Issue 4: Starting Down the Rabbit Hole

Pablo lets me fuss over him and take care of him. While I think he knows it helps me as much as it helps him, I'm not sure he quite understands yet that he doesn't really have a choice in the matter. I guess neither of us does, really. I need to feel that I'm helping him; I need to make this connection, to take care of him. He needs that connection, too.

The warm soup is perfect going down. There's nothing like soup to nourish the body and soul, even if the soup's not homemade. The sense of wellbeing is amplified by our proximity, by the occasional brush of foot or hand as we eat.

At last, Pablo has his arm around me as we settle on the sofa, tucking me tight against his side despite the protest of his abused muscles. He looks down at me, however, at my suggestion that I sleep on the floor.

"I don't like the idea of kicking you out of your own bed. I can sleep on the floor. You should take the bed."

I just look at him and laugh.

"Pablo, I love that you're a gentleman. But you hurt... and I don't. I sleep on a futon at home... when I spend more than one night with my parents, I wind up sleeping on the floor after the first night anyway. Now, don't be silly. You'll sleep better in the bed than on the floor."

I grin. "There. That's settled. I'm glad you agree with me."

And then I giggle.

He frowns but sighs, knowing by now that I'm not going to change my mind. Not when my tone, as well as my words, is telling him everything is settled.

"Okay, Andrea. But if you get uncomfortable, you can always use the bed, too. I promise to be a perfect gentleman and stay on my side," he says.

I shake my head and smile. "Twin beds only have one side." Stubborn man.

He's relaxing more now that we're sitting curled up like this. And that's good. It will help with the pain. Well, or so I've been told.

I'm feeling relaxed, too, as I nestle against him. That is also good. I have the sense that just sitting here together is giving him the illusion that all his aches and pains feel better.

But how do I know that? I'm not sure. Maybe it's the qi. We're going to have to have chat more about that, work with it, play with it...

"This is the first quiet time we have had since our talk," he says, interrupting my wide-ranging thoughts. "I guess you've decided to take a chance with me, huh?" he asks, turning and kissing the top of my head.

I sigh contentedly, my head resting against his shoulder. And I chuckle softly.

"I have a feeling it might be more accurate to say the universe simply showed me the error of my ways in resisting your charms. If I believed in fate, and I'm not sure I do, I'd say..." I place a hand on his chest, over his xia dan tian. "...I'd say this, our connection, our blending, was inevitable.

"And I'm totally okay with it."

It's like a fire racing through my meridians, but it's so unlike the fire and lava that nearly consumed me when my powers took over my body so many years ago. It feels energizing, it feels... wonderful.

"Just being close to you makes me feel good."

"Even if I haven't had a shower?" he teases gently, slowly caressing my arm as he holds me.

"Well, a shower wouldn't hurt," I reply, teasing back.

"I'm glad being with me brings you peace and comfort, Andrea. Being with you has always been a comfort to me. I always felt that I could be myself with you. No facade, no posturing. Just Pablo."

I'm still and quiet for several minutes, just remembering things.

"I know," I finally say.

"When... when Randy attacked me at that party and I dislocated his elbow for him, I didn't know who he was. I mean, yeah, it was obvious he was from Texas with that accent. But all I knew was that he was a friend of a friend, an annoying person, and someone who didn't understand the meaning of the word no. For a long time, I second-guessed myself, you know. Gosh, if I'd known back then that his daddy was a State Senator, I'll bet I wouldn't have dislocated his elbow and caused all the trouble that came out of doing that. And a lot more thinking along those lines.

"But you and Denise had treated me so... so fairly, and believed the word of a poor Indian girl over a rich white boy." I smile sadly, something I seem to do whenever I think about Denise. "Okay, I guess when I really think about it, an African American woman and a Hispanic man believing a Native American young woman isn't completely crazy. Still... you both treated me like I was a person, and not just some dumb college kid getting into a fight. And... and when he tried to make it sound like I was the one who started it? Like I just wanted to... to use my kung fu on him? And then when he was getting all self-important and threatening to call Daddy to fix the problem? Well, you two still stood for the truth and wrote up an honest report. So when you'd come around every once in a while to check up on me, I thought that was... I don't know... decent, honorable. I respected you a lot for doing that.

"And then one day I realized we'd become friends. I was still so focused on my studies that I didn't have a whole lot of friends, and knowing I could count on you for even silly things was so nice. Do you remember that time I went to a Denver Women's Chorus concert, and I didn't realize the University Avenue bus schedule had changed so I didn't have a way to get back to my apartment?" I grin at the memory. "I was afraid I was calling too late, or interrupting a date, or... well, whatever. But you just said, I'm on my way. You've always been such a gentleman, Pablo. And I knew you were just you. No posture, no facade. From the first minute I met you, I knew that.

"When you started pestering me to work for DPD, I thought you were nuts. Well, you know that... I told you enough times. What the heck would DPD do with a gal who has a BA in English Literature and was working on a Masters in Library and Information Science, for goodness sake? Yeah, if I'd been willing to let anyone know about... my power, maybe I'd have considered it. Though, truthfully, I couldn't — still can't — see DPD wanting a registered Super on the force. I'm pretty sure there are folks with minor talents, but that's different.

"But when Denise..."

I stop, swallow hard and hold him just a little bit tighter. I don't keep track of how many years it's been because it always seems like it was just yesterday. It still hurts to think about what happened to her, it still makes me angry.

"You never blinked an eye when I finally agreed to work for DPD. Could you see how full of rage I was over what had happened to her? You never even questioned my condition that DPD cover my Supers Insurance. How many years have we known each other... and it took until last week for you to finally ask what it is that I do? Your trust in me kept me going some days, especially on the really bad ones. Even when I couldn't tell you everything about myself, you trusted me completely.

"That is simply who you are. There's never been any facade. I've always known that. Being your friend, Pablo... that has always brought me peace and comfort.

"This?" I press my hand against his chest. "This connection that I can feel running through my whole body, this sharing and blending of our qi..."

I look up at him, just a glimmer of tears starting to form in my eyes.

"This, Pablo... this brings me joy."

He listens as I speak, safe in the comfort of his arms in the quiet of my parent's house. This is probably as emotionally safe and yet vulnerable as I've been in ages... maybe ever.

And that touches Pablo. It's not hard to see that. He nods at my words, my recollections of Denise, my working with him and the trust that had grown between us, as well as the deep and abiding friendship. It's so clear in his eyes and the way he holds himself.

And now this. Now we are two hearts learning to beat as one. He knows, I think, on an instinctive level what I can feel and see when I look at our qi.

"I'm glad, love. I want to bring you joy and peace and love. In each other, I think that we can always find that. We can find our happy place, safe from the outside world.

My boyfriend... boyfriend... gently tilts my head up to meet his and he kisses me. It's slow and gentle at first but filled with yearning and desire and love. His mouth opens to me; his hands run through my hair and down my back. We fit together like two jigsaw pieces and our qi melds, like the ribbons of fudge in ice cream.

I can see from the corner of my eye that Raven and Quetzalcoatl have reappeared. They're twined together on the coffee table. For a moment, I see it as a symbol that two worlds have been forged into one.

I've been kissed before, and by men who were rather skilled. But this kiss...

I remember the fires that burned through my body when I was twelve; this fire rages as strongly, but it doesn't burn. Rather than suffering in torment for days that never seemed to end, I feel a bliss that I wish would go on forever.

I can't tell the difference anymore between my qi and Pablo's... it's all the same. Separate, yes... but still blending together like spices in the best stew. A stray thought manages to surface...

So this is what Tita and Papa... Mama and Daddy meant.

...before being drown again in emotions. Minutes, hours, days could be passing, and I wouldn't know.

All things in moderation, Andi. Moderation is key.

I pull back reluctantly, slowly, but only far enough to look into Pablo's eyes. I start to raise my hand to caress his face, when I hear a peculiar sound from the coffee table.

His face is flushed from our intimacy, and he starts to look into my eyes when I pull away.

I groan as my hand is stilled, and I close my eyes. "And I thought the peanut gallery had gone home," I complain.

I turn and look at Raven and Quetzalcoatl. The serpent is partially twined around the crazy bird, and they're swaying side to side, cheek to cheek... well, assuming they have cheeks. Who can tell with birds and snakes? And they're humming.

"You look like a couple of idiots."

Pablo quirks an eyebrow up at my words; it takes a moment for him to realize what I'm talking about, and he chuckles.

Their swaying becomes more pronounced, and they break off the humming to start singing.

Goin' to the chapel and they're gonna get married, goin' to the chapel and they're gonna get married...

I drop my head back down on Pablo's chest.

"Okay, so what are they doing now?" he asks as I drop my head back to his chest, and he strokes my hair.

"Why me? Why me???" I whine.

"Why you, love? Because you're special.

"I take it that our friends are making fun of our quiet time together?"

How Raven and Quetzalcoatl make kissy sounds when neither of them has lips is anyone's guess, but the sounds drift to my ears.

"It's not because I'm special. I must have been a terrible person in my previous life. This is my punishment." My voice is muffled because I'm talking into his chest, but I don't care. "If I become a Buddhist, maybe they'll go away."


"Raven is insane and has infected Quetzalcoatl. They are not just making fun of us, they are severely mocking us."

I just barely manage to stifle a scream, so it comes out as a high pitched wail instead.

"The Serpent has wrapped itself around the Bird, they're swaying back and forth like drunken bums, and they're singing Chapel of Love.

I pause to see if I'm going to start crying yet. No. Not quite.

"And making kissy noises."

I look up at him, utterly miserable.

"I don't know how to make them go away. I don't even think anti-psychotic drugs would work."

"Well, maybe they'll listen to me," he suggests, turning his face toward the table since that's where I had been looking a moment before.

"Quetzalcoatl, ancient guardian of my people... Raven, Spirit guide of the Diné people... I ask that you please give us our privacy until we call for you. Both Andrea and I are under a lot of stress and we need the time to find our way together. We will need your guidance in the years ahead, but for now, for this, she and I must find our own Path."

I feel like I ought to see how they react, even though looking at the two of them is the last thing I want to do right now.

They stop singing.

They stop swaying.

They look at one another, then look at Pablo, then look at one another again.

He does talk pretty, Raven opines.

Of course, Quetzalcoatl replies. He is my Chosen One.

He's still pretty clueless, though, Raven responds.

That is a truth both sad and disheartening, the Serpent says, then rests its head on Raven's and stares at Pablo. They are One, yet he does not see us, he does not hear us. He should by now. Quetzalcoatl turns his beady little eyes toward me. Night Walker, you must find a large stone and crack my Chosen One over the head again. His earlier injury was not sufficient.

I slowly pull myself away from Pablo and stand, nearly vibrating with anger, staring down at the two ever so annoying and unhelpful guardians on the table in front of me. That's it. I can't take it anymore.

Ut oh, the bird says, trying to shake the snake off its head.

"I. Will. NOT. Hit. Pablo. Over. The. Head. With. A. Rock!!!"

Get off, get off, get off of me, Snakey One!! The Other is a hair's breadth away from appearing!!

"Go away! Go away! GO AWAY!!!" I'm afraid I'm screaming now; I hope Mama and Dad's neighbors aren't home.

My wing is stuck! I'm stuck, I'm stuck, I'm stuck! the Serpent wails.

I crouch down so I am eye to eye with Raven. Quetzalcoatl is still partially wrapped around Raven, but its head is upside down and resting on the tabletop. They both stop moving; they are utterly still.

"I don't care if you have to roll off together to your own plane of existence," I whisper, "or if you're stuck together forever. If you don't go away NOW..."

Yeah, I shout that last word, and Raven falls over backward, tangling them up even more. They both meep. I go back to whispering.

"I will find a way to have her draw and quarter you... either individually or together. I don't care.

"Am I making myself very, VERY clear?"

They both look at me from their tangled, sprawled positions on the table and blink several times.

And then they just disappear.

I stay there for a few seconds, and then crawl back onto the sofa with Pablo, lying down with my head in his lap, watching the table with distrust.

"They make me so very tired. But they are apparently, for some odd reason, rather afraid of my alter ego. Well, I suppose she is rather scary."

He watches the entire interchange, at least from my side since he still can't see the guardians. He can feel how angry I am and when I lie back down and rest my head on his lap, he gently strokes my hair and arm in an attempt to calm me.

"I can see that they got on your nerves," he says quietly. "I'm sorry that my ancestral guardian is causing you to have additional headaches, love," he murmurs, leaning down to kiss my forehead.

When was the last time anyone stroked my hair, to soothe and to comfort me? It's kind of sad that question is so easy to answer... twenty years ago, when Mama sat by my side during the days or even weeks the Curse first took hold of me.

"As Bobby would say, they worked my very last nerve," I say with a sigh.

"If your ancestral guardian had its way, you'd be having an additional headache... very literally." I turn over, lying on my back so I can look up at him. Well, I keep my feet in the air until I can reach up and tug off each boot... Mama would be very displeased to find boot prints on her furniture. I drop each boot on the floor, and then look up at Pablo. "It seems to think that between what we have going on and the lump on your head, you should be able to see them... or at least it... by now. It wanted me to whack you over the head with a rock!"

"Well, I'm glad you didn't take him up on it... I should at least be giving you a good reason to do so on my own account," he says, looking down into my eyes and smiling.

"Oh, don't be silly! Why would I hit you with a rock when I have four deadly weapons attached to my body?" I smile up at him.

He runs his fingers gently over my face, fingertips gliding over my nose, my lips.

"You're tense and upset. Can I massage your shoulders for you?"

"Massage my shoulders?" I ask, definitely looking confused. "I'm a little tense and, yes, still upset... but I... well, that's one of the reasons I do Taiji, and the Qigong exercises and meditations." I'm really trying to piece together how massage could be as effective. And I feel like... well, I think there are a lot of things I don't understand that are going to make a serious relationship challenging.

"I'm sorry, Pablo. I don't understand how massage is helpful."

But then... well, I guess maybe it's a cultural thing? Another one of those things I don't understand because I lived in the Far East for so long?

He smiles brightly at me and gently urges me to sit up.

"That's because you've never been graced with the power of my hands. Come sit down on the floor in front of me with your back turned to me."

I'm skeptical about its effectiveness, doubtful that it will be as beneficial as my Taiji practice, but I can't see how it could possibly hurt. And Pablo seems so eager... if it will make him happy, how can I refuse?

I sit on the floor and pull my hair across the front of my shoulders, out of the way.

He waits until I'm in place and, after cracking his knuckles, he starts to work the muscles of my shoulders and neck with surprisingly talented hands.

"It isn't just about relaxing the muscles through massage, but the healing power of touch," he says softly.

His qi flows from his hands into my shoulders, sending warmth radiating through me. I'm still not quite accustomed to feeling such a familiar flow of qi coming from someone else; it's momentarily disorienting, but the feeling of blissful fire soon returns and I sigh.

I turn my sight inward, watching the energy flowing all through my body, except for that place where it has never flowed. Or rather, has never flowed since the Curse took me and I could see the meridians. Would now be the time to bring that up? Or should I just let it go and enjoy the moment?

