Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Only With The Heart - Chapter 7

If you are new to this story, you can find chapter 1 here.
If you missed chapter 6, it's here.

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Lance hadn’t said a single word to her.

The thought bounced through Taylor’s mind, enduring however much she tried to silence it.

Not one word, she thought as she gulped down the two containers of blood in the first paper bag.

He’d barely looked at her, she thought as she forced herself to put the remainder of the blood in the fridge for later rather than tear into it right now.

He hadn’t asked how she was, or how she’d been hurt, she thought as she went to her bed and climbed in on the left side, leaving half of it undisturbed.

He’d been curious enough to peer inside, but not to get in. Concerned enough to bring her blood, but not to speak to her. And uncomfortable enough at the thought of being with her that he’d brought a child along to serve as a shield, leaving him to talk to Taylor or actually hand her the blood.

It was easier to figure out what all this pointed out than to discern patterns in the textured paint on the ceiling.

Lance couldn’t stand what she’d become. She’d known that from the start, of course. From the moment she’d awakened in that hospital bed and started to understand how different she was, she’d also realized how different Lance was. How he could barely manage to force himself in the same room as her, let alone look at her, touch her—love her.

Waking up as one of the beings she’d trained to fight had been a shock, but waking up to find she’d lost the only man she’d ever loved had been much, much worse.

And never mind the relief the blood she’d just drunk brought her. If the pain in her arm and face suddenly felt bearable, it was only because her heart was shattering all over again.

* * *

James looked older when he wore clothes that fit him properly, Ellie thought absently. How strange.

He also looked fairly impatient right now. No, not impatient. Just waiting for her to reply. She just had no idea what the question had been.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“Lance said I can pay him back for the clothes by doing some work in here. Filing. He said you’d show me.”

“Oh. Sure. Here.”

She gestured for him to come in even as she stood from her desk and crossed the room toward the opposite desk. He approached with obvious reluctance. He still hadn’t looked directly at her since appearing in the doorway.

“Where’s Lance?” she asked.

“He said he wanted coffee and to come find you.” After a brief pause he added under his breath, “He already had coffee at the diner. He just wanted to get rid of me.”

Ellie couldn’t quite silence an amused huff at that.

“No, that’s just his caffeine addiction talking. He believes coffee is a food group and necessary to human life.”

Her attempt at humor was lame, even she could see that, but she’d have expected at least an acknowledgment from James that she had spoken. No such luck.

“As for getting rid of you,” she continued. “Why would he? He brought you back here, he got you clothes…”

In truth, she’d been more surprised by the latter when Lance had told her over the phone. He’d always hated shopping. She eyed James critically; the clothes were the right size and they matched reasonably well. Either Lance had found help or James had an eye for clothes.

“He did get you more than one outfit, right?”

James nodded , then tilted his head to the desk in front of them.

“Is this what I’m supposed to file, then?”

Papers lay haphazardly all over the desk, covering the entire surface. At first, she and Lance had been making piles, separating invoices, bills, notices from the police and letters from the Special Enforcers Association. As months passed, however, things had grown less and less neat. It had grown worse when twice they’d misplaced a bill that needed to be paid and had to look through the whole mess.

“I assume that’s what he meant, yes. He’s been promising to clean this up for a while but he never gets around to it.”

It might have helped if Lance actually managed to spend more than five minutes in the office before suddenly remembering he had something very urgent to do elsewhere. This desk, Ellie suspected, was part of the problem, but the one time she’d started organizing it he’d grown furious with her instantly, shouting that he’d do it himself. He’d apologized soon enough, but she hadn’t tried to clean it up again, waiting instead for him to be ready to do it.

She wasn’t sure what it meant that he now wanted someone else to do the filing for him.

She spent a few minutes showing James examples of each category and where they went in the massive file cabinet behind the desk. She’d always said things would be easier if they only kept digital copies of all this, but Taylor preferred paper to computer files, and Lance had sided with her, of course. Ellie had relented only on the condition that Taylor keep it all filed and categorized so they could find something within seconds of needing it, and Taylor had kept up her side of the bargain faithfully as long as she’d been alive.

“Any question?” she asked, her heart suddenly aching.

James shook his head.

“Let me know if you’re not sure where something goes,” she said. “I’ll be right over there.”

She went back to her desk, and if her computer screen was positioned in such a way that it blocked her sight of the messy desk… well, it wasn’t a coincidence.

She tried to get back to the article she’d been reading online about a new demon attack in the northwest but she soon found herself distracted, her eyes peeking over the screen to watch James work. He’d sat down behind the desk and had gathered every piece of paper in one single towering pile, clearing space in front of him. He was picking up one piece of paper from the pile, looking at it, then placing it in any of five stacks in front of him.

She observed him for a moment, realizing that he wasn’t just sorting by category but seemed to insert each new paper with the others in a certain order, probably alphabetical or by date according to what they were.

She wanted to tell him it’d go faster if he just filed each piece of paper as he identified it rather than making these new stacks, but she held her tongue and let him work as he pleased. There was no rush, was there? And it was nice to have company in here for a change—even if that company was silent and didn’t seem willing to look at her for more than a second or two at a time.

* * *

It took Evan a few seconds to understand what Lance was asking, and even then he didn’t know what to reply. It didn’t make any sense.

