Interlude 4.0: High Spirits

I stand on the small, flat outcropping of rocks along one of the trails in Lookout Mountain Park, staring out across the sea of buildings, cars and people that comprise the almost living organisms that are Golden, Lakewood, Denver and even Aurora beyond that. It all looks so different during the day. How often do I come up here during the day? It's a rare thing, I know that much.

I shake my head. Maddie and her family will be arriving in the next couple of days. I've had good reason to come up here... the prox sensors have been moved to allow the big cats access to her property without setting them off. I should probably mention it to Davis just in case a random individual happens to see a mountain lion sunning itself on the cabin roof or the bit of land hiding Maddie's bunker. Hmm. I guess there's enough pitch to the roof that the cats wouldn't sit there, at least not for long. And fortunately only nosy hikers who don't belong on her property would see the cats lounging on the porch, in which case they'd deserve the shock.

Speaking of cats...

Naughty Cat... you know you should not be this close to the people when the sun is high in the sky.

I can feel her behind me, her cat curiosity much stronger than usual and rolling from her in waves.

Head Talker should not be on the mountain so much when the sun is high in the sky.

I almost laugh. She's a clever one.

The People of the House That is Empty No More will return after the sun rises one more time, or perhaps two more times. I prepare the mountain for their visit... move the Eyes so you and your sisters can visit the People.

The one who calls herself Mighty Cat pads through the trees and looks down at me. Technically, I've stepped off the approved trails to a rocky ledge that really is too dangerous for most people. Good thing I'm not most people, isn't it?

Why do you stand where only the prey runs? You cannot rub my belly from down there!

I look away from the cities and people I've promised to protect and up at the mountain lion.

Maybe that's why I'm down here. I came up here to escape all the people who want me to do too much. Aren't you supposed to be napping when the sun is so high in the sky?

She flattens herself on the ground and reaches a large paw down in an attempt to reach me. Her claws are sheathed; she looks like she simply wants to... pat my head? Come up here, Head Talker! Mighty Cat worries!

My expression turns from one of mild amusement to one of complete surprise. After these many long seasons that you have known me, you think I am not safe here? Look! The ledge is big enough for both of us! It is a sturdy ledge! What makes the Mighty Cat worry about Head Talker?

Although I'm confused and slightly annoyed by her behavior, it's certainly not enough to seep into my communication with her. But she reacts as though I've scolded her soundly... pulling back her paw, flattening her ears to her head, and attempting to slink backward. Her behavior is uncharacteristic and downright bizarre.

Head Talker! Stop, stop!

I'm beginning to get a little concerned. I don't sense any people or any other animals around, and she's never been one to act afraid like this in any case.

If I come back up there, will Mighty Cat stop acting... strange?

Head Talker holds Mighty Cat here! Stop, Head Talker! Stop!

Okay, now I'm thoroughly confused... and starting to get a little scared. I do no such thing. Mighty Cat Naughty Cat is my friend. My friends may come and go as they please. It is because you are my friend that I have moved the Eyes of the Trees so Mighty Cat and her sisters can visit the People of the House! I shake my head. What the hell is she talking about?

I take another look across the expanse of the Denver metropolitan area... at least the part of it I can see from up here. Then I sigh, and vault back up to the mountain lion's level. She's looking at me as if... well, I think her sister looked less surprised when she saw the fireworks Pablo and I created the night we reforged our Bond. The oddest part, maybe, is that she's not running off. That would be normal. Whenever I do anything that spooks them — any of them — they might stare at me for a minute, but then they're off running at top speed back up the mountain.

I am safe now. Why does Mighty Cat still act like a kitten?

Head Talker says Mighty Cat must stay.

I shake my head. "I say no such thing. Go if you wish," I say softly. "Naughty Cat should not be so close to the Place of Many People, anyway. Perhaps Naughty Cat thinks she is Silly Cat?"

No! Head Talker calls Mighty Cat. Head Talker... talks strange, says stay, stay, stay!

I don't know why, but suddenly I feel on the verge of tears. Oh, fuck it. I do know why. And I'm blaming those two again. I drop down to sit beside my staff, not sure what the hell I'm supposed to do now. She's clearly convinced I called her and am somehow compelling her to stay... but I didn't, and I'm not.

