Issue 9: Love Changes Everything

Flying on a chartered plane is definitely something I could all too easily get used to. The efficient and delightful Learjet people see that the Ducati is carefully stowed; everything else is packed in our duffel bags, although they're both a bit heavier than they were when we arrived. Those, too, are taken by the airport personnel and placed in the cabin luggage bin. To keep airport personnel and the nice airline people happy and calm, I use a bit of Fox's magic to hide my staff; the scabbard is carefully packed in with my clothing.

There are just the goodbyes.

It's as hard leaving Maddie and Logan as it usually is leaving my parents when I go home to Flagstaff... perhaps even harder because of the Pentad bond. A fleeting and somewhat humorous thought crosses my mind as I hug and kiss them goodbye. Not a single one of the five of us is going to get out of the Spirit World until the last of us leaves this plane. But I don't think I could bear the thought of any other outcome.

I know Maddie will only be a phone call or a Skype session away. I know I'll see her and Logan and the children again next month for the wedding. I suspect Rene will show up whenever he gets the urge. It's still hard to say goodbye.

The flight home is considerably less eventful than the flight to Paris had been. In fact, Pablo and I nap at least half the way home. When we arrive at Denver International, I'm momentarily concerned about getting the Ducati from the airport to my garage. You'd think it wouldn't be a big deal, but it only has transit tags. I doubt Captain Sanchez has had the chance to get the plates from the Harley transferred to the Ducati. I mean, the man's a genius and a miracle worker, but even he has a limitation or two. In this case, the bottleneck would be the Department of Motor Vehicles. His last text gave an estimate of Friday if all goes well. And my helmet is with my Harley, which won't be arriving in Denver until Friday afternoon when Charlie and Susan roll into town.

That just means I need to ride home as Ninja. Of course, that involves changing clothes, putting on the scabbard and hiding it all from the flight crew with Fox's magic. I know they're discrete and all, but why call attention to myself, right? I can wait until we get off the plane to braid my hair.

I've been doing a lot of introspective analysis lately... ever since we rescued Pablo from Tezcatlipoca's skank. After Pablo and I re-forged our bond, I've noticed that it's easier to hold more qi. And now, with the formation of the Pentad, I'm a little awed by the amount of power I hold, and how normal it all seems now.

Oh, another random thought... Pablo's ancestral pest would be wise to get off his latest campaign to snatch Pablo away from me. The Pentad has given him a few more advantages, as well. Should Quetzalcoatl or Tezcatlipoca's skank make another grab for Pablo, between his increased strength and Eagle's grounding, I suspect bad things would happen... and those bad things wouldn't happen to Pablo or Eagle.

Pablo's taxi pulls up in front of the house just as I'm coming in the back door from the garage. Thankfully, Bobby and David aren't home so we won't be bombarded with questions until morning. Of course, seeing that they're out late, I'm going to guess Bobby has the day off tomorrow. That means he'll be up baking in his kitchen with the usual attendant desire to share his bounty with his best friend. I'd better put a note on the back door.

After putting our belongings away and tossing the laundry in the hamper, we do what any normal newlywed couple would do: take a nice long shower, and get a good night's sleep. Well, we do get some sleep.

Although we sleep late, the next day is still fairly busy. Bobby does, indeed, have the day off and tries to corral us as we're leaving to run errands. Pablo has a meeting with Captain Sanchez to discuss this administrative leave. I have grocery shopping to do. And we both need to go to the credit union to set up a joint account — but we promise to be at his house by five o'clock for dinner.

Fortunately, that leaves me time to catch up on all my emails — Mama and Pablo's mom have been very busy — and all of Ninja's correspondence. Perry would like another meeting, this time with Peacekeeper. It's interesting that he suggests we meet in our civilian personas; I'll have to run that by Pablo. Oh, and we have more time to act like newlyweds.

Why did I think this was a bad idea again?

Dinner with Bobby and David is fun and relaxing. We chat about the wedding. David tries to be a therapist, which is just his way of making sure we know he's concerned about our respective emotional states after the shooting in the house. We reassure him that we're fine, although I'm not entirely certain he believes us. Bobby is starting to cave to David's wily ways and might join Harmony for the next cycle in January. I theatrically beg him not to do, and everyone is laughing as I kneel on the floor beside his chair.

We settle in their living room with our after dinner drinks; yes, we're all drinking water. I kick off my shoes and tuck my legs under me as I lean against Pablo on their sofa. Bobby and David are snuggling in an entirely adorable way on the loveseat.

"Oh, Bobby, did I tell you about the absolute nicest woman I met last month while riding out near the Nature Center in Golden last month?"

"Andrea! I thought you were utterly happy with Pablo! Cheating on him already?" The boy has that Look in his eyes that means I'm in for a heavy dose of teasing for the remainder of the evening.

Oh, that's fine. I've brought the big guns, my friend, and this time... yes, this time I think I've got you. I reach over and lightly slap his hand.

"You have a filthy mind, and I have no need to cheat on my dear Pablo."

I look at the man in question, who's grinning... would that be like a cat that's eaten a canary? "I'm afraid you simply have no idea how powerful my heterosexual magnetism is, Bobby. It's like a super power." Yeah, Pablo is definitely going down the very wicked path.

I just roll my eyes.

"Sometimes they're just incorrigible, Andrea." David, too, is rolling his eyes and shaking his head. "You just have to ignore them."

I give my husband the stink eye. "Are you going to let me tell this story?"

He chuckles. "I'm sorry, dear. Go ahead. What were you saying?"

"You were telling me about the most divine woman you met," Bobby prompted helpfully.

I look from Pablo to David and then to Bobby. "I'm pretty sure I said she was super nice. I'm fairly certain I said nothing about divinity." Off to Bobby's side, where he couldn't see, David is rolling his eyes again and grinning like a loon.

I sigh. "Bobby, some days I can't remember why I put up with you. It must be the cinnamon rolls."

Bobby smiles angelically. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Andi. And I'd be happy to make you and your splendid man a batch of cinnamon rolls tomorrow."

Pablo chuckles. "Maybe if I told him about Madeline he'd settle down."

I look up at him and sigh wearily. "No, he'd just get it in his head that you were cheating on me."

"Ooooh, this is delicious! You both know her? Spill, spill," he says, waving his hands at us. "I want the entire story."

I look at him for a moment. "Are you going to let me tell the story my way? And stop making inappropriate innuendos?"

"Andi, you know the poor boy can't manage that second one." David is having a hard time keeping himself from laughing.

"But I can try!" I'm not sure it's my imagination, but Bobby may have just batted his eyelashes at David.

I count to ten. Out loud. In Diné Bizaad. Pablo hugs me tighter and kisses my cheek.

"Go ahead, dear. If Bobby gets out of control, I'll arrest him."

"And you can fine him when he returns his library books, even though he'll return them on time," David adds helpfully.

I grin at Bobby. "Don't think I won't, either, my friend."

He sighs. "Okay, okay. Please tell us about this lovely individual you met last month, Andi. I'm sure she's absolutely delightful!"

I nod with satisfaction and settle back against Pablo's chest. "Well... you know how there are some vacation homes up beyond Lookout Mountain? And I don't know if I've ever mentioned any of them, but there's one that's just the most adorable little cabin up a long driveway. You can barely see it from the road, but I promise it's just adorable. Well, as long as I've been riding up that way, I've never seen anyone around. It clearly has that long abandoned look to it. You know, just a few too many wild flowers growing a little too close to the house. Some of the trees overhanging the porch like no one in their right mind would ever let a tree do. That sort of thing. I think I might have even seen a mountain lion sunning itself out front one day."

Bobby gasps.

"Oh, don't worry. I didn't go near it, and they're usually more afraid of people than we are of them. They only get mean when they're hungry... like in the middle of winter."

Bobby has the good sense to just nod.

"Well, this one day — it was right around Halloween, I think — I was bicycling up there, and this woman was at the bottom of the driveway with her bike. And wouldn't you just know it... the poor thing had a flat tire! I was never a Girl Scout, but one does not ever ride around without a kit for repairing tires or a tire pump. Being the good, decent and kind person that I am, I stopped to help.

"It turns out she owns that cabin! She's been out of the country for something like ten or eleven years, and came back to pack it up to sell it.

"She'd taken her bike out to go to the little general store up there to get some cream for the coffee — of course, she'd forgotten to pick some up on her way up to her cabin — and because it was such a beautiful day, and it really isn't all that far, the got her bike out of the shed. I guess she forgot bicycle tires tend to fall apart when they sit in the shed for ten years. Anyway, she was so sweet, and she was just laughing at her own silliness at forgetting. Because I stopped to help and — oh, I guess it's just because she's such a nice person — she invited me up to the cabin to have a cup of coffee and meet her son." I pause to point a finger at Bobby. "And don't even let your mind wander off to a naughty place, Mister. Madeline looks like she's about my age — well, maybe a couple of years older — and her son is only fifteen. There was absolutely no hanky panky going on.

"So we walk up the driveway, just chatting. She's really easy to talk to, you know... just a totally down to earth, nice person. It turns out her son, Leon, is the one who likes the cream in his coffee. But only sometimes. You know how kids can be. Well, maybe you don't. So trust me.

"Leon was a little shy at first but is a delightfully brilliant young man. He's going to some private school for gifted kids out east. I swear he must be smarter than all four of us put together. I don't often see kids who want to do their homework. And he had some sort of theoretical physics stuff to do. He tried explaining it to me, and even I have no idea what he was talking about.

"So! Gosh, about Madeline. She and her husband — her first husband, she was widowed when Leon was only about four, the poor things — had bought the cabin when they found out she was expecting Leon. They lived there until her husband passed away — I guess it was a terrible car wreck — and then she and Leon moved because they just couldn't take the memories anymore." I sigh somewhat dramatically. "It's sad and romantic all at the same time."

Bobby has that look in his eye that says he's getting caught up completely in the romanticism of the tale; at this point, the more romantic the story the easier the sell. And, of course, here goes Evil Andi to make his day.

"It's taken her this long to work up the courage to come back and pack the place up. She's gotten remarried in the meantime, has been living in Europe — in Paris! — and has two other children... the most adorable twins you'll ever meet, Emelia and Vincent."

Just at the mention of Paris, Bobby's eyes take on a dreamy glow. I chuckle to myself.

"Of course, as we're chatting, I tell her a bit about myself... and obviously she told me a bit about herself. Bobby, you will never in a million years guess what she does for a living!"

Bobby blinks and doesn't answer for a couple of seconds.

"She's a librarian?"

I laugh. "No, but that would be pretty funny, wouldn't it? I mean, what are the chances of that ever happening?

"No, silly! She's in the fashion industry! Now, I don't know much about fashion — as you well know since you've only been pointing it out to me since I moved in. But I know fashion plus Paris equals a big deal. I don't honestly know how big a deal, and apparently my lack of knowledge totally cracked her up."

"Oooh, is she a fashion designer?" asks David, who's actually the more fashion aware one of the couple. To Bobby, Martha Stewart is a goddess. To David, some guy named Armani is a god. "Or is she a famous model?"

I shake my head. "Neither. She actually runs one of the fashion houses out there! I guess her husband — her first one — was the son of the founder of... well, darn if I can remember the name since his name wasn't the same as his mother's." I pretend frustration at trying to remember.

You know, Sister, it's a little odd listening to you spin tales about me and Maddie like this. How far from the truth are you planning to stray? So far, you've hardly struck it a glancing blow... though the bit about the car accident is the official story.

I plan to stay as far from the truth as possible, and what the hell are you doing here, Rene? Shouldn't you be standing guard over your wife?

Rene laughs. She and Logan are in the bath. He's serious for about a nanosecond. Today was the reading of Alois' will.

I'm sorry. It must have been hard for you, too. Bring her our love when you see her.

I will and thank you. His joviality returns then. I thought I'd come see what my favorite Sister is up to. And a good thing, too, as it appears you're up to no good.

And as with Justin, being your "favorite" Sister has little cachet to it when I'm also your only Sister. Also, I'm still surprised you're here and not with Maddie and Logan. And, to set the record straight, I am most certainly not "up to no good." Bobby deserves what's coming.

To set the record straight, young lady, Maddie deserves time alone with her Mate. If they want me to join them, all they need to do is call... as you and Pablo could, by the way.

Dear gods, we nearly set the house on fire without your help, grandpa!

Now, now... I'm only old enough to be your father, Andrea. You know that. He has the nerve to snicker. Also? I don't think I've ever met such a not jealous human being in all my life. Okay, he's a Spirit now, but I get the feeling he was exactly the same when he was alive.

"It was the House of something," Pablo says helpfully. "Something French, I'm sure of it."

You're both in on this little game? You know, it's really too bad Maddie isn't here. She'd probably hurt herself laughing so hard.

Yeah, but she'd heal right back up again, I remind my Spirit Brother. But she could use the laughs after a day like today, I suppose.

"Pablo! Do you know how many Houses of French Somethings there are?!" If David isn't completely exasperated, he's doing a good job faking it.

"To tell you the truth, David... no." Pablo shrugs. "I probably don't have much more fashion sense than Andi does. And all the fashion sense I have is simply remembering what my mom told me about what colors go together, and what not to wear with other things."

David and Bobby exchange a look and sigh. Dramatically.

"They're heterosexuals, dear," Bobby says as he pats David's arm.

Rene laughs again. Are you two really that clueless? These guys are very amusing, by the way.

For a straight guy, Pablo's actually got a fairly good fashion sense, but I really am that clueless... yes. Although I've been getting better thanks to Bobby's constant nagging about what constitutes appropriate clothing choices in which social situations. And try living next door to Bobby for five years; he'll get just slightly less amusing.

I furrow my brows. "It was... Oh! Jackie Kennedy's maiden name! Yeah, it was that... or something like that anyway!"

David gasps and puts a hand over his heart. "No! Not House of Beauvoir?!"

I look at Pablo and he nods. "Yes, that sounds about right."

I turn back to David, nodding. "That must be it, yes."

Okay, I'm glad Pablo's got smelling salts in his pocket, but I was actually hoping to get Bobby to faint... not David.

"You met Madeline Jacobs?" he asks in a hushed and reverential tone.

"Um. Yeah?"

Dear Sister, I'm going to report all of this to Maddie, you know. I think I can say with some amount of certainty — knowing both of you — that some form of outrageousness will happen in the future because of it.

Oh, stick around, Rene... I'm not even close to being finished with these two!

"Do you know how reclusive she is?"

Wow. Had I known David followed the fashion industry this closely, I might have used a different tactic. It's as if I'd said to Bobby that I met Martha Stewart... and wasn't impressed.

I shrug and look at Pablo again, feigning confusion. "Well, she was super nice to us, and I don't know if coming out to New Mexico to meet the family would be considered reclusive. I mean, sure we were at my uncle's house, which is in one of the less densely populated areas of the Nation... but..." I look at David. "...but my whole family! Well, minus Sam and Justin — and Cindy and Nicole, of course — but that's still a lot of people, you know."

David stares at me open mouthed while Rene chuckles.

"David, honey? Are you all right? David?" Bobby looks at me and gives me his version of the stink eye. "You've gotten mean, Andi. Look what you did to my David!"

"What?!" My eyebrows shoot upward and I have a look of complete innocence on my face. "How is that mean? How was I supposed to know she's a super famous person, and that David would get all... all..." I wave a hand in the man's direction. "...all wonky and weird and freaked out? It's not my fault!"

Oh, don't try denying it, Andi. This whole charade is completely for their benefit... and I use the term 'benefit' very loosely.

Maybe so, but Bobby was the intended target, not David. I really didn't know he was this much of a fashion queen!

Pablo leans across the coffee table between sofa and loveseat, and taps David on the knee. "Hey, buddy, snap out of it. If Bobby gets hysterical, there's no one here to calm him down. Andi's going to have to use her Kung Fu hands on him to knock him out."

David blinks, and then stares at Pablo. "I must have eaten some poisoned something while I was out earlier. I'm clearly hallucinating. I thought I heard Andrea say Madeline Jacobs visited with her whole family out in New Mexico."

Pablo leans back and I tuck myself comfortably against him again.

"No, you weren't hallucinating. Madeline and her family joined us in New Mexico." He looks at me and grins. "Andi and Madeline tried to plot ways of disabusing me of the notion that we should have a baseball team of kids. It didn't work." He leans down and kisses the tip of my nose. "All three of Madeline's children are delightful."

You've got bigger problems that I thought, Sister. Leon might have been on his best behavior, but from everything I've seen, the twins can't maintain what civilized people call "best behavior" for more than thirty or forty minutes. They're wild children. I love them dearly as if they were my own, but they're wild.

Well, my niece is an Elder... or Feral. And Vin's her twin. What do you expect?

That's my point. They're wild. I expect it. I love them. But your husband seems to think they were charming.

"I won't deny we were plotting plans and planning plots," I reply, patting his hand. "Fortunately, you came to your senses all on your own so we won't need to implement any of those plans... probably not, anyway."

Oh, clearly my husband was not right in his head thinking we'd have so many children. But the fact that he found Em and Vin charming bodes well for us when we finally get around to having our one. Or two.

"But... but..." Poor David. He looks so lost and confused. Come to think of it, he's got a similar look about him to the one Bobby had on the night we announced our changed relationship status.

Bobby looks at me, concern in his eyes and suffusing his aura. "Andrea, you need to tell me what's going on, because I've never seen David like this." His eyes turn to his lover, and his expression becomes even more worried. "Sweetie, you really need to snap out of it. You're the sensible one, remember? I'm the silly, flighty one."

Well, he does have the silly and flighty act down pat, but that's all it is. When there's a need for it, Bobby is as practical, serious and down to earth as David usually is. Sometimes I think it's his secret identity.

"I promise I had no idea David was so in touch with the fashion industry, Bobby. But... well, what would you do if I came over one day and said I had met Martha Stewart?"

Bobby gasps again and swings his head back around so fast I almost expect it to keep spinning.

"You haven't!!?!"

"No, no! I haven't. But if I had, you'd be doing something like this, wouldn't you?" I gesture to the still stunned David.

"Well... maybe." Bobby shrugs and looks a bit embarrassed. "I'd actually probably faint right on the floor."

I nod. "Yeah, you probably would. But my point is that, to David, Madeline is apparently as big a deal as Martha Stewart is to you." I look at David and sigh. "I didn't know."

"Oh my."

"Andi could use her Kung Fu hands on David, if you think that would help, Bobby."

Is he always like this? I thought you were a librarian, and only beat the crap out of people when you go Ninja.

It's their idea of a joke. The librarian known as Andrea has — according to the State of Colorado — a black belt in both Taiji and Aikido. Never mind the fact that neither practice gives a fig for the color of your belt, or even if you're wearing one. So, word's gotten around that I can defend myself. I've only had to do it once since moving here; in this persona, I try very hard not ever to be in a situation where it's necessary to use those skills. These three think it's hilarious to refer to my deadly weapons as 'Kung Fu hands'.

"I will not! However, the next time he comes to the library for books, he's going to find that he owes over a thousand dollars in fines!"

David blinks again and looks at me. "What? I don't have any overdue books." He's still looking terribly confused.

"So? That doesn't mean I can't add a thousand dollar fine to your account."

You can do that? And here I was all impressed by Freak.

Technically, I can. Legally, I can't. And it's such a simple system, Freak could probably hack it just by thinking about it.

"You wouldn't do that!" At least David seems confident about that.

"Probably not. Maybe not. Are you going to snap out of whatever this is?" I wave my hands at him again. "You're acting like I would if... if... oh, I don't know, Patrick Stewart walked in the front door. Or... or Wil Wheaton or Michael Shanks! Actually, all three of them would have to show up."

Bobby and David exchange a very confused look while Pablo chuckles.

"Star Trek Next Generation... ditto, plus internet sensation... and Stargate SG-1," he tells them. "I thought you were the one who introduced her to Star Trek, Bobby."

"I did! But I don't recall those names. Were they minor characters? Perhaps they were redshirts."

How can you not know about Wil "Wesley Crusher" Wheaton and call yourself a fan of Star Trek? Even I know who that is, and it pains me to admit it.

I don't think he calls himself a fan. He just loved the original series. Dear gods, the only reason the man has a Facebook account is because he wants to stalk George Takei.

This time I roll my eyes — at Bobby and Rene — while Pablo laughs.

"The Next Generation? You never heard of it?"

"If George wasn't a star, I don't care," Bobby says with a definite attitude.

"I'm still concerned about the fine our so-called delicate librarian is going to add to my account," David says as he stares at me.

"Are you feeling better? You're not going to faint or anything? You're not going to flake out like Bobby does?" I just raise my eyebrows at him.

"No. I doubt it." He doesn't look as certain about it as I'd like him to be, but it would have to do.

"Fine... your library account will likely remain unblemished. Now where was I?"

"You were telling them about visiting with Madeline in New Mexico." Pablo kisses my cheek, then whispers, "Did I hear Rene laughing a minute ago?"

"Right! Yes." I nod and quickly glance across the room where Rene is leaning against Bobby's front door. "It was fairly uneventful..." Given David's reaction to simply knowing Maddie, it's probably not the best time to mention she was adopted into the family... although getting all the shock over at once does have some appeal.

What's the deal with Pablo? I'm at the same level of "not being seen" as usual, but suddenly he can't see me or hear me?

I have thoughts on the matter, but no answers as we haven't actually tested any of my hypotheses. We'll likely chat about it later. Feel free to stop by, but we'll probably kick you out before the house burns down.

Rene chuckles. I could tell you my feelings were hurt, but you wouldn't believe me, would you?

Not in a million years, no.

"But with the whole family there, we had to take the opportunity for a Dance. That was really nice. My Uncle Leon loves teaching the traditional dances, and with new folks to teach, he was in seventh heaven. It was all pretty dull otherwise."

I don't know when I've ever been that bored.

Has anyone told you lately that you're a smart ass, Jacobs?

Now that you mention it, some woman called Ninja might have said something about it.

Pablo nods. He's certainly not going to mention getting kidnapped into one of the insane Aztec twins' dimension. I'm beginning to suspect Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca share it. And neither one of us is going to mention the Pentad.

"Oh, well, it was dull and relaxing until Madeline got the call from home," he says sadly.

"Oh. Yeah. That was sad."

"Oh my God, what happened?" Bobby asks, wide-eyed.

I sigh. "Her godfather was dying. She needed to get home quickly. We left Nazeegi in the middle of the night to drive down to Albuquerque — that's the closest major airport — to fly back to Paris. Oh, those poor kids... they were so tired. But Leon was a real trouper. And, of course, this one..." I tilt my head toward Pablo. "...couldn't resist the chance to help with carrying sleepy children."

"Oh, you are just going to be the best dad in the world, Pablo! I can't wait to be an auntie-uncle!" Bobby practically squeals.

"Oh Lord, you've got him started," David groans. "Auntie-uncle is his latest thing. Please don't have children... at least not anytime soon."

"I'm not planning on it, trust me." I give Pablo a preemptive glare. "Anyway, I can't say I cared much for the flight out to Paris. Gods, the weather was absolutely horrible!"

And whose fault was that, Sister?

Technically? It was your son's fault. I believe him when he said he didn't realize what he was doing, but he really riled up the Warrior.

Rene is silent for a moment, but that gives Bobby the opportunity to stare at me and say, "Wait just a minute, Miss Thing. Did you just say you went to Paris? The one in France?"

If it helps, I do believe he learned an important lesson that night.

Actually, it does help, Rene. If getting stuck in Maddie's memories got me so angry that I nearly killed all of us, knowing Leon learned his gift is nothing to trifle with does help. But I hope very sincerely that he and Charles have a serious conversation on the matter when he gets back to school.

Oh, I'm fairly certain that will happen.

"Uh... yeah? I mean, the only other Paris I know about is in Texas, and why would I go there?"

"There are actually about two dozen cities in the United States named Paris." Well... obviously David is feeling better. "You probably wouldn't want to visit any of those either."

Both Bobby and I look at him... me with confusion, Bobby with what could only be described as a near betrayal. Pablo and Rene chuckle.

"What? I'm just saying!"

You know, when he's not freaked out, he's rather wicked, isn't he?

Oh, that he is. And he's an equal opportunity tormentor, so keep that in mind should you decide to join the corporeal family at the wedding... which you will do, by the way. I don't care how you want to explain your relationship to me and Pablo — and old high school buddy of his, for all I care. But I want my entire family to be part of our special day.

Good grief, is this sappy woman the same crime fighting pain in the ass we all know as Ninja?

One and the same, my friend. So show up corporeal or the bitch will kick your ass.

Rene laughs. You'd have to find my ass first.

You realize that's one of my super powers, don't you? Seeing Spirits?

He's silent a beat. Oh. Right.

I shake my head. I'm surrounded by goofy and/or crazy men.

"Yes, yes... didn't I say that Maddie was the nicest person ever? And we were all getting along so well. We really bonded, you know?" I can feel how hard Pablo's working on not laughing. Rene doesn't have to bother; he's laughing loud enough that Pablo looks in his direction, biting his lower lip.

Bobby sighs, completely oblivious to the hilarity. "Oh, Andi, I guess I understand. I mean, we just clicked right away and were best friends in, like, five minutes."

"You were best friends with my hazelnut coffee in five minutes. I think it took you an extra fifteen minutes to warm up to me." I grin at him, giving me the opportunity to chuckle along with Rene... and giving Pablo a chance to let loose his chuckle, too.

He sighs again. "I've always wanted to go to Paris."

I nod. "I know. And you'll appreciate it a lot more than I did when you get there."

Oh, he's definitely layering the drama on thick tonight. He sighs yet again. "If I ever get there."

I roll my eyes at him.

Let me guess... this is where you metaphorically crack him over the head with your staff while at the same time blasting him with that qi energy of yours?

It's all I can do to keep from grinning at Rene. "Now, Bobby... don't be such a drama queen. You know you'll get to Paris someday." I tsk and shake my head at him.

"Oh, yes. Probably sooner than you think, too." Pablo nods.

Okay... Pablo's part I don't get. You want a tornado in the living room?

Stop it, Rene! I say as I spit out the water I just sipped, then bend over and cough a bit.

"Andi! Are you all right, dear?" Pablo pats my back gently.

I nod, cough once or twice more before sitting up. "Just swallowed my water wrong. I'm fine."

Pablo nods sagely as he wraps his arms around me. "I have a friend who does that all the time. Have you met my friend Rene yet?"

Rene bursts out laughing. Pablo is definitely the less serious of my brothers.

"No, I don't believe I have. Goodness, poor thing... to cough up his beverages all the time. It must be terrible."

Pablo shrugs. "One learns to cope."

I sigh. "I suppose." I look over at Bobby and David. "You should just take Bobby to Paris, David. He'd go all dreamy and goofy... and my goodness, you'd be in fashion heaven!"

David looks down at the man in his arms. "I'd love nothing better, Andi. But like you and Pablo, I'm just a poor civil servant. Someday, though... we'll get there someday."

"Gosh, wouldn't it be cool to... oh, I don't know... win an all-expense paid trip to Paris for being the most fabulous party planner on the planet?"

David laughs. "That would be pretty amazing. And Bobby does know how to pull a party together. It's too bad there isn't a reality show for that. Right, Bobby?"

Bobby grins up at David. "It wouldn't be a fair fight, sweetie, and you know it. Who'd watch a show where the same fabulous party queen won every week?"

"Despite the annoyance of your last party," Pablo says, giving Bobby his stink eye, "you do have a point. I doubt anyone could compete with you long enough to make the show interesting."

"Hey, I know someone who might need a party planned next February!" I look up at Pablo, mischief glinting in my eyes.

Pablo looks at me and pretends to consider it. "Well... I don't know, Andi. I mean, Bobby is good, but does he have the finesse for what you have in mind?"

Oh my God...

Bobby sits up straight on the loveseat and plants his fists on his hips.

"You take that back right this very minute, Pablo Garcia! Have you been to my bakery lately? No, sir... you have not! I can do tasteful and subtle with the best of them!"

David raises an eyebrow as he looks at Bobby, before turning to Pablo. "He's right, man. You've only seen his semi-normal and his outrageous party side. The man has serious talent."

I smile at Pablo. "Aw, come on, Pablo. I'm letting him take the lead in planning our reception. And I already said he could handle it. She'll fly them out there and everything."

Oh, she did not...!

Bobby stares at me... well, no... that's really much more of a glare. "Andrea..." I'm not sure I've ever heard quite that tone from Bobby. "What did you do?"

I look at Bobby; my entire being is wreathed in innocence. A little of Opossum's gift and little of Fox's... it's almost too easy. I bat my eyelashes a couple of times for good measures.

"Nothing! Well, hardly anything. Okay, I only told Maddie about your fabulous parties." I smile broadly, radiating happiness. "She'd like you to plan Leon's big sixteenth birthday party. It would have to be in Paris, of course, because Leon's grandmother is a bit sickly and probably couldn't travel to the States."

David isn't quite fast enough to catch Bobby as he faints on the floor.

"Bobby!" David lightly pats Bobby's cheeks.

Pablo looks at where Rene is standing, grins broadly before looking at me and saying, "There. I'd say we're even."

"Yep," I agree.

You two are... are...



"Tell Rene I hope he enjoyed the show," Pablo whispers as he gets up and pulls the smelling salts from his pocket.

I remember telling Old Mama when she asked about my dreams — so many of her people had been having nightmares of darkness and death — that I have pleasant dreams, boring dreams, strange dreams, but at the time even the strange dreams were no stranger than usual.

Dear gods, that seems like years in the past, yet it was barely two weeks ago!

Well, my dreams have started getting stranger than usual. Oh, not all of them... I don't remember all my dreams anyway. I still have pleasant dreams, and boring dreams and ordinarily strange dreams. I think the really strange ones started either the first or second night we were in Paris. I attributed it to jet lag or just the difference in time zones.

But for the past three or maybe four nights, I've had the weirdest damn dream... and it looks like I'm here for night four... you know, I'm just going to say five. Yeah, five nights running now...

I'm not quite sure where I am, but it looks a lot like Great Spirit's dimension. It isn't, and I'm not really sure how I know it isn't, either. Maybe it's just a dream dimension. Is there such a place? I'm sure as hell not going to call Tommy and ask him, not even when I wake up. He'll have me out in Ganado before I even know what's happening, and it's not like I have all that much vacation time left.

Or he could just refer me to a psychologist. Gee, I happen to know one of those. But I'm probably not going to mention this to David, either.

Come to think of it, how do I know I'm dreaming? I don't usually know I'm dreaming when I'm dreaming. Yeah, that's just one of the things that makes this a stranger than usual strange dream.

Just like the last four nights, I'm standing in what seems to be either a cloud or the thickest damn fog I've ever seen. And I've seen some pretty damn thick fog riding over Monument Hill in the wee hours of the morning. I'm definitely alone. Although I can sense Pablo and Maddie and Logan and even Rene and my guardian Spirits, I know they're not here. Was it last night that I called the Spirits? Maybe. They didn't answer.

Hey, Rene?


That's not right. Even if he's busy or can't leave the Spirit realm, he always answers. And now he's not answering... twice?

Opossum? Fox? Cobra? Bear?

Again, there's a whole lot of silence.

Okay, you know what? I don't like this dream. When you're dreaming and you know you're dreaming, aren't you supposed to be able to wake yourself up? Yeah, I thought so, too. But it's not working.

And then there's the bit of fog that seems to be ever so slightly more substantial than the rest of the fog. Or maybe it's two bits. I could have sworn it was one... well, blob, I guess. But now it almost seems like two blobs. Maybe. It could just be one blob that's squished in the middle.


By the Gods, Buddhas and Spirits I swear I nearly fall on my ass in surprise! I don't see anyone around... I don't hear anyone around... I don't feel anyone around. Have I lost my mind, and the fog is talking to me?

Hey, crazy — so far — seems to be a whole lot less agonizing than a coma. So, until further data is acquired, I'm going to say crazy is just fine.


Well, except for the part about the crazy talking to me. I'm not sure I care for that. Still, no one's trying to kill me. That's a big plus.

But I'm definitely alone... using the definition of alone that means nobody else is here, and I'm all by myself. Hey, maybe my brain is talking to itself. Sometimes — before the integrated personality thing happened — the Warrior would almost sort of talk to the Librarian and vice versa. No, not really. They usually just talked about each other. Now that I think about it, that was kind of rude... talking about one another behind each other's backs.


Okay, I'm probably not talking to myself... or a different part of myself. Damn, unless that divided personality thing really did mess me up, and now I'm developing another personality. But what do I need another personality for? I used to think two was plenty; I've come to the conclusion that one is just fine.

Oh, what the hell. It's just a dream, right? Why not embrace the crazy and talk to it?

Um, hi?

Okay, maybe that was a bad idea. The fog is swirling around now, and it almost looks like I'm in the middle of a tornado. Although, what with this being a dream and all, here in the middle it's very calm and even a little bit less dense.

Of course, in the eddies of fog around me... Nope. I'm not going to look. I absolutely am going to keep my eyes closed and not look at what's spinning around me in the fog, because I could have sworn I saw body parts. Well, definitely eyeballs. Possibly fingers. I am not going to look.

Hello! Hello!

Oh, yay. I'm glad someone is excited. I'm pretty sure I'd prefer the parade of body parts to stop, and maybe the peaceful dense fog to return, but that's just me being selfish, I suppose. No, maybe not. After all, it is my dream, right? And if it's my dream, don't I get to be in charge? Stop swirling, you swirly stuff! I crack open an eyelid to see I have absolutely no control over this dream whatsoever.

Damn it. I close my eye tightly again.

Ah... who are you?

That's a pretty fair question, I think. It seems to be a little too excited to be a malevolent dream demon — is there such a thing? Again, I'm not calling Tommy — but what do I know about these things? I'm the expert on Spirits and Qi, and with those qualifications, you'd think I'd know what was going on. You'd be as wrong as I am.

I-We don't know.

Oh, great. This is just great. I've got something or someone invading my dreams that doesn't even know who it is. Is it possible for my life to get any stranger? No, no! Don't answer that!

Um, okay. Do you know what you are?


Oh, this is... You know what? I'm just going to embrace crazy. I accept that I'm a mental case, I will seek the appropriate counseling person first thing in the morning, now can I just wake up, PLEASE?


I'd sigh if I thought it would do any good. I'm stuck, stuck, stuck in a bizarre dream that wanted to talk to me, and now it doesn't. Gosh, I hope I didn't offend whatever it is. Normally, I don't care about that sort of thing... okay, not entirely true. When I'm the sweet Andrea person, I care. When I'm the Warrior Ninja, I don't give a shit. Hmmm. You know, when I'm the Warrior Ninja, I do believe I go out of my way to offend people... the bad people, at any rate. Interesting insight, that.

I-We are not sure.

I definitely jump. Goody, I didn't offend whatever it is. I hope. But that still means I'm stuck in my dream, only now I'm stuck in my dream with something that doesn't even know what it is. If it doesn't know what it is, how the hell am I supposed to know? Aside from the fact that it's talking to me, I can't even tell it's here.

Yeah, I think I'm going to have to talk to David tomorrow. Or later today. I have no idea what time it is, though my strangest dreams tend to be the ones closest to waking up. Oh boy! Maybe the fucking birds will start chirping any minute! Oh, drat. No, they finally migrated. But there's still Pablo's alarm clock! Oh fuck. He doesn't set his alarm anymore, either. Great. I'm stuck here until my internal alarm clock says it's time to wake up. That could be thirty seconds from now and this dream could still seem like it's lasting a month or a year. See? Dreams could be their own dimension, what with the way time works in them... or doesn't work, depending on your point of view.

At the moment, it's looking like time does not work.

Nice. Maybe you can tell me why you're here?

Yeah, and then maybe tell me why I'm here because... too much weird is not good. Too much weird makes me think of the crazy flying things, and nothing good ever comes from that.

I-We belong here. What is 'nice'?

Oh boy. Pablo, sweetie, wake up so you can wake me up, okay? I really don't want to have a conversation about language and linguistics with my dream. And guess what? I'm not going to. Ha. It's my dream, and you can't make me.

I'm definitely losing it.

But it's only a dream! Come on, Andrea! You've had weird dreams before, and you'll have weird dreams again. It's just part of being someone who dreams.

Yeah, yeah... but this weird tops the cake for weird, don't you think?

Well, if you belong here, then why am I here?


Silence is golden, but my eyes still see. No, actually they don't, because I closed them so I wouldn't have to look at the weird shit spinning around me. This thing or these things don't know who they are, or what they are, but they belong here.

Ha. That means I don't, and I need to get the hell out of Dodge, and then make sure I don't come back.

Did I eat something weird last night? No, just Bobby's lemon chicken and a salad and some steamed veggies and cherry crisp for dessert. There's nothing there I haven't eaten before. Of course, that wouldn't explain the foggy dreams for the previous four nights, so it probably isn't something I ate.

You are here.

Oh, this just keeps getting better, doesn't it? The fog is a Zen Buddhist monk. The Zen folk in Japan were lovely people, really. But those koans drove me batty. Come to think of it, they still do. And I much preferred the Mahayana Buddhism practiced in China. Well, that's the School of Buddhism they followed in Chenjiagou; other parts of China go with the Tibetan Buddhism, which is also considerably less frustrating than Zen.

Should dreams be this frustrating? Ah, maybe. I suppose I've had other frustrating dreams.

But they didn't talk to me!

Whoa! Hold on! Is that the sensation of lips I doth feel upon my neck? My prince, hast thou come to finally rescue me?

I open my eyes and gasp.

