A Time Before

It was hard coming home to a country I didn't really remember, coming home to people who've been in my heart forever. Now they almost look like strangers. My parents look older, Justin . . . dear gods, Justin's as tall as I am! Papa and Tita . . . ah, my memories of them are so, so old. But the love I feel washing over me from them feels right; it feels exactly how I remember them. I remember my older cousins and Henry. Henry's a few months younger than I am. I think I remember Tommy the most. It feels like our hearts are the closest to one another's. I'm not sure that makes sense; maybe I'll figure that out someday. And the younger ones, the ones born while I was away? They've heard stories of the Great Diné Warrior and meet . . . only me. For a few minutes, I wonder if I'm disappointing them. But the feeling only lasts a moment. The way they huddle around me, the way I can see the love in their auras . . . no. No, I'm not a disappointment to them, not to anyone in the family.

I don't ever want to leave them again.

Ah, but the world outside the Nation beckons: university, up in Denver, at Dad's alma mater. Beyond that, beyond learning and getting a degree . . . then what? I have no idea yet, about what I want to do with my life. I don't even know if I want to use these powers I have. Isn't it enough that I'm alive? That I survived and learned how to control the qi before it could kill me? I think I want a chance to be an ordinary American college student. Is that too much to ask?

Mama, Dad, and Justin drive up to Denver with me a couple of weeks before classes start. They help move my meager possessions into my dorm room, and we play tourists. It's so joyous and happy, and I'm almost a little afraid for them to leave me alone again. I feel like I've just gotten them back, and now I'm losing them again. It's stupid because Dad keeps pointing out that it's only a ten-hour drive, and Mama says flights are only a couple of hours long. I have to laugh at my own insecurity and fears. There's a reliable phone service in Denver! And as a gift from the entire family, I have my very own cell phone. I can call any of them, any day!

But, yes, I cry when they leave. After they drive off, I wander to one of the nearby parks to practice taiji. Although I practice an hour every day as Grandmaster Chen said I should, that day . . . that day, I lose track of time completely. It was only when my stomach started rumbling that I realized I'd been practicing for four hours.

Fitting in . . . Well, that's the hard part. One of the first things I must do when I get my Colorado driver's license is register with the County. Not as a super! I have to register with the State of Colorado as a Taijiquan Master and Aikido Kudan! I hadn't expected that. Any ordinary human with my level of expertise in either art would be considered a lethal weapon? And need a permit for a concealed weapon? I'm flabbergasted, but I just go to the appropriate office to complete the necessary paperwork.

My roommates are quiet like me and spend nearly all their time studying. I learn rather quickly that they're an anomaly, but I think they might be the best role models for me. Kim's already decided, before even enrolling, that she's majoring in Computer Science. Juanita is majoring in Biology in the pre-med track. To me, everything is so interesting. This first year, I'm leaning more toward the liberal arts and soft sciences: history, language, sociology, psychology. I'll have plenty of time to declare a major later.

I ride my bicycle all over town when I'm not studying or practicing my taiji. I need to be careful of my speed, of course. I'm faster and stronger than everyone else, and I don't want to be noticed. I don't want to stand out. I want to be . . . well, ordinary. But I do notice the people around me on these rides. I see how some people are avoided, and others are ridiculed and harassed. I notice these things, and I don't like them. But I don't think there's anything I can do about it.

My first school year ends successfully, although I have very few friends. It's my own fault, really. I'm not quite sure how socializing in America works yet, but I might be getting the hang of it — just in time for the summer break. Isn't that a hoot?

The summer spent with my family is wondrous! While I spend most of the time with my parents, brother, and grandparents in Flagstaff, I get up to New Mexico to see my cousins up there. I'm so proud of Tommy for being selected by Ha'atathli Ravenclase to train with him. Tommy's been studying with him since he was twelve or thirteen, but Ha'atathli Ravenclaw chose him from all the other apprentices to continue with more intense studies this summer. So, I've only been able to see him once. And from what he said, it might be a couple more years before I get to spend much time with him. That makes me sad, of course, but my happiness for Tommy just blows my sadness right away.

And this is the summer when Talia's Curse hits her. Unlike mine, her's isn't heralded in with fire and pain. In fact, even Talia herself barely noticed anything different. The only hint we get is at lunch one afternoon when she pipes up, "Andi, I think it's so cool that you're going to be a librarian!"

I look at her, more than just a little confused. "That's one of the things I was considering, sure. But I haven't really made up my mind yet."

She looks just as confused as I am. "No. You are going to be a librarian." She looks around at the rest of us — her parents, my parents, our grandparents, and our respective brothers. "Well, she is!"

Dad and Uncle Junior exchange glances; my dad shrugs and smiles, then says, "Welcome to the club, Junior!"

My second year of college starts off a little more socially. Apparently, DU likes to switch roommates because this year, my roommates are Cindy and Kara. They're more outgoing than Kim and Juanita had been, which helps me, too. They're both Liberal Arts majors — my kind of people — though they haven't narrowed things down to a particular discipline. I join study groups, go to the occasional party, and participate in many volunteer activities for students: campus cleanup day, volunteering at the mission and the food pantries. I tentatively join the Gay-Straight Alliance as an ally. I almost break down in tears when they welcome me with open arms. Literally. I've never been hugged so much by so many people in one day — and I come from a family of huggers!

I start dating casually at first, but by Christmas, it's pretty obvious that Jared and I are a couple. I feel almost comfortable with him. But . . . there's that part of me, the part of me that can do things "normal" folks can. I'm not comfortable enough with him yet to share that part of myself. Most days, I wonder if I'll ever be that comfortable with anyone outside my family.

But then . . .

It's around finals of the spring term, maybe a couple of weeks before that, when I realize I'm pregnant. I know almost immediately . . . within hours, anyway. I have two weeks to worry and mull over what's happening to my body, to feel how the qi begins to flow differently through my meridians. I have two weeks to almost get used to it before one of the pee-on-a-stick pregnancy tests confirms what I already know.

Now I just need to figure out how to tell Jared. And it'll be even harder to figure out how to tell my parents!

It's a lazy Sunday morning. Our habit is to sleep in, get our mugs of coffee and muffins, and crawl back into bed to read or just talk . . . eventually culminating in sweet and gentle lovemaking. This Sunday, we've gotten to the reading phase, but I can't concentrate on the words that seem to float off the page in no discernible order.


He looked up from his textbook. "Yeah, hon?" What's up?"

I put my book down, hesitating. I'd been thinking of all the different ways I could tell him; none seem right. Is there even a right way?

"I'm pregnant."

He stares at me for a couple of seconds, stunned, before breaking into a smile so bright it could outshine the moon. He takes both my hands in his and holds them against his heart. The happiness, the love, the boundless joy that saturates his aura wash over me. I return his smile, despite my trepidation.

"Oh, Andrea! Are you sure?"

I nod. "Pee-stick said so, but I'll make an appointment with a doctor and all that."

He crushes me in a fierce hug and laughs joyfully, babbling incoherently. His happiness is amazingly infectious, though, and most of my doubts disappear. I still worry, yes . . . but it's a worry for another decade and more into the future.

He pulls back, his hands still on my shoulders, searching my face. "I know how important it is to you to finish school. We'll make that happen, I swear."

His aura reflects that truth. I put my hands on top of his and take a deep breath. "Thank you. That means so much to me."

The next couple of weeks seem to fly in a warm haze of happiness and the frantic mania of finals.

It happens on the day of my last final, the week before Jared is going to graduate.

I'm practicing my taiji in my favorite park near the school, eyes closed, watching the qi flow around me and through me. I'm alone because it's still early. I watch the qi cradle the wee tiny being inside me. At that moment, she and I — or he, we'll never know — are one with the universe. The next moment, my body betrays me and attacks my child. I fall to the ground, but there's nothing I can do. Before I even hit the ground, there's no evidence that I'd ever been pregnant.


Except for my tears and a fissure in my heart that may never heal.

I don't know how long I stay curled around myself, kneeling with my forehead on the ground, sobbing softly. I hate my body, my powers; I hate this Curse. I hate myself.

