Dad is coming in here?! I had less than an instant to panic about the overheard phone call, but it was enough to make me freeze completely. Then, before another instant could pass, Ben was beside me. It took me another instant to process that: he’d stopped time. Now that he was next to me, I’d been yanked out of the time stream, too.
I responded by gawking at Ben. Apparently he’d taken a moment to fix his mussed hair and tuck in his shirt before approaching close enough to pull me into his time stream, because he was looking sharp and not at all like we’d just been wrestling on top of a bed, trying to pin each other down in a definitive lip lock for the championship title.
Ben reached out to brush some of my bangs aside. There wasn’t really much he could do to ‘straighten’ me. Maybe make sure my shirt wasn’t riding up? “Well, at least Val warned us, right?” He asked with a chuckle. It really didn’t matter what he or I might have done to make me more presentable, though, because right about then what he’d done caught up with me.
He’d yanked me out of the world’s natural time stream.
I screamed. It was a pure, knee jerk, undeniable reaction. It wasn’t a matter of my ‘autopilot.’ This was something far, far more basic than that. This was a wail of primal terror: a reaction that I had absolutely no control over whatsoever. My autopilot usually blurted out crazy and random things that made everything awkward and difficult for the people around me. But at least half the time I could see what was coming. This didn’t allow for that. This overrode everything.
I slapped Ben’s hand away and threw myself backward. I had to get away. I had to get outside of his range. I had to escape before I was trapped again, before I spent another eternity outside of time, before I found my soul being torn apart or flayed open or ruptured. Before someone’s tendrils sank into me and I was stuck, writhing in agony until it all went away and time started again because I’d murdered someone without even trying and all that was left of them was the pain I remembered and the pain they’d felt because I’d drank that along with everything else and oh god the pain…
Pain that hurt so much I couldn’t remember it. Not really. Because just thinking about it made my brain shut down in terror.
I felt the jolt of leaving Ben’s time stream and immediately felt another jolt as he brought me back into it. Benjamin was next to me; he’d caught me. His hands were on my arms, below my shoulders: holding me. “Abigail?” He asked. He sounded worried. Surprised. Maybe panicked? “Abby, what’s wrong? Abigail?!”
I was too freaked out to answer. I was crying, but when I opened my mouth all that came out was a sob. I tried to pull away from him again but he kept holding me. I got that he wanted to take care of me somehow, to find out what was wrong — but the part of me that was running the show only cared about getting away. Escaping. “Let go,” I sobbed. “Let go!” The second one was a wail, because jerking about in Ben’s grasp wasn’t working. I tried to shove him back again. I threw all of my strength into it. I didn’t care if that meant throwing him into a wall, or having him tear my arms off, or what.
I had to get out of this frozen time.
My hyper senses brought in everything. As always, they reacted to my panic by looking for the threat. I could see the concern in Ben’s eyes as he tried to figure out what the hell was happening, and my panic made me realize he was going to keep me trapped here. I could pick out individual motes of dust frozen in the air where they had been drifting, proving that we were still in frozen time. I could….
I didn’t manage to shove Ben away. He let go of me and pulled back. The he was suddenly just gone and I fell backward, collapsing on the bed. The dust was moving again. Ben was on the far side of the room. “Abby?” He asked cautiously. “Abby, talk to me.”
I scrambled as far away from him as I could get. I cowered in the corner of the room and trembled while I stared at him. Watching for when he would vanish and the disparity of time between us would make me vulnerable. Oh god: what if he went for my blood? What if he found a way to drain me? What if I wound up stuck outside of time, being drained away like I had drained Lewellan and Archarel until I was so far gone I didn’t care about the pain or the wrongness or anything anymore, and I latched into Ben with my faerie abilities and he froze time to try to escape and I ripped out his soul because of the imbalance between us and….
I was sobbing. I couldn’t do words. I could barely do thoughts. I couldn’t watch anymore. I didn’t want to see it coming. I curled into a ball on the floor and tried to ignore the world as though I could just make it not exist.
It didn’t work. I heard someone break in the door. I heard people shouting. Angry shouts, and Ben shouting back in some sort of denial. A woman breaking it up. And then someone was next to me again, talking to me, trying to hold me. I almost threw him aside. I was trying to uncurl so I could lash out, force him away before he could trap me again. But then his voice registered through my shattered, fragmented emotions.
Dad couldn’t stop time.
I finished straightening, as much as I could. I was still hunched over, half-unfolded on the floor. Dad gathered me in his arms. “Abigail, pumpkin, it’s okay. I’m here. I’m here, Abby. You’ll be okay.”
I tried to say something back, but my words kept getting caught in my throat. I could barely see, my eyes were so blurry and puffy from tears. I wasn’t panicking. Dad was here. Dad would take care of me.
But I was still so afraid.
I tried to say something but it just turned into a stammered wail as a new round of sobbing wracked me. Oh god, I’d been about to shove Dad away. Ben could survive being thrown through a wall. Dad couldn’t. I almost killed my dad.
I started crying in earnest again. Dad wrapped me up in his arms and I could feel him glaring daggers at Benjamin in between trying to console me over he knew not what. I tried to push Dad away, but gently. Too gently: it didn’t do any good. I felt helpless. How stupid was that? I was super strong and unkillable and I was helpless because I couldn’t escape because the person holding me was too mortal to survive it if I forced the issue.
