Issue 2: Family Matters

I'm getting some things out of the refrigerator to make something to eat, when I notice my telephone is blinking, indicating that someone's left a message for me.

Huh. That's interesting. Hardly anyone ever calls during the day.

I take the phone off the charger, press the speed dial for voicemail, set it on speaker phone, and place the phone on the counter. Multitasking at its finest... retrieving voice mail messages while making a sandwich. Well, the sandwich is just for starters. I'm really hungry.

There are actually two messages waiting. The first one is from Bobby.

"Hey Andrea, I just wanted to check in with you, see if you can give me a hand Friday night for party preparations. Bringing home a lovely apple strudel tonight if you want some. See you, kiddo!"

Then the second message starts.

"Andrea... it's Mama..."

There's something in her voice that sends a shiver down my spine.

I put the jar of mayo down, feeling a dreadful knot forming in my stomach. I wrap my arms around myself as I listen to Mama's message.

"It's Tita Kai. She's had a heart attack," Mama says quietly, her voice filled with sorrow. "She's alive but in critical condition."

Despite the fact that Tita Kai has had heart problems nearly my whole life...

Despite the fact that the doctors have been predicting every quarter for the past fifteen years that her heart would give out before her next visit to them...

When they finally get it right...

The news hits me hard. I can feel the tears running down my cheeks; I slide down to the floor, only my training and a firm grip on the counter keep me from toppling over.

Despite whatever the doctors have said on the matter, I believe with all my heart that the love Papa Bill and Tita Kai share is what has kept her alive and healthy all these years. Love... it has that power.

I sit with my knees pulled up, forehead resting on them and arms wrapped around my legs. I don't know how long I sit there, silently crying and feeling as if my heart is shattering.

Oh, Tita! Don't go! I still need you so much!

I can't think; it hurts so much.

But... I need to think.

Come on, Andi. Think.

It's Monday. I'm not sure what time it is, but it's still light out. Even going the speed limit, I could get to Flagstaff by morning.

Yes, I'm scheduled to work all week, but Mrs. K will understand. I will have to cancel Wednesday's dinner with Pablo; I'm sure he will understand.

Don't go, Tita, don't go...

I don't know about Bobby's party...

I reach up and manage to nudge the phone off the counter. I stare at it for minutes... two, five, ten. I don't know.

I seem to be saying that a lot.

I dial Mama's number, feeling as though I'm watching from outside myself; that's when I realize I haven't been breathing very well. The phone rings once... twice... three times before she picks up.

"Mama?" I'm crying hard again, and it's hard to talk. "Mama, I can be home by morning. How... how is Tita?"

Don't go, Tita, not yet. I need you... you are the Wise Woman. You can answer my questions; I know you can.

I wish I could stop crying.

"She's in critical condition, but the doctors are hopeful," Mama says, sounding better than she had in the voice mail message. "Papa Bill is with her and he's strong, but I know he'd be comforted by your presence, dear. I'll tell him that you're coming, and I'll get your room ready. It will still be good to see you."

I sigh, so deep and heartfelt that Bobby would be able to hear it if we both had our kitchen windows open. Fortunately, mine was closed.

The doctors are hopeful...

"Thank you, Mama. That's better news than I feared. I need to take care of a few things, let people know I'll be gone, then I'll be on the road. And yes, Mama... I will be careful. I will even stay close to the speed limit riding through the mountains. I promise," I say as I smile.

Even during the day, I tend not to exceed the speed limit on the mountain roads — heck, even I-70 can be tricky in spots. At night? In spite of having better reflexes than Normals, I stick close to the limit.

"I love you, baby, and yes... drive safely," she says. I can hear the smile in her voice as she says what I knew she would have to say... because it's what she always says.

"I love you, too, Mama. Tell Daddy I love him, too. I'll see you by morning."

I disconnect the call but continue to sit on the floor. I feel emotionally drained at the moment, but as I told Mama, I need to get some things arranged. First I call Mrs. K's cell phone. She doesn't pick up, so I leave a message explaining the situation, apologizing for inconveniencing her and whomever she gets to cover for me.

Next, I call Pablo and wait for him to pick up.

I know I'm catching him at work, so it's his cell phone I call; he knows who it is, of course, thanks to the wonders of Caller ID.

"Andrea? How's the library treating you today?" he says; I'm sure he's already seen the reports from Boulder because I can hear the concern in his voice.

Right. That thing up in Boulder. After Mama's call, it would be easy to forget about that.

"Everything is fine at the library, Pablo. I'm calling because..."

The doctors are hopeful...

I can feel my breath catch in the back of my throat, but I am not going to start crying again. I am not.

"Mama called... Tita Kai had a heart attack. I'm riding to Flagstaff tonight."

I am not going to start crying again!

There is silence for a moment.

"Oh, no! I'm so sorry, Andrea. I know how close you two are," he says. I'm sure he's thinking of all the stories I've told him about my grandmother, and the look in my eyes when I talk about her. She is my inspiration, she is my rock. If I radiated light like the sun when I talk about her... well, it wouldn't surprise me.

"Andrea... would it help if I came along? Drove for you or whatever?" he offers.

I have to swallow hard; his offer touches me so deeply.

"Thank you, Pablo." My words come out barely above a whisper. "But even at night, I can make it over the mountains faster on my bike than in a car."

I hold my breath for a minute, or forever perhaps, before I can speak again. I can admit to myself that having Pablo with me would be a comfort; can I admit it to him?

"I think... I think maybe... having you with me, I think, would help me. But even though Mama said the doctors are hopeful, I have a sense of urgency about getting there as soon as possible. You can understand that, right?"

Oh, crap! I'm crying again. Damn it!

"I could spend the next two hours practicing, and I still think I would go crazy from the worry if I were cooped up in a car."

"Okay, Andrea, you just be careful on the bike. I'll get some things thrown together and let my captain know I'm taking some personal time. I'll meet up with you in Flagstaff tomorrow then," he says.


I have to press my knuckles against my lips to keep from sobbing. So much kindness and consideration does that wall of my mine very little good. I take a deep shuddering breath before I can continue.

"You don't have to do that, Pablo, but thank you. I promised Mama, I promise you, and I will promise Bobby when I tell him that I will be careful. I won't even exceed the speed limit after the Eisenhower Tunnel."

Sticking to the speed limit for the majority of the trip will make it closer to ten hours than the usual six to seven it takes during the day. I'm okay with that. I can even practice for another hour to settle myself and still get to Flagstaff before dawn.

"I guess this isn't the best of circumstances to meet the family," I say, a bit more lightly, "but I appreciate it, Pablo.

"Now I need to go tell the frantic party planner that I might not be able to help him out on Friday night."

I sigh that special sigh that's reserved especially for Bobby when he's a nervous wreck. I am desperately hoping to be back in time for his dinner party; it's so important to him.

"Wish me luck."

"You don't need luck, Andrea... but your grandmother is in my prayers. Be safe until I see you tomorrow," he says quietly and then hangs up, knowing I've got miles to go.

I hang up as well and lean my head back against the cabinet. Ah, Pablo... this is just the sort of thing that chips away at this wall of mine. And I don't even think you know what you're doing. You're just being a damn good friend.

It would be so easy to fall in love with you if I weren't so afraid.

I manage to stand, and stare at the half-made sandwich as I put the phone back on the charger. I do need to eat. Glancing at the clock, I'm surprised to see it isn't anywhere near as late as I thought. Bobby won't be home for at least another hour.

I finish making my sandwich and put everything else away. Carrying the plate with me into the bedroom, I nibble while packing a couple of changes of clothes and my toiletries into my tiny bag that fits perfectly in the bike's pannier. Finishing the sandwich and the packing at the same time, I carry the plate and bag back into the kitchen... the bag is set by the door; the plate is washed, dried and put away.

I do a quick walk-through of the house to make sure everything is in order for a somewhat extended absence. This really only consists of putting the mail basket under the door slot and flipping the locks on the windows so they can't be opened more than two inches. Then I change into a pair of shorts and head down to the dojo.

An hour later, I am calm... centered... energized. Fifteen minutes after that, I'm once again dressed in my leathers, although instead of Ninja's black turtleneck and bolero vest, I'm wearing a DU hoodie over a tank top. Hey, it gets damn cold in the mountains at night... even in summer. Ninja's clothes are in my bag, though; my jacket is draped over the bag by the door, my staff leans against the wall. The only thing left to do is gather a bag of travel rations... a few bottles of water, dried fruit, granola bars, buffalo jerky... then carry it all out to the garage. The tiny suitcase goes in one pannier, the food goes in the other. The jacket I drape over the seat after tucking the garage remote in my pants pocket; the staff, of course, goes in its 'holster', as Forsythe likes to call it.

I head back into the house for one last check. Leaning against the counter, I eat the remaining banana while procrastinating about the visit over to see Bobby. My cell phone is in my jacket pocket; my other cell phone is in Ninja's vest. I trust that Pablo or Captain Sanchez will get the word out to all my contacts that I'll be unavailable. I had sent a text to Peregrine letting him know I was going out of town for a family emergency before I packed the phone and vest in the suitcase. I do hope today's little problem getting in touch with him was simple and silly... maybe one of his kids tried to flush his phone down the toilet. That would be a hoot! Well, not so much for him... but it would be a funny story.

I toss the banana peel in the trash, then take the whole bag out and replace it with a fresh one. I head out the back door, locking up before tossing the garbage in the can at the corner of the driveway. I take a deep breath, then walk over to Bobby's back door. The door is open, and he's happily puttering around the kitchen and humming. I lean against the door jamb and just watch him for a few seconds, a smile trying awfully hard to form.

"Hey, Bobby."

He's in the middle of chopping up some veggies for a tossed salad, mixing it all in a large rosewood bowl. The scent of roasting chicken with lemon and garlic drifts toward me, mocking my simple sandwich and my taste buds let me know that I should just kidnap Bobby and make him my kitchen slave. He'd probably like that.

He turns at the sound of my voice and smiles. He has a somewhat simple face that transforms into something beautiful by his smile, lighting up the whole room as I know that it's heartfelt and just for me.

"Hey Andi, did the smell of my chicken call to you? There's plenty."

I smile, a true and honest smile, for the first time in what seems like forever.

"Your food always calls to me, Bobby. And it says the most obscene things." I manage a chuckle even. "I would be a very fat little Indian girl if I paid attention to everything your food tells me."

But then I sigh and shake my head, smile gone.

"I'm riding to Flagstaff tonight. Tita Kai's had a heart attack. I..."

No. Absolutely NOT! NO CRYING, ANDI!

I take a deep breath.

"Mama said the doctors are hopeful. So I'm going to be hopeful, too. But... well... she is eighty-five and this is the first actual heart attack she's had after twenty years of the doctors hearing peculiar sounds and strange rhythms, so I need to go see her." I clamp my jaws tight for a minute and close my eyes. I'm starting to babble. I just need to think about being calm, get back into the zone I'm in when I practice, when I fight. It's a serene place.

"I hope like hell I'm back for your party on Saturday because I desperately want to meet David's folks. I don't know if I'll be back to help out on Friday night, though."

Bobby's smile at my comments about the food turns into a gasp of concern at the news about Tita.

"Oh no!" he says, a hand going to his mouth, covering it.

I open my eyes to look at him... the first real friend I made in Denver after getting out of college, one of my best friends in all the world... I know he understands.

I manage another small smile.

I might not have the multitude of friends my little brother has — Justin's always been more outgoing than me — but my friends are the best anyone could ever want.

They get me. They understand.

He walks over to me and takes my hand in his, eyes already growing slightly red.

"I'm so sorry, Andi. Don't you worry about the party," he says quietly. "Would you like me to come with you?" he asks. "You should have as many people who love you around you at a time like this."

"No, no, sweetie... you need to stay here and plan your fabulous party, and impress the heck out of David's folks with your culinary skills. Right?" I smile at him and shake my head. "I don't know why you're so worried... oh, now don't you try fibbing to me, you have been worried... they're going to love you. David loves you. So will they."

I know him too well, of course, even without looking at his aura; the undercurrent of worry that David's parents won't think him good enough for their son is very plain to see.

I give him a kiss on the cheek as I squeeze his hands. "Keep me and my family in your thoughts, okay? Just knowing you and David are thinking of us is as good as having you with me, I promise. I'm riding my bike out — and YES, I'll be very careful — so there's only room for me. Pablo is going to drive out and meet me there tomorrow."

I pause for a deep breath. "The doctors are hopeful. Papa Bill is at her side. Tita's just gone and scared all of us, and I need to tell her in person she mustn't ever do that again," I say, trying to lighten the mood.

It takes him a few seconds, but he finally catches what I just said, and looks at me, raising an eyebrow.

"Oh? Detective McDreamy is going there?" he asks innocently, the faintest twitch at the corner of his lips.

I sigh and roll my eyes. "Yes, Detective McDreamy is going. And if you and David start singing Matchmaker, Matchmaker the next time we see you, I'll... I'll..." I narrow my eyes at him and grin slyly. "Well, I don't know what I'll do, but I'm sure you'll find it embarrassing. Or at least annoying."

He laughs and holds up his hands to me.

"No, no, I promise to be a good boy. I'm just glad that you'll have someone there with you, Andi. You know if things go wrong, David and I are only a phone call away, and to hell with the party!" he says and then holds his hands over his mouth again. "Martha Stewart will have my tongue for that!" he says and winks at me.

I laugh along with him. "If you can manage to behave, I won't tell Martha Stewart."

I pause for a few seconds, smiling fondly at him... the smile that says I know I'm damn lucky to have such a good friend.

"I'll be fine, Bobby. This party is important to you. David and I can tell you until we're blue in the face that the Professors McNair will not judge you because you're a baker and not some hoity-toity professional type. I've seen them, Bobby... they're good, down-to-earth people."

I give him a hug and another kiss on the cheek.

"And all the family who can get to Flagstaff will be there, which probably means all the family. So I'll have them, too, you know. Now, I have to go tell my Tita to stop scaring people, spend a little time with my family, and then get back here so I can finally meet the Professors McNair."

"Okay, Andi, just be careful and tell her she's in my prayers," he says, kissing my cheek back. "I'll see you when I see you."

The open road beckons to me, giving me lots of time to think... or not.

I head back to my garage, opening the overhead door with the remote. First things first: attaching my Droid to the helmet's headset. Bluetooth is a marvelous thing. I rarely use it, since I'm rarely on the road for more than an hour or so at a time. Even tonight I wouldn't need it... I'll stop every couple of hours for gas, food, stretching... but I think I'm going to want music. I'll work myself into a terrible state of worry if I think about Tita. I'll probably drive myself crazy if I think about Pablo too much.

I set the entire collection on shuffle and tuck the phone into one of the inner pockets of my jacket. I've got about thirteen hours' worth of music, more than enough to keep me from thinking too much. The phone's battery will never last that long; good thing I keep a few charged spares on hand. I slip on the jacket, despite the fact that it's still a little warm for it at the moment. Safety first, always. Besides, by the time I get past Golden, the cooler mountain air will make it comfortable. And for when it actually gets cold up near the Continental Divide, I've got warm gloves in the pannier.

Putting on the helmet, I test its controls... on/off and volume control work fine, I'll have to trust answer call does as well. Or just check for voice mail at each stop like I usually do.

And now I need to be on my way.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Odd to be thinking of Robert Frost at a time like this. Or perhaps not. Isn't he the one who said Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference?

Yep. And doesn't that make me start thinking about Pablo again?

As I head up Eighth toward I-25, I turn up the volume on Chrissie Hynde singing Hymn to Her.

It's a long, cold ride and the early morning sunlight is just warming me as I crest the last mountain pass and look down at Flagstaff far in the distance.

As I sit astride my bike at the scenic overlook above Flagstaff, quenching my thirst and nibbling on some dried apple slices, I realize I really don't come over the mountains to visit my family nearly enough. I can almost feel them from here. I know that's just my imagination; even for people as close to my heart as my parents and grandparents, they are still well outside my range.

I had stopped at the last rest area about a hundred miles back and spent an hour running through several of my forms. About half way through, a family with three little girls stopped for a rest as well. The children had been cranky and tired when they tumbled out of the minivan and followed their mother to the restrooms, but on the way back to their car they stopped to watch me. They had been entranced by the forms — especially the form that includes the staff work. They had similar expressions on their faces to the one Pablo had shown that night we talked. Gods, it seems so long ago now. They resisted every effort of their parents to hustle them along, but after a few minutes, the parents were watching with interest, too.

