If you are new to this story, you can find chapter 1 here.
If you missed chapter 15, it's here.
You can right-click these links and use the save option to download the file as epub, mobi/kindle or PDF, or you can read straight from this page.
ONLY WITH THE HEART
James could be very convincing when he wanted to, it seemed. For all of Lance’s determination to keep things simple for this first lesson, he wasn’t quite sure how he ended up agreeing to some very basic sparring. Although sparring might have been the wrong word. It was more something akin to a dance, where both he and James followed a simple beat: strike up, then down, from the left, then the right, the plastic weapons clanking dully together to a regular rhythm.
Lance made sure to keep his strikes as light as he possibly could, although he soon realized James had no such compulsion. He struck his training sword for both attacks and parries as though his life depended on it, and by the end he was breathing hard, sweat shining on his brow and making his t-shirt stick to his chest and back.
Still, it was the look in his eyes that finally caused Lance to call an end to the training session. He didn’t like at all that blankness that seemed to be taking over James, to the point that when Lance called out, “All right, we’re done for today,” James blinked several times as tough struggling to comprehend the words.
For a moment, Lance thought James would object, but he handed the weapon back when requested, merely asking with undisguised eagerness, “Can we do this again tomorrow?”
“We’ll see,” Lance said, though he would have been hard pressed to explain his own reluctance. “Do you want to go clean up? I’ll see what I can sort out for dinner.”
“All right,” James said, and a bit of a spark returned to his eyes. “Are we bringing your friend more blood tonight?”
The question took Lance aback. The thought of Taylor had been dancing through his mind the entire time he taught James to wield a sword, because she was the one with whom he’d spent hours upon hours sparring and training, but at no point had he considered taking more blood to her. Now, he found himself wondering if he ought to—as well as marveling, once more, that James could be so concerned for Taylor after being held for so long by vampires.
“I… No. I wasn’t planning to. I’m sure she got enough yesterday.”
Under James’ nonplussed look, Lance suddenly felt like he needed to justify himself.
“She’d have called if she needed more. And anyway, I have to work tonight. You’ll be all right staying here, won’t you? Evan will be there if you need anything.”
Come to think of it, Lance ought to talk to Evan about James remaining behind, just so Evan didn’t go on another one of his runs and left James alone in the house…
“Are you going to hunt vampires, then?” James asked, and it was all too obvious he was avoiding answering the question on purpose. “Can I come?”
“No you can’t,” Lance replied automatically. “And no, we’re not going on a hunt. Just patrolling. It’s part of the job.”
It didn’t use to be, not in medium-sized towns like theirs, but ever since the demons had started appearing, some vampires seemed to think adding to the unrest and fear could be fun. Having Special Enforcers walk through high-traffic areas appeared to help, and the city contracted Lance and Ellie to do these patrols on a regular basis. There was nothing more boring as far as Lance was concerned—but then again, ‘boring’ and ‘routine’ could turn to ‘fatal’ all too quickly, as he very well knew.
“Why can’t I come, then, if it’s just patrolling?” James insisted. “That’s not dangerous, is it?”
“Dangerous or not, it’s still my job and I can’t just take a kid with me.”
“I’m not a kid.”
James’ objection was as predicable as his frown or the way he crossed his arms. Lance had a hard time suppressing a sigh.
“Then prove it and go take a shower without arguing any more.”
For a moment, it looked as though James would continue protesting, but he finally left the room, his steps a little too heavy, broadcasting his displeasure. Lance found himself smiling at that; he remembered doing the same when he was James’ age, though it had never worked for him either.
He put the training swords away, hanging them on hooks on the wall. His gaze lingered on one of the real swords hanging there, a little shorter and thinner than the one he himself favored. He’d put it there months ago when coming home from the hospital, pure habit rather than deliberate thought. He hadn’t touched it since.
Maybe he ought to return it to Taylor. He doubted she’d have much use for it, but on the other hand he would never wield it himself. Bringing it to her might give him an excuse to go back to her apartment and check that she was truly all right. Maybe he could bring her some blood, too; if he was already going, it wouldn’t be much more effort.
As though going to her, seeing her, talking to her had ever been an effort.
For months, he’d managed to stay away from her, but now that he’d seen her, going back seemed almost inevitable. Maybe tonight, he thought as he put the sword, safely sheathed in its scabbard and wrapped in an old towel, in the trunk of the car with his own weapon and Ellie’s. Or maybe not. But at the very least, soon.
