No More Secrets

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

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

I sit up and sigh. I've never lived near birds that got so darn excited about sunrise. And if they're excited about sunrise, they want everyone to be excited about sunrise! Ah, well. It will give me more time to practice this morning.

I slip into the loose pants and shirt that made up the uniform at Grandmaster Chen's school and pad barefoot into the basement. I'd been delighted by the finished basement when I found the house four years ago; the only significant modification it needed was the removal of the previous owners' carpeting and installation of bamboo flooring. I even built a small closet under the stairs, too. Granted, I had a little help from my dad, but he mainly supervised and kept me company while I worked.

After the usual stretching and qigong warmups, I settle into my taiji forms . . . doing an extra two repetitions thanks to the blue jays.

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

"Bobby, you better be bringing some of those over here when they're out of the oven!" I call over to him. I hear him chuckle and mutter about psychic neighbors before turning to take a quick shower.

When I get out of the shower, I hear someone moving around in my kitchen. The smell of cinnamon wafts through the air, along with the scent of fresh coffee. Bobby is humming a tune from some musical as he putters around in my kitchen. I dress quickly as he's found my hazelnut coffee stash. If I don't hurry, he'll drink the whole pot. It's a small price to pay for freshly baked cinnamon rolls, I suppose. Still . . . hazelnut is my favorite, too.

"So, you're the musical baker now, are you?" I tease as I walk into the kitchen and pour coffee into my favorite mug. "Has that boyfriend of yours finally talked you into joining the chorus?" In the past six months, David has been relentless in his efforts to get Bobby to join Harmony. While I approve — after all, Bobby has a fantastic tenor voice — David's been hinting that I'm his next target. It's one thing to joke with Pablo about joining the chorus. It's another thing altogether to be able to make the time commitment. Something as simple as work would interfere with their Monday evening rehearsals; if the simple things are going to interfere, the not-at-all-simple stuff will get in the way even faster. Plus, Pablo would never stop teasing me about it. Ever.

I take a sip of coffee and breathe in the scent of the cinnamon rolls. Bobby's standing by the stove, reheating the rolls just enough to make the icing perfectly melted again. No microwaves for my best friend! Sometimes, a hypersensitive sense of smell isn't a burden.

"Come on . . . sit down and tell me how you and Mr. Wonderful have been doing," I say. I grin at him as I set the coffee mug down and slide onto the bench of the breakfast nook. "I haven't seen you two in . . . what? A whole week?"

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

"Agh! TMI! TMI!" Good gods, the last thing I need to hear about is someone else's bedroom exploits . . . especially when my bedroom exploits don't even include erotic dreams. Sure, I'm jealous. A little.

He pours his own coffee and sits down across from me in the nook. "We're doing just fine. I have the day off from the bakery today, so I'm going to whip up a special dinner for the two of us tonight," he says before taking a sip of coffee. "What about you? Did you have your Wednesday dinner with that dreamy detective friend of yours last week?"

Dreamy? I laugh. It's not a term I'd use. But, on the other hand, I probably wouldn't use dreamy to describe Michael Shanks or whoever it is that plays the totally hot werewolf on True Blood, either.

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

No matter how much I've tried to tell everyone, no one believes that Pablo and I are just friends. I've stopped trying to explain. At least it keeps people from trying to set me up on dates with an old college friend, a brother, a cousin, or the nice homeless man in their neighborhood.

Okay, that last one hasn't happened. Yet.

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

"Well, let's see," I say, chuckling. I know where this is going, and I'll have fun on the journey. "I bought the house four years ago, come September 12. And I believe it might have taken an entire week before I beat down your door for cinnamon rolls, and you broke in to steal my hazelnut coffee."

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

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

"Is there such a thing as being an over-sharer with someone you love?" Bobby asks, looking over the rim of his bug. "You've been seeing Pablo for a while now, but I know it's not romantic . . . at least not seriously so." He raises an eyebrow.

I don't need to be telepathic to know what he's thinking; I just need to know Bobby. He desperately wants to ask: If you aren't with him for a relationship, why are you seeing him?

I raise an eyebrow as well. "And your point is?"

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

I set down my fork and prop my elbows on the table, resting my chin in my hands, and smile at him. "You know, Bobby, you come over here, or I wander over to your kitchen for breakfast or lunch or munchies far more often than Pablo and I go to dinner. You and I don't go out that much because your kitchen is better than most restaurants around here." I shake my head as I lean back. "But yes, dear . . . everything is good. I'm definitely okay."

I pick up my mug and take another sip of coffee. "I like Pablo. He's as good a friend to me as you are. And I've known him a lot longer."

He sighs softly and reaches over to take my hand, so I set down the mug and let him hold one hand in both of his. "Andrea, I love you like a sister, more than the family that disowned me. That's why it hurts to see you so lonely. Life is about taking a chance! Life is so short, so fragile. And to lose the chance of finding love or even just finding someone who can hold you in the night and keep the darkness at bay? That's a risk we have to take," he says softly.

We've had this conversation often enough that I know nothing I can say will dissuade him from his self-appointed course. "Bobby, I'm not lonely. Seriously, dear, you need to look up the word in a dictionary. I really, really don't feel lonely!" I sigh and hold his hand. I'm sure he just wants me to be as happy as he and David are. "I understand what you're saying, Bobby. Right now, I don't feel like it's the right time to be taking a risk like that . . . or that I even need to. Sure, someday, absolutely. And who knows? Maybe when that someday rolls around, Pablo will be the right guy for me."

I grin at him, attempting to lighten his much too-serious mood. "After all, most guys are put off by the fact that I'm the highest possible rank in two martial arts. I'm intimidating! I even had to register with the County when I moved here because I'm a deadly weapon or some such nonsense." I shrug. "If something is meant to happen — with Pablo or anyone else — it'll happen when the time is right. Pushing at it just feels . . . wrong, you know? So, please don't worry about me, Bobby, or you'll get wrinkles on that pretty face of yours."

He squeezes my hand. "It must be hard for you, Andrea. You missed out on all that exploration and learning time while growing up in whatever country you were in. I just want you to know you can talk to me about anything, anytime. I'll be here to support you. Okay?"

