Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Only With The Heart - Chapter 2


If you are new to this story, you can find chapter 1 here.

Please note - while the chapters are edited before I post them, the fast turn-around means errors or typos might slip through. I hope they won't detract from your enjoyment... and I do hope you will enjoy! If you want to make guesses on what will happen - or even make suggestions! - feel free to comment!

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ONLY WITH THE HEART
CHAPTER 2



Every few seconds, Ellie glanced at the rearview mirror yet again. She’d angled it to show the sleeping face of the child they were taking home when every last bit of training she had ever received told her they should have entrusted him to the police, or someone from Child Protection Services. A call, that was all it’d have taken. The numbers were already programmed in her phone.


She was doing an excellent job pretending to herself she didn’t know why she had not only agreed to breaking the rules, she’d all but suggested it, and even given Lance a reason.

In the near complete darkness, with nothing more than streetlights and the light cast by passing cars to illuminate his features, James looked even more fragile than he had in the warehouse.

“How old did he say he was?” she asked, quietly so as not to wake him up.

Lance grunted.

“Dunno. Didn’t think of asking him.”

Huffing, she rolled her eyes. Typical Lance. She wasn’t even all that surprised.

“I’d guess somewhere around eleven or twelve,” he continued. “You?”

She took another quick look before returning her attention to the road ahead of her.

“Something like that, yes.”

Part of her had wanted to say seven. Which was stupid, because James was clearly older than seven, but her mind sometimes seemed convinced that every little boy in the world was seven, and would always be seven.

She glanced once more at James and found herself glad suddenly that he wasn’t blond.

They were quiet for a little while, the silence of the car broken by the humming of the heater, the swishing sound of the windshield wipers, and the rain striking the roof. Ellie drove carefully, remaining far enough under the speed limit that every now and then a car would pass them, its driver in a hurry to get in a wreck.

Judging by the way Lance’s knee was jumping up and down, he would have pressed harder than she did on the accelerator. Her car; her rules. If he wanted to get home faster, he could get himself new wheels.

She caught herself wondering where Taylor had parked her car. Far enough that Lance wouldn’t risk seeing it—and recognizing it. Far enough, also, that she’d get drenched some more on her way back to it. If only she and Lance would stop acting so stupidly… It had been months already and they were both miserable, each as stubborn as the other.

Maybe if she’d said something sooner…

She threw him a look, on the verge of saying something to him now, but stilled her tongue. She had enough going on in her own life without trying to meddle with her brother’s and best friend’s. Lance, however, had noticed that glance, and he returned it with a frown.

“What?”

“Nothing,” she said, a little too quickly, only fueling Lance’s suspicions.

“Either learn to lie better or start telling the truth,” he muttered, but there was no heat to the words and he turned his face away, looking out through the passenger side window.

The familiar phrase echoed within her as though a gong had been struck inside her soul. Their father used to say that to them when he caught them fibbing, and she’d said it too, once or twice, despite thinking it was terrible parental advice. She supposed her father’s point had been that truth was the way to go, and Lance had taken that to heart, using his charm and guilelessness to get himself out of punishments for occasional mischief as he was growing up without having to resort to lying—and he still did it to this day, for the most part. Ellie had gone the other way. She didn’t lie all that often, but when she did, she was never caught.

Or at least, not by anyone other than Lance.

“Want me to file the paperwork tonight?” he asked, yawning.

“That’s all right, I’ve got it.”

“You’ve filed it the last four cases we’ve had. Weren’t we supposed to take turns?”

She made herself cast a grin at him, and managed to push amusement in her words as she said, “Are you saying you want to do it? I thought you hated having to do reports.”

“And I thought you hated it just as much,” he retorted. “No one could enjoy those stupid forms except for…”

He caught himself before saying Taylor’s name and looked away again. Ellie’s heart gave a painful pang.

