I eyed Valerie dubiously. On the one hand, I didn’t know her, didn’t know if I could trust her, had no idea what her motives were. On the other: Ben and Thomas seemed to think she was an ally. At the very least, she hadn’t thrown in with Director Lewellan’s group last night. Enthralled or not — and I wouldn’t know for sure until I heard from his new security detachment — my dad probably owed her his life.
More importantly, she had gotten Benjamin out of the room when I’d been freaking out and he’d been making it worse. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t enthralled a whole slew of people who hadn’t exactly volunteered for it. Although, to be fair, none of them had been my dad.
So maybe the look I gave Valerie was a little on the judge-y side. If the past few days of running for my life and keeping my circumstances a secret had made me a little paranoid, well, that was only to be expected. And if anyone asked about it that was totally what I was going to blame it on — and never mind my entire preceding life.
“Actually,” I said, “I could ask the same. I mean: you fed on my dad. That feels like something I should take some sort of umbrage over.”
Valerie rolled her eyes. “Maybe. But probably not. I mean, the other option was letting him bleed to death.” She grinned. The expression seemed to contain equal measures sadism and snark. “At least: it was the first time,” she said like it was a joke. “The second time was more of a revenge/survival thing, after he shot me.”
Valerie shrugged. “I expected him to be enthralled, too,” she continued. “But he wasn’t. I don’t really know what else you want me to say about that: frankly, I took the time to address the aftermath with him this morning. We talked out everything I got out of the experience, and beyond that his spiritual state isn’t anyone else’s business but his.” Her grin became more friendly. “I tend to get a lot of emotional feedback out of my partners. It’s a side effect of habitually feeding from people who aren’t witches or werewolves or faeries. And I think it’s only morally proper to regard those insights with the same confidentiality a therapist would. Or at least the same confidentiality a trusted confidant would. So the point really is: Regardless of whether or not he wound up enthralled, letting him bleed out would have been a waste. And not just of his blood. I mean, all that blood just leaking out into the street? Yes, that’s a waste and I know you know how that calls to us because you’re a vampire, too. But the greater waste would have been of his life. And either you know that, too, or Mr. Dolcet and Mr. Cullison misjudged you and you’re just as psychotic as Lewellan and Salvatore turned out to be.”
I fidgeted slightly. “Okay,” I finally blurted out. “I guess that’s fair. It’s just… this is all a little much, you know? I mean: all of it. I haven’t even been a vampire for a week yet.”
Valerie nodded vehemently. Her expression abruptly reminded me of a cat: one part curiosity to one part terrifying predator. “So I’ve been informed. And that’s exactly why I want to know what’s been going on with you. Thomas filled me in on Director Salvatore murdering you, and Director Lewellan trying to frame you for various misdeeds in order to get you under a kill order so he could cover up for Salvatore’s screw ups. And Benjamin told me that you destroyed Archarel — and killed Lewellan, as well as Salvatore. So I know what’s happened. And I’m dying to know how.”
I couldn’t help myself. Maybe it was all the tension of the past half hour — in fact, I’d be willing to bet that was a significant part of it — but I started to giggle. Dying to know how? She was a vampire: she was so curious she was already dead. “No pun intended?” I asked between snickers.
Valerie shook her head, but she had a wry, bemused grin on her face. “No, no pun intended,” she agreed. She stood up from her seat and took a step toward me. “But I do need to know what’s going…”
As soon as Valerie stepped toward me I leapt back. The wall kept me from going far, but that didn’t matter: the movement had been an entirely knee-jerk response. I felt the thrum of my heartbeat pounding in my ears at the same time as I realized the source of my anxiety: Benjamin’s time fuckery had been too recent. I’d moved in an instinctive attempt to keep outside of her range in case she decide to mess with time, herself.
Valerie tilted her head and studied me, but didn’t take another step forward. “See,” she said. “It’s stuff like that. And whatever you were upset about when Benjamin was in here with you. It’s seriously out of character for what I know about you, and given what I’ve heard that’s seriously disturbing.”
Valerie took a couple of steps back and ended up sitting on the edge of the bed so she could face me without being so close. “All I really know is that you have been traipsing around town obliterating ancient vampires and even more ancient faeries — and yet you act like you’re terrified of me. You were terrified of Ben.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that something is seriously wrong, and obviously you’ve been through a lot recently. Frankly, if you were one of my partners and went through…” Valerie waved her hand in the air, “…whatever the mortal equivalent of what you’ve been through is, I’d insist you go into extended therapy until I knew you either weren’t going through PTSD, or had it under control.”
