You're not sure you know who you are anymore.
Sure, you know what you are. You're human. And that answer is more than you ever dared dream, so for a long time, you don't look past it. There's no need. You're human, and you want for nothing.
You never have to worry about Lord Harry returning. You feel parts of him within yourself, but he's shattered into a thousand pieces—the only thing keeping him together was the blood.
The first night, you lie awake in bed, staring at your ceiling. The world used to be so loud—alarms blaring from across the city, streetlights flickering, and most of all, the distant rush of blood calling to you in every waking moment. You were able to block it out, and over the decades have trained yourself to do so without thinking about it, but it was something like breathing—if you did think about it, it became so much harder. And you were constantly teetering over that edge.
You turn over, grasping your bedsheet to your chest with one hand, and stare at the other, lying open on the mattress near your own face. Your eyes trail down the pale skin of your wrist, and you bring it slowly to your mouth, teething it tentatively.
No fangs slide into place. You haven't any. There is no monster to unleash, nothing trembling just beneath the surface.
You rise slowly, not sure what you're doing until you start for the bathroom. Withdrawing your razor from underneath the sink, you slide it against your wrist. Red quickly begins to bead in the light scratches, and you give it a second pass. Blood oozes readily, tainting your white skin. Everything inside you flinches at the sight.
It's human blood. Your very own. And it doesn't call to you. No beast claws at the inside of your skin for want of it. In fact you recoil at the sight of it, knowing it is not where it should be.
You flip the light on, wrapping your wrist in paper towels, and grasp the countertop, staring into your reflection.
You look just the same as you did five hundred years ago—a naïve young Englishman who was raised in a brothel and died bloody in a forest in Belarus. If you had somehow been restored to humanity a few years, even a few decades later, you might have even been able to say that young man had been, ostensibly, resurrected.
Except you don't look quite the same. There is a darkness behind your eyes that even a blind man would be able to sense. That young man is long dead. Lord Harry is gone. Even the Hal who was born out of the devotion of a good man called Leo isn't really around anymore.
And you don't know who's taken their place.
You developed a facsimile of OCD as a coping mechanism. And out of sheer force of habit, you still spend a substantial amount of time tidying things up after Tom, setting up dominoes, and organizing the cupboards to an unnecessary extent. But the movements eventually begin to feel repetitive, hollow.
You like a clean ship, still, but it's no longer a physical need.
Tom doesn't notice the bandages on your wrist. You never expected him to. But Alex does. She's leaving, going back home on the first train tomorrow morning, and as you gather some essentials for the trip, she asks about them.
Your head is stuck inside your dresser, looking for another set of suitable clothes for her, and you pretend you haven't heard.
When you straighten up again, though, she's standing still, looking at you thoughtfully. She asks, "How do you feel? If you're neither of them?"
You know, of course, exactly what she means, and you don't know how to answer. You give a half-hearted smile and reply, "I'm still figuring that out."
In truth, you don't quite care about your lack of identity. A blank slate is far superior to any of the people you've been in the past. But you're still rather dazed by the mere notion. None of this… quite feels real.
"They're gonna look at me so differently," comes Alex's murmured voice, and you look up. She's staring at the floor, her hands resting on her hips.
You haven't the foggiest idea what to say. You never had a family, not really. And whatever you did have, in that brothel—that's five centuries behind you. Lord Harry thought family just rendered you weak and distracted. Hal always felt a vague sense of longing at the notion, until he found just what he was looking for with Leo and Pearl.
As with most things, you think you're more in Hal's corner with this one.
"You are different," you find yourself saying. "We all are, with what we've seen and done—and been. But Alex… they'll look at you with such joy that nothing else will matter."
She listens silently, her clear eyes on you the whole time. The corners of her mouth quirk upwards, and you think of kissing it.
Instead, you find yourself wringing your hands.
"You're wrong, you know," she says quietly. "Something else will matter. I have to see my family, I miss them so much… but don't you dare think for a moment that you and Tom aren't the world to me. I just… need to distance myself from all that's happened, and see if I can start to figure out who I am going forward. I know you understand that."
She says it with such quiet certainty, you don't know how to react. A moment later the two of you have met in the middle in a gentle embrace. There's no hurry, no desperation in the movements. It's a hug that knows it's got time.