In the beginning, that had been why she started taking on the paperwork duty more and more often, knowing full well that it was one more painful reminder for Lance. But as time had passed, it had only become an excuse to stay up a little longer—to exhaust herself just a little more. She only relinquished the mind-numbing duty of filing up the electronic form and its seventy-four questions to Lance when she was too tired to keep her eyes open.

If she let him take this one he’d need to know how she’d heard about this warehouse and the vampires there. If she’d told him who her informant was beforehand, he’d probably have refused to go. And if she told him now, no doubt he’d be upset.

“I’ll do it,” she said quietly, avoiding the topic of Taylor altogether.

Lance made a sound that might have been a thank you and was silent again. They drove on.

Their hunt tonight had taken them to a nearby town, where no one had replaced the local Special Enforcer when she’d retired a couple of years earlier. These days, less and less trainees became full-fledged S.E.s. For the first time in their history, the Academies that had trained Special Enforcers for decades now offered a parallel path, with many of the same courses, an accelerated program—and a better pay at the end. Had the Demon Fighter program already been in place when they’d attended the Academy, Ellie suspected that Lance might have chosen it instead. And Taylor might have, too, just to prove that she could.

There were reports that demons had started appearing in three more spots over the last month—the outskirts of Sydney in Australia, the middle of the countryside in Italy, and a small town in the west of the United States. Authorities didn’t know where the demons came from, they didn’t know why they seemed to appear on the North American continent twice as frequently as everywhere else, they didn’t know what they wanted or why they attacked anyone unlucky enough to cross paths with them. The only thing the world knew for certain right now was that strange, violent creatures were appearing everywhere, and the only way to stop them was to kill them with basic metal weapons such as swords, axes or lances.

If Ellie had been any better with a sword, she would have considered joining the war effort. Every now and then, she thought she might ask Lance to train with her; his skill with a sword had always been excellent.

And then her mind would flash to Evan and she’d feel guilty.

At long last, she turned into the driveway to the duplex they shared. James jerked awake in the backseat at the moment she turned off the engine. He looked instantly alert, if a little disorientated as he watched her grab the crossbow she’d stashed next to him on the backseat.

“Come on,” Lance told him with that fake gruffness that meant he was trying not to sound too nice. “It’s late. Time for bed.”

The three of them climbed onto the porch, and Ellie unlocked the door. Lance’s side of the house had its own entrance, but they had remodeled the whole thing so that most of his first floor served as office for their agency, with the front door opening straight into it. Inside, they’d cut a doorway into the wall separating both units so that it was just as convenient for him to enter with her than to unlock his own front door.

Some light drifted into the hallway from the living room, but everything was quiet. Lance gave her a brief nod and the flash of a smile before walking on, gesturing for James to follow. She smiled at James and murmured a soft, “Good night” as he passed by her, but he only walked faster, hunching his shoulders. Her smile faded as she watched them disappear past the doorway into Lance’s unit. Leaving her crossbow in the hallway, she tiptoed into the living room and surveyed the scene.

The light came from the television, the logo of the Blu-ray player bouncing off the sides in an endless loop. It looked like it had shut itself off once the disc finished playing. Sprawled on the sofa in a t-shirt and sweatpants, Evan slept with his mouth open. He let out a quiet snore that threatened to make Ellie smile. A surge of affection and sorrow coursed through her and it was all she could do to stop herself from going to him and waking him up with a kiss. Instead, she swallowed back a sigh and started to turn away.

“Elle? ‘S that you?”

She looked back to the sofa, plastering a thin smile on her face. Evan was sitting up, first rubbing at his eyes then scrubbing his hands through his hair and making it stick up every which way. He looked adorable like this, and her fingers ached from wanting so much to bury themselves in his thick blond hair.

“Yeah, it’s me,” she said quietly. “We just came back. Don’t wait up, I’ve got some paperwork to file.”

