Friday, July 15, 2016

Only With The Heart - Chapter 6

If you are new to this story, you can find chapter 1 here.
If you missed chapter 5, it's here.

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“You don’t have to come in if you don’t want to.”

In the passenger seat, James turned a little paler, if that was even possible.

“You want me to stay alone in the car?”

His tone didn’t sound exactly reproachful, but it was a close thing.

“I won’t be long,” Lance assured him. “I’m just dropping these off, I’m not even going in. I’ll be right back.”

He tried to take the two bulging paper bags James had been holding on his lap since they’d stopped at the butcher’s, but James tightened his grip on them a little more.

“I’m coming with you,” he said, meeting Lance’s eyes with unexpected fierceness. “I’m not staying alone.”

More than his determination, it was the slight waver in the last word that convinced Lance. After what he’d been through, James was bound to have some anxieties about specific things. It seemed that Lance had stumbled on a trigger; he had no desire to keep pushing and see how badly things might explode.

“All right,” he said as calmly as he could. “If that’s what you want, that’s fine. I just thought you’d prefer to stay here rather than to visit a vampire. But you want to come, all right. Let’s go then.”

He came out of the car and James did the same, juggling the two paper bags. Even as they walked toward the entrance of the building, Lance offered to carry the bags, or at least one of them, but James seemed to think that if he let go of them Lance might send him back to the car, and he refused to surrender them. Lance let it go. James seemed agitated enough, there was no need to antagonize him further. And in truth, Lance wasn’t feeling all that calm either.

He’d known where Taylor lived now, but he’d never come here before. Vampires were not obligated to register their whereabouts everywhere in the country, but their town required it and Taylor had followed the law to the letter, as Lance had known she would. She’d contacted Karen at the police station, who had in turn shared the information with the agency. It was all routine, and Karen usually just shot them an email with the information, but this time she’d called, her voice full of questions she was too professional to ask. They were friendly, but they didn’t really talk about their personal lives, and apparently asking how and when Taylor had been turned into a vampire was too personal a question for Karen to ask.

The lobby of the building was well-lit and clean, with an elevator in the back, but Lance led the way to the staircase instead. He knew he was being ridiculous, and he wouldn’t have admitted it aloud to anyone, but taking the stairs would give him a few moments longer than the elevator to prepare himself. He almost had a mind to leave the blood on Taylor’s doorstep before knocking and running away, but that would have felt much worse than ridiculous.

“So… why are we bringing her food?” James asked as they reached the first landing.

He’d asked the same thing at the butcher’s, but the cashier had heard the question and looked up at Lance like she was curious about the answer too, and he’d ended up changing the topic rather than answering. He couldn’t really evade a second time.

“Because she needs it,” he replied, keeping his voice quiet. “She couldn’t wait until nightfall.”

They went up another few steps before James pushed on.

“Okay, but why? Is it a Special Enforcers thing to deliver food to vampires? I thought you guys just killed them, not fed them too.”

Lance stopped. James went up one more step, so that when he turned to look at Lance, their eyes were practically on the same level. Lance had expected to see fear in him—that was why he’d first suggested he stay in the car after all—but he couldn’t see anything more than curiosity in his expression or body language. That was good, certainly, if a little surprising; after he’d been held by vampires for so long, Lance would have thought he’d be afraid of all vampires.

“It is not a Special Enforcers thing,” he said, still as quiet; he didn’t care to broadcast to the whole building who he was and what he was here for. “I knew Taylor before she became a vampire. She was… she was my friend, and Ellie’s, and Evan’s. It’s not her fault what she’s become, and if she needs our help, the least we can do is try to give it.”

Every word Lance said was true, so why did that uncomfortable feeling of guilt wind itself around him, as though he’d been lying? Omitting details wasn’t the same as lying, and James didn’t need to know every detail, did he? It would only confuse him, Lance rationalized—and now he was lying, if only to himself.

The explanation, as simplistic as it might be, seemed to satisfy James. He gave a solemn nod before starting up the steps again. Lance followed, wishing it were truly that easy. They reached the third floor, and the first door they encountered, marked with a brass ‘3A’, was the one they were looking for. Lance passed a hand through his hair before bringing it to the doorbell. His index finger rested on the buzzer, but he didn’t push. He couldn’t make himself push it. When he pushed, Taylor would open the door, and then…

And then what?

