Issue 3: Cleaning House

Mitch has already rolled out, having taken advantage of the bunker being open to stock up herself. She wants to be prepared if a gauntlet run does happen.

Logan wanders around the cabin, inside and out, scenting as he does so. His Mate is imprinted here as is her husband and their son. There are other scents as well, the Sheriff, his wife, Ninja, Mitch, but nothing untoward. Further out, he comes across evidence of the local wildlife, spore and markings. He likes this place and wonders if she might reconsider her original plan to sell it.

Sitting on the porch steps waiting for the line to be picked up, Madeline watches him, wondering if Em and Vin had moved about in the same manner on their trek with him. Em already echoes her father's movements without conscious effort, and her claws came in this past year. She is certainly a Feral. Vin, though... well, he has balance and grace along with the healing factor. It remains to be seen what else either of them develop as they mature.

Lost in the consideration, it takes her a moment to respond when Ninja answers.

"Good morning. I hope I have not disturbed you. We have the files secured and we're going to poke around in the seedier parts, unless there is someplace in particular you think we should check?"

Hearing the voice on the other end, Andi chuckles.

"Not disturbing anything that probably didn't need disturbing anyway. I don't think I've slept this late in more than a year.

"Not counting the coma, of course."

She notes that Pablo is still mostly asleep, and kisses his forehead before sliding out bed to pad into her office. She's not sure if Pablo had locked the back door when he came in last night, but if Bobby wanders in and find her starkers, that's his problem, not hers.

Although Andrea probably would be embarrassed by such a thing, should it occur. She'll have to keep that in mind. Apparently, Ninja has no shame.

She's not particularly surprised by that.

"I have an address for you that I think makes sense," she says, switching on the computer's monitors. "It's up in Adams County, though just barely, and not all that far from Commerce City."

She pulls up the relevant page.

"I can meet you there with my Adams County contact... or just alert him to your presence."

She contemplates the joys of coffee as she goes back to the kitchen and sees that the coffee maker has fulfilled its duties and has provided a pot of hot coffee for her. Ah, how she loves technology!

"Your call, of course, but it might be best for me to act as liaison," she says as she pours the coffee into a mug. "unless our tracker is simply going to sniff around, so to speak."

"If he's a LEO, you best come along. We tend to make even the ones that know us a bit nervous," Wolf says.

"We're up at the cabin now. I did arrange for transport should we find anyone in immediate need of it, and since you have a potential site, we can start there.

"Honestly? We were just going to start turning over rocks at the dives and see what we turned up. Neither of us have been in a good knock down drag out bar fight in ages."

She pauses for a moment. "Yeah, ages. The last one I saw a friend was in and all I did was stop someone from breaking a chair on his head, the rest was all work..."

Logan rumbles questioningly at her from where he stands off to the side. Right. She had not told him about that yet.

"Wolf work back home," her muffled voice says.

"And he always sniffs around."

Andi chuckles.

"If you want a good fight, I can suggest some places, although they're down in the Springs. I prefer not to encourage the kind of behavior in my back yard that would make my contacts unhappy. However, there are so many people down in El Paso County who dislike me and the people I protect that... well... I can't say I have much of a problem annoying the shit out of them."

"I figure if we're just tussling, no one's going to pay us any mind, least of all the folk looking to cause trouble for certain other folks."

Andi walks back to her office, not a long distance in her... their small house, sipping coffee with the phone near her ear. She sets the mug down on the desk beside the keyboard.

"The address is 401 East 66th Avenue in North Washington. It's an old warehouse at the end of a dead end street. Company went belly up about six or eight months ago, so there's entirely too much activity I see on the surveillance cameras I can access to make me happy. And I can only access about two percent of the surveillance cameras in the metroplex.

"Hang on a sec," Madeline says. She stands up and climbs the steps up and goes into the cabin. There is a small secretary just inside the front door and she pulls pen and paper from it.

"Once more?" she asks, writing it down as Andi repeats it.

"Okay. We're going to head back down to the hotel and swap the Humvee for the bikes. I still need to call my friend and see if it is possible for him to take any of your people. The kids will blend in. He runs the mutant school Leon goes to, and, yes, the security is much improved over what it was ten years ago. And if he can take them, we'll need an appropriate flat space again."

Hearing the conversation, Logan starts over to the Humvee and unlocks the doors. Still with the phone at her ear, Madeline closes up the cabin, locking the door and pocketing the key and brightly colored key chain.

"We need to call the kids anyway."

"Let me give my guy a call, and give you a call back when I know when he can get out there," Andi says. She pauses, tapping the back of her chair as she considers options.

"Either on the way up or the way back, I'll stop back in Commerce City to see who Hank might want evacuated soonest. I suspect the children will be his first priority."

Andi was also considering options, specifically about the geography of the enclave.

"If picking them up right from Commerce City isn't too obvious, there are plenty of flat spaces. Three parks, although I think they've turned one into another community garden. Still a number of largish parking lots they haven't torn up for farming space.

"If that's too obvious… well, there's a lot of flat space in most of these counties."

"It would only be obvious if someone was watching closely and knew what to look for," Wolf responds.

Andrea looks towards the wall separating the office from the bedroom and smiles. Pablo has gone back to sleep, and by the shape of his qi, he's taken over the entire bed. Brat. It's a good thing she's up for the day.

"Some of these kids are young, and will probably need their parents with them," she says. "That might figure into your friend's consideration.

"I'll speak with him. He could probably only transport about ten at a time, and I have no idea how much room he has at the moment. Try to narrow down who has the most urgent need to be away, who is the most vulnerable. Anyone not ambulatory or with difficulty moving."

She stops as she is about to climb into the Humvee, another thought coming to mind. She thinks of Paris and what she had heard about New York from Hank...

"That wall that goes all the way around Commerce City, I'm guessing it stops at the pavement. Has Hank or any of his people checked the sewers for two legged rats? If not, it is something that should be done. If there isn't any infestation, that can also be another way out that's out of sight of any kind of surveillance."

"Another of the many headaches for Hank. Listen, it sounds like you have a slightly longer call to make than I do; why don't you call me back after you talk to your kids?"

Andi pauses again, shaking her head. She can't help it; she is who she is, and part of who she is would be a librarian whose highlight of the week is Story Hour.

"I enjoyed meeting them very much; I hope they're well," she says. Or rather, she thinks, Andrea says... softly, but oh so sincerely.

Maybe that's not the right thing to say on the eve of battle.

Or maybe it's exactly the right thing to say.

Madeline pulls herself into the seat then pulls the door closed. Logan starts up the Humvee and gets them rolling. She smiles at the sentiments offered by Andi.

"I'm sure they are. We would have heard otherwise. We just need to get this mess cleaned up so that they can come back out and play. Em would love to meet the cats, and Vin probably wants to pepper both you and Joe with questions.

"I'll ring you when we're ready and I have some answers for you."

Andi disconnects with a smile on her face. The thought of wandering up into the cats' territory with Em amuses her to no end, both for the cats' reactions to seeing her invading their grounds and the prospect of watching Em interact with them.

She doubts Hank had thought he had a need to check the sewers for two legged rats before yesterday, although she's well aware that some of the residents — those who are especially sensitive to daylight, in particular — keep them clear of the four legged kind. Protein is protein when the cows, goats, sheep, pigs and chickens just aren't enough. The cows and goats are kept mostly for dairy; the sheep for wool; the chickens for their eggs. So the sewers are probably clean. She'll be sure to make mention of it, however.

Of course, the squirrels are dumb enough to keep coming back. The majority of birds have long abandoned Commerce City, but squirrels just aren't that bright, that's for sure.

She wanders back out to the kitchen to grab a slice of pizza and to refill her coffee mug before making the call to Dennison. Peeking in on Pablo, she sees he's rolled over on his side again... on his side of the bed but hugging her pillow. She smiles as she shakes her head and watches his qi flows; he's close to having enough sleep to make it through the day. He was far more depleted last night than she was, and it doesn't appear that her Taiji practice has any effect on him unless they're in the same room.

She closes the office door behind her; her conversation with Dennison is not likely going to be any longer or louder than the one she had with Maddie, but Pablo is getting closer to being awake.

She presses one of the speed dials, and sips her coffee while waiting for him to pick up.

"Dennison." He sounds as harried and distracted as Pablo's been the past few days.

"Ninja. You have a few minutes?"

She hears him sigh, almost with relief. "Yeah. For you, absolutely."

"You're starting to sound like my buddy in Denver, Dennison... really stressed out. What's going on out there?" She's a little worried, and wonders why he hasn't called her.

"Mostly the same old, same old... just a whole lot more of it. Ever since that shooting back in July, the whole city of Aurora has been crazy..."

"The City of Aurora has always been crazy, from what I've seen, Brian."

"Yeah, well... you have a point there. But it's been worse in the past three months. We've been assisting where we can, as have the guys in Arapahoe, but the kid the Chief of Police designated as the coordinator between the three agencies is overwhelmed. When the state cops offered to help last week, I thought the guy was going to have a meltdown."

"You'd think the Chief would have sense to put a seasoned officer on the job."

"You'd think," he agrees.

"You say there's more of the usual than usual?" she asks, as she picks up the mug for another sip of coffee.

"Yeah, almost like it's a permanent full moon or something." He sounds a bit bemused by it.

She pauses, setting the mug down again.

"Or like there might be some outside agitators mildly stirring the pot?" she asks.

He hesitates; probably rolling things around in his brain. Dennison is smart as a whip, and if it wasn't for that dreadful beast called politics, the guy would be a detective by now.

"Yep, that would make sense, too," he admits.

"I have some thoughts on that," she says. "You up for a field trip?"

"Commerce City?"

"Not this time, but pretty close. North Washington."

"North Washington?" He definitely sounds puzzled. "Nothing there but industrial warehouses."


"Okay, I'm intrigued. When?"

"Couple of visiting Supers from out of town I need to coordinate with. Can I call you back when we start to roll?"

He snorts. "If you're rolling from Denver, I'd better get on the road now. First, you seem to roll a hell of a lot faster than I do..."

"Glad to see somebody up there will admit to that," she says with a chuckle.

He laughs. "I've seen you ride that bike of yours, and I'm not a thrill junkie or a suicidal maniac like your friend Markensen over in Arapahoe. And second, Brighton's just a bit farther away from North Washington than Denver is."

She chuckles again. "Not going to argue with you about Markensen. The man needs help." She pauses to figure time and distances. "And you might want to head out for a second breakfast and wait for my call in Thornton or Welby."

He snorts again. "More likely Welby. They're never going to finish construction on Washington Street, and I assume you're going in silent."

"See, Dennison? That's why I like you. Smart guy. You should be a detective."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah... tell that to the budget makers." He's resigned to his fate. She supposes that will make his promotion all the more sweet if it ever comes about.

"If I could find 'em, I would. I'll call you back when I'm ready to roll."

They both disconnect, and she has the chance to take a large bite of cold pizza. Ah, the breakfast of champions! She gets up and carries the whole lot of it – coffee, pizza and phone – into the kitchen, sets the pizza and phone down on the table, finishes off the mug of coffee, then goes back to peek in on Pablo.

He opens his eyes partway, and smiles. "Come back to bed, wife."

"Can't. Need to roll as soon as I get the call from Jacobs. I get a fast shower, a chance to finish my pizza – I hope – before I need to be gone." She heads towards the master bath.

"I'm supposed to refrain from making you late when you parade around looking like that?" he asks with a grin as he props himself up on an elbow.

"Work, work, work, my love. We played quite a lot last night."

She grins over her shoulder, then closes the door behind her. True to her word, her shower is quick and she's braiding her hair as she comes out three minutes later.

"Damn, that was fast!" Pablo says, just barely in the process of sitting up on the edge of the bed.

"Dual life... you learn how to be efficient. Also..." She shrugs as she finishes the second braid. "...I move faster than most people, remember?"

"Right. No. I always forget that part."

He's so adorable when he's not quite awake.

"There's plenty of coffee. That'll clear your head."

"I'm going to need it. I hope it's the strong stuff this morning."

She chuckles. "It is."

She dresses and is in the kitchen finishing her second slice of pizza and working on her third cup of coffee when he comes out barefoot, shirt unbuttoned, but at least with his trousers on. He heads for the coffee maker first, and only then does she get her morning kiss... which makes her wish she did not have to work today.

He sits down across from her and just watches her movements over the rim of his coffee mug as he drinks.

"Plans for the day?" he asks as he lowers the mug.

"Snooping around to start with. We'll see what develops from there. You?"

"Paperwork. Trying to find connections. If your friend can pass on anything that will help, I know my brain would really appreciate it. Tookins and O'Dell in Missing Persons would be happy, too."

She nods as she eats the last bit of pizza. Her hope is that Tookins and O'Dell won't have a case after their snooping this morning... and that it won't have turned into another case for Pablo and his team.

She looks at the phone on the table as she washes the pizza down with the last of her coffee.

"I'll share anything we find that will help, you know that," she says, putting the mug down.

Then she smiles at him as she props her chin on her palms, elbows firmly planted on the table.

"I neglected to tell you this morning, husband, how much I love you. It's beyond the expression of words. Even the poets fail me this morning."

His smile is answer enough. "Te amo más que la vida, mi bella esposa."

She sighs. "That sounds even prettier in Spanish, heart of my heart."

# # #

As they drive out of the mountains, Logan asks, "Bar fight? Friend?"

Madeline leans back and puts her feet up on the dash. "Lefroc was being a pain in the ass again. I'd shut down part of the op when Frank stopped by for a visit. He was feeling frisky and wanted to tag along. We ended up in a dive in Nantes looking for a way in, and the fight was sort of a test. He passed with flying colors, and we used it to bargain our way in the next night... It was a little like old times for a bit there again."

"You miss the life?"

"Sometimes," she admits. "It was simpler in a lot of ways. The only real hard rule was surviving to spend your take."

He looks over, one brow quirked. "I don't know. Seems kind of... mercenary."

She rolls her eyes at him and smiles. "Ha, ha."

"What you do now isn't so different."

"Says the man who has never had to fight for a paycheck. Winning bar fight bets doesn't count."

"You really didn't have to."

She rolls her eyes again. "That isn't the point, and you know it."

He flashes her a grin. "How is Frank?"

"He's good. Considering retirement finally. He really is getting too old to stay in the game."

"I hope you didn't tell him that."

"Of course not."

"You think I'm getting too old for it?"

At one hundred and twenty, if he were a normal man he would be beyond too old. Good thing he isn't a normal man. "I don't think you've even hit your prime yet, and that might just kill me. But what a way to go. Death by orgasm."

He grins again, this time with a bit more of a feral quality to it. Yeah, she might just be stroking his ego, but she is only half teasing. Of course, if it did kill her, she would come back to life shortly after, and they would start up again.

They both keep those entertaining thoughts all the way back to the hotel. It's only as they are walking down the hallway to their suite that he asks, "What are you going to tell the kids?"

"As little as possible. We'll have to discuss with Charles the rest, and I'd rather Leon doesn't know much either. He might get it in his head to do something foolish."

They enter the room, both automatically scanning for telltale signs of anyone having been there who shouldn't have been. Housekeeping has not come through yet, and there are no unusual scents. Logan heads for the safe, but Madeline catches his hand and stops him.


He turns back to her.

"I'm sorry it took so long."

He smiles gently and pulls her to him. "You don't need to apologize. I never expected it."

"But you wanted it."

"Yes, of course. I'm not that foolish."

"You're not foolish at all."

They kiss then, deeply, passionately, and probably would have gone further if they did not have work to do.

"Love Wolverine," she says with a little smile.

"Love Madeline," he returns.

Reluctantly they part and he continues on his way to the safe and the laptop it contains. She sits down at the dining table and calls the school, Charles' private line of course. It only rings once before he picks up. He has, of course, been expecting her call.

"Good morning, Madeline," his distinguished voice greets her.

"Good afternoon, Charles," she replies. "Did you have an interesting visitor this morning?"

"We did. Quite intriguing that. He tried to explain how it came about..."

"I can pretty much sum it up in one word... magic."

Charles laughs. "Fair enough. Now, I believe there was something else you want to talk about before speaking with your children..."

"Yes, there is. Would it be possible for you to pick up and house some people there at the school for a short time? A week, maybe two?"

"Possibly. How many?"

"That is what I need you to tell me. How many can you take? I've asked them to prioritize the most vulnerable, likely to be families with young children."

He is quiet for a long moment before asking, "How bad is it?"

"There is a nasty element at work here targeting the non-Normals," she explains, "a very anti anyone different element. One woman has already been brutally murdered and two men have been kidnapped. There is also the warning a local Super received about a malevolent force trying to break through to this side. I don't know if Rene mentioned it to you, but it's the same Thing you protected me from that night you determined he was still alive. Between all of that, this has a Stryker feel to it. Don't know for sure if he is behind it, but either way..."

"Which is why you asked me to come collect the children."


"Two weeks you say?"

"I would prefer to plan for two weeks and have it be shorter."

"If it isn't?"

"There may not be a Denver anymore."

"I see."

As she waits for him to continue, she can picture one long, slim finger tapping as he considers.

Finally he does. "I have room enough for eight, four per room, however, if we utilize the gymnasium, I believe we could accommodate another forty comfortably. If comfort is not that large a consideration, probably sixty. We can use the gymnastics mats as bedding. Transportation, however... if it is mostly child size people, I can probably squeeze fifteen to twenty in the Blackbird at a time."

"Mitch is out here. Maybe I can arrange a chopper for her to take some out. They certainly aren't as fast as the Blackbird, but every bit helps, right?"

"If it can be arranged, yes."

"How soon could you start picking them up?"

A brief pause as he considers the things that need to be accomplished plus the flight time. "Four this afternoon, Denver time. What location?"

"It will be inside Commerce City, which is the Unfortunate enclave here. As soon as I have the coordinates, I'll send you the information."

"Very good. I expect you'll be calling the children next?"


"I will let them know."

"Thank you, Charles."

"Of course, Madeline. And, Madeline?"

"Yes, Charles."

"In spite of your healing factor, please be careful."

"You know me, Charles."

"Yes. I do."

She laughs. "Talk to you soon. Take care, my friend."

Logan had set up the computer while she talked with Charles and has Skype ready to go. He brings over coffee for them both and sits down beside her as she taps on her phone's screen to send a text to Andi.

Friend can take 48. Pick up starting at 4PM local. Need landing cords, L&L best. –BW&W

She nods that she is ready, and he taps the button to make the connection. Shortly thereafter appear three jostling faces.

"Mom! Dad!" the twins exclaim together then pepper their parents with questions.

"Did you know we met Leon's dad?!" "When can we come back?!" "Have you seen the cats yet?!" "Did the Sheriff shoot anyone yet?!"

Behind them Leon is quiet, an exasperated look on his face. Madeline tries not to smirk at it. She exchanges glances with Logan then answers the questions.

"Yes. Don't know yet. No. No. This is not the Old West, Vin. Are you two listening to the Professor and Leon?"

"Of course, Mom!" they protest.

Her eyes go to their older brother. "Leon?"

"The Professor and other teachers, yes. Me, more or less."

She and Logan both smile. That sounds about normal. They will absolutely push it with their older brother because he is, after all, their brother. It's good to see them in good spirits, and she is once again glad they are not here.

"How's Jenny?"

Emelia rolls her eyes, and Vincent answers, "She's great, Mom!"

"Mom was asking me, Vin," Leon says, nudging his shoulder. "She's good, Mom. She and the others are still talking about the trip to Fashion Week. You're their Super Hero now."

At her raised eyebrow, he quickly adds, "You know, like some people follows sports players."


Then she remembers she has not yet told Logan that Leon has figured out her secret identity that... yesterday morning. She is going to have to remember to mention that.

"Mom, are we going to come here for school too?" Emelia asks.

"Yeah, Mom, are we?" Vincent echoes.

"That's the plan," she says.

"When?" they ask.

Logan answers this time, "We haven't decided yet."

The twins look at each other then back at the screen and takes turns as they say, "Leon's only got a couple more years here... And he was our age when he started here... And the other kids here are like us... And Professor McCoy is a Feral like Dad..."

Madeline holds up a hand to forestall any more. "Your father and I will discuss it with each other and then with Professor Xavier when we feel it is time."


Logan growls a warning.

"Okay, Mom."

"Need to talk to Leon by himself for a bit, okay?"


"I love you, Em. I love you, Vin."

"We love you too, Mom! You too, Dad!"

"Love you, Em, Vin," Logan tells them.

Then the two younger siblings scurry off somewhere, their voices bantering about who to go see. Vin's voice suddenly says, "Oh, sure, Professor."

Leon watches them go then turns back to the screen.

"Is everything okay?" he asks, a twinge of worry in his voice.

"Yes, sweetheart, it is. Did you and your father get a chance to visit one on one?"

"Yeah," he says nodding, but looked down, clearly uncomfortable.


His eyes flicker up briefly. "It's just... well, it's kind of weird. I feel like I should really remember him... but I don't... not like you do."

"Leon, it's all right to feel that way. Even if he had lived, you still wouldn't remember him the way I do. It's a very different relationship."

"But your memories are so clear, so vivid..."

"So are yours. I was just a lot older when mine were made. I had context for them. And now you will get a chance to know him, to develop a relationship with him."

Leon bites his lip and glances at Logan. "I guess."

"If you're not ready, just tell him."

Logan clears his throat. "I will always be your dad. Nothing will change that. I told you that before. And he's a good man, your father. You should be proud of him."

Her son nods again and looks to the man that has raised him. "Thanks, Dad."

Madeline's hand snakes over and her fingers entwine with Logan's. He gives her hand a light squeeze.

"Listen, Leon, the Professor might need a bit of extra help from you over the next couple of weeks."

"Does this have to do with that stuff going on out there?"

"Yes, it does. And I can't tell you any more than that right now. Just make yourself available to him, all right?"

"Sure, Mom."

"I love you, sweetheart."

"Love you too, Mom... um, can I... can I talk to Dad alone for a minute?"

"Sure, angel."

Madeline stands, drops a kiss on Logan's cheek then goes to the other room to give him and Leon some privacy.


"Yes, son?"

"You'll make sure Mom's okay, right?"

"You know I will. What's really bothering you?"

"This thing with being able to talk to my real dad, I mean my birth dad. You're okay with it, really? I mean, I know we talked about it before but it's different now cause, you know..."

"Yes. I'm okay with it. It's good for you, both you and your mother."

"It isn't weird for you?"

"Less for me than you, I think."

"All right. If you're sure?"

"I'm sure. Now quit worrying about your mom and me, and go see what trouble your sibs are getting into."

Leon offers a tentative smile. "Okay, Dad."

"I love you, son."

"Love you too, Dad. Good bye."

"Good bye."

Logan disconnects and shuts down the computer then puts it back in the safe. After that, he goes looking for his Mate, not that she has gone far. She is sitting on the edge of the bed.

"He was worried about hurting your feelings?" she asks.

He nods. "Yeah. Ready to go?"

"Let's do this thing."

She slips her tian po and jacket back on as they head out to the bikes. Logan keeps the keys for the Humvee on him. Once again, she calls Ninja.

# # #

The phone vibrates a moment later with a text message, and she shrugs an apology to Pablo as she picks up the phone. Reading the message causes a frown, and she scrolls through the phone's directory. Finding the number she needs, Andrea dials. Fortunately, it's answered before the second ring.

"Hank Taylor."

Damn, he sounds worn.

"Hank, it's Ninja. Only have a few minutes, but our new friends can evac forty eight of your most vulnerable today, starting at four."

"God, Ninja... only forty eight?"

"That's the best they can do. The rest of you will need to scatter."

"But where? Ninja, I..."

"Listen, Hank... not much time, remember. I'll be up later and we'll talk. Pick your forty eight."

She can I hear him take a shuddering breath. This has got to be the hardest few days he's ever had as mayor. She wishes she could reassure him things will get better... but they might get worse first, so she's not going to pass out any false hope.

"Yeah, sure, sorry." She hears the sound of his knuckles cracking. "That will take care of most of the kids under twelve, I guess."

"Don't underestimate the youngsters, Hank. Some of them are brutal, and will be handy if it comes to a fight. Think vulnerable, not young. And make sure the sewers are clear."

"The sewers...? Right, sorry. Not much time. You'll explain when you get up here, I hope."

"Absolutely. It will be a few hours. We have a possible location for Ben and Dick, and I need to roll when I get Black Wolf's call. And I need to swing by and talk to Old Mama, too. That big parking lot across from Fairfax Park still clear?"

"Yeah, it is, but... Right. Never mind. Okay, let me get my act together up here." He pauses. It's one of those silences that heralds a statement or question that someone just doesn't want to put out there. "Ninja... when you come up... would you talk to Josie? She's..." She hears the catch in his voice, and has to clamp down hard on her own emotions. Sally was one of his wife's best friends.

"I promise, Hank. I have to go now."

"Yeah, okay. I'll talk to you later."

She disconnects the call and cradles her head in her hands for a minute.

"You okay, love?" Pablo asks softly as he slides his hand across the table to touch Andi's elbow.

She takes a couple of deep breaths, then looks up at him with a wan smile. "I'll have to be, won't I? Being Ninja was a lot easier with a fragmented personality, although being Andrea was harder at times. It's for the best... but..."

She takes another deep breath and grabs a napkin to dab at her eyes.

"Those are my people, Pablo, and I hurt as much as they do. And I can't let my grief get in the way of doing my job."

Andi squeezes her Husband's hand as she stands, then kisses his forehead.

"Need to get the lat and long for the evac," she says heading back to her office and pulling up Google Maps. Pablo follows her in and sets a fresh cup of coffee on the desk beside her.

She smiles up at him. "You are totally the best husband ever, you know that?"

"I know," he says with a smirk and gives them both the chance to laugh.

Zooming in on the area in question, she sends a text message back to Maddie.

39.820856, -104.930056; Hank apprised, working on list 48 evacs

"You think you might know where the two missing men are?"

She sighs. "It makes sense, it fits, it's close to Commerce City and the... the crime scene."

"Don't go in there alone, Andi. Remember what I said the other night?"

Andi... Ninja... Andi closes her eyes and tightens her jaw so she doesn't snap at him. He does not deserve that. And he's worried. About her, his wife. Just as she's worried about him. Her husband.

"I remember, Pablo. And I'm not going in alone. I have two Supers more... resilient than even I am. However, I may have to break Dennison's arm to keep him out on the street."

She sighs again.

"This is some fucked up shit, Pablo, and... and we need to stop it. When is your uniform going to be ready?"

He laughs humorlessly. "Peregrine called me on my second phone yesterday – first call I got there, by the way – and said his wife would have it ready by the weekend. That weirds me out, you know. Talking to a Sponsored Super who talks about his wife. I get the impression she's Martha Stewart."

Andi grins. "I told him as much. But he's a good guy, and his Sponsorship allows Mrs. Peregrine be a Martha Stewart wannabe. If it makes them both happy – and it seems like it does – then more power to them."

She takes another sip of coffee while locking the computer and turning off the monitors. Pablo lightly massages her neck and shoulders. Isn't it too early in the day to be tense?

"Have you thought any more about Sponsorship, Andi?"

She sighs. Again.

"Not really. I've actually been actively not trying to think about it. It's getting harder and harder to work both the library gig and the Super Hero gig, but on the other hand... Sponsorship complicates things just as much.

"I mean... how the hell do I explain to Bobby and David that I don't work at the library anymore?"

"Cutbacks? Layoffs?"

She shakes her head. "And you're taking over the mortgage payments?"

He strikes what she assumes is supposed to be a macho pose. "It's my husbandly duty to do so!"

She smirks.

He relaxes and grins. "And your mortgage is barely more than what my rent was on that dump on the west side!"

That's when the phone rings again. She picks it up and connects.


After seeing the reply text from Ninja, Madeline had forwarded it on to Charles. The acknowledgment had come back quickly with a new number: sixty. He would exhaust himself flying back and forth...

Madeline had given Ninja the number Charles had initially estimated. But she knows the man, knows he will do what he can to take as many as he could once he lays eyes on the situation. Already he has increased the number in just considering the situation. But still, as fast as the Blackbird is, there will be only so many he will be able to take in the time they have available.

They will do what they can. It will not be enough. It never was.

She straddles her bike and waits for the answer. When it comes, she says, "We're rolling out. ETA thirty minutes. My friend revised his number to sixty. His craft can only fit about ten average size adults, however. Know anybody who can lend us a Chinook?"

Maddie's words elicit a slight smile. Sixty is better than forty eight, and from what Ninja remembers of the Commerce City residents, that will take the entire under fourteen crowd, and the weakest adults.

"Your friend is starting become a hero to me, Wolf. I'd love the chance to thank him personally."

"What can I say? He's got a soft spot for kids and strays. And if I can arrange a meet, I will. He's a good man and it's a shame there aren't more like him. If there were, there'd be less need for folk like me."

And what can she say to that? It's the truth... the truly good men doing truly monumental things were few and far between. She certainly wouldn't mind it if Ninja had less to do than she does now. Ah, but down to business.

"Your GPS is going to tell to take I-76 to I-25... ignore it. Stay on I-70 to I-25. The exit is easier, and you'll be able to avoid a lot of construction that's still going on up there.

"My Sheriff's Office liaison and I will meet you at Washington Street and 66th Avenue."

She taps her fingers on the desk in an odd, almost nervous beat before answering Maddie's question.

"I might. I'll let you know if they're willing to assist when we rendezvous. Let me make a call, and I'll see you in thirty.

"Ninja out."

"Thirty. Roger."

She looks up at Pablo with bewildered expression. "I think this is going to be a very weird day.

"Look at this," she says, as she scrolls through the phone's directory. "I'M calling the Army!"

She presses the button to start dialing and shakes her head. This is the same Ninja who has a total disregard for the Army's bureaucracy... and look at her! Calling them!


"Colonel, it's Ninja. I'm wondering if I might impose upon you to do me a little favor."

She can hear the smile in his voice when he asks, "And what sort of favor would that be, Ma'am?"

"Didn't I tell you not to call me that? And I could use a Chinook for an evac of children and infirm from the shit that's coming down the pike up here in Denver."

There is a long silence. "That's a pretty big favor. How big is your shit storm?"

"You know the Aryan Knighthood?"

She hears a lot of anger in his hissed reply. "Yes."

"Well, they're back in town, likely fronting for some huge piece of garbage that thinks it might be jolly for some gawd awful Darkness from another dimension to have our world for lunch. You in?"

"When, where, and how many troops?"

Ah, that's the spirit!

"Today, just an evac mission. Commerce City, 4pm, the lot across from Fairfax Park. We'll also have a Blackbird arriving around that time, too."

He pauses. "You play an odd game, Ninja. But I'm in. Pilot, copilot and two guards. That suit?"

"If you think you'll need the two extra, that suits."

"Kids and infirm... probably, just for making sure they're doing okay during the flight. Think flight attendant if it makes you feel better."

Ninja doesn't hesitate as much as she makes a sharp turn in her thought processes. "I trust you, so it's just what's going to make the kids feel better. And thanks, Colonel. See you then."

She disconnections, stares at the phone for a few seconds, then shakes her head and calls Dennison back.

"Washington and 66th, twenty minutes," she says before he can get his name out. "You good with that?"

He chuckles. "Shoot, I can even finish my cup of coffee! See you then."

She drops the phone in her pocket, drinks half the cup of coffee, then stands to hug her husband.

Listening to his heart, listening to the steady rhythm, it centers and grounds her. She wouldn't have believed that possible four months ago.

"Gotta go to work," she says, running her fingers down the side of his face, looking into his eyes. "I love you, Pablo. You be safe today."

His fingers mirror hers on her face, and he responds, "I love you so, Andrea. You be safe today, too."

She pauses for a kiss, not light and quick, but not enough to compromise her timeline, either... then picks up her staff and heads out to the garage. All the usual rituals performed, she heads out towards North Washington.

She actually is the closest person to the warehouse... well, would be if Dennison wasn't somewhere in Webly drinking coffee. She still arrives before any of the others.

Sifting through the qi flows with this much traffic and so many people around takes time; she needs a bit of a head start here. The construction workers eye her suspiciously; she ignores them. She just sits on her bike with her eyes closed and picks through the weaving threads of qi.

# # #

Madeline closes the phone and slips it into a pocket then leans towards Logan. "One for the road?"

He smiles, leans in and kisses her good.

She smiles back at him as she slips on her sunglasses. "Come on, Mate. Let's go kick over some rocks."

With a feral grin, he starts up his bike and revs the engine. She does the same and then they ride away from the hotel towards I-70. A new shared energy resonates through their bond as they head toward their destination and an expected battle. Some get jitters heading into the shit, but not them. Even before she had the high healing factor, Madeline had always walked into a fight with utter confidence. She might come out damaged, but she always came out the other side. Who knows? Maybe she had been a berserker in a former life.

That battle eagerness has them pushing the envelope as they weave through traffic, tag teaming and splitting lanes, both grinning like maniacs. It seems their destination is before them almost too quickly, and it is a shame they have to throttle back.

Now, though, it is time to stir the pot.

They park a few feet down from Ninja and slide off their hogs. Madeline stretches and rolls her shoulders. Logan scents the air.

She's getting getting a good feel for the neighborhood – if a collection of warehouses and factories can be called a neighborhood – and even a sense of something more than the usual work-a-day crowd from down 66th when a slice of manic joy arrows her way and stops not far from her. It's easy to recognize Maddie and Logan. Gliding to a stop behind them is Dennison's familiar calm.

Amusingly, his arrival causes a ripple of satisfaction among the construction workers. She slits her eyes open to watch him get out of his car, put his hat on and close the door. He saunters in her direction, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, all proper and Western style. He nods slightly to Maddie and Logan as he passes them, then stops a few feet from where Ninja is sitting.

Madeline's eyes watch the officer walk by, past them, towards Ninja.

Must be her contact. Didn't even give us a second glance. 'Course, bikers and cowboys aren't exactly out of the norm here either.

"Ma'am, got a call you're creating a disturbance here."

Ninja opens her eyes, raising an eyebrow, and looks at him skeptically.

"That so?" she responds laconically; all proper and Western style.

"Yes, ma'am."

She grins at him. "You're shitting me! Somebody really called?"

He laughs. "Apparently, the big burly construction workers are nervous nellies. Yes. Got a call; said I'd take care of it."

Ninja shakes her head. "Sissies." She stretches her arm out to indicate her newly arrived companions, pointing to each in turn. "Black Wolf, Wolverine." Bringing her arm back and crossing them over her chest, she nods towards Dennison for their benefit. "Sergeant Brian Dennison, Adams County Sheriff's Office."

"Sergeant," Madeline drawls.

Logan just nods.

Ninja glances behind Dennison at the construction workers who are watching while trying not to watch at all. She snorts.

"The facility is about 400 feet down the road, last building on the right. My bike is quiet, and Dennison might be able to get away with taking his squad car down the road, but your hogs are going to be a hell of announcement for anyone in there.

"I can't catch much more than the fact that something not so good is coming from down there... it's a bit out of my range.

"What do you say we pull into Spitzer's lot here, and hoof it?"

She looks between Maddie and Logan, then takes a hard look at Dennison.

"If things go south, you're the one who's going to wind up in the biggest shit hole."

He just meets her eyes, pauses to weigh the options and says, seriously, "Roger that. Just doin' my job, Ninja."

She nods and turns to Maddie and Logan.

They both turn and look toward the building in question then Madeline turns back to Ninja.

"I don't know. I prefer a straight up fight to all this sneaking around," she says, a glimmer of the madness there. "Tell you what, you hoof it, and we'll announce our presence. After all, we're just a couple of bikers out looking to have a good time."

A grin flashes across her face, and she returns her attention to Logan. "Race you there and around."

"Think you can keep up?" he asks.

"Think you can?"

"What do I get when I beat you?"

"If you beat me," she corrects him then gives him a suggestive look.

Ninja rolls her eyes at them.

"Children? Hostage situation, remember?"

She closes her eyes and tries to get a better feel for the qi flows at the end of the street. She's been told at times she looks like she's listening for something when she does this... other times she looks like she's trying to catch a scent... and sometimes she just looks like she's napping.

Right now, it's clearly not the latter. Her head is tilted more in the "listening" posture.

Unfortunately, the best she can do at sorting through the flows is to recognize there is something down there that doesn't belong. Fear... yes, she thinks so. Possibly pain, unwarranted glee... really, really hard to tell.

But Maddie's plan... it might be a good start.

She's no seer like Talia is, but every so often — rarely, oh so rarely — stating an intention can have an effect on the qi flows. Without opening her eyes, she says, "Yeah. Two bikers creating a ruckus. Being real jerks about it, too. There have been calls about them to the Sheriff's Office. There's already been more than a little property damage. Possibly quite a bit.

"Too bad the bikers aren't from this side of town, or they'd have known better than to tear down a dead end street. I suspect there's going to be even more property damage to that abandoned warehouse down there once the Sergeant's squad car comes creeping up behind them and blocks the street."

The only changes to the qi she can see are the growing curiosity from Dennison... and... eagerness? Possibly. That's from Maddie and Logan. But they were already spoiling for a fight before she ever said a thing.

She opens her eyes and looks at Maddie, seeing that bit of madness, suspecting this might actually be a good use of it. She meets the madness with her hunter's stare, her woe be unto them look.

"That might work to draw a lot of them out. I can't tell from here how many there are."

Wolf's smile solidifies as Ninja begins talking out the plan. Behind her glasses her eyes never stay still. She spies a discarded, bent pipe and goes to pick it up. She has a way of swinging it into her hand with a bit of attitude that makes her look like a hoodlum looking to cause trouble.

"We'll handle them. You get your folks. If you need to use one of us as a physical shield, do it."

She turns her head toward Dennison and looks over the top of her glasses. "And Sergeant, don't be afraid to use live rounds on us. It's got to be real, and we aren't worried about getting hit. If I read these dirtbags right, they don't much care for cops anyway, so us getting shot at would be a good thing."

Crazy? As a fucking loon, but it has worked in Madeline's favor for a lot of years. Crazies are given judicious respect since you never can tell what they're going to do...

Ninja nodded at Wolf's idea, but she paused with brows pulling together. "One last thing... here's a bit of a dilemma Garcia posed the other night...

"He wondered if all of this wasn't a way to call me out. Mind you, at that time, it was just three missing people and we didn't know it was the Knighthood. I think Garcia may have been more right than even he suspected, even though — at the time — I thought the idea was ridiculous."

She looks from Dennison to Maddie to Logan... two mercs and a cop. Given her earlier call to Masterson, Ninja can't help but think about the rather interesting company she's been keeping of late.

"Ordinarily, I'd say you three create the diversion and I'll slip inside and see about Ben and Dick. But given Garcia's... possibly rightful paranoia, I could be slipping into a trap. I'd prefer not to. So I need intel as well as a diversion."

She looks at Logan. "You can do, yes?"

"Garcia's got a good head on his shoulders," Madeline says. "They're targeting you and not the better known, more public super, which means you're the threat, and they are absolutely influenced by the Thing."

Logan is nowhere near as loquacious as Madeline. He meets Ninja's eyes with his own hooded ones and answers simply. "Yes."

Right now, it's better to tuck Pablo's paranoia back in its box now that she mentioned it. Her own paranoia and normal levels of Ninja alertness are probably all that are necessary right now. Anything more would wind up being too distracting.

She nods once to Logan to acknowledge his answer, then lolls her head to the side and looks at Maddie. "Oh, and I got you a Chinook."

And to the news of the helicopter, Madeline nods. "Good work. If it comes with its own crew, ask them to wear civvies. Most of the folks who were at the school back then aren't anymore, but a few are still around. They might react... poorly.

"Sergeant, give us a ten second head start then come in after us with the sirens. We'll be raising Cain."

Dennison looks at Ninja with surprise when Maddie tells him to use live rounds. She shrugs at his continued staring.

"You know I heal fast."

He nods. "Yeah, when that psycho in the SUV ran you down a couple of years back, I'd sworn from the distance you flew and the way you landed that he broke every bone in your body. Really freaked the hell out of all of us when you sauntered over just as we were finally cuffing him and the ambulance was rolling up."

She grins. "Nah, he only broke about two dozen bones, although some were multiple fractures. Hmm. Compound multiple fractures. Fucked up my spleen and punctured a lung, too, the jerk. You have no idea how much that itches! But the point is that they're even better at it than I am. So don't worry."

Her? She's going to worry anyway. But if her people are down there, then she's getting her people out. Come hell, high water, or flying bullets.

She nods to Wolverine, and then to Maddie.

"Given where I told them to land and who they'll be carrying, they won't be in their usual Special Forces garb. Nice and friendly stuff, so as not to unnerve the children any more than they'll already be unnerved. Pilot, co-pilot, two guards who'll be playing the flight attendant roles... circumspect, if I read Masterson right."

Dennison's eyes widen even more.

"You know Colonel Masterson?"

She nods. Again. She starting to feel like one of those bobble head dashboard things. Although it's probably better than the sighing.

"Worked a gig up in Boulder a couple of months back with him and his team. You know him?"

"Know OF him. Heard he was Regular Army."

She pauses, recalling the distant kinship she had felt when his far watered down version of her own qi powers resonated with hers.

"Oh... not as regular as all that. But he'd probably not appreciate that tale being told."

She looks at Maddie and Logan again, shaking her head... but unable to keep from laughing as she straddles her bike again.

"Okay, kids. Go have fun. I'll sneak on in after Dennison has you, ah, cornered."

They both give her near identical grins. Madeline almost vaults onto her bike and both hogs start up with a roar. The engines are revved, the sounds reverberating and echoing off all the nearby structures, and at a signal only the two of them can see, they tear off down the street toward the building in question. The pipe she had picked up is snugged under one arm. When they reach the first driveway, Logan makes a sharp right turn into it.

Madeline is a hair behind him but makes up for it in the first left turn around the building. There is a sudden clang and rhythmic thuds as she whips out the pipe and drags it along the corrugated metal siding of the building. She lets out a war whoop worthy of Andi's ancestors... or at least her ancestor's most warlike cousins.

"Catch me if you can, babe!" she calls to Logan.

Her bike revs again and she speeds away from him. A few seconds later, his engine revs as well. The two bikes tear around the building, weaving around one another. Much of their communication is done in catcalls and other non-word sounds. They are certainly raising a ruckus.

Dennison shakes his head as Maddie and Logan tear off.

"Best be following the reprobates, I suppose," he says dryly.

Ninja chuckles. "Don't forget the siren. That always makes a big impression. I'll pace you, but through Weaver's lot here," she says, nodding to the electrical supply company's factory and warehouse on the other side of 66th.

"They don't like vehicles in there, you know," he says, standing at the open door of his squad car.

"Yeah, well..." she says with a shrug, "you can arrest me later, okay?"

"Riiiiiiight," he says, removing his hat and tossing it on the passenger seat.

"Mind how and where you come to a stop... I'll probably need to use your car as cover to cross the road," she says with a grin as she puts her bike in gear and heads for the front of the Weaver property.

"Riiiiiight," he mutters to himself as he gets into his car.

Ninja hears him, of course, and just chuckles.

One of the inset doors of the warehouse building swings partially open, a shaved head pokes out and looks around. Upon spying the bikers, he calls out, "Hey! Can't you read? No trespassin'! You better git!"

Logan and Madeline both slow and swing their bikes around. They glance at one another before looking back at the guy.

Of course, it is Madeline who issues the challenge. "Fuck you, no neck. Make us."

He is surprised it comes from the woman and addresses Logan, "You gonna let your bitch talk to a man that way?"

Logan's brows lower. "Did you just call my woman a bitch, bub?"

He rolls to within a couple of feet of the other man and stops his bike. "You'd best apologize."

The idiot's chin comes up in a challenge. "Whadya gonna do if I don't?"

Ninja can see why the Weaver folks don't want vehicles in the back lot. Geez, what a mess! Dennison is a consummate actor, however, speeding up the part asphalt, part dirt road with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Then he skids to a stop with enough of a tailspin to put his car at a fairly good angle in the yard entrance so that it's between the warehouse door and the open back gate on Weaver's property.

She's wondering, however, if she should slip through the gate in front of the abandoned warehouse or just vault over the fence from the bed of the truck parked outside. She figures she'll just have to wait to see how all this plays out.

And who the hell puts razor wire on a six foot high chain link fence?? Idiots, right? She wonders if it's the previous occupants... or the current ones. Either way, they're idiots.

Dennison rushes out of the car, gun already drawn, and uses the car as a shield between himself and his "quarry."

"All right you two, get off the bikes and keep your hands where I can see them!"

