After a minute slipped by in which Emma and I just looked at each other I was compelled to break the silence. “So,” I said awkwardly, “Did you bring some clothes I can borrow? Because I am feeling really underdressed right now.”
“Really?” Emma asked. “Because between Hans and I, you seem to have struck the middle ground.”
“Hans isn’t here,” I pointed out.
Emma grinned. “Fair enough,” she said. Then she leaned to the side and hefted a backpack that had been on the ground beside her chair. “Behold!” she cried. “My overnight bag, over stuffed.” She plopped it on the table between us. “Feel free to loot it.”
“Oh, thank God.” I grabbed it and pulled it closer. “Emma, you are a life saver,” I added as I opened it up and started investigating the contents. Hans might have claimed the master bathroom, but we had a downstairs one, too, and I had every intention of getting properly dressed as soon as possible.
“Thanks,” Emma said. Her voice was softer than when she’d been teasing Hans. I looked up at her. She was looking down and away, and her cheeks were just a little bit pink – as though she was embarrassed by my compliment. Or maybe she was pleased, and embarrassed by that.
It was distinctly reminiscent of last night, when Emma had gone from bold and daring while surrounded by people to shy and meek in the absence of an audience. I felt a surge of protectiveness, like I had in the hospital earlier this morning. Emma’s vulnerability reminded me a little of myself. I didn’t want people to realize what a crazy freak I am. Emma didn’t want people to realize how badly she’d been hurt.
And it was weird, but when I was alone with Emma I didn’t feel all aroused but anxious and scared like I did with Hans. In fact, being alone with Emma made me feel bold and confident, if only in contrast to herself. All of a sudden I had a horrible urge to make her feel aroused and anxious and scared.
How sick and weird was that? It was the exact opposite of being protective. But I did feel protective, too.
I pushed the backpack aside. The table was enough of a barrier between us. I reached out and took Emma’s hand. She twitched as though the touch startled her, but her fingers closed around mine anyway.
“Hey,” I said. I tried to think of how Megan would take care of me if I were the one feeling vulnerable. I couldn’t think of anything good. “You’re okay, you know that, right?” It was a feeble attempt, but that didn’t make it a dishonest one.
Emma looked up at me. “Yeah,” she said. Then, with more feeling: “Yeah. It’s just… it’s weird. Being here again. And you’re a vampire.” Like Salvatore. She left it unsaid – but I heard it anyway. “I keep feeling like I’m going to get bit and just… lose myself for a day or two,” she concluded with a forced laugh. “Not that I think you’d do that,” she added hastily. “It’s just an expectation from previous experience.”
I grit my teeth, but did my best not to let it show on my face. It was also utter bullshit – and I’m too experienced with making things up for an amateur like Emma to fool me. But I didn’t call her on it. Firstly, because I’m equally experienced with knowing how badly someone can need to put up a façade to protect themselves. But secondly, I was pretty sure I knew what the issue really was.
That was why I’d clenched my jaw. I wasn’t mad at Emma for lying – I’m not that hypocritical! But I despised Mr. Salvatore for how he’d hurt her.
I was pretty sure that once upon a time the confident, bold, teasing, extroverted Emma I saw when there were other people around had been who she was all the time. But I also knew that when a vampire fed on you, your personality and his personality could get jumbled. When Mr. Salvatore had fed on me, I had felt his overwhelming narcissism. But it had also been mixed up in an overwhelming desire to do what he wanted. My life force was being subsumed into him, and part of that had meant my will was, too. He’d been more important to me than anything.
I’d managed to shake it off, but only because I was experienced with holding myself together while my soul was being fed on. Fae could feed on fear and anxiety, and I was pretty sure they’d been sneaking meals off of me my whole life.
But if what Emma said about ‘losing herself for a day or two’ meant what I thought it did, then there had been days that she had been in that same state: held in emotional bondage by the illusion of love for a man who thought so little of her that she saw herself as worthless next to him – even though the love she thought she felt was nothing more than his own infatuated arrogance and inflated self-esteem.
Hell, if Mr. Salvatore fed on her repeatedly, without giving her the time to pull herself together, she might have spent weeks or even months like that. What would it have done to her, when he ran away from everyone last New Year’s day? He’d made her feel like he was her everything. He’d made her feel worthless. And then he’d abandoned her.
And now she expected me to make her feel like that, too. From her tone of voice and weak denial, I could tell that Emma expected me to bite her despite what I’d said this morning – and given her experiences, that meant she wanted me to. Because she still felt worthless, and she wanted someone to be her everything, just so she’d have something.
I swallowed back an unexpected surge of anger. When Emma and I were alone her shyness, her pleasure and embarrassment over simple compliments, her uncertainty and meekness… They all stemmed from the same thing. She was afraid I wouldn’t think she was good enough for me. She was afraid I would throw her away like Mr. Salvatore had. And the fact that she’d latched on to me so quickly and offered up herself so freely in the brief time we’d known each other was a pretty big clue that she still needed someone outside of herself to give herself worth.
