Interlude 2: Bless the Beasts and the Children

"Are you sure you're up for this, Andi?" Pablo asks as he watches me braid my hair. I can tell he's still more than a little amazed by this activity, even after three months.

I catch his eyes in the bathroom mirror, and my instinct — however irrational — is to stop what I'm doing and comfort him. That's how worried he looks. I can't say I really blame him... it's been a stressful couple of days.

"I need to do this, Pablo. Brian asked me to go up there when the FBI let me... and Adams County... know about the child they identified. I promised him I would."

"I'm just... well, I'm just worried about you."

I tie off the second braid and flip it back over my shoulder, then turn to him.

"Pablo, how many times have you had to do this? Go to a family's house and tell them their child is no longer a missing person, but definitely dead?" I ask softly.

"Too many times. And that's why I worry." I step into his embrace and rest my head against his shoulder. "It's always terrible."

"I don't think Brian's done it as many times as you have," I say, wrapping my arms around his waist. "You work Homicide... he's a County Sheriff. And the reason he asked Ninja to go with him is because it is terrible." I sigh.

"And I was the one who talked to the child... well, the child's ghost, anyway. He seems to think it might help the family if I'm there, to explain how I got the note from their son... and brother."

I can feel his anxiety. I can understand his worry. After all, I just got laid off two days ago. I should be working today... at the library, not as Ninja. And it's not as if I really want to be doing this. Nope, I'd rather be doing just about anything else.

But I made a promise. I owe it to Christopher's family, and I owe it to Chris. He was... dear gods, they ALL were so sweet and peaceful. They were so much more concerned about their families than anything else.

I pull back and rest my hands on Pablo's shoulders. "The sooner this gets done, the better. Brian wanted to wait until the child's sister got home from school. He's been sitting on this for a couple of weeks, and waiting any longer is going to give the poor guy an ulcer.

"This is a crappy thing to throw at a family during the holidays, but don't you think they'd rather finally KNOW?"

He gently brushes the back of his fingers against my cheek. "Of course they would, love. I'm just worried about you."

I smile as I place my hand over his. "Of course you are, Pablo. I couldn't love you as much as I do if you cared less about my mental and emotional safety than you do about my physical safety. I'm sure I'll need to be held and to talk about the whole experience when I get home, but..." I pause and sigh softly. "I know this sounds mushy and not at all like a Super Hero, but your love protects my heart as much as my qi shield does. Believe that."

I feel his doubt. This Bond we have between us is still new enough that he doesn't understand all the nuances of our blended, recreated qi. True, there have been things that were immediately obvious — and forming the Pentad only reinforced the things he intuited. But how this qi can keep me strong enough to help Dennison today is still puzzling to him. It's just a restructuring of the same karmic shield I once wove around my heart before the two parts of my personality integrated. It kept me from completely falling apart when I had to kill someone, and there were many times it probably kept me relatively sane. He never really knew about that — nothing, really, beyond the little I've talked about it. Plus, he doesn't have the two decades of training I have to help him with that understanding. It will take time for him to trust the Bond as much as I do; I'm grateful that we will have that time.

"If it helps," I add, "all my guardian Spirits will be with me. Bear is a little goofy at times, but there is no doubt each of them is a proper guardian and concerned with what is the best course of action for the Warrior."

He sighs. "You know my brain and my heart don't exactly agree on this, right?"

I nod. "I know. And if I don't get out of here before Bobby and David get back from their quest to find the perfect Christmas tree, I may never get out of here."

Pablo chuckles. "He has been pretty terrible, hasn't he, about your layoff? I can't blame you for wanting to escape. I just think you could have found a better one." He kisses my forehead and walks with me to the second of our two back doors... the one that leads out to the garage rather than the driveway. Originally, it led to the back yard.

I pick up my staff and slide it into the scabbard on my back. "I'm sorry to leave you all alone to deal with his insanity if David can't keep him distracted by Christmas."

"Oh, don't worry about me. I have an evil plan!"

I raise my eyebrows, looking at him suspiciously. "Dare I ask?"

"Of course," he says, grinning. "I will pretend to receive a text message from you, and will activate that handy Call Me Back app I found. The phone will ring a few minutes later, and I'll sadly be called in on a case."

"Hmm. It's a good thing you only use your powers for good, Detective."

"Well, I haven't built up the immunity you seem to have for dealing with the Human Tsunami." He shrugs. "A guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do. Oh. And he's sure to ask just where you might be, young lady." He gives me one of his more severe looks that he claims is a stink eye.

I laugh. "He would, too, the busybody. Obviously, I'm out riding around... clearing my head... thinking about the future... blah, blah, blah. I might stop in and visit some friends while I'm out."

"He'll be devastated to be reminded that he's not your only friend."

I kiss Pablo one last time before I head out the door. "He'll be quite dramatic about it, too, I can promise that," I say before closing the door behind me.

I still find it a bit odd that I can change the appearance of objects as large as the Ducati by simply... well, essentially wrapping a bubble of qi around them. Yes, yes... the whole process is considerably more complicated than that, but it's no more difficult than changing my appearance was up in Commerce City or out in Idaho Springs back at Halloween. Certainly the fact that Fox is now one of my guardian Spirit helps, but... as the Spirits pointed out then, as I reminded Billy later, it's a fairly energy intensive task. Granted, camouflaging things was considerably more energy efficient on Halloween. However, illusions are never anywhere near as energy intensive as actually changing my form. But the fact that it seems to actually feel easier to do this now than it did on Halloween is, to put it mildly, rather disconcerting.

I suppose I might have some time to sit and contemplate these things in the coming months. Three of my four guardians were reluctant to be useful in any way on the day I died. Interestingly, a different combination of seventy-five percent were seriously freaked out about something after Bear came back from talking to Mother Earth.

Hmm, that reminds me... I need to ask Rene about that proposition. Van Dorn seemed more than a little anxious to get all the bones to his person out in Washington. He strikes me as the sort to call once a week, which might cause me to ask Harry to deal with him in the same way she deals with the printers.

See? Thinking about things other than what I'm doing right now is good for me. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long to get out to Westminster.

When I had called Dennison to arrange today's meeting, he'd suggested rendezvousing at the Wal-Mart parking lot. I'm fairly certain I could hear his nervousness increasing the longer I had remained silent.

"Ahh... how about the strip mall on Sheridan and 68th instead?" he had then suggested.

At the time, I had simply chuckled and hung up on him. He and Markensen are used to that. It's not something I'd do to Abe or Forsythe or Davis or, gods forbid, Captain Sanchez... but I have a feeling Van Dorn will need to get used to it, too. He does seem the sort I'd just disconnect.

I pull into the strip mall and park my bike against the pavement in the first two spaces in the lot. The cleaners doesn't look open — generally something to be expected on a Sunday, I guess — and other than the liquor store, there are only empty storefronts. Six cars are parked in front of the liquor store and adjacent empty storefronts, however. I'd like to say I'm surprised, but I can't. The Broncos are playing today, and a rather large number of people seem to think football and beer go together. I mentally shrug. Pablo likes football... I don't see the appeal. Fortunately, David likes football, too. When Pablo goes next door — or David comes over to our house — we're more likely to see a gourmet spread created by Bobby for the occasion. He doesn't care much for football either, but for him it's just another excuse to cook. And until he recently lost his mind, he and I would have some wonderful conversations on the days I didn't have to go to work.

