Prologue 6: No More Secrets

Sometimes having exceptional hearing can be a real pain in the backside. Most mornings I'm able to tune it out and roll over, getting back to sleep quickly, but today is the day we're getting in the collection of W.D. Howells documents at the library. Such an event is always a big deal to any librarian... the chance to get our hands on original manuscripts and first editions of a nineteenth-century American author!

Of course, this is the morning the family of blue jays decides to make more of a horrendous racket than usual outside of my bedroom window.

I sit up and sigh. I've never lived near birds that got so darn excited about sunrise. And if they're excited about sunrise, they want everyone to be excited about sunrise!

Oh, well. It will give me more time to practice this morning.

I slip into the loose pants and shirt Master Chen had given me as a parting gift before returning home in '99 and pad barefoot into the basement. I'd been delighted by the finished basement when I found the house four years ago; the only major modification it needed was the removal of the previous owners' carpeting and installation of bamboo flooring. I had built a small closet under the stairs, too.

After the usual stretching and Qigong warm-ups, I settle into my Taijiquan forms... doing an extra two repetitions thanks to the blue jays.

When I head back upstairs for my shower, I can smell the cinnamon rolls baking next door. With a grin, I look out the kitchen window across the driveway to my neighbor's house.

"Bobby, you better bring some of those over here when they're out of the oven!" I call over to him.

I hear him chuckle and mutter something about psychic neighbors before I turn to take a quick shower.

By the time I get out of the shower, I can hear someone moving around in my kitchen, and smell fresh cinnamon drifting through the air in the house along with the scent of fresh coffee. Bobby is humming a tune from some musical as he putters around my kitchen.

I dress quickly, as Bobby has managed to find my stash of hazelnut coffee. If I don't hurry, he'll drink the whole pot. A small price to pay for freshly baked cinnamon rolls, I suppose. But still... hazelnut is my favorite, too.

"So you're the musical baker, now?" I tease as I walk into the kitchen and pour coffee into my favorite mug. "Has that boyfriend of yours finally talked you into joining the chorus?"

In the past six months, the man has been relentless in his efforts to get Bobby to join Harmony. While I approve — Bobby has a fantastic tenor voice — David has been hinting that I am his next target. It's one thing to joke with Pablo about joining; it's another thing altogether to make the time commitment. Things as simple as work interfere with their Monday evening rehearsals, and if the simple things are going to interfere, the not-at-all simple things will definitely interfere sooner or later.

Plus, Pablo will never stop teasing me about it. Ever.

I take a sip of coffee and breathe in the scent of the cinnamon rolls. Mmmmm, sometimes a hypersensitive sense of smell is fabulous! "Come on... sit and tell me how you and Mr. Wonderful have been doing," I say. I grin at him as I set the coffee mug down and slide onto the far bench of the breakfast nook. "I haven't seen you two in... what? A whole week?"

My dear friend and neighbor is standing at the stove, reheating the cinnamon rolls just enough to make the icing perfectly melted again.

"Oh please! The last thing I want to do is go up there and perform. He makes me perform enough in the bedroom thank you very much," he says, winking at me and coming over to give me two cheek kisses as he hands me the plate of rolls.

He pours his own coffee and sits down across from me in the nook.

"Ahhhggg! TMI! TMI!"

Oh my god, the last thing I need to hear about is someone else's bedroom exploits... especially when my bedroom exploits don't even include erotic dreams. Yes. I'm jealous. Well, just a little.

"We're doing just fine, dear. I have the day off from the bakery today so I'm going to whip up a special dinner for the two of us tonight," he says, taking a sip.

"What about you? Did you have your Wednesday dinner out with that dreamy detective friend of yours?"

But I do have to laugh at Bobby's description of Pablo. Dreamy? I'm not sure that's the term I'd use. But, on the other hand, I probably wouldn't use 'dreamy' to describe Michael Shanks or whoever it is who plays that totally hot werewolf on True Blood either.

"Apparently you haven't been spying on me as well as I spy on you, darling, or you'd know I worked until nine on Wednesday this week," I say with a grin. "But since you absolutely MUST know, we're going to dinner tonight... work permitting, of course. His work this time, not mine."

Ah, no matter how much I've tried to tell everyone, no one seems to believe Pablo and I aren't dating. I've stopped trying to explain. At least it keeps people from trying to set me up with an old college friend or a brother or a cousin or the nice homeless man in their neighborhood.

Okay, that last one hasn't happened.


He raises an eyebrow at me, sipping his hazelnut coffee. "How long have we been friends now, Andrea?" he asks.

"Well, let's see," I say, chuckling. "I bought the house four years ago come September 12. And I believe it might have taken an entire week before I was beating down your door for cinnamon rolls and you were breaking in to steal my hazelnut coffee."

I'm trying very hard not to laugh. That first morning I had made the hazelnut instead of French vanilla, he'd come to the back door with wide eyes and an expression that made me think that he had just seen a miracle. Girl, you have hazelnut brewing in there! Oh em gee, where did you get it? Tell me you didn't get it at Alfalfa's because their hazelnut is pathetic! I had admitted to getting it online at Rogers Gourmet Coffee. The next day, he brought me a plate of his cinnamon rolls, which are to die for. Three days later, we exchanged keys, and we've been best pals since.

"You know, you always have been an over-sharer," I say with a smile before tearing off a piece of a warm roll and enjoying the exquisite tastes and textures.

"Is there such a thing as being an over-sharer with someone that you love?" he asks, looking over the rim of his cup of hazelnut.

"You've been seeing Pablo for a while now, but I know that it isn't romantic. At least not seriously so," he says, raising an eyebrow and looking at me. I don't need to be telepathic to know what he's thinking; I just need to know Bobby. The question he so desperately wants to ask is: if you aren't with him for a relationship, why are you seeing him?

I raise an eyebrow for an eyebrow. "A person can't just have a friend, Bobby?"

"Of course you can. But I like to think that I am either your best friend or one of your best friends and we don't go out that much," he says, holding up a hand. "No, Andrea, you don't have to tell me what's going on. I just want to make sure that you're okay. That everything is good," he says, concern for me in his eyes.

Damn, he can get me almost weepy. I suppose not having any close friends during those years when girls swear everlasting loyalty and to be Best Friends Forever might have something to do with it. I set my elbows on the table and prop my chin on my hands, smiling and just looking at him for a couple of minutes.

"You know, you come over here... or I wander over to your place... for breakfast or lunch or munchies more often than Pablo and I go to dinner. But yes, everything is good, Bobby. I'm definitely okay."

Ugh, sometimes words are hard. Well, sometimes finding the right words is hard. But I have to give the old college try, as the saying goes.

"I like Pablo. A lot. He's as good a friend to me as you are. And I don't want to mess that up, you know?" Is that quite what I mean? "I think I'd rather keep a good friend and wonder 'what if...?' sometimes than risk losing a great friendship. Does that make sense?"

He sighs softly, reaching over and taking my hand in his well-manicured one, covering it with his other hand.

"Andrea, I love you like the sister I never had, more than the family that disowned me. That's why it hurts to see you so lonely. Life is about taking a chance! Life is so short, so fragile. And to lose the chance of finding love or even just finding someone who can hold you in the night and keep at bay the darkness? That is a risk that we have to take," he says softly.

"You're going to make me cry, Bobby."

But I hold his hand anyway. And just sit quietly for a few minutes, not even bothering to think. He really does care so much and is truly concerned... not being his usual overly dramatic self. Those feelings seem to wash over me. And yet...

"I'm not lonely, Bobby... I don't feel lonely," I say softly. "But I understand what you're saying. I'm just not sure I'm quite ready to take that risk yet. I think of all the people I know or have ever known, Pablo might be the one who could handle all the different crazy parts of me." I smile and try to lighten the mood. "After all, most guys are really put off by the fact that I'm the highest possible level in two different martial arts. And especially put off by the fact that I had to register with the City and County because I'm a deadly weapon or some such nonsense." I shrug.

"I learned all sorts of things while living in Asia, darling. One of them is that things will happen as they're meant to happen, in their own time. 'Go with the flow,' you know? And my Papa and Tita say exactly the same thing. 'Things happen when they should happen, exactly as they should happen.' Don't worry so much, my dear friend, you'll get wrinkles on that pretty face of yours. I am fine, really, and will continue to be fine. And if my relationship with Pablo is meant to shift... it will. When the time is right. Pushing it just... doesn't feel right."

"I know it's hard for you, dear. You missed out on all that exploration and learning time growing up. Just want you to know that when you do feel like it is your time, I will be here to talk to and support you. Okay?"

"You and my little brother... you're so different, and you so often have the same advice." I raise an eyebrow at him. "My little brother, however, is not nearly as concerned about my lack of sexual exploits."

I know I'm blessed to have so many good people in my life. I have a large family, even if the closest of them are in New Mexico. I have some true friends, and the people I work with are fun and truly good. Grandmaster Chen would probably have said it was necessary in order to balance the hardship of my Curse.

"I know I can count on you, Bobby."

I grin and pat his cheek. "I'm not a vestal virgin, you know. But the whole 'relationship' thing... ah, well. I haven't been good at it so far. But I have good role models. Papa and Tita have been married going on seventy years; Mama and Dad for thirty-five. Aunt Sonia and Uncle Leon; Uncle Junior and Aunt Alicia; all the cousins... every one of them is as happy as can be. When I know, absolutely and without a doubt, who the right person is for me, I promise I won't let him go, okay?"

"That's good enough for me, chérie. Whoever he is can have your body and heart, but I get your hazelnut coffee," he says, laughing and squeezing my hand before releasing it. He seems relieved now that the serious talk is over and he looks a bit better for having talked to me about it. I know without a doubt all he wants is happiness for his loved ones. Even that darn family of his family that disowned him.

"My coffee is your coffee... or so it seems," I say with a laugh. "I am going to have to start buying it in bulk. I can probably even get a discount."

"So I was thinking of having a Luau themed dinner party next weekend. Can you make it? You can even bring your non-boyfriend guy friend if you like."

I look at him suspiciously. His themed parties generally tend to be an excuse — or opportunity, depending on one's point of view — to celebrate Halloween multiple times a year.

