It was not the day I would have picked for a Beautiful Lifetime Event. It was a random Tuesday in summer, colder than seasonal, and raining buckets. I had a head cold. I had failed to go grocery shopping over the weekend, and had neither orange juice nor cough medicine. My temper was foul.
I stomped into the office at 7:55, shed various bits of plastic and nylon, plugged in my tea kettle, swatted at my answering machine, and tried, in vain, to blow my nose. The cold wasn't serious enough to justify absence from work, but I was working on a theory that someone had snuck into my apartment during the night and rammed my sinuses full of gummy worms.
There was a message from Manning Gordon waiting on the machine. His little orphaned heiress was in Seattle with her guardian; they planned to drop by around eight that evening. If I wouldn't mind staying late. I gave a sad little snot-impeded snort at his idea of "late" for an attorney, and squashed resentment. I didn't like entertaining clients after dinner; that was me time, quiet time: Greek takeout and hitting the books, proverbial yellow pad and Flowcharts of Doom time...even if I did find Manning Gordon strangely hot, for a guy who had to be pushing fifty, and was plenty curious to meet the Matthews girl. I hit "reply" and left a message in my turn: Sure, by all means, come on by, ring when you arrive, if the receptionist's already gone.
I spent the day sulking and wasting Kleenex. Kel, the receptionist, brought me lemon ginger cough drops, and Martin, as a joke, brought me disposable face masks. No docket, thank St. Kate, but plenty of paper-shuffling to keep me occupied.
Eight eventually rolled around, and in they walked, on the dot. Did I really say Beautiful Lifetime Event, a minute ago? What a rotten narrator. Jerking you around. It's really not what she was.
The hardest thing to remember is how her eyes leapt, the first time she ever saw me. I scarcely marked it at the time. One of those moments that reveals its weight and meaning only in retrospect.
Gordon called me on his cell; I came to meet them in the lobby. They were three: two tall, beautiful men, colored yin and yang on either side of a prepubescent girl in a yellow dress. She carried herself like—my simile's trying to pull in two: Mum would've said, "Like a little lady with a jug o' water on her head." Daddy would have said, "Like a queen." Same image anyway, from a certain angle. What's a queen if not a lady balancing the mother of all big-ass, tippy jugs?
I looked at the little queen, with her straight spine and bright dress, and happy, interested gaze. Held out my hand to her before I even addressed the grown-ups, because I had ample experience, myself, with being a kid looking up at adults shaking hands over my head. Said: "Jen Christopher. I'm pleased to meet you, Shori."
She beamed at me and took my hand in a firm grip. "Likewise."
Gordon said, "It's good to see you again, Ms. Christopher." The other man extended his hand and named himself Joel Harrison. He looked nearly as bright-eyed as Shori. I offered them coffee, which Joel accepted and the other two declined. We went back to my office.
I shut the door, smiled, and gestured at the chairs. Gordon spoke. His voice was gentle and precise. He said the name on my business card, which he had certainly never heard me use out loud. "Jendayi. You remember everything we discussed last time we met."
I remembered. Swiftly as wiping fog from a glass, the memories came back: the visit, Manning and his stern, quiet brother Wayne, the bite, the astonishing bite. I'd been ushering Shori into a chair; my hand snapped back without my say-so. Out of reach of the vampire. I was a confusion of impulses, woozy as my brain scrambled to reorganize. The elegant forty-something standing by the door was suddenly a Methuselah; the girl matured; the young man became—what? Unkind words slithered through my mind. I felt surprise that they could stir, but Gordon's influence over me seemed only to extend to my memory. I know now: that was his choice.
It was Joel who brought us back to business. He said, "Sorry about the, ah, security measures," with a rueful, disarming smile. He didn't try to justify at all, just handed me his untouched coffee—I gulped and scalded my tongue—and helped me into my chair. And we got on with it.
Joel was, as it turned out, Shori's guardian after all, but only of her legal affairs, and status among humans. I handed them power of attorney papers. We spent the next hour working our way through Shori's mothers' files. Shori asked questions, absorbing answers easily. Joel paid close attention, but let her lead the conversation. Finally, I set the last folder down.
They took their leave. Gordon said, "I won't be back. Shori and Joel can take over from here." He nodded at Shori, and she returned the nod as if there were more meanings than the obvious in his words. We all shook hands.
"I'll see you again soon, Jendayi," Shori said, copying her elder, never mind that I had introduced myself as Jen. She was smiling that wide, sunny smile again, and her thumb lingered on my wrist. It was a sweet, knowing touch. I liked it.
