he reasoned to himself, he could keep them alive; if vexatious, well, he hadn't eaten much that day.
The visitor, in a dark and outdated tunic and hose, was tall and pale. Alone, he stood just inside the doorway and examined Hal from a distance.
"You're the one they call Henry of York?"
"Aye." Hal rose from his seat. "Welcome."
The man came further into the hall. "You may call me Snow."
"May I?" Hal offered a short, slightly mocking bow. "Will you take a cup of wine, Master Snow?"
"Wine isn't my drink; nor is it yours," Snow said. "But I'll take that boy who answered the door." He smiled, an unpleasant smile of stained teeth. "I'll accept him as your tribute."
Hal sat down. "Tribute?"
"Did that surgeon who made you teach you nothing?" Snow asked, pulling a chair out opposite and sinking into it. "I am your elder, Henry of York. I am everybody's elder. You owe me a tribute. It is what is done."
"And if I don't give you the boy?" queried Hal, fiddling with a coin.
"Then it would be my sad duty to put a stake through your heart," Snow said, "although from what I've heard I would much rather not. You, it seems, have potential."
There had been little to argue with that, and Hal had handed over the servant willingly enough. Snow had stayed long enough to impress on him what should be done. That had been the first meeting; over the long years there had been others, as Old Ones had died and Hal himself had risen up the ranks. Hal had never quite got used to the unnerving sense of compulsion around Snow.
And now, Snow is standing before him at the door of a barber's shop in Southend. "Won't you invite me in?" he asks, as cool and calm as ever, and Hal does, because it's Snow and how can he refuse? It feels a little dreamlike, as the door closes and Snow stands before him in the shaded light of the mirrored room.
He resists the urge to sink to one knee and kiss Snow's hand. Instead, he puts his hand in a pocket and finds a domino there.
"How did you find me?"
Snow laughs, softly. "I've always known where you are, Hal. Did you think you were hidden from me?"
"I'd hoped," Hal says, honestly.
"Come, come," chides Snow, "you were my lieutenant, once upon a time, Henry Yorke. How could I let such a trusted adviser go that easily?"
Hal turns the domino in his fingers, once, twice, three times. "What are you doing here?" he asks.
Turning, Snow finds a chair, sits down, spins it so he is staring at an empty reflection. "It's our time," he says. "Half a century ago, when you and I met, the humans were willing to be cowed by us, but you remember the calls of witchcraft and the need to go into hiding. Now is the time to come out of hiding. I've come to take the world back, and I want you at my side, Hal, as you used to be. The others are all here, but you – how can there be our revolution without you?"
The domino turns faster in Hal's fingers. He feels light-headed and a little sick; he thinks desperately of Leo and of Pearl in the flat above. "I don't want a part of it," he says, knowing he sounds only half-convincing. Knowing he's only half-convincing himself.
"Rubbish." There is no doubt in Snow's voice. "Your life here is ended, Hal. Your werewolf friend will die at the next full moon, or before. You'll lose your very reason for being here." He swivels the chair around again so he is looking directly at Hal with those pale eyes.
"Hal, I've allowed you your foibles because you have always been, the rest of the time, one of our best. I need someone who can lead a battle if need be, who can plan a campaign and execute it."
"Ask Ivan," says Hal, grasping at straws.
"Ivan's dead," Snow says, unexpectedly. "Killed in Bristol, in a bomb, last year."
"Wyndham," Hal suggests.
"I tried that. He got himself staked by a werewolf," Snow says. "Who else can I ask? Not Hetty, surely?"
Hal does not answer that. The domino is slippery in clammy fingers. Sighing, Snow gets to his feet and goes to the door; Hal hopes that perhaps he has given up and is leaving, but instead he opens it, beckons and steps back.
A boy comes in, just a skinny teenager with messed-up hair and scruffy clothes. "A gift, for you," says Snow, closing the door.
The boy's thin enough that Hal can see the pulse in his neck beating. His t-shirt shows blue veins prominent under pale skin. It's the closest he's been to a human for over half a century. He clutches the domino hard enough that he can feel the edges digging into the palm of his hand.
"It's not right," he manages, swallowing hard, "for you to be giving me gifts."
"Come now," Snow chides. "The traditions allow for a visitor to pay tribute to an Old One whose home he is visiting. This is your home, and while you may have been, shall we say, out of circulation for a while, you are still one of us. Drink, Hal, and then go upstairs, pack your bags and say goodbye to your friends." He pushes the boy towards Hal. "We are on a schedule, you know."