I'm getting some interesting looks from the patrons of the liquor store as I sit waiting for Dennison. I dropped the illusion of my Harley and the illusion of appropriate riding leathers as soon as I was out of my own neighborhood. The ordinary guys with their ordinary lives who get together with their friends to drink beer, eat snacks and watch the gladiators do battle over at the Stadium seem a little unnerved. The one guy on his own Harley — a Hog, not a Sportster — completely ignores me and eyes the Ducati instead. That amuses me. I've gotten into some of the most interesting conversations with bikers.

And they're some of the very best people I've met on the roads out here in Denver. I occasionally see members of the BACA Rocky Mountain Chapter — Bikers Against Child Abuse — sitting watch in a driveway or between cars along the curb on my nightly patrols. It's a rare thing to see them late at night. But when one of the kids they've adopted into their family can't sleep because of nightmares, a couple of them will sit vigil to let the child know even her or his dreams are guarded. To say I think the world of these bikers might be a gross understatement. And I'm not the only one who feels that way. One day I mentioned to Bobby and David that I had seen a couple of bikers walking into the courthouse with a kid and her mom. Andrea the Librarian was intrigued; Ninja the Protector knew exactly what Ziggy and Blondie were doing. At the time, I had brought it up as a way to get David's take on them. I wasn't quite prepared for the emotions the topic brought up.

There had been tears in his eyes when he said, "Andrea, those men and women save lives."

My phone vibrates, and I pull it out to check the text message. It's from Dennison.

Ticketing idiot driver, running late. ETA 15 min.

I chuckle, send back an acknowledgment, and continue to watch people as I tuck the phone away.

A few minutes later, the biker comes out of the liquor store and glances again in my direction. This time, he looks at more than just the bike. I grin my wicked Ninja grin at him when he finally looks at my face.

He blinks, stares for a few more seconds then shakes his head before heading over to me, walking with the rolling gait of someone who spends a lot of time in the saddle.



"New bike. Damn shame."

I laugh. "I know. But in my line of work, as I keep telling you and your friends, I can't afford to be riding a hog. Even the most extensive modifications won't make one quiet enough, fast enough, or maneuverable enough for me to do my job."

He grunts. I like Shifter. He mostly works with kids up here in Adams County, but I've seen him out in Jefferson County a time or two. I guess that's what comes of half these towns up here straddling two counties.

"What the hell is that thing, anyway?"

"It's a Ducati. Pushes two hundred off the line, and I can tweak it to do even better." I pause, canting my head to one side. "But you know what? Even I might not be that crazy."

He laughs; it's a big booming sound that rivals the noise of traffic on the street and causes the liquor store customers just arriving to glance nervously in our direction and hurry inside.

"I swear if you didn't already have a name, girl, we'd all call you Daredevil."

"Hey, if my understanding of your tribe is correct, I don't actually have a name seeing as I picked Ninja myself."

He chuckles, which makes me realize how he might have gotten his name. It makes him sound an awful lot like a jolly Saint Nick. "Well, if you ever want to join our tribe, that's the name we'll hang on you then. But while you're still an outsider, we'll keep calling you Ninja. How's that?"

"Fair enough." I nod back at the liquor store. "You go in just to intimidate Mr. Han and his family, Shifter?"

His eyes twinkle, and it's not hard to see how it takes less than an instant for a terrified child to feel comfortable around this big mountain of a man. "That would be a great idea for Halloween. Or maybe April Fools Day. But no... just picking up a new corkscrew for the old lady. She claims pixies or fairies or goblins keep stealing them. I think it's that low life brother of her."

I smile. Despite any stereotypical evidence to the contrary, it's not hard for me to tell from his aura that old lady is a term he only uses when he's in this role... Shifter, the prominent member of a motorcycle club. The way his aura flares when he speaks of her, he'd probably call his wife every flowery name ever invented — and then he'd invent a few more — if he thought she'd put up with that kind of thing. In short, he adores her. If I ever saw them together, I'm willing to bet I'd see the same sort of connection I see between the spouses among my family members.

"You've got that shit-eating grin that says you're up to no good, woman," he says good-naturedly.

"Nah, just watching the energy patterns swirl around when you talk about your wife. I won't tattle, of course, but you're head over heels for that woman."

He shrugs, slightly embarrassed. "I'll deny it categorically if any rumors to that effect start spreading. I'm a loyal and loving husband. That's all people need to know."

"Oh, your secret's safe with me. I see enough of it that I know what I'm seeing, but it's a rare enough thing that it makes even a cold-hearted bitch such as myself a little sentimental."

He grunts again. "And I hear enough talk to know there's nothing cold about your heart, least not when it comes to kids."

I lift one shoulder in a half-shrug. "I could quote a few songs that sum it all up. I believe the children are our future. Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice. I've got a dozen or so more, but it would only prove I'm incurably sappy," I say with a grin.

"You'd probably need to get up on the steps of the Capitol and give a concert of all your sappy songs," he says. He crosses his arms and eyes me with no small amount of suspicion. "And even then, there are some you'll never convince of your more... shall we say, tender side."

"Yeah, like that's ever going to happen. And the people who need convincing are already convinced..." I smile, thinking of all the kids out in Commerce City.

"If you say so. What brings you up this way on a day all decent people of the area should be at home or at the game? Anything BACA needs to know about?"

I shake my head, my good humor draining away. "Meeting Dennison up here to notify a family about their son and brother who's been missing for a dozen years."

The serious and protective biker persona returns. He shifts from Biker Santa to Biker Guardian Angel faster than Billy goes from human to wolf... and a wolf is the form Billy knows best. "That sucks. You're gonna get the sick bastard, right?"

"He's dead." I look Shifter in the eyes. "And this cold hearted bitch would kill him a hundred more times if she could." I look up the street to see an Adams County Sheriff squad car heading this way. Has it been fifteen minutes already? I turn back to Shifter and nod toward the squad car.

"Go home to the love of your life, Shifter. Dennison and I need to go to work." I manage a weak version of a smile. "Here's to hoping the Broncos win, right?"

He hesitates a few seconds, then nods. "Right. Keep fighting the good fight, Ninja."

He turns and I watch him walk back to his bike as Dennison pulls into the parking and stops his car parallel to the sidewalk, blocking three parking spaces. After rolling down his window, he just looks at me... possibly because I'm watching Shifter drive off.

When the biker turns on 72nd Avenue, I look at Dennison, an eyebrow raised. "You were going to say something?"

"Oh, just that you have some mighty interesting friends."

"He belongs to BACA."


He doesn't look any more interested in doing this than I am. And yet... we do need to get this done.

"You've got the address. Let's go... I'll follow you." I start up the bike, then look back at him again because he's got some serious procrastination going on now. "Brian... come on. Let's get this done, okay?"

He nods, rolls up the window, puts the car in drive and heads back out onto Sheridan Boulevard. I follow him, turning at the next street and meander on 69th Avenue through a perfectly ordinary upper-middle-class neighborhood and along Hidden Lake. I follow as he takes a right on Wyman Way, and we curve about halfway around the semicircle of the street to stop in front of a typical neighborhood house. It's one whose back yard probably runs right into the lake.

I get off my bike as Dennison gets out of his car, putting his hat on. I rarely see him do that... put the hat on, I mean. When we're working together, it's not generally the sort of situation where he wants it on his head and in his way.