Whatever response Logan was going to make is negated by the arrival of Dennison.

"You called the cops?" he growls at the skinhead.

Apparently, calling the cops on them is a bigger affront than calling his woman a bitch.

"No, man, I didn't! Hate them fucking pigs," he spits out.

Madeline eyeballs Dennison and revs her engine, making no move to get off the bike. Logan keeps his back to the Sergeant and keeps his hands on the handlebars.

"You got this babe?" he calls over to Madeline.

"I got it," she answers, revving the engine again.

Another voice from inside hollers, "God damn it, Pike! What the hell is going on?"

The skinhead looks back inside. "Couple of bikers being chased by a cop."

Madeline releases the brake and speeds right toward Dennison and his leveled gun.

Okay. Ninja nods to herself. There are at least two of them.

She watches as Maddie speeds toward Dennison.

Oddly, things seem to slow down in a battle. Or maybe it's just that all her senses become engaged in her ability to move so much faster. Which is what she had better do while there's only one goon and his attention is, at the moment, mostly focused on Logan and peripherally on Maddie.

The hell with the truck. With just a bit of a running start, she can vault over the wimpy fence using her staff. The problem with pole vaulting is that generally one releases the pole, so she needs to find a patch of asphalt to hit so the staff follows her when she goes over the fence. Well. That will leave her landing on a pile of bundled shingles... not bad. Easy enough to roll off and make it to the back side of the dumpster. She's not sure even Dennison will notice, as he's totally focused on Maddie.

Who is bearing down on him very quickly.

But he gets off two shots the moment she's in "no possible way to miss" range. As the first shot is fired, Ninja is moving... and rolling off the shingles as the second shot rings out.

As she moves, she can see Dennison is being... kind?

He didn't go for a kill shot, although... Well, cops are trained NOT to go for the kill. Not at first, anyway. Disable. That's their first directive.

But he's a good shot because he sent a bullet through each of her shoulder joints.

If Maddie was a Normal, that would have put her down and out for the count.

He toggles his shoulder radio.

"Officer needs backup. Code S27. Four oh one east six six, North Washington. Repeat. Officer needs backup, code Ess Two Seven."

Ninja almost bursts out laughing.

Code S27 is the common State of Colorado law enforcement code that means, "Officer assisting Super. Evacuate civilians to safe distance."

That should quell any commotion from the neighbors who are hearing shots fired.

Madeline flinches at the first hit but keeps on going. The second hit gives her a reason to let go of the handlebars and roll backward off the bike. She times it to not get her hair caught on the rear tire. She is also tucked so that none of her weapons are visible. The bike, however, has enough momentum to keep barreling down on Dennison, making it necessary for him to jump back as the bike slams into his car.

Ooops. That's going to leave a dent in the nice officer's squad car.

The shots were through and through, and one even pinged into the corrugated metal behind her.

While Dennison has his attention on Madeline, Logan pushes his way past the skinhead to get inside the building, still on his bike. He spins it around inside.

"Babe?" he calls out, worry only partially feigned.

She keeps rolling and comes up to her feet. "Just a flesh wound. Take off!"

"Need a way out, man."

The presumed Pike points to the opposite side of the warehouse. "But I heard him call for backup."

The other voice, a man with a few years on Pike, says, "This is a dead end street. And ya can't stay here."

"Damn it!" Logan curses. "Move it, man! Can't leave her out there."

He revs his engine and blows back out the door, hitting it with his booted foot hard enough to knock it loose from at least one set of hinges. He drives straight for Madeline, one arm out to catch her up as he goes by. It is a move worthy of an old Western movie.

"Go, babe!" she hollers and he takes off around the far corner of the building.

The cop would have to give chase.

"There's a door on the other side we can use to get in," he says over his shoulder. "You okay?"

"Jacket's worse off than I am," she tells him.

"Fuck!" Dennison swears. "I know I hit that bitch solid," he says for the benefit of their audience as he rights Maddie's bike and straddles it.

"I'll see if I can draw the skinheads off," he very nearly sub-vocalizes.

Lucky I heard that, Ninja thinks. Although, if she bothered to think it through right now, she'd realize that he's one of her two liaisons who really understands the majority of her gifts.

Abe up in Boulder, of course, is the other.

Both Ninja and Dennison know this is a closed lot. The gate — now mostly blocked by his car — is the only way out. She's pretty sure that's something Maddie will realize, too. Logan, too, probably... although her reading on him is nowhere near as defined as Maddie's. No matter. They're together and she hopes his comment about the other door is an indication that it would be their target.

Dennison takes off after them on Maddie's bike. He had come up through highway patrol and owns a bike of his own, so she's not worried about him. As he passes the door, she waits to see if either Pike or the other voice would follow, but neither do.


In fact, they don't even peek their heads out the door.

Even better.

She moves slowly and quietly to the door Logan had half torn from its hinges, and presses her back against the wall beside the door, check the qi flows.

Oh, it's SO much easier from here! Two spots of fear, one of which also exudes an incredible amount of pain, at the far end of the building. Two frantic spots pacing Logan and Maddie around the inner perimeter of the building.

She slips into the building, which is dimly lit and contains bundled shingles in random piles all over the place. Some of the piles are still neatly stacked. She heads toward the spots of fear while keeping the shingle stacks between her and the frantic ones. Fortunately, the frantic ones are moving quickly away from the fearful ones.

"We need to get them outta here, Earl," says the one previously identified as Pike.

"You think I'm a fucking idiot? The last thing we need is half of Adams County showing up there!" responds the guy who seems to be in charge.

"What do we do with those two?" Pike asks.

"You think I give a shit right now? I'm kinda worried about my ass right now, you moron!"

If her three friends outside are going to play Chase Around the Building, Ninja is going to need to get to the fearful ones — she's assuming it's Ben and Dick — before her friends make another circuit. That shouldn't be a problem with the skinheads being occupied with following the progress of those on the bikes. If they're planning on coming in... well, she still needs to make it to Ben and Dick first.

Ah, what the fuck... running flat out is just as easy with their level of distraction. It takes a minute to figure out her people have been dumped in a huge packing, however. She peers over the top with a finger to her lips. They're both bound and gagged, although being gagged doesn't necessarily stop someone from making noise.

Thankfully, Ben recognized her and nods. Dick is lying on his side, his breathing labored... in a way she really doesn't like. It sounds like he could have a punctured lung. That's a very bad thing for a Normal, especially one of Dick's age and health. Hell, it's a bad thing for Supers with accelerated healing.

She can hear Logan's bike about six feet from the back door.

Madeline ducks her head against Logan's back and swears as the healing happens. She also pulls out one of her weapons.

"Going to take pot shots at the chaser. Keep us steady. Don't want to nick him on accident."

"Like a rock."

One arm snakes around Logan's barrel chest so she can turn and aim behind them. He steers one handed and holds onto her with the other.

Dennison sees Black Wolf take out her gun and aim it at him. Taking just an instant to make sure he's steady, he nods.

She fires off three shots, making sure two of them ping off the building since the bark of the Glocks can't be heard over the bikes' engines.

Although two bullets hit the building, one whizzes a few inches past his ear. Good thing he was steady... and that Wolf is apparently an excellent shot.

She turns back around, tucks her pistol away, and looks ahead of them.

"That must be the back way in. I'll get off here. You come in the front."

Logan returns the one hand to the handlebars and keeps the bike extra steady as she puts a hand on his shoulder and leverages herself up to a standing position. She jumps into a rolling dive and comes up alongside the fence. She waves Dennison past her, then runs to the door and carefully tries the handle.

After watching her leap from the bike, Dennison grins — perhaps with a touch of his own madness — when she waves to him, and he continues his chase after Wolverine.

The door is locked and at the speed they had been traveling, it would take too long to pick it. Wolf takes out a weapon and fires into the lock. No time for subtlety. She listens until she hears the first bike where she judges the other door to be...

"Earl! They're shooting out there!"

Earl pauses a moment in his tracking of the bikes around the building to punch Pike in the side of the head.

"By our great and good Lord and God, I don't know how the fuck you made it out of the Brotherhood, you fucking moron!" yells Earl.

Ooh, so they might be peons, Ninja thinks, but they're a higher level of peon. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what we expected.


This is just too fucking easy.

She feels motion behind her, and is raising her staff to strike as she turns...

...and nearly knocks Rene's head off. She would have, too, if he hadn't gone insubstantial when he realized she was going for a head shot instead of a gut check.

"Moron!" she hisses at him.

"Sorry. Didn't realize you had such a quick trigger finger."

"What the hell are you doing here?" she whispers.

"One of them is infected."

She stops. Still. Absolutely and utterly still. Time seems to stop along with her.


Rene nods. "The mutant, yes."

She feels the qi building, she feels it gathering around her like a storm. And although no one else would see it, she could see it.

Well, except for the glowing of her eyes, of course.

...then Maddie kicks in her door.

"FUCK!!" Ninja yells, as Maddie kicks in her door and Logan looms in the other doorway, still on his bike.

Earl and Pike are between the two other Supers, Pike looked confused and a bit dizzy, Earl looking pissed as hell.

"Can you watch my back with that thing, and keep the human safe, Rene?" she asks.

"I can, and will, Ninja."

She nods sharply, then stalks toward the two skinheads, eyes glowing with the buildup of qi, ready to squeeze a few answers from the two assholes from the Knighthood.

Madeline glances in the direction of the curse... spies Ninja and Rene behind her.

"Alive," she shouts to Logan.

Earl pulls a mini Uzi out and shoots at Logan. The bullets pepper his chest, but he just smiles and keeps on coming.

"Another gad damn mutant," Earl bites off.

Then Logan's claws slide out.

"Fuck me," Pike whispers, eyes wide.

Both are so focused on Logan that they never see Madeline coming. Pike is on the floor with her boot on his neck before he even knows what hit him. Earl, having been judged the more dangerous of the two, has the barrel of one of her 9mm Glocks pressed to the base of his skull.

"Drop it. All you're going to do is piss him off if you keep doing that. And pissing him off is a very bad idea."

Apparently Earl is not a complete moron, and the gun clatters to the cement.

"Now, I believe someone has some questions for you."

She had not missed the approach of Ninja.

From the corner of her eye, Ninja can see Dennison in the doorway now as the glare of her fury focuses on Earl.

"Get an ambulance here, stat, Sergeant," she says in a voice that holds both fire and ice.

She can hear him talking into his radio as she just stares at Earl.

"Officer needs assistance. Cancel code Ess Two Seven. Code Alpha Two Four. Civilian down. Repeat, civilian down."

Earl, meanwhile, decides he needs to expectorate. And he does so in Ninja's direction. She supposes he means to hit her but... oh, well. She moves just a little too fast for him.

"I don't think I like you, Earl," she says, sounding entirely too calm. "In fact, I know I don't like you... or little Pike here... or any of your little cockroach friends." She tilts her head left and then right as she looks at him. She circles around him and Maddie, noting the gun at the base of his skull. She looks Maddie in the eyes. Hers are no longer a dark brown but a glowing gold. They flicker to the gun and then back to Maddie's face.

"That's too good a death for him, you know. Ah," she says as she continues to circle them, "but you do know."

She looks at Earl again, her staff held in such a way that one simple, swift move would cave in his skull. Another very simple and swift move would crush his heart.

But that's not why they're here, is it?

And that isn't what she does, anyway. Is it?

"Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord," she says softly. "Aren't you the lucky one, Earl, that I don't follow that Path? That today my role is not the Avenging Angel? That I am merely a protector. The Protector." She steps in close enough to whisper in his ear... more than close enough for Maddie to hear, too.

"The Avenging Angel is the one holding the gun to the back of your skull," Ninja says, still far more calmly than anyone should expect.

She steps back and looks at Earl, then at the weaselly Pike on the ground.

"Who do you gentlemen — and you understand that I use that term in the most sarcastic of ways — work for?"

She spares a glance for Dennison, who gives her a thumbs up. Well, they can at least get Dick out of this alive. She hopes.

"Oh." The black-clad Warrior looks back at Earl. "You might want to save yourself a little trouble and just... share, share, share. My friends..." She shakes her head, but the smile that begins to spread over her features might almost be called cruel. "...they're not nearly as nice as I am.

"And besides, I hear confession is good for the soul.

"Even when a soul is as black as yours."

"I ain't tell you anything, cunt," Earl snarls, still full of bluster despite Madeline's Glock against his head. "And you can't make me."

Madeline leans forward and whispers, "But I can."

Earl, for what he is, knows evil, knows intent, and knows Madeline means what she says. Still he shakes his head.

She tilts her head to one side to see Logan. She holds up a single finger. His claws retract as he approaches. He comes within arm's reach of Earl and stops, waiting. He's felt a change in their bond.

"Just one," she said, her voice slipping and sliding over the words.

Rene's voice comes from where he stands guard over the captured men, his tone one of command, one used to being obeyed. "The uniform should leave."

He had seen her work. He knows the tone of her voice and what is coming.

He adds, "Ninja, take your friend, too. I'll watch the other."

For the briefest of moments, regular Madeline is there and she looks over to Ninja. "Please."

The husband she had buried and who now stands in this room knows this part of her. Their friends and fellow mercenaries — alive and dead — knew this about her. The one she is now Mated to had seen glimpses of it and had accepted it. But some things... some things should not be known outside those few remaining people.


Ninja looks at the Black Wolf, knowing the intent there if not the details. But when Maddie returns, just for that one moment, she nods. Ninja would be accepting of what needed to be done. Would the Andrea part of her personality be as accepting? It would have been easier when her personality was still fragmented. Now... she simply nods.

"You had your chance, Earl. Too bad you're not bright enough to realize that."

She turns on her heel and heads back to the corner where Ben and Dick are. She looks into the crate, looks into Ben's eyes.

One moment he's there, the next... he's gone, replaced by one of those foul creatures that hitchhiked back with Pablo. And then... then Ben struggles and fights his way back to the surface. His eyes plead with her.

"Damn it, Rene! Are you sure beyond a shadow of any doubt that there's no other way?" She swallows. Hard. She's said it, Hank has said it, pretty much everyone who's ever met Ben — including his own mother, she didn't doubt — has said it: Ben Grimm can be one of the biggest assholes you'll ever meet. But he still has — she has to believe it — a good heart.

"Garcia came back from... that place... with one of them inside. We got rid of it. If we can do it for one person, why not a second?"

Rene looks both skeptical and... confused?

"I don't..." He shakes his head. "I honestly don't know."

She sighs softly.

"Well, the problem is that it was a pretty big production, and..." She sighs again. "I don't know that we could get Ben to the right place in time."

"If you believe it is possible to free this man," says Quetzalcoatl as he pops into their plane of existence mere inches from her face, "as you freed my Chosen One, then I will take him to a place where he will not harm anyone."

"I hate... when you... do that, little buddy," she says from between clenched teeth.

"Your eyes, Night Walker. They should not burn with the fire of my People."

She bites back her instinctive retort, something that would be both colorful and insulting. Instead, she merely asks, "Will no further harm come to him in your... place?"

"No further harm will come to him while he is under my protection," replies the serpent.

She can feel the qi building up again, running painfully through her meridians. Her eyes are glowing brightly enough to light this little corner of the warehouse. She does not believe Quetzalcoatl, and yet what choice does she have?

"Then take him," she hisses. "And return him when we are ready to expel the Shadowkin."

An instant later, both Ben and the most annoying ancestral pest in existence... are gone. She tears the side of the crate closest to Dick completely off and lifts him in her arms... gently, carefully, so very aware of how fragile his Normal human body is.

"You really don't like that guy, do you?" Rene asks, just a little too casually.

"You mean Garcia's ancestral pest?"

"Yes, that would be the one I mean."

"No. I actually don't like him at all," she says as she starts carefully making her way toward the door where Dennison is waiting.

"But you trust him?"

"Nope. Don't trust him either. He's a snake. Everyone knows snakes can't be trusted." She glances at Rene. "However, he does fight the Shadow. And you don't have to like someone to work with them."

She stops in the doorway, turning back to look at Maddie and Logan.

"I'll wait for you outside."

Then she steps out of the building, cradling Dick like a child in her arms, while Dennison does his best to shut the door behind them. She can hear the ambulance in the distance. It's no more than two minutes out, from the sound of it.

"Let me at least take your staff, Ninja."

She nods her assent to Dennison as she continues moving toward the street, releasing the staff from under her arm where she had been holding it tightly.

"Walk with me, Sergeant."

They walk slowly, but only because Ninja wants to be so very, very careful with the human life in her arms.

"Once the ambulance leaves, you will, too. It's best you're not even around when they finish."

Dennison looks at her, almost looks as though he might argue, but then nods.

"You'll get me a report on any details Adams County should have, I trust."

She can see the ambulance turn onto 66th, and nods to Dennison. "You trust appropriately."

"Um... your eyes...?"

She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, a cleansing breath... and then just breathes until she hears the ambulance stop in front of them. Then she opens her eyes and looks at Dennison again.


"Yeah. That was, ah, freaky."

She lays Dick on the gurney the paramedics have pulled out of their van, and she looks at them. They're part of the Thornton Fire Department; that's how things work out here. And, as far as she knows, they work well. she hasn't worked with these two before, but she has worked with their brethren in other towns.

"Take good care of him," she says, allowing the concern she has for him come out in her voice, watching as the first paramedic starts an IV line.

"As if he was family, Ninja," the other responds, nodding to the Super before she gets on the radio to the hospital to begin transmitting information.

"Thank you."

She reaches out her hand to Dennison for the return of her staff and leans it comfortably against her shoulder as she watches the pair care for the man she rescued... as she watches them get him settled in the ambulance... watches as they drive down 66th... watches until they're nearly to Washington Street. Only then does she respond to Dennison's last remark.


"Your eyes."

"Ah. Yes. Side effect of some magic. They do that when I'm... emotional. Very emotional. Pretty much on the pissed off end of things, mostly, as far as I can tell."

She looks at him calmly, her eyes back to their normal rich dark brown.

"Now, scat. You don't want to be here."

He nods, gets into his squad car and drives off.

She fetches her bike from the Weaver lot, and pulls it just outside their gate.

He doesn't need to know the things she can hear.

There are a lot of things she doesn't need to know, either. And yet, the Universe... Fate... the Spirits... whatever or whomever... seems to think she needs to bear witness to these things nonetheless. That, too, may be part of the role of Warrior: bearing witness.

So be it.

# # #

Her ghost, her husband comes up beside Madeline. He indicates Logan with a nod and asks, "Are you sure?"

In that voice of the other, the one once called Mad Messijer, she says, "We are the evil that men do."

If the bond she has with her Mate cannot survive this, then it will break, and they will go their separate ways. Each one will be broken in a way that can never be fixed, but to keep that Thing from this world, it is a price she is willing to pay.

"Deal with that one while this one tells me his darkest secrets."

"As you wish. I will take up my routine station," Rene says, collecting Pike and securing him off to the side.

Pike will go nowhere. As for Rene, he walks across the warehouse and vanishes through the wall without bothering to use the door. Earl can't help but notice and twitches but doesn't react like someone who had never seen such a thing before. That alone tells Madeline quite a bit.

She moves slightly to the side of Earl, enough so that Logan can see her. With her free hand she taps her shoulder, noting a particular spot, then makes a fist and repeats her words from before. "Just one."

As Logan puts his fist against Earl's shoulder, she adds, "Slowly."

Logan's claws are adamantium and razor sharp, can slice through anything like a warm knife through soft butter. A quick extension will not have the desired effect. The point of one of Logan's claws pushes through Earl's flak vest, then the flannel shirt underneath, and finally began to penetrate the skin. To his credit, he only grimaces.

"Who do you work for?"

"Fuck you."

She shifts again, this time putting the flattened palm of her hand on the back of Earl's shoulder directly opposite Logan's protruding claw. She nods and he extends the claw further, tearing through muscle and ligaments. Earl tries to pull back, but the small woman behind him is considerably stronger than she looks and she holds him in place. She nods again, and the claw pushes halfway into the joint.

Now, he screams...

Rene materializes beside Ninja. "You shouldn't be here. But since you are, let her think you weren't. Do this for me, please?"

She looks at Rene as he mists and then solidifies into existence beside her. Her eyes glow dimly at his words.

"Really, Rene Jacobs? I shouldn't be here?" She simply looks at him for long, quiet moments with those faintly golden eyes.

"I am the Diné Warrior," she says softly. "I am the only one of my generation to have the power I do, I am the only one of my generation to be called 'Warrior'.

"Perhaps I am the first of all my People," she muses, "for the Diné — despite some negative propaganda — have never truly been warriors like our cousins the Lakota and Apache.

"And if I am making sense of some of the more outrageous ramblings of my guardian Spirit, I am the first Great Warrior the First Nations have seen since Thathánjka Íyotake, who was both medicine chief and war chief."

She shrugs. But then she looks at him; she is simply one human looking at another human.

"Do you think I have not seen madness? Do you think I have not looked it in the face? Perhaps not to the degree your wife expresses it, no.

"But do you believe I should not bear witness to the madness, to the methods, to... all that transpires here? That... whatever compels me to stay to bear that witness is wrong?"

She crosses her arms over her diaphragm and leans against her bike, her staff once more tucked comfortably against one shoulder.

"Do you think I truly want to be here, Rene? If I can't stand witness against the madness that is your wife, then how can I stand against the Shadow? For the Shadow is the great madness and pure evil and all things that are foul about humanity."

She pauses. No. She is simply silent.

His face is somber as he listens to Ninja's words. His eyes are dark and shadowed with concern... but not for the Navajo beside him. No, his concern is for the woman they discuss.

"So be it, Diné Warrior."

Mad Messijer is brutal and efficient and has had years of experience, both in the giving and the receiving. And the man talks, tells them everything they want to know and even things they do not want to know. At some point, Pike wakes up, seems what is happening, and pisses himself.

Rene stays by Ninja's side throughout, although there are times when he is less substantial as his energies are diverted back toward Madeline and Logan, working to protect their bond, protecting it from being consumed by the madness that lives in her.

When she is done, Earl could not have crawled away if he had wanted to. He might be able to slither like a snake. Maybe. He is a quivering mess covered in his own fluids. From his front row seat, Pike says, "They'll get you for this. They'll make you pay."

Madeline walks over to him and leans down to look him in the face, grasping his chin with her bloody hand. "I look forward to it. And you... you are going to be my messenger. You tell him I'm coming. I'm coming and Hell is coming with me."

She pulls out her combat knife and Pike's eyes widen again, but she only cuts his bonds. "Go."

When he doesn't move, she dumps him out of the chair. "Go! And don't forget to deliver my message."

Pike still hesitates, but she turns her back on him and puts a bullet in Earl's brain... a last bit of mercy, even if the prick does deserve to suffer. She looks back over her shoulder.

"Are you still here?"

At that, he scrambles to his feet and runs out of the building.

Ninja remains silent and listens to the sounds from within the warehouse. She notes when Rene becomes less substantial; she notes when he returns more fully to her side.

All things considered, it is a relatively short interrogation. For that, Rene is thankful. Earl only thought he was a tough bastard. Madeline had broken men a hundred times tougher who had been trained to withstand torture.

As the gunshot rings out, just before Rene vanishes one last time, the Warrior says almost sadly, "If it will make her feel any better, you can all think of this as an immunization."

As Pike runs out of the building, fleeing as if a demon followed and nipped at his heels, she simply watches him... her eyes blazing bright and golden again.

Rene vanishes from Ninja's side and returns to his wife and her Mate. He says nothing, only watches.

They face each other over the body.

"How strong is the stench?" she asks Logan.

"A few days old," he answers. "And Pike... less, not frequent contact."

"How long are you going to wait before you follow him?"

He cocks his head, listening. Another minute passes. "His scent is... strong. And you?"

"I need to clean up my mess."

"You're very good at what you do."

There is a grim smile, and she nods in acknowledgment of what he is saying. After giving her a quick kiss, he lopes out of the building. She watches after him, then looks over at Rene.

"If this were the jungle or the savannah, I'd leave him in the bush for the scavengers. But this is neither. Should have brought some thermite."

After watching Pike for a moment, Ninja takes a deep breath and stands up again. The breath does nothing to dim the flames in her eyes.

And so she waits. While waiting, she searches the area for the minds she needs to touch, passing along a message.

When Wolverine leaves the building, she moves to the doorway and looks at the mess Maddie has made.

"The desert has scavengers, too. They've been called."

"Good," Madeline says.

She pauses, upper lip curled in disgust at what had once been Earl... disgust at everyone like him.

"Did you get what you needed?" Ninja asks.

"Yes. They'll be expecting communication soon... a day, maybe two at the most. We have his contacts and Wolverine's following the other path. There's at least another rung between this one," Madeline says, nudging the body with her boot, "and the head of the snake. But what's been done will get to him.

"I think they're going to catch more than they bargained for on this fishing trip.

"I'm going to clean up."

She crosses to the large industrial sink and turns it on. The water is freezing but it doesn't seem to matter. There is a tub of the gunk soap, Lava, and she uses it to scrub her hands. As she does this, she says, "The higher ups probably won't break so easily. I should carry my kit.

"And Rene... I'm fine."

He nods, gives her a sad smile, then fades away.

She watches Rene watch his wife, and she notes well the sad smile before he fades away. Ninja knows there is a story there, and the Andrea part of her dreads the day she realizes it has all become part and parcel of the friendship she can almost feel forming already.

Damn integrated personality.

The Super turns her attention back to the woman at the sink.

"Hmm. Yes.

"They came fishing for a minnow," she says, touching a finger to her collarbone. "They've found the waters inhabited by a great white shark."

She moves to the side as the first raven swoops into the building. While it's not nearly the size of her guardian Spirit, it's still an impressive bird. It's also not quite as bright as her guardian Spirit. It bobs its head at her repeatedly, clearly torn between reporting on the disbursement of her message and the feast that lay waiting.

Wings come! Wings come! Legs walk after dark.

She waves the bird toward the body and it lands on it with... well, she knows she's anthropomorphizing here, but delight seems to be the right word to use.

"I hope every raven and vulture in the six county area doesn't show up here," she grumbles as a turkey vulture swoops through the doorway.

The vulture, slightly brighter than the raven, lifts one taloned foot and then the other.

This many will come.

"Well, that's a relief."

She looks at the spot where Rene had vanished.

"It saddens him... what you do... that I stayed."

And she finds she's surprised by that. Oh, not by the fact that Rene sadly accepts what his wife does, but that he doesn't understand that women — when not conditioned out of it — are the more bloodthirsty of the species when it comes to protecting their young. Their people. Those they've sworn to protect.

And that when circumstances add a little — or a lot of — madness to the mix, things can get messy.

"It always has," she tells Ninja as she dries her hands.

When she comes over and observes the first of the carrion eaters at the meal she provided, the madness is gone from her eyes. But there is no life there. They are dead and flat.

"And he worries that one day it will truly overtake me. Maybe it will. I do not know. Though, I would hazard to say that being bonded with Logan will prevent that."

Madeline pauses to toss the towel in a barrel of similar rags.

"When he first started remembering bits of his past, Logan came to me torn, upset, afraid that I could no longer care for him. He said to me that what he did wasn't very nice. He did not believe me, not entirely, when I told him that what I did wasn't either. I think now he finally believes without a shadow of a doubt. He has never seen me do this work before.

"Rene has, more times than he would like to remember. But he also knows that there is always a purpose and a reasons, that I do not do this for pleasure or joy. I think it saddens him mostly that it is at all necessary. That I have the skill at it that I do... Well, he knows where it is that I first learned about torture."

The other woman listens and, with her gift, watches the energy around Madeline created by her words. The Warrior and Protector merely inclines her head.

"I don't disagree with being sad that such work is ever necessary. Do I hate that people like you, who can do this job, need to do this job? Yes.

"But am I glad that there are people like you who can do this job when the job needs to be done? Again... yes."

She says it so simply, so softly, that it's almost as if they're discussing who should take the trash out. A discussion that could be held in the conference room at the library. And when she does think about it, that is what they're talking about... talking out the trash.

Madeline shrugs. "It is what it is."

Admittedly, it had been a very long time since she had to do this particular kind of work. Before Leon was born even. The persuasion she had used in Paris in the last few months had been considerably easier and less bloody. Of course, she had been dealing with mercs and not zealots.

"The coyotes will have this cleaned up by morning.

"Next move?"

"Next move... we visit the place he told me about, but I think under the cover of darkness would be best. Wolverine will let me know where and to whom Pike leads him."

Ninja nods as she watches six more birds sporadically arrive. Exactly eight, just as the vulture had promised.

"We need to meet our birds in Commerce City in a few hours and in the interim I need to have a talk with Old Mama about taking in some refugees.

"Do you and Wolverine want some down time, or are you up for a visit to Five Points?"

"Wolverine will follow as long as it takes. As for down time, we can take that when this is over. After all, he and I have a whole lot of years ahead of us.

"So if Five Points is where we need to head next, I'll ride with you. He'll catch up later. And I assume you'll want to check in on your friend as well as notify your husband of his status."

Ninja manages a quirk of a grin at the mention of the many years Madeline and her Mate have ahead of them. At one time — gods, was it only a few months ago? — she had the prospect of a long, long life ahead of her, and she dreaded it.

Now? Like any Normal, she doesn't know.

She doesn't know.

And that makes her feel good.

She jerks her head toward the door and starts moving.

"North Washington is just a little too isolated for my tastes right now. Finding Ben like that..."

She breathes as she was taught, she tries to breathe as she was taught as she walks toward her bike. She needs to calm herself, ground herself, center herself, clear her eyes... but it's harder than it used to be.

Damn Aztec magic. It saves her life, it makes her soul whole again, and brings her husband back to her.

And it makes her a little bit crazy in the process. Well, a little crazy is probably better than a lot crazy.

"...I'd rather be around people I know and trust. A lot of them."

She spies a bare patch of ground and crouches with the soles of both feet and the palms of both hands touching the Earth. Finally, she can let go of the build up of qi.

"Thank you, Mother," she whispers.

She stands and rolls her shoulders back, feeling almost herself again. A little on edge still... but all things considered, much better than she was feeling a little while ago.

"I am... accustomed to isolation. As for those I trust..."

There is a note of self-mocking in Madeline's tone. "They are better off not around me. Not that there are a lot of them...

"Fewer every day. It is probably something I should get used to.

"As long as I don't have to outlive Logan."

She straddles her bike and looks at Maddie. The comment about isolation rippled the qi around them and for a moment Andi feels a different sort of unease than the past couple of hours had dredged up. She regards the other woman for a moment before reminding herself that not only do they still have work to do, but she can't help everyone with all their problems especially when they aren't really any of her business.

She simply nods to acknowledge Maddie's... well, internal struggle seems about right.

"Calls can wait until Old Mama's, too. Hope you like tea."

She takes off up 66th and heads back south on Washington. The construction on this street is a pain in the ass and it seems like it's never going to end. But that's road construction in Colorado. Never ending.

Ninja leads, weaving between lanes of cars, freaking out the occasional flagman — or woman, in one case — as she blatantly disregards them, opening up to higher speeds where the road widens and construction has, miraculously, been completed. Washington becomes 38th Street as they cross over the South Platte; fortunately at this time of day, there's very little traffic. There's a short jog on Walnut Street, then a longer stretch on Downing Street before getting to California Street. They're in a residential neighborhood now, Five Points, and there are a lot of children here. Naturally, Ninja maintains the posted speed limits.

In all, it doesn't take more than ten minutes before they're pulled up in the lot beside Old Mama's little rust colored house. The warning sign about vehicles being towed at the owner's' expense makes her smile. Lee is Old Mama's grandson. He only tows cars away when Old Mama gives him a call, so Ninja knows their bikes are safe there.

Old Mama is sitting out on her tiny porch when they roll up, and she stands as they get off their bikes and Ninja leads them to her front gate.

"Child, I don't think you've ever come all the way up here on your motorcycle before! And during the day!" she exclaims. "What a treat for an old woman. Come in, come in... I'll put some tea on. Now who's your nice young friend?"

Ninja chuckles at the old woman's grandmotherly act. She actually loves it, which is one of the many reasons she so enjoys coming down here.

"Mama, this is my friend, Black Wolf." She looks at Maddie, finally a twinkle back in her dark brown eyes again. "Wolf, this is Mama, the matriarch of Five Points."

Mama laughs as she holds the door open for her guests.

"Oh, now don't be silly, child! Matriarch! I'm just an old woman who knows what's what, that's all," she says with a mischievous grin.

"Uh huh." Ninja nods, although not necessarily in agreement.

Once inside her immaculate and tiny home, her demeanor changes slightly, just enough that there's no doubt that she is, indeed, the matriarch of Five Points.

"I heard about Sally. Lord, what terrible business. And no word on Ben or Dick yet?"

Ninja exchanges a glance with Wolf. "We found them. Dick was taken to North Suburban Medical Center, and I need to check on his prognosis and let the DPD know what's going on. Ben..."

She takes a deep breath as Mama puts a hand over her heart.

"He got infected with something really bad, Mama. He's in... well, quarantine, I guess you'd call it, someplace he can't infect anybody else."

"But is he going to be all right?" the elderly woman asks sternly.

The younger woman shakes her head.

"I don't really know, Mama. I know someone else who was infected like that, and we used some Native American magic to free him up. But most people aren't that lucky. We're going to do our very best, though, I promise you that, Mama."

She nods. "He's a royal pain, that Ben. But he does what he thinks is the best for those people of his out there. Miss Wolf, why don't you come out to the kitchen and have a cup of tea with me while Ninja makes her phone calls. I trust she won't be very long at all."

She gives Ninja that LOOK, and Ninja laughs.

"No, ma'am. I won't be long at all."

The ride to this place — Old Mama's Ninja had called it — hadn't been long, but long enough for Madeline to put away, mostly, that other part of herself, tuck it back into its closet until it's needed again. The woman introduced as Old Mama...

There is something about her that reminds Madeline of another woman, Mrs. Turino. Rene had said Vincent was at peace when he crossed over to the other side. He had guilt, but no regrets. Still, she would continue to mourn him anyway. She had regrets.

"Yes, ma'am," she tells the woman. "Tea would be lovely."

Old Mama leads Maddie into her tidy kitchen.

"Now you just sit down, child, while I heat up the water. You have the look of weariness about you, dear. Oh, don't mind my nosy nose, there's nothing you need to tell me."

She set the water on, takes mugs out of the cabinet, gets real loose tea and honey from another cabinet, a couple of strainer spoons from a drawer, cream and milk from the refrigerator, setting things on the table as she putter about. There is already a sugar bowl as well as napkins in a plastic holder on the table. She talks the whole while she putters.

"I suppose you're another of those Supers, like that polite young man Ninja brought by the night I had to tell her Sally and Ben and Dick were missing. Oh, my, that was a terrible night, it was! So many Supers in Denver now, you'd think we were getting to be a big city. Though I'll tell you, I don't care for that Sponsored one's name, no I don't! He's a polite young man, too, or seems to be from what I've seen on the television, but the only peregrines in this city are the ones on the tall buildings downtown! They've been here a lot longer than he has and we haven't had a pigeon problem since my Lee was a little boy. That's my grandson. And he's a grown man now with children of his own. So that wasn't the best name that boy could have picked, if you ask me."

She then segues into tales of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the soon to be great-great-grandchild, mostly talking simply so Maddie doesn't need to. And perhaps, just perhaps, there's a hint that all those children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren just don't come by as often as she'd like.

Madeline is glad that Old Mama is happy to do all the talking. She figures that it's as much for the other woman's benefit as it is for her own. The only thing is... the more she talks the more she sounds like Vincent's mother. Perhaps it's just the humanizing thing she needs, however. It brings Madeline fully back to herself and she bows her head just a bit to hide the fight against the threatening misting.

She feels Rene squat down beside her like he had so many times before. He lays a hand on her knee but doesn't try to turn her chin toward him. He is insubstantial, doing this only in her mind.

I will always love you. No matter what.

She nods anyway, mentally and physically. She is also rather glad Logan is off on his tracking. She knows she would have a very hard time looking him in the eye right now. Ninja's phone calls take long enough for her to get her shit together. At least, together enough so that she finally felt comfortable pushing her sunglasses up onto her head.

"Merci beaucoup," she says as her tea is set before her.

Meanwhile, in the living room, Ninja has gotten the update on Dick from the ER doctor at North Suburban and is making her call to Pablo.


"I know. That's who I dialed, that's who should answer, right?" she says with a grin.

"And good afternoon to you, whoever you are... since I didn't bother to look at the Caller ID."

She chuckles. "It's your favorite Super."

"I'm glad to hear you in fine spirits, and will assume you're safe."

"You may assume that, yes. I'm at Old Mama's, just got here, wanted to check in with you and let you know you can pull Tookins and O'Dell off their case. Dick's up at North Suburban with a couple of broken ribs, a lot of contusions, some lacerations, and a punctured lung on top of dehydration and malnutrition... but his prognosis is fairly good. They figure, given his age and living situation, they won't release him for at least a week."

"And Ben?"

Yeah. He's quick to pick up on that.

"You should put 'quarantined in undisclosed location' in the report."

He is silent for a moment.

"Do I want to know?" he asks finally.

"Not really, but you should. He's infected with one of those things that hitched a ride back with you. Quetzalcoatl took him... somewhere... to keep an eye on him. I'm hoping we can use the same process to free him as we used before. Except this time it will be a proper healing ceremony, not a slap dash, cobbled together, spur of the moment emergency exorcism."

She can hear a thump... thump... thump from the other end of the line.

"Banging your head on the desk isn't going to help anything, Garcia. What's done is done."

"Did you HAVE to send him off with Q??"

"It was that or let him die. What would you have me do?"

Again, he's silent... for much longer this time.

"Fine." There's another moment of silence. "And you're fine?"

"As a fiddle, whatever the heck that means. Need to head up to Commerce City for the evac, have some tracking to do after dark. Moving up the ladder to the beast's head."

"Want me along?"

This time it's Andrea's turn for silence.

"Honestly? No. I don't think you're ready. And there's no guarantee we'll be tracking on your turf."

"I'm trying to decide if I should be offended."

"Don't be. I've been doing this longer than you have."

"And I've been doing this longer than I've known you."

Ahhh... he's getting testy.

"I repeat... may not be your turf. Plus, the responsibilities and duties we each have aren't always..." She pauses, trying to find a way to say it that won't further frustrate him. "Listen, you understand that sometimes I play by different rules than you do. Wolf and Wolverine move even farther away from your rules than I do, I would suspect." Actually, she'd flat out guarantee it, but she's not going to tell him that.

He grumbles, but seems to be over his, well, snit.

"Will I see you later?" he asks quietly.

"At some point, yes. I'll call back when I know more, okay? Tookins and O'Dell have their case solved... hopefully, we can get you a suspect for yours. Alive, if at all possible."

"Ninja... what went on today?" he asks with a serious edge to his voice.

"Trust me on this one, Garcia. You do NOT want to know."

"All right. Ayóó ánííníshní."

She would swear that the universe stops again for a minute. This time in such a good way, in a way that will let her hold this moment in her heart for all time.

"I... didn't know you were learning my language."

"Did I pronounce it right? Tommy helped me."

"You did! And I, you."

"Good." She can hear the smile in his voice. "I'll talk to you later."

He disconnects and she just stares at her phone for a minute. She can hear Old Mama in the other room probably talking poor Maddie's ear off. Although... that woman does have a way of getting people to relax. She just shakes her head as she heads into the kitchen.

The tea is poured and done steeping, and Old Mama is just squeezing a big glop of honey in Ninja's mug.

"So, I'm betting she told you her life story, and you didn't get a word in edgewise," she says to Maddie as she uncharacteristically sits down at the table with them and smiles at Old Mama. At least Maddie's qi is looking a lot better at any rate.

"Mama, we're going to evacuate Commerce City. How many folks can you secret away here in Five Points?"

The elderly woman blinks and stares at her.

"You're going to what?"

Ninja looks at Wolf. "Your idea. You want to tell her?"

"The people who did this thing have a certain mindset. If we close down Commerce City, shut the gates in a show of protecting the people there, they will take it as an invitation to come in and do more bad things. So we are going to do just that, shut the gates. But the residents will have changed to ones considerably less vulnerable..."

Old Mama looks from one to the other of her guests several times, then simply shakes her head. She is grinning, however.

"You young people just keep getting more and more clever, don't you?

"Well, let's see..."

She turns in her chair to open a drawer, pull out a pad of paper and a pen, then starts... making a list?

"First, we'll need to know how many children. Those might be the easiest — or the hardest — depending on who they are."

"Probably no one under fourteen, maybe not even anyone under sixteen," Ninja says. "Wolf here has a friend who's willing to take and protect the little ones, their families, and the most vulnerable of the adults."

The old woman nods. "Jethon sure would love to have Missy back home."

Ninja nods in return. "I'll mention it to Hank. She's been a godsend up there, and that's the truth, Mama. If she can be spared taking care of the younger ones — they love her — I have a feeling she'd be as happy to see her folks again as they'd be to see her."

"So how many teens, then... boys and girls? You know you don't want them all mixed up in the same house. Goodness only knows what kind of shenanigans they'll get into." She winks, knowing that teenagers will get into whatever shenanigans they'll get into whether the adults try to keep them from those shenanigans or not. "And how many folks total? How many families, couples too I suppose, you want kept together?

"Your nice friends down at the po-leece department went and cleared out those crack houses this morning. They'll need a bit of fixing up... some of 'em don't have no windows and they're kind of dangerous, so you don't want any of the old folks in there, now do you?"

She scribbles on the page for a bit... fills one whole sheet, then starts on a second. Ninja just watches in wonder.

"Well now, there's folks I need to be talking to, find out if they can take a person or two in, but there's plenty I know who'll say yes right off. Plus we have the missions, and the churches... they'll help. They don't hold to that foolish notion that those folks who're different are any less God's children.

"Of course, it depends on how long we're talkin', too. A guest for a week is a different critter than a pest for a month," she says with a smile. "But a short-term arrangement, without askin' those I ain't sure of... looks to be maybe five hundred? I know there's a lot more folks than that up there, but that's what I can say for sure right now.

"Well, and knowin' when would be a big help, too," she says, looking at Wolf.

"We are going to start evacuations by air at 4pm today," Wolf replies. "I told my friend to plan for two weeks."

She intends that it will be much shorter than two weeks. Much shorter.

Old Mama sits quietly for several minutes, occasionally scratching a note on her pad.

"Would be best to move people in after dark. Lot of those tall buildings downtown got windows can see right into our neighborhood. Don't need to be advertising, right?" She nods to herself. "This time of year, though... ought to be plenty dark by the time all those nosy folks go home."

She looks at Ninja.

"You got places for folks I don't? If not, we could clear out one of them old office buildings on the edge of the neighborhood, or even one or two stores what closed down years ago."

Ninja shakes her head. "Not a lot of places close by, on short notice. Most of the Normals could blend in out in north Aurora, some parts of Denver. Maybe... a hundred? Hundred and fifty, tops."

Mama nods. "You get me some numbers from Hank, let me call around. We'll see what we can do."

Then she turns to Maddie again.

"When you planning to move folks in here... and how?" At that last, she raised both eyebrows... questioningly, yes. But with a bit of skepticism, as well.

Wolf looks at Ninja. "I got that big truck up at the cabin if the folks don't mind piling into it. It won't be comfortable, but it isn't a far ride. My driver is probably going just about stir crazy. Be good to have something to do.

"You know them better than I do. What do you think?"

Ninja rubs the back of her neck. "I'd guess most folks would be okay with that, but there are probably a dozen, maybe two dozen who'd just as soon tip the truck over as get into it with that many people.

"Some of them are empathic, can't stand being around more than one or two people at a time. Some are afraid of their own shadows."

She stares into her mug of tea. "Sally was really the only one who could get through to those, most days," she says, shaking her head. "Maybe Missy can help with them, but getting them on a truck like that? I don't think so.

"Others are just..."

She sighs and looks at Wolf. "If you want any of the residents to stay behind, the... well, Berserkers I guess might be the best way to describe them." She shakes her head again. "Let's just say you don't want them on that truck."

Wolf taps her fingers on the table and sips at her tea.

"Then we could truck out whoever is willing. If there's enough time, maybe the last run or two could be a minimum of folks.

"The... Berserkers... I know a thing or two about that and, yes, they could be helpful. And I already have ideas on placement.

"The others? The empaths and such? Get them out through the sewers or any way you can."

She chuffed out a laconic laugh. "You're of the People. You should have ways."

She looks at Wolf for a moment and then breaks into a huge grin.

