In a Hoop that Never Ends

Paul was having some of the same feelings of... well, things just being weird... that his sister was. He walked Indian Route 12 every time he came to town, and he came to town a lot more frequently than either his sister or his mother did. Sure, he was usually coming from the Tribal Government building, a fact that he probably had neglected for the past three decades to mention to his family. He wasn't sure why, but something about Dad actually dying made Paul think that he ought to be doing more for the Diné Nation than just breathing their air. He wasn't an official Ranger, but a lot of times the Rangers needed to deal with issues involving wildlife... and he could definitely help out with that!

And sure, he didn't usually bother doubling back from Morgan Boulevard to Indian Route 100 — he liked to just cut across the field between Chee Doge Drive and Indian Route 12. But damn! This was the main road in town, for the residents anyway. And it was almost as hidden away as Ganado was! Where were the restaurants? Where was the car dealership? Where was everything?

He sighed and shook his head. This world never had the chance to build a lot of the stuff that had been built in their world. That was the crappy thing about a world essentially at war. He was a pretty laid back guy most of the time, but the thought that a whole lot of people wanted to kill his whole family just because their genetics were a little different? That kind of ticked him off. He was totally cool with stopping that kind of stupidity and then kicking the stupidity right off the planet.

Huh... maybe they should go back and get the Blackbird. That would scare the piss out of the bad guys. Unfortunately, it would probably scare the piss out of the good guys, too. So, maybe not?

Paul thought about some of the good guys they had met. Mom's twin was pretty cool, and so was her husband... and everyone in the family that existed in this universe pretty much was exactly the same as they were in their own universe. Well, okay, except for the fact that none of them knew him... or Maria... or Vin or Em, either. The two little Elders kind of surprised him, though. Wait, didn't the Deputy and Bill Who Should Be Rafe say they were called cousin kin? Well, whatever they were called, he was surprised to see them. He thought his uncle and his cousin were the only ones who existed in their universe, though when he stopped to think about it, that was a pretty stupid idea.

Poor Mesa, though, getting herself all confused when she made the jump from the universal qi to the living on the planet thing. It happened every once in a while — probably more frequently than those who remembered Before cared to admit — but it was usually a pretty simple error to correct. True, it was usually really painful for parents. It had happened to Mom, a whole bunch of years before he and Maria decided to choose her and Dad. And it had taken a bunch of years after they had joined Mom and Dad's family for her heart to heal. But in Mesa's case? It wasn't as easy to... stop being... if you were a cousin kin.

He would have to remember that was the correct term.

So Mesa was pretty baffled by the whole living practically forever, although she seemed to understand the healing part fairly well. She was mostly worried about Jeffrey, which was understandable. Like Maria and him, Mesa and Jeffrey belonged together. But it seemed liked there were so many cousin kin in this world that Jeffrey could probably choose a family like that next time. Of course, that made him wonder...

Paul glanced at his cousin, his best friend. "Hey, Em? First, thanks for talking with Mesa last night. That really helped her be less freaked out. But I was wondering about you. How are you doing with all these cousin kin folks? From what I overheard last night, there have to be a couple dozen just in the Diné Nation. You cool with knowing there are so many folks like you?"

As they wandered about, Em kept her eyes, ears and nose open just like her mother had asked. She also didn't expect any trouble here in the Nation, but of all four of the younger generation, she had worked with her mother the most. Personally, she preferred being part of the Pack as opposed to the X-Men, but she would never turn her back on her brother. She would go when he called, put on the spandex and do what needed doing. She also knew he would only call her in if absolutely necessary.

At Paul's thanks and questions, she gave him a look like he had sprouted an extra appendage or something.

"Mom didn't hit you that hard, cousin. Why you asking crazy things? Why wouldn't I be okay with it? If you stop and think about, if there are more like me and dad and that deputy, it'll be better for whatever scheme Mom's got in her head. Just one or two of us are a force to be reckoned with. Imagine a dozen or so. We'll get this place cleaned up right quick, and then we can go home."