Pablo is looking down at me, propped up on one elbow, and his usual mischievous morning smile fades to one of concern when he sees the look on my face.

"Are you okay, Andi?"

I blink, and then remember to exhale. I blink again and glance around the room before putting a hand on Pablo's shoulder. He's real. I'm real.


You beckon, dear Sister? Have you changed your mind about setting your house on fire?

No, I just wanted to make sure I was awake. You wouldn't talk to me when I was dreaming.

I can almost feel his shrug. You never called.

Yeah, I did. You just couldn't hear me.

I take another deep breath and let it out slowly. "I just had the weirdest damn dream. It kind of freaked me out." I smile up at my husband. "But I'm awake now."

His smile becomes mischievous again. "Are you sure? After all, I am the man of your dreams." He traces the curves of my jaw, my neck, my shoulder with his free hand.

I return his smile. "Yes, I'm sure. Rene wouldn't answer me when I was dreaming."

"I see. And how is my Brother this beautiful morning?"

Oh, I'm fine. Perhaps a little miffed about being excluded from all your fun, but I'm fine.

"He's fine."

"So... tell me about this dream, love."

Rene becomes substantial, grabs my foot from beneath the comforter, and starts tickling it.

I squeal.

"If I give you a message for my dear Brother, you should give him the entire message, Sister mine," Rene says as he laughs.

Pablo laughs at my surprise — and laughs his own surprise away in the process, I think — before deciding that valor might be the better part of honor and attempts to free me from Rene's grasp.

"Now, now, Rene... here you are and you can give me the message yourself!" Pablo takes a good look at Rene from his sprawled position on the lower half of my body, and then stops moving as he stares at our Spirit Brother. "What the hell are you wearing, Rene? Halloween was more than a week ago."

Well, that certainly gets Rene to let go of my foot, so I take the opportunity to scoot up to the head of the bed. Theoretically, I should be stronger than Rene, but he's Spirit sneaky. Sliding my legs from beneath Pablo's weight is no problem.

Rene looks down his clothing. "What are you talking about, Pablo? You've never seen a tuxedo before?"

Pablo decides round one of whatever game this is has been completed, and moves to the head of the bed with me. "Not at five in the morning... at least not one in pristine condition at five in the morning." He puts an arm around my shoulders and kisses me. "Now, what part of Rene's message did you leave out, dear? Trouble with Madeline and Logan? Or the children?"

Rene sits sideways on the end of the bed, looking at it suspiciously as he does so. "Are you sure this is a bed? I'm sure I've slept on patches of ground that were softer."

"It's a futon, and I like it." I stick my tongue out at him. I know. Very mature of me.

"Perhaps I shouldn't be so miffed, after all." Oh, he has a wicked, devilish and unnaturally charming smile... which he turns full force on me.

Resisting his Spirit gift is not easy; even using Bear's gift of will power it's nigh unto impossible. I attempt to give him the stink eye, but I don't think that's how it actually looks.

Pablo looks between the two of us, eyebrow raised, guessing — I assume — that we're heading into round two of whatever game we're playing. "Um, guys? Question asked... still not answered."

Rene looks at Pablo and sighs. "I simply mentioned that I'm just a tiny bit miffed at being excluded from all your fun."

I'll say one thing for Rene... he's a damn fine actor! His sigh has just the right touch of dramatic to not be over the top, his expression is utterly forlorn, and his voice very nearly drips with sorrow.

Pablo looks back at me, a slight frown on his face. "Andi? Did you really tell Rene he's not welcome?"

I continue my attempt at a stink eye; I think I'm pulling enough energy now that I actually am glaring at Rene.

"No. I just said that our house would probably burn down if he added the fuel of his gift to the fire."

"Ah." Pablo nods with understanding before turning back to Rene. "I'm afraid she does have a point there, Brother. I do expect the bedding to spontaneously combust almost every night. And every morning. And most afternoons." He grins broadly. "Your gift added to Andrea's manipulation of energy really would be like throwing gasoline on a fire."

Then my husband raps me lightly on the top of the head. "But you've told me there is empty land in Arapahoe and Adams and Elbert and even Weld counties where we probably wouldn't do any damage."

"This one," I say, waving a hand in Rene's direction, "lives in the moment. And at the moment we happen to be in our house... the one that could catch fire."

Rene laughs. "It's impossible not to live in the moment when you're a Spirit, Andrea. Time just doesn't work the same here as it does there." He tilts his head — oh, and doesn't he look exceptionally handsome when he does that? — and appears to consider that statement. "Actually, I'm not sure time even exists there at all."

"Yeah. I get that impression from talking to the other Spirits. At least you have the advantage of knowing what time is. They really don't seem to grasp it."

I furrow my brows, remember some snippets of the weird dream I had.

"As a Spirit..." I look at him speculatively. "...would you say dreams are simply a manifestation of the subconscious, or is there a dimension there one might go when one is dreaming?"

He starts to give a quick — probably flippant and irreverent — answer, but then pauses for a moment, tucks his gift away, and answers seriously.

"I don't really know, Andi. I know every time Maddie has died, she's come to me... to wherever I happen to be. You'll have to ask her if it seemed like a dream, but from my point of view it wasn't.

"Well, I wanted it to be, you know? I really hate that she dies, I hate that sometimes she'll purposely put herself in Death's path." He chuffs out a humorless laugh. "And yet, that willingness to take hits others can't is one of the things I love so much about her. She thinks she's being pragmatic, but if that's all there was to it — if she didn't also care — she wouldn't be so quick to take a bullet for someone else."

"I don't know... the Secret Service guys are trained to take a bullet for the president. I'm not sure it's more than pragmatism for them."

Pablo looks at me and shakes his head. "This from the woman who had her gut shredded to save a guy she had just met that day."

I look up at him. "But I'm not a Secret Service agent, and Masterson's guy sure as hell isn't the president. I could take the hit. I knew it wasn't going to kill me. I could see the path of that bullet as clearly as I see cars driving down the street every day. I knew it was going to kill Phelan. I just moved. And technically, I had met him the day before."

I shake my head. "This isn't answering my question about a dream dimension, though."

"This is about your weird dream? From the look on your face, I would have said you had a nightmare."

Rene stretches out on the bed with his head propped in his hand just as Pablo had been earlier. Then his clothes disappear. I roll my eyes, and he sighs as he flips a corner of the comforter over his hips. "There. Is that better, granny?" He drapes his arm across my legs.

Pablo grins and slides down to mirror Rene's position. "She's going to be the sexiest grandma in the history of the world."

"I don't know; Maddie might have her beat."

I Gibbs slap both of them. "Stop that. No sexy grandma. No grandma at all if there's no mama first, and if you don't behave yourself, Señor Garcia, there won't be any bambinos at all."

Pablo looks up at me angelically. "I'm sorry, dear."

Rene, on the other hand, grins wickedly. "You can spank me anytime you want."

"RENE!" I lean my head against the wall and sigh. "Well, Henry will love seeing you again."

"When's Henry going to see Rene again?"

"Didn't you hear, Brother? I've been commanded to make an appearance at your wedding by your lovely bride. She mentioned something about having that cold hearted bitch kick my ass if I don't show up."

Pablo looks up at me, a rather sly look on his face. "I'm not an expert on these things, dear, but I'm fairly certain that's not the proper protocol for inviting someone to your wedding. Although, I don't know enough about your People's traditions yet..."

"He called me mushy!"

"I believe I called you sappy, but potato, potahto."


Rene looks at Pablo as I snicker. "Gesundheit?"

Pablo chuckles. "It's what her cousin says to that potato, potahto thing. So, I know you met a few of the family members in New Mexico. But I'm a bit confused about how we're supposed to introduce you to all the rest of the family and all our friends. Introducing you as Madeline's husband seems a bit... avant garde, don't you think?"

Rene shrugs. "Her Majesty suggested I might be an old classmate of yours, the best of pals from high school or some such who've kept in touch over the years. As such, I would never miss my dearest friend's wedding."

Pablo looks at Rene as if he's insane. Then he looks at me as if... Yep, I must be insane, too.

Hey, after the dream I had, I'm not so certain I'm not. So I'm fine with that.

"You know I grew up in South Central LA, Andi. The chances of any classmate being both alive and not in prison right now are extremely small. And I really didn't like most of the people I went to school with."

"I only tossed that out as a suggestion. I really don't care how you work it out. Besides, I was in the middle of another conversation. We were about to make Bobby faint." I smile fondly at the memory and sigh. "Revenge truly is a dish best served cold."

"She scares me, Brother; I'm not going to deny it. I think she's already spent entirely too much time with my wife. Your sweet Andrea has been corrupted by my Maddie."

Pablo shakes his head. "No. This? Last night was a payback several years in the making. Granted, Madeline may have given Andi other bad habits, but trust me when I say Bobby deserved what he got."

"Maddie has not been a bad influence on me! Well, she might have given Ninja a few pointers, but anything that helps make me a better Warrior shouldn't be counted as a bad influence." I sigh and roll my eyes at Pablo. "Are you interested in hearing about my weird dream, or not?"

"Of course I am, love!" He takes one of my hands and holds it against his chest. "Although I still maintain it was a nightmare, based on your expression when you woke up."

I shrug. "After I tell you about it, you'll think I'm crazy.

"Well, it's been a recurring dream. It started when we were in Paris. I'm in this place that looked a bit like Great Spirit's realm, except it's not. It's just the thickest damn fog I've ever seen. At first, I thought it was another dimension because I could sort of feel all of you and my guardian Spirits, but I couldn't reach out to you. I called you, Rene, and you didn't answer. That was last night and the night before. I called all my guardians, too. None of them would answer either.

"On the first... I guess it would be four nights, that's about all there was. Just me standing in a fog so thick it was almost solid. But last night, it seemed like the fog thinned out a little. I was actually thinking that I was dreaming, and getting kind of annoyed that I couldn't wake myself up. When you know you're dreaming, shouldn't you be able to do that?"

Pablo shrugs. "I don't know... probably not if it's a nightmare. Nightmares like to hang onto to you."

I look at him suspiciously. "You talk like nightmares are actual things... you know, things that are alive."

"You don't think they are?" Rene asks from my other side.

I look between the two of them. "No. I mean, I guess I wouldn't know, because I've never had one, unless you count my experience when I was in the coma as a nightmare, but I don't."

Pablo raises an eyebrow. "It sure as hell sounded like a nightmare to me!"

"Nightmare-like, maybe, but I wasn't asleep. I was in a coma. I was in a feedback loop with you. My brain found a way to process the data and the pain. And yeah maybe it sounds like it was a nightmare, but I think it would be called something different because I was in a coma."

Pablo shrugs. "As you like to say, my darling librarian... semantics."

"Well, then no... I don't think nightmares are an actual thing." I look at Rene. "Okay?"

He shrugs as well. "They sure as hell seemed like actual things when Maddie was having them, but that's just from my point of view. I guess she'd have a different perspective, which may or may not include nightmares being actual things that are alive."

"But aren't nightmares scary? This wasn't scary; it was just frustrating as hell.

"Oh, well, until the fog started talking to me. That's when I figured I had stripped some gears and was going to spend years in therapy with David or one of his cohorts."

"The fog talked to you?" they ask at the same time.

"Oh, yeah. First it said hello. I figured I was — as I said — a little farther down Crazy Road than I thought. The fog said hello a second time, although it was really more of a question."

I look at Pablo and shrug. "I was thinking about before my personality got reintegrated, how the Warrior and the Librarian would talk about each other kind of behind each other's backs. I remember thinking that had been awfully rude."

I lean my head back against the wall again and close my eyes.

"And then the fog said hello AGAIN, although this time is was sort of plaintive and sad. I was a little worried that maybe my personality was fragmenting again, but then I decided to just embrace the crazy. What the hell! If I'm going to wind up in a straitjacket, I might as well go tripping into madness with style, right?"

I open my eyes and shift them without moving my head much, and look at Rene and then Pablo. "If you can arrange for a tie dyed straitjacket that would be so awesome. I'm sure I'll need less medication if I can look at the pretty colors all day."

Rene takes my free hand and, like Pablo, holds it against his chest. "I apologize for doubting you, Andrea. You were already crazy when you met Maddie. You're just a different brand of crazy all together."

I tilt my head slightly and smile. "Apology accepted." I close my eyes again and sigh.

"Anyway, having decided to embrace the crazy, I said hi back to the fog. I realized immediately this was a very bad idea because that's when the fog started swirling around me like I was in the center of a tornado. That probably wouldn't have been so bad if there weren't body parts — well, at least eyeballs and fingers... I saw those before I slammed my eyes shut — flying in the fog that was swirling around me."

I shudder, and both of them manage to hug me without any awkwardness.

"Oh, and the best part... well, so far, anyway? The fog sounded — or seemed... it was all telepathic in my head — really, really excited... or maybe just super happy."

"That was sarcasm, wasn't it?" Rene asks.

"Oh, yeah," Pablo replies.

"I tried making the fog stop swirling around. It was my dream, after all. I figured I should be in charge. Apparently, my dream thought otherwise because the fog totally would not stop spinning around me.

"Now, asking the identity of whatever or whoever was talking to me might not have been the best choice. But since I couldn't get myself to wake up, and Prince Charming here wasn't doing his job, I figured I ought to get some sort of information. I mean, that kind of makes sense, right?"

I open my eyes again and look at the two of them. Against the backdrop of the weirdest dream I've ever had, snuggling in bed with two naked men seems absolutely sane and normal... even for me.

"I was hoping it wouldn't turn out to be some sort of dream demon, and I really don't think I want to call Tommy to find out if that's even a thing."

Pablo shakes his head. "Nah, that's probably not a thing. And if it were, it would hang out in nightmares, which you categorically deny having."

Rene studies him for a moment. "I can't tell if that was sarcasm or not."

"Not," I say. "Watch his eyes. They get all twinkly when he's being sarcastic."

Pablo's mouth forms the cutest, although hardly noticeable, pout. "Thanks. Just share all my tells, why don't you?"

I give him my Do Not Even THINK Of Going There look, shake my head, and sigh.

"The fog answered me. Do you want to know what it said? Oh, it doesn't matter... I'm going to tell you whether you want to know or not. It said 'I-We don't know'. Yep, that's right. The weird fog in my head did not even know who it was.

"But wait, wait! It gets even better! Since it didn't know who it was, I figured I would ask what it was! And guess what? It didn't answer for so long, I was starting to wonder if I'd offended it.

"Interesting insight came out of it though... I think Ninja goes out of her way to offend people... at least bad people."

Pablo and Rene are just as silent as the fog was in my dream. Well... they're not stupid.

"Finally, the fog said 'I-We are not sure'. So it didn't know who it was, it didn't know what it was...

"That's when I decided I was definitely crazy. I was planning on making an appointment with David or a David-like person. I think that was about when I started wondering what time it was because I was hoping the damn jays would wake me up, which, of course, they couldn't since they finally migrated. Or that Pablo's alarm would wake me up, which, of course, it couldn't since he doesn't set it anymore. I figured I'd be ready for the loony bin by the time my internal alarm woke me up.

"As you might imagine, I was a little teensy annoyed by this point, so I said something like, 'Oh nice, maybe you can tell me why you're here'. I mean, there had to be some reason there was a talking fog in my head, right?"

Rene looks like he's going to say something, but then just shakes his head.

"Really, Jacobs? Come on, spit it out."

"I was just wondering if you get this obsessive about all your dreams. Because I think it might be a little, you know..."


He shrugs. "I was going to say unhealthy, but crazy works, too."

Pablo chuckles. "This is the first time she's shared more than three sentences about any dream she's had, at least as far as I know. I remember her two college roommates ragging on her about it."

"Well... yeah. I think it drove Deb a little crazy that there I was majoring in English and couldn't even come up with a couple of paragraphs to describe my dreams." I shrug. "They're usually so ordinary!

"I'm not even going to ask if you want to know what the fog said next because I'm just going to tell you. It said 'I-We belong here. What is 'nice'?'

"Seriously? My dream wants to have a conversation about linguistics with me? What kind of crazy is that?"

"Well, hon, you are a person who has a more intimate relationship with words than most people. Maybe you're just stressed about work? City budgets get announced in a few weeks, and that's always stressful for those of us who are civil servants."

I frown, but I lean down to kiss him. "You know, maybe you're right. I was wondering if maybe I'd eaten something weird, but with the dream's going on for five nights..." I nod. "It could be the worry about the budgets.

"Of course, I did ask one last question... 'If you belong here, then why am I here?' I didn't mean why am I inside my head because... well... duh. It's my head, right? I meant what the hell was I doing in the weird dream in the first place." I sigh again. "That's when the talking fog got all Zen Buddhist on me.

"'You are here' is what it said. It's like one of those koans.

"Ha! You know that line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where God says, 'It's like those miserable psalms... they're so depressing.' Well, it's like those miserable koans... they're so frustrating!"

I sigh again, this time with relief, and bend down to kiss Pablo again. "Thankfully, that's when you woke me up."

"Mmm, should we pick up where we left off?"

I look at the clock and eep! "I have the early shift again today." I nudge them both out of my way and slide off the end of the bed. "What time do you need to be to work this morning?" I call over my shoulder as I head for the bathroom.

"Sanchez said he'd shoot me with my own gun if I show up before ten."

"Great," I say as I pause in the doorway to the bathroom, pointing a finger between the two of them. "You two figure out a story to tell our friends about how you know each other."

"I don't even get a kiss? You're breaking my heart, Andrea!"

"If you're still here when I'm ready to go, I'll give you a kiss then, Rene."

I close the bathroom door behind me.

Rene rolls over on his back and laces his fingers behind his head. "Guess I'll be here for a while."

Pablo chuckles and mimics his Brother's pose. "Don't count on it. She's not as fast as Logan, but she's damn fast. And she uses her super speed when she's running late."

"She's a little spooky."

"You get used to it."

Rene turns his head to look at Pablo. "Really?"

"I sure as hell hope so, Brother... or I'm going to be in a lot of trouble trying to keep up with her."

"You know, an old buddy from the hood might not be outside the realm of possibility, after all," Pablo says after a few minutes. He had been staring at the ceiling thinking.

"Oh? Do tell, mon ami."

"It's one of those based on a true story sorts of things... a tiny seed of truth that's wrapped in a couple of snazzy layers of storytelling. I did have one friend who lived down the block — Carlos Correa — who moved out to Chicago when we were about seven or eight. He got in touch with me around the time I met Andi. He'd moved down to San Diego, joined SDPD after about a dozen years in Army Special Forces, wanted me to come down there for six months or so to do some undercover work." Pablo smiles as he remembers how intrigued he'd been by Andi's willingness to stand up to a bully despite her apparent terminal shyness. That had probably been the biggest reason he had turned Carlos down. Well, that and his Momma's health issue at the time.

"We haven't actually kept in touch, although we exchange cards at Christmas and every couple of years he'll tell me about a job opening down there." He turns his head to look at Rene.

"Change the name, wrap it in a story that we kept touch over the years, and you have a plausible reason for coming to the wedding. 'Jacobs' probably isn't going to cut it as a name, though."

Rene laughs. "Not to worry, dear friend. My father's people are your people." He has a glint in his eye as he looks at Pablo. "Did Andi tell you how pissed off your ancestral snake was at my very existence?"

"She said something about him being annoyed."

"Annoyed? Brother, I thought that thing was going to start rage spitting! It seemed happy to have your boss in the room, the rest of us were little more than week old garbage. Damn, you should have seen my Maddie tear into that snake, defending me and my heritage! It was a thing of beauty."

Pablo chuckles. "I have a feeling Q would be better off just going back to sleep for another five or six hundred years. Madeline's feelings for him would be considered warm and fuzzy compared to Andi's." He sobers. "It's not a topic I'd bring up. After that incident where I got yanked into his twin's world, Ninja's ready to stalk the dimensions to hunt him down and deal him some damage. I don't think she can hurt him — not really — but that's not going to stop her from trying."

Rene props himself up again, glances at the bathroom door and lowers his voice. "Don't be so sure about her not being able to hurt him, Brother. She has more power than she knows about right now. Someday, she's going to figure out there are ways she can affect beings that are pure energy. Eagle, Lion, Stag... they're watching her carefully."

Pablo frowns. "They're worried?"

He keeps a watchful eye on the door as he shakes his head. "Not so much in the way you might think. They're worried she'll try to use the immense amount of power she has at her disposal before she really knows how to direct it, how to finesse it. Hell, before she realizes just how much power she has. That's part of the reason she's got four guardians — and may well wind up with more. That's part of the reason Great Spirit blessed the Pentad. If she ever does need to use all that power, it's going to take all four of us to ground her." Then he grins. "In the meantime, we get to spend quality time in the company of people we love."

Pablo's frown eases, although he still looks worried. "I thought she spent all those years in China learning to control her abilities."

They can hear the sound of the blow dryer starting through the bathroom door.

"Pablo, that was like grade school compared to her potential of a doctorate. If I understand half of the metaphysical discussions the other Spirits are having around me — and honestly, I think I'm lucky if I understand even a third — she's working on her master's thesis now." He shrugs. "Don't worry about it. They're all watching her, and if it looks like she's about to do something stupid, her guardians, Cat, Eagle and I will be in her face in a heartbeat. Oh, and Lion, too."

Pablo raises an eyebrow. "Lion? Why Lion?"

"I don't know. I think it has something to do with her respect for Lion. We don't really have a hierarchy or any kind of pecking order — well, other than Raven is in the equivalent of time out at the moment — but humans tend to order things. I think her mind knows about the lack of structure, but her heart elevates Lion for some reason."

Pablo looks thoughtful, and then nods. "Probably because it's Papa Bill's guardian."

"Huh. You'd think in a matrilineal society it would be her grandmother's guardian."

"No, no," Pablo says as he shakes his head. "Andrea might think that way, but the Warrior is going to look to the guardian and protector first — that's Lion — and then steady herself with the compassion of Deer."

"Good insight... I'll let the others know. I think they're as curious about her as they've been of anyone in a good long while. Even I'm not as interesting." Rene's smile is charming, with a touch of amusement.

I finish drying my hair, and then open the door and head back into the bedroom. I'd been making a concerted effort not to listen to their conversation, so I stop moving when Rene gasps.

"Yeah," Pablo says with a sigh. "She's a vision of loveliness."

"Oh, good grief, you guys! I thought something was wrong." I head over to the closet to get my work clothes. "Don't do that!"

"I can't admire your beauty?"

"You can't gasp like that in a darkened room. In case you haven't noticed, I'm a little on edge here." I pull out undergarments from the appropriate bins and start getting dressed. "That's all I need is to get the Warrior riled up this morning, you brats."

"We're lovable brats, though. You have to give us that." Oh, I can see Pablo's in a feisty mood today. I'd blame Rene if Pablo didn't get this way all on his own without any help from Rene's sexual magic.

I just shake my head. I'm not going to play that game this morning. If I do, I'll definitely be late for work. I tug my royal blue silk blouse from a hanger, shrug it on, and button it while trying to decide which skirt to wear.

"Hey, would you like to hear the story we came up with? It's simple and elegant... obviously, since I thought it up."

I hear the distinctive sound of a hand tapping the back of a head, and I grin.

"Ow! What was that for, Rene?"

"Mostly because the foundation of the idea came from your beautiful bride, and you left me with all the hard bits of filling in the blanks."

I choose the slightly flared knee-length black skirt and zip it up before picking up a pair of black pumps Bobby made me buy. He was really tired of what he called my "ugly old nun shoes" and dragged me to the Naturalizer store down in Cherry Creek. I've never been sure if he meant the shoes were ugly or they were ordinary shoes worn by ugly nuns, and he won't tell. I was shocked to discover that nice shoes can also be comfortable.

I sit down on the bed, nudging Pablo out of my way so I can put my shoes on. "Okay, boys... behave yourselves. Go ahead and tell me your simple and elegant plan that needs a lot of work, apparently."

Rene shakes his head, almost like a dog shaking off water, and blinks. "Does she always move that fast, Brother?"

"You get used to it."


"Yeah." My husband wraps an arm around my waist. "She slows down when it counts."

I tap Pablo on the side of the head. "I thought I told you to behave. I haven't had my coffee or breakfast, and I need to be out the door in fifteen minutes."

He chuckles. "Yes, dear."

Rene looks as if he has something more to say, and I look at him with a raised eyebrow. He shakes his head very slowly. "Oh, it can wait. Absolutely."


"Right. Do you remember Carlos Correa?"

I pause a moment, trying to place the name... then remember a phone call from a couple of weeks ago that had me cracking up. I smile. "Yes, your buddy down in San Diego, who calls trying to entice you to join the San Diego Police Department. What about him?"

"Well, Rene is going to be Carlos and my guest at the wedding."

I stand and look between the two of them, then shake my head before picking up my collection of phones. "I didn't realize you and Carlos were ever that close."

"Oh sure... well, until about third grade when he moved to Chicago."

"Ah, that would explain the smack on the head Rene gave you." I pull the skirt's matching jacket from the closet, and tuck both of Ninja's phones into the inner pockets, then lean down to kiss Pablo. That's a dangerous thing to do when I need to be out of the house in less than fifteen minutes. I may need to skip breakfast.

"I love you, my dear, but I need to get out of here. I'm not sure what time Charlie and Susan will be getting into town, but it should be in time for dinner. So don't work too late, okay? Maybe we'll go to Beau Jo's; I'm not sure Bobby and David will be speaking to us yet."

He looks up at me with a smile. "I'm sure the Captain will shove me out the door by five, and I'm always happy to dine at Beau Jo's."

I manage to slip my jacket on and take only a single step toward the door before Rene is standing in front of me. At least he added a pair of jeans, although he's barefoot and bare-chested, and I have to remind myself I really need to get to work.

"Are you trying to escape without giving me that kiss you promised me?"

"Oh, perish the thought! I would never do such a thing, dearest Spirit Brother."

Rene pours on the charm, smiling rakishly. "Should I make you late for work?" he asks, placing his hands lightly on my shoulders.

"Do you want me to kick your fine Spirit ass into next week?" I ask sweetly, placing my hands on his hips.

He bends down and kisses me quite properly. I'm not going to get any coffee this morning either.

I wouldn't want to force you to exert yourself, dear Sister.

I smile and pat his cheek as I try to remember why I'm in such a hurry to get to work. Oh! Right. Job equals money equals bills getting paid and all that jazz.

"I don't think I'd have to exert myself too much, dear Brother." I wave back in Pablo's direction. "Go. Conspire about your story. Let me go to work."

He saunters back over to the bed and flops down on it. "We have been commanded to conspire. We'll have to determine why your friend insists on staying in San Diego, as it's obvious why you stay in Denver."

I head out of the room to get my backpack and a thermos of coffee.

"And by the way, this really isn't a proper bed, Pablo."

"Oh, you get used to it."


"Are you kidding? When I'm curled up with Andi, I wouldn't notice if I were sleeping on a bed of nails."

"Hmmm, there is that..."

I shake my head and smile. I really can't begin to imagine what the future will be like with those two as part of my life... forever. Pablo has always had a delightful sense of humor, but he seems to be picking up some of Rene's wickedness. It's easy to see how Rene's charming and caring personality kept Maddie relatively stable and sane for so many years. I will likely be forever humbled and grateful that I was able to play a part in bringing them back together.

With my backpack over one shoulder and thermos of coffee in one hand, I walk down the street toward the bus stop. Bobby's kitchen window is still closed, but David's car isn't parked out front. I think Bobby's maybe a little annoyed with me. I grin to myself. Oh, it was so worth it, though!

It isn't finals week yet at either the University of Denver or the University of Colorado. That means the morning is dedicated primarily to checking in the new order of books, which isn't terribly big this week. Usually, we all rejoice when we get a bit of a break like this. We don't often get the chance to catch up on what's going on in one another's lives — aside from our monthly dinners at Casa Bonita. Anita, Julia, Stephanie, and Anna are working with me today — they are all rejoicing... I'm being grilled.

Perhaps "grilled" is a bit strong. But from questions about my family, to wedding plans, to detailing multiple times the charming tale of meeting Maddie, to the romantic yet sad trip to Paris... well, I feel as though I spend the entire morning answering personal questions. For once, lunch time can't come soon enough. It's not that I mind telling my friends about what's going on in my life... it's just that... well, I do get a little uncomfortable when it's all about me for hours at a time.

Fortunately, the afternoon goes by considerably faster, with a number of my favorite regulars looking for recommendations and Jonas returning the last book I'd assigned him to read.

"Miss Yazzie, you have some ulterior motive with all these books you've been giving me to read." He grins as he accepts the latest I've chosen for him.

"How can you say such things, Jonas Gundersen? I'm wounded to the core of my being." I manage to hold back the laugh for all of two second. "Of course I have an ulterior motive. All librarians have ulterior motives, you know."

"Yeah, but how many miserable kids have you taken under your wing and taught them how to fly? Metaphorically speaking, of course."

I tilt my head back and forth while pretending to think about it, and then shrug. "Two... no, it's been three.

He looks at me knowingly... oh, yes, I've definitely helped this young man learn how to think! "And just what are these other two people doing with their lives these days?"

"Oh, a little of this, a little of that. One's an adjunct professor of literature at a small private school in upstate New York. The other is a first-year student in Yale's Religious Studies graduate program."

He raises both eyebrows, clearly surprised. "You gave them all the same assignments you've given me?"

"Up to a certain point, yes. Obviously, you've read books that have been published since they left the nest... metaphorically speaking, of course."

Jonas shakes his head. "And here I was all set to accuse you of molding me into a librarian."

I laugh. "Your predecessors accused me of the same thing, and I'll tell you the same thing I told them. Follow your heart. Choose to do something you love, because that's going to make you a whole lot happier than doing something for the money, or because someone expects you to follow a particular path."

It doesn't take someone with my abilities to see I've knocked a preconception or two askew in his mind. But I've been doing that for going on five years now. He no longer immediately tries to debate me; now, he takes time to think about the ideas I knocked around in his head.

"So, um... this book... Let's Pretend This Never Happened? How can a memoir be mostly true?"

"How do you think it's possible?"

"Well, there's misremembering, but then the title wouldn't admit that it's mostly true, would it? If you remember something differently than the other people in the incident, that's still your memory, so you'd believe it was true."

"Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't. Let's say I wrote a little story about something that happened when I was little, and my brother wrote a story about the same thing. They could be totally different stories, right? So maybe I'd say my story was mostly true because my brother remembers that event happened a different way."

"Huh. Okay. I suppose the more obvious way of something being mostly true would be changing the names and maybe some other details to protect the identities of people in the story."

"And that's pretty much what's going on in this book."

He stares at the cover of the book. "That's not a real mouse, is it? I mean, who'd dress up a real mouse like that?"

"I think it was once a real mouse."

When he looks up from the book, the expression on his face is priceless. I am not going to laugh, though.


"Just read the book, Jonas. Come back next week and tell me why I gave it to you."

He shook his head as he put the book in his backpack. "Next Friday?"

"Make it Thursday; I'm off on Friday next week."

As he walks out the door, I can just barely hear him mutter to himself. "I still think she's trying to turn me into a librarian."

I smile as I watch him pull his jacket tighter around himself. "Only if that's what you really want, Jonas," I whisper. "Only if that's what you want."

At the end of the day, I check my phone for messages... I half expect Pablo to have called or texted me that he'll be working late. I'm relieved when I don't find a message.

On the ride home, I try to read one of my books, but I just can't concentrate. All I can think about is the bizarre dream I've been having. Maybe Pablo's right; it could just be anxiety and nerves. There hasn't been a year yet that there weren't dire predictions of massive budget cuts and layoffs, and none of those apocalyptic predictions ever came true. It's hard to tell if the brouhaha is worse this year than past years; it all seems to be the same people telling the same stories in the same strident voices. Maybe I'm just tired of the story. After all, how many times can a person hear that their job is on the line before they become numb to the panic the politicians are trying to spread?

There's no point worrying about it, and there's no way I'm going to ask Talia. Things happen as they should, and when they should.

Besides, tonight is supposed to be a fun night with my cousin and his fiancée!

I can see Charlie's van as I get off the bus, and by the time I'm halfway to the house, he's backing his van into my driveway. Smart boy!

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I hear the human tsunami giving him an earful.

I pass Bobby's house and stand on the sidewalk at the edge of my driveway. Charlie and Susan have their arms wrapped around each other's waists and lean against the front of the van, chatting and ignoring my neighbor. Bobby is standing with his arms crossed, tapping one foot impatiently, near his back door. I pretend not to see him as I walk over to my cousins.

"Charlie! Susan! Wow, it seems like just yesterday that I saw you."

Susan chuckles and Charlie rolls his eyes. "Six days, cousin. And I think by the time the year is over, we'll have seen you more in this one year that the past five."

"Just five? I'd have said more like nine or ten since I usually only get to Flagstaff once a year, and half the time you two are on the road."

"Well, you may have a point. Ah..." Charlie jerks his head toward Bobby. "Can we get your bike out of the van so your precious Pablo can park his car here when he gets home? Goodness only knows how soon that's going to be!"

"Oh, probably not for another half an hour or so, but sure... let me go inside and change, and I'll help."

"Andrea, I told them this was Pablo's spot and only Pablo's spot, but they just won't listen."

I look at him striding toward us, definitely not in one of his better moods. "Oh, hi, Bobby! How was work today? This is my cousin Charlie Yazzie and his fiancée Susan Greymountain. You remember I mentioned I left my bike in New Mexico, right? They're just returning it for me. Guys, this is Bobby Tompkins, my neighbor and best friend."

Bobby sniffs but seems partially mollified. "Well, it is Pablo's space."

"Yes, you're absolutely right. And Pablo knows about it, and I'm sure we can get my bike wrestled into the garage and the van out on the street well before Pablo gets home."

I look at Charlie and pat his arm. "Give me five minutes."

I head to the front door, as I clearly recall locking the deadbolt on the back door this morning. Bobby doesn't have that key, and I usually don't carry it with me either. I've played this game so many times: let's see how fast it takes to get out of work clothes and into comfy clothes, both as Ninja and the Librarian. I know it will take only about three minutes to change. I'm going to need another minute or two to hide the Ducati. Charlie will love it, and I'll let him ogle it later, but it's definitely not something Bobby needs to see. As I scoop the mail off the floor and toss it in the basket on the side table, I notice one of the envelopes is from the DMV. I grin. I'm definitely adding "miracle worker" to the list of Rodrigo Sanchez's talents.

Hmmm. I'm pretty sure he's worked more than three miracles for me over the years. I ought to nominate him for sainthood. Well, maybe I should talk Pablo first... he probably understands the workings of Catholicism better than I do. I'm not sure if a person needs to be dead before they can be declared a saint. Oh, it doesn't matter. I have all the time in the world.

I sigh. I'm going to really need the Pentad in the future. I have a large family, and I'm going to outlive every single one of them.

Now, wasn't I going to work on staying cheerful this evening? Yes. Yes, I believe that's what I decided.

With jeans and the Cereal Killer tee shirt replacing skirt and blouse, sneakers replacing the pumps, I head out to the garage. I call on Fox's invisibility to hide the Ducati before triggering the garage door opener.

Charlie has the back doors to the van open and leans over my bike. "Sorry, I don't have a ramp to roll it out, Andi. Uncle Leon said he couldn't spare his. But we did get it in backward so it would be easier to roll it out." His expression is so forlorn that I have to laugh.

"Hang on; I've probably got something here that we can improvise with." I squeeze behind the table where I keep my helmet and the mini-packs that fit in the bike's panniers. Yep, I kept the spare pieces of wood from the dojo closet project. The two by fours are a bit dusty, but I suppose that's to be expected as they've been on the floor for close to five years. It would be easy enough to grab two of them and the plywood sheet that's leaning against the back wall, but that isn't part of the delicate librarian act. I pick up one two by four at a time and set them on the table.

I move my helmet and the mini-packs to the shelf behind me, then motion to Charlie. "Grab the two by fours, would you, Charlie? Susan, could you help me flip the plywood over the table?"

Charlie grabs a two by four in each hand and murmured, "The wind whispers that you have a new bike. We're not going to trip over it, are we?"

I grin and shift my eyes to the wall closest to the house. "Safely under cover, I just can't move the table more than an inch or two," I replied softly.

He grins as he turns and props the strips of wood against the van's back bumper. Susan and I make a show of pushing and pulling the plywood so it lies flat on the table; she's giggling and I'm trying really hard not to join her. I crawl under the table and the two of us drag the plywood over to the van where Charlie helps us position it over the two by fours to create an improvised and thoroughly unsafe ramp.

Bobby watches it all with fascination. "Where did you get all this..." He waves his hands at the newly devised ramp. "...this stuff? What would you ever do with it? Did that crazy man leave it here when he moved out? I knew he'd do something like that. I'm so glad he moved!"

I laugh as I climb into the van with Charlie. "Bobby, I built the closet in my basement. Sure, I'm a delicate librarian, but I'm not that delicate! I have many hidden talents." I wink at him.

"Oh my God, I'm sure I don't want to know about any of that! This is all terribly dangerous. You probably had to use a saw and everything." He shudders.

"Yep... and a sander, and a hammer, and a whole lot of nails, too."

I look at the setup, then the bike, then Susan and Bobby.

"Okay, can you two just stand on the bottom the ramp until Charlie and I get the bike completely on the wood? That end's going to flip right up if it's not anchored."

Susan plants both feet firmly on the plywood while Bobby barely has his toes on the wood. She chuckles, takes his arm and urges him to get his feet settled the same way hers are.