"I know, Bobby. I can always count on you." I grin again and reach over to pat his cheek. "I'm not a vestal virgin, you know. I just haven't been very good at the whole relationship thing. But I've got good role models, so I'm not worried. When I know, absolutely and without a doubt, who the right person is for me, I promise I won't let him go. Deal?"

"That's good enough for me, chérie. Whoever he is can have your body, heart, mind, and soul . . . but I get your hazelnut coffee!" he says, laughing and squeezing my hand again before releasing it. He seems relieved now that the serious talk is over for today, though how long it'll be before he thinks he needs to have another is anyone's guess.

"Well, it seems like my coffee is your coffee, at least unless I change my locks or buy a scary dog," I say with a chuckle. "I suppose I should start buying in bulk."

He waves away the nonsensical notion of me barring him from my kitchen. "So, I was thinking of having a Luau-themed dinner party next weekend. Can you make it? You can even bring your non-boyfriend guy friend if you like."

I look at him suspiciously. His themed parties generally tend to be an excuse — or an opportunity, depending on one's point of view — to celebrate Halloween multiple times a year. "Yes . . ." I say hesitantly. "I have next weekend off. But all you'll get me to wear is a lei and maybe a Hawaiian shirt."

He raises his eyebrows. "Really? That's quite daring. Just a Hawaiian shirt and a lei? Kind of drafty there," he says, looking toward my lap and laughing, waggling his eyebrows.

I should be used to his teasing by now. "Robert Jeffrey Tompkins, you are a brat!" I laugh, then finish my coffee. "Now, I have to toss you out and get myself to work. Busy day, busy day! We're getting in the W. D. Howells collection today!"

"Okay, dear, I'll see you later then. Be good and have fun at dinner tonight!" Bobby says, leaning over and kissing my cheek before leaving. Of course, he also refills his mug with my coffee. Well, he does leave the remainder of the cinnamon rolls for me. That's his idea of an even trade. Maybe it is.

"I'm always good!" I call as he walks back out the door. Oh, well. I probably don't need more caffeine in my system today, anyway. Not that it does much for me, even on ordinary days.

I get up and start clearing the table and counter. It's going to be an exciting day for all of us, and I plan to take an earlier bus and probably have Pablo pick me up at the library. To ordinary folks, it's just old paper and old books. But to us, to librarians, it's a treasure trove. I'm so excited that I have to consciously not move too fast. Most days, I love my job. On days like today, I absolutely adore my job!

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

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

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

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

Yet it's the exact version of the poem published in his collection, the version well-known to anyone who's ever read Howells.

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

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

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

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

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

Today, I'm only scheduled to work until 6:00 p.m. But even though I know Pablo is waiting out front — in the no standing-stopping-parking zone, of course — I'm reluctant to leave. So much history is still in the workroom! The eight of us haven't even made it through half the collection today. The others will work until 9:00 p.m., perhaps even beyond. Of course, the ones who work tomorrow will probably regret the long day today. They only have adrenaline and caffeine to keep them going. At least I have my taiji to revitalize my body, mind, and spirit.

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

He looks over at me as I slide into the seat and smiles, his eyes crinkling. Bits of gray are starting to work their way into his short beard, but his eyes still twinkle like a boy's. True, a boy who's seen too much horror, of course, but they're still younger-looking than his years would suggest.

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

"Sounds good. We haven't had Hungarian in a while."

I buckle my seat belt and wait until he's pulled out into traffic. Leaning my head back against the headrest, I take a moment to completely relax. It's been a fantastic day, but it seems like I haven't stopped moving from when the delivery truck arrived to when I got into Pablo's car.

"Hey, are you sure you're up for dinner out?" he asks, a note of concern in his voice. "We could just grab a pizza and eat at your kitchen table. It looks like work was tough today."

He seems to have mistaken my relaxation for the fatigue of a long day. Ah, any other day that might have been true!

"No, no! Today was great!" I sit up straighter and twist a bit in the seat to look at him. "We got the Howells collection in, and it's simply amazing! This is just the first downtime I've had since eight this morning. I'm fine, really."

I untwist myself in my seat and sigh. "I got another talking-to from Bobby this morning," I say. "I appear to be lonely and possibly unhappy. And he's having a luau-themed dinner party next weekend, to which Detective Dreamy, my not-boyfriend, is also invited."

He raises his eyebrows and chuckles as he glances over at me. "Detective Dreamy? Please tell me that's your description for me and not his," he says, lips quirking up into a grin.

I try to look sad, but I'm pretty sure it comes off more as a smirk. "I'm sorry, Pablito, but 'dreamy' is Bobby's term, not mine. I'd never describe anyone as dreamy. Maybe ruggedly handsome, but definitely not dreamy." I'm not quite able to suppress my sudden fit of giggles.

He laughs and nods. "I can live with that as long as you're the one calling me ruggedly handsome. A man has to have some positive feedback, too, you know," he says with a grin as he turns onto Pearl Street toward the restaurant. "And no giggling at me, woman!" he adds, giving me what passes for a stink eye.

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

"And your stink eye doesn't care me, Detective. So, I'll just giggle all I want." This time, however, I laugh instead.

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

The interior is clean and small, with white linen tablecloths and napkins. We're shown to a two-person table near the windows and given menus. Pabo holds my chair for me as a proper gentleman would.

"I don't know about you, but I'm getting the beef goulash," he confesses as he sits across from me.

"I'm simply shocked, Pablo. Really? The beef goulash?" I try . . . I really try to look surprised and shocked. Either I'm a terrible actress or today is a day for levity because I just grin. "Pablo, have you ever had anything here that wasn't the beef goulash?"

"Hey! I had the schnitzel one time. What can I say? I'm a caveman, and I like my meat."

I give him a sidelong look. "That must have been so long ago that I don't remember. And any man who holds the door open or a chair out for a woman isn't a caveman. A caveman would try to hit me over the head with a tree branch."