Today has been a day of one jolt after another for Pablo. I should wait.

It's true that my tension and annoyance have dwindled to almost nothing, but I think simply holding Pablo's hand would have the same effect. However, where my Taiji is energizing, this massage almost makes me want to curl up and fall asleep.

He works my muscles and places soft kisses on my head occasionally until he can feel I am totally relaxed; finally his hands still on my shoulders.

"I'm going to go take a shower, Andrea. I'm stiffening up. Could you show me what bathroom I can use?" he asks.

"Pablo!" I say with exasperation, looking up at him. "You should have said something sooner."

I stand and smile as I reach out my hand to take his. "It was very nice, I enjoyed the massage... but you're supposed to be taking it easy, not paying so much attention to me that you forget to take care of yourself." I shake my head. "Silly man."

"If I had said something sooner I wouldn't have had the chance to give you a shoulder rub," he says back, smiling and taking my hand.

I lead him to the hallway. There are two bedrooms on the right side — first mine, then Justin's — with a linen closet between them. There's only one bedroom on the left, at the far end — Mama and Daddy's. Almost directly across from my bedroom door is the bathroom.

I pull out towels from the closet and hand them to Pablo with a grin. "Your duffel is here in my room. I'll wait for you in the living room."

He accepts the towels and glances into my room at the duffel, nodding.

I kiss his cheek, and mutter, "Silly man," again.

"I'm going to soak a bit, so I'll probably be twenty minutes or so... if that's okay," he says. He smiles softly as I kiss his cheek and mutter at him as he leaves.

"Take as much time as you need, of course."

Pablo disappears into the bedroom for a moment and then goes into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. A few minutes later, the shower starts up.

I head back to the living room. There's plenty of room for some of the more contained forms; I can practice my Taiji while Pablo showers. I'm about ten minutes into my forms when I hear a car pulling into the driveway, and the garage door going up.

I finish the short form when I hear the car in the driveway. I pick up my boots and set them in the bedroom before meeting Mama and Dad in the kitchen, where the door between garage and house is located.

Giving Mama a hug, I ask, "How are you two doing? You look tired, Mama. Would you like me to pick Justin up from the airport in the morning so you can both get some extra sleep?"

Both Mama and Dad hug me and give me a kiss, Mama on my cheek and Dad on my forehead.

"I'm fine, dear... a bit tired, but nothing that a good night's sleep won't take care of," Mama says, putting her arm around my waist.

"Your father and I can pick him up, as we planned. After all, you came all this way to spend time with your grandmother. As did your friend..." she continues, looking around.

Dad goes to the fridge to get some water; he looks worn from the day. I suspect if he hadn't done two Medicine Dances today, he'd have been home curled up in bed hours ago.

I chuckle as they look around for Pablo.

"Don't be silly, Mama. Visiting hours don't start until nine... Justin's plane gets in at seven." I look between the two of them. "Tita's illness has been stressful for everyone, and you two have taken on so much of it to leave Papa free to care for Tita. Now let me take care of you, okay?"

I smile at them.

"And Pablo's taking a shower... probably using all your hot water while he's at it. It's not the worst day he's had as a police officer, but he is pretty sore. The doctor said someone should check on him during the night because of the bump on his head, so I'll just have him sleep in my bed... I'll sleep on the floor." I hug Mama and kiss her head. "And don't you start on me, too, about sleeping on the floor," I say with a laugh. "You know I'm not used to such soft, comfortable beds. I just need an extra pillow and blanket... and, yes, I know where to find them."

Dad turns from the fridge and looks at me, as does Mama.

"He's okay though? The doctor did release him, right? I have the feeling he could be a bit stubborn about such things," Mama says.

I roll my eyes. "He's nearly as stubborn as I am. But yes," I say with a nod, "the doctor did release him and told him to take it easy. No heavy lifting, don't get hit over the head again... the usual doctor speech. I think the doctor would have kept him if there weren't going to be anyone around to keep an eye on him."

I sigh.

"While the doctor felt his injury was not too severe, his guardian Spirit seems to feel he didn't get hit hard enough. It wanted me to hit him over the head again with a rock. I refused, of course."

Both of my parents pause and look at me.

"His guardian Spirit... you mean from during the Dance?" Dad asks, brows furrowed.

I rub my forehead, and then gesture toward the table. "This day has been entirely too busy."

I sit down at the kitchen table with them, put my elbows on the table and prop my chin in my hands.

"During the Medicine Dance for Tita, my Song apparently woke Pablo's own guardian, Quetzalcoatl. Along with Raven, it was helpful in subduing that..." I pause, trying to find words that are not dreadfully offensive. "...extremely nasty and disgusting person who had been going around Flagstaff stealing nílch'í from people."

They both come over and sit at the kitchen table with me, Dad pausing only long enough to grab two more water bottles and handing one each to Mama and me. We all need more hydration after a day like today. I thank him with a smile.

"And then this evening, the two of them..." I close my eyes, drop my forehead into my hands and let out a tiny whine before taking a deep breath, then letting it out slowly. "They were twined together on your coffee table, swaying back and forth like drunken idiots, singing Chapel of Love. Quetzalcoatl said Pablo ought to be able to see it by now and suggested I hit him again since his earlier injury was not sufficient."

"The feathered Serpent God of the Aztecs?" Dad murmurs, rubbing his chin like he always does when deep in thought.

I fold my arms on the table and lay my head down on them. "I threatened to draw and quarter them if they didn't leave us alone. Well, I think maybe I threatened them with Ninja."

I admit it. I'm hiding. I don't want to see my parents' reaction. One does not threaten to draw and quarter one's guardian Spirit, even if it is one's alter ego doing the drawing and quartering. However, I think there should be exceptions for guardian Spirits who act like very annoying drunken bums.

There is a ripple of amusement in their qi when I mention the crooning, but Mama gasps a little at the end of my tale.

"Andrea, you... you threatened your guardian Spirit?!" she asks, shocked.

I look up at Mama, on the verge of tears. "I did, and I would do it again! Raven has been acting like... like..." I throw my hands up in the air. "Like Coyote! Only worse! All day. Don't I have enough to deal with? Do I need my guardian Spirit acting like... like... like one of the Three Stooges? No!! No, no, no!"

"That's not good, dear. I'm no expert, but perhaps you should talk with the Shaman?" Dad says, his hand coming to rest gently on my arm.

I lean back in the chair and nod to Dad. "Yes. Rainbow colors, little wings, a serpent. Says the Aztecs were mistaken about it being a god, that it's closer in nature to our guardian Spirits." I shrug. "It seemed a bit... pretentious when it first woke, but by this evening?" I sigh, almost miserable. "By this evening, they were both acting like they had been drinking tequila all day."

From the vicinity of the shower, we can hear Pablo's lovely baritone voice singing.

When I hear Pablo singing from the bathroom, I smile... understanding a few of the words, the important ones anyway. I realize there'll be no more teasing him about joining Harmony and pretending to be my gay cousin so Liza stops teasing us when we go to breakfast together. Liza will be smugly pleased the next time we're at Le Peep's. I find I'm perfectly okay with that.

"I suppose I could talk to the Shaman, Daddy. Is there one in Flagstaff? I know there's a Hopi Shaman in Denver; he's very nice, and they have guardian Spirits just as we do. Many of them are similar, I think. This can wait until I get home if necessary."

"Your cousin is studying with John Ravenclaw over in Ganado, as you know. I don't believe there is a Shaman or Singer much closer than that." He pauses a moment to consider. "I believe there might be a Singer in Albuquerque, but for something like this you might want a Shaman. Perhaps Ha'tathali Ravenclaw is the better choice." Dad studies me for a moment. "I don't know if it would be easier for you to go back to Denver and see the Shaman there, but Ravenclaw is of our People," he says.

The shower shuts off and the singing stops.

"I've heard only good things about Tommy's studies with John Ravenclaw, of course." I rub my temples with the heels of my hands. "And Ganado isn't very far out of the way if I take the southern route back to Denver. But..."

I hold my head in my hands, elbows once again on the table.

"It all seems so complicated... a Diné Spirit, yes, our Shaman can perhaps make sense of what Raven is doing, and advise me. But I don't think I could find an Aztec Shaman even if I went to Mexico or Central America."

I put my head down on the table again, cradled in my arms, looking at Dad this time instead of the tabletop.

"I don't feel like I did anything wrong, though. You and Mama always said the Spirits are there to help us. And I don't see how today's... behavior was in any way helpful. I feel like they were just trying to drive me mad."

I close my eyes and sigh.

"Crazy bird should know I already have enough stress."

Dad gets up and comes over to sit beside me, running his hands over my hair. I remember him doing that when I was a little, little girl.

"Andrea, I love you more than life itself... but you're a very serious person... sometimes too serious. Perhaps your guardian Spirit and his new friend were trying to make you see that all life is not being serious and figuring everything out. Sometimes it's just laughing and going with the flow, as they said in my day."

He leans down and kisses my forehead.

"But that's what I thought this morning, Daddy, when Raven was just being silly. Really. And I..." I feel like I'm going to cry. "...I was relaxing and being at least a little less serious because I can't stop all at once, but I was trying, and then... then..." I sniff and wipe the tears away with the back of my hand. "...and then they just got stupid crazy. Like I'm supposed to get all unserious in one minute! It could take days!"

"Why don't you ask Raven the next time you see it? It is your guardian Spirit, after all. But perhaps seeing John Ravenclaw will be good anyway. Take your Pablo with you. He should learn our ways if he is to become such a vital part of your life."

I sit up again nod at his suggestion to take Pablo out to Ganado. I'm sure it wouldn't be as simple as Daddy makes it sound, but it's certainly not a bad idea.

He smooths down my hair as Pablo, a towel wrapped around his waist, comes out of the bathroom and goes into my bedroom to dress. I can see him glance up the hall for a moment.

"I like him," Dad says. "His heart is true."

Then I smile, crazy guardian Spirit momentarily forgotten... or at least pushed to the back of my mind.

"It is; I've known from the first time I ever met him that he has a good and true heart. I'm glad you like him."

"More importantly, you obviously like him a great deal," Dad says. "I've never heard you talk of a man like this before, nor have you brought one home to meet us," he adds. "Thank you for that trust, daughter."

Mama is making some of her soothing herbal tea.

"You will take him a cup of tea and have him drink it. It should help with his sleep," she says.

I stand up from the table and hug my Dad. "It's more than just like, Daddy."

I chuckle at Mama's command. "Yes, Mama! And I will make sure he drinks every bit of it."

I wait until Mama has completed her very own tea ritual, and then give her a hug before taking the mug from her.

"Good night, dear. I'll be sure the night light is on in the bathroom so that Pablo doesn't break his neck in the dark," Mama assures me.

"Good night, Mama... Daddy. You two sleep in. I'll fetch my brother in the morning. Or perhaps Pablo and I will fetch Justin," I say with a grin, before heading back to my room. I tap on the door before opening it, then enter and put the mug of tea on the nightstand.

"Mama's concoction... it actually tastes pretty good. And it will help you sleep."

I go back to the door and close it... then just lean against it, smiling.

Pablo is wearing a pair of gym shorts and a t-shirt. It's the least amount of clothing I've ever seen him in and I can see he has a solid physique with strong legs, the bottom of a scar peeking out of the leg of the shorts. He's not all muscular like a bodybuilder, but is solid like someone who boxes and bicycles and works seriously in the yard and keeps himself in shape because his life depends on it.

He turns and smiles at me, picking up the tea and sipping it. "Remind me to thank her, please," he says, looking at me. "What are you smiling about? You look like the Cheshire Cat over there."

"I've spent years trying not to notice how attractive you are. Now that it's okay to notice, I'm... noticing," I say. "It's kind of too bad you have a head wound and need to take it easy."

I take a good long look.

"Yeah, really too bad."

It's possible the door is holding me up, rather than the other way around.

He raises an eyebrow at me.

"I had no such problem noticing how beautiful you were, right from the start," he says. He sets the mug of tea down again, then walks slowly over to me, a faint quirk playing around his lips. He stops just in front of me and lifts his hands to run through my long dark hair, then leans lightly in against me, our bodies touching from knee to chest. He looks into my eyes.

"I won't always be injured," he says softly and brings his lips to mine, kissing me tenderly, his hands on my arms. His breath is minty fresh.

I wrap my arms around his waist as we kiss, lightly running my fingers along his spine.

Long moments pass and he pulls back.

And when he pulls back, I look into his eye as I rest my hands on his hips. "I certainly hope you won't be injured for long," I whisper. I have always loved his eyes, so warm and deep. I've been known to dare him to staring contests just so I can look into those eyes. I'm already beginning forget why I resisted falling in love with him for so long.

"I'll go out so you can change," he says. "Just let me know when it's safe for me to come back in."

"Don't be silly," I say, turning him toward the nightstand. "Drink your tea, be the gentleman that you are and keep your back turned, and I'll be finished changing before you finish the tea."

Ah, right. He doesn't know about the games I play! How I time my clothing changes and how long it takes to braid my hair and how long it takes to get to Boulder or Golden or Castle Rock or Aurora or Brighton. See! That's silly! I'm not serious all the time!

"I can do that," he says, going over to the nightstand, picking up the mug again, and sipping the tea.

I strip off my tank top and drop it next to my bag, then pull my nightshirt out and slip it over my head. I'm glad I packed the less tattered of my nightshirts... a light gray, short sleeved t-shirt that falls to just above my knees, with a picture of Tigger on the front. I slip out of my leather pants and fold them carefully before setting them on top of the bag. Panties and socks join the tank top next to the bag.

Though I'm concentrating on moving quickly, it's not hard to tell Pablo is trying to ignore the sounds of zippers and cloth rustling. He's a man, and a man who's been in love with me for years, so I can only imagine what is going on in his mind's eye. His body is betraying him though, for I can hear his heart beating faster and I don't doubt there is the inevitable physical reaction that men have.

I can't say I'm exactly calm myself.

"See? Hardly any time at all." Less than ninety seconds, in fact.

Pablo turns as I let him know I'm finished.

I walk over to the closet to fetch a pillow and blanket for myself, and drop them on the floor beside the bed. Then I sit on the end of the bed while waiting for him to finish the tea.

When he hears me sit on the bed, he sits quickly too, to avoid the embarrassment both of us would feel if either of us acknowledged his physical reaction.

"This is an excellent tea. Did you have any?" he asks, clearing his throat.

I shake my head. "It's good for what ails ya, as Anita likes to say... and I haven't so much as had a cold since I was thirteen." Talking, just talking will settle the qi that seems to be exploding in the room. "Mama uses chamomile as the base, which is good for relaxing and helping you sleep." I shrug. "I do Taiji instead. Oh, she sends me a little tin of it every few months because it is tasty, and I do enjoy it every once in a while..." I grin at him. "I share it with Bobby and David. And I'll bet she starts sending larger tins more often so I can share it with a certain police detective who manages to get himself tossed against walls on occasion."