Eventually, I look up, look around . . . and see that I'm still alone. It's a small park on the University's property; at the end of the term like this, it isn't unusual that it would be deserted for days at a time. But the sun is high in the sky. So, it's somewhere around noon. Jared won't be back to his apartment until late. Cindy had her last exam on Friday and left over the weekend. Kara's final exam was yesterday morning; she'd planned to be out of the dorm room by now.

I stumble back to my room somehow. I feel like I'm stumbling, but with my reflexes, I probably just look like a typical end-of-term student in a daze from all the finals. I'm not, though. I'm broken and torn and may never feel whole and alive again. Why do I feel like I killed my baby? Oh, I know, I know. A bundle of cells barely a month into gestation isn't a baby. Intellectually, I know that. My heart, though . . . oh, how my heart hurts! I'm shattered; I don't know how to make it from one minute to the next. My heart says I've killed my baby.

Somehow — through force of habit, I suspect — I make it back to my empty dorm room. Kara is gone.

I'm alone. And hating myself. And wishing I, too, could die.

I sob most of the afternoon away. At some point, I fall asleep because the next thing I know, Jared is kneeling beside my bed in the dark, calling my name.

I can't open my eyes; they feel swollen shut. That won't last long; I heal too fast . . . at least my body does. I reach out, feeling the qi, and unerringly find one of his hands.

That traitorous qi.

"Andi, sweetie . . . what's wrong?" He sounds beyond merely worried, almost frightened. "No one's seen you all day, and when you weren't at my place . . ." He wraps an arm around me. "I was scared, Andi. Are you okay?"

I move closer to him, wrap my arms around him, bury my face in his torso, and sob inconsolably. I can't stop crying long enough to tell him what's wrong . . . and the more I cry, the more worried he gets. But he's a good man, a good person, and he just holds me as I cry . . . stroking my hair, reassuring me that he's there, just waiting me out. He's a good man. And I believe in my heart that I really do love him.

Finally, finally, I have no more tears to cry. I have no more heart to break. It's shattered into thousands of tiny shards that can never be mended.

Finally, I have to tell him.

"I lost our baby," I whisper. I'm not sure if I manage to speak loudly enough for him to hear. Time seemed to stand still, stretching into eternity until I feel his arms around me and his tears soaking into my hair.

"Oh, Andi, my Andi, my sweet . . . You should have called me, my love," he manages to say. "You shouldn't have had to go through this all alone."

The next few weeks are a blur. I'm not a person with supernatural abilities; I'm a woman in mourning. Jared graduates and I'm happy for him. I'm as happy as I can be.

During those weeks, I examine my meridians closely and carefully; I watch every tiny movement of qi through my body. And I can see the problem so clearly. A child is the combination of both her parents. The part of that child — the not-me part of that child — is seen by my body as a foreign object no different than a virus or bacteria. My body can't differentiate between bad differences and good differences. Any child who's part not-me is doomed to a short existence of a few weeks.

I go to doctors because it makes Jared feel better. They all say the same thing: there's nothing wrong with me. But I go to those appointments alone and shred those letters, and I lie to Jared. I tell him the same lie I'll tell so many people in the coming decade: there's something slightly wrong with my reproductive system. They can't say for sure, but having children will be somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible.

I can't bear the look on Jared's face when I tell him. I can't handle the feelings of loss we both feel. I can't endure it, and I withdraw into myself.

When he tells me a few weeks after graduation that he accepted a job out-of-state, I'm not really surprised. I press a hand against his cheek and look into his beautiful blue eyes. "I understand. Truly I do. Please, be happy, Jared." I take a shuddering breath, wondering if I still have tears to cry. "Find someone who can give you what I can't."

Yes, we chatted a bit longer, but he left for his new life the next day. And I call my dad to come get me.

That summer in Flagstaff is subdued. I tell Mama about what happened, and — ever the optimist — she holds me as I cry again, and tells me not to worry, that everything will work out just as it's supposed to. It's hard not to hurt, though. I spend most of my days alone . . . riding through the desert and safer canyons around Flagstaff either on my bike or on horseback. Little Billy, a sweet and cheerful boy of eleven, appoints himself my protector. That gets me to smile. He follows me nearly everywhere and rides with me every day, even though he's nominally staying with our grandparents for the summer. He seems to understand when quiet is necessary and when cajoling his older cousin is in order.

Mostly though . . . mostly it's the love of my family that heals me. Their love, their acceptance of who I am, exactly as I am, gives me the courage to stop crying, to stop hurting quite so much. It gives me the courage and encouragement I need to return to Denver at the end of August.

I've got two new roommates again this year. Deb — she makes it clear within two minutes that she hates both 'Deborah' and 'Debbie' — is majoring in Physics and intimidates the hell out of me with her gigantic level of smartness. Clara is majoring in History with a concentration on Eastern Europe. As it turns out, Deb isn't the least intimidating; she's funny, she likes flying kites, and she thinks a little bit differently than the rest of us. Clara is an eternal optimist, always smiling, and always has a kind word for everyone.

Of course, roommates go through the whole getting-to-know-you process of talking about boyfriends, past, present, and potential future. There's no present boyfriend for me, and I don't see the likelihood of one anytime soon. Unfortunately, I need to make some mention of Jared . . . and why we're no longer together. It's hard to tell the story, even though I share only the barest of facts, and it takes so little time. But that's when I realize I lucked out on roommates this year. Sitting between the two of them, hugged from both sides, I can stop crying. Again. But this time, I feel a release, like I'm letting go of a burden I don't need to carry anymore. I'll never forget Jared, and there'll always be a special place in my heart for him. The pain of losing our child will never completely disappear for either of us. But someday . . . someday, with the help of friends like these, and friends I'll make in the future . . . eventually the pain will be bearable.

I've decided to major in English Literature. It seems perfect because I love reading anything I can get my hands on, and I'm introduced to more books than a person could read in a year. As one of my volunteer service projects, I help foreign students with their English. It's not terribly surprising, given my mother's volunteer project in Flagstaff. Since the Japanese students are already fluent in English, and I'm conversant in at least one dialect of Chinese, I work with those students . . . and not just the few Chinese students at DU, but the several dozen younger students in the Denver high schools and grade schools.

Clara seems to be friends with everyone, and she's constantly inviting Deb and me to join her at this party or that event or some other function. Deb is nearly always studying, and when she isn't, she gives everyone at these events the impression of being incredibly flaky. She's definitely not flaky. But it's fun to watch her play with people who think she is. A few weeks into the term, Clara convinces us to go to one of the many parties hosted by one of the many fraternities. I'm not sure I want to go, but Clara's boyfriend is a fraternity member, and he's a nice guy, and they double-team Deb and me. Amid much laughter, we both cave to their upbeat pressure and agree to go.

It turns out I actually have a pretty good time. Derek's fraternity brothers are intelligent and able to converse as well as dance . . . which is good because I'm much better at conversation than I am at dancing. One of them is kind of obnoxious, but other than him, I enjoy their company.

Unfortunately, the obnoxious one seems to be trying to make a point of ruining my evening and ensuring that I don't have fun.

"Hey, baby . . . do one of those Indian rain dances for us."

The other guys tell me to just ignore him, that he'd been drinking way too much all afternoon and would probably pass out pretty soon anyway.

"Hey, squaw! Fetch me another brewski!"

Yeah, don't I wish. Passing out is definitely not what his aura looks like. It's full of aggression, anger, lust, and other ugly things. It makes me wonder how a really awful person like that got into a group of guys like Derek and the rest of them.

Later in the evening, as I stand at the edge of the room sipping some seltzer water and watching the dangers, the creep comes up and tries to put an arm around me. I deftly move out of his way.

"Go away, Randy. You're drunk and not anywhere near as charming as you think."

"Aww, baby . . . you know you want me. Come on. Dance with me." He leers at me.

"No. You're drunk. Go away."