"Hey, do you know how many times my mother knocks me over the head?" Paul asked with a grin. "If I didn't have such a hard head, I'd have to get a nice adamantium plate attached to my skull."

He thought about what a couple of squads of cousin kin could do to turn the world around, and he whistled. "You know, thinking about a small army of you is boggling to a mind as rattled as mine. All we'd need to do is get the ball rolling here, and Tori could mop up the whole mess with her people."

They walked silently past the field where the Unitarian Church should have been.

"I don't know that's what Mom has in mind, but if I had to guess, that's the route I'd take. I just wonder if there are others, you know, Ferals that can't pass here. Seems like those who look different would be the easiest to target."

"I think the Deputy said something about encouraging folks who couldn't pass to get themselves into one of the First Nations." He sighed. "Any that didn't... well, I just hope they're less screwed up than that guy who looks like your Dad. I suppose there are bound to be people whose souls got twisted by this world and the way it is. But even I can see how messed up that guy's qi is. And I'm not even a quarter as good as Mom is at seeing that stuff." Paul shook his head. "Nah, most people are probably folks just doing the best they can. Mom and her twin look enough like – with their qi and all – to actually be twins." He glanced at his cousin. "They look more alike than you and Vin, in fact. Weirdly, they even look more alike than me and Maria."

He shrugged. As interesting as that was, they'd have to run this op the same way they ran any other... Mom, Aunt Lin, and Uncle Logan would come up with an approximation of a plan. Then they'd point the team in the right direction. He might act like Coyote was his guardian Spirit a lot of the time, but never when they were working. Mom liked to say he'd spent way too much time around cousin Henry when he was little. And sometimes she'd blame his antics on Uncle Bobby. But after a hundred and fifty years, Paul was pretty sure Mom understood that he just enjoyed life and was okay with that. She did like to tease him an awful lot, but that was fine... most of the time, anyway.

"The Deputy seems to be okay, and maybe she knows others. We can certainly be shock troops. And Mom can't possibly want to stay here too long."

"I don't think any of us do. But I think our folks are more anxious than the rest of us. They're seriously missing Dad and Uncle Rene." He glanced at her from the corner of his eye and shrugged. "Qi speaks, even to those of us who don't hear it very well."

He paused, a smile forming and a glint of humor lit his eyes. "Oooh, Em... we have so got to mess with our dear, wonderful siblings as much as possible before we hit the drop site." He grinned, and it practically lit up his face. "They might say they'd rather we shut up, but I think they'd be disappointed if we didn't acknowledge the fact that they finally opened their eyes." He chuckled. "Once this ridiculous newlywed nonsense wears off, maybe I can go back to hanging out at the School more often. I do kind of enjoy teaching the youngsters."

Then his eyes widened, bright with mischief. "Gosh, and maybe I can get Maria to talk Vin into getting rid out those god-awful uniforms! Maybe he'll pay some attention to the designs that are coming out of House of Beauvoir." Paul smiled wistfully while at the same time encouraging a wolf to move just a little farther away from the town's edge. "There've been some really nice ones."

"Oh my gods, I'm so glad they got their heads on straight about it finally. They gave me a frigging headache every time I went to the school. And Vin was being beyond pig-headed about it. Teasing is the least I can do. Leon and Jenny didn't even bug me that much even though I did think it was gross at the time."

She stopped in her tracks and turned to her cousin. "You think that will ever happen to either of us? Finding someone special like that?"

Paul stopped when Em did and looked into her eyes. They each held a piece of the other's soul... that was part of the package, part of the deal they wordlessly made years ago when the Feral showed the Beastmaster what it meant to be Feral.

There could never be a lie or even prevarication between them. Their relationship demanded truth.

"I don't know, Em. I want to say, 'Sure! Your Dad was older than we are when he met your mom.' But I just don't know. I..."

