Crystal knelt on the basement floor facing Ellie, her hand holding the other girl’s lightly but firmly. Ellie gazed at her in apprehension, but she didn’t pull her hand away. With her free hand, Crystal made a small cut in the center of Ellie’s palm using her little paring knife, which she had brought from home. The blood welled, a bright bead, before it ran in a thin red line across Ellie’s palm.
“You have to offer it to me,” she told Ellie, as the blood pooled.
Ellie took in a shaky breath. The cut had hurt, a little, but she wanted to do this. “Sure, go ahead.”
“No, you have to be serious,” Crystal said, still holding onto the bleeding hand. In a minute, the blood would spill over and run down their combined hands to drip on the floor.
“I am serious,” Ellie said. “Oh, all right. I offer you my blood.” She said the words quickly, feeling a little silly.
Crystal’s blue eyes darkened to midnight as she bent her head to taste Ellie’s offering. It tickled, and Ellie’s hand twitched in response. When Crystal raised her head, her lips were coated with red. She licked them, and frowned as the line of red quickly reappeared on Ellie’s palm.
“It didn’t heal. It’s supposed to heal,” she said.
Ellie flexed her hand a few times. It still hurt, but not a lot. She stood up and took a tissue from the table by the couch, and wiped her hand, keeping the tissue there to absorb any more blood that might still come out. “What did it taste like?” she asked.
Good. Not nearly as wonderful as Johnny’s blood, which was the only other blood Crystal had tasted, but good. She wasn’t sure if it was because Ellie was family, or just because she was developing a taste for blood. Her mother would be appalled, in either case. “I liked it,” she admitted.
Just then the door upstairs slammed, and Ellie’s little brother yelled down the stairs that Crystal’s friend was here seconds before Johnny came down to the basement. Crystal’s eyes widened, and Ellie moved her tissue-covered hand behind her back. He took one look at her, then pinned his dark gaze on Crystal. “What did you do?” he asked in a low voice.
“I just wanted to see—she offered,” Crystal said in a small voice. “I just wanted to try.” She took Ellie by the arm and brought the injured hand out for Johnny to see. Both girls looked ready to cry. “Johnny, it won’t stop bleeding. How come it won’t stop bleeding?”
Johnny carefully removed the sodden tissue from Ellie’s hand. The bleeding had just about stopped, but it must sting. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he said to Crystal, but he brought Ellie’s hand to his own lips and seemingly kissed her palm. Kiss it and make it better. Ellie stared at him, wide-eyed. When he let go of her hand, it was whole. No tiny wound. No blood.
Johnny led both girls to the couch. “She offered?” he asked mildly, raising his eyebrows.
Crystal blushed. “Well, yeah, after I told her to,” she said. On Johnny’s other side, Ellie nodded vigorously.
“Do you know what could happen?” he asked. “You aren’t me. Are you willing to gamble with Ellie’s life? You are both too young to be making that decision.”
Crystal realized that Johnny meant he might have to kill Ellie to keep his secret—their secret. It had never bothered her before, but Ellie was her friend, and Ellie—Ellie knew about Johnny already. She had given him her blood before. Didn’t that make it all right?
“I trust Ellie,” she whispered, keeping her gaze locked on her feet. “She won’t tell.”
“She will.” Johnny smiled at Ellie, who was looking more and more confused. “She won’t forget about you the way she forgot about me, the same way her hand didn’t heal for you.”
“Oh,” said Crystal. She hadn’t realized.
“Ellie,” Johnny said patiently. “How much do you know?”
Ellie swallowed, suddenly nervous, her eyes darting to Crystal before she answered. “About you? Or about Crystal?”
“Both.” Johnny placed a hand on Crystal’s knee, effectively cutting off whatever she was going to say on her friend’s behalf. Crystal subsided, leaning back against the couch, although she watched both of them warily.
“I—uh—remember,” Ellie began. “Out at the lake. We took a walk to the bridge. You—“ She hesitated. “I remember we all said yes. You took our hands, like Crystal, but you didn’t have a knife. You—drank from our hands, just like Crystal!” Her frightened eyes widened even more as the memory became clearer. “You drank our blood!”
Johnny never took his eyes from Ellie’s stark face, but he spoke to Crystal, who still sat quietly on his other side. “You see? She remembered because of what you did tonight.”
“No, I remembered a little bit before that,” Ellie interjected. “Not about the blood, but about you. You were going to be our protector and we—we all wanted to be your friend.”
Johnny winced, but Ellie never noticed.
“Now I remember the blood,” she said. “We said the words like Crystal told us: I offer you my blood. But it didn’t hurt. I remember it was our secret, but then I forgot most of it.” She glanced up at Johnny. “Why did I forget?”
Johnny mentally winced this time. She shouldn’t have recalled the blood-taking at all. At the time it had been an impulsive decision on his part to let Ellie and Crystal’s little cousins offer a taste of their blood. He had gotten caught up in the moment as much as the children had. And Ellie was right. He had promised to protect them in exchange for the blood offering. That was going to make it awkward now if he ended up having to kill Ellie.
“You made the blood offering to Crystal?”
“And you accepted?”
What had Crystal been thinking? She was still a child herself. She should not be feeling the pull of blood so strongly yet. She wasn’t like him—yet. Was this a reaction to finding out about her dual bloodline—or was it something more?