"I am. And I believe I do."

She pulls out Andrea's phone and looks at Old Mama, who sighs and rolls her eyes.

"Just this once, child," she says as she shakes a finger at Ninja. "Only 'cause it's so important."

She rolls through the phone's directory and then presses talk. When a voice on the other end actually answers, she says sternly, "Who the heck are you, and why are you answering Henry's phone?"

He laughs. "Hey, cousin-twin! Thanks for calling! Now I can let the plane do some loop-dee-loops while we chat. Awesome!"

She sighs. "Henry, you're not flying a plane right now. What are your plans for the next few days?"

"Hey, how do you know I'm not flying one of my airplanes? You can't see all the way over here."

"Because you always turn your phone off when you're on the plane, Henry," she says with the tone of exaggerated patience he expects.

"Oh, right," he agrees. "I suppose that's true. So I have big plans for the rest of the week. You should come visit, it's going to be some great stuff!"

"Really? What kind of plans do you have for the rest of the week, Henry?" she asks, hoping this isn't the first time in his life that he's decided to be serious.

"Rearranging the rocks in front of my building! They keep telling me it's time to move, so I have the week off and figured it was time to move them. Hey, did you know they're pretty fickle? I get one moved and then after I move another one, the first one wants to be moved someplace else. Man, they're gonna drive me crazy."

"Ah, Henry? You're already crazy."

"Really?" he asks, pretending to be surprised. "Hey, that would explain a lot of stuff. So you wanna come out and help me?"

"I have a better idea. Why don't you come out here and help me?

"Nah, I dunno," he says, "I don't think those Denver rocks are as friendly as Phoenix rocks."

"I need to move some people, Henry."

"Aw, Andi, you don't need my help for that. People can move themselves. There's no fun in that!"

"Sure there is, Henry."

"Nah, helping people move isn't my thing. They get pretty upset when their stuff accidentally gets broken or goes on walkabout. That's what folks in Australia do, did you know that? The walkabout thing?"

She rubs her forehead. Talking with Henry is almost always a long, drawn out game. Despite the fact that she loves him dearly and the games usually brighten her day considerably, sometimes those games give her a headache.

"Yes, Henry, I knew that. And I'm moving people for work."

"You work with books, cousin-twin! Hoo hee, now you're getting crazy and forgetting important things. Next thing you know, we'll be putting you in a home and stuff. I'll come visit you there, though. I could have all kinds of fun with you crazy people."

She bites the inside of her lip to keep from laughing. After she pretends to sigh, she says, "My other job, Henry."

"Really?!" Well, that really gets him to perk up a bit. "That might be more fun than moving rocks. As long as your people don't get upset if their stuff gets broken or goes on walkabout."

"Their stuff won't get broken or go on walkabout, Henry."

"It won't? 'Cause stuff always does that."

"Not their stuff.."

"Hey, you don't know that! You can't trust other people's stuff."

"Maybe not, but I trust you."

"You been sniffing that library glue again! You don't trust me... even I don't trust me. Ha! That'll be a first, though!"

"Uh huh. And when was the last time you worked with Ninja?"

"Hey, you know I never worked with any ninjas, 'cause it's too hot and sunny in Phoenix for them, wearing all that black and stuff."

"Henry," she says in a tone that is almost sing-song. She's finally reached the midpoint of her patience with her cousin.

"Yeah, Andi?"

"You gonna come up here and help me?"

"Sure," he says placidly. "Got me a seat on the 3:25, me and Coyote'll be buzzing that circus tent you have out there at 5:10. Can't leave Coyote at home, he'll just get into too much trouble without me."

She sighs again.

"You're the one who gets into trouble, Henry, and I'm counting on Coyote's help anyway."

There is a stunned silence; it's probably the first in Henry's life.

"You're not messin' with me, are you, Andi? 'Cause nobody ever wants Coyote's help except me, it seems like."

"I'm not messing with you, Henry. The people I need help moving are going to need Coyote's playfulness to get from where they are to where they need to be."

"Okay, Andi. You and that nice detective of yours coming to pick me up after we buzz the circus tent?"

"Nope. I need you to rent a minivan. I'll text you the location where you're going, and let you know who's going to meet you there."

"Awesome! This sounds like an adventure in a spy novel! I should wear a trench coat! Gotta go tell the rocks they're on their own this week! See you later!"

He disconnects and Andi just looks at her phone for a moment. Then she texts Pablo.

Henry's coming to stay for a few days. Brace yourself. You could help me tonight by riding herd on him.

She slips the phone back into her pocket, then rolls her neck to loosen it up.

"Okay, we have a lunatic — a sweet, lovable, completely Normal lunatic — coming to help with the individuals most reluctant to move. He'll charm them into thinking the relocation is their idea. He's arriving at DIA on Southwest's 5:10 flight. Hopefully, Garcia can keep him from convincing our reluctant residents to paint the County Building with tempera paints."

Old Mama has been watching Ninja through the entire conversation with — from the look of her aura — a growing level of concern.

"Child, are you sure about this? It sounded like you were talking to a demented drug addict," she says, sounding very definitely worried.

Ninja laughs, releasing any residual tension she might have been holding.

"Everything will be fine, Mama. Henry's spirit Guardian is Coyote, sometimes viewed as the Trickster God of the Native People. In Henry's case, Coyote is just keeping him playful and young at heart. He doesn't drink or do drugs; he'd lose his job if he did. He flies 737s for Southwest, and don't believe him when he tells you he keeps them from flying loop-dee-loops." She shakes her head and grins. "He's got an IQ over 130, is capable of being serious when it matters, and definitely prefers to look at the world by standing on his head."

The old woman still has her eyebrows raised as she eyes Ninja.

"These... Spirits of your people. Are they like Guardian Angels?"

Andi looks at Maddie for a moment, smiling as Rene mists in for a moment to touch her shoulder, then disappears again. She turns back to Old Mama, nodding, "Yes, ma'am. They're pretty much what you good Christian folk would call Guardian Angels."

She nods then with satisfaction. "Then I'm sure this friend of yours, Henry, will do right by the people of Commerce City and Five Points."

"Yes, Mama, that he will."

"And if they paint the County Building? Well, tempera will wash off in the next rain."

Ninja shakes her head and grins at Old Mama, then she looks back over at Maddie with a half smile. "The Ha'atathli — medicine man — maybe could have made them actually disappear, but... Well, getting the Ha'athathli off our land would be nigh unto impossible, and Henry will be able to get a lot of people who are otherwise going to be very tense to relax a bit."

She looks from one to the other of them, then pulls out Ninja's phone. "Let me get Hank working on those numbers for you, Mama, so you can see what needs to be done here... and how much help you'll need, okay?"

She nods and sighs again, but starts making more notes on her pad of paper.

Ninja smiles then keys in a text to Hank.

Friend will take 60; most vulnerable, remember. Need numbers for relocation: remainder under 18; family units; special needs; Normals and those who can blend; those who will refuse to leave. Thx. -N

She sends the message off and slips the phone back in her pocket.

"Anything else you need from me, Mama?" she asks, picking up her considerably cooled down tea and sipping it.

"No, child... just those numbers as soon as you can get them for me. I'll give Jethon a call and have him start rounding up workers to get those old crack houses cleaned up. Don't you worry. We'll make sure everyone who comes visiting is safe. And comfortable as we can make them on short notice."

"Anything else you can think of?" Ninja asks, turning to Maddie.

Wolf shakes her head. "As long as the people are out of harm's way, that's all that matters. The rest will happen later.

She did have a smidgen of another idea, but she would have to tease out the details once she walked Commerce City itself.

Madeline looks around the small, neat kitchen then meets Mama's eyes directly. "Is there a local fund that helps support the food pantries and what not? One based in this neighborhood? There are going to be quite a few extra mouths to feed and more water in the soup only goes so far."

Old Mama shakes her head sadly. "That might turn out to be a bit of a problem, that's true. Our churches, the mission... they do what they can, but the pantries only collect so much. Times are tough for everyone it seems. Even our regular large donors have had to cut back."

She holds her head up proudly.

"But most of us can trim a little here and there." She jiggles her ample belly with a chuckle. "The good Lord knows I could use a little trimming!"

Then she reaches over and pat's Maddie's hand. "Don't you worry, child. We'll manage somehow. We always do. People around here, we look out for one another, not like them folks in the fancy mansions out south."

Ninja looks at Maddie. "Most of their harvesting is done for the season, except for the winter squash, I think. If there's enough time, and enough room on the truck, we could bring in at least enough vegetables and fruits to tide folks over."

She rubs her forehead with the heel of her hand. "Damn!

"Oh, sorry, Mama!

"We'll need to do something about their farm animals. I know a couple up near Fort Collins who can take them in for a bit... the problem is, again, transportation. And probably feed. Mark and Ivan only have goats and chickens the last I heard. Although they might have a fallow plot for the cows, it's not going to be much. Not sure what they've got for pigs and sheep."

Madeline's head tilts at the mention of livestock.

"Ninja, a friend of mine would recommend you talk to Amanda Baker. A lot of the mothers and children she works with are homesteaders, and she would know who would be willing. As for the other, if you will excuse me for a moment..."

"Ah, the Sheriff's wife. Yes, if she knows folks closer than Larimer County, that would help a great deal."

Standing, Madeline pulls out her phone and then goes into the other room. There is a quiet conversation that crosses the room and moves out onto the porch, the bits that can be overheard are in French. A few more minutes pass before Madeline returns.

"Amanda will be expecting your call," she tells Ninja as she stands at the table. "It looks like there is a bit more work to be done before the evac flights. We should be rolling soon."

Ninja stands and gives Old Mama's shoulder a light squeeze. "You've been such a big help, Mama. A lot of people are going to be sleeping safer thanks to you and your people here."

The elderly woman just waves the compliment away. "Child, it's what any good Christian would do. Now you go help those folks get down here while I make sure there's a place for them when they get here."

"Yes, ma'am," the younger woman says with a smile, turning to head back out the front door.

"And don't you forget to latch that door behind you!" Mama calls out.

"Yes, ma'am!"

Once she and Maddie are on the porch, Ninja closes the door and gives it a lift and wiggle to make sure the door is firmly closed.

"Jethon offered to fix that for her years ago," she says, shaking her head and smiling fondly. "Mama said she wouldn't recognize her own house if she didn't have to fiddle with the front door." She chuckles.

"I'll call Amanda en route," she adds as they head for the bikes. She pulls her helmet out of a pannier. The pannier isn't actually quite big enough for the helmet, so she needs her somewhat increased strength to convince it to go in... and then come out again.

"Where to next?" she asks as she begins syncing her phone to the helmet's headset.

"Someplace I can get a double cheeseburger with all the trimmings and then back up to the cabin. You can tell me what talents these Berserkers of yours have while I gather some things from the shed. Logan won't call in until he's marked Pike's contact.

"Crap... I should grab the computer from the hotel first."

She pulls out her phone, dials another number and waits. "Meet me at the cabin in an hour. Got some extra work for you... Hasta."

"Hotel, burger, cabin," she tells Ninja.

Who chuckles. "The Bridgewater Grill in your hotel has some of the best burgers in Golden. Your other options, at least on that side of town, are going to be Burger King, McDonald's and Jack-in-the-Box.

"And Jack-in-the-Box even manages to circumvent my healing factors."

Then she shrugs. "There's a Johnny Rocket's if you want to venture back eastward to the Outlet Mall. I've never had a bad burger there, atmosphere is a 50s diner — including very friendly wait staff — but at this time of day, they'll be packed.

"I'd recommend The Bridgewater."

"The Bridgewater it is then. Two birds, one stone and all that. Those other places would circumvent anyone's healing factor, or at least make you wish it just flat out killed you.

"I'll call when we get to the parking lot there."

She's about to say more when her pocket vibrates. Bringing out the phone once more, she looks at the screen. "Looks like my contact found a trail... we'll be at the hotel a bit longer.

"Oh, and someone will be coming by to see Old Mama in the morning to arrange for disbursement of an anonymous monthly donation. I hope you'll let me know if five grand isn't enough."

Ninja is about to put her helmet on so she can talk with Amanda while riding, when Maddie's last comment stops her.

"Maddie, I looked into the mission's and the churches' finances when I first started coming down here and have kept half an eye on the donations since then. At the best of times, they were lucky to garner two thousand a month. And those have dwindled to less than half what they were before the economy collapsed a few years back.

"The only reason their biggest donation — another anonymous donor — hasn't dropped is because I happen to know the donor is a librarian with a part-time job that gives her a bit of a stipend each month. Most months, that anonymous five hundred dollars is a full half of their budget."

She puts her helmet on and fastens it as she tests the connection to her phone, then she glances at Old Mama's house.

"This new anonymous donation is likely going to eliminate the chronic malnutrition these folks face, as well as ensure that all the kids have shoes that fit when they go to school."

She revs the engine and turns the bike back toward the street, coming up next to Maddie before getting on their way.

"If I wipe out because I'm crying, bitch, I'm blaming you," she says with a grin.

Madeline wears half a grin. "If you wipe out, I'll scrape you up off the pavement and wait until you're healed up. Besides, I figure if there's anything left over, they can spread it around. La Clinique de La Rue always needs funds for supplies and medicines and to make sure their own staff doesn't go hungry. I figure it can't be all that different here."

Even if she never made another euro or guilder from working, she would have plenty of money for the many lifetimes she expected to live with everything there was in low the low yield investments. Her children would never want for anything either. Still, she is just as glad that Andi just accepted it and didn't ask why. Then again, Andi had probably already figured out the why... because she could.

Andi just looks at Maddie for a few second, grins, and then she peels out and heads back out toward The Golden.

Yeah, she has tears in her eyes, but her reflexes are so fast she could ride up I-70 in heavy traffic through pea soup fog without wiping out.

Besides, she has a call to make.

She can't help remembering that first night she talked with Rene, however.

Something tells me I'm going to like your Maddie a whole lot...

Maddie's right... there certainly are other organizations — some in Five Points, some over on the west side — that can use help, too. And between Old Mama and her circle of connections, and their collective ability to stretch a budget, there will be a lot of people better off in Denver because of Maddie's generosity. It almost — almost — makes Sponsorship a viable, Andi thinks... if for no other reason than to funnel money back into the communities that need it most.

Although it is a short ride back out to The Golden, with Amanda's assistance she feels more confident that all the farm animals will be safe and sound. She even has time for a short conversation with Captain Sanchez to see what he can do about ensuring that only the most trusted — the absolutely trusted, and she names a couple of names — patrol officers will be going through Five Points until further notice. As usual, he asks no questions; he just says he'll arrange it.

His voice is starting to sound a little strained, however.

After their meeting — was it just last night? — she finds herself actually a little concerned. She knows he has a lot of friends... not just in DPD, but all over the state. She's worried he might have as many enemies. On the other hand, Captain of the Homicide Division is not exactly the most glamorous or enviable job in DPD. She suspects he's turned down more than one or two of those promotions Perry mentioned, a transfer or three as well, because Homicide is probably the safest place for him. Sucks for his career, but the more she gets to know him, the more she realizes climbing the latter is not at all what he's about... it never has been.

It's all about where he can do the most good for the most people.

She pulls up in front of the hotel and parks her bike, then pulls off the helmet, unsyncs the phone, and stuffs the helmet back in the pannier. Poor wee pannier. Well, not really all that small... just slightly too small for a helmet. At least they're the soft side panniers, and not those hard plastic ones.

She pulls her staff from its holster and follows Maddie into the hotel.

"Leave the concierge alone today. I don't want spit in my burger," Madeline teases.

She stops at the concierge anyway. "I need an order from The Bridgewater. Eight double cheeseburgers with everything, fries and Cokes, all packaged to go and delivered to Suite 12."

"Yes, ma'am," the concierge, a young woman this time, replies. "Shall I charge them to the room?"

"Yes. Thank you."

"Very good, ma'am."

"I wasn't going to mess with the concierge," Ninja mutters as she follows Madeline to the elevator.


She pauses for a second. And then another second.

"A girl's gotta have fun, you know," she says with a megawatt, mega mischievous grin.

Madeline leads the way to her suite and opens her door. Once inside, she immediately crossed to the safe and opens it, then removes her laptop and a satellite linkup. It takes her all of two minutes to have everything set up and connected. She enters a code and a weasley looking man appears on the screen.

Ninja leans her staff against the wall, then leans against the wall herself as she watches Maddie set up her computer. Nice piece of machinery, and she's only a little jealous. Actually, not really all that jealous except for the portability. Her tower at home is more than powerful enough to do everything she needs, and anything she can imagine that she might need... especially since it's a dual-boot Linux/Windows box.

"I got the shit," says the weasly man.

"Is it him?"

"Yes. Fucking bastard."

"Show me. Wait a sec..." Madeline looks up from the screen. "Ninja, you're probably going to want to see this."

Once Maddie has her contact online, however, and he verifies they're on the right trail, all thoughts of levity disappear as Ninja walks over to the computer.

"God damn it, Jacobs!" he curses and the screen goes black.

"She's clear, Freak. You know I wouldn't expose you. Now stop being more paranoid than I am, and show us what you found. And I have more names for you."

She pulls drivers licenses from a pocket and reads them. "Robert Earl Johnson, D-O-B six eighteen sixty six, and Edgar Simon Pike, D-O-B four three ninety one, according to their licenses. They look real enough to me but I'm no expert. There is also a Johnny King and an Edward Spokes."

"Scan and send, in case I need to dig into them."

"Roger that."

From a bag, she pulls out a small card reader and swipes the magnetic strips of the licenses. "Uploading now."

Ninja raises an eyebrow at the black screen, and those flippant smart ass thoughts return. Hey, would she still be Ninja without them?

"Some people think this is paranoia, but it isn't. Paranoids only think everyone is out to get them. Wizards know it."

She looks at Maddie. "Terry Pratchett, from his book Sourcery. I highly recommend it. Anything by Pratchett, really.

Then she smiles sweetly. Good gods, what terror hath been wrought by the ancient magic of the Aztecs? The Librarian speaks up while she's wearing the braids?!? She sure hopes this is not a heralding of the End Times.

"I'll have you write up a list for the kids when this is over."

Madeline looks back at the screen and it changes again. The man's face reappears in a small window in the upper right quadrant and another two windows appear, one above the other.

"Okay. Some of it is a little flimsy, won't hold up in a court of law kind of stuff," he says, his eyes glancing up at the camera, "so don't take it to court."

She just raises an eyebrow at him.

"Yeah, yeah," he intones. "I know, I'm scraping, stick to what I'm good at. Okay, fine..."

The screen flickers and code scrolls across the top window. She sighs and clamps her jaw on the remark she wants to make.

"Okay, in plain English since I know you won't understand me otherwise... I put in a cross checker to run the new stuff you sent against what we've collected over the last ten years and the stuff we got from Alkalai base."

He looks up at the camera again. "How do you always manage to find yourself in such deep shit, Madeline?"

"Just lucky, I guess."

"Yeah, well, just tell me that this time you don't need me on-site."

"I don't."

"Good. 'Cause then I'd have to charge you triple. Besides, I can do more damage from here. Did you know Stryker had a brother?"

"Why is that important. Leverage?"

"Sort of. Interesting thing, the brother was named Matthew and died in a drowning accident in 1959. He seems to have made a full recovery, though. Or someone stole his identity, which — all things considered — isn't terribly difficult when records are that old..."

"Freak," she warns.

"Yeah, yeah, don't keep your pants on."

"Do I need to use your real name?"

He looks up again. "Yeah, the bitch is serious. Okay, okay, okay... Okay, so he's been a ghost in the shell for so damn long I thought maybe he had up and died. I'd get random positives every once in a while, but couldn't connect them to anything else... no money flow, no sites, not even your father's regular customers. Even tapped that biker to go run up and see if he could find me anything else around that area. Zip, zilch and nada. But the tech that SOB had, there was no way he was keeping it all on paper, so i figured another closed system. But no, he went wide distribution, spread the shit out all over the place in the wide open. Hiding right under our fucking noses the whole fucking time...

"He's not just behind this crap, Madeline, he's right fucking there... in that town, in Denver. He's running his shit out of a diner he actually owns. It's called..."

Madeline twitches as her phone goes off in her pocket. "Hang on."

She glances at the ID and presses the answer key. "Logan, what did you find?"

"Why, Mrs. Jacobs, what a pleasant surprise," an older male voice says.

Her face goes blank but her eyes burn with fury. Her back goes completely stuff but one hand goes to the keyboard of her computer. She types a message to Freak.

Trace Logan's phone NOW.

He takes one look at her expression and his fingers fly across his keyboard.

Ninja is still processing the implications of the information this Freak individual is laying out when Maddie's phone rings. At the sound of the voice on the other end of the line, Wolf's qi turns to black ice.

One of the most dangerous things about winter out here: black ice. No one know it's there until they hit a patch of it. And if one isn't used to the stuff, the chances of slip sliding all over the highway are pretty good. Hell, even good drivers who remember about it from year to year, who acquit themselves well on the highways most of the time, can still be surprised by it and find themselves overturned in a ditch.

"I thought you might be sending me such a quaint message. You always have had such a way with words. I'm sorry I can't chat longer, but I'll be in touch."

The line goes dead.

"I need that address," she says through clenched teeth.

"I'm sending it to your computer and your phone."

Another box appears on the screen, this one with a name, address and a satellite map showing its precise location.

Sapp Bros Travel Center
7120 East 49th Avenue
Northfield (nee Commerce City), CO

"Tighten up security on the school. I'll ping you every two hours. If I'm more than five minutes late, notify Charles and tell him everything."

"Go, Madeline, I'll be standing by."

She sees the address on the screen. She knows that truck stop. It's a popular one. It's not one of the run down, worn out places one often sees these days. The diner has good food, friendly waitresses, great coffee; it's well-lit and clean; the mechanics are top notch. There has never been a problem out there she needed to investigate, and even Pablo's brethren in Patrol don't get calls for anything more than petty squabbles.

In fact, it's a popular place for most of the northeast side Patrols to take their breaks.

At the knock on the door and the call of "room service," she moves silently toward the door and reads the qi beyond.

Now who's being paranoid?

"Just leave it, please," she says.

When she hears and feels the delivery person walk away, she turns back to Maddie.

Her qi looks like... well, this morning Ninja had called her the Avenging Angel, and she supposes that's what qi looks like when one does what Maddie does. Anyone else with qi that looks like Maddie's does... when they'd be out of her town so fast their head would twist off. And it wouldn't make much difference to her if they left with a kick in the ass and a warning... or in a body bag.

On the other hand, Andi can easily see both her connection to Logan and her connection to Rene... the latter's wrapping itself around the bond she shakes with her Mate. And that interconnection looks... normal? Andi doesn't really know what normal is in this kind of situation, but it looks the same as it did last night... safe, secure, strong.

"This is a trap, even more so than the one set for me this morning. You know it. I know it.

"So before I let you walk out that door to rain down the fires of hell and possibly bring about Armageddon, I need to know a few things.

"What are the chances the fuck just has Logan's phone... and not Logan?

"If that seems unlikely, what are the chances Logan let himself be caught?

"And a plan, Madeline. What is your plan?"

She pushes the computer back and leans her elbows on the table. Her hands steeple and her eyes close as Madeline presses her lips to her forefingers. She almost looks as if she is praying.

Andi's use of the term Armageddon is accurate. The unreasoning Berserker rage that lies within her is very close to breaking through. With effort, she pulls it back, smoothing out the sharp edges, honing it until it is razor sharp and allows her to focus with absolute clarity.

Of course it's a trap.

Just the phone and not the man?

"Possible, I suppose, but unlikely. What likely happened is that he caught a whiff of that bastard and went completely Feral. As for a plan..."

She goes silent again as a thread of guilt snakes its ugly way through her consciousness. She takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly.

"I will not make the same mistake again... Rene?"

He is there in an instant, obviously concerned and worried for her.

"Can you find him?"

"Kind of, I think. I can probably go to where he is, but I probably won't know where that is."

She nods in understanding, meeting her husband's eyes. "I just need you to tell him... tell him I will find him. I will come for him no matter how long it takes."

He reaches out and caresses her face. "I'll try, Maddie. I'm really your Spirit and only his by proxy, but I'll keep trying until I get through to him."

"Please, go try now."

He vanishes from sight, presumably to do as she asked.

While Maddie talks to Rene, Andi walks to the door and just rests her hand against it for a few seconds, more as a focusing mechanism for a search of the hallway, really, and any other inhabited rooms on this floor. What the old saw about not being paranoid if they really are out to get you? Yeah. That.

After a half minute, however, she opens the door and sees the rolling cart outside laden with food and drinks. She transfers the food to the dining table, leaving the cart outside.

Madeline turns now to Ninja, utterly calm... not like the deep placid lake, but like the calm before the storm or the eye of the hurricane.

"The plan? The plan is to evac Commerce City and get your people out of harm's way, then shut those bastards down. After that, I'm going hunting."

Andi watches Maddie's qi swirling as something... something that looks an awful lot like guilt flows and tightens and nearly threatens to strangle her. When she had taken that first really close, hard look at Pablo's aura...

I will not make the same mistake again...

Yeah, don't they all have one or two or a dozen of those?

She points to the food.

"Fuel first.

"Second, stop beating yourself up. You're fucking up your qi like nobody's business," she says as she walks to a window and looks out. At the time, Garcia was a Normal and was a short walk away from a plethora of health problems with a mere pinch of the darkness in his aura that Maddie has in hers.

As she well knows, accelerated healing doesn't heal everything.

And she knows that because... fuck she hurts! That will ease with time because... well, she's hurt like this before and the pain has always eased with time. Her pain, at least. She's not going to bother contemplating the pain in the memories of others.

Finally, Andi turns and looks back at Maddie, not exactly emotionless but... hard? She's never really sure; she never has a mirror handy in the moment.

"Sorry. Not my business, really. It's not like we're BFF or anything, having just met two days ago. And I'm usually a little less blunt about these things."

She nods in Maddie's direction. "The way your qi looks, you should have died of every human ailment from cancer to gangrene to a stroke to a heart attack or half a dozen other things years ago. But you heal. Which is great.

"But that shit you hold inside has to somewhere and it's doing a good job of feeding your crazy. What else is it going to do?''

She shrugs, almost apologetically. "Again, not my business, just trying to help a sister out. I apologize if I've overstepped."

She points again to the food.


Then she pauses and smiles that Ninja smile that's a little bit evil and a little bit mischievous, and says, "YOU aren't going hunting, sister... WE are going hunting."

Then she pulls out the Ninja phone and speed dials. When Pablo picks up, she asks, "Where are you?" She nods. "Stay put. Shit is getting deep. You might want to give Perry a call and have the Missus put a rush on things." She closes her eyes and sighs. "Do not argue with me, Garcia. The fucker's raised the stakes and grabbed Wolverine. You stay put, and tell Sanchez to watch his back."

She disconnects and drops the phone back in her pocket, her lips a grim line as she looks at Maddie.

"Food. Cabin? Commerce City."

"No," Madeline says. "I need to make a call first."

It's not a speed dial, but the number is in her directory.

"Mr. Knight's office. This is Charlotte. How may I help you?"

"I'd like to speak to Gabriel, please. This is Madeline Jacobs."

"Just a moment, ma'am. I'll see if he is available to take your call."

Oddly pleasant on-hold music plays for a minute before the line is picked up.


"Gabe, you don't need to call me that anymore. But thank you. I just need to ask you something, if you have time."

"Yes, sure, I've got a few minutes. What is it?"

"If I had told you, all those years ago, about the offer that was made... what would you have said?"

He is quiet for so long she almost thinks he is not going to answer. "I think... I think I might have said for you to do what you did. I figure, you know, I got away anyway."

"You were very lucky."

"Well, of course I was!" he says, his infectious smile evident in his tone. "Sifu?"

"Yes, Gabe?"

"Is everything okay?"

"Not at the moment, but it will be. I'll let you get back to work now. Thank you, Gabe. Goodbye."

"Goodbye, Sifu."

That boy's smile and attitude always brighten a room and he has a heart of pure gold. Boy? What is she thinking? He had not been a "boy" in years. He's a grown man now with half the women in DC vying for his attention.

"Thank you, Gabe," she says again, even though they were no longer on the phone.

The ugly stained thread of guilt fades nearly completely away. It will never be completely gone. She will never really ever be able to let it go.

She packs up the computer and other gadgets and gizmos in their case and slings it over her shoulder. Then she picks up one of the bags of food and collects the extra keys for the Humvee.

"I'll eat on the way to the cabin. Mitch will probably be hungry anyway. And I happen to like my crazy. It's very useful for the work I do."

She heads out the door, assuming that Ninja will be right behind her.

She gathers the remainder of the food, then her staff, and does follow Maddie out the door, closing it behind her. If she smiles a little, or if she rolls her eyes while doing any of it... well, no one would have seen it.

Yep, the crazy might be useful for the work Maddie does. Hell, a little crazy is probably necessary for all of the folks who hold that last line between evil and everything else. And right now, today, for this enemy? They can probably use a lot of crazy. The fact of the matter is, she's got an idea starting to coalesce that — for Andi, if it can come together — is bat shit crazy.

But like everything else, too much of anything isn't usually a good thing in the long run. And Maddie has a really long run ahead of her. Andi doesn't know why she's worrying. She just met the woman two days ago. So, no... she doesn't know why she's worrying.

She just is.

She shakes her head and has to remind herself of that which she is constantly reminding others. Things happen when they are meant to happen, in the way they are meant to happen. Good things, bad things, all things.

She tucks the extra food in the Humvee with Maddie.

"I'll follow on my bike. I have an idea forming that... needs to be... hmm, coaxed into existence."

Madeline hadn't really expected Ninja to ride with her in the Humvee. The main reason she's taking it is because it has considerably greater cargo capacity than the bike.

She is just turning up the drive when Rene coalesces into existence beside her. He reaches over and holds her hand.

"Could you find him?" she finally asks when she parks.

"Sort of."

She looks over. "Sort of?"

"I couldn't get to him."

"It was there?"

"Yes. But he knows, even without me telling him. Of course, it's also what Stryker is counting on. I heard that much."

"Yes, he said he'd be calling again. The trap this time isn't quite as subtle. Right out there in the open, in fact."

"What are you going to do, Maddie?"

"Walk right into again, of course. But not until Ninja's people are clear and the others are dealt with. Besides, maybe we'll have a stroke of good fortune and Logan will break loose and shred them all," she says with a shrug, then adds, "At least I know I can't kill him by accident."

"Maddie, it wasn't your fault."

"Doesn't make it hurt any less," she tells him, although she is smiling, if sadly. "No one should have to go through this twice in one lifetime. If it was my second or third lifetime... maybe."

"No one should have to go through it at all," he says as he crosses the small space between them and folds her into his arms. "It'll be okay. I will help you find a way through."

He is about to say more when they notice another Humvee coming.

"You'd better go. Don't need Mitch thinking she's lost it, too."

"Je t'aime, Maddie."

"Ik houd u, Rene."

Her husband vanishes and she wipes her eyes, then gets out of the Humvee.

Ninja sits astride her bike in front of the Jacobs' cabin, looking farther up the mountain, letting her mind wander. She's looking for... well, she's not sure, really. Something to spark the idea growing in her head.

Pieces of the conversation Maddie and Rene are having filter through her brain, however.

Rene can't get to Logan. What prevents Spirits from getting somewhere on this plane? A question for the Ha'atathli... or Raven. Or even Rene.

And It was there. Here? On this plane, in our world?! Oh, shit, that's bad!

Or could Stryker have moved Logan to another plane? He's done it before, moving people to other dimensions... she knows that. Can he open portals? She didn't think so... not by himself, anyway. Either he has people working for him who can open portals — she doesn't know who else can do it alone, and even she needs the assistance of the Spirits. Among the Nations, it takes a group... even the Lakota Ghost Dancers are still able open portals to the world the Nations' Spirits.

Or is the Shadow willing to act on Stryker's behalf?

That last is a terrifying thought, although it does make a perverse kind of sense.

She's still sitting on her bike — long since turned off, staring up the mountain, searching — when Maddie gets out of her Humvee and Mitch drives up in the other.

"You need me here, Madeline?" she asks absently as she dismounts and grabs her staff, although it does register that she's actually used the other woman's full name because Mitch is here. She'll have to figure out later if that makes any sense.

"The Spirits walk freely tomorrow; the packs and herds and sloths and cats should be warned there may be a demon walking as well."

"No," Madeline says as she closes the door. "We got this.

"Hey, Mitch, you hungry?" Maddie asks the other woman that approaches. "Burgers on the floor board there."

"Yeah," Mitch answers, then goes where the food is.

Madeline leans back on the front bumper and makes another call.

"Hey, Joe... I want to report a stolen Harley. It belonged to my father-in-law."

It's registered to him anyway. She gives him the license plate number and the fact that the registration is officially a non-op so the tags will be expired. She hates to see it wind up in the impound. Joe understands and says he'll put out an APB on it. Hopefully, it will turn up and still be in one piece.

It's not until after Mitch is finished eating that they head to the bunker and the acquisition of more weapons.

Ninja hikes a ways up the mountain, honing in on the 'voice' that belongs to one of the cats.

Head Talker has come to play!

The one who calls herself Mighty Cat leaps out from between two large boulders, claws extended, and misses slashing the woman's arm open only because she stops short and holds perfectly still.

Oh, that was a good game! Let's play that one again, Head Talker!

As the cat turns to leap back up onto one of the boulders, the woman grabs the scruff of her neck to keep her from going anywhere.

No. No time for games. Danger comes. Gather the cats, call the leaders of the Others Who Live On The Mountain.

The mountain lion flops over on her side and looks up at the human.

Deer fears us. We don't like Wolf.

Ninja sighs and shakes her head, a purely human gesture... but the cat has seen her do it enough over the years.

Silly Naughty Cat! Ask Bear to tell Deer, ask Coyote to tell Wolf.

The mountain lion rolls onto her back, looking more like a pampered house pet than a fearsome predator.

Will Head Talker dare scratch Mighty Cat's itchy belly for the deed Mighty Cat does for Head Talker?

The woman chuckles. A person can read all they want about the mountain lion, and learn simply through reading that they're behaviorally and socially more like house cats — of course, never tell a mountain lion that! — but this is proof positive of the notion.

I not only dare, I will do.

The cat blinks once, jumps up and dashes off. Thus begins the mountain networking.

She sits down on a rock to wait, and to try teasing out this thought that's nagging the back of her brain.


Her guardian Spirit pops into the human plan and lies on the ground where the cat had been, on its back with wings spread wide, talons wiggling in the air.

Scratch my belly!

She looks at the demented bird and shakes her head. No.

It sighs — a great heaving thing — then rolls over, hops up and waddles over to her, resting its chin on her knee and looking up at her with wide eyes.

You'll do it for the cat.

She raises an eyebrow, looking down at it. The cat is not a bird.

Well, that's true! it responds brightly.

Raven, would you be able to find Maddie's Mate if you looked?

The big bird looks at her, seems to be considering the question, then shakes its head.

I do not know him. No, I would not be able to find him, except maybe if he was hiding behind this rock.

She nods.

Fair enough. Rene went looking for him earlier and said he could find Logan, but couldn't get to him. Are there places where the Spirits can't reach in our world?

Oh, yes! It nods vigorously. Many places. Bad places. Places of badness. Places where bad things happen and happen and happen.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean.

It hops up on the rock beside her and rests its head on her shoulder.

There are people outside the People We Watch Over who have the Darkness in their hearts and spirits. Many times, they do very bad things. If there is a place where people with Darkness in their hearts and in their spirits do bad things many, many times, then we cannot go there. Like you with your body cannot live in the depths of this world's oceans. With help from a powerful Shaman... maybe we could go there. But not alone, not ever.

The animals are beginning to gather... Ninja notices two other cats, not part of her mischievous trio, sitting among the trees and feels the presence of a wolf behind her.

Are there places like that near here? she asks Raven.

Raven nods sadly. Holes in the ground, deep holes. Places where people have scooped away the Earth Mother. There is one close to here.

So there is already the Shadow in our world.

Again, Raven nods, but shudders as well. Quetzalcoatl did not find every little piece of it so long ago. And then he slept for many, many, many time units in this place. Too many. It is hard to watch when sleeping, and he was mostly watching for his Chosen One. Raven sighs. Like the creatures of this world — people, these animals who gather, the other animals — small pieces of Darkness come together to create new pieces of Darkness. Now there is enough Darkness here for the Shadow to notice.

But it tried to enter our world ten years ago, and was repelled.

Raven shrugs. Right. Birds don't shrug. A year is a minute is a decade is a second is a millennia; it's all the same. Just time units.

And time moves differently in your worlds anyway.

Yes. We have no time units. Now is now is now.

Most of the other animals have arrived by now. Bear is still missing, as well as several cats.

Can people be moved from one world to another? Well, I suppose they can, since Quetzalcoatl moved Pablo and Logan and Ben to his prison world. But is it possible for a person to do that without help from one of the Spirits?

Raven slides down to lie on the rock with its head in her lap, looking up at her. First, there are so very, very, very, very, very few places where beings with bodies such as yours... It bumps its head against her belling and points a wing randomly at a few of the animals that have gathered. ...can survive. Of those so very few places, this and Quetzalcoatl's pocket worlds are the only ones where your minds could remain intact. That I know. Eagle, Quetzalcoatl, Great Spirit might know of others. Your kind do not have the ability to move from world to world without help while you still possess bodies.

She nods. Bear has lumbered up, and the cats have all arrived.

Bear looks at her before scratching her back against a tree.

What have you to say, Speaker To All, that you have called all here this day?

She pushes Raven off her lap and it goes sliding down the rock in slow motion, head first, to land with its feet sticking up in the air as she shakes her head and stands on the rock. The cats and coyote giggle. From the outcropping above her head, wolf rumbles, Someday I should eat that bird.

Ninja looks up at him and grins. You are certainly free to try! Raven squawks indignantly. She looks back at bear, looks at all those who have gathered — a deer from each of the two herds, an elk from the local gang, a wolf and coyotes from their respective packs, all the adult cats, and the bear from the sloth — and says, You know tomorrow is the day the Spirits walk among us. Normally, only the Benevolent Spirits walk, but there is an Evil Spirit already walking among my kind who may try to bring more of the Evil to this place. I ask that you beware, for I would not want any of you harmed by it.

Can we be harmed by it? asks the elk.

I truly don't know. But all of you here are no less intelligent than my kind, and if the Evil thought it could use you in its mission, it would not hesitate to do so. It has managed to force many of my kind to do things against their wills. While my kind far below on the Plain of Lights believe I protect them from you, you all know me. You know I protect you from my own kind as readily as I protect my own from one another.

There is general agreement among them. Then one of the coyotes ask, The snack you provide for us tonight... that is part of the Evil that walks among your packs?

She nods and the coyotes happily display matching sets of impressive teeth.

Might there be more? Full meals perhaps? the elder of the two coyotes asks.

Again, I have no way of knowing, friend coyote. My kind have ways of dispensing justice that is not truly right and just. However, if true justice is served, I will send word to you via the winged ones.

Wolf leans over the outcropping to wuffle the woman's hair. Be careful, She of the First People, he says before bounding off to bring the news to his pack. Except for Naughty Mighty Cat, the rest begin disbursing as well.

Ninja jumps lightly to the ground and stands above the cat for a moment, looking at her stretching out on her back waiting for her belly scratching.

You know you look particularly silly like that, right?

My belly itches, she wails plaintively.

The woman chuckles and gives the cat a good scratching before heading back down the hill to the Jacobs' cabin.

Madeline has the bunker open again and the trailer pulled out. She and Mitch are sitting on it cleaning high caliber weapons as Madeline explains what they need Mitch to do that afternoon. Mitch looks up with an odd expression.

"What?" Madeline asks.

"So you're turning me into a Coyote?"

Madeline's laugh is sarcastic. "Yeah, like you've never done that kind of thing before. Remember who's been one of your passengers on more than one occasion."

The box of burgers is only half decimated.

"You hungry yet, Ninja?"

"Yeah, starving. Thanks."

She grabs a burger and a bottle of water from her second pannier but looks between the two woman before she begins eating.

"I have a feeling 'Coyote' means something different to you than it does to me." She feels one of her phones vibrating.

"Oh, just a bit," Madeline says as she slips rounds into a bandolier.

"I wouldn't mind some education on the topic..." She fishes out the Andrea phone. "...after I take care of this." She looks at the Caller ID and mutters, "Speaking of Coyotes..."

She presses Talk. "Hello, Henry. How can I help you?"

Her eyebrows both stretch up toward her hairline. "Well, that's fantastic, Henry, and you'll have to thank Coyote for me..." She stops as he interrupts her. "Oh, no... that's quite all right, Henry, I have enough lunacy dealing with Raven. But that means you're calling from the plane."

She sets both burger and water down, then cradles her forehead in her free hand. "Henry! Your guardian Spirit is NOT flying the plane!"

She sighs as he speaks again. "Fine, Henry. Just fine. No, no... it's perfectly all right that you're coming early. I already texted you the address. Did you get it?" She nods. "Good. You'll pass through a checkpoint and you will NOT mess with whichever person is working there, do you understand me?"

There is a slight pause.

"Henry..." Her voice has an edge of warning to it. "...I'm perfectly capable of singing into this phone!"

And there is another slightly longer pause as he backpedals his way out of the trouble he was heading toward.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Just tell whomever that Ninja sent you, go see Hank... he's at the address you have... and behave yourself. I'll probably already be around somewhere. Hank will know where to find me."

She knows she has a look of long-suffering exasperation on her face. "Yes, Henry, that's wonderful. And yes, I know Phoenix is too hot for ninjas, and I can't wait to see you again either. Now may I go back to the delicious cold cheeseburger I was about to eat when you called?"

There is one more short pause.


But he has already disconnected with his oh, how could anyone ever stay mad at me chortle, and she puts the phone back in her pocket, then rubs her temples.

"The chauffeur for the terminally shy and easily startled is arriving a couple of hours earlier than originally anticipated."

She sits down, opens the bottle of water and takes a long drink.

"So how does your coyote differ from mine?" she asks as she picks up the cold cheeseburger.

Mitch and Madeline exchange amused glances as they listen to Ninja's half of the conversation.

"Are you kidding me, chica?" Mitch exclaims. "How do you think we all sneak across the border? We don't all have private jets like Señora Jacobs here."

Madeline just shakes her head.

"A Coyote is someone who is paid obscene amounts of money to sneak people who are seeking better lives across the border. Though I can promise you that Mitch will be much more conscientious regarding her passengers' welfare."

Ninja nods while chewing, then grins at Mitch. "Hey, our people were here first, o'o? Shouldn't have to sneak across some imaginary line."

She looks from one woman to the other again, serious once more. "I'm never going to be able to repay the debt of gratitude I owe you for doing this. You have any messy karma that needs cleaning up, this will go a long way toward balancing the karmic scales."

She takes another sip of water.

"I warned the larger, more intelligent of the wildlife that it may not be just the Benevolent Spirits walking when the veils fall tomorrow. They're going to lie low. I don't want them caught up in this mess. And..."

She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly as she meets Maddie's eyes.

"I think I might know where Logan is."

Madeline's hands still.

"Tell me... everything."

Mitch looks up, curious and wary; Madeline's reaction and tone is giving her pause. She had noticed the man's absence but had not questioned it.

"Not a lot to tell, really."

She takes another drink of water.

"I asked Raven if there might be places the Spirits can't access on this plane, in this world. It was very emphatic that there are definitely places like that. Compared it to humans trying to survive unprotected at the bottom of the ocean. Although I guess it's possible for them to do it with the help of the ha'atathli... like being in a submarine, maybe?"

She shrugs and pauses. She doesn't mind sounding crazy in front of other people, and if Mitch thinks she's muy loca... whatever. And Maddie did say everything.

"Well, I guess a little background wouldn't hurt.

"The place Logan went to get a scent of this Thing you're tracking is essentially a prison. Quetzalcoatl collected all the infected people and animals he could find back the first time the Shadow broke through. Except, according to Raven, he missed some of the smaller infections.

"The evil that men do, to quote the Bard. Raven calls it a Darkness in the hearts and souls of some humans. Like people, like the animals, this Darkness breeds. When it reached critical mass, I suppose you'd call it, the Shadow took notice.

"That was ten years ago, except that it's still NOW to the Thing, the Shadow. The Spirits don't have units of time. As Raven said, now is now is now. Apparently, at the dark end of the spectrum, the same holds true for the Shadow.

