Eventually, I withdrew my fangs. I felt more sated than I ever had. Even better, there was no emotional overlap. Not like with Hans or Emma, where I soaked up their worst fears. Instead, I buzzed with almost manic energy. I exulted. Oh, I had felt Pipsquak’s emotions as I drank; had basked in the bliss of his blood, but the connection between us was entirely manageable. I could feel his fear, but it was entirely partitioned away in a corner of my mind that I recognized as the blood link between us.
But that was also what made my exultation come crashing down in a surge of shame and guilt: unfortunately, I could still feel Pips’ fear, partitioned away or not. I knew that the tears I’d told myself he was faking were real. I knew that I had genuinely and completely terrified him. I knew that I had, in a sick, fucked up way, relished it. And I knew that since I’d been alive when I did it, I couldn’t blame that sick, fucked up part of me on the vampire’s instincts. Crocodile tears, my ass, Abby, I snarled at myself. I wished they had been. I wished I could even just believe they had been, but I didn’t get a choice in the matter.
I really was a monster.
I looked up to see how Pipsqueak had fared. I had stopped before he was destroyed, but he seemed to have withered away while I drank. Now he was a wide-eyed, shriveled husk of a being. He was about half the size he’d been when I’d first caught him, as if draining his magic had shrunk him. Maybe it had: he was fae, and his body was a glorified glamour, after all. I studied the fear in his eyes and felt a pang of self-horror over the fact that I had caused it. I tried to shove it away before he could notice. I felt his spark of hope and knew I’d failed.
“We are even now?” He begged plaintively, digging at my guilt and remorse. “You will let me go?”
I felt sick and guilty and evil, despite my best efforts to ignore it. I made my choice, I reminded myself. You can’t keep feeding on Hans and Emma! You have to do this.
Or become a monster that didn’t care when I got too hungry to stop myself.
I wanted to let him go. I wanted to beg forgiveness and offer it all back and cry for hours and go home and beg Hans to lock me up until the Director arrived to take me away. And the only reason I didn’t break down and give into those urges was that through my link to Pipsqueak I could feel the fear of the homeless man he’d been terrifying. And I could feel the little goblin drawing strength from it. And worse: from the terror that the poor man felt now, from having witnessed my assault on his tormentor.
Of the two, I identified far more with the homeless man’s abject terror of the unbelievable monsters than I did Pipsqueak’s mortal fear for his immortal life. I didn’t want to be a monster, but now that I was I couldn’t just let Pips go to find and assault another helpless person. I didn’t know if I could live with what I’d done or what I knew I had to do — but I knew I couldn’t live with just letting Pipsqueak go and always wondering who he had descended upon next.
I concentrated to keep my fangs from retracting. Then I smiled at Pipsqueak, letting him see that they were still prominent. I felt his fear bubble up worse inside of him, but the feeling was still divorced from my own emotions.
“If you had won against Mr. Salvatore the other night,” I asked instead of answering, “what would you have done with me?”
Pipsqueak’s emotional response was immediate: a surge of sadistic glee at all the things he and his friends would have done with me, until they got bored and one of them broke me irrevocably. He tried to suppress that surge of emotion, but it was too late. I knew one thing for certain, now: had I been carried off that night, I would have wound up dead. How long they could have tortured me I couldn’t guess. But death for me was the same thing as destruction for him, and I would not have been let go. Pipsqueak’s mouth worked, but he didn’t say anything. He knew I could see his thoughts from how my own emotions responded.
“No,” I answered him. The goblin’s fear overflowed into panic. I actually thought he might start to cry again. It made me want to cry, but I crushed that urge ruthlessly.
“No?” His voice quivered. “But you’ve fed! My boon has been claimed and spent,” he protested.
“Yes,” I agreed. I tried to embraced the possessiveness I’d felt from Hans’ wolf in the past; to dredge those emotions up in myself. The territorial drive. I needed to convey this perfectly, and with a fae that meant my emotions had to match my words. Unfortunately, I felt too many conflicting things and I couldn’t get a handle on all of them. I felt powerful, fearless. Through Pipsqueak I could tell that everyone here was afraid of me. And that meant I wasn’t afraid of either of them. At the same time I felt shame and grief and despair over what I was turning into — what I had chosen to become. “But I’m not going to let you go,” I said. “You torment and torture people who cannot defend themselves. My people.” Had my life taken different turns, I tried to remind myself, I could have easily been that man, cowering under the bridge. The reminder didn’t make me feel any better about where I’d ended up, instead. “My people, in my city.” Now I was the person making someone cower, instead of doing the cowering, and I hated myself for it. But I couldn’t change it. “So no, I will not just let you go.”
I smiled toothily. I needed him to be scared. If I was going to spare him, I needed to make sure he was so scared of the consequences that he would never try to hurt someone again. It was a false smile, but I didn’t think Pipsqueak could realize that. As erratic as my emotions were, he had to think I was insane, unstable, twisted. Maybe I was. Pips already knew I’d been conflicted; what I had to convey was that the darkest, scariest, most evil parts of me had won. I had to disguise mercy as ruthlessness, or he would know I couldn’t do a damn thing to stop him or those like him from running rampant.