You are saying words I do not understand, my friend. It is what the Bobcats said several sunrises ago... that I called to them. But when have I ever called you or your sisters so close to the Place of Many People? I have never called for you except when I am beyond the Eyes of the Trees.

Mighty Cat feels your call. Mighty Cat hears stay, stay, stay.

I wish someone would explain to me just what the frack is going on here. It's one thing to get small animals to do things for me. But I don't have the ability to control the larger animals! The best I can do is ask them if they'll do this or do that. Hell, even their considerably smaller cousins that roam the streets and alleys of Denver only do what I ask if they're feeling playful. I sprawl out on the ground, my fingers twined together and pillowing my head.

I don't understand. I cannot tell Mighty Cat or her sisters what to do. I cannot tell any of those who live on the Mountains what to do. I turn my head to look at her. Most of the time, I can't even tell prey what to do. So, Mighty Cat is starting to make Head Talker worried.

She looks so pitiful... like I really have put some kind of compulsion on her. She stretches out her big paw again, tentatively tapping the elbow closest to her. It is the same as when Mighty Cat was still Tiny Cat, when Mother would tell Tiny Cat to stay.

"Sweetheart, I'm not your Mother. I would never dare tell you or your sisters — or any who live here — what to do. I do not have that right. You are free... your sisters and brothers and all your kits are free. All the animals who live on the Mountains are free, my friend. I only do my best to protect you from those of my kind who would hurt you."

Aiee! A Spirit One! She looks across my body, definitely panicked. And yet... she won't move away.

What. The. Fuck?

Fox, did you have to do that?

I am trying to help you, Warrior... and her. You do call her and compel her.

I turn my head to look at my guardian Spirit. Oddly, Fox is the only one that's been following me closely enough all day for me to notice its presence.

Wonderful. And by 'wonderful' I mean 'wow, this sucks a lot'. Somebody better tell me how to control whatever I'm doing, because I have no desire to force my friends to do anything against their wills.

Fox looks away, toward the east. Eagle believes it is best for you to learn on your own.

I sit up abruptly and stare at my guardian. Mighty Cat slinks closer and rests her head on my thigh.

"Are you serious? Are we talking about the same Eagle that is the guardian to many Ha'atathli? Eagle... who is the guardian of young men and women spending decades in apprenticeship and as journeymen learning their art and honing their skills?" Absently, I run my hand over the mountain lion's head and neck; it seems to soothe both of us. "You know, I don't think whatever is going on here is something as simple and innocent as learning how to... oh, I don't know... bake cookies.

"Has Eagle lost its fucking mind?"

I wait, hoping Fox will at least explain what's going on. I mean, that would be nice. I don't think it's all related to the Pentad. Or the fact that I'm — fine! I'll admit it! — pregnant. But if it is, I'd really like to know. But Fox only shakes its head slightly.

The mountain lion trembles as my other three guardian Spirits decide to make their collective presence known. I can understand Bear hunkering down behind Fox. But Cobra has draped itself over Bear's broad shoulders instead of wrapping itself around my waist; Opossum almost seems to cower between Fox's feet rather than taking its usual place on my shoulder.

I sure wish I knew what the fuck was going on here.

"Oh, so it's going to be like that, huh?" I look at the four of them, and I'm pretty sure my expression is not a happy one.

"My powers are growing at a rate that's alarming even to me. It's as easy today for me to hold and manipulate an unthinkable amount of qi as it was to hold and manipulate less than a tenth the amount I could even gather six months ago. And Eagle thinks it's something I should learn all on my own? Fox, I could wipe out the whole city of Denver down there," I say, pointing to the metropolitan area spread out below us. "I'm fairly certain Mother would cut me off before I did something stupid. But both Pablo and Rene seemed more than a little worried by the amount of qi I was holding in Colorado Springs... like it was nothing."

Still, none of the Spirits say anything. I look at each of them in turn, but it's almost as if none of them want to meet my eyes. Interesting, isn't is?

"Okay, so if I ask Rene what this is all about, is he going to pretend I haven't said a word about it?"

Finally, Fox — only Fox — looks at me again. I believe he will speak to you, but I am not certain he understands all our concerns. He is still learning himself.

"Still learning what it means to be Spirit? Still learning about the powers he has? Still learning how to use them?"

Fox looks down at Opossum, then up at Bear and Cobra. The lot of them look confused by the questions. They seem pretty straightforward to me.