"Come on now, Bobby, really stand on the ramp. Trust me, it's way safer that way."

"Yep, on the world's most rickety ramp."

"What?!" Bobby's eyes are wide with worry and a little fear.

"Charlie!" Susan sighs. "Don't listen to him, Bobby. I've been on stages that were less sturdy."

"And how did that turn out, sweetie?" My cousin has a devilish grin on his face.

I Gibbs slap him. "Come on, stop playing around. You can tell stories over dinner. Let's get my bike in the garage so you can get the van out of the driveway, okay?"

He chuckles. "Fine, fine. But you just gave me permission to tell stories all night, you know."

I sigh and start pushing the bike out of the van.

There are no mishaps as we get the bike into the garage, thankfully. Susan helps me move the wood back to the far corner of the garage while Charlie parks the van down the street. I grab the remote from the bike's storage compartment and close the garage door as Charlie walks back up the driveway to stand once again with an arm wrapped around Susan. They're so adorable together.

"Is there any work you need done on the bike I can help you with while I'm in town, Andi?"

"I did have a couple of ideas for modifications. Maybe we can go over the bike and talk about them tomorrow?"

"Sure. Oh, it will need to be early if that's okay. We've got some appointments lined up for late morning and earlier afternoon."

"Yeah, early is fine. I need to be at work at noon."

"Oh my God, Andi! Don't you ever get a day off?"

I just look at Bobby and burst out laughing. "Honey, didn't I just come back from vacation two days ago? Sunday and Friday are my days off next week since I know you keep track. No wait... David is the one who keeps track." I giggle as he pretends to swat me.

"We were thinking of going to Beau Jo's for dinner. Do you and David want to join us?"

"Oh, Andi, you know we'd love to, but his parents are going to some fancy thing where his dad works and they invited us along."

I try to remember what fancy things might be going on at DU this weekend, but I'm drawing a blank. "Well, as long as the two of you have a good time, that's all that matters, right?"

"Exactly! I'll make dinner tomorrow night, though." He looks at Charlie and Susan. "You'll be able to make it, won't you?"

Susan smiles and answers for both of them. "Andi's told us so much about your fantastic culinary skills that we wouldn't miss it for the world!"

Bobby beams with happiness, the incident of the illicit driveway parking apparently forgotten. He does love to show off his kitchen skills to new people.

"Oh dear! David will be here any minute and I haven't even started getting ready! It was nice meeting you two, and I'll see you tomorrow!" He dashes into his house, and we're left alone in the driveway... it's the calm after the storm.

"Wow. He's something else, isn't he?"

I chuckle. "That he is, Charlie. That he is.

"Come on in. You can tell me stories of the family while we wait for Pablo to get home from work."

The rest of the evening is delightful. I love Beau Jo's pizza, and I love introducing it to people who have never experienced it before. Charlie and Susan are excited about their appointments tomorrow. They have an interview on one of the local radio stations in the morning to talk about their band. Then they have a meeting with the Pow Wow planning committee after lunch to discuss whether or not the band could put together a couple of sets for the March Pow Wow. And the two of them are completely over the top enthusiastic about the band's latest project.

Heck, even I'm excited about their project. It's outrageously ambitious and fantastically beautiful. They want to visit every Nation, talk to as many elders as they can, and create a musical montage of the First Nations. Charlie had gotten the idea from Billy last year — at least indirectly — when Billy was telling him about his work of gathering oral histories from around the Navajo Nation.

"Imagine it, Andi... hours of music that tell the stories of all the People. Who were we, how did we live, where did we live, what were our relationships with one another before the Europeans came? What happened, how did we stay strong as a People during the Long Walks, the Trails of Tears? Who are we now, and how are we keeping our identities alive?"

"I get shivers just thinking about it, Charlie. It's going to take you years to do all that!"

He shrugs and smiles. "It's worth it. And the elders we've talked to are thrilled that someone from our generation is actually interested in hearing their stories. There are more people in our generation going back into our histories to find out who we are. But at the same time, there's still a lot of denial, too. It's like folks in their twenties, thirties, even forties believe the stereotypes they see on the old westerns. The teens, though, and the kids in their early twenties... we're not taking that at face value anymore.

"And it's kind of fun talking to people who know the grandparents and great-grandparents who can tell the stories, even if there's no recognized tribe in the area. Meeting folks from all the different Nations is pretty cool."

Susan chuckles. "Part of it's your fault, you know, Andi."

"Me? What did I do?"

She grins. "More than anyone else I've ever met, you are so confident about being Navajo. And you're so subtly insistent — and sometimes not so subtly — that we should be the ones defining ourselves as Diné. That we shouldn't let the rest of the world tell us who we are, and how we should be.

"Even with all the other stuff you do, I think that's what makes me proudest to be your cousin. You're kind of my hero."

"Oh my gods, no. You're going to embarrass me so badly my hair will catch fire from the blushing!"

Pablo chuckles. "Hey, Charlie, how about writing a song about the Wonder Woman of the Navajo here."

"Hey, stop! You guys, no!"

"I don't know, Pablo... that seems like it should be more a Rock and Roll song, and our thing is Country. But I might be able to put you in touch with a group who could probably write something like that. And Susan, honey, Dooly is as intent on preserving his Lakota heritage as Andi is about ours."

"Oh, I know. It's just that... well, we're Navajo, not Lakota."

I glare at all three of them. "I'm going to hurt you all a lot if you don't stop. There are plenty of people doing more to keep our heritage alive than me. Go write songs about them."

Pablo leans over and hugs me. "But you're family, and you're loved, and if you don't want a song written about you, I won't commission a song about you. K'é."

Okay, how can I stay mad at him when he takes the trouble to remember words in my native language? I kiss his cheek.


Despite the teasing, it turns out to be a relaxing, fun and... yes, peaceful evening. When we get back to the house, Pablo helps Charlie bring his and Susan's bags in while I point out the amenities of the guest room to Susan. The four of us sit in the living room and talk possibly a bit later into the night than we intended. But it's so good to have the family around that I don't think any of us care that we're missing out on an extra hour or two of sleep.

I have that same dream again, though. Fortunately, the fog isn't talking to me tonight, but it's still disconcerting.

On Saturday morning, the only modification that really needs to be made to the Ducati is installing the thumb lock on the storage compartment. The envelope from the DMV yesterday was, indeed, the revised registration for the plates, so I remove the plates from the Harley and put them on the Ducati. And then I dig out the plates for the Harley that are registered to Andrea Yazzie, and put them on the Harley.

It almost makes me want to ride the Harley to work! Except that every time I do that, something comes up and I wind up rushing home to change clothes and head back out to my second job. No thank you, I'd prefer a quiet evening and not some emergency that Ninja needs to handle. Pablo drops me at the library on his way to the District 6 station where he made plans to play basketball with a group of his coworkers.

Dinner with Bobby and David is somewhat livelier than dinner with just Charlie and Susan had been the night before, but Bobby seems to be on his best behavior. David tries flirting with Charlie, who's completely oblivious, though Susan notices and is having a difficult time suppressing her giggles.

Again, we stay up just a bit later than anticipated. But my best friend and my cousins are so thoroughly engaged in the conversation of the band's musical project that I don't have the heart to interrupt them. But David finally whispers to Bobby, "Honey, we should let them go next door and get some sleep. They have to drive all the way to South Dakota tomorrow." It's my turn to suppress giggles.

And again... the dream; all I'm doing is standing in the fog. But maybe I might have heard some giggling... or it could have been my imagination.

In the morning, I wake early and practice my Taiji for about an hour. It's getting more and more obvious that I need far less practice than I did only three months ago. Ten minutes of practice seems to energize me as much as an hour or more once did. I think about it as I'm making breakfast, and I don't have any way I can rationally explain it. Heck, I can't even think of any irrational explanations.

You know, I think I'll write to Grandmaster Chen and see what he thinks. This is all about the qi... he understand qi.

After breakfast, we say our goodbyes to my cousins and wish them a safe journey. Pablo, as he likes to do every Sunday morning, spreads the Post out on the living room floor.

"I still don't know why you do that, Pablo. All you ever do is pull out the coupon section and then play shuffle the newspaper all by yourself."

He sighs. "Sometimes, I don't know why I do it either. It's really much more fun with my sisters. There's no excitement to the game when you play with somebody..." He stares at me for a few seconds. "...who doesn't want to fight over any of the sections."

I grin and shrug. "I can't help it I don't care about the order in which I read the paper. And besides, I've already read most of the news online by the time the newspaper gets here anyway."

He piles all the sections together and sits next to me on the couch with the coupons. "Well, you have a valid point there. The Internet has ruined my game."

"I'm not sure it was the Internet that ruined your game, dear. I think it's more likely the fact that you're not fourteen and living with your sisters."

"Maybe. Oh, look! King Soopers has steak on sale again this week... and a dollar off a loaf of Rudi's bread, limit three."

"Oh, that's a good deal. And we're nearly out of bread." I rest my head on his shoulder and tuck my feet up next to me. "Besides being disgustingly domestic, is there anything you'd like to do today?"

"Hmmm... does sex count as being domestic?"

"Okay, and besides that." I look up at his smiling face. "Don't you want to get out of the house? We could go for a hike."

"That actually sounds like a good idea... sure, let's do that. Where do you want to go?"

"How about driving down to the Springs and going to the Garden of the Gods? Can you believe I've never been there?"

He looks at me in surprise. "Seriously? In that case, we're going. It's absolutely beautiful, and you're going to love it."

It doesn't take long to get ready. I figure jeans and a long sleeve polo shirt are fine; obviously I'm wearing my boots. I add a windbreaker because the temperatures are supposed to be around freezing down there and I don't want to freak people out by not dressing for the weather. I run downstairs to fetch my staff while Pablo puts water and some snacks in the car.

He looks at the staff when he comes back to the house.

"Why the staff?"

"Why the gun?"

He raises an eyebrow. "How do you know I have my gun?"

I roll my eyes. "You're a cop. And you hold your arm differently when you've got the holster on." I grin at him. "And what if I want to practice my Taiji in the beautiful Garden of the Gods, huh?"

He chuckles. "All right, Kung Fu Woman. Let's take a drive and a hike. We could have dinner down there, too. You know any good places in the Springs?"

I look at him like he's a crazy person as we walk out to his car. "Seriously? You realize who you're talking to, right?"

"Hey, for all I know," he says as he opens the passenger door for me, "you and your work cronies head down there on occasion."

I wait until he gets behind the wheel and starts the car before answering. "With the magnificence of Casa Bonita right up the road, why would we ever go anywhere else?"

He grins as we head toward the highway. "I'm surprised none of you get food poisoning from going there."

"Well, I'm certainly not going to get food poisoning, and I think everyone else has built up immunity to the food. There are certain dishes that are generally considered safe, and we stick with those. And how could we resist the pseudo cliff divers in their Speedos?"

"Those pseudo cliff divers are terrifying in their Speedos."

I laugh. "They are, aren't they?"

The drive is pleasant; the weather is fairly nice, although it's a bit overcast... there's not much traffic... and we chat about mostly light, fun and silly things.

It's not until we reach the entrance to the park that I start to feel uneasy; apparently, I feel uneasy enough for it to travel through our bond to Pablo.


"I don't know. It just feels like there's something a little off."

"No ideas on what it might be?"

I shake my head. "Nope. It's really vague, though. Maybe there's just something odd about the touristy stuff around the entrance."

He doesn't say anything else as we drive to the Visitor and Nature Center to pick up a map of the park. There aren't many people here at the moment, so we lean against the counter and look at the hiking trails.

"Ooh, how about this one?" I ask, pointing to the trail that winds farthest west.

He looks at the legends on the map and laughs. "Sure, pick the trail with the highest elevation. Am I going to be able to keep up with you?"

The very definitely not busy clerk comes over when he hears Pablo's remark. "You're looking at Cabin Canyon Trail? It's not really that bad. I've hiked it a couple of times. It's not real popular, though. Not sure why."

"Maybe the elevation?" Pablo suggests with a smile.

"Nah, I think it's more the isolation. See here? Palmer Trail has nearly the same elevation at the north end, but it sticks pretty close to Juniper Way. These trails over here — the other end of Palmer, Siamese Twins, and Cabin Canyon all wind farther way from the road. And since the closest parking is over here at the Trading Post, most folks just stick to the trails closer to the main parking lot."

"See? It's perfect, honey. It will be completely romantic."

"Well, I'm sold," my husband says with a smile. "What could be better than a romantic stroll with my lovely fiancée, especially one that might cause my blood vessels to explode?"

I laugh. "Oh stop it, you loon. You're as healthy as an ox."

The clerk's faintly shadowed smile that says he wishes he had someone to go romantically hiking with. But he remains friendly and professional as he says to Pablo, "It's really gorgeous when you get to the apex of the trail. You can see out over a small valley, and then the Rockies are just, you know, right there."

Pablo shakes his head, then bends down to kiss me. "You're a bad influence on me, dear."

"Pffft. Am not. I think you were the one who was a bad influence on me." I turn to the clerk, smile. "Thanks for the information. Maybe I'll get lucky and get a good picture or two." I tug Pablo's sleeve. "Come on, dear. My feet are itching to dance among the rocks and mountains. Meet you at the car... well, unless I see something totally kitschy for Bobby."

"She seems awfully fun," the clerk says as Pablo refolds the map.

Pablo smiles broadly. "She's the best. I'm kind of an idiot and it took me almost eleven years to tell her that, but I finally did." He looks at the mess he made of the map. "I suck at these things."

The clerk takes the map and grins. "It's a science. Plus, the people who print these things are sadists." He makes the first two folds, the important ones, and then speaks again, more softly, without looking up. "Kind of wish I had the guts to mention to the person I like that... well... you know."

I feel Pablo's eyes on me as I look at some of the tacky souvenirs along the wall. I'm reminded of the day out in Idaho Springs, in a considerably smaller gift shop. I was waiting for Masterson's people to get into position so we could begin the rescue of those eight kids — though we didn't know about them until we got into the mine — and Wolverine. The clerk out there had been a helpful young man, too. Maybe there's a mold for gift shop clerks.

"She likes to say that things happen exactly as they should happen, exactly when they're supposed to happen," Pablo says. "I think she's right. I'm pretty sure it took me as long as it did to say something only because the time wasn't right until recently."

"I'm not sure the time will ever be right," the clerk says softly. "I'm... he's..." He handed Pablo the folded map.

Tucking the map in his back pocket, Pablo says, "If you don't mind a word of advice... you might consider moving up to Denver." He smiles a half fatherly, half brotherly sort of smile. "We're a bit more tolerant up there.

"Thanks for the map, man."

We walk out of the Visitor's Center together, and I simply enjoy his company, the crisp cool air, and the nearness of the mountains. It's not until we're driving up Garden Drive to the Trading Post and the parking lot there that I say, "That was nice of you... reassuring the kid like that."

He glances at me and smiles. "Well, it was the right thing to do. And it shows I've actually been listening to you."

I giggle. "I know you listen. You just don't always pay attention."

"You wound me, my lady! I live for your every word!"

I laugh. "Good gods, Pablo, don't ever change. Just because we're living together, and going to get married and all that stuff, don't ever stop being my silly, serious, wonderful friend who argues with me about Hungarian food, and opens my door even when it makes me batty, and says all the right things to make me laugh."

"People change, people grow... but I'll always be here for you, Andrea; I'll always be your friend. You can count on me, you know that."

I look at him before getting out of the car at the Trading Post, smiling... full of joy, full of wonder. "I love you. I'm lucky to have a friend like you."

"Come, my lady. Let's wander our kingdom and see the splendor of its natural beauty." As he gets out of the car and comes around to open my door, I take my staff from the back seat and touch it with a bit of Fox's magic. Now it's a fairly plain walking staff... nothing fancy or ornate about it.

As we walk across the lot to Balanced Rock Trail, I feel that odd trickle of unease again. I can't quite tell where it's coming from or just what it is, but... well, it's almost as unnerving as my bizarre dream.

The walk along the first trail is gentle and easy, across a field with a few leafless bushes and only a few more coniferous trees. I stop for a moment to remove my windbreaker and tie the sleeves around my hips. We cross another one of the roads and the path inclines slightly more, but still not enough that I'd consider it a difficult walk for even an average person.

I stop at the fork where Cabin Canyon Trail begins and ends its loop. I look down the left path, the path toward the apex of the trail; the path I thought would be ever so romantic. I feel unsettled; as if there's something wrong and I just can't place it.

"Andi? What is it?" He squeezes the hand he's been holding.

"I'm not sure. Something... really weird. You ever get that feeling where the hairs on the back of your neck seem to stand up?"

"Sure. It seems to be part of a cop's intuition. Guys — and gals — in Patrol talk about it all the time. Eventually, you just get used to it."

"Yeah, well, it's not normally something I get, but that's how I'm feeling now. How about you?"

He shakes his head. "No, all I'm noticing is that you're a little tense."

I look at the qi patterns around us. There's nothing glaringly odd, other than it all seems a bit dim in this area. I shake my head. "Well, maybe I'll figure it out as we're walking." I gesture to the left side of the loop. "Shall we?"

Despite the slight unease, it truly is a beautiful trail. The rise is gentle enough that we're not winded, but enough that before long we can look back at the spread of the park to the east. We can see the other winding trails, the rocks that gave the park its name, the roads that loop around the perimeter and twist around the more famous of the rock formations. To the west-southwest, Pike's Peak is visible despite the cloudiness of the day.

Pablo and I hold hands as we climb toward the westernmost point on the trail, our qi swirling softly around us. As we near the final bend in the trail before rounding to the incline to the apex, I feel something like a sharp jolt of static electricity in my hand. Obviously, Pablo feels it, too; he yelps in surprise as he lets go of my hand.

"Ow, what the hell was that?" he asks, rubbing his palm with his opposite thumb.

I curl my fingers around my lao gong point and shake my head. "No idea. But this is one weird place."

I close my eyes and look at the qi around us, and then gasp. "It's not possible... how is this even possible?" I guess I'm talking to myself, because it's not like Pablo is going to know any more about what's going on than I am.

"Come on, Andi... talk to me. When the weird starts happening, I need you to keep me in the loop."

I nod. "Right, sorry. It looks like... Damn it, I know what a portal looks like, and it looks like there's an open portal at the top of the ridge. And there shouldn't even be a portal of any kind here... open or not." Yes, I'm babbling. Though the existence of a portal would certainly explain why I thought that the qi was dimming here. I guess it wasn't the Air Force and whatever they've got going on under Cheyenne Mountain, after all. Well, I still hope they actually have a Stargate down there.

"Besides you, who knows how to open portals?"

"From this plane? No..." Oh shit.

Pablo gives me a sharp look. "That means yes... and that means you know who it is, too."

"Your girlfriend... well, your ancestral asshole's choice for your girlfriend."

He sighs and rubs his temples. "If it's not one job, it's the other. No rest for the wicked, my mom always said. And no, it never made sense to me, either." He shakes his head and nods in the direction of the portal. "Now what?"

I shrug. "We go to work. We right the wrong. It's what we do, isn't it?"

"It is." He steps closer and kisses me, making time stop. "A man should always kiss his wife before going to work," he says softly.

"It's good that a woman should always kiss her husband before going to work, too." I square my shoulders and nod. "I'll find the portal... you watch for anything else, okay?"

"As always, my dear. Lead on."

Not more than another dozen steps down the trail, I stop again. "Here."

There's no way anyone else on the planet could have seen it. Hell, even I wouldn't have been able to see it a month ago. It's the Pentad... well, the Pentad was the catalyst, I think. Nestled in the crevice of the rocky ground here at the apex of the trail, the tiny spot of darkness sucks qi from Mother... I can feel it trying to pull qi from me, too. It almost looks like a wound, an ulcer that's being held open by fibers of qi; Mother's own qi is being used against her. Oh, now I'm just pissed.

"I don't see anything. I'm not even sensing anything unusual, Andi."

I kneel just off the path beside the abomination, setting my staff beside me. "Trust me, love... it's here. And I can barely sense it now, but it's hideous. I don't know, maybe I felt it so strongly a few minutes ago because it was opening?" I shake my head. "I've never seen anything like this, so... yeah, kind of feeling my way through this."

"Can you tell where it goes?" Pablo's not looking at me at all; he's all cop right now, in the bad part of town, after dark, and his partner is collecting evidence. Hey... Law & Order fan here, remember.

I sneak a peek at him. I'm not that far off... he's even got his gun out. Boy, I sure hope we're the only lunatics taking the high elevation trail today. I focus on the portal again, freezing... possibly gasping or maybe just failing to breathe, I don't know. I guess I'm quiet too long.


"Yeah. I can tell." I'm trying to figure out how to close this thing fast fast fast, now now now... but I can't see the fast way, I can't see an easy way. Fuck, I can barely see any way! "That place where you were taken." I can hear how icy my voice is, I can hear the anger behind that ice. I can feel Pablo's eyes on me... briefly, fleetingly.

"Close it. I'll watch your back."


Ah, Mother... who did this to you?

{Daughter... love} {Daughter... careful}

Yes, Mother... as careful as I can be.

Mother and Father had agreed not to allow portals to be opened into our world on lands that were claimed by those of the First People. This area is still a sacred place for the Ute People... but this abomination had already been in place when they made that promise. I wish they had been able to tell me about it.

I'm not quite sure what others would see, what they'd think I'm doing... probably just waving my hands around a bit foolishly. But there are webs and tangles and knots of qi holding the portal open. It's not really like untying knots... not completely. Parts of the binding look like a pile of chopsticks tossed about randomly, yet there's a definite pattern. The strands and bits and sticks and threads of qi are different colors. Dear Mother, I never knew there were so many hues of infinite saturations! As I pull this one, and then that one, I see how they've been woven. I feel and taste the different places Mother has gather qi to counterbalance the pain and evil of this small gateway to another — rather unpleasant — dimension.

How long has this been going on, Mother? There are so many layers!

Mother doesn't answer, but Father does.

{Daughter... evil came} {Daughters... destroyed evil}

Evil... evil that daughters destroyed? Dear gods, this has been festering since Stryker began his operations in Idaho Springs?!

A blue fiber of qi has the feel of the ocean depths. As all the threads and bits and sticks and strands are loosened, they fade back to the part of the Earth from which they were pulled. I can see that Mother was judicious in gathering her energy from the entire world; never too much taken from any one place. But there are so many threads to this weaving!

Patience, Andi. Perhaps the portal was opened quickly, and perhaps the initial bindings were set quickly — I won't know until I get closer to the inner layers — but Mother was careful. Mother understands.

A gentle breeze ruffles my hair; it's warm and points at a tangle I had thought was anchored deeply... yet Father's illumination shows it is perhaps one of the least dense of the knots. I pull thread after bit after strand after stick from the matted energy knot. I can see the prayers of so many different peoples holding back the repugnance of what lies at the center of all this. There is the honor of the First Nations for Mother, the intent to live in harmony with her and the changing world. There is the love of the Wiccans, the appreciation for the wonders of her diversity. There is the respect of those who call themselves environmentalists, who work so hard to protect her.

"I hate to rush you, hon, but I hope you're almost done. We have company."

I let a small tendril of awareness reach out to Pablo, to know through his senses what he knows.

Oh fuck. "Not really close to being done, darlin'... so keep that psycho away from me."

"That's my plan."

And partially falling into Logan's speech mannerisms makes me realize I would really, really like them here watching my back, too. And that makes me wonder where Rene is. He's been spending as much time with me and Pablo — well, mostly me, since he's been staying insubstantial, for the most part — as I assume he's spending with Maddie and Logan. Come to think of it... that's just plain sweet of him, and having the Pentad separated liked this probably isn't any easier on him than it is on the rest of us.

But where the hell are those guardians of mine? Bear? Fox? Opossum? Cobra?

Nothing. Just like in my dream... except this is definitely not a dream.

{Daughter... Evil blocks them} {Daughter... Evil pushes them}

Oh, great. It's just me and Pablo.

{Daughter... I watch} {Daughter... I protect}

Thank you, Father.

"My husband! You have returned to me! I have fresh rabbit; come to our home and I will make you a feast!"

Dear gods, I think I'm going to hurl.

"Stay back, lady. I don't know who you are, but this trail is temporarily closed."

"Oh, Pablo, love... you don't recognize your own wife?" The skanky psycho laughs. "Oh, of course not! In this world, I can't take my true form. Let me pass, dear husband. We will go to my home, and you will remember me."

Crap. How fast can I get this mess cleaned up? Ten more minutes? Probably not more than fifteen; but the closer I get to the center of this mess, the more odd stuff I'm finding wrapped around the qi.

"Andi," Pablo whispers, "how much longer?"

I honestly don't know, Pablo. I've got most of it unraveled, but as I get closer to the core, I'm finding some nasty oily stuff coating the qi making it even harder to pick loose. It's a lot like what the Shadowkin looks like when it starts to dissipate, but there's no life to it. Thank the Gods, Buddhas and Spirits!

Okay, just saying this whack job isn't going to give you much more time. Jesus, she's got worse scars than I had. Think I can kill her with a bullet?

I finish pulling apart the matted tangle of qi in my hands before answering. Your guess is as good as mine, Pablo. I'd hope bullets would at least slow her down. It looks like there are only two major webs left; everything else should brush easily away once these two are cleared out.

As I pick out the penultimate clot of qi and taint, the skank shrieks as if she's repeatedly being stabbed . Oh happiness and joy! If helping Mother hurts you, bitch... I can only hope my clean up of all this mess up gives you an aneurysm.

"Andi! Hurry up!"

"I'm working as fast as I can, Chief!"

Then the sound of gunfire rings out... two shots. Pablo swears, and a fierce gust of wind blows past me, causing the bitch to yelp in surprise. There's at least as much surprise from Pablo through our bond, but I hear the sound of his gun sliding back in his holster.

"Father's helping."

As I feel his gratitude flow over me, the bitch screams out again... only this time, she uses her words. "My Lord Tezcatlipoca! The unclean one seeks to separate us! Help your servant!"

I sense a malevolent presence nearing the portal's entrance from the other side. Damn, damn, damn... not enough time!

{Daughter... peace} {Daughter... assistance}

I can't imagine how much pain this portal has caused Mother, and I can't imagine how much energy she's already expended to keep it from affecting more than this tiny area of the park. But as I continue to concentrate on the tangle of qi, I can feel her bring up a volcano's worth of energy to dome over the portal as I begin working on the last knot.

{Daughter... hurry... please?}

My best, Mother, I swear it.

I can hear the sounds of Pablo and Tezcatlipoca's Chosen One fighting on the other side of the trail. We are also discovering some of the things she learned while training with Tezcatlipoca. The sun is completely occluded, although Pablo glows just enough so he can see.


"I'm fine. Almost finished... Mother's qi is more than bright enough."

This last one... damn! This last one is frustrating. It actually is a knot. If a piece of rope or a shoelace became this tangled, I'd pull out a pair of scissors. Unfortunately, that isn't an option here. Fox may not be here, but its gift of agility is coming in handy, as is Cobra's swiftness and Bear's instinct. Even without their presence, I know just which thread or bit or strand or stick of qi to pull or nudge.

The bitch cackles for a moment as Pablo grunts in pain, the favor is returned a moment later. There's no way of knowing just how good the bitch's hand to hand fighting is. But Pablo has gotten at least an order of magnitude better than he was that day I goaded him in City Park after Denise died. And for a Normal, he was pretty darn good.

I know bobcats are common in this area, but I wouldn't have expected them to come this close to the trails. Certainly not as a group since they're even more solitary than the bigger cats in Jefferson County. I certainly wouldn't have expected them to come up to the trail when there are very obviously several people getting cranky at each other. There's a steep slope a dozen or so paces away from where I work diligently on the last bit of poison; three of them top the rise and survey what's happening. I don't come down here often, and when I do I'm generally just passing by on the highway, so I don't know them.

{Daughter... you called} {Daughter... they answered}

I hesitate for barely a second. I did?! Geez, my Doctor Doolittle thing usually takes more effort. Okay, whatever.

I pull the last bit of taint covered qi from the mess in my hands, and the remaining oily taint very nearly dissolves in my hands. Mother removes her qi dome and I pour the contamination through the portal. The thick black oil flows as slowly as honey, though it's something only Mother and I can see. Once the last of it has dribbled off my hands, I cover the portal with one hand and raise the other to the Sky.

I hope this doesn't hurt you, Mother.

{Daughter... love} {Daughter... hurry}

Father, lend me your strength!

I become a conduit between Mother and Father, Earth and Sky, with far more energy than I've ever held or touched all at once flowing through me. I can feel the anger and hatred of Tezcatlipoca pounding against my hand. I can feel him trying to leave his world and make my meridians his new pathway into our dimension. Father fills me, Mother's softer, weaker energy surrounds me. I pour a blast of qi through my lao gong point into the portal... shattering it, melting it, healing Mother in the time it takes to merely breathe twice.

The bitch screams; at least this time it has the sound of agony to it rather than rage and insanity.

"Andi!" I hear Pablo's cry, but it has no meaning. I haven't paid attention to what he and the bitch have been doing beyond merely noting that they trade blows. I haven't paid attention beyond vaguely recognizing that the bitch is holding back for fear of hurting him, her "dear husband," while he tries his damnedest to take her down.

I don't know at that point that she managed to break my husband's left arm, or that she managed to grab his gun during that one moment he still needs to concentrate to begin the healing. I don't know any of that until the portal is sealed, until I lower my arm, until I turn to see Pablo's Glock in the bitch's hands pointed right at me.

Some of the darkness has dissipated and I can see a remnant, a memory perhaps of what she must have once looked like in this dimension. Now, she's scarred worse than Pablo had been when he returned from Quetzalcoatl's dimension. One eye is missing and scarred over, and the other is a burning red; her mouth is half scarred closed so her attempt to smile is grotesque. There are other scars on her face and neck; I can only imagine how badly the rest of her body is scarred.

"YOU WHORE!" she screams. "You have corrupted my husband. You have cut me off from my Lord Tezcatlipoca! You cannot be allowed to live!"

"Oh for gods' sake, just chill fuck out, bitch. From where I'm sitting, you're the bad guy in this story. Since it's my dimension and my world to protect, I don't think you're getting out of this story in a good way."

I call to the bobcats, and they growl softly, eager to do my bidding, almost overjoyed to see me. I gotta tell ya... that's a little weird because no animal has ever reacted that way in all the nearly twenty years I've been communicating with animals. I'm not going to argue about it right now, though. One paces behind me, almost as if she's guarding my back, as I start to stand. Two more begin circling around to either side of the bitch.

Bobcats aren't terribly big; they're only about twice the size of an average house cat. Unlike the larger cats, these three are striped and spotted — almost a cross between the markings of tigers and leopards. They might be small, but they're fierce carnivorous predators.

Pablo is lying on the ground; his eyes are closed and sweat is popping out in large beads on his forehead. She must have done more than break an arm then. He's got a higher tolerance for pain than I do... whatever she hit him with has got to be excruciating.

I know I should practically be passed out from the amount of energy I just channeled. I wouldn't have been able to even conceive of doing something like that three months ago. A month ago, I'd have been on the ground like Pablo, trying to catch my breath, trying to regain a sense of Self. But I stand with ease and grace, my staff in my hand as I face the Chosen One of Tezcatlipoca.

"Okay, Ugly Barbie... you want a throw down, let's do this. You gonna keep the gun? Because that's a fucking cowardly weapon for someone as high and mighty as you seem to think you are."

"You are protected by gods; my magic won't work on you. You have corrupted my husband with your poison. Your death will free him from his slavery to you."

Okay... this is nice. It's always fun dealing with crazy people.

"Your logic is nonexistent, I'm afraid." I can see the bobcats behind her moving closer and closer. They'd be happy to tear her to ribbons, and I don't even want to know how I know that. They're just waiting for a signal from me to begin their attack.

Just relax, guys. I don't want you getting hurt. That's a pretty serious gun she's got there.

"Chief? How it's going there?"

Pablo groans. "Not... so good... sorry. Harder to... heal without... Eagle's help."

How bad is it?

Even his mental voice is full of pain. Four, five broken ribs... lungs are okay, though... compound fracture left arm and dislocated shoulder. Bitch tried to rip my arm off to get my gun... her illusions are way better than what you do with Fox's magic, sorry to say.

Okay, do your best. I'll handle this as best I can. I seem to have made some instant friends here, but I don't want them getting hurt. It's not their fight.

I nod to the crazy woman as I curl my fingers in a beckoning motion to her. "Come on, bitch. Bring it..." I don't give her a chance to respond however as I take a lunge step forward, sweeping my staff in an arc to slam into her legs.

She can move quickly, but I'm faster. Still, instead of breaking the four bones in her lower legs, I merely trip her as she attempts to avoid my attack. Both Mother and Father share their energy with me; I truly appreciate it. Apparently, Ugly Barbie is still evil enough all on her own to keep the Spirits away because I can't even sense them. Well, I can sense Rene — as a very distant entity — but I suspect the fact that he was once human is the only reason I can feel him. No... Maddie and Logan are there in the back of my soul, too; it could just be the Pentad connection then.

Still, it's a bit odd since at least Rene was able to get into Tezcatlipoca's realm with us when we rescued Pablo. Why can't he get here, now?

As I gather qi, holding, holding, holding it until I feel as though I'm containing the power of the sun, I notice that the damn ancestral pest appears. He hovers above Pablo for a moment. I can't be bothered with him right now... I'll deal with him later. However, as I raise my hand to hit the uber crazy woman with a fireball of qi ten or twenty times greater than the energy blast Ji got, Quetzalcoatl launches himself at me, hitting me in the face and wrapping his snakey self around my neck. Tightly.

"You fucking bastard!" The hand that was going to blast Bitchy Barbie wraps just as tightly around Quetzalcoatl as the asshole is wrapped around my neck. The qi I was going to give to the psycho bitch I give to the psycho snake instead. I know the smell of charred snake is only an indication of a temporary respite from the asshole. Hopefully, it will take him a while to conjure up a new body.

I swipe my forearm across my face to get rid of at least some of the toasty snake bits. The next few seconds seems to stretch into minutes... long, agonizing minutes. I hear the crack of gunfire — again, two shots. I hear Pablo calling my name, his voice now filled with terror. I feel the bullets hit, and I think, Fuck, there goes another shirt. That pisses me off... a lot. I hear the bobcats screaming — they sound like cats that have had their tails stomped but good. It's a chillingly angry sound.

Then the pain registers. Oh shit. Either that bitch is as lucky as my cop or as good a marksman as he is. My sternum and a rib shatter, driving bone shards through my heart along with the bullets. Damn it, damn it, damn it!! I'm going to kill that fucking bitch!

Gotta go now, Pablo... but I swear on our love that I'll be back as soon as I can.

The last thing I hear before everything goes dark and still and quiet is Pablo calling my name again.

The darkness doesn't last long, although the silence does. I blink, and then groan. Really? Really??!! I couldn't die and hang out with Rene? I have to die and hang out in the place of the crazy talking fog? Oh, that is so not fair!

"Child... I did not expect to see you so soon." The voice is kindness and love. "I certainly didn't expect to see you alone."

I turn and manage a smile. Well, I think I do. Who knows if I even have a body when I'm dead? However, I do feel substantial... and delightfully free of pain.

"I didn't expect to visit your realm when I died, Great Spirit, so I'm pleasantly surprised and delighted to see you again."

"You've died? Oh, why so you have. How inconvenient for you. Well, no matter... your body will heal and call you back soon enough."

"Yep, with itching off the scale, no doubt." I chuckle. Silly things like that don't matter when one is visiting Great Spirit. "I thought for a second there I'd wound up inside the weird dream I've been having, with Zen Buddhist talking fog."

Great Spirit laughs. "Do not worry so over your dreams, child. There is a purpose to them, and you are learning to communicate... both you and that which you call the talking fog." She chuckles. "I must mention that thought. Perhaps that with which you converse in your dream will find it amusing, as well."

"Oh, don't go to any trouble on my account, really. For some reason, I think my frustration will only increase if this... whatever it is... knows how frustrated I am."

Great Spirit touches my face with feathery fingers. "No, child. There is frustration on both sides of the attempts at communication. Should mutual frustration not make all parties have more patience?"

I grin. "You sound like my mother."

Great Spirit inclines her head. "Knowing your respect and love for your mother, that is a high compliment, Andrea Yazzie. Soon you will need to return, to complete your current task as Warrior. Tell me, child... you had a passing thought of your Spirit Brother when you arrived here. Would you prefer to wait your return to life with him?"

I shake my head. "No, no... I think it's perfectly wonderful to visit with you. But if you're busy doing... well, whatever you do as Great Spirit, I'd be happy to sit with Rene while waiting to jump back into my body."

She steps forward and embraces me, then kisses my forehead. "I am never too busy to speak with you, O Warrior. Your Sister could come here, too, but she finds much comfort with her Husband."

"Of course she does. Their love is an amazing and beautiful thing."

I feel a tugging, a yearning deep in my soul.

"I think it's time to go. Although I enjoy visiting you, I think Pablo will be unhappy with me if I die very often." I manage to smile one last time before there is another moment of utter darkness.

I wake to the freaky weird feeling of bones reknitting, which itches less than other types of healing. Since I'm obviously alive, I seem to have missed the excitement of a furiously itching heart. Bonus! On the other hand, there's a very raspy tongue washing my face.

Okay, you can stop now. I'm fine. Thank you. All is well.

I open my eyes to see one of the bobcats looking at me intently. Word of you has spread far, Head Talker. You are not what we expected.