I think he's using it as a shield today.

That I understand... I've got four guardian Spirits with me, and I probably look peculiar reaching up to run my fingers along Opossum's back as it sits on my shoulder. Possibly because of its gift for diversions, I find it a reassuring touchstone in emotionally charged situations.

"You ready to do this?" Dennison asks.

"No." Well, I'm nothing if not bluntly honest. Except when I'm outright lying, I guess. "But it's something that needs to be done, and I'm the one who needs to do it — well, part of it, anyway. So..." I shrug, then take a deep breath, letting it out slowly as I camouflage my staff and scabbard into non-existence. "Let's get this done."

He stares at me for a few seconds, long enough to confuse me as much as his aura indicates he's confused. "What? Don't stare at me in that tone, Dennison."

"Your staff..."

"Oh." I sigh. "My life has gotten weirder than you can even imagine since Black Wolf and Wolverine showed up. Just go with it, okay?"

He nods slowly. "Right. And how much of this weird is going to spill over into Adams County?"

I shrug again as I flash a smile. "Who knows? I'm a magnet for weird, and the magnetism seems to be getting stronger by the day. For all you know, by this time next year, the entire Front Range will be a vortex for weirdness."

He returns the smile. "As long as you're sharing the wealth of weird, I can live with that."

"Hmmm, you're incredibly laid back about all of this, Dennison." I eye him suspiciously. "If it didn't work in my favor, I'd worry about you." I tilt my head toward the house. "Shall we?"

He shrugs then. "There's no point trying to fight the weird, Ninja. I accept it... or I turn the job over to someone else." He turns and heads up the driveway toward the front door. "Besides, I like the job and I don't think anyone else could handle it."

That gets a smile from me, even though he can't see it. My smile doesn't last long, though. I can feel my guardian Spirits surrounding me as Dennison rings the doorbell. A moment later, a young woman opens the inner door. Fear, sorrow, worry all flash so quickly across her features that it's possible anyone else could miss them. They saturate her aura, though.

"May I help you?"

"I'm Sergeant Brian Dennison of the Adams County Sheriff's Department. This is Ninja, one of Denver's Supers," he says, turning slightly so the young woman could see me, as well. "I'd like to speak to Warren and Joyce Ryerson if they're available. Are you Elizabeth?"

She blinks, and I can see she's either going to get paralyzed by her emotions or freak out.

O Deer, guardian of my grandmother... help?

I feel the Spirit's presence along with Bear and Cobra and Fox and Opossum. Oddly — and this is something I'm going to need to set aside and think about later — Deer's presence doesn't add to the feeling that there are just too many Spirits here. At the moment, I'm simply going to attribute it to Deer's compassion... and peace.

"If your parents are home," I say softly, "perhaps we could come in and speak with you?"

She looks from Dennison to me, blinks again, and then nods. "Oh. Right, of course. I'm sorry... where are my manners? Yes, I'm Elizabeth." She unlatches the outer door — currently fitted with glass panes but would no doubt sport screens once Spring asserts its supremacy again — and holds it open for us. "Come in. Mom and Dad are in the den watching football. I'll just go get them."

She gestures for us to wait in the living room while she walks down a short hall; I hear a door opening and then footsteps on stairs. A house with a basement, then. The living room opens into the dining area, and presumably the kitchen is beyond or to the side. It's a fairly typical home for a suburban subdivision; I'd expect the bedrooms and maybe a home office to be on the second floor.

Elizabeth speaks softly, and the sound of the television garbles many of the words spoken by the three family members of the child whose last words would be forever etched in my mind. Like all the children Maddie and I had spoken with on Halloween, he was more concerned with those still living than himself. I wondered then and continue to wonder to this day if that was simply his personality or a result of having spent time with the wise elders. Perhaps it was simply a matter of a soul's lack of concern for itself. If that's the case, it points to a clear difference between those who die without a bond like the one I have with Pablo... or more specifically, the one Rene has with Maddie. Rene all too often can make a person forget that he's not exactly alive anymore.

It's a cozy home... not so much in size, but in the closeness of the lives that inhabit the place. There's a great deal of love, and yet the pain of loss seems to permeate every corner of the building. I wish I could say I didn't understand; holding the memories of others certainly gives me a unique perspective on life, death and everything in between.

Three sets of feet make their way up the stairs; the television has been quieted, no words are being spoken among the three of them as they enter the living room.

She knows. The child's mother... she knows immediately why we're here although she tries to deny it to herself. But the look in her eyes, the way she tucks herself close to her husband and draws on his strength? Oh, she knows.

"Can we help you, Deputy?" Warren Ryerson asks.

I know Brian hates this part. I do, too. I think all cops hate this part.

"Yes, sir. We've come to talk to you about Christopher."

Elizabeth, the younger sister, is already crying. She knows, too.

"You found him." It was a simple statement, whispered almost to herself, but Joyce Ryerson looks at Dennison with eyes haunted by years of despair mixed with fleeting feelings of hope. She hasn't felt hope in a long time.

Dennison simply nods, hat held tightly in his hands, turning to me. "Ninja did."

Thanks, Dennison. Just dump it all on me. Despite everything I've done in my life, this is not something I've done before.

But my guardians surround me... Deer breathes softly against the side of my face. I take a deep breath, doing my best to stay grounded, to stay in this moment. While it's necessary to recall what I saw and heard and felt in that mine out in Idaho Springs, it's absolutely essential that I leave those feelings outside this conversation.

"Yes, ma'am. At Halloween. I'm sorry it took so long to come speak with you..." I look into her eyes and see that she knows the truth and has known the truth for years. "We were waiting for the FBI to... do their job."

"Identify the body, you mean," the sister says, almost harshly, certainly with an undertone of anger. Her mother reaches out for her, pulls her into the circle of mother and father.

"Bodies," I whisper. "Christopher was one of..."

I press my lips tightly together and lower my eyes. I can feel my anger rising, despite Deer's presence. I feel Dennison's glance, then his hand on my shoulder.

"One hundred children had been kidnapped or purchased in the past ten years," Dennison says. I can hear the revulsion in his voice, but I think I'm the only one. "Ninja was part of the team that found them, rescued the eight children still living."

"So eight families get to see their brother or sister again?" Elizabeth says angrily, almost accusing me of not finding her brother in time.

I raise my eyes again and look at her. The gold rim of anger still surrounds my pupils, but I can feel tears starting to form, too. I shake my head.

"No. Five at most, and that's only if the two most injured children can heal. Their wounds are great; one in his body, the other in her mind. The other three will be placed in appropriate foster homes, and their so-called parents should pray I never find them. The man responsible for the heinous crimes is dead. All those we found who worked for him are dead. Mother Earth will be far less considerate with their bodies than She was with Christopher and the ninety-one other children She cradled in their final sleep."

I open one of the pouches on my belt and pull out the small envelope I'd tucked inside. I'd taken great care to write Christopher's words on fine parchment paper, with a real fountain pen. It had seemed the right thing to do. I offer it to them — to the whole family — as a gift, cupped in both palms, although my eyes return again to Elizabeth.

"What is it?" Joyce asks.

"My mutation allows me to manipulate and interact with energy in ways other people can't. Because souls are made of energy," I say, maintaining eye contact with a little boy's grown sister, "I can speak to those who have died and have not passed to their proper place in the afterlife." I know, I know... a huge oversimplification. "My Sister and I spoke to all ninety-two children and recorded what they wanted to say."