He hadn’t seen her in weeks. Hadn’t talked to her in even longer than that. What would he say? What would she do, when she saw him there?

“Is it broken?” James asked. “Do you want me to knock?”

But there was no need to knock or ring the doorbell, not when the lock was clanking softly as the deadbolt was turned, not when the door was opening, Taylor appearing behind it.

She looked like hell, her eyes sunken, darkened by blue-gray circles, one side of her face a deep crimson that looked painful just to look at, her expression pained as she cradled her hand, burned even more badly than her face, to her chest. She wore a faded t-shirt and sweatpants—both had been Lance’s.

She stared at him and he stared back, part of him wishing he’d just left the blood in front of her door, another part wanting nothing more than to push the door open and take her in his arms.

Silence stretched between them until James piped up.

“Hello. We brought you something to eat.”

Taylor looked at him, the moment broken. Lance started breathing again, barely aware of how long he’d held his breath.

“Something to eat would be wonderful,” she told James, and Lance couldn’t help but wince at the way her voice cracked on the last word.

James held out one bag to her and she used her good hand to take it, but there was no way she’d be able to carry the second bag with her burned hand. She seemed to realize it at the same time he did.

“I’ll put this down in the kitchen and be right back,” she said, already pulling away.

The door, which she’d been holding open with her shoulder, started swinging shut. Lance caught it with his hand, and pushed it open more widely so he could see inside. The apartment was dark, with thick curtains drawn over the only window he could see in the living room. The kitchen nook was across from it, separated only by a waist-high counter. Books and a television gave away what Taylor might be doing to occupy her days. A corridor leading toward the back of the apartment featured two open doors. The one facing the front door opened onto a bathroom, while the other one, Lance supposed, had to be the bedroom’s.

“Feel free if you want a tour,” Taylor said dryly as she returned to get the second paper bag from James. “Not much to see, but if it’ll satisfy your curiosity…”

Her tired eyes met Lance’s, and he could see the familiar pride in them. There might not be much to see, that look said, but she had nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to hide.

Dropping his gaze, Lance allowed the door to swing back gently until it rested against Taylor’s shoulder.

“Thank you for the blood,” she said more quietly, her tone suddenly very formal. “I appreciate you helping me. And you, young man.”

Lance looked at James in time to see him stand up a little straighter, and even offer Taylor a shy smile.

“I’m James,” he said. “And you’re welcome.”

Despite himself, Lance couldn’t help frowning. James hadn't said much more than two words to Ellie since they’d found him, he had barely looked at Karen even while answering her questions, had shied away from the saleslady at the store, and Lance had begun wondering if he was afraid of women, maybe, or very shy around them. But now, confronted to someone who was not only female but also a vampire, he seemed to have no problem either speaking or meeting her eyes.

While Lance himself hadn’t said a word yet, and could bear to look at her.

“Right then,” Taylor said. “I’d better go have an early lunch. Bye.”

“Bye,” James repeated.

Before Lance could do the same, or even ask Taylor if she needed anything else to take care of her injuries, the door was already swinging shut. This time, he let it close.

Without a word, he led the way back down the stairs, his hands pushed deep inside his jacket’s pockets. James followed, remaining silent until they were about to reach the car.

“I thought you said she’s your friend,” he said, and waited for Lance to look at him before he added, “You weren’t very friendly. You didn’t even say anything to her.”

“I said she was my friend,” Lance replied dully. “And you, I thought, were extraordinarily friendly seeing how you don’t know her and she’s a vampire.”

“How was I friendly?” James replied, nonplussed. “I just said hello and you’re welcome. That’s being polite, not friendly.”

Lance would have argued the point, but as he climbed into the car he realized he was just trying to distract himself again, arguing with James so he wouldn’t have to think of seeing Taylor—of seeing her in such obvious pain. He’d known it had to be bad the moment Ellie had said Taylor had asked for help. She wouldn’t have asked if she’d had any other choice.