Yes, Bear admits. Being a Spirit is very different than being a human, and sometimes very much the same. That's what he said. So he is still learning the differences.

"All on his own?"

After a pause that makes me think they're having a frantic conversation among themselves, Fox shakes its head. No.

Well, at least they seem to be getting to the point where they might understand there's a double standard here.

"Uh huh. So Rene gets help learning, but I don't? Why is that?" Fox says nothing, just stares at the ground. The other three are similarly avoiding looking in my general direction. "He's a Spirit now and I'm just a human, so he's more important?"

Fox shakes its head again. No, that is not it! The Spirit looks at me, almost as if it's pleading with me... which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Eagle has instructed us not to speak of it.

"So what? Why do you have to listen to what Eagle says? You and Bear and Opossum and Cobra are my guardian Spirits. Isn't it your job to help me?" I know damn well it is.

Eagle is the Messenger to Great Spirit. We defer to Eagle in such great matters.

"Again... seriously?? I have crazy weird shit going on in my life, and you listen to that old fuddy duddy..." Bear gasps. I don't care. They really should be used to my attitude by now. "...and don't help me like you should? Really?! Heck, I talk to Great Spirit myself. Shall I go home and stab myself in the heart to I can ask her about all this?"

All four of them at least look alarmed by the idea. Not that I'd do any such thing — Maddie would be furious, even if I warned her. And besides, I'm pretty sure the Pentad can figure out a way to chat with Great Spirit without anyone dying.

Perhaps your other guardians and I should reconsider...

"Ya think? Because if I don't think Eagle has a good reason for this nonsense, I'm going to come track it down and Gibbs slap the stupid out of it. And if you guys don't think I have the ability to affect those of you who are pure energy beings, you should maybe go have a nice long chat with Rene.

"So, yeah... maybe you should just go talk among yourselves. Because when Maddie and the rest of the family get out here, we're going to have a little pow-wow. And one way or another we're going to figure out what the hell is going on." I lean down to hug Mighty Naughty Cat before saying anything else to Fox. But when I do, I think it's fairly clear that I'm not happy.

"And if we have to go right to Great Spirit, we're going to do that, you know. I put up with months of useless — no, worse than useless — interference in my life from Raven and that lunatic Quetzalcoatl. I'm not interested in continuing the experience of crazy guardian Spirits, compounded by four. If the four of you aren't going to help me, then find the ones who can and will. It's all well, fine and good for Eagle to say I should learn — well, whatever it is I'm supposed to be learning — all on my own, but that's not how humans learn. Not most of us anyway. I spent six years in China learning to control a fraction of the amount of energy I can control today. I had fine teachers who helped me learn because I needed to learn that control, and I needed someone to show me what it was that I was controlling.

"Right now? I don't know what's going on. I don't know why I'm able to control so much more qi than ever before. I'm doing it all instinctively, and so far that's working out just fine.

"So far."

I look again at the four of them, all the while running my hand over the big cat's head and neck. I can feel her trembling decrease, which is good. I know the Spirits freak her and her sister Strong Cat right the hell out. Sly Cat — or Silly Cat, depending on my mood and hers — doesn't seem to mind.

"I need to know what I'm doing. I need to learn how I'm doing it. Leaving it all on me to learn this stuff on my own? Given how cataclysmically dangerous it is?

"That's just really, really stupid."

I pause, trying to decide if I'm more angry or more frustrated. I think the frustration is winning but only by a nose. And not a horse's nose either.

"You said you don't think Rene understands your concerns. What has you — or Eagle, I suppose — so concerned that you can't even talk to me?"

It is...

Fox is certainly struggling, although with a Spirit it's impossible to tell if it doesn't want to tell me, or if it just doesn't know how. The fact that it looks at the other three Spirits and they all give the impression of shrugging helplessly — well, Bear actually does shrug — makes me thing it's the latter. I grok that there are things I don't understand, that I can't understand because I'm not a being from their dimension that's pure energy. But the energy itself? The essence of what they are? Yeah... that I understand. Hell, I probably understand the energetic makeup of the Spirits better than I understand the biochemical makeup of the beings who inhabit this dimension.

I do not believe I have the language to speak of it.

I sigh, and Mighty Cat looks up at me.

You would feel happier if you rubbed my belly, Head Talker.