I hear the sounds of struggling; Pablo sounds furious, the skank sounds... skanky. I pat my chest and take a quick survey of any other injuries I might have sustained. Nope... as I told the cat, all is well.

Really? Well, we'll have to chat later. I'd be interested in hearing what stories the mountain lions have shared. But right now, I need to go rescue my mate from the predator.

I sit up and look over at Pablo's brawl with the skank. At the moment, she's straddling his torso, trying to get her hands around his neck. He's trying to get enough purchase on the slick ground to flip her off. I sigh as I stand; I leave my staff where I dropped it — a couple of feet away — when I was shot, and walk toward them on silent feet.

You know what your problem is, Pablo? You're a cop. You follow the rules.

He doesn't give any indication that he knows I'm up. In fact, he glares even more furiously at the skank and tries to land a left hook to her temple. Unfortunately, she moves her head back enough that his fist just glances off her jaw.

You're supposed to follow the rules, too, Andrea.

I step close enough to grab the skank's head and twist. Then I fling the corpse off my husband.

"If I followed the rules, the two of you would still be here rolling around on the ground at sunset." I reach a hand out to him and help him up, and we are suddenly surrounded by more Spirits than I think are associated with the two of us.

"Warrior! Are you all right?" Bear is a bellower, I see.

"Back off, you guys, I'm fine." I look at Pablo. "You're not, though." Even as I look at him, I can feel every one of his injuries he hadn't had time to heal slam into me like a Mack truck. We both stagger a bit, but then Rene is there with an arm around each of us. Cat — Cat? — is winding between our feet.

"Dear God, I can't leave the two of you alone for a minute, can I?" He looks at me. "You, young lady, gave your Sister a fright. That's really not something you want to do to Maddie, Andrea."

"Yeah, next time I'll warn you all. Hey, guys, about to be shot, might get dead." I grimace as a dislocated shoulder that I didn't have pops itself back into place. "Like I'd have any foreknowledge of that!" All of the injuries I pulled from Pablo seem to be healing well... thankfully most of them were broken bones. Less itching is always nice. My shoulder is sore though.

"I'd appreciate it if you could, though," Pablo says. "Damn, that hurt, Andi! It felt like my soul was being ripped out of my body and my heart was being crushed. I'm surprised I didn't pass out."

"I'd say you get used to it, Brother, but you don't. All you can do is take consolation in the fact that the rest of us fared only slightly better than you... though Maddie might have had it as bad as you." Rene looks us both over again, and then hugs us before stepping to the side so I'm bracketed by the two of them, to join us in looking at the dead skank.

I roll my shoulder a few times to work the soreness and stiffness out. "I don't know how the hell I just did what I just did, but that's something I'd like some warning about. You know waking up from dead, and then suddenly having a bunch of broken bones and a dislocated shoulder isn't my idea of a good time."

With a look of surprise, Pablo patted his shoulder, his arm, his ribs, then looked at me. "How did you do that?"

I roll my eyes at him. "Did I not just say I don't know? And don't we have bigger problems? What the hell do we do with the dead body?"

Quetzalcoatl chose that moment to return, hissing with eyes glowing brightly.

"Oh, this day's just getting better and better. You didn't get the hint first time, you idiot? You're not welcome here."

Cat hisses back at Quetzalcoatl, looking as if it would happily rip the ancestral annoyance to shreds in a nanosecond.

"You have doomed my Chosen One, Night Walker. His place was at the side of my brother's Chosen... to rebuild his people and our dynasty."

Before I can say anything, Pablo bursts out laughing and puts a hand on my shoulder. "Well, we might have a dead body to deal with, but we also get some comic relief while we figure it out."

"I don't know, I thought that statement was a bit on the inflammatory side. You know how I hate being called 'Night Walker.'" I look up at Pablo and smile. "But yeah, the rest of it was pretty funny."

"Let a Brother in on the joke?" Rene asks with curiosity.

"Oh, just that my ancestral pain in the ass," Pablo says, still chuckling, "was kind of an annoyance when it first woke up. Went on and on at great length — nearly driving poor Andi crazy — about how the two of us were destined to be mates and to fight the Shadow and blah blah blah, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera."

"To be fair, of course, it did have Raven's help in the crazy making department," I add.

Behind me, I think Bear just barely manages to stifle a chuckle.

Rene nods. "I can see where that would be a sick sort of funny. Andi, is it my imagination, or is that thing even more pompous than it was the last time I met it?"

In an instant, Quetzalcoatl is mere inches from Rene's face, hissing. "You do not belong here! You are corrupting my Chosen One!"

In the couple of seconds it takes Rene to react, I've reached over and grabbed the damn flying snake and hold it at arm's length, just staring at it. That's when Rene starts laughing, and he looks at me and then at Pablo.

"Hey, how about that, Brother? This thing actually noticed what a terrible influence I am on people!" He winks at Pablo. "You're corrupted beyond help and hope."

Pablo smiles back at Rene. "Ah, but you have not corrupted me as badly as your wife has corrupted mine." He points to the dead body.

I nod and look up at Rene. "He's right about that. I did learn that move from Maddie."

Quetzalcoatl is writhing and trying to wrap its tail around my arm, but every time it gets close to success, I zap it with a little blast of qi. I turn my head to look at the snake. The anger that I've had banked since I first sensed the portal blazes in my eyes, making them glow golden.

"I wonder what we should do with you," I say as I watch the three bobcats sniff at the dead body, and then watch Quetzalcoatl's movements with a great deal of interest. I feel Bear's paw rest on my shoulder.

"Might I recommend prudence, Warrior?"

"Recommend away, O Bear. In fact, I'm taking suggestions from the studio audience today."

Pablo looks at Eagle. "Is there a way to keep him from getting to our dimension? I mean, like ever?"

Eagle shakes its head. "No, not forever... but certainly for your lifetime, and through the time of the lives of your sisters' children's children."

Pablo raises an eyebrow. "But it could return in my children's lifetimes?"

Eagle nods. "It could. We believe your children will inherit many things from the Warrior. Perhaps when the Darkness arises once again, the Aztec demigod will have had time to consider a more diplomatic way of communicating with those who may be called upon to stand against the Darkness."

"That's a hell of a burden to drop on kids who aren't even born yet." That's sweet... Pablo is already a protective father.

"There are a number of families around the world who are descended from the clan of your People over which the Aztec demigods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca watched. It may not be your children or grandchildren who stand against the Darkness in the future. Be at peace, Pablo. Your Brother's father is of your clan, as is the man you call Sanchez."

Well, how about that? We're all just one big happy family.

Rene is just staring at Eagle. "You and I are going to have a chat later," he finally says.

I can see that the snaky thing wants to join in the conversation, but qi makes a pretty good anti-bark collar when my hand is wrapped around its neck.

"I still have a man in his prison dimension. I want him back before we banish this thing."

You want your man back, Night Walker? You shall have your man back!

From the height of about ten feet, Ben Grimm seems to fall from mid air, landing on the ground with a thud. He's wearing nothing more than tattered pants and the shreds of a tee shirt; he seems to be suffering from exposure, he has open wounds all over his body.

"Mon Dieu!" Rene disappears.

"This is your idea of keeping him safe?" I glare at the snake and my hand tightens around its neck.

Be grateful he's alive, Night Walker.

Rene returns with several blankets and tucks them around Ben. "He needs medical attention, Andi... a lot of it. The Shadowkin is the least of his worries at the moment."

"We need to deal with the dead skank and the ancestral asshole first."

"Then tell me where the nearest hospital is." Memories flash in his eyes, through our minds. "I have had experience taking folks I just happen to find on the side of the road to the emergency room."

We will take the meat, Head Talker. Already the cold is making it hard for many on the mountain to find food. We will share.

Pablo pales a bit. "Andi?"

"Oh, you heard that? I really wish I could figure out why you can sometimes hear and not at other times."

"It will come with time, Warrior. Pablo merely needs more practice," Eagle says placidly.

"I'd rather not hear stuff like that," Pablo mumbles.

I shake my head while showing Rene where the nearest hospital is, as well as the most direct route from Pablo's car. "Circle of life and all that jazz, dear." I waggle the fingers of my free hand at him. "Car keys?"

Thank you, friend Cat. Share as you will, but take care that no humans find evidence of the meat.

We are most clever, Head Talker. The Two Legs will not find us or the meat.

Rene easily lifts Ben in his arms while Pablo pulls out his keys.

"Fox, would you assist, please? I can make myself invisible... I'm not as certain I can keep this guy unseen long enough to get him into Pablo's car."

"Of course, friend Rene. I will not be needed here, will I, Warrior?" Fox asks as Pablo tucks his keys in the back pocket of Rene's jeans.

"No, no... Rene needs your help more than I do at the moment." I look at Rene, the Warrior's protectiveness of one of her own dimming the anger in my eyes ever so slightly. "I'm worried about the Shadowkin, Rene. That's not something I want roaming free."

"He's not going anywhere anytime soon, Sister. I'll keep an eye on him during his recovery."

I nod. "Let the hospital staff know you heard him mumbling something about Ninja. The Springs isn't part of my patrol territory, but the word will get back to me." I look at Pablo with a raised eyebrow. "It might be better to have you or Peregrine fetch him back up to Denver. Ninja isn't well-loved down here."

"Will Tommy be able to get rid of the Shadowkin without taking him to Arizona?"

I look at Ben, study the presence of Shadowkin coating his soul, then turn Ninja's exceptionally not nice, rather scary grin on Quetzalcoatl. "Oh, something tells me I might just be able to take care of the problem on my own this time."

I sense surprise from Rene, concern from Pablo, but provisional agreement from the Spirits. Rene shrugs and says, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do, kids," before he and Fox disappear.

"Well, that leaves us pretty much wide open in terms of options here, doesn't it?" I remark cheerfully. "Now... what was it you were saying about keeping this snake out of our dimension, O Eagle?"

"It's really as simple as returning Quetzalcoatl to his own dimension — or that of his prison world — and then sealing the portals to both places as you sealed the portal to Tezcatlipoca's realm."

"I'm not going to have to go through all the cleaning I did with this one, will I?"

"Definitely not, Warrior," Opossum says from its perch on my shoulder as it stares at Pablo's ancestral pain in the ass. "The portal to Tezcatlipoca's world was — what is the word? Sutured? Sewn? Yes, sewn open because his Chosen One did not have the strength to open a portal alone. By holding it open as it was, she was able to stretch the portal enough to pass through when she needed to hunt."

"And snaky bit here thought she was going to open the portal to the Shadow realm?" I ask with no small amount of skepticism.

"The Great Evil One would have added a considerable amount of power to the endeavor, Warrior," Eagle says. "Opening a portal to the darkest of all worlds would not have been as unlikely as you imagine."

"Well, that makes me much happier that they're all dead. Hmmm, that sounds a bit callous, doesn't it? Oh well.

"But, listen guys, I need to open one of the portals to toss His Aztec Assholeness in. And then find the other one, so it can be closed, too. How the heck am I going to open a portal and keep this douche canoe from flittering off? I have a feeling I'm the only one who could hang onto him long enough to get a portal open."

I grin at Quetzalcoatl again. "Though Logan probably could if he was here; maybe Maddie could, too... she's got enough dislike in her heart for you. Tsk. Dissing her husband like you did. Whatever were you thinking?" My expression, I'm afraid, turns a bit predatory. "They wouldn't be able to keep you quiet as easily as I can though. Not without choking the life out of this body of yours... which looks exactly like the one I scorched earlier. You don't believe in variations on a theme do you?"

I look up, and all the Spirits seem to be studiously avoiding looking at me. Their avoidance is so obvious that even Pablo looks confused.

"Okay, what?" Oh, we're going to play the let's pretend we didn't hear the Warrior game, are we? No. No, we are definitely not.


My Sister's guardian looks up at me, innocent as only a guilty cat can look.

"Yes, Warrior?"

"What's going on?" I ask oh so sweetly.

Cat's eyes dart from one of its brethren to the next, ears flattening as each of the other Spirits obviously says something to it. Quetzalcoatl starts thrashing about again, and I sigh as I zap it yet again with a micro blast of qi. "Chill the fuck out, asshole."

I look at Cat again. "You were going to tell me something, Cat?"

"I really shouldn't."

I nod. "I see. And yet you're Cat, and all cats do as they please. That's a well-known fact the world over."

"Still, it's a thing you truly ought to learn over time. It's best that way, isn't it? The gradual learning of one's abilities and such?"

"Slow and steady wins the race, as it were?"

"Yes! Precisely!"

"I see." I look at my husband. "Pablo, would you care to tell Cat about your three-year vacation in your ancestral asshole's prison world?"

Pablo crosses his arms and looks at Cat. "Let's just say there are times when sure and steady is a guaranteed ticket to being very dead, very fast. I believe my Sister would corroborate that statement."

Cat's ears flatten as it looks around at its brethren again. Quetzalcoatl just will not stop flipping out. "Listen, asshole," I nearly growl, "do you want to become a crispy critter again?" The asshole stops moving. "Right. Now remember that."

I look at my Sister's guardian again and sigh. "I'm running out of patience here. This was supposed to be a nice afternoon hike with Pablo, and it turned into a three ring circus. And I'm the one getting trampled to death by elephants — metaphorically speaking — in the center ring. Talk, don't talk... whatever. I'll figure something out, and it might be worse that whatever the hell it is the lot of you are afraid to tell me." I preemptively zapped Quetzalcoatl again.

Cat's ears remain plastered to its head, and it actually looks like it gulps before it says very, very, very softly, "You don't need the rituals to open a portal."

I look at the Spirit with surprise. Mostly. Maybe some shock, some disbelief.

"Apparently, Cat is only speaking so those with hyperacute hearing can understand, but it seems to be a doozy," Pablo says, looking between me and Cat. "Care to share?"

"The small furry one says I don't need the rituals I use to open a portal."

"Really? Well, that's handy... definitely a time saver."

I nod. I'm not sure it would work though. I feel qi tickling my feet and despite the fact that there are no trees anywhere in the area with leaves, I hear Mother's laughter.

Oh. Hmmm. Okay, that might work, sure.

"Would you grab my staff for me, honey?" I ask absently, as I begin pulling Mother's qi through the yong quan points in my feet.

"Oh, might I recommend caution, Warrior?" Eagle clearly seems distressed.

"Sure. I'm not sure it's an option at this point, but recommend anything you'd like, Eagle."

Pablo hands me my staff, and I tilt my head as I feel for the right location. Taking a few steps down the path, beyond the portal I healed, past the corpse of Tezcatlipoca's Chosen One, I step off the trail and face the most distinctive mountain in the area... Pike's Peak.

Cobra has draped itself over Pablo's shoulders as he walks with me, startling my husband in the process. Surprisingly, Cat follows along as well. The others seem to prefer a safer distance.

"Are you sure this is a good idea, Andi?"

I half snort and half laugh. "Pablo, I'm not really sure what I'm doing... but it feels like whatever I'm doing is the right thing. Just going with my gut, Detective." I smile as I close my eyes. "I know you understand that."

I feel like this would be easier if I weren't burdened with the physical manifestation of the idiotic Aztec demigod, but I'll just need to work around that little problem.

"Am I going to have to worry about anything jumping out at us?"

I can feel that odd sensation when Pablo and I seem to be one entity; he's poised to reach for his gun. I just shake my head, and he relaxes.

I am not pulling Mother's qi, and Mother isn't pushing. The qi is simply flowing through me. I breathe; I breathe... and Father's qi fills me. I feel the power building, building, building... then Pablo gently rests a hand on my shoulder.

Yes. Exactly.

I gently, softly tap my staff on Mother's skin and feel the portal open. I open my eyes and look down at it. It's barely the size of a salad plate and looks like it's balancing precariously on its edge, but plenty big enough to stuff Quetzalcoatl through. I kneel beside the portal and set my staff down again. Well, okay... maybe it's a tight fit. A very tight fit? And maybe I need to zap the stupid snake so it stops fighting me. I'm only sending it home. Sheesh. It's not like I'm sending it somewhere awful. The portal closes behind Quetzalcoatl. Once again, I place one hand on Mother — at the point where the portal is anchored — raise the other to Father, and allow their combined energies to seal the portal.

As I stand, I shake my head, more than a little perplexed.

"Something wrong, love?"

I look at Pablo, seeing the enormous amount of power shining in my eyes reflected in his. "No, and that's weird. Well, weird in a good way, I guess. I should feel exhausted or maybe shaky after channeling that much energy, but I feel fine." I study him, his qi that is my qi that is our qi, then need to ask, "How did you know you should put your hand on my shoulder?"

He chuckles. "Just going with my gut, my dear." He shrugs as he continues to smile. "I just figured if car batteries need to be grounded, and large electrical appliances need to be grounded, the crazy lady who's channeling the energy of the universe ought to be grounded, too."

I roll my eyes. "You're such a goof! I was only channeling the energy of Mother and Father, not the whole universe! I love you, silly man. It seems like it was exactly the right thing to do, however. Now..." I let out a hearty sigh. "I need to find the other portal and shut that down. I sure hope Eagle is right, and this is the last we'll see of that jerk."

Pablo wraps his arms around me. "Work, work, work... I'm not even going to wish for a vacation, because our last vacation turned into work, too. And... ah... well, I was going to say there's still a dead body off the trail, but it seems to have disappeared.

I turn to look back at the location of the battle, staying within the circle of his arms.

"Well, how about that? Those bobcats might be small, but they're remarkably efficient."

"Are we in a massive hurry to find the portal and close it? Gads, what if it's halfway around the world?"

"The first question... I don't know. The second... it won't be. The portals might move around, but I always seem to be able to find one when I'm looking for one."

"That's because you call them to you," Cat says helpfully, then flattens itself to the ground, ears back again. "Ooops."

I look at Cat, then the group of Eagle, Bear, and Opossum, and then back at Cat. "Another little something you weren't supposed to let slip?"

"You know, I think Madeline needs me. I'll just go reassure her that you're fine." Cat disappears, and Cobra chuckles. "Cat does whatever Cat wishes to do. Cat believes there are things you should know that most of us think are better left for other days."

"And on which side of the debate to you fall, Cobra?"

Cobra slides down our right shoulders so it can look at my face. "I represent swift and decisive actions and decisions. How can you make the best decisions or take the best course of action if you do not have all available information? I fall with Cat."

One of the bobcats climbs back up to the trail from the small valley off the apex of the trail.

We have moved the meat and hidden it nearby where the Two Feet will not see it. My brother and sister and I will move it after dark so others may share.

Pablo's arms tighten around me, and Cobra readjusts itself to drape over our shoulders more evenly.

The tales we have heard of the Head Talker say nothing of you walking in the company of Elementals. We have heard of your fearless mate, of course. The bobcat almost seems to bow. We greet you, Fiery One, mate of Head Talker the Warrior.

"Uh... thanks. Nice to meet you."

You and your siblings have my thanks. I still don't understand why you came, or how you even knew I was here, but I'm grateful for your help.

You called to us, your need for our presence called to us. It is the same. You called, we came. It is as the Wind said.

Then I thank you doubly, for it was my unknowing need that spoke, and your honor that answered.

Pablo rests the side of his head against mine. "Is this what it's like all the time when you're talking to the animals?"

I look up at Pablo. "Nah, this is a cat way of speaking... though thanks to the three big cats up in Jeffco, I seem to have gotten the nickname Head Talker to all the animals." I shrug. "Other animals have different speech patterns, and smaller species have a hard time talking in words... most birds, the rodents, house cats — both feral and domesticated — dogs, and the like. Though there are a few breed of dogs that are smarter than most people."

"Really? That's good to know, especially if we ever decide to get a dog for the kids. Would we want one that's smarter than they are, or not as smart? Though I'm sure they'll be brilliant like their mother, so a dog that's smarter than most of their friends, and almost as smart as they are."

I pat his arm. "You're babbling, dear. And stop planning the children's lives before they're even here. In fact, don't plan their lives for them at all, okay?" I smile at him. "I get it, though, love... it has been a damn freaky day."

The bobcat seems to chuckle. It would seem your mate is unaware of your reputation among those of us who live on the mountains.

I chuckle as well. This is the truth, Brave One. Perhaps I should introduce him to more of my friends to the north.

Tales of his bravery are already being told, and the part he played in ridding this place of foulness will be long remembered. Those who live here, near this holy place, can never repay the debt incurred because you freed us from the pain of the Evil Ones.

I am here, in this place and this time, to rid as many places as possible of the Evil Ones. I do this because I am Warrior. I do this because I care for Mother and Father, and all those who live upon her skin and within her flesh, for all those to soar on Father's winds. You owe me no debt, for I free you because you must be free. I free you because my heart knows this is Truth.

The tales spoke only in a small part of your wisdom and generosity, Head Talker. We wish you and your mate and your kits good hunting.

The bobcat turned and seemed to flee down the slope to join its siblings.

"This is ranking right up there among the weirdest days of my life," Pablo says as he holds me.

I lean against my husband, eyes closed, setting aside the bizarre of the day, and just enjoy the beauty of this sacred spot in Colorado. The creation story of the Ute Nation is centered here, and despite its role now as a tourist attraction and national natural landmark, the sacredness of this place can still be felt.

"Aren't you the one who said I'm a magnet for weird?"

"I was more right than I realized at the time." He sighs, but it's one of contentment... at least for the moment. "I suppose it will get weirder as time goes on."

I shrug. "Maybe. Or maybe things will plateau when we reach maximum weirdness."

"Oh joy."

I giggle. "Your life won't be boring."

"Gosh, you two are so adorable that I wish you were teenagers so I could tease you mercilessly. I see you got rid of the snake."

I open my eyes and look at Rene. "How's Ben?"

"Serious but stable is what the doctors are saying. The nurses seemed a little more worried, but admitted he'd probably be okay... eventually." He steps closer and wraps his arms around me... and Pablo. "You're really worried about this guy. You were furious with me when I mentioned his only release from the Shadowkin would be death... I can see the worry on your face right now. He's a good friend?"

I shake my head. "No. He's barely even an acquaintance, really. But he's one of mine, and I'm a little bit protective of my people." I stop as another thought crosses my mind. "Oh, shit. They're going to run blood tests on him, and unlike my blood, the standard tests are going to show he has the Virus. Damn it."

"He's a mutant."

During one of those first conversations I'd had with Rene, he'd said they had called it something different back when he was alive. It didn't matter; the bottom line was that it was just another way to become a mutant, another way to determine if a person was a mutant even if they didn't look like one.

I nod. "They'll take care of him at Memorial, but they're still going to want him out of there as soon as he's able to be transported."

"That reminds me... you should have heard the conversations in that emergency center." He grins at me. "First they thought the poor guy believed he'd been attacked by a ninja. Then the police showed up, and the two of them were arguing about whether or not this Ninja individual really exists. It's a good thing I was insubstantial because I couldn't stop laughing. The one kept insisting he had heard from a guy in some other county who'd heard it from someone else and so on, and so forth, that there really is a Super in Denver called Ninja. The other one was exceptionally closed-minded on the whole idea and kept insisting the only Super in Denver is some guy named Peregrine." He looks at Pablo and shrugs. "Sorry, Brother... no mention of you."

"And it sounds like I should be happy to keep it that way," Pablo replies with a chuckle. "This one," he says, and then kisses my cheek, "is still calling me Newbie."

"Am not! Now that you have that sexy uniform, I've been calling you Peacekeeper."

Rene snickers. "Well, it was hard to miss that the second cop has a schoolgirl crush on this Peregrine fellow. Is he really as amazing as she made him sound?"

I shrug. "Football captain, prom king, all American boy next door... great at public speaking, and a generally all around nice guy? What do you think?"

"I think he sounds a lot like me." Rene looks angelic and completely serious.

Sure. Two can play that game. I nod. "Just a bit more modest, that's all."

Rene laughs. "Touché, Sister." He steps back and executes a bow worthy of a Musketeer... the ones with the plumed hats and swords. "Now... what more needs to be done here? There must be something or your guardians would be leaving you in peace."

"But not you, Brother?" Pablo asks, grinning broadly.

We're interrupted just then by a vibrating phone. I should say I'm interrupted when one of my three phones begins vibrating. I pat various pockets to find the right one. I pull out the spy phone Perry gave me and note what might be a glint of avarice in Rene's eyes. The Look I give him just causes him to chuckle, and I merely shake my head before answering the phone.

"What can I do for you, Perry?"

My eyebrows raise in surprise as he explains the situation. That was fast.

"Yes, I do know him. He's one of my people kidnapped by the Aryan Knighthood a couple of weeks ago. But don't tell the hospital that... if he's as bad off as they're making it sound, I don't want them booting him out before he has at least a few days to recover."

I sigh.

"I know, Perry, I know. But he passes for Normal, so I'm guessing it's going to take forty-eight to seventy-two hours for the cultures to show he has the Virus."

I nod even as he's asking his question.

"Sure, give them my number. There's no way I can transport him, but I can work something out."

I rub my temple with my free hand.

"Well, it's virtually impossible to transport a healthy person on my bike, Perry, never mind one who's been beaten and — from your description — suffering from dehydration, exposure and malnutrition, too. And I'm very definitely not loved down in the Springs."

I shake my head.

"Oh, no. That's not it. It's because I take exception to the Psycho Fans of Jesus who come up to Denver to pick on people. I think they run back down to their head psycho and tell nasty stories about me."

I look down at the mess of my shirt. Gods damn it all, this isn't even a work shirt! That fucking bitch!

"Yeah, their clinic is fairly good up in Commerce City. I could probably talk Dennison into driving down to pick him up. But the more time Ben spends in a real hospital, the better." I pause for a moment. "Listen, Perry... if I get you a sketch in the next couple days, could your lovely wife put something together for me?

"Yes, I'm getting really tired to tossing out shirts and repairing leathers.

"What? No! You'll do no such thing!

"I'm not kidding, Peregrine. NO!"

I sigh again, and this time roll my eyes as well.

"We'll argue about it later then.

"What? Oh, yeah... pretty sure that would work.

"Yep, I'll ask him and let you know when I give you my sketch.

"Really? Well... I'm not sure about that. I mean, I'm fine with it, I'll have to check with Peacekeeper, though.

"Sure. Tomorrow's fine. Where do you want to meet?"

I nod. That's when one of my other phones rings. I pull it out of my pocket and toss it to Pablo without checking the caller ID. "I'll just be another minute here."

He catches the phone and shakes his head when he looks at the caller ID. "Damn it, Andi," he mutters. "Colorado Institute for the Terminally Insane. How may I help you?" he says.

Oooh, I'm so proud of him! My wicked snarky sense of humor is starting to wear off on him!

Well, either that or he's still terrified. Unfortunately, I suspect the latter.

"That's fine. Listen I have another call. I'll see you tomorrow at nine."

"Why, hello, Madeline," Pablo says calmly. "I'm wondering the same thing myself. Hold on... let me slap your Sister and put her on the line."

I disconnect and tuck the Peregrine spy phone back in my pocket.

Pablo jabs me in the side instead, and just hands me my personal phone. Then — perhaps wisely — he takes a few steps backward.

"Coward," I mumble at him.

"Yes, Maddie? I imagine you're calling about my not so dramatic death scene. Rene's already scolded me. And so has Pablo."

Ow. She sounds super unhappy.

"So I gathered from my husband and yours. For the record, I'm SO pissed at that skank of Tezcatlipoca's for ruining a perfectly good romantic afternoon with my husband and ruining one of the few shirts I own that Bobby finds acceptably casual that I just had to kill the bitch."

It's possible I'm still holding more than the recommended amount of qi.

"Um. Let's see. Skank dead. Tezcatlipoca sealed in his dimension. Quetzalcoatl fried, but he came back, dumped Ben at my feet — in terrible shape! So he's sealed in his dimension, too. I just need to find his back door and lock that up.

"Oh, Great Spirit says hi, and you can visit her when you die, too. I told her you liked spending time with Rene."

I smile sweetly at said Spirit Brother.

"Yeah, but none of the other hundred are after my husband," I respond to her comment. My expression turns to one of puzzlement. "Okay, well, apparently one of her gifts was illusions. Pablo said her illusions were way better than anything I do with Fox's magic. She got his gun away from him. Apparently decided shooting me in the heart was the best way to eliminate any competition for Pablo's affections." I snort. "As if. Anyway, I got dead... chatted with Great Spirit, woke up with a bobcat cleaning my face..." I draw my brows together even further and scratch the back of my head. "You know, there's a lot of weird shit going on today.

"And I don't know how this dead thing is supposed to work! You and Logan are the experts! Does Logan dying affect you like that? Because if it doesn't? I don't know."

I sigh, suddenly weary and worried.

"I don't know, Maddie," I say quietly.

I take a couple of deep breaths while she speaks.

"Yeah, weirder than usual. I mean, I'm kind of getting used to holding more qi than I ever thought normal... but I swear I don't remember calling to the bobcats like they say I did. And then after the bitch was dead, and Pablo got up, I could see he was hurt, and like all his injuries just instantly transferred to me. Not like that's never happened before, but only during sex. And oh my gods the portals! And... and..."

I take another deep breath. I'm babbling. Babbling isn't good. I look over at Pablo.

"He said it felt like his soul was being ripped out of his body and his heart was being crushed."

Her words send a chill through me. "Ya think?"

Apparently my face has an expression that worries Pablo enough to come over and wrap his arms around me.

"I'd prefer not to do that again, quite frankly," I say to Maddie. "While talking with Great Spirit is delightful, I'm sure chatting with my family will keep me just as happy. But you..." I pause, jaw clenched for a moment before the feeling of Pablo running his fingers through my hair, picking out bits of scrub grass and twigs, relaxes me. " admit to taking risks, and Rene has verified it more than once."

I look at Rene, then the Spirits arrayed around us.

"I'm not sure he's going to get much from them... or much they're going to let him share. Shit, Cat was more helpful here than any of my guardians... although rather reluctantly helpful. Well, okay, Cobra — while not especially forthcoming — wasn't actively trying to keep me from doing my job... in this case, opening a portal to the ancestral asshole's dimension. Hey, did I mentioned I just OPENED a portal? No Dance, no Song, just... blip! Instant portal!

"Oh, and here's another little tidbit I wasn't supposed to know... I can call the portals to me. Sweet, huh?" I say sarcastically.

"Maddie, I can understand this affecting Pablo the way it did. And if the rest of you were all likewise affected... yeah, that would make sense, too. But why you and not my Brothers? Sure, send Rene off to confer with the other Spirits, but I don't think they're going to share. You can't see Eagle, Bear and Opossum standing a good fifteen paces away and looking like I have mega cooties. Fox is sitting between them and me, looking paralyzed and not knowing what to do.

"Sister, I don't think they have any more idea what's going on than we do.

"Or they know exactly what's going on and just won't share.

"Either way, it's pretty bad."

I laugh with a complete absence of humor at her first question. "Oh, sure. Eagle's right here, looking at me like I've had way too many drinks and have just grabbed the keys to dad's brand new Lamborghini. Appalled doesn't even come close to the vibe I'm getting. The others just look like they're going to shit themselves."

I tilt my head, watching the flowing rivulets of qi in the area for a moment before sighing.

"Cat. I see where you are. Stop pretending to hide."

The Spirit slinks out from behind a rock, belly close to the ground, ears flattened against its head, tail puffed out as if thoroughly alarmed.

"You want to tell me what's going on?"

Cat shakes its head vehemently.

"If I insist, will you tell me what's going on?"

"Please don't."

"Huh." I shake my head. I'm becoming more convinced each day that the Spirits are all insane. Raven was just the tip of the demented iceberg. "How about you go hang out with Maddie like you said you were going to do?"

"Do I have to?"

I blink. In the time it takes to blink, I go from rather annoyed to eyes glowing pissed off.

"What. Do. You. Think?" I ask in an arctic tone.

"Okay." Cat disappears.

I sigh, close my eyes and lean my head against Pablo's shoulder. "Cat should be joining you momentarily, Maddie. I'm not sure you'll get any information out of the little fur ball, but apparently there is an exchange policy on guardian Spirits, after all."

To Maddie's second question, I can only sigh. "Wanting to take a trip to New York and having the time to take a trip to New York are two separate issues. I realize this little problem is a hell of a big deal... but so is the wedding at which Pablo and I are guests of honor. That's only six and a half weeks away. If I include both jobs, I don't have a day off until Christmas, which is two days before the wedding."

I kind of feel overwhelmed at the moment.

"You know..." Pablo starts to say something, then notices the look of disapproval his guardian Spirit is giving him. I can feel his frustration and anger starting to build, but he holds it in check.

"You know, I don't think these guys are going to be any help." He looks at Rene. "It seems to me, we ought to be going right to the top and talking to the Great Spirit."

Again, I sigh. "When do you think you'll be getting out to Colorado?" I ask Maddie. "I've got whole counties of open space. Pablo's idea might be the best option."

The very slight nod from Cobra might be my imagination... but I don't think so.

I nod slowly. "Sure. Well, assuming I don't have to work. But when I work on Fridays, I generally have either Saturday or Sunday off... so one of those three days will work." I sigh. "It's a bad time of year for Pablo, though not as bad as the folks in Patrol and Robbery have it, I guess."

That's crunch time for all the college students, but I'm not going to worry about that now. While I may be running from one end of the library to the other for my entire shift, unless one of the other librarians gets sick — and I will absolutely forbid it! — I don't have to worry about not getting a day off.

"We'll make it work," I say with what I hope is less frustration in my voice. "We'll have our own mini pow pow at some point over the weekend."

I smile. "Now let's hope the bad people of the world cooperate and take a break from trying to destroy the world, or our little pockets of it, and give us a vacation from their assholery." I pause a moment, but there isn't much more to be said. "I'll talk to you soon."

Our love to all of you. We miss you.

I disconnect and tuck the phone back in my pocket, then look up at Pablo.

"So. One more portal to close. I'm sorry, Pablo."

He wraps his arms around me in a tight hug. "Don't be sorry, Andrea. Sometimes work gets in the way. We'll always find a way to deal with it." He steps back and rests his hands on my shoulders. "If you lock up Q's world, what are you going to do with the Shadowkin you say you can suck out of Ben?"

"As long as I toss it into a place as bad as your ancestral pest's prison world or worse, it should be stuck there." I turn my head to glare at the Spirits on the other side of the trail. "And since I apparently don't need to tear up a grocery store to open up a portal, that shouldn't present any problems either."

I take one of his hands and twine our fingers firmly together. "Come on. Let's at least enjoy the rest of the walk until I find this other portal." I kiss his fingers before looking at our Spirit Brother.

"Are you coming along, Rene?" I ask, very pointedly ignoring Eagle, Bear, Opossum and Fox.

"Need you even ask? Apparently, you're in more need of a minder than Maddie is. Pablo can obviously use some help," he says with an exceptionally charming grin.

I roll my eyes and Pablo shakes his head.

We continue around Cabin Canyon Trail, no longer quite as impressed with the beauty as we were on our way to the westernmost part of the trail. Rene and Cobra are the only Spirits with us; Cobra has remained draped over Pablo's shoulders and Rene seems to be ensuring I'm between him and Pablo at all times. Yet another bit of weirdness, but I'm not going to think about that at the moment.

Rene has seen me open portals before, from both sides of them. In fact, he's probably seen me do this more often than Pablo has. So this new development could well be as peculiar — almost as peculiar? — to him as it is for me.

I'm not sure I really believe Cat's assertion that I call the portals to me. I can't seem to wrap my head around the concept that it's even possible. I know this is supposed to be a romantic afternoon for me and Pablo, but I seem to be off and running as the Olympic champion of Weird Magnetism. I feel like Rene is a steadying force here today — unusual, as he's generally the instigator of naughtiness — but I'm glad he's sticking around for a while. It's almost as if I can manage to remain calm about all this lunacy as long as he's here. And as long as I'm calm and he's here, Pablo can remain calm.

As we near the junction with Palmer Trail, I slip my windbreaker back on and zip it up to hide the bullet holes and blood. This section of Palmer is wide and close to the parking lot, and it's popular enough that I expect to come across at least a couple of people braving the temperatures to take a stroll. We manage to get lucky as we walk along Palmer — rather than taking the spur of Cabin Canyon that would just have us crossing Palmer again anyway. There are quite a number of cars in the lot, but we don't meet any hikers. I can only hope the people who belong to those cars are on other trails.

We move back onto Cabin Canyon where it loops around a hillock covered with conifers, and quickly lose sight of Garden Drive again. I've been looking for the portal to Quetzalcoatl's prison dimension, paying more attention to the swirls and eddies of qi that play over Mother's skin than I do to the physical world around me. If I could just call portals to me, wouldn't the one I'm looking for have shown up by now? We're getting awfully darn close to the point where this trail begins and ends at Balanced Rock Trail.

But as we reach the westernmost point on this part of the trail, I start to feel the pull of something polluted. Yeah. That's got to be it.

It feels uglier than Tezcatlipoca's world did, but I suppose that makes sense if Quetzalcoatl and Pablo are right about it being a world full of imprisoned Shadowkin. I let go of Pablo's hand and stand still, staring with my inner vision to a spot just off the trail. I can feel curiosity and worry from both of them; oddly, Rene seems more worried than Pablo... which isn't saying that Pablo is free from a large helping of concern.

"It's here." I shudder. "Gods, Pablo... you spent three YEARS in that? It's filthy!"

He comes up behind me and rests a hand on my shoulder. "It's all in the past, Andi. Just close it up now, and we'll be done with it... for the rest of our unnaturally long lives if we're lucky."