"Unfortunately, Quetzalcoatl was focusing the majority of his attention on the prison, and only paying enough attention to descendants of his own people to find his Chosen One, the one who'd stand at the side of the Warrior... ahem, destined — and for beings who only have now, I suppose the idea of destiny is a little different than for those of us who have a fondness for free will — to face the Shadow the next time it emerges.

"Which is now. And it apparently has been now for ten years.

"He was watching the descendants of his people, the Aztecs. The Benevolent Spirits have been watching the Native People of North America and Australia. I have to guess that some of the Higher Spirits have been watching over various groups of people, but for the majority of humankind... well, no one and nothing was paying any attention."

She takes another deep breath.

"Anyway, when people with Darkness in their hearts and souls do bad things, it can contaminate a place. If enough bad people do enough bad things over and over and over in any particular location, the Spirits can get close... but they can't get close enough to communicate with anyone in a place like that.

"Long story short — right, too late — the closest such place is what Raven calls a deep hole in the ground where people have scooped away the Earth Mother, which is a bad thing.

"In other words... a mine.

"Thanks to what I do in my other life and to a particularly obnoxious history professor at the University of Colorado, I happen to know that the nearest abandoned mine is about thirty minutes — at posted speeds — west of here in Idaho Springs... probably about forty minutes from our location this morning."

"A mine. That sounds right up his alley. As far underground as possible where satellites can't find him. And I'd wager if we checked the records it would say there was a cave in. And I'm sure the SOB has contaminated a lot of places."

She taps her boot on one of the rails, thinking for a minute. She gets up and goes to the very back of the bunker and brings out a large polyurethane bag and dumps it on the trailer.

"Mitch, give me a hand with a couple of air tanks."

"Where you want them?" Mitch asks as they carry them out.

"Back of the Humvee. Rather have them and not need them..."

"I hear you. Want I should go in with you?"

"No, I'd rather you were on the outside waiting to haul my ass out of there when the shit hits the fan."

"'Cause it always does with you."

"It does."

"Well, the weird things is that there are three mines out there. All are abandoned in the sense that they're no longer working mines."

Ninja watches the other two women moves the air tanks as she eats more of the burger.

"All three are open to the public, and give daily tours. However..."

Raven? Rene?

Raven appears in front of her, hanging upside down and grinning maniacally. Rene mists into existence, insubstantial, where Mitch can't see him and raises an eyebrow at Ninja.

Raven, you can tell which is the worst of the bad places, right? And Rene... could you pinpoint Logan's location in the mine, even if you can't get to him?

Raven spins dizzily. All bad! All bad! All bad!

She closes her eyes on the crazy flying thing and gives Rene a moment to consider his answer.

"...the Phoenix Mine has never had any reported cave ins. Although it's about five hundred feet deep and tourists are only allowed to go about a hundred feet deep, the only reason the rest of the mine isn't open to the public is the very small diameter of the tunnels. The guys who own it are working to actually open more areas to the tourist trade." She shrugs. "Not sure it's the best idea in the world, but the geologists and environmentalists have signed off on it.

"Then there's the Edgar Mine. That's part of the Colorado School of Mines... it's one of their laboratory settings. It would be hard to pull off anything nefarious — at least to the extent we're talking — when people are coming and going regularly and frequently.

"The Argo Mine, on the other hand..."

She glances over at Rene for an instant before giving her attention back to Maddie.

"The only part open to tourists is the mill itself, which is entirely above ground. Since it's the largest mill of its kind in the world, it sees a lot of traffic. Only personnel from the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, however, are allowed in the mine...

"...or in the Argo Tunnel, which connected the mine with the town of Central City. At the time the mine was operational, the tunnel provided water drainage, ventilation and transportation for a number of mines in the area."

She pauses, her eyes flickering between Maddie and Rene.

"The Argo Tunnel flooded in 1943. It was never reopened."

Again, she pauses, her gaze moving from Maddie to Mitch and back to Maddie... and Rene, who now stands beside Maddie.

"If that's Stryker in there, I own him some payback. You just tell me how I can help, because I'm not sitting outside with Chica here."

Thinking of Sally and Ben and Dick, she tightens her jaw and tries to keep the qi from light up her eyes again.

"Taking that fucker out of circulation could push the Shadow's emergence back another decade. Or two."

Her eyes flash bright and gold for a moment before they settle back to their normal dark brown.

"Or sealing it up for a million and a half years would work, too. We'd probably need the Chosen One to help with that."

She can feel Rene there, and the corner of her mouth quirks up briefly. Maddie stills the instinct to reach for his hand.

"Maybe, and I know all about owing the fucker payback, but let's get your people safe first, then we can go taking care of our pest problem. In the interim..."

She calls up her favorite hacker. "I need every map you can find of the Argo Mine outward, specifically the tunnel that flooded in 1943. See if you can't bounce off the sats to pull up thermal imaging and the like. Every bit of data like you did for the dam. And no, I still don't want you on-site, just have the data standing by... Yes, every two hours, restarting now... No. I'll ping you when I'm ready for it."

She hangs up the phone and slips it back into a pocket.

"Once the pests are cleared, it would probably be best to seal it all up for good," she says, meeting Ninja's eyes directly. "The simplest way to do that is to collapse the tunnels. Charges in the right spots will do that, but I don't know how it will affect the land and its inhabitants, so it might be something you want to think about. If it's an option, the friend lending you the Chinook wouldn't happen to have some extra C4 lying around, would they?"

Ninja shakes her head. "You learn a lot doing my other job and, while I'm no geologist, I understand a little bit about the geography of the area. Collapsing the tunnel might be a way to keep pests out, but you're also talking about a tunnel that burrows beneath a number of still-inhabited towns, and still drains water from all those non-operational mines, even the small ones that caved in a century ago. If the water doesn't drain, there'll be buildup that can have both environmental and structural impacts all along the route between Idaho Springs and Central City. There are a lot of homes and businesses in the area... and the area relies heavily on the tourist trade."

She rolls her eyes. "Especially now that Central City's been turned into one big casino."

She rubs the back of her neck. "Clear Creek County isn't technically my turf, but... my friend with the Chinook might still be able to do something besides bring in some spare C4." She shakes her head and smiles wryly. "He and his team have some interesting resources."

"Yeah, so do I. Mine are considerably farther away and would take too long to get here.

"These," she says, indicating the large caliber weapons, "I'm going to tuck away into one Humvee and leave it here for the hunting trip. I'll bring some extras of the simpler weapons in the other Humvee in case any of the folks staying behind are capable of using them.

"And someone should ride shotgun with Mitch, just in case. Someone with steady nerves."

Ninja nods. "We'll need to talk to Hank and a few others. I suspect some of the fine citizens of Commerce City are well versed in the use of the firearms even though, technically, that's illegal. And I'm sure more than one of them has steady nerves.

"As far as weapons for those who'll refuse to leave..." she pauses and considers that. "Probably things like battle axes, maces and the like. I heard about that guy Banner who gets all green and smashy when he's upset. Think that... except these guys aren't green and don't turn into a nice little scientist when they're calm. They just... get calm."

She shakes her head and chuffs out a laugh.

"When they're calm, they tend the farms and gardens. Something like a cross between Jocko and a Buddhist monk. When they're riled up?" She shrugs. "There are still a couple of parking lots that can be torn up. All Hank and his team do is point them in the right direction, and they beat the crap out of shit."

"There are a lot of things that are, technically, illegal. As for medieval weaponry, we'll just have to find what's lying around for them to use in its place. The few pieces I do have aren't here and aren't really meant for use anymore. But I'm sure we can find a few dozen baseball bats.

"And I know how to deal with your Berserkers," Maddie says with a not very nice smile. "Them, I understand."

Mitch snorts. "Sure as shit should."

Madeline rolls her eyes at Mitch.

"All right, let's get this loaded up and get her on the road."

Madeline and Mitch bring out some steel boxes and load them into the Humvee Madeline is taking. They roll the trailer back into the bunker, and Madeline closes it up while Mitch gets the rest of the gear loaded. Before the the Latina closes up the Humvee, she pulls out extra ammo for herself and pockets it, then heads for the APC.

As Madeline heads for her Humvee, she says, "Remember, Ninja, these aren't built for speed."

The Warrior gives her both a half smile and a salute. "Posted limits; I won't lose you." She walks over to her bike and slides her staff into the holter.

Then she stops.

And turns around to look at the two vehicles she'll be leading back out to Commerce City.

This time, the idea hits like the proverbial ton of bricks as she looks at the other Humvee.

She walks back to the Humvee where Maddie waits and grins more than a little wickedly.

"Now, I know you wanted to hold the second Humvee in reserve for the next mission," she says slow, "but if we could stow my bike in one of these fine vehicles without doing damage to the paint job, both Humvees would form up a proper convoy if we stick this monstrosity in the middle. And some mighty fine rumors could start flying when a convoy of what appears to be Army vehicles rolls into Commerce City."

She chuckles... gosh, almost evilly!

"Rumors that could, without a doubt, be further fueled with an Army Chinook landing there..." She pulls out one of her phones to check the time, then slip it back in the pocket. "...less than an hour later."

"Why not just load it up in the back of the truck?" Mitch asks. "These things do some with ramps."

She proceeds to roll up the back and slides out one of the ramps with a flourish.

Madeline chuckles too and her chuckle definitely has a wicked overtone to it. "If you want, I can ask Charles to not bother with the cloak on the Blackbird. That should raise a few eyebrows, too."

Ninja grins at Mitch as she pulls the ramp out. "Gracias!"

But it takes several seconds for Maddie's words to sink in.

"Wait... WHAT?!? His plane has a cloaking device??" She looks at Maddie in utter amazement. "How did he get it from the Romulans?!"

Maddie grins.

"I only have theories on how he got it, and despite my repeated requests, he has refused to share the technology with me.

"But at least I have the holodeck tech. Makes cleanup of the dojo so much simpler... or whatever else I decide to set it to..."

"Chica, you holding out on me?" Mitch asks.

"Hey, not my fault you haven't made it to Paris yet."

"Aye carumba! Guess I'll have to now."

"A holodeck?"

Ninja's expression conveys something on the order of, Please hold... the brain you are currently trying access is rebooting.

"Seriously? A real, honest to Gene Roddenberry holodeck?"

She manages to blink. And then she says, almost reverently, "Whoa."

She looks at Mitch, then back at Maddie.

"You win.

"I thought I had some pretty cool shit with a Harley Sportster I've tweaked — with a little help from my cousin — way beyond specs. And a coffee maker that has coffee ready for me in the morning.

"But I will never have anything as cool as a holodeck!"

She grinning like a teen at her first science fiction convention. Well, considering that she only went to her first one a couple of years ago, she's not all that far off. Still. Grown woman here! Or... well... trying to be, anyway.

"Well, Charles did not call it that," Madeline explains, "but that is pretty much what it is, with the appropriate safety protocols even. The non-lethal shots certainly pack one hell of a punch. And my hacker friend made some tweaks for me.

"I guess that just means you and your intended will just have to decide between a European honeymoon or a South American one."

Mitch is just shaking her head. "Chica always did love her toys."

Madeline levels a gaze at her. "Pot, kettle?"

Mitch flashes a grin. "I ain't complaining."

"Ahhh... well. We haven't actually decided anything. Which is annoying every female on both sides of the tree. Except Talia. And that's probably just because she already knows what we're going to decide — even though we don't — and knows better than to blab."

She rubs her forehead with the fingers of one hand.

"You know, the two halves of my life are kind of crashing together here, and I need to get my head back in the game. Work, work, work... time to go to work."

She shakes her head, and then takes a deep breath... letting it out slowly.

"You two are a bad influence. But I have a feeling you already knew that. Let me get my bike stowed so we can get out of here and save the world. Or at least my little corner of it that happens to be infested with some nasty ass scum."

She turns toward her bike.

"Oh, and rescue your man!" she calls over her shoulder.

"Yeah, we've been accused of that a time or two before."

Off to the side, Rene nods emphatically. And just loud enough for him and Ninja to hear, Madeline says, "You didn't seem to mind, Jacobs."

Can you blame me?

Maddie mouth quirks with a suppressed smile.

Ninja does her best to hide her smile, too, at Rene's comment. As she rolls her bike toward the truck, she pauses again at the first Humvee.

"I don't think there are enough TLA organizations in the world," she says, her sarcasm subtle but evident. "We should start another: WSW. Women Saving the World. Hmm. Yep."

She gets the bike stowed safely and hops back out of the truck.

"Okay, who's got the keys to this other big bad ugly thing?"

"Here," Mitch says, digging the keys out of a pocket and tossing them over to Ninja.

...Who snatches them neatly out of the air with ease.

"You take the lead," Madeline calls out as she climbs into her vehicle.

Ninja gets into the other Humvee, tucks her staff out of the way, starts up the vehicle and leads the convoy down the mountain. Driving a car... a big, BIG car... is not something she often does. She's happy to have hyperacute reflexes for this piece of...

Well, damn. Pablo's car is normal. This thing? Not so much.

She's got the hang of how it all works within a few minutes, well before they encounter any traffic. It doesn't handle well, much worse than Pablo's car. And Pablo's car handles less well than her bike. It's a bit like trying to drive a brick. Without wheels. Or a suspension, either. Okay, yes... granted this appears to be a genuine military model Humvee. But there's no possible way a civilian model could be modified enough to make a Humvee a car worth owning. Ugh.

Also, it doesn't go very fast. Well, she probably could have pushed it over the speed limit, but she feels as though it might... she doesn't know... fall apart? She's sure it won't. Maddie Jacobs isn't the sort of person to own something that would fall apart. It only feels like it might fall apart. It's a little like Uncle Junior's minivan... except... well, that did fall apart. Thankfully, not while she was driving it.

And it takes forever to get out to Commerce City. Ah, there's nothing like a pleasant afternoon drive in an Army convoy at 55 mph to make one appreciate a bike that can do one fifty easily. Yep.

Rene chooses to sit in the Humvee with Madeline since Mitch can't see him. "Feels like old times, eh, Maddie?"

"Kind of. Rene?"


"When we go to get Logan, don't put yourself at risk. Please?"

"I'm already a ghost, you know."

She spares a moment to glance over at him. "You saw the place he went with Q. It was worse than where you were stuck before, and not as bad as where that Thing comes from. I don't want you in either of those places."

"I don't want to be there either, Maddie."

"Promise me."

He studies her face for a long moment. "I promise... Maddie, why haven't you called Frank in?"

"You know why, Rene."

"Yes, I suppose I do."

They ride in silence for a little while, then she says, "I'm glad you're here."

He leans over and kisses her cheek. "I am, too, and he's going to be fine."

"I know," she answers as they slow to a stop. "You'd better..."

Fade out, she was going to say, but he is already gone... physically anyway. His presence is still there.

I'll keep watch.

Driving up to the guard booth, their little convoy does cause a stir. Jocko steps away from the booth to stand in the middle of the road. Ninja stops the Humvee and leans her head out the window.

"Hi, Jocko! Whatcha doin' there in the middle of the street?"

"Ninja? Where bike? Where bike??" He rushes as fast as his large self can move and stands by the window of the Humvee. "Is Ninja okay?"

She chuckles. "Yes, Jocko, I'm fine. My bike is fine. We just thought it was more fun to drive up together like this."

"Oh." He seems to think about things for a while. Then he grins broadly. "Fun is good! Jocko glad Ninja has fun! Going to see Hank now?"

"Yep. That okay?"

Jocko laughs. "Ninja okay. Ninja friends okay! Hey, Missy say we go away. Is truth?"

She nods. "Is truth. Jocko will go?"

"Oh yes! Missy say can with her. Say her dad and mom will like Jocko." he looks down at the ground, embarrassed again. "Jocko know he scary looking. Jocko think maybe Missy just try make Jock feel better."

She reaches a hand out the window and pats his shoulder. "Jocko. You know Missy has same Virus Jocko has, yes?"

He nods, just once.

"You know Missy's mom and dad love her very, very much, yes?"

He nods again, but still won't look up. Ninja rolls her eyes and slaps the top of his head.

"Jocko! You won't scare her mom and dad! And I told them that you watch out for her. I think they like you already."

He looks up. "Really?"


His craggy face nearly splits open with a grin. "We go now?"

She has to laugh at the young man's enthusiasm. "Not yet. Probably not for a while. A big helicopter and an airplane are coming, too."

"Yes. For the babies and their mamas. And the ones..." He wiggles his fingers around his head.

"You sure do know everything that's going on here, Jocko," she says, raising an eyebrow.

He stands up taller, proud of himself. Geez... FINALLY! But she has to maintain the act, pretending that she doesn't know.

"Hank trust Jocko! Jocko sits with Hank and others at meetings every week!"

"No way!" she says with feigned surprise.

"Way way!" he replies.

"You're on the City Council?"

"Yes, Council. Jocko not good with talking, but Jocko smart," he says, perhaps a little defensively.

"Well, I always did say that about you, Jocko. I'm glad Hank finally listened. And now, before my friends become really impatient, we're going to go see Hank."

"Okay, Ninja. And other man who come say you send him. You see him, too?"

She groans. "Yes. I see him, too."

"Ninja not like him? Jocko tell him go away!"

She shakes her head. "No, no, Jocko. Ninja likes very much. He just likes to make Ninja crazy."

"Oh. Okay then. If Ninja like, Jocko like!"

She puts the Humvee back into gear and continues up Vasquez. "Don't be so sure of that, Jocko," she mutters to herself.

In the mirrors, she can see Jocko wave to Mitch and give Maddie a wide grin as he waves and say, "Hi, Wolf!!"

Ninja chuckles. She'll take the levity where she can get it because soon enough, there wasn't going to be enough to go around.

Since the word had obviously been passed around that some Army-like vehicles would be coming to town with Ninja, they actually cause less of a stir than they had outside the walls once they left the highway. Her little scene with Jocko — if anyone was watching — will also make good fodder for the rumor mill that exists outside the walls of the city. Pulling up in front of the administrative building, she sees a relatively new GMC Savanah, the fifteen passenger model it looks like, also in front of the building.

Henry. Such an overachiever.

She parks the Humvee and grabs her staff as she gets out, and then waits for the other charter members of Women Saving the World to park their vehicles before they all head toward Hank's office.

Mitch jumps out of the armored cargo vehicle and Madeline slides from the Humvee, bringing up the rear as they head to the Mayor's office.

Ninja walks into Hank's office and just gives Henry the LOOK.

"Hey, Ninja! How are you? And whatever I did, it's Coyote's fault!" He grins, happy as a kid. "I like Colorado! Maybe I should move here, huh? People are so nice!"

She just rolls her eyes at him.

"Henry... Mitch and Black Wolf. Ladies... Henry."

"Hey, Miss Mitch. Hey, Miss Wolf. You know, Coyote says after we're all finished doing this people moving thing, we should go dancing."

Mitch's eyebrow arches at his form of address. "No, man, it's just Mitch."

"Heyas, Henry," Madeline greets Henry, and then glances over at Ninja. "The Ghost is keeping watch.

Ninja nods to Maddie.

"You got ghosts here, too, Ninja? Man, those tchin'dih... like Coyote, but scary. We gonna do a Dance to keep 'em away?"

She looks at Henry and says nothing. Just... looks.

"I should stop talking, huh?"

"That might be a good idea."

"Okay, I can do that. Me and Coyote, we'll just sit over there, okay?"

She rubs her temples. "Does anyone in this room know why it was a good idea to call this nut case?" she mutters to herself.

Raven pecks her foot.

"Hoo hee, sounds like Raven thinks it was a good idea. And me and Coyote sure do think it's a great idea."

She looks at Henry. Coyote is sitting beside him, grinning a big doggy grin with its tongue lolling out one side of its mouth. She just can't...

And then Raven flops over on its side and states at Coyote.

"Hey, check it out, Ninja! Raven and Coyote are going to have a stare off! I'm putting my money on Raven because birds blink less."

"You shouldn't even be able to see Raven, Henry!"

"Nah, Coyote said Raven doesn't mind. So they both let me see Raven."

She looks at Hank. "Is this going to work?" she asks, hooking her thumb in Henry's direction.

Hank actually smiles. "If he talks as much on the trip over to Five Points has he has in the fifteen minutes he's been here, the Sensitives will completely forget they're in a van traveling outside their safe space."

She nods hesitantly. "Well, he went and rented a full size van, so you can send a few more along with him."

Hank nods. "I thought the Three Blind Mice and some of the more mature of our teens."

"Whatever is going to make it easiest for your folks, Hank. I trust your judgment. Now..." She takes a deep breath and sighs it out. "How many are refusing to leave?"

He turns a large sheet of ledger paper on his desk so I can read it.

"Sixty four... well, less than I expected. You've got... what? A dozen of your Berserker monks?"

"Pretty close. There are fifteen of them. The rest are just..." He shrugs. "...just folks who refuse to be run out of their homes."

"Their right," Ninja says. "Most of them watching the sewers?"

He nods. She runs her finger down to another another line.

"Damn, Hank! Over three hundred people who are Normals or can pass for Normal? What are you running up here, a hippie commune?" Her voice might sound serious, but he can see the twinkling of humor in her eyes.

He laughs and some of his tension eases away. "And those who decided to stay in the area — heading over to Thornton or Wheat Ridge — have been slipping out the north gates."

"North is good; there's a cesspool to the southeast... too close for my comfort.

"Still a lot of people to be moved." She turns to Mitch. "How many people can you fit in that monster truck of yours, chica?"

"Dozen with gear. More without," Mitch answers without hesitation. This is obviously not her first run of this kind.

Madeline walks over to the window and peers out.

Anything, Jacobs?

All clear.

She turns back to the Mayor. "How many staying behind can handle weapons? I brought extra."

Ninja looks over the numbers, each of which represents one of her people. There has to be a better way, a faster way.

Hank is flipping through some papers.

"Looks like three people know how to use handguns... Maria, Steve and Mahmoud. Then there's Aaron."

The silence is long enough that Ninja looks up from her calculations. Hank meets her eyes.

"He's a United States Marine sniper. Well, ex-Marine, I suppose."


He shrugs, but smiles one of his there are decent people left in the world smiles.

"Aaron and his wife, Lisa, have a two year old daughter. Like JD, only Elise wasn't just crying inside Lisa's head when she was born. The whole L&D ward heard her. So it was pretty common knowledge that they'd be dropping the baby off here. Except they didn't. They packed up whatever they thought they truly couldn't live without into her Altima, drove up here when Elise was a week old, and have been here ever since. I suspect Aaron's AWOL, which is frowned upon. Lisa left a successful law practice."

Henry chuckles. "Hey, they sound like our kind of people, huh, Ninja?"

Hank looks confused.

She smiles at Henry, then looks back at Hank to explain. "The People of the First Nations — Native Americans — don't abandon children who are... different. Most just stay in their home Nation."

"I got me a sister and a baby brother who are kinda different," Henry says, sounding almost serious. "Some cousins, too." He grins. "They're family, man, so who cares about that other stuff, right? But hoo boy, you ought to see my baby brother when he's turning into something else! He's one scary looking wolf when he goes and does that!"

She shakes her head, but can't help smiling at her cousin. Henry's not wrong about Billy. Actually watching him Shift is... freaky. And his wolf form is pretty scary looking... until he comes over with a big old doggy-like slobber all over the face kind of kiss.

She loses the smile, however, as she looks down at the ledger sheet in front of her again. So many people. Even if a couple hundred soak into the general population of the towns north of Commerce City, there are still a lot of people to get down to Five Points.


What if they weren't moving people to Five Points? What if...

"What do you say we run the convoy — all three vehicles — between here and the Federal Building in Denver? Make it look like we're bringing troops in. Think we could pull that off? Probably need to get some of Hank's folks to drive the Humvees. I think you and I will be needed here.

"The route takes them right through Five Points. If you don't mind some Special Forces boys and girls lending a hand up here, I can call my friend. Make it look real."

Ninja raises her eyes from the ledger to look at Maddie. There's the faintest hint of desperation in her eyes.

Madeline tilts her head, considering.

"It's possible. What did you have in mind beyond that? But shutting the gates, we're inviting them to a barrel shoot... making them come to us instead of chasing them through their home turf. If they think this is an armed camp, they're unlikely to be bold enough to come against us. If we're just a bunch of freaks that need putting down, that's something else entirely..."

Ninja pauses, seeing Henry grinning like a ninny on the other side of the room — nothing new there — and Coyote rolling on the floor. Laughing.

She blinks. Coyote... literally rolling on the floor laugh out loud. Well, at least to her and Henry it's out loud.

The thought flashes so quickly through the back of her mind... Coyote sure has a different way of teaching.

Then a slow smile spreads across her face.

"The Army collects a lot of freaks, as you so eloquently put it," she says as she begins thinking through Coyote's lesson. "It should be possible to leak the information that the Army is doing a major — but, for the most part, clandestine — dump in Commerce City today and tonight. The Chinook is dropping off a batch this afternoon from Fort Carson. They've been rounding up..." Damn, she hates the word. "...Unfortunates for weeks from all across the metroplex and holding them at the Fed Center. The convoy will be ferrying those up here tonight.

"Clandestine means we can add whatever panel vans and delivery trucks and anything else we can find to the mix. I'll make a few calls to see what can be rounded up on short notice. We can get more people out that way, and faster.

"If we want to add to our army up here, I'm pretty sure whoever volunteers for this can be convincingly, although mildly, freaky. To be honest, I have a feeling there's more special in Masterson's Special Forces unit than in most."

"All armies have more special than they'll admit to," Madeline comments. "But again, whatever makes you better at what you do and keeps your unit alive is all good by them."

Ninja pauses, looking from Maddie to Coyote and back again. Yes, it's weird... including one of the Spirits in the planning, and it's not even her guardian Spirit.

"The question is... do we leak the information to just law enforcement, or do you want to involve the press as well?"

"No press," Madeline says immediately. "My face is too well known in certain circles. The whole purpose of a secret identity is secrecy. Bad enough the oldest boy knows."

"Great Spirit! I wasn't thinking of inviting the press to the party!" Ninja says, shuddering and thoroughly unnerved by the very idea. "No, no, no!! They are not my friends!

"Well, except for one guy.

"But come on... seriously? With a name like Ninja, you think I want to be walking around where there are reporters and photographers? I can fry cell phones at a hundred paces! I happen to know that because I've done it."

Coyote is laughing so hard it looks like it's... crying? Henry has started laughing softly.

"No, I just thought a certain reporter might get an anonymous tip about what's going on. A paragraph on an inner page in tomorrow's paper. Tomorrow's the day we have the best chance of getting rid of these assholes. Well, all the assholes."

"A subtle paragraph is fine. More than that, and I'll have to start shooting reporters," Maddie says.

Mitch snorts. "Like it'd be the first time."

Ninja tries and fails to keep from grinning at the other two women. "I'd have to strongly advise you not to shoot any reporters, but unfortunately I fear I would be unable to stop you should you not heed my warning."

Henry stops laughing long enough to ask, "Hey, Ninja, what's so great about tomorrow? Well, other than me getting all the candy corn?"

She looks at the Spirit. "Did you teach him nothing?"

Coyote howls.

Henry nods. "Oh yeah, I learned that one. Want me to show you?"

"NO!" She shakes her head and sighs. "Good grief. It's the day the veils drop between our world and the world of the Benevolent Spirits, the world of the Ancestors, the worlds of the Higher Spirits, doofus."

"Cool! Does that mean I finally get to meet great uncle Running Hawk?" Henry actually looks excited by the prospect.

His cousin, on the other hand, just rubs her forehead again. "No, Henry..." Then she stops and looks at him. "Wait. You mean Running Hawk of the Honágháahnii?"

"Yeah, who else would I mean?"

"Huh. Well, I suppose if an Ancestor hasn't moved on to the Next World and wanted by come by and help along with the Spirits, he'd be a good one to help. Although I'd have to wonder, and probably worry, about why he would still be stuck where he doesn't belong."

She can sense Hank getting more and more confused. Not that she can blame him.

"I've asked the guardian Spirits of the People to help us if they again against the ones touched by the Shadow. Hmm, I guess that would translate as Guardian Angels fighting Demons in the Christian mythology. And this Running Hawk of Henry's mother's clan was famous for being able to shoot arrows so fast that he could out-shoot the United States Cavalry's best marksmen. Of course, in the early eighteen hundreds the Army didn't have the most sophisticated firearms."

She looks at Henry. "You need to have more talks with your cousin Tommy. There's a difference between the World of the Ancestors and the Next World. If your uncle is in the World of the Ancestors, I'd venture to guess he wouldn't be exactly sane after all this time."

Henry just shrugs. "Grandma always said he wasn't sane when he was alive either."

Coyote nudges Henry but looks at Ninja.

He was one of mine. And he has truly passed to the place where he belongs. My delightful charge here will have to wait until he finds the Next World to meet his Ancestor.

Well, I feel better about that, Ninja responds dryly.

Hank is looking from Henry to Ninja, becoming more and more confused and worried, although she's the only one who picks up on the worry.

"I'm really glad Josie, JD and I are going to head down to Five Points. It sounds like shit is going to weird up here."

"Nah, man! Not so weird," says Henry. "Okay, maybe a little weird, 'cause me and Coyote are here, but not any weirder than reality TV, man!"

Madeline leans back against the wall. "Then you best make track, Mayor. Shit's already gotten weird."

"Hoo hey, and me and Coyote, we only been here a little while, so it's not all our fault, you know."

This time, Andi decides to simply ignore her cousin-twin.

"The kid might be in the big leagues now, but I think he can still be trusted to do the right thing. These folks up here made a big impression on him."

"Is that the scrawny reporter you scared half to death by bringing him up here that night?" Hank asks with a smile.

"That's the one."

"Yeah, real good kid. Everytime he ran a piece about those of us who aren't like most people, donations would increase for a while. I'd trust him. I think all the people up here capable of trusting an outsider would say the same thing."

Ninja looks at the old wind-up clock on Hank's desk. "Okay, the air teams will be here soon. Is everyone who's going ready to go and out at Fairfax Park?"

Hank nods. "Ought to be by now, yes."

"Great. You'll need someone to gather all the farm animals; there will be a hauler at the northeast gate just after full dark to take them to a safe farm nearby."

Hank groans. "Damn, forgot all about them!"

"Well... thanks to some new friends, I've got it handled," Ninja says with a smile. "Have the older kids who are staying behind start gathering food, too.

"The first convoy going out can leave anytime after the air team. I'll call some people and see if we can add some trucks for the other trips. Henry, you'll leave after dark, and you're going out the back way.

"Wolf, since this is going to look like an Army operation, I don't think your friend needs to break cover until he lands.

"I'll give Sanchez a call on the way over to the park... he can get the information leaked to the right people. And by right people, I'm thinking the ones he doesn't trust much. Then I'll ring Rosenberg up for his anonymous tip."

She looks around the room.

"Anything I'm forgetting?" Her gaze rests on Maddie, and she smiles crookedly. "This is a way bigger operation than I'm used to."

"Sounds like you have it all covered to me."

Madeline briefly gets a distant look in her eyes. "My friend is on schedule. If you would like to meet him, he is on this run, along with his resident physician in case he might be needed. His name's Hank McCoy, and he looks a little more different than most who look different."

"Sure, I'd love to meet him," she replies. "And, of course, that's got me intrigued... more different than most who look different? I've seen an awful lot of different." She smiles but hangs back to walk with her cousin. Hank leads the way over to the park.

She feels a pang when she thinks about the need to say goodbye — or rather, see you later — to all the kids going out to stay with Maddie's friend. She's sure they'll be fine. She's not happy they need to go. On the other hand, she's sure as shit not letting them stick around when all hell could break loose out here tomorrow. She wants them as far away from all this as humanly possible. She pulls out her phone.

"Hey, talking on the phone when you have the best talker in the whole US right here, cousin?" Henry asks quietly enough not to be overhead. He's grinning, too.

"Work, Henry," Andi replies with a sigh. "Work."

She speed dials Sanchez first.


"Ninja. Need some information leaked to the right people, meaning the wrong people, that the Army is moving a lot of Unfortunates to Commerce City today and tonight."

"Will do. Do I want to know what's going on?"


"Fair enough." He pauses a second. "You pissed Garcia off earlier."


"Well, he's calmed down. Some."

"In his pissed off state, I don't know if Garcia would have mentioned that Wolverine got snatched. Garcia is a liability at the moment, and he's vital to the ultimate success of this project. He needs to..." She stops, jaws tight for a moment. "No, never mind. Tell him I get it. That I'm sorry I have to do this to him. That I don't have time to talk now."

"He's a cop, Ninja. He understands. But he's also..."

"I know," she interrupts, an edge of frustration in her voice. "I know," she repeats more softly, more calmly. "I have to go. Get the word out. Thanks."

She disconnects and stops walking so she can take a few deep breaths.

"Hey, Andi," Henry whispers. "You okay?"

"Mostly, yeah. Just... worried about Pablo is all."

"Okay. If it helps, all us guys have been trying to find the right outfit for him for the wedding. But Talia says we shouldn't bother. Says Pablo's gonna wear a tux."

"Well, that's going to make the ceremony seem even longer. He'll look so hot in a tux," she says, grinning as she starts toward the park again.

"Yeah, that's what Talia says, too. I don't get it."

She just pats him on the arm. "You don't need to, Henry. You don't need to." She dials another number.

"Denver Post. How may I direct your call?"

"Mark Rosenberg, please."

"One moment."

It's more like several moments. Or a couple of minutes. How long is a moment, anyway? Too long for this horrifying on-hold music, that's for sure.

"Denver Post, Mark Rosenberg."

"Rosenberg, it's Ninja."

There's a silence. A long silence. A silence almost as long as the not-silence she was experiencing while waiting for him to pick up... only this silence doesn't have Muzak.

"How do I know this isn't a crank call?"

"Ah, getting paranoid in your old age, I see. Good for you! First, how many people out here are going to claim to be me? Second, Hank remembers you fondly and Jocko still wants the chance to say hello... his way."

"Okay. Good enough." She can hear a bit of a waver in his voice. Well, the prospect of being greeted enthusiastically by Jocko is a rather daunting one. "Thank Hank for that. I, ah... do what I can."

"Yep. We know. That's why I'm calling. There's a little thing I'd like you to do."

"And this is where I suspiciously say, ut oh?"

"You could. But it's easy. A small paragraph buried, but not so deep it would be missed by the people who look for these things. An anonymous source reports the Army is relocating a couple hundred Unfortunates up to Commerce City throughout the night. Of course, by the time it runs, it will be a fait accompli, which is all good. Got a chopper bringing some up from Fort Carson; reported convoys coming from the Federal Building in Denver. So... written in the past tense is perfect."

"Is that really happening?" he asks incredulously.

She pauses just enough time to get him to really think about her next words.

"As far as you know."

Again, there's a minute or two of silence.

"Ah. Right. Okay. Got it. Yeah, I think we can get that slipped in the morning edition. I'm not a big shot here or anything but it's slightly sensational and that seems to sell."

"Dude, don't tell me the Post is becoming the News. I don't want to get all my news from Twitter!"

He laughs. "No, no... don't worry about that. But as you pointed out earlier, there are people who look for that stuff. Something like that would be plastered all over the front page of the News. To us, it's an interesting tidbit, but certainly not worthy of a place of prominence."

"You've eased my mind, Rosenberg. Gotta go. Working." She hesitates, then adds, "Thanks." Then she disconnects and drops the phone back in her pocket.

She and Henry cross into the park and she looks over at the children. Some of them are still so young they're babes in arms. Toddlers. Preschoolers. Grade school, middle school. All the children who are fourteen and under. Parents, too. The parents look more nervous than the kids. And, of course, Hank thought it would be best to get the high level telepaths out of reach of the Shadow... a smart move. If it had been possible, she would have moved all the 'paths. But there are really too many.

Then one of them notices her coming toward them. In no time, or so it seems, she's in the middle of a Child Swarm. And loving every minute of it, of course.

"Mamu says we're going far away and get to ride in a helicopter! And we're going where there are a bunch of kids like us!" Monica exclaims from her perch on Ninja's shoulders.

"It seems Mamu is right. She's going too?"

She senses more than feels Monica's nod. "Oh yes. Mamu said Mayor Hank wants all the really good head talkers to go with us."

Ninja chuckles.

"What's funny, Ninja?"

She swings the girl over her shoulder into her arms and kisses the child's forehead as she gracefully drops to the ground to sit among them. Almost like Story Time.

"It's funny, my little spider girl, because that's what the cats up in the mountains call me... Head Talker."

"Oooooh, you talk to the mountain lions?" There are several pairs of eyes opened wide with wonder. "Are they scary?"

"Oh, they're terribly fierce and big and strong! They have very, very sharp claws. But I found out that they're also very nice, once I got to know them. They're funny and sometimes silly. And one very much likes to have her belly scratched."

Yep, just like Story Time.

"Ninja?" Matthew speaks timidly from a place near her right side. "I don't want to go. I want to stay and help."

She reaches out and pulls him to her side, hugging him close. "Matthew, honey, there's hardly anyone going to be staying here. Mamu and the others will look after you. Black Wolf told me about her friend who runs the school, and she told me about the school. I think you're going to be just fine there."

"I wish I was already a grown up!"

"I know, Matt," she says softly. "Can you trust me that I'm doing what I think is best for all of you?"

She just keeps on hugging him. Even as Monica and Jeffrey tumble around trying to see who can stay in her lap the longest, she keeps on hugging Matthew.

In the distance, she can hear the sounds of the Chinook's rotors.

"Okay, Ninja," Matthew finally whispers.

"Thank you, my brave one. Practice being grown up by helping Mamu with the littles," she says with a final hug. "But don't get all the way grown up until you need to."

He nods and even attempts a smile, which she returns.

"All right, chopper's on it's way, folks! Poor Ninja needs to talk to the nice folks flying it, so I need to get out from under all you children," she says as she starts tickling any of them she can reach.

She looks up at Maddie. "Your friend's ETA? I told Masterson to stay clear until the Blackbird is on the ground."

What's your ETA, Charles?

Two minutes, Madeline. Is the area clear?

Yes. We're waiting for you.

"He's just coming over the outer wall. Everyone should shield their eyes. It does tend to kick up an awful lot of dust."

A minute later, there is an unusual dust storm in the parking lot across from the park accompanied by what sounds like jet engines. Then the sound and wind die away.

Decloaking now.

A sleek black craft appears in the middle of the park and a section of the back lowers into a ramp.

Watching the kids watching the plane decloak is so much better than watching the plane itself. It puts a broad smile on Ninja's face to see their eyes light up, to see their excitement. Even Matthew is looking less glum.

"Ninja, my friend won't be deplaning. He left his chair behind to make more room. Why don't you come up and meet him?"

The other woman nods to Maddie and follows her toward the plane, pausing several paces away from the bottom of the ramp with head tilted, listening.

"Sounds like our Chinook is three or four minutes out."

As Madeline approaches the plane, a large furry and blue man in casual clothing comes down the ramp. He smiles at Madeline and hugs her. "I am glad to see you and see you doing well."

"Hoo, Ninja! Blue fur!" Henry stares at the man greeting Maddie. "Man, I don't think even my little brother could do that!"

Andi reaches over and slaps the back of her cousin's head. "And you're not going to give him the idea either, are you?"

Henry rubs the back of his head. "Who, me? Nah, I'm the innocent one here. I can't say what Coyote will do though."

She looks — well, glares might be more accurate — at the Spirit in question, who attempt an innocent look... but does shake its head.

"Coyote won't either," she says before turning back toward Maddie and her friend.

"Hank, good to see you, as well. This is Ninja. Ninja, Dr. Hank McCoy. These are her people, Hank."

He turns and offers a large hand to shake. "Greetings, Ninja."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor," she says as she shakes his hand. "I hope none of my folks will need medical attention."

She pauses, regarding him carefully as she bites her lip, then shakes her head.

"Oh, we must never, never let the two halves of my world come together when you're in the vicinity of my fabulous friend, Doctor," she says as she shakes her head even more sadly. "While some people are aficionados of high fashion..." Andi's eyes glance quickly at Maddie before she gives her full attention back to McCoy. " fabulous friend is overly fond of themed parties that involve highly tacky fashions. I'm afraid with your exquisite coloring, you would lend yourself to..." She sighs dramatically. " excessive amount of glitter and gold lamé."

"Call me Hank, please. I reserve Doctor for official gatherings. The students call me Professor.

"Glitter and gold lamé? Oh, no. I do not care for Las Vegas," he says, although there is a twinkling teasing in his eyes.

"Hank, then. And no... not Las Vegas. Right here in River City — or rather, in Denver — there's a mad man who throws the best parties." She chuckles. "The defining characteristic of his madness is that he thinks every day should be Halloween."

She looks back at the group waiting to be transported to safety, most of them children, and faces the good doctor again. "Even under these circumstances, I'd rather be working on Halloween, which is THE high holy day for him."

He just takes Ninja's words in stride and looks around. When he doesn't see someone he expects, he returns his gaze to Madeline. "Logan is not here?"

She shakes her head. "No. Not at the moment."

"Pity. I had hoped to ask about his claws. No need to worry. Young Emelia's perfectly fine," he says. "And by the way, congratulations on making it official."

Madeline just shakes her head with a half-smile. "Thank you, Hank.

"You are welcome. Now, I should go see about our guests." He trundles out to where the group of people are waiting, introducing himself with ease.

Ninja tenses a little when Hank asks about Logan. She's not really sure that she's worried about him. From the legends of the People, all the Nations... from what Rene and Maddie have said... from what she's seen of his aura... she doesn't think she really has anything to worry about. She isn't sure, though... maybe it's just herself she's worried about. She's never faced anything as... as horrific as this Stryker individual, anything as all-consuming as the Shadow.

She glances back at her cousin before following Maddie into the plane. Henry is smiling, because Henry always smiles. Even when everything is going to hell in a handbasket, Henry finds a way to put a positive spin on things. And with his guardian Spirit sitting beside him, looking like an overgrown puppy... how weird is it that she find confidence in having Coyote the Dual Natured Trickster part of this plan? Really weird, that's how weird!

Madeline then leads Ninja to the cockpit area. The man seated there turns the pilot's chair to face them.

"Hello, Madeline," he greets her with a warm smile.

"Hello, Charles," she replies with a warm smile of her own and embraces him. "Charles, this is my new friend, Ninja. Ninja, Charles Xavier."

"Hello, Ninja. I am pleased to meet you."

When Maddie introduces Ninja to her friend, the local Super pauses a moment with her head tilted, looking at him, her smile growing to one that is warm and welcoming... one usually reserved for family and friends.

"I'm probably going to turn into a groupie of yours, Professor," she says with a hint of amazement evident in her voice. "You managed to impress a teenage boy enough to thoroughly respect you — I refer to Leon, of course."

His chuck is warm and inviting. "As the Dean of a school for extremely gifted youngsters, it is in my own best interests to impress upon the need for respect."

"That's sensible. But... wow! You have a Romulan cloaking device, which — for an admitted Trekkie — is possibly even more impressive. However, most impressive of all is the fact that you're the first person I've ever met that I can't read. Not even a little."

She grins even more broadly, as though not being able to use her powers on someone is almost a gift in itself. Ninja shakes her head and looks at Maddie.

"Dang it, Maddie! You have the coolest friends!"

At that, Charles glances at his friend briefly before he says, "Ah, the magic maker. Then let me restate... I am very pleased to meet you. And I must thank you for the peace you have brought to my dear friend."

Madeline smiles and squeezes the man's shoulder. "I have been very fortunate in that regard."

"After hearing Rene's story..." She looks at Maddie and then back to Charles. "Well, at one point, there was a very real possibility my own husband could have been trapped as Rene was. That's not a fate I'd wish on anyone I didn't loathe." Ninja sighs and rolls her eyes. "Okay, fine. It's not a fate I'd wish on anyone... I'd just fail to help someone I loathed."

She shrugs and smiles again. "What can I say? Rene's a nice guy, Maddie's been more than just a little interesting to work with, and Leon is a sweet kid. How could I not help this family? And after meeting Logan and the twins..."

"Who knows, Charles, maybe you will discover some new students among your guests," Madeline says.

Ninja's hand tightens on her staff as her jaw clenches for a moment, thinking about Logan. She's grateful for Maddie's interjection. It gives her that moment she needs to relax, and she nods at the other woman's statement.

"All of our children fourteen and under are among your guests. Some, I suspect, are more than just a little gifted. If you don't mind," she says a bit hesitantly, "would you take special care with a young man by the name of Matthew? He's a Shifter and he's... becoming anxious that he can only do partial shifts, which — as far as I've been able to research — shouldn't even be possible, let alone at age twelve. He's been able to do it since four or five... or possibly since birth, and never had a need until then."