He makes another grab for me, aiming for my breast but only knocking the plastic cup out of my hand before I can move. He's too close. I'd have to move too fast. He wouldn't notice, but there are probably other people watching. The seltzer water soals a leg of my jeans and seeps into one of my sneakers. It's uncomfortable, but I'm grateful I'm not wearing my boots. I look at my leg and my shoe, and I frown as I look at Randy.

"That wasn't very nice. Leave me alone, Randy, or I"ll have to ask your brothers here to deal with you."

He leers again. "Hey, injun, you just need a man. You don't know what you're missing here. You're not one of those dykes, are you?"

I can see the ripples of his aura and the flow of qi, and I see the intersection of all kinds of not-very-good things happening here.

"Randy, just go away, please."

Because, man, if you don't, it's going to get ugly here.

"Bitch, you don't get to tell me what to do!"

That was loud enough to attract the attention of others. That's good. Maybe someone will get Randy out of here before I have to do something about Randy. I really don't want to cause trouble in Derek's house. But as I take a half-step backward, maintaining a simple defensive posture any taiji student would recognize, he lunges at me.

I block him so he can't get close enough, can't grab hold of me, but that just enranges him more.

Fuck. Oh, fuck, this is going right into the toilet.

"You fucking bitch!"

I take another step backward, but he rushes at me, grabs my blouse, and tears it nearly off my body. To keep some dignity intact, I follow the direction of the pull, an Aikido move. It startles him enough to let go of my clothing, so I drop to the floor and roll to the now-empty dance floor. Then I stand back up several paces away, holding the tattered remnants of my blouse close against my chest. Being small0chested, I rarely wear a bra. At that moment, I really wish I'd worn one.

My tears aren't faked; he ruined my favorite silk blouse. It was a Christmas present from Tita.

But tears or no tears, I'm a Taijiquan Master, and I focus on an enemy.

"Back off, Randy. Just stay the hell away from me, you asshole." Although I sense several of his fraternity brothers coming to intercept him, I also see the qi flows and his aura flaring red. They're going to be too late. I'm on my own.

Being on my own doesn't bother me.

Causing trouble in Derek's house bothers me.

This time when he rushes me, I stand my ground and twist to the side, grabbing his arm and dropping him to the ground. The pop of a joint dislocating can be heard across the room. I step back out of range, still holding the shreds of dignity and cloth against my chest.

He begins screaming in pain. Dislocated elbows are not a trivial thing; they hurt a lot. I should know; I've had four.

I can still feel the tears streaming down my cheeks as I take another step back into Clara's and Deb's arms. Derek is there with a jacket for me. Their caring and concern make it that much harder to stop the tears.

Some of the other guys are trying to help Randy up, but he's thrashing about like someone having a grand mal seizure and screaming like . . . I don't even know. But shit, he needs to shut up! Finally, a couple of the guys get him upright, and he glares at me with malevolent hatred.

"Somebody call the cops on that bitch! She assaulted me! You're all witnesses!"

I can hear the others whispering to him, telling him that he's being an idiot and a drunk one at that, but he keeps yelling obscenities.

Deb hands me some tissues, and I can't thank her with anything more than a smile. I don't know; maybe I'm in shock. I acquitted myself well; the enemy was disabled with minimal damage . . . But I can't wrap my brain around the fact that someone would do what he did . . . to a guest . . . in his home.

Since Randy isn't going to be satisfied until the police show up, Derek points us in the direction of the farthest sofa in the living room while he deals with Randy and calls the police. Suddenly, I'm scared and worried . . . are they going to arrest me? Will the school take away my scholarships or expel me? What will I do then?

Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, the police officers arrive quickly. I suppose there are enough incidents on campus to warrant officers being nearby on a Saturday night.

They talk to Randy first. Rather, they try to talk to Randy first. He's not satisfied with just vilifying me and my heritage; he also can't keep his brain in check long enough to keep from insulting the police officers. The racist insults might have actually been the nicest things he calls them. They listen to his increasingly incoherent ramblings. They take notes as appropriate, all the while maintaining a stony-faced silence. Finally, they either have all the information they need or reach the end of their combined patience . . . and if you ask me, their patience has been incredibly long.

Now, I need to face the inquisitors.

"I'm Officer Denise Jackson," the woman says as she crouches in front of me. "That's my partner, Officer Pablo Garcia. We'd like to talk to you alone, but if you'd feel more comfortable with your friends with you, that's okay."

I look between Deb and Clara, then sit up straighter, pulling Derek's jacket tighter around me. I'm a Taijiquan Master! I'm an Aikido Kudan! My family keeps telling me I'm a Diné warrior!

"I'll be okay," I tell my friends softly. "I promise."

I attempt a smile, but I don't quite manage it. Still, they recognize the attempt, and with a light squeeze on the shoulder from each of them, they go over to the other side of the room to stand with Derek. I notice there are also paramedics here, dealing with the invectives Randy is throwing at them for being non-white while they're trying to help him. I feel sorry for them.

I look at each of the police officers in turn.

"Now what?" I ask, almost timidly. I really am afraid of the repercussions Randy's stupidity can have for me.

"Just tell us what happened in your own words," Officer Garcia says. "If we have questions, we can come back to them." He has kind eyes.

I nod. "There's not really much to tell. Randy was pretty drunk already when we got here around 7:30. He got kind of obnoxious, picking on me . . . I guess because I'm Native American. I asked him, told him several times to go away and leave me alone. He . . ."

I look down at my hands, holding Derek's jack closed, and then at Officer Jackson. Her aura vibrates with sympathy and understanding and . . . kindness. I guess I could use some kindness right now.

"He said some very crude things I wouldn't expect a decent man to say to a woman." I take a deep breath. "He tried to grab me, but I moved out of the way, so he just knocked my cup of seltzer out of my hand." I look at the still-damp pant leg. "The second time he tried to grab me, he . . . he . . ."

I'm starting to feel overwhelmed again and pause, taking time to breathe as I dab my eyes with the tissues Deb had left me.

"He tore my blouse. I'm . . . I'm really . . . mostly upset because . . . because it's my favorite and . . . and was a gift from my grandmother." I take a deep breath, pause, and let it out slowly. Master, Kudan, warrior. . . remember, Andi? I dropped and rolled away from him. That really made him angry. And then I told him to back off, and . . . Well, I guess I called him an asshole."

Officer Jackson snorts. "Privileged little white boy is an asshole," she mutters.

"Denise . . ." Officer Garcia's gentle chiding causes the woman to roll her eyes and give him a half-smile. I get the impression this is their little game, a little game all their own. The patterns of qi that flow around them are intricate; they're not just partners but friends. Officer Garcia nods to me. "Go ahead, Ms. Yazzie."

"Well, that kind of made him even madder, so I guess maybe that's my fault, although I think he still would have been crazy even if I didn't say anything." I'm babbling because I have to tell. I have to tell them what I can do. And I don't want to. "He . . . he rushed at me and . . . and . . ."

I sigh and deflate a little. "I'm sorry. My training just took over. He tried to grab me again, and I . . . Well, I defended myself." I look at them both again, then look at my knees. That's a safe place to look. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Officer Jackson laughs humorlessly. "Girl, you did exactly what you should have done! Don't ever be sorry about defending yourself!"

The other officer clears his throat. "We . . . looked you up in the system, Ms. Yazzie. You have two black belts. You could have killed that man tonight. You didn't. You used good judgment and restraint to ensure he didn't hurt you."

I look up again, surprise clearly written on my face. "I . . . I'm not going to get in trouble? I'm not going to lose my scholarships?"

Officer Garcia's smile is quirky and crooked. "No, Ms. Yazzke. You're not going to get in any trouble. Yes, Mr. Duncan is insisting on pressing charges, but based on the report we'll be filing, he'll find he won't get anywhere," he says.

"We will, unfortunately, need to take your blouse as evidence," Office Jackson says. I don't need to look at her aura to know she hates saying that.

I nod. "Um . . . right now?"

Officer Jackson nods and hooks her thumb toward the other side of the room. "Take a hike, Garcia."

He nods to his partner and goes to check with the paramedics, who have apparently tranquilized Randy because not only is he quiet, but his aura looks really peculiar.