I can feel Mother's qi swelling up through my feet; Father gently whirls around us. Cobra slides from Pablo's shoulders to wrap itself around me... around my waist, up my back, with its head peeking over my shoulder through my hair and its tongue tasting the air around us. I gather the energy Mother and Father are lending me, hold it, pool it, feel it grow and strengthen. Both Pablo and Rene gasp; I'm not sure what they feel or see. Cobra hisses. Yeah, I'd like to do that, too. I've run into Eaters who've seemed cleaner than this portal. Hell, there might even be politicians cleaner than this portal.

Will you guys watch out for accidental tourists? Normals probably don't need a free show of Super Weird.

As I sense Pablo and Rene nodding, I feel my way to just the right spot. I'm not sure where my feet are landing because my eyes are closed, but Mother isn't going to let me get hurt. I trust Her. I step as close to the portal as possible. It's not even open and I can feel its presence. That's never happened outside of a Dance, and if I take a moment to once again reflect on how utterly bizarre this day has been, I don't think I can be faulted for the time.

Like all portals I've seen, it has an anchor point on Mother's skin. Perhaps I'll consider why that's necessary at some future time. Right now, it seems obvious that it should be this way although I'm not sure why. With my feet about shoulder width apart, I place the end of my staff on the anchor point and raise my other hand to Father.

I can feel the immense power rushing through me, and yet it feels no more burdensome than feeling my skin absorbing nutrients from the sunlight around me. I'm not sure how long Mother and Father pour their qi through me, but at some point I realize both Pablo and Rene have a hand on my shoulders. Cobra is wrapped more tightly than usual around my waist. The portal is gone; there's no evidence it ever existed.

Most peculiarly, I feel fine. No... I feel great. I don't feel I have excess energy to bleed off like I normally do.

Thank you, Mother and Father.

{Daughter... blessings} {Daughter... love}

Who can't smile at that?

I open my eyes and turn to my Husband and Brother, feeling peaceful... feeling full of love.

The near-identical looks of... awe? No, that's not possible. Surprise? Well, whatever it is, it gives me pause.

"Hey, are you two okay?"

"You... wow."

"That's hardly helpful, Pablo," I say with a raised eyebrow, looking at Rene, who's only nodding in agreement with Pablo. "Guys? Words would come in real handy right about now."

Mother and Father laugh around us, and I feel enveloped in their warm embrace.

"You... ah, you're glowing just a bit, Sister."

"Just a bit??" Pablo exclaims. "You have a talent for the understatement, don't you, Rene?"

Mother and Father laugh more loudly; their joy is infectious... I can't help but smile. Whatever is bothering Pablo and Rene isn't anything to be concerned about when Mother and Father are so happy.

"Yes, well, I don't believe I've seen anything quite like this before. Maybe Maddie has. Probably Charles has. But..." Rene shakes his head as I look at him. "I'm going to shut up now."

"What are you guys talking about?"

"Can't you see it, love? The way you're glowing?" Pablo runs his hand down my arm and takes my hand in his. "Andi, you look like a halogen headlight from six inches away," he says bringing my hand up between us. "You're kind of blinding."

I look at my hand, puzzled. Maybe it's glowing just a bit. Not nearly as much as it does when we make love, though. "Are you sure? It looks nearly normal to me — well, you know, not quite, but almost."

"Andrea, please get out to New York as soon as you can. I really think you need to talk to Charles." Rene seems a little worried. Maybe even more than a little.

"But I feel fine."

"Yeah... that's what they all say before they go supernova," he says wryly.

You are still holding much of the energy from Mother and Father, Cobra says helpfully. Perhaps if you return it as you usually do, it will ease the minds of your Beloved and our sibling.

"Oh. Yeah, sure."

I pull my hand from Pablo's and crouch down, setting my staff beside me, and placing both lao gong points and both yong quan points in contact with the Earth.

"Thank you, Mother, for your gifts. I return to you that which I no longer need."

Mother giggles, and I feel as though both She and Father and hugging me. Hey, what's one more weird thing on top of all the other weird things, huh?

I stand with staff in hand and turn to look at the two of them. "Okay? All better?"

Pablo nods as Rene goes insubstantial.

You've got company coming. Two white males, mid to late teens, moving slowly and looking like they're spoiling for a fight.

I sigh. Thanks, Rene. I promise not to get killed again.

I'm holding you to that, Sister... and will hold you down while Maddie and Pablo knock sense into your head if you renege.

"You'd deserve it, too," Pablo says quietly. "How do you want to play this?"

Cobra becomes insubstantial as well. I check to make sure my staff looks boring and ordinary, then lean it against my shoulder as I loosely hold his hand. I point at Pike's Peak and smile. "Just two young lovers enjoying the beauty of the mountains," I say softly. When I look up at him, I can see down the trail; I squeeze his hand when our company comes around the bend.

And I nearly burst out laughing at the way they're walking, almost as if they're being pursued by a swarm of gnats. Nope, it's only Spirit Brother trying to frisk them.

Finding anything interesting, Rene? And are you almost done? Because I'm going to start cracking up here in a second, and those two look like the type that wouldn't take too kindly to someone like me laughing at them.

I look back toward the mountains, giving the impression that I'm leaning against Pablo. I'm watching their auras, however, and the flow of qi around them.

This is sort of fun, actually. Maybe Maddie and I can work something out when she gets dressed up as La Loup.

Rene? Weapons? Am I risking another bullet here just by breathing their precious air?

Ah, right. Nope. Blades of various types and brass knuckles, but no guns.

I look up at Pablo, an eyebrow raised in question.

Roger that, Rene. Pablo slides a hand under his jacket and snaps the safety band on his holster. No guns during this fight. Cop training and dirty tricks learned in Q's dimension, plus the charmingly lethal skills of my lovely bride, are more than a match for a couple of punks.

I don't get to play?

What do you call what you're doing right now, dear Brother? I ask. It looks like you're teaching dance lessons, and that's playing. Your students suck, though.

Yeah, white boys can't dance, can they?

I giggle at that. I don't mean to, but I can't help it. Unfortunately, that's when the two budding skinheads notice us.

"Hey! You laughing at us?"

I look around Pablo and pretend to notice them for the first time.

"Oh, hi. No, no... I was laughing at my boyfriend's joke."

Pablo turns to look at them, too. "Hey, there. How's it going?"

Rene was right; they're spoiling for a fight, all right. But Detective Garcia does present a rather intimidating demeanor when he puts his mind to it. And apparently he's had enough fighting for one day because he's putting his mind to it.

They ignore Pablo's comment. "Yeah? What's so funny about it? We're in the mood for a couple of jokes! Ain't we, Davie?"


The taller of the two is unquestionably the more outgoing and friendly. His aura doesn't look particularly friendly, but like me, he's putting on a good act. I think about it for a few seconds, then shake my head.

"It doesn't translate very well into English." I shrug. "Jokes aren't really funny when you have to explain them, you know?"

"Yeah? Well, if you can't talk in English, then you shouldn't be here, should you?"

I scrunch up my face and scratch the top of my head. "So, that's confusing. I'm speaking English, so that means I can talk in English..." What is it with people?

"Your boyfriend there. He ought to be talking in English."

Rene is not bothering to hide his amusement.

"I do speak English," Pablo says clearly, and without a trace of any accent. "And I also speak Spanish. Do you have a problem with that?"

Talkative looks at him, and sees him for the first time.

Mother starts giggling again.

And the weird just keeps on coming.

"My entire family, in fact, speaks both English and Spanish. My Brother and Sister also speak French. My fiancée, in addition to English, speaks Chinese, Japanese and Diné Bizaad."

"Dinay what?" asks Davie, the quiet one.

I smile. "Diné Bizaad. It literally means Language of the People. It's what the Navajo speak."

Davie blinks. "I thought the Navajo reservation was in New Mexico."

"It actually spans three states... New Mexico, Arizona and Utah." I nod toward the south. "At one time, our lands stretched into Colorado, too. About a hundred miles south and a bit west is Blanca Peak, which marks the traditional eastern border of the Navajo Nation."

Talkative groans. "Oh man. You're a teacher, aren't you?" He looks disgusted.

I chuckle. "Close. I'm a librarian."

Mother runs a ripple of energy across the trail. Rene jumps back in surprise; it's all I can do to keep from laughing.

Talkative leans in close to his friend and whispers, "Dave, let's get outta here. I'm feelin' creeped out by this place."

Dave seems momentarily stunned, however. Oh my. Isn't that interesting.

Mother says that the boy's many times great grandmother lived in this area, Cobra says.

He shakes himself off after a few seconds and says to his friend, "What's so creepy about a bunch of old rocks, Eddie? I think they're cool. I'm going all the way around." He looks at me again. "I heard this whole part of the state belonged to the Ute tribe."

I nod. "A good portion of it, and large parts of Utah. In fact, this place?" I gesture around me. "Some legends say this is the place Great Spirit — though some legends say it was Wolf and Coyote — created the Ute People."

"See?" he says, nudging his friend. "It's not creepy, it's cool. Are you coming with me?" Dave looks at the other boy as if seeking his approval. Ah... and now we get to observe the pecking order in the tribe.

Rene is watching with curiosity... Pablo recognizes a tipping point when he sees one, he's been a cop for half his life. Me... I'm watching the qi and the boys' auras.

Finally, Eddie shakes his head. "Nuh uh. I ain't gonna listen to that heathen stuff, and you shouldn't either, Dave." I note a bit of fire sparking in the taller boy's eyes — ah, glory hallelujah, praise the lord, it's that fire and brimstone preacher poison. I sigh sadly to myself.

"Dude, I'm only looking at the freakin' ROCKS! And you know how much tourists pay for good pictures of this place? And how much I get for 'em online?" He very nearly spits on the ground. "I ain't stickin' around here forever, what with all that weird shit that goes on at Fort Carson."

Eddie looks at Dave silently, his expression passing through disbelief and disgust, finally settling on scorn. "Whatever," he says as he turns to leave. "You just watch your back, Dave."

Dave just watches Eddie walk off, looking forlorn and conflicted.

Mother rolls another wave of energy after Eddie, who starts running as fast as his legs can carry him. Rene starts after him, grinning.

Let him be, Rene.

Aw, you're no fun, mom.

I roll my eyes at him.

Dave looks back and me and Pablo, shrugs and mutters, "Sorry."

Pablo and I exchange a look, then hold hands as we step back onto the trail.

We stop at the edge of the trail, not because we have any concerns about safety, but to give the young man plenty of space. He's at the tipping point and looks like he could tip in the right direction, but we don't want to spook him. Once away from his friend's influence, his aura looks surprisingly clear. As a cop, Pablo has probably run into more kids like Dave than I have. But we both can recognize a kid who's a few steps away from making irrevocable decisions that will affect his entire life.

"Let me guess," I say when we stop with our arms around one another, "high school freshman, obviously new school, no one you know. Another kid — maybe Eddie back there — noticed and invited you to join his clique, and now you're having second thoughts."

The youngster looks up at me, a flash of surprise in his eyes before it turns to resignation. He nods. "Yeah. Pretty much. They did some kind of redistricting thing last year or something, and all my friends went to Harrison. I wound up at Sierra." He shrugs. "I guess there might be some kids from my middle school at Sierra, but not any I was tight with, you know?"

Pablo nods. "I had a similar problem going into high school. Los Angeles stopped the mandatory busing program when I was still in grade school, but my folks wanted me to go to a better school than the one in the neighborhood." He shrugs. "We were pretty close to the district border, so it wasn't a big deal. Well, at least it didn't seem like a big deal until I realized none of my buddies were there with me. That first year really sucked. If my dad hadn't died right before school started, I would have totally bailed and gone back to the hood. But I didn't want to disappointment my old man, you know?"

Dave nods. "Yeah. I think I get it. But, dude... you look like you were a jock. How bad could it have been? I'm a nerd!"

Pablo laughs. "Son, I was one lazy hombre back in the day. Sure, I was pretty good at sports, and I loved the pickup games — still do — but that whole obsessive devotion and constant training it took to play team sports? No thanks!"

"I'm shocked! And here I thought I was marrying a paragon of virtue," I say lightly.

My husband chuckles. "You can thank Rosalia for that, dear." He looks at Dave. "I met my first wife in high school. I was pretty smitten, but she was way smarter than I'll ever be. She didn't want to hang out with some lazy guy who didn't give a crap about anything except getting out of school. So I started paying more attention in school and made more of an effort to care about something other than just taking care of my little sisters while my mom worked."

"You still didn't pay attention in History classes."

"History was boring!" he semi-whines.

"Dude! History is like the coolest thing ever!" Dave exclaims, utterly shocked. "How can you say history is boring? Like, before today, I didn't know this park was part of the Ute creation story, and now that I do this is even a cooler place than it was before!"

Pablo groans as I smile at him. "I'm outnumbered."

"Yes, dear. I'll turn you into a history fan if it takes the rest of our natural lives." Looking at Dave again, I grin. "Make it through your four years of high school, and I'm willing to bet I'll see you in the University of Colorado's History program."

The boy deflates. "Yeah, that's just it. Making it through four years of high school. I got sucked into this group of... well, they're kind of crazy, you know? And I don't know how to get out."

I exchange a glance with Pablo, then he says quietly, "Oh. You know, I think Andi here forgot to mention that I'm a detective for the Denver Police Department. I did a pretty long stint working the Gang Unit when I was in Patrol. Now, I know down here in the Springs kids like your friend Eddie might not technically be considered a gang member. So it could take a couple of weeks to find the right contact down here for me to reach out to. But if you want, I'll get started on that first thing tomorrow morning."

Dave's aura momentarily flashes with hope, but then he shakes his head. "They're everywhere like you said. And getting known by cops ain't the best thing down here... especially cops like you... the ones not part of the problem, I mean."

Pablo smiles. "I get that, Dave. I really do. But if you're willing to trust that it's possible, I'll go to bat for you."

The two of you astound me. Inside of ten minutes, this has gone from a probable fight to a social work and gang intervention session. I don't get it.

It's a hell of a lot easier when you can see the qi, Rene... trust me. And then when it's the Day of the Weird? Well, the kid's reaction to Mother's intervention made it a no-brainer. Believe me, I've run into situations where interventions aren't possible, and fights are usually inevitable.

Just usually?

I flash him a mental smile. There are times when Ninja's smart assery can keep the bad people mesmerized long enough for Pablo's brethren to arrive on the scene.

"Well... I guess giving it a shot wouldn't hurt," the boy says without enthusiasm. His aura is turning fearful.

"You're afraid of what Eddie and his friends will do if they find out you're trying to get away from them." It's not a question; any Normal human could work that equation out. "Have you talked to your folks about it?" Any effort Pablo puts into helping the young man could be wasted if he doesn't have support at home.

His eyes drop to the ground and his whole being seems to undergo a metamorphosis; it's obvious he's not the tough teen he tries to pretend he is. He's sad, lonely and maybe even a little bit frightened... and he's still a child. "Mom died a couple of years ago," he says, almost inaudibly. "Cancer. It was awful. Dad... well, he just goes to work and comes home, and he's just so sad that I don't even know what to say to him."

I can tell he's trying very hard not to cry.

"He probably misses her so much he feels a little crazy," Pablo interjects kindly. "When my wife Rosalia and son Juan died, I kind of shut out the whole world. It was pretty bad. It took a couple of years for my new partner to knock enough sense through my thick skull for me to get my head out of the sand. If I could be bold and make a suggestion since you both obviously miss her so much, you should talk about her. Talk about all the wonderful memories you have of her. It might not seem like it would help, but I promise it does." He looks at me and smiles. "Of course, I nearly had to be punched in the head to realize it. I'm kind of slow that way."

Dave looks up sharply. "Your wife and your son died? Oh man, I'm sorry. That had to suck more than anything ever!"

Pablo looks at me and then at Dave, then past Dave to Rene. "It does rate pretty high on the suck scale, yeah."

I hug Pablo tightly. "So what does your dad do, Dave? Maybe getting him to talk about the day to day things might be helpful, too."

Dave sighs. "He's a mechanic. He's in the Army and fixes their airplanes. Or maybe helicopters. I guess I never really paid much attention."

I wrinkle my nose. "Yeah, that stuff is kind of boring, though this one..." I pat Pablo's chest. "...and one of my cousins could talk your ear off about it." I pause, an idea forming. "You know, if you lived on base, you'd be in a different school district."

He nods. "Yeah, dad talked about moving back to the base when mom died... but I didn't want to leave my friends, you know? Maybe I could talk to him about it again." He pauses, too, hesitant to bring up the point he had alluded to earlier with Eddie. "There's some weird stuff they do on the base, though. It kind of scares me."

I glance at Pablo. You should field this one, Chief. It would sound better coming from a cop than a librarian.

I'm not sure what you mean, Andi.

This is where Masterson and his team are stationed. It's where they hold the scum Peregrine and Ninja pick up while waiting to transport them to whichever Federal facility assholes like Ji and that skeevy Goblin wind up.

Ah! Got it.

Pablo nods to Dave. "Yeah, I know a bit about that stuff. I work with the Supers up in Denver sometimes, and when they catch someone we can't handle in our jail, some guy from Special Forces comes up and brings them down here. They're usually mutants who've gone bad. I guess they've got some ultra high security holding facility on the base. I'm kind of a peon, so I don't know that much about the world of Super Heroes and the creeps they fight, so I can't really say what happens to them after that."

I roll my eyes and nudge him playfully as I sigh. "You hate history and current events?" To be honest, until recently I was just as clueless. After meeting Masterson and dealing with little JiJi, I made a point of finding out where scum like him wound up. "There are Federal facilities that hold those bad guys indefinitely. Well, technically, they're held until trial... it's just that Congress still hasn't figured out how to apply which laws to them, or in what jurisdictions they should be tried. What? Don't look at me like that! I'm a librarian. I know stuff." I grin at Pablo. "There's a facility in New York, one in Kansas, one in Oregon, and one in Texas. There was a whole series of articles last year about building another one in California, but with all the earthquakes they get out there, I guess they decided maybe it was a bad idea."

Dave blinks. "So... so, it's not like there are mutants there all the time."

Pablo shakes his head. "If I had to guess, I'd say it's not likely. I could try to track down this Special Forces guy and ask him... if that would make you feel better."

The boy looks so distraught and indecisive that I have to keep myself from reaching out and wrapping an arm around his shoulders. But he's still way too skittish for that.

"Well, maybe. I mean, I guess I should talk to my dad first, you know? Maybe he doesn't want to move back to the base. Oh, man... I sure hope he'd be okay with that because that would make a lot of problems go away." Then he sighs. "I suppose there will be other problems."

Dang it. If we were at the library, I could sit with the kid and at least help him work through a plan. Check in with him like I do with Jonas.

"Well, yeah... that's pretty much what life is like," I say ruefully. Hasn't today been the perfect example of that? "And you're at that point in life where you start figuring out your own solutions to some of the problems instead of having your parents worry about everything. But you've still got your dad to help you out, right?"

"Yeah, I guess. I just..." He doesn't finish his thought.

"You just don't want to put another burden on him?" Pablo asks softly.

Dave nods.

"Trust me, Dave... being able to help someone else, especially his son, won't be a burden. I think the two of you can help each other come to grips with your mom's death. You'll never forget her... neither of you will. But Andi here helped me realize I could be happy again. There's no reason you and your dad can't figure out how to be happy again, too."

He's reluctant to believe that, and seeing the knotted qi in his heart I can certainly understand it. "But... but what if I go to a different school, and the kids there are just as... well, mean and creepy."

I shake my head and grin broadly. "No way! Okay, so I only lived on an Army base until I was thirteen. But there are so many different kinds of people from all over the whole country on Army bases that everybody is going to be different in some way. Now, I think it's somehow genetically necessary for teenagers to sometimes be mean, but I don't think you're going to find anybody who's creepy."

The young man finally smiles. True, it's only a small one, but there is a smile there. "Genetically necessary... that's funny. And you were an Army brat, too?" This seems to cheer him up more than anything we've said to him... almost as if he found a long lost kinsman or something. "Where was your dad stationed?"

"Both my folks were in the Army Corps of Engineers. They were stationed at the Albuquerque HQ where they met, and we lived in Albuquerque until I was about five. Then we moved to Camp Zama."

I swear that kid's eyes light up like a Christmas tree! "In JAPAN?! That's so cool! What was it like? Did you like it? Is that where you learned to speak Japanese? Do you know karate, too?"

Both Pablo and I start laughing. "Well, you've made a new best friend, Andi. I should just go home now." He pretends to start walking up the trail, and I grab his arm.

"Oh, and make me walk home to Denver? I don't think so, dear." I grin at Dave. "I was a kid, so it seemed like a big adventure. And yes, I loved it there. The Japanese people were so kind and really interested in our family's heritage. My folks had a bunch of friends outside the base. Well, and lots of friends on the base, too. They're just the sort of people who make friends easily. And yes, that's where I learned to speak Japanese." Then I roll my eyes. "No, not karate. I studied Aikido and got pretty good at it."

"Wow, that's awesome. So... so liking history and photography wouldn't make me seem like a total dork?" he asks shyly.

I shake my head. "I can't imagine why it would. Photography is a huge hobby for people in Colorado... well, it's not hard to see why when we have the most gorgeous mountains I've ever seen. And you said you've already sold some of your photos, right? So that means you're really good at it. I'd imagine there might be other kids interested and who'd love to learn what you know."

He's quiet for a couple of minutes, thinking... processing everything, I suppose. Finally, he nods to himself. "I'm really glad I ran into you guys today." He rummages in an inner jacket pocket — one that contains a blade of some sort, as Rene tenses a bit — and pulls out a slightly battered business card and hands it to me. On the front is a photo of a perfectly framed black-billed magpie standing on a rock looking out at the viewer almost with curiosity. On the back are simply an email address and a Facebook address. "You can friend me on Facebook," he says, shy again. "That way, you know, if I have any questions about stuff all those other guys won't get suspicious."

"Smart thinking. I'm Andrea Yazzie... just so you know I'm not some random nut." I smile. "I usually have a picture of an animal as my profile picture. I'm not sure what it is this month."

"I think it's some cat... mountain lion, leopard, panther... one of the big ones anyway," Pablo says.

"Cat? Oh, dang it! I didn't get a photo of those three bobcats on the back half of the trail!"

"Three bobcats?" Dave asks. "THREE?"

"I know, right? I was so shocked to see three of them, I guess I totally spaced about getting a photo."

"Okay... dense guy, missing something," Pablo says.

Make that two.

I roll my eyes but let Dave play teacher.

"Bobcats are solitary. Well, most of the big cats are. Not that bobcats are all that big compared to the mountain lions a little farther north and west, but they're not like most house cats that don't usually mind living together."

Pablo nods slowly. "Okay, that explains most of your... whatever you were doing."

"I was geeking out."

"Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear." He's doing a fair job of hiding his smile.

It causes Dave to chuckle, which I'm sure was his point. And if not... well, I'll get even later.

"Hey, I wonder if any of them are still up there," Dave says, looking up the trail. "Even a picture of just one would be awesome."

I grin as I tuck his card into my jeans pocket. "Go on... hurry while you've still got good light. I'll send you a friend request tonight... maybe I'll see a bobcat picture!"

"Oh, wow... I sure hope so!" He takes off running up the trail, and I shake my head as I watch.

"Now, if I could figure out what I did to call the bobcats in the first place, maybe I could ask them to pose for the kid. Ah well..." I shrug, then look at Pablo. "I think I'd like to go home now. I've had enough weird for one day. Can I declare the weird to be over? Doesn't matter... I'm declaring the weird to be over!"

Pablo laughs as he takes my hand, and we start back down the trail. "I'm not sure it works that way, love. But just in case it does, I'll declare the weird to be over, too."

"Let's make it unanimous," Rene says as he becomes solid once again. "That last bit was the weirdest of all."

"What? Helping a kid out?" I ask, looking at him askance.

"Well, when you put it that way, maybe it doesn't seem so weird. But watching it play out?" He shakes his head. "I'm not sure I'd believe it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."

"You know, I'm starting to think maybe that's another super power you have, dear."

I look at Pablo, confused. "What are you talking about?"

"The way you can just talk people off the edge like that. You did the same thing in the bar that night..."

Oh. That night. Man, that night sucked so hard. I shake my head. "Nah, I already told you that it's part of my qi power. I just watch the aura and qi, and see if I can talk my way through the mess."

"Hmm. If you say so." We make it to Balanced Rock Trail without incident, and in companionable silence, but then Pablo says, "Oh, thanks for talking to Perry about a new uniform. I'll feel a lot better when you're wearing something that will stop bullets."

"Well, I promised to do it, so I've gone and done it. Well, step one is done. No, talking to Perry was step two, making the sketch was step one."

Pablo chuckles. "Sometimes you're very silly, Andi."

I grin. "Job requirement, dear. I work with children. Though if jerks are going to shoot at me while I'm off duty, so to speak, having a new uniform won't help much."

"Well, stay away from crazy people when you're not working, then. And what were you telling Perry you needed to ask me?"

"Ah! The two of you still haven't met... he's suggesting a meeting for the day after Thanksgiving."

Pablo shrugs. "Sure. Assuming no one gets murdered that day, it shouldn't be a problem."

"He wants us to come out to his house."

"I thought he had a super secret identity because he's Sponsored." Pablo sounds confused.

And confused is better than suspicious! "Yep. He actually wants Andi and Pablo to come over for dinner."

He considers the request for quite some time... long enough for us to cross Garden Drive and start across the field toward Garden Lane. Rene walks on my other side, also silent. Finally, Pablo says, "I don't know, Andi. The minuses still outnumber the pluses. I'd be more comfortable with just you and Captain Sanchez knowing about Peacekeeper."

I squeeze his hand. I totally understand where he's coming from. Hell, it's only been about three months since he officially found out I'm Ninja. Still...

"Here's the way I see it. I know who he is, and he knows who I am, right? And I know who you are, and you know who I am. So shouldn't he know who you are, and shouldn't you know who he is?

"It feels like a broken triangle that needs to be put back together. Mind you, that's just a gut feeling and I don't have any rationalizations to go with it, but to me that makes it feel like the pluses outweigh the minuses."

"I don't know, Andi..."

"I think you should, Brother."

Pablo looks at Rene, surprised. "Why? I'm not saying you're wrong or anything, but I'd like to hear your reasoning."

"I have more than gut instinct going for me, for one thing. I know the situation doesn't even begin to equate, but Maddie, Logan and I had an unbalanced relationship, too. Had the three of us not worked out the... well, lack of balance, we wouldn't have been able to bond with the two of you to form the Pentad. Call me crazy, but I think that is fairly significant."

"Well, you're right that it doesn't quite compare. But do you really think it makes that much difference, Rene?"

"In this case, because the two of you are part of the equation... I do."

Pablo looks at me and takes a deep breath, but then just shakes his head. I can feel the uncertainty flowing through him, but more than that, there's his wall. It's the one plastered with metaphorical signs that read I will trust you this far, but no farther. Even I wasn't immune to that one... it took him eleven years to tell me about Rosalia and Juan.

"If we're going to protect the people we've sworn to protect, and if we're going to work together — the three of us — to do that, we've got to trust one another. I know it's a huge thing that Perry's asking. And I'll be honest, I was pretty shocked when he pulled off his mask and introduced himself when I met him — finally! — back in August. But looking back on it, I think he had the right idea, even if he was going on instinct himself.

"Knowing what our lives are like beyond the masks makes us real people and not just symbols. You and Denise were scary amazing together, and I can only imagine that the criminal element of Denver found you even more intimidating. But you guys had to build that relationship, that trust. And you did that by getting to know one another."

He nods. "True. I'm not sure when I realized she was as close — or maybe even closer — to me than my sisters, but it crept up over a couple of years." He pauses as he looks down the trail; Garden Lane is just ahead. "I'll give it some thought, Andi. You both make a good case, but you know I have a problem sharing. It's a smart idea, and I'll probably say yes... but at least let me sleep on, okay?"

"Sure, love." I look across Garden Lane to the Trading Post parking lot, surprised to see Pablo's car is one of only three cars left in the lot. It must be later in the day than I thought, or the low temperatures and clouds have sent everyone home already. There's also a bicycle chained to the bike rack; I don't know why I feel so certain that's Dave's bike.

"Well, kids... it's been an interesting day. We'll have to do this again in another hundred years or so," Rene says as we reach Pablo's car, and he pulls the keys out of his pocket, handing them to Pablo.

Pablo laughs as he unlocks the car. "I'd rather we find less interesting things to do together."

"No, no," I say, tucking my staff into the back seat. "Interesting is fine. We just need to dispense with the weird, and dial back the excitement." I step back onto the walkway and note the Trading Post employee is standing just inside the door, watching us intently. I pull out one of the phones to check the time, then smile as I put it away.

"Give my love to Maddie," I say as I hug Rene. "I'm sorry I worried her and hug her for me, too, will you?"

"Of course, Andi," he says, not quite ready to release me. "It's a good thing I can get around quickly. This... relaying a hug to her? It won't stop her from worrying about whatever it is that's going on between the two of you, but it will help push back the fear. Please, please don't put her through that again." He steps back but keeps a hand on my shoulder. "I've seen her face when Logan's died... though it was before we formed the Pentad, and it was just a glimpse. What I saw today..." He shakes his head. "I was scared myself, and I'm not afraid to admit it. So do not die, Sister."

I put a hand over his and nod. "I understand, Rene. And I have every intention of staying alive for many, many years."

"I meant what I said. I'll hold you down while Maddie and Pablo pummel you if you don't."

I grin at him and pat his cheek. "I know you will."

He gives me one last piercing look, then grins before turning to Pablo. "Let us embrace in a manly way so our audience will not be disappointed that you're not allowing yourselves to be parted from your hard-earned money in exchange for useless trinkets!"

Pablo and I laugh as he hugs Rene.

"Our audience gets to lock up the shop in about five minutes. I have a feeling he's hoping we'd rather not part with our money today," I say.

"Don't listen to the wench, Brother. We must protect the money."

Pablo can barely keep from laughing. "You're out of your mind, Rene."

"Oui, monsieur," replies our Brother as he steps back and performs another elaborate bow. "I do what I can. Keep that one out of trouble... if you can."

"Not likely, but I'll do my best."

I grin at both of them as Pablo wraps his arm around my waist. "You probably don't want to give our audience the sort of show that will make him think he's insane. Try not to disappear until you're out of sight of the doorway, at least."

Rene chuckles, then turns toward the side parking lots. "Your wish is my command, dear Sister," he calls over his shoulder as he waves. "Don't forget to call me if you want to burn down your house!"

I look up at Pablo. "Well, some parts of today have been good. Let's go home. I'm sure we have enough food in the house that we don't need to go out for dinner."

"If you'd rather stay home, that's fine by me," he says as we walk back to the car and get in. "A dull evening would be perfectly acceptable."

It isn't until we've driving back through the park and are exiting onto 30th Street that he asks, "What were you arguing with Perry about?"


"You said something like No, absolutely not and you sounded a bit annoyed."

"Oh! That." I sigh. "He said I shouldn't worry about the cost of the material for the new uniform, that he'd pay for it. I maintain it's not necessary, and I don't want to be a charity case."

"That stuff is expensive, Andi. The department paid for my uniform; can you afford it if they won't pay for yours?"

"Yes." I pause. "Well, okay, just barely, but I'd rather use the stipend Maddie is insisting on giving me than let Perry pay for it. It just doesn't seem right."

"What's his reasoning?"

"He's sponsored and has more money than he and his family really needs, and I'm a civil servant. Just because it's logical doesn't mean it feels right."

"Okay. I'm not going to argue with you. You're going to do whatever you want to do anyway," he says grinning at me.


The drive home is as uneventful as the drive down; our conversation remains on light topics or strays occasionally to the subject of the wedding. When we arrive home, I hide my staff completely, as I hear Bobby and David puttering around in their kitchen. Pablo laughs at the speed with which I get into the house, but I know I don't have much time to put the staff away and change clothes before my nosy neighbor is knocking on the door. In fact, both Bobby and David are in the kitchen with Pablo by the time I finish changing clothes. I also needed to make sure I had all the blood washed off, and then brush my hair free of whatever dirt Pablo hadn't picked out.

Bobby's appalled that Pablo is making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us, and is offering to go home to cook some real food as I come back to the kitchen. After insisting that sandwiches are exactly what I want to eat, and after enduring a look of pity from Bobby, we sit around the table and chat as Pablo and I have our sandwich snack. David manages to drag Bobby home after about an hour, and after we check emails and phone messages — and I send a friend request to young Dave on Facebook — we turn in early. After all, we both need to work in the morning.

It's an ordinary week, with highlights only on Monday when I drop my sketch off with Peregrine...

"This is a sketch?" he says looking at the printout I hand him.

"It's what passes for a sketch for someone who can't draw and has more than a little Photoshop Fu," I retort archly.

"Oh, it's fine. In fact, piecing together bits of clothing styles that already exist will make it easier for my wife. I think." He chuckles. "I'll ask her not to take too many liberties with the design. Are you sure you don't want a cape?"

I just glare at him as I get back on my bike.

He laughs as he takes to the air.

...and the meeting with Agent Van Dorn on Friday. The nights are plagued with those same odd dreams, foggy and silent. At least the fog isn't trying to talk to me, and the fog seems to be thinning in each subsequent dream. I know Great Spirit said something was trying to communicate with me, but it's still incredibly weird.

Of course, just when I think it's safe to sleep again...

I've stopped groaning when I wind up here. The fog has been thin enough for the past two nights that I can make out rocks — boulders, really — in the dreamscape. It has a vague resemblance to parts of Arizona... or New Mexico... or maybe Colorado. Maybe it's an amalgam of all three. Who knows?

I sigh and sit down next to the nearest large rock, closing my eyes and leaning my head back to rest against it. Maybe I can sleep my way out of this dream. That would be cool.


I sigh again. I guess avoiding the Mega Weird was a little much to hope for. The fog sounds more echoey tonight. Why should anything surprise me anymore?

Hi. How's it going?

Might as well be friendly, right? Great Spirit said something about both sides trying to communicate, right? Okay then. Of course, questions seem to throw the fog for a loop... so I just wait.

We do not know it or where it goes. We cannot say how it gets there.

Oh, great. Just great! What, I'm supposed to be running an English as a Second Language class for the fog? Come on! That's Mama's schtick, not mine. I sigh. Again. Then I raise my head and open my eyes, expecting to see a fog blob. Instead, I see two piercing lights in the fog. They're not close enough together to be eyes unless they're in the head of an animal about five times as large as an elephant. I don't sense anything there, either. And didn't Great Spirit say something Other was trying to communicate? She did. And yet... the only qi here is my own.

Okay, so maybe when Others communicate in dreams, they don't have a qi signature. That's a good hypothesis.

It's just an expression. It means... how are you? Or... how are you doing? Or... how is your health today? Or any number of vague questions meant to begin a conversation. Typically, they have no real meaning on their own since most people aren't really all that interested in knowing about other people's health.

The two spots of light start spinning and spiraling around one another, confirming that they're not eyeballs. That's good, right? Right. I'm going to say that's good... that they're not eyeballs. I'm not sure the spinning bit is good, but if the lights are the fog blob I met the first time this dream talked to me, it's easily confused. That explanation could keep it going for hours. Maybe I'll wake up before it dissects the meaning of what I said.

I close my eyes again and rest my head against the rock. Okay, maybe that was a little mean. Great Spirit said the fog blob — or the spinning lights — is probably as frustrated as I am. On the other hand, is the fog blob spinning lights trying to get a good night's sleep? Does the fog blob spinning lights need to work in the morning? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say probably not. So if I can at least try to rest while I'm in this weird dream space, maybe I won't wake up all freaked out like I was the last time.

You do not care about our health?

Figures you'd pick up on that one, doesn't it?

I'm actually a little more interested in just who you are. You seem to have decided you are plural and not singular. That's helpful.

Well, maybe it's helpful. What the hell do I know?

Do you know who you are?

Surprisingly, this time there's no hesitation in the fog blob spinning lights' answer.

We do not know. We have not been told.

Um. Right.

Is it okay if I tell you that you're making my brain hurt?

We do wish to hurt you! What must we do to stop your hurt?!

I don't know! I'm very confused by all this. I don't know who you are. And you don't know who you are. And I don't know why you're talking to me. Maybe answers would make my head stop hurting. Well, answers that make sense.

I'm resigned to having a headache because I don't think anything about this dream is going to make any sense.

You know us.

I stand up and stretch. And then I start one of the simple Taiji exercises... because I need to stay calm or I'm going to wake up screaming in frustration.

But I don't know you. How can I know you if I don't know you?

We are all one. You know you. You know us.

For the first time ever, Taiji is not calming me down. Maybe it doesn't work if I'm just dreaming about it. I so need to wake up and go downstairs because this is going to make me a completely crazy person.

"Andi," Pablo whispers as he squeezes my shoulder. "Are you okay?"

I open my eyes and note that both my heart rate and respiration rate are higher than normal. I take a slow, deep breath and look at Pablo. Based on the amount of gray light coming through the window, I guess it's still about two hours before my internal alarm would normally wake me.

"Noooo," I whimper, and then wrap myself around him. "I hate weird dreams. I hate weird dreams that frustrate me."

"Well, you were sort of twitching and trying to cry out in your sleep."

With his arms around me, I feel the frustration draining away. I really don't want to go back to sleep, though. Maybe I should just go downstairs.

"What was so frustrating, love?" He runs his fingers through my hair; I don't know which one of us loves that more. It's definitely soothing; maybe I could just stay here for a little while before going downstairs.

