Issue 6: Transformations

The next few days pass in bliss as Pablo and I learn to live and love together. The excitement of our new relationship is obvious to see, and our coworkers are beyond happy to hear the news of our upcoming wedding. Pablo's sisters have to hear everything about how it happened and what Pablo said and so on, finding it all tremendously romantic.

Captain Sanchez sends home a lovely bottle of wine for the two of us to share, and Mrs. Kumata gives me the day off to help Pablo move all his belongings from his apartment to our house. All his friends on the force know or have heard of me — apparently Pablo has been talking about me for quite some time! — and I receive more happy hugs than I can count. Pablo doesn't bring much to our home — mostly clothing, those few furniture items we'd discussed, and a few pieces of Southwestern art.

Life slowly returns to normal, with the exception of calls from our families with questions regarding plans for the Christmastime wedding and trips to Denver. It's a little odd learning how to share my home — our home! — with another person. We've both lived alone long enough that it takes a few days for us to establish a rhythm to our lives... who gets up when, who showers first, which side of the double sink countertop in the master bath does each of us use, and so many other tiny things I never thought about before.

Oh, but the nights! The nights are filled with the excitement of learning about one other while at the same time discovering that we already know each other so intimately through our Bond. Neither of us has ever experienced anything like this; neither of us has ever heard of such a thing for that matter. We can't seem to get enough of each other, finding any excuse to get away together.

But both of us have our duties to perform. I have to live with the daily fear that when Pablo straps on his gun and badge and heads out the door there's the possibility he might not come back. Pablo is learning to deal with something similar when he sees as his sweet librarian tucked away when Ninja comes to the fore. He watches as Ninja rides away on her motorcycle to prowl the darkness, never knowing what dangers might be out there waiting for me.

But Pablo returns home at the end of each day; Ninja silently reappears well before dawn, and I transform back to the Andrea he's known all these years. We hold one another in the darkness of our bedroom, our love burning bright as the sun in our union, banishing all darkness... if for a few precious moments.

Before Pablo moved in, nightfall meant preparing to patrol my city: I would practice Taiji if I thought I needed it. Then I would don my leathers and black shirt, braid my hair, and ride my bike through the alleys and side streets. I would walk through Five Points or along Colfax Avenue, checking in with the people who come out at night. I would ride up to Commerce City to check on the folks relegated to the ghetto. It's something I do most nights, but now it's hard to leave his side, sometimes to leave our bed, to do the job I promised to do. More people stay out at night during the summer; that makes it all the more vital that I fade into the background and let her take over.

I feel more of a dichotomy now between Andi and Ninja. I have a feeling if I ever speak of my alter ego to a mental health professional I might get a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder. But I'm well aware that there are no separate personalities. There is only the part of me that lives as a productive citizen of Denver, working and paying taxes, married and loving every moment of it. Well, except, perhaps, the moments when my husband walks out the door to go to work. And then there is the part of me that is focused on protection and justice. If anything, I suppose Ninja is a highly concentrated subset of my desire for liberty and justice for all. As a subset, Ninja tends to forget about things like work and taxes, love and marriage, house and home.

If Ninja is going to skip a night of patrol, you can be certain it won't be a Friday night. Surprisingly, however, it's a quiet night. The drugs deals being transacted in Five Points are petty. The working girls... and boys... along Colfax have no complaints or information. And Ninja only has to crack two neo-Nazi skulls at Charlie's. Why they always have to make trouble at Charlie's is anyone's guess. True, it's probably the most prominent of the gay bars in the Denver area. But at least half the men there could beat the living daylights out of the neo-Nazis. However, it's better that Ninja does it, so upstanding citizens of Denver don't have to worry about scum pressing charges against them. If they tried pressing charges against Ninja, they'd be laughed out of every precinct in town.

This morning, I get home not long after the bars close and slide into bed beside Pablo. He wakes up only enough to roll over and curl himself around me, and I fall into a peaceful sleep.

The first thing I feel this morning is the gentle caress of my husband's hand softly stroking my long hair. It feels so comforting, yet highly sensual. I smile and let out a sigh of happiness before opening my eyes and looking at him.

"Good morning, beloved."