I thought I must have succeeded, because Pipsqueak started to whimper. I felt his fear building further and wondered if he was thinking about how easy it would be for me to destroy him. I thought he must be, but I decided to spell it out to him — just in case.
And because some sick, dark part of me relished that I was in control and I wasn’t afraid. Because I was a monster, and maybe those dark, vile urges had won, and I was just telling myself my ruthlessness was merciful to console the weak, desperate part of me that wanted to be good.
“I could consume you,” I said. “Easily. I could end you for all eternity. But I am a monster, not a murderer. And because I am a monster, I’m going to do something worse than destroying you. I’m going to leave you indebted to me, forever, for just killing you, instead.”
Pipsqueak’s eyes shot wide, bulging impossibly open. I clenched my hand into a fist before my nerve could break — but the hand I clenched was not one around his wrist. It was the one around his neck.
My fingers drove into his flesh effortlessly. My hand only went little more than halfway around his neck, but that half included his windpipe and spine. He died soundlessly. Meat pulped, bone crushed and shadowy faerie blood spurted into the air. Disgusted, freaked out, horrified, I twisted and yanked my hand free, tearing out a chunk of throat and pulverized vertebrae. Pipsqueak’s corpse fell, swinging by my grip on his wrist, until I released him and his remains plopped to the ground. They were already dissolving into nothingness before they hit. Even the gore on my hand dissolved into the air.
I forced myself to take a breath. Then I held up my fist. While staring at it, I flexed my fingers. They were pristine, as clean as though I’d just washed them — not ripped someone’s throat out. In fact, the only signs that Pipsqueak had ever existed was the life brimming through me — and the little corner of my mind that I recognized as my link to him.
You owe me, I thought at that part — shoving the thoughts into it like I had when I’d tried to make Megan haul Katherine into the sun. You owe me your eternal life, and that is a debt that can never be repaid, I thought viciously. So you’d best think twice before ever coming back to my world, Pips. For I will always be able to find you.
Fortunately, the connection was one way. I’d fed on Pipsqueak on top of feeding on Melvin, so Pips’ life wasn’t being subsumed into my own yet. He didn’t have insight into my mind since he wasn’t close enough anymore to just look at my aura or employ faerie empathy, or whatever it was that they did. So all of the effort I’d put into scaring him away for good wasn’t undone when I abruptly turned toward the river embankment, fell to my knees in the dirt, and dry heaved for all I was worth.
Nothing came up. I guessed fae blood dissolved inside me the same way it did in the air, leaving nothing behind except the life force I stripped out of it. I braced myself on hands and knees and retched harder, my eyes squeezed shut against the memory of the past fifteen minutes. It did no good: it just made it easier to picture everything. Eventually my ineffectual puking gave way to sobbing. My arms gave out and I collapsed forward, falling to the side and curling up in the dirt with my cloak covering me, crying shamelessly. I was a monster.
Fuck me, I was a monster.
I wept with the wretched abandon you only get to experience when your entire life has gone wrong and there’s no one there to see you finally break down and give up. Except I wasn’t really alone. I just wasn’t thinking about it until someone’s hand gently touched my shoulder.
I immediately screamed and scrambled away from it. Behind me, the homeless man yelped in surprise as well. I twisted around, putting my back to the embankment and preparing to defend myself from whatever it was that he thought he was going to do to me — which I realized was stupid as soon as I’d thought about it. The only thing scary about him were my preconceptions.
I looked at the homeless man. Any other time, my anxiety would have been screaming at me to be afraid of him. My paranoia was trying to convince me to run away — that he was bigger than me, and desperate, and maybe unhinged. My eyes, however, told me that he was terrified. He had pulled away from me and tripped, and was sprawled on his back — half sitting up — staring at me.
“It’s okay,” I heard myself say. “You don’t have to be afraid.” I wasn’t entirely sure if I was trying to reassure him or myself. The statement was enough for my autopilot to pretend I was talking to him, though. It was in control now. I was too much in shock to try to own it, anymore. I straightened and took a half-step forward. “There’s nothing out there scarier than me,” I said bitterly, “and I’m on your side.” Maybe we could both just ignore the part where I’d broken down in helpless tears in front of him.
The man hesitantly stood back up. I unconsciously shifted away from him while my paranoia very consciously yelled at me to run! Run you stupid girl! before he could grab my purse — or worse, me. I forced myself to hold my ground. There was nothing threatening about the man except my own preconceptions. And he wasn’t even reaching toward my purse, anyway. Instead, his fingers stretched weakly upward. He scrubbed the back of his tattered glove across his eyes, blinked, and resumed staring at me. I started to get nervous as the silence lengthened. Then he broke it.
“Christ,” he said. “You’re a fucking kid.”