I wiggle out of what's left of my blouse while trying to keep Derek's jacket wrapped around me. Fortunately, Office Jackson helps with the jacket, and I manage not to expose any parts of my anatomy that should be seen in public. After taking the blouse off, I slip my arms into the jacket's sleeves and zip it up. It's way too big for me, but . . . Well, it covers me.

I look at the beautiful blue silk in my lap and press my lips together hard to keep from crying again.

"I'm sorry, honey," Officer Jackson whispers.

I nod as I pick up the remnants of the blouse and hand it to her. "Thanks. For caring."

She smiles. It's the smile of an intelligent woman who's seen more than people ought to see of the dark side of humanity and can still see the light. "At DPD, we serve and protect. And some of us also care."

She puts the blouse in a plastic bag she pulls from a pocket and seals it. "Garcia, give the woman your card!" She pulls her card out of another pocket and hands it to me. Her partner comes back over, laughing.

"Jackson, you are one bossy woman," he says as he hands his card to me.

"Only way to get you to listen to anything, my friend," she answers, laughing.

"Now, don't hesitate to call either of us if you need some protection," Jackson says. She stands and rests a hand on my shoulder for a moment. "Or some caring."

I just nod. "Thank you," I whisper as they follow the paramedics out the door.

It takes a while to recover from the shock of that evening. I guess two-and-a-half years isn't enough time to understand the culture of mainstream America. I wonder how much time is enough time. Not long after that night, maybe a week-and-a-half later, the officers stop by our dorm room Deb and Clara are both in class, and I'm studying, so engrossed in my textbook that I nearly miss the soft knock on the door frame. I look up and feel a moment of fear. Have things gone badly? Have they come to tell me Randy actually made an assault case?

Officer Jackson sees the look on my face and smiles with reassurance. "We were in the neighborhood and thought we'd check in with you. Mind if we come in?"

"Oh, sure . . . come on in," I say, sticking my spiral notebook into the textbook to keep my place and getting up to move books from the room's desk chairs.

"Oh, hey, don't bother cleaning up for us," Officer Garcia says.

I laugh. "Listen, if you two are going to stand, then I have to stand, or I'll feel intimidated, and I don't feel like standing, so we're all going to sit." I grin at them. "I took Logic last semester," I say, putting the books on the nearest desk and pointing them to the chairs. "Psychology, too."

I sit down on my bed, cross-legged, and wait for them to sit down. They bicker like siblings over who gets which chair and where the chairs should be placed, and I can't help giggling. If I look only at their auras, I'd almost swear they are brother and sister . . . and best friends . . . all rolled into one. They have a connection that makes me think they can intuit one another's moves when they're out doing real police work.

Officer Garcia stops what he's doing and looks at me when I giggle. "Jackson, I believe the civilian is laughing at us."

Officer Jackson looks at him, then at me, then at him again. "I think the civilian giggled, Garcia. There's a difference," she says as she sits down.

He leans on the chair back, eyes twinkling with merriment. "If you say so. We were mocked, nevertheless."

"You were mocked. I amused the civilian." She looks at her partner. "Sit down, Garcia. You're intimidating when you're standing."

"I'm leaning on the chair, so I'm actually much less intimidating. Leaning suggests relaxation, trust, and friendliness. It is meant to put the civilian at ease."

She swats at his head, but he dodges easily. I watch with wide eyes. My mouth might be starting to hang open.

"Sit down, Garcia, and stop quoting my textbooks before I call your mother."

He laughs and moves the chair farther from her, then sits down. "You leave Momma out of this, Denise, or there will be no Christmas flan for you this year."

"You're an evil, evil man, Pablo Garcia." She turns to look at me, grinning broadly. "Don't ever threaten to call his mother. He gets spiteful."

I just look between the two of them, utterly bemused. "Um. Okay. I don't think I'd ever have a reason to call his mother, but . . . thanks? Are you two part of the DPD comedy show, or what?"

They look at each other for a minute.

"You're right. The civilian might be mocking us, Garcia."

"No, no . . . I think it was an honest appreciation of our clever repartee," he replies.

"Repartee? Is that the word of the day?" She raises an eyebrow and looks down her nose at him.

"No. Last Wednesday's," he says with a grin. He has a friendly smile; they both do. They're happy people.

"Are you two always like this?" I ask . . . very, very hesitantly.

They both laugh.

"Pretty much, yeah," Officer Jackson says. "It's why we make such a great team. When we need to be serious, we're serious. When we don't need to be serious . . . what's the point, right?"

I nod slowly. "Sure. Okay."

"The civilian is freaked out, Jackson, and it's your fault."

"MY fault?? Why is it my fault?"

"Because you started it."

"I did not! You were the one leaning on the chair!"

Officer Garcia shrugs and smiles . . . and says nothing more.

I stare at them for a few seconds. "I'm not freaked out if that helps any. But I'm really, really confused."

I almost expect her to stick her tongue out at him, but she only smiles at me and says, "What's got you confused, honey?"

I point to the two of them. "This. You. Here. Visiting with . . ." I rub my forehead and temples with my fingertips. "I'm not sure if I committed a crime or what happened, but visits from police officers are supposed to be harbingers of doom or something."

Officer Jackson laughs. "You've watched too many of the wrong movies, and they haven't made the right movies yet. We figured you might be confused, what with practically being a foreign student even though you're not. Yeah, yeah . . . we checked up on you since the incident. Explains why you were a bit shocky that night."

I shrug. "I guess. I mean, people just don't do that where I grew up."

"If it's any help," Officer Garcia says, "most men are considerably more courteous than Mr. Duncan."

I smile. "I know. Derek — that's Clara's boyfriend and the Chapter vice president or something — he keeps saying the same thing. I guess Randy got kicked out of the fraternity." I sigh. "Deb and Clara, they're awesome friends and try to keep the repercussions from overwhelming me. But . . . Well, I found out the other day that Randy's dad is some big shot senator from Texas, and he's going around telling everyone I was asking for it."

I sit up straighter, with my hands on my thighs, and lift my chin a bit. "That jerk can just go and say whatever he wants. I know what I know, and my friends — the people who know me — won't believe anything he says anyway. The way he's been talking, you'd think I was dressed like a woman of loose morals." I harrumph. "I was wearing a blouse my seventy-four-year-old grandmother gave me. That would be like saying my grandmother was encouraging me to have loose morals, and that's utterly ridiculous!"

They look at each other, and Officer Garcia grins while Officer Jackson groans, reaches into a pocket, pulls out a coin, and places it in his outstretched hand.

"Told ya, Jackson," he says with . . . is that a smirk?

I look from one to the other gain. "Whaaaat?"

"I told Jackson you'd be just fine, that you have a fiery spirit."

Well, how can I not laugh? "Do you two do this for everyone you come across?" I ask, smiling broadly.

Officer Jackson shakes her head. "Nah, just you youngsters who've only been in the country for a few years. Usually, it's the Eastern European girls . . . never thought we'd need to be looking out for one of our own. But if Garcia is right about you . . ." She looks over at her partner and rolls her eyes before turning back to me. ". . . and he's a good judge of character, so he's right about you, you won't have too much trouble getting your feet under you."

"If I . . ." I hesitate, biting at my lower lip. "IF I happen to see, you know, harassment that the school administration does seem to, ah, notice or care about even when people speak up . . ."

They exchange glances.

"You need to go through proper channels here first," Officer Garcia says, "but if that doesn't help . . . Sure, give either of us a call. Even if we can't do anything officially, we might be able to point you to the people who can do something."

Jackson nods. "Oh, and we're not sticklers for protocol and all that nonsense. I'm Denise . . . he's Pablo."

I nod as well, sighing softly, feeling relieved that there's someone I can call if I need help. I know I'm not ready to do any of the heavy lifting of helping people. I'm not sure I'll ever be ready. Except . . . well, I have these powers, and my family seems to think I'm a warrior, so at some point, I guess I do need to be ready. I might be a bit less resistant to the idea if I knew what it meant to be a warrior.