It's the weekend, a Saturday, and we don't need to rush off to work... well, not unless the phone rings and a homicide calls him from my side.

My lover smiles back at me, looking into my eyes as he strokes my hair; I can almost feel the black silk of it slide through his fingers.

"Good morning, love. Did you have a decent patrol last night?" he asks, settling down beside me, resting his head on the pillow.

"Very quiet night," I say, snuggling closer to him. "Old Mama says thank you... well, her exact words were Honey, you tell your friend at the police department thank you for assigning some nice people to patrol our neighborhood." I chuckle. "She's got no complaints, the hookers up on Colfax don't have any new rumors to check out, and I only had to crack two skulls... at Charlie's, of course."

I trace a finger along his jaw and up behind his ear.

"I'm glad Bobby and David are homebodies; I'd hate to have to wear a mask as Captain Holbrook suggested just so I could keep those boys down there from walloping the neo-Nazis themselves. I can't imagine wearing a mask would be exceptionally comfortable."

He shivers a little at my caress, returning the affection.

"I know the tactical masks that SWAT wears aren't comfortable. I did some training with them, and you certainly start to sweat with one of those on. Still, it's something you should probably consider, at least enough of a mask to help hide your identity. Not so much for my protection; I can take care of myself, but we're evidently going to have children in the future and they'd be helpless against anyone trying to get some revenge."

"I'll consider it, but..." I sigh. "There are people out there who only took a chance on trusting me — or rather, Ninja — because I don't hide behind a mask. There are always going to be those people out there. I can't imagine anything that doesn't cover at least half my face is going to do much to more to conceal my identity than what I already do. I never braid my hair, I rarely ride the motorcycle. I suppose I could start wearing glasses, even though I don't need them. But neither did Clark Kent, now did he?"

I sigh again and snuggle closer. "For all that Ninja hates being in the public eye, she does want her people to know who she is. I think the best option is gradually to change the way I look. Though besides glasses and perhaps a more refined look, I'm not sure what I can do."

"Well, there are things we can do. Let me think on it, but glasses are an excellent first step and common among librarians anyway. Besides, I bet you look sexy in glasses," he says, stroking my back and letting his hand wander. "I love mornings like this. Just the two of us."

"Oh, you'll help me pick out the sexiest glasses, won't you?" I ask with a wide grin.

"Nowhere to go and nothing we just have to do. Since there's nothing on the agenda for today, what would you like to do, love? We could take a drive up Mt. Evans... if you think your car can make it." I laugh. "Or go to the museum, see a movie... oooh! Ice cream at Liks?" I look into his eyes. "Even taking a walk around City Park would be marvelous. Holding hands... being silly... swinging on the swings... people will say we're in love!" I chuckle as my hand drifts up and down his arm. "Name that tune... or rather, the show it's from."

"Oklahoma. It was a really excellent musical. I had a crush on Shirley Jones when I was seven," he says, chuckling as he pulls me close and kisses me slowly, the qi searing through us, energizing us.

I moan as his kiss ignites the fire in my body, and for a moment I am breathless as the kiss ends. "Okay, besides sensual overload..." I nip at his lower lip and run my thumb along his hip bone. "...what would you like to do today?"

"Why don't we take a picnic lunch to the park like you suggested? Lay out in the sun. Or we could go into the mountains and hike. Make love in the wild," he answers, groaning softly as I caress him. "I really don't care as long as we are together."

"Mmmm... a picnic lunch in the park..." My hand moves slowly up his side. "...and torturing one another by maintaining PG-13 behavior." I slide my hand around his back and begin tracing my fingers lightly down his spine as I grin. "It sounds like fun!"

"Mmmm, that feels good, love." He moves his own hands up my back, exploring the strong muscles under the skin that he claims feels like satin. "Do you have what we need to make a picnic or do we need to go to the store? We can pick up a bottle of wine." He leans in to kiss my neck.

"I think we have what we need in the kitchen," I manage to say, shivers running through my body as he kisses my neck. "Gods, you're addictive, Pablo." I begin running my hand across his chest and abdomen.

Pablo laughs. "I could say the same about you, Andrea. And if we're going to leave the house at all, we should probably get going, don't you think?"