What was that silly thing Uncle Justin used to say? If wishes were fishes, we'd all live in the ocean. It never stopped Paul from wishing, though. He knew what he was getting himself into when he chose this life. Most people — nearly all people — forgot the Before when they were born. He and Maria even decided they were going to remember the Before, and remember they made this choice. Remember why they made this choice.

"I'm going to say I hope so, though. That we both do, because it would suck so hard to see you alone if I found someone. And I know I'd feel kind of crappy if you found your one true love, and at the same time be so happy for you that... that... hell, I don't know, Em, but it would be crazy. You know I can do crazy!"

He reached around her and hugged her tightly, then kissed her forehead.

"Hey... you know how we don't actually exist in this world? Wouldn't it be hysterical if the ones who are meant to be our special ones exist in this world and not ours?" he asked. "And by 'hysterical,' of course, I mean 'the universes are conspiring to totally fuck with us in a way that is not the slightest bit funny.'"

"That isn't funny in the slightest, Paul," she snapped. "And Dad was not older than I am now. He was only a hundred and twenty, and Mom wasn't his first love just like he wasn't Mom's."

Then she hung her head. "Sorry. I'm glad Vin and Maria are together, and I see how right Mom and Dad are together. But I also remember how bad it was for your Mom when your Dad died even though we knew he'd be back. And, gods, when Jenny died Leon just shut us all out, even Mom for a while. And I'll never forget the agony Mom was in every day until Rene came back...

"Don't know why it's been on my mind so much lately... I guess...

"I guess I'd like to experience that but the losing of the person... It was hard enough losing Leon then Bridget and their kids..."

She stuck her hands in her pockets and scuffed at the dirt. When she raised her eyes to Paul's, there was a tinge of fear and a tinge of pain. It was a big part of why she stayed on the move, of why she only spent short amounts of time at the school. It was a defensive mechanism. If she kept moving, she couldn't get too attached to anyone, at least not to anyone whose life would be considerably shorter than hers.

Paul sighed. "Hey, no need to apologize, Em. You know that. And... and yeah. I totally get where you're coming from. You've got to know I feel the same way. When Jenny died, we all felt that 'missing from the universe' thing Leon did when he shut us out. And then when he died..."

He shook his head and tried to clear the lump from his throat.

"Em, I knew coming into this life that the sort of connection our parents have was going to be a crap shoot. Maria knew it, too. I'm not making excuses for her because she and Vin really have been utterly stupid, but I have a feeling she'd given up. I'm a little more stubborn than she is. So, it'll probably take another century or two for me to really let it sink in that this is the time around where I don't get to experience that kind of connection with a person."

He smiled wistfully. "I'd like to say that the friendship you and I have is what I'm supposed to experience this time around. But I'm also the idiot who thought it would be a cool idea to come into life being able to remember Before." He laughs self-deprecatingly. "So I know the four of us have played this game so many times that we've done it all. You and I? We've done this 'best friends forever' thing half a dozen times, at the very least."

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, breathing like Mom taught them when they were so little they could barely walk.

"We knew we were probably in for the long haul this time, but aside from that... well, there was no way to predict what gifts we'd wind up with. Gods, Em... do you know how many times I've wished I could trade gifts with Maria? I mean, I hate that healing thing she does, it really does gross me out no matter how useful it is... but..."

He wrapped his arms around his cousin again. "Oh, Em, I can only use my Gift to help you if we keep this distance – however tiny it is – between us. I remember what it's like to be that close to someone, and I think it hurts more remembering it than wondering if I'll ever be close to someone, that close, in this lifetime. I remember it, and I want it again so badly, and I'm so scared I'll never have it again.

"Sometimes I think I was a damn fool to even suggest Maria and I should remember Before. I know it's not the same, Em — believe me, I really do know — but you'll always have me. I know it's a poor substitute for what our folks have and what our siblings have, but at least we have this."

She hugged him back hard. "Paul, man, I love you too, but not like that. I don't know if I can… with anyone. I don't know if I can let myself…"

She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. Too strong emotions brought the Feral side close to the surface.