After I had finished, the girls rushed over wanting to know... well, from what I could gather, they wanted to know everything about anything having to do with kung fu, as they called it. Their parents, realizing the children would babble incessantly until they were mollified, came over to introduce themselves and the girls. Dad was Matt Washington, a mechanical engineer for a company outside of Phoenix. Mom was Sylvia Washington, a junior partner in a law firm. The girls were Melinda, Jessica and Heather, ages ten, seven and five. They were returning home from a family reunion in Cheyenne. I introduced myself, a simple librarian from Denver going to visit family in Flagstaff. By the end of the conversation, all three children decided I was their best friend, and I exchanged contact information with Matt and Sylvia. I promised to forward information on a dojo in the Phoenix area I thought might be suitable for the girls.

As I stow the empty water bottle and remainder of the apple slices in my pannier, I wonder again about that chance meeting in the pre-dawn hours. I am honestly bemused by children's reactions to me. Yes, I do enjoy Story Time at the library, especially with the younger ones who are often more easily pulled into a story. But for me, it's sharing a passion for books with the hope that these young people will become lifelong readers and learners. I like them well enough, the children... but I don't necessarily want to spend a considerable amount of time with them. Yet I seem to be a magnet for the younger set. Although, as I recall some of Doshu Ueshiba teachings, I suspect his assertion that children are more attuned to the energies of the world could well be the explanation for why children seem drawn to me. At puberty, most people experience the opposite of my experience. Rather than a firestorm of qi cascading through their bodies, the connection — the ability to feel the connection — to the energy diminishes, quiets, even shuts off completely in some people.

Of course, this has my brain swirling with thoughts I'd rather not be thinking as I begin the last leg of my journey to Mama and Dad's house.

Family. Pablo. Children.

Maybe that's part of my reticence to let him past my defenses. Family. Children.

I felt Pablo's joy and wonder when he talked about his son. It was clear becoming a father was possibly the most momentous event in his life. And to have that precious life torn from him... I could understand why he had buried all those feelings for so long. It wasn't a healthy thing to do, but it was understandable.

I guess that's another discussion to have with him. Children.

And why I won't — perhaps even can't — have any.

Mama's the only person I've ever talked to about the topic. I guess there's something about a mother who adores her children that makes her want that same thing for them. At least, that's the impression I take away from my conversations with Mama on the topic of children. She listens to the concerns I have about my mutated genetics; she thinks I worry too much. She was at my side the entire time I suffered when the Curse first took hold of me, and she thinks I worry too much. I love Mama deeply; I don't think she really understands genetics.

I don't think I'd have the strength to watch a child of mine suffer the way I did. In some ways, I know full well I am not as strong as Mama. She sat by my side, held my hand, sang to me, put cold cloths on my forehead. There were times I was delirious, but during every moment I was aware of my surroundings, Mama was there.

My strength is my weakness; the pain of my loved ones floods through me. She listens, she tries to understand, but in the end it's always the same. "You'll be fine, Andi. You worry too much."

I haven't even tried to tell her about the qi flows through my body, and my concerns that conception isn't even possible. My family, they know about the Curse... I don't think any of them truly understands it, although there are times I think Papa Bill might.

I need to stop thinking!

Flagstaff is a nice town. Early morning, with the sun peeking over the mountains and hardly anyone on the streets yet... that's my favorite time of day here.

As I ride up the street toward my parents' house, I can see Dad out front puttering in the yard. Sometimes I get the feeling he tends to the desert shrubs as meticulously as the old men he knew in Japan tended to their little bonsai trees. He looks up from his work as I pull into the driveway. A smile that is more radiant than his usual smiles breaks across his face as he brushes his hands off and walks across the yard to meet me. By the time I remove my helmet and get off the bike, he's standing at the side of the drive... hands on his hips and that glorious smile on his face.

"Hi, Daddy," I say as I give him a hug. "I've really missed you. How's Tita's doing?"

He returns my hug with an even longer one. We simply hold one another — each as precious to the other as air and sunshine — reassuring ourselves, I think, that the other is okay.

"I've missed you, Little Raven," he says softly to me, using an old nickname he had called me when I was a child.

He finally pulls back, hands on my arms.

"She's holding her own for now. It's good to have you home. Come, you must be tired after your long ride. Come freshen up while I make you coffee."

"Not so tired, Daddy," I say with a smile. "I stopped a while back to practice, and that always energizes me. But it would be nice to wash up with hot water that doesn't come from a dubious source.

"Let me just grab my things, wash my face... and then we can catch up."

Little Raven. Oh, that name always makes my heart glow with happiness! It's a nickname, it's kind of a silly affectation, but coming from Dad all it means is love.

"Of course, dear. Your room is ready, as always, and there are fresh towels waiting in the bathroom," he says, his hand on my shoulder as we walk to the front door and go inside.

All the sights and smells of home greet me, washing over me with memories and feelings. There is something about the things from childhood that speak to me in a way that nothing else can, calling back good times and bad. That porcelain dove that Justin and I broke one time while wrestling in the house... the old blanket that's been passed down from mother to daughter for generations draped over the back of the chair. Someday it will come to me.

I love how Mama keeps the old things, small and even the silly things; when I come to visit, this house I never really lived in still feels like home. Justin lived here most of his life; to him, this is home. I've never lived here; I have only ever visited. And yet... it feels like home. I asked Mama once about the little porcelain dove that has certainly seen better days... why keep it? It's broken, part of a wing missing and the rest glued into place — and the gluing procedure must be renewed every year or two. You know what she said?

"You and Justin had so little time to form memories together before we left Japan. We came home here, and you went to China. I am holding those memories so you cannot forget them."

My Mama is a wise woman.

I set my small suitcase and what's left of my trail rations on the floor beside the bed. It's only a twin-size bed, but that means the quilt Tita Rosa — Mama's mother — had quilted when I was born still fits perfectly. I wish I could remember Tita Rosa, but I had only met her a few times before we moved to Japan, and she died not long after that... before Justin was born, in fact. I have pictures of her, though... a beautiful woman who looks so much like Mama in the photos, I sometimes can't tell them apart. And I have this quilt she made especially for me.

On the wall above a small chest of drawers is the first ribbon I won in an Aikido tournament. I was seven at the time; it was the week after Justin was born.

All the little things that made our small Army base house a home had been carefully packed when they returned to the States. All the things that Mama knew brought back a flood of happy memories from the days before the Curse took me are here. It had taken Justin quite some time — or so I've been told — to adjust to living in this far more spacious house with all the things his big sister loved... but no big sister. There is an entire shelf of small things — from shiny pebbles to carved sticks to eagle feathers to small stuffed animals. They are things Justin had carefully given to me as gifts despite the fact that I wasn't there to appreciate them. Not at the time, anyway. At every visit, I spend time pouring over the collection of things most people would think is simply trash.

I pick up the raven feather, still holding my staff against my shoulder. I remember the letter Justin had sent when he added the feather to my collection. That was something he did every time he put something new on the shelf. He had been seven or eight then, and the letter had been written in the large and careful cursive of a young child just learning the art of handwriting.

Dear Andi,

I found a raven feather today. The Shaman says Ravens are special. Daddy says your name is Little Raven so I am giving the feather to you. I hope you like it when you come home. Daddy calls me Little Bear but please don't bring a bear home. I love you!

Your brother,

I find myself smiling, remembering the many ways my family managed to keep me close to them despite being so far away for so long.

Is it any wonder I love them so much? Every mail delivery brought at least one letter from Mama and Dad and usually four or five smaller ones from Justin. I might have often felt alone and lonely while living in China, but they made every mail delivery day one of joy.

I put the feather back on the shelf and prop my staff against the wall by the bed. After hanging my jacket in the closet, I go across the hall to wash the road dust from my hands and face. Finally, I go out to the kitchen where I lean against the archway watching Daddy slicing bagels.

I chuckle. "I've gotten so used to Bobby's muffins and cinnamon rolls and coffee cakes that I don't think I've had a plain old bagel with cream cheese in months! It's very dangerous when one of your best friends is a culinary genius, you know... especially when he lives right next door."

Daddy looks over at me and raises an eyebrow, looking me up and down.

"And yet you still seem very fit. Either he's an expert in low calorie baked goods or you're practicing quite often," he says, smiling at me as he places the bagels in the toaster oven to brown.

"Do you want cream cheese or butter and jelly on your bagel?" he asks as he reaches for a plate and a glass so that he can pour me the beverage of my choice.

"Cream cheese, please!" I say, pushing off the wall and heading for the refrigerator to get the orange juice.

"Definitely practicing a lot, which is really a wonderful thing... I enjoy it, it keeps me mostly stress-free, and I can test Bobby's new ideas before he releases them to the public." I take out the jug of orange juice and pour some into the glass. "He's required to make fat free muffins for work because the public demands it, but he says they are, and I quote, an offense against nature and nature's God, unquote." I giggle. "He watches 1776 far too often."

He nods and reaches up to take down another glass when he sees me get the orange juice out, and sets it next to mine.

Smearing the cream cheese on the toasted bagel, he raises an eyebrow at me. "1776? I assume that's a movie?"

I nod as I pour orange juice for him, too. "A musical. And he has it memorized. And he's gotten me to watch it enough that we sing the John and Abigail Adams duets together." I roll my eyes. "His boyfriend heard us early on in their relationship and has been pestering Bobby to join his chorus." I put the orange juice back in the refrigerator, then carry the glasses over to the table and set them down.

"Bobby is strong-will and has resisted all of David's efforts to get him to sing in public." I pause, grinning. "And that's a good thing because David made it very clear that I'm his next target. Not that I'd mind singing with his chorus, but my schedule is so goofy, I wouldn't really have the time to devote to it."

I pour us each a cup of coffee and set those on the table as well while Daddy takes care of the bagels.

"My little girl is turning into a songbird? I'd like to hear that some time," he says, laughing softly.

"I enjoy singing," I say with a smile. "And unlike Bobby, I don't think I'd mind getting up on stage with eighty other people to do it."

He brings the bagels over to the table and sits down across from me.

"How are you doing, Andrea? Really. Is everything going well for you?"

I take a bagel half and tear off a small piece, thinking. Before answering I eat the bagel piece slowly, then put the larger slice on the plate in front of me. I lean back in the chair and sigh.

"Really? I love my job. I have great friends. I feel like I'm making a difference because I have this... well, I don't know... Curse, gift, whatever. I can help people who otherwise wouldn't be helped.

"But these great friends of mine — even coworkers and the regular waitress at my favorite breakfast place — are getting more and more pushy about playing matchmaker." I narrow my eyes and point an index finger at him. "And if you or Mama start that, I'm either going to scream or start crying. Or both."

I sigh again and drop my hand into my lap. "Which reminds me, if Justin isn't flying out, Mama will need to make up his room for Pablo. Or give him the couch in the den."

I'm not really sure how I look right now... probably somewhere between seriously annoyed and completely pathetic. Unless it's possible to combine the two... then that.

Daddy sits quietly and watches me as I speak, looking into my eyes, watching my facial expressions. We all know the face can tell you so much more than words. My news about needing Justin's room made up catches him by surprise, though, and watching his face is just as interesting to me as watching mine probably is for him.

"Of course we'll get the room made up. Justin will be flying out tomorrow; he has tests and Papa Bill told him that Tita would want him to finish what he started."

He looks at me then, almost scrutinizes me.

"I won't play matchmaker, Andrea, but I do look forward to meeting him. You've spoken of him often."

I smile tiredly; my internal arguments with myself regarding Pablo have nearly worn my patience away on the entire subject. On the other hand...

"He is a good friend, Daddy, and a good person."

I close my eyes and tilt my head back, just breathing for a few moments.

"We finally spoke openly about what I do, which was a great relief. He told me about..." Ah, remembering Pablo's pain; I can still feel it, the resonance of it. But no, I won't cry. "Before I met him, his wife and son were murdered. He told me about them."

And then? Might as well tell him; Daddy has a way ferreting out information. Besides, even Normal people can look at Pablo and see the obvious. I take a deep breath, letting it out slowly, before continuing.

"He... he professed his love for me." I pause, just for a moment. "I am conflicted."

I am unwilling to open my eyes just yet; I think I might fall to pieces emotionally if I do.

Despite having my eyes closed, I know Daddy is nodding his head as he sips his juice. I know him well enough by now... that would certainly be his reaction to such news.

"I see. It's been a very trying time for you then. All of that, and then Tita's illness on top of it," he says. I feel him take one of my hands in his big strong ones... hands that I remembered drying tears on my face when I was a child.

"Matters of the heart are never easy, dear daughter. Not when you're an adult and know all the consequences and not just the rush of passion of youth," he says, gently squeezing my hand.

"But it's good that the words have been spoken, about all of these things. You've wished to tell your friend for some time, to give and receive his full confidence. It's worried at you like a stream over a stone."

When I feel his hand on mine, the knot in my heart begins to loosen. I smile... a small one, yes. Still. It's a smile.

"It has been a rather overwhelming week," I admit. "Having my activities known makes it easier to tell him things he needs to know, rather than dancing around the facts and trying to find a more orthodox way of getting them to him. The other..."

Again I sigh. I finally open my eyes and look my Dad again.

"I've known how he feels about me for nearly as long as he has. It's easier to pretend things don't exist when no one ever speaks of them." I shake my head and let out a rueful laugh. "That's true about so much, though, isn't it?"

I take another deep breath and smile more broadly. "But I remember you saying that taking the easy path is not worth the journey or the destination. Remember? When you sent me to live with Grandmaster Chen? But you were right. My path hasn't been easy, but... I think I would not have been satisfied with a less interesting journey."

Dad nods quietly, letting me speak. He's a wise man and knows that sometimes the best thing a parent can do is to listen, perhaps adding a comment now and then so that their child knows they are understood.

"That you're conflicted speaks to me, Andrea. You would not be conflicted about someone you didn't care for."

"He's been a good friend to me for many years, Dad. It's the... I feel like speaking of his feelings for me has shifted the nature of our relationship. I'm off balance," I say, and then shake my head. "I'm just afraid of losing that friendship I value so much if I let my heart free... and then things don't work out."

I frown, feeling frustrated that I'm not really explaining myself well. Though — really? — how can I when I'm not even sure of my own heart and mind.

"His friendship means... means a lot to me," I say quietly.

"That is as obvious as the nose on my very handsome face," he says with a soft smile, his love for me shining in his eyes.

I grin and roll my eyes at him... he does have a very handsome face.

"It's one of the bedrocks of your life. I can see that, Andrea. You've had a difficult life and you are afraid to lose that support. But life is about change, about risk. Relationships change, mature, wane, pass. If you are lucky, very lucky, you'll find a person willing to go through those changes with you. I found your mother and she has been my life."

He looks at me and smiles.

"Whatever you decide, be truthful and gentle and I doubt Pablo will ever not be there for you, as friend or more. He's a man who has known deep loss, as you say. I'm sure he's just as concerned as you."

Regarding all the rest... well, I just have to think. Or maybe not think. Maybe I have been thinking too much.

Though the one thing that he said...

"You and Mama are a shining example of a happy relationship. And so are Papa Bill and Tita Kai."

I looked down at the plate in front of me and pick at the bagel.

"I'm worried about Papa Bill. His love for Tita Kai is powerful magic, and I trust in that more than I trust in doctors.

"But I still worry."

"Of course you do, Andrea... so do I. They're part of my support, just as Pablo and Bobby are yours," he says, voice tinged by his emotions. "Just as you are to your mother and me, your brother, the whole family, all your friends."

He sighs and reaches over to brush a lock of hair off my face.

"Do you feel ready now to go see her and Papa Bill?" he asks.

I breathe softly for a moment, ensuring that I am centered and have no blockages to my qi. Then I nod.

"No time like the present. I'll ride with you," I say with a smile.

I finish my orange juice, then stand as I wrap my unfinished bagel in a napkin. "I'll finish this in the car."

The ride over is fairly quiet, both of us lost in our own thoughts and worries. Daddy parks in the lot and walks along with me to the front entrance, reaching out to take my hand. He's getting older himself and has been here — at the hospital — before. The breath of mortality sighs upon all men; not all of his friends are as healthy as he is.

Inside, the cool sanitized air of the hospital dries the sheen of sweat the day has already placed on our brows. Daddy checks us in and hands me my visitor badge, then leads me to the elevators. From there, we head to the second floor ICU waiting room.

The hospital is quiet, humming with an efficient energy that all such places have. Nurses in blue and green scrubs are moving about, doctors are consulting charts or seeing their patients as we walk through the regular medical wards toward the Intensive Care Unit. It's business as usual for them.

At least a dozen of my relatives and friends of not only Papa and Tita, but Mama and Dad as well, are here. They are talking quietly, napping, reading and such as we come through the door.