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

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

"Oh, like you'd ever hit anyone other than a criminal with anything!" I chuckle and shake my head. "As you know, they're taiji and Aikido hands, Mr. Smarty Pants. And watch out with the kicking, my friend . . . my feet are deadly weapons, too." I snicker. "As for an army? You wouldn't need one. Just send Captain Sanchez down. I still think he's intimidating, no matter what you say . . . especially when he's being nice."

Pablo rolls his eyes and chuckles. "So, what are you going to get?"

I look down at the menu. Ah, decisions, decisions. I've tried almost everything on the menu, and it's all excellent. "I'm torn between the Chicken Paprikash and Ratatouille . . . so, I think I'll go with the compromise of Grilled Chicken Breast Ratatouille."

"And yet, you'll lean over and steal some of my much-maligned beef goulash," he says, spreading butter on some hot bread.

"Yep, add food thief to my list of offenses when you send your captain over to arrest me," I say, cutting a piece of bread for myself.

"So, you were very busy in a geeky way today?" he asks. "This guy is pretty important? Valuable stuff? I need to know if there's an increased risk of theft at the library."

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

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

He looks over at me, cocking his head to the side. "Don't you guys have those magnetic strip things on all your books to prevent someone from walking out with them?" he asks.

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

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

"But what's to stop someone from checking out an armful of books at DPL, then driving up to Boulder and doing the same thing, you might ask? Nothing. Not yet, anyway."

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

Then I chuckle. "And you probably thought I just communed with dusty old books all day! There's a good reason I minored in Computer Science at DU."

"I've learned never to underestimate you, Andrea. As the saying goes, you're not just another pretty face," he says with a smile. "But the real question is why someone would bother. There can't be that much money in bestsellers to make that much work worthwhile. Now, first editions and such? That I could understand. Some of those can go for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars." He shrugs. "Oh, well, if you ever need my help or support at the library, you just have to call. I'm always here for you."

He pauses, looking ever so slightly embarrassed, and sips his water to clear his throat.

I'm pretty sure Pablo doesn't mean overdue library books, though I appreciate his offer. But I'm not going there.

"Well, let's hope I never need your help at the library! How awful would it be to find a dead body there?" I shake my head. "It's really just petty theft, Pablo. All libraries run into the problem, and all librarians learn to accept it, even though we hate it. Sure, the total amount of money in 'lost' books for the year could well run into the thousands, and even more for the larger systems. But it's always just a book or two here, a book or two there, five or ten dollars at a time, at most maybe fifty. There isn't much anyone can do about it, really."

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

"No, thanks. I think I'll just stick with water tonight."

"Water it is for both of us, then," he tells the waitress, tearing the crust from his bread and eating that before dipping the remainder in his goulash.

I watch him with his bread ritual; it always seems to relax him and gives a glow of sentimentality to his aura. If I had to guess, I'd probably say that his mother's kitchen was a lot like my mother's when he was a kid: something was always baking or cooking, filling the home with wonderful aromas.

"So, Bobby's planning another of his theme parties, huh? Are you going to dress up for this one?" he asks. "I remember you complaining about his parties and how they were all just excuses to play dress-up and spend money. You seemed quite adamant last time that you weren't going to play Halloween dress-up again," he says with a chuckle.

I groan. "Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. I think Halloween is lovely, as long as it comes once a year. I told him I'd wear a lei. Possibly a Hawaiian shirt. I think I still have that one I bought back in college. And that . . . that . . . that brat misconstrued that to mean I wouldn't be wearing anything else. I love that man like my own brother, but sometimes I want to bop him over the head with a frying pan!"

I shake my head and sigh before taking another bite of chicken.

Pablo can't keep from laughing, but I can also tell he's got other thoughts going through his mind, especially about not wearing anything other than a shirt and a flowery necklace. It's hard — nigh unto impossible, really — to block out the stronger emotions of my closest friends; that's just how my Curse works. I can see that stuff in people's auras. Now, I know he wants to take our relationship to another level, though whether he's even admitted that to himself is anyone's guess. But he's never said a single word. And I've never indicated any interest in taking our relationship beyond the platonic, so he's always the perfect gentleman. It's much easier when things are left unspoken. Okay, fine . . . it's much easier for me.

"That definitely sounds like the Bobby we all know and love," he says. Then he pretends to wipe his forehead. "It's a good thing that I never annoy you, what with me being within arms' reach so many times."

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

Oh, wait. Yeah, that isn't entirely true, is it? My smile fades then as I pick up my glass of water. "Not anyone who wasn't trying to kill me, anyway," I say very, very softly.

He catches the change in my tone and the slightly physical tick because he's very good at his job. But he simply sits quietly, waiting. It's not hard for him to put two and two together to conclude that something must have happened to me at some point, something terrible enough that I had to kill someone in self-defense. But what he doesn't really understand, though, is that it was all in a day's work, so to speak.

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

Crap. Me and my big mouth. I catch my lower lip in my teeth as he rests his hand on top of mine; I let it rest there as I look him in the eyes for a moment . . . or a minute . . . or . . . who knows?

"Maybe." It's all I can say. I know he believes he understands, and maybe he could get most of the way to understanding the effect killing someone has on me. But . . . no. I don't think he could make that last leap over the chasm that separates me from the rest of . . . What? The rest of humanity? No, I guess just from so-called normal people. But he tries, and I can't fault him for that. And maybe . . . perhaps almost, nearly getting there . . . maybe that's good enough, right?

I smile, although I suspect I probably look a little pathetic at the moment. "Hey, we shouldn't be so serious, huh?" I say, trying to lighten the mood. One of these days . . . Ah, yes, one of these days, Pablo is going to start asking questions that are going to be very hard to answer. But this isn't the time or the place, that's for sure.

He just nods when I change the subject, his eyes full of understanding. That much, at least, he completely groks: I don't want to talk about it anymore.

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

There. My smile is back to normal again. And Pablo obliges by returning the smile.

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

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

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

"Yep, that's me! It's all about the generosity." I laugh. "Hey, it's the same deal as always: you sleep on my sofa and keep Bobby from stealing my hazelnut coffee for a day." I go back to cutting more chicken.