"And please, please . . . no more Ms. Yazzie!" I say, smiling. "Andrea or Andi is just fine."

They both stand, and so, of course, I do as well.

"We'll stop in on you a few more times in the next couple of months," Denise says, "just to ease my mind since Garcia's already decided you'll be fine." She grins as we shake hands. "Good luck in your studies, Andrea."

"Thank you, Denise."

Pablo also wishes me well as we shake hands. I get a weird sort of déjà vu feeling, except not really, but I smile and thank him, too. Shaking my head and chuckling as I watch them walk down the hall, bantering back and forth, I realize that's what best friends look like. I really like them. But I have a lot of reading to finish for next week's discussion in my Twentieth Century American Authors class! So, I put the chairs back where they belong, then sprawl out on my bed to continue reading.

True to their words, Denise and Pablo stop by several more times before the end of the term. They're always cheerful, playfully teasing each other, always kind and considerate, and always very much on duty. It's an intriguing thing to watch them interact. You can tell they're aware of everything around them, even when it looks like they're oblivious to all the minor infractions of Denver and the University's laws and codes of conduct. Only once, when an argument gets out of hand and turns into a fight, do they intervene. They do it so calmly and pleasantly that they somehow manage to get both idiot football players laughing and shaking hands when it's all over.

I don't know how they do it. They're geniuses of something. I called them Super Cops once, and it took ten minutes for them to stop laughing, and Denise had tears streaming down her face from laughing so hard.

After a relaxing holiday break with my family in Flagstaff, Deb, Clara, and I begin another term of mostly major-related classes. As a Physics major, Deb spends most of her time in the labs. Clara spends most of her time in the library. I seem to be all over the place. I always have reading assignments — dozens of them, and it makes me grateful to be a quick reader — and I can read anywhere. I still prefer writing my homework with a pen on paper, then typing them up on the computer . . . so I can work anywhere I go.

Tonight is a cold and blustery January evening, and I'm bundled up. I'm really trying to fit in, trying to look like all the other students who are freezing. But the truth is that I can adjust my qi flow to stay toasty even when it's close to zero. I'm heading out from the dorms to one of the many small eateries on and surrounding the campus. I don't have any particular destination in mind; I figure I'll stop wherever I happen to be when I get bored with walking. I've got a couple of books, a few notebooks, and probably too many pens in the backpack slung over my shoulders. The air is crisp and clean, and walking is a pleasure.

It isn't until I sense someone following me that I become anxious. Not overly so, but I still seem to be a little touchy after last term's fiasco with Randy . . . who was not only expelled from his fraternity but from DU as well. Apparently, he used the same language with the Dean of Students and the Vice President for Academic Affairs as he'd used with Pablo and Denise. Unlike the calm with which the two officers somewhat ignored his ravings, the DU administrators became quite upset. Or so the grapevine reported.

A moment later, really no more than two or three seconds, I recognize the feel of the person's aura. Still, I'm surprised.

"Should you be wandering around alone after dark, young lady?"

I grin at him as he catches up and walks beside me. "Should you be following young ladies wandering around after dark, Officer?"

Pablo laughs. "Just protecting the citizens of Denver, miss." His sharp gaze takes in the surrounding area. "My keen deductive skills lead me to believe you're on your way to dinner. Would I be imposing if I asked to join you?"

"Well . . . I was just going to do some reading for class," I admit, "but chatting with you would be okay, too."

"Ah, if it's such a burden," he says with an exaggerated sigh, "I could go home and eat alone. In the dark. Perhaps gnaw on a still-frozen microwave dinner."

I can almost imagine him dramatically holding up a hand and hooking away. I burst out laughing. "You'd make an excellent actor, Pablo," I say, still chuckling. "I'm not sure whether you'd be most suited to serious works, like maybe Shakespeare, or more suited to comedy . . . but you definitely have acting ability."

"Does that mean I should go home and eat a frozen Hot Pocket?" he asks with a grin.

"No. That would be disgusting. Not that most of the places around here have the best food, but even bad pizza is better than still-frozen . . . almost anything. Except for peas. Frozen peas are pretty good."

He looks at me as if I've lost my mind. "Are you serious? You eat frozen peas . . . still frozen?"

I nod. "Yes, and if you're going to mock my food choices, I'll have to send you on your way to gnaw on your frozen Hot Pocket." I smile at him. "You did start it, you know, with that . . . disgusting . . ." I can't finish the thought, having started laughing again.

"We're both laughing as he steers me toward one of the local pizza places a few doors up the street. A perfect gentleman, he holds the door open for me, and we enter the warmth of the small pizza parlor.

"Hey, Andi!" says Lori, the general all-around do-everything person. "No studying tonight, huh? Good. Sometimes, it's good to rest the brain." Lori's in her mid-thirties, married to Dean, who owns the place. They have two children, twin girls, Angie and Bethany, age four. You can tell I come here a lot. "Your usual, hon?"

I nod. "Mostly deliveries tonight looks like."

"Yeah, it's a million degrees below zero or something crazy like that. But in this kind of weather, even the cheapskates tip fairly well, so Hank's happy. How 'bout you, hon?" she asks, looking at Pablo.

Hank is Dean's youngest brother; he's a freshman at the University of Colorado here in Denver and works at the pizza shop to augment his scholarship and the help Dean and Lori give him. They're a lovely family.

While Pablo gives Lori his order, I divest myself of the backpack and put it on a chair at my usual table by the front window. Then I take off gloves, coat, scarf, and hat, piling them all on a nearby empty table. Pablo and I are the only customers at the moment. I'd be people-watching if there were any people outside. It doesn't often get down near freezing here, except for a week or so around this time of year. It seems so weird to me that everyone apparently forgets from year to year that the January Cold Snap arrives in . . . January. Pretty much every year. Well, except for the years when it waits until February.

Pablo comes over and removes his jacket before sitting down; I note that he's still in uniform, gun and all.

"Don't you think it's chilly love here?" he asks. I suppose it could seem a bit peculiar that I'm wearing only a short-sleeved blouse instead of something with long sleeves or maybe a sweater.

"I lived in China for six years. The town I stayed in was awfully close to Siberia. This? This is not chilly," I say with a grin.

"You know, Jackson and I looked into your background last year," he says with a bemused look. "I understand the part about living in Japan. Your folks were stationed there, right? But China? Why in the world would you go to China to live . . . and all alone?"

Hmm. Well, I don't think now is the time for the truth. I doubt there will ever be a time for that particular truth. So . . . the slightly modified and sanitized version of the truth will have to do.

"Are you kidding me? I had the chance to study with the greatest living Taijiquan teacher in the world!" I say with honest enthusiasm. "I couldn't pass up a chance like that. He only takes in two new students a year. To be invited to learn from him?" I shake my head and sigh. "I might have missed out on a lot of stuff, but listening to my friends talk about those years, I'm not sure I missed that much. Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers?" I laugh again. "I'm the youngest Chen Shi Taijiquan Master ever. That's worth a lot . . . to me."

He just shakes his head. "But . . . high school . . . football . . . hanging out with friends. What about all that?"

"Did I also mention that I'm the youngest person to have reached Kudan level in Aikido and am the only female Kudan?" I raise my eyebrows and smile serenely.

Now, he just stares at me. "You're a very . . . unusual person, Andrea Yazzie."

"Aw, Pablo, you can say it: I'm weird. I know it." I giggle.

Lori comes over with our pizza slices and soda, and we're quiet for several minutes while getting sustenance into our bodies.

"You know," he says finally, "you should consider working for the Denver Police. You certainly have some excellent skills that would make you a good police officer."

Now it's my turn to look at him as though he's lost all his marbles. "I'm majoring in English Literature. How could that possibly be a useful skill as a police officer?"

"Well, you'd probably be able to write a report that made sense," he says, completely deadpan.

"Oh, don't count on it! I could write in the style of Shakespeare or Milton . . . or perhaps each report could be a sonnet," I reply.

"Like I said, a report that would make sense," he says firmly.