I smile at her. Perhaps I would. I look at Fox again. "I'm sure one of your siblings has the gift of communication, and would be able to use words that a simple human such as myself would be able to understand."

Fox looks away again, always to the East... the direction of coming, of leaving... the entrance and exit to proper homes, and to life.

I am not certain Eagle understands, Warrior, Fox says reluctantly. While the First People have had many great Warriors, none has possessed the power you wield. It finally glances back at me, giving the impression with its energy patterns that it's more worried than it probably should be revealing. Is that a subtle hint for me, or has Fox conveniently forgotten just how good I am at reading energy patterns? Even the one whose carrier for your staff you now wear did not have the power you have. You have the potential to be the greatest Warrior and Medicine Chief of all the First People.

"So..." I know my expression is one of confusion and a healthy dose of frustration, too. "Because Eagle has never seen anyone else who's been able to do all the things I can do, it's trying to figure out what I'm all about... without even talking to me. I get it that you understand a person, get a sense of who they are and what they can do, just by observing. But you've already admitted I'm unique in your collective experience. Don't you think it would make sense to sit down together and chat about these things?

"And maybe I could remind all of you that I didn't sign up to be the greatest Warrior and Medicine Chief of all the First People. That's a lot of pressure to put on a person."

I... Fox almost looks like it's in pain. Well, given the amount of weird I seem to attract, I can say I blame it. You make a good point, Warrior. I... we will speak with all the siblings.

And then the lot of them disappear.

Are you sure you can't leave, Naughty Cat? I ask my favorite of the three sisters. I don't know how I'm forcing you to stay.

I could go, she admits. When you became angry at the Spirit Ones, you no longer told Mighty Cat to stay. Now Mighty Cat stays to know your kits. And for belly rubs.

I simply stare at her in surprise. I have only just learned of the kits... how do you know of them?!

She rubs her head affectionately on my arm. There is the newness. It is the kind of newness that means kits. When will we get to meet them?

I can only shake my head. How weird is it that a mountain lion wants to meet my children before my husband even know we're going to have children? Hell, how weird is it that a mountain lion wants to meet my children?

I think they will be born... Yeah, when is my due date? And I suppose I need to find a doctor and... oh. No. Maybe not. Maddie's friend... Amanda? Yes, yes... the Sheriff's wife... she's a midwife. But... oh gods, I won't have to tell her about my Curse, will I? Will it matter? Knowing or not knowing, I mean? Probably not? I know doctors like to do all sorts of blood tests, and I suppose a midwife would too, wouldn't she? I guess that won't be a problem. My Curse is genetic, so there'd have to be some compelling need to do genetic testing. And I can't think of a reason why that would be necessary. So unless things get even weirder... and hell! They probably will! But I should be able to keep from letting on that I'm Cursed, right? If it matters. I should ask Maddie.

...I think after the night of no moon after the longest day. Wait, didn't I read somewhere that twins are nearly always early? I guess I'd better look into that, too. That would be pretty inconvenient, those two showing up early... I need to be up on the mountain above Idaho Springs on the Solstice or the day after to fetch all of Stryker's bones. Gosh, that's going to be fun. I wonder if Van Dorn's bone person could fetch them? No, no... Mother is doing a favor for me. I should fetch them myself. Besides, from what Van Dorn said, his bone person would be more interested in the children.

Oh, yeah... and weren't these annoying Spirits supposed to find out how long that was going to take?

Damn it, my life is getting to the point where even I think the weird is getting to be a bit much!

Will you come to our den to have your kits? Mighty Cat and her sisters would welcome you!

I laugh and rub the big cat's belly. I don't think my Mate would find that acceptable, my friend. I'm not even sure he'd like the idea of having kits in our own den. Humans usually go to hospitals — a special sort of den — which... now that I think about it... is a terrible idea.

She rumbles deep in her chest, partly due to the belly rub, but I think she's... perhaps disappointed? Yeah, a little disappointed that I won't give birth in her den. I'm fairly certain it's far more comfortable for mountain lions than humans... although it might actually more comfortable for my sanity than a hospital. I can't imagine any health care professional in their right mind liking the idea, and sometimes you have to trust the professionals.

Mighty Cat puts up with about five minutes of belly rubbing before she jumps up, head butts my shoulder, and runs off up the mountain toward the Jacobs' cabin. I watch her with a smile on my face. She is right... I do feel happier for rubbing her belly.