“Why did you do it?” he asked Crystal quietly.
“I don’t know. I wanted to see what it was all about,” Crystal mumbled, embarrassed. “I knew Ellie wouldn’t tell.”
“Is that right, Ellie?”
She stared at him without speaking as Johnny’s eyes darkened from mellow brown to an intense black. But she nodded.
“What do you think I am?” he asked softly.
She didn’t want to say it. It sounded so foolish. But in the back of her mind, even as she went along with Crystal’s strange game, she knew. It wasn’t a game, and she had wanted to do it. “Vampire,” she finally whispered.
“She’s your girlfriend, sort of,” Ellie said. “We were just playing. We didn’t mean anything by it.”
Johnny smiled when Ellie said Crystal was his girlfriend. Not yet, not exactly, and not nearly all of what she was to him. But he let it go.
“But you offered her your blood,” Johnny said, his eyes still black and unfathomable. “Are you saying you didn’t mean it?”
“She meant it,” Crystal said, growing anxious at the calm voice that went along with those eyes. It never boded well. “Didn’t you, Ellie?”
Ellie looked startled, as if she had missed a key part of the conversation. But she knew what she had meant when she let Crystal cut her palm and taste her blood. “I wanted to be connected to you,” she said, still speaking barely above a whisper. “Now we’re connected.”
Johnny relaxed visibly, although his eyes remained dark. This girl was so like Amelia’s cousin, Elizabeth Crew, and yet so different. Both best friends to the one he loved, but where Lizzy had feared and mistrusted him—without ever knowing what he was—Ellie wanted to be his friend, even knowing that he was a vampire.
“Would you make the offering again? To me and to Crystal? It won’t hurt, that I can promise you.”
Ellie hesitated, and Crystal tensed. This would be the turning point, the moment when he decided if Ellie would live or die. He didn’t want to hurt Crystal, but he would do what he had to in order for them both to survive. Crystal would understand, eventually.
“Yes,” Ellie whispered. Then, stronger, “Yes!” She knelt down in front of them and held out her hand. Her eyes shone with fear, but underneath the fear was excitement.
Johnny didn’t give her time to change her mind. He took her offered hand and lowered his lips to it, letting her see his sharp teeth. A glance before he pierced her skin, and instead of revulsion, he saw anticipation! One corner of Ellie’s mouth turned upward as his bared teeth confirmed he was, indeed, a vampire. Stupid girl. He pulled back.
“Say the words,” he instructed her. This had to be her choice.
“I-offer-you-my-blood,” Ellie said, breathless.
Crystal held out her palm, too. “No, say it like this,” she said. “Blood of my blood.” She said it in English. “That’s the right way.”
“Blood of my blood,” Ellie dutifully repeated.
“Blood of my blood,” Crystal said softly in its original language.
“Blood of my blood,” Johnny repeated. He slashed down once on Ellie’s palm and drank, then waited until Ellie held out her palm to Crystal, who also drank, before he took a last sip and sealed the cut.
Next, he slashed Crystal’s hand and made a show of drinking from her while she watched him calmly. Finally, he slashed his own hand, and offered it to Crystal, but not to Ellie. “Now you see what Crystal is,” he remarked to Ellie. “She’s your friend, but she’s my girlfriend.” He used the word so that Ellie would understand why Crystal got to drink his blood, but she didn’t. It was an inadequate description, but it would have to do.
“This is so cool!” Ellie said, staring at her hand which now had a tiny red rash in the center.
“It’s not cool. It’s life or death for us,” Johnny said sternly. “You must never mention any of this to anybody. And neither of you,” he included Crystal in his stare, “are to take or give blood without my permission. Understood?”
“But she’s mine now!” Crystal protested.
“Yours to protect. Family blood is a precious gift, and not to be taken or given lightly.” Johnny never thought he would be giving such a speech, especially to a pair of pre-adolescent girls. Now that he was starting to remember some things about his own history, he realized how much he didn’t know. Back then, his dealings with the family had been ritualized to the point of being inflexible, but that was for all of their protection. Unfortunately, even back then, Johnny had not been the best at following rules.
He took their promises, and left Ellie’s house a little uneasy because a child now shared his secret. He had come there looking for Crystal when he didn’t find her at home. The minute he had entered the house, he had known, and it scared the hell out of him how quickly she had adopted his life. In retrospect, he didn’t know whether to be happy she was taking to it so well, or worried that her experimentation would jeopardize the life they were building here. Either way, he could now add Ellie to the growing members of his “family” in Lakewood.
“What is it?”
“Can you take me to taste ordinary blood?”
He choked. “Ordinary blood?”
“You know, not family. I want to see if it tastes any different.”
Oh, yes, things were certainly never going to be the same. “You don’t need blood yet,” he told her.
“But I want to try,” Crystal insisted. “Please?”
Johnny sighed. Then he grinned. “All right, but just once.” At least until he could get more information or remember more from his own childhood. Crystal was like him, and he had been drinking blood since he was a little boy. He scooped her up, the way he used to do when she was younger, and raced through the trees.
“Human, I want human,” Crystal murmured, clinging to his neck.
Of course she did.
“Human it is.” He veered towards the nearest development.