"I don't know who you are," she whispers in your ear, "but I can't wait to find out. I just know that you've got to have a chance to find out first."
Alex goes home. Weeks pass. Your memory of her confidence begins to fade.
You still feel like a shadow.
On the first full moon since That Day, you accompany Tom to his favourite pub. You haven't gotten drunk—on alcohol, anyway—in at least fifty years, and you still don't plan on it, but you're a bit more of a lightweight than you remember, feeling a strong tingling after the first glass of Merlot. You stop immediately.
You and Tom chat about the series you started to watch together, the last email you got from Alex, work at the hotel. In a lull, the din gets to you, and you shut your eyes.
Crowds, in general, were bad for you, and you were very bad for them.
You've grown unaccustomed. Rusty. But there is no longer anything to fear.
When you come back, Tom has started a drunken argument with a red-faced chap sitting next to him, and you grasp his shoulder and steer him outside, leaving payment on the counter. He doesn't resist, though he complains that he didn't get to finish his beer. Once you're outside, you suggest grabbing a couple more from the fridge at home and heading up to the top of the hill overlooking the city to just sit quietly and drink.
Twenty minutes later, that's where you are, and you much prefer this. It's quiet, the air is calm, you can see the stars, and if you lose control, there's no one around to hurt or—
You're still not used to this. To not having to be afraid. You're not certain you ever will be.
The moon is bright, of course, and it's all Tom seems to see. But he rips his attention from it for a moment to train his eyes on you and slur earnestly, "I never would've gotten in a proper fight."
"I know," you say quietly.
"Dunno if I ever will again," he goes on, leaning back. "Beginnin' to wonder if the wolf was behind all the ones I did get in, before."
"We'll all have to reaccustom ourselves with… ourselves," you murmur, but it's the wrong expression. "Reaccustom" implies you knew these versions of yourselves before. Instead, you're all getting acquainted with vaguely familiar strangers.
He quiets down for a bit, staring again at the white disk hanging in the sky. "It's so bright," he says in wonder. "'Course I seen it the night before an' after, but I never woulda guessed the difference would be so…" He seems to struggle to find the right word.
"Striking?" you supply, and add that to a mental list you hadn't been aware you were making until this moment: you're still eloquent.
You didn't expect Tom to reflect on your suggestion, not for a moment. But he turns his large eyes towards you, considering you for a time, and says, "Y'know, in a lot o' ways, you're just the same."
You have no response for that.
He continues to watch the moon with wide eyes, raising his bottle to his lips every so often, and you do the same.
Eventually, to your side, soft snoring begins to rise. You guide him back home and haul him into bed, and go to rest your own gently spinning head.
Empty space where a terrible hunger once was.
Emptiness is better. Of course. But that void howls, it whines and growls and echoes, and you know you have to fill it with something.
You don't want to pour in alcohol. Or even food. Though your appetite has been, by your estimate, normal, you've been eating less lately. You just sit and listen to your stomach's low growls and marvel at how weak the urge is by comparison.
Over a life as long as yours, one has opportunities to try all sorts of things. Painting? You produced scores of works in the mid eighteenth century. Medicine? You studied under the doctor who turned you. Sports? Early nineteenth, you tried all sorts. You could always revisit any of these ventures. But you'll always be looking at them through a red-tinted lens. Before, these weren't good enough. Nothing was.
Sometimes you think what you used to think—that you've lived too long. Far too long. You wish you'd been turned older, much older—maybe then, a natural death would be waiting just around the corner.
Sometimes you ache to get in a fight, or start a fire, or punch a wall till your knuckles bleed. But you don't feel it anymore. You've lost so much of what drove you to act. You have always carried two motivations, two trophies to be sought after, warring within you: blood, and humanity. Humanity is a given now, and blood is off the table. There is no war. There is no wanting.
You don't know who you are, and you don't know where you're going.
You get low.
You don't get reckless, though, and you have no secrets to keep. You get low in a way you're not sure you ever have before—in the lack of struggle, you stagnate.
You work, you sleep, and you watch crap telly. You live the life of an ordinary man. You feel a pit yawning within you, and you wallow in it.
You don't speak of it, of course. Tom is having a difficult enough time figuring himself out, putting himself apart from the wolf, deciding if he likes the person he is without it, or even knows anything about that person.