I was home by ten. I shook out my umbrella and dumped it in the shower, then changed my mind and dumped me in the shower. Scrubbed thoroughly, got out, put on a pair of boxers and a camisole—and sat. In the living room, with a Heinlein paperback and a mostly-ignored mug of tea.
The buzzer rang—finally, finally—at eleven-thirty. God's witness, I didn't even know I'd been listening for it, but there I was still sitting on the couch, teetering on the edge of sleep, subconscious never quite letting me tip over. As soon as I heard it, I shot up and ran to the intercom in the hall, absurdly, irrationally scared she'd give up and leave in the six seconds it took me to respond. I couldn't even wait for her to climb the stairs. I ran down the hall to meet her in my bare feet, my shorts and tank, not even a robe. We met in the stairwell. She was wearing the same yellow dress. She saw me and laughed with joy, and then we crashed together right on the stairs; I lifted her and staggered back against the banister while she hugged me fiercely and pulled down the strap of my camisole and sank her teeth into my neck, just like that. I remembered Manning's bite. That's a lie: I remembered Manning's bite later. It had been surprisingly delicate, a pinprick, practiced and practical. This was screaming, klaxoning pain, and then, like a breaking wave, euphoria. My back arched against the stair rail, my hips bucked, my hands pressed flat to her shoulder blades, forcing as much contact as possible. She whined through her nose. I could do nothing but breathe.
The rhythm of her sucking, the pull and ease, was wildly sexual. I hadn't had sex with anyone for a long time. Her small body felt safer, sweeter, more like home than any partner I had ever had. I've slept with women and men, but I've never once looked at children. What we looked like together, all its damning taboo, never even crossed my mind.
At last she drew back. She licked softly, carefully at the wound and slid down my body to the stair. Curled her hand into mine.
"Come in," I told her helplessly, and turned and led her up the stairs.
Inside, Shori took in the details of the small apartment at a glance, and made herself master of it. "Sit," she instructed, indicating the couch. She went to the kitchen without being pointed, found a tall glass, and, failing to find anything better, filled it with water. Handed it to me and watched affectionately while I drank it down.
Then she sat beside me, not pressed up close, but near, and took my hand. "Now I must tell you everything."
I'll give her this: she started at the beginning. I knew some part of it, what Manning had sketched out when he brought me under his influence, but I let her explain her side of everything. The awakening, her amnesia, her flight from mysterious killers, the desperate, bravura way she bound together the beginnings of her new family. The trial. Friends made, and a lover lost, too soon. Her plans. She explained frankly that I, too, was a hasty choice: her family needed to grow.
She explained that she and her symbionts—Joel and three more—meant to stay in Seattle for another few days, to complete her business here. Then they would go to Oregon, to live with another Ina family for a year, maybe two. At that point, I would have to make a choice: stay with her or be released.
I said, "I want to meet the others." I circled her wrist with my hand and said, "Can we go right now?"
She laughed at me and touched her bite. "You need sleep. Come in the morning." She told me her address. I was petrified I'd forget it, but she laughed again and told me I wouldn't. I let her coax me into bed. I didn't even think to see her out, or give her a key so she could lock the door, until she popped my window latch, and made like Peter Pan.
In the morning, my cold was history.
I called the office. I thought about going in, but there was nothing to do or say that I couldn't accomplish over the phone. Nobody I needed to hug goodbye. I told Kel I had a family matter, pretended not to hear the questions in her voice. I said it might take a few weeks to resolve.
"What about Mr. Dunleavey's case?"
"Give it to Martin; he owes me one. Hell, he owes me ten." I hurried the call to its close; I didn't want to be bothered with that stuff right now. I felt giddy and, distantly, a little wild-eyed at myself. I was acting out of character, as far as anyone in this city knew.
Then I put the phone down and thought, "Who else should I call?"
My apartment had no pictures of people, at least not on the walls or propped on counters. I had nothing but the fingers of one hand on which to count off my loved ones. Mum: dead. Daddy: dead. My brother: dead and damn him. Luke: presumed alive; we hadn't spoken in three years. Shawn: longer.
I tried to imagine explaining to my ex-husband, over the phone, what I was about to do, and smothered a hysterical cackle. Luke was a planner, steady and comforting, in his way, as a train schedule. And Shawn, brilliant, fucked-up Shawn—oh, she might understand very well, but she was even more out of reach than Luke.