I pause a moment, then shake my head again. "You know, I've probably been hurt worse and more times than you and I don't even have any scars. Well, I haven't been shot, and I'd be just fine avoiding that." I look at the arm that had been cut this afternoon, pushing the sleeve of my nightshirt up a bit to see the top of my bicep where the cut had been deepest. "If Mama had seen my arm when whatever bit of sharp flying thing cut it, she'd have really freaked out. And a doctor would have been running for the sutures. But by the time I walked out of the store with Holbrook, it just looked like a not too nasty scar. By the time we got to the hospital, it wasn't even noticeable unless you looked very closely and knew exactly where I had been cut. Now?" I look up at him and shrug as I smooth the sleeve down. "Same thing for the places I've been stabbed. I'd be willing to bet if the doctors took x-rays, they'd say I'd never broken any bones." I rub my jaw where that creepy pervert punched me yesterday. "And the scum Abe texted me about yesterday really did a number on my jaw."

I pull my eyes away from his and look down at my hands in my lap. "Haven't really come to grips with the downside of healing so well and so fast. I probably never will."

"What downside does it have, Andrea?" he asks, offering me a sip of the tea as we sit on the side of the bed. He shifts to sit cross-legged now, looking at me in my night shirt and smiling softly.

He seems amused by Tigger.

I shake my head at the offer of tea.

I've told Mama; I'm pretty sure she doesn't believe me. I mentioned it in passing to Tita earlier today, but with everything going on, there were far more important things to worry about.

Dang, I never thought it would be so hard to say this...

"I don't think it's possible for me to have children."

Surprise and deep compassion fill his warm brown eyes and he puts the mug aside, reaching for my hand.

"Do you know for sure?" he asks softly. He seems to sense just how difficult it is for me to admit that to him... that perhaps I'm terrified it would scare him off.

I'm not sure I'm terrified as much as I'm... what? Well, horribly, horribly uncomfortable. I close my eyes and take a deep breath... and let it out very slowly. Talking about previous relationships ranges from taboo to really awkward. And when a possible pregnancy is involved?

"One time..." I pressed my lips together and breathe again. "My body reacted as if it was an infection," I whisper.

There is nothing but understanding and acceptance in the qi that drifts from him to me.

"You were pregnant and your body reacted that way... or you think you might have been pregnant? Did you have a specialist check?" he asks, gently squeezing my hands as the qi flows between us. "You know you can tell me anything, Andrea... that you're safe with me," he says, trying to reassure me.

"I was." I thought I'd moved past the point where it still hurt this much, but I guess not. I feel tears slip out from behind my closed lids. Maybe it's not so much the past I continue to mourn, but the absence of a future as a mother. Perhaps — if Master Chen's suspicions of a greatly increased lifespan are even partially true — it's for the best. I don't know. I just know that I watch Tita when she's looking at her children, and I watch Mama when she's looking at me and Justin, and I feel as though a knife is piercing my heart.

"And then I wasn't." I hadn't initially been happy when I figured out why my qi had started flowing differently... only days after conception. But the more I watched the flows and watched the tiny bundle of cells multiplying, the more content I became. Oh, I never would have married Jared, but he was and still is a good person. After about three weeks, though... my qi began moving back toward its normal pathways. I thought, maybe, my qi is supposed to integrate with that of my child. It didn't.

I finally look up at Pablo; I can feel tears still flowing, but slowly. "There are no specialists, Pablo. I know one old man in China who understands my qi powers; he's not a doctor," I say sadly.

His own eyes are shining with unshed tears for me, and he reaches over and gently cups my cheek, his thumb brushing my tears away.

"Andrea, I am so sorry you went through so much pain. I can feel it coming from you somehow," he says quietly, voice tight. "I don't know if you can have children or not. Perhaps it's something you have to learn how to do, like controlling your qi originally. But I'm sure that there are answers out there. Perhaps we can find out."

He swallows, leaning in to kiss each of my wet eyes, a few tears trickling down his own cheeks now.

"I love you, Andrea. I want you in my life," he says, looking deeply into my eyes. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and right now it seems we can see one another's souls.

I don't know what to say, though. Are there answers? I don't know. But Pablo's compassion, his love, this bond that we have forged today... perhaps, perhaps that's really all I need. Perhaps it will be enough.

Looking into his eyes is like looking at forever. It sounds weird, but it feels right. I lean to hug him, resting my head on his shoulder.

"I love you, my dearest friend," I whisper. "Stay with me always."

He holds me in his arms, slowly running his fingers through my hair... brushing his hand down my back to soothe me.

"I will always be here for you," he whispers back, tucking my head under his chin and closing his eyes. Minutes pass as we sit tangled in our embrace, neither of us wanting to lose the feeling of comfort and warmth. Finally, Pablo pulls away and gently brushes my long hair out of my eyes.

"I could hold you all night, but I guess we'd better get some sleep," he says regretfully.

I sigh, but try to smile. "You really do need sleep, love. The body heals best... well, yours will anyway... during deep sleep."

I reach down and pick up the blanket I had dropped on the floor earlier, and set it on my lap as I look at him, grinning. "When we get back to Denver, you can come over to my house for a sleepover. How long do you think it will take Bobby to notice the change in our relationship? I give it... five minutes, tops, plus a Drama Queen Squeal." I stand and shake the blanket out.

His eyebrows go up a little the mention of a sleepover, but as I quickly move onto the topic of Bobby, I can tell he can very well imagine the expression on Bobby's face.

"You know, he's been telling me from the first moment he spied you when you came to visit at the house that I should be dating you. Or that he should be dating you," I add with a laugh. "Don't worry, I dissuaded him from that notion immediately.

"Now, finish your tea and lie down. Get some sleep," I say softly.

I kick the pillow into position, then turn off the overhead light leaving just the small table lamp on the nightstand for illumination. Then I wrap the blanket around myself like a cocoon before settling myself comfortably on the floor. As Pablo turns out the light, I say, "Oh... I'm picking my brother up at the airport in the morning so Mama and Dad can get some much-needed rest. If you're awake then, you're welcome to join me."

He finishes his tea and turns out the table light, stretching out on the single bed that has not had much use in its life. I was home for barely the summer before moving up to Denver after returning from China. And I think I've already decided that I don't visit nearly enough.

"I'll come with you. I should meet your brother," he says in the dark.

Silence reigns in the room with just a few shifts of position as Pablo tries to make sore and aching muscles more comfortable. He's going to have a lovely set of black and yellow bruises tomorrow.

"Andrea?" he says quietly, waiting for my acknowledgment that I'm not yet asleep.


He's quiet for a moment. "You know that I'm very attracted to you physically, but I don't want you to think we have to rush into anything. I want to build something to last a long time between us."

I smile in the dark. "I know, Pablo." Why did I tell myself loving him was a bad idea? "Things will happen as they should happen when they should happen. Don't worry about it."

That was the part of Raven's lesson that I got... before it when totally bonkers.

"Okay, love. Good night." His hand reaches down to brush against my hair in the dark. It's a final touch of reassurance that this day and this last week had not been merely a flight of fancy for him... for either of us, really. It's reassurance that I am more than a dream, more than a mirage that would disappear when he get too close. For me, it is reassurance that perhaps this whole day has not been a dream.

He sighs so softly and then closes his eyes, letting sleep claim him and pull him into the land of dreams. I wait, I watch for a few minutes before I, too, let sleep claim me.

A scream rips me out of my dreams... it's a deep primal scream of fear.

I wake with a start, but instantly alert... tossing the blanket aside as I kneel beside the bed.

"Pablo," I say softly, "wake up." I wrap one arm around his chest and lay a hand on his forehead. "You're dreaming, Pablo... wake up."

He's sweating badly, his heart is pounding wildly and his qi is flaring as I touch him. Pablo's eyes fly open as he screams again, sitting up and looking around in confusion.

"Andrea!" he cries, eyes flickering from one point in the room to another, never resting on any spot for more than half a second. Finally, his eyes lock on mine and utter relief fills him. He bows his head.

"Pablo, what's wrong? Talk to me." I've never seen anyone have such a reaction to a nightmare!

The door to the bedroom opens and Dad looks in, concern on his face, but then he gently closes the door again. I can hear murmurs coming from the hallway, and then footsteps retreating back to my parents' bedroom.

"I... eyes... I don't know... Something was looking at me, Andrea," he says, shaking. "I never felt anything like that before. It felt so real." He's all over the place, thoroughly disoriented.

I hold him tightly around his waist. "You looked into the Darkness of the place beyond, love. I hope that's all this is. I think it is just a nightmare from seeing evil beyond human comprehension."

I pull his head down closer to me and kiss his forehead.

"Ah, she should have warned you not to look, but I suppose there was no time... no opportunity."

Pablo holds onto me tightly, as well. The steady beat of my heart and my qi begins calming him. Slowly, we move into a rhythm, both heartbeats and qi flows begin to synchronize. I can feel an alien tang to his qi and Quetzalcoatl looks over Pablo's shoulder. Glowing green eyes look at me from close range, and a feather light touch of a forked tongue tickles my cheek.

His fear called to me. He has seen too much. Be with him, Night Walker. Hold him and sleep. I shall guard the both of you this night.

"I'm sorry, Andrea. I didn't mean to wake you over a stupid dream."

"Nonsense... it was a very bad nightmare, not a mere stupid dream. Come... come down here with me."

I take his pillow and put it on the floor beside mine.

"I'm going to wrap my arms around you, and keep the Darkness away so you can sleep through the rest of the night. And there is not enough room in that little bed for both of us. There is more than enough ibuprofen for the sore muscles you'll have later... but there is only one Andi to hold you, to keep the nightmares away.

"Come along."

He nods and slips off the bed onto the floor with me, groaning a little and gritting his teeth, trying to ignore the pain as he moves to rest his head on my shoulder and chest.

"I love you, Andrea," he whispers in a sleepy voice. The bite of his fear sweat is obvious to my nose, although it is not likely to be noticed by anyone else. His qi still seems jittery... but slowly his breathing evens out and he falls back into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Above us on the bed, the feathered serpent keeps watch, faintly humming some ancient song long forgotten by man.

It's a delight to wake to my internal alarm rather than the noisy family of blue jays. It's a joy and a wonder to wake with my arms wrapped protectively around Pablo. There will be days when I'll need the protection of his arms; that we can protect and comfort one another gives me a peace I never realized I craved.

I glance up to see Quetzalcoatl wink out of sight.

I shift enough to kiss Pablo's neck, beneath his ear. "Good morning, love," I whisper. "I'm going to go take a quick shower and get dressed."

His neck is covered with stubble, and when I kiss him he stirs, blinking his eyes open and covering them with an arm. "Morning? Okay, Andrea... wake me if I fall asleep, hmm?" he mumbles. His lip is swollen so he can only try to smile at me, one arm coming around my shoulders to give me a morning hug.

I chuckle. "You can still opt out of going to the airport, you know. I'll be back in about fifteen minutes."

I pull clothes and my toiletries bag out of my mini suitcase and leave the room, closing the door softly behind me. My first stop is the kitchen to get the coffee started, but I see that Mama has a new coffee maker with a timer! And the timer has just gone off. Ah, my Mama is the best!

I fetch towels and pad into the bathroom for my morning cleanup. Once finished — dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with my hair still up in a towel — I drop the other towel in the hamper and head back into the kitchen for coffee. I pull out two mugs from the cabinet, ones that I know are stable enough to be carried with one hand. I fill them with a delightfully aromatic French Vanilla blend and head back to my bedroom. Pausing at the door, I listen for sounds from my parents' room; fortunately, they still seem to be sleeping. I open the door to my room and smile at Pablo sprawled on the floor.

I drop my toiletries bag and nightshirt on my suitcase and put the coffee mugs on the dresser, before crouching beside Pablo.

"Okay, it's the moment of truth. Do you want to crawl back into bed for another hour or two of sleep? Or hustle your sleepy self into some semblance of humanity and come to the airport? Free ibuprofen with either choice; meeting Justin later rather than sooner won't reflect poorly on you." I grin and giggle. "Especially since you look like I've been beating you."

He looks up at me from the floor and smiles, hair all tousled.

"I should greet him... unless you want some alone time with him first. To explain things," he says, looking at me — to see what I want? — as he sits up, his back against the bed.

"Did you say painkillers?" he asks hopefully.

I pull the ibuprofen out of my pocket, place it in his palm, fold his fingers over it, and kiss his knuckles. "I did indeed," I say, then stand to fetch the coffee. I hand a mug to him and then sit down next to him, sipping my own coffee.

He smiles at my kiss, popping the pills into his mouth and taking a sip of coffee. I can see it tastes good going down because that is very nearly the same expression I have when drinking it. And it's starting the process of waking him up. He even seems to be willing to ignore the burn from the split lip as the coffee hits it.

"I haven't seen him in a couple of years... his school breaks always seem to fall during someone else's vacation time... so having a little alone time with him would be nice. On the other hand," I say with a mischievous smile, "anything I can do as a big sister to shake up his world a little is a requirement." I pause for another sip of coffee. "And if Justin wasn't one of the most solid, down-to-earth people I've ever known, showing up with my boyfriend who has a fat lip would probably shake him up, at least a little."

I regard Pablo for a moment... I wonder... Hmmmm...

"And what's to explain? Why you have a fat lip?" I shrug. "That's easy... you're a cop. About you and me? Even easier... he has eyes." I smile and lean lightly against him. "He's a smart boy."

He looks at me, listening to my plans for good-natured mischief at Justin's expense.

"So all I am is just a prop for your ritual brother-teasing, huh?" he asks, slipping an arm around my waist as we sit together.

I chuckle. "Of course not, silly. But being a prop for teasing my brother is a wonderful bonus!"

"Okay, love, I'll come be your prank on your brother and get a chance to meet him, too. Do I have enough time to clean up?" he asks, leaning in to nuzzle my neck for a moment.

I set my coffee cup down and take his from him, as well. "You have plenty of time, but I want to try something first. Just... trust me."

I shift to a kneeling meditation position and just look into those warm, endless eyes for a moment before gently placing my hands on either side of his face, brushing my thumbs across his cheekbones. I lean forward to kiss him, whispering against his lips, "Let me do all the work... this time."

At first, he's confused, especially when I tell him to let me do all the work.

As our lips touch, I can feel the buildup of energy, the qi moving through my body, through his body, swirling between us. As I learned to do so very long ago, I tug a bit here and push a bit there until there is a small whirling vortex of qi surrounding his split lip. My body instinctively knows how to heal itself; understanding and manipulating the flow of qi allowed me to train it to heal considerably faster. I am using that same training now, only on Pablo's lip.

I have often despaired that I am not able to heal with my qi; but here is one person I might be able to help... at least with small things. For now.

And it certainly doesn't hurt that kissing Pablo — even this light contact of lips — is... well, considerably more than just pleasant.

Despite his confusion, Pablo goes with the flow — as Dad likes to say — and rests his hands on my shoulders. I feel him give himself over to me... heart, mind, and soul.