"The fog was talking again, except this time it was a couple of spots of light. I felt like I was teaching an ESL class. My brain was hurting. The foggy lights insisted I knew who they were, except I don't. And they don't know who they are, either, by the way."

"You're stressed again, Andi. There's so much going on, it's not surprising. Now, I know you by now, and you probably want to go downstairs and practice, right?"

I nod.

"Let me massage your shoulders instead."

I smile at him, remembering that first time he offered to rub my shoulders in my parents' living room. "Okay."

It's certainly a beautiful start to the day, which proves to be far more ordinary than my dream heralded. We're busy at work, which always makes the day seem to fly by. A quiet evening at home leads to some apprehension at bedtime, but Pablo finds a way to make me forget about my uneasiness. And while not without the fog dream, that night does not present me with talking foggy lights dreams.

We finally brave a visit to Le Peep's, where Liza chides us for not coming by in months. However, when we share our good news, she not only forgives us but nearly shatters my eardrums with her squeal of happiness. She proceeds to spend the next hour saying little more than, "I told you so."

Our weekly calls with our families are full of laughter; our mothers are both so happy they can't contain their joy. Mama reports that she and Aunt Alicia are putting the finishing touches on my dress and moccasins. Momma Garcia regales us with tales of my soon to be sisters-in-law's hunt for the perfect dresses... not only for themselves, but the nieces, as well.

Dinner with Bobby and David is a surprising calm haven in the storm of joy, although the evening is filled with laughter, as well. The not terribly surprising news is that David's parents will be joining us for our traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Bobby adds, just as we're leaving, "And now that you're finally marrying my best friend, Detective Dreamy, you're not allowed to make up ridiculous excuses for not coming to Thanksgiving dinner. Murder indeed! No, sir... that is just not a good excuse! Tell him, David."

David laughs. "I'm afraid no excuse will suffice, Pablo." He hugs Bobby. "But should you find yourself forced to confront the underbelly of society and skip Bobby's superior offerings of cuisine, we will find a way to console ourselves in your absence."

Bobby lightly slaps David on the arm. "Silly! We'll be consoling poor Andrea as she worries about her dear husband out there on those mean streets confronting those awful criminals!"

It's all Pablo and I can do to keep from laughing. And all David says is, "Yes, dear. Of course, you're right."

Every night the dreams come, though. There's less and less fog each night; the landscape seems to modify itself on every iteration, however. It seems to always be someplace I almost seem to recognize. Window Rock... but not quite. Monument Valley or Tsé Bii' Ndzisgaii, the Valley of the Rocks... yet not quite. Canyon De Chelly... but not really. Despite the oddness, I'm relieved that whatever had been talking to me is leaving me in peace.

After work on Tuesday, I meet Brian at the border of El Paso and Douglas counties after he's picked Ben up from the hospital in Colorado Springs. I'm grateful to the hospital staff who refused to discharge him until they spoke with the doctors in Commerce City. I'm more than a little surprised that they wanted reassurance that the Commerce City clinic could adequately handle the severity of Ben's wounds. What only Brian and I know is that Ben's physical condition isn't as critical as his... you know, I don't even think there's a word for it.

But he's still infected — possessed? — with Shadowkin.

I don't think the doctors from Doctors Without Borders quite understand what I'm telling them, but the residents of Commerce City do... and it worries them. But I spend quite a long time studying Ben's qi; I know that the Shadowkin is pleased to be settled firmly in its host. As best as I can tell, it believes it will spend the rest of Ben's life exactly where it is... and then find another convenient host.

It's completely mistaken, of course.

"So, Doc... how long do you think Ben here will be laid up?" I ask the young man tending to him.

"With all these injuries? Oh, it's difficult to say." He's young, not more than a year past his residency. Originally from Chicago, he's seen more in his six months in Commerce City than his entire life prior to coming out to Colorado. "They stabilized his electrolytes and treated his wounds expertly down at Memorial. All his bones are set properly, but he's still suffering from malnutrition. It could be weeks, maybe months."

"Before the end of the year?"

"I would hate to say with certainty, but it's possible. Maybe."

"Well, I'm just wondering because, in addition to all his physical ailments, he's — in effect — possessed by a demon."


"Now, don't get your panties in a knot there, Doctor Santiago. It has no intention of going anywhere. However, I need to get it out, but I can't do that with the shape he's in. I also need to make arrangements for some folks to help me out, so it would be nice to have a timeframe." I remember the contortions Pablo had been through when removing his hitchhiker. "For instance, how long will it take for the bones in his arms and legs to heal?"

"Six weeks, minimum. Possibly eight to twelve for some of them."

I nod. We should plan this for when we get back from our honeymoon, then.

"If he becomes agitated, you may need to restrain him."

The doctor looks decidedly unhappy about that.

"We will watch him carefully, Ninja," Mamu says. "We cannot see the evil as you do, but many of us feel its presence."

"Thanks, Mamu. Could you two give me a minute alone with him?"

"Just a minute or two," the doctor says.

"That's all I need. Thanks."

They leave the room and I look down at Ben. He's fighting the Shadowkin, but it's not easy.

"I thought you forgot about me," he whispers. "It was so long."

"I know, man. I'm sorry. Time moves funny in those places, and there's been a lot of shit going down out here, too. Think you can hang tight until you're healed up?"

He swallows and nods. "Been fighting for a couple of years or something. What's another couple of months?"

"It's gonna hurt like hell, I won't lie to you, Ben."

He tries to laugh, but it comes out as a choked cough instead. "Right. Probably nothing I haven't already seen." His eyes cloud over for a moment, but he fights his way back. "You can really do this?"

I nod. "I might need a couple of buddies here with me, but I saw how the Medicine Men pulled one of these things out of someone else. My methods may be different, but the effect will be the same."

He nods again and closes his eyes. "Just glad to be away from the fucking flying buzzsaws and freak ass snakes that are all teeth."

The doctor returns to the room then. "I must insist that he rest now, Ninja."

"Sure thing, Doc." I look past him to Mamu. Can you see that someone gets me updates on his condition every few days? I ask her.

Of course. We now have friends in Denver who regularly visit and can relay messages when we have no working phones. And I must say that your telepathic skill has improved considerably.

I smile at her. It's been a weird few weeks, Mamu.

I look back at Ben. "You hang in there, buddy. Doctor Santiago and Doctor Fredericksen will take good care of you. And your people up here will look after you, too." I grin, although he can't see it with his eyes closed. "You may be a pain in the ass, Ben, but you're our pain in the ass."

He smiles slightly. "Don't try to make me laugh, Ninja," he whispers. "It hurts too much. Go on, get out of here, you pest."

The usual parade of children accompanies me to the gate, although Matthew is conspicuously absent. He decided to stay at Charles' school, and I'm glad he did. I have time for a short story before most of them need to be tucked into bed. That was probably the very best part of my day.

The worst? Yeah, another one of those dreams.

This dreamscape is exceedingly bizarre. It almost looks like that place on Uncle Leon's property where we formed the Pentad, yet superimposed over it is a distorted version of Lookout Mountain. I feel a little dizzy... not something I'm accustomed to feeling.

Well, as I've learned, standing around is likely to make me crazy and stressed out. Sitting still and trying to relax is likely to make me crazy and stressed out. So, what the hell! Maybe if I wander around, I'll find an interesting corner of my mind I'd forgotten about. Like the time Justin found his old stuffed Kermit the Frog in a box a dozen years after he thought he'd never see good old Kermit again.

I should be so lucky to find something cool like that!

You left us.

The dual toned voice sounds astoundingly sad.

Nope, not that lucky.

I woke up.

It would seem these voices don't understand the concept of sleep. Or don't care. Okay, no... the level of sadness I hear really doesn't point to even the slightest level of not caring. And they seemed truly distraught the last time when they thought they were hurting me. So I'll just go with the assumption they don't understand sleeping. But who doesn't understand sleep?!

Hmmm... I'm not sure the Spirits really do, although with Rene around they might get a better grip on the idea. I think Mother understands, although I'm not sure Father does.

Woke up means went away.

No, it...

Now, Andi... don't get frustrated here. Just because you're teaching English as a Second Language doesn't mean Others — well, these Others — can't ask deeply philosophical questions. Deeply annoying philosophical questions, true. But come on! You're a librarian! This shouldn't be bothersome!

Yeah, but I'm also asleep. And I really don't think I'm getting quality sleep when I'm having bizarre dreams.

Damn. I guess that's what an extra hour of Taiji is for.

I suppose from your point of view, if you can't leave the dream, it would probably look that way. To me... no.

Although, just perhaps, it might be the same. Would it be the same? When the Spirits and Rene return to their dimension, do they go away? Would it be considered 'going away' if a simple thought, a call of their names, brings them back? Are they truly 'away'? I'm not sure. And yet... they can't hear me when I call them from here.

Well... perhaps I did go away.

And came back! We are glad you came back!

Yeah, okay. That part I get.

I'm not sure I control where I go when I sleep. I certainly have no control over this dream.

A dream is this place. It is where we talk.

Honest, I'm trying to see things from their point of view, but even with all the weird of the world I do understand, this one might be beyond me.

Oh. I thought the same thing about healing from dead, too. Hmmmm.

Ah, this dream is this place. Maybe. I'm not sure it's a place. But I'm not sure it isn't, either. But I dream of other things, other places... ordinary things, ordinary places. I don't understand this place.

I might be imagining the confusion I sense from them; it could just be my own confusion bouncing around inside my head and coming back at me.

We found this place. It is the largest place we found. It is an important place?

It's not a real place. It's almost like a real place — well two real places — but doesn't look like either... especially when smooshed together like this.

But we found this place. It is your place.

Right. Okay. I don't know who these voices are, but they're really making me nervous. I have no idea how they can tap into my memories to know this is a mashup of two very important places.

Although I'm pretty sure I wouldn't mind if Pablo wakes me up again, I'm going to resist my urge to flee. I have a feeling this is just going to drag out forever if I don't figure out what the frack is going on. I might as well stay, right?

Maybe if I start over, I might get somewhere with these two. It's worth a shot, right?

Can we start over? I'm really confused. Just who ARE you guys? There are two of you, right?

There's another of those pauses that I've been interpreting as confusion, although I'm really not even sure of that.

We are two.

Okay. That's a good start. Do you know who you are?

The lights spun around each other a couple of times.

We have not been told.

I sigh. Here's where I get frustrated again, right?

When will you be told?

This time the lights bounce off one another.

Later, before, now... time is meaningless.

Okay, now you just sound like the Spirits. You're not Spirits, though. Well, not the Spirits of the First Nations, anyway.

The lights dance around and I get the impression they're... laughing?

Spirits! Oh, they are so pretty! We are not them but thank you for thinking we are that pretty! You are pretty, too!

Oh, dear gods, a couple of Raven protégés! No, no, no! I can't put up with Raven proteges invading my dreams forever. I take a deep breath and let it out very slowly. That seems to help. Well, a little.

Well, the dancing light thing you have going on now is more attractive than the fog.

That's not a lie.

So you don't have a timeframe for finding out who you are. Fine. Who's supposed to tell you who you are?

You will!

I grit my teeth.

But why ME??

The lights are utterly still, then move closer together. It's probably my imagination, but they seem to be huddling together for comfort. BUT THAT'S CRAZY!

Because... because you are Shimá.

Everything stops. Time, my brain, my heart. It's possible the entire universe disappears and is then reconstructed at this moment, in only this one place, and nothing else exists anywhere else.

Not possible.

The lights come closer, and I lean against a handy boulder.

Possible. And truth.

I slide down the handy boulder until I'm sitting on the ground, stunned. I check my meridians, then again... and a third time. I know it's a dream. If they speak the truth, however, wouldn't I be able to verify the truth of a dream from within the dream?

No. I don't see what I should see for that to be true.

They definitely laugh. Not only do they dance around one another, but I almost — maybe — hear high pitched giggling. If fairies were real things, I imagine their laughter would be as much of a dog whistle as this.

Because we are you!

And that's when it sinks in. They don't mean that they're me. They mean they're a combination of me and Pablo. THAT'S why I haven't been able to see a disturbance in my meridians... because there can't be one.

I think I'm crying. Or, if I'm not crying, I certainly feel like I should be.

But I can't tell Pablo. Not yet. Because I don't think I trust it enough to be real, despite knowing in every cell of my being that it is real.

Do you know who you will be?

A light hovers over each of my raised knees.

Who? How can anyone know that? We will be who we will be. But we wished to be with you, and so we are.

I blink.

Wait. You DECIDED you would... is that even possible?

Possible. It is what happens. Most do not remember. You do not remember. You chose. We promise.

I'm pretty sure I must have been crazy if I actually CHOSE this life before I was even born.

Your life is bad?

Well. No. It's just hard.

Yes. That is life. We know this. That is why we do it. To experience. To learn. You will teach, please?

Uh... well, yeah, of course. That's my job, right?

Oh, some choose to have no teachers. We chose you, but we were not sure you wished to teach.

I am Diné. Of course, I would teach you.

This has got to be the most bizarre dream in the history of ever. I wonder how many women find out they're pregnant because they have dreams of talking to their children. It can't be many, or it's something I would have heard about, right?

Well, there is that one story where an angel showed up to tell the mother she's pregnant, but I think this is different. Great Spirit, it had better be different!

Or maybe it's another of those mother-daughter talks Mama and I never got around to having. Or one of the many lectures we have in store for us on our wedding day.

Are you going to be keeping me from real sleep until you're born? Because, really... I need sleep. I can get by on Taiji for a while, but I do need sleep.

Well, that gives them pause. Or confuses them.

How will you teach us if we do not talk?

That almost sounds like a rational question... until I realize they can't possibly be developed enough to even be able to talk. Unless I haven't been paying attention to what my body's been doing — and I always pay attention to what's going on in my body — they don't even have brains yet, and shouldn't even be able to communicate telepathically!

I groan.

What have we done to distress you, Shimá?

How are you able to talk to me? It's not telepathy because that requires brain functions, which I'm pretty darn sure you don't have.

They laugh again.

Oh, that is true, the beings we will become are still too small for us. We are... elsewhere.

Elsewhere? Just where is... wait. You know what? I don't think I need to know. In fact, I don't think I even want to know.

Come to think of it, when did... Oh. And ut oh. And damn, it's a good thing only Pablo's qi matches mine.

We will be able to talk to Shizhé'é, too!

Then, unless I'm going crazy, I think they have a conversation between the two of them. Except it sounds like a single voice — true, with interesting harmonics — talking to itself.

We will?

Of course... why not?

But when?

Oh, not until later, much later.

Not until we get... what's the word?


Right. Not until then. The part of the duo who said that seemed just as sad as the two of them had been when they accused me of going away.

No, no! We just need to be much bigger!

I groan again.

I'm going to go through nine months of you two interrupting my dreams, and then interrupting Pablo's, too? We're going to be cranky, sleep-deprived parents long before most people are cranky, sleep-deprived parents... something that generally doesn't happen until babies are born.

I pause, considering what I remember of the few friends I have who've had babies.

Well, maybe moms are kind of cranky sometimes before their babies are born, and perhaps sleep-deprived... but dads usually aren't.

They are silent for a moment.

We do not want to make you unwell and unhappy, Shimá. How can we help you not be unwell? How can we make you happy?

I shake my head, more at the absurdity of the situation than anything else. But then I smile, too.

I think I can say with some amount of certainty that both Shizhé'é and I will be very happy. Most of the time. As soon as I get used to this idea, I'm sure I'll be happier than I've ever been. But little ones... this is not ordinary, this is not how parents usually meet their children.

Oh, we know, Shimá! But you and Shizhé'é are very special. That is why we chose you. We think you are both beautiful.

We have not done this living thing in a long time.

Has it been a long time?

Oh, maybe it has not.

Well, it is so hard to tell, Shimá. Time does not mean anything when you are not doing the living thing. It is all now and then and later and before. But we do not think we have done this in a long time.

I just stare at the pinpoints of light. Dear gods, blessed Spirits, holy Buddhas... I'm having such a hard time with this.

I remember the first time. I wasn't prepared mentally or emotionally for pregnancy, for being a parent. I'm pretty sure I'm not any more prepared now. But Jared had been so over-the-top happy, so excited about being a dad. I know Pablo will be exactly the same... perhaps even more so. I caught the baby excitement from Jared, and when I had had the miscarriage, Jared and I had been equally crushed. I don't want Pablo to go through that. He's already lost one child. Hell, I don't want to go through that again!

What if you go away? My first baby did. My body couldn't keep it. What if that happens again?

If I start crying in my dream, will I wake up to find I've been crying?

The little lights come closer and closer, almost touching my face.

Oh, Shimá! We won't go away! We promise. We are the same as you and Shizhé'é. We made sure of that so we would not have to go away. The other one? We said we do not understand the time thing, yes? That one picked the right Papa but was confused and picked the wrong Mama. That other one fixed the mistake later.

Even if this stuff makes linguistic sense, it just doesn't make sense. I want to wake up and talk to someone who understands what the hell is going on. But who's going to understand any of this? Well... maybe one of the Buddhist monks up at Naropa.

Are they saying my first child... made a mistake in picking me? That it wasn't the right time for her or him to be born? Damn, I can hardly grasp that these... these...

What are you? Some kind of spirits or souls or what? This is very much not making sense to me. And... and when my baby went away... did she or he understand how much that hurt? My heart hurt so much, Jared's heart hurt so much!

That one was very young. It did not understand.

So not helpful! I STILL have a tiny baby sized hole in my heart, and it's not even supposed to be there? I sigh.

You didn't answer the first part of the question.

I think I'm starting to get to my breaking point. Even to my own dream ears, that sounds weary and almost despondent.

We are qi.

As if that was so blatantly obvious, as if perhaps I'm just a little dense for not figuring that out myself.

Sentient qi? Hey, sure... why not? I'm a magnet for weird! This only adds to the evidence.

The lights dance around one another again in an erratic whirl of confusion.

You are upset, Shimá. What have we done to upset you?

I sigh again.

It's not your fault. I don't think so, anyway. I'm just very, very confused. And tired. And not ready to trust all of this.

It is because you do not remember. We will go away now. Maybe you will remember. Maybe you will understand.

Maybe I will. Someday.

I pause and fold my hands over my lower abdomen, where — supposedly — two tiny embryos were growing.

You will talk with me again?

They bounce around and circle my head with what I can only surmise is joy.

We would very much like to talk to you again, Shimá! If you come to this place, we will know you are ready to talk more. We are so happy to be your álchíní! We love you, Shimá!

The tiny lights disappear, and I sit alone leaning against the boulder. I'm so scared.

How am I going to tell Pablo?

I wake groggy but can honestly attribute it to another of my strange dreams. Pablo is concerned, of course, and I don't blame him.

"Is this normal, Andi? The dreams, the lack of sleep?"

I shrug. "Well, it's not like I've never had odd dreams before... or even dreams that leave me still feeling tired or even disoriented in the morning. That happens to everyone once in a while, right?" I sigh as I snuggle closer to him. "I've just never had strange dreams so frequently, that's all."

"Do you think it means something?"

I pull back and look into his eyes, doing my best to look suspicious. "You're not going to get all Let me interpret your dreams for you on me, are you? Because I don't need you and Clarence doing that." I practice my stink eye on him.

Pablo laughs. "No, love. If you want interpretations for your dreams, by all means talk to Clarence. I'm just concerned about you, your health, little things like your sanity." There's still laughter in his voice.

"Oh, trust me... I'm at least as concerned about my sanity as you are." I kiss him tenderly. "I think it's just the stress, love. I mean... sure, this time of year is always stressful because of the budget announcement. And of course just because having Thanksgiving dinner with Bobby and David is wonderful doesn't mean there isn't that nagging bit in the back of my mind telling me how much I'm missing my family.

"But I've never done this whole getting married thing before," I say with a smile. "I have a feeling that my brain is trying to tell me I'm not quite as nonchalant about the whole thing as I think I am. I mean, holy shit, Pablo! The entirety of my family and your family and all of our closest friends all gathering for a huge party? If I do stop to think about it, I have to consciously admit that it's a little overwhelming."

I can see the merriment sparkling in his eyes. "Well, for a shy and delicate person like you, I can see where that might be a little much. It's too bad you don't have a big, bad, kickass friend to help you out with that."

"Smart ass. The part of me that's Ninja is even more freaked out. Andrea's the people person, not Ninja!" I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You know... if I just think of it as another huge fundraiser for the library, maybe gathering with a bazillion people in Denver's most famous haunted hotel won't freak me out as much."

"Wait... what? The Brown Palace is haunted??"

I laugh. "Seriously, Pablo? You've lived in Denver longer than I have, and you don't know the Brown Palace is haunted? Well, it's supposed to be. And I suppose I could verify it easily enough... though I think I'd have to wait for next Halloween."

"And you thought it was a good idea to have our wedding reception there?" He actually looks worried.

I giggle. This is the perfect nonsensical thing to settle my soul after that dream. "Well, according to legend, Louise Crawford Hill tends to hang out in her old room there – where we're not staying, by the way. The ghostly band hangs out in Ellyngton's, and random ghosts like to wander around in the lobby. The reception is going to be in the Grand Ballroom, not Ellyngton's... so there's no need to worry."

He looks at me suspiciously. "I'm not sure if you're serious, or if you're just trying to mess with my mind."

I hug him, breathe in the scent of him. "I'll bring you a book all about it when I go to work on Saturday. It's really interesting." I look at him, almost getting lost in the depths of his eyes, and smile. "So Husband... how do you want to spend this fine Thanksgiving Day between now and the appointed hour that we've been commanded to appear at the Human Tsunami's home?"

As usual, Thanksgiving with Bobby is truly about giving thanks. We both realize we'd found the loves of our lives this year, and there's not much that's more thanks-worthy. My best friend is in all his glory on this day of the year, baking and cooking and generally making enough food to feed not only us but half of Five Points for an entire week. In truth, he does go a little overboard on Thanksgiving deliberately because after dinner he carefully packs up the leftovers and drives over to the Mission to feed the homeless. Most of the leftovers, anyway; he and his best friend like leftover turkey on fresh bread. This year David is going to help him. Is it really surprising that I love this guy?

This also year, there's more of everything because David's parents have joined us for dinner, something that makes them happier than their mere outward appreciation shows. Pablo, in his outgoing, friendly, excellent detective way, gets them to admit they've always been a little sad because they'd only go over to David's sister's house for the holidays. I have a feeling David's sister hasn't minded a whole lot – not if she's anything like the rest of the family. But this gives her the opportunity to have Thanksgiving dinner with her in-laws, who are almost as awesome as her own parents, if David's description of them is anything near accurate.

Pablo and I joke about rolling across the driveway earlier than I normally do, but Bobby barely notices and just smiles fondly. And I'm not above admitting we both get a little mushy and teary eyed saying goodnight... it's hard not to when you're thankful for having one of the best friends on the planet.

Friday dawns bright and clear – just another typical Denver autumn morning. I'm happy that my dreams were quiet because I think I have enough to worry about without the hypothetical – or perhaps not so hypothetical – twins stressing me out. The stresses I mentioned yesterday to Pablo are only the tip of the iceberg, since trying to figure out how to tell him about the twins is even more stressful than the upcoming wedding. I should probably be more stressed about that... but our mothers are doing so much of the work that I haven't had a chance to be stressed. Heck, even Bobby mentioned yesterday that he's having the time of his life working with the Brown Palace chefs.

Today, though, is Pablo's day to be freaked out beyond all measure. He's still not quite used to the idea of being Peacekeeper, although he's been patrolling with me on and off all month. He's not sure letting anyone else know about his newfound powers is a good idea, not even another Super – maybe even especially another Super. It's really hard to tell, possibly because he's vacillating even on that. But the day has arrived that he's going to meet Peregrine, whether he's ready or not.

I have another of Aunt Sonia's wonderful woven baskets as a guest gift for Michael and his wife, and I even baked a batch of blueberry muffins to put in the basket. I don't know why it keeps freaking people out that I actually cook and bake... I'm really good at it. I just hate doing it. Okay, 'hate' might be too strong a word.

Michael lives in a very ordinary area of University Hills, just south of the University of Denver. Unlike the new homes and renovations in Cherry Creek, University Hills is filled with beautiful old homes... some are small and cozy like mine, others definitely qualify as mansions in my book. Some homes have been maintained meticulously, many have been renovated and updated in the last two decades. Michael and his family live at the southern edge of the neighborhood on a dead end street off McWilliams Park.

I've never seen Pablo so nervous in the eleven years I've known him. I'd mentioned to Perry that Andrea's fiancé was Pablo just so there wouldn't be any of that awkward oh my gods, how do we do these introductions at the front door. I hadn't mentioned the Peacekeeper part. I'd left Perry wondering if Peacekeeper was going to come by after dinner. Ha.

"Pablo, please relax. Perry's a very nice guy, and I'm sure his wife is just as nice," I say as we're driving down University Boulevard.

"I'm trying, Andi. It's not working."

"Maybe you should have let me drive so you could just sit and relax."

"Oh, no! I wouldn't sit and relax. I'd sit and get more nervous."

"You weren't anywhere this nervous when you met my family, Pablo. I don't get it."

He sighs. "I don't either, Andi. But if I get it figured out, I'll let you know." He tries to smile, but it's unmistakably forced. He glances at me, then smiles much more genuinely. "Hey, there's the pizza place I'd drag you to all the time to make sure you ate something at least a couple of times a week."

I laugh. "You refused to believe that I exercised enough to burn off whatever calories you forced me to eat. You constantly accused me of only eating when you fed me, despite the fact that I ate three decent meals a day!"

"Yeah... well, I know better now. Good God, woman, you eat more than I do!"

I chuckle. "Oooh, look! Remember that time I made you eat a tempeh burger at Mustard's Last Stand?"

"I thought you were trying to kill me," he says, laughing. "That was just plain nasty."

"Well, you said you wanted something different!"

"THAT kind of different was just cruel."

I giggle and point at the stop light ahead. "You might as well take the left on Iliff; it'll be easier than trying to turn at Vassar without a light."

"Coming down here makes me nostalgic. Let me know if I start getting sappy."

"You? Sappy?" I grin at him. "Seriously, Detective... I would never have thought it of you." I look back down University as we turn. "I don't know, Pablo. Most of the housing that was on the east side of the street is gone. It seems like a different world than it was ten years ago." I sigh and shrug. "Well, there's progress for you."

"The world might change all around DU, but the University itself is like the trees that just bend in a hurricane." He looks at the homes on either side of the street. "You know... I don't think this is the sort of neighborhood I expected a Sponsored Super to live in. I was thinking maybe a little farther south in the snootier neighborhoods... or maybe up in Park Hill... or even out in Golden."

I reach over and lightly tap his leg. "Silly. I told you Michael seems like a totally down to earth kind of guy. And a woman who loves to cook and bake and sew? She's probably not going to let his ego expand enough ever to want to live among the sort of people to whom I wouldn't give the time of day. Not that they'd ever give me a second glance either."

"Hey, now... none of that," he says, reaching over to squeeze my hand as he stops at the stop sign at Fillmore. "We proud but few civil servants keep their worlds running, and just because they don't know who keeps their worlds safe and beautiful, there's no reason for us to disparage them."

"Wow, you've gotten all wise and philosophical, haven't you? Saint Paul's the next right, by the way."

"I've been hanging out with this librarian, and she's got a friend who's a psychologist. They're they sort of people who make you think," he says, smiling at me. "Which one is it? These homes are at least as ordinary looking as yours... though they have more yard to mow."

I chuckle. "Last house on the left, he said. Just park in the driveway."

Pablo pulls into the driveway and shuts off the engine. "Wow. It's nice. Not an over the top, crazy McMansion... but it certainly has a unique style."

"See? Does that look like the house of a pretentious person? No. It looks like the house of a person who has a good job — not as a civil servant, of course — and wants a house that reflects an independent spirit." I don't wait for him to open my door, mostly because he's just staring at the not quite ordinary, yet completely ordinary house. I chuckle as I get the basket of muffins from the back seat.

My staff is back here, too... and my uniform is in the trunk. Not that I expect I'll need either today, but after being without both in Flagstaff, it made me realize that always being prepared is a necessity. Pablo has gotten out of the car and comes around to link his arm with mine as we walk up to the front door, which opens as we approach.

"Hi, Andrea... Pablo!" says an attractive brunette with an infant in one arm. "I'm so glad you could come. I've been dying to meet you since Michael told me about you, Andrea. Come on in."

I look at her; then the blue swaddled infant in her arm. Then I chuckle. "Let me guess... his birthday is July 30, also known as Goblin Day."

Michael appears behind her with a very shy toddler on his hip. He's smiling, and he looks damn peaceful holding his daughter.

Pablo and I enter their home; I kind of hope our mouths aren't hanging open. Wow. I think it's the natural wood that grabs my attention more than anything else.

Michael laughs. "You're good at math."

I grin at him. "Let's just say I had a suspicion." I wrap my arm around Pablo's waist. "This is my fiancé, Pablo Garcia. Pablo, Michael Varano and his wife... and kids."

His wife laughs. "I'm Martha... our daughter is Kimberly, and our son is Nathaniel. Well, Nate, really." She looks down with what almost looks like adoration at the child. "He'll have to grow into Nathaniel, I think."

I stare at her. "Martha? Really? You're not kidding me, are you?"

Both of them laugh. "We thought it was hysterical that you figured out her name without even knowing you did it," Michael says. He kisses his daughter's head and says to her, "Hey, Kimmy... you want to say hi to Daddy's friends?" She nods, but keeps her face buried in his shoulder. "Later, huh?" She nods again. "Okay. They don't mind." He looks up at us and winks. "Do you?"

"Not in the least," I say.

"Nope," Pablo agrees. "Heck, sometimes it takes my nephew an hour to remember who I am so he can say hello when I visit. And he's already six."

Martha nods toward the sitting room. "Come on in and sit down. Do you want me to take that from you, Andrea?"

"Good heavens, just tell me where to put it down. I think you have enough in your hands at the moment!" I say as we follow Michael into their sitting room.

It's much more of an open floor plan than I'd have expected from looking at the house from outside. The kitchen and dining areas are visible once we get past the amazing stairway.

Martha's smile seems to light up her whole face. "Well, I don't know if I'd say enough, but he's certainly pretty darn amazing. Go ahead and just set it on the counter there, if you'd like."

Pablo, I think, is as intrigued by the house as I am.

"The muffins are probably going to seem fairly ordinary, but despite the delusions some people have about my skills in the kitchen, they're more than edible." My eyes twinkle with merriment as I turn around. "It didn't seem right to bring an empty basket, even though it's the real gift... a Navajo friendship basket, made by my aunt."

Martha's eyes grow wide. "Really? Oh, wow, Andrea! Thank you! That's an amazing gift."

"It seemed appropriate," I say as I return to Pablo's side.

"Your house is fantastic," he says. "The woodworking detail isn't something you see much these days."

Michael nods. "I have some pretty talented friends. An old high school buddy did the woodworking, a college friend is an architect and put together the renovation plans."

Talking about the house, getting a tour, helps to relax Pablo and soon enough he and Michael are chatting like old friends. It's not something that surprises me. Michael is just flat-out a nice guy; Pablo is good with people. Personally, I think that's what makes him so good at what he does. Kimberly warms up to the intruders in her world quickly enough, too... and insists on showing us each and every one of her stuffed animals. We are suitably impressed, of course.

Martha turns down every offer of help but does rest Nate in my arms at one point. He's a little thing, and completely enchanting. He stares wide-eyed at me and reaches out to grab my hair. I'm prepared for the inevitable pain that's going to cause, but this tiny bundle of wonder just grips it against his chest.

"Looks like he likes you," Michael remarks.

I smile down at his son. "I think it's something about the qi. Babies are most sensitive to it, even if they're Normal."

I sense Michael's nod as Pablo stands beside me, looking at the small miracle. "We're going to have a baseball team," he says absently.

I don't think a single one of them is prepared for just how fast I resettle the baby on one arm, snake the other out to slap Pablo on the back of the head, and tuck my arm back under Nate.

"Ow!" Pablo says as Nate giggles a little baby giggle, letting go of my hair so he can wiggle in baby glee. I smile at him.

"Stop it, Pablo. You've used up your quota of that joke for the year... and most of next year, too."

He rubs the back of his head, and Kimberly stares at us from her father's side.

"Dada! Auntie hit Uncle like Mommy hits you!" She isn't sure if she should be surprised or impressed.

Martha says from the kitchen area, "Of course she did, Kimmy. Uncle said a silly thing. Like Daddy says silly things. And like Mommy and Daddy, I'll bet Auntie Andi hardly even touched Uncle Pablo."


I can understand her disbelief. First, I did hit Pablo hard enough for him to feel it. Second, as usual, he's taking delight in over-reacting.

"Well. Yeah," Pablo admits. "But when I say really, really, REALLY silly things that I forgot Andi told me not to say? Well, then it just feels like she hit me really hard because I feel bad that I forgot."

His aura says he's highly modifying the truth, which the infant in my arms points out by blowing bubbles and giggling.

Michael chuckles. "You've probably been warned by now, but that kind of talk makes most women remarkably cranky."

"Even me," Martha adds.

"I have," Pablo says, nodding. "I have a tendency to forget when I'm around kids because I think they're so great."

"That's fine, dear," I say, smiling at little Nate. "We can both just quit our jobs and run an orphanage."

"Really?!" he says, sounding entirely too excited about the idea.

I look up at him and give him the stink eye. "You know that mutual friend of ours who's a psychologist? You need to have a good long chat with him."

Pablo laughs. "I know, I know... as an idea it sounds great. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be quite so wonderful in reality, though."

Dinner isn't as extravagant an affair as Bobby puts together, but it's every bit as wonderful and thanks-worthy. Martha's meal is simple and healthy, and reminds me of my mother's preferences for fresh vegetables and a conscious effort to provide a greater than normal amount of protein for me. Martha obviously is accustomed to Michael's higher protein intake; I think she must have baked three entire chickens for today's meal. I shake my head slightly when I note Pablo is again being a proper guest and eating the way he did before his visit to the Ancestral Pest's prison dimension. I deposit an extra chicken thigh and two legs on his plate. He needs the extra protein as much as I do now.

After our early dinner — or perhaps late lunch — Martha again waves away help in cleaning up. However, I think both Tita and Mama would somehow find out if I didn't at least help clear the table. It doesn't take long to put away leftovers, get the very practical plates and flatware into the dishwasher, wipe down counters and sweep the inevitable crumbs from the floor. Despite that, I have an opportunity to get to know the woman who supports Denver's Sponsored Super, while he and Pablo are getting to know one another. I find I'm not particularly surprised that she has a Master's degree in Education and plans to homeschool their children.

"Michael and I try to keep his work out of the house, but Kimmy is awfully inquisitive. I'm not sure what age you tell a child her father is a Super Hero, but four is a bit young."

I can't help but smile. "Great. Just another thing for me to worry about with Pablo and his obsession to have at least a baseball team worth of kids! At least one of them is bound to wonder why Mommy spends so many nights out so late."

She nods. "I think we're fortunate that so much of Michael's work is fairly structured. I have to thank you for watching through the nights... and, of course, being available when we have family emergencies." She smiles, too; her aura fairly glows with gratitude. "Having him there when Nate was born meant the world to me. I understand you got hurt taking over for him that day. I'm really sorry about that."

I shake my head. "No need to apologize, Martha. I heal fast, and I was doing my job. I was more annoyed that the bad guys — or bad guy, I guess, Masterson has been a little cagey about that — were, or was, such a complete pervert. Ew!" I make a face that probably looks like I'm trying to turn my face inside out.

"Well, it sounds like you had the better skills to deal with... whatever it was. I heard one of the Colonel's men got hurt, too. Is he okay?"

I nod. "Right as rain. In fact, I worked with the squad again at Halloween. I never thought I'd say this, but those Special Forces folks are all right."

She looks at me oddly as she stops sweeping the floor to focus on me. "You've had bad experiences with the military?"

I, too, pause in my task of filling the dishwasher. "I'm a Navajo... a Native American. So many of our people — not just in the Navajo Nation, but most of the Nations out west here — have suffered because of the military industrial complex. And that's without bringing up things like broken treaties and stolen land. Yes, some of us are Cursed in ways that are helpful to our individual Nations, the United States, and even the world... but a lot of us aren't that lucky." I sigh and shrug. "Despite being an Army brat myself, I've been blaming... well, a group, a construct... for the actions of real people, many of whom are long dead. Masterson and his squad are helping me change my way of thinking."

And then she shares a megawatt smile that looks like the physical manifestation of her aura. "Learning and growing is what life's all about, isn't it?"

I grin. "You're talking to a librarian here. Of course it is!"

When we return to the family room area, Pablo and Michael are just sitting down. "Did Kimmy give you a hard time about taking a nap?" Martha asks her husband.

Michael chuckles. "Not the slightest. Pablo bribed her... said that he'd her one of the stories he used to tell his little sisters if she'd take a nap. You know how she loves stories."

"I probably should have mentioned that it's in Spanish," Pablo says, although he certainly doesn't seem sorry for the omission.

Martha nods. "No, that's great! Michael and I both know a little bit, and she's computer savvy enough to run the Rosetta software. I think it will be good for her."

"So, Andrea," Michael says, "I might have misunderstood, but I thought you were going to have Peacekeeper come by today, too."

I can't help but giggle as I sit down beside Pablo. "I was, and I did."