I swallowed. I didn’t want to say: ‘Actually, I thought I could probably use therapy when I was alive,’ but I couldn’t help thinking it. I did sort of want to ask her where exactly the hell one finds a therapist that specializes in undead issues, but that probably wouldn’t have been any more reassuring.
“The thing is,” Valerie said, “I don’t like not knowing what I’m getting into. And I’m already way more involved in this than I want to be. Firstly, because unlike Mr. Cullison, I have been in contact with my Family. And the consensus is that while the Center tries to figure out what the hell happened here and how it should respond, it would be good for us to already have someone on the scene, as it were. I’m expendable, in a fashion: I don’t have any set duties to get back to because it was expected that I would be able to convince Lewellan to give me stewardship over this city. At the same time, that means I’m competent enough that the Family was considering promoting me to that level of responsibilities. And I’m already here. And in their judgement, that makes me a pretty ideal candidate for representing their interests while whatever is going on here shakes out.”
I felt my paranoia start to twitch at that declaration. I totally understood the ‘not wanting to get into something unknown’ bit. But I couldn’t help wondering what her Family’s interests were, and if they were going to end up somewhere along the lines of ‘kill Abby’ like the interests of every other elder vampire I’d met. Shit shit shit, my brain chanted. I can’t tell her anything without potentially leaving myself vulnerable. Except that Ben already knew about the fact that my first blood had been faerie blood. And so did Daniel. And Hans, for that matter, though he hadn’t realized what that meant. But the fact that I had above normal powers couldn’t remain a secret because I’d already done the impossible too many times. And I was pretty sure if I couldn’t explain it I would be deemed a threat forever.
On the other hand, that might happen because I explained it, too.
“But secondly,” Valerie continued — oblivious to my internal conflict, “because I did feed on your dad and he does care about you. A lot.” She shrugged. “I don’t think that’s the sort of thing I have to keep confidential, because as far as he’s concerned it’s self-evident. But what you might be too new to being a vampire to realize is: by extension I have a bit of that going on now, too.”
I stared at her. I did sort of know how that worked. I knew how strong those feelings were in the moment of feeding, but I’d gotten really good at identifying someone else’s emotions and walling them off until they could be fed through my curse and crunched down into an unidentifiable mass. I fidgeted slightly. I remembered wondering if holding onto those pieces of soul meant that they would affect me until my curse consumed them — until they subsumed into myself. I thought… hadn’t Hans told me it didn’t work that way? But what would Hans know, for certain? He wasn’t a vampire and a lot of things ‘didn’t work that way’ for him because his aura was — when it was healthy — more potent than most vampires’ curses were adapted for.
But then again, hadn’t I tapped into his wolf’s aggression, sometimes? Or had I just been pulling up the memory of it, and forcing myself to pretend that’s how I felt in the moment? Or was I just using my memory of it to find a part of myself that reacted similarly and then pump that part full of essence? I had a level of fine control over my aura that I was realizing was not normal for a vampire. How much did that change things for me?
I didn’t know. I didn’t know how much of what I was going through would be different from what was ‘normal’ because I didn’t even know what normal was. And realizing that made me also realize just how off the deep end my life had become. I’d been floundering constantly, and while I’d made the occasional attempt at owning it and making my way to the surface, I’d never really stopped drowning in everything that was going on around me — and with me.
“I’ve been trying really hard not to fall apart,” I said. It was something I said on autopilot, but I didn’t resist the urge like I normally would — or like my paranoia was screaming at me to. My voice was quiet and soft, but I knew Valerie’s vampire hearing would have no trouble with it. I let myself continue.
My paranoia tried to scream at me to stop, to make something up; to keep something in reserve in case Valerie decided to come after me. I decided I need lessons in being a witch, and lessons in being a faerie — but I really need lessons in being a vampire, first. And I can’t ask Ben, because then it would all come back to sharing our blood and blissing out and I wouldn’t get anything done.
Ben’s going to fuck you regardless, my paranoia countered. But, since that was sort of the point I’d been aiming for, I managed to disregard the sour grapes.
“Like, constantly,” I told Valerie. “I’m constantly in shit over my head with no idea what’s going on unless I can put it together myself. I don’t have anyone to explain any of this ‘being a vampire’ stuff, and the one who was supposed to try decided to scapegoat and murder me, instead. But I think I’ve been doing pretty good. I mean, so I was killed. A few times. It could be worse. Most people don’t survive being killed once, so what do I have to be getting all upset and crybaby about?” I took a deep breath and let it out. “And so I make myself hold it together, and I deal with the shit in front of me. But then something happens that’s just a little too much, and I just go to pieces. Like… Well, you saw. And if I try to tell myself not to be so emo about it, my self is just all like: what the fuck, me? Don’t be emo? You’re so emo you’re dead, so just suck it up and bawl, bitch.”
