I needed to tell her. I knew that. When Dove and I had explained to Carmen what had just happened – why she’d just seen a ten-year-old boy gain twenty-seven inches and a decade of general growth – we hadn’t gone into the whole befasting thing. It seemed like more than enough for her to absorb right now without adding ‘also, we need to have a permanent mating ceremony, like death-do-you-part permanent, involving the mingling of our blood. Like soon. Or I’ll die. I mean, I’d never want to rush you into an immediate and rather creepy lifetime commitment. No pressure. But I’ll totes die if you don’t.’
There was still time to figure out how to impart that little gem of information. It was only the first night.
The first night, and I was already sleeping beside her. Beside my Lumi, for the first time in my life. Carmen had accepted everything I’d thrown at her – bizarre appearance shifts, blood-drinking and teleporting and vampire attacks – and not only refrained from checking either of us into the Rubber Room Hotel, but actually allowed me to stay at her side and sleep at her side, as if none of it bothered her at all. She was more freaked out than she let on; I knew that better than anyone, could feel it like a shadow (hah) behind my own emotions. But she chose not to let on.
Maybe one day I could explain to her why that meant so much. Maybe one day I could tell her about the woman who chose to die rather than deal with the horrifying mess of having a Shadow like me.
Also, it might rain diamonds and maple syrup.
Carmen shifted in her sleep and backed further into my arms, deep relaxation and contentment trickling across our link, and I dared to tighten my grip a little. This was what other Shadows had told me about, what they lived for – this feeling, everywhere our skin touched, that everything was good and right and perfect. I had never had the chance to feel it before, thought I never would. Thought I would be the world’s dinkiest sourpuss, bitter and alone, until the day I died. And instead I had Carmen.
And Carmen was beautiful, so beautiful, but so much more importantly, she was this—this firework personality, all heat and explosions and glittering noise. She was dance moves and loud laughter, a soft heart behind iron armor and a set jaw that would take no crap from anyone, least of all me. She was glorious. And she was mine, if I could persuade her to keep me.
What would it even be like, to live like a real Shadow, cared for and fed and not desperately miserable? I was halfway there now, as close as I could be without befasting, and it could be enough for me, it really could. Not that it would work that way – if we didn’t befast I would breach again…
I tried to shift a leg and nearly kicked Carmen awake. I kept forgetting I was a stork-creature now, wobbling through the world on unaccustomed stilts. I really hadn’t expected that to happen. Not that I’d expected to re-covant at all, but even so, Damon’s appearance hadn’t changed… I wasn’t sure whether the new body was a result of what Carmen wanted or what I wanted, but it seemed to please us both about equally, judging by the way Carmen couldn’t keep her eyes off it.
Understandable, I thought with a grin, since I couldn’t either. I was one tall drink of water and loving every minute of it. Even if mirrors were a bit of a surreal experience just now. And I kept bumping my head on light fixtures.
Electric guitar sounded from the nightstand behind me, and I twitched, expecting either the noise or the motion to wake Carmen – but she snored on, her slumber not even dented. I reached around behind me and picked up the phone to stop the noise, realizing only a beat later that I didn’t actually have any kind of right or permission to answer Carmen’s phone, Lumi or not.
“Hey, sorry, did I wake you? I just realized what time it is,” came a voice through the phone.
“Oh good, it’s just you,” I said, easing out of the bed. No longer touching Carmen, which caused an unexpected pang. Wow, this Lumi-skin was good stuff.
Aaaand that was a seriously creepy thought to have.
“Always the elegant compliment from you,” Naomi was saying dryly as I slipped out of the bedroom. “You’re lucky I recognize your voice. It sounded deeper in person, but weirdly enough, on the phone you sound exactly the same as you used to.”
“You take that back,” I growled, dropping my voice about three octaves. She laughed, and I had to at least smile back, because Naomi was a ridiculous sparklebug with an infectious snicker. “Anyway, Carmen’s asleep, did you need me to wake her up?”
“No, no, you’ll do. I was just wondering how you two are getting on. Whether you needed, I don’t know… I don’t know. It’s just this is really unexpected for both of you, so I thought I’d check in.”
My bare feet were cold against the linoleum as I stepped into the kitchen, opening cabinets at random. Bowls, plates, disposable plastic containers. A saucepan with a layer of dust on it. “You were worried about me? How sweet.”
She snorted. “Worried about Carmen. You can look after yourself.”
“So true.” Ah, food at last. Potato chips, Honey-O’s, and a can of Red Bull. I opened the chips, bag rustling.
“Have you talked about befasting yet?”
Smart comebacks, for once, all died on my tongue. “I… no, not yet. I mean, there’s time. And I don’t want to… Like you said, this is all very new. I don’t want to… you know.” I don’t want to scare her away.
I hadn’t realized how true that was until this instant. Hadn’t realized how deeply, utterly terrified I was that she would reject me. Again.