I knocked firmly on the door of Shori's apartment, disguising my nerves. A big, handsomely unshaven white guy answered. I thought I had the wrong door until he blinked at me and said, "Hullo. You Shori's big crush?"
Startled, I guffawed at him. "I'm Jen. Ah, I guess so?"
He grinned back. "C'mon in."
Expensive digs; a loft. A woman with coloring almost exactly like mine slouched on a suede sofa, frowning at a laptop. She perked upright when she saw me. "Okay, not to be totally shallow," she said, clattering out a couple more sentences and shutting the computer, "but I can get behind Shori's taste." She rose and held out her hand. "I'm Celia."
"Jen," I repeated, pleased. Would it be this easy? "Is Shori here?"
Then the question was answered when Shori emerged from behind a door, blinking like she'd been asleep. She smiled and said, "Jendayi, I'm glad you came."
Besides Joel, who was out inspecting property, there was one more symbiont: a woman named Brook who rounded the corner from the kitchen to greet me and offer breakfast.
It was an odd meal, kept from feeling like an audition by the women's deft, cheerful banter. Halfway through, Joel returned, and announced Shori's affairs well in hand. I was not good at small talk, and there were things I wanted to ask that felt strange to blurt out at a breakfast table with all five of the little family. I wanted to ask Celia out to lunch, but even more, I wanted a taste of their weird life as it would be outside these obviously temporary quarters. I was coming down from last night's high, beginning to realize just how headlong I was being. I had a suitcase already stowed in my car.
I asked Shori, "Can I come with you to the Ina house in Oregon, without deciding for sure that I'm going to stay? I'd like to meet other Ina."
Shori dimpled. "Be reasonable, why don't you? Of course. I'm sure Joan won't mind."
So I went to Oregon. I rode with Wright and Celia, and made the most of it.
"They've got competing theories, same as humans do," said Celia. "My favorite is that they're actually aliens." Wright snorted. "Really! How else do you explain their fantastically poor design? They're comatose in daylight! Defenseless! Why in hell would anything evolve that way? Only way I can figure it is if they evolved on a planet where all life goes to ground during the day, or else, I don't know, dies of radiation poisoning or something.
"And their history." Celia turned to me, apparently enjoying getting to explain and argue in the same breath. "The Ina avoided extinction by a hair. I think they weren't designed for human symbionts. I think they had to leave their original symbionts behind."
"In a galaxy far, far away?" Wright asked.
"Then why do they look so much like us?"
Celia was stymied. "I didn't say I had all my details sorted."
"I guess it's a lot slower, usually," Wright said. "They've got a home base, and family to play matchmaker for them, and they share blood with their mothers for a couple decades. Then they begin to take new symbionts as they need them, as they grow up. Shori's sitch is deeply weird." He'd told me he was her first, after her accident. He'd told me he was accidental, after a fashion. I didn't quite have the guts to ask him more about it, though I thought it must be a story.
The Braithwaite family lived near the Oregon coast, in a big, brick and cedar-shingled complex at the end of a long, wooded, private road, like hermitish movie producers. We arrived at ten PM. There were more buildings than I could see from the approach, but the ones in front were warmly lit and abuzz with people.
Joan Braithwaite herself (Celia recognized her) emerged from the largest house and came down to meet us on the lawn. An enormous, hairy dog, clearly scarcely out of puppyhood, bounced at her heels, all paws and wag. It wanted nothing more than to rush the car, but stayed neatly to heel, only permitting itself the odd vertical bounce, or spin in place.
Shori climbed out of the car next to ours and went eagerly to meet her friend. They didn't embrace, but the puppy got a pat and a scratch. Shori gestured, and Joan's gaze found out mine. I hauled my bag from the trunk and went to meet them.
"Welcome, Jendayi." Her voice was deep and clear, like someone who might have spoken for a living, at one time. "I'm Joan Braithwaite. Ask whatever questions you have."
I lay on the floor in the room Celia had claimed and stared up at a four foot balsa and tissue paper replica of the Wright brothers' plane, suspended in the well of the ceiling. I was quizzing Celia again, this time about symbiont relations. I liked talking to her. Joel was hanging out, too, scoping titles in the guestroom's bookcase.
"But what if you meet the love of your life? Can they join the family in a, a satellite kind of way? Do they have to take an, I dunno, Bite of Silence or something?" In the car, Wright and Celia had explained about Ina and secrecy. It made me wonder what percentage of the world's population had bumped into a set of fangs in their life and either didn't know it or couldn't speak. "What if they want to move to Australia?"
