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ONLY WITH THE HEART
Lance wanted to say something, anything to Evan, about James, about Ellie, about the damn pancakes, but immediately after dumping the burned food in the trash and setting the hot pan in the sink, Evan muttered something about going for a run and left the kitchen. Lance sighed and looked into his mug, his thoughts as dark as the brew. Evan had been doing a lot of running in the past months. It wasn’t leading him anywhere as far as Lance could see.
He finished his coffee and pushed away from the table. James’ head snapped up at the sudden movement, his eyes a little wider, the wariness that filled them unmistakable. Lance almost apologized but already James was looking down again, a touch of red coloring his cheeks in embarrassment. If Lance said anything about his reaction, he’d only embarrass him further. He kept quiet and went to put the mug in the sink. When he turned back to James, he’d finished the food on his plate as well as his glass of orange juice and was bringing both to the sink.
“Ready to go, then?” Lance asked.
Before James could say a word, Ellie walked in, rubbing her eyes with her closed fist like a child and yawning. With her short hair a mess and wearing an oversized t-shirt and pajama pants, she’d clearly just woken up.
“Love the new hairstyle,” Lance said, smirking.
She blinked at him, clearly not getting the joke. She finally raised a hand to her hair and scowled at him as she combed it with her fingers.
“Asshole,” she muttered as she came to sit at the table.
“Language,” he chided her. “We don’t talk like that in front of children.”
He regretted the words as soon as they passed his lips—as soon as he saw the naked pain in Ellie’s eyes.
“Elle,” he started, his tone instantly apologetic, but she didn’t let him go any further than that.
“Good morning James,” she said pointedly. “Did you have a good night?”
James’ expression remained neutral as he answered.
“Oh gawd don’t call me that. I’m not that old.”
She transferred a couple of pancakes to her plate, still looking at James.
“Did you have breakfast? Evan makes excellent pancakes.”
When James nodded mutely, she looked up at Lance instead.
“Did he leave?” she asked in a quiet voice.
“Just before you came down, yeah,” Lance replied, uncomfortable. “He said he was going for a run.”
She frowned at the food on her plate, though without touching it. Seconds trickled by in silence. Lance wished he’d known what to say.
“Should I get my things, then?” James asked him.
“Your things. Right. Go get them, I’ll wait here.”
As James darted out, Lance pulled a new mug from the cupboard and filled it with coffee. Sitting at the table again, he set the mug in front of Ellie and cleared his throat.
“Do you want me to talk to—”
“So, you’re taking him to Children Services, then?” she cut in before he could finish.
He sighed. All right, she didn’t want him to interfere in her relationship with Evan. He could take a hint.
“Yeah. I figure, get there early so they’re not too busy yet.”
She made a sound in her throat before taking a sip of coffee, and he frowned at her.
“I’ve got to take him there, you said so yourself last night.”
“And I’m not saying anything different now.”
“So what did that little ‘hmm’ mean?”
“Nothing! Let it go, already.”
He suddenly wanted to tell her that Evan had been smiling when Lance walked into the kitchen. Why that seemed important enough to mention, he wasn’t even sure. In the end he said nothing and stood, squeezing her shoulder lightly before stepping out. He picked up the keys on the table in the hallway; he never asked about borrowing the car anymore, but he was well aware that he ought to find one of his own soon, before Ellie tired of him borrowing hers.
The thing was, he loved his car, a second-hand sedan he’d bought with every last cent earned from his first job before going to the Academy and maintained himself over the years. It still ran beautifully—or so he supposed, since he’d told Taylor to take it when she’d left. Now, the idea of replacing it paralyzed him.
When he stepped outside, he left the door open behind him. It wasn’t long before James joined him, carrying his suitcase with both hands even though it wasn’t heavy at all. Without a word, Lance took it and put it in the trunk, and on they went.
Lance had never been to the Department of Children Services, but he knew where it was. He’d seen the sign across the street while going to meet his contact at the police department. It was still early in the morning, and as he had hoped the parking lot was close to empty. He’d be in and out, and James would be with those who could help him.
He tried to say as much when they got out of the car, but James’ expression, as blank as the pages of a new notebook, stilled his tongue.
Evan hadn’t been the only one smiling that morning, he abruptly remembered.
Still, James accompanied him inside without protest or apparent reluctance. He took a seat in the waiting area, where three long rows of metal chairs stood empty, and kept both hands on his suitcase. Lance nodded at him in encouragement and went to the receptionist’s window.