“Why on Earth…” he started, but trailed off when it occurred to him that there was only one possible reason. “Is it for Taylor?” he asked instead.

Something dark crossed Lance’s features, the same something that always resurfaced whenever Taylor’s name was uttered, something that might have been pain, or anger, or guilt, or grief—or all four at once. The same something that had caused Evan to steer clear of the subject for months. Before everything, maybe, he’d have tried to talk to Lance and make him see reason; after all, it was plain to see how miserable he was making himself.

No, there was no ‘maybe’ about it. Lance was his best friend, and they’d always been frank with each other. Before everything, Evan would have seen it as his duty to butt in. Now…

Now, a lot had changed.

“Yes,” Lance said, his voice filled with darkness. He looked at the coffee mug in his hands as he continued. “She called. She got hurt. Burned. Apparently she’ll heal faster if she’s got human blood to feed on rather than just animal stuff.”

Evan tried not to choke on his own coffee. For months, Lance had avoided talking about Taylor at all, and now this?

“You went to see her, then?” he asked, almost proud when he sounded normal rather than astounded. “And she told you she needs human blood?”

He wasn’t sure which part he found more unlikely.

“I went to see her, yes, but she wasn’t the one who said that. We barely talked, actually.”

Evan remained silent, letting his arched eyebrows ask the logical question. Lance glanced up at him and sighed.

“James mentioned it. He’s seen vampires burned by sunlight before, so he knows about how they heal better than I do.”

Now things were taking a turn toward the surreal.

“James suggested you give her your blood? And you’re taking a kid’s advice?”

He gestured vaguely toward the kitchen’s entrance and the partition wall beyond which was the agency’s office. James and Ellie were there now, though James had seemed less than happy when Lance had suggested he go see if she needed help with the filing. In retrospect, Lance must have sent him there to have a moment alone with Evan.

If Lance had seemed tight-lipped before, now he looked like every word physically hurt him.

“He didn’t give me advice. He stated facts and he volunteered his blood.”

Evan had no idea what his face looked like when he heard those words, but Lance took one look at him and snorted.

“Yeah, that was my reaction too.”

Taking another sip of coffee more to give himself something to do than because he really wanted any, Evan tried to reconcile the hasty image he’d formed of James that morning with the thought that he’d offer to feed a vampire. The only explanation he could come up with was that he was too traumatized to know anymore what was normal and what wasn’t.

“He needs help,” he said in a hushed voice. “More help than you or me or Ellie can give him. I thought you were supposed to take him to the proper authorities.”

Shrugging, Lance rolled his mug back and forth on its bottom edge.

“Tried. They looked like they’ve got too much on their plate already. I figured I’d just keep him until we can get a hold of his family. I asked our contact at the police station to look into it.”

“Just keep him?” Evan repeated. “He’s not a lost puppy you can just adopt for a while until you find his owner. There are rules! Laws!”

Lance’s gaze turned flat and cold. He didn’t say anything, but Evan still heard him loud and clear. He looked away and cleared his throat. Lance was right, of course. Who was Evan to talk about rules?

“I don’t have what I need here,” he said, “but I can do a quick run to the hospital, talk to a nurse. I’ve still got friends there.” After a brief pause, he added, “Come to think of it, I might be able to get a bag or two of expired blood. We keep them for when vampires end up in the ER for some reason.”

“Sure,” Lance said, standing to go place his empty mug in the dishwasher. “Sounds good. When will you go?”

“When do you want to do it?”

“I was thinking I might go back before nightfall, so I’ll be sure to catch her in case she decides to go out.”

For a brief moment, Evan thought Lance meant he wanted to be there if she went out to catch her in the act if she did something she shouldn’t have. But no, that couldn’t be what he meant. He’d never want to be the one to catch her ‘red-fanged,’ as Lance called it when they had proof that a vampire needed to be killed. Then again, why else would he want to get to her before she went out for the night? For that matter, would she go out at all if she was hurt to the point of having asked for help?

Shaking away those thoughts, Evan finished his coffee and stood. One of his friends was hurt, another one was asking for his help; it was the first time in far too long that he had a chance to be useful to anyone.

* * *

By six o’clock, Lance was parking his car in the same spot he’d vacated earlier in the lot in front of Taylor’s apartment building.

Forty minutes later, he was still staring up through the windshield at what he was sure was her apartment, the curtains still closed even though the sun was on the other side of the building by now.

His phone beeped once, the familiar alarm startling him enough to make him jump. One hour until sunset. This was his daily reminder to have dinner and get ready in case they had to go on a job once night fell. He hadn’t always needed a reminder, but right now it did help him push himself into motion. He’d just be in and out of the building, he told himself as he grabbed the cooler from the back seat and exited the car. Just like earlier. Nothing more. Maybe this time he’d do what he should have done that afternoon and just leave it all in front of her door. Knock once to make her come check what it was but go before she opened the door.

It was a good plan, and it’d have worked fine if he hadn’t needed the hospital-branded cooler back, so Evan could return it.

And so once again, he found himself in front of apartment 3A, once again raising his hand but unable to make himself ring the doorbell, once again his heart hammering in his chest as wave after wave of emotion roiled over him until he felt like he might drown.

Once again, the door opened before he was ready and Taylor appeared on the threshold.

This time, though, he’d have to say something. He only wished he knew where to start.

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