Celia huffed. "Bite of silence, that's about right. And yeah, once you're in, you're stuck, but...I really can't imagine wanting to leave my Ina, for anyone." Her eyes flicked to Joel, who was nodding agreement. "But," she went on, "well, there are certainly family units, but I think there's probably a high percentage of symbionts who just aren't cut out for romance. Aromantic, asexual, whatever you call it."
"Vampsexual," Joel put in.
Celia added hastily, "Not that that's me. I'm, uh, romantic, m'self."
Joel raised an eyebrow and grinned. "Still takes a certain kind of personality, would you say? Poly-amenable. And the venom does the rest. Binds the family unit, makes us smell good to each other."
"One fang to bring us all, and in the darkness bind us," Celia intoned.
I spent the next few days basically having a vacation. The constant, varied activity of the Braithwaite community was wonderful, and almost everyone I met was good-humored when I told them who I was and asked if I could sit with them a while. I wasn't going around quizzing everybody on Ina lifestyles. In many ways, the place resembled an artists' commune. Like most Ina families, the Braithwaites themselves held a range of jobs, but the dominant themes seemed to be artist and computer geek. I gathered they made a lot of money in the tech sector, taking contract work from the Coast Guard and the U.S. Geological Survey. The choice locations on the property, however, were meted out to glass-blowing studios, dye houses, pottery kilns. One building was a sophisticated welding workshop; another housed the biggest, most complicated single-weaver loom I'd ever seen outside a museum. I wanted badly to see it in use, but its owner was off at a conference somewhere. I spent hours watching the glass-blowers. They made long, clean-lined pitchers and vases in delicate, blushing hues. "Timeless," I thought. The artisans were human, but maybe something had rubbed off.
Shori located me in one of the gardens, wandering among rows of lavender. The rest of her family was swamped by the happy business of settling in—meeting their neighbors, consulting about décor, exploring the grounds. All of their lives had been picked upside down and shaken in the past two months; now they had the manners of people inexpressibly relieved to have found firm ground. Even in the last day, they seemed to have expanded outward, shoulders lowering, knees unlocking, smiles blooming unbidden on their faces. I felt like a strange half-guest, half...interview candidate, awkwardly separate from their homemaking, treated with just a shade too much deference.
There was a grey wooden bench at the edge of the herb plots, shaded by a mulberry. Shori sat, then swiveled and lay down on its smooth-worn planks. She took my hand as I drew up next to her, and said, "It smells so lovely out here." And then, "You smell lovely."
She lifted my hand to her lips. "May I?" My blood surged.
She kissed the skin of my wrist before biting down. It didn't hurt like the neck bite on my stairwell at home. It was pure sweetness. I sank boneless to the bench, tipping my face back toward the evening sun that was trying to slip through the gaps in the mulberry branches.
I woke up in the small hours of the morning, sweating. My room was pitch black and cool; I extracted a hand from under the covers and shoved them down around my waist. I couldn't tell if the dream had woken me or—ah: a muffled, but unmistakeable cry from the other side of the wall. Brook and Shori were together. Between those sounds and Shori's nibble on my wrist that afternoon, no wonder I had woken from a dream of Shawn.
No deep, meaningful allegories for me: my subconscious had fed me pure porn. Sweat and friction, my body leaning over hers, dreadlocks brushing sunburnt skin (I'd worn them long, at school), getting off, getting high, on what I could do to her, how far we could push each other.
Awake, my mind could fill in all the ambiguities just fine. We'd done each other good, and harm. Shawn, my old college and post-grad partner in crime, was brilliant and needy; I was idealistic, but too hard to stir. We were babies with big plans, and we tied them together and then didn't know how to untangle our separate burnouts and failures. Crashed, fled in opposite directions, to whatever stabilities we could light on.
I could joke that I'd put myself in a rut just to lose momentum. But the plans we had, the wine-fueled brainstorms, the ideas and the dares, those things were good. I hadn't let myself think of them in a long time. I made myself think of them now.
Another day, another night. The quietude to be found down by the day-blooming gardens was compelling to me, who was used to Seattle's noise, and the run of cloudless nights too fine to miss. I started out on the bench under the mulberry again, but soon moved to flop on the grass, where I had a better view of the sky.
My solitude lasted a whole half hour. Then I heard a swish of skirts. It was Joan. She was carrying a bag under one arm, on some errand between houses. She looked down at me, her face pale, but clearly defined by the moonlight. I wondered what it would have been like if she had found me, this tall, stern woman, instead of bright Shori, child-bodied and brown as a bean. I might not have come this far. Different connotations, for someone who looked like me to be kept by someone who looked like her.