"Oh, I have tickets for the Rockies game on Sunday," he says a few minutes later. "You interested in going?" he asks, a forkful of goulash halfway to his mouth.

"Heck, yeah, I'd love to go to a Rockies game!" Then I pause. "Wait . . . they're playing the Cubs in this series, aren't they? Aaaaandd . . . it's after the All-Star break, so the Cubs will be on their downward slide toward the cellar — if they aren't already there, the poor things." I shrug and spear another piece of chicken on my fork. "Should be fun anyway, especially with all the Cubs fans who've moved to Denver in the past twenty years." I chew on the food while considering. "Well, for rather naughty and wicked values of fun, anyway," I conclude.

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

I tilt my head to the side and regard him for a moment, my expression indicating that I'm beginning to worry about his sanity. "Okay, you realize that even though we're playing the Cubs, who, by their own fans' admissions, are losers — albeit loveable ones — it still takes an hour to get through downtown to Coors Field from my house on game days, right? Ooh! Unless you'll borrow a squad car and speed through town with lights flashing! That would be so cool!"

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

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

I drink another sip of water, eyeing him over the glass rim. "Although I do a fairly good job pretending to be a lady while I'm at work because Mrs. Kumata expects it," I say, putting the glass down.

He shakes his head, then gestures to his plate with his spoon. "Did you want some of this before I devour it all?"

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

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

He takes another spoonful of his meal, chewing it well. His eyes grow more thoughtful as he wipes his mouth. "And you're wrong, Andrea," he says quietly, looking over at me. "I've known many women over the years, and you're definitely a lady. Don't ever think that you aren't."

Sometimes, he's simply infuriating, but what can I do? In this case, I just roll my eyes and sigh. 'Lady' implies a certain level of, well, propriety that I don't really possess, though I can fake it reasonably well. After all, my mother taught me to have impeccable manners when I need to use them. Beyond that, though, it's a level of propriety I don't aspire to. I'm pretty sure there's a manual for 'ladies' somewhere that says you don't go smacking bad people over the head with a big stick or kicking them across the room. Yep. Pretty darn sure.

"You're a very stubborn man, my friend. So, I'm not going to argue with you." I smile sweetly. "I'm just not going to agree with you. However, I'm probably a better actress than I thought since I clearly have you bamboozled. Justin would be so proud of me!"

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

Pablo grins back at me. "Of course, I'm stubborn. It's one of the job requirements to be a detective," he says, sitting back and sighing as he puts his utensils on his plate. "That was excellent. You get to choose our next dining place, of course. Just not the curry place, okay? You remember what it did to my digestion the last time." He makes a face that would give most people the impression he's in pain.

"Oh, dear gods, do I ever remember! No, no . . . from now on, I'll just have curry with my coworkers." I give him a sidelong glance. "And we've gone through an entire meal without a mention of anything related to your job. That's either an excellent thing — my personal preference, by the way — or an awful thing, and you're going to dump it all on me as we walk to your car. Pray tell, which will it be today?"

He chuckles. "No, things are fairly quiet at the moment, and I thought we deserved to have a nice dinner without talking about crime for a change, the discussion of book theft notwithstanding. I haven't heard how your folks are doing in a while. How are they?"

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

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

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

As she walks away, I lean back in my chair and smile. "Ah, the family. My folks are doing well, although Dad refuses to completely retire. Says it keeps him young to work with the youngsters and bleeding-edge technology." I laugh. "He's probably right, too, although the tech he sells and fixes isn't exactly bleeding-edge. Most of it isn't even cutting-edge. Mama's still tutoring the ESL classes and is still the happiest, most upbeat person on the planet. They want me to visit more, of course, but they say they might come up here for Christmas. Apparently, they think the pictures I sent them of the City and County Building all lit up are faked. They want to see this monstrosity — Dad's word — and colorful delight — Mama's term — for themselves. Dad claims they didn't light up the building when he was going to DU." I chuckle. "I know that's not true since the City started the tradition back in the Twenties. Personally, I think he remembers them perfectly well and is simply teasing Mama.

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

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

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

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

"Hey, if there are embarrassing toddler stories out there, even I haven't heard them!" I laugh at that. I vaguely remember a few things from the Nation before we moved to Japan — some good, some frightening, but nothing that might have been considered embarrassing. And my parents are big believers in laughter . . . if there'd been anything even giggle-worthy, it would have come up by now.

"I imagine that we'll get grilled about our intentions toward you," he says, "worrying about you seeing a nice young man or such. Well, at least, I will, seeing as Bobby seems to have found the love of his life. Parents are pretty much the same the world across," he asserts.

I shrug. "I think my parents might surprise you. Like Bobby, they want me to be happy. Unlike Bobby, I think they realize that happiness looks different for everyone and that seeing a nice young man, as you put it, isn't necessarily required for my happiness. Friends are important . . . every bit as important as family."

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

"Friends give us strength when things are tough," Pablo agrees. "But believe me, Andrea, having the love of someone . . . it makes life worth living," he murmurs, looking off somewhere, perhaps into the past. After a moment, he continues, "But it's good that your parents give you the space to find your own way. Just another sign that you have good parents," he says, nodding.

Oh, there's a story there . . . but I won't pry.

"I trust you on that score, Pablo. I look at my parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles . . . I know it's definitely true for them. But . . ."

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

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

He looks at me, roused from his own introspection. "Do you think I should remain single my entire life?" he asks suddenly.

I look up sharply. "No, of course, I don't think you should." That's the honest answer, the easy answer. It just isn't the whole answer. And Pablo deserves the whole answer, doesn't he? "I just think I should."

"Why?" He looks at me for a moment, pausing before his following words. "Because it's too dangerous for anyone to be around you? Bobby and I are already closely connected to you, Andrea. Do you think if someone wanted to hurt you, they'd only pick on a spouse and not a good friend?" he asks, shaking his head.

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

He's hinting far more pointedly than ever about my double life. And I can see evidence of tears in his eyes. He's been speaking more loudly than is typical for him. A few tables away, patrons are turning to see what the fuss is about.