Christopher's parents look at the envelope in my hands, afraid and disbelieving. Finally, his sister takes the envelope. She opens it carefully and unfolds the paper inside. She begins reading it aloud.

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

I miss you a whole lot, and I miss Bitty...

Elizabeth's voice breaks with a sob... the youngster had said to me, "My sister's name is really Elizabeth, but I call her Bitty. So could you write that down instead?"

...Bitty and Fluffy, too. But I'm in a nice place with nice people who've been taking care of me. I was hurting for a little bit, but then the nice people helped me. Please don't cry anymore, Mommy. And Bitty doesn't...

Again, Elizabeth pauses in her reading, swallowing hard... and clearly touched by her brother's knowledge of the life she's had since he disappeared when she was seven.

... Bitty doesn't need to be angry anymore. Tell her that, okay? I really, really promise I'm okay. The nice lady who's writing the letter would know if I lied, and I bet she wouldn't write down a lie.

I love you all forever and ever. There's still more kids who want to tell the ladies messages for their moms and dads and sisters and brothers, so I should go and not be selfish like you always taught. Tell Bitty I love her, too, and I'll get to see you all again someday.

Tears are rolling down Elizabeth's cheeks as she reads; the last two words are just a whisper.


She stares at the note for long seconds. Joyce is crying softly on her husband's shoulder. I think he'd like to be crying right now, too. Eventually, the young woman wipes her tears on the sleeve of her rugby shirt and holds the note up.

"Does this mean Chris is in heaven now?"

"If..." I look between the three of them, I glance at Dennison whose expression seems to say, Hey, you're on your own here, then back at Elizabeth. "Yes, if that's your faith system. The old Siamese man who was one of the elder souls watching over the youngsters was a Buddhist and was hoping he had earned his place in Nirvana. There were elders and children of many different faiths, all waiting to go to their final destination... so, yes. Those who believe in Heaven will be there."

She nods. "Okay. But... but I still miss him so much!"

As I reach out a hand to rest on her shoulder, I can feel Deer brush its soft muzzle against my cheek.

"Of course you do. And you always will. But remember that he'll be waiting for you at the end of your journey here." I smile at her. "Make your journey a good one, be happy. Live a life that you can look at when you leave it and say, I did good things; I left the world better for having been in it. I think that would make your brother very proud of you."

"Will we... I mean, we..." Joyce looks at Warren for help, and he wraps his arms around her in almost the same way Pablo envelopes me when I've had a bad day.

"We'd like to have a proper burial service," he says quietly.

Our Spirit Brother has not yet said if this thing is possible, Opossum says from its perch on my shoulder.

I nod, both in acknowledgment of the Ryersons' concern and Opossum's statement.

"There's a team of consultants trying to determine if it's possible to bring the children out." I sigh lightly. I know the Ryersons aren't the only ones who will want the comfort of their ceremony. "They are located very deep in the mine, in an extremely dangerous place. If it's possible, they then need to determine how long it will take. It could be several more weeks before I hear from them."

"Oh." He finally makes the connection. "It's that Army or FBI thing out in Idaho Springs, isn't it?"

I nod. "The perpetrator constructed his complex without the knowledge of the mine owners, using existing mine tunnels and creating a complex warren that, quite frankly, was so shoddy it's surprising to the geologists involved..." Okay, that would pretty much be Mother Earth herself. "...that parts of the mountainside didn't collapse.

"So, you understand that great care needs to be taken, and it could be a lengthy process."

They each nod, conveying the entire range of emotions among them. Elizabeth is still angry — and might be for years to come; that's not something one can give up in a moment — yet she shows a measure of peace, along with a fierce determination. Joyce is the most fragile in her grief, with her hope shattered and a sense of helplessness seeping into her heart and her aura. Warren senses it, I think, and wraps his arms around his wife and daughter. It's his way of trying to protect them from all the terrible things they've felt since Christopher disappeared, and all the pain they still face.

"In the meantime," he says hesitantly, "what can we do?"

I know that, on one level, he is asking for a plan of action. Waiting patiently is hard.

"What you've already been doing... continue with your lives, support one another..." I smile, although it's with sadness. "So many families shatter and fall to pieces in a situation like this. The fact that you didn't fall away from one another, that you stayed together and became even closer, is a testament to your strength as a family. And to your love."

I close my eyes and my smile, I think, conveys the wonder I felt at the time I spoke with Christopher and all the other children. "That love survives, you know. Christopher was filled with it. And I promise you, he is truly at peace." I'm not sure I'll be able to hold back the tears if I open my eyes, but I'm not sure it matters here and now. Not with this family.

And so I do open my eyes again, feeling the tears fill them, pooling against my lower lids, but not falling. Not yet...

It's almost as if those words, the reassurance that her son is at peace... and perhaps, in the context of her faith, in a better place than this world filled with pain and sorrow and violence... serve to strengthen Joyce Ryerson. She nods.

"I think..." She glances at her husband, then her daughter. "I think we'd like to do something for others... if we can, I mean. I know you probably can't tell us who all the other parents are, but we'd like to be able to help them. Somehow."

Dennison clears his throat. "I'm just a simple County Deputy, and things probably work differently on the Federal level, but we do have families here in Adams County going through similar things your family has experienced." He looks at me and smiles. And it's his instincts here that make me realize for the hundredth or thousandth time that I'm damn lucky to be paired up with the Sheriffs I work with in my counties. "I suspect Ninja could tell me of other families in the area who could use the kind of help you're, unfortunately, so uniquely suited to provide."

He studies them for a moment, seeing them perhaps as an officer of the law would, as survivors of a tragedy. "Simply having someone to listen to them might give other families here along the Front Range the ability to survive their loss and to stay strong as a family." He nods to them. "As you've done. As Ninja said, it's much more common for families to fall apart when tragedy strikes."

Joyce and Warren seem... well, surprised by his words, but Elizabeth nods back. "Sure. I think we'd be able to do that." She looks up at her parents. "We could start a support group. Well, you could, I guess, while I'm away at school. But I'm sure there are people even in my tiny school who could use someone to listen to, right? And I've always planned to come back to Colorado when I finish school." She looks at me and then Dennison, but directs her words to him. "Maybe it's fate that I decided to become a social worker?"

He shrugs but smiles at her... at the whole family. "I'm not sure I believe in fate, that people are meant to do certain things with their lives..." He looks at me, then rolls his eyes as he chuckles. "Okay, maybe some people are meant to do certain things with their lives." He turns back to the Ryersons. "I figure people who wind up being the happiest and most satisfied people I come across are the ones who've figured out what they can do to make the world a better place. I suppose that's why I'm a simple County Sheriff instead of a lawyer or a stockbroker."

Joyce Ryerson laughs. It's soft, it's a bit tentative, but it's true and holds the joy she still has in her heart. "You shouldn't knock lawyers, Deputy," she says as she hugs her husband. "Warren is a lawyer who uses his powers for good."

"Daddy is a guardian ad litem," Elizabeth says proudly.

Interesting. Well, I guess what's so interesting are the pseudo-coincidences of random connections between the people I meet. I have a feeling it's all part of my Weird Magnetism.