I chuckle, but I can't disagree. While we linger a bit in the shower, it doesn't take long to get out of the bedroom fully dressed. We laugh and joke, tease and touch, as we pack a basket for lunch and finish off yesterday's coffee cake from Bobby for breakfast.

Basket and my backpack tucked in the back seat of Pablo's car, we head out for our day of simple, ordinary adventures and togetherness.

City Park is the largest and most visited of Denver's parks. On a beautiful summer day like today, the playground is full of children laughing and shouting, with parents either joining in the fun or watching from nearby benches. Bicyclists, runners, joggers and folks just strolling meander along the park's many pathways. People are playing tennis or floating across Ferril Lake on paddle boats. Families are picnicking and playing in the open fields, or feeding the ducks and geese along the lake's edge.

We walk from the car hand in hand, enjoying not only the weather and scenery, but being together. Touching in this simple and innocent way is relaxing, yet feeling the mingling of our qi and the fire of our love makes the walk seem so daring. It's hard not to smile, and there is no real need for words.

I've never seen Pablo so peaceful, so content. His aura is almost golden as it billows around him. I don't even need to see it with my inner eye; I can feel it brushing against mine as we hold hands. He's actually humming softly under his breath as we walk through the park.

As we pass the playground, we are momentarily caught up in the middle of a group of children playing tag. One little girl of five or so uses us as a barrier to the slightly older boy who is 'It'. They look so much alike, their auras so similar, I assume they must be siblings. Their mother calls to them, telling them to leave the strangers alone; I smile and wave at her... we don't mind being part of the game. The young one gains an ally who comes close enough to catch the boy's attention so the girl can flee back to the safe zone.

I catch Pablo's eye for a moment as we continue our walk and the qi flares between us, echoing a pain of the past and brilliant hope for the future.

Children.

There's sadness on Pablo's face as he watches the children; there's an echo in his aura of love lost, and a deep ache that can never be fully healed. And yet there is also the hope of new life, new possibilities. There is, underneath everything else, a belief in joy.

What I once thought was impossible has become not only possible, but probable... perhaps even inevitable. I find my heart echoing Pablo's belief in joy, in new life, in new possibilities.

As the bicyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers swerve around us, I am more aware than usual of how very many children there are in the park. Perhaps there are always so many children, and I am just oblivious to the particulars of those around me. Perhaps I am too focused on watching the qi flows and textures of auras. It's astonishing how much my life has changed in only a few short weeks.

We head down one of the paths through the trees and find a relatively quiet spot for our picnic. I pull the blanket from my backpack and spread it on the ground; Pablo sets the picnic basket down. From here we can see some of the fields, part of the lake and the barest hint of the museum on the other side.

I pull my sneakers off, and sit down on the blanket... not able to do much more than smile like a silly fool for a moment or two. I finally reach into the basket and start taking out our lunch.

"Have I mentioned in the past five minutes how much I love you, Pablo Garcia?"

He looks at me with such tenderness. "No, you haven't. I think you owe me one." His smile is radiant as he puts the plate of cold chicken out on the blanket. Pablo also takes his shoes off, then wiggles his toes in the grass. Closing his eyes, he tilts his head back to let the sunshine warm his face.

"Well, then let me say that I love you... but mere words cannot do justice to my feelings," I say with a soft smile. I look at him and see a Pablo I've never seen before... a man at peace. It's humbling to know I had a hand in that, more than a hand really. I stretch my legs out a bit, so my feet are on the grass and not the blanket.

"There's something truly remarkable about this park. I can feel Mother Earth's energy so strongly here. The only place stronger in Colorado that I've discovered so far is up at Red Rocks." I shiver from the memories of going up there, but it's a lovely shiver from happy memories. "You can almost see it in the air... well, I can anyway." I lean back and prop myself up on my elbows.

"I try to ride my bike — the bicycle, that is — up there about once a month, weather permitting." I turn to look at him and grin. "You should come with me. It's a tough ride for most people, but I think you could manage."

"I'd love to go riding up there with you, Andrea. I've talked about it before; I wasn't sure you were serious," he admits, moving a foot over to touch mine. "I enjoy hiking up that way, too."