"Yessss... I have next weekend off. But all you'll get me to wear is a lei and maybe a Hawaiian shirt."

He raises his eyebrows.

"Really? That is quite daring. Just a Hawaiian shirt and a lei? Kind of drafty there," he says, looking at my lap and laughing, waggling his eyebrows, teasing good-naturedly.

I pick up my napkin and throw it at him.

"Robert Jeffrey Tompkins, you are a brat!"

I laugh, then finish my coffee. "Now... I have to toss you out and get myself to work. Busy day, busy day! We're getting in the W. D. Howells collection today!"

I get up and start clearing the table and counter. It's going to be an exciting day for all of us, and I plan to take an earlier bus and probably have Pablo pick me up at the library. To ordinary people, it's just old paper and old books. But to us — to librarians — it's a treasure trove! I'm so excited that I have to make a conscious effort not to move too fast.

Most days, I love my job. On days like today, I absolutely adore my job!

"Okay dear, I'll see you later then. Be good and have fun at dinner," he says. He leans over and kisses my cheek before he leaving, but not before refilling his mug with coffee, of course! Well, he does leave the remainder of the rolls for me.

Yes, that's his idea of an even trade!

"I'm always good!" I call as he walks back out the door. With the last of my hazelnut coffee. Oh well... I probably don't need more caffeine in my system today anyway.

It only takes another fifteen minutes to finish cleaning up and getting ready for work and I'm out the door, heading for the bus stop. Because it will be a day spent mostly in the workroom, I'm wearing a pair of khaki-colored pants, a short-sleeved pale mauve blouse, and flat shoes rather than my usual skirt, blouse and higher heels. Despite Denver's reputation as a casual city — even the mayor and most of the city council are often seen wearing jeans — Mrs. Kumata believes in absolute professionalism for those who work for her. I guess that's why Bobby had been utterly shocked to learn I hadn't owned a single t-shirt. Though now I do own three, as he brought them back as a gift from his last trip to Provincetown. One, in particular, reflects his peculiar sense of humor: it's a black t-shirt with the words CEREAL KILLER emblazoned on the front above a drawing of a spoon.

I arrive about five minutes before the bus. Taking an earlier bus means I don't have the chance to say good morning to Darla, who works at the Convention Center. Or Mrs. Fergusen, who works at one of the big law firms downtown. Or Todd, who's a page for State Senator Roberts, the Senator for the counties of southwestern Colorado. I'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out if Mrs. Fergusen's first grandchild has been born yet.

I try to read on the bus, but my mind keeps slipping back to the morning's conversation with Bobby. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he cares about me, loves me like a sister, and only wants me to be as deliriously happy as he and David are.

Do I really seem to be lonely or unhappy to other people? Alone certainly doesn't mean lonely... I treasure the time that is truly my own. I have so many friends. Some, like Bobby and Pablo, are as close to my heart as my family is. Others haven't wormed their way into the heart of my heart yet, into my soul, but I love them just the same. I can fill every waking moment in the presence of any number of friends of I chose. No, I certainly don't feel lonely.

And happy? I have a job I love, and that's not something most people can say. My family loves me — every part of me — and accepts me for exactly who I am. So much about my life simply brings joy... especially being able to help people. The Eastern traditions that were ubiquitous when I was growing up, in which my developing mind was submerged, emphasize being of service to all of humanity, to one's community, to those who can't do for themselves. And didn't the Christ say something about one's behaviors toward even the lowliest person would be the same as if dealing with him? In the traditional Diné beliefs of my father's family, they speak of living in harmony with the people and the environment around you. And I do all this to the best of my ability... in doing so, it fills my heart with joy.

I'll just have to accept, I suppose, that looking at my life from the inside is apparently quite different than looking at it from the outside. Though I suppose that's true for most people, isn't it?

I arrive at the library at the same time Mrs. K is pulling up, and we grin at each other like a couple of giddy children on Christmas morning. Although the library doesn't open until 10:00, the delivery company has promised to have the Howells collection to us between 8:00 and 8:30. That would explain why all eight of the librarians — even Kevin, Steve, and Anita, who all have the day off — are standing on the delivery dock at 7:55. The level of excitement when the truck pulls up at 8:03 is something like the bottom of the eleventh inning with the bases loaded and one of the Rockies' best hitters up at bat. Yes, it's difficult to believe eight people can generate as much excitement as 35,000... but obviously you don't know librarians. We're slightly more obsessive about old books and papers than baseball fans are about their teams... with the possible exception of the Yankees and Red Sox, of course.

We spend the day in our white cotton gloves, rotating out into the main library three at a time to help the patrons. Only Kevin, Steve, and Anita spend the whole day in the workroom because it's their day off. Each piece needs to be carefully inspected and cataloged, noting any damages that can be repaired, any pieces that are beyond repair. One of the manuscripts is badly damaged; it looks as if the author himself had crumpled it... likely not satisfied with it. A handwritten copy of Howells' poem Sphinx is torn in half with a note in the author's exquisite handwriting: Terrible! Terrible!

Yet it's the exact version of the poem published in his collection, the version that everyone who has ever read Howells knows.

We who are nothing but self, and have no manner of being Save in the sense of self, still have no other delight Like the relief that comes with the blessed oblivion freeing Self from self in the deep sleep of some dreamless night.

Losing alone is finding; the best of being is ceasing Now and again to be. Then at the end of this strife, That which comes, if we will it or not, for our releasing, Is it eternal death, or is it infinite life?

This one will be preserved between two panes of glass. The obvious tear and the author's dissatisfaction will remain as evidence that in the moment of creation, even great works — or deeds — do not necessarily bring satisfaction or happiness to the author. It's a lesson that is an ongoing one for me. There is an odd sort of synergy between Howells and his unhappiness with a poem that later became the favorite of many an English Literature major and the deeds I find myself forced to do. Will history see my actions in a more favorable light than I see them in the present? I wonder if William Dean Howells asked himself the same questions that I often ask myself: does it really matter? Isn't all that matters is what we do now?

But the delight of working with these old papers sweep away my melancholia like the Spring winds off the Rockies sweep old leaves and trash from the streets of Denver. And sometimes sweep the less wary tourists right off their feet. The smell of their age like a perfume, the texture evident to me even through the cotton gloves, the beauty of nineteenth-century handwriting...

The day seems to fly in a blur of paper and people, with all of us cheerful and exuberant. It's as if the patrons can tell the difference, too, for even the panic-stricken students seem less panicked. The people looking for a specific book are slightly less disappointed to discover it's already checked out, and happier to reserve it for themselves when it's returned. The homeless are more willing to be coaxed out the door with a bus token and pointed toward one of the homeless shelters where they can get a shower and a hot meal.

Even though the library closes to the public at 6:00 Wednesday through Friday, on Wednesday and Thursday the employees still work until 9:00. The librarians spend the time cataloging, researching, and ordering books. The pages return books to the shelves and generally straighten up around the building. The cleaning service sends their people in during the wee hours of the morning to do the vacuuming, mopping, dusting, emptying trash and any other real cleaning that needs to be done. Today, I'm only scheduled to work until 6:00. But despite the fact that I know Pablo is waiting out front — in the no standing stopping parking zone, of course — I'm reluctant to leave. So much history is still in the workroom! The eight of us have not even made it through half of the collection today. The others will work until 9:00... perhaps even beyond. Of course, the ones who have to work tomorrow will probably regret the long day today. They only have adrenaline and caffeine to keep them going; at least I have my Taijiquan to revitalize my body, mind, and spirit.

I slip out the front door, Celeste locking up after me, and practically skip over to Pablo's car. Sliding into the front seat with a grin, I say, "Oh great detective, what will it be for dinner tonight... Mexican, Chinese, Moroccan, pizza, junk food?"

He looks over at me as I slide into the front seat and smiles, his eyes crinkling as they do due to the years spent outdoors that had weathered his skin. Bits of gray are starting to work their way into his short beard but his eyes still twinkle like those of a boy. Yes, a boy who had seen too much horror, of course, but they're still younger-looking than his years should show.

"I was thinking Hungarian... the goulash over at Budapest Bistro. How does that sound to you?" he asks.

"Hungarian sounds good... we haven't had that in a while."

I buckle my seatbelt and wait until he's pulled out into traffic. Leaning my head back against the headrest, I take a minute to completely relax. It's been an amazing day, but it does seem like I haven't stopped moving from the moment the delivery truck had arrived until the moment I got into Pablo's car.

"I got another talking to from Bobby this morning," I say, merely tilting my head slightly to look at Pablo. "I appear to be lonely and perhaps unhappy. And he's having a luau-themed dinner party next weekend, to which Detective Dreamy my not-boyfriend is also invited."

He raises his eyebrows and chuckles as he looks over at me.

"Detective Dreamy? Please tell me that's your description for me and not his?" Pablo asks, lips quirking up into a grin.

"Hey, you sure you're up for dinner out? We could just grab a pizza and eat at your kitchen table if you prefer," he says, a note of concern in his voice. "Work must have been tough today."

He seems to mistake my relaxation for the fatigue of a long day as our eyes met. "No, no! Today was great!" I sit up straighter and twist a bit in the seat to look at him. "We got the Howells collection in, and it is simply amazing! This is just the first downtime I've had since eight this morning. Give me a few minutes to relax and collect myself, and I'll be fine."

I try to look sad, but I'm pretty sure my look comes off more as a smirk.

"And I'm sorry, Pablito... 'dreamy' is Bobby's term, not mine. I would never describe anyone as 'dreamy'. I would say 'ruggedly handsome' instead."

I'm not quite able to suppress my sudden fit of giggles.

He laughs and nods.

"I can live with that, as long as you're calling me ruggedly handsome. A man has to have some positive feedback, too, you know," he says with a grin as he drives down to Pearl Street where the restaurant is located.

"And no giggling at me, girl," he says, giving me the stink eye.