Walking into the ICU waiting room, I feel apprehensive and — probably quite foolishly — embarrassed that I am still wearing my riding leathers and DU hoodie. Not that anyone but Mama is impeccably dressed, but still... I am her daughter, and I feel like I should have at least put my nice blouse on.

My eyes go wide when I see that four of my seven cousins are in the room. Worry over clothing evaporates when I realize all four of the Cursed in my family are here. I know we have never all been outside the Nation at the same time before, ever. I think this might even be the first time Billy has ever left. I feel my eyes starting to tear up again.

Mama is sitting in one corner chatting with Aunt Sonia and Uncle Junior, Daddy's sister and brother. Talia, Uncle Junior's daughter, is chatting with Uncle Leon, Sonia husband, in another corner. Talia is our Precognitive; she works with Uncle Leon as his nurse. Charlie and Billy, Talia's younger brothers, are napping. Billy is the youngest cousin; he is our Shapeshifter. Tommy, Sonia and Leon's youngest son, is leaning against the wall looking as calm as I usually feel after practicing for two hours, although I can sense that he is watching me closely. Tommy is our Telepath; he is studying to be a Medicine Man.

The others are not family and not as familiar to me. I recognize one of the middle-aged men as the manager of Daddy's computer shop; another man and three of the women are members of Mama and Dad's bridge club. I think. The two older women are Tita's friends, members of her gardening group.

Although the shock of having Tommy, Talia and Billy here seems to have rooted me to the floor, I force myself to move, to walk toward Mama. I actually manage to make it across the room without tripping over anyone, smiling at those I pass, stopping to give Tommy a hug, and hug Mama when I reach the far side of the room.

What I want more than almost anything is to settle on the couch beside her, feel the safety of her arms around me, and forget everything that has troubled me for the past week. But the one thing I want even more is to see Papa Bill and Tita Kai... so I simply kiss her cheek, then hug my Aunt and Uncle.

I crouch down, so I can look up at all three of them. I could read their auras, but I've never felt comfortable doing so among the family.

"How are you doing?" I ask them.

Mama's eyes are red, but they light up when she sees me, and she reaches out to caress my cheek.

"Honey, it soothes my heart to see you. You are well?" she asks. My aunt and uncle smile lovingly at me.

"I'm well, Mama. But you don't look like you're getting enough sleep," I say, unable to keep the deep concern out of my voice. I smile softly as I hold her hand in mine. "Don't make me worry about you, too."

I can feel Tommy's mind gently brushing mine, so surprisingly gentle. He's gotten much better since the last time I saw him! I steal a brief glance at him before giving my attention back to Mama. He so rarely does that feathery touch thing with me; well, not since the first time I complained that it made my brain itch. He either just speaks up... or stays away from my head. But his touch is different than that first touch all those years ago. It doesn't make my brain itch; it doesn't do anything except make itself known... letting me know that I'd been missed and loved.

I guess the whole lot of us are on edge. Tommy's gentle concern burnishes the edge so it's not quite as rough as it might otherwise be.

Mama smiles weakly.

"I'll do my best not to worry you any more than you already are, dear. You must have been riding all night to be here now. Your father made sure you at least ate something I hope?" she asks, raising an eyebrow and looking past me to her husband.

My other relatives are starting to come over, everyone wanting to give their greetings to me.

I pat Mama's hand, and manage not to shake my head at her. And she says I worry too much!

"I had food with me, Mama. I ate something each time I stopped, I drank plenty of water, I rode carefully, and yes..." I chuckle. "Daddy made me a bagel with cream cheese, and I drank all my orange juice like a good girl."

I stand and kiss the top of her head, then whisper in her ear, "You worry too much, Mama." The humor in returning her own oft-repeated phrase back to her is clear in my voice, as is my love... and no doubt my concern for her.

Then I turn to greet Uncle Leon and my cousins. I've missed them all so much! But after a round of hugs and chatter, I finally look at Daddy.

"I need to see Tita and Papa. Which room is hers?"

"They're in ICU Room Two. You need to tell the volunteer there and she'll call in... get permission for you to go in," he says. He points with his chin to the sweet-looking elderly woman in white and pink sitting at a small desk with a phone on it. She's reading a novel; this pleases the librarian part of me!

I nod and walk over to the desk. "Excuse me, please." Being in a hospital seems to have the same effect on me as the library does... I speak in the same soft, soothing tones I use at work. "I would like to visit Kai Yazzie in Room Two. I'm her granddaughter."

The volunteer looks up and smiles. "Of course, dear, just give me a moment," she says as she picks up the phone handset to ring back to the nurses' station. She speaks quietly to the nurses for a moment before hanging up.

"You can go back. Room number two. No more than fifteen minutes," she says, pushing the buzzer to unlock the door.

I nod and walk hesitantly through the door as it unlocks. It seems like I'm walking in slow motion to Room Two. I will not cry.

Oh, who am I kidding?

I walk into the room and see Papa half sitting on, half leaning against Tita's bed. She looks so small. But Papa is holding her hand, they are talking softly, they are smiling. Their love for one another washes over me; it's like a physical presence, it's that strong... and I almost stagger.

"Papa? Tita?"

I'll just try to hold off on that crying thing for as long as I can.

They turn to look at me and smile, Papa Bill getting to his feet and Tita Kai holding out a shaky hand.

"Little one..." she says, her voice weak.

I walk to her side and take her hand. "Oh, Tita! You're not supposed to be trying to scare us anymore," I say, managing a smile. I bend down and kiss her cheek, and pat her hand as I straighten up. "We're all grown now; you'll need to save it all up so you can scare the great-grandchildren."

I continue to hold her hand, but reach out the other one toward Papa Bill so I can wrap an arm around him.

"This is a very clever way of gathering the whole family together, Tita. But once everyone has arrived, you'll be jumping up so we can go dancing, right?"

Oh, nice. I'm so worried, Ninja's smart-ass ways are leaking out.

I guess it's better than crying.

Papa Bill puts his big arm around me, his long silver hair mixing with my long black hair as he leans in and kisses my forehead.

"It does our old eyes good to see you again, child," he says, sounding worn and not at all his usual cheerful self. But then, all anyone has to do is look at Tita Kai and see her wasted pale face to know why.

"I think... you might have to do some of the dancing for me, Andrea," Tita says. Her hand is cold in mine, her grip is weak. "You didn't... have to come... all the way out here just for me, dear."

"I might agree to do some dancing for you, Tita. But not all of it... I don't know all the old dances yet," I say, leaning against Papa and holding her frail hand.

"And for you, Tita, I would cross the whole world. Denver is such a short ride away in comparison."

I feel like a hand has reached into my chest and covered my heart with ice. In all my thirty-two years, I have never been as afraid as I am right now.

"Sit, sit and tell me how you are," Tita says quietly, looking at me with those eyes that have seen so much, that always express such love for all her family.

Papa Bill pulls up the chair for me, then goes around to the other side of the bed to gently brush his wife's hair out of her face.

"Thank you, Papa," I say as he sets the chair beside the bed. I sit down and hold my Tita's hand between my own.

"I'm well, Tita. I have an ordinary life that is satisfying, with good friends, and I enjoy many different activities. I have a not-so-ordinary life that gives me purpose, that allows me to help people no one else will help, people no one else cares about."

I look from one to the other, not able to see clearly through the tears that are freely falling now.

"I feel so helpless. I have this incredible power to heal... I don't even know what the limit is. I'm sure there's something that could kill me. Because of that power, Master Chen believes I could live three, four, possibly even more times the normal human lifespan."

I lift my hands, palms up, offering them to my grandparents. I can see the energy pooling on my palms, like waves of heat off the sidewalks on the hot summer Arizona days.

"What good is this... what good is it all if I can't help the people I love?"

I am remembering to breathe. I just can't seem to stop crying.

"I would give it all away, do nothing but happily be a librarian for the rest of my life, if it would help you."

Tita looks up at me with tired eyes filled with love. "No, dear, I would never want that. We all have our number of days to walk the world and be with those we love. If it is my time, I am content. I have had a good life with my husband, my children, and my beautiful grandchildren."

She smiles.

"One of my true joys and fears is your work. You do wonderful things. You save people and make a difference. Don't you give that up, Andrea. It's who you are," she says, kissing my hand.

"And if it is not your time?" I ask her, with what I know is a sad smile.

"Why fear what I do, Tita? If, as you say, we are all allotted a certain number of days, then there is nothing to fear. When it is my time to leave this world, I will do so while saving someone and making a difference. Or I will be so old, everyone I will have ever known will be long gone." I shrug, not really able to imagine the latter scenario, though I could never find a flaw in Grandmaster Chen's argument for a lifespan that would be... unthinkable.

"I would prefer the former."

I press her hand against my cheek; it's cool and soft... sadly, just what would be expected for someone with heart problems and a diminished flow of qi. Except... except I can feel a strong and steady flow of qi as it brushes against mine.

I know my expression becomes more and more confused as I look at Tita's aura... and at Papa's, too. I shake my head, but that doesn't change what I see. Or... don't see. I stand and pace to the far side of the room; they look the same from over here, too.

What I see... or don't see... is completely incongruous with a diagnosis of heart attack. I press my palms against the sides of my head and close my eyes, but that doesn't change what I see... or don't see.

"Something is wrong. I don't understand. Is it me? Is it you?"

I open my eyes, squinting as though looking at a bright light, and look between the two of them, my hands still pressed against my temples.

"I don't understand. You both look perfectly healthy." I think I may have whined, just a little, from the frustration... I know that's the source of the tears that are threatening to escape now. I clamp my jaw shut for a minute and just breathe. I am still frustrated, but... I think I can hold off tears of frustration.

"What are you doing? I don't understand."

I need to be able to trust myself and my abilities; right now, I don't know that I can.

Something is wrong.

Calm. Calm.

Look deeper, look past the near-blindingly bright, almost physical emanation of their love. Even with my eyes closed, it's hard to see anything past that. Keep looking, Andi, because something is very wrong here.

And then I see it. I gasp and stagger back against the wall, pressing myself against it to keep from falling. Mouth open, I stare in horror at my grandfather.

"What happened here? This was not a heart attack. Something took her qi! How long have you been trying to share your qi with her? You're going to kill yourself, too!"

Papa Bill and Tita Kai both look at me in confusion as soon as I start reacting to what I see...or don't see, that is.

I know I'm babbling. I feel my knees give out and I slide down the wall to sit on the floor, stunned. Horrified that such a thing could even happen. Breathing badly, hyperventilating, terrified.

My deeper examination reveals that Tita must have lost a good deal of qi. But because of their deep and abiding love for each other — the link between them forged through countless years of marriage and love — Papa Bill has been unconsciously feeding her his life force by praying for her, holding her hand, kissing her gently.

I can't stand, can barely speak, but I need to know. "How are you doing that, Papa? Tell me. I have more than enough qi to spare."

"Child, I have no idea what you're talking about. Are you saying that someone or something caused this? That they hurt my beloved?" he asks. Old eyes look at me with a faint fire of anger in them as he comes over, lowers to one knee beside me... his knee creaking from arthritis.

I nod.

Of course... of course, they would not understand. I am using the wrong word.

"Nílch'i, Papa," I whisper. "The Holy Wind Spirit... qi is what they call it in China. Something or someone has taken Tita's. I don't know how, but you are sharing yours with her."

Understanding comes into his eyes and he nods. "I am sure that the two of us... well, we've been married a long time. Sharing our nílch'i is common according to our Ways. We are one," he says, resting his hand on my shoulder.

I reach out and gently touch my fingertips to his weathered cheek. "We need to find a way to fix this. I can't lose you both.

"I can't, Papa."

There was an idea trying to form in the back of my mind, but my fear was not letting it blossom.

"But why do you say that this is wrong, Andrea? That something bad has happened?"

I take a deep breath. What he said about sharing nílch'i... qi... that's not something I had ever learned. If that was a tradition of Grandmaster Chen's people, he had never mentioned it. But if it is part of the Diné tradition... the seed of my idea, I think, is germinating. There might be a way to repair the damage.

But first, I have to know the cause.

"Qi... nílch'i... is flowing through everyone and everything, Papa. Many people know this; many people deny it; some even think it represents their God..." My brows furrow. "...or their God represents the energy. I'm never really sure exactly what they mean." I shrug. "I suppose however people think of it is good for them, right?"

I'm still pretty upset, but I've settled and centered enough that I can stand, although I lean against the wall as I help Papa to his feet. I hold his hand as we talk back to Tita's side.

"I will explain how I learned it, and if I know how it relates to our customs, I will tell you that, too. Although I think Tommy will be more likely to know than me."

I smile as I place his hand over Tita's. Yes, my idea might require Tommy's assistance.

"The energy, it flows through each person, yes. I can see, well, not quite the energy itself — not usually, anyway — but its... echo? I see the results of the moving energy. I can see where energy is blocked; that's what I thought Tita's problem would be.

"To move the energy through the body with its proper purpose, there are the dan tian. That is what the Chinese call them. They are like... a bit like transistors. There is the zhong dan tian..." I place my fist over my lower belly, just below my navel. "Here is where qi... nílch'i... energy is gathered up; from here, it is pushed through all the meridians, the channels in the body that carry the energy. Like electrical wiring, okay? There is the xia dan tian..." I place my fist over my heart. "Here is where energy is stored, to keep the body going, to keep hope alive. Like a battery. There is the shang dan tian..." I touch a forefinger to the spot between my brows, the third eye as some call it. "Here is where the energy vibrates to keep the mind working well. I'm not really sure what an analogy to that would be."

I place my hand over theirs.

"Your love is so bright and so strong; it's all I've ever seen before. It's very hard to see past it, to see the dan tian. But that's where the... I guess I'd call it a signature or maybe a marker... is mixed with the qi so I can look, well, not really look, huh? You see why this is hard?" I say with a grin. "English doesn't have all the right words and Diné Bizaad has even fewer, and you don't understand Chinese. But I'll try.

"I know who a person is even if I can't see them because I... feel or see or sense... the energy in their body that has their marker. Once the energy leaves your body again, it doesn't get very far before the marker disappears. So first I looked at the energy around you, your aura, and it... it looked so clean and healthy that I... I was so confused. But I think, maybe, what happens... at least with you two, is that your love is so..." I take a deep breath and shake my head. "Well, no words... there just aren't words. But that's what... I'll say cleaned, purified maybe?... the energy.

"I had to look past that to see that Tita's xia dan tian is not blocked as I would have expected. Like a clogged drain pipe in the sink, right? I could have, perhaps, pointed you to a way of unblocking that. But it's not blocked... I have never, never seen anything like this. It's as if..." I pause and close my eyes, trying to see it again, to explain it in a way someone who does not work with qi might understand. My hand tightens over theirs slightly as I continue. "It might be compared to a bucket that has had a large hole poked in the bottom. Qi is being gathered and circulated, but when it reaches the xia dan tian, the heart... it just seems to pour out. That is not natural, or normal. Papa, all of the energy you are giving to Tita is just spilling out. Somewhere."

My grandparents are trying to follow what I'm saying, but it's pretty obvious they don't really understand everything I'm saying. Or even most of it, really.

I open my eyes and look once again from one to the other. "Someone or something did this. Yes, yes... we must find who or what so it does not happen again to anyone else. Most importantly, though, we must fix what is wrong."

I look Tita in the eyes and place my free hand on her shoulder. "No more talk of leaving us. It is not your time. This is an unnatural thing that has been done to you. And I think I know how to... to plug the hole in the bucket," I say with a smile, my eyes shiny again with unshed tears. "I think I will need Tommy's help... and the whole family's, too... and I'm very certain the nice ICU people will be very displeased by it all...

"But I think we can get you out of here so we can go dancing."

I look at Papa for a moment, his love for her blazing as bright as the sun... my heart, too, is so full of love for both of them. When I look back at Tita, my tears are spilling over again, but this time it's simply because all that love can't be bottled up. It needs to come out somehow. I'm grinning like a little child. No, it probably won't be the easiest thing to do... fixing whatever happened to Tita, but I can see in my mind how it can be done. It's certainly going to require more than an hour's worth of practice on my part beforehand. The really hard part will be finding whoever or whatever did this. But that's for later consideration. Right now, it was Tita's time.

"Now, Tita... you cannot tell me you don't want to spend at least another quarter century with this man." I gave her should a gentle pat. "If you try telling me that, I'll know you're lying to me," I said with what Bobby cattily calls my 'shit-eating grin'.

Of course, understanding everything I'm saying is hardly needed. I can see that they trust me with their very souls and would put themselves into my hands without hesitation. It's a heavy responsibility; not unlike the responsibility I have to the people of Denver who depend on me for justice.

Tita Kai smiles at me.