It takes him a minute, then he looks at Pablo and laughs. "You sly devil! You never let on for a second you were Newbie... sorry, Peacekeeper."

Pablo just shrugs. "I guess I'm still not quite used to it. I mean, sure, I've been out on patrol with Andi, er, Ninja, but I'm really looking at my role as more of a backup to both of you." He looks at me, trying yet again to figure out if I understand his hesitations. No matter how many times I reassure him that I completely understand that his job as a DPD detective is his primary responsibility, he still can't quite let himself believe it. He looks back at Michael. "My boss knows about... well, what happened to me. He understands the additional responsibilities it adds to my life, probably because he's been dealing with Ninja for so many years. And he trusts that I'll make the right call about how to deal with all this."

I pat his hand. "But you think he's far more worried about losing his best detective than he actually is. I have a feeling that he'd rather have you as his number one detective and the DPD liaison to the elusive Super known as Ninja. And that's all it is because I have not peeked at his aura."

Pablo rolls his eyes. "Well, you do have a knack for making law enforcement officers a little crazy."

I chuckle. "Only the ones who aren't crazy to begin with. It's not my fault your boss is so sane and down to earth."

"Well, that certainly explains the design of your costume," Martha says from her perch on the arm of Michael's chair. "It was an interesting and fun project to work on."

Pablo finally smiles. "It's amazing! You thought of things I wouldn't have considered until I had worn it for months."

"And it's pretty fine looking, too," I say, nudging Pablo's shoulder gently. He rolls his eyes. Michael chuckles.

"I'm glad you like it, Pablo." But then Martha jumps up and almost seems to quiver with happiness. "Oh, and I finished yours, Andi! Let me go get it for you!"

There's no point trying to tell Martha that it can wait because she's out of the room so fast I also most suspect she's got a super power or two herself. I mean, well, she doesn't, but she's as excited as Billy gets... well, all the time. She's back in only a couple of minutes with a large box, similar to the one she had sent Pablo earlier in the month.

As she places it on the coffee table, and I scoot forward on the sofa to open it, my dear husband says, "Oooh, spandex!"

I look over my shoulder at him, pausing in mid box-opening. "Do you want to spar in my dojo when we get home, Detective Garcia?" I ask, with eyebrows raised.

I love the man, and he's beginning to understand the nuances of my facial expressions... the ones he didn't get to experience when he was simply one of my best friends. "No, Ms. Yazzie, I don't believe I do. It doesn't sound like it would be good for my health."

"You're a wise man, dear." Ninja grins at him before I go back to opening the box. Unlike Peacekeeper's primarily blue costume, the box in front of me holds material so black that it almost seems to be a black hole. "Wow, I hadn't realized this material looked so... I don't know... light sucking, I think."

"There are a few different types of materials available," Martha says, trying not to show her anxiousness about my opinion. "They all have the same properties in stopping things like bullets, some are better at stopping things like a knife. I used those for Michael and Pablo because they don't have a healing factor like you do. I hope you don't mind."

I pick up each item as Martha's speaking, marveling at how much they feel like ordinary fabrics. "No, not at all! I mean, it hurts like a son of a gun to heal from a stab wound, but this material feels more like my ordinary clothes than Pablo's does. So... the protective properties of the material affect its coloration, too?"

She nods. "It's actually most noticeable with the black. Because the material is cross-layered microscopically, light actually refracts from the different layers in different ways depending on the color. The darker the material, the harder it is for any of the light to bounce back out."

I look up at her, shaking my head. "I'm a little intimidated that you know that."

She just laughs. "Because Michael is Sponsored, and because I told them I'd like to make his outfits myself, his Sponsor sent me to a class to learn about the fabric. It was a fairly intensive three-month long seminar on how it's made, how to use it, all that stuff. I need a special sewing machine, scissors, needles, threads... a whole separate setup just for working with this material. " She gestured to the outfit in my hands. "That's one of the reasons why I like to do this for other folks. It's a huge investment in supplies to use just for Michael's clothes. Well, it doesn't hurt that I love sewing."

The pants are as supple as my leathers but are styled more like my dress pants. The shirt isn't quite a turtleneck, but it's more than a mock turtle; it has an almost invisible zipper that goes part way up the front. Since the material doesn't seem to stretch as much as my current shirts, it makes sense to put in the zipper. What sits in the box, however, is possibly the most interesting piece of my new outfit. I pick up the belt, and my smile just keeps growing as I inspect every inch of it. It looks, at first glance, a bit like the duty belts the DPD officers wear. Or maybe Batman's utility belt. The belt itself is made, I think, from the heaviest of the materials... the same thing Martha used for Peacekeeper's holsters. It fastens with a side release buckle, and that makes me extraordinarily happy. And all the pockets for holding things! I can carry all three phones, a lifetime supply of hair ties, my keys, and still have room for... oooh, my throwing stars. Some of the pockets open easily... weapon storage! Other need a considerable amount of force to get open... phones!

I look up at Martha again, grinning like a fool I'm sure. "The belt is the best part of the whole outfit! I love it!"

She looks relieved and Pablo tugs at the sleeve of the shirt. "I like this the best. No more getting shot. That makes me happy. I don't like seeing you get shot."

I pat his hand, looking into his dark eyes. "I know, love. It's no fun for me either. And see? Thanks to the skank shooting me, you managed to convince me to get a new outfit made." I look at Michael and then Martha. "Thank you. This means a lot."

"To both of us," Pablo adds.

The Varanos exchange a glance and then smile at us. "We're all in this thing together," Michael says as he takes Martha's hand and pulls her down to sit in the chair beside him. Gosh, having a big comfy chair like that would be nice, wouldn't it? "We need to work together and support each other. Keeping you safer helps to keep the people of Denver safer, right?" He gives Pablo a long look, then focuses his attention on me again.

"When we had dinner back in August, you weren't exactly truthful about Newbie, were you, Andrea?" he asks, smiling broadly.

I snicker. "Nope. Pablo said I could tell you anything except the truth." I glance at my husband, who rolls his eyes. "And I had recently been chastised by various family members because my storytelling skills were, in their opinions, inadequate. So I spun a yarn."

"Yeah, but did it have to involve Cheesman Park?" Pablo asks plaintively.

"Well, really, Pablo... given that most of my patrolling is at night and that the LGBT folks are a big part of the citizenry I protect, doesn't it make sense? If I'm going to find a guy stuck in a tree who'd been trying to get the hang of flying, that's the most likely place I'm going to find such a guy." I giggle. "And it did make for a funny story."

"It definitely was amusing," Michael admits. "I'm wondering, though... would you be willing to share the truth?"

I look at Pablo for a moment before turning to replace my new outfit in the box.

Up to you, Pablito.

His hand on my back feels like it's more for his own reassurance than anything else.

I don't know, Andi. It's... it's a lot of stuff.

I smile as I put the top back on the box.

It sure is. And I think Michael deserves the whole story... from Tita's Dance through closing the portals to Quetzalcoatl's and Tezcatlipoca's worlds.

I lean back against him and pat his knee. "How about if I start at the beginning... with the Dance?"

I begin, however, with Mama's call on the day I fought the Goblin, the day that Nate was born. As the tale of Pablo's powers unfold, and we share the story of the Aztec demigods, of the existence of the Pentad, of our chaotic lives over the past four months, I can see Martha is doing a good job of outwardly hiding her shock at some of the things we relate, though Michael takes nearly everything in stride. Obviously, there are details we leave out... exactly who is part of the Pentad, how it was formed, the more gruesome details of the encounter out in Stryker's lair, almost everything about the Spirits, and the fact that I actually died a couple of weeks ago. I can hear both children stirring as we finish up the story.

"Oh, my goodness, Andrea... Pablo, that's a story I don't think I'd like to read about, and I'm not sure how I'd manage to get through something like all that," Martha says. "I hope life settles down for you. Well, I know with the wedding coming up you're still going to have some craziness, but..." She looks up at Michael, and then back at me. "It truly is a lot less stressful and hectic when you're Sponsored."

Just then, a little voice calls from the top of the stairs. "Mommy! Uncle Pablo promised us a story! Nate wants to hear it, too, okay?"

I smile... at Martha, at Pablo, at life in general... because, despite everything that's happened in the past four months, my life is pretty amazing.

"Don't get too used to it, buddy," I say to Pablo, then look at Martha as she gets up to fetch her children. "I appreciate the sentiment, Martha. And I certainly appreciate your efforts, Michael, in looking for an organization that might be a good match for me. But..." I sigh; it's one of contentment and relaxation and hózhó. "I think working solo, and with Peregrine and Peacekeeper on occasion is what I'm meant to be doing. And — I can't believe I'm actually saying this — working with Colonel Masterson, and the FBI, too. For now."

I feel Cobra wrap itself around my waist.

That was wisely and swiftly decided, Warrior.

Not all that swiftly, my friend. It's something I've thought about a great deal since Peregrine first mentioned there might be an organization that could deal with my unorthodox ways of doing things.

Martha nods. "I understand. It took Michael a few years to find the right Sponsor. And I kind of get the impression you'd rather do what's right, rather than do what you're told." She chuckles. "Let me fetch the Wiggle Monsters so they can get their story... if you're still willing after all that, Pablo."

"Absolutely! There's no better way to clear the mind of trials and tribulations than telling stories to children. Right, Andi?"

"You've got me there. Story Time is my favorite part of any work day."

After Martha starts up the stairs, Michael says seriously and with great compassion, "I'm sorry you had to kill so many people, Andrea. I know how much that bothers you."

"Thanks. I appreciate the thoughts, believe me." I shrug a bit, as much as is possible being tucked under Pablo's arm. "It's never going to be easy, and that's good. But my support system is pretty extensive now, so... I'll manage. And yes," I say with a smile, remembering our first meeting, "I promise to call you if I need to."

He nods, attempting to take on the role of Wise Man but the twinkle in his eyes pretty much blows away that gig. "You can never have too many friends."

"Or, as the Diné say, you can never have too much family." I poke Pablo in the ribs... gently. "Unless it's a baseball team. Unless they're adopted."

"Mommy! I can do it myself!" And we all watch Kimberly prove that she can, indeed, walk down the stairs by herself. Once at the bottom, however, she throws caution to the wind and runs to Pablo, climbing up into his lap. She's certainly a far cry from the shy little girl we met a few hours ago.

"I told Nate he could hear your story, too. Is that okay, Uncle Pablo?" she asks very sweetly, but in that world of the child way that pretty much translates to a near-demand.

"That's perfectly fine, Kim. I'm sure he'll like to hear the story, too," he says as the two of us shift to comfortably include the little one. "You know Andi tells stories at the library downtown. She gets to do that for her job."

She nods in that wise way children sometimes have. "Mommy takes us to the library on Story Day. I like the story about Sam I Am!"

I chuckle. "I think everybody likes that story! All the other librarians I know can't wait to read it to the children."

"Jenny says it's her favorite, too."

Jenny... Jenny... Ah! Genevieve Lawrence at the Ross-University Hills branch. She started working for DPL about four or five years before I did... spent about six weeks at the main library when Anita had her gall bladder surgery a few months after I started. I remember we'd mock fight over who got to read to the little ones. It's good to see that she has fans at her home branch.

Kimmy wants to hold Nate while Pablo tells his story, so Martha makes sure she's settled between us and then sets Nate in Kimmy's arms, reminding her to support his head. The little one nods seriously, and then looks at her little brother with an expression so familiar that the beauty of it sparks memories that evoke feelings that resonate with us. Neither of us could fail to notice that particular expression. We smile at one another over her head. He adores his younger sisters; I adore my brother... Nate is one lucky little boy to have a big sister who loves him so much.

It's hard to tell if the young girl is more entranced by her brother or the melodic story Pablo tells in Spanish. From the bits I'm able to understand, it seems to be a folk tale similar to the Tortoise and the Hare. In Pablo's story, however, the part of the Hare is played by Señor Gato, and I think Caracol is snail. I don't think too hard about it, however... it's nice just to hear Pablo telling the story in his first language. Nate seems fascinated with everything around him. He reaches up to touch his sister's face, giggles a little baby laugh at parts of Pablo's story, and grabs for the tiny threads of qi I push around the four of us.

After the story, Kimmy begs Pablo for more, but Michael intervenes. "Sweetheart, you wouldn't want Uncle Pablo to wear out his stories all in one day, would you? I'm sure if we ask them nicely, Aunt Andi and Uncle Pablo will come to visit again."

She looks up at the two of us. "Oh, please! Would you?" She looks down at her little brother, who gurgles at her, then at Pablo again. "Nate would like to hear more of your stories, too."

I grin at Pablo. "I think we could manage to do that, don't you, Pablo?"

He nods. "I think I'd love to come visit you and your family again, Kim."

Michael gets up to fetch his son so his daughter can express her thanks enthusiastically... which means a lot of hugs and bouncing up and down. When she's busy hugging Pablo for the fourth or fifth time, I manage to stand and then surprise her by picking her up when she turns to hug me again and flipping her upside down. She squeals with delight and giggles until I set her down on the floor.

"I'm sorry," I say to her parents, "we seem to have gotten her really wound up."

They both chuckle. "This is pretty typical behavior," Michael says. "Don't worry about it. We'll go out to the park and run around, or ride our bikes, or... well, we usually play it by ear."

"Michael, Martha... thank you for inviting us," Pablo says as he picks up my box of new clothes. "I was a little nervous about coming over, but you're very welcoming."

Kimmy looks up at him. "You're silly, Uncle Pablo. You didn't know about me and Nate. That's why you were nervous."

I try to hide my grin, but Pablo chuckles. "You know what, Miss Kimberly? I think you're exactly right. Meeting you and Nate, and making friends with your Mom and Dad... well, that's probably the very best thing about today."

"I'm glad you decided to come over and tell us your stories, Pablo," Michael says with a touch more seriousness. "Andrea, why don't you give me a call and we can make sure Pablo gets my contact information, and I get his?"

"I'll call you early next week." I have a feeling there's going to be a spy phone in Pablo's future, too. "Oh, before I forget..." I pull the envelope from the inner pocket of my blazer and hand it to Martha. As she peeks inside, I say, "I decided when I had dinner with Michael that I'd like you both to join us on our special day."

"Oh, Andrea, we'd love to!" Martha glances at her daughter, who is enthralled with Pablo... then her son, happily trying to catch his father's face when Michael dips his head and makes goofy sounds.

"Yes, bring the kids, too! Pablo's nieces and nephews will be there. My cousin will be there with her baby, who's due... oh, my gosh, in only a week!" I can't help grinning about that.

"We'll be there, Andrea," Michael says. "I'll let the bosses know I have plans, and as long as nothing urgent comes up, we'll all be there."

It takes another twenty minutes to actually get out the door, but finally we're driving back up University Boulevard in a restful silence. Finally, I turn to look at Pablo, a big Ninja grin on my face.

"Told you so," I say smugly.

He just rolls his eyes. And then smiles.

The weekend and the week following Thanksgiving are busy ones at the library. In fact, we'll be busy through mid-December, as the college students face finals, major research papers, and thesis deadlines. The high school students are less enthusiastic about most of their assignments. There's nothing like a hormone infused teen who doesn't want to write that paper or read that book, but who's being pressured to do so by teachers and — sometimes — parents. They even try my patience! Fortunately, the alleged twins are quiet... so at least my sleep is restful.

Bobby is busier than usual juggling extra hours at the bakery, working with the Brown Palace folks on the wedding reception, and worrying about Christmas dinner with David's family. Yep, for the first time since I've known him, Bobby isn't hosting Christmas dinner at his house... he'll be out at the Professors McNair's house with all of David's family. I thought he was a nervous wreck back in August; his anxiety levels are so much higher now that I'm positive everyone who knows him can't wait for Christmas to be over. I take a good hard look at his aura every time I see him, which has only been twice in the whole week... but his health seems to be fine.

David usually winds up with more clients at this time of year, too. It breaks my heart. I understand that the season of rampant commercialism is stressful for everyone. And I understand that it's even more stressful for parents who are constantly bombarded with the advertisements, and then bombarded with requests from their children who've been bombarded by the advertisements. But... but that's no reason for them to take their anger and frustration out on their children. Yes, the parents probably just need a cooling off period... most of them. But when the police and courts and the Department of Children and Family Services get involved, the social workers and psychologists at DCFS have more children, and more families, to counsel. David's workload probably won't ease off until late January or early February.

Surprisingly, Pablo is less busy than any of us at this time of year. He claims it's fairly typical... that the folks on Patrol and in Robbery are far busier and are making up for the lighter workload for the detectives in Homicide. I suppose I can't disagree with him. There are more petty thieves out on the streets when I'm patrolling. There are more tempers flaring everywhere I go. I can't do anything about the people in their homes... private property and all that. Plus the folks on Patrol are already so busy that it's pointless to alert them to a potential problem. They've got enough on their hands already. Well, unless I'm fairly certain the problem is going to tip over into a very bad place; then I don't really have a choice. But I can do something about the people on the street and in public places.

I think I've seen more of Office Wright this week than I have in the past eleven months. He and his new partner cross my path several times almost every night on patrol, which is fairly odd since I can go weeks without seeing him. Usually, I get to problems before anyone needs to call DPD... and even when they're called, most of those times I can resolve the situation before DPD actually arrives. Not this week, however.

Like the first night we met, tonight I'm rousting a pair of would-be criminals in Cherry Creek. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose. And just like that night nine or so years ago, an overly anxious citizen makes a phone call to the police. Oh, I can't blame the good citizen... whoever did the calling had no idea I'm lurking in the shadows with the criminal set. The difference tonight is only a new uniform and the scabbard for my staff. Well, that... and the fact that I sent the misbehaving children on their way before Wright arrives. But since the flashing blue lights catch my attention as I'm heading down another dark street, I figure I might as well let them know Cherry Creek will be a non-issue for another couple of hours.

Okay, I'm not entirely certain it's Wright and Dorr as I head back toward First Avenue. It could well be the other graveyard shift patrol car. But somehow I doubt it. I've run into Martinez and Villanueva only once this week... on Tuesday night, when things were fairly quiet. Not coincidentally, I think, that was Wright's night off.

Since the car isn't moving very fast, I don't need to put a lot of effort into strolling out to the street and tapping on the window where Dorr is peering out. He looks so young... and intense. And young. Did I mention that he looks like he's sixteen? Because he's looking out at what would be about waist level, and because the fabric of this new uniform is seriously light sucking, and because he seems to be concentrating way too hard, when I tap on his window he yelps and tries to jump straight up from a seated position. It's a good thing he's wearing his seatbelt... he would have thumped his head pretty hard if he weren't held down.

Wright is still laughing so hard when he gets out of the car a minute later that I almost expect to see tears streaming down his face.

"By Mithra's great hairy balls, Ninja, you nearly gave the rookie a heart attack!" he manages to say.

I grin broadly at him. "Hey, if he's that nervous, he ought to go into a different profession... something with fewer surprises."

"That's the truth. But the boy's funny, I'll give him that. I might keep him around longer than the usual rookie."

"No! Say it's not so, Wright! How am I going to get to know all the new kids if you settle down with a real partner? By the way, Tryon didn't stick around for very long."

"Tryon was good enough to move on from the torture in short order. You didn't hear this from me, but Dorr is, too. But damn! I haven't had this much fun coming to work in years!"

I just look at him, skeptical and... let's face it... concerned.

"You worry me, Wright."

"Yeah, yeah... you're just jealous. So how's Garcia doing?" Wright asks.

I raise an eyebrow at him and give him a half smile. "The wind tells me you know the answer to that question as well as I do, Wright. He's mentioned your name several times since that incident at his girlfriend's house."


"Right. Potato, potahto. You two are a couple of guys, in case you haven't noticed. And I'm not going to play that particular game with you." I grin wickedly at the senior Patrol officer. "He does the same thing when I see him. So how's Wright doing, Ninja? Why don't you both just ask each other, huh? Leave me out of it."

Wright chuckles. "I'm trying to get your take on his sanity. That isn't something you can straight up as a person."

"Oh? What makes you think something's gone awry with his sanity?" Okay, I have to admit this conversation is turning into something that may well tickle my funny bone.

"I have evidence that seems to indicate he's lost his mind. Since I'm not a great detective like he is, I need some independent corroboration for my conclusion." Believe it or not, the man somehow manages to say that with a totally straight face.

"I'm intrigued, Wright. What evidence do you have?"

"He seems to think I ought to jump to detective... leave my streets... stop torturing rookies." Wright shakes his head. "I'm not sure if that's enough to warn his fiancée off and to call the guys with the butterfly nets. Maybe I should just wait and see if getting married will make him crack completely."

I burst out laughing. I can't help it. "Wright," I manage to say, "let me ask you this... are you married?"

"I'm not sure I see the joke here, but as a matter of fact, I am. Why?"

"Then you should know getting married isn't going to make Garcia any crazier than he already is. It will probably keep him as sane..." I snicker. "Well, as sane as he'll ever be. It's his idea that you should take the detective exam that cracks me up."

"What... you think I can't pass?" he asks, sounding genuinely — if only very slightly — offended.

"Oh, hell yes, you can pass it! Probably with flying colors and all that rigmarole." I snicker again. "No, no... what's so funny is the very thing that makes you suspect Garcia's lost his mind. Wright, you'd make a top notch detective, and that's me comparing you to Garcia, who — according to the rumors I've heard — is one of the City's best. But as someone who sees you far more frequently than Garcia does, I can also say that taking you off the streets would do no one any good." I cross my arms and lean back against the parked Caddy behind me. I'm starting to get the hang of how to do all the normal things I used to do all over again. This time I get to do it with a scabbard strapped on and my staff trying to dig itself into my back.

"You belong out here. Your so-called torturing of rookies separates the wheat from the chaff. How many partners — and I use that term loosely here — have you had since I met you and Agars up the street nine years ago?"

He shrugs, but I can see his aura settling down... he can see where I'm going with this.

"If I count Agars as the first — and I hear she's doing a great job in the Robbery Division, by the way — Dorr here is the forty-seventh. That I've met." I pause a moment to let that sink in. "If you don't drive them away in the first week, the young men and women coming out of the Academy spend an average of two months with you. And then they go on to be some of the best cops on the streets of Denver. They make detective — if that's their interest — in less time than usual. They generally attract the attention of the best... like Garcia. And they're the ones I hope are first on the scene when I need backup from my friends in blue."

He looks thoughtful, then smiles. "So, this is a little game Garcia is playing, eh?" Wright chortles in a... yeah, definitely in a mad scientist sort of way. "Excellent." I almost expect him to twirl an invisible mustache or drum his fingertips together, but he just smiles. It's a pretty fair imitation of my trademark grin. "He invited me to the wedding. Do you think his soon to be wife will mind much if I play with Garcia's brain a bit?"

I look at him like the crazy person he is, mostly to hide the surprise. It would have been nice of Pablo to mention he'd invited Wright. It's a damn good thing I've been working so much with Fox on the small magics of changing my appearance. Ninja and Andrea no longer look like identical twins... maybe distant cousins, though you'd need to get them both in the same room at the same time to puzzle that one out. There's an interesting impossibility.

"Wright, let me put it this way... since I don't know Garcia's fiancée..." Yes, sometimes I need to lie through my teeth. I've made my peace with it. "How would your wife feel if Garcia continued to play with your brain?"

"Hmm. I see your point. She'd probably get annoyed by my complaining. I'd give it less than a week."

I nod. Personally, as an outside observer on both sides of the game, it's possible I'd find it amusing. For a while.

The radio on his shoulder crackles; the dispatcher crisply informs him that he's needed at another location.

I wave him off. "Go on. I'll be in the area for another couple of hours. You might want to text me if you get a call to head over here before one or two o'clock to save you and the rookie a little time." I smile as he opens the squad car door. "Put the sirens on if I don't text you back in a couple of minutes, okay?"

He chuckles. "Roger that."

I fade back into the shadows as he drives off, watching the qi flows with inner eyes and listening for sounds that don't fit. The rest of the night is pleasantly quiet. Oh, that's not to say there aren't tensions rising and tempers flaring here and there, but nothing that has the look or feel of 'things getting out of control'.

As I pull up into the driveway and watch the garage door roll up, I'm finally grateful for the many hours Pablo and I spent putting in the quietest garage door opener on the market and doing thorough maintenance on the door on a monthly basis. I don't know why Bobby is still puttering around in his kitchen at 2am — okay, it's probably his ever-increasing anxiety about Christmas dinner — but the door is now quiet enough that Bobby probably wouldn't be able to hear it if his windows were open... which they're not. Although Pablo still parks in the driveway, one of the remotes is in his car. The second remote is in the storage compartment of my Harley. The third, somewhat modified, remote stays with my Ducati... that one only opens the door; it does not turn on the light.

My nightly ritual of unweaving the braids and putting my staff away takes very little time. I am surprised, however, to find Pablo still awake, sitting up in bed reading something on his Kindle when I arrive in the bedroom. He looks up when I come in the room, but waits until I sit on the edge of the bed to take off my boots before asking, "So, how was patrol tonight?"

"People are still wound up." I pause before pulling off the second boot, looking at him wearily. "Somebody forgot to tell his fiancée that a Patrol officer who's well acquainted with a certain Super in town was invited to their wedding. Said Patrol officer mentioned the invitation to said Super tonight."


I sigh, pat his leg, and go back to removing the second boot. "Yep. Oops. Fortunately, I've been working with Fox's magic pretty extensively over the past three weeks. I can consciously change how Andrea looks and how Ninja looks; braiding and unbraiding my hair is sort of a trigger." I stand and walk the boots over to the closet, then pull my phones from my belt and set them on the nightstand before removing the belt, as well. That gets rolled up and tucked into one of my drawers.

"Really? Will you show me?" He sounds just a little too excited by some of my newfound abilities... this is one of them.

"Sadly, my dear, it's such a small bit of magic that no one in the Pentad would be fooled for an instant."


I just roll my eyes as I get out of my uniform, shake it out, carefully fold it, and tuck it on the upper shelf in the closet. Like Pablo's, it seems to be impervious to all kinds of dirt in addition to the high-velocity projectiles... not just the grime from being outdoors, but skin cells and sweat, too. Perry had laughed when Pablo had me call him after he had worn his uniform a couple of times... did it need to be hand washed, or could it be tossed in the washing machine? I'm pretty sure Martha understands why it just seems to repel dirt, but the whole concept of not having to wash clothing is still freaking both of us out a little. Perry says you get used to it. Eventually.


I do toss my underwear in the hamper, however.

"Were you going to keep reading, or shall I turn off the light?"

He's already put the Kindle down and is watching my every move. "What do you think, dear?"

I chuckle as I flip the light switch by the door, then pad to my side of the bed and slide between the sheets. As Pablo wraps his arms around me and I snuggle close to him, I sigh with contentment. "It's good to be home. Why were you up so late, anyway? I thought you had to work in the morning, too."

"Mmm," he sort of says as he kisses my neck. "I was Skyping with Blanca. She finally connected with Justin, they had a long conversation about graduate school, and she was insanely excited. I didn't get offline with her until close to 1:30... figured I'd stay up and read until you got home."

He's definitely trying to distract me, and I don't mind at all. "Well, don't be all grumpy and cranky in the morning, Detective," I say, before turning to kiss him.

A few minutes later, he asks, "You'll be practicing in the morning, won't you?"

"Mm hmm... of course."

"Well, whatever you do when you practice usually helps me more than a couple of cups of coffee."

"Hmmm... good to know."

Friday is a beautiful Spring-like day... which isn't terribly unusual for the last day of November, though it does tend to unnerve the newcomers and tourists.

And just like every other day this week, we're busier than usual at the library. Somehow, it seems to be more than just the typical end of semester rush. I could discount it as my imagination if the other librarians — including Mrs. K — haven't been commented on it, as well.

Not long before the end of my shift, I'm just about finishing up helping one of the few high school students I've seen all week find a selection of books she can use for her college entrance essay. Her selection has me puzzled me at first, and I suppose I must have shown my confusion because she giggled... and then explained what the dozen books on as many topics have in common.

"Well, I know the essay is supposed to be just that... an essay. You know, as opposed to a research paper, right? Well, the University of Chicago has some of the most interesting essay prompts. And since I want to be a journalist, I thought that providing the list of resources I use to write the essay might... you know... be something that could tip the scales in my favor."

I shrug, still a bit bemused by her unusual way of pulling together her essay. "I've certainly never heard of anyone going that route before, so... maybe? But based on the books we've gathered here, it looks like you're writing a documentary of travels across the entire country. Or you're proposing to write the documentary. I suppose it depends on your essay question."

"Oh, the prompt I'm using is 'You are you and your...' something. They prefaced it by saying that José Ortega y Gasset had said, I am myself and my circumstances. José Quintans, who's the master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division there said, I am myself and my microbiology. I figured something on the order of I am myself and my world would be easier than tackling the prompt about the mantis shrimp."

She grins and nods. "And yep. Army brat. For a while, it felt like my mom got transferred every year, but looking back on it... nah. It was only every other year." She chuckles. "At least the Army was nice enough to transfer her between school years. Some of the kids I've met weren't that lucky."

I shake my head. "My folks were with the Corps of Engineers at a time when there were some major long term projects going on, so my childhood was fairly stable in that regard." I chuckle then. "Of course, growing up in Japan did have a few interesting side effects."

She grins. "That's so cool, though! We only left the States once, when I was still pretty little. She did a tour in Germany when I was... hmm... three, four, five? I gotta say, my dad's been a great sport about all of this, but he's a writer, so he doesn't really care where he works... especially these days." She giggles again. "He says he'll follow mom anywhere as long as there's a decent Internet connection, although he'd also prefer indoor plumbing, too."

"Sounds like they're a couple of great people," I say, smiling.

"Yeah, I think I lucked out. You don't see too many families anymore with perfectly awesome parents. Mom's retiring in a couple of years, and they're both kind of hoping I get into UChicago because that's where they'd like to settle down. Well, maybe not right there in the city, but nearby at any rate."

I notice Mrs. K out of the corner of my eye as the young woman heads over to the checkout counter.

"Andrea, do you have a moment?"

I tuck the last of the reference books back on the shelf and turn to my boss. Her usual outward calm is hiding an aura of distress. "Of course. What do you need, Mrs. K?"

She nods toward her office across the large room, and rather than show any surprise, I simply nod. It's what an ordinary person would do if they simply saw her serene countenance. I, on the other hand, am a little surprised.

I follow her into her small room — barely big enough for her desk and two guest chairs, and a bit of room to move around — to find Julia waiting there. This does elicit a raised eyebrow from me as I sit down beside the other librarian.

"Hey, Jule... I thought you left at five today." Julia's not much older than I am — maybe a couple of years — but she managed to graduate two earlier than most of us do. She's been working for DPL about three years longer than I have. She's brilliant and funny... she reminds a lot of Deb. And that reminds me that it's nearly time for semi-annual Skype session with her and Clara.

"Thank you for staying a little late, Julia," Mrs. K says as she sits down. Then she takes a deep breath. "There's no easy way to say this, Julia... Andrea... but the budget that's going to be officially released tomorrow calls for the elimination of fifteen librarians and twelve page positions. I'm afraid even nine years of service isn't enough, Julia. I'm so sorry."

Julia looks devastated, and I'm not sure she's going to be able to keep from crying. I'm... I don't feel exactly relieved, but I guess there is a little loosening of the tension from wondering what's going to happen when the budget comes out. I sigh softly.

"I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later. I just didn't think the cuts would be so... harsh, I guess."

Mrs. K doesn't look any happier about it than Julia does. "We got dealt the biggest blow to save cuts from the police and fire departments. I'm sorry, ladies. I know you and Tyrone are saving for a house, Julia... and you're getting married in a few weeks, Andrea."

Julia nods. "Yeah, this really sucks."

I sigh again. "Pablo and I can get by for a while on just his salary," I say. "But I'm going to have to agree with Julia. This really is rotten timing." I attempt a smile, which seems to work moderately well. "There isn't good timing for this kind of thing, is there?"

Mrs. K shakes her head. "There isn't, but at the holidays...? It's really the worst possible time. I wanted to tell you now, rather than after the weekend because you've both got a considerable amount of leave time built up. Julia, if you finish out your schedule this week and work three of your five shifts next week, you could take the rest of the month off." She looks at me. "Andrea, I'm afraid you've got more than two months' worth of leave time built up. I know you were already planning to use several weeks for the wedding and honeymoon, but you wouldn't have to come back at all after you leave today."

It was her turn to sigh, something she very rarely did. "Unfortunately, even this year's budget doesn't allow the library system to pay anyone for the accumulated leave time they haven't taken. You'll both receive your regular paychecks on the fifteenth and thirty-first, but your extra five weeks' vacation pay, I'm afraid, is something you won't see, Andrea."

Julia and I exchange a glance. This really is a terrible time; we both have fairly major plans for the holidays. She and her sister are hosting their entire family — which is about as large as mine — for Christmas. Of course, I have the wedding... although Mama and Momma Garcia have been doing nearly all the work.

"I'd hate to leave you shorthanded, Mrs. K," Julia says. "Well, I'm pretty sure we both feel that way."

I nod in agreement.

Mrs. Kumata smiles, though it seems more than a little forced. "I appreciate that, so thank you. But we'll need to manage somehow without you come the first of the year anyway. You should take the time you've earned. This whole situation was handled poorly by the City. You both deserve better than this."

Although Pablo and I probably could get by on just his salary, I have the advantage of Ninja's stipend from DPD to tide us over. And then there's the stipend Maddie keeps insisting on giving me for doing what I'd be doing anyway. Financially, I'm not terribly concerned. Well, not at the moment.

"I'm going to miss helping people. I... I'm going to miss reading to the kids." I bite my lower lip because... damn it, I don't want to cry. "Mrs. K... would it be... I mean, after the wedding and all... would it be okay to come back as one of the volunteers? Even if it's just for Story Hour?"

She smiles her usual brilliant smile then. "Andrea, I have a feeling I couldn't stop you even if I wanted to. Of course, you're always welcome here. I just don't want it to be uncomfortable or awkward for you."

She slides a manila envelope across the desk to each of us. "All the official documents are there, but I added a few unofficial documents, as well. There's a rather lengthy list of libraries — public as well as primary, secondary and higher education — that are or may be hiring along the Front Range, plus letters of recommendation."

Given how Mrs. K feels about her staff, that's something that doesn't really surprise me much... although I certainly wouldn't have expected it.

"You make sure to keep in touch, Julia," I say. "Let's not both go applying for the same positions, okay?" I look at her and smile. While this is a situation I've almost come to expect every time the budget is announced, as someone who's been with DPL for nearly a decade, Julia is very close to being in shock.

She nods numbly. "Okay, Andi." Then she blinks and a look of panic crosses her face. "Oh my God, Andi! We were planning a wedding shower for you! It was... well, it was supposed to be a surprise, but we can't really surprise you now if you aren't here. And I won't be here..." She looks at Mrs. K, almost heartbroken. "We still need to throw Andi and Pablo a party!"

Mrs. K stands and comes around her desk to rest a hand on Julia's shoulder. "Julia, dear... don't worry. Celeste and Anna are not going to give up the chance to throw a party." She looks over at me. "We'll just have to tell you now that you and Pablo should be here after hours on the sixteenth. Anna was going to call Pablo next week."

I smile at them. "You know you guys didn't have to do that. It's really enough of a gift that you're coming to the reception."

"Well, not all of us could make the wedding," Julia says. "Maybe Clarence and Sam haven't gotten their RSVP cards back to you... well, your mom... because they're both going out of town for the holidays. We can all be here on the sixteenth. And you need to be here, too. Both you and Pablo."

I nod. "Okay." I smile at both of them. Well, I try to smile, anyway. "We'll be here."

Julia sighs and looks at the envelope in her hand. "I guess I should get home and let Tyrone know. We'll be fine; his law practice is doing really well." She shakes her head. "Tax attorney seems to be a recession-proof business." She's silent for a minute or so. "It's... it's just a shock."

I rest a hand on her arm. "Yeah. I know. I've kind of been expecting this day to come for the past four or five years, and now that it's here..." I shrug. "I ought to go tell Pablo. He's going to worry and fret, even though he really doesn't need to."

Mrs. K raises an eyebrow. "Detectives don't make anywhere near as much as lawyers, do they?"

I can't help but laugh, which seems to break up the tension in the room. "No, not by a long shot, I'd guess. But I'm frugal, I'm good about saving money, and I've made some good investments over the years." Well, I don't know if I'd call either of the stipends investments, but it's not like I can tell the truth about them. "And I have family who'll help out if it really comes down to that." Yeah, like a Sister who's a bazillionaire.

Julia takes a deep breath and stands; I follow suit.

"I know you're going to say you'll call me first if money gets shaken out of a tree," she says to Mrs. K, "but call Andi first, would you?"

I tap her shoulder. "Hey! None of that self-sacrificing nonsense, Julia. You have seniority, and you should play by the rules." I roll my eyes at her. "Silly woman."

Julia manages an actual smile then. "Fine. But if I think you need the job more than I do, I'm going to tell Mrs. K that I'm not available."

I sigh and shake my head. "Lunatic. And I can play that game, too."

"Oh crap, Andi, I'm really going to miss you! I'm going to miss everyone here."

"We're all going to miss both of you." Mrs. K looks at us. "I want to have a short staff meeting to let everyone know what's happening. I don't like the idea of you just walking off into the sunset, Andrea. Or for you to feel awkward for your next few shifts, Julia."

She opens her office door and motions for us to precede her. "Go on into the conference room... I'll gather the troops."