I shake my head. "No. And thank you. I believe I'm going to be a librarian." I'm not entirely sure yet, but Talia seems to be. And, well, she seems to be very accurate with her predictions.

He sighs somewhat dramatically. "Well, all that martial arts stuff will certainly come in handy when tracking down people with overdue books."

"Exactly!" I take another sip of soda.

"Seriously, Andrea . . . why go through all that training if you're not going to put it to use?"

Many people have asked that question, most implying that my training had been a waste of time. But Pablo is genuinely interested. I can't tell him the truth this time, not even a cleaned-up, sanitized version. I shrug.

"At first, my dad thought it would keep me busy and out of trouble and a way for me to get to know the local Japanese children. He didn't want us to be isolated on the 'American side.' He said it would be good to know kids beside the other American children on the base. But it turns out I was really good at it, and it was . . . well, fun!" I grin; that much is true. The next part . . . not so much.

"When I became a Kudan at twelve, that made a stir in the martial arts communities in Asia. It was actually more of a tidal wave since I was a girl. I guess that's how Grandmaster Chen found out about me and offered me a place in his school.

"But when people think I'm not using my training, they're wrong. It's good exercise; I practice every day. It relaxes me. And, as you well know, I can defend myself . . . probably against anything except a gun." I pause, tilting my head as I consider. "Maybe even against someone with a gun who wasn't very good at using it . . . say, like someone who just waves it around for effect like in the movies."

He nods but then grins. "I'm not going to give up."

"I believe that's a threat that you're going to insinuate yourself into my life so that you can continue to hound me on the subject, Officer," I say with mock indignation.

He just smiles and takes another bite of pizza.

I raise an eyebrow. "That's stalking, you know."

He shakes his head as he finishes chewing and swallowing the pizza. "No. See, I'm telling you about it beforehand, and also, I'm not creepy. Stalkers need to be creepy. It's in their rulebook."

"Riight . . ." I say. "Stalkers have a rulebook?" I ask, highly skeptical.

"Oh, I'm sure they must," he replies. "They're pretty predictable sorts of creeps."

I nod slowly. "Uh-huh. Okay then. How about a subject change? How's Denise?"

He laughs. He's got a nice laugh. "She's fine. Tonight is her mom's birthday, so they're all going to dinner at some fancy place." He looks around the pizza parlor. "Probably not as fancy as this, but chose."

I grin at him. "Well, tell her I miss her. And I miss your comedy acts."

"Comedy?" He looks aghast, proving again that he has some acting ability. "We are very serious professionals, I'll have you know."

And so it goes. Somehow, Pablo does manage to insinuate himself into my life, and by the end of the school year, I realize that he's become a friend.

Summer in Flagstaff is just a little more hectic than usual, in an excellent way. Dad, Aunt Sonia, and Uncle Junior are planning a surprise birthday party for Tita's seventy-fifth birthday, and Mama is cooking and baking up a storm. I'm pretty sure Tita knows what's happening, but she'll pretend to be surprised because it'll make everyone happy. It's fun to have the cousin-twins reunited, too. Henry and I are only a few months apart in age; Justin and Charlie are only a few months apart in age. We like to have fun driving our parents crazy by switching families. This year, it's my turn to stay with Uncle Junior and Aunt Alicia in Yah-ta-hey while Charlie stays with Mama and Dad in Flagstaff. Every day the two brothers have the same conversation . . . the same one they've been having since I got back to the States and learned about the whole cousin-twin thing.

"This is your fault, Nelson," Uncle Junior says.

Dad shakes his head and replies, "It's your son whose guardian Spirit is Coyote, Junior."

"But Andrea is older than Henry, and Justin is older than Charlie."

"Now, you can't blame Andrea. She wasn't even here when the idea was cooked up."

"But it was Justin's idea."

"That's not the story I hear. Henry put the two of them up to it."

We love watching them pretend to bicker as much as they love watching us have so much fun.

And Tommy even gets a day pass to visit for Tita's birthday! Well, Ha'atathli Ravenclaw gave him the whole weekend off from his studies, but Henry starts calling it a day pass, and that pretty much sticks.

Little Raven! It's so good to see you again!

I giggle as I rub the base of my skull. "Tommy, you know that tickles."

"Why do you think I do it, cousin?" he asks as he hugs me in greeting. "Our Coyote spirit cousin can't have all the fun, can he?"

"Well, he certainly does try!"

"So, has the great Warrior decided to take up her staff yet?"

I roll my eyes at him. "No. The poor college student is trying to read at least two books a week because she went and majored in English Literature," I say, chuckling.

You'll know when the time is right.

"Tommy!" I scratch the back of my head; he laughs.

"Hey, how will I get any better at it if I don't practice?"

"I think you should practice on my cousin-twin."

"Are you kidding? That one knows every practical joke ever played in the history of humankind and is making up new ones. You want me to poke that hornet's nest?"

I grin at him. "If it keeps you from making the inside of my head itch, yes!"

He laughs and hugs me again. "Don't worry, cousin warrior. Talia said she'd be happy to work with me until she graduates from high school and goes off to nursing school."

"Oh, she's decided that's what she wants to do?"

Tommy shrugs. "With Talia, it's hard to tell if it's what she wants to do or what she's meant to do."

"There's a difference?"

He looks at me for a moment . . . Though his face shows no emotions, his aura reflects surprise. "Perhaps not, wise one. Perhaps not."

The summer seems to fly by. One moment I'm arriving at the airport; the next, I'm leaving again.

But Deb had heard through the grapevine that if students request specific roommates, the Office of Student Housing tries to match them up. So, when we put in our applications for housing in the Spring, we'd all requested the other two as roommates . . . and it worked! So, going back to Denver means going back to actual friends!

Since we'd also volunteered to help on Freshman Move-In Day, we arrive a week earlier than the rest of the upperclassmen for orientation. It's pretty much all common-sense stuff, but the Office of Student Housing is thorough, if nothing else.

We're unpacking, catching up on what the others had done over the summer, laughing up a storm, when we hear a familiar voice from the doorway. "You know, with the amount of noise coming from this room, I could give all three of you citations for violating the City's notice ordinance."

We all recognize that voice.

"Hey, Pablo! Wanna hear a physics joke?"

"Deb, the last time you told me a physics joke, I was catatonic for two days, then my head started spinning around, and I puked up green pea soup. Do you think it's wise to tell an officer of the law a physics joke?" he asks, grinning from ear to ear.

"Oh, man! I'm sorry!" she says, trying to hold back the giggles. "If I'd known, I could have sent you back in time to before I told you the joke, so you'd have been able to tell me not to tell you the joke."

"Well, you'll know better next time you find an unsuspecting officer of the law," He says, nodding safely. "It's a good thing it happened on a Friday, and I had the whole weekend to recover. I'm not sure my lieutenant would be too happy with green pea soup all over the station."

"Yeah, but the head spinning around thing would be really cool to scare suspects into confessing to every crime they'd ever committed or thought about committing," I say, trying very hard to keep a straight face.

"Oh, but wouldn't that be considered cruel and unusual punishment?" asked Clara, ultimately losing the battle to keep a straight face.

Pablo shakes his head and sighs. "How did the three loopiest women at the University of Denver manage a second year together? Isn't that going to make the universe implode or something?"

"Ooh, an imploding universe!" Deb says, eyes wide and awe in her voice.

Clara nudges her. "Th three of us?" She points to each of us. "We'd make the universe explode, not implode."

"Oh, yeah," Deb says, saddened. "Bummer."

"So . . . I should warn the city council of our impending doom?" Pablo asks.

"Nah, let it be a surprise!" Clara says, laughing. "It's more fun that way."

I laugh along with her, and Pablo gives me a somewhat surprised look. "Aren't you supposed to be the stabilizing force in this trio of madness, Andrea?"

I wave away the suggestion. "We haven't drawn strays yet to see who gets to be the sane one this year. We have a whole week still."

"Yeah, I was wondering about that. I saw the Physics Mobile out in the lot and came in to find out why it was here so early."