The boy stands mute, waiting, picking at a scab on his left arm. His eyes are blank; Hal wonders if he's half-faint from blood loss or drugged. Neither would surprise him. He can hear the scratch, scratch of the boy's fingernail on skin – and then, suddenly, the air is filled with the taint of iron as the scab comes loose and a drop of blood is exposed. Despite himself, Hal's appetite is roused, and he fights in vain the change.
There are no drugs, it turns out, in the boy's system, but he makes no struggle as he dies. Hal sinks to the floor with the body in his arms and takes deep, gasping breaths, the fresh blood coursing through his own dried up veins.
"There," says Snow, almost paternally, "I imagine that's better. Up you get."
He helps Hal to his feet, and hands him a clean handkerchief before pushing him towards the door to the flat.
Hal climbs the stairs automatically, in a daze. Pearl is waiting at the top, arms folded with her most irritated look on her face. It turns to horror as she takes in his appearance.
"What happened, Hal? Your face! You're covered in blood."
"It's not mine." With an effort, he retracts his fangs and meets her eyes. "It's not mine."
Pearl's expression moves to relief, before she evidently puts two and two together and comes up with four. "Hal, what happened down there?"
He cannot answer, and she vanishes. Hal staggers on, to his bedroom, where he finds his only suitcase – battered, something he'd picked up before the war – and starts to fill it. In truth there's not much to fill it with. He folds, meticulously, two shirts and two of his preferred long-sleeved t-shirts, adds a pair of trousers, a suit and some underwear, but the case is still half-empty. From the bookshelves he picks out some Dickens and Goethe and Dostoevsky. All that's really left that's his is the dominoes set, but after a moment's contemplation he puts the domino in his pocket in the box, closes it and leaves it on the little table by the window.
Leo is sitting up in bed listening to the radio, but he turns it off with a wide smile when he sees Hal, only for the smile to drop when he sees the suitcase.
"Hal? What's going on?" he asks.
"I've come to say goodbye," Hal says.
"Are you well?" Leo says, concern on his old face. "You look … ill."
"Vampires don't get ill," Hal returns, automatically, but he can feel the sweat beading on his brow. Focusing on Leo, he repeats, "I've come to say goodbye. I'm leaving."
"But you can't leave!" exclaims Leo. "What will you do? What about your routines? Hal, what's happened to you?"
Hal shifts his weight and is about to speak when Pearl appears in the room, on the other side of Leo's bed, visibly shaken.
"What is going on with you two today?" asks Leo.
Pearl points at the floor. "There's a vampire down there. And a dead body. He knew who I was, knew all about us."
"The body?" Leo says.
"No, the vampire. The boy's already gone through his door. He says he's waiting for you," she says, to Hal.
Two sets of eyes examine him, and he puts the suitcase down. His hand is shaking, so he clenches it. "I've got to go with him," he tells them. "I don't have a choice."
"Did you kill that boy?" Pearl asks, a tremor in her voice she's trying to conceal. Hal nods. "Oh God," she says, sinking down on to Leo's bed. Leo takes her hand in his. "You killed someone! In our house!" she exclaims.
Hal nods again. "I would be lying if I said I hadn't wanted to."
"But you killed him!"
Suddenly he finds that he's tired of being gentle with them. Snow is waiting, and the clock is ticking. "I've killed hundreds of boys like him," he says. "I'm a vampire, Pearl, it's what we do. We drink and we kill."
"You don't," Pearl insists.
"I've spent 55 years not killing," Hal agrees, "but it was never going to last, Pearl. Better that I leave now, rather than wait for the end. There's going to be a revolution; we will win and humanity will yield. At least I know neither of you will be here to see it."
Pearl stands up, folding her arms. "Excuse me?"
"Leo's dying," says Hal, "and you'll fade, or pass on, I expect, once he has. It won't be long now. And they want me back - he wants me back – so I am taking the chance."
She turns away from him, to the window, but her shoulders are heaving. Leo gazes at Hal. "I guess I thought he'd vanished for ever, that man I first met," he says. "I hoped."
"That you'd broken the cycle?" Hal asks. "I told you – I told you he'd return."
"But I thank you anyway," Leo returns. "You gave me my life, and your friendship, and I will not forget that. There is a good man in you, Hal." He extends his hand.
After a moment, Hal takes it. "Goodbye," he says.
Leo nods, and lets go.
Pearl does not turn around as Hal picks up his case, but she's standing at the window still when he looks up on leaving the building, a pale figure in a blue dress, and does not move.