"Well, do you think I would want to spend another twenty-five years picking up his dirty socks? I would think that fifty years is enough, don't you?" she asks, winking at me.

"I think Papa should spend the next twenty-five years picking up his own dirty socks," I say, smiling at her. "But you probably shouldn't make him cook his own dinners. That might be too much." I return her wink.

As I lean over to give her a hug, I whisper, "These mysterious heart ailments of yours that never turn out to be anything? Maybe — just think about it — there might be a very small, very old sadness you have kept all to yourself." I kiss her cheek and turn to Papa, wrapping my arms around him and resting my head on his chest.

I'm so much bigger now, but listening to Papa's heartbeat is still so comforting; it is probably my most cherished memory from childhood, from before we even went to Japan. Being with Papa always meant safety. Now, I feel like it is my turn to protect him, to protect Tita.

And that's my job, protecting people. Well, Ninja's job, I should say. Andrea, with some help from the family, can help Tita Kai get better. Ninja, on the other hand, is not happy. Sometimes I do feel like two different people — especially when the pleasant librarian wants to make everything better and the fierce martial artist wants to crack someone over the head.

I pull back and look at Papa's tired face. "You need to rest more, Papa. And remember to eat well. And do something energizing." I tilt my head and grin at him. "Do you still do the pow wow dances with Uncle Leon? I'll bet that would do you as much good as my Taiji does for me.

"And visitors would enjoy the show on the front lawn," I add, giggling.

He smiles at me; still thinking of me as his little granddaughter, I know. But I can tell from the flow of his qi that it makes his heart lighter to hold me again, to feel my arms around him. I know both he and Tita have missed their dear Andrea.

"Of course I do. Not nearly as vigorously as in the old days, but the memories and traditions of our people must be passed on to the younger generations," he says, kissing my forehead.

A nurse comes by right about then, looking at me.

"Then dance, Papa," I say, sensing the presence of someone with an iron will melded with intense compassion... nurses, all the really good ones, have that same feel to them.

"My time's up, but I'll talk to Tommy... see what we can work out. I love you both so much." With a smile and less of an inclination toward tears, I leave the room, but pause for a moment outside the door to look at the nurse.

"Thank you. People don't say that to you enough... but thank you for taking care of my grandmother."

She smiles. "Your grandparents are so sweet, and so much in love," she says, glancing into Tita's room. "It's a pleasure, and a delight. She seems to be doing better. The doctors are optimistic."

I return the smile. "I think, now that I've spent a few minutes with her, that I am, too."

I leave the ICU, returning to the waiting room where my family and their friends have gathered. I had gone in to visit Tita looking and feeling frightened and worried; I walk out again looking and feeling relaxed and optimistic. Yes, I am still worried... someone or something is out here stealing people's life force.

I walk over to Tommy and take his hand, pulling him over to the corner where Mama and Dad sit with Aunt Sonia, Uncle Leon, and Uncle Junior. I know the smile on my face is a drastic contrast to the sorrow Mama is feeling. I let go of Tommy's hand and bend down to kiss Mama's forehead.

"I think Tita will be fine once our Medicine Man makes a Healing Song for us to sing. I won't try to explain, because I think all your eyes will glaze over like Papa's and Tita's did when I told them what I saw. But..." I sigh, always uncertain about how to explain what I do and what I see. I suppose that's why I always go with the too much information method... people with take what they can grasp and leave the rest. Still, now is a time for just the basics. "...well, something is trying to steal all of Tita's qi... nílch'i... life energy, and a Healing Song can repair the... mmmm... the hole, I guess, where it's all leaking out."

I look between Mama and Dad.

"And then... I have to go to work to find whoever or whatever did this and keep them from doing it again."

"You mean we do," Tommy says to me, eyes serious.

"No, Tommy. It's my job; it's what I do out here, outside the Nation, remember?

Mama and Dad look at me and nod. "I can arrange for Ha'atathli Ravenclaw to come visit. And I will fight with the nurses for the space to get enough of us in there," Dad says, but he is looking over my shoulder and a smile comes to his face.

"Oh, Daddy, Tommy knows enough to make the song!" I look at my cousin. "Just make sure it circles around these three notes." I hum a low note that vibrates in my chest, the tone that lights and activates the heart chakra, that corresponds to the xia dan tian. I hum another mid-range note that activates the throat chakra. Finally, I hum a slightly higher note that activates the third-eye chakra, corresponding to the shang dan tian.

"Little Raven, I do believe that a Hawk has arrived."

Before I finish giving Tommy the notes, before Daddy could even say anything, I know Pablo has entered the waiting room.

I smile. Until that moment, I didn't realize just how much I had wanted Pablo here. I turn to look at him, then reach out a hand in his direction.

"Pablo, you are here sooner than I expected. Come meet my family."

He looks at me and smiles, reaching out his hand as he moved toward me.

"I caught the early flight in," he says, meeting my eyes. "I would love to meet your family."

He must sure know that every pair of eyes there is on him, weighing him; some of them are smiling at him, those who know who he is from conversations with me.

I slip my arm around his waist as the other cousins come to gather; it just seems... right.

"This is Pablo Garcia," I say to the group. I realize there are a lot of us here; I don't think any of my relatives is intimidating, but I suppose facing most of the Yazzie clan might be a bit much. Is that the nervousness I'm feeling from Pablo?

I can feel a warm glow coming from him as my arm rests around his waist, and the slight nervousness fades away. I suspect, too, that he had been uncertain how I would greet him, especially with my family about, after our conversation... was it just last week?

"Pablo, these are my parents, Sandra and Nelson... my aunt and uncle, Sonia and Leon Dehiya... my uncle, William Yazzie, but everyone calls him Junior, including you," I say with a chuckle. "These are my cousins Tommy Dehiya... Talia, Charlie, and Billy Yazzie." I look at him, grinning. "Aunt Alicia and cousin Yani and her husband will be here later today; my brother, cousin Sam and his wife, and cousin Henry will be here tomorrow."

A faint scent of sandalwood hangs about him and he has obviously cleaned up carefully to make a good first impression on the family. He extends his hand and shakes hands with my family members, meeting their gazes and exchanging pleasantries as given. I think I'm actually feeling rather proud of him.

Since I only recently told Pablo anything at all about my own... Curse, there's no need to mention that all three of my cousins who are also Cursed are here. Or exactly who they are. Or what their specific Curses might be. If the topic comes up, if it ever becomes relevant, that will be the time to have that conversation.

"I'm very happy to meet all of you, although I truly wish it was under better circumstances," he says, turning to my parents. Mama reaches in and embraces him, smiling brightly for the first time today.

"It's good to finally meet you, Pablo. It feels like we know you already from all that Andrea has told us about you."

Pablo smiles at me, glancing in my direction.

"So she's been talking about me behind my back, huh?" he teases.

"Of course I have," I say, grinning at him. "But I haven't said anything I wouldn't say in front of you, too. So... nyah!"

I sigh and lean just a bit against Pablo. Pablo's presence and body are warm and solid, stable against me as I allow him this opportunity to support me.

"And yes, Daddy," I say, continuing our previous conversation, "if you could arrange for the whole family to be with Tita for the Healing Song, I think that would make her very happy. I don't think the doctors would believe me, but having all of us around her is better Medicine than anything they can do for her. And I wonder why..." I look directly at Mama with an exasperated smile. " one thought to mention, given the nature of my Curse, that sharing Nílch'i was a normal thing for spouses." I look at her and then Dad, shaking my head... then look at my aunt and uncles, as well.

"That explains an awful lot about all of you, I'll say that." I laugh. "No wonder I have such happily married relatives!

Dad looks surprised at my words though. "Andrea, I'm not sure what exactly you mean. Of course, a married couple would be joined in all ways. It isn't anything that we are doing consciously. It is just that after so long... we are one," he says, turning to look tenderly into Mama's eyes.

I shake my head, looking at Dad and Mama with love and even a little wonder. "Oh, Daddy, it's not an obvious thing to those of us who live among the Others. I don't think I've ever..." I stop and think for a minute. "Okay, I have met one other couple who is as devoted and connected to one another as my dear relatives are. I have a feeling when I go home, I will actually notice how intertwined Bobby's and David's auras are. But you have to understand that what you are saying is very new and not the least bit obvious to your poor little Andrea."

"Well dear, with age comes wisdom," Dad says, softly chuckling.

"But this sharing, this becoming one, means Papa needs to gather more than usual," I say. "Uncle Leon, I suggested the two of you might do some dancing." I look at him, and then down at the toes of my boots, trying — without success — to hide my grin. "Um, on the hospital's front lawn."

I press the knuckles of my free hand against my lips to keep from giggling.

Uncle Leon looks back at me when I comment about dancing on the front lawn, especially given that I can't contain my mirth.

"Well, I'll see what I can do, although that might be considered a public assembly out front. Perhaps we can find a place that the Spirits like nearby and dance there. I would prefer trees."

Several of the cousins chuckle and grin at the thought of the elders out there leading a dance in front of the hospital. Pablo looks down at me.

I look over at my cousins and wink, then back to the elders. "Wherever the Spirits like best would be the appropriate place to dance, of course," I say, smiling. "Perhaps Coyote will not prevail in the decision."

That causes my cousins to giggle even more. It's probably a good thing Henry isn't here.

"Can anyone join? If it would help, I would do my part."

Then I look up at Pablo. "You are more than welcome to join us. We will be doing our Healing Song, too, when the whole family is here tomorrow." I could feel my smile fading then. "What happened to Tita wasn't natural. Would you ask your counterparts here in Flagstaff if there has been any... less than normal activity in the area? Whatever did this needs to be stopped." I close my eyes and lean my head against his shoulder. I've done that before, so why does it feel new and different today? "Didn't I just fight some big bad nasty thing yesterday? That was yesterday, wasn't it? In Boulder?"

My eyes shoot open as a stray thought flitters across my mind, and I turn my head to look at my cousin.

"You said we had to find and stop this thing. Can you help me find it, O Medicine Man?" Although I addressed him in my usual teasing way, my voice, my eyes tell Tommy I am very serious.

Pablo nods, his eyes growing hard at the implication Tita has somehow been affected by someone, something that landed her here in the hospital. He seems about to agree with me but holds back when I suddenly turn to question Tommy. A faint smile crosses his lips as he looks at me.

Tommy pauses after my question, however, looking at me and then at Pablo and back with a questioning look in his eyes.

The look on Tommy's face just makes me roll my eyes. I swear, sometimes thinking sideways is an extremely rare ability. I glance between Tommy and Pablo, then shake my head.

"Hello! One problem, approach from different angles. What is so confusing about that?"

I feel my cousin touch my mind now, his voice speaking but his lips unmoving.

Andrea, dear one, I was trying to make sure that you wished your friend to know about my unique gift. If you trust him, then I am okay with it... but I did not wish to discuss this out loud. By the way, he has a good mind.

Of course he does, you brat. He wouldn't be one of my dearest friends if he didn't.

I smile slightly at Tommy, then look sidelong at Pablo for a minute, thinking hard. Finally though, I just have to shrug. It's all about trust, isn't it? If our relationship is going to grow beyond friendship, there will have to be absolute trust... on both sides.

"Mmmm, Pablo? When we chatted the other night, did I remember to tell you I'm not the only one in my family with... hmm, unusual abilities?"

Tommy, would you ask Talia and Billy if they're comfortable being known? I won't mention them if they'd rather I not.

Friend? I don't remember seeing you get all moon-eyed at your friends before. I can feel his chuckle ringing through my mind, our touch back and forth. Of course, I'll speak with them.

I glare at Tommy at his moon-eyed comment, then stick out my tongue at him. Mature? No. Do I care? Nope.

Pablo looks at me and nods, trying to hide the smile that's sneaking up on him. The one caused by my very immature behavior, of course. "Yes, Andrea, I do remember it," he says, glancing at Tommy for a moment, then back to me.

Billy says fine, but Talia would prefer to retain her privacy.

I look back up at Pablo. "Well, Tommy is one of them and... eep!" Billy had actually snuck up on me! "You little scamp, how did you do that?" I wrap my other arm around him and give him a hug.

Billy laughs. "Just practicing, Andi. I kinda went bird-brain for a minute."

I shake my head and sigh. "Billy is another. And do your parents know you've grown so tall?"

He leans down to stage-whisper, "No, I don't think they've noticed yet... so don't tell them, okay?"

Off to the side, I can see Uncle Junior grinning.

Billy straightens and says to Pablo, "I don't get all the secrecy stuff, but I never leave the rez..." He kisses the top of my head while I grimace. "Sorry, Andi, I know you hate that. Sorry, sorry. Anyway, I stay home and don't plan to go wandering like Andi, so I don't think it's a big deal that people know I'm a Shifter. Except some people think it's a big deal..." I feel him tap me on the top of the head, and I am again forced to roll my eyes. "...and it probably is out in the big wide world, which is why I'd rather just stay home." He grins his boyish, charming, irresistible grin.

I shake my head, but can't help grinning myself.

"Yes," I say to Pablo, "he's always like this."

Pablo watches the amusing interplay between me and my cousins; his feeling of belonging evident in our arms around one another. It feels natural and easy... for both of us.

"Well, I have an amazing power to be able to put up with all of her antics and still retain my sense of maturity," Pablo says, giving me a serene smile. Okay, I probably deserve that.

"If you wish your abilities to remain private, I won't tell anyone of them," Pablo says to Tommy and Billy. "What you tell me is between us only."

Pablo moves his arm to slide around my waist and gives me a slight hug.

"Do I have time to go see the local detectives before this Dance?"

Tommy is looking at Pablo and nods. "He should be involved, Andrea. He has a strong spirit."

I look between Tommy and Uncle Leon; between them, they probably know every Medicine Dance our People had ever danced. Uncle Leon just nods once.

Well, that's that then.

"If the police station isn't too far away, you should have time," I say to Pablo. "I will need to practice my forms while you dance... and nearby." I grin at Tommy. "The Spirits like my version of dancing, too, you know."

Billy is practically quivering with excitement. "Oh boy, I get to watch Andi dance!"

I give him a look of puzzlement.

"What? Uncle Leon says I'm always too hyper to dance, but I figure I'll calm down by the time I'm forty or fifty or something," he says. "But I watch and memorize them. Dad says maybe learning the Eagle form will help me calm down, but I like me just as I am so I don't care. But Eagle is a lot of fun to do! More fun than Wolf and almost as much fun as Puma."

Off to the side, his sister and brother are trying to keep their laughter quiet.

"They're just jealous," Billy says, conspiratorially.

I can't keep from laughing myself. "I'm just going to keep saying this the whole time I'm in Flagstaff, aren't I? I have missed you guys so much!"

"That's only because you aren't here all the time for Billy to drive you crazy," Tommy says, sending a swing at Billy, who ducks easily.

Pablo watches the interplay between my cousins; I can feel the gentle amusement coming from him as he watches me interact with my family.

Dad clears his throat. "I can take him over to the police station and get him back in time. Why don't you show him to my car while I finish up here, and I'll join him in a few minutes?"

I laugh. "Good idea, Dad. If these two goofs are going to use me as a shield from one another, I will have to defend myself appropriately." I glance at the volunteer at the desk, who is grinning along with the rest of us. And why not? How often are happy people hanging out in an ICU waiting room?

I take Pablo's hand and urge him through the doors out into the corridor beyond the ICU. Holding hands with Pablo is... really nice. Well, with fingers intertwined and palms together, perhaps it's more than just really nice. Pablo walks alongside me, and I can feel that it seems as natural to him as breathing. When the elevator arrives, we have it to ourselves for the ride down to the ground floor. I lean against the back wall.

Stepping into the elevator, he leans against the wall next to me, shoulder to shoulder, our fingers still intertwined.

"Thanks again for coming out here, Pablo. I know I would have managed on my own, but..." I sigh and smile. "...well, it's nice not to have to manage on my own."

"Part of being a friend... or more... is that you don't have to stand alone. There's always someone there to stand with you, for you to lean on and to have you to lean on."

"I know," I say quietly as I turn my head to look at him. "It's just... different."

His gentle brown eyes are filled with understanding and patience. He knows how difficult this is for me, and it's comforting to know Pablo does not feel the burning expectations of youth... only the calm acceptance of maturity.

Everything in its own time and how it is meant to be.

"Well, different can be good. I've always tended to like different," he says with a smile.

The elevator doors whisk open and Pablo pushes off the wall with his shoulders and walks into the hallway with me, following me to the parking garage.

"Nothing wrong with different," I say with a smile. "It just takes some getting used to."

We walk out to the parking garage in silence and up a level to Dad's car. It's a very comfortable silence; being used to silence, I appreciate that there is no expectation or need for small talk with Pablo. When we reach the car, I sit on the hood with my feet on the front bumper and look at Pablo with a grin.