Deb's car is a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. No one actually knows what color it is, though the registration papers claim it's yellow. Every possible area of the car to which a bumper sticker — or any type of sticker, for that matter — could be attached is, indeed, covered by some sort of sticker. Some of them are physics-related. However, the majority are not. Everyone Deb has known since she bought the car back in high school has been giving her stickers to layer over other stickers that have gotten worn or are just plain dull. I've bought a couple back from Flagstaff for her. Last year, Stan, the outgoing present of the GSA, gave her three distinct rainbow stickers, which she promptly and prominently attached to the Physics Mobile.

"We're helping out with Freshman Move-In. We needed to be orientated," I say, still giggling.

He shakes his head. "I already have sympathy for the incoming freshmen."

"Hey now, most of the other volunteers are boring," Deb says, growing. "We can't let freshmen think DU is a boring place!"

"It would make my job easier if it were," he replied dryly, smiling his crooked smile.

"But then you'd be bored, too!" Clara points out.

"With more time to visit the three loopiest women on campus," he notes. "Logic. That one . . ." He points at me. ". . . told me something about this logic thing the first time Denise and I stopped by for a visit."

"Oh. Yeah, he's right," Deb says. "If he's bored, then we have our very own Officer Friendly at our beck and call."

Clara nods. "Okay, I can see where that might be useful."

Pablo looks between the two of them, then facepalms. "Andrea? Is there any chance you'll be the voice of reason here?"

"Hmm . . " I look from Deb to Clara a time or two and then at Pablo, a sly and calculating look on my face. "I don't know. What's in it for me?"

His aura flares . . . oddly. I'm not sure what to make of it, and now isn't the time to figure it out. But as suddenly as it flared, his aura returns to normal. With his hand still over his face, he peeks between two fings with one eye. "One free meal a week until graduation?"

My eyes grow wide, and I smile happily. "Deal!"

I turn to my roommates. "Guess we'll have to give poor Pablo a break today."

Deb and Clara exchange glances, then nod and turn to me.

"Okay," Clara says, "but you have to give him a hard time at least every other week."

"Pshah!" I roll my eyes. "Like that's a problem!"

"And report back to us, so we have something to tease him about," Deb added.

"Well, duh."

"Uh . . . hello? Does anyone see me standing here?" Pablo pretends to whine, playing this scene for all it's worth.

Deb looks him up and down. "Uh-huh. Sure do, sugar. And you're lookin' mighty fine."

He actually blushes! Oh, he's so incredibly sweet! He looks at me. "Help?"

I laugh, reach over to lightly tap Deb on the arm, point to Pablo, and say, "Friend Zone."

She laughs. "I know. But I just had to tease, you know. And he left himself open for that one."

I nod. "True. He did." I look at Pablo. "You really did. But I'll save you from future torture if you have time to provide that first free meal."

"Yes! Yes, all the time in the world! YOu three are more than I can handle today." He gives us all an exemplary steely-eyed cop glare. "But I'll be ready for you next week. I'll get my booster hosts against whatever you three have going on."

We all laugh as I grab my purse, and the two of us go in search of food.

The rest of the term and the following one are filled with hard work, lots of studying, volunteer work . . . but we manage to have a lot of fun, too. True to his word, Pablo feeds me a meal each week, a real blessing for a college student. Three of our times, he even insists that Deb and Clara join us. The only genuinely monumental thing that happened between that hilarious day in our dorm room and graduation nine months later is Pablo's promotion to detective. Needless to say, we gather together as many of the DU students that we can find for whom he and Denise have been guardian angels over the years and throw him one hell of a party . . . with a lot of help from Denise, of course.

He's beyond surprised by the number of people who show up. I don't think he or Denise ever really noticed just how many lives they've touched in such a positive way. I feel honored, blessed, and joyful to count Pablo and Denise among my friends. About mid-way through the evening, I stand off to the side, watching people gather around Pablo, congratulating him. Denise comes up to stand beside me. "I'm really proud of him," I tell her. "And don't worry . . . we'll throw you an even bigger party when you make detective. I'm betting it's going to be within a year."

She puts an arm around my waist and hugs me. "He's gonna be a great detective, you mark my words. And girl, a year? Pshah! I intend to be on the next roll-up come July!"

I look at her and grin. "Huge party, Denise. It'll be a huge party!"

On graduation day, as I walk across the stage to accept my diploma, my one wish is that the two of them could be here with me and my family to share everything graduation means to me and for me. Because if it hadn't been for them, I might not be walking across this stage today. But they serve and protect the citizens of Denver, and I understand that.

This summer, I'm staying in Denver longer than in previous years. I'll be starting graduate school in the fall . . . Yes, in the Library and Information Science program at DU. But grad students need to find their own housing, so I'll be doing that. And, well, I really want to march with the GSA contingent in the Pride Parade this year.

Deb's going to MIT for her graduate studies. I'm going to miss her like crazy! Clara is taking a year off to travel around Eastern Europe before heading to the University of Illinois at Urbana for her graduate studies in ethnomusicology. I'm going to miss her so much! I have other friends in Denver now, of course. But Deb and Clara will always be special because they were the first really good friends I made here.

And I still have Pablo and Denise. Pablo, for whatever reason, decides that we'll continue our weekly meals because he claims graduate students are as poverty-stricken as undergrads and need to eat just as much . . . possibly even more. It's much easier to go along with his schemes than argue about them. Besides . . . I do enjoy his company.

The Parade and subsequent Festival in Cheesman Park are a blast! I have so much fun. There are, of course, the usual hecklers and a couple of busloads of . . . unpleasant people from some of the mega-churches down in Colorado Springs. Pablo and Denise are working today in civilian clothes, trying to be part of the crowd, though I don't see either of them all day. But the hecklers and the . . . unpleasant people don't mar the day for Denver's LGBT community. The energy all along the parade route and in the park later is so positive, so energizing that I almost feel like . . . like these people are my tribe. I find that amusing.

I plan to head back to Flagstaff the following weekend; my housing arrangements should be set by then. But Fate . . . or the Spirits . . . or just a mob of ignorant, angry assholes change my plans.

On Thursday, as I sit in the University Library, there's a mob gathering outside the Convention Center. The first I know of it are the whispers of students taking summer classes. I have no idea that Denise is working down there today with her new partner.

The whispers become more frequent; then they become hushed tones filled with fear. I only remember hearing, "They say the mob beat some woman, an Unfort."

No long after that — thirty minutes? An hour? — my cell phone vibrates. It's Pablo. "Hey, Pablo," I say quietly. After all, phones and libraries are not compatible.

"Get down to University Hospital right away. I'll meet you in the ER." His voice is stony, harsher than I've ever heard from him, and saturated with pain. He hangs up on me.

I blink, paralyzed and confused. But training . . . I'm a Master, a Kudan, a warrior . . . takes over. The warrior within stirs. Does Pablo even guess what he's triggered?

I need to rely on public transportation, but it's only two buses: one to take me out to Colorado Boulevard and one to take me up to Colfax Avenue. Still, despite the synchronicity of the bus schedules, it seems to take forever to get to the hospital.

I make my way to the Emergency Department to find not only Pablo waiting for me but Denise's entire family and several of her closest friends. I'm filled with dread. My eyes lock onto Pablo's, and I can feel the warrior stirring.

I recall Tommy's words from last summer: You'll know when the time is right.

"Talk to me, Pablo," I say softly as I step to his side.

For long, long minutes, he doesn't speak. And then, instead of saying anything, he wraps his arms around me, buries his face in my heck, and simply sobs. I hold him, but I don't have any words. I don't know what happened, and I don't understand why we're all here, but I know he's in terrible pain. Instead of saying anything, I hum the song Mama sang to me when I was suffering through the onset of my Curse. It never stopped the pain; it never diminished it one iota . . . but it anchored me. I hope it can do the same for Pablo. Mama had held my hand throughout that horrific ordeal and set cool cloths on my forehead; I stroke Pablo's back. It's a small thing, but maybe it's enough to help. And if it doesn't help diminish his pain, it may anchor him in the here and now.