You once told Tom that he was more human than any of you. He denied it, and you begin to see why. He tries to wrap his head around not seeing himself as an animal any longer. He holds himself to higher standards, and that seems to make him miserable. He struggles as well with losing his main drive, his source of energy.
Perhaps, you think sometimes, you should talk about it with him. Perhaps you could help each other. But you're not sure that's so.
Vampires, you get.
Humans are still something of a mystery to you.
By Tom's second full moon, he seems to be in a much better place. He has some kind of renewed vigour he found tucked away in some dusty corner, and it's not destructive or unhealthy in any way that you can tell. He starts going to the pub with a few friends he's made among the other hotel employees. He reconnected with Allison last month, and they've been spending a great deal of time together. It's clear to you they're good for each other.
You miss Alex.
You miss Leo.
You miss certainty.
You miss something you can't name.
Fortunately, one of those, at least, is about to be addressed.
You make sure both you and Tom are off work when Alex's train is scheduled to arrive. You both go to pick her up and find her there with slightly longer hair (she shares that she never wanted long hair before, but now it's just novel to watch it grow) and a very small suitcase (she explains that after existing for so long with no real possessions of her own, it's easy to bring only what she needs).
She's practically glowing. She looks well. She looks alive.
You ache looking at her, for a myriad of reasons.
She comes back to the flat, and it's like stepping back in time. Except she's got new clothes on, Tom is so much more at ease than he ever was before, and you catch glimpses of your reflection in the various glass surfaces around the room. Thousands of reminders that things have changed.
She has a new camera, a nice one, and she keeps taking photos of the damnedest things—close-ups of each of your hands and things in the flat she's seen hundreds of times before. It gets only a brief mention when she first takes it out—"New hobby," she says, and Tom nods, obviously not minding, and you suppose you don't either.
You all sit together and make a list of things you want to do that you never could before. Alex kicks it off by saying, "I never much cared for shopping, but I've been doing it more and more lately and I bet you two have never known the simple joy of making impulse purchases. So let's hit up the mall, yeah?"
You, of course, are the one making the list, and you silently pen it in the first line.
"Good to know you still write like a Victorian schoolteacher," Alex comments, and Tom snickers. You feel a smile flit across your face, but it drops with your sheer surprise at the sensation.
Alex says, "Go on, then. Tom. What's something you never felt like you could do?"
He has a response ready. "Go to the park, or like any place where there might be animals, a pet store or summat. Just play with some cats."
She raises her eyebrows, her mouth dropping open in a dramatic grin. "Thomas, are you a cat person?"
He shrugs. "I dunno. Could be. It's just animals can smell we're different and McNair always said—"
"Could. Could smell you were different. Let's go to a pet shop." She gestures for you to write it down, and once you have, she hunkers over, her elbows resting on her knees and her hands clasped near her face, looking at you intently. "Your go, Hal. Add something. Anything you like. You know, as long as it's decent."
You tug briefly at your lips in an attempt to simulate a smile, and you feel your head give a gentle shake. "I don't need to add anything," you say, your voice calm, but it's a calm that has something bubbling just beneath it. A very familiar thing to you. "I'm quite content. You continue. Perhaps I'll think of something later."
Alex scowls, but it's hampered by concern. "Bollocks. There's nothing off the top of your head? No experience you'd like to share with us now that you can?"
"It don't have to be life-changing, Hal," says Tom. "Just somethin' little."
You blink at your hand, still gripping the pen. Something little? Nothing is little, or rather, everything is. They're both watching you, and they're both so young. They have no idea how astronomical it was for you to go to the shops for the first time, to go for a run for the first time, to hail a taxi for the first time—in a modern world that didn't have to fear you.
You've done plenty already. Perhaps revisiting such things would be a sufficiently different experience if you're doing it with their company, but then again… perhaps something new, or very, very old, would do you good.
A thought comes into your head for the first time. You don't filter it. You speak it aloud without thinking.
"That church on Park Road," you murmur. "All Saints."
You feel Tom and Alex glance at each other. Their surprise is palpable. "I thought, since you were an Old One, crosses didn't bother you," Alex says, questioning.
You give a single, barely discernable nod. "And even so… I kept well away from churches. Something like me could never…" You look up. They're both watching you intently, eyes wide. "We don't have to attend a service or anything," you clarify. "I just… I'd like to see what it looks like on the inside."