I am patient, although I can feel the tension in Pablo's body to respond, to do more than simply be still. After a few moments, I feel him rest his hands on my waist, sending another surge of energy through both our bodies. The vortex of qi grows more intense, and I can feel a buzzing — almost like electricity — in our lips.

I know he can feel the tingling, too, and from the taste or sound or something of his qi, it's more intense for him. I sense that moment when he feels a jolt of... something... go through him.

But almost immediately, the buzzing stops... the vortex slows and melts back into the general flow of qi. I am left with feelings, sensations that — at another time, under different circumstances — would lead to both of us being very naked, very fast. I pull back slowly and move my hands to his shoulders, looking once again into his eyes. I need to breathe very slowly right now, to settle the qi, to settle the emotions, to settle the sensations in my body.

"How does your lip feel now?" I ask in a soft whisper.

His eyes are slightly glazed over, and it's taking him a moment to get his primal male brain to stop thinking about sex — not that I can blame his primal male brain! — and to focus on what I'm asking. He raises his hand and touches his lip, moving it and stretching it.

"Hey... it feels good. No more pain," he says in surprise. "I didn't know that you could do that."

Of course, right about then I completely stop listening to him as a wave of intense fatigue rolls over me... and my lip hurts.

I manage to point to the door. "Go take your shower," I say, smiling weakly. "I need to practice. That was a little more draining than I expected."

Okay, it was a lot more draining than I expected, and I have a feeling the very naked, very fast part isn't supposed to be skipped. Yeah, well, next time I won't try something like that when we have to be out the door in less than an hour. Taiji is going to have to suffice for re-energizing... and fixing my lip. Hmm... yeah, it does kind of feel like I stopped in the middle of the work.

I manage to stand without difficulty and begin with the 18 Form. It's energetic and will get me going quickly enough that I can move outside to the yard for the forms that require more space if I need them. Though half an hour of 18 Form really should suffice.

It's actually kind of funny, really, this whole thing. Why did I even think it would work? Something about our blended qi, I'm sure.

And no wonder Grandmaster Chen refused to discuss the topic! If qi healing is supposed involve... ah, delicately put, intimate activities in addition to merged qi, it's no wonder he wouldn't discuss it. Eighty-something year old man, teenage girl... right... completely inappropriate.

Oh, we are going to have the most interesting relationship, Pablo and I...

My lip has slowly healed — more slowly than usual — fading away after a few moments into the form. My mind has time to unconsciously go over the events and the logical conclusion is that I've done some sort of vicarious healing... my body took on the wound and then healed it at something close to my accelerated rate. Strange. Weird even.

The more intimate the link between us, the more powerful the qi that gets generated. Hmmm. So... I know that means something. And I think my instincts are right that we stopped too soon.

When Pablo returns from getting ready, I'm still running through the 18 Form, but my eyes are closed and I have a smile on my face. I don't even need to hear the door... I can feel him coming closer, moving from the bathroom, across the hall...

He opens the bedroom door and peeks in first, then walks in and closes the door, leaning his back against it and watching me move through the form. He waits quietly for me to finish... I can feel that he's almost mesmerized.

I finish the current form repetition and stand motionless for a moment before opening my eyes and looking at Pablo with a satisfied smile.

"Next time, I'll do my Taiji first. I have some other thoughts, but they'll have to wait until we get home and have more time."

Lots more time. Mmmmm... yes. A lot more time.

"We can go whenever you're ready. I just need to put my boots on."

He smiles and nods. "I'm ready to go when you are," he says.

I put on a clean pair of socks and my boots, tuck my ID and debit card in my back pocket, money in my front pocket, and picked up the coffee cups. Taking them out to the kitchen, I rinse them out and put them in the dishwasher.

Pablo is still moving a bit stiffly as he opens the door and, after checking for his wallet and keys, walks with me out to the car. He hands me the keys.

"You know the way, you drive," he says, smiling as he gets into the passenger side and buckles up.

I chuckle when Pablo hands me the keys. "It's pretty easy to get to the airport, but I'll be happy to drive. I might make you drive back, however, so Justin and I can sit in the back seat giggling like lunatics, pretending you're our chauffeur."

We drive for a few minutes through Mama and Dad's neighborhood, then Pablo looks over at me. "Love, how did you do that?" he asks.

It really is an easy drive from my parents' house, and at this hour of the morning there's very little traffic. When Pablo asks about... right, well, whatever I did, I can't answer right away.

"I'm not entirely certain. I mean, I could talk about the qi flows and whatnot, but I guess the simple answer is just..." I glance quickly at him, and then back to the road and shrug. "...I took your injury, apparently, and then healed myself. I used a whole lot more energy than I expected — that would be why I'd want to practice my Taiji first — and I hadn't expected to actually take it... I was just trying to make your lip hurt less than it was."

I shrug again but grin. "I wonder if I could take all your lumps and bumps and sore muscles, too. Might take longer... well, no, it would certainly take longer... but I think I could do it." I gave him another quick glance and practice my mad scientist laugh.

"Igor, how do you feel about being a science experiment?" My Bela Lugosi imitation makes Bobby scream. To normal people — that is, not hyper drama queen movie freaks — it's not that bad.

I waggle my eyebrows at Pablo for good measure.

"God, why do I suddenly feel like an extra in a John Carpenter film?" he asks rhetorically as he looks over at my waggling eyebrows and evil laugh. "You're going to have to do that for the kids at Halloween," he says.

I laugh. "Well, I would, and I'm sure the kids would love it, but I generally work on Halloween... at least until the bars close, sometimes later." I shrug. "You know how it is... serve and protect. There's a certain population of our fair town that believes Halloween is an especially fine night to pick on the Unfortunates. I spend the evening... dissuading them," I say in a tone of voice somewhere between oh, no big deal and they are afterward so sorry they were in my town.

Pablo leans forward a bit and looks at my lip. "It's all healed. I don't know, though. I'd be leery of trying to cure anything serious. It might be more than you can handle, at least right off. Maybe we should try this with baby steps?" he suggests.

"I will take your caution under advisement, Señor Garcia. Considering how much energy I used this morning... it's probably a good idea. Still... I have ideas, I have hypotheses... they must be explored and tested." I grin at him. "I promise you'll enjoy it."

It's a fun drive; being with Pablo is fun, and now we have more things, new things to tease one another with.

I pull into Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, a small airport as they go. There's ample parking this early in the day, and soon we're able to make our way inside the terminal to wait on the public side of the security checkpoint for Justin to arrive.

"What does he look like?"

I just look at Pablo and shake my head. "How many times have you been in my house? And you've never looked at the picture of the family on the living room bookshelf?" I sigh. Melodramatically. "He's tall, dark and handsome," I say with a grin. "Okay, I'll grant that you can't tell how tall he is from looking at the picture. But anyone taller than I am is tall. You're tall. Dad's tall. Justin is tall. Bobby's not so tall. Most of the world is tall... except for the people who are short.

"Hmm. I think I'm giddy."

He stands with his arm around my waist, waiting and watching the few people who are here this early. A small group starts to make their way down the concourse toward us from the gate area.

I lean against Pablo, very much enjoying the feeling of his arm wrapped around me while waiting for Justin's plane to land. Then I see a familiar dark head of hair standing out above the older people who've flown in to go golfing or whatever it is the retirees do down here.

When Justin finally does appear, I try very, very hard to be an adult and I manage not to run over and tackle him the moment he comes through the security checkpoint.

But it's a really close thing. I just wait until he's clear of the old people so we don't kill any of them in our exuberance.

Of course, once the field is clear, I start my attack. Grinning, he drops his bag, waits until I get close, then steps in and lifts me off my feet in a hug.

"Hey," I manage to say through my laughter, "It was my turn to pick you up!"

"No way! I'm not going to look like a wuss in front of your boyfriend." He looks over my shoulder. "Hi, Pablo. I'm Justin... I'd shake your hand, but I'm busy tormenting my sister."

"Okay, you can put me down now, Justin."

"What's the magic word?" he asks, in that sing-song voice that means tickling is imminent. I have to stop that immediately.

"I can crush your bones to make my bread?" I reply sweetly.

The crowd moves around the two of us and Pablo watches with a smile on his face.

"Good enough!" he says as he drops me. Wicked fast reflexes are the only reason I land steadily on my feet. Of course, he knows this. The brat.

"You owe me twice now. Or I'll plot a surprise attack while you're here."

He looks at me, then looks at Pablo... grinning. "You heard that. You're an officer of the law, sir, and I'm requesting protection from this crazy and dangerous woman!"

I just roll my eyes, while trying not to laugh.

"Well, I could take her into custody, but then I risk getting pummeled by her. I might just have to let her pummel you for a while so I can arrest her and keep her put away long enough to forgive me."

Justin looks at Pablo, then at me.

"Great. You've corrupted the police. But I have a weapon to use against people like you," he says as he picks up his bag again.

He has that look in his eye, the one that means he can't be trusted. Not at all.

"And what, if I might ask, is this weapon of yours?"

He just looks at me, and his grin gets bigger and bigger. Then he starts walking toward the door as he says, "I'm telling!!"

I burst out laughing, and then twine my fingers with Pablo's; we walk hand in hand after my brother. After a dozen paces or so, he slows so we can walk together.

"When I talked to Mom last night, she said Tita was much better thanks to you and your spidey sense... probably even going home today. So... whatever you did — and please don't try to explain it to me again — thanks. I don't think it's unmanly to admit I was terrified when Mom called the first time."

I reach out to brush my hand down his arm. "We all were kiddo. Daddy and Uncle Junior were trying so hard to pretend they weren't scared, and I've never seen Aunt Sonia so quiet. But the Medicine Dance was amazing! Even Pablo Danced! And we're going to have a Sing for her later."

"I missed a Medicine Dance? You dogs! Well, I guess you had to do it when you had to do it. And Mom said Tita would be... well, very annoyed was the way Mom put it, but we all know that means Tita would be royally pissed at me if I missed taking a test."

"That's the truth! But what are you doing in summer school?"

"It's one of the classes I need to get my degree. It was being taught by the best guy in the field, and after this term he's retiring." Justin shrugs. "I couldn't resist."

He looks over my head to Pablo.

"I'm guessing since my sister is allowing you to hold her hand in public, this is a pretty serious thing and you've already been made part of the family. From what little this one bothers to tell me..." He grins at me. "...I figure I'm not going to have to arm wrestle you or duel at dawn with Super Soakers at fifty paces to defend her honor. Bet Tommy told you I would razz ya, didn't he? Nah, looks like you make Andi awfully darn happy." He nods to Pablo, a satisfied look on his face. "And when my big sister is happy... she doesn't whine at me every week." He ducks the half-hearted swing I take at him.

"But she only mentioned you have some family in California? Your tribe as big as ours?"

He looks down at me and nods to Justin, the look in my eyes and Pablo's is all the answer Justin really needs.

"Yes, it's been building for a long time," Pablo says, gently squeezing my hand and turns back to Justin.

"Well, I have three younger sisters, a number of aunts and uncles, cousins, one set of grandparents still alive. The family unions are pretty raucous affairs." He smiles, remembering the last one.

"You have a great family. They've been very kind and accepting of a stranger, even if this one has been telling everyone about me for a while."

"Andrea told me a lot about you and your studies. How much longer do you have to go?"

"Little less than a year for the classes, but then I have to write the dissertation," Justin says as we get to the car. I open the trunk so he can toss his bag in. "That will take at least a year, more realistically two, just for the research. If I can manage to stay focused, the actual writing might take six months." He laughs. "And if it takes more than a year, big sister has promised to hunt me down and kick my butt."

I hand the keys back to Pablo and start getting in the backseat; Justin looks at me like I just kicked his puppy. Not that he has a puppy.

"What are you doing, crazy woman?! Get thee to the front seat with your man! There will be no chauffeuring going on here today."

"Aww, Justin! I promised Pablo he could be our chauffeur."

"I'll tell Mom!"

I roll my eyes. He grins.

I get in the front seat. He climbs into the back, grinning.

"He's no fun anymore," I say to Pablo.

"Sure I am," he says, leaning forward between the two of us. "I just like seeing you happy, and the closer you are to Pablo, the happier you look." He shrugs. "Betcha you'll do the same when you see me and Nicole."

I turn around to look at him, smiling. "Oh? So it is serious."

He nods. "Yep. She would have come along with me, but she has a job interview tomorrow."

"Oh, Justin! I'm thrilled! Tell me all about her!"

"Ha... no. I haven't heard Pablo's entire life story yet. I'll tell you about Nicole once I know all about my new brother." He pats Pablo on the shoulder and then leans back in the seat. "Home, James!"

I snicker.

"Who, me? Not much to tell. What you see is what you get. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. My mother works for the Utilities Department of the City. I lost my dad when I was fourteen... heart attack. I have three beautiful sisters, two of whom are married and I have a total of... let's see... five nephews and nieces so far, and another on the way. My baby sister Blanca just graduated from UCLA with a degree in Biology. I'm so proud of her," he says.

Pablo has been paying for her college, and she's the first person in the family to graduate from college. I'm as proud of him for helping his sister as he is of her.

"I moved to Denver when I was eighteen since they had an opening in the police academy. I worked my way up through patrol and made detective at twenty-six. I've worked in Robbery, Vice, and now six years in Homicide."

"That's how I met Andrea... but I'll leave that story to her," he says, reaching over to gently caress my cheek before turning his attention back to the road. It's just a few more minutes back to our parent's home.

"Oooh, that's bound to be a good story!" Justin says, leaning forward again. "And why haven't you told me? What was it? Vice? No, I can't see that. Oh! You arranged the theft of the library's collection of awful books!"

I roll my eyes at him.

"Not theft, then. Okay. That just leaves... murder," he says... in a rather sinister way, I might add. "Yes, this will be an excellent story! Now... tell it." He leans back again and waves his hands at me, then sits there looking entirely too regal.

"You've been hanging out with your theater friends again, haven't you?" I grin at him, and then shrug my shoulders. "It's a boring story. You were in high school, I was going to DU... I went to a party where some jerk decided to get overly friendly; I defended my own honor and dislocated the jerk's elbow in the process. He decided to call the police; Pablo and his partner showed up... boring, boring... Pablo decided, apparently on the spot..." I look at him and smile, and almost forget to finish the story. "...that we were going to be friends, and that's that."

Justin just stares at me for a minute, and then finally says, "Sis, your storytelling skills have gone way the hell downhill. You need to get home and sit with the elders more often if this is what living in that little city of yours does to you."

We're just pulling into the driveway at this point.

"Not true... I simply left out all the parts little brothers don't need to hear," I say with arched eyebrows and my own haughty expression.

He pokes my shoulder as he's getting out of the car.

"Is true, is true! You're supposed to embellish and make things up!"

And then he's off like a rocket, calling for Mama and Dad before he even had the door open. I shake my head, and then get out of the car to meet Pablo at the trunk. I wrap my arms around his waist before he can open it to get Justin's bag, and look into his eyes.

"He'll figure out eventually where he left the bag. It's more fun watching him try to figure out where it is."