He crossed paths with Ellie when he walked back in, and she told him she was feeling under the weather and wouldn’t accompany him tonight. It was true that she did look rather pale, her eyes strangely dark as she didn’t quite meet his gaze.
After a quick dinner with James, Lance drove out to the center of town and, his sword at his hip, his Special Enforcer badge hanging from a chain around his neck, he walked through the shopping plaza and the alleys around it, stopping here and there at a bar or restaurant both to make sure there were no vampires around causing trouble and to make himself more visible, should the trouble still be in the making. It was a quiet, boring night, but he didn’t let that dull his attention.
Taylor’s last night, months ago, had started out quiet and boring, too.
* * *
Taylor had been ready to spend a quiet night at home with a book and a tall glass of barely-warmed blood when three knocks on her door made her freeze. Had her heart still been beating, surely it would have been hammering in her chest. She’d been trying not to think about Lance, about how he’d come to her the previous day, not once but twice, but while she could distract herself while she was awake, she couldn’t control her dreams. Lance had haunted them, the way he so often had over the past few months.
With a hundred questions running through her mind and hope filling her heart, she went to the door, but before she even opened she knew it wasn’t Lance. She couldn’t have said exactly how she knew; maybe it was the hint of a scent drifting up from the gap under the door, or the rhythm of the heartbeat she could hear even now, but she knew it’d be Ellie in front of her when she opened the door rather than her brother.
She took a second to compose herself. She’d never not be glad to see Ellie, but she couldn’t deny she felt a twinge of disappointment that Lance hadn’t come back to her. She was smiling when she unlocked the door and drew it toward her, but a single look at Ellie and her smile wavered. She’d seen Ellie just a day ago, and she hadn’t looked so tired, then. So small. So ready to break despite the small smile drawn on her lips.
“Elle?” Taylor said, her fear already seeping into her voice. “What happened?”
Ellie’s expression didn’t change and she continued to put up a good front, but they’d known each other too long. Taylor could read her distress both on her face and in her innocuous words.
“Nothing. Just thought I’d visit again, if you’re up for company.”
“I always am,” Taylor said, stepping aside to let her in. “But I never liked you to lie to me.”
Ellie stopped just past the threshold, and for a moment Taylor thought she’d keep denying something was wrong. Her mask cracked, however, and it was with a sob in her voice that she asked, “Can I sit down?”
Alarmed, Taylor let the door close and wrapped an arm around Ellie’s shoulders, guiding her to the sofa where they sat together. Had it been just days ago that Taylor had been a little wary of being too close to Ellie—of the mere possibility she might hurt her by accident? Those fears were forgotten, now. After they’d renewed their friendship last night, and in front of Ellie’s obvious need now, there was no room left for remoteness.
“Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” Taylor asked quietly, rubbing a hand up and down her friend’s back.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Ellie said, her voice muffled as she pressed both hands to her face. “I mean… I do know. Things with Evan have been tense for a long time. Even before… before. But today…”
She took in a big, shuddering breath that rattled trough Taylor as though she’d taken it herself.
“But today?” Taylor repeated quietly, urging her on.
“Today we were talking. And I realized… we don’t know how to even do that much anymore. Talk to each other, I mean. We live in the same house, but it’s like we’re strangers. I have no idea what goes on in his mind. I barely know where he is or what he’s doing at any moment of the day. And he doesn’t seem to care what I do.”
She shook her head a little before she continued.
“He saw I wasn’t leaving with Lance tonight. He didn’t ask where I was going. He didn’t ask where I was last night either.”
Taylor could hear the pain in those words, but she could understand it, too—could feel it, right down to her heart.
Things had been different between Lance and her. The breaking down had been instantaneous. All it had taken was her death, and Lance had barely been able to look at her anymore, let alone talk to her. But she still had learned one lesson from that painful experience that might help Ellie today.
Taking Ellie’s hands and pulling them way from her face, she waited until Ellie was looking straight at her then said with as much strength as she could muster, “Don’t let him pull away. Fight. Force him to look at you, to talk to you, to tell you what goes on in his mind. He owes you that much, and you owe it to both of you to try to fix things between you. Don’t just try either, but give it your best.”
She squeezed Ellie’s hands between hers and swallowed hard, regret like a bitter taste at the back of her throat.
“Don’t make the same mistake I did,” she murmured.
Ellie’s eyes widened with understanding, and after a second, she nodded.
“I won’t,” she said, and it sounded like a promise.