Slowly, they both nod, and you turn your gaze downward to add it to the list. "I bet it's beautiful," Alex says thoughtfully, and in your peripherals you see Tom nod agreement.
You don't look up at first as you gesture to Alex and say, "Your turn again." But on the last word your eyes do flicker up, and she's smiling at you, and you don't know why.
You and Tom have taken off work for the whole week Alex is here. Even with seven days and keeping all your destinations within driving distance of Barry, the list you draw up is terribly ambitious.
Every morning is an early one. You eat out far more than any of you can afford to. You go on long walks, play children's games in the park, make strangers into acquaintances before waving goodbye forever. You visit places you've never been, eat foods you've never tried, buy things you don't care about. One day you take a half-hour train ride to catch a tiny carnival a couple towns over, and it starts to rain after a few hours. You huddle underneath a tree until the sunlight tickles your skin again, and as you go to kick around in the puddles, Tom points out the faintest shadow of a rainbow beyond the clouds.
The church is beautiful, and inspires a peace greater than someone who's done the things you've done could ever ask to feel again. So do the moments of silence when the three of you have finished eating and just don't want to move yet. And the distant whistle of the train when you're pulling back in to Barry. And the soft sound of Tom's snoring when it's his turn to give up his bed to Alex and he's sleeping on the couch for all to hear.
Tom gives you and Alex plenty of time alone in the evenings. At first, you're unbearably stiff. You don't know what to say. Next to her, even though you know you're human, you feel like you're masquerading. She's gentle, patient. She asks real questions, about how you're doing—questions that at first, you have no idea how to answer.
At first, you do prefer the daytime, when you're all together, when they have each other to be distracted from you. You can fade into the background, and sometimes you smile at their antics, and sometimes you roll your eyes. But at least, when Tom's there, there's not much pressure for you to speak. Silence is accepted. Peaceful pauses are common.
You don't know what it is. But in time, those simple, in-between moments begin to whisper to you even when they're not immediately surrounding you. You feel more at ease when you and Alex are alone, and the emptiness inside you stops asking to be filled.
You still don't understand what you are, but you're beginning to theorize that maybe… that's okay.
Maybe no one does.
As long as you have them, you're complete.
On the final day, you wake up with a stone in your chest.
You're to picnic in the only driveable park you haven't yet visited. Last night you all spent ages preparing an elaborate brunch. Alex's train leaves in the early evening, so this will be your last meal together.
You try to count your blessings—now that you have some, it's a habit you've been trying to get into. At least you'll always have Tom. In this wondrous modern age, Alex is only a phone call or email away. And she'll be back. Maybe even soon.
These thoughts do start to make you feel better, but all the same, your manner is reserved as the three of you eat a light breakfast of fresh fruit and go for an early morning stroll. You still aren't speaking much when you catch a cab to the park. Alex has brought all the food in a massive bag she bought on a shopping excursion early in the week, and Tom helps her unpack it while you spread out a blanket in the grass, meticulously flattening down its corners.
You assist them in transferring everything over to the blanket, and notice Alex duck out of the process near the end. Then Tom is standing, and all at once you find yourself kneeling on the blanket with a wrapped package being held unceremoniously in front of your face. You look up, and Alex is the one holding it, but Tom is standing next to her with his arms wrapped around himself and a big grin on his face as he watches you.
They seem to realize the position is a little awkward, and you don't move, your brain spinning its wheels, so they both kneel in front of you. Alex says, "We were thinkin' of waiting till the last minute, but you've been sort of… moping?"
"Sulking?" suggests Tom.
"Brooding," Alex decides, "all morning. So here, just take it now and we can have a nice meal."
Obediently, mutely, you take the package into your hands. It's immediately apparent that whatever is inside is not in a box. The paper is simple—red, with darker red stripes. You trace your fingers over it, wondering if the colour choice is a bit thoughtless. Realizing that red has been your favourite colour most of your life. Suddenly questioning if that selection was yours, or your original self's, or Lord Harry's, or if it even matters.
"Oh, um, to clarify," Alex says, sounding earnest, and you listen, but she goes on, "it's a gift. It's wrapped so that its nature is a surprise. You're meant to tear through that wrapping, thereby opening it, and learning that nature."