It would be fine with me to just stand here like this for an hour. And my parents certainly aren't going to worry about me standing out in the driveway with Pablo when they have Justin to entertain them. Or drive them crazy. Still...

I kiss him softly, and then say, "We should find out when Tita will come home, and when the rest of the family will be arriving."

Pablo smiles at me and put his arms around me, leaning in to return the soft kiss, one hand coming up to cup the back of my head as we kiss.

A gentle look comes into his eyes as we part.

"There will be time enough for that in a few minutes. No one can begrudge us having a few minutes alone together," he says quietly, lifting his hand to caress my face.

"No, I suppose they won't," I say softly.

"Thank you for last night. I don't remember much, but I know that it upset me and that you were there. Then everything was okay again."

I don't quite know what to say about last night. I feel like his nightmare, the reaction from looking through the door I — she? we? — opened is largely my — her? our? — fault. As such, I have a responsibility to ease that pain away, regardless of our relationship. And I feel like whatever I say to explain that, it won't come out quite right. But maybe not every last little thing needs to be explained.

I hold him close and rest my head against his chest.

"Whenever you need me, I'll be there... Sometimes, songs say it exactly right. I love you."

Pablo holds me close and sighs softly. Just from the taste and feel of his qi, I know he feels a contentment that he'd only experienced for such a short period of time long ago. He rests his cheek against my head and for long moments we're silent, just expressing tenderness to one another through the simple act of embracing.

"I love you too, Andrea, with all my heart," he responds softly.

I can hear the front door open and then Justin's voice calls out from the doorway.

"If you two are done making out, I could use my suitcase and mom has breakfast ready for all of us," he says. He knows that's just the sort of thing for which I'd normally kill him. Threaten to kill him. Oh, hell, tease him right back.

"We're not done, and you can come get your own suitcase," I call back to him. Then after a few seconds, I say to Pablo, "Breakfast does sound good, though."

"Hmmm, food or loving... Man's eternal question," he says, grinning down at me. "Food then loving?" he suggests.

"Man certainly needs both," I reply, mirroring his grin.

Justin grumbles and comes back outside, walking over to the car and raising an eyebrow.

"Do you think I could have the keys?" he asks.

Pablo chuckles and nods. "Sure, Justin, let me get that for you." He releases me to dig out his keys and unlock the trunk, then reaches in and pulls out the suitcase, handing it over to my little brother.

It's all I can do to keep from giggling at Justin, though. "You just behave yourself, young man. When was the last time you saw your big sister so happy, huh?"

He sighs as he takes his bag from Pablo and thinks about it for a few moments. "Hmm... this happy?" He reaches over to mess up my hair. "Probably not since Japan, so I'll behave myself. Mostly." He grins and walks back into the house.

Then Pablo takes my hand and tugs a little. "Come on, I am getting hungry."

And I happily hold Pablo's hand as we go back into the house.

Mama is just finishing the cooking. I'm fairly certain if we were to put her and Bobby in a kitchen together, they wouldn't emerge for a week. Well, except to carry out platters laden with their creations for the rest of us to consume. I do hope they come out to Denver for the holidays; she and Bobby will become the best of friends in less than five minutes. This morning's fare — far more selection than I ever see at home, even with Bobby feeding me — includes scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, pancakes, a large pitcher of orange juice and lots of coffee. And, if my nose is not deceiving me, there are buttermilk biscuits about ready to come out of the oven.

"Good morning, Mama... Daddy! You look very well rested; I'm glad I was able to twist your arms enough to let me fetch Justin." I give both of them a hug, then give Justin's hair a good touseling as I walk behind him on my way around the table to sit beside Pablo.

"You're feeding an army here, Mama," I say, laughing.

She just smiles her beautiful smile and says, "No, dear, I'm just feeding three men."

"Well, three men is almost an army, at least when it comes to eating, that is," Pablo says with a smile. "This all looks wonderful, Mrs. Yazzie." He waits politely to see if we have any kind of ritual before breakfast.

"There... you see, Andrea? Your Pablo knows about these things," Mama says. "I hope you'll find time to feed him well."

"Mama, you know I'm quite competent in the kitchen, and would rather avoid it if at all possible. I like to believe the Spirits led me to buy the house I did because I can always count on Bobby to feed me. And when he learns he will have the opportunity to feed Pablo more often... well, I'm sure I can't describe how happy he'll be. There will be the pretense of fainting... at the very least."

Justin looks up as he is about to pour orange juice into his glass. "Your friend is an actor?"

I'm pretty sure if Justin hadn't decided molecular biology was infinitely fascinating, he'd have gone into acting.

"No. He's a drama queen."

My brother chuckles, then proceeds to pour the juice. "Ah, yes... right. I recall a number of phone calls where you spent the majority of the call whining about his matchmaking." He winks at me. "I have a feeling he'll be so happy for you, Andi, that he won't know what to do." He pours some juice for Mama and Dad, before passing the pitcher over to Pablo. "Nicole and I are planning to come out to Denver for Christmas, so unless work or school interferes, you'll be seeing us. And I can't wait to meet Bobby and... What's his partner's name again? David?"

I nod. "I hope you can all make it. I've told him so much about all of you, he was dancing — and rather strangely, too — all around my driveway when I mentioned you might be coming to Denver for the holidays."

"Mr. Yazzie, do you know yet when your mother will be released?"

"Her doctor says if her six o'clock blood work is normal, he'll release her this morning." Dad spears several pancakes and a large scoop of scrambled eggs. "Leon did the translating from doctor speak to regular English and determined it would probably be mid-afternoon." He sips his coffee. "Sandra, love... when did Thomas say the other young people will be arriving?"

My parents are so adorable. Always so affectionate; good role models to counterbalance the more ritualized interactions I observed during my teens in China. And it always cracks me up when they refer to my eldest cousins as young people. Billy, Charlie, Justin... sure. Talia... maybe. It tickles me that people in their thirties and forties are young people. Though I suppose that Papa and Tita refer to their children and the respective spouses as young people, too.

"Sam said he and Cyndi should be getting to Flagstaff mid-morning," Mama says. "Yani and Daniel have deadlines, but thought they could get out of work by noon; so they should be here by three or four. Henry had an early morning run from San Diego to Phoenix; he's going to drive up and should be here between two and three."

I look at Mama and Dad. "Do you want to have the Sing here or at Papa and Tita's house? Your back yard is much larger... although they do have some lovely trees."

"With that many people coming, we should have it here, darling. If we have it at Tita Kai's, she'll want to start cooking for everyone, and she really needs to be getting some rest still."

Mama very nearly glows at the thought of cooking for the whole family, no doubt already planning out the trip to the store for all of the ingredients that she'll need.

Pablo loads his plate and digs in, finding himself very hungry after the stressful and eventful day that we had yesterday. He drips a little syrup on his chin unknowingly, smiling at me as I speak with my brother. He reaches under the table and gently squeezes my knee, content to be here with me, in this moment.

"Tita will still try to help Mama," I say with a grin. "We'll need to distract her. Justin, you should perform your one-person version of Hamlet. We can laugh ourselves silly!"

"Hey, don't mock my mad Shakespeare skills," he replies. "It's a great way to get tweens interested in the Bard."

"I know, silly. I use similar tactics at the library." I chuckle and shake my head. When Pablo squeezes my knee, I feel a wave of warmth spreading through my body. Wow, I am so going to have to figure out how to tone down that reaction a bit. I look over and smile at him, then tsk-tsk. I pour a bit of water on my napkin from my water bottle and wipe the syrup off his chin.

"I can dress you up, but I can't take you anywhere," I say with humor and affection in my voice.

Pablo looks a bit confused for a second until I wipe off his chin, and then he actually blushes a bit and smiles faintly.

"Just a compliment to the culinary wonders of your mother," he says, shrugging as he takes his napkin and wipes his face just to be sure.

"So you not only study molecular biology, but you also act and like Shakespeare? Your brother is a true renaissance man, Andrea," he says to me, sitting back next to me now and lacing his fingers with mine as we relax and let our food settle.

Justin nods. "A little. I do enjoy reading the Bard and I do enough acting to help at the local schools when my drama friends try to bring the arts to the young children. But I don't have a voice like my sister. You'll get a chance to hear it this afternoon."

Pablo turns to look at me.

I tilt my head to look at him. "What? You know I sing. I know you sing. Why do you think I'm so thrilled Bobby resists David's attempts at getting him to join Harmony?" I ask with a grin. "It's because I know if Bobby caves, David will be after me next. And trust me, dear... we're a team now." I pat his arm. "If by some miracle David manages to get me to join the chorus, you're coming with me.

"But just think how confused it will make Liza!"

He smiles softly at me. "A team. I like the sound of that. But I am not joining the choir. I don't sing in public."

"Good thing Bobby doesn't either," I say with a smile. "And that I have to be at the library until nine at least one out of every four Mondays." I pause a moment.

"Really? No singing in public? Ever? You won't come to Karaoke Night with me at Charlie's?" I bat my eyelashes at him and smiled. "Oh, please? We could sing a duet. How about Don't Go Breakin' My Heart?"

"Oh, come on! That's fighting dirty. None of that womanly wiles stuff to get your way," he complains, although it's rather obvious that he enjoys the banter with me.

"Besides my voice isn't that good anyway... probably have rotten fruit or at least cheese fries thrown at us."

Mama and Dad chuckle at that visual as the last of the bacon is eaten, and Justin gets up to help clear the table.

I giggle at his complaint, wiggle my fingers at him. "I could use my deadly weapons, instead. And you do so have a good voice. I've heard you. I say it's so. Therefore, it's true."

I grin, and then hug him as I stand up to help Justin clear the table. "Womanly wiles and woman logic... you're doomed, my dear."

He looks at Dad and sighs. "I believe I truly am doomed, aren't I?" he asks, shaking his head... but there's the faintest of smiles playing on his lips.

Dad looks at him with his half smile and nods. "You get used to it." He leans closer to Pablo and whispers, "You even get to like it." Mama and Justin certainly couldn't have heard; does Daddy remember that his little girl hears better than the hawk sees? I hide my smile.

"Does anyone have any plans for the morning while we wait for the hospital to decide Tita can leave? Or shall we keep her and Papa company and overrun the hospital?"

The latter has plenty of potential for madcap humor, or Doctor Franklin tracking us all down again. Though with Ji-Ji cut off from his source of dark power, I suspect those he drained will start getting better on their own, albeit more slowly than a Medicine Dance would provide. Oooh, and didn't Captain Holbrook say something about turning little Ji-Ji over to Colonel Masterson?

Other plans, however... well, Pablo and I can tag along. Or find something to do together. Alone.

Pablo chuckles softly at Dads words and turns toward me at my question. Pablo can read the unasked question in my eyes and he shrugs.

"I'm up for whatever you want to do, dear, as long as you have the ibuprofen," he says. "Maybe you could show me around Flagstaff a little? I haven't been here before."

Mama just smiles quietly to herself, humming as she finishes clearing the dishes from the table and starts in on rinsing them for the dishwasher.

"You're going to cook all day, aren't you, Mama?"

She just continues her humming as she smiles and gives me that Do you really have to ask? look. Although Dad is helpfully cleaning up the kitchen, his aura feels like... I chuckle to myself... he can't get out of here fast enough.

"Well, I want to visit with Tita," Justin says, looking at me. "You two want to hang out with me and Billy and Charlie and tear the place apart? I'm kidding about tearing the place apart, of course, but it would be fun to hang out when Tita gets worn out from our overabundance of energy." He grins. "Come on... you know you want to!"

I laugh. "Why don't you have Dad take you? As Pablo said, he's never been to Flagstaff. I think we'll play tourists this morning and meet you back here sometime after lunch. Just call my cell when you know when Tita will be getting out."

Justin looks at Dad, who shrugs and looks at Mama, who waves the two of them away. I manage not to grin as I take Pablo's hand.

"See you all later... have fun, Mama!"

She chuckles. "You know I will, dear."

"Good-bye, Mrs. Yazzie, call if you need us to pick you up anything," Pablo says as we head for the door, with me tugging on his hand.

As we walk back out toward the car, I say, "You don't think I'm going to have to beat anyone up this morning, do you? I always feel so much better when I have my big stick to whack them with." I smile sweetly and innocently.

Outside, the crisp, clean air of Flagstaff fills our lungs and Pablo smiles, letting the sun warm his face with his eyes closed, pausing for a moment at the car as I speak.

"Well, I'm hoping that you don't need to whack anyone with a stick, see as I'm going to be within range of you all day," he answers, a happy smile on his face. "We're off the clock, dear Andrea. Let's try to enjoy our time together."

He opens his eyes and looks at me, his smile broadening.

"I guess you could say that this would be our first date," he declares, coming over to open my door for me, being the gentleman he is.

I smile as he opens the door and remain standing, leaning against the car. "So where would you like to go on our first date? We have some museums and art galleries; the town center is quaint and there are tours of the historical buildings and downtown area. There's a botanical garden and the Lowell Observatory, although that's really more interesting at night. We could go horseback riding or see the meteor crater or the Elden Pueblo. Gosh, if we had more time we could go over to Sedona or the Grand Canyon.

"Your choice, my dear..."

Pablo thinks about it as we stand next to the open car door, feeling his chin and cheeks, feeling where he missed a spot here or there this morning. Super eyeballs could have told him where he missed — not noticeable to normal eyeballs, however — and hypersensitive sense of touch would have done the same.

"Well, I'm up for anything you want, Andrea, but I think the horseback riding or the Elden Pueblo sounds pretty good. You do ride, right?" he inquires, moving to lean against the car next to me, shoulder to shoulder.

"I do, indeed. I usually don't tell people I never rode a horse until I was twenty-two because they think I'm lying." I shrug and grin. "I can't help it I have great reflexes and can... ah... sort of talk to animals."

Now that takes him by surprise and he looks at me with eyes wide and mouth very nearly hanging open.

"You what? You can talk to animals?" he asks, a look of wonder filling his face. "That is so cool! We are definitely doing horses!"

"Well, not like Doctor Doolittle or anything," I say, laughing. "I can see through their eyes — which is freaky and unnerving with birds, by the way, what with their eyes not pointing in the same direction. And I can control, or at least influence, them to a certain extent. It comes in handy sometimes, especially in Jefferson County. I can blend into the shadows fairly well at night and watch a drug deal going down. During the day, I can hang out around the corner and the miscreants are not the least bit suspicious when a cat sits down next to them and watches what they're doing.

"Cats have a wicked sense of humor, by the way."

I nudge his shoulder with mine. "Come on... let's go ride horses!"

He reaches over and squeezes my hand. "You are a continual source of amazement to me, Andrea Yazzie. You are definitely going to keep my life interesting," he adds, nodding at my desire to get moving.

"A little interesting is okay," I say, chuckling. "Too much interesting... not so much." The last couple of days have been very interesting, and I could have done without some of it.

Once I'm in the car, he gets behind the wheel and drives us out to the Hitchin Post Stables, following my directions. On the other hand... I look over at Pablo as we drive. This part of the very interesting... I'm keeping.