"It isn't that I don't cherish what we have. I always have and always will. As for our siblings, Vin isn't like me and dad. He doesn't lose his humanity when emotions overwhelm him.

"It takes a special kind of person to be with someone like us, and there aren't that many like Mom. She never wanted me to be ashamed of the animal side or to try to hide it. I think… I think she actually understands it, not like you do but almost as if she is one of us. I mean, I know she's not, but there's been a couple of times where she felt like she was.

"Sometimes I wonder if Vin's not like me and Dad because he gave it to Mom. You remember Before. Do you think that's possible? He wasn't just saving her life but ours as well. We couldn't have lived without her, not that young."

Sh had wandered off their conversation path and came back to it with a simple statement. "I want someone like Mom."

He listened mostly with his heart. It was so easy with Em, but he understood why. It wasn't because he was Beastmaster and she was Feral; well, that wasn't all of it or even the largest part of it. It was because most of the time when the four of them got together and did this thing called life, Em was his sibling more often than either Maria or Vin. They had tried being married once and had agreed afterward that it had been lovely, but it was more a comedy of errors than anything else.

"Ah, Em... I know, I understand, and you can. And I know I'm best suited to be your friend. I just hate seeing you so unsure, and in so much pain."

He rubbed his cheek against hers, taking in the scent that was uniquely hers. While his senses were nowhere near as acute as hers or Uncle Logan's, and not even as sensitive as Mom's, they were a little better than most humans' senses. Perhaps that was the Beastmaster Gift... not that it mattered.

Paul looked into her eyes as he sorted through memories. It was fairly simple to separate This Life from Before; it was Before that always got jumbled. But that was what Before was all about, stirring more experiences into the stuff that made up a person's soul. That made them the sort of person they would be the next time they journeyed through life. And sharing all that with the Universe.

"Em, knowing your brother for as long as we've all known one another, not only is it possible, I think it may even be likely. And we've all been friends and family and lovers for so long, that it's hard to remember all the lives we've had together. I remember the only time we were all siblings from the same parents, and that was in Egypt before the pyramids were built. But yeah... if the two of you were so determined to live this particular life, then it's possible Vin gave a lot of who he was meant to be to your Mom. He's always been the one who was willing to sacrifice everything to help others. I know Maria and I lent our Gifts to Mom before she knew we were there, that day she banished the Aztecs from our world and killed that creepy woman who was stalking Dad. It would have been just as easy for the two of you to lend your Feral nature to your Mom until you were born, but it wouldn't be surprising that Vin gave his up."

He shook his head and smiled sadly. "Your brother's a sap. That's why we love him. He'd give you the shirt off his back if he thought it would make your life better; that's his nature in every life. In the Before, he's one who just dumps all the experiences into the Universe because he thinks there's something to be learned from even the most insignificant thing. We can't help but love the guy." Then Paul rolled his eyes. "Not that Maria is a whole lot better.

"It's not really possible to know exactly what was going on because once any of us leaves Before to start life, the rest of us lose touch until we find one another in life again. I'm just saying that it would be just like Vin to give your Mom something to make her life better, in the long run. Even if it meant giving up that something would make his life less than what he'd wanted Before."

Her last statement, though, caused him to consider a myriad of possibilities before speaking. It was the sort of truth that deserved that respect.

"I'm not sure if there's anyone quite like your Mom out there, but I don't see why there wouldn't be people who are similar. I mean, given who your Mom and Dad are, I'd guess you could find a woman who had a miscarriage because her child gave her its very life in exchange for hers. Or a person whose mother died giving birth to her or him, giving the child her own Gift of life so her child could live.

"So don't give up hope, Em. The person you're looking for is obviously hard to find... shoot, might not even be grown up yet! I know you didn't decide to live without that kind of love in your life, but you obviously decided you weren't going to make it easy on yourself." He smiled at her. "You always have to do things the hard way. Seriously. Just like Vin will give everything he's got, you'll find the most difficult way to learn something. Because – and I'm just quoting you, so don't kill the messenger – the harder it is to learn a lesson, the more completely the lesson is learned."