I didn’t want Dad right now. I wanted Hans. Hans could hold me and take care of me and survive being thrown through a wall. Hans couldn’t stop time.
I don’t know how long it was before I gave up and stopped trying to get away from Dad. It wasn’t long, though: I’m not even sure he noticed. I have absolutely no idea how long I was crying for, before the fear gradually started to recede and my other thoughts — rational and irrational alike — were allowed to take over.
Somewhen in the process Valerie convinced Benjamin to leave. She told him she’d make sure I was okay, but that he’d obviously upset me somehow and lurking around wouldn’t help me pull myself together. After he left, Valerie joined my dad. She didn’t touch me, though. She did offer me some tissues, and then gave them to Dad to offer to me when I jerked away from her.
By the time I had stopped crying and had blown my nose more times than I could remember and wiped away the tears, Valerie had retreated to the far corner where Benjamin had gone. When I looked I saw that she’d pulled a chair over, though, and was sitting quietly. Looking back at me.
She looked young. Really young. I was bad at pinning ages on people, but she looked like she should be in high school, maybe. My stomach turned at the implications. She was supposed to be the oldest of the scions, and I didn’t like what that meant about the preferences of whoever turned her.
“I’m okay,” I told Dad. My throat felt rough, but by the time I was done talking I sounded normal again. Super healing for the win: I’d sobbed my throat raw and now it was all better. My face didn’t feel tight or hot or achy, either. I tried to sniffle, almost on instinct, and just breathed in instead. If Dad and Valerie hadn’t seen me fall apart, they would never have known it happened, I thought.
“Abigail, what happened?” Dad asked. He sounded…. detached. Like he was using his hospital emergency room voice. Intense, but the underlying emotion wasn’t being shared. I’m making him worry about me more. He’d already put himself into an insane amount of danger on my behalf. I didn’t think I could stomach him knowing about what I’d gone through while he ‘protected’ me by playing a decoy.
“I’m okay,” I said again. I got up. I pulled myself out of Dad’s hug and moved to the bed. He let me, watched me go. Then he stood up and sat on the other end of it.
“Abigail,” Dad started to say — but I interrupted him.
“I don’t… I don’t want to talk about it, Dad,” I said. I felt shocked. I think some of that was empathizing with Dad when he recoiled, and some of it was my own. I’d always been daddy’s little girl. I’d never bothered him with my problems, because I knew how hard he worked to take care of me and provide for me and mom. And because I hadn’t wanted anyone to know how messed up I was, let alone someone who was supposed to love me. But I’d never pushed him away like that, either.
Then again, he’d never seen me break down over something serious before.
After a minute, Dad swallowed. “Alright,” he said softly. “But is there anything I can do?”
I started to shake my head in vehement denial — but I had to stop. “Yes,” I said. I almost killed my dad. “Can you… can you go home?” Please? I didn’t think I could handle it if something happened to Dad. “I need… I need someone to take care of Mom,” I said. “And,” I stumbled over the words. Telling Ben what I had wanted, what I had needed from him… It had been something new for me. Opening up to Dad about what I needed: that was new, too. And harder. So much harder. I guess because I had so much history providing me with momentum not to do it?
“And I need someone to keep her away from me,” I said. “She doesn’t know about magic,” I added. I started to pick up steam as the words tumbled out. “She wants me to come home, but that would be a disaster and I can’t explain it to her because she won’t listen and I can’t take care of her except to stay away.” And I need my family to be safe from me. “And I have too much to figure out to deal with that. I was… I was crying because I was overwhelmed. Ben isn’t bad. But so much has happened, so fast, and it all… I couldn’t cope,” I finished quietly. It felt like a huge admission of guilt, all the more so because it fell so far short of the truth that I felt like it was a lie.
Dad hesitated. He’d refused to leave when I tried to explain things the night before. He’d insisted on helping, despite the danger. I didn’t expect him to leave now. I expected to have to fight him on it, and to lose, and to stop making decisions and have to start reacting to what was going on around me because I couldn’t just make him go because he was my dad.
Then Valerie got out of her chair. She walked over to Dad’s side and put her hand on his shoulder. She spoke quietly, but not so quietly that I couldn’t hear. Not when they were right there at the end of the bed.
“The hardest part of watching them grow up,” Valerie said, “is letting go. She has things that she needs to take care of on her own, figure out for herself. You can’t coddle her.”
It felt weird, hearing someone who looked so much younger than me giving Dad parenting advice. And I figured he would brush it off. But he didn’t.
“I know,” Dad said quietly.
“She has a lot of good people watching out for her,” Valerie replied softly.
Dad swallowed once and nodded. “Will you be one of them?” he asked.
Valerie looked at me over my dad’s head. I looked back at her, utterly bewildered. What went on between them when she fed on him? I wondered. How much of who he is did she see, and how much of her soul was reciprocally exposed? Does he really trust her that much already? Is he enthralled?!
“Yeah,” Valerie said without looking away from me. She smiled slightly, but I couldn’t read it. I felt too numb and confused and worried to be able to do the empathy necessary to figure out someone else’s emotional state. Her gaze locked with mine. “Yes, I think I can see my way to doing that, Will.”
My dad looked over at me. I felt trapped, unsure if I should look at him or at Valerie. But even though Dad was looking at me, I wasn’t sure that he wasn’t still talking to her. “Okay,” Dad said. “If that’s all I can do to help, I’ll do it.”