"Of course you're ruggedly handsome, Pablo. I like to have ruggedly handsome men in my life, you know. Let's see..." I tick them off on my fingers, grinning all the while. "My brother is oh so ruggedly handsome, and my dad is ruggedly handsome, and my Uncle Junior is ruggedly handsome and I'm sure Papa Bill was ruggedly handsome when he was younger. Oh, and then there are the cousins and so many of my fabulous gay friends!

"And your stink eye doesn't scare me, Detective. So I'll just giggle all I want." Although, this time, I laugh instead.

"Bah, you brat," he grouses. But he chuckles softly as he turns off the engine and gets out of the car, coming around to wait for me. We cross the street together, and he holds the door open for me as we enter the restaurant.

The interior is clean and small, with white linen tablecloths and napkins. We're shown to a two-person table and given menus.

"I don't know about you, but I'm getting the beef goulash," he confesses.

"I'm simply shocked, Pablo! Really? The beef goulash?" I try, I really try to look surprised and shocked. Either I'm a terrible actress or today is a day for levity, because I just grin like a silly fool. "Pablo, have you ever had anything here BUT the beef goulash?"

"Hey! I had the schnitzel one time. What can I say? I'm a caveman and I like my meat," he says, holding my chair for me as a proper gentleman would.

I look at him sidelong. "That must have been so long ago that I don't remember.

"And any man who holds a chair out for a woman is not a caveman, oh silly one. A caveman would try to hit me over the head with a tree branch."

I paused a moment before winking at him.

"And any caveman who tried something like that would be in a world of hurt after I got done with him. And then you would have to arrest me for using my deadly weapons on someone," I say, flapping my hands at him.

He finishes seating me and moves to sit across from me, as we wait for the waitress.

"Heck, if I thought that I could get away with it I would smack you with a branch. But then you would just beat my butt with your kung fu hands," he says, laughing. "And what army am I going to get to help me arrest you, anyway?" he asks, kicking me lightly under the table.

"Now, what are you going to get?"

"They're Taijiquan and Aikido hands, as you well know, Mr. Smartypants. And you'd never hit me or any other woman with a branch. Silly man.

"And watch out with the kicking, my friend. My feet are deadly weapons, too," I say with a laugh.

"You wouldn't need an army... just send Captain Sanchez down. I still think he's intimidating, no matter what you say."

I look down at the menu.

"Especially when he's being really nice."

Ah decisions, decisions. I've tried just about everything on the menu, and it's all excellent.

"I'm torn between the Chicken Paprikash and Ratatouille... so I think I got with the compromise of Grilled Chicken Breast Ratatouille."

"And yet, you will lean over and steal some of my much-maligned beef goulash," he says, spreading butter on some hot bread, offering me a piece and then cutting one for himself.

"Yep. Add food thief to my list of offenses when you send your Captain over to arrest me," I say, grinning as I accept the bread.

"So you were very busy, geek-wise, today? This guy is pretty important? Valuable? I need to know if there is an increased risk of theft at the library."

"Howells... well, he wrote some really wonderful prose and poems, although these days most people who aren't librarians or English Literature majors wouldn't recognize the name." I shake my head. "We have collections and partial collections of authors who were far more well-known in their day and better remembered today. So I'd have to say your friends in the Robbery Division don't have to worry any more than they already worry."

I sigh, not needing to act at all as a momentary pall of sadness falls over me. "To be honest, Pablo, our biggest problem with theft is people stealing the newly published best sellers, one of the older books that would cost less than ten dollars to replace, or popular magazines."

He looks over at me, cocking his head to the side a bit.

"Don't you guys have those magnetic strip things on all that to prevent someone walking out with the books?" he asks. No doubt he remembers the mag-strips from whenever it was the last time he checked out a book. They are truly a pain the fingers to get them to adhere to the larger books.

"Sure... well, on the books; not on the magazines. It's not that people just walk out of the building with the books, it's that they never return the books. Well okay, some will try to walk out with them, but the magnetic strips set off one hell of an alarm if they haven't been desensitized." I shrug.

"As more and more libraries become interconnected, I think that will turn out to be less of a problem. Before things were computerized to the degree they are now, a person could go from branch to branch checking out books and never returning them. Not that we've ever had many branch libraries in Denver but think of a system as big as New York's or Chicago's or Los Angeles'. The separate branches wouldn't know that a particular person had half a dozen books checked out from most of the other branches that had never been returned. At least now, within any single system, we can head off that kind of problem.

"But what's to stop someone from checking out an armful of books at DPL then driving up to Boulder and doing the same thing? Nothing.

"We're connected to the libraries in Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties. We're working on the connection with Boulder County, but our system and their system..." I roll my eyes. "Well, that's why Masters programs are for library and information sciences." I smile. "I don't need to understand databases as well as a database administrator does, but I do need to understand the basic theory. And have some inkling about why one system can't talk to another."

I chuckle. "And you probably thought I just communed with dusty old books all day. It's true that I majored in English Lit in college, but there's a good reason I minored in Computer Science!"

"I have learned never to underestimate you, Andrea. As they say, you are not just another pretty face," he says with a smile.

"The real question is why someone would bother. There can't be that much money in bestsellers to make that much work worthwhile. Now first editions and such? That I could understand. Some of those go for thousands or tens of thousands," he says, shrugging. "Oh well, you know that if you ever need my help or support there at the library, you only have to call. I am always here for you."

He pauses, looking ever so slightly embarrassed, and takes a drink of water to clear his throat.

I sure do appreciate the offer, though, even though I suspect Pablo doesn't necessary mean overdue library books. But I'm not going to go there.

"It's just petty thievery... people who think libraries have all the money in the world, and a couple of missing books won't matter. Why not just permanently borrow a few rather than buy them, right?" I shrug.

It really is just petty theft. All libraries run into the problem, and all libraries and their librarians learn to just accept it. Sure, the total amount of money in 'lost' books over the course of the year could well run into the thousands of dollars... even more for the larger library systems. But it's always a book or two here... a book or two there... five or ten dollars at a time, at most maybe fifty. There isn't much anyone can do about it, honestly.

"So did you want a glass of wine with dinner?" he asks, changing the subject as the waitress brings our dinners to the table.

"No, thanks. I think I'll just stick with water tonight. Wine just doesn't seem to fit well with that dish."

"Water it is for us then," he tells the waitress, tearing the crust from his warm bread and eating that before dipping the remainder in his goulash. There's certainly something about warm fresh bread that always seems to relax him, and perhaps make him look a little sentimental. If I had to guess, I would probably say that his mother's kitchen was a lot like my mother's when he was a kid.

"So Bobby is planning another theme party, huh? Are you going to dress up for this one? I seem to remember you complaining in the past about his parties and how they were all just excuses to play dress up and spend money. You seemed quite adamant last time that you were not going to 'play Halloween' again," he says with a chuckle.

I groan... can't help it. "Oh yes. Yes, indeed. I think Halloween is lovely, as long as it comes but once a year. I told him I'd wear a lei. Possibly a Hawaiian shirt.

"That... that BRAT then decided I meant I'd be wearing absolutely nothing else. I love that man like my own brother, but sometimes I want to bop him over the head with a frying pan!"

I shake my head and sigh. "I guess it's possible I'd get just as annoyed with Justin sometimes if he had decided to study at CU instead of staying at the University of Chicago." I do smile at that. "Actually, sometimes I do want to thump Justin... it's just hard to do from a thousand miles away."

He can't seem to help but laugh at what I tell him about Bobby, but I can also tell he's got other thoughts going through his mind at the mention of the proposed outfit. It's hard — well, impossible really — to block out the stronger emotions of my closest friends; that's just the way my Curse works.

I know Pablo acknowledges to himself that he wants to take our relationship to another level. But he's never said a single word out loud. And I've never indicated any interest in taking our relationship beyond the platonic, so he is always the perfect gentleman. It's much easier when things are unspoken.

For me... it's much easier for me.

"That definitely sounds like the Bobby you're always talking about," he says. Then he wipes his forehead. "It is a good thing that I never annoy you, what with me being within arm's reach many times."

I grin — and I'll admit it's a rather mischievous grin — at him. "And what makes you think you never annoy me, Detective? I obviously have incredible self-control, seeing as I haven't killed anyone yet."

Oh, wait. Yeah, that isn't quite true, is it? My smile fades then, as I pick up my glass of water.

"Not anyone who wasn't trying to kill me, anyway," I say very, very softly.

He catches the change in my tone and the slight physical tick, and he simply sits quietly. It isn't hard for him to put two and two together to reach the conclusion that something had obviously happened to me at some point... something terrible that caused me to have to kill someone in self-defense. Though, it was really all in a day's work... so to speak.

"I've been a cop for a long time, Andrea. From patrolman to detective, and I've had to do many things, including shoot eight people," he says, reaching his hand across the table to touch mine.

"I do understand," he says softly.

Crap. Me and my big mouth. I catch my lower lip in my teeth as he reaches across the table. I let his hand rest on top of mine and I look him in the eyes for a minute... or two... or who knows?


It's all I can say. I know he believes he understands, and maybe he actually could get most of the way to understanding the kind of effect killing someone has on me. But... no, I don't think he could make that last leap over the chasm that separates me from the rest of...

What? The rest of humanity? Ha! No, simply from "normal" people. But he tries, he tries, and I certainly can't fault him for that. And maybe... maybe almost, maybe just trying, maybe that's good enough, right?

I smile, although I think I probably look a little pathetic at the moment.

"Hey, we shouldn't be so serious, huh?" I say, trying to lighten the mood. One of these days... oh yes, one of these days Pablo is going to start asking questions that are going to be very hard to answer. But this isn't the time or the place, that's for sure.

He just nods when I change the subject, his eyes fully of understanding.

"You'll come to Bobby's dinner party with me, won't you?" I ask as I pick up the knife and fork. "When he asks you what you're going to wear, make sure to include every article of clothing right down to your shoes and socks."

There. My smile is back to normal again.

And Pablo obliges by returning the smile.

"Of course I'll come with you to the party and wear something appropriately festive to make him happy. Save me a parking space in your drive, okay? If I have too many, I can crash on your couch, right?"