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

Now, it's my turn to reach across the table for his hand. "Don't apologize, Pablo. Don't." This isn't the time or place for this conversation. It absolutely is not. And yet, one thing needs to be said.

"You still carry the pain because of someone you lost," I say softly. "Someone you lost because you're a police officer. If I were a cop, I think I'd agree that you and Bobby might be targets. But I'm not." I'm not going to say that a fair percentage of people would lump me right in with the Unfortunates and call me a monster. "I'm not going to have the rest of this conversation here."

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

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

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

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

I just follow. I don't need to look at his aura to see he's tense. And if I don't take a cleansing breath or two, I'll be that tense, multiplied by some vast number. Fortunately, the walk across the street to his car allows me that time . . . to settle, center, ground, relax. I have nothing more to say, nothing that will do any good or be appropriate at the moment, at any rate. And so I stay quiet. I'm good at it when I want to be; most people find it pretty disconcerting. But not Pablo. He's just as quiet, although his knuckles are white on the steering wheel.

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

I have him pull into my driveway, and for once, I don't bother waiting until he comes around to the car's passenger side. I just want my walls, my things, my sanctuary around me. I see David's car in front of Bobby's house and remember the dinner he'd mentioned this morning. I'm not even going to try imagining the stories the two of them will come up with once they see Pablo's car. Right now, I don't care about that either.

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

I open the door, drop my bag on the floor and keys in the basket on the side table by the door — not their usual places — kick off my shoes, and sit on the sofa. I'm almost huddled there, with my legs pulled up, arms wrapped around them, and my chin resting on my knees.

Pablo follows me into the house, closing the door behind him, watching as I huddle there, almost defense. He sighs and paces through the house, restless energy and dread filling him, his stomach knotting up in tension. What a pair we are!

His pacing . . . pacing . . . nervous pacing makes me less calm, and I don't like this . . . I really don't like feeling this way . . . no, no . . . must stop.

Breathe, damn it! Just . . . breathe.

Okay. It's okay. Keep breathing, Andi. Don't move too fast. Just keep breathing, and stand up . . . but slowly, right? And now, reach out . . . gentle, gentle . . . just a sleeve.

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

He stops his pacing and looks up, his pain-filled eyes meeting mine, just watching.

Deep breath, girl . . . settle down. Damn, I can almost hear Grandmaster Chen. I swear that's all he said to me the first three months I was with him. It was the only thing he ever said to me in English. So, I just stand here, breathing . . . Yes, remember to breathe . . . remember to breathe . . .

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

Holding his sleeve with my index finger and thumb, I give it a tiny tug.

"Come with me."

He nods ever so slightly.

Now, let go of the sleeve, he'll follow, or he'll not follow, move slowly, slowly, slowly, to the basement door, down the stairs, slowly into the dojo. Because if I don't very, very consciously remember to move slowly . . . Well, I'll be going so fast that Pablo will very likely freak out.

He follows me down the stairs, looking around the little dojo, recognizing it for what it is. Naturally, he's been in similar places. He's just never been down here before.

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

Yes, Pablo's seen a dojo before. But I don't think he's ever seen taiji before. Or, if he has, he's never seen taiji performed by a Master. I can feel him watching me as I move through the form.

Once through the form, less than two minutes, that's all I need. Although it would feel so good to run through the long form for an hour, this will suffice. Too many fast movements and too many explosive moves in the longer form. It would settle me, ground me, re-energize me. I'm not sure what it would do to Pablo.

This one small form has captured all his attention.

Finish the form . . . all is well. Well, no, not everything. I'm centered and settled. My friend is not. But . . . I don't know what to do about that. I open my eyes anyway. When I look up, his eyes are filled with awe and wonder.

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

"I . . ."

I'm confused. What's amazing? My practice? But . . . it's just . . . Heck, by five years of age, every child within cart distance of Chenjiagou learns it. Granted, it takes an adult who's finished growing into their body, an adult who trusts their other senses to do the form with their eyes closed. Children just don't have the balance or the coordination yet. I see the look in his eyes, and I'm even more confused. But maybe . . . Well, maybe I'm so used to seeing a whole village from barely-steady toddlers to great-grandparents playing taiji together in the fields. Perhaps it's just . . . familiarity? After all, Ronald McDonald still creeps me out. I don't mind clowns in general . . . but I really don't like that clown.

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

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

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

He nods and takes his shoes off, sitting cross-legged on the pillow in front of me. Then he just looks at me.

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

"I started Aikido when I was five . . . the taiji when I was thirteen." I smile a bit, then shrug. "It seems like my whole life, and I guess it mostly is."

He listens but shakes his head. "No, Andrea, it may be a part of your life, but it's not the whole thing. You have your time at university, your work at the library, your friends like Bobby and me, and your family. It doesn't define you; it just enhances who you are," he says, looking at me with a puzzled expression.

I shake my head and chuckle. He listens, but he doesn't quite hear. "No, no . . . you misunderstand, I think. This . . ." I gesture around the room. "This isn't my whole life; I've merely been doing this for almost as long as I can remember. I've been doing this for nearly my entire life. No, it doesn't define who I am. But it is the foundation on which most everything else is built. Without this . . ."

I look around the virtually bare room, trying to imagine the direction my life might have taken without the focus, disciple, and control I learned in Japan and China.

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

He listens and, more importantly, this time — I think — hears what I mean, what I infer. "Tell me about it. You know that anything you tell me is between us," he says softly, looking into my eyes.

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

I see the black knot constricting the energy flow beneath his aura. I don't know how long it's been there, but long enough, there's a risk of it affecting the physical plain. That would be bad. Really bad. Now, why don't I look more closely at my friends?

Privacy. They deserve that, don't they?

Even at the risk of their health? Even then? That's a question I think I'll continue to struggle with for many years.

"What has you so upset, Pablo?" I return his look; eyes are the windows to the soul, after all. "It's making you sick . . . will make you sick." Maybe he can stop it. I can't. I didn't study the Medicine Way; I can only heal myself. But if there's a chance that I can point to a path . . .?