In the faint light cast by the television, she could see his expression close up in a frown, could see his mouth opening, could guess a protest, maybe a plea that she leave the paperwork until morning and come to bed with him now. But his mouth closed again, his eyes dulled, and he gave the barest of nods before reaching for the remote and shutting off the television. Now in the dark, she didn’t bother keeping the mask up and let her smile slip. She went on to the doorway into Lance’s unit and to the office in the front of the house, leaving pieces of her heart like a trail of breadcrumbs behind her.

One of these days, there would be nothing left of her heart. She didn’t know what would happen then.



* * *



“This is where you’ll sleep,” Lance said, setting James’ suitcase at the foot of the perfectly made queen-size bed. “Bathroom’s across the hallway. The water takes a little while to warm up so you might want to start it before you get under the shower.”

As he talked, he picked up a couple of t-shirts and pajama pants from the floor. He hadn’t expected guests, and the cleaning service that came once a week only took care of the office on the first floor.

When he turned to the doorway, James was still standing beyond it, his face lacking any expression Lance might have recognized.

“Is that the only bedroom?” he asked in an equally expressionless voice. “I can sleep on the sofa, I don’t mind. Or even on the floor. I’m used to it.”

“Nah, you take the bed, I’ll take the sofa. You look like you need a good night of rest more than I do.”

He dropped the clothes he’d picked up into the overflowing laundry basket wedged between the dresser and the wall. He couldn’t remember if it was clean laundry or clothes in need to be washed, which probably meant he was overdue for a load of laundry or two. He pushed the clothes down, tucking in a stray sock and sleeve. It could wait another day.

He pulled a t-shirt and sweatpants from the dresser before walking out of the room. James, still standing in the hallway, moved to the side.

“Honestly, I don’t mind sleeping on the sofa,” James said, not quite looking straight at Lance. “It’s your home, I shouldn’t—”

“What you shouldn’t do is argue with me when I’m tired,” Lance cut in. “Get washed up and get in bed. The sofa’s mine.”

James, who had turned very still at the interruption, breathed out a quiet, “Yes, sir,” and finally walked into the bedroom. He grabbed the suitcase and took it with him in the bathroom. Walking to the living room at the end of the hallway, Lance heard the snick of the lock being turned, followed by the sound of water. He let out a tired sigh. He thought he might have scared the kid, but then he’d never pretended to know much about children.

He turned off the light and changed into his sleeping clothes in the dark before letting himself fall onto the sofa. His pillow was already in place and he only need to draw the blanket over himself.

What he hadn’t told James, because it wasn’t anyone’s business but Lance’s, was that he hadn’t slept in his bed for a long time.

He closed his eyes and tried to think of nothing, but it was strange to hear the small sounds that meant someone else was in his home: the running water, then the wooden floor in the hallway creaking under someone’s steps… and later on, when enough time had passed that he’d started drifting into sleep, whimpers loud enough to reach him from the other end of the hallway.

His eyes opened and he stared up into the dark, waiting for the whimpers to stop, holding his breath when they did, cringing when they soon started again. When he couldn’t stand it anymore, he pushed off his blanket and stomped down the hallway, his heels striking every creaky piece of wood. He used the bathroom, blasting water noisily in the sink when he washed his hands. When he came out again, the whimpers had stopped. He started walking back down the hallway, much quieter now, but came to a halt when he heard his name from behind the closed bedroom door. He opened it a mere hand’s width, remaining behind it as he asked, “What is it?”

“I just wanted…” James’ voice still held the broken echoes of his nightmares. “I was wondering… Vampires can’t get in here, can they?”

Unbidden, Taylor’s image floated to the front of Lance’s mind.

“No,” he said, shaking his head to chase that image away. “No vampire can come in.”

He stopped himself before adding “You’re safe.” No reason to explicitly tell James that Lance knew he was scared.

“All right, then. Thank you.”

“Good night,” Lance muttered, and closed the door again before returning to his sofa.

The small hours of the morning arrived before he finally found sleep. The whimpers had not started again, but Lance knew from experience that it didn’t mean the nightmares hadn’t come back.

continued in chapter 3

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