"If you're very nice to me and don't wear something that will make me want to look for a frying pan — you know mine are cast iron, right?" I grin and wink at him. "...I will even move my bikes out of the way and let you use the garage. And yes, yes... my sofa is your sofa. Well, you may lease my sofa. For a short period of time. At very reasonable rates."

I continue grinning... and may even begin to giggle.

"Oh boy, how generous of you!" he says, rolling his eyes and digging into his meal.

"Yep, that's me! All about the generosity." I laugh. "Hey, it's the same deal as always... you sleep on my sofa, you keep Bobby from stealing my hazelnut coffee for a day." I start cutting the chicken into bite-sized pieces.

"Hey, I have tickets to the Rockies game on Sunday," he says a few minutes later. "You interested in going?" he asks, looking up at me as he blows on a forkful of goulash to cool it.

"Heck, yeah, I'd love to go to the Rockies game!" And then I pause.

"Wait... they're playing the Cubs in this series, aren't they? Aaaannnndd... it's after the All-Star break so the Cubs will be on their downward slide toward the cellar — if they're not already there, the poor things."

I shrug and spear another piece of chicken on my fork. "Should be fun anyway. Especially with all the Cubs fans that have moved to Denver in the past twenty years." I eat a forkful of the ratatouille and chicken, considering.

"Well, for rather naughty and wicked values of fun, anyway," I finally say.

"Cool. The game is at two, so I'll pick you up at about one, okay?"

I tilt my head to the side as far as possible and even bend a little, looking at him like the crazy person he is. As I straighten up, I just raise an eyebrow.

"Okay, you realize that even though we're playing the Cubs who, by their own fans' admissions, are losers — albeit lovable ones — it still takes an hour to get through downtown to Coors Field on game days, right?

"Oooh! Unless you're going to borrow a squad car and speed through town with lights flashing! That would be SO cool!"

Pablo just smiles at me.

"I have my secrets too, little lady," he says, giving me a wink and cutting another piece of bread to use to sop up some of the goulash gravy.

"Oh, now you're just being mean," I say, faking a pretty good pout. "And I'm not little. Nor am I a lady."

I drink another sip of water, eyeing him over the rim of the glass.

"Although I do a fairly good job pretending to be a lady while I'm at work, because Mrs. Kumata expects it," I say, putting the glass down.

"Did you want a spoonful of this before I devour it all?"

I look at my empty dish, then at his. "As much as I'd love to steal some of your goulash, I seem to have been very unladylike and finished all my food." I rest a hand on my stomach. "I am stuffed!"

"Good, more for me then," he says, with that devastatingly boyish grin of his.

He takes another spoonful of his meal, chewing it well; his eyes grow more thoughtful as he wipes his mouth.

"And you're wrong, Andrea," he says quietly, looking up at me. "I've known a lot of women over the years and you are definitely a lady. Don't ever think that you aren't."

Sometimes he is simply infuriating, but what can I do? Besides roll my eyes at him and sigh, of course. 'Lady' implies a certain level of... well, 'properness' that I don't possess, although I can fake it fairly well. Beyond that, though, it's a level of 'properness' I don't aspire to. I'm pretty sure there's a manual for 'ladies' somewhere that says you don't go smacking bad people over the head with a big stick or kicking them across the room. Yep. Pretty darn sure.

"You're a very stubborn man, Pablo dear... so I'm not going to argue with you."

I smile sweetly.

"I'm just not going to agree with you. However...

"I am obviously a better actress than I thought."

I probably shouldn't have tossed the manual for proper ladylike behavior out the window. It would be nice to know how many of the rules I've broken so far, and how many more I have to go. At this point, I think my smile switches from sweet to slightly devilish... the one a college roommate once pointed out would be more appropriate on a leprechaun, one of the mythical characters of her ancestors.

He grins back at me. "Of course I'm stubborn. It's one of the a job requirements to be a detective," he says, sitting back and sighing as he puts his spoon down.

"That was excellent," he says, looking at me. "You get to choose our next dining place, of course. Just not the curry again. You remember what it did to my digestion the last time," he says, making a face.

"Oh dear gods, do I ever remember! No, no... from now on, curry is all for me!"

I give him a sidelong glance.

"And we've gone through an entire meal without a mention of anything related to your job. That's either a very good thing — my personal preference, by the way — or a really bad thing and you're going to dump it all on me as we walk back to your car. Pray tell, which will it be today?"

"No, things are fairly quiet at the moment and I thought we deserved to have a nice dinner without talking about crime for a change. I haven't heard about how your parents are doing in a while."

The waitress comes over to clear the table and ask if we'd like coffee or dessert.

"How about you, Andrea? Would you like some coffee? Did you save room for dessert?" Pablo asks.

I shake my head. "Actually, I think some tea would be nice," I say to our server. "And could you give us a minute to decide about dessert? Thanks."

As she walks away, I lean back in my chair and smile. "Ah, the parents. They're doing great, although Dad still refuses to completely retire... says it keeps him young to be working with young kids and bleeding-edge technology." I laugh. "He's probably right, too. Mama's still tutoring the ESL classes and is still the happiest, most upbeat person on the planet. They want me to visit more, of course, but they say they might come up here for Christmas. Apparently, they think the pictures I sent them of the City and County Building all lit up are faked. They want to see this monstrosity — Dad's word — and colorful delight — Mama's term — for themselves. Dad claims they didn't light up the building when he was going to DU." Andrea chuckles. "Personally, I think he remembers them perfectly well and is simply teasing Mama.

"Oh, and they made it very clear that you will make yourself available for their inspection," I say with another laugh. "Don't worry, though... everyone I know will be in the same boat. They just want to meet all of my friends. Unfortunately for you and Bobby, being my closest friends, you'll get the most scrutiny." I wink at him. "They'll love you."

He smiles at the news that my folks may be coming up for Christmas.

"I might finally get those embarrassing stories of you as a toddler that I need to defend myself," he says, thanking the waitress with a nod for the tea and coffee. He looks at me and his eyebrow twitches as she asks again about dessert.

I shake my head to the offer of dessert. "As much as I love the lemon cake, I'd better pass. I don't want to explode here."

Pablo, too, declines dessert, and the waitress returns to the order terminal to ring up our check.

"Hey, if there are embarrassing toddler stories out there, even I haven't heard them!"

I laugh at that. I vaguely remember a few things from the Nation before we moved to Japan — some good, some frightening, but nothing that might have been considered embarrassing. And my parents are big believers in laughter... if there had been anything even giggle-worthy, it would have been brought up by now.

"I imagine that we'll get grilled about when you are going to start seeing a nice young man or such. Parents are pretty much the same the world across," he says. His own... well... that's a story best left for another day.

Hmm, but about that issue... I sigh.

"I think my parents might surprise you. Like Bobby, they want me to be happy. Unlike Bobby, I think they realize that seeing a nice young man, as you put it, isn't required for my happiness. Friends are what's important."

I shrug. I'm not sure what else I can say on the matter. My parents know my genetics, and they know why Justin is their only hope for grandchildren. They know me and they know all my... skills. They understand why I'm not willing to risk anyone else's life by letting them get that close to me. A couple of years ago, they brought up the fact that a policeman ought to be able to take care of himself. I agreed that, in theory, the statement was true... and then told them about Denise. They haven't mentioned it since.

"Friends are what gives us strength when things are tough. But believe me, Andrea, having the love of someone... it makes life worth living," he says quietly, looking off somewhere, perhaps in the past.

"But it's good that your parents give you the peace to find your own way. Just another sign that you have good parents," he says, nodding to me.

Oh, there's a story there... one Pablo will tell or not. I am not about to pry.

"I believe you, Pablo. I look at my grandparents and my parents, and I know what you say is true. But..."

But what, Andi? Yes, but what? I look down at my hands resting in my lap, palms up, right hand resting on left... look at the palm... look at the hideous power there. I just shake my head slowly, staring at the energy roiling below the surface — slow, contained, controlled — but alarmingly dangerous all the same.

Yes, but what?

Just that: that power.

"I don't believe my happiness is worth the risk to someone else's life," I say quietly.

He looks at me, roused from his own introspection by my words.

"Andrea, do you think that I should remain single my entire life?" he asks me suddenly.

I look up sharply. "No, of course, I don't think you should."

That's the honest answer, the easy answer. It just isn't quite the whole answer. And Pablo deserves the whole answer, doesn't he?

"I just think I should."

"Why? Because it's too dangerous for anyone to be around you? Bobby and I are already around you, Andrea. Do you think that if someone wanted to hurt you they would only pick on a husband and not a good friend?" he asks, shaking his head.

"Bunk. Being married to me is just as dangerous... more so than you know," he says, pain in his voice. "But she... but anyone who chooses to be with a cop or whoever knows the risks. We have parents, siblings, lovers, friends. If someone hates us enough, they are all at risk because of who we are and what we have done... no matter how hard we try to protect them..."

He's hinting far more pointedly than he ever has about my double life. And I can see a hint of tears in his eyes and he's been speaking more loudly than is normal for him; patrons a few tables away are turning to see what the fuss was about.

"Ah, damn... I'm sorry, Andrea..."

Now it's my turn to reach across the table for his hand.

"Don't apologize, Pablo. Don't."

This is not the time or the place for this conversation. It absolutely is not. And yet, one thing needs to be said.

"You still carry the pain because of someone you lost," I say quietly. "Someone you lost because you're a cop. If I were a cop, I'd agree with you, Pablo, that you and Bobby might be targets. But I'm not a cop."

I'm not going to say that there is a fair percentage of people who'll lump me right in with the Unfortunates and call me a monster.

"I will not have the remainder of this conversation here."

"Where to then? I guess... well... there are things that I should tell you.... that I want to tell you finally," he says quietly as he gets out his wallet, coffee and tea forgotten.

"Come on over to my place."

If hidden things are going to be pulled out of their dark places, I prefer to be somewhere I feel safe.

He looks at me and finally nods sharply, getting to his feet and tossing some twenties down on the table, over-tipping by several percentage points more than he usually does.

"Come on, let's get out of here," he says, heading for the door, holding it open for me as he usually does.