I tap his foot with mine. "I'm even going to let you get away with playing footsies with me today."

He chuckles, then says somewhat seriously, "I've been seeing things since our relationship has changed. From what you say, I don't see nearly as much as you do, but still... it's odd. I'm not sure what it is that I'm sometimes seeing ."

I raise an eyebrow at him. "Seeing things? Tell me about it."

When the Curse took me, and I began seeing the qi flows all around me, I at least had the advantage of intellectually understanding what I saw... how it connected to everyone and everything. It was still more than a little disconcerting. Of course, I was twelve; Pablo is a grown man. Would that make a difference, though?

"Well, I can see Raven and Q now, of course. But I can see the wind at times, and light. I don't mean the difference between light and dark; it's as if I can see all the photons in the light or something like that. It's just a glimpse. And the wind is like an ocean wave billowing across the sky."

He speaks quietly, and when he looks up at me I can see a shadow of fear in his eyes. I've never seen that before.

I look in his eyes, understanding the fear I see there. My foot rests against his, skin touching skin, innocent and playful.

"We both feel the energy that flows between us; we both feel how we have become closer than either of us ever imagined two people could be. I think you're beginning to see the world the way I do, at least to a small extent, because of how close we've become."

I smile softly, tenderly at my husband. "I think I should teach you some of the Qigong and Taijiquan and Aikido postures that will help you understand how the energy moves. Being aware, understanding... that makes it much easier to let the sight of the qi fade into the background until you want to see it."

I sit up again and take one of his hands in mine. "It's nothing to fear, it's nothing to worry about. It actually sounds incredibly beautiful." I just hold his hand for a minute, looking into his eyes, then pat his hand before letting go and pointing at the food.

"Eat. You'll need even more protein than you're used to if you're picking up some of my abilities. You wouldn't believe the amount of tofu I ate when living in China! Having a variety of protein sources is another positive thing about being back in the States."

"I don't know, love. It feels odd, different... almost as if the wind and the sun are calling to me somehow. It feels different than the energy I feel flowing between us." He's quite a moment, but nods at the mention of food. He catches my eye for a moment, though.

"I think I understand what you went through a little better now, Andi. I shared your memories of what it was like when you changed. But actually having it happen to you..." He trails off, shaking his head. Then he takes one of my hands and brings it to his lips, kissing it.

"I love you so much, Andrea."

"And I you, dear Pablo," I say, smiling brightly... so full of love, joy, peace. Again I have a fleeting thought of why didn't we do this sooner? But it truly is exactly as I explained it to Bobby yesterday... it just wasn't the right time.

I layer several of the thick slices of cold chicken between two pieces of whole grain bread.

"It is different... the energy within and the energy without. The wind, the sun, the earth, everything we call the natural world holds so much more of the energy of the whole universe. And you know I feel the Earth call to me more than she speaks to most." I give him a mischievous look. "I wouldn't recommend you trying to touch all of the universe at once. I was an Aikido and a Taijiquan Master before I tried that." I give him a rather silly grin. "I think it's how regular people feel when they get intoxicated. Grandmaster Chen said I was terribly silly and giggled incessantly for two days."

I took a bite from my sandwich. Mmmmm, yummy!

He laughs at that as he looks at me. "Oh, man! I wish I could have seen that. I've never seen you out of control. I imagine it would be an intriguing sight."

I laugh, too. "I have a feeling touching all the energies at once up at Red Rocks would do it although the whole land around Ganado, where Tommy lives, is like that, too. That's why so many of the Nation's Medicine Men have taught there, I think. My Wiccan friends talk about ley lines. Maybe that's why certain places feel more powerful than others.

"And it's not so much 'out of control' as... I don't know... it's really hard to explain. It's what you and I experience, but expanded and unbelievably euphoric."

He puts his own sandwich together and starts to eat, looking up at the sky and frowning slightly.

I take another bite of my sandwich as he makes his, then furrow my brows at his frown. I don't see anything in the sky... but even sitting so close, he does have a different vantage point through the trees than I do.

"What's wrong, love?"

