Polly has learnt to be afraid. As a child, she was fearless, fearless when she should have been afraid, and it is only now, as an adult (almost-adult) she realises just how much she had to fear. At college the girls carry whistles and mace in their tiny handbags; they are warned not to accept drinks from strangers or walk home alone, and she realises just how much there is to fear in the world.
Her first year at college she is quiet, reserved, taking as many classes as she can, languages and literature and philosophy and history, and she thinks of Max and hopes she would be proud. She thinks of her grandparents and she knows they are proud. She thinks of her parents, or at least she tries to, but it hurts. It hurts that they are brilliant, that her father puts his research ahead of his children's safety, that sometimes when she closes her eyes she can still feel thin arms stretching out towards her.
Her second year she takes a music class and the professor arranges a visit from a concert pianist. Polly expects someone old, someone with crinkles at the corners of their eyes, but Emily Gregory can't be all that much older than she is, and for a moment Polly feels a pang, because she remembers being a child and how everyone thought she would go on and do extraordinary things, and how she has done – well, done many things, but none of the sort she can put down on a resume, nothing tangible and impressive. Emily has done something. Emily is the prodigy who grows up to be a genius, and Polly is the girl who used to be special and now finds herself hopelessly average in a sea of bright students.
She tells herself that's why she kisses her. And really, when it comes down to it, she has no idea about that first kiss and the reasoning behind it except that Emily's hand is in her own and they've been talking and laughing and connecting for three weeks after that visit now, and it's funny because even though Emily can't see her facial expressions and Polly has to keep reminding herself to speak rather than simply gesture, to get everything across verbally rather than visually, Emily still seems to pick up on things. It reminds Polly of how her parents used to be when she was very young, back when it was just her and Charles, and how they always seemed to know how the other was thinking or doing even if they weren't in the same room.
Out of everyone she knows at college, and that's not many because she's still reserved, and not into the party scene like so many of the others, she is the only one whose parents are still together, who can look at her mother and father and know that they are in love. Maybe that's why this connection she has with Emily is something she trusts. It's familiar, and from the days when she was safe, when she really was protected the way she needed to be.
It's only later, after so many kisses, after so many late-night arguments with herself about whether this will work out, that she realises it is that part of her old self that she sees in Emily that makes her so attractive. Emily has never learnt to be afraid, or maybe she's just rejected the whole concept, decided it's not worth her time being fearful and fretful and scared.
When Polly is around her, she is brave again, she is herself again.
Her third year at college she tells Emily that she loves her, because she is not afraid to love anyone anymore, even though she knows the risks all too well, and Emily already knows, but she smiles anyway, and Polly can feel some of the scars on her soul fade away.