Warren nods. "Been doing this work since before Chris was born. It got pretty rough when he disappeared..." He looks at his wife and daughter. "I feel like I turned my family into one of my cases." It's clear he feels guilty about that... and about letting his son down.

Joyce looks up at him, surprised. I think she can hear that guilt. "You kept us together by being the strong one. You did what you had to do, Warren."

It doesn't seem to bother Elizabeth, but she does need to give voice to her anger. Or rather, she needs to ask the question that is not only the seed of her anger, but the fuel that continues to feed it.

"Why Chris?"

I shake my head. "I don't know. What I can tell you is that the..." No, no... we're not going to use our potty mouth around these nice people, are we? "...perpetrator was performing experiments on mutant children. Or, given the ages of the majority of the children, ones he believed were mutants. Very few of them were old enough to have manifested any indicators that they had been infected with the Virus."

Great... I'm talking like a scientist now. Well, better than letting the potty mouth say what I'm really thinking.

"The FBI and independent analysts are going through all the data recovered to find some kind of link between the children." I look her in the eyes; I'm not going to be any less honest with her, or any more protective of her feelings, simply because she's only nineteen. "We might never know, Elizabeth. And while some of these analysts are phenomenal and have access to the best computers money can buy, it could still take years to make connections."

"So... so Chris might have been infected with the Virus?" Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at the compassion I hear in her voice, or the flare of protectiveness I see in her aura.

"It's possible. That Stryker..." No, no, no! Do not go swearing up a storm here!

"Piece of shit?" Elizabeth offers.

"Elizabeth!" her mother says, mostly upset that her daughter would say such a thing in front of 'company'... not because she disagrees with her daughter's assessment.

"Yes," I agree. "I've been trying to curb my potty mouth lately..."

"Oh, why start now?" Dennison interrupts, smiling just a bit too wickedly in my direction.

"I wasn't going to stop swearing around you, Dennison," I say archly. "It's for the benefits of the civilians we have sworn to serve and protect."

He snickers as I shake my head and look back at Elizabeth. "Right, the piece of shit certainly thought Chris was infected... but we don't know why he thought that since the Virus can't be detected if it's dormant. And nearly all the children were too young for the Virus to have activated." I shrug. "At this point, it's up to the geeks and the scientists to figure it out."

She nods slowly. "Okay. But when you find out..." She looks at her parents, then back at me. "I want to know. You'll tell me, won't you?"

I nod. "I promise."

I look at the three of them... at individual auras, and at the connections between them. It almost looks as if there's a placeholder for the missing Christopher. I don't know why that makes so much sense to me... that a memory can almost have a physical manifestation like this, at least at the energetic level. I'm going to put this family configuration in the This is What Happens When Love Happens category.

Deer nudges my shoulder... Yes, I see, O Deer. I smile inwardly. Maybe it's a phenomenon that should be in the This is What Happens When Deer is Around category, too.

"Unless you have any other questions we can answer at the moment, the Deputy and I should be going." Unspoken is the sentiment that they have healing to do, and they need to do that without strangers in their midst.

Both parents shake their heads. "No... no, I don't think we have any other questions right now," Warren says.

Dennison takes one of his business cards from his wallet and hands it to the father. "Give me a call if you have any questions, or would like an update. As Ninja said, this is something that could take quite a while to work out completely. I may not be able to do more than reassure you that the geeks and scientists are still working on it."

Warren nods. "I think we understand that... intellectually, at least. It's going to take a while to process all of this."

Elizabeth steps out from the circle of her parents' arms. "I'll walk you to the door."

And as she opens the door, she says softly, "I want to know anything to find out about Chris. Really. I don't care if he had the Virus. He's my brother. I love him."

"I know." I smile at her before walking out the door. Being unselfish isn't the only thing the Ryersons taught their children.

Dennison follows me out to the curb, standing in front of my bike instead of heading to his squad car. I let go of the magic on my staff, and he shakes his head. I smile as I straddle the bike and cross my arms.

"It amuses me, Dennison. And it keeps the civilians from freaking out."

"Hey, did I say anything? No. I didn't." He nods over my shoulder at the staff. "It's actually a pretty handy trick. How many of my cohorts know about it?"

"Hmmm... Sanchez and Garcia; the FBI guy, Van Dorn. Most of my time in Jeffco is spent outdoors dealing with the wildlife, who are thoroughly unimpressed with at least half of what I do. Douglas County's been quiet, although now that the holiday madness is starting to grip people, they're likely to give me a call to help deal with people at the mall with larceny in their hearts. Abe just raised an eyebrow. I'm due to check in with Markensen tomorrow or the next night." I grin very wickedly. "He hasn't seen the new bike, either."

Dennison chuckles softly. "You certainly like messing with the help, don't you?"

I shrug. "It's my idiom. Several of the Patrol folks in Denver rather enjoy it."

"Well, they are a little odd down there." It's so easy to tell when Dennison is kidding around... his eyes sparkle with mischief.

Have I mentioned I like working with this kid?

"What about your contact in Broomfield?" He pauses, brows drawing together as though trying to remember something that he seems to have forgotten, but really ought to have remembered. "Who is your Broomfield contact, anyway? I don't think you've ever mentioned him... or her."

"Don't have one," I say, shrugging again. "Not a damn thing happens in Broomfield... which kind of makes me feel like my secret identity ought to move there because it's so dull and lacking in crime."

He snorts. "Yeah, keep dreaming, Ninja... keep dreaming. They've got plenty of crime, but I guess most of it's fairly run of the mill stuff that they can handle on their own. Still... shouldn't you at least have a contact out there? You know, just in case something comes up?"

"I guess. Sanchez usually figures out who the best person in any particular jurisdiction is, and then does whatever magic stuff he does to make it happen. Masterson with Special Forces was the exception."

"Hmm... hold on then." He pulls out his phone and hits a speed dial, which causes me to raise an eyebrow. "Hey, parts of Broomfield used to be Adams County," he says while waiting for the other party to answer. "We somehow still manage to get some overlap."

I nod. That makes sense.

"Hey, it's Dennison," he says when the other party picks up. "You working?" He holds the phone away from his ear, and I hear a female voice swearing a hell of a lot worse than I usually do. "Relax, Passeri, I'm working, too. I thought I might make your shift a little more interesting. Can you meet me at the substation in fifteen?" He grins, then says, "You'll see," before disconnecting the call and putting his phone away.

I give him the stink eye. "By substation, would you happen to mean the electrical substation off the Turnpike?"

He seems suspicious now, what with me giving him the stink eye and all. "Yeah... why?"

I shake my head and add some eye rolling for good measure. "Just what is it that you think I do? Besides hide things, talk to ghosts, and send half the population of Commerce City up to the parks in Thornton?"

"Well, I've heard you smack the hell out of people with that stick of yours," he says, grinning.

"Ah, Dennison... Dennison... Dennison. You need yourself some learnin', lad. Well, there's no help for it now. Let's just hope the transformers are tuned up properly so they and I don't start pinging one another and causing the whole area to lose power and poor little Ninja to get a migraine.

"Did I ever tell you about the fun I had up at CU with the replicating goblin?"

"Yes, I believe the only word you used that wouldn't singe my mother's eyebrows off was 'pervert'. What's that got to do with the substation?"