"You are not sure about all this," Joan said.
I stared, and then remembered something Wright had said and replied, avoiding a sigh, "You can smell it on me."
Joan snorted. "Child, I can see it on you." I wondered briefly if Ina eyesight was like a cat's—if Joan's pupils would glow green or yellow if I had a flashlight to point at them.
I said, "I'm already a little addicted, I think."
"Yes," said Joan. "You'll be an addict for the rest of your life, even if you never see one of us again." She tilted her head, an elegant gesture. "Are you frightened of that?"
I shut my eyes, suddenly horribly weary. "My brother died in a Methadone clinic. I'm not frightened. Or ignorant."
I knew other addicts, I didn't say, who lived, and lived clean. I thought of Shawn, breaking the world down into right action and right intention, last I heard, in her Zen monastery in the Catskills.
"You won't know what's eating you," said Joan. I knew she wasn't trying to convince me to stay; she was merely presenting me with facts. I liked her for it.
"Well," I said, "how many of us really know that anyway?"
I thought the actual words would be hard to say, harder than breaking up with Shawn, or leaving Luke, harder than anything I ever said out loud to my brother. I found Shori just before sunrise, curled on a window seat in the breakfast room of what people were already referring to as "Shori's house", reading a little brown history book. And in the end, they were so easy to blurt out. I looked at her, little master, and said, "No. I am sorry."
She looked at me in total incomprehension.
She swung her legs to the ground, and peered into my face. And then: "No! You—I—" I stood my ground and nodded. She said, her voice climbing in shock, "You have to stay!"
She sounded bewildered, and angry, and more like an ordinary eleven-year-old girl than I ever thought to see. I'd never been afraid of her. Now I took a step back. She stared up at me, book sliding out of her fingers.
I babbled. "You've been—all been—so kind, and it's so flattering to be asked, to be—wanted like this, no one's ever—but. I can't."
She stood up, eyes fixing on my throat.
"Please no," I said. We were in a public part of the house, but I didn't think anyone was listening in.
Shori's face crumpled. "I won't. How can you even think I would?" She seemed to realize it was her standing up that I had interpreted as a threat, and collapsed back onto the bench with a moan.
"You are going back to Seattle? When?"
I blinked, unbalanced by the shift. She looked like she didn't even know what she was saying. "Today, I suppose. I can take a taxi to the nearest Greyhound."
Shori nodded. The corners of her mouth were pulled down forcibly in a frown, and her chin was puckered. Distress, but certainly no tears.
"Will you...will you tell me why you cannot choose me?"
I opened my mouth and—didn't know the answer. The answer was a mess, a helpless tangle of sound reasoning and complete nonsense, sound-bite morality and shabby insults. Because of the bagel shop on 45th St. Eleftheria i thanatos. Because if I let you turn my life upside-down, I'll never know if I could have turned my own life upside-down. Or right side-up. Because there's somebody I think I left behind too soon. Because what you practice is a very pretty slavery.
I wore myself out before I even drew breath. I boiled it down to the fundamental. It came out in something like a croak, but I figured it was an important word to be able to say, even when I couldn't say it pretty. "Freedom."
She bowed her head.
"I will have to bite you one more time, before you get in the taxi. I will make it as quick as I can."
Ah, the obliviation. Suddenly, that part made me mad. I looked down at her little form, into her childish face. Said, with careful calmness, "And what if I say, 'I don't want that'?"
Shori's gaze snapped back up. "Jendayi. I must protect my people. That comes before all." I'd upset her, though. She said, "I am sorry. I should have explained that before I ever let you come with us. That was irresponsible of me. Unfair. But I can't change it."
I said, more gently than I meant to, "I think it never crossed your mind that you might need to."
"No. I did not expect this at all. To be rejected."
I wanted to say, I'm not rejecting you! Instead, I said, "The Gordon brothers that I met bite people casually, all the time, to make them follow instructions, or cut them deals, or give them preference. They bite, and make them forget again, like turning lights on and off in a room. They don't even think about it. Do they ever follow up on their cast-offs? Have any of them ever gone mad, or anxious, or even just stopped trusting themselves, because something about their memories doesn't quite line up?"