He sighs softly, shoulders slumping, but I can see the heightened tension still in his posture and the incredible pain. The movement and colors of his aura are all wrong, so contorted tonight . . . so unlike what I'd expect from him.

"It . . . it's just the time of year, Andrea. And our talk. It brought back some old, painful memories. Ones that I don't talk about much," he says softly. "Don't talk about at all anymore."

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

I gently touch the base of his throat with one finger. "Here." Sitting back in meditation, I regard his aura for a moment. "That one isn't too bad . . . now. Not likely to manifest as anything physical . . . at least, not any time soon. But you're having a crisis of faith or are about to have one."

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

I reach over to touch his breastbone at the level of his heart. "Here." I sit back again, knowing I look worried. I look him in the eyes. "Whatever caused that needs to be healed. I'm not sure a cardiologist would find anything wrong, not today, anyway. But your heart is dying. When your heart dies, you die." I'm trying very hard now to hold back tears. Hard news is difficult to give, but even more so when you need to tell that type of news to a friend. "I mean that quite literally."

I take a deep breath to keep the tears at bay. "There are other problems with a blockage there, but they're insignificant once it gets this bad. I think it's time for you to talk, my friend." I don't want to make him speak of what's causing that blockage any more than he wants to talk about it. But he needs to let it go, whatever it is. At this point, he's shivering . . . with fear, I suspect. My mere words seem to be cutting him to his very core.

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

"Talk . . . I . . . I've wanted to talk to you for so long, Andrea . . . say so many things, but I was afraid," he whispers, each word torn from his wounded heart.

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

"Afraid of what, Pablo?" I whisper. Sometimes, you don't need to be a healer. Sometimes, you just need to care, to be willing to walk that mile in hell with the person in pain . . . if you care enough about them . . . even if it burns you, too. Pablo is my friend, and I do care.

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

Ah, how can he think our friendship is so fragile? But if he believes it is, then I have to respect that fear . . . and help him move beyond it. As afraid as I am that I'll need to explain things about myself that I'd rather keep hidden, I need to push that aside and just be in the moment with Pablo.

He sighs quietly, hands gripped in front of him. "I . . . I was married once. I had a child . . . a son."

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

Time . . . stops.

Or maybe it just seems to stop when I stop breathing. I want time to stop because then I won't have to remember all the times I've seen someone in this kind of pain. Little Danny's parents . . . they'd been the first, with the Curse took him. I was so small then. How could I possibly understand? Ah, this is the problem with straddling so many cultures as I do: I never know which God to ask for the strength to do what I'm about to do. But Quan Yin — Bodhisattva to some, Goddess to others — the Lady of Mercy and Compassion seems rather apt at the moment. I whisper a few words to her in the quiet of my mind.

I remember to breathe again, then push my zafu away. Kneeling before him, I slowly wrap my arms around Pablo's shoulders.

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

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

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

Papa Bill says that when he helps a friend do something difficult: I will make the journey with you. Now I understand what he means. And, indeed, Pablo can't hurt me . . . not any more than I already hurt, at any rate.

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

My blouse is growing wet on my shoulder, where his face presses against my neck.

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

It's hard to hold that much pain and sorrow. I know I have the strength, but I'm only human . . . no matter what some might way. I'm strong, and it's still so hard. It's strange, odd, bewildering that Pablo — even in this morass of emotions in which he's nearly drowning — seems to be trying to lend me his strength. But I've never told him just how much strength I have, so . . . So, I gently accept his gift and merely hold him a little tighter. Then I say the only thing that should ever be said in response to something like that . . .

"I'm so sorry, Pablo. Tell me about them?"

Acknowledging his pain and allowing him to remember in a safe space lets him relax enough to speak again. "I met my wife in high school, senior year. She was a junior and so, so smart. What she saw in a kid from the barrio, I'll never understand. We . . . we started dating and . . . mi Dios . . . it was like a match and gasoline. Pure fire. She was smart and funny. She had just the slightest crook in her nose from when her younger brother bashed her nose with the car door."

He relaxes slightly in my arms as he speaks. The throbbing pain pulsing through his aura eases a little.

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

"We got married, got an apartment together on the west side, not so far from where I live now. It was a good life, Andrea. I was happy. Rosalia was a passionate, warm woman, and we were going to have a child . . . my son, Ju . . . Juan."

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

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

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

"They're so beautiful, Pablo."

His face lights up at my words. Even thirteen years after their deaths, he still feels so much pride and love for them. I let his love for them swirl around me. I think I might understand those sappy, goofy looks Mama and Dad always get when they look at the old pictures of Justin and me.

As I pass the photo back to him, I whisper, "What happened?"

The pain is so powerful at the question that it nearly blinds me, and Pablo curls up, arms around his middle.

"Andrea . . ." He leans forward again, his forehead resting on my shoulder. "It . . . they wanted to kill me . . . it was a mistake . . ."

I've only ever seen this level of intense pain when it was fresh and new. But hadn't Pablo said it had been more than a decade? Ah, Pablito . . . what have you done to yourself? I curl myself around him and just . . . I just feel helpless. The only way to heal is to feel; it's no wonder he hasn't healed. And the only way through the pain is to go through it.

"I'm walking this path with you, Pablo. I'm right beside you."

Oh, gods, I feel so helpless!

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

"I'm right here, Pablo," I whisper. "I know how much you hurt, but you have to let it out. Let the pain go. You don't need to keep the pain to keep your family. They'll always be with you. Always." I take a deep breath to be sure I'm centered and grounded. "Please tell me the whole story, Pablo. You need to heal. I don't want you to die."

He sighs and rests his face against my neck, his arms tight around my waist. I feel him trembling a bit. After a few minutes, he releases me, kissing my cheek as he sits up again and wipes his eyes. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

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

"The bastard faced a minimum of fifteen years for violating his parole and the assault and attempted murder. Danny and I were witnesses and complainants since he shot at us before we put him down with a bullet in the shoulder. He knew there was no way for him to get out of this one. "So . . . so, he planned to take Danny and me out. His people came to us on our drives to work. They got Danny, but they missed me because . . . because . . ."