"They like you."

He leans on the car across the aisle from me, folding his arms and returning my smile.

"I like them, too. You have a tight-knit family; they obviously love you a great deal and miss you. Have you ever thought of moving to Flagstaff?" he asks, his brown eyes gentle as he watches me. He just likes looking at me... I can sense it... the way the light glints off my dark hair or the life in my eyes as I smile.


I look down the row of cars, not really seeing them... just looking far into the distance. I would love to be closer to my family, but...

Yes, but...

I love working for DPL.

Would it be fair to leave Peregrine with all the really nasty things?

Who would watch out for the people no one else cares about?

Being a responsible grown-up sucks.

But be honest with yourself, Andi... your friends are what tie you most to Denver.

Especially Pablo?

Maybe. Almost probably. I think.

I sigh softly and shrug, then turn back to Pablo with a smile that's almost sad.

"But I can't. Denver..." It's not quite home, not yet anyway, although it's getting to be. "'s where I need to be."

He watches my internal struggle and lets me go through it quietly; knowing that the best thing he can do is to say nothing. Some things a person has to work out for themselves. He's a wise man.

"You feel a responsibility to the people there. To the community of Unfortunates that need you as a protector," he says, "to Bobby and David... and me."

He looks up into my eyes and nods. "I do understand, Andrea."

"I... I don't think the responsibility covers Bobby and David and you... or even the folks I work with. That's friendship. That's... well, friendship. It's different.

"But, yeah, I do feel responsible for the Unfortunates. And the homeless people, and the LGBTQ community, even the hookers. And, well, pretty much anybody the guys in the fancy suits don't like. Anybody they've relegated to second-class citizen status, anybody who needs help from the cops but the budget's so tight there aren't enough cops to help everyone."

I realize I'm getting myself worked up, and getting angry isn't going to help. It won't help right now, when I need to worry about Tita. It won't help when I go back to Denver, because who's going to listen to me? Just the people who already care... preaching to the choir. Gosh, wouldn't it be funny if the mayor or the police commissioner or the governor got themselves in some super trouble and Peregrine was on vacation? By the way, lucky bastard being sponsored and all... not that I could put up the media crap he deals with. But what if someone important was in trouble and Ninja was busy keeping a bunch of neo-Nazis from trashing the gay bars? Again.

No. I guess it wouldn't be funny. Ironic, but not funny. I'm supposed to protect them, too.

I sigh.

"I'm sorry, Pablo. I just get... I don't know... riled up I guess by the injustice of it all. It's not your fault, and there really isn't anything you can do about it. Well, unless there's something you can do about keeping a certain bunch of assholes in Patrol out of Five Points. Mama has a hard enough time keeping people agreeable in that neighborhood. There's no cause for DPD to be down there trying to turn folks against one another.


I lie back on the hood of the car and stare at the concrete ceiling above me. It's a nice peaceful uniform gray.

"You don't need to apologize to me for letting off some steam, Andrea. And I'll have a talk with Patrol about toning it down. Maybe they'll listen for a change," he says, pushing off from the car and coming over to lean against the car next to me. He reaches out his hand and so very gently brushed the hair from my forehead.

"Why is the world so crazy?" I ask... rhetorically, I think.

"I don't really know. I think it's because so many people in it are kind of crazy," he says, resting his hand on my cheek for a moment. "Things will get better. You and I will work to make them better, day by day," he says softly.

I close my eyes when he brushes the hair from my forehead. It's really peaceful to lie on the car, hands crossed over my zhong dan tian.

"Too many crazy people... that's probably it."

It's a little strange, too, to feel his hand on my cheek. Tender, strong. But... strange, too. I can't explain it; don't have time to figure it out. I can tell I'm a little out of balance. I think I'll have to practice more than usual today. Well, a Dance usually lasts more than an hour anyway.

"We can make things better in Denver, Pablo. But for the other counties? I need Brian Dennison out in Adams to keep the jerks out there from causing problems in Commerce City. But he doesn't have much influence. He's a great person to work with — all of the Sheriffs' contacts are, even that lunatic Markensen in Arapahoe. But Abe in up in Boulder and Forsythe down in Douglas are the only ones with even a little influence over what happens in their jurisdictions."

I sigh.

"I do everything in my power to help them, and Peregrine does, too. I just wish they could do more to help me when I need it. Not their fault... just wish things worked better, that's all."

A tiny smile begins to form as I hear footsteps — familiar footsteps — coming up the stairs... coming through the door... I am SO not moving; I love this game... coming down the row of cars. Stopping.

"Andrea. How many times have I told you not to sprawl all over my car?"

"I don't know, Daddy. I lost count somewhere after five thousand." I open my eyes and look at him; both of us grinning. "It's not my fault you buy comfortable cars!"

I sit up and slide off the hood, then wipe off the speck of dirt my boot left on the bumper. I pat the hood of the car.

"Good as new. Or good as it was before I sat on it," I say with a giggle.

I hear a faint chuckle from Pablo as Dad tries to give me his stink eye. It's not a real stink eye, it's just that look all parents develop and that children soon learn to ignore. And he's utterly failing anyway because he's unable to hold back the grin.

"I should make you buff the car out while you're here," he grumbles good-naturedly, getting out his keys and unlocking the car. "Say your goodbyes and then let me get him to the police station," Dad says, looking at me and then sliding into the front seat, once again trying to hide his smile.

Pablo looks at me and smiles. "I won't be long — hopefully — and my phone's on in case something comes up," he says. He seems uncertain about whether or not he should make some gesture or just get into the car.

I chuckle inside at his indecision, give him a quick hug, then a nudge toward the passenger side door.

"Better get in before he gets serious about the buffing."

I wait until they drive down the aisle toward the exit before turning to go back up to the ICU.

I can't really understand how something had gotten past the Guardians... even if the Diné hadn't noticed it, certainly the Apache, Hopi or Zuni would have. Wouldn't they? Or maybe it was such a small thing that it would be hard to see? Or maybe it truly was something random, something that couldn't possibly have been seen. I'm not sure how the People go about watching for these things... my job is just to bash them once they show up.

Oh yeah... and bash this one extra hard for messing with my Tita.

When I get up to the ICU waiting room, the elders are gone, as is Tommy... preparing for the Dance, no doubt.

I wander over to the corner where the three siblings are sitting on the floor chatting and sit down between Billy and Talia.

"Who's planning to stay with Tita during the Dance?" I ask. "Oh! Charlie! I heard your band on the radio last week... really good!" I lean my head on Billy's shoulder. "That's the best imitation of you I can manage."

I get a bonk on the head for my trouble. And a grin.

The three siblings all laugh and Billy breathes on and polished his knuckles that he just rapped me on the head with.

My youngest cousin shifts a little so I can get more comfortable, happy to at least stay still long enough to have some closeness with his favorite cousin.

"I'll stay and watch over Tita," Talia said. "I think Billy needs to dance more than anyone and Charlie needs to be there to keep him in line."

"It's good to see you again, Andrea. We've all missed you," says Charlie.

"Can anyone keep this one in line?" I ask, poking my youngest cousin in the ribs playfully. "But Talia's right, Billy. You should Dance. Watching me Dance my Taiji won't help Papa and Tita as much. And if you think from your center of gravity..." I poke him in the belly, tickling him in the process. "...instead of your noggin..." I poke him lightly on the side of the head. "...I'll bet you manage without getting hyper at all."

"Hey, hey, hey, hey! What's with all the poking?" he says, working on one of his grins that usually meant someone — in this case, me — was in for some hyperactivity-induced tickling. I reach for his wrists as he's reaching for my kneecaps, and hold them loosely but firmly.

"Oh! I caught the Eagle's wings... whatever shall I do with them?"

"HEY! Darn you, Andi, you're way too fast, and that's cheating or something. And you should let the Eagle's wings go because Eagles don't like to be tied up. Or down. Or something."

We all laugh... again... and I wrap my arms around Billy and hug him. "I'm serious, my darling Shifter. Stay out of your head when you're Dancing, and you'll make it through the whole Dance without Charlie having to sit on you."

I look at Talia and Charlie. "I miss all of you, too. Mama calls every week to keep me updated on who's doing what, but it's not the same.

"I kind of hate that I'm such a responsible grown-up now, but..." I shrug. "There are things that need doing in Colorado, and no one else seems to be doing them. Still, it's not such a long ride... I could at least get over to Flagstaff more often. In the daylight and good weather, it's only about six and a half hours."

Charlie gives me a look that clearly says he thinks I'm crazy. I grin at him. "Heavily modified Harley Sportster — which you well know, since you helped with some of the modifications — and wicked fast reflexes, cousin. I wouldn't recommend anyone else trying it in under ten hours."

I reach over to hold one of Talia's hands. "Thank you for watching Tita, Talia. I know Mama likes to Dance, but I also know how much she loves Tita; as if she was her own mother. You may have company." I smile around my fear and squeeze her hand.

"Whatever did this isn't still around... or at least wasn't while I was in visiting with her. That, and knowing she didn't have a heart attack, doesn't make me any less worried. I'll be watching for anything unusual, but... Well, I just worry."

They all frown at my last statement, nodding.

"Do you really think that there's something or someone out there that intentionally tried to hurt Tita Kai?" asks Charlie, a hint of anger in his voice. Tita is much loved by the entire family.

I shake my head, frowning as well.

"Is something intentionally hurting people? Yes. Tita Kai specifically?" I pause, trying to parse what I know... which isn't much. "I don't know. I hope not.

"Talia, maybe you or Uncle Leon could use your medical credentials to see if there have been an unusual number of people in the area having 'heart attacks'. Pablo's off to see if the police have any information."

I pull my knees up and rest my chin on them, wrapping my arms around my legs.

Talia nods at my request to check on additional heart attack victims. "I should go put in a request now since it will take them a while to compile the information," she says. She gets to her feet and, with a gentle brush of her fingers against my shoulder, goes off to take care of getting the process started.

"Thanks, Talia," I say as she gets up.

She pauses after a step, then comes back to crouch in front of me. "I can't stop you from the agony you're about to put yourself through," she whispers. "But I don't get the sense that Tita is at the heart of this. If anyone is, it's you."

I look at her, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

She shrugs as she stands up again. "You know that half the time I don't know what I mean when I say these things, Andi." She smiles sadly as she turns to leave.

I sigh as Charlie moves closer, filling the space where his sister had been sitting.

"Some random energy-sucker wandering through town, just happening to catch Tita... well, that's bad. But specifically targeting Tita means... means it's my fault. Well, it feels that way, anyway." I bite my lower lip; I am not going to cry, and I am not going to descend into guilt. "If that's so, I can't understand why. Compared to all the other Supers..." I use air quotes around the word before wrapping my arms around my legs again. " this country, I'm not much of a big deal."

But if someone HAS hurt my Tita because of me... I'm going to be very, very, VERY angry.

Billy puts his arm around my shoulders, holding me against his side.

"Come on, Andi, don't even think that. I doubt that anyone would come ten hours from Denver just to hurt Tita when you have all your friends and coworkers there," he says gently.

Leaning against my cousin, all I can say is, "I hope you're right, Billy. But I might start worrying about all my friends and coworkers now."


"Nah, it's okay, Billy. I probably won't worry. Much." I give him a crooked smile. "And not until I get home."

"If someone did this... do you think they'll come back?" asks Charlie, concern in his voice.

I look at Charlie when he asks his question; I know it's Ninja looking out through my eyes... hard, fierce, determined, burning with righteous fury. "I kind of hope so," I say (she says?). "It will save me the trouble of tracking them down to give them a good thrashing."

Oh boy. Extra time with the Taiji forms will be an excellent idea. When Ninja gets pissed, there's a much higher chance of something winding up dead. And I HATE when things wind up dead... even if they deserve it. This is why I sometimes feel like two people; Ninja doesn't seem to mind.

Billy thrums his fingers lightly across my back. "Whoa... now who needs to calm down, cousin?" he says softly to me. "Take some deep breaths and center yourself, Andi."

"I'm pretty calm at the moment, Billy." And I am relatively calm; it's Ninja who needs settling, and mere breathing isn't going to cut it. I turn my head to look at him, cheek resting on my knees. The fire still burns in my eyes. "But the Warrior inside is exceptionally displeased that her Tribe is threatened.

"You and Charlie and Tommy and the elders and Pablo... you'll Dance. I'll do my Taiji; settle, center, gather strength, hone the Warrior's focus." I blink, pulling back as much of the fury as possible, and smile softly. "If I find the thing or person who did this, don't be surprised if your sweet, loving, fun cousin disappears for a while. The Warrior within is..." I shrug. "There's a difference between Billy and Wolf and Puma and Eagle, right? There's a difference between Andi and Ninja, too... it's just a lot more subtle than your Shifts."

I smile a little more broadly. "I don't think I'd want to get anywhere near a mental health professional with talk like that. I'm her, she's me... we're the same and different. How's that for confusing, huh? And no one but Master Chen's ever known both parts of me before now." I sigh. "Sometimes I think my life is very weird. Sometimes it makes perfect sense."

I look between Billy and Charlie. "You guys ever feel like that? Or is it just me?"

Billy looks at me and grins. "Andi, I turn from a tiger to a lizard and have to deal with their primal urges at times, especially if I get hurt. I do so understand what you mean," he says, nodding. "We just are quite a pair, aren't we?" he asks, hugging me.

"That we are. But it's not actually the two parts of me that I find weird... I'm kind of used to that by now. I think what's weird is that there's only one person on the whole planet who's had the pleasure of my company in both... aspects? Whatever. Not that I was all that pleasant when I began studying with Master Chen."

I smile, then tilt my head, thinking... probably looking pretty confused to my cousins. There was something, something...

"So, all the sheriffs I work with in Colorado know Ninja, right?" I say somewhat slowly. "And Pablo is the only law enforcement person who knows Andi," I continue, feeling like I'm setting down puzzle pieces. "In fact, it wasn't even until last week that we even talked about what I do. He's just trusted me all these years." I pause, looking for that last piece of the puzzle. "That's the core of the weirdness, I think. Even when we're talking about — or actually, up until last week, around — what I do as Ninja, I'm always, always Andi. No, I'm always Andrea."

I shrug yet again and sigh. "That means something, but I don't what and right now... I don't think it matters. Maybe it will next week. Or the week after. See? Weird."

And way too serious.

"But hey, you guys don't need to hear about cousin Andi going crazy. When are you and the band coming up to Denver, Charlie?"

They both listen to me and exchange knowing looks with each other, Billy's hand is still resting lightly on my back. Hey, I can't blame him... Yazzies are touchers, physical contact is important. It's not a touchy-feely thing if that makes any kind of sense. And besides... he's missed his favorite cousin!

Charlie just shrugs. "Probably not until late fall. We're still doing a lot of tribal events as well as our normal gigs," he says, looking at me.

"About Pablo... are you two seeing each other?" he asks and smiles. "Come on, you know everyone is going to want to know."

"Yeah, everyone including Pablo," I say. "Yes? No? I don't know? Tommy says I've been making moon eyes at him. I don't know, guys. I mean, he's been one of my best friends since... sheesh, since before I even got out of grad school, I guess." I sprawl out on the floor between them, looking up at the acoustical tile ceiling.

"You know how you can know something, but as long as nobody talks about it, you can ignore it? Well, that. I guess I've known for a while how he felt about me, but he's, like, one of the most awesome friends I have, you know? So I've kind of had an aversion to rocking the boat." I shift my head a bit to look at Charlie. "Except he went and rocked the boat last week by talking about it." I look back at the ceiling; sometimes there are interesting patterns in the randomness of divots. "So... maybe? I guess the fact that I felt like it was okay for him to come out here means I'm leaning more in the direction of... probably.

"Gah!! This is crap I should have gone through when I was younger than you guys! I'm an old lady! I should know how to deal with this insanity by now."

I look between the two of them. "And one word out of either of you that sounds like mushy lovey-dovey advice and I'll... I'll... I bite your kneecaps off!"

Both of my cousins laugh at my Monty Python reference and cover their kneecaps with their hands.

"Such a fierce Warrior! One would almost think she was irritable about the subject," Charlie says to Billy, grinning.

"Brats! I'm not irritable..."

I don't think so, anyway. It's not like I mind talking about... well, whatever it is between me and Pablo. I just...

"I'm just really, really confused."

"Hey, don't sweat it, Andi," Charlie says. "We just want you to be happy, and if you're happy with Pablo, then more power to you. He seems like a real nice guy and he came all the way out here for you."

Papa Bill came out of the ICU then. "I could use a chance to walk for a few moments. Could someone go in to stay with Tita Kai?"