He shakes his head, eyes refocusing on me, and he smiles. "What? Oh, nothing, Andi. This is quite tasty. What did you spice the chicken with?" He runs one hand up and down my thigh, teasing and affectionate.

I look at him quizzically, with a touch of worry perhaps. "Just some lemon and pepper," I respond as I place my hand over his and squeeze it gently. "Eat your lunch, Pablo."

I smile and shake my head as I reach into the basket for one of the apples I put in there.

Pablo nods and set into the thick sandwich, devouring it in a manly fashion.

We enjoy our picnic lunch in relative quiet, with just an occasional comment about a child playing or how marvelous it is to feel the sun on our faces. It's quiet, it's ordinary, and that makes it all the more pleasant. We continue our game of footsies as we eat. All is right and proper with the world.

When we finish lunch, Pablo repacks the basket and stretches out. I sit still for a few minutes watching people in the nearby fields also enjoying the day before lying on my side beside him, head propped in one hand and the other resting on his chest.

"Something is disturbing you. What is it, Pablo?"

"I've been sitting here trying to remember everything I saw of your memories when we made love, trying to remember what it felt like and looked like when you touched your qi. What I'm seeing in the sky is different. Kiss me deeply, love; experience it with me," he suggests.

I raise both eyebrows and grin. "And that certainly wouldn't be PG-13, I can guarantee it."

Pablo chuckles at that. "Are you saying you can't kiss me without getting all frisky, Andi? My animal magnetism must be out of control." He leans over and gives me a kiss anyway, just a gentle and soft one that sends skitters of qi across my meridians likes dragonflies across the surface of a pond. It certainly takes my breath away.

"Well, I'm implying it, anyway." And to prove my point, his kiss not only takes my breath away, but it leaves my heart pounding and wanting so much more of him. I lean my forehead against his. "You see? Now I want to do things that would get us citations for public indecency," I say softly.

He laughs and lies back on the blanket. "Now, now... how would it look for two exceptional public servants such as we to receive such a citation?" he asks with a smile on his face.

"It would be a terrible thing!" I say, laughing. "We would tarnish the image of our fair city, and we certainly can't do that, now can we?"

"We certainly can't! We would never be forgiven!" He looks at me for a moment, the love in his eyes so miraculous to me. "Tell me about your childhood. We've always talked about the present ... the day to day things, the silly things, the serious things. There's so much about you I want to know, so much I wonder about. What was your childhood with Justin like?"

I smile, sigh, and let my hand continue to rest on his chest. "I was seven when Justin was born. We'd been living in Japan for two years already." I stare off into the distance, smiling as I remember. "The day Mama and Dad brought him home from the hospital is unquestionably my happiest childhood memory. I was so excited to have a little brother, and I think Justin must have been born smiling. They made sure I sat on the sofa and showed me how to hold his little head in the crook of my arm. I don't know how long I sat there just staring at him. I was so amazed at how little he was... how perfectly formed his fingers were... how utterly peaceful he appeared as he slept in my arms. I said 'Hello, Little Brother' in Diné Bizaad, in English and in Japanese, then he opened his eyes and looked at me."

I had always thought that would be the closest I would even come to what a mother feels for her child, that moment when my baby brother looked at me. Now... to have that feeling for a child of my own... I wonder how long it would take me to stop crying from the joy.

"I swear he smiled, although Mama insisted it was just gas. His eyes were still that pale blue newborns have. He looked right at me, Pablo, and gurgled happy baby noises, and I fell in love with him right then and there. I would get up early just to look at him, hold his tiny little hand. I'd go to my Aikido lessons and school, then rush home to hold him or rock him before going to my evening Aikido lessons. Sometimes, afterward, Mama would lay him on a blanket on the floor and I'd just curl around him, talking to him. Not the silly baby talk that grownups seem to like, but regular talk. Whenever he was fussy, I'd tell him stories of the Spirits, or what I remembered from New Mexico, or just tell him how happy I was that he was my very own little brother. I told him stories in English and Diné Bizaad both, and sometimes Japanese if I knew all the words.