"The Physics geeks up there are working on a new power source, which is what the goblin king was after in the first place. Now, I'll grant you Lindst and his buddies are playing with something considerably more annoying than mere electricity, but the substation transformers pack a real punch. And they're not shielded. Heck, why should they be, right? That much electricity floating around in the air isn't going to hurt anyone. All you Normal folks need to do is stay away from the big nasty collection of wires and you'll be fine.

"But poor little Ninja's power is all about energy. You ever get the feeling that creepy crawlies are slithering up your back and the hairs on your neck are standing on end?"

"Maybe," he says slowly.

"Well, that's what the unshielded equipment does to me. My energy... the substation energy... it's not quite compatible. Oh, it's not the stuffy head, here comes the migraine incompatibility that they've got up in the Physics building at CU, but it makes me a little twitchy." I sigh.

"Bear, can you and Lizard help me out? Work on some shielding against the power source up there? It ought to just be a modulation of the qi shield I use."

Of course, Warrior. Once we are in the area of the power source, it should only take a moment or two for us to understand the harmonics.

"Okay. In the meantime, I'll just be snarkier than usual to poor Dennison here. Assuming he can catch up with me."

"Are you talking to yourself," the object of my conversation asks, "and do I need to be worried about your mental health?"

"Ghosts... guardian Spirits... they're all energy and energy is what I do, remember?" I grin at him. "It's not going to take fifteen minutes to get over there. Well, not for me anyway. How about if I meet you there? The more time the Spirits and I have to set up my shields the better, don't you think?"

Dennison just looks at me, almost as if he's going to say something, but then changes his mind and just sighs. "Right. Fine. I'm sure a locked gate won't keep you out, will it?"

I just grin at him. "Really? You even need to ask?" I start up the Ducati and turn it around. "I'll meet you and your friend at the back of the yard."

The silence of the Ducati is a kindness to the people in this neighborhood. Although given that it's a day of football, I'm not sure most of them would even notice the louder Harley... perhaps not even the bikers' Hogs. I have no interest in maintaining a respectful speed limit, however, as I continue up Sheridan Boulevard to 112th Avenue. Even with Sunday afternoon traffic, it's just as easy to stay on the surface streets and off the Turnpike as I head over to the transformer substation. I take a right onto Wadsworth Boulevard, then a left onto 116th Avenue and up that street almost to the point where it curves around to become Allison Street. This is a funny neighborhood; it's almost as if every street goes out of its way to avoid the Turnpike. It's also surprisingly deserted... though most people are convinced spending much time around an electrical substation is going to give them cancer. And turn them into a mutant. I've read enough to know the jury is still out on the first — what with the dearth of actual scientific studies done — and that the second is complete hogwash.

Hell, I'm more dangerous than the average electrical substation. Well, when I'm pissed off, anyway.

In truth, I'm not so much concerned about myself as I am the transformers themselves... hence my request to Bear for its assistance and Lizard's. I could protect myself easily enough, but I've noticed in the past couple of days that I'm having an adverse effect on electronics if I don't pay attention and make some effort to protect them.

I blame those two. I'm still too chicken to buy one of those home pregnancy tests, but it's just barely discernible that there's something going on. And for the second time in my life, my period is late. How the hell am I supposed to tell Pablo?

It takes considerably less time for me to reach the transformer substation than it takes Dennison... or his friend. I shake my head as I look at the gate. If they're just going to use a heavy-duty bicycle chain and a padlock to keep the gate closed, why bother using anything? Even Bobby could figure out how to get past that! Okay, he'd probably need David to actually use the bolt cutters if he's intent on maintaining his vapid queen act, but at least he'd have an accomplice to join him in his jail cell.

Of course, he'd get caught! We are talking about Bobby, after all.

Dear gods, and speaking of Bobby, if he doesn't calm down, I'm afraid he's going to have a stroke. His aura doesn't show any problems... yet. The way he's been fretting and worrying about having Christmas dinner with David's family, I'm still going to be concerned. I've told him at least every other day for the past two weeks to find a way to calm himself down; even Pablo told him to take up drinking. Heavily. I'm not sure that's the solution, but he's going to spend the next twenty-three days driving everyone around him absolutely bat shit crazy. Shit, we're all going to wind up in the funny farm.

Won't that be fun?

And yes, I am counting down the days until Christmas. So is everyone else who knows Bobby.

A jolt of qi disables the padlock; a light tug on the chain leaves it hanging on one gate as I push the other one open just far enough to roll my bike through.

There does not appear to be enough energy here to cause you any harm, Warrior, Bear says. It stands beside me after I bring my bike around to the far side of the chain link fence enclosed space looking at the equipment with confusion. Are you certain you need our assistance?

Despite what I told Deputy Dennison, I'm more concerned with my power affecting the substation. Even with two hours of Taiji every day, I seem to be erratically affecting electronics around me.

Bear scuffs a foot on the ground and avoids looking at me. I give the Spirit the stink eye.

Yeah, guys... we're going to have a nice long talk about this. The lot of you are acting mighty peculiar. I think you're all very aware of the fact that I have no patience for Spirits who act crazy.

I feel Cobra hug me more tightly, and Opossum runs its tiny paw along my ear. Fox looks up from where it leans against my leg. They worry about you, Warrior.

I raise an eyebrow. And you don't?

Foxes can't shrug, but my guardian Spirit shakes its head in a way to give that impression. You have not given me reason to worry. You grow in power. You are learning to wield it. If you become unbalanced in the amount of power you have, the amount of power you can control... then I will worry.

Huh. I look up as I hear the sound of an automobile on the gravel outside the gate. Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, O Fox. I suppose with these worrywarts around, there's little chance that I'll blow up the neighborhood, I say sarcastically.

Of course not, Warrior. You are still quite balanced.

I stare at Fox for a moment. I really don't feel balanced particularly balanced these days, but... fine.

Fox nods. It is to be expected. You...

Bear reaches down and cuffs Fox. Eagle said not to speak of it.

I hear a second car pull up, two doors open... then close again.

Oh, we will talk later, my friends, I snap at them. I don't care what Eagle says. We. Will. Talk.

"Dennison, did you call me out here just to point out the perpetually broken lock? I have better things to do with my time."


"Passeri, would I dare waste your time? Come on... there's someone I want you to meet."

I hear the gate open, but only one set of footsteps.

"Dennison, people who hide in here generally do not want to meet me." Just from the tone of her voice, I can tell I'm going to like her. "Do you know why? Because I'm the one hauling their asses off to jail."

I grin and get off the bike.

Dennison sighs. I'd even bet five bucks he's rolling his eyes, too.

I step around the transformer itself so I can see the gate, and the woman talk to Dennison. I'm not bothering to hide the staff. But I do clasp my hands together behind my back and bounce lightly on my toes. "And if you haul my ass off to jail, what then, Detective Passeri?" Well, detective is a good guess seeing as she's dressed in civilian clothes and driving an unmarked car — unmarked except for the fact that everyone knows the detectives always get the Ford Tauruses.

Her eyes snap to me as her hand goes toward her gun, and then she stops... frozen in place for a few seconds. She turns to look at Dennison as she takes the two steps necessary to close the distance between them, then punches him — hard — in the shoulder. "You asshole!"

"OW! What the hell did I do?"

"Oh, lured her out here under false pretenses, maybe?" I chime in helpfully. It's interesting that Passeri reached with her right hand for her gun, but her left hook packed a hell of a punch. I'm guessing a switch hitter, like Pablo.