When Papa comes out of the ICU, I get up and rub my knuckles across both their heads. "I love you both, knuckleheads." I walk over to Papa to give him a hug. "I'll sit with Tita for a while, Papa. You stretch your legs." Both Charlie and Billy have gotten up off the floor, too.

"We'll walk with you, Papa Bill!" Billy says, practically bouncing on his toes, hyper once more. He's apparently reached his limit of calm while chatting with me and Charlie. His brother slaps him lightly on the back of his head. "Only if you can stay calm," Charlie says. "But I AM calm," is Billy's reply.

I look at Papa, kiss his cheek, and say, "Have fun with them. If nothing else, they're bound to make you smile." I glance at the volunteer at the desk, who just nods and waves me on as she buzzes the door open.

Slipping into Tita's room, it seems less bright, less full with Papa gone. I stand beside Tita's bed and kiss her forehead before holding one hand between mine. I most definitely do not like that something... someone?... has hurt my Tita. Family is special.

And then the strangest thought floated through my mind... I have a tendency to think of the people I protect in the Denver metroplex as almost family, at least as far as taking care of them is concerned.

"Hi, Tita," I say softly. "How are you feeling? Is there anything I can do for you?"

She opens her eyes at the kiss and smiles up at me.

"You can sit and tell me how you're doing. What's going on in your life, my darling?" she asks, her weathered, wrinkled face is brighter for my company.

I sit beside her, keeping both of my hands surrounding hers. If the qi flowing between the lao gong points in my hands could help at all — heck, even just to keep her hand warm — it was qi worth giving.

"The most vexing thing in my life right now is you being stuck here in the hospital," I say, smiling at her.

"Working at the library is wonderful, as always. We got a new collection in last week, and everyone was so excited we even worked on our days off to get it all cataloged. And the other job I do... well, it's hard sometimes, and even a little dangerous..." Or a lot dangerous, but who tells their family that? "...but as I said before, it's so rewarding to be able to help people. I feel like that's what I'm really meant to do.

"I'm sure Mama has told you about my friends... at least my best friends, Bobby and Pablo. Bobby's having a dinner party this weekend; he's going to finally meet his boyfriend's parents for the first time. He's terribly nervous, calls me at least once a day to make sure I'm coming." I squeeze her hand gently. "So we'll need to get you well and back home by then so he doesn't faint. That might not make the best impression." I grin, but then roll my eyes.

"Oh, and last week, Pablo decided it was time for him to tell me he loves me more than just a friend. It's not like it was really a surprise, but I still feel like I got hit in the head with a brick. I feel like I'm the only person who doesn't think he's the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel, well except I do because he is one of my best friends, but I'm not sure being more than friends is a great idea...

"And I'm babbling as bad as Billy does, aren't I?" I laugh. "But, in a nutshell, that's what's going on in my life."

Tita looks into my eyes and listens with her heart as I speak of my cares and worries to her, just as she always has in the years I've been home. Surprisingly, she could do that even through the very occasional letters she sent me while I had been in China.

"Sometimes you think too much, Andrea. Tell me what's in your heart when you think of him."

I smile at her. "I know I do, Tita."

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly as I close my eyes. Trying to quiet my mind, I listen to what my heart has to say. Holding Tita's hand helps.

In the silence, I can tell even my heart is not completely sure yet, but there is one thing that overshadows everything else.

"Peace. I feel so peaceful when I think of him, Tita. When all the chatter in my brain is quiet."

There's more under that, of course. The obvious stuff...

"He's my friend; I've loved him for a long time. Comfort and comfortable; happiness."

I open my eyes, frowning slightly. I know it's been lurking there, perhaps it's always been there, and it's probably what sends my mind into its spiral of confusion.

"Fear. I'm afraid of hurting him."

"There it is," Tita says quietly, her weathered old face intense as she looks at me.

"Are your kisses so powerful that they will burn a man alive?" she asks teasingly. "How can you hurt him, child, aside from not being truthful with him?"

"No... well, probably not," I respond to her teasing.

But her second question causes the fear to well up and practically grab me by the throat. I close my eyes again and swallow hard, I remember to breathe. I try, oh how I try, to push the fear away! Long minutes pass before I can manage to speak again, and then it's only a whisper.

"By dying, Tita. Before my time, doing the job that has dangers. He has already lost his wife and son, and I am afraid of what it would do to him if..."

I press my lips together tightly, open my eyes to look at her. A tear trails down my cheek, and I just look in her eyes... deep pools filled with wisdom earned over her more than eight decades.

"Is that kind of love worth knowing your death may well cause your partner's death, as well, Tita?" My voice is barely audible. I have to ask because she knows that kind of love. That is exactly the kind of love she and Papa have. Her death will be his death.

"Of course it is, child. Love is the only truly worthwhile thing in this world," she says, bringing my hand to her dry lips and kissing it.

"Now you listen to me, child. What you do is dangerous, but then so is what he does. How many policemen die each year in the line of duty? And then there are car accidents, illness, and a whole world of other dangers out there that can take you away from your loved ones or them away from you. It is the price that we all pay for love."

She sighs softly. "Water please, dear."

I half-fill the glass beside the bed from the carafe and help Tita hold the glass, making sure the straw stays steady.

I can't think, I can only do. Tita's words are like water flooding over the fire in my mind, and yet are also a soft breath encouraging the growth of the fire in my heart. Again, I stand balanced on the edge of a sword, but it simply is. I am in that place of no-mind, simply watching each minute movement I make. I am hyper-aware of the cool smoothness of the glass, each tiny wrinkle on Tita's papery skin. Sounds... my breaths and Tita's, to the old man whimpering in pain down the hall ring loudly in my ears.

When Tita has quenched her thirst, I set the glass on the bedside table... each motion precise, each tiny movement as exact as any motion from my Taiji forms. Once more, I hold her hand, but sit in the stillness I always find in my standing meditation practice. I can feel Tita waiting, waiting so patiently, for the effect of her words to settle properly into place.

I don't know how long I sit quietly, simply meditating and watching the qi flowing in, swirling through my meridians, flowing out, washing over Tita as it joins the flow of the universe.

"Love is worth any price you must pay..." It is a whispered half-question, half-statement. My mind does not allow me to attach meaning to it; just another of those things that simply is.

Finally, I blink and slide back to the realm of thinking and feeling, the reality of meaning being attached to everything. And yet, I still hold the tranquility Tita's words had evoked. I tilt my head, looking at her with a half-smile.

"Tita, if you learned to speak in riddles, I think you could be a Buddhist monk."

"I don't think so, dear. I don't like rice that much and orange is not my color," she says with a loving smile.

I laugh. "I like rice well enough, but I have to agree with you about the orange... I don't care what Bobby says about skin tone and hair color."

Tita doesn't speak again on the subject, knowing that I have to work this out for myself, one way or the other. I know that there had been no choice for her and Papa. He had asked and she had answered all those years ago, and her life had been made one with his. Today, we might call it love at first sight.

Looking at one another's faces, into each other's eyes, I can see what she and Papa had known from the very moment they met that it had been destiny. I can see their belief at the moment had been the greatest gift the Spirits could have shown to both of them.

Slowly, Tita's color seems to improve, and she rests her head on the pillow, content for now to just look at me.

Sitting quietly and peacefully is much easier now.

"You know, Tita... your grandchildren have been terribly selfish by not giving you any great-grandchildren to spoil. We will sing you a Healing Song to fix this..." I place my palm over her xia dan tian, two or three inches away from her body. " there will be plenty of spoiling once the great-grandchildren begin to arrive. The family grapevine says Charlie's Susan is anxious to start a family once they are married in a few months." I smile broadly... but just for a couple of seconds.

I feel the strangest sensation in my hand, and I pull it back quickly, staring at it with furrowed brows. "What the heck...?"

Tita smiles at me. "Oh? Are you offering to provide me with great-grandchildren, dear heart?"

"Oh, I don't think I'm able to have children," I say absently, as I run my fingers over my palm.

The flow of energy from Tita Kai is tainted... there are a taste and smell to it that jangles my nerves. It's almost like the residual lingering in the air when you walk into a room after someone had left, and a hint of their unpleasant perfume is still in the air.

Tita looks concerned at my reaction. "Andrea? What is it, dear?"

The concern in Tita's voice breaks me out of my concentration, and I look up at her, a puzzled expression on my face, I'm sure.

"Well, I shouldn't actually feel anything, even if I touch someone else's nílch'i," I say, looking at my palm again. "Not like that, not an actual physical sensation. It's so weird."

My own qi looks just fine; it's almost as if whatever is tainting Tita's qi... bounced off mine? I guess that would be the best way to describe it. Bounced hard, though.

"Normally, I just see the energy flows," I say, looking up at Tita again. "Or sometimes there will be a sound or taste or smell associated with it. Or... well, the point is that I shouldn't feel like something touched my hand." I wrinkle up my nose. "And it has a bad smell or taste — or maybe both — to it.

"I'm fine, but whatever touched you and did this to you is... icky." I smile a little. "Yes, technical terminology... icky." I shake my head, still looking puzzled. "Well, I'll certainly recognize this thing if I ever run into one again."

What is it about nasty things that like energy? The pervert of a goblin yesterday jonesing for whatever it is the energy project they've got going on up in Boulder is producing... this stinky, slimy thing here that likes the natural energy of the world? And this stinky, slimy thing isn't even actually here; it's like it...


I can see Tita is concerned, and not completely following me... the latter not being surprising, as there really aren't words to explain what I do, what I see. Even speaking Chinese to Master Chen, he sometimes just shook his head and threw up his hands... and then made me go stand in the center of the village for an hour doing standing meditation. Sometimes I miss that cantankerous old man.

"You know how you can get bitten by, say, a tick? And sometimes the tick will carry a disease? That's almost like what happened to you. Except this tick didn't just give you Lyme disease. It left a sore that it can come back to visit... I think... every now and again." I scrunch up my nose again. "I know that's really gross, I'm sorry. But it's about the best analogy I can come up with."

I relax and take a deep breath, and actually manage to smile.

"The good news is that your 'heart attack' was when it... well... bit you. So, we administer antibiotics — a Medicine Dance and the Healing Song — and since we discovered it so soon, it ought to completely eradicate the Lyme... or whatever you want to call it. And Daddy's going to see that the whole family is around you Singing." I lean close and whisper, "We might have to kidnap you; we're going to Dance later and perhaps the Spirits will mention to someone where they'd like us to Sing for you." I straighten up and speak in a more normal tone again. "Although it would be very cozy and friendly if all... let's see... hmmm... eighteen of us -- nineteen, if Charlie's Susan gets here in time, and I think she will — are in here. Oh, my, what a sound that will be!

"I wouldn't be surprised if some of the other people in ICU started feeling a bit better.

"And then I think Tommy and I have to figure out how to make you a bug spray to keep these things away from you."

I nod and pat her hand.

"Even Justin hinted recently that there might be a special young lady in his life. We'll need you to stick around with us for quite a while, Tita Kai."

Tita doesn't even try to keep up with everything I say, but just nods and lets me finish.

"Child, you know I don't understand all you say, but I trust your judgment in all such things. I place myself in your hands."

"Tita, I'll be honest with you," I say, shaking my head and smiling. "Sometimes I don't understand the words I say." Interesting. Didn't Talia say something of the sort about her Precognitive Curse? "It all makes sense in my head, but sometimes I feel like I would need to make up new words to fit the thoughts in my head."

I suppose that's part of the whole problem with telling anyone about this thing I do. Even a little bit of information is generally too much information.

"So what have you and Papa been up to... before you wound up here, that is? Mama said he was going to take a class at the community college to learn how to play the ukulele. Is he really? Or was Mama pulling my leg again?"

She laughs at that and nods. "Yes, I'm afraid that's the case. Your grandfather took it in his head to learn to play, to take the class with a friend of his. I doubt I'll have another quiet day."

"What about you, child? What are you doing for enjoyment in your life?"

"I suppose there are worse instruments than the ukulele." I can't help grinning at the thought of Papa Bill playing the ukulele. It seems so... well, silly.

"Oh, goodness! I manage to do all sorts of things. Because we rotate hours at the library every few weeks, it's hard to do things like taking classes or singing with David's chorus — something he has been trying to rope me into since we met." And how can I not smile at that? "He spends most of his energy trying to get Bobby to join him, but he makes his sales pitch for me at the beginning of every new concert cycle." I chuckle.

"But there is a group of us from work who go out to dinner together every week or two to Casa Bonita. Oh, Tita! It is the tackiest Mexican restaurant you'll ever see, and most of their food is just average — though their sopapillas are excellent — but it's so much fun, with wandering guitar players and acrobats and jugglers, and, of course, excellent company. This past weekend, I went to a baseball game with Pablo; we try to do that at least two or three times during the summer. I see movies, plays and concerts with friends... I never miss one of David's concerts with his chorus. Bobby comes over to steal my hazelnut coffee most days of the week, but he brings a peace offering of fresh muffins or cinnamon rolls or coffee cake, and we sometimes have conversations that have me laughing so hard my sides hurt. I love to ride my bike — the bicycle, not the motorcycle — up in the mountains above Golden. And of course, even though it's a necessity, my Taiji practice is very enjoyable... especially when the weather is nice and I can practice in the park. I really like it when the little children come to watch. It feels like I'm giving them peaceful thoughts that might last longer than the few minutes they watch me. Weekly chats with Mama and Justin..."

I pause and realize my life is very full... and the vast majority of it is quite good.

"For the most part, Tita, just living my life is enjoyable."

She smiles.

"That's good, Andrea. You must have a balance in your life and I am glad to hear that you're filling it with more than work. You need laughter and friendship, quiet and love. These are the things that, at the end of your days, will mean the most to you."

I smile in return. "They mean a lot in the middle days, too, Tita."

I look up as I hear footsteps in the corridor, heading toward us. My smile grows as Papa walks back into the room; apparently spending time with my youngest cousins agreed with him, as he looks less weary than he did when he came out into the waiting room.

"Did Charlie get you to eat some food, Papa?"

"Yes, worry wart, I ate a little something. Now... what have you two hens been hatching up?" he asks, coming over to sit on the other side of Tita, taking her hand.

I can feel their auras blend together at the touch, completing a link.

"Cluck, cluck... not a thing, Papa. We've just been chatting. I have to admit the thought of you playing the ukulele, however, is... ah... amusing," I say, managing not to burst out laughing only by biting my lower lip.

But the feeling of their auras meshing together — even with the taint to Tita's — is... is... another phenomenon that lacks words. Awe-inspiring, breathtaking, glorious... those words just don't seem sufficient.

"I figure I could become a YouTube sensation. Who could resist a handsome older man like me strumming out a tune? I'm sure it will catch at least one lady's eye," he says, squeezing Tita Kai's hand and winking at me.

"You'll become famous in no time, I'm sure," I reply with a chuckle.

"It will be a short bit until they're ready for the Dance, dear. Why don't you go nap for a bit? You must be tired after your long drive here," says Papa.

I stand and kiss Tita's forehead before shrugging. "The more I practice, Papa, the less sleep I need. But more food wouldn't be a bad idea. And I'll want to see if Daddy and Pablo have returned from the police station yet."

I smile, spending a moment simply enjoying being in their presence, then turn to leave. "I'll see you soon."

Heading back into the waiting room, I find not only Charlie and Billy, but most of the elders, as well. It would seem Uncle Leon and Talia are off... gathering medical evidence of this thing, I hope. I walk over to Mama to give her a hug; it is good to see her looking less upset.

"I'm going to get myself some more food... at this point, I think it will do me more good than sleep, especially if I will be practicing for a while this afternoon." I look around the room again. Nope. "You didn't leave Pablo at the police station, did you, Daddy?"

"No, dear, he's getting something to eat as well. You'll probably find him in the cafeteria," he says.

The elders are all together now and planning out the Medicine Dance and where to perform it. They call over one of the doctors and start speaking with him.

I nod and thank him, then leave the elders to their planning.

When I reach the cafeteria, I note Pablo's location in a far corner; he's only just sitting down. There is a fair number of hospital staff already breaking for lunch, but the line moves at a good pace. Food selected and paid for, I carry my tray to the two-person table Pablo chose. As I set the tray down, I note that for the first time since our chat last week, I don't feel edgy or out of sorts in his presence.

He looks up as I approach and I can see the weariness in his eyes. He probably didn't sleep last night, either.

I sit down and smile, opening the first bottle of water. "So, Chief... discover anything of significance?"

"Yes, I think we caught a break," he says, pausing to take a long drink of his caffeinated soda.

"There wasn't much, but I noticed a couple of reports from yesterday of a man touching people... and that two of them reported feeling weak afterward. There might very well be more, but they could be in the hospital or at home ill or like your grandmother."

