John’s words washed over me like a haze. Or maybe it was more like they washed over me and brought a haze: for a moment my thoughts were fuzzy, inaccessible… overwhelmed with emotion. My fault. It was my fault that Hans’ aura had been weakened, my fault that the wolf had been so close to the surface, my fault that he had gotten mixed up with Lewellan. Hans would never attack a random mundane as a wolf, and anyone who knew about the supernatural community wouldn’t have reported a werewolf attack to the news. Which meant that Hans hadn’t attacked anyone — which meant his wolf had been in control.
Losing control was the one thing that Hans feared more than anything else, and it was my fault that it had happened.
“Abigail? Sis?” John’s voice finally cut through the shroud of guilt that had spiraled around me. “Look, it might not actually be Hans. Like I said: there wasn’t much more than a footnote on the site, and I haven’t been able to turn up any details. It’s… well, it’s worrisome if it is, but don’t borrow trouble before it comes knocking, okay? You’ve done enough already. I’ll take care of this, and I’ll keep seeing what I can find out about Hans.”
You’ve done enough. Katherine had thrown that in my face, when I’d chased Megan out of Club Luminescence and toward Mr. Salvatore’s waiting arms. “Yeah,” I said. “Okay.” I felt numb. I should have gone after him. I should’ve prioritized him like I did Emma. I knew his aura was weak. I knew Lewellan’s geas could tear him up. I left him there. It’s my fault.
I couldn’t remember if there was anything else I needed to talk to John about, but I couldn’t stay on the phone while I tried to remember. I couldn’t stay on the phone at all: I could feel my jaw trembling and knew I was going to break. So I did what I always did. I ran and hid.
“Keep me informed,” I told John. I wasn’t sure how I kept my voice from cracking. Years of practice, I guess. “I have to go.”
“I will,” John said back — but I was already hanging up.
I turned toward the entertainment center to try and shield my face from Benjamin. My vision was blurring from the tears that threatened to escape. I didn’t want Ben to see that. I didn’t think I could stop him though, either. He appeared next to me — behind me, since I had turned away — so quickly it must have involved pausing time.
“Abby?” Ben asked.
I shook my head. I couldn’t reply. Couldn’t open my mouth without letting everything I was feeling spill out and couldn’t look at him. If I did, I’d try to use him as a support. I was selfish like that. One look at anyone right now, and I would burst into tears and collapse in a heap on them and that was so fucking selfish of me — and so hideously self-centered. Like I had any right to be making any of this about me when Hans was out there, somewhere, after a night of who knew what nightmares, and it was all my fault.
The self-recriminations didn’t stop there. They couldn’t stop: they were just my mercilessly self-sadistic brain pointing out the truth to me with viciously unassailable logic, laying out the accusations that John had been — that everyone else would be — too polite to say out loud. You never even really cared about Hans, did you? You pushed him away when you first met him. Megan set up your date, not you. You didn’t trust him after you found out about magic from him. And you didn’t try to rescue him from Lewellan. You didn’t even try. You’ve just been using him. Yanking him along, leading him on, pretending to be one of those girls and keeping him around so you’d have someone to breakfast for you and give you a place to stay and be pretty eye candy to look at. You’ve just been using him for blood. You made him face down Mr. Salvatore, twice. You made him take care of you. He was going to leave you because you were using him up. He would have been better off if you’d let him instead of storming out: You. God. Damned. Manipulative. Conniving. BITCH.
Ben’s hand on my shoulder made me jump. I barely kept myself from whirling around instinctively, but if I had I would have fallen apart completely. “Abby,” Ben said, “It will be okay. If he had killed someone, it wouldn’t have just been a footnote article, even with everything else that went down last night. And it’s not the full moon yet, so it’s not like his wolf was in control. He wouldn’t have infected anyone.”
My breath caught. I hadn’t even thought about that. Holy fuck, what was wrong with me? “Which is it?” I whispered.
“What?” Ben asked, confused.
“Which is it?” I insisted. “Is it the full moon, or is it the wolf being in control? Which one does it take to turn someone into a werewolf?” I turned around. Why wasn’t Ben answering me fast enough?! My fist pounded his chest in frustrated panic. “Which is it?!”