He kissed her forehead again. "And that's why I love you. Well, one of the many million reasons, anyway. You're fierce and you're dedicated, and you're amazing.

"I still need to buy a rock. I can't leave Window Rock without buying a rock."

Paul draped his arm around Em's shoulders as they ambled toward Arizona-264. "Maria hates talking about Before and what it means that we decided to remember it in this life. We're supposed to be doing a compare and contrast thing here, but somewhere along the line, she decided she didn't want to play that game anymore. It's not that she's forgotten, it's just that it seems like the older she gets, the more she'd rather just wait until we're done with this life to talk about everything. I kind of want to smack her, you know?

"So yeah, you'll eventually find someone... but the when is totally up for grabs. Maybe now that you've voiced your concern, things will start lining up... you've learned whatever hard lesson you thought you needed to learn, and now you can move on.

"I'm not as sure I'll find someone. I kind of left that a little too open-ended, I think. Like... gosh, I wonder what would happen if I didn't make any kind of decision? I believe I shall not make that mistake again." He shrugs. "But living with uncertainty knowing that I didn't have to do it this way is... interesting.

"And our siblings will be teased mercilessly until they're on the verge of homicide... or until we need to go kick ass and save the world. Whichever comes first."

"Well, next time I get a bright idea like that, try to talk me out of it, okay?"

She chuffed a sigh that was all sigh.

"And you get that I'm less concerned about finding someone than losing that someone, right? And Vin's worse than a sap. That's why he's perfectly suited to run the school. Better him than me. He teaches too."

She shuddered. Her teaching consisted of survival field trips and the like which all meant very short time frames, just the way she liked it.

Paul just looked at his cousin and shook his head. "Em, you get bright ideas every time around. And every time I try to talk you out of it. And every time you go and do what you want to do. You're really stubborn, you know that?"

He gave her shoulders a squeeze as they walked along. "Yes. I get it... I really, totally get it. Dad said Mom was the same way, and I feel the same way, too. So... yeah.

"Let Vin teach. I'm glad I have rare enough skills that I don't need to teach them specifically. The Beastmaster thing comes along maybe every other generation. And the other one? Well, as far as Mom's been able to figure out, she and I are the only two good guys who've ever been able to open portals. Which is just as well, because Dad's stalker was the only other person who could do it, and Mom said she totally sucked at it." He chuckled. "I don't remind her anymore that I know because I was there when the stalker came after Dad at the Garden of the Gods. She does love to crack my head with that staff of hers."

"Let's go find you a rock then. Why do you buy them when you can just pick them up off of the ground anyway?"

A mischievous grin spread across his face. "Well, it started out as a way to practice my Diné Bizaad. The owners and clerks at the store loved it that Mom was teaching us the language and that Maria and I actually wanted to practice talking to someone other than family.

"Then it was just a nice excuse to catch up with folks, although watching the grandparents, then parents, then children and then grandchildren grow older and die was rough. I don't know, I think I wanted to create my own tradition that stayed constant no matter who owned the store. Tumbled rocks are pretty, some of them are even gorgeous.

"But in addition to the tradition?" Paul's chortle was almost 'mad scientist' in nature. "I dump all the rocks in a bucket at Mom's house. Drives her crazy. Well, not really crazy, but she does keep asking when I'm going to settle at one place long enough to get them out of her storage shed. Ah, just one of the many reasons I keep on the move... it gives Mom something to pester me about whenever I drop by for a visit."

"I think Aunt Andi needs to crack you in the head a few more times," she teased. "Maybe one day it'll let enough air in to clean up your cobwebs."

He blew her a raspberry. "Mom's been cracking my head forever. Hasn't done much good to this point."

She stuck her tongue out in return.

"You know, it's just weird that most kids here only learn one language. In our here anyway. Sure, we both complained when we went to Uncle Charles' school and no one else was expected to study five languages on top of their regular classes. But it still put us ahead of everyone else when we really started expanding and getting students from around the world."