"So human form, then. Interesting. Though I suppose that makes sense, easier to blend in. I didn't get the impression from the... residue, I guess... that its natural form is human, however." I take a bite of the tuna salad sandwich — surprisingly good — and consider possibilities.

"Uncle Leon and Talia are checking into the medical angle. If someone's just stayed home feeling weak or ill... unfortunately, there's not much we can do to find them. But if they came into the hospital or a clinic, or maybe even just saw their family doctor... well, I asked Talia to look for unusual patterns. They should spot something. Talia is surprisingly good at seeing patterns."

Actually... as the words come out of my mouth, my brain wonders if that's the source of her gift. Patterns and greater Patterns... and the ability to see them.

"You realize this is a bizarre conversation to be having over lunch, right?" I remark with raised eyebrows, after taking a sip of water.

He looks up and grins a little at my comment. Well, okay... maybe I have been doing most of the talking.

I drink a good half bottle of water, then realize I haven't had anything to drink since leaving Mama and Dad's house. Well, that explains that.

"You look exhausted, Pablo. You should take a nap. For me, I can practice my forms for an hour and that's as good as a couple of hours of sleep." I nod toward his soda. "Caffeine isn't going to get you through a Dance, my friend," I say, smiling softly.

"I won't have time. Your dad said that they would probably be starting within the hour. Don't worry about me, Andrea, I'm one tough hombre," he says, a little quirk to the corner of his lips.

"And I'll track this guy down. I have the Flagstaff PD detectives following down the leads. I'll see if they can get an artist sketch for us to start with. Too bad we can't just look into their minds and see the guy."

"You're not going to go tracking him down alone." I just give him a look, the one that gets Bobby snapping his jaws shut, the one that pretty much says, Don't bother arguing... you won't win. And then I eat a handful of grapes.

"Heck no, I'm not going after him alone! I might be brave, but I am not stupid. For this, you call in a specialist," he says, looking at me. "Luckily, I have one."

I nod at his wisdom. "We might not be able to get a good picture of what he looks like — not sure Tommy's Curse works that way, or if he'd be comfortable looking in strangers' minds — but I'll definitely recognize his stench when we get close enough."

"How's your grandmother doing?" he asks, his warm brown eyes meeting mine.

I smile as I meet his gaze. "She's doing a little better, I think. Both she and Papa seem to have more energy, her color is better. We had a nice chat."

Pablo smiles at the news. "I'm very happy to hear that, Andrea. I'm looking forward to meeting her," he says, then glances down at his lunch before looking up at me again.

"Ah... am I doing okay with the family? It's been a long time since I had to worry about meeting the family."

His question surprises me. "Well, yes, of course, you're doing okay! Doing great, really." I can't help but smile... his concern about what my family thinks of him is kind of... endearing.

"Pablo, you got my Mama to smile and my Dad obviously didn't tell you to get on the next plane back to Denver. The fact that the rest of my relatives like you, too, is just icing on the cake.

"And Tita will love you. Well, she might tease you some just to make sure you're good enough for her granddaughter... but you'll be fine.

"I promise."

He smiles in relief and eats a couple more bites of his chicken sandwich.

"I really like your family, Andrea. They remind me of my family, very warm and loving. Close."

I know from past dinner conversations that his mother is still alive and living out in Los Angeles, as are his sisters and their families. So are his paternal grandparents.

"Yep, I have a great family and am grateful for them every day." I sigh with contentment, and continue eating my lunch. I wonder if I should warn Pablo about Justin... and chuckle to myself. Nope. He survived Billy with courage... he'll survive my little brother.

"And if I ever find myself in the position of meeting your family, I guess I don't have to worry too much, huh?"

"No, I tell them about you all the time. Momma definitely wants to meet you, and told me to bring you out the next time I visit or I'm in trouble," he says, laughing softly.

"She can be quite fierce for a tiny woman."

I raise an eyebrow. "Oh? Trouble? Do you often do things that get you in trouble with your mother? Shame on you." I giggle. "What sort of trouble do you bring home to your mother, Pablo?"

"You. I am supposed to bring you home to meet the family and you are definitely trouble," he says, grinning at me over his soda cup. "Try and deny it."

"I plead innocent on both counts... that of being trouble, and that of getting you into trouble," I say with mock indignation. "Make your case, Counselor."

Hmm... I might be watching too many Law & Order reruns with Bobby.

I manage to refrain from grinning back at him by finishing my sandwich.

"Do you or don't you ply your womanly wiles to get me to help you with cases?" he asks, grinning. "And didn't I get busted by my captain for that multiple rape case last year that I helped you with? Not that I wouldn't do it again and not that the captain minded, but he had to follow protocol."

He raises an eyebrow and looks at me.

Underneath the table, he bumps and rubs my foot a bit with his.

"I most certainly do not use my womanly wiles, as I was never properly trained in their use. Instead, I use my keen intellect," I respond with a smile. "I merely provide details of small problems. It is you, sir, who get yourself in trouble with your sense of justice and righteous indignation... for which I am grateful, by the way. Captain Sanchez did, indeed, reprimand you for providing assistance to me; however, I will point out it was, again, your own aforementioned sense of justice that prompted you to provide said assistance."

I moved my feet under my chair as I leaned forward, resting my forearms on the table and grinning broadly.

"And I will not play 'footsies' with you, Counselor. You would use that as evidence against me. In fact, I will go so far as to say your attempt constitutes entrapment."

I laugh softly, but if this game keeps up much longer, there will be a couple of people looking like they're entirely too much fun in one corner of the cafeteria.

Do NOT drink anything, Andi...

"Well, entrapment is an acknowledged technique of a professional police officer," he says, raising an eyebrow. "Never mind the legalities of it.

"Besides... you know you want to play footsies with me, but you're just too shy."

"Ah, now you're changing the subject! That's as good as admitting you have no case against me, Counselor," I say with a giggle.

"And if I'm shy, I can hardly be trouble... or get you into trouble."

I sit up straight again, prim and proper.

"I'm a good girl, I am!" I say in my best Eliza Doolittle accent. Apparently, I've also been watching too many musicals with Bobby, as well.

He smiles and nods.

"Yes, you are," he says quietly, looking up into my eyes. "Thank you for letting me come out here to help you with this. It means a lot to me to be able to be here for you."

Sword edge... balancing... just being.

I smile, and perhaps tiny flames of the growing fire in my heart show through my eyes. I don't really know.

"It's good that you're here."

I've said everything else already, and there really is nothing wrong with silence. There are as many things that can be said in silence as can be said with words.

I worry about Tita and for Papa by extension, but the others will Dance the Medicine Dance and while I do my Taiji and sing my own Song of Power that feeds into the Medicine Dance. Later, or tomorrow, we will all Sing the Healing Song while I will again add the Power of my Song. I gave Tommy those three notes for a reason, after all. Then it will be Ninja who hunts, Ninja who avenges, Ninja who banishes.

After that, though... when there is no need for me to worry, when there is no longer a need for the Warrior...

After that, there may be time for Andrea and Pablo.

We both finish our last bits of lunch in silence, just being together. When we're both done, Pablo takes the trays to the trash are and empties them, then places them on the collection conveyor. I wait for him near the door, and we head back to the ICU area hand in hand.

Tommy is waiting for us with a smile on his face.

"Cousin, we're ready. Talia got permission to move Tita Kai outside where the best place for the Dance is located."

"That's good news, Tommy!"

I look around at those still in the room, spread my arms out and look down at my clothing... black leather pants still tucked into almost knee high, moccasin-soled black leather boots and a University of Denver hoodie. "I'm... ooops!" I dig in the pocket of my pants and pull out a leather thong, then tie my hair back at the nape of my neck.

"Now I'm ready to Dance!"

I gestured for Tommy to lead the way.

Several of my relatives have put on feathers and other bits of their dance attire, mostly beaded necklaces and headbands, and silver bracelets and rings. Tommy, of course, always seems to have an abundance of silver and turquoise on him. Always. Perhaps it's because he's a journeyman Shaman?

We gather in the lightly wooded area behind the hospital. Billy, Charlie, and my two uncles carry a — well, more a stretcher than gurney, but really more than a stretcher — with Tita Kai on it and place her on the ground so that the circle can form around her.

As Billy and the others set Tita Kai on the ground, I unzip my hoodie and take it off, now wearing only a black tank top... tanned arms bare. Crouching beside Tita as the others begin forming the circle, I set the warm fleece sweatshirt beside her. "In case you get cold... or would like a pillow." I smile at her and brush the stray hairs from her forehead. "We Dance and Sing for you, Kai Bearheart Yazzie."

As I pass Billy, I pause and lay my hand flat on his belly, against his zhong dan tian. "Dance from here today, my little Shifter. You will do well." Then I pause for a moment beside Pablo, resting a hand lightly on his arm. "Follow Uncle Leon's moves; he teaches the young people and makes it seem simple."

I take my place outside the circle, standing in the ready posture that begins all Taiji forms; balanced, centered, one with Mother Earth and Father Sky... although that would not be how the Chinese would describe it. Charlie, too, is outside the circle, sitting cross-legged on the ground with one of his drums. He is the Heart of the Dance, beating strong and steady. He starts slow, the Dancers merely stepping in place for now. Each drum beat, each foot stomp, calls to the Spirits...

And I... I begin my form. I have chosen the traditional long form every student of Grandmaster Chen must learn to perfection to become a Master.

I am a Master.

It is the perfect form to weave with the Dance, for it is the most martial of all the Taiji forms. The heavier footfalls, the strikes, the kicks are all more powerful, more explosive in this form... and I time them so I am perfectly synchronized with the Dancers. There is also some languid gracefulness, the spiraling of the energy.

As Charlie's rhythm increases, the Dancers begin to move around the circle, and at this point I close my eyes. I can hear the footfalls, the chants to the Spirits; I can see the energy moving around... around... around... and spiraling inward toward Tita. My own movements are steady. I pull qi from the earth, spiral it through my body... revitalizing, energizing, storing all that I can hold. And then I allow the rest to cascade upwards and outward to wash over the Dancers, Charlie and Tita Kai.

Eventually, an equilibrium is reached. The Dancers are maintaining a steady rhythm now. In addition to the flow of qi in each person, in addition to the energy we are gifting to Tita, there are brilliant pockets of pure energy — the Spirits — in attendance. With the exceptions of Mother Earth and Father Sky, the Spirits do not gather in many places, at least not in the number they are gathered today.

The Spirit of Mother Earth reaches up to caress the Dancers, then Charlie, and wraps Tita in what almost looks like an embrace. Then her energy flows up my legs and spine, up and over my head and face then down the front of my body before settling back to her. The Spirit of Mother Earth always sounds to me like the ringing of the temple bells, a clear and pure sound that rise in pitch, touching each of my chakras. Sometimes she seems to laugh. Those are bells so high-pitched that dogs would whine, yet I love to hear them.

The Spirit of Father Sky whirls, dances, eddies around everyone, pausing longer to blanket Tita before flowing upwards again. The Spirit of Father Sky sounds like the recordings I've heard of the whale songs. His laughter is sounds like the rustling leaves in the trees.

The Spirits of the directions, the Spirits of the elements... they are present, but simply watchful. I only know to look for them because my Wiccan friends have pointed them out. Each person's guardian Spirit sits or stands or flutters near them. I feel Raven above me, following my movements but preferring to settle on my shoulder if only I when hold still, which is not something I will do before the Dance is complete. Tita's guardian Spirit is the only one missing. But as Charlie increases the tempo, and I begin my form again for the fourth, fifth, perhaps sixth time, I can sense the energy parting in a wave from within the trees.

Deer steps forward one small step at a time, pausing significantly between each step... almost as if it is unsure where it should go. This is the time I must sing my Power Song. There are no words; the sounds would be heard only as vowels, but each note resonates with one of the major chakras. With each note a wave of energy passes over and through the Dancers; their spiraling energy focuses more and more on Tita. With each note, Deer Spirit takes another step until finally — as the last note rings above the crown of my head — Deer stands at Tita Kai's side.

Tita looks up, as if she can see Deer... and no doubt she can. Unless we have disconnected ourselves from the old ways, we are all able to see our own guardian Spirit. Deer touches its nose to Tita's forehead, and the taint to Tita's qi begins to pour out, looking like an oily black smoke. As Deer lies down beside Tita, many of the other Spirits react. Lion beside Papa roars with anger. Monkey jumps and grabs at the smoke; each time, a portion of the smoke turns into the feather of a different bird, which Monkey places at Uncle Leon's feet. Quail paces between Tita's feet and Uncle Junior; similarly, Panther paces between Tita's head and Aunt Sonia, and Lynx paces between Tita's side and Dad. Hawk spreads its mighty wings and circles around Tita, blowing the smoke away, then circles Pablo to gain momentum for another strike at the smoke.

Raven stands on Tita's chest looking at the hole that still exists in her xia dan tian. It looks at the hole and then at me several times before tapping a foot on Tita's chest while staring at me. Staring at me. I am beginning the form for yet another time, and Raven is just staring... and tapping.

It can only be closed by the whole family. Many voices, all the voices are needed to heal the wound.

Raven — despite knowing the magic of the Healing — is not pleased, it would seem. It flies back over to me and snatches several strands of hair from my head. I do not falter in my form; I am a Master and complete each form with precision, in spite of my frustration being reflected in the behavior of my guardian Spirit. Raven presents the strands of my hair to Deer... a promise that the full Healing will be completed when all the voices have arrived.

As the last of the smoke disappears, Deer rises and nudges Tita before turning to stare at me.

You have my word. The Song will be sung when all voices are present.

Charlie has slowed the tempo, and the Dance will come to a quiet end as I complete this last form. Puma is watching me, and I can feel Tommy brushing against my mind. As the Dancers gather around Tita — who is sitting up and smiling, looking perfectly healthy assuming one can't see the remaining wound — I settle into an Aikido kneeling meditation pose, eyes still closed and watching the Spirits, watching the energy flows. Slowly the Spirits drift off... except for Deer and Raven, who continue to stare. While everyone else has their attention on Tita, Pablo and Tommy are watching me.

I open my eyes slowly to adjust to the disorientation of energy flows and guardian Spirits superimposed on what we arrogantly call the real world. Pablo and Tommy are standing in front of me.

"I did not know you could do that, cousin. Who were you talking to?"

I blink several times so the energy flows are merely felt and no longer seen. I glance over at Tita Kai... the guardian Spirits were another matter, however.

"I didn't know I could do that either, and I was talking to Raven and Deer."

Ooops, that was the wrong thing to say! Raven flies over and snatches another beakful of hair.

"Ow," I complain, as this time I rubbed my scalp.

If you don't want me talking about you, then you shouldn't be in my eyes, should you?

I wonder if impertinence toward one's guardian Spirit is a bad idea. But Raven bobs its head up and down — I get the impression it's laughing — and flies dizzily around the area before disappearing from view. Deer is more subtle, and simply fades from view as it stands behind Tita.

I take a deep breath and stand, smiling as both Pablo and Tommy hold out a hand to help me up. Not that I need the help, but gentlemen are a rare commodity these days.

"Let's see how Tita is doing, shall we?" I say as I squeeze Tommy's hand... and move to wrap my arm around Pablo's waist.

Pablo looks energized from the Dance and smiles at me as I wrap my arm around his waist. I return his smile. It's good to see the Dance has the same effect on him as it has on my relatives, the same effect my Taiji has on me... everyone seems more energized and cheerful.

As I wrap my arm around him, however, I feel something... a powerful energy on his back that sends a jolt through me.

And peeking up, over and around his shoulder is the head of a... something reptilian.

The energy I feel from him surprises me, though, causing a slight hitch in my step as we walk toward Tita. But when I see... whatever I see... I stop in my tracks, wide-eyed, utterly still.




Did I whisper? Did I speak out loud?

Does it matter? Right now, the entire world consists only of me... and Pablo... and... Dragon Spirit? That's all that comes to mind... I've never seen anything like this before. Ah, and Raven, who is pleased that I've finally stopped moving, who is standing on my head.

Pablo stops and turns to look at me, raising an eyebrow.

As do about six of my relatives near enough to have heard, shocked surprise on their faces.

A feathered serpent turns its glowing green eyes toward me, its rainbow feathers becoming visible as it moves higher, curling around the base of Pablo's neck.


"Tommy?" I can hear an edge of panic in my voice as I look at the Spirit. As far as I know, Tommy is the only one of my relatives who can see the Spirits... and possibly not any more often or easily than I do.

I take a step back, away from Pablo, still staring at the Dragon Spirit. I heard him say my name, but...

"Tommy, please tell me you see it. Please."