The next hour is surreal, although in a way that's no different from other strange, bizarre and surreal situations I've been in lately. It's bittersweet, too. These people have become friends. Not coming here five or six days a week isn't something I can wrap my head around yet. I know I've been extremely overwhelmed doing both Andrea's job and Ninja's job... and this is an opportunity for me to feel like I actually have some time to myself again. But... well...


They're not easy.

Though... I'm not so sure I'd call this a transition. It's more like a confluence of events: marriage, a broader role in protecting and finding justice for people, and — if I'm not going crazy and just dreaming really, really weird stuff — motherhood.

Looking at it that way doesn't make it any easier, though.

I guess I'm a little surprised to find that Pablo's not home when I get there. I see it didn't take me long to get used to having him working a reasonable schedule. I hope this doesn't mean he's got another case... but he would have called, wouldn't he?

About a month after Pablo moved in, we hung a small message board with hooks for our keyrings in the kitchen. My bowl by the front door wasn't big enough for both sets of keys. It turned into a mess more often than not. Pablo comes in through the back door all the time, and I've been riding my bike — either the Harley or the mountain bike — to work more often. So it just seemed to make sense. I hang my keyring up and deposit my backpack in our shared office... I like that, our shared office... before changing into my workout clothes.

It doesn't take long to feel centered and relaxed again, but after a few repetitions of the Yang 24 form, I find myself in that familiar no-time place. I have no idea how many times I've repeated the forms or how much time has passed before I notice Pablo is in the dojo with me. I finish the current form, stand quietly in meditation for a couple of minutes, then turn to my husband with a smile.

"How long have you been there?"

"Not long. Ten minutes, maybe? I love watching you, and it relaxes me, too, when you practice." He looks tired, but his smile... ah, his smile!

Our qi reaches out from each of us toward the other as I walk to him and wrap my arms around him. "What time is it? It seems late."

His arms encircle me as I rest my head against his shoulder.

"It is late... close to ten. Have you had dinner? I suspect you haven't." I can feel that he's smiling despite the fact that my eyes are closed.

"Nope. I got lost in the Taiji again... figured you'd be home earlier and I'd wait for you." I lift my head and look at his face; the weariness around his eyes is standing out.

He kisses me softly. "You'd waste away to nothing if I didn't remind you to eat. Let's get you fed. I think I ate something a couple of hours ago, but some real food would be a good idea for me, too."

"Mmmm, okay. But this is nice, just holding you. You can kiss me again, please."

He laughs and obliges. "Fine... now I'll use that as a bribe to get you upstairs. You can have another kiss or two when you get changed, and all you want..." He waggles his eyebrows at me. "...after you've eaten dinner."

I laugh, too. He looks so goofy when he waggles his eyebrows. And it feels good to laugh. "How do you know I didn't eat a huge lunch, Detective?"

"Because I hear your stomach growling." Pablo grins, then takes my hand as he leads me up the stairs. Pablo goes to the kitchen to make some sandwiches while I change into jeans and a polo shirt. A pitcher of water, two full glasses of water, and napkins are already on the table when I walk into the kitchen. Pablo is just carrying the plates of roast beef sandwiches to the table.

"You're not late because you have a new case, are you?" I ask as we sit down.

He shakes his head and groans as he picks up his sandwich. "No, just an ungodly amount of paperwork. I swear it breeds when no one is watching it. I hope your day was better," he says before biting into his sandwich.

I pick at the edges of my sandwich, then drink half the glass of water. I sigh as I set the glass down, watching the way the surface vibrates so minutely and so rapidly when it looks, to most people, to be completely still.

"No. The budget was unofficially announced today..." I look up at him, and he can plainly see the pain in my eyes.

He sets his sandwich down and reaches across the table to take my hand as he finishes chewing.

"How bad is it?"

"The Library system took the biggest hit to spare you guys and the fire department... fifteen librarians, twelves pages. Mrs. K didn't say how much was cut from the purchasing budget, but..." I shrug.

"You've been there six years," he says, still hopeful.

I have to smile at that. Sometimes he's so optimistic when there's no hope, and sometimes he's such a pessimist when there's far more than just a fighting chance in any given situation.

"Julia's been with DPL for nine years, and she got laid off, too."

"Oh, Andi, I'm so sorry." He gets up and comes around to my side of the table, sliding onto the bench with me and wrapping his arms around me. "I know how much you love your job."

I let myself relax against him, trying to accept the reality of not being employed. Well, I suppose that's not strictly true... I have the Ninja gig. And the full force of not working at the library probably won't hit until next week... at the earliest. Although tomorrow I was scheduled for the early shift, it was all going to be workroom stuff... cataloging, doing minor repairs to books, that sort of thing. Then a half day on Sunday, a day off on Tuesday, and then another next Friday...

"It's not quite real yet. It's going to take a while. Ninja will keep me busy... the wedding, honeymoon. Maddie and her family will be here."

"Dang! That's why I told the Cap I was working from home next Friday. He asked me about it today, and I couldn't remember what we were doing." He kisses me softly. "We'll manage, Andi."

I smile. "We'll be fine, Pablo. I can pinch pennies until they scream, and you'll never know the difference."

"You don't have to pinch them so hard, you know. Maddie's got that account set up for you, and she did tell me to make sure you spend that money!"

"I know. I think of that account as the lifeboat, though. And I have taken some of it and put it in my investment account... so there!" My good humor restored, I point at his sandwich. "Eat. I need food, too... and I have to patrol tonight. Friday nights are always... interesting." As he gets up again, I pick up my sandwich, although my eyes remain on him.

"What?" he asks as he sits down and notices my gaze.

"I can't appreciate my sexy husband?"

He laughs and picks up his glass of water. "Appreciate all you want, dear. When you get back from patrol, we can mutually appreciate each other." His qi flares in the most interesting way. "So don't stay out too late."

Pablo has spent the week trying to distract me from the reality of unemployment. Some of his attempts have been delightfully pleasant, although not exactly distracting in the way he thinks. Other things? Seriously... why would running errands be a distraction? I've rolled my eyes at the man more in the past five days than I have in the past two months. And that's saying a lot.

On the other hand, getting out of the house has been almost vitally necessary simply to escape the overzealous worry of my best friend. Dear gods, if I thought he was concerned about my lack of a love life, there's no way to describe the over-the-top insanity he's exhibiting about my lack of a job. There's absolutely nothing I can do or say to Bobby to get him to calm down and accept that both Pablo and I are as fine about the situation as anyone could be. He steadfastly refuses to believe me when I tell him — or when Pablo tells him — that we're going to be perfectly fine financially.

David has apologized more times for Bobby's behavior since Saturday afternoon — when I let them know I had been laid off — than in the whole time I've known him.

It's pretty clear that Bobby is losing his mind.

I even offered to help him... well, do ANYTHING related to the wedding, hoping that would calm him down. It didn't. I got a lecture on what the bride is and isn't supposed to do. I'm fairly certain he was bullshitting me and making it all up as he went along.

It doesn't help that Harmony's concert is this Saturday. So in addition to his regular rehearsal on Monday night, David had a rehearsal last night for the small ensemble piece he's doing, and now the full chorus technical and dress rehearsal tonight. I think he said something about dragging Bobby along with him to that. I hope he does. It's a good idea. It will get my lunatic friend out of the house and doing something different. And having helped out at a couple of the tech rehearsals myself in the past, I know they can always use extra hands to move things around and help with costumes. Extra eyes to see where lighting might be a little off and extra ears to hear where the microphones might need somewhat out of place is also a big help.

Heck, even I suggested that Bobby join the chorus when their Spring cycle starts up in January! Of course, since it's Christmas dinner with the Professors McNair that's causing my dear neighbor to be a nervous wreck, that's not going to help any of us survive the next few weeks.

I've been up to Maddie's cabin, and even beyond, twice this week during daylight hours. The cats are behaving themselves, but preemptively heading off any antics they might be planning doesn't seem like such a bad idea given that I have the time. And I thought it would be a good idea to warn them that Maddie — well, more specifically Logan and Em — would likely be roaming through their territory. Em loves the cats. The cats like Em. It's a bit of a lopsided relationship. While she's an Elder, Em is still only ten years old... and really, really LOVES the cats.

The three cats who like most to play with Head Talker actually whine about the exuberant Human Cat Child. I just laugh at them... and tell them it's their reward for playing with Head Talker for so many seasons.

I also scope out a couple of new locations for the prox monitors since Maddie and her family don't mind the cats visiting them. Unfortunately, their neighbors do. And while my three favorite cats are usually cooperative enough to follow any rules, they're not the only animals on the mountain. Yes, only the yearlings tend to set off the alarms most of the year. But when it's coming up on the harsh winter season, many of the animals will set off the alarms looking for food. Some of it's accidental... some of it's a deliberate call for me to help them out.

Although there haven't been any incidents tonight in which I've needed Wright's assistance, our paths have crossed twice already since I headed out around ten. I suspect it's going to be another one of those nights, given the fact that it isn't quite midnight yet. And I've spent at least half the time down here in LoDo, which is outside his patrol area.

It's December... absolutely nothing is happening at Coors Field... and yet there are naughty people lurking about the area anyway. Didn't they get the memo that the night-time party animals don't really come down here when there isn't a game? Especially on a weeknight, at midnight?

I swear... the quality of the criminal set is deteriorating rapidly. Ah well, perhaps they'll turn on one another and leave my friends in blue the relatively simple job of sweeping up the mess they leave behind.

My phone vibrates, and I sigh. That doesn't bode well. If anyone could see me in the dark alley where I'm sitting astride my bike, they'd see almost shocked features on my face when I look at the text message. Tonight is only the second time in nine years I've gotten a call from Charlie Nelms.

Potential problem brewing between regular and new customer. Can you assist?

It makes me wonder why Donny and Teddy can't handle it... they're big guys, have a knack for calming down the drunks and work well together. None of the regulars would get out of hand with either of them.

On my way. ETA 5-7 min.

I tuck the phone back in its belt pouch, turn the Ducati around, and exit the alley onto 19th Street. At this time of night, it's just as fast to head right up to Broadway and take that over to Colfax. There's still going to be some traffic on Colfax, but weaving between the cars isn't terribly difficult, and I even run a couple of red lights. My phone vibrates again as I'm pulling into Charlie's parking lot.

Gosh, when it rains, it pours, doesn't it? This time it's from Wright.

Got a call from Charlie's. Need backup?

That's what I love about the guy. Okay, one of the things I love about him... he watches out for these guys, too.

Just arrived. Will assess. Charlie will call direct if needed.

I look out over the parking lot as I get off the bike, checking to see which cars I recognize as regulars. I've seen most of them walk out to their cars; I can match a car to a face — or pair of faces — easily enough. And it might give me an idea of which regular is causing a problem.

But then I spot a familiar car that doesn't belong to a regular.

Shit! Shit! Shit! SHIT!

I reach into one of the back pouches... the one almost directly under the scabbard. It's where I keep the airy distortion mask I got from Perry. Fox's magic is not going to be enough to help me tonight. This is the first time I've had to actually wear it... aside from putting it on to show folks. It's not that it isn't comfortable. Well, it's not exactly cozy, but it's not terrible, really. I sigh as I put it on, then adjust it, so it tucks properly inside my collar. Then I pull my staff out of the scabbard — chances are close to zero that I'll need to use it, but there's not much room inside to pull it out efficiently. Finally, I head for the back door.

Charlie's waiting for me. He takes one look at my distorted face, shakes his head, and says, "No, ma'am, I'm not going to ask."

"Thanks. Where's Donny?"

"Both he and Teddy are out sick. I've got Marlena covering the front."

I nod. Marlena is one of the bouncer-bartenders at Ms. C's. "Let's go check on your problem children, shall we?"

"Oh, you go right on in, Marshall... you can't miss them."

"Have I ever told you that you're a wuss, Charlie?"

He chuckles. "Yes'm, you have. I reckon you tell me every other month or so."

I smile, although it would be hard for him to tell. "I've never seen Marlena in action... things are usually quiet when I visit the ladies."

"Until you get there," he says, grinning broadly.

I just groan.

He drops the cowboy act, becoming serious. "She's got the people skills, but she's not anywhere near as intimidating as Donny and Teddy."

"Okay. Wright texted me, said you had called this in. I told him to hang back unless you called his direct number. You have it, right."

Charlie nods.

"I don't think we'll need to bother him, but keep an eye out. If I have to crack someone's head, you'll need to call him."

"Got it, Ninja. Good luck." He sighs. "Hysterical queens are the worst."

"Yeah, don't I know it," I mutter as I head into the bar proper.

Oh, and there I get treated to a sight I thought I would never see as long as I lived... and that could certainly be forever. Off to one side is the most bizarre tableau I've ever seen... and that's saying a hell of a lot. After all, I experienced the Raven and Quetzalcoatl Show.

Marlena and David are trying to pull Bobby off of Carl, who's been coming here a hell of a lot longer than I have. He's a big guy, a construction worker... he's tough, and he's strong. He's doing his damnedest to hold in his temper, and that's a fine thing because I think he could probably land Bobby in the hospital if he let loose on him.

I rap the dance floor twice with my staff; that gets everyone's attention... well, everyone's except the two combatants and the referees. They just clear a path for me.

"You wanna let me handle this, Marlena?"

"Hell yes, Ninja! This boy's lost his mind!"

Yeah, don't I know it. I wonder how my lovely neighbors are going to explain this to the sweet librarian and stalwart police detective who live next door.

Marlena lets go of Bobby and steps back. I can see the glint of stressed out crazy in Bobby's eyes and he makes another lunge for Carl... only to find himself lunging into my outstretched arm.

"Now, son... it's not polite to come in here and start a fight. That's downright unfriendly."

Bobby looks surprised to be stopped short by one solitary arm when he had actually been starting to make some headway in freeing himself from David's and Marlena's grasps. David I can understand. He doesn't want to hurt Bobby. Well, Marlena doesn't either, but for different reasons.


I will slap him hard enough that he'll hurt for a week. I'm plenty annoyed by the hassles I've been getting all week — from the minor annoyances of the crazy cats up in Jeffco to the miscreants who roam the night to my insane best friend who needs to calm the hell down.

Bobby looks at my arm, looks at Carl — who has the good sense to scoot back a bit — then looks at my arm again. "He started it! I didn't start anything! He called Martha Stewart a... a..." He screams and tries to lunge for Carl again.

"Carl, what the hell did you say about Martha Stewart that riled this boy up so much?" I look at David. "You can let go of him if you want. He's not going anywhere." David reluctantly takes a step back; Bobby seems a little surprised that he still can't get any closer to Carl.

"I just said she was financially shady, Miss Ninja. How's I supposed to know he'd flip his crazy hat on?"

"Fair point, Carl. And you, fanboy," I say to Bobby, "is there some reason you had to bring out the crazy after a single statement? You couldn't be nice and polite and use your words to disagree with Carl here?"

Bobby's positively gone around the bend here. I don't want to have to smack him. Oh, I'm sorely tempted, just on general principal... but, in the long run, it wouldn't be worth it.

"He's been under a lot of stress lately," David says quietly. "I just thought..."

He trails off when I turn my face to him. "And you are...?"

"Um, David. And... and that's Bobby."

"Uh huh. Now, David... you seem like a brighter bulb than Mr. Bonkers here," I say, letting some of my annoyance come out in my voice. "Don't you think maybe tucking Mr. Bonkers in for the night might have been a better idea than taking him out in public?"

"Ah... well, I guess so, but I didn't..."

"No, no, no! Tut tut. It's clear you didn't think. Crazy people go in timeout, right along with the misbehaving children. The question is... should Charlie call Officer Mostly Friendly? Or is Mr. Bonkers going to behave and go home like a good boy?"

Bobby answers the question by attempting to lunge at Carl again. He's doing a fairly good imitation of a zombie at the moment.

"Um, Miss Ninja, there's no call to get the police involved. Sometimes... you know, they're not so nice." I like Carl. I always have. He's a good guy. Like most of the regulars, when the wacky folks from the Jesus Fan Club come by, he's always there helping to move the tables and assisting newcomers out the back door.

"Now, Carl... you know Officer Wright loves all of you just like you were his very own brothers."

"Well, yes, ma'am... but those other ones, the rednecks... they're not so nice."

Rednecks? Oh. Those two clowns who shared the shift with Wright and... hmmm... could have been when Tryon was still around.

"Old news, Carl! Martinez and Villanueva are shining examples of brotherly and sisterly love. You might remember Martinez from a few years back when she partnered up with Wright. So what do you say?"

"Uh, Miss? I could just take him home," David says, "if... you know... people don't mind."

"That'd be okay with me, Miss Ninja. Really." Carl nods. "It's coming up on the holidays and all, and I didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings."

"You hear that, Mr. Bonkers?" I ask Bobby.

He continues his zombie impression. This is getting old.

"Right." I grip him around his lower abdomen and lift him off his feet. That elicits a yelp of surprise, although he continues to claw at the air. Bobby's not a big guy... barely an inch taller than I am. He's not particularly heavy either. He does squirm a lot, however.

People get out of the way pretty quickly. Bobby is definitely a big serving of crazy with a side of flailing arms and legs. Once I'm out of the corner and onto the small dance floor, Charlie looks at me quizzically. I shift my staff in my hand, then flip it over my shoulder into the scabbard. Darn good thing I've been practicing that, too.

"I think we can leave Wright to deal with the hardened criminals, Charlie. I'll run these varmints out of town, and then check back in with you here."

He nods, looking relieved. "That's mighty decent of you, Marshall," he says, picking up his John Wayne persona again. He precedes our little party to the back door, opening it for me... and holding it open until David gets outside, after that he firmly shuts the door behind us.

I set Bobby down and then lean against the door, arms crossed. Through the mask, neither of them can tell I'm glaring at them. However, it's a damn good thing I've got the mask because right now, I'm fairly ticked off at my best friend and neighbor.

"Mr. Bonkers, I don't think you're welcome in these parts anymore."

Bobby is fairly quivering with rage at the perceived insult to his beloved Martha Stewart, as well as being manhandled — Ninja-handled? — out of the building.

I pretend to ignore him.

"Mr. Caretaker, you need to take your friend here home and dunk his head in a bucket of ice water."

David nods. "Come on, Bobby. Let's get home, hon."

Bobby turns and glares at David. "That man insulted Martha Stewart!"

I sighed, audibly.

"Mr. Bonkers? I've got a bit of advice for you." He turns back to me, glaring even harder. I straighten and uncross my arms... letting them hang by my side. The fact that my fingers are curling in and out of fists is not lost on either one of them. Fortunately for both of them, I'm merely annoyed, and it's all for show. I'm not working on building up any qi. At the moment.


"The fuck.


I suppose my voice does sound a little harsher than I'd intended... but damn it! Ninja is annoyed by his antics, making a mess in one of her protected places. And in the background, Andrea has completely lost patience with his lunacy, as well.

I think Bobby finally realizes that perhaps he crossed a line that he shouldn't have crossed. He just glares for a minute.

"Bobby? Come on..." David reaches out to place a hand on Bobby's arm, by he just shrugs it off.

"I don't know who you think you are, you... you... you BULLY! But you have a potty mouth, and your mother should have taken a bar of soap to you a long time ago!" He's about sixty seconds from stamping his foot.

Behind the mask, I grin. It's probably best that I'm wearing the mask because that grin is all Ninja... the smart ass, the Super, the cold-hearted bitch.

"Son, I'm the Protector around these parts. The name is Ninja. I assume you're new here in town. You might want to ask the people of your community about the Super who watches out for them when the buses of psychotic Friends of Jesus come up to visit. Ask some of the regulars here — not that you're welcome inside — who kicks the asses of the skinheads when they come through the front door looking for a fight.

"I don't appreciate having to come down here to essentially break up a fight between siblings.

"And I really don't care for one of my own calling me a bully."

I look at David. "Is he always this wound up?" I ask, knowing perfectly well what the answer is. I am curious, however, how David sees the situation.

He hesitates, but it's not actually to spare Bobby's feelings. He's really thinking about it. Finally, he nods.

"Bobby's a little high-strung, but... well..." David reaches out again to put a hand on Bobby's shoulder. Bobby doesn't shrug it off this time, but he does cross his arms defensively. "The holidays are stressing him out more than usual. I thought getting out, having a cocktail, um... you know..."

I look between the two of them, then focus my attention on Bobby. Except this time, I don't say anything... I just look at him for a minute, two minutes, finally stretching close to three minutes before he starts getting nervous.

Then I grin again.

"Mr. Bonkers, get yourself some Xanax... or whatever it is you kids are taking these days. Now, go home. Both of you. And I'd better not hear of you causing trouble again."

Bobby nods, but obviously seems to think he needs to get in the last word. "He did insult Martha Stewart." David wraps his arm around Bobby's shoulders and starts to turn him toward his car.

"Son," I say quietly, "if I got upset every time someone insulted me, mine, or something I cared about... Denver would look like Nagasaki did after the US dropped an atomic bomb on that fair city."

I'm not sure how much Logan remembers of that, and it doesn't matter. What matters is that I hold his memories... all of them... from all the wars and all the conflicts. Memories don't give me experience, but they do give me perspective... some things are worth fighting for, worth killing for, worth dying for. Most things aren't.

"Take up yoga or go to therapy or get some Xanax... I don't care. But think about this, son..." I pause, with Andrea hoping Ninja can get through to Bobby. "Before you fly off the handle next time, ask yourself if whatever person or cause you're riled up about is worth dying for."

Bobby's posture doesn't change, but his aura does... I think he's finally starting to calm down and maybe beginning to think rationally again. Sadly, I suspect that state won't last long. He'll be right back to his crazy place tomorrow. David looks over his shoulder at me as they make their slow way to the car and mouths, Thank you.

I just nod... but I wait until they're in the car and have driven off before exhaling a sigh of relief.

I'm not sure David, Andrea or Pablo are going to be any safer from Bobby's holiday-induced madness, but the rest of the city — including its Protectors — shouldn't have another problem with him.

By the time I get home two hours later, all I want to do is take a hot shower and crawl into bed with Pablo. Wright called me twice and Martinez once to help them out with... ahem... disagreements at different bars. Some asshole at the last one thought it would be funny to pour a glass of beer on the cops. Unfortunately, said asshole was three sheets to the wind. So the entire contents of his glass splashed all over his friend and the Super who was trying to keep the idiot friend from harming the cops or the guy they had on the ground. And then, of course, the Super had to keep the idiot friend from attacking the beer tossing drunken friend.

Some days, this whole Super Hero gig just isn't worth the aggravation.

Pablo is sound asleep when I get home — as he should be — but is semi-awake by the time I finish my shower. I've gone over every millimeter of my uniform for evidence that it, too, had gotten a beer bath, but I guess Martha's right... nothing sticks to it.

I still want to toss it in the washing machine.

As I curl into the comfort of my husband's arms, he murmurs, "Tough patrol tonight, love?"

I nod. "I'll tell you about it in the morning. Just hold me, Pablo."

"Always, Andi."

He kisses the top of my head and then rests his cheek against it, falling back asleep almost immediately. Surrounded by his love, it doesn't take long for me to follow into sleep.

Of course, when I find myself in one of those dreams again at some unknown time later, I'm pretty sure I start screaming. Great Spirit, how much stress do you think I can handle? Yes, I may be the Warrior... but I'm still human! Too much stress is not good for poor Andi.

And the worst part is that — according to those two — I willed myself here. Maybe I can will myself somewhere else.

Shimá! You came to visit again! Have you come to teach us more, too?

I groan. Too late. And also, too late to remember that groaning makes the little lights sink dejectedly toward the ground and huddle together.

You do not want to talk to us, Shimá?

I sigh.

It's not that. It's just that... well, out in the world where people have already been born, too many things are happening. Some of them are nice things; some are not nice things at all. But really, it's just that there are too many things happening.

They spin, they whirl, they circle one another like binary stars. This, I recall from last time, is confusion. Hey, join the club, kiddos.

Things are things. Things exist. Do things happen?

I thought you two were hanging around all the time. It's been weeks, hasn't it? Does it take that long to learn idioms?

I sigh again. I'm upset, and I'm frustrated, and surprisingly they aren't the ones frustrating me. At the moment. I suppose I shouldn't take it out on them, should I? I guess I'm just used to venting at the Spirits and getting snarky at them. If these guys really are who they say they are, I guess I can't take my frustrations out on them, can I? No. That would be very wrong. Don't I get pissed off at people who take their frustrations out on their children?

But damn it, they're inside my head acting like the Spirits do! Well, except for the fact that they make even less sense and seem both smarter and not as bright as the Spirits. How the hell does that even work?

You are upset, Shimá. Have we made you upset? What have we done? We should learn so we can be sure not to do it again.

I sit down... there's no handy boulder that I can see, not a tree, nothing except a very large expanse of desert. Fine. I tuck my feet in close, wrap my arms around my legs and rest my head on my knees.

I don't think you did anything. Well, unless you're actually growing inside me, and then yeah... there is probably an excess of hormones flooding through my system. Huh. That would explain a lot of the crankiness, I guess. I suppose I should look when I'm awake. Nothing seems to make sense when I'm sleeping. I couldn't tell the last time... your qi — assuming you actually exist, of course, and I'm not going insane — is exactly like mine. So I didn't see any disruptions like I did... Well. I didn't see any disruptions.

I can feel them hovering around my head, but...

Am I supposed to care right now? I'm so tired. I can't remember feeling this tired... well, ever. There have been moments, sure, when I expended qi too fast or maybe too much of it at once... yeah, I'd feel kind of worn and maybe woozy for a few minutes. But since forming the Pentad? Hell no... it's as if I was born for channeling all the qi in the world.

Oh wait... yeah... maybe I was.

Huh. And what was it that the Spirits were going on about back in Colorado Springs? I haven't had a chance to think about that either.

Damn, I've been busy.

But back to this bit about being tired. Isn't that a common symptom of pregnancy? I have plenty of friends — well, acquaintances — who've had babies and I'm a librarian... I should know this, right? Well, I was a librarian. Once a librarian, always a librarian? I'm a librarian without a library? Well, that's certainly true.

Shimá? Don't you believe us? We are here. We are real.

Are we real yet?

Of course we are!

But we have to stay in the not born place.

We're real. The ones we will be are not big enough for us to talk to Shimá, but we are already the ones we will be.

Great. I'm going crazy, and they're having existential conversations about the nature of reality.

Many events have been happening. I'm very tired. I'm very sad. I'm... well, sometimes I think I'm all the ways a person can feel. All the time.

I'm afraid to find out you're really real. I'm afraid to tell your Papa. I'm afraid to tell Maddie and Logan and Rene, but if I don't tell them... and Maddie starts having all my pregnancy symptoms because we have this... I don't even know what it is we have, but she seems to pick up on all the big stuff that happens to me, like... was it just a few weeks ago that I got shot? Well, she felt it, too. And that's not right. Well, what do I know? Maybe it is right. But it's not good, that's for sure!

They float, still and silent. And yet... am I starting to get the hang of interpreting their movements? They seem very interested in my last set of panicked statements.


This one feels what you feel?

Well, just the getting shot... or maybe it was the part about being dead? I don't know. We're going to talk about it tomorrow, or today. After I wake up, anyway.

Who is this one who feels what you feel?

My Sister. Well, adopted sister... I adopted her into the Diné Nation when Cat wanted to... I guess stay with her. Like a guardian Spirit. So now she's my Sister and Cat is her guardian. Well, so is Rene. But that's really complicated.

HER?!? She is not your sister, Shimá; she is you!

I swear to the Gods, Buddhas, and Spirits that they're laughing.

No. I'm me. She's not me. She's Maddie.

There's all kinds of giggling going on. It sounds a little bit like the way Mother laughs, but definitely more high pitched and louder and a lot more bells. But no cowbells. That's probably a good thing. At least the sense of it being a dog whistle is gone. That's definitely a good thing.

Shimá, you remember when we first came to talk to you, don't you? When we hadn't decided if we were One or Two yet? That's what happened to you, except we think you forgot to do all the things you need to do when you become Two. It sometimes happens. It is not something to worry about. You who is not You does not remember either, except... except she almost does. You and You who is not You shared your Selves. That was good. It helps us, too.

I look up and stare at the two spots of light.

What?! Yes, it is! It's definitely something to worry about! It's something to worry a lot about! We are both Warriors... it's very bad if something happens to me when she is in battle, or if something happens to her when I'm in battle! It's bad, bad, bad!

They bounce off one another... I don't know... they're just a little confused? Maybe I'm not getting the hang of this.

She's old enough to be my mother! How can she be me? Or... or whatever you are? And why did she only feel this one thing, and not any of the other things that have happened to me? I've never felt any of the things that happened to her, and many, many, many things have happened to her since I've been born. And... and what do you mean sharing ourselves?

But the Spirits say you only just found the You who is not You... and the Others who are your... what is the word?


No, no... something more...


Yes, that's it! You found the You who is not You at the same time...

...almost the same time...

...yes, all right... almost the same time you found your Siblings.

I rub my temples. I'm the one who understands weird, right? I mean, I sort of need to, what with being the world's largest magnet for weird. But these two are making my head hurt. A lot.

Do you mean Rene and Logan?

They dance and whirl, dart, and twirl... they're making me dizzy, which so does not help my head.

Yes, yes, yes! And Shizhé'é, too! They are all your Siblings in the not born place!

I wonder if it's okay to cry right now. Because my frustration level is high enough that crying seems like a good idea. It's certainly a better idea than hitting something or kicking something.

So... are you telling me that the five of us are really just four?

They bob up and down.

Yes, yes. In the not born place, you are four. Doing the living thing this time, you are five. Oh, this is such a wonderful thing, Shimá! We found you now, at this time...

...but we still don't understand time...

...think of it as a place, then...

Ah! Yes, that makes it easier!

We found you now, in this place, where you found You who is not You, and all your Siblings! We are so happy!

I sigh. Again. Well, that makes... somebody happy, anyway. How the frack am I going to explain this to Maddie?! More importantly, how do we fix it? Because either one of us getting hurt or killed is going to turn into a distraction, and that could be plenty fatal for the other. Damn, and that's not to mention the people we're supposed to be protecting. Oh, this is so not good!

Well, I'm sure it's a wonderful thing. I mean, I can't imagine not having Maddie and Logan and Rene and Pablo in my life... now that they're here. But the Warriors still have a very big problem. If Maddie and I are... really? Just one person when we're not living? You know, I don't even understand how that works. But we have people to protect. We cannot protect people if I hurt when Maddie hurts... or if she hurts when I hurt.

But, Shimá... that won't happen.

It already did happen! I got shot, Maddie felt it... well, felt something, we're going to talk about just what it was later... but she felt it! She was very upset with me!

When you are doing Warrior things, it will not happen. It cannot. The Warrior within will not allow it.

They bounce and bob, clearly conveying the idea that I'm a bit daft to think otherwise. I wonder if Maddie went through this kind of insanity when she was pregnant. No... she'd have mentioned it. She had a different kind of insanity. I have a feeling if this keeps up I'll be willing to trade this madness for hers.

Well, or not... my wedding dress is probably going to be snug as it is.


All is well, our Shimá. You have You... We have We. You have found your Siblings and I-we have found mine-ours. Oh, this will be the best living thing we have done!

Wait, what? I'm going to have to go through this again?? I'm not having a baseball team of kids; I've already told Pablo that. It's not going to happen. No fracking way!



Oh, yes. I scream. Yes, I do.

Never mind that. I'm not having many more children just so you can have many more siblings. You know, besides each other.

Oh! Oh, you did not understand!

I swear they're laughing at me. Maybe that's just me being tired and on the edge and... sure... paranoid. But they're laughing at me.

You found your Siblings! My-Our Siblings are already doing the living thing. SHE is their Shimá!

I put my head down again and whimper. Great. Life is just one great big family reunion, isn't it? Well... family is the core of what makes the Diné who we are, although that could be said to be true for many of the Nations.

So... what? Leon and Emelia and Vincent are your... siblings in whatever place you're in?

They're quiet and motionless. That's good. Quiet is good. And the less frenetic behavior they exhibit, the better I like it.

No..., definitely not.

They are always Two. They are not One who Becomes Two. And we remember... we?

I think so.

Perhaps it was a different living thing?

No, it was this living thing. They did not decide to be Three or Four or even more. They don't like doing that.

Yes, that's true. Each likes being One. I-We always become Two when we do the living thing with them. It is always nice, nice, nice!

Oh, yes! It has been so long since we did the living thing with them!

No, no. The very last time we did the living thing was with them.

Was it?

Yes. It was the time we decided to have different Mamas.

Oh! No, let's not do that kind of living thing again. That was... not pleasant.

But our Siblings do it often.

Of course. But they are Two. We are One.

I'm having a hard time following their conversation because... Well, I'm starting to wonder if they're insane. Or if I am. That's definitely a possibility, too. I think I remember asking Pablo... Rene?... okay, possibly both of them to make sure my straitjacket is tie-dyed. I'm not going to try weaving baskets with my toes, however. Pablo would like that too much, and if I'm going to suffer... well, so is he.

Um, okay... so... which two are your otherworldly siblings? I ask cautiously, knowing full well they could run off on another tangent that will make the inside of my head hurt a whole lot.

The last ones, of course.

I sigh with relief at the simple answer.

Okay. So, Em and Vin.

I'm almost afraid to ask the next question, but... well, Maddie and Logan might not want to know, but maybe it's a good idea if someone does? That's the theory I'm going with, at the moment anyway.

Are they going to remember you?

I can actually feel their sadness and look up at them again.

Bad question?


It is not... usual?

Yes, that's the word.

Okay. It is not usual to remember the not born place once the living thing starts. We don't know anyone else who's ever done it. Our Siblings do not remember, just like you and You who is not You do not remember, Shimá. I-We thought it would be... fun?

No... interesting.

Ah. We thought it would be interesting to remember.

I stare at them. As I stare, I can feel... frustration, annoyance, fear all welling up. And I know, with absolutely certainty, that there's no way I can keep from crying. Not here in my dreamscape, anyway. How am I supposed to do this? How can I be a good mother to two... beings who remember other lives, other lessons learned, other parents and teachers? They know my soul, they know who I was before I became who I am. I have an overwhelming urge to hear Mama tell me everything will be fine... except... except she doesn't know all this... this crazy stuff. I want to believe everything will be fine, but I'm not sure I can.

Shimá? Shimá, why are you crying? What have we done? We must learn from you so we can all be a happy family.

I wipe my face on my sleeve... Sleeve? Oh. I guess I didn't notice that I'm wearing my old uniform. Well, why not?

I'm overwhelmed. You haven't done anything wrong, but the things you say are... are very big ideas. And... and I'm afraid I won't be a very good mother. You are different, very different from what other children will be like. I am good at being the Warrior. I don't know how to be a mom.

It feels like a soft breeze blows across my face... tiny feathers brushing against my skin... and love pouring over me.

It will be all right, Shimá...

We remember how to imitate others...

We will be like other children...

Well, we might sometimes forget ...

Yes, but only when we are with you and Shizhé'é and You who is not You and your Siblings and our Siblings...

Let's call him Papa... I like saying Papa, Papa, Papa...

Yes, yes... if you wish. Oh, and the New One, too...

Oh, yes... we already like the New One... his heart is beautiful...

So don't be sad Shimá Mama. We will be good children for you. We know you will be a good mother to us. And Shizhé'é Papa will be a good father to us. That is why we picked you.

I just hold my head in my hands. That's probably best, isn't it? I mean, if it explodes, the pieces won't go flying all that far.

The new one? I suppose that's Leon, then. He is a very nice young man. Maddie worries, I think because his powers are very strong... but, well, as you said, he has a beautiful heart. But I still don't understand what you meant when you said Maddie and I shared ourselves.

Hand to hand... you remember...

Blood to blood... you remember...

We are you... and we are Shizhé'é Papa...

But You who is not You made sure it would be easy for us to stay with you.

I... what? I have Maddie's odd DNA now, too??

But it is yours, too. It has always been yours.

Not in the living thing this time, I think. But yes.

I don't understand, and I'm starting to get freaked out again.

We have never done the living thing with you before, Shimá...

But Great Spirit says you always have what you both now have...

You who is not You remembered that...

And gave it back to you.

Well, we think that's how it worked.

We really aren't sure.

Oh good, I say sarcastically, I'm glad you don't know everything because that would just be... well, even more overwhelming.

They don't seem to grasp the concept of sarcasm. I resist the urge to sigh.

Oh, no! We do not know everything!

Why would we do the living thing if we knew everything?

There are still so many things to learn...

Yes, we are very excited about learning the new things!

Oh, my poor head!

I think I need more sleep. Lots more sleep. You don't mind if I go now and sleep more, do you?

We remember sleep...


I think we do...

I'm not sure...

Well, I think we do! And it is a nice thing.

Oh, if it's a nice thing, then, yes... you should have more sleep, Shimá.

But you will talk with us again?

We like talking with you.

I don't suppose there's a way for me to talk to you so I don't miss out on so much sleep, is there?

They laughed again... not quite as loudly, not quite as high pitched.

When the ones we are and will become are big enough, yes.

But not yet. We will understand if you wait until then.

Yes. Sleep is very nice.

Well, perhaps it is. But now is then is now, so it doesn't matter if you wait.

No, it doesn't. It will still be now.

They disappear so quickly, they leave a vacuum of energy. Qi rushes into the space where there is none, causing... well, it feels like a strong gust of wind. But it's quiet.

And I really need more sleep.

© Kelly Naylor