"I grew and passed through my grades both in Aikido and schoolwork. He grew, started crawling, began walking, and finally became steady enough on his feet that he was trying to imitate my Aikido forms." I laugh. Oh, what happy times those were! "I was well into the intermediate forms by then, and Justin often would tangle himself into a heap on the floor, giggling. When he was three, Daddy enrolled him in the Aikido school, too. He learned faster because he watched me so intently; I gained mastery of my own forms by teaching him.

"Even though we lived in a foreign land, lived on an Army base in Army housing, I think we had an ordinary childhood. We had friends among the other children of people stationed there; we had friends among the Japanese children through Doshu Ueshiba's school. Mama and Dad made sure we learned our native language, as well as Japanese. Mama always said, 'If you live among people who are not of your tribe, you should learn their languages and their customs because you are guests in their land.' Sensible advice; but, of course, my Mama is quite sensible."

I pause to return my gaze to Pablo. "We had five fantastic years of ordinary lives before the Curse took me. You'd never know it now, but Justin was smaller than most of the other American children his age and he often got teased because of it. As you might imagine," I say with a wry grin, "I didn't take kindly to anyone picking on my little brother. But because he was studying Aikido, there weren't many who bothered him more than once. And any who did... Well, his elder sister would find a reason to show up in the right place at the right time; his elder sister convinced the more persistent bullies that bothering Justin was probably a mistake."

I sigh, looking into the distance again. "What I remember most from that time — when the Curse took me — is Mama sitting with me; I'm not sure she ever left my side. Oh, she must have... but she always seemed to be there. But I have memories of Justin and his fear, too. He was so afraid for me. I remember a time or two when I could hear him in his room, crying inconsolably. I know Dad was with him, trying to reassure Justin that I would be fine, but Justin just wasn't buying it. He was convinced that I was dying. I think that's a large part of why I never told him about what I do as Ninja. It's irrational; he's a brilliant young man and it would surprise me if he hasn't figured most of it out already. The fact that Ninja stays out of the spotlight as much as possible is probably the only thing that has prevented him from connecting the last few dots."

I shake my head and look at Pablo again. "About a year later, Mama, Dad and Justin came back to the States and I went to China to learn to control my qi." I chuckle softly. "My folks didn't tell Justin they were separating us until a week or so before we all left Japan. My dear little brother spent the entire time insisting that he was going to China with me. And I spent the whole time trying to convince him he would always be my favorite brother and we could still write to each other. He was not happy when we parted ways, but he did write at least once a week — sometimes I'd receive more than fifteen letters in the monthly mail delivery. He'd draw pictures, send small gifts, and a picture as often as he was able." I take a shuddering breath. "Those were hard years in so many ways, the years I spent in China."

He lay quietly beside me and just listened to me talk about my life and my brother. He rolls onto his side at one point to watch me, too; capturing my hand and holding it to his chest.

"I wouldn't have been able to imagine how that must have been for you if you hadn't shared all of it with me when we were joined. I can still feel the burning of the change, the confusion, the fear. I'm so sorry, love."

"I know I fared better than I would have had my parents not transferred to Japan," I say quietly. "Knowing Aikido, knowing what qi is, knowing the meridian paths through the body helped me at least understand what the pain was. I didn't understand why until later, it didn't help diminish the pain or the fear..." I pause to take a deep breath. "The Curse itself made the fear reverberate and grow... my own fear was fed by the fear I suddenly could feel from my parents and brother. Once I was feeling..." I pause again, shaking my head slightly. "Well, I don't suppose I've ever quite felt 'normal' since then. But once I was feeling as close to normal as I ever would, I understood that my parents' and Doshu Ueshiba's efforts to find a way to help me control the qi were absolutely essential.

"But having to be separated from my family for the entirety of my teen years..."

I take a shuddering breath and swallow hard, but it doesn't entirely eliminate the emotions those memories bring up. I still feel the desperate ache of abandonment. Even though my mind knew, still knows, that it was the best thing for me, my heart couldn't understand — still does not want to understand — the pain of that separation. A few tears slowly trickle down my cheeks.

"Did life get any better for you in China? It must have been such an odd way to come into adulthood. How old were you when you left?"