On the other side of a glass wall that ran the entire length of the waiting room, chaos seemed to reign. Maybe half the cubicles Lance could see had been repurposed as storage areas, piles of filing boxes overflowing with paper crowding the tiny spaces. The rest of the cubicles seemed to contain the same excess of paperwork, with harried-looking agents working around the mess.
The receptionist was working on a computer and he did not look up as Lance stood in front of him, nor did he give any hint that he’d noticed Lance at all. After a few seconds, Lance cleared his throat, causing the receptionist to frown.
“I’m not blind,” he snapped, still without so much as looking up at Lance. “I’m busy. Take a number and I’ll call you to the window when I’m done with this.”
It seemed useless to argue, so Lance pulled a number from the dispenser and went to sit next to James. The number of the small piece of paper was seven. The display above the receptionist showed eighty-four. Lance was beginning to think this might not be as quick as he’d expected. He tried to get comfortable on the chair and pulled out his cellphone; a mindless game might help him pass time.
A few minutes slipped away to the gentle ticking of the clock on the wall. A woman came in, holding a child’s hand, a second one trailing her with a plastic trash bag in each hand. She had the children, a young girl of maybe seven or eight and a boy maybe as old as James, sit a few chairs away from Lance and James.
“Stay here,” she demanded, her voice breaking on the second word.
She approached the receptionist and received the same level of assistance Lance had. She, however, did not take a number and went to sit down. Instead, she raised her voice and called out through the opening in the glass wall, “Miss Brown! I know you’re here, I saw your car in the parking lot! I need to talk to you now!”
The activity in the cubicles came to a standstill. The woman called out for Miss Brown again, and soon a grey-haired, plump woman approached the door in the wall and unlocked it. The smile she pushed to her lips looked tired and forced.
“Clarissa! How nice to—”
“You’ve been avoiding my calls,” Clarissa cut in, striding over to her, her arms crossed over her chest. “I’ve been leaving you messages for a week.”
“I know, I know,” Miss Brown said. She tried to invite Clarissa in with a gesture, but Clarissa didn’t budge. “You know how busy we are, I was planning to call you later today. Why don’t you come in and we can have a cup of coffee and a chat?”
“I don’t want to chat. I’m not changing my mind. I don’t know why I let you talk me out of it last time, but we’re done. This isn’t what Jon and I agreed to when we signed up. I told you we couldn’t take more than three, I told you this wouldn’t work.”
Miss Brown cast a weary look to the sitting area and again tried to invite Clarissa in, still without success. Lance looked back at his phone and tried to pretend he wasn’t listening to the conversation, but really, short of putting his fingers in his own ears and humming under his breath, he didn’t know how he could not have heard it all. He wondered what was worse—that strangers were witnessing this, or that the two children the woman had brought in could hear every word. Neither reacted in any way, their faces reflecting the same blankness, their eyes the same tiredness.
“You know how desperate we are for foster families,” Miss Brown pleaded, more quietly now. “With everything that’s happening in the country, you and Jon are a blessing to all of these children. If you need—”
“No,” Clarissa said, and this time she sounded close to tears. “We don’t need more money, we don’t need boxes of clothes or whatever else. I just need you to take them back.”
With that, she walked away, passing by the children without looking at them, though there was a hitch in her steps as though she wanted to stop but was forcing herself not to. The little girl started to slide off the chair, but the boy stopped her by taking her hand. He held on tight, Lance noticed, and the little girl clang to him just as much. Her eyes shone wetly and she sniffled, though she didn’t cry.
Miss Brown was still standing by the glass wall, her expression a mix of resignation and anger as she stared at the door through which Clarissa had disappeared.
“Come in, then,” she said gently, gesturing to the children, and they joined her, still holding on to each other’s hand, each carrying the bag that, Lance supposed, held whatever possession they could claim as theirs.
As the door closed on them, Lance’s gaze drifted to the suitcase standing in front of James. He hadn’t had a look inside it, but he’d carried it and he knew it couldn’t possibly hold very much. From the suitcase, his eyes jumped to James himself, and if his expression gave away nothing, his hands were closed into tight fists on his thighs.
“James?” Lance said quietly, drawing his attention. “Do you want to get out of here?”
Relief instantly flooded James’ face.
“Does that mean I get to stay with you?” he asked in a whisper.
Lance nodded. “Yes. Until we find someone from your family. Seeing how busy these people are, I have a feeling it’ll go faster if I look for them myself.”