A tall lanky older man comes out of the office as we pull up and park. Pablo turns off the engine and gets out of the car.

I stick my hands in my back pockets as we walk toward the office.

"Heya, Dale. How you been?"

He stops and crosses his arms, smiling as much as he ever does... which isn't much.

"Well, if it ain't Andi Yazzie! I ain't seen you in years... where you been keepin' yourself?"

"Still in Denver. Just in town for a couple of days. Tita Kai had herself a little health episode and got the whole family stirred up."

"Yup, that'd do it, all right. She okay? She looked fine when I saw her last week."

"Oh, yeah. Just waiting for the doctors to finish their fussing so she can go home. Thought Pablo here and I could ride a bit."

"Hmmm. You still ain't wearin' proper boots, missy."

"No, sir, and I ain't about to neither. You know it don't make a lick a difference."

"Uh huh. Well, come on, then." He looks over at Pablo. "How well you ride, son?"

I can almost hear Pablo thinking that his lovely Andrea sure does make an impression wherever she goes. He's smiling. I'm almost giggling.

"Fair enough, I guess. More when I was younger," he admits. "Now my captain either has me riding a desk or on the scene."

Dale turns toward the stables and starts ambling in that direction. "Won't put ya on Diablo, then. So you work for the po-lease, do ya? Out there in Denver, I suppose, seein' as I ain't seen ya 'round town. How you come to know little Andi?"

"I met Andi on a case. She was marginally involved and we kind of hit it off. Lost track of her for a few years until she started working at the library, then we picked up where we left off... worked up to a pretty good friendship. Kind of developed from there." Pablo looks over at me and smiles.

"Did you know Andrea as a little girl?"

I look at Pablo, a raised eyebrow to go along with the smile. Marginally involved? I roll my eyes at him. And I thought I was good at modifying the truth when necessary.

"Nope, didn't meet her 'til 'bout ten years back, wasn't it?" Dale asks, looking at me. I nod. "Known her grandfolks and folks and brother since they moved out here, though." He smiles slightly more as we enter the stable. "Compared to Bill and Kai, or Nelson and Sandi, she's little." He chuckles.

He points down the row of stalls to the left. "Take Tess and Aggie. You need help with the tack, son?"

"I try not to call her little. Payback is a bitch," he jokes, chuckling as he shakes his head at the offer to help with the tack. Dale laughs and nods. "No, thanks, though. I can saddle the horse. And if I get in trouble, I can ask Annie Oakley over there," he says, walking down the row of stalls to the horses Dale had indicated.

"Hey! Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter... I'm not. You're the one with the gun, Chief," I say with a grin.

He speaks calmly and quietly, offering the back of his hand for the horse to snuffle before he tries to do anything else. Smart guy, my Pablo. He knows that these are stable horses and accustomed to many different riders, but the one time you make a mistake, you're likely to get kicked... so best to just follow procedure.

"You want Tess or Aggie?" he asks me, looking over at me as he pets the horse, running his hand up and down the mare's neck.

"Oh, I always ride Tess. She and I are friends, aren't we, girl?"

I suppose horses normally recognize people they regularly see, but it's probably odd for a horse to recognize a person they haven't seen in years and have only seen a handful of times at that... especially a horse that is ridden by hundreds of different people over the course of a year. Of course, how many people come by and softly brush Tess' aura? I think she likes it better than apples. And she seems to remember it better than apples.

It doesn't take long to get Tess and Aggie ready, and we lead them out into the yard where Dale is waiting. He looks at my feet again and just shakes his head.

"Oh, come on, Dale!" I grin at him, set one foot in the stirrup and swing my other leg over Tess' back. "My ancestors rode without the benefit of fancy heeled footwear. Why does it upset you so much that I do the same?"

"Maybe 'cause you're riding with one a' my ancestors' fancy saddles with stirrups?" His smile is minimal, but his eyes twinkle. "Go on, git! Enjoy yer ride." He waves us off and heads back to the office.

I chuckle and look at Pablo. "These gals know the trails, although Dale or one of his sons or grandkids will go out with the tourists. Hope you're not interested in racing... I don't think these two are up to it anymore. Tess is thirteen and Aggie is ten, I think. But the trails are pretty.

"And kind of romantic; nice for a first date."

"That's okay; I don't think my body is up to any horse racing either. A nice steady walk sounds great to me."

Pablo brings Aggie over to ride alongside Tess for now as we're still in pastureland and not on woodland trails. He looks over at me and there is a warm, tender look in his eyes.

"Andrea Yazzie is talking about romantic dates with me. I must have died and gone to heaven."

"Yeah, it does sound pretty odd, doesn't it?"

I look at him and realize how much effort he must have been putting into pretending he was just a good friend. I can't imagine how he managed to keep that look in his eyes from shining through for all these years. I wonder why I was such a fool.

"I'm still getting used to it, but I've decided I... well, I really enjoy this, what we're developing. It almost makes me wish I'd said something when I first realized how you felt about me." I shrug, smile softly. "But I know then wasn't the right time. Now it is."

He nods as we ride along, reaching out with a hand to touch me for a minute.

"Now is the time for us to explore our feelings and create something special. We're both young still, and whatever happens... I will always treasure every moment that we spend together."

I smile and simply watch his face for a moment. I feel a sigh escape, and I gaze out over the landscape.

...whatever happens, I will always treasure every moment that we spend together...

Whatever happens...

Considering how our qi is blending, binding us closer and closer with every passing hour, the only thing that will ever separate our hearts... our lives... now is death.

Whatever happens...

And considering his job and my... extracurricular activities, shall we say?... living to a ripe old age isn't a certainty for either of us.

Whatever happens...

I know that if Tita had died because of Tsui Ji, Papa would not have been with us much longer. Mama and Dad would both have a hard time clinging to life if the other died. Tita and Papa, Mama and Dad... they've spent decades becoming as tightly bound together as Pablo and I will be in mere days. It's my Curse, and it could very well be a curse. He survived Rosalia's and Juan's deaths; I don't know that he could survive if I am killed.

Whatever happens...

I have, however, probably found the only other way — besides dying in battle — that I might possibly avoid the curse of living two or three lifetimes beyond what normal humans would.

He falls into a comfortable silence with me as we ride along, coming into the woodlands with the mountains in the background. It's peaceful and calming, something that both of us can use right about now... especially after yesterday's drama.

"When we go back, we're both going to have a lot of our friends pretty excited by all this. Bobby might have a coronary and my Captain is likely to kiss you."

"I'm not going to argue about the very likely possibility of Bobby having a heart attack... or at least a faked one." I grin as I try to imagine Bobby's reaction, but then give Pablo a puzzled look. "But why in the world would Captain Sanchez try to kiss me? Does he not value his own life?"

Pablo chuckles. "No, he's been worried about me. He's been kind of a father figure for me, my mentor. He knew how much I liked you. He's been telling me that I should have just told you.

"He likes you, you know. When we went to that Christmas charity thing last year, and after he spent some time working with you on the present drive and handout... Well, he told me I was a fool if I didn't tell you how I felt before someone else caught your eye. He said someone eventually would."

"I was nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs the whole time I was working with him, you know."

I shake my head, remembering the Saturday we'd spent wrapping the presents, and helping the retired officer who was playing Santa pass out presents to the kids.

"Even having just the two of you know that DPD covers my insurance still makes me a little nervous, and I don't want to know how he manages that anonymously. But I do appreciate that the two of you have always trusted me to go out and get the bad guys without really knowing who I am or what I do. Well, now you know, and he's always known because he does the paperwork... but that kind of trust is hard to come by.

"I'm still not letting him kiss me, though." I laugh. "But yes, I like him, too. He's a good person and not the least bit intimidating when he's decorating himself and everyone around him with those cheap stick-on bows."

I'm quiet for a while, enjoying the scenery and the gentle, graceful pace Tess has set. Finally, I feel like I need to ask...

"Why did it take you so long to say anything, Pablo?" I ask softly.

He rides quietly for a while beside me, looking at the mountains in the distance and let the peace of the land and scenery fill his heart, his soul.

"At first... I wasn't sure if you were interested or not, and I was just getting to know you... finding out the kind of person that you are," he says, and then pauses.

"Then we started spending more and more time together... lunches, dinners... and I let a few tiny hints slip, but I didn't get anything back from you. So I figured that you weren't interested.

"And then you became my best friend. The person I wanted to talk to at the end of a hard day. The person I trusted to do what's right so much that I didn't even ask... and that's hard for me.

"Truthfully... I was afraid, Andrea. Afraid that I might have built up in my mind a story that you might possibly have some feelings for me like I'd developed for you. I'm sorry I waited so long but... I'm not sure if you would have been ready any sooner."

"I don't know that I was actually ready to hear it last week, to be honest. But..." I look around us, reaching out to feel the life and energy of nature, and finally turn to him with a crooked smile. "...but things happened as they should and when they should. I argued and fought with myself, but in the end, when Mama called about Tita, I knew I needed you with me... if only because you're one of my best friends. And then, before the Dance, Tita said something..." I shake my head. "...I don't even remember what it was, but something she said set my heart at peace. I knew it was okay to let down my defenses and let you in."

I stare off at the mountains again, quiet for a few minutes.

"I needed someone to tell me there's nothing wrong with letting our hearts and lives meld together. It took Tsui's attack on Tita for me to actually see that the qi of two people who are in love and completely committed to each other is actually a single life force. It's cliché, I know, but two people truly do become one."

I turn to look at him again.

"The thing about my Curse that frightens me the most — if Grandmaster Chen is right, and I don't doubt his assessment — is living so long that Justin's great-great-grandchildren are old men and women. When you're an old man and die peacefully in your sleep — and I won't have it any other way, love. There will be no dying on the job, I simply forbid it," I tell him, grinning a bit. "But sixty or seventy years from now," I say more seriously, "when it's your natural time to go, I can go with you... because we're one now. It's a blessing to know that.

"Oh, I don't doubt I could fight it, and keep living, keep fighting crime for another generation or two. But why would I want to?"

He's looking at me as I talk, trusting Aggie to know the path she's trod hundreds or even thousands of times before. In his eyes, I can see how my words affect him. This new commitment I've made to him causes his aura to shimmer with joy. And just calling him 'love' is causing is heart to beat faster; I can hear it above the sounds of nature. A rush of gentle warmth flows over me through our growing bond.

"I don't like to think about you dying, love. You're forbidden to die on the job, as well. In fact, the only way that you're allowed to die is in my arms when we're one hundred and fourteen years old and still looking great," he teases. I know he's trying to take the sting out of the thought of death. Someday I'll need to convince him that it's not something I fear, but today is not that day.

"I'm considerably harder to kill than you; that's just the cold, hard truth of the matter. But I'll try even harder not to die, knowing what it will do to you."

I reach out to take his hand. "Now, are you going to be a hundred and fourteen — which would mean I'll be a hundred and eleven — or will I be a hundred and fourteen, making you a hundred and seventeen? I don't know about you, but I, of course, will still look great." I laugh and squeeze his hand.

He smiles softly, looking over at me. "So you're already planning our lives out together for the next sixty or seventy years?"

"No, I'm not planning much. Taking things one day at a time is fine. I just know that whatever we'll be doing, we'll be doing it together."

After our ride, as we walk back to the car — after promising Dale to give his best wishes to Tita — Justin texts me with the probable time Tita will be released. That gives us not only enough time to stop for a light lunch at the diner downtown, but showers and changes of clothes, before helping Mama with last-minute chores. And by helping with last-minute chores, Mama means we should stay out of her way. As usual.

With about an hour to wait, and nothing to do, I'm about to suggest sitting out in the yard and just chatting when the first of my remaining cousins arrive. Within minutes, two more cars pull up out front. I introduce Pablo to Sam, my eldest cousin and Tommy's brother, and his wife Cynthia, who drove down from Omaha. Then Yanabah — whom everyone but her mother calls Yani — Tommy's older sister, and her husband Daniel, who drove over from Gallup. And finally Henry — Talia, Charlie and Billy's older brother, and the cousin closest to me in age — who drove up from Phoenix.

We settle in the living... Mama has banned us from the kitchen.

"Okay, Andi... you're going to tell us what's going," Henry says. "Sam and Yani's folks, my folks... they all say the same thing. Tita had a heart attack, you guys did a Medicine Dance and she's made a miraculous recovery. I know a Medicine Dance is big magic, but if she were sick enough to get Tommy and Billy to come off the Land, I would have thought she'd still be in the hospital for a few days... at least.

"Spill the beans, cousin."

I sit on the floor leaning against Pablo, looking at all of them. Of those Cursed, I'm the only one who lives full-time outside the Nation. Tommy rarely leaves and Billy never leaves. Talia flits back and forth as her job demands, although her home is on our Land. She's even more skittish than I am about letting people know what she can do. We all know it, and leave her to say as much or as little in her own time, in her own way. But it is a momentous thing that Tommy and Billy are in Flagstaff, and that they've stayed as long as they have.

"Well, Tita's heart attack wasn't actually a heart attack, although it sure looked like one to the doctors." I glance at Pablo and then turn back to Henry. "The long story's too complicated and probably boring, but the short story... There's a bad guy who used to be a student of my Taiji Master, using dark powers to steal qi, nílch'i, energy from people around Flagstaff. I noticed it when I visited with Tita. We had a Dance. And we're going to Sing later to suture the tear bad guy made. Well, that's the best analogy, anyway. She would heal just fine on her own at this point, but since everyone was on their way already, I figured why not Sing? It's good for everyone, right? Besides, I promised Deer we'd Sing."

"What's going to keep this guy from just coming back? And what about all the other people he's attacked?" Yani asks, leaning forward on the sofa, elbows resting on her knees.

Pablo and I exchange looks, and I grin. "Well, I kind of destroyed the produce section of the local Safeway, but I... sort of did an exorcism, I guess. That's the best way of explaining it, anyway." I lose my smile then; the preparation for getting the dark powers out of Tsui might have been amusing, but the actual work... no, not so much. "I opened a portal to a kind of hell, and it pulled the darkness from Tsui. Unfortunately, he was never a nice person to begin with, and that really pissed him off. Pablo had gotten tossed into the wall when the portal slammed shut, so I wasn't really interested in playing Who's the Best Martial Artist in Town with him." I shrug. "I blasted him with qi; the EMTs were kinda grossed out, but part of me was just annoyed the asshole was still alive. The local cops called the Feds. A Special Forces team is coming by and picking him up; they have a nice place where they lock away lovely people like him." I probably still sound a little angry, mostly because I still am a little angry. I sigh and look at my cousins... their spouses. "He's not going to hurt anyone."

Cynthia looks horrified, although she's trying hard not to. She knows the mischief and pranks of high school students, the trouble they cause. This is exponentially worse than anything she's used to. "You... you actually tried to kill him, Andi?" Sam puts his arm around her shoulders and pulls her close.