"I'm getting the feeling we should head back. So let's go get your rock, and I'll be sure to duck when I tell your mother."

He chuckled. "Well, I think the language thing... to be honest, that was the culture of the whole country. You were lucky to grow up in France before you went to Uncle's school. The First People were forced to acculturate to the dominant society, and so many of them lost their own languages and cultures because they weren't allowed to keep them. By the time Maria and I were growing up, that trend was starting to change." Paul shrugged. "Now? Well, most folks in the Nation are at least bilingual, usually trilingual.

"Geez, and my folks were insane about languages!" He rolled his eyes. "English, because duh. Then Diné Bizaad because, well, again duh. And Spanish because everyone in Dad's family spoke it and half the people in Denver were bilingual anyway. And it was Mom's idea that we learn French, even though she sucks at it.

"And I tried to convince Uncle Charles that Klingon was a legitimate language to study." He chuckled, remembering that particular conversation. "He thought I was quite inventive, and that there was no way he was going to let me use Klingon as a language credit. However, he did agree to give me independent study credit for it if I could translate and recite from memory — in front of experts to be determined at a later date — a list of works that he'd give me. Oh, man! Had I know what a sneaky dude he was, I would have turned that offer down right then and there. But nooooo!"

He grins as they walk across the parking lot toward the gift shop. "First, who the heck knew that there were so many geeks in the world who were experts on the Klingon language? And second, he gave me some weird stuff to translate and memorize! Let's see... there was one Shakespeare sonnet, the entirety of Beowulf, and — I didn't even know this was a real thing! — an April Fool's joke prologue to a non-existent book some author by the name of John Scalzi wrote. Even the title was hell to translate... Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City. Holy crap, Uncle Charles had a wicked sense of humor!"

Paul held the shop door open for Em, then stepped inside himself. It was very nearly the same shop that existed in their world; it had virtually no items that needed electricity or batteries, but quite a few more easily made crafts.

"Yá'át'ééh!" he said to the proprietor, waving. "E la na tte?"

The elderly woman smiled up at him. "Shił hózhǫ'. I see your mother raised you well."

"Yes, she did, Grandmother."

"Is there anything in particular you were looking for today?"

"No, not really. I just love looking at the beautiful things our People make. I travel so much that I don't get to sit at home and look at baskets and blankets."

The woman came around from behind the counter and walked to the collection of baskets on the display table beside Paul. "These, on this second shelf, were all made by my granddaughter."

Paul had only glanced at them, but now was obliged to inspect at least one of them. He smiled to himself. When he was growing up, he had heard a lot of the kids his age wondering why tradition was so important. This was why... he picked up one of the baskets to look carefully at it. This simple act created a connection between him and the woman, through the basket woven by the hands of her granddaughter. In looking carefully at the basket, he learned about the woman who wove it, and her clan. Aunt Sonia was an amazing basket weaver and made sure to teach all of them about the larger and smaller symbols a weaver used.

"This is stunning," he said. "I see by the way your granddaughter finished the edges that she is of the Ts'ah Yisk'idnii. So am I."

The woman laughed. "It is a fine clan, is it not? And our Clan Mother is such a wise woman!"

Paul rubbed the back of his head as he put the basket down. "Yes, that she is." He picked up another, flatter, basket and smiled. "This basket speaks to me. I'm afraid it would like to come with me. What can I trade you for the basket?"

The woman's eyes sparkled. "You know someone who is getting married?"

He nodded. "My sister."

"Ah! Then the basket must go with you, and there is nothing I can do to stop it."

"Baskets often have minds of their own, it's true. But surely there's is something I can do for you to help ease your heart over the loss of this basket that wants to stray."

She shook her head and smiled as his own grandmother had often done when thinking fond thoughts of anyone — gosh, how he missed Grandma Sandy! "Tell your sister to have many years of happiness with her husband, that a Clan Sister wishes her well."