I just follow. I don't need to look at his aura to see he's tense. And if I don't take a cleansing breath or two, I'll be that tense, multiplied by some very large number. Fortunately, the walk to his car allows me that time... to settle, center, ground, relax. I have nothing to say... nothing that will do any good or be appropriate at the moment, at any rate. And so... I stay quiet. I'm good at it, when I want to be; most people find it pretty disconcerting, though.

It's pretty much a straight shot up Logan Street, and at this time of day doesn't take much more than ten minutes to get to my house.

Pablo is quiet on the drive to my place, as well; although his knuckles are white on the wheel. Still, he's driving with all the skill that I know he has, keeping us safe. Always keeping us safe if it's in his power.

To protect and serve. It's more than just a catch phrase to Pablo... it's a way of life.

I have Pablo pull into my driveway... I know he likes to be a gentleman and open doors, including car doors, but I just want to have my walls, my things, my sanctuary around me. I see David's car in front of Bobby's house and remember the dinner he'd mentioned this morning. I'm not even going to try imagining the stories the two of them will come up with once they see Pablo's car; right now, I just don't care.

I gotta admit... I'm scared. Pablo said he has things to say; that isn't what frightens me. No, it's the little voice in the back of my head — either my conscience or the devil on my shoulder, as Tita Kai likes to say — that's telling me it's time to spill the beans to Pablo. I don't think I'm afraid of his reaction. He knows, has known, something is different about me simply because of the single condition I had imposed before I agreed to work for DPD. And he is always angry when DPD looks the other way in crimes involving the Unfortunates. I am, I think, merely afraid of one more person who knows... just how not normal I am.

I get the front door open, drop my bag and keys by the door — very unlike me — kick off my shoes and sit on the sofa... almost huddled, really, with my legs pulled up and arms wrapped around them, chin resting on my knees.

Yeah, I am scared. And I probably look it, too.

Pablo follows me into the house, watching as I huddle up on the couch, defensive. He sighs and paces through the house, restless energy and dread filling him, his stomach knotting up in tension.

All of that washes over me.

Pacing pacing nervous pacing making me less calm I don't like this I really don't like feeling this way no no must stop.

Breathe, damn it!

Just... breathe.

Okay. It's okay. Keep breathing. Don't move too fast.

Keep breathing, and just get up... but slowly, right?

And now, reach out... gentle, gentle... just a sleeve.

"Hold still, Pablo," I whisper. "Please."

Deep breath, Andi... settle down. Damn, I can almost hear Grandmaster Chen. I swear that's all he said to me the first three months I was with him. It was the only thing he ever said to me in English.

I just stand there, breathing... yes, I remember to breathe... I remember to breathe...

What the hell is wrong with me? It's been years since I got this unsettled.

Just holding his sleeve with index finger and thumb, a tiny tiny tiny tug.

"Come with me."

He stops pacing and looks up as I take his sleeve, his pain-filled eyes meeting mine and then following me when I ask him to come with me, silent, watchful.

Now let go of the sleeve, he will follow or not follow, move slowly slowly slowly, to the basement door, down the stairs, slowly, into the dojo. Because if I don't very, very consciously remember to move slowly...

Well, I'll be going so fast that Pablo will absolutely freak out.

He follows me down the stairs and into the basement, looking around at the dojo, recognizing it for what it is. Naturally, he has been in similar places.

Safety. I have come to the one place I most identify with safety. I peel off my socks and toss them in a corner. Feet on the floor, near the center of the room, feet on the floor, breathing, feet feeling the floor... better better better. Eyes closed, standing meditation pose, yes. Feet on the floor, knees and hips relaxed, spine elongated, breathing, remember your center, Andi. Begin the form, the short form, slow and graceful; even the kicks look more like a dancer's move.

Pablo has seen a dojo before, yes.

But he has never seen Taiji before. Or if he has, he has never seen Taiji performed by a Master. I can feel him watching me as I begin moving.

Once through the form, less than two minutes, that's all I need, although it would feel so good to run through the long form for an hour. But no, not now... too many fast movements, too many explosive movements. It would settle me, ground me, re-energize me. Not sure what it would do to Pablo.

My practice has captured all of his attention.

Finish the form... all is well. Well, no, not everything. I am centered and settled. My friend is not.

But... I don't know what to do about that. I open my eyes anyway.

By the time I look up, he is watching every movement, awe and wonder in his eyes.

"Andrea... that was amazing..." he says softly.


Am confused. What's amazing? My practice? But... but it's just... heck, by five years of age, every child within cart distance of Chenjiagou learns it. Granted, it takes an adult who's finished growing into their body, an adult who trusts their other senses to be able to do the form with their eyes closed. Children just don't have the balance, the coordination yet.

I see the look in his eyes and am even more confused. But maybe... well, maybe I'm so used to seeing a whole village from barely-steady toddlers to great-grandparents playing Taijiquan together in the fields. Maybe it's just... familiarity? After all, Ronald McDonald still creeps me out. I like clowns... just not that clown.

"It's called First Form. Grandmaster Chen says it takes a week to learn, a lifetime to master." I smile, finally relaxed enough to do so. "I'm a Chen Shi Taijiquan Master. I'm fairly good. Not great... but pretty good. Well... pretty darn good."

I walk over to the closet tucked under the stairs and pull out two zafus — meditation pillows — and slide them across the floor toward the center of the room. I point to one as I sit on the other.

"Sit, please, Pablo. We can talk... now that I am able to listen, and hear."

He nods and takes his shoes off, coming to sit cross-legged on the pillow across from me; then he just looks at me.

"How long have you been doing this?" he asks.

"I started Aikido when I was five... the Taijiquan when I was thirteen."

I smile a bit, and shrug.

"It seems like my whole life, and I guess it mostly is."

He listens but shakes his head.

"No, Andrea, it may be a large part of your life but it is not the whole. You have your time at university and your work at the library, your friends like Bobby and me, your family. It doesn't define you, it just enhances who you are," he says, looking at me.

I shake my head and chuckle. He listens, he doesn't quite hear.

"No, no... you misunderstood, I think. This..." I gesture around the room. "This isn't my whole life; I've merely been doing this for as long as I can remember. I've been doing it for my whole life.

"This doesn't define who I am, that's true... but it is the foundation on which everything else is built. Without this..."

I look around the virtually bare room, trying to imagine the direction my life might have taken without the focus, discipline and control I learned doing Aikido and Taijiquan.

"Well, I wouldn't be sitting here now. I'm pretty sure about that," I say, looking back at Pablo.

He listens to what I say and, more importantly this time — I think — what I mean, what I infer.

Pablo knows I have a number of things about my life that I've never talked about. The look on his face says that maybe now I might be willing to talk about those things. His hesitation, however, says he believes I will want to hear from him as well... things he's never spoken of. It almost looks like he's building a shell already. But... but I don't have any expectations of him. I don't think any information needs to be exchanged that way.

I don't know how I would convince him of that.

"Tell me about it, Andrea. You know that anything you tell me is between us," he says softly, looking into my eyes.

I shrug.

"It saved my life, my sanity. I don't know what more to say."

I see the black knot constricting the energy flow in his aura. I don't know how long it's been there, but long enough that there's a risk of it affecting the physical plane; that would be bad. Really bad.

Ah, why don't I ever looking more closely at my friends?

Privacy. They deserve that, don't they?

Even at the risk of their health, Andi? Even then?

That's a question I think I will continue to struggle with for many years.

"What has you so upset, Pablo?" I return his look; eyes are the windows to the soul, after all. "It's making you sick... will make you sick."

Maybe he can stop it. I can't. I didn't study the Medicine Way; I can only heal myself. But if there's a chance I can point to a path...?

He sighs softly, shoulders slumping, but I can see the high level of tension in him, and the incredible pain. The movement and colors of his aura are all wrong, so contorted tonight... so unlike what I would expect from Pablo.

"It... it's just the time of year that it is, Andrea. And our talk. It brought back up old painful memories. Ones that I don't talk about much," he says quietly.

In all the years I've known Pablo, I've only brushed against his aura... I've never taken a deep look at it or studied his meridians. Why had I never looked beyond his aura before, looked more deeply? Well, yes... there's the whole issue of privacy. Ah, but in Pablo's case? In his case, it's because his feelings for me are, always have been, right there, so close to the surface. I've been afraid to see what might be deeper than that. Perhaps I should have pushed those fears aside. Well, there's nothing like second guessing yourself, is there, Andi?

I gently touch the base of his throat with one finger. "Here."

Sitting back in a meditation posture, I regard his aura for a moment.

"That one is not too bad... now. Not likely to manifest physically... at least, not anytime soon. But you are having, or are about to have, a crisis of faith."

So many things are connected and interconnected; so few people understand that. Chakras are considered 'New Age'; yet they've been an integral part of Hinduism and Buddhism for nearly thirteen centuries. Qi moves through everyone... everything... the spinning wheels of the chakras help the energy move. If there is no spinning, there is no movement. When there is no movement... there is only lack of balance, lack of harmony, lack of health. Qi and its movement affect everything. The physical body, mental health, intellect, spiritual well-being, the emotions. And what some might call... well, some call it the psychic element, but to me it just looks like the ability to make connections with others and the world around us.

I reach over to touch his breastbone at the level of his heart. "Here."

I sit back again, knowing I looked worried. I can't help it; Pablo is my friend. Yes, I certainly should have looked more closely at his aura over the years. I look him in the eyes.

"Whatever caused that needs to be healed, Pablo. I'm not sure a cardiologist would find anything wrong — today — but your heart is dying. When your heart dies, you die." I am trying very, very hard to hold back tears; hard news is difficult to give, but even more so when you need to tell that type of news to a friend. "I mean that very literally."

I take a deep breath to keep the tears from falling.

"There are other problems with a blockage there, but they're insignificant once the blockage gets this bad.

"I think it's time for you to talk, Pablo." I don't want to make him speak of what's causing that blockage any more than he wants to speak of it. But he needs to let it go, whatever this is.

He had only watched me with wide eyes when I reached over and touched the base of his throat with the tip of my finger. However, by the time I touch his chest above his heart, he is shivering. My mere words seem to be cutting him to his very core.