I looked up at Valerie. I almost felt like I was going to start crying again. “And the really stupid thing is that I’m usually not freaking out about what’s in front of me. I mean: Benjamin was fine. A perfect gentleman, even. And okay, I was being a little forward.” You were being a sluuuuuuut, my brain helpfully reminded me. And loving it. “But I was doing okay with that, too,” I said. “The thing that freaked me out was Lewellan, and Archarel, and Bonbon.”
Valerie sat patiently, not even asking me who the heck Bonbon was. That made me feel awkward, like I owed her more of an explanation than that. It also reinforced that when she’d said she wanted to know what had happened in my own words, she’d meant it. No leading questions. If I was going to be a confusing and neurotic mess, then that was on me and only me… and she’d know it. Even though she didn’t look like she was being judgmental, my paranoia was revving up: This is a trap, it told me. She’s leaving you to flounder on your own so she can see what you’re really like, and she’s going to find out what a freak you are because you can’t even explain yourself with sensible words.
“And it wasn’t even really them,” I babbled. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t even want to think about it. “It’s just… It’s…” I clenched my fists as though I could squeeze the words out of the air. When that didn’t work I forced my fingers to uncurl. My entire body seemed to sag, and I let myself slide down the wall until I was sitting on the ground with my knees up in front of me.
“It was horrible,” I managed to say. “And it happened while I held time frozen. And… And I…” The tears that had threatened to come earlier started to well up around the corners of my eyes. “Oh god,” I sobbed. “I can’t… I don’t want to talk about… I won’t live through that again,” I sobbed. I still hadn’t explained, but I didn’t know if I could. I felt a moment’s panic at the thought of Valerie timestopping in order to come over and comfort me like Benjamin had tried, but that tension dissolved into unspecified dread when I realized that if she’d been going to do that she’d be next to me already.
“It’s the time thing,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was intelligible through my sobs, but at least I was getting the words out. “I can’t… I can’t let that happen. I can’t do that.” Tortured for eternity. For eternities. Outside of time: how long was my soul being flayed and violated by Lewellan? Drained by Bonbon? Stuffed and burst by Archarel? I looked up at Valerie. It took effort, and it was effort I expended because even though I was desperate to shut down, even though the paranoid part of me realized I was handing her — someone I didn’t even really know — my biggest, most practically exploitable weakness on a fucking platter, I needed someone to know what had happened.
My vision was a blurry mess of tears, but I scrubbed them away. I was capable of crying again. My body was completely restored to before my last bout of terror. But emotionally? I was still exhausted. Not drained, but genuinely emotionally exhausted from my earlier collapse. My limbs trembled physically from the effort, but I made myself get a grip. “The worst things to have ever happened to me,” I whispered, “happened while I was out of sync with someone else’s time. And because of that… because time had no meaning… I don’t even know how long I was being tortured like that. It’s… it is hell. I’m not religious, but I’m not afraid of hell anymore. Because it isn’t an unknown. I know exactly what kind of torture it would offer. That’s what it was.”
I scrubbed my eyes again. My voice was trembling, but mostly under control. I could feel the paranoia and my fear of even remembering what it had been like winding themselves together, building themselves up. So I locked them down. I have to deal with this, I told myself. I tried focusing on them like I did on the emotions of others, emotions I was sublimating still. They didn’t unwind — probably because they were mine and my curse wouldn’t consume them unless it had already gone through my entire buffer from Reid and his trolls. But it did help me look at them without letting them get worse from the attention.
Was it Nietzsche who warned about the dangers of looking into the abyss? I felt like that was what I was doing.
I looked away.
I took a shaky breath and let it out again. “The bottom line is,” I said, “I think you’re right. I should be in therapy. Because all of the worst things to have ever happen to me happened after I died, but I still don’t even know how to deal with all the shit I was dealing with while I was alive, let alone the having died bit, or the being immortal part, or the feeling other people’s emotions and traumas, or the fact that I’ve killed people now, or… or the eternities I spent having my soul ripped apart by psychopaths in the process of killing them before they could kill me.”
I took a breath and steadied my gaze on Valerie. She looked back, the living picture of unliving seriousness and concern. I breathed out shakily. The stuff I was talking about… I was out on a limb. I was only ever this vulnerable with Megan. Or Hans, now. Or Fumiko. People who’d seen me cry and tried to take care of me. God, that number has been skyrocketing. “What happened,” I said, “is that I’ve been doing my best. But I’m out of my depth and have been since before I died. And I need help.”