"Yeah. What she said," the trim brunette said. "Now introduce us properly, Brian."

He rubs his shoulder as he does so. "Passeri, this is Ninja, one of the Supers from Denver. Ninja, meet Detective Norma Passeri of the Broomfield Police Department."

As I step forward to shake her hand, she mutters, "You did it wrong, and I'm going to tell your mother."

I grin broadly as I shake her hand; it's solid, firm... but not overbearing, she's not overcompensating for anything. "The fact that you know his mother means you've known him longer than I have. Your belief that I outrank you only holds true when we're working together and the perp is a mutant. Dennison knows I don't stand on formality, and we're contemporaries... so there's no need to mention anything to his mother." I wink at her.

"This time."

She looks at him askance, nevertheless, assessing the situation. After a moment or two, she nods to herself, then smiles at me. "It has the ring of a tall tale, but I'll buy it this time around. So what can I do for you, Ninja?"

"If I grok where Dennison was going with all of this, if I ever need a contact with the Broomfield PD it's better to have one before I need one. And he's decided you're it."

"Grok? GROK?" She looks at Dennison, eyes wide. "GROK!"

Dennison laughs and pats her shoulder. "Yes, Passeri. The Super correctly used a term from your favorite branch of so-called literature."

"Hey!" we say at the same time, then laugh.

"I'll hold you down while Passeri punches you again, Dennison," I say with a grin. "Science fiction is proper literature!"

Passeri chuckles. "Well, he was at least correct when he allowed a thought to float through the cavernous brain of his and decide I was the right person in the Broomfield PD."

Dennison sighs. "You're going to bring that up for the rest of our lives, aren't you?"


"Oh, do tell, children! I see this is an amusing story, and something I might use in the future to tease Dennison." I cross my arms and grin at them. "I must know!"

"I went to college with this lunkhead," she says, tilting her head toward her friend. "We wound up in the same study group freshman year for..." She glances at him. " was Bio 101, wasn't it?"

He nods. "Yeah, Chem was the second semester."

She returns the nod and looks back at me. "We clicked in that BFF kind of way and had a friendly competition all the way through graduation."

"And if it weren't for that pseudo-Lit class you took senior year, I'd have made a higher GPA than you."

"It wasn't pseudo-Lit, it was flat out the hardest Lit class I ever took... as you well know since you watched me suffer through it."

"Well, you did suffer," Dennison admits, "thereby making me suffer."

"Which was exactly what you deserved since you nagged me the entire sixteen weeks about The Literature of Science Fiction not being a real thing and all."

I shake my head and look between the two of them. "Okay, now I need to know where to find this course, who teaches it, and then take a sixteen-week break from the Super Hero gig to to go back to school."

Passeri sighs. "It was at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, but Professor Szymek passed away last year. He was older than God when I took the class, and we graduated in Oh Five."

"Sorry to hear about your professor... it sounds like he was one of your favorites. And I'm devastated about the lack of such a class." I sigh myself. "On the other hand, I'm not sure my personal life would allow me to spend four months in Central Illinois."

"Uh, to say nothing of this gig," Dennison says, gesturing to my outfit.

I shrug. "Well, there is that."

He shakes his head. "I really don't understand either one of you. And you know what? I'm not going to try."

"Oh my God, Dennison! Are you finally learning something?" Passeri teases.

I chuckle. "I think I might be partially to blame for that. The more he hangs out with me, the weirder his life gets."

"Yeah, that's the truth." Dennison added a dramatic sigh.

"Not much happens out here in Broomfield, Ninja, but at least I know who to call now if we're invaded by aliens or something."

"Bite your tongue! I know what inhabits way too many trans-dimensional places to be comfortable with alien jokes." I pretend to shudder. "With my luck, they'd all be perverts like that Goblin Skeeve up in Boulder."

Passeri nods. "Heard about that. Fortunately for Broomfield, things like this..." She gestures to the transformer. "...are the most energy you're going to find around here." She rolls her eyes and snorts in a very unladylike manner. "Except around the Fourth of July. The citizens do tend to get a little crazy and attempt to burn down the town."

"Not that I'm wishing that kind of hell on anyone," Dennison says, "but if the timing had worked out differently, Passeri or one of her colleagues would have been calling on the Ryersons instead of me. They just moved down to Westminster about a year and a half ago."

She looks at him silently, completely expressionless, and shakes her head slowly. "I never want to do another one of those ever again as long as I live."

He nods just as slowly. "You might get that lucky. Broomfield County is small... Adams County isn't."

"Well, that was the reason I left Urbana PD," she says, tucking her hands into the pockets of her denim jacket. "It's not a big city, it's just a college town. Hell, it's half the size of Champaign!" She shakes her head and sighs, looking off toward the Turnpike. "It was bad telling folks about their kids. I'm not talking the college kids... but grade school and high school kids." Passeri is silent for a few moments. From Dennison's posture alone, I can tell he knows all this. When she speaks again, her voice is quiet... just barely carrying over the sounds of the nearby traffic. "My superiors all warned me that never gets easier. They didn't warn me that it would get worse. After that last time..."

She glances at Dennison, then looks back at me. "Well, Brian had been trying to talk me into coming out here for a couple of years. I checked to see who was hiring detective level people — I figured most places promote from their own ranks, but that maybe I'd get lucky. Turns out a few cities were hiring... I put in applications at Fort Collins, Boulder and Littleton PDs, in addition to Broomfield. Had interviews with Boulder and Broomfield." She shrugs. "Broomfield isn't a college town."

I nod. I can see she's got more of a Gift than she realizes, although, like Van Dorn, it's hard to say if it would turn up on a blood test. "You have a lot of empathy. I can see where that could be a liability sometimes."

"Big help at other times, though... so I just ran away from the problems I couldn't handle."

"Oh, come on, Nor," Dennison says, "you were trying to take care of yourself and still be a good cop. Quit beating yourself up!"

"I'm siding with Dennison on this one, Passeri. I'm out here today running away from my secret identity's problem of a best friend who's both freaking out over the holidays and overly concerned about certain things going on in my secret identity life, despite being told that those things are not a concern. Well, not much of a concern, anyway." I grin. "Heck, I might just go visit Markensen out in Arapahoe just for the fun of it!"

"I'd better call him and warn him that you're in a mood," Dennison says wryly.

"Oh, but why?" I chuckle, perhaps a bit evilly. "Markensen loves my snark."

Ninja's phone vibrates then. "Okay, maybe I just cursed myself," I say as I pull the phone out of its belt pouch. I look at the text, and if my eyebrows could have crawled over my head and down my neck, they would have.

I may have to shoot Bobby. Get home ASAP.

I key in a response.

Do you realize what phone you texted?

"Problem?" Dennison asks while I wait for a response.

"Likely... it's Garcia down in Denver." The phone vibrates again.


"Okay, then," I say as I slip the phone back in its pouch. "It was nice meeting you, Passeri." I turn and head back to my bike, calling over my shoulder, "Dennison can give you my contact information." By the time I get the bike started, they've pulled the gate open enough that I can ride right through. "Garcia's 911s tend to be... well, not good," I say, pausing briefly at the gate. "We still have that thing I promised I'd do for you, Dennison, and before the twenty-second would be best if you can make that happen. Passeri, here's to hoping aliens don't invade Broomfield." I grin, then turn right on 116th, follow it around until it becomes Allison, then turn right on 118th Avenue and an almost immediate left again onto Wadsworth Boulevard. Wadsworth ends abruptly, but it's where the Colorado 128 starts. I'm just going over the bridge that passes over the Turnpike, turning right at the first light — which you'd think would be a continuation of Wadsworth Parkway, but you'd be wrong; it's part of the Interlocken Loop. I've pretty much gotten used to streets not making sense out here. But the entrance to the Turnpike is right around the corner; as I fly by the transformer substation, Dennison and Passeri are just getting into their respective vehicles.