“The wolf!” Ben yelped. “It’s the wolf’s aura that carries the taint of the werewolf curse, not the mortal’s. But for a werewolf of Hans’ age, the wolf is only ever in control on the full moon. It’s okay, Abby. Someone probably just saw him run past and exaggerated the details.”
“Oh god,” I whispered. Oh god oh god oh god oh god. The only thing Hans wanted less than to let the wolf take control of him was to inflict his curse on someone else. “You don’t know,” I rasped. I could feel a lump rising in my throat. “You don’t understand. You only know what I told you last night. Can’t you get it from that? Hans’ soul was in tatters. I overfed on him. His wolf was bleeding through. Linda said it was going to take him over early if he kept letting me take his blood… and Lewellan put a geas on him. If he tried to fight Lewellan… Or if Lewellan just wanted to frame me for another thing and decided to break Hans’ soul and blame it on me overfeeding… Hans wasn’t in control,” I said in something between a sob and a shriek. “Oh god, what did I do?”
Ben’s breath caught. I barely noticed. I was crying now. The tears fell from my eyes without reservation, even though I wasn’t sobbing yet. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered. I wasn’t sure if I was talking to Ben, or to Hans. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t save him. It’s all my fault and I didn’t save him from it. I didn’t even try.”
“Shit,” Benjamin muttered emphatically. His arms wrapped around me though and he pulled me to himself. I tried to pull back.
“No!” I cried. I shoved against Ben’s chest until he let me go. I couldn’t let someone else take care of me. I’d let Hans take care of me, and look what had happened to him. Megan had taken care of me, and then she’d been assaulted by vampires and kidnapped by faeries. Emma had tried to give me blood, and she’d almost died. My dad… oh god, I hadn’t even asked John about my dad. All I knew was that he’d been fed on by a vampire and was supposedly okay, but… Fed on by a vampire. Everyone who cares about me gets fucked up trying to help me.
Ben shifted like he meant to reach out for me again. I shoved him a second time, instead. “Don’t!” I yelled. “You don’t understand! Don’t try to help me. I break people, Ben! Everyone who tries to take care of me gets fucked up. Everyone who sees me cry gets broken. Everyone…” My mouth worked, but nothing came out but a wail. I collapsed into the seat, pulling my legs up beside me and trying to curl in on myself. I couldn’t hold back the sobbing anymore. I’d done my best, but I just couldn’t. My shoulders shook as the sobs wracked my body.
Even though I’d done my best to warn him, Ben put a comforting hand on me anyway. He slid into the seat next to me and pulled me toward him so that I was laying sideways with my head propped on my leg. He leaned over me, holding me with one arm while his free hand produced a handkerchief. “Abby, it’s not your fault,” he said while wiping away tears and snot. “Do you even realize how much you did last night? You can’t be everywhere. You can’t do everything. And you can’t save everyone.”
I kept crying. I clutched the arm Ben had wrapped around me like it was my safety blanket. “No,” I protested between sobs. “You don’t understand.” I don’t even know if my words were intelligible, but Ben shushed me gently and stroked my hair with the back of his hand before dabbing at my cheeks again.
“I think I do,” Ben said. “You’re blaming yourself for something — no, for everything — bad that’s happened to the people you care about. Even though there were things you had no control over that contributed to whatever happened to them. You break ‘everyone who sees you cry?’ That’s simply not true, Abby.”
“Megan was attacked by vampires and kidnapped by faeries,” I choked out between sobs. See? I thought, but I knew he didn’t.
“Forgive me if I’m mistaken,” Ben said, “But you saved Megan from Mr. Salvatore, and from Lewellan, and from Archarel. And if she hadn’t known you, she would still have been a changeling and would still have had faeries out to kidnap her and vampires out to end her.”
“Emma almost died,” I blurted. Ben didn’t get it. He didn’t realize that I was the vampire who had attacked Megan, but I couldn’t tell him that.
“But she didn’t,” Ben said. “And that’s because of you.”
“But Hans…” I tried to protest.
“Is an adult,” Ben interrupted. “And older than you, more experienced with the supernatural than you are, perfectly capable of taking care of himself, and used to a life fraught with this kind of danger. You might have been responsible for the state of his aura before he met Lewellan, but anything after that is Lewellan’s doing. Not yours.”