I turn back to the cityscape spread out before me and sigh as I tuck my feet in close, wrapping my arms around my legs and resting my chin on my knees. It used to be that I'd have to come up here at night to be able to see the dance of the qi across Mother's surface... now, it's just a matter of refocusing. For a while, I just watch the interplay between Mother and the people who generally take no notice of her. I'm not sure how long I sit here — I've always been fascinated by watching the movement of qi — before I sense someone behind me. Not long enough for the evening rush hour to start, so there's that.

"You really have a talent for getting people, and apparently Spirits, worked up, don't you?"

I shrug and reply without turning. "It's a gift, I guess."

Rene sits down next to me, resting forearms on his raised knees as he looks out over the spread of humanity. "It looked a lot different when we first moved up here."

"Fewer people here, then, too."

"Well, that was part of the appeal."

"Yeah, makes sense." I pause before saying anything else. On the one hand, I'm already worn out from today's weird fest and asking any questions could lead right into more weird and more exhaustion from the weird. On the other hand, I would like to know just what the hell is going on. I sigh.

"So... did the grownups kick you out while they talk about important grownup things that would be way over your head?" I tilt my head to look at him, to find him studying me. I merely raise my eyebrows.

"Something like that. Though it came across more like Take your toys outside, you don't want to hear Mommy and Daddy talking about your friend." He smiles that charming and disarming smile of his. Then he asks, "Do tell me, Ninja, just what you said to your quartet that even your Master of Diplomacy didn't want to say with me around?"

I can't help it, I have to smile in return... although it's certainly a smile that's on the Ninja end of the spectrum rather than the Andrea end. "Are you aware that my powers seem to be getting stronger at quite an alarming rate?"

Ha! From almost anyone else, he might be able to hide that nanosecond of surprise. But he still has an aura, and it still shows emotions.

"I am. I am also relieved that you recognize it, too."

I lift my head and let my body fall into a comfortable half lotus as I turn to face him. "Rene... I'm the one seeing qi flows in the middle of the day. You think I wouldn't notice something like that? I might be somewhat accustomed to being a magnet for weird, but come on! Just because I act like it's all no big deal doesn't mean that some of the stuff that's been going on is beyond even what I consider acceptably weird."

He seems to relax... which is sort of funny if I let myself think about it. "And you said something about it to the four of them?"

I snort. "I asked them what the hell was going on. If one has a sane guardian, one should get a sane answer." I sigh... theatrically. "Sane was obviously too much to hope for."

"Dare I ask?"

"Oh, you can probably guess how that conversation played out. You know me and my love of snark. You live with those lunatics so I would guess you can at least see their pecking order."

"Well..." He shrugs. "I don't know they have a pecking order... it's more like a fluid collection of like-minded individuals. They don't always agree on every point, as you can probably imagine."

I nod. "Sure. That makes sense. If they have personalities, there's going to be agreements and disagreements, even if they never take them to the level of extremism that humans do. But even without a pecking order, then..." I sigh. "Apparently I am a topic of contention."

My Spirit Brother chuckles softly. "And this really surprises you? My dear Sister, from what I've been able to figure out — and I'll admit there's a lot they talk about that makes absolutely no sense — you are unique in their experience. Is it really so odd that they talk about you?"

"Oh, they may feel free to talk about me all they like. It's the refusal to answer questions that gets under my skin, so to speak. Those four seem to think they need to defer to the alleged wisdom of my husband's guardian Spirit." Oh... well, gosh... when I put it that way... my eyes narrow and nostrils flare. I'm not close to the eyes glowing level of pissed off, but I am plenty annoyed. "As a Navajo woman, as a woman period in the twenty-first century, I take umbrage at the mere suggestion that they should defer to the opinions of either my husband or his guardian Spirit!"

Rene just smiles at me.

"Okay... what?"

"They didn't actually say they were deferring to Eagle's opinion because of Pablo, did they." It's definitely statement, not a question.

I sigh and roll my eyes. "No. And I do realize I'm being melodramatic, thanks for asking. They said they needed to defer to Eagle's opinion because Eagle is the messenger to Great Spirit."

"That... seems to make sense," he says. "At least, based on my limited knowledge, it does, of course. You obviously think otherwise."

"Duh. Eagle's opinion is stupid. Reckless. Dangerous, even!"

