I yelped and scrambled to disentangle myself from Emma. I lost track of John’s conversation under the noise of my own reaction, but that was almost a relief. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to hear Hans’ reply.
“Abby, what’s going on?” Emma asked from the couch.
“John just threatened to break Hans’ legs for playing around with his little sister,” I told her before bolting for the basement stairs. I was halfway up them before Emma pulled herself off the couch to follow.
By the time I got to the top of the stairs I was already bracing myself for the carnage. I fully expected to find John on the floor and Hans – who was easily twice his size – bashing John’s head in with a frying pan.
Of course, I’d seen Mr. Salvatore fight Hans once. I knew size wasn’t all there was to it when supernaturals faced off. It could just as easily be Hans who wound up on the floor getting his teeth kicked in.
Despite the worst case scenarios that leapt unrequested out of my imagination, however, I was completely unprepared for what I found when I burst into the kitchen.
Hans was standing by the stove, a cast-iron skillet in his hand. He was wearing jeans and a grilling apron – his sculpted muscles gleamed in the kitchen’s light. He didn’t look like a cook so much as a food blacksmith.
John was casually leaning against a counter closer to the door. “…I can do to help?” he asked as I charged into the room.
“If you want an omelet I’ll need another skillet,” Hans answered. “Bottom cabinet, third to your left.” He flipped a back burner on while John looked for the dish. Then Hans glanced my way. A smile lit up his face.
“Good morning, Abigail,” Hans said. “Since we have guests I thought I’d make something a little heartier than the toaster pancakes I promised. How do you feel about eggs over easy, waffles, and a side of sausage and bacon?”
“Sounds good?” I answered in confusion.
Emma popped her head through the door behind me. She took a quick glance around the kitchen before asking: “Who won?”
“I have no idea,” I told her. I looked back and forth between John and Hans. “Weren’t you two fighting?”
Hans raised his eyebrows at me. His expression mixed surprise and confusion. “No,” he said.
John paused in getting up from the cabinet Hans had directed him to and glanced at me over his shoulder. “Why would you think that?” John asked. He stood and handed a skillet to Hans. Hans set it on the back burner to heat up. They both watched me expectantly.
I started to think maybe my enhanced senses had played a trick on me. Had I actually heard what I thought I had? I pointed at John uncertainly. “I thought I heard you threatening to break his,” I pointed my other hand at Hans, “legs. Didn’t you?”
“Well, yes,” said John. “But only if he took advantage of or mistreated you somehow – which isn’t going to happen. I’ve known Hans for decades. He’s too nice to behave like that.”
Hans snorted in amused agreement. He picked up a pair of eggs and used them to gesture at me. “Abigail,” Hans said, “If I turned out to have dishonest intentions toward you after everything else you’ve been through, I would break my legs and throw me in a river.”
John nodded along as Hans spoke, clearly pleased that they were both in agreement.
I felt my brow furrow. Then what had been the point of John’s threat? Why had he even made it? Was this some bizarre ghoul or werewolf or man thing? “Then what… why…?” In my confusion I jumbled the questions together. John seemed to get the gist of it anyway.
“I’ve always wanted to stand up for a younger sibling,” John said cheerfully. He beamed at me as though I’d caught him at something he was enormously proud of. I stared at him, temporarily flabbergasted.
Hans rolled his eyes at John, but Hans’ smile was bemused. “Heaven protect us from the day dreams of a youngest child,” he said. He cracked the eggs – one handed – into the rear skillet and discarded the shells into a bowl.
“Hey now,” John protested, “I’m older than you.”
I realized I should probably put a stop to this before they started bickering for real. “Well, I’m an only child, so if I need any legs broken for my sake I’ll break them myself, thank you very much.”
John’s face crumpled with disappointment. Hans laughed and started to whisk some milk in with the eggs. John turned his crestfallen eyes on me.
“Pleeeeeease,” the ghoul plead. Now that he was just a guy joking around with his friend, John was showing an entirely different side to his personality. “If you let me have this,” John cajoled, “I’ll tell you embarrassing stories about the times we spent wandering the country in search of adventure.”
Hans abruptly stopped laughing. “No way,” he protested hastily. “Bribes are cheating!”
“Deal,” I agreed immediately – and then wanted to kick my autopilot. I didn’t want to be a Salvatore, not even in jest.
“Ah-ha!” John crowed. He rounded on Hans. “Too late, my friend. Now that she’s Abigail Salvatore and you’re her donor that makes you my younger step-brother-in-law. So you’d best straighten up and show me some respect, or I’ll be overprotective of you, too.”
Hans groaned in defeat and made a pointed show of ignoring John in favor of his cooking. John just gave him a shit-eating grin and crossed the kitchen toward me.
“So, where should I begin,” John asked. “We’ve been to all the contiguous states,” he added, “and Alaska.”
“Uh…” I said. I’d never been outside of my home state. In fact, the city’s college campus was the furthest I’ve ever been from my home town and that was just a four-hour drive on the interstate.
“Oh! Nevada,” opined Emma.
I looked at her, confused. She shrugged.
“What?” She said. “They have Vegas.”
John laughed. Hans groaned louder. Then John led Emma and I back down to the basement.