I said, "I did not sign up for this. I liked what you did to me, and I came here of my own will, to see if it was something I could keep. And I believe, I do, you are moral—good and gentle to your symbionts, and as careful as you can be off their liberty. I understand, too, that revealing the Ina to the world might destroy you. I don't have an easy answer for anything, and I can't make choices for anyone but me. But I don't want to forget. And I don't want my tongue cut out. You don't know, Shori: someday it might matter."
Shori's hands clenched and unclenched. "Jendayi—!"
But I was lawyered out, and afraid of what would happen, what I might say if she pled with me. I looked at her straight on and said, "To take away my memory is to do me violence."
She made a choked sound.
I went to telephone a cab.
Collecting my belongings was no more than a moment's work, but after that I sat on the end of my bed with my head in my hands, wondering how to say goodbye to the rest of Shori's family. Should I even try? All the usual helpful phrases—I'll miss you, keep in touch, don't be a stranger, call when you get in, so I know you're all right—scrolled mockingly across my brain. I didn't even know what Shori was going to do to me, in the end. I wasn't even sure what I really wanted. I was perfectly aware that I was acting, at least partly, out of pride.
I made myself go and knock on Brook's door. She roused and opened it, wide-eyed when she who I was. "Hi," I said awkwardly.
Even before I spoke them, I hated the way the words were going to sound, but I couldn't think of any forgivable way to hedge. "I came to tell you that I'm leaving."
She gasped. She recovered amazingly quickly, and her eyes narrowed. Not accusingly, just sharp with thought. "I'm very sorry. But I guess not completely shocked. When?"
"Well, um. Now."
"Oh, gosh. Okay. Crap, uh, okay." She was turning as she said it, looking about for robe and slippers.
"I'm really sorry," I said from the doorway, feeling a bit sick. "I like you all, really a lot. It's nothing to do with—"
"Jen, I've been with Ina for a while. It's hard not to take it personally, because"—she located a slipper under her bed—"I love Shori, and I want everyone to love her, of course, but—it's just not for everyone. I can't take it personally." She joined me in the hallway. "That's a pretty pitiful little platitude to sum up such a huge choice, but hell. What can you say?"
"I'm just going to go with 'thanks'."
She smiled at me, a little forcedly, but her voice was kind. "I'll wake up the guys."
Celia's door was harder. When I told her, she looked me up and down, eyes narrowed in a way that was completely different from Brook's, and said clearly, albeit in a voice still frogged with sleep, "Shit." And shut the door in my face.
Brook came down the hall, trailed by Joel and Wright, who had shoved themselves into jeans and sweatshirts. She put her arm around my shoulders and steered me toward the stairs. Celia emerged, also dressed.
"You're really leaving right this instant, Jen?" Joel complained. "Shouldn't we have a last drink, or something?"
Wright eyeballed him and suggested, "Have a nice protein shake."
"I'm sorry!" I all but wailed. "I need to go!" I felt wretched and guilty, and resentful that I felt that way. Brook hugged me harder.
We all stood together on the porch of the main house, waiting for the cab. Shori emerged. I saw all four of her symbionts reach or shift to be closer to her. She smiled at them, but came to stand by me. I felt her support. The honorable vampire. If I'd chosen her, she would never have mistreated me.
The cab arrived. There was a flurry of hugs. Brook took me by the shoulders and told me to be good to myself. Wright and Joel both shook my hand. Celia dug her fingers into my back, and refused to look me in the eye.
Shori walked down the long drive with me while the rest of them stayed back. She reached up and put one hand on my neck, and said, "I have to do this. To separate us. I beg you to allow it."
I let her. She bit delicately, her face buried against the join of my neck and shoulder. To the cab driver, it would have looked like no more than a tight-pressed, emotional hug. She sipped, and ceased, and cleaned me with lips and a flick of tongue. She whispered her words, still muffled against my neck. It took me a moment to process what they were, and they stopped my breath. There were only two. She told me, "Live well."
I stepped back. Shori met my eyes. Hers were full of fear. I knew mine were, too. I opened my mouth, trying to think of something to say, some—any—reassurance that wouldn't sound completely absurd. "You can trust me, I swear!", "I'll protect your secret forever!", something, anything, any stupid variation of cross my heart and hope to die that, except in the proof, would mean fuck-all. In the end, I couldn't even manage a "Thank you".
I took her face in both hands, and kissed her, briefly, bruisingly, on the lips.
I turned to the cab, which was the same bright yellow as the dress Shori had been wearing when I met her. I shouldered my bag, and my deadly secret, and propelled myself forward, dizzyingly, frightfully, doggedly free.