"Of course, I shall. Matthew will certainly not be the first Shifter at the school. And I have had a few years to become accustomed to those whose gifts manifest considerably earlier than most, thanks to Madeline. Leon was quite talented even at four."

Ninja looks a bit embarrassed as she shrugs and smiles. "I'm rather fond of the children. All of them," she admits. "Mamu — you can't miss her, tall Pakistani woman, one of our strongest telepaths — is their unofficial den mother, I suppose you'd call her. Some of the parents are going along, as well, but Mamu knows every one of them. You'll want to chat with her." She chuckles. "Unless your Hank has already discovered her, in which case he'll know all there is to know about each child before you get back to your school. She's rather fond of the children, as well."

"Yes, Mamu and I have been chatting already, and Hank is putting them all at ease."

"I take it you have enlisted some of the older students in assisting?" Madeline asks.

"Yes, Leon and Jenny both volunteered. A couple of former students are helping as well."

"Good. I asked our mutual friend to tighten up security on the school, just in case. No use taking chances. Some of Ninja's friends will be helping with the ferrying via a Chinook. They should be here shortly. Ninja assures me they are sensitive to the situation, both here and at the school."

"Very well then. Let's meet our guests."

"Actually, my friends are about to land," Ninja says, hearing the change of pitch in the helicopter's engine. "But the Colonel seems to be a fairly patient man, so let me introduce you to some of your guests."

She looks out the door at the people gathered. Doctor McCoy seems to being having the same effect on the children as she does... Monica is sitting on his shoulders, Jeffery is sitting on his hip hugging him, and Matthew is staring up at him with awe. She laughs. "I officially cease worrying about each and every one of them. Your Hank seems to have everything well under control."

She looks over at the Chinook as a door opens on the side and Colonel Masterson stands in the open doorway. Well, at least she's pretty sure it's Colonel Masterson. She holds up a hand, fingers spread wide... five minutes. He gives her a thumbs up, then proceeds to sit in the doorway and swing his legs back and forth. The man looks like he's actually having fun. She thought that wasn't allowed in the Army. Huh.

"All right, my Group One people!" she calls out. "Come on in and meet your host."

Those with the youngest children approach first... mostly because the other children need to be pried away from Hank. As each person comes on board, she introduces them to Charles... starting with Diane and her one month old daughter, Naomi... Lisa and her two year old daughter, Elise... Rafael and Karla with their eight month old twins, Juan and Maria... two year old Ryan, three year old Marsha, four year olds Joey and Margie... Tom with the always clamoring for hugs Jeffrey, who absolutely must give her one more hug... seven year old Fran, nine year old Monica who gets one more kiss on her forehead... Matthew who also gets another hug... and fourteen year old Katie, who will be helping the other two telepaths, Elaine and Paul, watch the younger children. All told, twenty of her people. Charles is... well, utterly gracious to each person, and each one of the children old enough to talk thanks him for the chance to visit with him. Even little Elise, who thanks him in American Sign Language and, she suspects, telepathically.

She is so proud of them.

But she has to go... talk to Masterson, get the second group on the Chinook. She doesn't have time to tear up, but holy crap she just wants to cry! Super Heroes don't cry!

Just then, Henry calls out.

"Heya there, Ninja! Coyote wants to know if he can fly the big helicopter. I should tell him no, huh?"

She bursts out laughing.

"Ya think?" she calls back.

She turns back to Charles. "Thank you. It's another debt of gratitude I'll never be able to repay."

"I am glad to help," Charles tells her. "There is nothing to repay."

She looks at her people one last time, smiling at them. "I love every one of you. Make me proud. I'll see you soon!"

Then, before she actually does start to cry, she sprints over to her cousin. "Really, Henry? You want to fly a Chinook? Pretty sure you're only rated to fly 737s."

"Nah, not me! Coyote!"

I look down at the Spirit, then back at my cousin. "Yeah, right." She smiles at them both. "And thanks."

"Hey, that's why I'm here, Ninja! To help you out."

She looks at him suspiciously for a couple of seconds. "Yeah, I guess you are," she says finally.

"Okay, next stop... United States Army Special Forces." She walks toward the huge helicopter, slowly, giving Maddie a chance to say goodbye to her friend and catch up.

The parting of Madeline and Charles is brief and friendly with no words exchanged.

Mitch sidles up to Madeline as she follows Ninja to the chopper.

"I'll wrestle him for it," Mitch says about Coyote wanting to fly the Chinook.

"I'd pay to see that," Madeline answers, "but I'd still bet on you."

"So how come I have to drive the truck instead of getting to fly that?"

"Because that belongs to them."


Madeline chuckles as they catch up to Ninja.

Andi manages not to crack a grin at Mitch's comment. While Maddie might put money down on Mitch versus Coyote — not a fair fight with Coyote being the Trickster and all — Ninja would pay money to see the Latina try to wrestle the Chinook away from Masterson. Mitch, she's got some mad skills, Ninja is sure of that. But she'd still put her money on Masterson.

At whom she is looking with undisguised disbelief, shaking her head in amazement.

"Masterson, that is the ugliest damn sweater I've ever seen in my whole life. Who hates you that much?"

He grins. "My mother-in-law."

"Is she color blind, insane, or does she really hate you?" She supposes she needs to start worrying about things like that, as she'll have a mother-in-law of her own in a couple of months. Momma Garcia has much better taste than to create this... this... monstrosity, however.

He laughs. "She knows I'm fond of ST:TNG, she thought a replica of the infamous Wil Wheaton Clown sweater would be amusing. She knit it herself."

She shakes her head. "My condolences." She just stares at the horror for another few seconds.

"Colonel, this is Mitch and Black Wolf. Ladies... Colonel Jeffrey Masterson, United States Army Special Forces."

Masterson's eyebrow shoots up.

"Black Wolf? La Loup Noir? Who works with Interpol?" He hops down to the ground and offers his hand to Maddie. "Truly an honor and privilege, ma'am."

"One and the same. Though call me ma'am again, and I'll break your arm," she tells him, only half teasing, as she shakes his hand. "Wolf will do."

It was, once again, odd to be warmly welcomed by American forces.

"You know, that one," he says, nodding to Ninja, "said something similar when we met. Though I believe she threatened to crack my head open with that stick of hers."

"Lies. I was sweet as sugar, and you know it, Masterson," Ninja says with a grin. "It was Abe who told you to cut it out.

"And don't you dare start quoting Spock at me about differences that make no difference," she adds.

Masterson grins.

"How is it that you know of me, Colonel," Wolf asks. "I've not been active that long."

"In certain circles, Wolf, some news travels fast... almost at the speed of sound. And I like to keep my ear to the ground for news of the good guys." He turns back to Ninja with a glint in his eyes. "Speaking of which..."

"Oh, no! No, we will not talk about the Newbie. After all this is over, fine. Not today."

He chuckles then. "I'm going to hold you to that, Ninja."

"Yes, I know," she says with exasperation. "Everybody wants to know about the Newbie."

"The Wind talks, Ninja. You know that."

"I need to get a message to Father to stop blabbing," she mumbles. "Bah... won't help. He's proud of Newbie."

Then she eyes Masterson almost suspiciously.

"The Wind... all right, which Nation and how far back?"

This time he laughs. "Ndee, mother's mother."

She gapes and then snaps her jaws shut before looking back at Henry and Coyote. The latter is rolling on the ground again. Laughing.

"I know you had something to do with this, Coyote," she mutters.

She looks at Maddie and Mitch to explain. "Ndee, or Western Apache, are related to the Diné, or Navajo. Our languages have the same roots, and we were probably all one people a pasta bazillion years ago. Well, many hundreds of years before the White Man showed up, anyway."

She rolls her eyes again. How many times has she done that today? She has no idea... she tends to lose count when Henry's around.

"In the grand scheme of things, the Colonel and I are... gosh, practically cousins."

"Fantastic!" he says. "So, cousin... what's going on that you want to borrow my very expensive piece of equipment here?"

"Do you want the truth first, or what's being leaked to the press and the bad apples in law enforcement?"

He drops the guise of humor and instantly becomes a military man. "Which is faster?"

"The lie."

"Spill it."

"The Army is transporting several hundred Unfortunates up here to Commerce City today and tonight. You just dropped off the ones being sent up from Fort Carson. You'll be convoying the rest from the Federal Building in Denver up here after dark."

He looks like he's going to ask questions, but then just raises and eyebrow. "And the truth?"

"Ever hear of a man named William Stryker? I already know you're not a fan of the repulsive organization known as the Aryan Knighthood from our earlier conversation."

A look comes over his face that... Well, it's hard to describe, but she would say this: she's pretty sure that's what she looks like when she's furious. Except that nowadays, her eyes tend to glow.

"Yes, on both counts."

Ninja nods. "Uh huh. Yeah, I've seen that look before.

"Both Stryker and the Knighthood are back in action. Here. In the Denver area.

"They kidnapped three of my people. One was murdered. One was infected with... something from another dimension..."


"Ah. You know about that. The third is recovering from physical, mental and emotional trauma sustained.

"Blah blah blah... long story shortened, we're evacuating Commerce City except for some sixty odd people who refuse to leave — fifteen Berserkers and a sniper among them — and we're planning to draw them here tomorrow to take them out."

He looks from Ninja to Wolf and back to Ninja.

"You're fucking insane."

"Yeah, Wolf's certifiable and I'm walking the line right now."

Wolf snorts. "Beyond certifiable. I've worked with Legionnaires."

"What about Perry and... Newbie, you called him?"

"I told Perry to cover for me if anything else goes down in the area. Newbie — Peacekeeper, by the way — is going to be vitally important in the final showdown with the Shadow. Pissed him off and told him to stay home unless I called him in."

He looks out over the remaining group of people waiting to head to Charles' school, three quarters of whom are children.

"Shit," he mutters. Then he looks at Ninja again. "How can we assist after dropping off the civilians?"

She shakes her head. "No, no. No military. All bad! They need to think they're hitting a compound of defenseless folks."

He crosses his arms over his chest... at least it hides most of the awfulness of the clown sweater. "You think because we're Special Forces we can't do covert ops?"

"What the hell do I know about military, Masterson?" she asks with frustration "Except that ninety something percent of military folk work my nerves." She shrugs and looks at Maddie.

"You're still crazier than me. Think we can use them?"

"Because you're Special Forces, covert should be your specialty.

"What do you think, Mitch?"

"Your show. If you think we can trust 'em..."

"Walk with me, Masterson."

Wolf leads him back to the Humvee Ninja had been driving. She opens the back door, then the compartment inside of it to reveal the pair of high caliber weapons she and Mitch had been working on. Being Spec Ops, Masterson would recognize that there were VSSK Vychlop, Russian-made sniper rifles.

"Can any of your boys handle these?"

He nods. "Most of them. Probably my gal, too." He looks at Maddie. "I hand pick every member of my squad. I don't let the Army tell me who to take, and I get away with it because my squad and I handle the hard stuff. We back up the Supers, and we clean up the scum they take down.

"Every man and woman on my squad has... an edge, Wolf. Because I know how to find the people with an edge. A bit like our friend Ninja, if you take my meaning, although nowhere near as powerful. Not even close."

Masterson looks back at the weapons. "All of my people have their own collection of weapons that are off the books, if that's any kind of useful information."

"Good," replies Wolf. "Then pick who you want to handle these and let them pick their spots. There's plenty of ammo.

"And yes, I take your meaning. Which leads me to tell you that my edge, my only edge, is a healing factor that brings me back from even fatal wounds. Everything else is years of training and experience."

She looks back to where Mitch is still eyeballing the chopper.

"My girl Mitch can handle any kind of transport you can throw at her, but I'm keeping her back in case anyone needs evac. I'm sure you noticed that these are military issue Humvees.

"Back there I saw your face at the mention of Stryker. If you're interested, we're going on a little hunting party after we're done here. Looks like you owe him some payback. I know I do, and he's got my Mate, the Wolverine."

"Huh. Seen that one heal, but I suspect there are things that'll kill her."

He looks up sharply at the mention of Wolverine. "So grandma's stories weren't hooey after all. And yeah, I owe the fucker. Well, the Knighthood, at any rate, but it sounds from the way Ninja's talking that they're taking orders from him."

"Not hooey. I've already had a similar discussion with Ninja."

Masterson looks at the refugees again. "I'd better get the kids out of here then. The Chinook doesn't fly quite as fast as your friend's Blackbird, and I'd like to get back in time for the party. Nice plane, by the way," he says with a wry smile.

"I'll let the Powers That Be know my squad will be out in the desert on maneuvers for the next few days, and then send them on up to the Federal Building with some oddball vehicles. How many people are we moving, and were to?"

Ninja takes that as her cue to remind people that she hears really well and that she's a snoop. She walks over to the Humvee. "Somewhere around nine hundred, and most of them will be staying in Five Points. Probably a little over a hundred are Normals or can pass for Normal. They'll spread out. Old Mama's going to have a few of the church vans ferry any of the overflow to some of the other... less antagonistic neighborhoods around the area."

Masterson whistles. "Damn, I didn't realize there were that many people up here!"

She smiles sadly. "Most people don't."

He just grunts, then calls out, "Phelan!"

Another figure appears in the doorway of the Chinook. At least he's dressed normally in jeans and a CU sweatshirt.

"Yeah, boss?"

"Let the rest of the squad know we'll be on maneuvers tomorrow through the weekend, I'll brief them once we're in the air. Let the PTB know... usual bullshit story."

"Right, boss!"

Phelan disappears back into the helicopter.

Masterson looks at Ninja. "Let's get the kids on board then, shall we?" he says with the grin of a man who's out for a day of fun with a big group of kids. She doesn't even need to look at his aura to know it's an act. It's a damn good one, but it's still an act. He signals his people and the rear ramp begins to lower.

"Okay, Group Two! You guys get to ride in the ginormous helicopter! Are you ready?" As she walks away, she can hear Masterson's last bit of conversation with Maddie.

"Have your guy radio the coordinates once we're airborne. I left my telepath at home."

She swears she can hear a laugh in his voice.

And she figures it's probably not worth mentioning that all the adults he's taking are telepaths... although the seven of them are going to have their hands full keeping the kids from getting entirely too excited about flying off in a huge helicopter.

Wolf puts a hand on Masterson's shoulder to pause him.

Charles, say hello to Colonel Masterson beside me. He'll need the coordinates for the Chinook.

Hello, Colonel. Thank you for the assist. I will give you precise directions once we are all airborne. There's a particular vector of approach you will want to take. My friend there is very careful where her children are concerned.

Madeline is just smiling at Masterson since Charles had projected to both of them.

"Tot ziens, Colonel. We'll catch up later."

Ninja says a word or two to each of the kids as they board. Some of them need hugs, some of them need reassurance. As the adults board, before she can thank them, Mamu says, "No, no, Ninja. We are the ones who are thanking you... for finding a way to keep the young ones safe. For finding a way to keep our community safe."

"You're going to make me weepy, Mamu. Go sit down. Get out of here." She smiles as she hugs the other woman.

Once they're all fastened in... Masterson and Phelan check each and every one of them while the pilot and copilot are doing their thing... Ninja tells them the same thing she told the others.

"I love you all. Make me proud, guys! See you soon!"

She sprints back down the ramp and heads toward the center of the park where Hank and several others are waiting.

"Is this going to work, Ninja? It's an awfully crazy plan," Hank says.

"Aw, Hank, you know I've always colored outside the lines. I'm just... getting a little wilder in my color choices, shall we say?"

She looks over at Maddie. "Everybody ready to go?" she asks, nodding toward the Blackbird.

"All set," she says as she settles back against the Humvee's front bumper.

A moment later, the Blackbird vanishes behind its cloak before lifting off. She waits until the Chinook is also away before saying, "Best get your bike out of the truck and we'll start part two of the caravanning."

"We're not going to have full dark for a couple of hours yet, and we'll want to wait for the larger caravans until then," Ninja says as they walk back towards the vehicles. "One... well, it will probably take that long to get a collection of appropriate vehicles down to the Federal building. Two..." She grins and shrugs. "It just seems more sneaky and nefarious that way.

"But we could send the first group down, those who'll be the most help with organizing at the other end. Hank, you have some folks who could pass for Regular Army to drive the Humvees and ride shotgun for Mitch?"

He laughs humorlessly. "Ninja, I've got some folks who are... well, were... Regular Army. So... yes."

"Good. Fetch 'em up, and some folks who'll do Old Mama the most good right from the start. If we can fill the Humvees with Regular Army, put the organizers in the Monstrosity, that ought to fool at least the casual observers who might be watching the caravan. That trick's only going to work once, though."

She feels one of the phones vibrating in her pocket and pulls it out... ah, the Ninja phone.


"Sanchez. What the hell are you doing up there, Ninja? I've got the Army calling me wanting to sift through my impound lot!"

"Remember that information you're leaking? They need some vehicles. The bigger, the better. As long as it's Masterson's Special Forces squad, they have my blessing."

There's a moment of silence on the other end of the line.

"You're crazy."

"You know, you're not the first person today to point that out. I'm getting there, that's for sure. Could be the company I'm keeping."

"Poor Garcia," Captain Sanchez mumbles.

"Or it could be the damn Aztec blood magic, so there'll be none of that poor Garcia stuff," she says with a smile that he can't see.

He does sigh. "Find. I'll see what I can get them. You realize the majority of our impounds are drug dealers' pimp mobiles and pieces of crap, right?"

"Hey, a couple of pimped out limos would really appeal to my sense of humor right now."

He pauses a moment, sighs again, and says, "The Denver Police Department will cooperate fully with the United States Army in every way possible to transport their dangerous individuals out of our City and County."

Then he hangs up on her.

She looks at the phone — maybe it's with amusement, maybe it's satisfaction — before putting it back in her pocket.

When they reach the vehicles in front of the administration building, she looks at the... thing Mitch drove up.

"I'm sure this thing has an official make and model just like any other vehicle," she says as she rolls her bike back down the ramp, "but Monstrosity really seems to be more appropriate."

"It does," Mitch says as she opens the doors to let the residents enter, "but I've yet to see one that wasn't modified in some way by the crew that drove her. I remember one what was nicknamed Big Ugly."

"That crazy crew out in the sand box, wasn't it?" Madeline asks.

"Yup," Mitch confirms.

As they wait for everyone to load up, Madeline ties her hair back and slips on a standard issue cover in black, as well as swaps out her leather jacket for a black BDU jacket. Now she would fit in with the Army-looking folks.

Hank's guys show up pretty quickly. Ninja is pleased to see that they're... well... organized. Maddie changes her look so easily, the Super could easily be convinced the woman is a chameleon. Well, maybe mercenaries have undercover operations, too. What does she know, right? However, she does seem to be getting an education.

She looks at her outfit and shakes her head.

"I might be wearing black, guys, but... I don't look like I fit in with you."

"Oh, hey, Ninja! I can fix that," Henry says. "Hang on a minute!"

He goes over to his rental van, digs through his backpack and brings out a baseball cap. He smiles broadly and holds it out to his cousin.

She looks at the cap like it's venom of the most poisonous snake known on the planet...

Looks back at her cousin...

Looks a the cap again.


Henry honestly looks confused. "What? You just wear it backwards. All the guys out in Phoenix do that."

"Oh, so I can get shot in the back of the head? I'm pretty sure that's one of the things I don't heal from."

"Yo, Ninja, why somebody want to shoot you for wearing a baseball cap? I see other people here wearing baseball caps." He even exchanges a look with Coyote who, well, shrugs. Yeah, right. Coyotes don't shrug any more than Ravens waddle. Apparently, several of their People's Spirits are... peculiar.

"What's on the hat, Henry? Do you know what's on the hat? Do you know where you ARE, Henry?!"

He looks at the hat. "A big red 'A'. So?"

"Aaarrggg!!! A big red 'A' with a black zig zag pattern which is the symbol of the hated and despised Arizona Diamondbacks, you ninny!"

"Okay, Ninja, but the snakes usually stay out in the desert, you know. Hardly ever come into the city."

She looks at the people around her... for help, for support, she doesn't know, maybe she's just trying to make sure she's not the crazy one. Every single person present who is a resident of Colorado is trying so hard not to laugh that some of them actually have tears in their eyes.

Good. SHE'S not the crazy one this time!

"Baseball, Henry! Baseball! And we here in Colorado hate the Diamondbacks, Henry. Might as well paint a big old target on my head!"



"Oh." He looks around. "They're laughing at me, huh?"

"Mostly. Yeah."

He grins, bright and happy. "Okay! That's why me and Coyote are here!"

Andi shakes her head. She loves her cousin-twin every bit as much as she loves her brother. But like drivers who can't remember how to drive from one winter to the next, she tends to forget just how much of a goof Henry is. She figures she'll be used to his lunacy by tomorrow. Maybe if she saw the family more often she'd remember that Henry is a madman. The most lovable and charming madman on the planet, but still a madman.

One of Hank's folks taps her shoulder and hands his hat to her.

"Go ahead and borrow mine, Ninja," Larry says, laughing. "My hair is regulation."

"Thank you." She puts the hat on and tucks her braids up inside it. "There. See? Proper hat."

"Okay, Ninja. If you say so."

She just rolls her eyes at him, but grins nonetheless.

"Okay, who's riding shotgun for Mitch?" she asks.

A young man steps forward. "I am."

"Aaron... I thought you were staying here." She is a bit puzzled.

"Well, your final destination after dropping off the last of the residents is right back here," here says. "And I figure if you're going to have someone riding shotgun, and there's a need to actually shoot something, you might as well have someone who can hit what they shoot at."

She nods. "Can't fault that logic. Mitch, this is Aaron, USMC sniper. Hopefully, there will be no need to shoot anything while we're traveling.

"And who's going to drive the lead brick... er, I mean Humvee? Yours truly would rather drive a ten year old Ford Escort and will be busy being your tour guide this evening through some of Denver's more interesting neighborhoods."

There is more chuckling and Terrance, who she swears could play professional basketball, opens the driver's door and starts to get settled.

"That would be me."

"Awesome. Okay, let's saddle up and get this show on the road before I mix any more metaphors into this mess."

Going around to the passenger side, she waits until everyone else is in their appointed vehicle, then give Terrance directions. They'll be staying on the main streets most of the way downtown, except when they snake through Five Points, which is a legitimate route from Commerce City to the Federal Building's underground parking garage at Champa and 19th Street.

They make a brief — very brief — stop at the edge of Curtis Park to let their passengers disembark. This is going to be the staging area for all the refugees coming into Five Points. The Neighborhood Watch captain, Old Mama's grandson Randy, signals that no one has been seen who doesn't belong. The dropoffs will be easier — or at least less stressful — after dark since there are no lights in the park and the street lamps along Champa have been, ah, temporarily disabled. A particularly long red light, the length being artificially enhanced of course, at 31st Street gives the perfect excuse for the convoy to delay here.

As promised, the steel gate to the Federal Building garage is rolled up and they drive in, heading to the far side where Sanchez said he'd have the available cars parked.

Interestingly, three of the four Denver County Sheriff prisoner transport buses are also parked in the area. Those are usually parked at their training facility out past the old Stapleton Airport. A Denver County Sheriff is chatting with one of what Ninja assume is the rest of Masterson's squad. Well, they're all dressed in that spiffy black outfit the Special Forces folks seem to favor, and most of them look vaguely family from that... exciting little incident up in Boulder.

She pulls off the hat and tosses it on the dashboard. Sadly, she'll need it at least for the trip back. She opens the door, unwedges her staff, and stops out of the Humvee.

"Hi, kids! How's everyone?" She eyes one soldier lounging on the hood of a gawd awful civilian Humvee. "Walter, right? You took quite the hit up there in Boulder. You're looking good."

"One hundred and ten percent, Ninja. Thanks for asking."

She turns to the Sheriff, hand outstretched. "Ninja. I'm guessing you're one of Captain Sanchez's pals."

He chuckles. "Yes, I suppose you could say that. Chief Michael Than," he says, shaking her hand. "I run the downtown Sheriff's facility. Rodrigo asked if I could help you out with some vehicles, so..." He gestures to the collection of vehicles. "...the contents of the City's impound yard, our impound yard, and a few buses, if they'll be helpful. Each has a capacity of seventy eight, not counting the driver."

"Immensely!" She gives him a sidelong look. "He seemed... annoyed with me when I spoke to him last."

"No. He just thinks you've stripped a few gears." His delivery is completely deadpan, but she can see his qi vibrating with the laughter he isn't going to let out.

She shrugs, refraining from smiling herself. "Crazy operation. Calls for some crazy ideas, you know."

"Actually, I probably don't want to know."

"Ahh... yeah. You're right. You don't." She looks toward the trailing Humvee; Maddie is just joining their little group.

"Wolf, this is Chief Michal Than, Denver County Sheriff's Office, who's been kind enough to bring us this interesting selection of vehicles. These fine folks in black are the rest of the Colonel's squad. I only actually got to meet Walter and... hey, where's Dennis?"

"Trying to get some sleep back here," comes a voice from the top of the rear bus.

Ninja grins. "Everyone, this is Black Wolf, my partner for this little adventure... her associate, Mitch... and some of the upstanding citizens of Commerce City."

Chief Than raises an eyebrow at the last, but says nothing.

She looks at Maddie. "So besides the buses, you think any of this is useful?"

As she had walked over to the group, Madeline had taken time to check out the civilian vehicles that they were borrowing. There were a few Humvees among those as well — the shiny, flashy kind that were nothing more than overcompensation for someone with entirely too much money. Gods, she hated those things.

"Any of them got neon and hydraulics?" she asks sarcastically. "Gods, I hate those things."

She looks up and around at all the extra helping hands. Law enforcement, Spec Ops — every trained hand will be helpful, and being that these are Masterson's hand-picked folks... Well, that little tidbit makes her a bit more comfortable.

"Boys and girls, welcome to the circus."

She takes another look at the vehicles.

"They're all useful, although I'd want to use the pimp mobiles for pulling eyes. Mitch, will you give them a once over? See what we've got to work with beyond the obvious?"

The Latina checks out each of the civilian vehicles, starting each one up and checking the dashes and under the hoods. All in all, she burns about thirty minutes in making her assessment.

"The Baywatch H2 and the white Escalade are the best for diversions. Both got undercarriage neon and spinners and Bose systems. Ditch the plates and run a chase with them, no one's going to look too long at the convoy. Throw a squad car and a camera truck into the mix, and all eyes will be there."

Madeline nods, considering. "Doesn't look like we have a camera truck, but at an opportune moment we could turn it into a highway chase out of the city limits."

"Chief, Ninja... thoughts? This is your town, after all."

"Depends on whose eyes you're trying to divert and how much. Certain eyes need to see what we want them to see, but not what actually is. Sanchez is spreading the word to the ears attached to those eyes, or as many that are in his... fraternity.

Ninja leans against one of the civilian vehicles, doing some mental arithmetic.

"Having the three buses is going to significantly drop the number of trips we need to make. I figure we'll need no more than four now. That will get all our people, their important belongings, and the bushels of food they're bringing from Point A to Point B.

"Assuming everything goes smoothly — everyone is ready when they should be, people move quickly and calmly, items are loaded and unloaded efficiently — I'd say an hour for each trip. Maybe less, but that's a safe bet. With snafus, figure two hours... but I'm going trust my people to be at their best tonight because they understand how important this is.

"In theory, a wild goose chase started after certain eyes have seen just enough that they're convinced this is a legitimate operation... yeah, that might take some pressure off us. The problem..."

She sighs and looks at the Chief.

He shrugs. "The problem is crossing jurisdictions. You'd need friendlies in every one of them. I know Ninja's got friends in all the counties surrounding Denver, as well as DPD and a few other cities. But once you get on the Interstate highways, you're potentially involving the State Police. Granted, they're spread pretty thin themselves and probably won't interfere unless one of the jurisdictions requests assistance, but you never know when a hotshot rookie is going to take it upon himself or herself to be a hero."

"And I don't have a contact in the State Police. I've never needed to develop one," she says, almost in a bemused sort of way. "I deal with people. People live in counties, or cities and towns within the counties. People don't live on Interstate highways."

The Chief smiles wryly. "True. Even the homeless folks who choose to camp under the highway or on the side of the highway are still the Counties' problem."

"I mean, I guess I could get a quick intro from Sanchez, but..." She sighs again. "Another problem you're going to have is that a minivan can outrun that piece of shit H2. Yes, I can alert my people to chase but don't catch. If you're circling around and avoiding the convoy route, you could get a chase lasting three hours or so. Maybe more."

She pauses, considering other possibilities. "You're going to want someone with at least some familiarity with the area to avoid the Interstates, make the circle big enough, and stay inside my counties. But something that goes up to E-470 while avoiding I-25, circles around to C-470, then maybe up C-93 to Boulder, cuts across to Brighton on Arapahoe and Baseline, then down the back way to DIA where they can ditch the cars, pick up a ride back to Commerce through one of the back doors..."

Than looks at Ninja with a clear lack of expression on his face. No doubt that's something he's cultivated over the years.

"You just worked that out in your head... on the spot?"

She looks at him with a half smile.

"Chief, I probably know the metroplex better than any single person who is or has ever been on any of the law enforcement teams. And..." She chuckles. "Well, it doesn't hurt that just about every jurisdiction has at least one nut who wants to race me from somewhere to somewhere else. Not only can my bike go faster than any of your cop cars, but I cheat."

"I will keep that in mind. And tell the County people to leave you alone."

"That's nice of you, Chief. Your County folks are smart, though. They already leave me alone," she says with a laugh.

Then she looks at Maddie and nods slightly as she shrugs. "It can be done. People are certainly going to wonder why the cops can't catch these two pimp mobiles. You may pick up a legitimate camera crew from the curiosity factor alone. All we need are two lunatics, at least one of whom knows the area. I can't be part of it, and not just because my people need to see me walking among them.

"That suicidal maniac in Arapahoe County would run me down just because he knows he can't catch me on my bike," she says, rolling her eyes. "But between the folks in Commerce City and Old Mama's people, there's bound to be at least a dozen who qualify on both counts."

"Pick a couple of steady heads and hands to man each one, give them and their chaser the ability to talk to each other as well as back to the convoy," Maddie says.

"Mainly you'll want to pull the eyes of the civilian lookie loos. There's always one or two. The other eyes, the ones we're trying to catch, won't pay it a never mind. They'll figure it's just a couple of good ole boys out having some fun. Or some god damn insert appropriate racial epithet here."

"Like I said before... your town, your call. I don't have to live here."

"Oh, it will be insert appropriate racial epithet," says Than. "Our good ol' boys prefer Ford F150s or Harleys."

"That's true. Although some of my fans from down in the Springs prefer the Chevy Silverado," Ninja says. The Chief raises his eyebrows, giving her a thoroughly skeptical look. Oh, how little faith people have! "Well, sure, you have to define 'fan' rather specifically... someone who is enthusiastically devoted to something. And the 'something' in this case would be my disappearance or demise. Still..." She smiles at him. "Can't please everyone, I guess."

She looks at Maddie again, almost... almost... grinning.

"There's a certain charm and potential for over the top wackiness with your plan, which of course makes it all that much more appealing. With some input from Henry, not only will we pull the eyes of every possible lookie loo who ought not be looking at our activities, I have no doubt the show will be the lead story on the late news tonight. The only people who will know about the movement of several hundred Unfortunates up to Commerce City tonight will be the brighter of the individuals we'll be targeting. The less mentally capable will be watching the county-wide chase along with everyone else."

"You know that certain friend of ours referred to me as the Infiltrator?" Wolf asks. "The boys could do quite a bit of damage while everyone else was watching me."

"Or us," Mitch interjects.

"Or us," Wolf admitted with a wicked grin.

"Oh, may the Gods and Buddhas and Spirits watch over the people of the world — or the people of whatever city we're in — should the three of us go out to have a little fun."

Ninja tries not to grin at the other two women and fails. But then she pauses, needing a moment of... seriousness? Solemnity?

"Chief Than, thank you for the use of your buses. I have already advised my DPD liaison that being part of this evacuation operation is... unwise. I will so inform the law enforcement officials of other jurisdictions. Feel free to enjoy the chase, although I'm afraid Denver County will probably only be involved at the end of the show," she says with a hint of a smile before turning to Masterson's people. They've gathered around the offensive H2 Mitch picked out, mocking it as thoroughly as Maddie, Mitch and Ninja had.

She looks them over, taking their measure. She sees what Masterson sees in them — and probably a whole lot more — and she sees their unwavering loyalty to him.

"I know you all volunteered for this mission. Thank you. I know we were all a little busy that day up in Boulder, so... Sergeant Bradway," she says to Walter, "would you do me the honor of introducing the rest of your squad?"

It's a little thing, learning a person's name and remembering it. Except... no, it really isn't. Not to them. People want to be known, people want to be remembered, even if it's only by a few other people. Just as Ninja wants to know who the people are that she protects — especially those who usually have no voice, little voice, in the grand scheme of things — she wants to know the people who have volunteered to help protect one of her communities. She already knows Bradway and Sergeant Dennis Conway. The good Sergeant introduces her to Masterson's second, Captain Paul Murray; Lieutenant Kevin Fourtris; Chief Warrant Officers Michael Collins and Steven Toleman; Sergeants David Fraser and Deanna Zelka, one of only two women in the United States Army Special Forces.

"Okay, somebody claim the buses... we'll leave the atrocities here for the time being and bring our daredevils down with the first convoy. I see you've all met Mitch. This is Terrance.. Riding shotgun for Mitch is Aaron."

She grabs the hat off the dashboard of the H2 and puts it back on, tucking her braids in again.

"Wolf, since my modus operandi is to leave all vehicular traffic eating my dust, any particular way you want to order this convoy?"

"Humvee, bus, Monstrosity, bus, bus, Humvee," Madeline answers without skipping a beat. "I'll handle the tailing Humvee with my extra eyes. Shall we get this show on the road?"

Ninja taps her staff on the garage floor.

"Okay, kids, let's go deliver the first convoy of righteous retribution upon the forces of evil."

She gets back in the Humvee with Terrance, who's grinning like a fool.

"What's got you so happy, Terrance?"

"You feel this — this lightness in your heart — every time you help somebody?" he asks as he eases the Humvee around and heads toward the exit.

"I do indeed."

"I can see why you do it."

"Oh, feeling good is just a bonus. I do it because..." She looks out at the folks walking along the street as they exit the garage, most of them heading home from work. "I do it because it's the right thing to do. I do it because I can." She looks back at him as he navigates the one way downtown streets to head back through Five Points. "I don't always win, Terrance, and that's a burden I have to bear... letting people down, not getting to them in time to save them, not being good enough."

"But, Ninja, all the good you do... that more than balances the scales for the times when you're just, well, human," he says earnestly.

She smiles sadly. "It's not about balancing scales, it's about keeping people safe. In the duality of good and evil — or the struggle of good versus evil, as some say — the struggle is keeping enough of the evil at bay so the balance between the two is maintained.

"Intellectually, I understand the concept of yin and yang... opposites balancing one another, the seed of one being within the other. Good and evil can't exist unless both exist; you need to see evil to understand good... you need to know good to find and fight evil.

"But my heart rebels against the need for evil. That's human nature, I guess, at least for those of us who fight on the side of good. After what happened... what happened to Sally, I felt... angry, full of rage. I felt, in that moment, that evil ought to be eradicated completely.

"Some religions posit that good will one day triumph over evil, destroying it altogether. But the destruction of all evil means all good dissipates as well. Then what's left?"

She looks at him and smiles crookedly. "I don't have the answer to that one."

He grins back. "You know I'm a preacher, don't you, Ninja?"

"Sure do, Terrance. You're the Baptist minister for the folks in Commerce City. Joe Corrigan is your Catholic priest, Charlie Kast is your Unitarian minister, and you've got Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian deacons, as well."

He chuckles. "Girl, you really do keep up on what's happening in Commerce City! I'm thinking you sound an awful lot like Charlie. He and I do get into some interesting theological conversations! But I didn't realize you had such... knowledge of..."

Now it's her turn to chuckle when he doesn't quite know how to phrase his thought.

"You didn't think a heathen would know enough about your religions to know all that, did you?" she says, laughing.

"What surprises me most is that I'm still surprised by anything you know, or say, or do," he admits, still chuckling. "You'd think I'd know better by now."

In addition to talking religious philosophy with Reverend Terrance, Ninja calls each of her contacts in the outer counties to let them know about the insane car chase they have planned, and to request that they not actually catch the cars. Sanchez just sighs. Abe chuckles and asks that they not run over any CU students. Both Dennison and Davis laugh and promise to have someone ready. Dennison asks about Ben and Dick... she has to tell him that an update will have to wait. Forsythe doesn't have someone scheduled to be that far north at the time Ninja expects the race to swing through northern Douglas County; she says to tell Markenson that he's welcome to cover the Douglas County portion of C-470 if it will make him happy. Markensen himself, of course, is overjoyed... until he realizes that the pimp mobiles probably can't top ninety. Still, they should all put on a good show.

On the next trip down, the stunt drivers spend ten minutes laughing at the ridiculous cars. As they leave Commerce City for the third run, just after full dark, they radio the drivers to start their erratic and overly loud trip around the counties. Henry — and Coyote, mustn't forget about Coyote! — and their passengers begin their trip out the northwest gate. Despite the fact that the large gate is rarely opened, its maintenance seems to be as meticulous as everything else the residents hold dear — the gate opens easily and almost silently. As the farm truck from Amanda's friend arrives at the northeast gate, two nondescript cars slip out as well, heading for the East Parking Garage at DIA. One will be left for the stunt drivers at the end of their show; the other returns with both drivers about an hour later.

Surprisingly... or, given Coyote's presence, perhaps not... by the time the pimp mobiles are crossing Peña Boulevard on E-470, the KUSA 9News camera truck is following in their wake. Thanks to their coverage of the "breaking story," the entire evacuation goes off without a hitch. As the final convoy leaves Commerce City, Masterson's team makes a big show of closing the main gate before driving back down through Five Points to the Federal Building.

The car chase is, indeed, the big story of the evening. A number of civilian lookie loos join in with cell phone cameras, but the friendly sheriffs keep them from getting too close to identify either of the drivers. Not that it matters. Aside from being Middle Eastern, Mahmoud is rather nondescript... and Maria is wearing the funky mask Perry had given Ninja.

Henry is waiting in the parking garage with his rental van, inspecting the remaining impounded vehicles and chuckling to himself. "Even Coyote thinks they're ridiculous," he explains.

Unfortunately, if they're to maintain the act, if they're not going to break cover, Maddie's vehicles need to stay at the Federal Center.

The trip before last, she and Mitch had unloaded the special gear from the Humvees, leaving it all tucked away safely in Hank's office. Those returning to Commerce City load up into the van, Mitch hanging back by the one Humvee. Madeline comes up alongside her.

"You watch your ass, girlfriend," Mitch says.

"I will," Madeline says, handing over a piece of paper. "Those are the numbers to the school, the main line and Charles' direct line. Shit goes south here, warn him. It could take a while to extricate myself."

"Copy that. You need the cav, you know who to call."

"That I do."

They clasp hands and hug, then Madeline joins those returning to the enclave. Mitch clambers up into the Monstrosity as the others roll out in the van. Madeline is asleep before they leave the parking garage and wakes only as they roll to their final stop.

It's only about 10:30pm when they drive back through Commerce City's northwest gate. It seems so... eerie with so few of them here. Aside from the fifteen Berserker monks sitting patiently in Veterans Memorial Park behind the administrative building, there are only the four residents who know how to handle firearms. The other forty five residents are... underground? Yep. They're patrolling the sewers.

Being the last one in, Madeline is the first one out and moves off to the side to stretch a bit.


All quiet so far.

Masterson's people are taking the lay of the land.

Ninja looks at Aaron, Maria, Steve, and Mahmoud. And Henry.

"You all should get some sleep. I need to practice and will probably wind up practicing until dawn."

She looks up at the sky. She can almost feel it.

"The veils will fall soon, and the Benevolent Spirits will walk through Commerce City."

Yes, she can almost feel them already.

She looks back at Maddie. "Given what you know of the type of people we're luring here, what would you guess on their ETA?"

She turns at Ninja's question. "If the professionals are running the show, between oh two thirty and oh three thirty. If the civvies are, it will be shortly after midnight, no later than oh one thirty. We should hand out the gear and set up a couple of spotters. And, yes, folks should eat and rest while they can. This might go quickly or it could drag on for a bit.

"And we should have a pow wow of our own," she adds, her eyes sliding over to include Henry.

"In any case, after the veils fall." Ninja nods. "Good."

At least half of the sewer rats are the night folks, so it's practically midday for them. It doesn't take long to sort out gear, convince some of the night folk to keep watch above and the rest below. Those who need rest stretch out wherever they feel comfortable: some indoors in office space, some outdoors on the lawn despite the chill in the air. The Berserker monks have walked up the street to Pioneer Park to rest or meditate or whatever it is they do, so she motions Maddie and Henry to the park at the back of the admin building.

With the amount of energy running through her body right now, she realizes there's a very good reason she can never manage to sleep from about sundown on October 30 until just about dawn on November 1. There is an overabundance of qi saturating their world... the human world. It isn't that she doesn't remember from year to year that this happens, it's more like she doesn't really want to remember.

It's a little too close to the feeling of the fire rushing through her meridians when the Curse first took her. Not so very coincidentally, it had been Halloween when the full force of the Curse had struck. Tonight is the twentieth anniversary of her powers awakening.

What the hell! Celebrating by kicking some skinhead ass sounds pretty darn good to her.

"You wanted a pow wow, Wolf?" she asks quietly. There are the three of them from the human world, and three from the Spirits' domain — her, Wolf, Henry... Raven, Rene, Coyote.

Madeline leans back against Rene as he solidifies behind her. His arms slip around her, and her hands rest on top of his. It is a pose they have done a thousand times without conscious thought. He stands a full head taller than she does, so both of their faces can be seen. Even so, they appear as a single unit... and always have to those who knew them. Old habits die hard, even when one half of the pair is technically dead.

"We don't really know what's coming or who they're bringing with them. We need to be prepared for gifted and Spirits on their side. Personally, I'd rather not call in any more of the good Spirits until we face the Thing itself. If they happen to notice and decide to lend a hand, I certainly won't turn them away. However, I don't want to burn up any goodwill or favors that would do us more good later."

Andi watches Henry's face as Rene solidifies, his eyes flickering from Rene to Coyote to his cousin and back around the circle several times. He has questions... and he's not going to ask them now. Good.

She can't disagree with Maddie's assessment, or the reluctance to request assistance from the Spirits. Some will help without being asked because that's just their nature... the guardians, the protectors. Others will simply watch.

"If I read Masterson's folks right and the other ex-military you have... well, they know this. I didn't want to freak out the civilians. We could get hit twice. The professionals waiting until the cannon fodder have softened us up, then they'll come in full bore.

"Now we need a decision from you, Ninja. It's your town, your people.

"Kill or capture?"

At her question, however, Andi... no, Ninja pauses. But the pause is only because she doesn't want to answer from that angry place of pain and vengeance.

Still, the answer is the same.

"Kill," she says quietly after a few seconds. "It is merciful to put down a rabid dog."

Henry stares at her, shocked... as if he doesn't know her.

And perhaps he doesn't.

Madeline's expression betrays no reaction to the decision. It is not hers to make, nor is it her place to approve or disapprove. Later, when they go after Stryker, then she will keep her own council. Behind her, Rene lets out a breath he had been holding. They both know from experience that capturing is about a hundred times more difficult, a hundred times more risky. It gives the other side less to lose.

"I'll pass the word to Masterson and his folk. Better that it comes from me in this case. After that's done, Rene and I are going to take some time in private. Starting at midnight, we'll both be walking the perimeter. And I'm going to say to you and to Masterson what I said earlier. When they finally come, let me take the hits."

Ninja nods. "Agreed. After all," she says with the barest hint of a grim smile, "you can walk away when this is all over.

"And you take the hits to the extent possible. As you said, we don't know who or what will be coming at us. And you can't be everywhere."

"I can't be everywhere, but the two of us can cover a lot of ground," Madeline replies, tapping Rene's hands under her own, "even more than we used to, and injuries aren't going to do permanent damage to either one of us."

"We'll walk the perimeter until we get word they are en route, then we'll give them a target and the snipers can start thinning them out. And when they come at us, they'll find themselves facing someone who has been at this for longer than most of them have been alive."