James was already on his feet. Lance set the tab and its number seven on the chair next to him and they left. On their way out, they crossed paths with a police officer carrying a young child in his arms while herding a second one in front of him. Out in the parking lot, Clarissa sat in her car, her expression vacant, her cheeks streaked with tears. Whatever hesitation lingered inside Lance that he was doing the right thing disappeared.
* * *
Taylor held on until almost eleven in the morning.
She woke up after only a couple of hours of sleep, took another cool bath, very gingerly applied cool compresses to her hand and face, tried to numb herself with senseless TV when she couldn’t find sleep again, but it was all useless. The pain was lancing through her like bursts of electricity shooting up her arm and straight up her spine, and she didn’t know what to do about it.
She didn’t have painkillers, and even if she had thought of buying some, she had no idea whether they worked on vampires. Something else her classes at the Academy hadn’t covered.
The one thing she knew for sure would work was blood. Never mind that it had blunted the pain when she’d fed last night; she knew it because every fiber of her being was clamoring for blood. Whenever she heard steps outside her apartment, one of her neighbors passing by, it was all she could do to stop herself from going to the door and taking what she needed from them.
At ten minutes to eleven, with the prospect of another eight hours or so before nightfall, she gave up. Lying on her sofa with her injured hand well out to the side, she dialed Ellie’s number with her left thumb, closing her eyes as she brought the phone to her ear and listened to the ringing.
When Ellie first answered, Taylor almost hung up. She hated having to rely on anyone like this, and hated that Ellie would know how hurt she was. She just didn’t see another solution.
“Ellie,” she said softly, pushing back her shame to the back of her throat, “I need help.”
“Anything,” Ellie responded at once. “What’s going on, sweetie?”
In as few words as she could, she told her about getting burned, making it seem as though she’d only been low on blood rather than admitting she had torn through her supplies without being able to stop.
“And… you want me to pick up blood for you?” Ellie asked when she was done, a thread of hesitation in her voice.
“Yes, please. The butcher on 27th street, he sells to vampires.”
Ellie was silent for a little while.
“I’ve heard that human blood is better to help vampires heal,” she finally said, barely louder than a whisper. “I could ask Evan… I mean, I can’t guarantee anything, but maybe the hospital has supplies they can spare. And Evan could look at your hand, too. Make sure it doesn’t get infected.” She paused briefly before adding, “Can vampires get infections? Damn, I should know that, shouldn’t I?”
Through the pain tearing at her, Taylor almost wanted to smile. Trust Ellie to want to know everything, and consider it a personal failing if she didn’t.
“No need for a doctor,” Taylor said as firmly as she could. “From scrapes I’ve had so far, I think all I need is to feed well and I’ll just start healing. And no need for human blood either, what the butcher sells is perfectly fine.”
Those last few words cost her every bit of strength of will she possessed. The voice of her hunger seemed much too interested in having human blood. She never had before, and she didn’t intend to go down that path.
She didn’t want to know what would happen if she tried human blood and could never go back to animal blood after that. And she certainly didn’t want to explain as much to Ellie.
“All right,” Ellie said, though she sounded reluctant. “If you think that’s best…”
“I do. Thank you.”
“I’ll get on it, then. We’ll get to the butcher and bring you blood ASAP. Just… hang on, okay?”
With a murmur of assent, Taylor disconnected the call and dropped the phone on the sofa next to her. Blood. She’d have blood soon. All she needed was to be patient. Unfortunately, patience had never been her strong point as a human, and while many things had changed since she’d become a vampire, this hadn’t.
She kept her eyes closed and forced herself to breathe in and out in a slow, regular rhythm. She didn’t need to breathe, but this wasn’t about air, but about quieting her mind to be able to control the pain. When she’d learned this exercise, long ago, it had been about controlling fear—fear of exams, fear of failure, fear of disappointing the people she loved. Strangely enough, she’d never needed to use it to manage her fear of vampires.
A few minutes passed, and if the pain didn’t abate in the slightest, at least she wasn’t so focused on it anymore as she allowed her mind to drift from thought to thought. Her breath suddenly caught in her throat and her eyes opened wide as she realized something.
‘We’ll get to the butcher and bring you blood ASAP.’
Taylor had just told Ellie that she didn’t need or want a doctor, so surely Ellie didn’t mean she’d come with Evan.
So who was ‘we’?
Taylor could only think of one other person who might accompany Ellie.
The mental anguish, all of a sudden, was loud enough to silence the physical pain.
continued in chapter 5