I look at her with sadness. I really like Sam's wife. I'm pretty sure there are a lot of people who look back on their lives and credit her as the one who encouraged them to love reading, love writing, love language. "Cyn, I hate having to kill anyone. It tears me to pieces, and I can't function for days." Wups, haven't mentioned that one to Pablo yet. Well, there it is, my dear. "But sometimes it's necessary. In this case, it would have been a better solution for law enforcement, but I would be curled up in my room right now... so for the family, it worked out well enough."

"And the other people?" Yani prodded.

"We did another Medicine Dance for one of the critical patients; she's recovering well. I think anyone Tsui attacked should start improving now that the forces that continued to drain them are gone. But your Dad and Talia are trying to track down anyone else who might have been attacked." I shrug. "If any are as bad off as Mrs. Rutler was, I would ask the family to Dance for them... if their doctors and families are willing." I smile and shake my head. "My brother was really annoyed that he missed out on not one but two Dances."

"Hey, he's not the only one!" Henry says, laughing. "If I hadn't switched routes with one of the other pilots whose daughter is getting married, I'd have been here for the Dances, too." He looks over at Pablo. "So hombre... Andi's Dad and brother probably didn't have to ask because a certain cousin of mine talks to them more than she talks to me..."

"Hey now," I interrupt, grinning, "who's the one flying all over the country all the time and can't answer his emails, huh?"

" I was saying..." He stretches his leg to poke my leg. "...before I was so rudely interrupted... are your intentions toward my dear cousin honorable? Because if they are, you might want to rethink them... she's a brat."

I blow him a raspberry and lean my head on Pablo's shoulder, looking up into his eyes and grinning. "Ignore him. I'm his favorite, so I need to be teased the most. It's Coyote's way."

"True dat," Henry agrees.

Pablo seems a little dazed by all the people in my family — there are so many new people he seems to be having serious trouble remembering everyone's name, and who's related to whom and how. He just falls into letting me guide him since sitting next to me is pleasant anyway. Yeah, like it's hard for me to tell that. It's okay, though... I'm very much enjoying having him at my side.

I know him, far better now than I had before we left Denver, and I know he'd been expecting a question like the one Henry tossed at him. I'm pretty sure he knows that, even though if my cousin asked in jest, there's a grain of truth here... and the family does want to know what's going on.

"I can honestly say that my intentions are both honorable and not. Andrea and I have been friends for a good while now and I finally got up the nerve to tell her how I felt, even though she already knew. I love your cousin very much. And while we have a lot to work out still, I think that you will be seeing me around at family events for a long time to come," he says. His arm around my waist tightens and he turns to kiss my forehead.

"And yes, she is a brat... very much so."

"Which is why we're such great friends, because you..." I tap the top of his head with my knuckles. "...are also a brat."

"Awesome, man! Family reunions are going to be lots more fun. Now you just need to convince my cousin to show up. She works too much." Henry grins, though I think he might be attempting a look of innocence.

"Uh huh... so says the man who flies six days a week."

"Hey, flying is very restful. I turn the plane on, it flies itself, and I turn it off again. Sometimes it wants to do loop-dee-loops, and I have to tell it not to." He nods sagely.

"That's you trying to blame Coyote again for talking you into flying crazy, you dork," I respond with a laugh.

"Hey, you say potato and I say succotash. It's all the same thing."

I roll my eyes. "As goofy as ever, Henry."

"My baby brother still bouncing around like a Mexican jumping bean? I remember when he learned Panther. Boy, that was funny! Flinging himself around the yard like a cat on extra-strength catnip. Hooo! You should have seen him!"

I chuckle, trying to imagine it. "He did fairly well in the Dance for Tita. I don't think your Dad or Tommy had to smack him once. But during the second Dance..." I shake my head, smiling as I remember. "He helped the three year old granddaughter of the woman we Danced for. I've never seen him so... settled and serene, Henry. Of course, that's one very special little girl."

There are raised eyebrows around the room. I smile.

"You know your guardian Spirit Dances with you in the Dance, right?"

There are nods from the cousins and Daniel, Yani's husband. Cynthia has never been to a Dance, so she looks slightly bemused. Sam whispers something to her — okay, yes, I hear it... he just says he'll explain later — and she nods and smiles.

"And when you don't have your own Spirit, one comes to join you. Hawk came and Danced with Pablo during the Dance for Tita."

Yani nods. "That fits for a policeman. When Tommy told Dan that Mouse Danced with him, he was pretty upset." She nudges her husband's shoulder and laughs. "It was really funny."

Dan laughs, too. "Well, after your cousin explained Mouse is as big as a German Shepard and is concerned with order and detail, I didn't feel so bad. I guess Mouse fits for an architect."

"Well, something about the Song I Sing to feed power to the Dance woke up Pablo's own Spirit, so it Danced with him the second time. No, no, no... I'm trying to tell you about the little girl," I say as they all start asking about Pablo's Spirit. "And that's Pablo's story anyway.

"So, the woman's two daughters and one of her sons danced with us. The other son went to church to pray, and I think that was good for him. The older daughter's husband and their three children danced. The younger daughter's partner danced, too... Raven thought they especially needed to dance. They were frightened because the older son..." I roll my eyes. "Well, let's just say he's a little bit closed-minded. And they didn't realize we honor our Two-Spirited people, so they didn't want any more ridicule. Oh, I talked to them... Pablo knows I watch out for the Two-Spirited of Denver. Well, it was their daughter who Danced with Billy.

"I know Tommy and I are the only adults who can see all the Spirits, but this little one..." I shake my head again. "She was giggling and trying to talk to all the Spirits, too. So Spirits came to Dance with the woman's children and grandchildren... except for the little girl."

I pause, as a good storyteller should.

"She is her own Spirit! You should have seen how beautifully she shone!"

Of course, they all look at me like maybe I've gone crazy. While that's possible, I know what I saw, and I know what I know.

"Andi, you been smoking the pipe too much," Henry says. It's an idea that would be appealing to Coyote, but Henry's having a hard time buying it.

"Have not! It's a good thing I spent so much time in Japan so I would know what she is. The Buddhists believe you just keeping going around doing life over and over — dharma — until you reach enlightenment, right?"

"Okaaaay," Sam says, "but how does that tie in with the little girl who's her own Spirit?"

"Ah ha! When you reach enlightenment, you go on to Nirvana. Except you don't have to... you can dive back into this messy thing called life, and help other people reach enlightenment. The ones who do that are called Bodhisattvas.

"Oh, and I didn't tell you who Mrs. Rutler's Spirit was." Even my eyes are wide with awe.

"It was Corn Woman," I say softly. "That's what She looked like to Tommy. Since the Rutlers are Catholic, She mostly looked like their Mother Mary... but sometimes when I looked out of the corner of my eye, She looked like Quan Yin. Depending on who you ask, that's either the Goddess of Compassion or one of the female Buddhas.

"And Aliza is one of the Bodhisattvas, come back to help people."

I shake my head again. "I don't know who this Mrs. Rutler is to have such a powerful guardian Spirit, but I'm really glad we could help her get well with our Medicine Dance. And that little Aliza sure did help Billy!"

There is more chatter among them for a few minutes as I simply enjoy sitting close and comfortable next to Pablo.

Finally, Henry speaks up again. "Hombre, you have dishonorable intentions regarding my cousins and your own guardian Spirit! Man, I'm liking you more every minute. So what's this Spirit of yours, huh?"

Pablo smiles and listens to the family banter, enjoying it, remembering times with his own family... the warm gentle teasing, the prying, and the support.

He looks over at me before he answers Henry's question.

"Well, you have to understand that my knowledge of it is second hand from Andrea. I can't see it although the last time it was around... I thought I could feel something..." he says, voice fading a bit as his mind and spirit go back to that moment; I can feel a tingle in his qi.

"Anyway, my new friend is Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent who was worshiped as a god by my ancestors in the Aztec Empire long ago. According to what it told Andrea, it's not a deity nor is it quite a guardian Spirit like your own. Evidently, I'm part of a chosen line that it has a connection with and the Dance called to it and it manifested itself in..."

Quetzalcoatl pokes his head around Pablo's neck and hisses slightly.

Would you please tell my Chosen that I am a 'he,' not an 'it.'

Pablo stops, eyes getting a far off look for a moment, words forgotten on his tongue.

I look at Pablo's face... then Quetzalcoatl... then back to Pablo's face as I poke his arm.

"Uh, Pablo?"

He shakes his head and looks at me.

"Dear? Did you say something?"

"Noooo... but your..." My eyes cut over to Quetzalcoatl for a second, before returning to look into Pablo's eyes. " is miffed that you are emasculating him by referring to him as it."

Then I look at the Serpent again. "You know, you should be figuring out how to talk to him, using a method that does not involve assault and more head injuries. Also, you should go away for a while because if you're here, then Raven isn't far behind. And if Raven shows up, then all the Spirits are going to want to show up, and I'm pretty damn sure my mother does not want Coyote — no offense, Henry — in her house."

"Hey, none taken, Cousin. Coyote's a party animal, but he likes wilder parties than Aunt Sandi throws. But, ah... who you talking to there?"

"Pablo?" I say, still watching his... Serpent. "You want to field that one?"

Pablo nods, his arm still tightly wrapped around my waist.

"She's talking to Quetzalcoatl. We call it Q. I think... I... Andrea? Hold me very close and have him say something..."

Well, it's about time he figured it out. Children can be so frustrating sometimes, Quetzalcoatl says.

"Oh, and you're not frustrating? Please!

"And as much as I like snuggling with Pablo, this is not an optimal solution."

Stupid flying things.

"Q? Like that crazy dude in Star Trek?" Henry, among his other many fine attributes, is a Trekkie.

"More annoying," I reply.

Then I hear a caw behind me.

I close my eyes and pull slightly away from Pablo, roll my shoulders back, crack my knuckles and hold my clenched fists in my lap.

"Unless you two have an exceptionally good reason for being here right now," I say quietly and way too calmly, "I highly recommend you go away, because she is very close to coming out and having some words with you."

Raven caws again, this time rather loudly and sounding just a little bit... nervous. I open my eyes to see Raven pecking on Quetzalcoatl's head and trying to grip its... HIS wings in its beak.

I smile with her smile... not exactly friendly, and probably a little threatening.

From next to Henry, I hear a deep, rumbling chuckle.

Ninja inches closer to the surface.

I'm sitting cross-legged, and bend forward to touch my forehead to the floor, link my fingers together behind my neck and plant my elbows on the floor on either side of my head.

"Om mani padme hum... om mani padme hum... om mani padme hum... om mani padme hum... om mani padme hum..."

Enough! says Quetzalcoatl, his tiny serpent voice suddenly louder, more resonant. Raven squawks and takes wing, Coyote decides this is not as much fun as is had hoped.

Night Walker, attend. It is your soul link that is allowing him to mature and then he will be able to see me as well as the others. More and more the two of you are becoming linked. He is starting to hear me faintly. More will come in time.

I don't move, but I stop chanting long enough to address the pest.

"Fine, fine, fine! Now go away. It's family time, and Pablo will be right here with me. I don't know what more you expect me to do."

I go back to my chanting, though more softly. It's soothing... not as good as spending time on my forms, but it's nice.

"Andi, are you okay?" Yani asks.

"No, but I will be as soon as other people's guardian Spirits go away and leave me alone."

Pablo, sweet man that he is, gently rubs my back. His qi flows into me, stronger than before. It's almost like a muscle that hasn't been used and is now being worked. Or maybe an innate talent that just needs practice to develop properly?

Be at peace, Night Walker. I am sorry if I disturbed your time with kin, Quetzalcoatl says and slips away like mist in the morning.

When I'm fairly certain the snakey little pest is gone, I untangle myself enough to fall over sideways and rest my head in Pablo's lap.

I look up at him and sigh. "Remind me to tell your little friend that my name is not Night Walker."

"Nah, Andi, that's a cool name! That's the Midnight Detective!"


"Yeah, Andi?"

I start singing. "Henry, Henry, here is your answer true..."

"No, no! Stop! Night Walker is a terrible name! Awful. You should pick something else... anything else!"

I snicker.

Then I look up at Pablo again. "Blah blah, linked souls, blah blah, you should be able to see him soon.

"He's a pest."

He strokes my hair as I rest my head on his lap. I know he enjoys the feel of my long silky hair between his fingers; I enjoy the way it soothes me.

"Linked souls? Is that this tingling that I'm feeling when we touch? It's really... extraordinary."

My cousins all snort and try to keep from laughing out loud.

"Oh, stop it, you guys! Don't make me get up and smack you all."

Fortunately, I hear a caravan of cars coming up the street.

"Mama! The rest of the family will be here in a minute," I call out.

She stands in the doorway looking at us, an apron around her waist, dish towel in hand and a smile on her face. "Take everyone outside. I don't need your brother and those two young hooligans tearing my house apart. Make sure your Tita gets the chair with the umbrella."

We all start to get up, and Henry says, "Aww, Aunt Sandi, my brothers aren't hooligans."

"Really, Henry?"

"No, ma'am," he says, giving her a hug. "They're a couple of reprobates."

Mama laughs and slaps Henry with the towel.

"Out! All of you! Andrea, you and Tommy get set up for your Singing. I'll be out in a bit. Dinner will be ready by the time we're done."

As we're walking out the door, Cynthia says, "I don't hear any cars coming, Andi. Are you sure?"

Sam chuckles and Henry says, "Don't you know Andi's Wonder Woman? Bet she even has an invisible plane. Hey, why'd you never tell me about your plane, Andi? I'd like to fly it."

I roll my eyes. "You just made it up, Henry. But I can help you fly without a plane."

"I'd like that! When can we start?" Henry starts skipping up and down the driveway, quite possibly forgetting that he, like me, is thirty-two years old.

"She plans to toss you across the street, Henry," Sam says.

"So? The landing won't be great, but the flying part ought to be fantastic!"

I shake my head and sigh, looking up at Pablo, who stands close with his arm wrapped around my shoulders, mine wrapped around his waist. "Well, you've met them all, and you haven't run off yet. I guess that means I get to keep you." I grin broadly. "I'm glad."

He smiles and leans down, kissing me softly.

Mmmmmm... way too easy to get lost when he kisses me. Bad thing? Good thing? Okay, right now, I'll say not exactly good, what with the whole family about to gather.

"I think I got the sanest of the lot," he says smugly. "I love your family, Andrea. There's so much warmth between you all, and they've been very accepting of me. How could I not love them?" he asks, hugging me close.

"Oh, don't count on me being the sanest," I say with a chuckle. "The elders are all perfectly sane, and among the cousins that title would probably go to Sam or Yani, or they might share it. And of course they accept you, love. When a Yazzie brings someone around to meet the family, it's because we already know they're the sort of person the family will love and accept. It doesn't matter if it's a lover or just a friend."

He smiles and just shrugs as if he's not going to accept my assessment. "Now, tell me about this singing. I'm not sure that I can help out in this one. I don't know what you're singing."

The lead car in the caravan — probably Daddy's; I'm not watching, I only hear it — comes around the corner at the end of the block.