He bent down and kissed the old woman's cheek. "Ahéhee'. I will tell her." He straightened, looked toward the corner where the barrel of small tumbled rocks was in the store's mirror. Indeed, the barrel was in the same place here. "I think I should buy a small rock for my mother while I'm here. She likes them so much," he manages to say with a straight face while ignoring his cousin's snicker.

The old woman walked back to stand behind the counter, beaming, as Paul walked to the barrel of rocks. After a few decades, it had become pretty much impossible to find a rock that wasn't almost exactly like at least three other rocks in the bin at Mom's house. These days, he just let his fingers sift through the cool surfaces and usually bought whichever random rock was in his hand. Today, the rock he picked out was a tiger eye...

Some people believed the tiger eye was a talisman for good luck. He didn't subscribe to those particular belief systems, but if there were any truth to it, they could probably use all the good luck they could get on this mission. Especially since their two primary good luck guardian Spirits weren't around.

Noting the price of the stones, he set it and the basket on the counter as he pulled out his wallet. He took out a bill that was twice what the stone cost and handed it to the shopkeeper. When she turned to go to the old cash register at the other end of the counter, he pulled out a rather larger bill that was probably slightly more than what the basket cost, folded it up and tucked it under the woman's coffee mug.

It was fun to watch him with the Grandmother who ran the shop. She let her eyes wander over the offerings. Of the whole family, she traveled the lightest. She did keep a few things in the cabin above Denver. Of all the places that her folks had, it was her favorite and her place of choice when Earth-side. She'd go up into the higher elevations and play with the cats. She wondered if there were crazy felines in this world too or were they as hunted as the mutants here.

When she came back with his change, she asked, "Would you like a bag or wrapping for the basket?"

"No, thank you, Grandmother." He unzipped his jacket, tucked the flat basket inside, and zipped the jacket back up again. "I'm going to carry it beside my heart so it absorbs the love I have for my sister and her husband." He tucked the rock in his jeans pocket.

The woman reached out and patted his cheek. "You're a good boy. Your mother should be proud of you."

He smiled and ignored, again, his cousin's snickering. "Thank you, Grandmother. I'm sure she is... in her own special way." Paul bowed his head respectfully to her, then said, "May the Spirits guide and guard your every step."

He looked over at Em then. "Yep, we should get going. I think Mom's giving Maria an earful. Or something. In any case," he said, holding the door open for her again, "we're probably missing a great show."

"Yeah, she's probably doing it the same way my mother would. Telepathically. So not much of an outward show but some damn strong feelings," she chuckled as she slipped her arm through his as they walked back toward the sheriffs' office. "She's embarrassed as hell. I can feel that all the way over here. Vin's completely focused on his task at hand. By the way, that was a very generous way of paying for the basket."

Paul shrugged. "It's how it needs to work, sometimes. Grandmother insisted on making the basket a gift. I feel honor bound to ensure her livelihood isn't at stake. Every generation plays that game in our world. I'm kind of happy to see it isn't any different here."

Then he chuckled. "Oh, no... there won't be much of an outward show. But you understand the twin thing. There are just things twins know. Darn. I know your brother. He's so good at what he does that he's almost freakin' scary." He sighed. Dramatically. "Oh, well. One small opportunity for amusement has likely passed us by."

"So when are you giving your sister the basket? In a big presentation before we head out?"

Then he shook his head. His smile morphed from mischievous to loving and a little sad. "No big presentation. It's really hard to do it right without Dad and Uncle Rene here, you know? But yeah, I'll give it to her before we leave. Heck, probably before we even head down to Albuquerque."

They continued their walk to the station in silence, the type of silence that's like an old, comfortable sweater... the kind of silence that can only be that easy between the best of friends.

Paul noticed the dozen men and women standing in the parking lot when they arrived, not speaking but occasionally nodding or gesturing. He shook his head and smiled wryly as they approached the steps. "Looks like Binny's got the lot of them mesmerized." Then he chuckled again as he opened the door for Em. "I'm glad he's always on our side."

© Kelly Naylor and ividia kt