Traffic is fairly light on the Turnpike, and I push the Ducati up to a gentle ninety miles per hour. Traffic in not so great on my good friend Interstate 25 thanks to all the lovely people going to see the Broncos play. Shouldn't all of you already be over at Mile High Stadium — which I know full well is no longer called Mile High Stadium? The game is about to start! Okay, maybe not for another twenty minutes. Fortunately, I'm not above using the express lanes even when I'm not supposed to. Tsk. Whatever will CDOT do about that crazy motorcycle riding Super who can't seem to keep her speed under ninety?

They'll cope, I suppose.

In all, it takes about ten minutes to get to the end of my block, where I slow down. I work to camouflage myself and the bike so I look like Andi riding her Harley, wearing her leathers and a helmet. I can feel Pablo's frustration from here, and I sigh. I know Bobby and David are inside my house. This annoys me, as my leathers are actually in the bedroom. If Pablo has them trapped in the living room, I'll be fine...

I'm in the garage... where are you guys?

I'm definitely not prepared for the frustration and repressed anger I feel from Pablo when he answers, and I stagger back a bit. Whoa. No wonder he called Ninja.

Kitchen... where there might be a dead body soon.

Okay, that's not going to work.

I can be sneaky, I can move fast, and I can go invisible... I can't do all three at once. Can you draw them into the living room, love?

I can almost feel him storming out of the kitchen and into the living room — that whole we are One thing — then turn on the TV and sit down heavily on the sofa. I'm pretty sure he's trying to ignore Bobby.

I choose invisibility and just leave it at that, moving at a normal speed from the kitchen door to the bedroom door. I slam the door behind me.

I've already propped my staff in the closet, taken off the scabbard and belt, and am finger combing my hair when Pablo slips into the room.

"Oh my God, Andi... how can you stand it?" He leans against the door almost as if he's trying to prevent it from ever opening again. I close the distance between us and hug him fiercely.

"He's never been this bad before. I don't know what the hell's gotten into him." I feel Pablo's arms wrap around me; just being together like this is calming him down. Well... enough that he probably won't kill my best friend, anyway. "Let me change my clothes, and I'll go threaten him with my Kung Fu hands."

My husband kisses me softly before releasing me. "I'm not sure it's going to help."

I sit down to pull off my boots. "Well, it's not going to make things worse, so there's that." I toss the boots in the direction of the closet as I stand, then start stripping out of my uniform. Pablo, being the sweet and loving and thoughtful man that he is, picks up my boots and tucks them in the corner of the closet where they belong. However, he's considerably more interested in watching me undress. I fold the uniform and hand it to him since he's standing in the closet doorway, before heading over to the dresser to pull out clothes to wear.

"Why didn't you use the Call Me Back app to get out of this? And why text Ni... ah, my other phone?"

"Stupid app wanted to update before doing its thing, so I got desperate. I know you keep your personal phone in the bike when you're working, so I texted you on the other one."

I nod as I zip up my jeans. "Makes sense." I pull the mass of my hair over my shoulder to make sure none of it's still caught in the back of my polo shirt. By the time I toss it all back over my shoulder, shaking it out, Pablo is standing in front of me again. He sighs as he runs his fingers through my hair.

"No shoes?"

"I'm home. Of course not." I look into his beautiful dark eyes for a moment. "Let's get rid of my annoying best friend. I'm pretty sure we could find something interesting to do besides watch football this afternoon."

"Hmm... I'm sure you're right."

I kiss him again before heading to the door, and then into the storm raging in my living room. David is leaning against the front door; he looks exhausted and more frazzled than my dreams have been making me. Bobby is pacing back and forth... and back and forth... and back and forth. I stop in the archway, hands on hips and just watch him. It takes David clearing his throat to bring Bobby out of whatever fugue state he's in.

Unfortunately, he heads right for me. "Andi! Pablo isn't being truthful, I just know it!"

I stand my ground and raise one arm to point a single finger at him. I'm pretty sure the look on my face is not one of love and joy at the moment... it's likely something much closer to annoyance and frustration.

"You, sir, are driving everyone around you completely out of our gourds! I told you myself, just yesterday and at least four times, that I'm fine... Pablo and I are fine... and we're not going to wind up homeless and eating out of garbage cans. What part of that didn't you understand, Robert Jeffrey Tompkins?"

"But, Andi... I just.."

"No, no, and no, Bobby! You don't get to bring your crazy into my house and torment my future husband when I'm not here to protect him from you and your crazy." I glare at Bobby. "I will Gibbs slap you hard enough to give you whiplash!"

"Would you, please?" David asks wearily. "Bobby, I love you dearly, but I'm seriously considering having you committed." He's only half joking about that part.

"Oh, would you, please?" Pablo asks David with considerably more frustration. "I don't want to have to go through the hassle of making up a reason for arresting him."

"Guys, stop it. All of you." All of my stress — from being laid off, to getting married, to having my whole family here, to things I can't tell Bobby and David, to that thing I can't figure out how to tell Pablo — all of it's right there in my voice.

"Bobby, I've never lied to you. I'm not lying to you now. Pablo and I are just fine. Please get that through your thick skull."

I lean against Pablo as he wraps his arms around me. "Don't you guys have a Christmas tree that needs to be made into a tribute to Martha Stewart?" I say, attempting to lighten the mood.

Bobby just nods.

David pushes himself away from the door and walks over to Bobby. "Come on, Bobby," he says in a soft and soothing tone, "I know how much you love decorating the tree. Why don't we spend the afternoon doing that? We'll leave these two fine heterosexuals to do whatever heterosexuals do when they don't decorate Christmas trees."

He nods again and allows David to lead him to the front door... and out of our house.

I lean my head back against Pablo's chest for a minute, eyes closed, trying to settle not only my qi but his. I should probably go downstairs and practice for a while. Pablo kisses my head and I smile.

"Thanks for getting home so quickly. You couldn't have been too far away."

I open my eyes and lean my head back a little more to look at his face. "Broomfield."

"Holy shit! How fast were you going?"

I grin, straighten up and extricate myself from his arms so I can turn off the TV. "Ninety on the Turnpike and I-25. You might want to mention to Sanchez I was flying down the HOV lanes, which — despite there being a Broncos game today — were not officially open. I'm not sure the cameras can get a picture of my plates when I'm going that fast, but just in case... well, forewarned and all that jazz."

He meets me at the sofa and we sit down, nestling together.

"You're going to give him more gray hair than he already has."

"Yep. It's a gift."

Pablo chuckles. "I love you, mi mujer loca."

"I'm glad. I love you, too, Pablo."

"Want to talk about your outing with Sergeant Dennison?"

"Uh huh... let me just sit still for a few minutes first."


This Interlude issue of Beyond the Shadows: Ninja is dedicated to Megan Ruth Cunningham.

© Kelly Naylor