"Mama was so worried about me traveling to China by myself. I had just turned thirteen a few weeks earlier. Even though by our customs I was a woman, that didn't make it any easier for Mama to see her daughter traveling through foreign lands alone at such a young age. Doshu Ueshiba tried to reassure her. He said that if I allowed harm to come to myself on the journey, I didn't deserve the rank of Kudan... and that in his opinion, I very much deserved the rank of Kudan. I did get plenty of surreptitious looks. And I had no way to control the feelings I was picking up from other people... suspicion, concern, worry... so the trip up to Chenjiagou was difficult in that regard. Being separated from my family was so hard. But... well, once I reached Chenjiagou, I was welcomed very warmly by Grandmaster Chen and his family. It was almost as if I was a long-lost relative." I manage a smile at that memory.

"When my Chinese was good enough, his wife explained that in their traditions, it's said that once in every generation a person with my abilities is born. That it was an honor for the whole village for Master Chen to have been chosen to teach me. She did add, of course, that with the Virus and various sorts of radiations polluting the world, more and more people like me were born." I close my eyes, hoping to stem the tears that threaten to flow again. "In this generation, I'm the only person she'd heard of to have survived puberty." I stop to simply breathe, trying not to think of all the children who might have suffered as I did and lost the fight; all the families who lost their child as Little Danny had been lost.

After a few minutes, I am able to continue and opened my eyes again to look at Pablo.

"I didn't find out until I was leaving that Master Chen confided in me that there had never been any records, written or oral, of anyone as powerful as I was." I pause. I haven't thought about that in more years than I can count. "I think he was afraid for me because of that," I say softly, shaking my head in bemusement. "And yet, he said when he handed me my staff that he knew beyond any doubt that I could and would be responsible with my powers.

"The living conditions were austere, and the training was intense. It had to be. Most people spend those years learning how to navigate the various types of relationships among their peers; I was learning how to keep my own body from killing me." I let out a short laugh devoid of humor. "I was nearly a decade behind others my age in terms of navigating those rocky shoals. Because my teen years were spent among people who value respect as one of the greatest personal traits, in a society where interactions between the genders are still highly ritualized, I discovered when I came home that I had no patience for..." I chuckled. "Well, as we all learned on the night of a certain frat party, I have no patience for jerks.

"But it wasn't terrible to have come of age in a small Chinese village. I did miss out on the Kinaaldá ceremony while still in Japan. However, considering the dearth of Navajos on the base and the fact that I was still having a hard time controlling my increased strength and speed, Mama promised to make my next ceremony..." I smile with all the love and tenderness my heart is filled with these days. "...the marriage ceremony... that much more momentous. Although I must be honest, I do worry a little bit about what our mothers will come up with." I chuckle a bit.

"I didn't look like any of them, and I didn't look like what they thought of as a typical Westerner... they had so many questions about my culture and people! But the people of Chenjiagou treated me with respect, as did most of Grandmaster Chen's other students. Tsui Ji, of course, was a notable exception... but he wasn't there for very long after I arrived. I think his disrespect of me was the last straw. I don't know what caused Grandmaster Chen to expel him... all he'd ever say was that Ji had 'an impure heart'.

"I probably could have come home a year or so before I actually did... I'd mastered my qi powers by then, but I was determined to stay until Grandmaster Chen decided I had mastered Taijiquan, as well." I laugh, recalling the memories of that final year. "He said he'd never met such a stubborn person in his whole life. But I did master the Taiji and came home about six weeks after my nineteenth birthday."

"I can well attest to the stubborn part," Pablo says with a grin. He reaches over and caresses my cheek, running a fingertip over my lips.

I chuckle. "There are advantages to being stubborn, Señor Garcia.

"I'm sorry you missed out on your teenage years. They're some of the very best years, but some of the worst, I suppose. You and everyone around you are dealing with hormones and social groups and peer pressure, expectations and fears of the future. It sounds like your teen years were more focused, though I'm sorry you didn't get to experience the joy of first love back then. I don't think anything is ever the same after that, not until you meet the right person."

"From what other people told me of their teen years, I'm not so sure I missed out on all that much. So much angst, so many betrayals..." I shake my head. "I'm not sure experiencing love for the first time at twenty-three was such a terrible thing. I..."