Raven is bobbing up and down, laughing. Raven, I think, has been spending too much time with Coyote.

I'm not really finding anything to laugh about right now.

Pablo is looking very confused now, taking a step toward me and reaching his hand out to me.

"Andrea? What's wrong?" he asks.

Tommy is at my side in a moment, a hand on my shoulder. "I see it, Cousin. I believe that your friend has been touched by the Spirits."

I visibly relax at Tommy's words, and reach out for Pablo's hand.

"But... I can see it. And feel this one," I say, brushing the top of my head with my other hand. Raven flies off, circling the three of us several times before alighting on Pablo's head to stare at the Dragon. I close my eyes and grip Pablo's hand tightly.

"Both of them. I see both of them, Tommy. With normal sight. That's not right." I swallow hard.

"You know, touched by the Spirits means something very different to the outside world than it means to us," I say, trying to remember to breathe and remain calm. "And I am feeling a little crazy right now, Cousin." I open my eyes and look at him. "I feel a very strong urge to repeat my earlier invective."

"I don't think that you're seeing it with your normal vision, Andi. I think you see it with your inner eye... and I think that it's allowing you to see it."

"While the second may be true, Tommy," I say with a sharp edge of impatience, "I know my own Curse well enough to know it is the sight we all have that perceives these two."

Pablo simply holds my hand, looking back and forth between me and Tommy several times. The rest of the family has stopped and turned to watch, concerned looks on their faces. Billy and Dad, along with the waiting nurse, continue on the path to take Tita Kai back to the hospital.

"Andrea... please, what is going on?" Pablo asks, a hint of concern in his voice.

"Oh, Andi's just going crazy, don't worry about it," I say in a light voice to Pablo as I look over his shoulder at... at... No, no... don't think about it. Don't think at all. There is an edge of hysteria in my voice, just a touch, but if I can hear it... a police officer certainly will, too. I'm one of the people they talk down from sixteenth-floor balcony railings.

"They. I see both of the..." Oh, yeah, duct tape over the mouth. It's generally considered bad form to call the Spirits names. Even if they are brats who are trying very hard to make me crazy. "Not how my Sight works," I repeat to Tommy through clenched teeth.

The Serpent and Raven looked at each other, and then the Serpent turns to look at me.

"You are the Shadow in the Night. She who holds my Chosen One's heart. Your song awoke me from my slumber within him."

When the Dragon Spirit speaks to me, I feel paralyzed. Run. Stay. Run, run, run.

No. No! Who am I? I am Chen Shi Taijiquan Master Andrea Yazzie. I am Ninja, Protector of Denver. I do not back down from Eaters or creatures from other dimensions or thugs... or even the Spirits of my People. Or anyone else's people, for that matter. I don't think we have a Dragon in our pantheon.

Pablo is looking very concerned now, looking into my eyes and squeezing my hand, but all he knows is that something is going on. He is willing enough to trust me to wait until I tell him what's going on, but — damn! — I can see that I have him kind of freaked out!

"I am, and evidently I do. Why show yourself to me and not him?" My eyes cut over to Raven, still standing on Pablo's head. "And what the hell are you doing?"

Hey, if you tell someone you're going crazy, might as well give them proof, right?

It occurs to me that Ninja is far closer to the surface than she ought to be at the moment. Andrea probably wouldn't snap at a guardian Spirit.

"Because my Chosen hasn't the Sight to see me, not yet. I have watched over his line for generations upon generations, slumbering until your song woke me."

The feathered serpent takes to the air, stretching its wings before hanging in the air in front of me.

"You must protect my Chosen until he is strong enough," it says to me, looking into my eyes with its green glowing ones.

My eyes narrow, first regarding the Spirit of Pablo's people, then Raven. I shrug Tommy's hand off my shoulder and pull my hand away from Pablo's, planting my fists firmly on each hip.

"Get. Off. His. Head."

Bye bye, Andi. Ninja's here now.


Raven squawks and flies up, spiraling several times before gliding to the ground by my feet.

Then I look at the winged snake Spirit.

"You're a demanding little thing, aren't you? Do you have a name? I'm sure he'll want to know."

I drop my hands loosely to my sides, fingers flexing. I feel the qi moving faster; everything else around me seems to slow down.

"I protect the people of my adopted home. He is one of them. What gives you the right to make demands of me?"

Raven squawks again and flies up near my face, chattering in the Bird language.

"No. You two drew me out; you two will deal with me. You could have behaved in a way that didn't threaten her. Now deal with the consequences of your actions, Spirits.

"And don't waste my time. I have work to do here."

The serpent spreads its wings and continues to hang in the air, its wings shining with all the colors of the rainbow.

"I am Quetzalcoatl, and his people once worshiped me as a god, not understanding my true nature. I have also been called Kukulcan," it says, its voice now only in my head.

"Andi... where did it go?" asks Tommy, looking around.

"And I demand no more than you would give freely. Your paths lie twisted along the bank of the River. I am not one of your Spirits, although they are closer to me than you... and you are the one who called to me, Dark Walker, not the other way around."

"We didn't call you. We sang our Song. Ours and ours alone." Crazy flying things.

Tommy asks his question, and I whip my head around to look at him, the build-up of qi quite possibly looking like fire in my eyes. "Don't call..." I start to snap at him, then stop before real damage can be done. He doesn't know Andi isn't here right now. How could he? Instead, I just point at Pablo. "Ask Mr. Aztec here. Is it trying to hurt someone I care about? No. So do I care where it went? No."

I turn my head to find Raven in front of my face again.

"I know you think you're very funny, but let me give you a clue, my little winged guardian.

"You're not.

"Don't call me out when there's no threat, you bird-brain Spirit! It pisses me off. It upsets her." I gesture to Pablo and Tommy. "And it freaks people out. Are we quite clear on this, my fine feathered friend?"

Raven and I stare at one another, as I try to settle the qi. See, this is the point where I should be beating the crap out of something. Stupid crazy flying things. Finally, Raven makes a quiet 'caw' sound... but grabs another hank of my hair before it flies off and disappears.


I look between Tommy and Pablo.

"Stay here."

And then I walk about twenty paces away, before crouching down so hands and feet are flat on the ground. I so rarely need to bleed off excess energy this, which is probably a good thing, since it hurts like hell.

"Mother, thank you for the gift of your energy. I am returning the excess I am unable to carry," I murmur. From the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands, enough energy to roll an SUV halfway down the block seeps harmlessly back into the earth. Always there, when Ninja needs it.

Slowly, slowly, slowly the world returns to its proper orbit. No danger... not here, not now. Later? Perhaps. Likely. But not now.

I stand and turn. That's all. Just look at Pablo. Look at Tommy.

"I'm sorry."

The rest of the family has given us privacy, most of them moving back into the hospital. Charlie and Uncle Junior stay behind... in case there is trouble, maybe, and more help is needed. Who can help with crazy Spirits besides Tommy, though?

Pablo stands and watches everything that happens, waiting patiently for me to come back.

"Andrea or Ninja?" he asks gently.

"Andrea," I say ruefully.

"Ninja's rarely sorry about anything."

He holds out his hand to me. "I think we have some things to talk about. Would you like to go sit under a tree with me and talk?" he asks.

"I think..."

No. No, thinking is probably a really bad idea. I just won't think. I nod instead.


I look at my cousin; again, it's better to simply not think.

"Tommy? Let me know if Tita gets worse, please? We must all Sing tomorrow when everyone else gets here, but I think she'll be fine. Keep people no one knows away from her. That... that should keep her safe."

Tommy looks at me and nods. "I will touch your mind if there is trouble," he says, bowing just a little and leaving.

Pablo waits for me to join him.

I watch Tommy walk back toward the hospital, and I try really hard not to think about why I am almost literally dragging my feet as I walk back to Pablo.

I try really hard not to think about why I am so hesitant to take his outstretched hand, although I do put my hand in his.

"Um, I think this... ah, exhibition is why only one person ever knew both parts of me. She's..." I shrug. Since I'm trying not to think, it's really too hard to explain.

And yet, when our hands link there is a gentle energy flow between us, and I can feel that Pablo is different now. More... awakened, maybe, than before.

"A part of you that I want to get to know," he says, looking at me. "Andrea, don't hide from me, please. Not anymore. I'm a lot tougher than you think."

I look in his eyes, looking for the... Spirit? Or whatever it is. Hoping, desperately, not to see it.

"Really? You want to get to know that part of me? Because I got the impression that she really, really does not like this... this guardian of yours." I look down at our hands.

"I was just getting used to the idea that maybe... maybe we could be more than just friends," I say softly, not willing to look up. "If the part of me that is the Warrior sees your guardian as a threat... and obviously she does, or she never would have come out... there is no hope for that."

God damn, why am I crying again? That's all I seem to be doing these days.

He gently reaches over and crooks a finger under my chin, lifting my head to look into his brown eyes.

"Please don't cry, dear. I was patient enough to wait for Andrea to be willing to trust me, I can wait for Ninja, too." he says. "But it would help if I knew what guardian it is that you're talking about that agitates Ninja."

"Quetzalcoatl. Or Kukulcan. But it seemed to suggest your ancestors knew it as the former; said it's been watching your family for generations. Said my Song woke it.

"Only... I don't understand how that's possible. Master Chen and I wrote it. It has Diné harmonics, and Chinese harmonics... so why would something like that wake a sleeping Aztec... well, it insisted it wasn't a god... an Aztec Spirit?"

See, this is what happens when I start to think too much. My head hurts.

Pablo looks shocked at my words, turning a bit pale.

"Quetzalcoatl? God of the dawn and the winds, of knowledge and learning?" he asks slowly, running one of his hands through his hair.

I shrug. "I know the Diné Gods and Spirits; I know the Buddhas, Taras and Bodhisattvas. Before today, I could have said Quetzalcoatl was an Aztec God, but of what... I have no idea.

"I think what pissed Ninja off was... well, I guess its demand that she protect you, specifically. Probably its attitude, too. She, um, doesn't exactly have the same respect for the Spirits that the rest of us have."

He smiles a bit at that.

"Somehow I can see that pissing off Andrea as well as Ninja. Neither of you like being told what to do," he says, walking over to a nearby tree and sitting down under it.

I follow him to the tree and sit down next to him. "Well, yeah... why not just ask nicely? But she takes to it less well than I do. Even Raven asked her to go away and let me handle things." I sigh. "Of course, by that time, it was too late."

"Andrea, I don't know anything about this Quetzalcoatl. I've never seen it. Did it say why it wanted you to protect me?"

I close my eyes and rub my temples for a few moments, before opening them again to look at him sadly. "I can't tell you much more than I already have. It looks like a rainbow-colored winged snake. Bobby would be delirious just looking at the colors. But why protect you?" I shake my head. "It just said to protect its chosen one — you — until you were strong enough. It didn't say for what. And why me, why Ninja?" I shrug. "Because our paths are twisted along the bank of the river... that's what it said. I don't know what that means; some reference to something in your culture... or your ancestors' culture, I assume.

"Pablo, this is so outside my realm of knowledge, I don't even know what to say. I know Library Science and am a fair hand at coaxing information out of a database. You want to know anything about Aikido or Taijiquan, I'm your gal. Got a supervillain, an Eater, a perverted goblin that multiplies and the only way you know you're fighting the original is because it breaks your jaw when it punches you in the face... Ninja's your go-to person.

"But this? No." I can only shake my head again. "No, this is not something I know."

"Yes, well, I'm not much better informed," Pablo says. "I mean maybe my ancestors knew about this stuff, but everything I know is from some history class in high school. I paid just a tiny bit more attention to the parts about the Mayans and Aztecs and Incas, but only because I knew that was my heritage. I remember the Quetzalcoatl because it was a cool name and because of the picture in the book... beautiful colors in the wings. And I remember that the River was the representation of Life, flowing from beginning to the Great Sea at the end."

He shrugs.

"But, frankly, it doesn't matter to me. It's not really part of my life. My life is Denver, busting criminals, helping my friends, and having our weekly dinners together. My life is working out something with you, Andrea, not listening to some invisible flying snake."

Pablo reaches over and brushes away a lock of my hair that had come free, tucking it behind my ear then smiling at me. "Don't let something like this define us or pull us apart, Andrea. We make our own lives."

"It's part of you now, Pablo, so it does matter," I say quietly. "I can feel it; your energy has changed."

I reach out and take his hand, palm to palm.

"Before? When I held your hand like this? It was warm and sweet and had that little tingle of energy that — as I understand it — teenagers, young people, can still barely feel when they first start holding hands with their first boyfriend or girlfriend. By our age, unless you're someone like me who's been Cursed with the power of this energy, you don't feel it anymore. Not the actual energy... just the excitement and delight of emotions.

"Now when I hold your hand, there's more than just a tingle of energy, Pablo. You have the energy of someone who knows the Spirits, like all my relatives... even the ones who are not Cursed. It's warmer and... well, I was trying to explain to Tita earlier how energy can have tastes and sounds and smells to them. Impressions or emotional overtones, too. Your energy never had a sound before, Pablo... and now..."

I look into his eyes, the same warmth and caring that has always been there... it's still there. Pablo is still Pablo... and yet, he is becoming something more. Not quite in the same way I am Ninja, but still something... more.

"You are beginning to sound like Father Sky." I smile. "It's a good sound, don't worry. A little bit like the songs of the whales."

My smile fades a little. "It's not an invisible flying snake, Pablo. It's real. You just can't see it yet, but you will. You can't hear it yet, but you will. It's more like my People's Spirits; something separate from you, yet always with you. Not like me and the Ninja; we are one, two sides of the same coin.

"You and I? Pablo and Andrea? We can make our lives, and we can try to make a life together... because I think I might like that. But unless your Quetzalcoatl and my Ninja can find a balance, find harmony, find respect and trust and equality..." I shake my head. "We would have a very hard life, Pablo. It would be best for us to remain simply the best of friends.

"And I will warn you... it is even harder for her to trust than it is for me. Perhaps it's because she was born in fire and lives each day in the fire, or because she is the Warrior and Protector." I shake my head again. "I don't know the why, I just know it is."

He sits and holds my hand, and listens to me as I explain about the feel of his energy and how he had changed. He listens to all that. But all he hears? All he hears is that I want to try making a life with him.

How do I know? Please! Energy is what I know... and I can feel Pablo's energy riotously flowing as his emotions push it. His heart is soaring at the words, despite my tempering of them. Oh, but he has such faith! Perhaps I need to borrow some of his faith.

"I am a man of great patience, and I will win Ninja's trust just as I won your trust. After all, I have a charming smile and nice brown eyes," he says, a twinkle in them as he looks at me.

He reaches up with his free hand to cup my cheek, gently caressing it.

"I'm willing to take this risk, Andrea. You are worth the risk. I love you," he says and closes the distance between us. His warm lips meet mine and he kisses me tenderly, little jolts of energy tingling through both of us.

When Pablo kissed me the day we had our little chat, it had been a very nice kiss.

This is different. Because he is different now? Don't know, can't think.

I feel like I have been transported to a place of no-time, a place of comfort, serenity, beauty. I feel my qi yearning to reach out to him. Not the passive observer I was last week, my hand moves with no conscious thought on my part to rest on his shoulder. By all appearance, this would be a rather chaste kiss, but the qi building in my body says otherwise. Very much otherwise.

A moment, an eternity, later I pull back slightly, studying his face... the familiar face of a dear friend seen new, seen in a new light, seen for the first time.

"You, my dear Pablito, are not the one who must win over the Warrior," I whisper, "for she already approves of you. It is your guardian who must win her trust."

His face is flushed from our kiss and his hand has fallen to his lap. But my words get through to him, and he grins.

"Pablito?" he whispers back.

"What? I've called you that before, or do you just not pay attention when I talk to you?" I ask, grinning and shaking my head. "And here I thought you were different from other men."

I sigh. Melodramatically.

"Oh, I've heard you call me that before. Now I am wondering if that is your special name for me," he whispers back to me, resting his forehead against mine.

"Come on, Andrea, let's go see if you grandmother is feeling better," he says, lifting his lips enough to kiss my forehead.

We stand, and I shake my head. "I would wonder if you had a head wound, my friend, if I didn't know better. Your own language!" I sigh again, only dramatically this time. "A suffix of endearment, and no doubt your own mother has called you Pablito. I'll bet your sisters do, too. Ha. Don't you try to fib to me, Mr. Fancy Detective!"

He chuckles at my not quite deliberate histrionics. "Maybe they did. Probably." He smiles as he looks at our hands clasped together as we walk. "It just sounds different when you say it."

Hmm. Well. I may have to give him that one, too.

© Kelly Naylor and Ken Seggebruch