Ninja studies the other woman for a long moment, then finally nods. She turns to look in the direction of the main gate, closed for the first time in her memory.

"There are hits I can take better than you, but I think for this fight it makes sense for you to take the front rank. Here's what I think, and you tell me if I'm out of my mind...

"If they have any kind of plan at all, it's something they tossed together quickly. This isn't the Knighthood's style. They do the snatch and grab thing, they leave bodies all over town, they play up the psychological warfare aspect. We pissed them off today. So they think they're going to take it out on my people."

She turns back to face Maddie and Rene. "Any intelligence gathering — and I have to believe they did some or they never would have been able to grab Sally — would have told them there's a single person at the main gate, even at night. That the other three gates are unguarded, never opened, and rumor has it they're all rusted closed. Hell, since not even everyone on the Council knows there's a southwest gate, they hopefully don't either. They'll have learned that perhaps one percent of the population is is nocturnal... about a dozen people. Even with the addition of the 'freaks' the Army dropped off tonight, I don't believe they'll be expecting resistance because, for the most part, the people of Commerce City are peaceful, unarmed, untrained folks. And the guys we pissed off are just a bunch of good ol' boys looking for a little payback, or to send a message, or maybe both.

"If they're the smart sort, they would plan to just walk right through the front door and silently slip through town, killing as they go.

"If they the dumb asses, they'd likely have the same plan, only there will be more of them and they're be whoopin' and hollerin' as they go."

The Warrior hooks her thumb over her shoulder toward the gate.

"If they were planning on bringing vehicles for the whoopin' and hollerin', those will have to stay outside. The front is still the easiest and fastest way in for a group of any intelligence level. The most effort they'd need to put in is getting over the razor wire topped guard rail on the highway — wire cutters and thick gloves will make quick work of that. It's only a twenty foot drop. Even most of the dumb asses will be able to shimmy down a rope.

"They may have some gifted among them, true. Given the group where're dealing with, however, I'd guess whatever gifts they have are minor and can be passed off as natural skills. Also, they probably won't be in the whoopin' and hollerin' group... they'll have been smart enough to hide their talents, so they be in the group that's more likely to think and not drink before heading up here.

"That said, if they're not expecting any resistance, I wouldn't expect any of the Shadowkin tonight. They'll be held in reserve for a more important battle."

Henry just stares.

"Does that nice man of yours know how scary you are. 'Cause I'm gonna need to have a talk with him."

Andi looks at her cousin. Or rather, Ninja, the Warrior of their People, she should say, is looking at him.

"Oh, he's coming to understand just how frightening and determined I can be when my people are threatened."

Madeline looks down and coaxes just a tiny bit of the madness forth to be there when she raises her eyes. "And since there's a kill order, I don't have to restrain myself."

Henry looks from one to the other to the next of them, finally settling his gaze on his cousin. "So, hey there, Ninja... where should I hide?"

She raises an eyebrow and grins slyly. "Can you and Coyote cause chaos among the White Men if you're in hiding?"

"Maybe. A little. No, not so much," he admits.

Andi pats him on the shoulder. "Go take a nap. There an old equipment rental store near the front gate. No one's going to see you if you're perched on the roof in the dark. You and Coyote, however, will have a great view of anyone who makes it past the snipers. Play with them all you want... just don't get yourself hurt.

"Your parents would never forgive me."

"Oh, yeah, that's true," he agrees. "I'm their favorite."

"It's so nice that you believe that, Henry, and it speaks volumes to your parents' skill at raising wonderful children. But Billy is everyone's favorite. Go. Nap."

Turning back to Maddie and Rene, she waits until Henry is out of earshot before shaking her head and sighing. "When the Ha'athathli named me Warrior, he spoke truly, for in our culture a warrior is one who not only fights enemies, but one who cares for the welfare of the tribe or the clan. It's more comforting to them — my family, especially — to ignore the part about fighting enemies.

"I'll be here practicing. Once the veils drop, the world gets a little strange for me... and I hope the Aztec magic doesn't make it any stranger than a usual Halloween."

She takes a step back and bows formally to them.

"Take care of my monks, Maddie. I suspect I'll know when our quarry arrives, and will follow the qi to the most advantageous position."

"Watch yourself, Ninja. We'll see you on the other side of dawn."

"As always, Wolf."

Taking her leave of the local Super, Madeline makes her way down to Masterson and his people. Rene is a step behind her, fading into nothing as they come to an area where others might see him. She gives Masterson the word and discusses tactics with him briefly. He knows his business as does his team. She leaves them to their dispersal and makes her way into another building away from everyone else.

Rene materializes again once they are away from the eyes of any casual observers.

"Maddie," he says, catching her hand. "I'm sorry about Logan."

She turns to him and slides her free arm around him. He hugs her tightly and kisses the top of her head.

"We'll get him back for you and the children, I swear it," he tells her.

"I love him, Rene."

"I know you do, love. And I'm glad for it. I've only ever wanted for you to be happy."

"I was happy with you."

"I never meant to leave you, Maddie."

"I know, love."

They settle to the floor and against a wall to simply hold each other until it is time to work. It was something they had not done in more than sixteen years, and her cheeks are damp with tears as she nods off to sleep. Sometimes, it is the little things you miss.

He wakes her with a gentle kiss when the witching hour arrives, as he is a Spirit and no longer has a need for sleep.

"It's time, love."

"Once more into the breach we go," she quotes, and then looks up at him. "A kiss before dying?"

"His mouth curls into a smile. "You aren't going to die tonight, love."

"Oh, I'm sure I will... at least once."

They share a long kiss, then go out to begin their rounds.

# # #

She begins her practice as Maddie and Rene walk away. Because the boundaries between the human world and some of the other dimensions thin and drop away on this one day of the year, Andi is accustomed to practicing more than usual. There is more qi to channel and the very nature of it changes — the flavor, the scent, the texture... there's no precise term to use. She finds it fascinating to watch and touch, to hold, to manipulate. Her senses extend farther, she moves faster, heals almost instantly, communicates so much better with the animals. The downside, of course, is that Andrea is much more distracted. But Andrea is not working today... Ninja is. So... no problem there.

She's never noted a fall in the veils from any other worlds except the Benevolent Spirits realm and the realm of the Ancestors. However, with Stryker in the area trying to allow the Shadow control over their world — does he realize that means his own obliteration as well? — she will need to be wary of openings to the darker worlds. Given the difficulty of opening portals to them, she would expect their veils to perhaps thin, but not fall completely. However, being ever watchful is important.

And watch she does... the sparks that are the people here, the growing presence of the Spirits, the almost aimless wandering of the ones who are the Ancestors. Because of the Curse, because she is Diné, she interacts with the Spirits enough that they are familiar; they are a comfortable and comforting presence on this night. But this one day is the only time she is aware of the Ancestors... and not hers nor those of her People. Because of the Diné beliefs that the spirits or souls of the dead are not to be given cause to remain near the living, there are a number of rituals to ensure that the souls of the deceased travel to the realm meant for the dead. That is not the realm of the Ancestors, the dimension that opens to the human world today. 'Ancestors' is really a misnomer; but it's a common enough misconception.

They are actually the spirits, the souls who have not moved to their proper place. It could be because they are tied to someone in the world of those still living and one or both of them don't want to let go. That's similar to what happened to Rene, except that these souls could move on if only they or the living one — whoever is holding so tightly to their relationship — would just let go. So often, it is a parent holding to a child if the child died young, or a child holding to a parent of any age. At times, it is a spouse, and sometimes even a dear friend. The Diné rituals, for those who follow enough of the old ways at least, ensure the severing of these ties. While some cultures have their rituals of grieving and letting go, many cultures have no way of doing so.

Some few of these souls are those who, in common terms, have unfinished business in our world. These are usually — although it must be stressed in the strong possible way: not always — murder victims whose death has never been investigated, has never come to light, or was passed off as accidental or natural. It is seeing children with the scent of rage hanging over them that bothers her the most.

Here, in Commerce City, there are virtually no souls from that realm. One, an elderly woman, wanders among the people of Masterson's squad but follows Masterson himself whenever he moves more than a dozen paces from the group. Andrea has the sense that she is his paternal grandmother and that she died recently. He still grieves; she clearly worries for his safety. There is a strong bond of love between them. The other, a young woman, sits beside one of the monks. She was a resident here, a dear friend of his. Maura? Maureen? Yes, it was the latter, although he and only he called her Maura. And it had been leukemia that took her from the human world only a few weeks ago. There are a few others who simply wander, looking for someone, something... likely someone who sought safety in Five Points or the communities to the north.

She is watching Maddie and Rene, together — as they should be, as they always will be — resting. She might have simply glanced at them and moved her attention elsewhere if not for the fact that their combined energies are beautiful.

People watching from the walls. People watching underground. Other people simply waiting. And she watches the qi.

Midnight comes and midnight goes. Maddie and Rene begin their rounds. One o'clock comes and one o'clock goes. Not long after that, however, Ninja senses something coming up Vasquez Boulevard. People, although they are still too far away for her to know how many or who they are. Their intent, on the other hand, glows brightly as a malevolence in the qi flows.

Rene, let Maddie know we have incoming... just under a mile up Vasquez, no numbers yet.

Coyote, would you wake Henry, please? I'm sure the two of you will make mischief for our foes.

Even those not sensitive to the qi flows seem to recognize there is a change. The tunnel rats spread toward the perimeter of the enclave. The few residents still above ground move toward the front gates. The monks rise as one and begin moving slowly out of the park and up 60th Avenue. Touchingly, as Maura's hand brushes against Thrane's, their qi wraps around one another for a moment...

And then Maura's qi dissipates into the universal flow.

This is a good day for closures. And in some cultures, it's meant to be just that.

She feels Raven's presence as she continues her forms. It is a comfortable and comforting presence for a change.

All are present. They watch. They wait, Raven says.

Yes. I see them. I feel them. May their assistance not be needed at this time and place.

Some will want to help nonetheless, it says. They will look to you for direction. In this Dance, you play the part of the Ha'atathli.

As the current form concludes, she sweeps the ground to pick up her staff and begins the forms meant for weapons work.

Then I will do my best to honor the role of Ha'atathli.

Madeline carries no rifle in this cement jungle, only the nines and her tian po slung across her back. In fact, she no longer blends in with the military folk, having chosen to return to the biker chick look from earlier in the day: jeans, t-shirt, boots, leather jacket, hair down and held back by a dark bandana. She leaves the building she and Rene had settled in and goes to the nearest perimeter point. Rene vanishes into the ether to start opposite her. They will circle counter clockwise, always staying six hours from each other.

The movement warms her up and loosens her up. She checks in with those she passes — the monks, Masterson's squad, Hank's remaining people. Rene's mind touch is always there, a light contact held allowing them to know instantly of anything out of the ordinary.

Madeline is stopped by Masterson himself when Rene gives her Ninja's message.

Show time, love.

Meet me by the front gate.

See you there.

"They're coming," she tells Masterson. "I'll be baiting them to come after me. You will probably see something a bit... odd."

"And if they take you hostage?

She shrugs. "Shoot the hostage."

He judges her for a moment. "You're serious."

"Deadly. Take the shot, even if it's a kill shot. I'll get back up, eventually."

"Do you have to be crazy to be a Super?"

"No, but it helps."

He just shakes his head as she walks away.

She goes straight out to the main street running toward Vasquez and walks straight up the middle. After a few feet, Rene coalesces beside her. They link arms and look like nothing more than young lovers out for a moonlit stroll. They stop about twenty feet from the main gate.

Ask Ninja how far they are now.

Will do. Ninja? ETA?

Ninja watches the approaching group, but also checks the entire perimeter and beyond. The group on Vasquez is the only anomaly, however. They're moving fast enough that she knows they're in vehicles, and packed close enough together that she can't pick out individuals. Yet.

About a quarter mile, she tells Rene. Despite the barely waning moon, they're going to need to get nearly all the way to the gate before they realize it's closed. No one seems to think streetlights are important up here.

She knows there's a touch of humor there. Lack of lighting on the inner side of the wall and along the highway that forms part of the barrier certainly works in their favor.

Maddie knows Masterson and his people are watching both her and the outer perimeter. The show is just in case the other side is watching.

"Isn't it time for you to take your turn at gate duty, love?" she asks Rene.

"It is. Won't you keep me company?"

"Be happy to."

Rene becomes a guard less interested in his duty than the girl with whom he is flirting. He is so interested, in fact, that he does not see the first of the pickup trucks until they are right at the gate. Madeline slips behind him as if she is hiding.

"Hello, sirs," he greets the newcomers in a cheerful and less than intelligent manner. "What can I do for you?"

"Need you to open the gate, son," an older fellow says.

"I'm sorry, sir, I can't do that. Orders, you see. We can't risk any of them getting out."

"I see. And what do those orders say about that little filly there trying to hide behind you?"

Rene does a good impression of being flustered and caught out in something he should not be doing and begins to stutter a reply.

It's only as the trucks arrive at the gate that Ninja can separate out the individual qi signatures — that's how closely packed the men are in the trucks. Well, things ought to get a little roomier for them soon enough.

She, too, begins moving up 60th Avenue, well behind the monks. Yeah, yeah... she heals fast and she heals well. She still doesn't need to accidentally get caught in the path of a Berserker once he's gone... well, berserk.

There's a stirring on top of the old equipment rental building... more like a mini cyclone of qi. Coyote, of course. It's best to pay as little attention to whatever mayhem Henry and his guardian Spirit have cooked up.

They're really packed in there tightly, Rene, but it looks like three groups of about twenty each. Three vehicles? Huh. Those guys must be damn uncomfortable.

Oh, and they're... frothy. Boiling over with anger, rage, hatred, disgust. All I can sense from here is plain old humanity at its worst. Do you sense any Shadowkin?

He takes his cover off and runs a hand through his hair.

No. No Shadowkin, just numb nuts.

"You no get in trouble, are you, Jimmy?" Madeline whispered loudly, loud enough for the guy in the truck to hear.

"Jimmy? Is that your name, son? Jimmy what?"

"Yes, sir. Well, actually James, but everyone calls me Jimmy. Jimmy Holbrook."

"And you, little lady?"

She bashfully peers out from behind Rene, not meeting the man's eyes. "Miruki. Miruki Jones."

"Tell you what, Jimmy Holbrook. You roll open this gate, and I won't tell your CO about Miss Miruki Jones there. And it only needs to be wide enough to let one vehicle through at a time."

"Well, um... I..."

He shifts from foot to foot, looking back and forth between truck guy and Maddie.

Your people ready, Ninja?

The monks had turned down Vasquez moments ago, heading toward the gate. They can see the vehicles, and their agitation is becoming palpable. Ninja is pacing them on Dahlia Street, the frontage road on the east side of Vasquez.

The snipers are so focused that each one of them looks like a pinpoint of blazing qi. She would sure as hell hate to have someone that focused on her, even in a good way. And these men are not thinking good thoughts at the moment. The remainder of Masterson's squad is hidden in the dark shadows of the scrub trees and bushes along Vasquez.

Just then, a wave of qi blows like a soft breeze from the top of the equipment rental building to rest lightly on the gate.

Snipers are in place, I'm on my way, the monks are becoming agitated, and watch out when you touch the gate. I'm not sure what Coyote did... I just know it did something, she warns Rene.

Roger that.

"Um, how about if, um, you kind of found the gate unlocked when, um, I, uh, stepped away to answer the call of nature," he haltingly suggests.

"Sure, Jimmy, that'll work just fine," the good ole boy tells him with a non-humorous smile. "Just give us about ten minutes, and we'll even close the gate behind us."

"'Kay, just a minute here, let me look up the code," he says in a rush, fumbling with some papers in a pocket.

He punches in numbers on a keypad and the lock clicks open. then he holds out a hand to Madeline. "Come on, Miri."


"Come on. I want to show you something."

"Okay, if you sure," she says, taking his hand.

They both slip away and out of sight of the troublemakers.

"Open the gate, LJ," the leader says.

Someone jumps out of the back of one of the trucks, grinning like a devil as he gets to the gate. He begins to pull it up — like a big garage door — but at about a foot and a half, it gets stuck. He pushes up even harder and it seems to be stuck tightly.

"Jesus Christ, LJ!" the leader exclaims. "It ain't that hard to open a damn gate. Joe, help him out will ya?"

"Sure thing, boss," says another brute. This one has a baseball bat tucked under one arm.

Pushing the gate up got them no further, so Joe gets the bright idea to pull it down then give it another good shove upward. That works... the gate fly open. It rolls up so fast, however, that it bounces back down, and Joe and LJ have to jump out of the way before it squashes them both. With all their attention on the gate, no one saw the woman-shaped shadow that slips behind the last vehicle and slashes one of its tires.

Ninja hears a low rumbling sound of laughter from Coyote when the gate rolls off quickly and bounces back, and then a peal of giggles when Maddie slashes the last truck's tires.

Well, now that's going to make it awfully hard for them to get the hell out of Dodge when the shit hits the fan. Which is going to be any minute now.

The two monks in the front of the group begin a mournful wail. She doesn't know how old they are; they've always appeared to be ageless to her. So she doesn't know if they've ever seen the gate closed like this. However, seeing it misbehave as it has? Well, they recognize that as incorrect. As inharmonious with its proper function.

They don't like things to be inharmonious.

It upsets them.

That's when Lilith slithers across the road, pausing in the glow of the leading truck's headlights.

"Oooh, howdy boys!" she calls as she waggles her fingers at them.

This had been her idea... to taunt them. To lure them in. To make sure there was no doubt whatsoever in their minds that Commerce City was filled with 'freaks'.

Lilith is possibly the most beautiful woman Andi has ever seen — and Andi has some incredibly beautiful friends and relatives, starting with her own mother. If the bottom half of Lilith's body had been fish instead of anaconda, she would be a mermaid. But there just doesn't seem to be a word for what she is... so everyone just calls her Lilith. She looks at the men long enough to give Maddie plenty of time to slash at least one more tire, possibly two. They're mesmerized.

But when Ninja notes the restlessness from the men in the back, the ones who can't see Lilith, she asks the frightened rabbit to run across the road in front of her. The rabbit does not want to get anywhere near Lilith, despite the fact that she eats all the same things most humans eat, in the same way most humans eat... and that does not include raw rabbit. Ninja promises the rabbit again that no harm will come to her, that she will personally provide a meal for the rabbit come daylight. Oh, but the smell of snake!

Brave, brave rabbit rushes as fast as her legs will carry her out into the road... passes close, oh so frightening close to the snake! But she continues to run, run, run as fast as she can.

Lilith spies the rabbit and waves again to the strangers. "Dinner! Gotta go!" And she slithers as silently and swiftly as snakes do... in a slightly different direction.

She likes rabbits. She thinks they're adorable and soft and have the cutest ears. It makes her sad that they're so afraid of her. So she's certainly not going to do anything to cause the poor little thing any more fear than it already has. Her first goal to to reach the Special Forces staging area, then she'll head down into the tunnels to help keep watch.

The monks continue to wail as they draw closer to the gate.

LJ, Joe, the Leader and quite a few others leer at the woman who has stopped in their spotlight, but when she chases after the rabbit they make a concerted effort to get the gate open and make it stay that way. Some of the other men jump from the truck and hustle in on foot, no longer content to wait to take out their disgust on the freaks.

A pair go after Lilith and the others head for the monks, although those move only at a walk. The first truck rolls in but does not get very far when a front tire suddenly pops and it veers to the left. More ruffians literally tumble out of the back. Not to be left out of the fun, men from the other trucks jump out and run in past the gate. When the driver of the last truck realizes he has a flat, he sends all but one other forward.

At this urging, the last of the skinheads hurry into Commerce City. They do not want to miss out on any fun. Without more nonsense and with an odd absence of noise, the big gate rolls back down into a closed position. The clang of the lock as it engages cannot be heard over the sounds of men looking for trouble.

Everyone's in, Ninja, Rene tells her.

The two at the last truck are already dead. Madeline had wasted no time, no ammunition. Her tian po already drips with blood.

Rene holds open the guard shack doors to let Madeline slip through. The Leader is giving orders to go from building to building and kill anyone they find. He has certain men assigned to specific targets. Yes, they had intel, all right. The Mayor and his family are targeted, along with a few other influential people. These might be scum of the worst sort, but they are organized.

Madeline had shed her leather jacket and rolls down the bandana so that it covers more of her face. The tian po is held prominently before her, and there is no mistaking the double holster or the weight of what is holds. She waits until the moment between the orders are issued and the men are sent on their way.

Now, Rene.

He appears beside her, his form glowing.

"Are you gentlemen looking for me?" she asks in a mocking tone.

Ninja watches. Ninja waits.

Her hearing is acute enough to hear the shots that take out the two men following Lilith, to hear them drop dead to the ground, to hear Lilith's gasp of surprise before she hurries off.

Two more down, she informs Rene.

Ninja hears another two shots and the men jogging toward her in the darkness drop to the ground dead.

Oh, those were mine! Make it six down. You, Maddie and the monks handle these guys. I'll see if our snipers will leave me a head or two to crack.

The shadows are where she is most comfortable, slipping from one to another silently. She follows the line of the building, watching the men who are heading toward the residential areas.

And find out where the leader got his intel before you kill him, she adds with, she is fairly certain, more venom than anyone who knows her would expect. But their first targets are everyone on the Council, plus their families. That... is... not... right.

At first all Ninja gets back from Rene is a chuckle. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were her daughter. Leader's already been targeted.

She didn't have much time to think about Rene's statement, as Raven hands on her shoulder just then, as light as a feather.

Coyote would like to play with the two going down this street, and asks that you come back later.

She glances up at the Spirit on the top of the building. It grins down at her. And she doesn't see Henry up there.

Is my cousin well?

Coyote nods. This is not as much fun for him as other things. He will take a nap.

She just points down 58th Avenue and continues following the other pair as they creep through the shadows along Dexter Street, the frontage road on the opposite side of Vasquez. Coyote's prey would be heading for Wendy, Ross and Holly.

Wendy is one of the most elder of the Commerce City resident, easily as old as Andi's grandparents. She is well-loved and well-respected.

Ross is one of the dozen or so teachers in Commerce City. Like Aaron and Lisa, he and his wife Trish had moved to Commerce City ten years ago with their daughter, Vanessa, and son, Jerry, when Vanessa exhibited an ability to heal others in kindergarten. They have two other daughters, Angela and Margie. Angela seems to be developing the same mutation as her older sister. Both parents suspect four year old Margie will too; they don't care.

Holly is a farmer with a gift for working with the Earth and plants. While she can pass for Normal, it would have meant denying her passion and her gift for growing. She's been living in Commerce City for nearly twenty years and has been a foster mother — a more loving mother than the women who abandoned them — to at least a dozen children. At the moment, she's fostering three teenage boys, Eric, Ron and Alan.

Ninja doesn't think Coyote can harm the skinheads as much as they deserve.

The two she's following are heading toward the neighborhood where Hank, Josie and JD live. Charlie, the Unitarian minister, lives in the neighborhood as well with his partner, Alfredo. Lacey, who is a phenomenal seamstress, Lilith's twin sister, and perfectly Normal, ran away from home at twelve to find her sister. She's been in Commerce City ever since — fifteen or so years now. She fosters a quarter of teenager girls, Jennifer, Celeste, Bethany and Grace.

How interesting that their information is somewhat out of date. She hadn't heard the leader mention Jocko.

Dahlia ends at 60th, but she has farmland to hide in while her prey has only the shadow of buildings.

She watches. She waits.

Eventually, they'll need to come across Vasquez so they can head up Colorado Two, something they choose to do just beyond 60th.

She chuckles to herself. Even to her own ears, it doesn't sound very nice.

If they were smarter, they would have waited to cross at 62nd, where Colorado Two heads off on a diagonal. That land hasn't been completely cleared of asphalt yet. It's open. They would be able to see anything coming at them.

But here?

Damn, it doesn't even seem fair... like shooting fish in a barrel.

For a moment, for just an instant, she considers giving them a sporting chance to defend themselves. And then she remembers why they're here.

Fuck that shit.

She steps out behind them. With a spinning blow to the first one's head, she shatters his skull then continues the turn and this time jabs her staff into the other man's sternum. The blow splinters the bone, ruptures blood vessels, and crushes his heart.

Apparently, his was a man of some luck, as he manages to get a shot off — silenced, of course — before dropping dead next to his friend. And, as luck would have it, the bullet passes through her upper arm, cracking the bone before exiting the other side.

Damn it! Now she's going to have to buy ANOTHER black turtleneck! Inconsiderate asshole.

Ninja turns and heads back toward the neighborhood on the other side of Pioneer Park where Coyote is amusing itself.

Are you finished having fun, O Coyote?

Oh, yes... very nearly! I will be weary of this game by the time you arrive, O Warrior!

Great. She just can't wait to see what Coyote considers 'fun' that is so upsetting to Henry that he needs to sleep the activities away.

And DAMN her arm itches!

# # #

Those who remained at the front gates turn to look at the arrogant bitch mocking them. The Leader is not happy. She didn't just mock them, but she had also had the audacity to fool him. He isn't exactly pleased with her boyfriend either, who is apparently also one of the freaks.

"Take out the glow worm. Capture her. We'll have her for dessert."

The Leader could not have said something more wrong if he had tried. Shots ring out at Rene; they pass right through him.

He laughs and challenges, "Are you trying to tickle me?"

A few rush Madeline. Her tian po flashes too quickly to be seen. The two that get to her first wind up with new smiles for their troubles. The other two receive severed arteries — one in the arm, the other's is in the leg. The light of madness shines in her eyes when she looks at those who remain.


They don't get much of a chance to react as the monks arrive in all their Berserker glory. The Leader takes off at a run.


Got him.

Another skinhead drops as he aims a shotgun at her, half his head splatters over the man next to him. Then they are all involved. She watches the monks' frenzy, noting how they instinctively know each other from those they fight. She chooses to keep her distance and signals Masterson's crew to help clean up. She circles the combatants until she is clear of them, then starts in the direction she had seen the Leader run.

Rene's form briefly appears outside one building and she alters her course toward it.

Ninja hears shots ringing out; the monks' wailing has turned into an odd sort of chanting. If she didn't know they'd gone berserk, she'd say it was... pretty. Well, actually, it IS pretty. Just maybe not in this context.

Maybe not.

Yep, we freaks are an odd bunch, aren't we? she thinks.

Rene, I'm tracking down the last two who snuck away from the main group. Or rather, I'm checking to see what sort of game Coyote played with them. What's the status over there?

Your monks have the rest well in hand. Masterson's squad is handling any stragglers. Maddie and I are on the Leader. By the way, he reeks...

Madeline slips into the building Rene had indicated and moves cautiously through it.


He's gone up to the second floor. I've got him cornered. Damn it! He's wired, Maddie. Hurry!

I'm on my way!

Dispensing with all pretense of silence, Madeline runs up the stairs. By his tone and inflection, there is only one thing Rene could mean. Explosives. She bursts onto the second floor but sees no one.

Which way?!

"Here!" comes the sound of Rene's voice.

She heads toward it and reaches the door just in time to hear the Leader say, "I'm going to blow us all to hell."

She only sees Rene's back from this vantage point.

Sit rep?

He's got his gun to his head, wires running down to a packet under a vest and maybe one up his arm.

Fuck. Cagey bastard. Dead man switch. Tell Ninja to get her people clear of those trucks now.

She'll never get there in time. I have to go.

Then go. Tell Masterson's people to hold their fire if they see him.

Are you sure?


Rene vanishes. Right now, Madeline wishes she had brought the bull whip with her. She can't risk shooting the bastard, and the tian po is definitely not a throwing weapon. She crouches down just outside the door and listens...

Ninja sees the two men Coyote had followed lying in the middle of 59th Avenue, three houses up from Wendy's little home, their dead eyes staring at the night sky. Their spirits stand beside the bodies, looking down at them, emanating confusion and fear.

An incredibly immense amount of fear.

She looks at Coyote.

"You scared them to death?"

I didn't mean for them to actually die. They were very weak.

"Great." Then she sighs.

Okay, you two, she says to the... well, ghosts. Get out of here.

But... what...? We just...

That's when she feels or smells or senses the wave of evil.

That's when Coyote's head snaps up, looking toward the main gate. It bares its teeth in a snarl.

That's when Cobra, Lion and Alligator appear beside Coyote.

That's when Ninja says, Yeah, you're dead. Am-scray, nudging them with a jolt of qi.


Rene, what the fuck is going on?! The qi flows just shifted to DEFCON 1!

The ghosts dissipate...

She starts running full out toward the source of the stench. Didn't Rene say he couldn't sense any Shadowkin in the intruders? What the hell?

Coyote and Lion lope along at her heels, Alligator runs in that weird zig zag pattern alligators are famous for, Cobra just drapes itself over her shoulders. Raven flies above, cawing loudly.

At least the itching in her arm has mostly stopped.

Rene appears next to the trucks inside the gate, just long enough to confirm what Madeline had suspected, then he is instantly at Masterson's side.

"Colonel, you need to pull your men back. Those trucks are wired to blow. Maddie's trying to contain the remote detonator."

Masterson's twitch is barely noticeable at the sudden apparition. He did, however, recognize Rene from when he and Black Wolf had handled the gate, and is quick enough to equate Maddie to Black Wolf.

I'm with Masterson now, Rene replies to Ninja. Do you know what a dead man switch is?

At Rene's words, Ninja runs through all the curses she knows in every language with which she's familiar.

Oh, damn, this is not good.

Unfortunately, yes, she responds to Rene.

Meanwhile, Madeline listens to the Leader moving around. She has to figure out how much of a zealot he is and whether he is the martyr kind or the last act of defiance kind. She is hoping for the latter, which would mean he's a tiny bit more interested in his own survival than he is dying for the cause. It would be better if he wants to survive to fight and kill another day.

He is moving cautiously through the room, coming closer to where she crouches. She silently scoots back, contemplating her best course of action. Maybe, just maybe... She lays the tain po aside and pulls one of the nines, aims it at the door and purposely makes noise by knocking something over and softly cursing. Then she waits.

Fox materializes beside Coyote and yips a greeting; Opossum appears on Ninja's shoulder — the one attached to her still slightly itching arm — walks carefully over Cobra, and climbs on top of her head. It grips her hair with all four feet and wraps its tail around one of her braids.

I'm close enough that I can pick out Maddie's... well, I can feel Maddie inside the well of stench. I'm less than a minute away. And I'm bringing Friends.

She runs diagonally across the block bounded by 56th and 58th Avenues, Holly and Fairfax Streets. History says there were warehouses and shipping companies filling this space before the enclave was walled off; now, only a couple of homes remain along 56th and a single warehouse building at 58th and Fairfax. The rest is rubble — partial skeletons of other buildings, outlines of a few ancient tractor trailers, some spots where the monks had begun tearing up asphalt.

If the monks don't calm down on their own, find Maria... she knows how to soothe them. Is Maddie that two story building on Fairfax?

It feels like that's where she's centered, but with the stench, it's hard for Ninja to tell if she's in that one or the smaller one to the north.

Yes, second floor when I left. I'll be back shortly.

Good. Now she knows where she's going. Next, she needs to figure out what to do once she gets there.

Masterson's squad is already vacating the immediate area, and Rene redirects them toward the area of Fairfax and 58th. He makes a brief stop when he sees Maria, explaining to her what is needed. Then he goes back toward his wife.

"I know you're out there," the Leader calls out as he steps through the doorway. "You let me pass or everyone goes up."

Madeline lets the gun waver, as if she is undecided or confused.

"I die, you die," he says, opening his vest with one hand to expose a brick of C4 strapped to him.

Eyes widening, she partially lowers the weapon.

"That's it. Just put the guns on the desk there and move away from them."

She does as she's told, stepping back as the Leader draws a bead on her. He's about to fire when he has a better idea.

"Turn around."

She waits until her back is to him before she lets the smile come. He grabs one of her arms and twists it behind her, hard. She might heal, but she's not impervious to pain. She doesn't have to fake the gasp.

"You're going to walk me out of here, sweetheart, and then I'm going to have some fun with you."

Rene... tell Masterson, 'shoot the hostage.'

You didn't? Never mind...

He sighs and goes back to Masterson, contacting Ninja as he does so.

Raven caws loudly. You know the answer! I am your guardian, Warrior! Why?

Every guardian Spirit has qualities that... well, perhaps are not truly descriptive of their natures and traits, but qualities that translate to the People's perceptions of the Spirit. Some Spirits' qualities are — she's not going to say less complex, because she doesn't think that's quite the case. Perhaps they're simply easier to describe more succinctly than others. Gazelle is aggressive. Eagle, Bear and Deer, on the other hand, take many words to describe.

Raven's question is one that has always puzzled her. Introspection and self-knowledge have always made sense. She's a person who thinks and learns, she always tries to be the best person she can be. Courage, too, makes sense — not just as the Warrior, but living with the Curse even when she would have given anything to be Normal.

But magic? She never understood that. And she has a feel that if she doesn't get it in the next couple of minutes, some really bad shit is going to happen.

It has to do with magic, but... how?

You tell me, Warrior. You know how The People see us. You know who flies with you tonight. What qualities of each will help you most right now?

Well, they're not here to just hand out the simple answers, that's for sure. She considers the Spirits with her as she approaches the building where Maddie is holed up with the leader of the Knighthood. Well, probable leader of the newly reformed Denver chapter, at any rate.

Okay. Survival instincts from Alligator. Strategy, diversion from Opossum. Strength, energy from Lion. Stealth, guile from Coyote. Swift, decisive action from Cobra. Cunning, agility from Fox.

Alligator and Lion nod, Opossum pats her head, Cobra flicks its tongue out to touch her cheek.

But Coyote shakes its head. Nearly right. Guile and innocence go together.

Fox, on the other hand, does a backflip to land in front of her, and then disappears. A moment later, it speaks from the... from the brick edging wall beside her?

Way off, O Warrior! Try again. I have given you hints.

She blinks. Invisibility; magic calls to magic. Camouflage?

Fox reappears with a fox-like grin, and taps her on the nose with a finger.

A finger??

One more, Little One! I know you can do it, Fox says with confidence.

A finger?


Raven lands on Fox's head and bobs its head in a nod. It will take much energy, Warrior. Only on this night would such a thing be possible. Hold in your mind the picture of what you wish others to see, and they will see it. Walk past the glass and you will see it yourself. Then use your skills, use that which we lend you this night.

Lion walks close and looks her in the eyes.

There are many ways to kill the shell that holds the Shadowkin. There are few ways to ensure the Shadowkin does not seek a new shell.

Rene interrupts then. Ninja, she wants Masterson to shoot the hostage...

Shit. Shit, shit, shit!

What is the surest way? she asks Lion.

Beheading. Throw the head in a swiftly moving river, if possible.

Well, damn. That sounds... familiar. But she doesn't have time to consider it now. She just nods.

Raven caws again. Hurry. We will all be with you but will not distract you by being seen.

Again, she just nods as they all disappear.

Rene, tell Maddie I have a plan that might not involve getting her killed. That shit's gotta itch like a mother fucker. I'll be in the downstairs corridor. Make sure she knows that... that it's me. I'm going in.

She's never worried about getting killed... There is just a touch of snark to his reply, although it is not directed at Ninja.

She slips silently into the building and listens. Maddie and the skinhead are still at the top of the stairs. Perfect.

She crouches down, tucking her staff against the baseboard. She considers it part of herself, so she's just going to assume that the magic will extend to it as well.

Oh, and Rene? I'll need her tian po, too.

Andi, Ninja, the Warrior closes her eyes, takes a deep breath and fixes a pictures in her mind of what she wants the world to see when she and her staff are seen.

Maddie, Ninja has a plan so you don't get shot... again.

Rene, I wasn't planning on dying. I just need to get that damn thing disarmed.

His hesitation is just enough to express his doubts on the first statement.

I know. Ninja's waiting for you on the first floor. She needs your tain po.

It's up on the second floor, the nines, too. We can't kill him until it's disarmed.

I'll remind her.

"Easy down the steps," the Leader cautions and not in a concerned way. "Don't try anything funny."

She takes it slow. She'll need her hands and arms whole for the next part of the job.

Madeline stops when she gets to the bottom of the stairs. The Leader is about to ask her what the fuck she's doing when he sees the girl.

"Who the fuck is that?"

"Never seen her before," Madeline replies with utter conviction.

I have her weapons. I'm just outside, Rene tells Ninja. She wants me to remind you his death will detonate the explosives.

Copy that, Rene. Just giving her a little diversion.

The girl that Ninja is pretending to be hunches over a little more, holding one arm against her stomach as though she's in pain, while she reaches out with her other hand toward the skinhead. It's shaking visibly, despite the fact that it feels — to Ninja — as steady as a rock. And she's seen tremors like that before. It's possibly a fear tremor, but sure looks more like the tremors she's seen in the homeless people... more like those caused by malnutrition, disease, drug use, alcoholism.

She forces herself to look up.

"Help me," she croaks out, her voice sounding like it hasn't been used in weeks. "They... wouldn't..."

She pulls her arm in to wrap it around herself, almost on the verge of tears.

"Please, sir. I just... wanna go home... to my mama."

Madeline didn't have to see the man's face to see that he's disgusted by the girl before him.

"Another god damn freak," he grouses.

Oh, boy! Now, that's not how she expected him to react. Ninja watches the qi flow around him, around Maddie, and she's moving even before he speaks.

Keeping in character, however — for the moment, anyway — she makes a determined effort to move slowly as she stands, picking up the tiny change purse off the floor. Her hand grips her staff securely.

Madeline feels the nose of the gun that had been pressed into her back move away. She knows this will be the only warning she'll get. She shifts her feet slightly, even though he keeps a tight hold on her arm. She makes her move when he moves to shoot the bedraggled girl. There is a sickening pop as her shoulder dislocates, and in the following blur he is face down on the ground, his gun clattering away, her knee in the middle of his back.

"I ain't no freak," Ninja / the girl says as Maddie makes her move. In that instant, she can see her reflection in the window of an office door.

Damn. Blonde, blue eyes, looking probably half her actual age — maybe mid-teens — filthy, scrawny, hair matted and tangled and... ew. Even she's kind of disgusted. But the black eye, swollen lip, scratches and bruises on her arms, and the tattered clothing... well, any reasonable person would think that girl in the window had been beaten.

Obviously, there is a dearth of reasonableness in the Knighthood.

"Could use a hand here, girl," Maddie says.

She looks back, wide-eyed, as Maddie speaks.

"I ain't no freak," she repeats. "But... but... you be one."

Ninja makes a show of hesitation, perhaps the sort of hesitation of someone of someone doing some soul searching.

Her shoulder is trying to heal itself and that's a distraction she doesn't need. Fortunately, and as planned, one of his arms is pinned by that knee in his back and the other at the wrist by her booted foot.

"Yeah, I'm a freak, get over it," Madeline says gruffly.

"But he ain't so very nice, neither." She hasn't moved except to stand. "What you need from me? I ain't got no grudge 'gainst you, but I ain't so keen on helpin', neither."

She looks at the man on the floor, letting a little anger show in her eyes.

"'Cept maybe for a no good, dirty rotten pig like him, I figure I kin make me an exception."

Madeline chin nods to the weapon that had skittered up against the wall.

"The gun there. Just need you to hand it to me. Unless you want to knock him out with it."

Even without the use of his arms, the Leader tries to buck Madeline off his back, but a jab to a sensitive nerve cluster stalls him.

"Girl, either do it or get out."

Ninja moves toward the gun, limping a little, then uses the wall as a prop as she leans down, looking like someone in a whole lot of pain who's trying really hard not to cry because of it. She picks up the gun with index finger and thumb through the trigger guard.

"No, ma'am, I ain't got me the strength to knock no one out on a good day," she says as she limps toward Maddie, holding the gun as far away from her body as possible. "And this here ain't been a very good day for me."

Raven, this disguise will hold until I let it drop, right?

Or until the joining of the worlds ends when the day is over, replies her guardian Spirit.

Rene, ask Maddie if she wants me to drop the act. I can keep it up all day, however, if necessary.

When the message is delivered, Madeline meets the girl's eyes and shakes her head in a definitive no. There is, of course, a method to her madness. She takes the gun from her and gives the Leader a good knock on the head with the butt of it.

"Lights out, sunshine," she says as he goes completely limp.

"Tie him up, will you?" she asks with a wink. Her tone has changed. She knows precisely to whom she is talking.

"I've got to pop this shoulder back in before it makes me crazier than I already am."

"Yeah, tie him up with something that hasn't already been scavenged," Ninja says with a touch of sarcasm as she opens one door and then another to find only empty offices. "And I think your current level of crazy is just fine."

Opening the third door, she grins.

"Eureka! A data center!"

She grabs a handful of the CAT5 cables from the box by the door. Each is neatly looped and secured with an easy-off zip tie. Eventually, the residents of Commerce City might get around to scavenging computer equipment like this, but they don't have any use for CAT5 itself and stripping it to component parts generally isn't worth the time and effort. She drops all but one of the loops beside the body, and pulls off the zip tie from the cable still in her hands. As it unfurls, she can see that it's apparently a standard six foot cable.

"How creative do you want me to get? There's enough cable to mummify him."

She looks Maddie in the eyes and grins. Not nicely either.

"Or I could make it hurt."

"Just the hands and feet for the moment," she says with an evil chuckle. "I still have to be able to get to the plastique and wiring. But making it hurt is okay, too."

She moves out of the way so Ninja can hog tie... or whatever... the bastard. While she's busy with the data cables, Madeline goes down the hallway a bit. Rene fades into existence beside her with her weapons in hand. He puts it all down then takes hold of her arm just above the wrist and elbow.


"Just do it."

There is another awful popping and cracking sound, after which she is banging her head against the wall and stomping one foot. "Fuck. fuck. Fuck... going back in always hurts more..."

Once again, being a librarian — and in this case, one with some coworkers who are just a little overly fond of pointing out bondage methods for people who claim to have absolutely no interesting in the subject, but Andi is digressing — comes in handy. Last week, she had walked in on Sam — a PTA going, chaperone the kids on field trips kind of mom — showing Stephanie — young enough to be her daughter — something called the Mexican Handcuff. It looked painful, and Sam admitted — Tee Em Eye, by the way! — it could be if the rope was too thin or pulled too tight. At the time, Andi had simply rolled by eyes and shaken her head but filed away the information because... hey, she finds bad people. Sometimes she might need to tie them up! Like today!

CAT5 cable is nice and thin, relatively speaking, and she makes sure the cuffs are nice and tight.

Hearing Maddie's exclamation, she calls out, "I've always found the elbow more painful than the shoulder."

And then, just for fun, she hog ties the bastard.

"Oh, and thanks for the compliment earlier, Rene."

Madeline puts her weapons back there they belong, except for the tian po. That blade still needs to be cleaned. A grimace on her face as the healing begins, she rubs her shoulder as she walks back. It is an equal chance as to whether she is trying to rub away pain or itching.

She uses the toe of her boot to put the bastard on his side and opens his vest. Her eyes run over the wiring.

"Check if one of Masterson's people have a small tool kit or a Leatherman or similar. Sharp scissors or a pair of wire clippers would come in handy as well. All my regular tools are back in the Humvee.

She looks up at the girl / Ninja. "Compliment?"

Ninja squats down beside her to look at the bomb.

"Mmm... said if he didn't know better, he'd think I was your daughter."

"I'm not so sure that's a compliment," Madeline commented.

Ninja shrugs and points to the wiring and whatnot the man has attached to himself. "I don't have any experience with bombs. Is this a simple one or a complex one? The complete loons I deal with prefer guns or, even better, their own fists."

"A little of both. This part is the fairly simple piece. It's the remote at the truck that's probably more complicated."

"It is," Rene confirms. "Nothing you can't handle, though."

She looks at the girl / Ninja. "For when this part's done, here or somewhere else?"

The qi begins shifting slightly, and she moves back a bit and sits with her arms wrapped around her legs as she says, "...and this one's starting to come to."

So it's time for her to get back into character.

"I ain't never seen no bomb before. I heard 'bout folks wearin' 'em over in Eye-Rack — that's where my daddy is — but ain't never heard of no good Christian wantin' to visit Jesus so bad."

She perfects her act of looking lost and small and utterly pathetic, hugging her legs even tighter.

Ninja shakes her head. This is not the place to do what Maddie excels at. That needs to be done somewhere even the monks don't go. Then she tilts her head, as though listening for something.

Go check with Masterson, will you? Madeline says to Rene.

On it.

Rene disappears again to track down the colonel and see if he or any on his squad have what she needs.