Rene drops his head into his hands and groans. "I don't think I want to know."

"Too bad. I'm going to tell you anyway." I reach over and tap his head. "Come on, Jacobs... you're supposed to be on my side."

He looks up at me, surprised. "You are one crazy woman, Andrea Yazzie! I really am beginning to wonder if Maddie's corrupted you."

"Oh, stop it! I'm frustrated and getting really ticked off with those yahoos in the Realm of the Benevolent Spirits. Yeah, yeah... my elders would all be having conniption fits if they heard that. But it's Eagle's opinion that I should be learning about all the wonderful and new things I can do all on my own. I expressed the opinion that Eagle might be wrong and that my quartet of loons should possibly think for themselves."

He looks at me suspiciously. "Even knowing you probably added a healthy dose of snark, that sounds fairly reasonable. Wait! Let me guess!" he says sarcastically. "There's more."

I shrug. "Well, only that I told them to go back and get authorization to have somebody teach me about all this new stuff because learning on my own could be dangerous." I pause, then attempt to feign innocence by inspecting the contrails in the bright blue sky. "Oh, and I might have said something about tracking Eagle down and Gibbs slapping the stupid out of said Spirit."


I look back at Rene and shake my head. "You sound like my Uncle Junior... but only because Papa, Dad and Uncle Leon would never raise their voices."

"Andrea, are you out of your mind?"

"Not that I know of, but I don't think all the evidence is in yet."

"Mon Dieu! Do you understand how powerful these Spirits are?"

As I look at him, I pull my own qi around me... close and tight. I settle into the still and quiet place of practice. I set aside all emotions for the moment; my expression is serious yet calm.

"Yes. And the fact that I probably could walk into their realm and probably could slap Eagle on the back of its head is the very reason I need more guidance — if only temporarily — to understand what's going on, and to learn to control the odd new abilities that seem to be showing up."

He rubs his temples for a moment, then sighs. "That explains the noise and my subsequent banishment. But really, Andi... did you have to threaten Eagle?"

I consider his question carefully. Had it been merely a rash statement? Given my previous experience with the helpfulness — and lack thereof — of the Spirits, given my current... hmm... condition, I really don't think it was.

"Would their attention have been captured by reasoned debate? I don't think so. Maybe I'm wrong." I shrug. "But I don't think so."

"No... no, if your intention was to grab their attention..." Rene shakes his head again. "Are you sure Maddie hasn't been giving you pointers?"

I half growl in frustration. "Oh, my gods! What is it with people's obsession with Maddie corrupting me? I learned the optimal way to break someone's neck by watching her... that's about the only thing you could even remotely call 'corruption'." From the look on his face, I'd have to say he doesn't believe me.

"Well, you two are awfully similar in a lot of ways. Pardon me if I'm suspicious."

"We're Sisters... doesn't it make sense that we're similar?"

"Sure, if you..."

The ringing of one of my phones interrupts him. Ah, my personal phone... I smile as I look at the caller ID, then press Talk.

"Hi, honey! What's up?"

"I want you to know I'm making this call under duress." Pablo's voice sounds strained.

Hoo boy. Nothing good can come from this.

"Okaaay..." I say slowly, then press the button for speakerphone; Rene should probably be part of this if only as an observer. Witness for the defense?

"Someone would like me to pass a message to you, and apparently the message can't wait until we get home."

"Uh huh. And would said person be rather tall and feathery?"

"Yessss." Oh, great. The jaw clenching hissing answers.

I'm getting annoyed. "And would said tall, feathery person still be with you as you attempt to deliver this message?"

His hesitation before replying is barely — barely — noticeable. "No."


"Fine. Yes."

"Okay, just wondering. You're going to be home on time?"

He sighs because he's a smart guy and he can see exactly where I'm going. "That's the plan. Do you need me to stop at Albertson's on the way home?"

"Nope, I took care of that before I headed up here."

"Just where is 'here'?"

"Lookout Mountain. Moved the last prox reader, had a conversation with some folks, was forced to rub a cat's belly forever... now I'm chatting with Rene."

"That last would explain why you've got me on speakerphone, I suppose? I'm not sure I'm speaking to you at the moment, by the way, Rene."

"Mon ami, you wound me! I have no involvement in this... I was banished!"

"It's true, Pablo. He showed up to grill me. He's the red-headed step-child. By the way... are you calling from the bathroom?"