He looks down then, tears welling in his eyes and his breath quickens, throat tightening as he clenches his fists on his lap.

"Talk... I... I've wanted to talk to you for so long, Andrea. Say so many things, but I was afraid," he whispers, each word torn from that wound.

I can see that his aura is a dreadful mess. I'm no Healer; I don't know what it will do to him if I wade through that... I really don't want to make things worse. Perhaps... perhaps there is another way.

"Afraid of what, Pablo?" I ask quietly.

Sometimes you don't need to be a healer. Sometimes... you just need to care, to be willing to walk that mile in Hell with the person in pain if you care enough for them, even if it burns you, too. Pablo is my friend, and I do care.

"Afraid of the pain. Of remembering and talking about it, Andrea. Of caring too much or not enough. Of losing who and what we are, this fragile bond that we share."

Oh, how can he think this bond, this friendship we have is fragile? Given who and what I am?

Of course, he doesn't know that. As fearful as I am that this will be the day I will need to speak of things I'd rather not say, I will be in this moment with Pablo.

I will hear the things he does not wish to say.

He sighs quietly, hands gripped in front of him.

"I... I was married once... I had a child... a son."

I almost don't need my powers to see that terrible tear in his aura pulse in agony. I can feel it beat against my heart like a giant wanting to break down a door.



Or so it seems, when I stop breathing. I want it to stop because then I won't have to remember all the times I've seen someone in this kind of pain before. Little Danny's parents... they had been the first, when the Curse took him. I was so small, how could I understand? But when the Curse came calling at my door, I not only remembered every instance of heart-rending pain for anyone close to my family, I felt it right along with the fire that seemed to rush through my body. No wonder I thought I was going to die all those years ago. And since then, there have been so many more. It never gets easier. Shouldn't it get easier?

This is the problem with straddling so many cultures as I do... I never know which God to ask for the strength to do what I am about to do. But Quan Yin... Bodhisattva to some, Goddess to others... the Lady of Mercy and Compassion seems rather apt at the moment. I whisper a few words to Her in the quiet of my mind.

I remember to breathe again, then push my zafu away... kneeling in front of him, I slowly wrap my arms around his shoulders.

"Pain is a terrible thing, Pablo," I whisper near his ear. "But the only way to heal it is to feel it... the only way through it is through it. Talk. Cry. Rage."

He goes stiff at first as my arms wrap around him, his muscles tensing. That knot of pain and fear pulse intensely, and then... then something happens and he relaxes into me, resting his head on my shoulder.

"You can't hurt me, my friend. I will make the journey with you."

It's something Papa Bill always says when he helps a friend do something difficult... I will make the journey with you. Now I understand what he means.

And it's true that Pablo can't hurt me... not any more than I already hurt, at any rate.

I can feel him, truly feel him, unlike anyone I've touched. I hadn't even felt this close to Jared. It's as if a part of him opens up to me; a trust is being held out and I can feel his pain, his sorrow, his fear, and his heart.

I know then that he cares deeply for me, more than he's ever hinted, even to himself; more than I ever picked up from the light brushes I've made across his aura. But he had sealed it away; it's surrounded by the fear and pain. And a part of him touches me; I feel a tendril of strength seep into me, freely offered, freely given. It is the instinctive sharing of qi.

How does he even know to do that?! But does it even matter?

I feel my top growing wet on my shoulder where his face presses against my neck.

"I was only twenty-two... my wife... oh, damn it... my love, my Rosalia and my son, Juan..." he says, his breath brushing warmly over the skin of my neck.

"I lost them, Andrea. Thirteen years ago."

So much... so very, very much...

It's hard to hold that much pain and sorrow; I know I have the strength, but I'm only human... no matter what some might say. I am strong, and it is still so hard. Strange, odd, bewildering that Pablo — even in this morass of emotions in which he is nearly drowning — seems to be trying to lend me his strength. Oh, silly man! But I've never told him just how much strength I have, so...

So I gently accept his gift and just hold him a little tighter. And say the only thing that should ever be said in response to something like that...

"I am so sorry, Pablo. Tell me about them."

Acknowledging his pain, giving him permission to remember in a safe space lets him relax enough to speak.

"I met my wife in high school, senior year. She was a junior and so smart already. What she saw in a kid from the neighborhood I will never understand. We... we started dating and... mi Dios... it was like a match and gasoline. Pure fire. She was smart and funny. She had just the slightest crook in her nose from when her younger brother bashed her nose with the car door." He relaxes slightly in my arms as he speaks; the throbbing pain I feel is easing a little.

"We dated for three years because her papa, he said that no daughter of his was going to get married right out of high school, not when he would send her to college. First one of the family..." he says, pride in his voice. "We'd moved to Denver when they had an opening at the Academy; she was studying at Auraria. But... but then she became pregnant. It was both joyous and bad. By this point, I was just out of the Academy and on a Patrol beat, earning good money. Well, at least compared to what I had."

"We got married, got an apartment together on the west side. It was a good life, Andrea. I was happy. Rosalia was a passionate, warm woman and we were going to have a child. My son, Ju... Juan..."

He pulls away from me, reaching for his wallet and pulling it out. Opening it, he takes out a faded, worn picture, handing it to me.

"My family..."

It's not our way, it's not the Navajo way...

But so many of my friends from college were this way, the way Pablo is now. Wanting... no, needing to share his family with me. Perhaps it's simple psychology: people want to talk about their loved ones who have died. People need to talk about their loved ones. Despite tears even to the point of sobbing, the love that saturates every word is like the blazing sun of the New Mexico desert at the peak of summer.

And so it is with Pablo. His love for his wife and son is a purifying fire and burns away the fear, holds at bay the iciness of his sorrow. When he pulls out the photo of them and hands it to me, I hold it as if it is one of the papers from our Rare Documents collection. It is priceless, irreplaceable, delicate and steeped in history. I almost wish the superstition of a camera capturing a bit of a person's soul when their picture is taken was true. But feeling their echoes in Pablo's aura tells me what a mere photo, no matter how precious, cannot.

"They are so beautiful, Pablo."

I let his love for them swirl around me. I think, maybe, now I understand those sappy, goofy looks Mama and Dad always get when they look at the old pictures of me and Justin.

His face lights up when I tell him how beautiful his family was. Even thirteen years after their deaths, he has deep pride and love for them.

As I passed the photo back to him, I look up and whisper, "What happened?"

Ah, but then at my question, when I ask him what happened, the pain is so powerful that it overwhelms my senses for a moment and Pablo curls up, arms around his middle.

"Andrea..." he says, leaning forward into me again, his forehead resting against me.

"It... they wanted to kill me... it was a mistake..."

The blast of icy pain nearly knocks me over. I have only ever felt this level of intense pain when it was fresh and new. But hadn't Pablo said it had been thirteen years? Ah, Pablito... what have you done to yourself?

I curl myself around him and just... I just feel helpless. The only way to heal is to feel; it's no wonder he hasn't healed. And the only way through the pain is to go through it.

"I am walking this path with you, Pablo. I'm right beside you. I don't want you to die, Pablo."

Oh gods, I feel so helpless!

I hold him. I may have hummed whatever little tune Mama had hummed for me when the Curse caught me. It's the same thing I hummed for him when Denise had been attacked. It hadn't stopped the pain... not my pain when I was thirteen, not his pain nine years ago. But I remember it made me feel safer, made feel anchored... like maybe, just maybe, she and Daddy could keep Death from taking me away from them. How would have been possible to do more than that for him thirteen years ago, when he suffered from the pain of Denise's beating heaped on top of this?

"I'm right here, Pablo. I know how much you hurt, but you have to let it out. Let the pain go. You don't need to keep the pain to keep your family. They will always be with you, Pablo. Always."

I take a deep breath to be certain I'm centered and grounded.

"You need to tell me the whole story, Pablo. You need to heal."

He sighs and rests his face against my neck, his arms tight around my waist; I can feel him tremble a little. He gently releases me after a few moments, kissing my cheek as he leans back and wipes at his eyes. He takes a deep breath and lets it out.

"I was still in Patrol at the time, working out on the northeast side. Lots of drug and gang activity and our precinct was always jumping, busy as hell. My partner and I, Danny Malone, we busted the top dog of the Tre Tre Crips, catching him in the act of beating a shopkeeper half to death. He had a gun on him as well as some rock and he took a shot at us.

"The bastard was facing a minimum of fifteen years for violating his probation, as well as the assault and attempted murder. Danny and I were direct witnesses and also complainants since he shot at us before we put him down with a bullet in the shoulder. He knew that there was no way for him to get out of this one."

"So... so he planned to take Danny and me out. His people came to hit us on our drives into work. They got Danny, but they missed me... because..."

He bows his head.

"My wife's car needed to go into the shop so I took it in, planning on catching a ride from one of the passing Patrol cars. My wife took my car, taking Juan to a well-baby care visit. They thought it was me..."

"Two shotgun blasts to the head on the highway. The car flipped at speed..."

He can't go any further; he's unable to raise his bowed head.

But I can feel the knot of pain loosen, slowly slipping away. He obviously has needed to tell me this for some time. He's needed to tell someone.

Mundane criminals committing mundane crimes... more than, other than human criminals committing not so mundane crimes...

If I am to be honest with myself, I need to admit evil simply exists across the full spectrum of humanity, including those who may not be considered human any longer. And that doesn't make me feel any better about letting people get close enough to learn everything about me. If I try hard enough to keep Andrea the librarian separate from who I really am, my friends will be safe. Right?

I'm not as adamant and confident about that as I was this morning. Not after hearing Pablo's story.

But it is Andrea the librarian who does the hard work here this evening. Yes, because of the Curse, I can see Pablo's wound, I can tell it is literally killing him. But all that doesn't help him finally lance a wound with thirteen years' worth of a thick, hard scab of pain and fear and heart-rending sorrow. This time when I reach out to touch his heart chakra, I place my palm on his chest. Already, the inky blackness is breaking up; telling the story of Rosalia and Juan, having the story heard, started the wheel spinning. Sluggishly, yes... but it is moving again. I don't know how long it will take for all the darkness to disappear, but it will.