Raven, I promised the local pack and venues and unkindnesses the opportunity to clean up here. Will allowing them access to this one be ill advised?

She can feel Raven's weight on her shoulder as it looks more closely at the Shadowkin. Remove the head, the rest will do no harm. It would be best to throw the head in a river as Lion suggested, but you would need to travel some distance.

"Sometimes, I think I hear the Lord talkin' to me," she says, looking up toward the ceiling. "Makes me feel real close to Jesus." Then she looks sadly at Maddie, aware that their guest is awake now. "Mama says maybe I'm a little crazy, but the Preacher... he say God talks to all his children what be good."

Will you call Quetzalcoatl then when we're ready for disposal? He should take care of this stuff anyway. I'm pretty sure any law enforcement agency finding a skull floating in a river is going to be annoyed.

Yes, I'll call him. Raven hesitates. Are you well, Warrior? You're acting very... strange.

She smiles, both at Raven's comment and to contradict her earlier comment about not being a freak. Well, actually not so much that... she's still denying being the kind of freak Bozo there thinks she is. She just going to play up the Jesus Loves Me Yes He Does kind of freak.

Now you know what I've been going through the past several months, O Raven!

"And God told me there's a place nearby where I'll be safe."

It was as Madeline suspected... not something that could be done here. Likely too many sensitives in the area.

"Need to move him to the front," she says as if she is talking to herself, although the words are meant for Ninja. "Need to take care of that and that before doing the other."

She begins searching his pockets and comes up with assorted stuff, most of it not useful. There is, however, a set of keys. No ID... not surprising.

"Watch him, will you, girl? Just call out if he tries anything."

She heads outside and looks around. She does not fancy carrying the SOB, not with the way her shoulder feels at the moment. Seeing nothing handy, she goes back in and taps the Leader's head again, putting him out for a few more minutes.

"I need a vehicle to get him up by the trucks they drove. Chloroform or something to keep him out longer would be helpful, too. Any ideas?"

"Yeah, a couple of folks own pickups," Ninja says as she sets her staff down and moves closer to Bozo, inspecting his meridians. "Closest is going to be..." She pauses, gauging distance and ease of getting from Point A to Point B. "...probably Ted's. Somebody's going to need to hotwire it; Ted will have the keys with him.

"Now, chloroform you're probably not going to find. However..."

She presses point on the back of his right hand and gives it a bit of a jolt of qi, then does the same on his right leg below the knee, a point at the fold of the right wrist above the little finger, then pulls off his right shoe and jolts the point on top of the foot behind the big toe.

"Okay, I was a little aggressive in the application, but that should keep him out for twenty to thirty minutes."

"That's handy," Madeline says as she watches.

Andi looks up at Maddie. "It would take me about three minutes to run up to Ted's place, but I don't know shit about hot wiring. That would be a handy skill to learn, though. How about Rene? If not, you'll have to go... it's about a mile and a quarter away."

Yeah, she's assuming Maddie knows how to hotwire a vehicle. It just seems like something she'd know.

"Maybe I should have let Mitch stay, but Rene can manage. Be willing to bet one or two of Masterson's folks could, too. I need to inspect the setup he's got on him a little more. Won't try to disarm anything until we're near the trucks and everyone else has cleared out. Just grateful that this time it isn't a nuke."

Okay, that sends so many thoughts ricocheting around inside her head that it's hard to think. So Ninja just stares. For several seconds.

"You got nuked?" she finally asks, incredulous.

"Technically, I drowned. I wasn't the target, but my adopted country was and had it gone off it would have screwed up pretty much all of the EU and likely the fallout would have affected the US eastern seaboard. I had an expert talking me through the disarm, but the last set of wires were not the standard colors and I had to guess. So I set the ship to sink in case I guessed wrong.

"This kind of explosive I'm familiar with. Took out Stryker's last installation with it. Vincent would have been proud. He always said there's no such thing as too much C4."

Andi looks at the other woman blankly for a few seconds, then shakes her head and points to each of them.

"You. Me. We're gonna chat when this is all over. And in my world, there is very definitely such a thing as too much C4!"

Now she points to Bozo, and in the direction of the front gate. "This? This is too much C4!

"Gods, Buddhas and Spirits, does this moron not know what an explosion like this would do to the ecology of northeastern Colorado?"

She groans as she rubs her temples.

"No, obviously he doesn't... or he doesn't give a shit, which is even worse. I'd carry Bozo, except if all this C4 goes kaboom, I don't get up from dead."

Madeline chuckles. "Civilians.

"It's only too much if you aren't looking to level several city blocks in one big shot and don't give a damn about collateral damage. Vincent just like the light and noise. He'd grin like a Cheshire cat when he could light up the night sky with his fireworks or take out a single building and leave everything else around it untouched."

"Oh, yes. Definitely. Civilian... who cares more than some think is wise about some groups of other civilians."

Andi shakes her head and sighs.

"Ted's house is just up 58th here to Oneida... that will be the third left after the small park on the right... then the second house on the left. Truck should be right out front. It's a tan '99 Chevy S-10. We cannot let Ted's truck go kaboom. He loves that truck, and takes such good care of it that it's in better shape than trucks that are only a couple of years old."

"Rene will take good care of it. We just need to transport numb nuts here, then it can go back to where it's normally parked."

She sends the details off to Rene and begins stretching her shoulder to limber up the muscles.

"Once we get him over there, you and everyone else should clear out just in case I screw up the disable. Don't think I will, but shit happens."

Ninja just nods.

And then her phone vibrates.

She groans. "This can't be good." She pulls the phone out and, considering her camouflage or shapeshifting or whatever it is, it probably looks as though she's pulling the phone out of thin air. She presses talk, but doesn't even get the phone to her ear before Pablo starts talking.

"What the hell are you doing and where the hell are you doing it? I've got a... a... I've got Q here as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs!"

"And it's nice to hear from you, too, Detective Garcia. I have no idea why your ancestral pest would be so agitated. We only have a small problem he needs to deal with a little later."

"He says he should take the problem off your hands now. Not later."

"Well, that could explain his agitation. It's probably something he should be mentioning to me rather than you and, given the number of my People's Spirits I have have sitting around me right now, agitation seems reasonable. But the little problem is taking a nap right now, and we do have a couple of questions we want to ask him once he's awake."

Pablo is silent for several very long seconds. "Where are you?"

"Commerce City. Perfectly safe. Mostly. Probably."

There is another somewhat lengthier silence.

"You're not making me feel any better."

Now it's Andi's turn to pause. "I'm sorry," she says sincerely. "But when I'm working, there's very rarely anything I'm going to be able to say that's going to make you feel better. Detective."

She can hear his sigh, she can hear his exhaustion. "Is there some reason why my Captain is eating Tums like he has stock in GlaxoSmithKline and muttering your name while swearing in Spanish?"

"At this hour? I have no idea! All the fun stuff ended hours ago! Unless he's getting pushback from Patrol about who goes into Five Points."

He groans. "What's going on in Five Points."

"Absolutely nothing, as far as I know. Everyone should be all comfy cozy in their beds and hammocks and sleeping bags and cardboard boxes and wherever else they like to sleep."

"There's something you're not telling me."

"And that's why you made detective, Detective. You make astute observations."

"And you're not going to tell me?"

"I'm sorry, Detective, but Captain Sanchez is my point of contact on this case. I'm not at liberty to discuss it."

"Oh, that's bullshit, and you know it!"

She allows another span of silence between them while she takes a deep breath and exhales it slowly. "Detective Garcia, please inform your ancestral pest that he will have access to the individual in question after we have questioned him. I suggest you find yourself a bunk and get some sleep, because you're awfully damn cranky and are making my job harder. I am also going to need you on call later in the day in case the shit hits the fan, which is far less likely to happen today than yesterday or tomorrow. Now, please... get some sleep and let me do my job."

He's quiet, but she can feel the intense pull on their bond. He's more worried about her than she's ever been about him... and there have been times when she's been very worried. She does what she can to send reassurance, love, a certainty that she'll be fine back to him. It does seem to relax him, at least a bit.

Andi makes a mental note to herself: It might be a good idea to spend future Halloweens on a remote and deserted island. It might be better for their sanity and the safety of all humankind.

"Sorry, you're right, Ninja. I'm exhausted," he admits. "Update me later, when you can."

"Sure thing, Chief... but not until you've had at least six hours down time. I can go days without sleep... you can't."

"Okay. I'll try to calm Q down."

"Great. I'll talk to you later." She disconnects and slips the phone back into her thin air pocket, then checks to make sure Bozo is still out.

Then she scoots back a bit to lean against the corridor wall.

"My job was so much easier before we got married. Life in general is much nicer now, no lie. But... it's gonna take a while to figure out how to work together."

She grins wryly at Maddie. "When we have our little chat later, I'd love to know how you and Rene managed it without either of you strangling the other.

"And what's a safe distance?"

Madeline can only grin during the exchange, even if she only hears half of it.

"That's easy. We were in the same business. You two are not.

"As for safe distance... just seeing what's on him, I'd start with five city blocks."

Just as she finishes, a truck rumbles up outside and Rene appears in the doorway a moment later. "Your chariot awaits, ladies. I'll get your luggage."

He hefts the unconscious man and carries him out to the waiting truck.

"I don't know where you're from, but out here city blocks can range from as little as two hundred meters to over twenty five hundred meters, depending on the municipality and how they define a block," Andi says with a laugh. "How does half a mile sound? That would make the administrative building a good fall back point. If you think we need to get farther out, we can head to the farmland on the other side of 62nd."

"Where I'm originally from, there isn't any such thing as a city block," Maddie replies. "Make it a mile, just to be safe."

Walking out to Ted's truck, Andi can feel the presence of the Spirits as almost a weight, albeit a comforting one, on her psyche. She climbs into the back with Bozo.

"I want to make sure he doesn't wake up during the ride," she says with a shrug.

Ted's truck is old and has a front bench seat. Madeline climbs in and slides all the way across. Rene is back in the driver's seat.

Since they need not adhere to any traffic laws tonight — pesky things like not going the wrong way on one-way streets or worrying about which side of the road is the proper side — it only takes a few minutes to reach the gate. During that time, in addition to watching Bozo, Andi is encouraging all the animals in the area to move away from the main gate, both inside and outside the enclave. This also has the advantage of getting the tunnel rats to move, too. Once they see the four legged denizens of the tunnels moving quickly toward the center of the enclave, the two legged ones are plenty bright enough to follow. And just as quickly.

Of course, there's no moving the monks quickly once they've calmed down... on the other hand, once they are calm, they always seems to settle into one of the parks.

As they pull up to the gate, she can see it won't be long before the effects of qi-induced anesthesia start wearing off Bozo. She hops out of the truck, realizing that no one is going to recognize her... except for Masterson. He's got an extremely diluted version of her power, and like calls to like.

He just raises his eyebrows and says calmly, as if seeing people looking completely different from one meeting to the next is a commonplace occurrence for him, "That's an interesting look. Thinking of keeping it?"

"Hell no. I think I look like shit. Besides, it takes way too much energy to maintain," she says with a shrug. "If I didn't have help and access to a lot more energy than usual tonight, I'd have collapsed from exhaustion already."

She looks at Maddie. "Sleeping Beauty there is going to start stirring in five minutes... give or take. You want him knocked back into slumber for a while longer, or you good with him being awake?"

"Don't care if he awake..." she says as Rene pulls him out of the truck and drops him on the ground. She takes her bandana off and stuff it in his mouth. "...just don't need him yakking at me until I start asking questions."

Rene drives off in the truck.

Maddie looks at the colonel. "One of your crew got tools, Masterson?"

He waves someone forward.

"Drop them and go," Maddie says to Zelka, who's donated her kit. "Get your people out of here, Ninja. Rene will be here if I need an extra pair of hands. I'll try to be sure you don't have to come back for me with a dust pan."

An instant later, Rene returns from dropping off Ted's truck. Clearly, he did not pay attention pesky things like speed limits either.

"If the C4 goes kaboom, we're gonna need a Shop Vac. And the nearest working electrical outlet is more than half a mile away. In a warehouse outside Commerce City that won't be open for another seven hours. So. No kaboom."

"I don't like the idea of a kaboom any more than you do," Madeline responds. "I've been blown up before, and it was not a pleasant experience on either side of it."

"So noted." Ninja gestures to Masterson. "If you get people moving, I'd appreciate it. Not a lot of them are going to immediately recognize me in this getup."

She waits until he's out of hearing range before saying, "Let me know when you're finished here and he's awake enough for questions. I think Jesus might have one or two." She nods her head toward the western side of the enclave. "We need to move him to the train yards anyway."

She turns and follows Masterson, checking the qi flows to ensure everyone is moving away from the gate. After a few paces, however, she turns back to Maddie.

"It may not have been meant as a compliment, but it sure wasn't an insult either."

Except for Masterson's people, most everyone else has already retreated to the administration building... those above ground, anyway. The monks have taken themselves off to Monaco Park, and it takes little convincing to get everyone else moving toward the farmland beyond 62nd.

The biggest problem is trying to explain her appearance to everyone. Or rather, not explaining and having to continually say that she'd attempt to explain later.

No, she takes that back. The biggest problem is Henry, who spends the entire time nattering at her about different looks she should try in the future.

And she thought she talked a lot!

As the others leave, Madeline lies down and scoots partially under the truck to take a look.

"Think you can do it, love?" Rene asks as he appears beside her.

She turns her head and gives him a wry smile. "A kiss for luck?"

He willing obliges and then asks, "What do you need first?"

They work together, him handing her the items she asks for, and she manages to disable the primary explosive. Then there is just the one on the scumbag.

"While I'm dealing with him, can you load all this in the bed of the truck?"

"Sure, love."

It takes a couple of minutes to disarm the explosives on the scumbag, and only that long because he seems to be having an apoplectic fit. The more he struggles, the tighter Ninja's bindings become, and the wider her smiles becomes.

"Don't worry, sunshine. We'll get a chance to chat later," she assures him.

Standing, she pulls her phone out and calls Ninja. "We're clear. We'll start searching the bodies as you folk make your way back."

After putting the phone away — Ninja watches herself doing it this time... super weird! — she gives Masterson the all clear.

"Wolf has the bombs defused and is starting to check the bodies. I want to talk with my people for a few minutes. Most of them have never been through something like this before," she explains. "If your folks can drag these two bodies back..." The whole group of them had reached the spot where she'd left the two skinheads she had killed. "...and grab the two up on 58th, I'll catch up to you by the time you get to the gate."

It hadn't taken the Commerce City people — the ones still above ground, the ones who weren't Berserker monks — long to get used to her unusual new look. She had been a little surprised that Masterson's people were less sanguine about it. Of course, that probably makes a certain amount of sense. They deal with big bad nasties even more frequently than she does. They've probably already run into unpleasant folks who can do this, and do it a whole lot more readily and frequently than she can. So, sure... maybe being apprehensive makes sense.

Although everyone probably could have gone back to their own homes, they've decided that they'd rather stay together and head back to the administration building. It's something she truly understands. After going through an experience like this, it's hard to be alone. She's gotten used to it over the years. That doesn't mean she's ever gotten to like it. Except for the monks and the tunnels rats, everyone else's families and friends are in Five Points or Thornton or scattered across Denver and Adams Counties. Aaron's wife and daughter are in New York. No one was killed... on their side of the fight anyway... and no one was seriously hurt. They had been lucky, and Ninja is fairly certain they all realize it. She knows Aaron and the other ex-military folks certainly do.

Surprisingly, Aaron has stepped up as de facto leader of the remaining residents, going from person to person, making sure everyone really is physically fine. It is he who suggests a group debriefing. He also wants to make sure everyone is psychologically and emotionally as fine as they can be at this point, as well. She had always pegged him as the background guy who just did what was necessary. Now she sees he's just the guy who does what's necessary... and what's necessary now is for a leader to keep people together.

It won't surprise her if he takes Wendy's council seat when she retires in the spring.

She talks to the few who still seem particularly... she would say qi-wounded is the only way to describe it. She encourages them to talk. Not just tonight, but tomorrow and the next day and week and months. Just that small acknowledgment of a pain they can't put into words is enough to lighten their hearts a bit.

She sprints after Masterson and his squad, catching up well before Bozo can possibly get a good look at the makeup of the approaching group. She practices her slight limping again, something that makes Masterson smile.

As soon as they're in earshot, he says, "If you'd like, miss, I'll ask our medic to take a look at your foot there. Seems to be giving you some trouble."

She looks up at him, eyes wide and still hugging herself. "Oh, I don't want to be no trouble, sir."

He waves Castelli over. "Sergeant, bring the first aid kit and take a look at this young lady's injuries." As Castelli trots off to fetch their kit, Masterson says, "Why don't you just have a seat here, and the Sergeant will be right with you." He indicates a spot in plain view of the trucks at the gate, well within earshot of Bozo. "Bradway," he says to his communications officer as part of their pre-arranged performance, "get started on finding the young lady's family and tracking the criminal who kidnapped her."

"Yes, sir. On it!" replies Bradway.

Masterson then turns to Maddie. "Wolf, I understand one of the terrorists survived. Your report, please."

He doesn't need the report; he knows exactly what the score is. He knows exactly how things will play out from here — has known from the beginning — and he doesn't seem particularly distressed by the idea of Maddie "interrogating" the survivor. A citizen tends to lose a lot of rights when they commit terrorist and treasonous acts. That's something that would bother Ninja in other circumstances... perhaps. But not today.

They're all just playing this out for Bozo's benefit, before the business of information gathering can begin.

Maddie isn't the only one with questions for the leader of the newly resurfaced Denver chapter of the Aryan Knighthood.

Ninja has a few questions of her own... she's just going to let Jesus pose them.

"Explosives are secured, sir," she answers, "and the remote detonator has been disabled. We managed to capture the terrorist unit's leader and will be moving him to a secure location for questioning. Some of the terrorists had ID on them; most did not. We have also recovered the keys to all three vehicles and random personal effects."

She handed over the 'random personal effects' that consist of items like wallets, cell phones and other key chains, as well as two sets of truck keys.

"Those are for the second truck there and the one still outside the gate. We'll be using the primary truck as transport so we don't have to wait for the official vehicles."

Rene arrives just then with an attache case, the one she had left in Hank's office.

"If there's nothing else, sir, I have more work to do."

Ninja / the bedraggled girl looks up at Masterson and Maddie.

"Sir? Ma'am? I don't want no part of this, I sure don't. But..." She looks down at her 'sore' foot and wrings her hands together. "But the Lord be wantin' me to..." She trails off, and looks as though she's on the verge of tears.

She looks up again, pitiful and conflicted. "Preacher say the Lord speaks for a reason, an'... an' hearin' an' then ignorin' the Lord, well, that be a sin. I ain't no sinner. Lestwise, I try not to be."

She looks over at the captive and hugs herself again, rocking back and forth a little.

"I don't want to be havin' nothing to do with such a sinful an' wicked man, but the Lord... He done told me I needs to be askin' questions in His name of the sinner."

She looks once more at Masterson and Maddie.

"Preacher say it ain't easy bein' an instrument of the Lord. It sure ain't, that's the truth."

No easier, no more difficult than being an instrument of justice.

Even as the Protector of the people this man sought to destroy — her people — she's no more certain she wants to be part of this than the waif she's portraying. But as she told Rene earlier, part of her job is to bear witness.

And things happen when they should happen, as they should happen.

It's no coincidence that these events are unfolding on the one day of the year when she has the greatest access to the Spirits, to the qi of not only her own plane but theirs as well. It is no coincidence that these Spirits have chosen to assist her on this day.

It doesn't matter what she wants to do here tonight. She owes it to Sally... and Ben... and Dick... and any other person — whether Normal or Unfortunate or Super — that this man and people like him have harmed... to stand witness. To ask the questions the dead want answered.

Ultimately, like everything else she's done in the past nine years, she owes it to Denise.

Rene, Masterson's eventually going to ask about the bodies. Just leave them on the side of the road outside the gate. They'll be gone by sunrise. She has a feeling even her mental voice is starting to have more of an edge to it.

I'll let him know after I drop you two off wherever it is you're going, Ninja.

She nods, almost imperceptibly.

She had jokingly blamed it on the company she's been keeping, but she needs to be honest with herself. Maddie has nothing to do with it. Oh, maybe pushing the inevitable along a little, but that's about it.

But everything happens when it should happen, as it should happen, for the greatest good of all. This harder, harsher — more bloodthirsty, one might say — version of Ninja has been gaining ground over the years. Events had just seemed to have made sure that happened.

Warriors spill blood.

And thanks to her bond with Pablo, thanks to the use of blood magic, she no longer seems to have as many qualms as she once had about doing so. And if the spilling of blood can be used to a good purpose, all the better.

Even the Librarian shrugs and thinks... do what must be done to protect the ones I enfold in my heart.

Not for the first time in her life, Andrea wonders if she more than just a little crazy.

Madeline raises an eyebrow at the religious freak show Ninja is putting on. She's scary good at it. Zealots. The thought gives her a shudder.

Masterson gives her leave to continue her work, even lets her ostensibly borrow one of his squad.

"Hey, Holbrook," she says to Rene, using the name he had given himself earlier. "Give us a hand with this one will you?"

Between the two of them, they leverage the scumbag up and into the bed of the pickup, right on top of all that C4. She puts her kit on the passenger side floorboard and climbs in as Rene once more takes the driver's seat.

Madeline holds the passenger door open. "Well, come on, girl... get in here if you're coming."

She climbs into the truck beside Maddie and closes the door.

"Name be Andrea, but folks mostly call me Andi. Andrea be kinda fancy for where I come from," she says shyly.

It would be considerably easier to get where we're going if the damn wall wasn't here. But... it is what it is. Head up Vasquez to 64th; you'll actually go under it to take a right then loop around. The pavement ends at some point in there, but after the last set of train tracks, there's another paved highway... what's left of Brighton Boulevard. Take a left there. You'll be able to see some granary towers on the left, then not too far up on the same side is an old brick office building. It's about as far from anyone or anything as you can get in Commerce City. The monks don't like it over there. The sewer lines crumbled a decade or more ago, so no tunnel rats around either.

"Ma'am? Hope you ain't mind me bein' nosy, but why that man done call me a freak? Only person ever called a freak back home be Jimmy Joe Baker, but ain't in no mean way. We's only funnin' him 'cause he be awful smart, maybe smartest person in Barbour County. I ain't near close to bein' smart as Jimmy Joe."

She turns her head slightly and looks sidelong out the open cab window into the night, clearly seeing their captive in the moonlight.

"Jus' seems awful confusin' to me is all."

Maddie, I'm going to stick around for this one. Whatever he says might be able to help us locate Logan.

She doesn't reply; only slides her hand over the top of his thigh and squeezes.

Got it.

Rene has to stop a snicker, however, when Ninja calls Maddie ma'am. For her part, she slips right into the opposing character quite well. But then, she had always had a knack for it.

"Andi? Well, Andi, you ever know anyone or heard about anyone who is real different, like a mutant or something? That's what he meant by freak, and he don't much like freaks."

The girl / Ninja pauses to consider, tilting her head to the side.

"'Til day a-fore yesterday, I only done hear stories folks tell. Preacher, he done gone up North to Bible School, said there be folks what be performing miracles, an' helpin' the po-leece find them what be committin' terrible sins against other folks. We ain't got such in Alabama..."

She turns to look out the side window as the forms of old rail cars pass in the night, seeming to close in on herself.

"'Til day a-fore yesterday," she whispers. She waits a moment, then wipes a non-existent tear from her eye. "Walkin' home from school, I done be snatched up by a flyin' man what scared me so bad I near te went right te the arms a Jesus."

She remains quiet for another minute or so.

"I ain't nobody special, an' I ought to be home helpin' my mama, 'cause she be sickly with th' lung disease." She turns and looks right out the back window this time. "I ought not be settin' in no truck thousands a miles away, doin' the Lord's work, tryin' to save th' soul o' no man who ain't wantin' no savin' anyhow."

She turns back to focus her gaze on her clasped hands in her lap. "Beggin' your pardon, Mr. Holbrook, Miss Wolf. That be awful bold and mighty rude o' me to say. I'll be prayin' te our Lord te forgive me fer doubtin' His plans fer me."

Little One, I am concerned about you, Raven says as it appears in her lap.

I don't see why. I'm just imitating the nuts who come up from Colorado Springs all the time to torment my people. I just added a different accent.

Raven looks at her suspiciously. You sound entirely too convincing.

She rolls her eyes at her guardian Spirit. Not if the asshole in the back isn't buying it, I'm not.

That's it just ahead on the right, Rene.

Rene circles the building once and finds a delivery entrance with a wider than standard door. He pulls up close and parks.

"Here we are, ma'am."

Madeline nudges him in the ribs with her elbow. "All right. Keep an eye on our guest. I want to check out the set up first. Climb on out, Andi."

She gets out of the truck and back away from it, seemingly more than a little afraid. Of course, it gives her the chance to position herself in such a way that she has a good view of their guest, as well. While Maddie checks the space, she takes a look at their guest.

His qi is blazing with anger and hatred.

Keeping her eyes lowered, she says to Rene, He's got more hatred inside him than anyone I've ever seen... and that's totally apart from the Shadowkin. Plus, he's so angry, I'm not sure it's even possible for him to think clearly. He's what the kids these days call a 'hot mess.'

Something about this whole mission is personal for him. Very personal.

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't personal for Maddie, Rene replies.

And I'd be lying if I said it wasn't personal for me, Ninja responds. It's only a matter of degree, Rene. The number of victims, the relationship to the victims, the amount of time each of us has had to ruminate on what those controlled by Stryker have done to those we love, to those we've been charged to protect. Oh, it's personal, Rene.

She holds onto the persona she's created, she clings to the role she's playing here, because that's the best way to keep the man alive long enough for Maddie to get the answers to her questions. For Ninja to get the answers to her questions.

Maddie's? They're strategic; both questions and answers used as tactics in the battle. Hers are less clear in their purpose. Yes, perhaps to make him question the certainty of his reality. But... but she finds she has such a need — so much more than mere desire — to know, to try to understand how a human being could be so purely evil.

It's the capacity for evil that separates human from the rest of the creatures on this world. She wants to know why humans have that capacity... apart from the mythologies and creation stories.

Perhaps, Warrior, it is in the creation stories and myths that truth will be found.

She looks up at Alligator, who sits on top of the truck's cab, her head tilted slightly.

Humans always fight among themselves... that is the reason for evil?

No, Warrior. Look to the myths before that. Look to the myths of those who created the humans. Put aside your modern knowledge of science and look from the point of view of those who believe the stories over the truth of the modern age.

Being in that place, thinking, looking from that point of view is the role she's chosen in this play. Clearly that hadn't been an accident. But it isn't the Abrahamic religions that are useful. It will be the older ones, such as those of her People, that will be most useful. And not just the stories of the Higher Beings that were told on this continent so long ago, but those of Pablo's ancestors, those of the African, Asian, and ancient European people before the Children of Abraham became dissatisfied with their Roman overlords.

We are the way we are because those who — as the stories tell — created us are just as multifaceted. Flawed, some might say. And we are their children, she says with the hint of a smile. You yourself are a symbol of not only survival instinct but maternalism... both of these might seem contradictory to aggression and seeking revenge.

Alligator smiles, a bizarrely comforting expression when there are that many deadly teeth being displayed. Even Cobra, the simplest and purest of us, has facets. Bear, Deer and Eagle are so complex that even we, their siblings, sometimes do not understand them. Remember your stories, Warrior, and use all our gifts to your best advantage this day. And no, before you speak, you give none of us offense by claiming to speak for one of the Higher Spirits. Your words speak to the man who has betrayed his own kind and has taken counsel with the Shadowkin. Your heart speaks to us.

Even that Higher Spirit for whom you are speaking does not take offense, for even That One understands those lost to Him might be returned by those who follow other ways.

Now Andrea does smile, perhaps the most peaceful smile she's managed in days.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, or so it has been said, O Alligator.

Alligator laughs. Yes, Warrior. Sometimes fulfillment of retribution must be delayed... by some, perhaps the whole of their lives. But I do like the way to put it. It's a fine turn of phrase. The Spirit pauses for a moment. Trust yourself, Warrior. Raven has brought you through your journey to knowledge of yourself. Know what we know: you possess the courage to do what needs to be done, you have the courage to do what is right.

Madeline wanders around the interior of the building. Old was right. Everything not bolted down had been scavenged, even some things that had been fairly permanent parts of the building, as evidenced by the occasional bolt thrusting up from the old cement slab. Apparently, anything and everything that could be reused had been.

While she could technically work with him on the floor, a raised surface was that much easier... on her.

Finally, she came across what might have once been a drafting or packing table. She was a bit surprised to actually find anything of the sort until she saw that it had been part of the building. The wall that it had been part of was mostly gone, a few scattered two by fours hanging like stalactites from the ceiling.

As Alligator disappears — a moment before Maddie comes back out of the building, Andi whispers, "Thank you, Lord. I'll take me plenty o' comfort in your faith in me."

As she walked back out, she says, "All right. We're good. Grab him, will you, Holbrook?"

Once Rene has him in hand, Madeline picks up one of the bricks of C4 then leads the way back into to the... platform she had found.

Pointing to the top of it, she orders, "Put him there and secure him in place face down."

Andi follows Rene and Bozo at a safe distance and stands off to the side — out of the way, but close enough to bear witness, or assist in whatever way possible — with her tiny change purse clutched close to her heart.

Which is, of course, the precise position she would be in if, for example, she were to be standing in a ready stance while holding her staff as it leans against her left shoulder.

Rene does as Madeline orders, saying nothing. He knows there is nothing to say, not now, not when information is needed. He will be here for her later, if she needs him. The nature of their relationship has changed. Certainly, him being dead has much to do with it. He is her Guardian Angel now. He is both more and less than he was before. As she delves into that part of her that is cold and ruthless and utterly capable of breaking anyone, the woman he loves is walled off from the world, and he from her.

When before he had always stood at that wall and worried, worried that she would not be able to come back, their deeper bond allows him to know she will... and he steps back. It affords him a chance to consider the changes fully. He knows she loves him still and always will in her heart and soul. He also knows, however, that he is no longer the one for whom she yearns.

The healing of their broken bond and his transformation had allowed her the peace to move on fully. She truly lives in this world, and will for many years. He does not. She needs someone who is also in this world, and she has that in Logan. And Logan is who she yearns for. Certainly, she seeks comfort with him until she has Logan back, but he will not be as necessary when the man returns.

With a bit of a start, he realizes that he is somewhat jealous. Then it occurs to him to wonder if this is how Vincent had felt.

Once the Leader is secured, Madeline sets to work in a methodical and precise manner. He will endure considerably more pain than Earl had, primarily because nothing in her kit could compare to Wolverine's adamantium claws. Nothing she had would cut so easily or smoothly.

There being no table or other item she can set things on, she ties a waiter's apron around her waist and slips things into the pocks from the case. Bent nose scissors, medical tape, hemostats, surgical needles and thread... She pauses in the doing and looks at Ninja.

"Go ahead and see if he'll answer your Jesus questions," she says, then continues with adding things to her pockets.

Andrea watches Maddie with dispassionate interest; when Madeline speaks, the Warroir merely nods and steps closer, near Bozo's head. She reminds herself of what Alligator had said... that the One for whom she speaks does not take offense at her attempts to save one of His.

"Get away from me, you freak!" he yells.

She acts startled, taking a half step back and glancing between Rene and Madding before looking at the captive again.

"Ain't no freak," she says quietly. "The Lord done sent me here fer a purpose, though I ain't known 'til now. Been holdin' anger an' hate in my heart fer the one what brung me here, but th' Lord, He done counsel me to forgiveness, as He counsels all to forgiveness. An' th' blindness done fall from my eyes.

"Jesus be seein' your evil, an' he be weepin'. He be wantin' to know why you done abandon Him an' His teachings. He done send me here to help you see your way back to Him."

She tilts her head, looking young and innocent and frail. "You don't want to be dyin' with th' blackness o' sin on your soul, do ya?" she asks earnestly, as though the idea of a person going to Hell is as painful to her as the pain Maddie is about to inflict will be to him.

Having what she needs close at hand, Madeline walks back over to the captive and stands by his feet.

"You may want to consider being more polite to the girl," she observes. "My questions won't be so esoteric nor will I be so pleasant. See, she thinks you are a soul to be saved. I have no such illusions."

He tries to crane his head to look death at her, but his bond don't allow it. He has to settle for a frothing at the mouth and cursing.

Casually and without care, she begins to remove his clothing, starting with his boots. With the bent nose scissors, like those found in the kits of paramedics, she cuts his clothing away and pulls it from him. It is all discarded in a pile. As she drops the last piece on top, she says, "Gasoline."

Rene nods and leaves.

"You can try once more, young one," she tells Ninja.

She nods, looking distraught.

"Mister," she says, again quietly, "th' Lord ain't wantin' to see you dyin' an' burnin' forever. Forgiveness an' salvation be right here fer th' takin' if ya just let th' Lord back in yer heart."

He curses up a blue streak. While some of his language is quite inventive — she'll have to remember some of that, it could come in handy some time — it would have likely made the girl she's pretending to be drop in a faint right there on the floor. She's going to have to settle for a deeply embarrassed blush.

"You should just shut your damn mouth, GIRL, and learn your proper place," he growls. His qi is still full of rage but there's a tinge of fear starting to take hold. "Females are inferior!" He tries to spit at her, but can't manage to spit on anything but the platform because of the bindings.

She looks down at the floor. She can feel the Spirits all around her, and something else, too. Not the Shadowkin, but something bright and kind. Even she — Ninja, Warrior of the First People — even she is disconcerted by that Presence.

"Maybe so, sir. Ain't gonna argue with you 'bout that. I only be tryin' to save yer soul. This here woman what be so upset with you? She ain't 'bout to spare you, I'm thinkin'. Lest maybe you tell her what she be wantin' to know.

"Fer God so loved th' world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlastin' life. Whoever believes in th' Son has eternal life, whoever does not obey th' Son shall not see life but the wrath o' God remain on him.

"The blessed disciple John done said them words. I kin see you be a believin' man, but you ain't gonna have no everlastin' life with our Lord if'n you don't be confessin' your sins. The wrath o' God gonna be with you fer all eternity," she says, with an aching sadness in her voice as a tear rolls down her cheek.

That surprises her, the tear, but she hides it well.

"Who the hell are you, bitch, to tell me anything?" he yells.

She looks up, a sad smile on her face.

"I be th' one standin' between you an' Hell, that who I be," Andrea, woman of the Diné, says... knowing with an uncomfortable certainty that she spoke the Truth.

"Th' Lord done give me a mission an' I be tryin' my best." She shakes her head sadly. "I only be a girl, an' I ain't no powerful preacher, but I be doin' my best."

So many layers of Truth... she would have to think on this later, however.


Interestingly, that outburst is accompanied by an upswing of fear in his aura, that drops back down more slowly than before. She sighs and looks at Maddie.

"I'm sorry, Miss Wolf. Seems this here man be powerful intent on going te Hell." She glances off to the side, sensing a sorrow she can't explain. She is the Warrior. She will not get freaked out.

"You be findin' me as offensive as him? If not, maybe you be kind enough te let me be stayin' off te th' side there prayin' fer him. I be right quiet about it, I promise."

She looks at the captive again, her expression the very essence of sorrow.

"Maybe he'll be wantin' te embrace th' Lord with his dyin' breath."

"As long as you stay out of the way and stay quiet," Madeline answers coldly. "This one here will be making enough noise to raise the seven hells."

She looks over as Rene returns and points to the discarded clothing. "Bring me the gasoline, then burn those."

He sets the canister down by the foot of the table and goes to do as he is bid.

Ninja, Masterson's been informed.

Ninja moves off to the side, out of the way, and settles into a kneeling meditation pose.


She sets her change purse staff at her side, and places her hands in the Prayer Hands position that all the students had so often used to return to center after lessons with Grandmaster Chen.

She closes her eyes to better watch the flows of qi. They are... interesting, so say the least.

Rene, let Maddie know the first time he spoke to me, when he told me to shut up, his aura picked up a tinge of fear, and it spiked really high and subsided more slowly when he yelled at me. If I had to guess — and mind you, I'm only guessing — I'd say he might actually want to confess all his various sins, at least in terms of being right with his god. He's just terrified to do so. She's going to need to be scarier to him than the Shadowkin.

She has a feeling Maddie can manage just that.


Of course, Andi can't imagine how over the top insane and terrifying she had looked when they were pulling the hitchhiker out of Pablo. She doesn't think they're quite the same... but they feel close enough that whatever was in Pablo and the Shadowkin are probably something like first cousins. Maybe siblings.

Yeah, her money is on Maddie.

Hands clasped behind her back, Madeline walks slowly around the entire table. The building is old and drafty with broken windows and doors. The platform she had found is cold steel and already held a chill of its own. Goosebumps have risen on his flesh. She notes marks, tattoos and scars, and the closely cropped hair.

Besides his frothing spittle, there is another quality here. One of a man who had seen battle, who had been to war. She guesses he is probably close in age to her, which means he was not quite old enough to have served in Vietnam... but there had been other things afterwards that the U.S. had been involved in, that she had handled in her father's stead and after his death.

"I would hazard a guess that you have seen military service of some sort. You are too undisciplined to have served long, at least in any western country's military."

He twitches at that.

She stops at his left shoulder and presses her finger into the middle of a faded tattoo. "This particular mark was quite popular with a certain set of mercenaries helping with... cleansings... in a couple of the African countries. Interesting."

That catches Rene's attention, and he comes close enough to see it but not to interfere even by his presence.

"Which means you may be familiar with the name Johan Messijer..."

Her captive audience is no longer fighting his bonds but trying to warily watch her. His eyes widen a bit at the name. Most people see Madeline and assume she is only in her thirties. If that had been true, it would indeed be odd to know the name of a man who had likely died when she was but a small child.

"International arms dealer with no compunctions about selling to both sides in just about any conflict."

She bends down to look into his eyes.

"Is that the Johan Messijer you knew of? Did you ever meet him in person or did you only ever see his primary representative? I bet you did, but not up close. You would not have been high enough up the food chain... and for that you should thank whatever deity you worship."

Standing, she continues circling him. "Rumors had it that this representative was a woman. Rumors also had it that she was a complete psychopath. Tell me, did you ever see her in action?"

The question is so unexpected and out of left field that he actually answers. "No."

She chuffs out a sarcastic laugh. "That does explain things. At least to me it does. The people Johan dealt with tended to send away those unable to fully control themselves when she was coming to visit... especially after that incident in Uganda."

There is an audible gulp from him, and her answering smile could freeze the ocean.

She tsks. "Nasty business that. But if you want to do business with someone, you really should treat them respectfully even if you despise them... or at least not piss them off."

Ninja has no idea who Maddie is talking about, but apparently their guest does.

Fear is notching up, Rene, and rage has plummeted to mildly pissed off. I don't know who Maddie's talking about, but whoever they are... Well, I think if this representative of Johan Messijer showed up right now, our friend would soil himself.

Rene glances over at Ninja, his own energy wound around and held tightly to himself. Then I should probably go get a mop...

Madeline's hand dips into a pocket and pulls out a hemostat. She lets the blunt nose tap on the steel surface, and she drags it along as she keeps talking to him. He moves as far from the sound as he can, which is not at all. It certainly does not stop him from twitching. It might even have made it worse.

Other that the touch of the tattoo, Madeline has yet to truly lay a finger on him, the capturing of him in the first place notwithstanding.

"Of course, considering most of Johan's clients were bloodthirsty warlords, his representative had to be just a touch... off. Especially being a woman. Seems to me I remember a warning they about her eyes, that you should not look into them because you would only see... Now, what was it? You would only see..."

"Death or madness," he croaks.

"That's it! Thank you! Death or madness," she repeats almost cheerfully. "I think I will reward you for being so forthcoming with that with a bit of information so few people alive actually even remember anymore. I know it was rumored she was related to Johan. It was not just a rumor. She was his daughter. That is why she had the moniker Mad Messijer, although in less polite circles they just called her that Fucking Crazy Bitch. Never to her face, of course.

"One more odd question for you, since you know Mad Messijer... at least by reputation."

This time she crouches to look him in the face. The corners of her lips turn up every so slightly.

"Which do you see in my eyes: death or madness?"

He tries to pull back and only succeeds in making his bindings cut into his skin.

"Not possible," he denies vehemently, and the tremor that runs through him is not caused by the cold.

"Highly unlikely, I will grant you. But impossible? Hardly, for here I stand."

She pauses long enough to lay the hemostat down within his field of vision, as well as a scalpel, a pack of surgical needles and thread.

"Now, are you going to tell me what I need to know or do I need to become unpleasant with you? And tell your Shadow friend that there is no hell which I have not already been to or through."

Good gods, it's quite possible Maddie could frighten the man to death before getting any information out of him! Fear... overwhelming him. She can see what it's doing to his aura, she knows what that much fear does to the meridians.

She also knows what that much fear can do to the endocrine system, the nervous system, the muscles...

After all, did she not just see Coyote do the same thing to two men earlier this very early morning?

Ninja stands gracefully; she knows the captive isn't watching, but it's important to continue playing the part. He needs to believe she is the angel that can save his soul.

He's not only going to make a mess, he's going to stroke out if I don't calm him a little.

His beliefs aren't her beliefs, but she does believe everyone should have the opportunity to die at peace in accordance to their own beliefs.

She walks across his field of vision to stand at the end of the platform near his feet. Resting her staff against a shoulder — goodness only knows what the change purse looks like — she presses a thumb into corresponding spots on the soles of each foot... just enough drain off some of the adrenaline, the epinephrine, the cortisol, to lower his blood pressure back into the high normal range and out of the dangerously almost dead range. It only takes a moment, then she walks back to stand where he can see her, but only peripherally... Maddie still has center stage.

She glances across the room, however, to where the Spirits and that Presence are gathered. You wish that I become Your instrument of peace this day? Andrea asks the One who is not of her People. She doesn't get the same sort of answer that she would from one of the Spirits... merely the sense of an affirmation.

Well, so be it. She'll give the man that chance for peace. But it's still up to him to take it.

"First letter to th' Corinthians, chapter fifteen, verse thirty four," she says softly. "Wake up from yer drunken stupor, as is right, an' do not go on sinnin'. For some have no knowledge o' God. I say this to your shame.

"Acts, chapter three, verse nineteen... Repent therefore an' turn again, that yer sins may be blotted out."

Again, Andi tilts her head as if listening, while looking off into the distance... toward and yet beyond the Spirits and the Presence. After a moment, she looks at him again.

"You be ready to confess to yer sinfulness," she asks kindly, "so our Lord won't have th' wounds o' yer sins in His heart?"

In this particular faith system, it's often helpful to have one of the same faith listening to the confession... even if it is an insignificant woman. If he doesn't seem to need me to listen, I'll back off but stay close. Wouldn't want Maddie to scare him to death before getting all the information she needs, Andi says wryly to Rene.

She hasn't scared anyone to death... yet.

Yeah, well... there's a first time for everything, Rene.

Madeline tilts her head slightly to the side waiting for the answer.

"I can't," he finally says.

"Cannot or will not? And before you answer that, you should know that you will not get out of this alive. However, the manner of your death is up to you. Quick and merciful... or not. One way or the other, you will tell me everything."

She pauses and glances at Ninja briefly.

"And if it is your eternal soul that you're worried about, that one over there," she says with a tilt of her head toward the girl, "can help you with that."

His eyes shift to the girl and back to the woman, but he shakes his head.

"I can't."

She sighs. "So be it."

Madeline moves to his side out of his field of vision. Reaching over, she picks up the scalpel.

"In the interest of full disclosure... I'm going to make arced incisions that run from shallow to deep..."

She picks up the hemostat next and lays it above a rib, causing a flinch.

"Them I'm going to peel back the flesh exposing muscle and nerve and stitch it into place..."

She goes on in detail, explain what would be done, adding that she has smelling salts to revive him should he pass out from the pain and more.

She listens to Maddie describe what she's going to do to him. She isn't sure how to play this part — impassive angel or weeping angel. If she wasn't happy before that this woman is on her side, she sure as hell is now. What was it that she had said? What she does isn't very nice? Damn, that's the truth.

She isn't a proponent of torture. She's not convinced it gets the truth from the subject... not unless the interrogators already know the truth and are just looking for verification. Maybe. Of course, if you've got someone on hand who can determine whether or not the... hell, victim really is the best word... the victim is telling the truth, she would suppose it might make sense as a practical application. But it's awfully hard to see past fear and pain induced by torture to the spark in a person's mind and heart and soul that verifies that what's being said is the truth as they know it.