Looking up through the windshield, he could easily figure out which apartment was hers; only one window was obscured by drapes on the third floor. Was she drinking her blood, now? Would she drink all of it in one go or ration herself?

“Sir? Are we going?”

James’ quiet voice snapped Lance out of his thoughts. He turned the key in the ignition, started the engine and set the car in reverse even as he muttered, “I thought I told you not to call me sir.”

James didn’t reply, nor did he say another word as Lance drove to a diner near his home where he often ate. The food wasn’t anything spectacular—except maybe the peach cobbler—but the place was clean, the staff friendly, and best of all the diner had only opened a few months ago. It meant Lance could come here and not find himself confronted by memories of Taylor.

He ordered whatever the special of the day was, though in truth he hadn’t really listened to the waitress’ welcome speech. After a beat, James ordered the same thing, and they sat once more in silence as they waited for their food.

“She was really hurt,” James said out of the blue. “Do you think she knows how to take care of her burns?”

With those few words, the images Lance had been keeping at bay burst once more to the front of his mind. He could guess how Taylor had been hurt; burns, on a vampire, more often than not implied sunlight. Why, though? At the Academy, he’d been taught that vampires could feel the arrival of sunrise, like a warning that danger was on its way and they needed to get to a shelter. Why had she still been out past sunrise? For that matter, what did she do with her nights?

“I don’t know,” he muttered, not particularly interested in continuing this conversation but realizing James was expecting an answer.

James, however, didn’t take the hint.

“I saw a vampire get hurt in the sun, once,” he said, his voice now quieter, emotions leeched out of the words. “He didn’t get better until he started drinking blood.”

“Well, that’s why we brought some to her, isn’t it? Do you like peach cobbler? It’s excellent, here.”

James ignored the attempt at redirection.

“I meant, human blood. Animal blood isn’t nearly as good.”

Of course, the waitress chose that particular moment to bring them their drinks. She froze by the table, one hand held aloft as she'd been about to place a glass of water in front of Lance, her expression shocked and begging for an explanation. Lance offered none, and, reaching for his glass, gently took it from her with a pointed, “Thank you.”

She hurriedly placed a second glass in front of James before going on to serve a nearby booth. Lance leaned over the table, dropping his voice to a murmur.

“How about we don’t talk about blood in the middle of a restaurant? Unless you’re volunteering yours.”

The words had already passed his lips before he realized what he’d said—and what a terrible thing it was to say to someone who’d spent years trapped with vampires and had the scars to show for it. He was about to apologize when James said shrugged and said simply, “Why not? I don’t mind.”

Gobsmacked, Lance leaned sat back in his chair, and for a long moment he couldn’t do anything more than stare. It didn’t add up. There was something James wasn’t telling him, or something he’d said that wasn’t true, or his head was simply too messed up and he was speaking nonsense—Lance just couldn’t figure out which it was. The trouble was, insensitive statements brought up by stress notwithstanding, Lance didn’t feel like he ought to probe James’ past, or at least not so soon. As comfortable as he was around the teen, the fact remained that he’d only met him less than a day ago and he didn’t know him well enough yet to know what he could say and what he shouldn’t.

If he didn’t ask questions, however, and try to understand James, wasn’t he bound to make more mistakes than if he asked the wrong question?

James was still watching him, his expression neutral, as though waiting for Lance’s next move. He took it cautiously, keeping his voice as calm and non-confrontational as he could.

“I’ve seen the marks on your wrist, and I’ve heard you worry about whether vampires can enter my home or not. I find it strange that you’d talk about giving blood to a vampire so casually.”

The waitress returned at that moment, and James remained quiet as she set plates in front of them. Only after she’d left again did he reply.

“Not all vampires are bad. Aren’t you supposed to know that, being a Special Enforcer and all? If she drinks animal blood, that means she doesn’t hunt people, right? So isn’t she one of the good ones?”

Lance wished he’d known what to reply. All he could find to say, however, was “Eat your food before it gets cold.”

His own food tasted strangely bitter when he realized a child who had every right to loathe vampires was showing more compassion toward Taylor than Lance himself had.

Chapter 7

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