And the fact that she thought I was better than the best she could do was just tragic.
“I’m not going to feed off you,” I said stoutly. “Not until you know that how I feel about you is something you’d like to feel about yourself.”
Emma flushed but didn’t gainsay me.
I kept on with my roll. “Besides,” I said. “You’re my girlfriend. When we’re together I’m not going to want you to lose yourself. I’m not going to want to replace your emotions with mine. I’m going to want some kind of reciprocity. Partnership.” I tried to think of other good relationship things. I wished I’d had more relationships to pull from. “A sharing between equals,” I concluded.
And then, because I’m me, I kept going. “Frankly, we’re nowhere near there yet.” I held up a hand to stop Emma’s face from crumpling. “No,” I said. “You took that backwards.” When would I learn to come to a conclusion and stop? But now I couldn’t or Emma would think I thought I was better than her, too.
“Emma,” I said, “you’re beautiful. You’re fun. You’re funny. You don’t freak out in crowds like I do. You know how all this supernatural stuff works. I’m still learning. You’ve had girlfriends before – I haven’t. I have no clue what I’m doing on pretty much every level there is. You’re… what was it, ‘poly?’ I’ve never been in a serious relationship before, let alone two, so again: no clue. Shoot, I even owe you for the fact that I’m not naked right now,” I said, “and even though I should just be being grateful I can’t stop getting distracted thinking dirty thoughts about you instead.”
Normally I wouldn’t dare confess something like that, but Emma’s vulnerability let me. I didn’t feel vulnerable in the face of hers. The power dynamic between us was the exact opposite of anything sane, especially given that everything I’d told her was true.
“Basically,” I said, “I know I’m going to be leaning on you a lot more than is fair. And you need to know it, too, because I’m going to need your help to become the kind of girlfriend you deserve. Because I know I’m selfish and out of my depth and you should not sell yourself short or give me credit where it isn’t due.” I was firm on that. Confident, strong people impress the heck out of me. They also scare the heck out of me… but I wanted Emma to be strong and confident again.
She’d probably realize she could do better and dump me once she was, but you know what? It’d be worth it.
Emma’s lower lip was trembling and her eyes were starting to look watery.
“Oh, hell.” I scowled at myself. “I’m messing this up already, aren’t I? I’m sorry. When I screw up, please let me know. Otherwise I won’t realize and I’ll just keep rambling and…”
“Abby?” Emma interrupted me. I clicked my jaw shut mid-sentence.
“You’re okay, too,” Emma said. “You’re sweet, and… I didn’t really have to deal with that before. I mean, not from Salvatore.”
I glowered. I didn’t really like being compared to Mr. Salvatore, even if the comparison was favorable. But I liked it, too. How confusing was that?
Emma stood and came to my side of the table. She knelt next to me and wrapped her arms around my waist. I wasn’t really sure how to react, so I tried to think of what Megan would do if she were me and I were Emma – except that I wasn’t the touchy feely sort. I wouldn’t have initiated a hug. But if I had, Megan would have accepted it.
I put my hand tentatively on Emma’s head and stroked her hair. Emma looked up at me and grinned. The fragility that had been so recently exposed in her eyes was gone, replaced with an eager, mischievous sparkle.
I tried not to gulp. In the abrupt absence of Emma’s shyness my own was coming back full bore. Except I’m not so much shy and uncertain as I am terrified of making a botch of social situations, making people realize I’m crazy, not knowing what to do and trying new things.
Oh, and I’m also pretty damn shy, too, and had no clue what I was doing. I was pretty sure I’d already burned through my allotment of outgoing confidence for the day. Maybe the week. I tried to smile back at Emma and hoped it didn’t look too sickly.
If it did… well, maybe now my embarrassed uncertainty was egging Emma on. “Want to go downstairs and make sure your poor boyfriend isn’t taking a cold shower for no reason?” she asked.
Downstairs? The basement?! I hadn’t been down there yet, but I was pretty sure that was where Mr. Salvatore kept his kinky bondage stuff. Who did Emma expect to chain up whom?
And more importantly: cold shower? Hadn’t Hans and Emma just been joking about that?! Did she really think he’d gone off fantasizing about the two of us making out? What kind of sick freak gets off on making stuff up and fantasizing about other people’s sex lives?!
I think I was more than a little scarlet. I knew I was a sick freak, but I still wanted to think Hans was normal. As normal as a Viking-prince, werewolf, and passionate carnalvore could be, anyway.
“Can I get dressed first?” I squeaked.
Emma giggled and let go of me. “I guess,” she allowed with mock reluctance. She toyed with the neckline of her cardigan. “Or, if it’s just that you’re feeling underdressed, I could strip down a little,” she offered.
I blanched, torn somewhere between desire and terror. Then I grabbed the backpack of clothes off the table and bolted for the second bathroom to change.