And when he says that he can't tell Maddie what she wants to know, at least he's being honest in that. It's not just the Shadowkin preventing him from saying the words that would answer Maddie's questions. It's... something else, too. She can see it choking his aura, like a tightly bound rope around his vocal folds. Every time he seems to even have the thought to answer a relevant question, the rope tightens and his ability to speak is cut off.

Others have a name for that magic, too, Raven says.

Andi pauses a moment, rifling through the card catalog — so to speak — in her brain. Right! A geis. She considers the dilemma, her eyes moving from the captive to Maddie. He can break it with his own belief system, I think.

He can, Raven agrees.

He just needs to be reminded he can.

"For verily I say unto you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say unto this mountain, 'Remove from here to yonder place,' an' it shall remove, an' nothin' shall be impossible unto you," she says, only just loud enough for their captive to hear.

But the Shadowkin is still having an effect. I'm not sure exactly what it's doing, she says to Raven. From the looks of his aura and meridians, it's clouding the part of his mind where those memories are. But without delving deeper — and I don't care how many of you are here right now, I do not want to get any closer to that oily slime — I can't tell if it's just obscuring what he knows or actively redirecting him to other memories.

It's more the latter, says Lion.

So anything he'd manage to say would be a lie, as much as he believes it to be the truth, Ninja responds with mild frustration. I know there's nothing we can do to get rid of the Shadowkin, not if this man is on this plane... or not without a true Ha'atathli or two here. Can the Kin be distracted long enough for Maddie to get the truth from him?

All seven of the Spirits appear in the room visible only to Andi... and Rene, of course. Opossum sits on her shoulder and studies the captive, the Shadowkin within him. After a moment, it nods.

It can be distracted, but for how long... I can't say. I think it will be quite angry when it realizes the deception, however.

I don't doubt it. As long as it focuses its anger on its host and not the rest of us, I can't say I'm all that distressed about it. I feel like I should be, though.

When one fights a war, one must have the courage and strength to accept that the enemy must be vanquished, Raven says.

Yeah, I guess you're right, Raven. It's a different mindset for me, you know? Give me a little time to come to grips with it, okay?

You do not have much time, Warrior.

Good thing I've always been a quick study then, isn't it? So... will the rest of us be safe if you distract the Shadowkin? He's close to overcoming the geis with his faith.

Opossum nods again. Our new sibling will protect his Beloved, we will protect you. If it is necessary, of course.

She manages a mental chuck. Of course.

"One last chance..."

A moment later, the captive's faith in his God overcomes whatever compulsion had been placed on him. The bindings around his vocal cords simply disappear...

"What... what did you want to know?"

Go! Now! Distract that slimy piece of shit!

"All you can tell me about your base of operations and those you report to..."

The Spirits fade back to invisibility and the energy in the room changes drastically. She feels like she's in the middle of an electrical storm, like pebbles are being flung at her shield of qi... bouncing off, but she feels the pressure of them even though no harm is being done to her.

And the captive begins telling Maddie everything he knows about Stryker and his hideout in Idaho Springs... the names of the few members of the Knighthood still left in Denver... any question she asks is answered with honesty. Andi has the sense that the Presence is trying to shield him... protect him... but it is just enough different from the Spirits that its efforts are less successful.

And then the Shadowkin notices the deception, the distraction. It dives back into the captive with a vengeance, causing a blood curdling scream. His eyes hold only madness now... not the anger of before, but pure insanity. The only words that come out of his mouth are nonsense, gibberish.

Madness. She knows that look, absolutely knows what it feels like from the inside. Her humanity pours back in, and Madeline pities the poor bastard. Her tian po slides silently from its sheath.

"Anything I should know before I end the session?" she asks, her gaze directed at Ninja.

She nods. "Quetzalcoatl will need to take the head to his prison. Rats can take care of the body."

And that Presence... well, she's pretty sure that Presence will take care of the man's soul.

Her gaze stays with Ninja for several long moments as she considers the mechanics of what is necessary. This is an old blade, but has been properly stored. It is sharp enough for the task. A look around shows nothing available to catch and hold a severed head.

"Do you want to call the pest before the deed is done?"

I already called my buddy! Raven says.

Before she can relay that information to Maddie, Quetzalcoatl arrives... materializing in front of Andi's face, hissing, not bothering to hide himself from Maddie. Although when he sees her current appearance — it's nice to know it fools more than just humans, that bit of information could be handy later — he flits backwards so fast he goes spinning head over tail, nearly slamming into the far wall before righting himself and coming to a stop.

"Night Walker! What manner of evil sorcery is this?"

She refrains from giggling as she watches him spinning, but can't stop the look of surprise when he babbles about evil sorcery.

"What the hell are you talking about Quetzalcoatl? It's just Diné magic. Get a grip." She gestures toward the captive. "Just need you to take the head back to your special little nasty place. I wouldn't ask, except there isn't a river around here that flows fast enough, and that was the method of disposal Lion recommended."

"Lion? Who is this Lion?" Quetzalcoatl demands.

Said Spirit materializes beside the ancestral pest, its nose barely an inch from the serpent. Now, Lion... Maddie isn't going to be able to see or hear Lion.

I am Lion, one of the Protectors of the Warrior's People.

She has to bite her lip — hard — to keep from laughing as Quetzalcoatl shoots straight up, startled, and bounces off the ceiling. Raven grabs him in its talons before he can drop down to the floor and wings over to the captive, dropping Quetzalcoatl on the body before coming over to stand on Andi's head.

Lion is laughing... Raven is chuckling... Quetzalcoatl is sputtering in embarrassment. Andi just sighs.

"Listen, will the lot of you stop playing around? We need to get the stain of Shadow out of our world. Wolf's going to lop off his head. Will you get it out of here, Q?"

He rights himself with as much dignity as he can muster and looks from Ninja to Maddie and back again.

"It must be done. But I am not your refuse removal service, Night Walker."

"Uh, yeah, ya are, little buddy. The small pieces of Shadow are your responsibility. Your Chosen One and I... we'll shut the portal for a million and a half years... at whatever point in time that task is before us. But these little pieces of trash? They're yours. I'll work on getting a network set up to cleanse people if it's possible, but right now... no. Don't have the time. And this one is lost to madness, anyway."

He just stares for a minute or two before flitting up to lover near the crown of the man's head. He gives Ninja another look of complete disapproval — like she cares — before looking at Maddie.

"Do what you must do," he says.

She has no leverage from this vantage and can't make a clean cut... she'd even risk the blade hanging up in the vertebrae.

Rene, lend me a hand up?

Her husband comes over and instead of offer a boost, merely picks her up by the waist and sets her on her feet on the table beside the Leader.

"Snake thing, you need to move."

Once Quetzalcoatl has taken itself out of the way, she stands astride the man, and with a single swift downward arc of her blade, ends his torment. She steps back over to stand beside the now lifeless body and Rene reverses his movement from moments ago, bringing her back down to stand beside him. Then he wraps an arm protectively around her.

Quetzalcoatl and the man's head disappear the moment the head is severed. The rats she had called are already scurrying along the edges of the room. Ninja steps to the end of the platform Maddie had constructed, the end not — against all odds — still attached to a few wall studs. She sense the departure of the Presence, and so she tilts the platform up, allowing the body to fall to the floor, before settling the piece of wall back on the braces.

"The rats will get rid of the body before anyone ever comes back this way again," she says, watching the boldest of the rats move slowly toward the body.

Fox, if I drop this camouflage, will I be able to pick it up again if I need it? Or pick up another?

Of course, Warrior... on this day, these things are possible.

Great. Thanks.

"The chances of law enforcement coming by here approach zero, at least as long as Unfortunates remain walled up like this..."

She pauses. She is not going to let her anger get the best of her. When they had first arrived here, she had seen that the man's anger pointed to a very personal reason for him becoming what he had become. Oh, and yes... very personal it was.

His younger sister had been killed by an Unfortunate. She has to... credit her Curse for this knowledge.

She had been one of many killed at a playground in Atlanta decades ago, many more had been injured, including his mother. His sister had been four; his mother had never quite recovered mentally and emotionally. He hadn't even been ten at the time. He had been at school, however, when it happened.

He did all of this, became the man he was today, because someone killed his sister, hurt his mother.

She does what she does because someone killed her friend. The irony is not lost on her.

It's eerie looking at — to use a Trek term — a Mirror Universe version of oneself. It's terrifying to look at the evil she might have become if her parents hadn't had such fear for their daughter, hadn't finagled a transfer to Japan.

She takes a deep breath.

"Well, let's just say whatever blood stains remain will likely go unnoticed for a very long time."

She looks over at Maddie and Rene when she's sure, absolutely sure, that her eyes are not glowing.

"Any particular reason I need to stay in this disguise?" she asks. "I can always pull on another one later, if I need to."

Madeline shakes her head and says, "No. We should roll out of here and let Masterson and his crew get back to wherever they drifted out from. And reassure him he won't be left out of the hunting party. We can secure the C4 up at the cabin. I need to sit down and collate all this information. And I desperately need a shower. And a drink."

She walks toward the exit and the truck. "Let's get the hell out of here."

Andi drops the camouflage immediately and follows her and Rene back to the truck. Tapping Rene on the arm and holding out her hand, she says, "Let me drive."

Her? Ulterior motives?


Well, maybe. He just looks worried, that's all. And she knows the area better anyway. Driving a truck full of C4 isn't her idea of a great time, but... well, no different than riding in a truck full of C4. And when she's driving, at least she can have the illusion of control.

Rene hesitates only briefly before dropping the keys into Ninja's outstretched hand. He opens the door for Madeline who climbs into the cab in a near trancelike state. He will not reach out to her mind until she is ready, but with Ninja driving he can at least offer his hand. He is prepared for the strength of her grip as her knuckles turn white. This has always been a battle she must fight, for the most part, alone.

"Masterson might feel it's his job to take custody of the explosives," she says as they drive back up Brighton Boulevard. "Just warning you."

And really, that's all it is. Masterson is one unpredictable guy. Law enforcement — and in most instances, Special Forces certainly would count as law enforcement — tends to like keeping all the things that go kaboom to themselves. But Masterson... well, who knows? Leaving it in the custody of a couple of Supers might be something that doesn't bother him. After all, it's so ordinary.

Heya, Coyote... would you let my cousin know we'll be rolling again soon?

She just hears a chuckle in response. Halloween is weird. She probably could have been talking to any of the Spirits all these years. Of course, until a few months ago, she didn't even talk to Raven... so there's that.

As they near the administrative building, Ninja speaks up again. "Seems like all the C4 will fit in the Monstrosity. Aaron and his folks will keep it safe until Mitch can get up here, and then they can make the trucks disappear.

"Henry can swing by the Federal Building so you can pick up your Humvees before he heads over to my house."

She pauses again as she parks the truck on the far side of the street opposite the admin building, then looks at the two of them.

"Where do you want me to meet you again... and how far behind you do you want me to be." She smiles slightly and shrugs. "Shower, drinking... that's gotta take some time, right? Besides..." She nods her head towards the parking lot in front of the admin building. "...I've got my bike. You've got a passenger van — granted, driven by a lunatic — and a couple of Humvees." Her smile is barely there; it's a tired one. "I could get up to the cabin and back three times before you could get there. Maybe four."

And the battle is not yet over when Ninja asks her question.

"She'll call you," Rene answers for her. "Can you give us a minute?"

She nods as she pulls the key from the ignition, and tucks them under the visor as she opens the door of the truck.

"Not a problem, take all the time you need."

She climbs out and, with glance at the two of them, closes the door behind her.

Just let me know when you're ready, Rene. Or if there's anything I can do to help. I'll be talking with my cousin.

She feels Raven's weight settle on her shoulder as she walks across the street. It wraps a wing behind her head, draping it across her other shoulder as it rests its head on hers.

What's gotten you so affectionate, O Raven?

I worry. I don't want you to become like her.

She considers the best way to address Raven's concern. Finally, she says, You have always watched over me, Raven. You know everything that I've experienced from the day you chose to be my guardian until this moment. Why do you think it's even possible for me to become like Maddie?

You are becoming hardened to killing.

Her brows draw together in puzzlement. Aren't you the one who said I need to have the strength and courage to accept that enemies must be vanquished in battle. Very often, vanquished means slain.

Raven picks at her hair, arranging it neatly for once rather than plucking it out. You used to cry for days when you killed a man.

She sighs as she opens the door to the building. That was before the tear in my psyche was repaired. That was before Aztec magic — blood magic — bound me to Pablo. I may still have misgivings or feel heartsick, but I think the days of crying that much are over. And I haven't experienced the things Maddie has. I don't know what they are, but there are terrible stains on her aura. I can't become like her because I haven't lived her life.

She peeks into Hank's office to see Aaron sitting at the small conference table, writing out notes on a pad of paper.

"Hey, Aaron," she says softly, not wanting to startle him. "I need to find Henry, but do you have a couple of minutes?"

He looks up, tired but not yet at the edge of exhaustion. "Sure, Ninja... come on in. I think Henry's in one of the second floor offices. The Colonel and his people are up there, too."

Even though she only has a minute or two, she pulls out a chair and sits down. "Since two of the trucks aren't drivable with the tires Wolf slashed, we're going to leave them right where they are and Mitch will come up and fetch all the explosives. If you and your crew could keep an eye on those explosives — I don't think there's anyone up here who doesn't understand the importance of staying away from them, but better safe than sorry, right? — and make the trucks disappear afterward, that would be a big help."

He nods. "No problem. I was just making up a schedule for what needs to be done, and who can do it. I'll add that to the list." He shakes his head with wonder. "I have no idea how Hank manages all this!"

She chuckles. "He delegates. A lot. And people pretty much know what they ought to be doing. Your only problem is that none of them are here."

"Which brings me to my question," he says with a smile. "When do you think people will be able to come home?"

She takes a deep breath and lets it out in a big sigh, then shakes her head. "I don't really know right now. There are still too many loose threads. I should know by the end of the day... or at least have some kind of guess."

He nods again, almost as if that's the answer he expected. Then he shrugs as he points to the pad of paper. "If it's going to be more than a week, I'll probably go crazy from dealing with paperwork," he says with a grin.

She laughs as she stands. "I have a unique relationship with paperwork in this job. I avoid as much of it as possible, and ignore most of the rest." She heads toward the door, but turns to look at him as she reaches the doorway. "Don't forget to get some sleep, Aaron."

"Got it covered," he says, tapping the paper. "Mahmoud relieves me in about an hour or so."

She nods, then heads down the hallway to the stairs. At the top of the stairs, she sees that Masterson and his crew have claimed the room directly across from the stairway, and that the Colonel himself is leaning against the door jamb, arms crossed, looking as if he's been waiting for her. And he probably has been.

"What took you so long?" he asks.

She leans her back against the wall beside the stairwell, holding her staff away from her body with one end between her feet... one hand gripping the staff firmly above the middle, the other tracing the word carved and inlaid with gold in the center — hózhó... harmony.

"I stopped to chat with Aaron."

He looks at her with a look that pretty clearly says, Really? You're going to be a smart ass at a time like this? Really?

She smiles with the corresponding Oh, hell yeah smile... pure Ninja smart ass. But she sobers quickly.

"Took some time to convince him to talk. In addition to Shadowkin, he had a geis. Had to get a little creative to break the geis and distract the Kin so he could talk. Creativity takes time."

He nods. "Get the information you needed from him?"


She pauses, remembering the painful confession of why he took the path he'd taken in life.

"Besides giving up the remaining members of his cult in Denver and the guy he reports to and everything he knows about the facility where he's located, he mentioned just why he hates those of us he called 'freaks' so much." She shakes her head sadly. "Years before I was even born — hell, before my father even went off to college — his baby sister was killed, his mother was injured and never fully recovered when a mutant attacked a bunch of kids and parents at a playground in Atlanta. He grew up angry and bigoted."

"It's a more common story than you'd probably care to believe," he says, half shrugging.

She shrugs, too. "I see it often enough among the petty angry bigots I deal with. Something happens when they're young, and it flips some kind of switch in their brains. Doesn't happen to everyone, and even people who have marvelous childhoods like I did turn out bad. Not our job to fix them; we just clean up after them."

"Be nice to know whose switches are going to get flipped."

She snorts. "Cops the world over have been wishing for something like that forever. How much progress have the science folks made? Are there even science folks trying to figure it out? I don't know. Well, probably, because scientists are scientists." She pushes herself off the wall to stand straight. "Wolf said to reassure you that you won't be left out of the hunting party. I'll give you a call when I know the particulars, but it's definitely going to be today." She points her chin to the people in the room he guards. "You folks going to get out of here okay?"

"I should get some rest then," he says, standing himself. "And yes. The Chinook is over at DIA. A couple of the residents have offered to drive them over while it's still dark." He pauses, then gives her an odd look. "These are good people up here."

She raises an eyebrow. "Don't be so surprised. It's why I look after them." She starts down the hallway toward the room where Henry is. "Catch some Zs, Masterson."

Henry's in the last room on the right. She sits down next to him, cross-legged.

"Stop pretending to be asleep, Henry."

"Hey, you know, for a ninja, you're not very quiet," he says without moving or opening his eyes.

"Would you rather I sneak up on you and yell 'boo' in your ear?"

"Nah, Coyote already did that."

She taps his shoulder a couple of times with the back of her hand. "Then get up. You need to give Maddie and Rene — well, maybe Rene — a ride back down to the Federal Building. Then you can go over to my house and get some sleep in a real bed."

He sits up immediately, smiling and eyes bright. "Now, that's a wonderful idea! You have plenty of food in your house to eat? I'm pretty hungry, too. Coyote, I think he takes all the food from my stomach."

Coyote is leaning against him, and licks his face... looking more like the family dog than a predator, scavenger or guardian Spirit. Henry grins as she rolls her eyes.

"This is the kind of positive feedback you get for being such a goof?"

Both Henry and Coyote chuckle. "Sure thing, Ninja. Except for the ones about flying airplanes. Those make Coyote laugh," he says with his usual grin.

"Well, I guess that explains a lot," she says wryly. "The cousin-twin idea must have gotten you lots of slobbers."

Henry puts his arm around Coyote — looking a lot like a kid sitting his dog, his best friend. "That was my first really big good idea. Coyote really liked that one!"

"I'll bet. And even though the parents groused about it, I think they've always enjoyed it," she says with a smile.

"Justin and Charlie loved it from the beginning. The parents..." He shrugs. "It did make them a little sad until you got home, but I'd just pretend you were there and blame everything on Coyote AND you!"

"Why, thank you, Henry. That's very kind of you," she says as she slaps the back of his head.

"Hey, no problem. That's me, you know. Kind and generous! So? When do we go? When do I get to see Pablo again? Am I going to wake him up? He's not going to be sleep walking in the nude is he?"

She sighs and rolls her eyes again.

"As soon as Rene and Maddie are ready. Pablo's still at the office, but hopefully you'll get to see him later today."

She opens the small velcroed inner pocket of her vest and pulls out her house key, then hands it to him.

"That's for the front door. I told you about Bobby. He's likely to show up at some point because he knows I have the week off from work, although I did try to hint very broadly that Pablo and I did not want to be disturbed. Hopefully, when he sees Pablo's car missing from the driveway, he'll assume we're off doing something utterly romantic."

Henry looks at her for a couple of moments, then pats her knee. "You should be, you know."

She puts her hand over his and squeezes affectionately. "Yeah, I know. And agree. And wish we were. But with the kind of jobs we have..." She shrugs. "Crime doesn't fight itself. Well, it does, but those are called gang wars and are even worse than normal crime days. We don't want that. Very bad."

She stands up and stretches.

"Just because Bobby thinks no one's home doesn't mean he's not going to try sneaking in to steal my hazelnut coffee. We locked the deadbolt on both doors before we left, but check them again just to make sure."

"Hey, but I'd love to meet your neighbor!" Henry says as he stands, too. "He sounds like an awesome dude. And his boyfriend, too."

"Trust me, Henry. Sneaking up on Bobby while he's poking around in my kitchen is NOT the right way to make introductions. That is one gay man you do not want to send into hysterics!" She recalls the fun she and Pablo had at Bobby's party. "You wouldn't want to have to call the paramedics because you've freaked him. Not that he wouldn't deserve it. But don't."

# # #

Rene watches Ninja walk away... not that he's concerned she'll still around and eavesdrop, but to give his wife extra time.


She doesn't look over but at least she answers, "Yeah."

"Je t'aime."

She does look over now and gives him a small smile. "Ik houd u."

"I know it's been a while..."

"Not really. Don't forget Earl."

"I meant before him."

"There were a couple of people in Paris I had to persuade about a couple of months ago. The first was a zealot but we found the info another way. The next was a merc. So much easier to deal with."

"Can't spend your take if you're dead?"

"Works every time," she sighs.

"It was different this time though."

"Yeah. When the Shadow thing broke his mind..."

"Common ground?"


He caresses her cheek, an old familiar gesture. "I'll be here as long as you need me to be."

"I know. You've always been my Guardian Angel."

"You ready?"


She pulls her phone out and dials. "Hey, Mitch, roll on back. I got a butt load of C4 here we need to secure in the Monstrosity... Yeah, sounds good. See you in about an hour."

She tucks the phone away. "Ready. Where's Andi?"



"Right... Up in the admin building chatting at Henry and Coyote."

She lets out a little laugh.


"You've taken to this whole Spirit thing quite well."

"There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you."

Another quick smile crosses her face before she says, "Let's go."

He opens the door and steps out, gallantly holding out his hand to her. She smiles again, not quite as fleeting this time. "Ever the gentleman is suave Rene."

He grins and his eyes sparkle. He could always lighten her heart and her mood. They hold hands as they go into the admin building and climb the stairs. They bypass the Spec Ops folks, and Rene unerringly leads them to where Ninja is.

"Hey. Mitch is on her way with the Monstrosity. And what he said earlier? I'll call you. I want to feed all this into the database and let the hat do his thing."

Andi nods. "Cool. She knows to come in the back way, right? Yeah, smart gal... she would." Andi looks from Maddie to Henry, and finally looks back at Maddie, saying, "If you want to wait for her and have her swing you by the Federal building on the way out to the cabin, I'll send Henry home to get some sleep. I can call Davis and have her send one of Baker's people down for the second Humvee, if you'd like."

She looks at Henry and Coyote, the latter of whom is grinning.

"Yeah, getting the civilian back to Denver might not be a bad idea." She purses her lips and crosses her arms at the crestfallen look Henry displays. "Oh, cut that out, Henry! You'll have plenty of opportunities to torment everyone your cousin knows over the next few days."

"Aw, but Ninja! Coyote thinks we'll have more fun with you," he says earnestly. Coyote attempts to look innocent... an impossible task.

"Is this about having fun, Henry? Even your guardian Spirit has to admit there are some things you and it can't handle alone."

She raises an eyebrow at Coyote, then glances at the other Spirits in the room, finally giving Henry's guardian Spirit a look that says, Well? It lies on the floor, resting its head on its paws, looking like a very, very sad puppy.

Henry, on the other hand, looks surprised... nay, shocked. "Hey, that's some powerful magic you got there, Ninja, to talk Coyote out of fun. Okay, so if Miss Wolf won't need a ride, I'll just go to your house and eat all your food," he says, grinning.

Andi rolls her eyes and sighs. "Your call, Wolf. Get a lift from a crazy Latina... or a crazy Navajo."

"The loca Latina is bringing food and coffee," she says as she crosses her arms and leans against Rene. "And if the boys down the hall don't snoop overly much, I can feed the hat the info by phone.

"Actually, it's probably better if I do it with you in the room in case I leave something out of the telling. Know anyone with a 42-inch monitor we can borrow... or a plotter. Preferably non-official."

Andi looks at Henry and waggles her fingers to say goodbye.

"Awww, Nin..."

"Ah! No! You said you'd behave yourself," she says. "You wouldn't want me flying a plane... I don't want you any more involved in my job than you already are."

"Oh. Yeah, okay. That makes sense," he says, nodding. "Coyote hardly ever lets me fly the planes."

She rolls her eyes again while Coyote chuckles. Then Henry attempts to crush her in a bear hug, which she endures because she loves her cousin.

He whispers, "See you later, cousin-twin."

Then he turns to Maddie and Rene and executes a rather fine rendition of a courtly bow. "It was nice meeting you, Miss Wolf. Sure hope we get to meet again. And hoo boy, getting to meet a Spirit who's not a Spirit except he is! It would be really great to meet you again, Rene!"

"I'm sure we'll see each other again, Henry," Madeline says.

Henry's youthful enthusiasm and excitement are enough to make Andi smile, although she looks puzzled, as well. That's something Henry notices, of course.

"What? Coyote told me the whole story." He shrugs as he continues to grin. "It's romantic. It's even more romantic than you and that guy of yours. You two should take lessons from these two, you know." He notes the look on his cousin's face. "Yep, I'll just be going now," he says as he heads out the door. "I have a long drive ahead of me, at least fifteen minutes, and then I have to find a place to park and break into your house and eat all your food..." That's about when his voice fades as he starts down the stairs.

Andi shakes her head. "I think Masterson's folks are heading out soon, and I told Masterson to grab sleep while he's got the chance. Just shut the door and we should be fine.

"The other..." She pauses while she thinks of who she knows... who has a monitor that big... who isn't official. "I'd need a change of clothes, but we've got a few at my day job. Otherwise, we'd have to go with official. According to Garcia, they've got one at least that large in their conference room."

She waits until Henry's voice has completely faded then closes the door.

"Where you work? Too public, and the other is definitely too official. When we're done here I'll just hunt down an office or computer store and pick one up, maybe a plotter, too. I'm sure I can find someone to donate it to after this is over."

She settles into a chair and brings out her phone, then presses a speed dial number.

"I've got more information for you. I have someone here to make sure I don't miss any details. I'm going to put you on speaker, so behave yourself."

She presses a button and sets the phone on the desk. "How's the sound quality?"

"Loud and clear, boss. Whatcha got for me?"

She tells him everything she recalls from the interrogation, gives him the Leader's confession word for word, then adds her own observations. She looks over to Ninja.

"Anything you want to add?"

"This guy's compulsion not to talk was extreme," Ninja says. "Being infected with the Shadowkin would have been more than enough under any other circumstances, but he also had a geis that was constructed by a human... an 'ánt'iizhi, bruja, witch." She pauses, recalling the feel of the bindings around the man's vocal cords. "I wouldn't rule out a mutant, but it felt more like the work of a Normal. Unfortunately, I couldn't get close enough to it to say what it was... but I can say what it's not.

"It's not Far Eastern, it's not Native North American, it's not any of the major Wiccan branches, it's not Aztec. I don't think it was any of the other Central or South American cultures, but I won't swear to it. If I had to guess — and believe me, I hate guessing as much as any geek does — I'd say start with Vodou and widen the search from there."

She taps the pads of her fingertips along the carvings on her staff.

"That's some serious paranoia about losing control of his people."

There is a snort from the man on the phone. "That's in line with all we know about this bastard. We already know the lengths he'll go to maintain control. To break what was between Rene and..." And uncomfortable pause is followed by, "Sorry, Madeline."

"Don't worry about," she says as Rene squeezes her shoulder.

"Still... I'll get all this run in. I assume you want the standard mappings, et cetera."

"As always."

"Actual recon could help. The next satellite run in that area isn't for another couple of days."

"We'll see what we can do."

"All right. I'll buzz you when I have it ready."

"Roger that. Talk at you later."

There is an audible disconnect from his side, and Madeline pushes the end button.

"We have a fairly decent image of the area from the information, but here are always other ways in and out that are not shared down the chain. A bit of aerial recon could help..."

Her phone buzzes again. She answers it and listens, then says, "Be right down."

"Mitch is here, with food."

"I'm going to hope she didn't bring enough food and coffee for the whole army, and that you two can manage because..." Andi gestures to the unseen Spirits arrayed around the room. "...I want to consult with my advisory team here, and that might make your loca Latina even more loca." She shrugs. "Or not. But best not to risk it tonight, right?"

"Yeah, we got got it," Madeline says before heading out.

Mitch is waiting in the truck cab and opens the door when she sees Madeline come out of the building. She shuts down the engine then jumps out, pocketing the keys.

"You wanna load up now or eat first?"

"Eat, of course. What kind of question is that?"

"Just checking."

Mitch goes around to the passenger side of the cab and opens the door, then hands a box to Madeline before taking one herself. She shoulders the door closed then says, "Lead on."

Madeline sniffs at the contents. "Breakfast burritos. Bueno."

"And they ain't pinners either."

Together they climb the stairs to the office.

Andi walks over to the office's window and looks out into the darkness.

What has you concerned, Warrior? Lion asks.

I've done plenty of aerial recon, and I know those skills are enhanced today, too. It's something that should be relatively simple. The greatest difficulty, in theory, should simply be translating the avian point of view to something those of us with forward facing eyes can understand.

And yet you have concerns. Lion sits beside her, look at her as she looks into the darkness.

If the people in the area are so paranoid that wildlife would be suspicious, that's going to make things difficult. Not impossible, but possibly dangerous for any bird I ask to show me the area. It could be injured or killed; I'd wind up with a headache, which is the lesser of the problems.

Surely the absence of wildlife would be a sign that something peculiar is happening, it says.

Yes. And there are a fair amount of people in the area, environmentalists who would raise an alarm if they noticed a lack of wildlife. I'm really more concerned about... I pause for a moment. Raven, do you remember what I did to Quetzalcoatl Monday night? Wrapping him in a net of qi?

Raven flies across the room and lands on Lion's head.

I remember. My buddy was very upset with you, Raven says.

I'm concerned that this Shadow-soaked human might have the ability to do that, or have someone with him who has the ability to do that. I'm not especially fond of the idea of being captured by someone like that. You all know what he did to Rene.

We would not allow that to happen, Warrior, Alligator says from her other side. We cannot fight the Shadow. We can protect you from the Shadowkin. And we will.

She looks down at Alligator with a smile. Thank you.

Opossum has crawled up onto her shoulder again, and grips her ear to balance itself as it sits there. You do not realize that we are bound to help you. On this night of the year, we will always be available if you need us. We have always been available. And at the time of the time of the Great Battle, when you and your Mate stand before the Shadow itself, we will be there to support you. No matter when that might be. All the Spirits of your People will be at your side, at the side of your Mate. We cannot fight the Shadow, that is true. But we can give you all that we are and all that we do.

Fox looks up from the spot it's chosen beside her foot. Many many generations of your People are born and then die before a Warrior is born among you. Even to us, this is a great thing.

She looks around at all of them. Okay, that's going to take some time for me to process. Right now, I'm a little weirded out. But let's get back to the problem at hand. I'm going to have to get awfully close to this guy's base to make any kind of recon feasible.

Fox laughs. On this day, is your range not greater?

Well... yes. Quite a bit, actually. Two, maybe three miles. Why?

Cobra wraps itself around her calf. Each of us amplifies that. Some by simply adding the same amount, some by doubling, some by tripling. The place where you live? You could almost see the evil person's lair from there.

"Holy shit," she says, just about the time Maddie and Mitch get up to the office.

"I hope that's a good thing," Madeline says sardonically as she sets the box down. "Oooh, chorizo y papas. Want a burrito, Ninja?"

She pulls one out as Mitch set the other box down. It has six large travel mugs of coffee with a box of sugar and creamer tucked into a corner.

"Yeah, good thing... and yeah, burrito would be great," she says, still a little bemused from the information overload she got from the Spirits.

Andi settles herself with food, coffee and napkins on the ancient lateral file cabinet, and take a drink of the coffee before saying anything more. She begins unwrapping the burrito before looking at Maddie.

"I can get you aerial recon, although processing a bird's eye view still gives me a touch of vertigo. I could probably give you on the ground close up information if you need it, although I'd have to assume they'd try to keep the larger animals away from their base." She glances over at Lion before focusing on Maddie again. She can feel Opossum still on her shoulder; it seems to have an unusual interest in the burrito.

"Wouldn't be the first time," Mitch says regarding the bird's eye view. "That boy was handy, but he was a royal pain in the ass."

"Not going to argue with you there," Madeline agrees.

"Although my advisory team assures me they can keep me from being caught in any sort of net — for example, the sort of thing I used on Quetzalcoatl the other night — I have some reservations about actually going into the base." She shrugs. "On the other hand, no matter what they've done to fortify the mines and tunnels they're using, unless they've done enough rebuilding that it would be noticed and commented on, there are going to be all the usual burrowing animals making an appearance in the base. I'd have eyes and ears on the ground."

She takes another sip of coffee before biting into the burrito. Ah, breakfast burritos! Just another pleasure she had discovered when she had moved back to the States. Pure genius in a food format.

Madeline gives her attention Ninja. "If that's the way you want to play it. I just figured Masterson's jet jockeys could get some eye in the sky practice in."

The other woman finishes chewing and swallowing, then shakes her head.

"Call it a gut feeling, but I don't think introducing something way out of the ordinary like that is a good idea when dealing with Stryker. He's already bound to be on high alert with everything we've done in the past day... I don't want to make him more pissed off than he already is if we don't need to."

She smiles slightly, the barest hint of the predatory Ninja smile.

"Besides, I can see things that the cameras on the military's jets can't..."

She looks Maddie in the eye, smile gone, deadly serious.

"...including Logan's exact location. His qi signature is damned distinctive."

"In that case it's all on you.

"Stryker can stew all he wants. With Logan there, he knows I'm coming, and I'm sure he's waiting for me. But so is Logan. If we can get him loose first, we just need to step back out of the way and let him do his thing. Seeing that man work is a thing a beauty.

"With any luck the other two bendejos are with him, and I can put them down too."

"Yeah. Stryker knows you're coming. And he'll be prepared for that."

She looks at Raven as it settles on the file cabinet beside her, while she takes another bite of the burrito and considers the length of time Stryker's been in Colorado. She turns back to Maddie. "He's going to have all sorts of intel on me. My activities for the past nine years, all mapped out. And every bit of that is going to tell him I'm the Protector. I protect the people of the metroplex. Every bit of that information is going to tell him that I don't hunt the filth that hurt my people unless the filth is non-Normal. Every bit of the information he's gathered will tell him I would turn the hunt — this hunt, the hunt for him — over to law enforcement.

"He's not going to know that the Protector has had a metamorphosis into the full Warrior I'm meant to be... because it was his actions, his lackeys' actions, in killing Sally that triggered the completion of that metamorphosis.

"He's not going to know that I'm coming for him.

"And based on the Shadowkin's actions and reactions when the Spirits distracted it, my conclusion would be that he can't get any more intel about the Benevolent Spirits from the Shadow than I can get from the Spirits about the Shadow. And that's only generalities."

She takes another long drink of coffee.

"And he might expect law enforcement to come looking for him, but you and I both know that law enforcement has rules and procedures, and that translates to time.

"So yeah. He knows you're coming and he's prepared for you.

"But I really don't think he's prepared for you being backed up by the Diné Warrior and a single Special Forces operative... and showing up on his doorstep today."

She shifts a little to make room in her lap for Fox as Cobra wraps itself around her waist like a belt.

"And it has to be today. This needs to be finished before the veils rise again. Because that's the only way we also have the assistance of more Benevolent Spirits than just Raven."

"With him expecting me, there's no need to sneak around..."

She taps her fingers on the desk. "So I should go in full bore, full frontal assault, middle of the day."

Madeline smiles, liking the idea.

"The Humvees are armored already but... All the C4 is already in the pickup they are likely to recognize and not worry about too much...

"Will anyone have a fit if the Humvees stay where they are for an extra day or two?"

Ninja shakes her head. "Not likely. I just need to give the right people a heads up."

She considers her plan... or the beginning of one, anyway. It would make a good distraction...

"And while you're breaking down the front door, I'll take Masterson and sneak in the back. I ought to be able to tell from the cabin where their main entrance is, and where any of the others are. If my observations of the more clever of the area's criminal element are any kind of indicators, he'll probably want to put his main entrance where coming and going of a lot of different people is going to be less noticed. That would likely mean the tunnel entrance up near Central City."

She grimaces, more than a little unhappy about the changes to the small town.

"Since they turned Central City into one of the casino towns, Peregrine could probably walk through town in his purple and green outfit without anyone batting an eye," she says with no small amount of disgust.

"Let's all head up to the cabin then. We'll throw a tarp over the C4 and just leave it in the truck. The hardware we brought down can go in the Monstrosity. You can give the LEOs the heads up, and I'll call Joe. A quick stop at the hotel to gather the computer is all that is needed. Tell Masterson to meet us up there..."

She checks the time. "At ten hundred hours. We can roll against them at high noon..."

Andi looks at Maddie... nods... finishes off her coffee.

"How much prep time do we need? I'm going to drop those names off with Sanchez... have him keep an eye on those guys, lock them up if they look like they're leaving town. I wouldn't have said this two months ago, but the remnants of the Knighthood are not going to be run out of town this time."

She pauses to wad up the burrito wrapper and stuff it into the empty coffee cup... then looks Madeline in the eyes.

"They're just going to disappear. Or have unfortunate accidents." She sighs. "It might not have dramatic repercussions this time around, but eventually what I do... and how I go about doing it... are doing to cause the roof to fly off my house."

She nudges Fox out of her lap and stands, still sporting Cobra as a belt with Opossum on her shoulder. Tossing the trash in the wastebasket, she says, "Do you want me to follow you up to the cabin after that... or do you still want to give me a call after you've had that shower you wanted?"

"Not more than half an hour. I just want to pull some things out of the bunker. Masterson et al are welcome to browse if they want. I'd say just come on up. I'm going to get the shower up there. Other than the computer, that's where everything I need is. The utilities never got turned off. Like I said before, I wanted it to look like an average overnighter when I left, and I never bothered to tell the bank to stop the automatic payments."

"Okay. Can you and Mitch handle getting the C4 into the Monstrosity?" Andi asks. "I have a feeling Garcia is going to be more inquisitive than he ought, and it will take more time to not explain everything," she says with half a smile. "If Masterson hasn't nodded off, he'd probably help you... or Mahmoud could rustle someone up who is quick, careful and quiet."

"We got it covered. And good luck with Sanchez."

Ninja picks up her staff, which causes Opossum to hop onto the desk where the remnant of food are laid out. Then she snorts out a non-humorous laugh. "You know, if I continue my bloodthirsty ways — which are as much Garcia's fault as anyone's, let me assure you — and my dance along the line of what is completely legal and what might be questionable, the organization interested in sponsoring me might change their collective mind, which would be one less thing for me to agonize over, and one less thing for him and Peregrine to pester me about." She rolls her eyes and shakes her head. "Oh yes, there will be very little of substance said about this case to the good detective."

Even Raven does not dare accompany when I ride, O Cobra, she says to the Spirit as she turns toward the door. Are you sure you want to stay where you are?

Might I find it interesting?

Interesting... that might be one way to put it.

Then I believe I will stay.

She mentally shrugs. Whatever.

Ninja chuckles. "Sanchez won't be the problem. This time. Garcia, on the other hand..." She shakes her head as she heads out the door. "See you at the cabin in a couple of hours."

As she passes the room Masterson and his people had claimed, she sees that he's the only one left... sitting with his feet propped up on a desk and the chair tilted back against the wall. His aura shows that he's barely dozing, but she doesn't bother to wake him. She'll see him in a few hours anyway.

She does stop in Hank's office to check in with Mahmoud, who's looking over the schedule Aaron had put together.

"Think you and the rest of the folks left up here can manage until everyone else gets back?" she asks, leaning a shoulder against the door jamb.

"Yeah," he responds without looking up from Aaron's notes, sounding fairly amazed. "Aaron is a genius," he says, looking up and grinning. "If I didn't know what he did in the Marines, I'd swear the man was a quartermaster. We'll be fine even if everyone's gone for two weeks." His smile dims a bit. "They won't be gone that long, will they?"

"I hope not. There are still a few minor scumbags around, and the guy who had the bright idea to get rid of the town..." She smiles wryly and shrugs. "Either they'll be back in a few days, or there's going to be a major shit storm. With Wolf here, the chances of a shit storm are considerably diminished."

"We know you've got our backs, Ninja, and are out there doing everything you can to keep us safe." He pauses, a thoughtful look coming over his face. "Maybe a little payback for Sally and Ben, too?"

She sighs. "The good guys aren't supposed to do that, are they, Mahmoud? But I gotta admit, I feel like there's some of that at play here, too."

"Hey, you're just human like the rest of us," he says philosophically. "If the thought didn't at least cross your mind, I'd worry. That's why I stayed instead of spending time in Denver or Thornton. Maybe I'm Normal by whatever the current legal and medical definition is, but my wife isn't... and sometimes I worry that Allah doesn't have the time to look after all of us."

She smiles as she pushes herself away from the door jamb. "Considering these folks don't think any of us are human, you may have a point. But I'll give Allah and the rest of the Higher Spirits a hand here to keep Farina and everyone else's family as safe as possible. That's my first priority. Vengeance... that may come, that may not. Depends on how far I'm willing to stray from the straight and narrow, I guess."

He waves a hand at her, shooing her off. "You might not stick as close to the line as law enforcement people need to stick, but you can't stray all that far. You're a good person, Ninja. Now go get rid of these people who tried to destroy our town, okay?"

"On my way, Chief..." she says as she walks towards the building's entrance, and then out into the pre-dawn stillness of a clear Colorado morning.

As she walks over to her bike, Cobra unwinds partially itself from her waist to look at her face.

You have... a hesitation about what you do. You must not. That is why I stay with you, to remind you of my nature. Be swift. Be decisive.

I understand that, O Cobra. Hesitation in today's battle will only lead to disaster. I talk about my concerns and fears now, so they don't burden me later.

You are the Warrior. You do what you must do. Others of your People, others not of your People, they may not understand or agree. And yet you must do what a Warrior must do. A Warrior must, at times, do things that are outside and beyond laws made by the people she fights for.

She slides her staff into its holster before responding. I'm only now beginning to understand that, although I'm still not certain I like it. I have always tried to stay within the laws of this country, state, each municipality... as much as possible, anyway. Now, I find myself not only stepping outside those boundaries, but stepping to places I have always believed to be wrong.

Again, Warrior... there are times when the ends justify the means. Would you refrain from doing a small wrong if you knew you would prevent a far greater wrong? Once, perhaps, you would have. Now, you have grown as a Warrior. There is no absolute in what you do. You simply aim for the greatest good.

The woman smiles as she gets on her bike and starts it up. That sounds very similar to one of Master Chen's sayings... "You must strive for the best outcome of everyone involved." Even he acknowledged that there might be times that harm or death would be part of the best outcome.

Your nature will not allow you to stray as far from the laws of your realm as you fear, Warrior. If you believe an action is necessary, despite it contravening your laws, then it must be done. Do not hesitate, however, to do what you feel is necessary.

I will keep your wisdom with me, Cobra. I'll be sure to remind my husband of the difference between Warrior and police officer when he becomes... annoyed when I stray farther than he'd like. She starts up 60th towards Vasquez. You might want to curl up again... I'm not going to be going very fast out toward the back gate, but once I get out of Commerce City, I'm going to breaking every speeding law I can find.

Cobra resettles itself around her waist and chuckles. If he was not capable of understanding, he would not be your Mate.

Well. She supposes that gives her a little comfort. Pablo still isn't going to be happy with her further blurring of the line between legal and not, however. And as a cop, she supposes he shouldn't be happy. In the past, she's always crossed the line simply for the protection of people DPD isn't officially allowed to protect. And, as a cop, he could accept that.

But now the dynamic has changed. At least, it seems as though it has. Until today, she could have been considered sort of an adjunct police officer. Now... well, she doesn't think she'd go so far as to say she's more of an adjunct to the military, but she is fully embracing her title of Warrior. In war, there are casualties, and in this particular war, she can hope... she does hope... the only casualties on their side will be only the ones they've already had, Sally Banner and Ben Grimm. And she's not going to give up on Ben, and she's even going to trust the ancestral pest to keep him safe from the other predators in his prison dimension.

Once Efram opens the northwest gate for her — actually, all he needs to do is open the door in the gate... her bike fits through it easily enough — it takes less than ten minutes to get to the Downtown Station on Washington Street. Fortunately, it's still dark, so she finds a deep shadow in the corner of the parking lot and reapplies some camouflage. It's nothing drastic... she's still got her leather pants and boots, but instead of Ninja's turtleneck and vest, she has one of Andrea's blouses and leather jacket; instead of braids, her hair is loose; instead of a staff, she has a simple leather clutch.

© Kelly Naylor and Ividia Kt