I sniffled. “It’s just so much,” I said. “I tried so hard to take care of everything, but there’s always something that I didn’t catch in time.” My voice dropped into a whisper. “It’s just too much.”
“It’s been a lot,” Benjamin agreed. He discarded his handkerchief on the corner seat. “And in a very short time. And you’re immortal, so there’s going to be a lot more. You can’t hold yourself responsible for all of it, or you’ll break.”
“I’m already broken,” I whispered. “You don’t understand. I was broken before I died.” I was broken by a faerie and stitched back up and left to live my life not even knowing how I’d been broken or why. And there I was, already making it about me again. I felt empty even though I knew my aura was full. I kind of wished it would just open back up and everything would spill out and I could be empty for real.
I twisted enough to look up at Ben. “Why are you being so nice?” I demanded. I’d stopped crying and the soreness in my face was already vanishing, whisked away by my enhanced healing. “I’m telling you I’m not good,” I said more angrily, but it was anger that collapsed under its own irrelevance. I wasn’t good. What right did I have to be angry? I tried to get up; to put some distance between myself and him, but he kept his arm around me — holding me in place. I was too emotionally exhausted to panic about it.
“No,” Ben contradicted me. “You’re telling me I don’t understand. And I’m telling you that I do. Hans isn’t the only one who’s been around long enough to have picked up some life experience. I know I don’t look it, but I’ve gone through some intense times, myself. They do get better, Abby.”
I stared up at Ben and tried to wrap my head around what he was saying. It was disconcerting: at least Hans looked older than me. Ben looked like he could’ve been any guy my age in a punk rock bar. I sniffled and rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand. “Everyone keeps thinking they know what’s going on with me,” I said, “and they’re always wrong. You don’t want to be involved in this.”
Benjamin smirked. “Is that so? Well, I disagree. I think I do want to be a part of whatever madness you have whirling around you, Abby.” He stopped stroking my hair and tapped my nose with one finger. “Entirely aside from whether or not I understand what you’re going through, history is being made here. You are doing things that no one ever has, and I want to have a part in how that plays out.” His smirk broadened into a grin and his eyes gained an intensity that kicked my emotions out of their enervated collapse. “And as for whether or not I understand you, Abby, well: I think that the last time this problem cropped up we managed to find a solution to it.”
My blood ran cold. Predator. Oh my god, I’m trapped in the arms of a predator and he knows I’m weak and helpless and lost. I swallowed. Ben’s eyes bore into mine hungrily. I knew he was remembering the taste of my blood, the feel of his fangs piercing my flesh, the ecstasy of consuming my life’s essence. I was, too.
My heart sped up. My breathing went raggedly shallow. I couldn’t stop thinking about that god awful bite — it was even keeping my panic from overwhelming me and driving me to do something sane, like running the fuck away.
“I’m gross,” I protested inanely. If he’d tried to bite me, I wouldn’t have had it in me to stop him. Somehow he’d gone from young, dumb, gangly, punky Ben to someone ancient and intense and dangerous.
Benjamin leaned in closer. His hand brushed back my hair. “I’m not,” he said. His wrist came back, hovering near my lips. His other arm slid up my side until his hand cupped my head and tilted it up. I stared at his pale skin and the slender blue veins beneath it.
Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god oh god what is happening? I could smell Ben’s blood. My fangs slid out despite myself; despite the fact that my aura was full — despite the fact that it was literally overflowing, thanks to the rips I hadn’t mended yet. Then Ben moved his wrist away, but my fangs didn’t withdraw.
“Of course, I wouldn’t force you,” Ben said. “Especially as vulnerable as you are right now. But it’s an open invitation, if you ever wish to follow up on it.” I snapped my eyes from his wrist to his face. His fangs were visible now, too. “And if you ever want someone who you know understands,” he said with soft intensity. “Who you know understands completely and perfectly the very depths of your soul…” He let his words sink in; they sent a shiver down my spine and goosebumps up my arms. His smile curved up sharply on one end, leaving one fang tauntingly exposed. “I am completely willing to further my insight into you, Abby.”