"What? No! I'm down in the break room!"

"Okay. It just sounds like you're in a small confined space."

Pablo chuckles. Finally. "You've been down here, dear. You know it's small and confined."

I smile. "Yes. So why don't you go back up to your desk so you can finish your work? I'll see you when you get home."

"Sounds like a plan. I assume we'll be seeing you soon, as well, Rene?"

Pablo can't see the shrug and smile, but both help me to relax more. "Time doesn't have much meaning for me anymore, Brother. But I'll see you at the conclave our wives have called."

"Which is sure to be interesting," Pablo replies somewhat sarcastically. The brat. "That's on Friday, so yes... soon. I love you, Andrea. See you later."

"I love you too, Pablito." I sigh as I disconnect the call.

"He doesn't love me," Rene says, almost whining, almost sounding altogether too child-like.

I snicker as I put the phone away. "Yes he does, you crazy person." I look at him with slightly more seriousness. "Are you going to get in trouble because I've been a pain in the ass to the Spirits today?"

He shrugs. "It depends on how you define 'trouble,' I suppose. But compared to the kinds of trouble I found myself in with Maddie? No."

"Good. I'd hate for my frustration to cause you problems."

"Andi, you..." He sighs and just shakes his head. "I'm going to say this in all seriousness because I know my wife very well. Please, don't take this the wrong way. And stop rolling your eyes at me, young lady." He pauses, and I'm pretty sure I can guess what he's going to say without him really needing to say it. But he does anyway, of course. "Maddie corrupts people. Oh, not necessarily in terrible ways... but being around Maddie has a tendency to make people change." He smiles... and that aura that he still has? Dear gods, the glowing I did down in the Garden of the Gods was like a candle compared to the sun when I look at how brightly his love for her shines.

I reach out and take one of his hands in mine. "Rene, I understand what you're saying. You're wrong, but a little bit right maybe, though I think it's more a function of the Pentad forming than just Maddie being a corrupting influence all on her own. This time." I smile at him, with one of Andrea's smiles. "We'll talk more about it at our little pow-wow. I still need to think about a few things, but I don't think all the crazy that's been going on can be blamed on Maddie."

"Hmm. Well, I'll grant that your trick of glowing like — what are those things called? Glow sticks? That probably doesn't have anything to do with Maddie. But mouthing off to your guardian Spirits?"

"Nope, you can't blame her for that. Ask Pablo. Ask Raven... if you dare. I was threatening that one — and his buddy — for a couple of months before I knew anything about Maddie."

Rene smiles that so very charming smile of his, and then has the nerve to toss in a bit of his particular gift. The result of that is to cause nearly everything from my toes to the tip of my nose to tingle in a rather delightful way. "I'll take your word for, Sister."

"You know you're a brat, don't you, Jacobs?"

"Me? I'm the very picture of innocence."

I laugh... and for the first time in weeks feel truly relaxed and happy. I really needed that... the honest laughter, I mean.

"I love you, my dear Spirit Brother." I pat his hand and prepare to stand. "And thank you. Life has been a little stressful lately."

He does that Spirit thing he does — moving instantaneously from one place to another in the blink of an eye — and stands, holding out a hand to help me up. Among his many other excellent qualities, Rene is a gentleman. Well, when he's not kicking ass.

I take his hand and allow him the illusion of helping me to my feet. He bends down and picks up my staff from the ground and hands it to me.

"I'd tell you to go home, but I know you're going to do whatever you want to do. You'll be careful though, won't you, Andi?"

I smile at him. "Maybe it's a good thing I want to go home then. And yes." I wave him off. "Now, shoo. Go worry over your Wife."

"And risk what passes for life, plus my limbs?" He chuckles. "I've been giving her and Logan some time and space to connect in an ordinary, everyday, family kind of way. I'll just go back and teach Coyote more about poker."

I roll my eyes, but I can't help chuckling again. "You're definitely trying to corrupt the lot of them. And so, Mr. Pot, stop trying to call your wife, Ms. Kettle, black. Go on... git. I'll see you and Maddie and Logan on Friday."

He pauses long enough to kiss me, then disappears.

I smile, take one last look across the Metroplex from the vantage point of Lookout Mountain, then start my hike back down to the Nature Center parking lot and my Ducati.

© Kelly Naylor