Although it is the Warrior to gives the spinning wheel an extra push of qi, it is simply Andrea, Pablo's friend, who listens and hears the tale.

"There is a saying that crosses every culture I've encountered," I say softly. "Those who are remembered, those who are loved, those who are held in the hearts and memories of others never truly die."

Our customs are not like American customs, but I have embraced the cultures of the lands in which I have lived. East and West; Native and Colonist... while there are always rituals to be performed, it is the living who must continue on. It is the living who must bear the burden of grief.

I place a hand on each of his shoulders and lean forward to kiss his forehead.

"I will hold the memory of their beauty and your love for them, Pablito."

He looks up at me, eyes red-rimmed from crying silently and reaches out a hand, gently touches my lips and smiles weakly.

"Thanks... thanks for listening. I went through hell back then, and then I shut it all away. I haven't talked about them in years now... not even to my sisters. I think Denise..." His voice catches and he swallows hard. "She knew my story. I stopped talking about them when she died."

"Ah, Pablo..." I suppose that explains why his pain was so much greater than anyone else's then. Not the outer pain that he let people see, of course. It explains so much of what happened and how he behaved, though.

"You'll be fine... well, eventually, I think. You're only beginning your journey of healing now. Just... just don't hide them away, Pablo." Pointing to his chest, I say, "Don't let that grow again."

He moves his hand across and cups my cheek, looking into my eyes.

"I loved them, Andrea, and they loved me. I lost then, yes... but I wouldn't trade those precious few years for anything in the world, and I also wouldn't turn it away again if it came my way."

He takes a shuddering breath, letting it out slowly.

"That... that's what I was trying to tell you at the restaurant, Andrea. We all risk terrible loss when we love someone, especially those of us who put ourselves in the way to protect others. Life is too short not to take the risk of reaching out to someone else; even knowing that you could hurt that person or be hurt by them."

I sit back down on my heels, letting my hands fall loosely into my lap. I look at Pablo for a moment; like Bobby this morning, he seems so sure that letting someone get that close is worth the risk. Even after what he'd been through, he is still so sure.

Why can't I take that risk? Why do I believe that letting someone get that close is not worth the risk?

I lower my eyes, staring at my upturned palms.

I can see the power swirling in my hands, feel the energy flows. Maybe that's why I can't believe as they do... because I'm Cursed. Because, maybe, I don't deserve it? The Curse wasn't my fault; it was the fault of a government that now treats me like a second-class citizen. That's how it feels, how it felt when I had to explain to them every damn thing they did to me.

I'm not as good as normal people, so I don't deserve the same things they do?

Perhaps... just perhaps my friends might have more wisdom than they could imagine. Pablo is not the only one who has wounds to heal it would seem.

He shakes his head and looks at me.

"No... no, I don't plan on it. You said that this is a time for me to talk, right? Did you mean that, Andrea?"

I look up again, turning my hands over so my palms rest on my thighs. I'm not sure what my eyes look like at the moment; I suspect Justin's description of 'haunted' might be close.


He takes a deep breath and blows it out.

"Then I want two things. I want you to tell me, Andrea, that thing that we never talk about, and yet continue to dance around. Why things happen after I talk to you. I need to know," he says quietly, looking into my eyes and waiting.

Despite knowing with absolute certainty that he was going to ask me about that, the question still hits me like one of Grandmaster Chen's kicks to my gut. Instinctively, I wrap my arms around my center and lean over, almost as though the wind has been knocked out of me. I close my eyes tightly, but the tears still leak out.

Come on, Andi... breathe!

It's so hard to convince my lungs to pull in any air, it's so hard to resist the instinct to get up and run away. But I can't run away... this is my safe place.

I take a breath and then another.

This is Pablo, this is my friend...

But... but... but...

Only three people on the whole planet know just what the Curse had done to me. Even those faceless bureaucrats who demanded every detail of my life didn't know everything. Even my own brother doesn't know everything. My own brother!

When you're one of the Cursed, it's hard to trust anyone with the whole truth, especially someone not of The People.

He watches me with eyes that know how to see, even if he doesn't have my gifts of insight. He can see just how hard that question hits me; it's like a physical punch, just as his own pain had buckled him.

"Promise me that you won't hate me, Pablo," I whisper. "Swear it."

And so when I ask him to do something that almost seems absurd... he smiles gently. With a touch so light I could easily mistake it for Mama's, he urges me upright again.

"I could never hate you, Andrea. I swear this on the souls of my lost family," he says solemnly. He reaches over and gently touches my chest with one finger, just above my heart.

"Your pain is here, too, my friend. It's time that you trust me as much as I trusted you. It's time to share some of that burden that you're carrying. My shoulders are broad and strong."

I shake my head, eyes still tightly closed. "The pain is everywhere, Pablo," I whisper.

I don't say anything else for a long time; just breathe and breathe and move the energy around the whole map of meridians. The last thing I need now is for something to get stuck somewhere.

"I'm..." I want to open my eyes, but just can't. The tears will never stop if I do. I still hold my arms protectively over my xia dan tian.

"Among the Navajo, I am called one of the Cursed."

He moves to sit beside me, his shoulder touching mine. I can tell he wants to put his arms around me as I had for him, but he's afraid that I will pull away and close up again. I'm not sure I would, but I'm not sure I wouldn't either.

"Andrea, I am not sure what that means. What is Cursed? Is that like the Virus?" he asks quietly, trying to look in my eyes.

I shake my head again. "Genetic damage from nuclear testing. So many... so many of us. But... but yes, sometimes, rarely it's the Virus, too."

I try to relax; I can feel his shoulder against mine, I want to lean against him but don't dare. Not yet. But I don't pull away either.

"One more damaged chromosome, and I never would have left the Nation... or would be confined to Commerce City if I dared come to Denver."

I slowly open my eyes and relax my arms, straightening my posture to better allow the qi to flow. I wipe the tears from my face with the collar of my blouse. I look at Pablo; hold his gaze a moment before looking back at the palms of my hands. I hold them out in front of me as if... well, almost as if balancing a platter on them.

"I look normal, I looked normal when I was small, too. But there were too many children of my generation being born... wrong. It was the Curse the White Man gave us when he tested all the bombs in the New Mexico and Nevada deserts. And those who seemed to be normal..." I take a deep breath, remembering Little Danny. "...some came of age and..."

I can't speak of those things, especially Little Danny. Some things are not meant to be spoken of to outsiders, no matter how dear a friend they might be.

"When the Curse claims someone, it is often a time of... of pain beyond imagining. My parents did not want that for me."

I laugh without humor. "I honor the sacrifices they made so I would not have to suffer as neighbors and cousins did. They transferred to Camp Zama — with the Army Corps of Engineers — so I could study Aikido with Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru, the highest ranking Aikido master in the world."

Again I look up at Pablo. "All my studies did not stop the Curse from claiming me, nor did it decrease the pain I experienced one iota. All it did was help me understand what was happening. It felt like fire running through my meridians, through all my nerves, molten lava instead of blood flowed through my veins. It went on for days upon days upon days. Even now, Mama will not tell me how long I suffered." I pause a moment, eyes closed, shaking my head.

"I passed through the fire," I say, opening my eyes again, "and discovered my senses had been greatly enhanced. I could move so much faster, and my reflexes were magnified significantly. I can heal in minutes a wound that would take a normal person weeks to recover from. And the qi, the energy that runs through everything... I'm not sure how to explain it. I can see it; I can manipulate it. Then? It was too much, it was overwhelming...

"And I couldn't control it.

"So my parents returned to the States with my little brother and sent me to a tiny remote village in China to study with Grandmaster Chen Qingzhou. I was thirteen then. And I stayed there until I was nineteen. That was when Grandmaster Chen decided I probably wasn't going to accidentally kill myself or anyone else," I say with a bare trace of a smile. "No, I suppose that's not quite true. He had decided a year before that I was ready to leave. I stayed until he was satisfied I knew all he could teach me of Taiji as well. I left not long after he conferred upon me the rank of Master in the Chen Shi Taijiquan."

I reach out and rest one palm against his cheek. "I can do this, touch your cheek, and not harm you in the slightest." I pull my hand back and point it toward the end of the room like a crossing guard stopping traffic. "Or I could blast a hole in the wall. That's not covered under my homeowner's insurance," I say, trying to lighten the mood.

"There is more to this Curse, but... it's not that I don't want to tell you, but sometimes too much information all at once is most definitely too much."

I rest my hands on my lap again, looking down at them for a moment before looking up at Pablo. I am deadly serious now.

"You want to know why things happen after we talk?

"Because I go take care of problems the police and sheriffs departments in the Denver-Boulder metroplex won't. I neutralize or... eliminate... threats to the Unfortunates. I care for groups who are marginalized. The people at the bottom of the list for protection and justice in the eyes of The Powers That Be are at the top of my list."

Pablo sits there very quietly and listens to my words, but more than that, he listens to the tone, looks at my hands and eyes and feels me next to him. There is no expression of horror or dismay in his eyes, no revulsion or pulling away. He listens to me not only as a friend, but as a police detective. He can hear some of the things I don't say.

He cannot imagine some of the other things.

His grimace when I tell him of the pain I had endured as a child, the agony of my Curse claiming me is something I feel. It's as sharp as glass; it's as rough as sandpaper on my nerves. But I feel his caring, too. I know that he desperately wants to put his arms around me, to shelter me from the pain of those memories. He realizes, however, that if he does, I will collapse and pull away. I would need to do that, yes. My senses are too raw. But merely feeling his compassion is enough of a balm right now.

And so he continues to just listen.

It's when I speak of the work I do that I get my first real reaction from him. He nods as if I'm only confirming what he suspected, but he frowns a little too for just a moment.

Then Pablo does something else.

He reaches over and gently turns my face toward his, looking into my eyes.

"Andrea... did you ever really think that you had to hide this from me? That I wouldn't understand or that it would affect the way I think about you? I care about you as a person. About the gentle heart that you show me, about the keen mind that engages me. It is that sense of righteous justice that binds us together. We need to talk about how you continue to pursue it, work things out."