Not ‘again,’ not from her, she didn’t reject you, I reminded myself fiercely. The past is another country, don’t ever go back.
“You too seemed pretty cozy at the hospital,” Naomi said cautiously. “A whole lot faster than me and Damon.”
“Yeah. Well, we, uh… I don’t know if you even know that sometimes pairs develop an empathic link? Sometimes it happens gradually over time. Other times it’s just there from the start. We’re the latter.”
“Empathic… like you feel each other’s emotions?”
“Yeah. You can tell what’s yours and what isn’t,” that seemed worth clarifying, considering Jonathan’s situation, “but it’s been helpful. Proof positive that I’m not lying to her or crazy. She can feel it for herself. And it’s helped us feel… natural together.” That seemed a paltry way to phrase the bone-deep, inescapable intimacy that came with the link, that made it almost as scary as it was wonderful. To go from Forever Alone poster-boy to this in the blink of an eye… Well, it gave me some idea why Damon had been so reluctant to keep Naomi. I still thought he was a blithering idiot, but then, I generally did.
The potato chips were stale, and any trace of Carmen’s DNA had long since faded from them. I made a face and put them back in the cabinet.
“I’m jealous,” Naomi said. “That might have sped things along considerably with me and Damon. That’s got to be a great sign, though, right? About the two of you being a good match?”
“It’s more about compatible brain chemistry than personality. Has little to do, really, with the strength of the match. So you and Damon are going to be fine without it.” I made my voice deliberately condescending, so that she’d roll her eyes at me and stop worrying. Which she did. Because I am that good. And because she’s pretty easy to manipulate, bless her goofy little heart.
“So you have this great empathy link,” she said, “and she’s okay with everything so far, but you still haven’t told her about befasting.”
I grimaced and didn’t answer.
“Is there… something wrong? Do you feel like you two are not gonna work out? Like it might be better if you breached now, when it’s less likely to—”
“No!” The very idea of breach set my heart to pounding. My breach had been almost thirty years ago, but I remembered the pain. You don’t forget the way it feels to have every cell of your body try to tear itself to shreds. And worse than that, the empty hole, the gaping bleeding absence, the center of your world imploding. Leaving you behind. “No, I don’t want to breach. I just… want to proceed cautiously, you know? Try not to run her over with the Give-Me-Your-Bloodmobile.”
“Paris,” Naomi said. “She’s not Deborah. She’s not going to—”
“Don’t,” I snarled, surprised to find my teeth popping, “say it. Don’t even talk about her.”
Naomi was quiet for a long minute, and I felt a little like I’d kicked a puppy. I sat down on the couch, rubbing my face wearily.
“Well, you do have a few days still,” Naomi said after a minute. “Just don’t wait too long. And don’t underestimate Carmen, she’s a tough cookie.”
“Yeah,” I managed. “Goodnight, Naomi.” I hung up the phone.
I tried to stay on the couch until I felt more calm, but soon realized I was only getting worse. There was a door between me and my Lumi, and I wasn’t going to calm down as long as that was the case. So, moving as silently as I could, I crept back into bed.
Still asleep, Carmen rolled over and burrowed into my arms, draping an arm and leg across me with heavy, possessive finality. I blinked back tears, tension draining from every muscle in my body, and brushed a kiss against her forehead.
I can’t lose you. I can’t. I fought to keep my distress from leaking through to her, made an effort to even out my breathing until the tiny frown between her eyebrows smoothed away.
I was being an idiot. Carmen wasn’t Deborah, and this time I was no horrifying subconscious perversion dragged into the light of day. There were burdens involved – my care and keeping, as the saying went – and commitment that she might not be ready for. But I had things to offer in exchange. I had nothing, and was nothing, to be ashamed of.
I knew that. And here, like this, with my Lumi warm and trusting in my arms, I could almost believe it. Close enough to fake it, maybe. Close enough to try.
When Carmen’s alarm clock went off, she gave a loud, devastated, sobbing wail that nearly made me slosh hot beverage all over myself, and dove beneath her pillow, muttering what sounded like Spanish curse words.
I cleared my throat and sat down on the bed. “Coffee for the prima donna?”
One eye glared from under the pillow, pinning first me, then the steaming mug, with a black gaze. “Coffee?”
“Coffee.” I waved it tantalizingly.
Groaning, she slithered into a mostly-upright position and reached for it. “If it’s good coffee,” she said, “you get to live.”
I love you, I thought, and didn’t bother disguising my amusement.
I sipped from my own mug (no one does Italian roast quite like the Italians) and watched as my Lumi slowly achieved sentience.
“Okay,” she said when the mug was empty. “That was the best coffee I’ve ever tasted in my life. I am keeping you.”
“Good,” I said, feeling my smile go crooked. I wasn’t going to get a better segue than that. “Then I should tell you about befasting.”