He bows his head.

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

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

He can't go any further; he's unable to raise his bowed head. But I can see the knot of pain loosen, slowly slipping away. He's obviously wanted, needed to tell me this for quite some time. He needed to tell someone, really almost anyone.

Mundane criminals committing mundane crimes . . . more than, other than human criminals committing not-so-ordinary crimes . . . If I'm going to be honest with myself, I need to admit that evil exists across the full spectrum of humanity, including those who may not be considered human any longer. And that doesn't make me feel any better about letting people get close enough to learn everything about me. If I try hard enough to keep Andrea the Librarian separate from the other part of me, from Ninja the Warrior, my friends will be safe. Right.

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

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

"There's a saying that crosses so many cultures I've encountered, no matter how differently they say the words," I say softly. "Those who are remembered, those who are loved, those who are held in the hearts and memories of others will never truly die."

Our customs aren't like American traditions, but I've embraced the cultures of the lands in which I've lived. East and West, native and colonist . . . while there are always rituals to be performed, it's the living who must continue on. It's the living who bear the burden of grief. I place my hands on his shoulders and kiss his forehead.

"I'll hold the memory of their beauty and your love for them, Pablo."

He looks up at me, eyes red-rimmed from crying silently, and reaches out a hand, gently touching my cheek, smiling weakly. "Thanks . . . thanks for listening. I went through hell back then, and then I shut it all away. I haven't talked about them in years, not even to my sisters. I think Denise . . ." His voice catches, and he swallows hard. "She knew my story. I stopped talking about them when she died."

"Ah, Pablo . . ." That would certainly explain why his pain was so much greater than everyone else's back then . . . not the outer pain that he let people see, of course. It explains so much of what happened and how he behaved, though.

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

He nods slightly, looking into my eyes. "I loved them, Andrea, and they loved me. I lost them, yes . . . but I wouldn't trade those precious few years for anything in the world, and I also wouldn't turn it away again if it came my way." He takes a shuddering breath. "That . . . that's what I was trying to tell you at the restaurant. We all risk a terrible loss when we love someone, especially those of us who put ourselves in danger to protect others. Life is too short not to risk reaching out to someone else, even knowing that you could hurt that person or be hurt by them."

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

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

Pablo shakes his head and simply looks at me. "I don't plan on it, okay? But . . . you said this is a time for me to talk, right? Did you mean that?"

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

He takes a deep breath and blows it out. "Then I want two things: I want you to tell me about that thing we never talk about and yet continue to dance around. Why do things happen after I talk to you? I need to know," he says quietly, patiently.

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

Come on, Andi! Breathe!

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

But . . . but . . . but . . .

He simply watches me with eyes that know how to see, even if he doesn't have my gifts. He can see how hard his question hit me: It's so much like the pain that buckled him.

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

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

"Andrea, I could never hate you. I swear this on the souls of my lost family," he says solemnly. He touches my chest with one finger, just above my heart. "You have pain here, too, my friend. It's time that you trust me as much as I trust you. You can share some of that burden you've been carrying. My shoulders are broad and strong."

I shake my head, eyes still tightly closed. "The pain is everywhere," I whisper. I don't say anything else for a long time. I just breathe and move the energy around the whole map of meridians. The last thing I need now is for something to get stuck somewhere.

"I'm . . ." I want to open my eyes but just can't. The tears will never stop if I do. Why am I crying so much? I still have my arms crossed protectively over my xia dan tian. "Among the Diné, the Navajo, I'm one of what we called the Cursed."

He moves to sit beside me, his shoulder touching mine. I can tell he wants to wrap his arms around me just as I'd done for him and that he's afraid I'll pull away and close up again. I'm not sure he's wrong. "Andrea, I'm not sure what that means. What's cursed? Is that like the Virus?" he asks quietly.

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

I try to relax; I can feel his shoulder against mine; I want to lean against him but don't dare. Not yet. But I don't pull away, either. "One more damaged chromosome or a different damaged one, and I never would have left the Nation . . . or would be confined to Commerce City if I'd dared come to Denver."

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

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

I can't speak of those things, especially about Little Danny. Some things are not meant to be spoken of to outsiders, no matter how dear a friend they might be. "When the Curse claims someone, it's often a time of . . . of pain beyond imaging. My parents didn't want that for me and later for my brother."

I laugh without humor. "I honor their sacrifices so I wouldn't suffer what neighbors and cousins did. They transferred to Camp Zama with the Army Corps of Engineers, so I could study Aikido with Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru, the highest-ranking Aikido master in the world."

Finally, I look at Pablo again. "All my studies did nothing to stop the Curse from claiming me, nor did it decrease the pain I experienced one iota. All it did was help me understand what was happening. It felt like fire running through all my meridians, through my nerves, molten lava instead of blood flowing through my veins. It went on day after day after day. Even now, Mama won't tell me how long I suffered." I pause a moment, eyes closed, shaking my head.

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

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

I reach over and rest a palm against his cheek. "I can do this, touch your cheek, and not harm you in the slightest." I pull my hand back and point it at the end of the room like a crossing guard stopping traffic. "Or I could blast a hole in the wall. That's not covered under my homeowner's insurance," I add, trying to lighten the mood. "There's more to this Curse, but . . . Well, it's not that I don't want to tell you, but sometimes too much information all at once is most definitely too much."

I test my hands on my lap again, looking down at them for a moment before looking at Pablo again. I'm deadly serious now.

"You want to know why things happen after we talk? It's because I take care of problems the police and various sheriff's departments either can't or won't handle. I could let loose with my righteous indignation now, but I'll just leave it at that: I take care of problems the rest of you can't."

He sits beside me and listens to my words. More than that, he listens to the tone of my words as he looks at my hands and into my eyes. He recognizes how close together we're sitting, and there's no expression of horror or dismay in his eyes, no revulsion or pulling away. He's listening not just as a friend, but as a detective . . . he can hear some of the things I don't say. He simply can't imagine some of the other things.

Throughout all of it, he's quiet and accepting. It's when I speak of my work that he actually shows a reaction: He nods as though I'm only confirming what he's suspected. But he frowns a little, too, just for a moment. Finally, he reaches over and gently turns my face toward his.