"Oh, none of us knows yet. Tommy's making the Song; that's the Medicine Man's job. Well, he's still in training, but making Songs is something he learned early. I just gave him the three important notes for healing the dan tians; he'll take it from there. It starts off as a call and response kind of thing, so we all learn it. Then we come together... depending on the mood, sometimes a Song will move into rounds, or back to call and response." I smile. "Every Song is different. You just go with the flow. You'll be fine."

"I can see that I'm going to need to do a lot of reading when we get home. I have a whole other culture to learn," he muses, content in my arms as the family starts to arrive.

"Not much reading for you to do — with accurate information, anyway — unless I can get my hands on the few books written by our People. Good thing your girlfriend is a librarian, huh? Though are a few fairly good websites out there.

"But the best way to learn is just... well, be one of us."

Dad parks his car, getting out with Billy and Tommy. He smiles at me and Pablo, coming over to speak to us.

"Did you have a good ride, Andrea?" he asks, kissing my forehead.

Billy practically flies out of the car and heads straight for his eldest brother; Henry is ready for him and crouches down to grab Billy around the waist and fling him over his shoulder. They spin around in circles a few times before falling on the ground, laughing like lunatics. Tommy's reunion with his siblings and their spouses is considerably more sedate and involves a lot of hugs.

"We had a wonderful time! But Dale said I should nag you and Mama about going riding more often. Oh," I say, pointing to the path around the garage to the back yard, "Mama says we should all go out back. She doesn't want the hooligans in her house." I glance at the other cars approaching. "You didn't subject Papa and Tita to the other two hooligans, did you?"

Dad chuckles. "No, dear. Your brother and Charlie are tormenting his parents and sister."

I shake my head and say, "Poor Uncle Junior. Poor Aunt Alicia. Poor, poor Talia." Then I giggle.

Dad gives me a wicked grin and then starts to corral everyone toward the back, sending Billy, Tommy and Henry to the garage to get the folding chairs and blankets for people to sit on.

"How did you enjoy the ride, Pablo?"

Pablo smiles. "I had a wonderful time. The mountains around here are beautiful, and luckily your daughter made sure I had a calm horse. I ride, but it's been a few years."

Dad smiles and nods. "Yes, Andrea does have a way with animals," he says. "Come along now, Tommy has the Song and we all have much to do."

Pablo nods in return, his arm still around my waist as we head for the back yard.

Singing is far less formalized than a Dance. The person for whom we Sing is the focus of attention, but how that attention is focused doesn't much matter. In our case, we all just gather around Tita. Some of us sit in chairs, some sit on blankets, a few sit along Mama and Dad's picnic table, Billy leans against the back of the house. Tita loves it, of course... although she insists she feels fine, and we don't need to go through the Singing for her. But having her husband at her side, her children and their spouses, her grandchildren and their spouses — and boyfriend! — gathered around her makes her the happiest person around. It's been many years since we've all been together. It feels good to be among family, to have Pablo beside me, part of the family.

Tommy begins the Song, and we progress through the call and response part — a call and a response from the men, a call and a response from the women, a call and response from everyone. I'm amazed and delighted that he's taken our sounds and meshed them with Eastern sounds, creating something truly unique. I can feel the qi weaving all around us, binding us even closer together as a family. As our voices all come together and we Sing through the Song for Tita, I am more than just a little surprised that our guardian Spirits have joined us; this is something very unusual for a Song. They all sit or sprawl or perch near or on the person they guard and guide; they are quiet and respectful... even Raven, Coyote, and Quetzalcoatl. I smile as I catch Tommy's eye and nod toward Cynthia, where Otter is leaning against her legs, looking up at her happily. He smiles back and winks. Otter — who is friendly and playful, joyful in helping and sharing — is a perfect Spirit for a teacher who makes learning fun.

It takes very little time for the Song, and for the love of her family, to heal the wound Tsui Ji left when he attacked Tita. But we Sing for the Spirits, and for Mother Earth, and for Father Sky. We Sing for all of us, we Sing for our love. After time passes — I can't tell how much time, but I feel very energized by the Song — Tommy nods to Charlie. He beats his drum once... then a pause... then a quick double beat. I grin. That is the signal that each person will Sing the Song, from the oldest person to youngest person. It's such a wonderful part of a Singing, having the Song ripple down the generations.

Papa begins... then Tita... then Dad... then Mama... then Uncle Leon... then Aunt Sonia... then Uncle Junior... then Aunt Alicia... then Sam... then Daniel, after Yani nudged him... then Yani... then Cynthia, after a nudge from Sam... then Pablo, after I nudge him... then Tommy... then me... then Henry... then Talia... then Justin... then Charlie... and finally Billy.

Well, it should have finally been Billy, except Yani Sings through the Song again. When everyone looks at her, she wraps her arm around David's waist as he pulls her close to him, both of them smiling broadly.

"I Sing for our unborn daughter, whom we will name Kai when she enters the world in five months."

Needless to say, there is much rejoicing. Tita's first great-grandchild... what a way to announce it!

"And here I thought Charlie and Susan would be first," I say to Pablo. From behind me, I feel a jab in the back, and I look up to see Talia looming over me. "You need to have more faith in what I tell you, Andi. I told you ten years ago Yani would be first." She hunkers down beside me, opposite Pablo, and whispers very softly in my ear, "Shall I tell you when your first child will be born, cousin? You have finally found the right man, Andi... it will happen." She backs off a little, looking at me and Pablo.

"Ah, no... thank you very much, I'd rather not know. And thank you for giving me something more to worry about."

She grins and hops up again. "All in a day's work!"

"Brat," I mumble.

Pablo looks at me and then my cousin, raising an eyebrow and shrugging. He knows if it's something he needs to know, I'll tell him.

He sits back, leaning against one of the trees and pulls me into his arms, me back against his chest with his arms wrapped around me.

I lean against him, wondering about what Talia had said. Despite not believing some of her foretellings, they — rather frighteningly — always turn out to be true. I suspect she simply refuses to share things that are not what anyone would want to hear. Ah... and yet another thing for us to talk about. But not now, not here.

"Thank you, Andrea," he whispers softly. His warm breath dances over the hairs on the nape of my neck.

I shiver as Pablo's breath moves across the back of my neck.

Turning to look at him, I smile. "You're welcome. And you're causing me to have some rather inappropriate thoughts, considering we're in my parents' back yard with my entire family present."

He looks at me and smiles.

"I am? I didn't know that thanking you led you to those kinds of thoughts. I'll have to thank you very often, and with great sincerity, in our relationship," he tells me, arms tightening gently around me.

"And somehow I don't think your family would mind if they saw you kissing me. Something tells me that they have been waiting for this for a long time," he adds.

"I suspect you could be reciting Vogon poetry while breathing on my neck like that, and I would start having impure thoughts." I smile. "And while I'm sure you're entirely right about my family's attitude — I'll bet we'd even have a cheering section — my thoughts strayed somewhere beyond just kissing."

He looks slightly confused at my mention of Vogon poetry before his mind apparently connected it with the proper book. But my last comment catches his attention enough that it causes his heart to race.

"Love... now you have my thoughts going beyond just kissing," he manages to say, his voice a bit tight suddenly. "I..."

He pauses and looks around. "Later. We should talk later." For now, he simply cups my cheek and leans down to kiss me.

And what do you know; we do have a cheering section!

I think it's Justin who starts the whistling and Henry with the whooping and hollering, but I don't care at the moment. Perhaps later, my four younger male relatives will find that Andi likes the game of Getting Even, but for now I'm content to ignore them and enjoy the experience of kissing Pablo.

And they're still making fools of themselves — though I vaguely register that Mama is yelling at Justin to leave me alone — when we move apart ever so slightly. "Perhaps we can do more than talk later," I whisper against his lips. "Though right now, perhaps we — especially you — should just sit here quietly, hmmm?" I rest my head against his chest, eyes closed, feeling so safe and content in his arms.

The dinner is amazing and the entire family enjoys catching up, asking us tons of questions about life in Denver. Of course, the talk moves to the expected great grandchild and gentle teasing of when the next one will be on the way. At least I'm not the only one being teased... Charlie and Justin get their fair share.

Good food, good times, surrounded by the love of family.

It's later that night — after Pablo has fallen asleep on the floor in the bedroom — that something wakes me up. I'm not sure why I woke up; Pablo is sleeping soundly, deeply. A sound perhaps? I lie there on the floor for a moment, his arms draped around me tonight. Yes, a sound. I slip out from Pablo's light embrace and open the bedroom door a crack. Lights are on in the kitchen?

I pad out to the kitchen in my bare feet, wearing my nightshirt. I stop at the archway and just watch Mama for a few seconds.

She's sitting at the table in her robe, hands wrapped around a cup of tea. She does that when the arthritis is bothering her finger joints... yet another sign of age turning Mama from middle-aged to older.

"Mama?" Softly spoken, and I know there is some worry in my voice because I feel it in my heart. It's just how I am, I suppose... more concerned about my family, my friends than I am for myself. I've always been this way; I expect I always will be. "What's wrong, Mama?"

She looks up at the sound of my voice and smiles. Her eyes look good, she doesn't look sick.

"Hi, dear, what are you doing up? Did I wake you?" she asks.

"I'm not sure. Something woke me, and then I heard sounds from the kitchen and saw the light on."

I walk over to the table and sit down across from her, leaning forward a bit, with my forearms on the table and fingers wrapped around opposite elbows.

"You know, Mama... you have the prettiest smile I've ever seen on anyone. And you're so generous in sharing it." I smile; I'm not exaggerating about her smile. "So what are you doing up in the middle of the night? Has Daddy starting a bad snoring habit? You should make him sleep standing up. Just velcro him to the wall. I'll bet that would work."

"No, darling, your father has always snored but I'm used to that. I'm just still wound up a little from the day. I thought I'd make myself a cup of herbal tea to calm my nerves so that I can get to sleep. But I'm glad to be able to see my daughter again.

"Would you like some tea, dear?" she inquires, getting up and making some anyway.

"Yes, Mama... some tea would be wonderful." There's no point refusing tea from Mama. She pushes tea on people — in the most loving and thoughtful way, of course! — the way some of my college friends' grandmothers pushed pastries on them. Personally, I think I got the better deal.

She glances over her shoulder at me. "You seem happier than I've ever seen you in my life, Andrea."

"I remember being happy in Japan. The very first memory I have of being so happy I wanted to burst was when you brought Justin home from the hospital. Being around him has always made me happy."

I wait until she comes back to the table with my tea, and just wrap my hand around the cup for a minute.

"But I feel a different kind of happiness now, it's..." I just shake my head and look at her. "I don't have words for it, Mama. I feel so... I don't know... not just connected with Pablo but almost intertwined.

"I never realized it was possible to feel this way."

She sits down across from me and smiles knowingly.

"It was that way for me when I met your father. I never knew that any one person could be that important to my life." She pauses, sipping the tea.

"Your father and I talked," she says, looking at me. "We both like Pablo a great deal. It's obvious how happy he makes you... how much he loves you, and how much you love him."

She reaches over to touch my hand.

"I know your work as Ninja is important, but take this opportunity, Andrea. It only comes once or twice in a lifetime."

I hold Mama's hand; as always, her love covers me like a thick, warm blanket.

"I promise, Mama. I think our hearts, our nílch'i, our souls are becoming so intertwined now that we don't have a choice. And if we did have a choice... we would still step into the future side by side.

"He knows what I do as Ninja is important; there are people I protect that the police can't or, sadly, won't. We both do the same job — serve and protect — we simply do it in different ways. There may be things we will need to do differently than we have in the past. I don't think the practical details of that job have all come to the surface. Until yesterday, he had been the only law enforcement liaison who had never actually met Ninja. He has only known this side of me, and yet has trusted me all these years to do the right thing for the people of Denver. And the other side of that coin is that he is the only one of my law enforcement liaisons who knows Ninja is a librarian when she's not..." Mama doesn't really need to know everything Ninja does. "...well, making Denver and the surrounding counties a safer place."

I shrug. "I expect that life will change in some ways and remain exactly as it is in other ways.

"Pablo's wife and son were murdered before I ever met him; a hazard of being a police officer," I say softly. "He told me about them for the first time just last week, and from listening to his memories I could feel how much joy they brought to his life." I squeeze her hand gently, look into her eyes. "If I can bring even a portion of that joy back to his life, I would have to be a cruel and selfish person to deny him. And you know I'm no such thing, Mama. He has been one of my dearest friends for many years, and now he's shown me I can be happier than I thought was even possible.

"So don't worry, Mama... I'm holding him in my heart, and I'm not letting go."

Mama listens and sips her tea until I tell her about Pablo's family and their fate. Pain and sorrow covered her face and she sets her teacup down.

"Oh, the poor dear..." she says. "It's no wonder the poor darling took so long to tell you how he felt. All that fear and pain bottled up over those years." Tears fall down her cheeks.

I get up and walk around the table, and kneel at her side. "Shhhh, don't cry, Mama," I say as I wrap my arms around her. "He's healing now. I won't let him forget the joy, and I will do whatever I can to ease the pain."

She turns and put her arms around me, cradling me against her.

"I'm so glad, dear. He needs you... and you need him. That's what love is all about, giving to the other person everything that you are so that they can find comfort and peace." Mama softly strokes my hair, just like she used to do so many, many years ago. "He will give you as much comfort and peace as you give him, you know.

"Your father and I are looking forward to coming to Denver for Christmas and finding you two deeply in love. I want to meet your friends and see where you work. I might even be able to convince your grandparents to come along," she says, kissing my forehead.

"I believe you'll find exactly that when you come to visit, Mama." I look at her with a smile and shake my head. "But I really don't think you'll be able to pry Papa and Tita away from Yani and Daniel's baby." I chuckle. "They can visit me anytime they'd like, but how many times will they have the chance to thoroughly spoil a great-grandchild?" I brush my fingertips down her cheek and smile sadly. "While they still have so much life, nílch'i, qi in them, they will not be with us forever. They may not see many more great-grandchildren. Charlie and Susan, I think... perhaps Justin and Nicole."

I still don't know what to make of Talia's comment this afternoon.

"The only thing that worries me about you coming to visit me is that Bobby with snatch you up, and the two of you will never come out of his kitchen!" I say laughing and hugging her.

She laughs, too.

"Perhaps, but at least I will die happy and well fed," she jokes.

"And we will all become fat and happy with all the food coming out of the kitchen!"

"Come on, you need to be getting back to sleep. You have a long drive ahead of you tomorrow. Is Pablo finding the bed comfortable? It hasn't been slept on much."

I pause and shrug.

"I think he found it comfortable enough before his nightmare last night," I say as I stand. "But he spent the remainder of last night on the floor with me at the insistence of his guardian Spirit. We chose the floor again tonight to forestall any further nightmares." I kiss the top of her head, before starting back to my room. I pause in the archway, though, and grin over my shoulder.

"It might be time to consider double beds for when your children visit." I giggle and scamper back to my room, where I settle into Pablo's warm embrace, and fall quickly back to sleep.

© Kelly Naylor and Ken Seggebruch