His dark eyes are the windows to his soul, and I can look there to find answers I already know.

"I care about you a great deal, Andrea. More so than I have let myself care for a long time. How could you ever think that I would hate you?"

I know the answer to his question; I've always known. That doesn't make the fear any less real, any less painful. For some reason, though, it seems appropriate to answer his question with another question.

"Pablo, do you know why I feel so close to the LGBTQ community here? Why I'm so protective of them? It's not because one of my best friends on this whole sorry planet is a gay man. They were my responsibility before I ever moved to this house. I have watched over them since the first night I went out on patrol.

"And why do I care so about?" I pause to take a deep breath.

"It's because their struggle for acceptance and their demands to be treated fairly are the same demands being made by the Unfortunates. Their pain, when political and religious leaders — or worse, family members — call them evil and un-American, is the same pain felt by the Unfortunates. The calls for quarantines and death squads during the height of the AIDS epidemic are no different than what the Unfortunates face now. And it all resonates so deeply with how I feel, as someone who is part of the community of the Cursed."

I look into his eyes and hold his gaze.

"Bobby could never pass for a straight man, and so many of the Unfortunates could never pass for normal. But looking at David or looking at me, no one would think we're members of a marginalized part of society. But we are, and it cuts just as deeply in David's heart as it does in Bobby's that Bobby's family has disowned him. It tears at my soul that our government has declared an entire segment of the population unworthy of even the right to be safe. It's like a knife to my heart seeing families torn apart because of the Virus, or because of genetic mutations."

I know I'm getting angry, and I don't care... because I know Pablo understands. I laugh humorlessly, even as tears slide down my cheeks.

"But that's something the people who make up the government have been doing since long before a bunch of white men back east got fed up with the way England was treating them, isn't it? My People and our cousins in the other Nations; the Africans brought here as property; every wave of ethnic immigrants; the American citizens of Japanese descent put in concentration camps; gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgendered people; and now people with genetic malformations... some of which the government itself caused!"

I sigh and shake my head, reaching for his hand. "I'm sorry. You don't deserve so much of my anger.

"Because you're not like them, Pablo, and I've always known that. From the first day I met you and Denise, I knew that you — both of you — were the people who truly do serve and protect the people of Denver. And you care; that's what Denise would always say... that you serve and protect and care. So when that mob attacked Denise..." I squeeze his hand — not too hard, I always have to be so careful about that — and take a shuddering breath. "Can you understand how afraid that made me? Denise was a normal person, a damn good cop, but just a normal person. I'm not. As long as people believe I'm just a smart, pretty librarian, I don't have to constantly wonder when the mob will come for me. Yes, I can protect myself... but from how many? And... and how many would I..." Now it is my voice that catches and it's my turn to swallow hard. "How many people would I have to kill to save my own life? A life that is worth less than nothing to the people who sit in the Capitol Building, to the people who sit in the City and County Building.

"I don't handle it very well when I have to kill someone. Some day, I will tell you... I will try to tell you about that problem in Five Points a couple of years ago."

Finding exactly the right words to explain my other fear... it's hard because my fear is instinctual, it's not a rational thing; it's about protecting the people I care about.

"And what if... what if the wrong people learned about me, learned about what I can do? I'm most afraid for you, Pablo, because of what happened to Denise. You are one of my best friends, you were her partner. If these people decided to target you, you'd fare no better than she did." I close my eyes for a moment and sigh.

"Bobby plays the silly, flighty gay man so well — I think only his good friends understand just how smart and insightful he is. My fear for him is less about those who would hate me than those who hate gay people." I open my eyes again, looking again into Pablo's eyes. "The community here is strong and protective; the only times there are real problems are when the mega-churches in Colorado Springs send their faithful lapdogs up here during Gay Pride Week." I smile, though it is one of those obviously fake ones you see on women when they think their children are in danger. "You've probably noticed that I spend a lot of time with Bobby and his friends during that week." My smile fades and I shrug.

"Being part of a group that is hated so much... it makes even the best of us skittish at times, Pablo. I know how you feel; because of my Curse, I have always known. Sometimes it's very hard to see through my own fears, though."

He sits with such stillness and listens to me; he hears my words and allows them to become part of his being. His warm brown eyes look into mine, catching the nuances in my eyes that my words try and fail to convey. He can see the anger, the sorrow, the rage and the pain there. He can see because he is a good cop, because he is a good friend. He sees because he has felt so many of the same things.

He also sees my love for Bobby and shares the depth of my sorrow for Denise. He can see the empathy that I feel for the communities that I serve, those communities that he helps me serve, even when he doesn't realize he's helping.

When I talk about my feelings for him, for Bobby, I see that awful knot of pain lessen even more. Pablo grips my hands in both of his.

"It is that fiery passion for everyone's rights that I admire so much, Andrea. Don't apologize for that. It's why I work with you, cut corners and bend rules to help. But we'll need to talk more about this another night... not tonight. I want a clear head for that.

"I face danger every day, Andrea. Every day I risk getting shot or stabbed for perfect strangers, from cop haters, from some asshole white supremacist. If I can't stand with someone who means so much to me and face the same risks as I do for strangers, then I should hang up my badge right now."

He sighs quietly, looking down for a moment as if gathering strength.

I think... I'm almost certain... that I feel relieved we'll finally be able to talk about the job I do that has nothing to do with libraries rather than continually dance around the topic all the time. Maybe if we'd had more open communication during that Five Points affair, he'd have mentioned something about it sooner. I could have told him right off where Jimmy T's thug was staying. He would have understood why I had spent the majority of two whole days here in my dojo, and looked like my whole family had died when we had dinner that week.

But as he holds my hands, speaking so passionately about his job, about...

I feel as though I'm standing on a razor's edge, ready to topple off. And I'm not sure if my lightning fast reflexes will be fast enough to catch me, to keep me from falling into the gorge below. When I had told Pablo earlier that I hurt everywhere, I meant that... the amount of energy I channel makes it feel like a low-level electrical charge running through my body all the time. Most of the time, it's just a background noise, but at times like these... when it starts ramping up... Well, I have a feeling I'll be up most of the night running through my forms.

And that saying some people having about their teeth itching?

Uh huh. That.

"What is it, Pablo?"

He's trembling a little again, breathing a bit faster.

"I told you that I had two things that I needed to say, to talk to you about," he says quietly. His strong hands encompassed mine, so large but so fragile compared to my heightened strength.

"You did."

I can't help him with this one. He needs to say what he has to say, and without prompting from me. I am not going to change this world.

But he also needs to do it awfully damn quick, before my fight-or-flight reflex kicks in.

"Then I'll just come right out and say it. You're one of my best friends and I love you. But," he says, clearing his throat, "somewhere along the line you became more than that to me. I feel more for you than just a friend."

He takes a deep breath, looking at our hands and then looking up into my eyes, smiling that little smile of his.

"It isn't going to change how I care about you or how I work with you if you don't feel that way about me. But this is something that I have needed to say for a while. It would haunt me if something happened to one of us and I had never had the nerve to tell you."

He lets out his breath; that knot of qi I see inside is so much looser now.

Words have power. They can change the structure of the very universe.

Knowing something that is never acknowledged, never given voice, is a different world in which to live than one where those things are given voice. Words have power.

And these words of Pablo's are powerful ones; ones I had expected would shake me to my core. The fact that they do just the opposite — that they settle me, bleed off the excess energy, center me — shock me. Words have power.

I sit quietly for a few moments, remembering a multitude of conversations with so many people over the past few years. Finally, I smile and shake my head... as much in bemusement that the earth is solid beneath me as anything else.

"You are one of the best friends I have, Pablo. And I've realized after Bobby's lecture this morning, and our talk tonight, that I don't really know how I feel... besides really confused and conflicted."

Remember, Andi... words have power.

"I told Bobby that if there were anyone at all I thought could accept me completely, all the crazy parts of me, it would be you. And I think... I think if I weren't so afraid of screwing everything up, I'd be more willing to take this risk you and Bobby think is so important. But I really suck at relationships, Pablo. Like I told Bobby, I would rather spend the rest of my life wondering 'what if?' than ruin the friendship we have."

I'm surprised to find myself crying. Words have that power, too.

"Our friendship is so important to me. I love you dearly. But I can't even be honest with myself about what other feelings I might have for you."

I look at him, blurry through the tears; I try to smile.

"If I can't even be honest with myself about something like that, how can I ever hope to make a relationship work?"

He smiles gently at my words, squeezing my hands.

"I don't expect you to know immediately, Andrea. I just laid a lot on you. I'm a patient man and I can wait until you know for sure what you're feeling," he says.

"And nothing is going to change the fact that you are my dear friend. I hope to enhance what is between us, not destroy it. I'm not some teenage boy with a fragile ego and impatience. I'll be here, Andrea, when your heart tells you what it's feeling."

His words are enough to calm most of the anxiety I had felt, but I still feel uneasy. Almost as if, rather than a gift freely given, his love is something I would one day be expected to return. I know that's ridiculous, but ridiculous thoughts like these are probably the reason I suck so much at relationships.

He smiles softly.

"And until that day, here's something for you to remember when your doubts and wonders come to you."

He leans in and tenderly kisses my lips for a long moment.

Oh, but then with this kiss, all the confusion and the anxiety come rushing back. Oh gods, it's so tempting to just give in to the physical sensations that dance through my body! But I can't, I won't... it wouldn't be fair to Pablo.

I pull back, so reluctantly, to look into his eyes. I wish... I wish...

I almost wish I didn't care so much about him; I wish I could get lost in physical pleasure, with no regard for the consequences.

Resting my head on his shoulder, I let out a sigh or cry or moan or perhaps all three. I have a fire raging through my body, with no way to extinguish it.

It's hell being a decent person sometimes.

He simply holds me as we sit here in my little basement dojo; his qi is unsettled in a small way that likely means he's not quite sure if he had stepped over the line or not. But underneath the unsettled surface is a solid core; he's not sorry he finally took this step. It is something that he needed to do.

His certainty... well, if nothing else, now I will recognize the same certainly if I find it in my own heart.

© Kelly Naylor and Ken Seggebruch