"Have ya never gotten a gift, Hal?" Tom asks, and for a moment you think he's bought into her overly serious tone, but then you pick up on the note of teasing in his voice.
Carefully, you pull the tape up from the paper, folding it over itself, taking eminent care not to rip the paper—and noticing that there's very little tape to remove anyway, almost as if those who wrapped this were prepared for such behavior. When the job is done, you withdraw a large, squarish book with solid binding and thick pages. In flowing letters that you immediately understand is a mimicry of your own handwriting, the cover says at the top, "A Week in Barry."
"No cover picture 'cause we had a bit of a row over which one we should use and in the end we thought you should decide anyway," says Tom. "Or maybe we could take one today, and that's pretty poetic, innit? I thought, anyway."
You look at him for a long moment, slowly understanding what he's saying, and, your movements dreamlike, you open the book to the first page.
It's filled with photos, in vaguely chronological order, taken on Alex's camera throughout the week.
You're in them.
You stare. It's clear in most of the pictures that you're not aware of them being taken, or aren't paying much attention. Alex has included plenty of her faux artistic ones, close-ups of plants, but only ones in which you or Tom appear as blurry phantoms in the background. But the majority of them are candids of one or two of you. Alex took most of them, so she doesn't make frequent appearances, but you recall several times she handed the camera over to Tom throughout the week, and that's evidenced in this collection.
Each page is covered in pictures. There are no blank spaces to be found. How were you so unaware of this many pictures being taken? You haven't paid any attention to cameras since they were invented and it became clear that your kind were utterly unaffected by them. Some aren't candids—some were planned, taken either by Alex as she stretched the camera far away from the three of you, or by a passerby she conscripted into her efforts. You always complied but forgot the occurrence the moment it was done, seeing little value in it. No one has ever taken pictures of you, or even tried. You have no grasp of what the practice really means.
"Alex took the pictures, 'course, and I had most of the materials ready, and we've been printin' 'em out and slowly puttin' it together every night," Tom says. "We knew we'd have the time 'cause you still 'ave the sleeping habits of a grandma."
You continue to flip through slowly. There are moments, moments captured on the pages of this book. Meals and laughter and mistakes and lovely sights and so many different versions and angles of the two faces that matter to you more than anything.
As well as yours.
You do look slightly different in photos than in the mirror. Sometimes better, but maybe not most of the time. You don't care. You vaguely recall hearing of the phenomenon, but you never understood it, nor cared to, till now.
You hear a click, and you look up. Alex is holding her camera, pointing it towards you. Capturing another moment that may one day be laid down on a page. You try to wrap your mind around it.
She stands there, holding it against her chest, watching you with the corners of her lips upturned ever so slightly. "Look at all the living we've done in just one week," she says, her voice characterized by softness and clarity at once. "I know the thought of living isn't necessarily… a nice one for you. But this can keep going. And it will. Your friends are with you, Hal."
"Always," Tom agrees. "Whether ya like it or not."
A moment passes, a moment which is ridiculous and mundane and life-altering all at once. You search for words. There aren't any. Words seldom fail you, but there have still been many times over your five centuries that the unthinkable has happened and they have. They never fail you for happy reasons.
"I don't deserve this, or you," you breathe, almost choking. "I don't deserve…" You shake your head, giving up on finding a worthy object of the sentence to encompass all you want to express.
Alex shrugs lightly. "It's not about deserve. I don't rightly know what it is about, but you can't earn good, and you can't make yourself unworthy of it by doing evil."
"So let yourself be 'appy, ya clod," says Tom. "Maybe even make an effort to. And if it's hard, which I know it is, we'll 'elp ya. Just say the word."
You still feel they're oversimplifying the issue. Of course they are—they've been around for less than five percent of your lifespan, anything they could ever say about you or your long and tormented existence would be oversimplification. But… they may be onto something.
Choosing to be happy only gets you so far. But you do have some choices. And you choose them.
It's always them.
"Anyway," Alex says, fiddling with some controls on her camera and kneeling again on the blanket. She leans against you on one side, while Tom does on the other, enthusiastically turning his whole body around, as she holds the camera up. "One for the cover now, or the last page. Either way it's important. Say cheese!"
You do not say "cheese." But you do find it in yourself to smile as Tom and Alex do.
The camera clicks.