"Andrea . . . did you ever really think that you had to hide this from me? That I wouldn't understand or that it would affect the way I think about you? I care about you as a person, the gentle heart you show me, and the keen mind that engages me. It's that sense of righteous justice that binds us together. We need to discuss how you continue pursuing it and working things out." His dark eyes are the windows into his soul, and I can look there to find the answers I already know.

"I care about you deeply, Andrea, more so than I've let myself care about anyone for a long time. How could you ever think that I'd hate you?"

I know the answer to that question; I've always known it. That doesn't make the fear any less real, any less painful. "The short and simple answer? Prejudice."

I sigh. Sometimes the short and simple reason isn't enough. "Do you know why I feel so close to the LGBTQ community here? Why I'm so protective of them? It's not because one of my best friends on this whole sorry planet is a gay man. I felt like they were my responsibility before moving into this house. I've watched over them since that first night I went out on patrol. And why do I care so much?"

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

I look into his eyes and hold his gaze. "Bobby could never pass for a straight man; he's not wired that way. And so many of the Unfortunates could never pass for normal. But look at David or me . . . no one would think we're members of a marginalized part of society. But we are, and it cuts just as deeply in David's heart as in Bobby's that Bobby's family disowned him. It tears my soul that our government has declared an entire population unworthy of even the right to be safe. It's like a knife to my heart seeing families torn apart because of the Virus or genetic mutations."

I know I'm getting angry, and I'm not sure I care . . . because I'm almost certain that Pablo understands. I snort out something that might have been a laugh.

"But that's something the people who make up the government have been doing since long before a bunch of white men back east got fed up with the way England was treating them, isn't it?" I shake my head and take his hands in mine. "I know you're not like them, Pablo. But that doesn't erase the deeply-ingrained fear that comes from something even older than the Virus.

"Being part of a group that's hated so much . . . even though I can hide it well . . . it makes even the best of us skittish at times. It sure as hell makes me twitchy; it makes me afraid. I know how you feel, Pablo. Because of my Curse, I've always been able to see it. But it's been tough to see through my own fears."

He sits with such stillness as he listens, hearing my words and allowing them to become part of his being. His eyes miss nothing, catching the nuances my words try and fail to convey. He can see the anger, the sorrow, the rage, the pain. And he can see all this not just because he's a good cop but because he's a good friend. I'm reasonably sure he understands . . . after all, he and Denise had been treated to some pretty unacceptable behavior from that Duncan boy back when I first met them. They'd acted like it was all in a day's work, that being denigrated for their skin color and heritage was so common that it was just background noise.

Pablo grips my hands. "It's that fiery passion for everyone's rights that I admire so much in you. Don't apologize for that. It's why I work with you, cut corners, and bend rules to help. But we'll need to talk more about this some other time . . . not tonight. I want a clearer head for that conversation. But Andrea . . . I face danger every day. Every time I step out the door to do my job, I risk getting shot or stabbed by perfect strangers — from cop haters to some asshole white supremacist. If I can't stand with someone who means so much to me and faces the same risks I do for strangers . . . I ought to turn in my badge right now."

He sighs quietly, looking down for a moment as if gathering strength. I feel like I'm standing on a razor's edge, ready to topple off. And I'm not sure if even my lightning-fast reflexes will be fast enough to catch me, to keep me from falling into the gorge below. When I told Pablo earlier that I hurt everywhere, I meant that — the amount of energy I channel makes it feel like a low-level electrical charge is running through my body if I'm not conscious about being grounded and centered. But at times like these, when it starts ramping up, I feel I might be up most of the night running through my forms. That saying some people have about their teeth itching? Yeah. That.

"What is it, Pablo?"

His breathing speeds up; he's just as nervous and on edge as I am. "I told you I had two things I needed to say, to talk to you about."

I nod. "You did."

I can't help him with this one. He needs to say what he has to without prompting from me. I won't be the one to shift the balance between us, to change the world around us. But he also needs to do it awfully damn quickly before my fight or flight reflex kicks in . . . because I think flight would win out this time.

"Then I'll just come right out and say it. You're one of my best friends, and I love you. "But . . ." He clears his throat. "But somewhere along the line, you became more than that to me. I feel more for you than just a friend." He takes a deep breath then, looking at our hands and then up into my eyes, smiling that crooked little smile of his. "It isn't going to change how I care about or work with you if you don't feel the same about me. But it's something I've needed to say for a while. It would haunt me if something happened to one of us, and I'd never had the nerve to tell you."

He lets out his breath, and that knot of qi I saw is much looser now.

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

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

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

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

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

Remember, Andi . . . words have power.

"Our friendship is so important to me. I love you dearly. But I can't even be honest with myself about what other feelings I might have for you." I smile . . . or try to, at any rate. "If I can't even be honest with myself about something like that, how can I ever hope to make a relationship work?"

He smiles gently, squeezing my hands. "I don't expect you to know immediately. I just laid a lot on you. I'm a patient man, and I can wait until you know for sure what you're feeling," he says. "And nothing will change the fact that you're my friend. I hope to enhance what's between us, not destroy it. I'm not some teenage boy with a fragile ego and full of impatience. I'll be here, Andrea, when your heart tells you what it's feeling."

His words are enough to calm most of the anxiety that had started to race through my mind and body, but I still feel uneasy. It's almost as if, rather than a gift freely given, his love is something I'll one day be expected to return. I know that's ridiculous, but ridiculous thoughts like these are probably why I suck so much at relationships.

"And until that day, here's something for you to remember when your doubts and worries try to overwhelm you."

He leans in and tenderly kisses my lips before pulling back and looking into my eyes again. His qi is unsettled in a small way, which likely means he's not quite sure if he'd stepped over the line. But underneath the unsettled surface is a solid core; he's not sorry he finally took this step. It's something that he'd needed to do.

I smile unsteadily at him. His certainty . . . well, if nothing else, now I'll recognize the same certainty if I find it in my own heart.

© Kelly Naylor