We sat at the card table so there would be room for Hans to join us when the food was ready. True to his word, John launched into his tale as soon as he sat down. Fortunately for Hans’ reputation, John himself was the butt of the Vegas story. It involved a quintet of gremlins posing as blackjack dealers, a haunted casino and a con artist who’d tried to get him drunk and trick him into thinking he’d married her. It sounded like the kind of insanity I would make up, and I found myself laughing along with Emma.
“No,” Emma gasped after her last fit of giggles. “I don’t believe it.”
John held up his hands and crossed himself. “God’s honest truth,” he said. “Of course, once she realized I couldn’t actually get drunk and had been faking the whole time in order to trick her into marrying me, she demanded a divorce.” John gave an exaggerated, wistful sigh. “They were still the best five weeks of my life.”
“Then what?” Emma asked.
“Well, Hans and I went on our way,” John said. “I did keep in touch, though, and I’ve been back to visit once or twice – but those trips were without Hans, so they’re not part of the deal.” John sat up straighter. “And speak of the devil: I think I hear him on the stairs.”
Once it was brought to my attention, I could hear it too. A moment later Hans came into the basement and set a steaming platter on the bar. “Don’t mind me,” he said when all eyes turned on him. “It’ll be just a few more trips. Carry on.”
Emma stood up. “Oh, I can help,” she offered. “I wanted to run upstairs and grab a pair of real pants, anyway. These metal chairs are making my butt numb.”
Hans chuckled. “All right, then,” he allowed.
John and I silently watched them leave. I sighed. Numb or not, Emma had a butt that was nice to watch walk away. John sighed too, which made me look at him and frown.
John was still watching the doorway to the stairs. When he pulled his gaze away and faced me, he forced himself to smile.
“She’s a good kid,” John said – and I belatedly remembered that he was over eighty years old. I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I just offered up my opinion, too.
“I like her,” I said.
John’s lips twitched toward a more real smile, but some of the good humor faded from his face. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Don’t ever let her near dad’s corpse. That won’t end well no matter how it goes, and I don’t want to see either of you get hurt.”
I swallowed and nodded. It was an easy promise to make.
“Good,” John said. He forced some of the easy cheer back into his voice. “Great. Now why don’t we help Hans and Emma bring the rest of breakfast down?”
I nodded again, but when I got up to follow John something started to bother me. I decided not to worry about it, though – which abruptly snapped it into focus.
I wasn’t worried.
I tested my teeth as we mounted the stairs. How long Had John and I been talking before Emma came downstairs? Six hours or so? More? It was morning, anyway, and I felt the slightest prick of my fangs against my tongue.
I’d laughed along with Emma at John’s story. I hadn’t been anxious, so I hadn’t felt the need to actually talk. That meant my conversational autopilot hadn’t engaged, which meant my verbal filters hadn’t dropped – which meant I hadn’t embarrassed myself and kicked off a social panic spiral.
And all of that meant I had to be getting thirsty, in the vampire sense of the term.
I suddenly realized this was the longest I’d gone without feeding since I’d first been turned yesterday morning. I almost felt a hint of panic at that thought, but the emotion was too elusive. That was fine: I didn’t really want to be panicking, anyway. Instead, at the top of the stairs, I took a deep breath and tried to sort out how I was feeling.
Now that I’d realized what was going on, the difference between ‘I want breakfast’ hunger and ‘I want blood’ hunger was obvious. At the same time, I didn’t feel as detached as I had when I’d given in to blood lust in the past. The thought of drinking blood was, clinically speaking, gross. And when I thought about hurting Emma I felt an immediate and firm revulsion toward the prospect.
When I thought about it, I realized why I was feeling differently than I had the other times. This was the first time I hadn’t accelerated my hunger somehow. No stopping time. No lingering in the sunlight. I could still worry about things if I put in the effort – but it wasn’t the automatic freak out fest I was used to. Plus, silly things – like the chupacabracorn – didn’t bother me at all. They were just too silly to merit genuine worry, while when I was alive I could get just as wound up about pure fiction as I could about serious issues.
I followed John into the kitchen and debated telling Hans that I needed a nibble. I decided not to, though – not yet. I felt… well, I felt a lot like I imagined normal people must feel most of the time. I tried thinking of something that would normally throw me into a panic fit and grinned instead.
It seemed that right now, I could even look at the prospect of sex with Hans and feel just the anticipation, eagerness, arousal… okay, and maybe a little bit of the self-consciousness, but that was surmountable. It wasn’t about to make me spaz out.
I grinned at Hans and accepted a pitcher of orange juice and a stack of cups to bring downstairs. Good god, he was yummy. And best of all: if it had taken me a few hours to notice I was starting to get blood thirsty, then I probably had a little while yet before the undead hunger process shifted me from mellow to psychotic. At least, as long as I didn’t start throwing around vampire powers or working on my tan.
I took the drink and cups downstairs and finalized my plans. I was going to have a nice, normal breakfast with friends, like socially competent people do. Then I would politely see Emma and John on their way home – and then I was going to jump Hans’ very well sculpted bones. Before drinking his blood. After that… well, the rest of the day would have to take care of itself. If there was one thing I was confident of, it was that no plans I made now would survive a post-feeding bout of paranoid me.