One of Denise's friends come over — Julie? No, Juliet — and I look at her, my eyes pleading for some sort of information.

"Denise was at the Convention Center this morning," she said. "She was . . ."

Then the whispers from the library . . . a woman, an Unfort, was beaten . . .

"Why?" It's a whisper but an agonized one.

Juliet, like Pablo, is finding it hard to speak.

"They thought she was an Unfortunate," he whispers against my neck.

"But why?" I cry, my own tears flowing freely now. "She's not . . ."

I'm the one who isn't normal; I'm the one with a weird genetic mutation. Denise isn't! If anyone is going to get beaten for not being normal, it should be me!

Juliet only shakes her head, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. She presses a large stack of tissues into my hand. "Take care of him," she mouths. "She's his best friend."

Juliet walks back to rejoin the group of Denise's friends, and I look over at her family. Her mother . . . her mother's aura is so fragile; the woman is in so much pain that I think she's actually in shock. Denise's father looks like he might shatter into thousands of pieces. Her sisters, her brother . . . brother-in-law and niece . . . they all look so confused.

"She's in surgery," Pablo whispers. I'm not sure I'd have heard him if I didn't have hyperacute hearing.

I guide him to one of the benches scattered around the waiting room and get him to sit down, but his grip on me tightens even more once we're seated. I use the tissues Juliet gave me to wipe my tears and get Pablo to at least blow his nose. Though, at a time like this, I really don't care about snot on my shirt. I just figure he might like to breathe a little easier.

It's at least another couple of hours before a doctor comes out to speak with Denise's family. I hear her saying there was extensive brain trauma and that it could be weeks before they know if Denise will ever wake up. Her mother wails in pain; the pain reverberates around the waiting room, jabbing and prodding the warrior away.

The problem, o warrior, is that we're not here to administer retribution but to protect people. While not satisfied, the warrior at least agrees. However, the fact that no one saved Denise gnaws at me.

I sit there holding my friend, knowing his best friend lies upstairs, bargaining with Death. Long after Denise's friends are going, long after her family is gone, I'm still here . . . holding my friend.

"Pablo . . . let me take you home."

He doesn't answer for a long time. But finally, he sits up straighter, takes a tissue from my hand, dries his red eyes, and blows his nose. Then he pulls his keys from a pocket and hands them to me. "I can't drive now."

I nod. I understand. I think I might understand even more than he might know.

His apartment is over on the west side of town. It's not the best neighborhood, but I can see the pride of ownership here. The tiny duplexes are well-maintained, the yards neat, and there are no rusted-out cars without wheels that I've seen on some of my bike rides around Denver. His building is a simple yell brick rectangle: two floors and perhaps eight apartments on each floor. The parking lot out front is gravel.

"Which apartment, Pablo?"

It feels strange for me to be helping him out of the car, but I push the thought aside. With the enormous pain and grief he's still feeling, I can only hope he doesn't realize I'm considerably stronger than I look. I have to help him stand and keep him stead as we walk across the lot to the building's entrance. He points to the top left apartment, and I manage to get the correct keys in the right locks to help him home. Once inside, he seems to . . . to almost melt. It takes enhanced reflexes and increased strength to keep him from hitting the floor. Even then, I barely manage to get him to the sofa.

He collapses, falls over on his side, and just stares at me.


"Yes, Pablo?"

"Don't leave me alone." He takes a deep breath, removes his gun from the shoulder harness, and hands it to me. "I don't trust myself tonight."

"Okay, Pablo."

He closes his eyes. "The safety's on. Just put it in the cabinet over there."

Even though he can't see it, I nod and put the gun where he asked. Then I sit on the floor beside the sofa, put a hand on his shoulder, and say, "Try to sleep, Pablo. I'll be here. I promise."

He doesn't say anything, and his breathing slows and becomes much more even. Just as he's dropping off into sleep, he says, "Thank you, Andrea," in a voice that's not much more than a breath, hardly even a whisper.

"You're welcome, Pablo," I say just as softly.

The next day, I call home to let my family know what's happened and that I'll be staying in Denver longer than expected. They're very understanding. I arrange for an extension of my temporary housing at DU; they, too, are very understanding.

Pablo's captain has given him some leave time, which is good because it takes about four days before Pablo feels like he can trust himself again. To be human. To stay alive. I spend those four days observing him. . . watching his aura, really. I make sure he eats. I threaten to leave if he doesn't take a shower.

And there's no change in Denise's condition.

Weeks pass. Pablo returns to work; I continue my volunteer jobs. We each visit Denise as often as possible, which doesn't seem often enough. But she's in ICU . . . and the list of allowed visitors is, according to the nurses, unusually long. Her family spends most of the visiting hours with her; those of us who are her friends are allowed maybe ten minutes every four or five days.

As Denise had predicted, her name is on the roll for promotion to detective on July 1. I find it a little eerie.

Weeks pass. My tiny apartment is ready, and I move my few belongings into the tiny furnished one-bedroom unit near the campus. Classes start, and I'm glad to have at least some minor distractions.

All this time, the warrior has been rising, demanding a voice, demanding to take her rightful place as protector of those who need protection. It's getting harder and harder to ignore the warrior, and it's nearly impossible to tell her no.

And weeks pass.

At each visit, even though I can see that Denise is already gone — her qi dissipated into the flow of the universe — the doctors still can't say that there is no more hope. Until today.

Today, they finally admit what I've known for nearly three months. Denise is gon.

Her family has agreed to let the doctors take her off all the machines keeping her body alive. They as her friends, Pablo first, but all her friends, to sit vigil with them. Oddly, Pablo and I are the only two who come to say that final goodbye . . . except that I'd said my goodbyes the first day I'd been allowed to visit. Her family, each one of them, they're numb. Still in shock . . . once again in shock . . . does it matter which it is?

Pablo's grief is a palpable thing. I could reach out and touch it if I try. I worry.

Once all the machines are gone, breath stops . . . the heart stops . . . and the doctors say what I've known all along.

We all hurt so much.

Later, Pablo and I sit in his car in the hospital's parking garage, silent . . . hurting . . . angry.


It takes him so long to respond that I wonder if I spoke too softly.

"Andrea." His voice is flat, lifeless.

"I need to go to the park. Can you take me there?"

He nods and starts the car. "Which one?"

I shrug. "Doesn't matter. Whichever's closest."

We wind up at City Park . . . a good choice, as it's the largest. I'm silent as I walk to a grove of trees, then turn to look at him.

"You need to let go of the anger, Pablo." I pause. "Hit me."

He looks at me, shocked. "Are you out of your fucking mind, Andrea? I can't hit you!"

I push one of his shoulders . . . not as hard as I can, but as hard as he thinks Andrea can. "Come on. Hit me."

"I will not!"

I push him again. "Oh, yes, you will." And I shove him again.

This time he takes a half-hearted swing at me, which I easily dodge.

"Oh, come on. You can do better than that."

He makes more effort the second time, but not enough to make a difference. I dodge that swing, too.

"You're not even trying, Pablo."

I guess that pushes the right button because he comes charging at me.

We spend the next forty-five minutes dancing a bizarre minuet of aggression and grace. I block every blow and easily evade every charge. Chen Shi Taijiquan Master, Aikido Kudan . . . he never stood a chance. Finally . . . finally, he collapses on the ground, sobbing. I drop down beside him, holding him, rocking him. I can see the dam has broken, and I'm no longer afraid for my friend. I don't have to fear that he'll take his own life.

At least, when he's spent, cried out but healing, I say again, "Pablo?"

He answers more quickly this time, but by no means immediately. "Andrea?"

"I'll take you up on your offer to work for the DPD."

He sits up, staring at me. "You will?"

I nod. "Two conditions."

"And they are . . .?"

"I do it my way."

"Um. If it's possible, okay. The second . . .?"

"Denver Police will pay the premiums for my Supers Insurance."

He just looks at me, long and hard. I can see he has questions . . . but he doesn't want to know the answers. Not now. Not yet.

"I think I know someone who can make that happen."

I nod. The warrior is pleased.

© Kelly Naylor