Wow, those memories hit hard! I look down at the ground between us, concentrating on the pattern and colors of the blanket, the fibers, and the weave; concentrating on breathing. I haven't thought about Jared in quite a while. He was — I'm sure he still is — a good person. I'd told him about the baby as soon as it would have been normal to do so, although I'd known for a couple of weeks... almost since the moment of conception. And then I had to tell him a few weeks later about the "miscarriage." He was, I think, even more crushed than I was. I couldn't tell him the truth; as hesitant as I was about Pablo, at least I knew that it was okay to tell him what I do, about my Curse and my job as Ninja. Jared... no. I would have never been able to tell him everything about me. I'd made up an elaborate tale of doctors and specialists, the bottom line being that I could never have children. We grieved together, but I think that was the point we both knew we would eventually part ways. When he graduated the following year, it was a bittersweet conversation we both knew was coming when he told me he'd accepted a job out of state. I heard from a mutual friend a couple of years ago that he'd gotten married, has two children and seems truly happy. I'm glad for him. I truly am.

I look up at Pablo and manage a real smile as I cup his cheek. This is the man I was always meant to love, despite my denial of it for so long.

"I'm not sorry my life took a different path than it might have if I'd not been Cursed, Pablo. There's no need for you to be sorry, either."

I capture his free hand with mine and kiss the back of his fingers before letting our hands rest between us, fingers twined together.

He seems to absorb that for a few moments, then nods. "So you came home when you were nineteen years old. I can't begin to imagine what that reunion must have been like! So much must have changed for you."

"Oh gods, the reunion when I came home! You saw the happiness when we Sang for Tita... imagine the celebration for the prodigal child." I grin and shake my head. "We actually gathered at Aunt Sonia and Uncle Leon's house in Nageezi; it's bigger than Mama and Dad's and they have a lot of lands. I barely remembered Sam, Yani, and Tommy... I'd never met Henry, Talia, Charlie, and Billy. Justin was only six, still small for his age, when I'd last seen him... when I returned he was twelve and nearly as tall as I was. I hadn't seen my grandparents, aunts and uncles in about fourteen years... I had a child's memory of them being so large and formidable. I returned to regular people, full of gentle kindness."

I sigh, still smiling. "I spent the whole summer getting reacquainted with my family before coming here to start college. Mama wanted me to go to Arizona State... because that's her alma mater and would have been a much shorter drive to visit them in Flagstaff. But DU gave me a scholarship, and there is just something about Denver that makes me feel... I don't know. At home, maybe? Daddy was thrilled because DU is his alma mater. He likes to tease Mama about it. I think Justin was smart not going to either school, although he did consider coming out here and getting his PhD from the University of Colorado. As much as I would have liked to have him closer, the University of Chicago is unquestionably the better choice."

I squeeze his hand.

"I go visiting as often as possible, which is not nearly as often as anyone would like. Maybe we'll manage to get out there more often if we go together."

"I like to think it was my soul calling out to you that convinced you to come here, or that your guardian Spirit nudged you in my direction. Where else would I have found someone to save my soul and complete me like you do?"

"It's possible, love. Raven was never so obsessively interested in my life until we went out to Flagstaff, though." I smile and squeeze his hand again. "Your soul calling to mine, or my guardian Spirit, or simply fate... every step on the paths I've taken in my life brought me right here. To you. I don't actually need to know the why or the how of it. I simply thank the gods and the Spirits for this gift."

I lean forward to kiss him lightly and tenderly, then rest my forehead against his again.

He sighs softly. "I can picture the reunion with your family in my mind and from the brief glimpses I got from you. They're some of the warmest, kindest people I've ever met. I'm so lucky to be marrying into such a loving family. I felt so accepted by everyone when we were in Flagstaff."

"I think everyone we know was just anxiously waiting for the right time for us to fall in love. Like Bobby, most of my family probably saw the connection between us before we did. My family..." I sigh happily. "Yep, they're the best.

"And what about you?" I ask, leaning back a bit so I could look into his eyes. "What was your childhood like?"

"My childhood?" He chuckles. "It was definitely not as eventful as yours, of course. I've mentioned that I was born in South Center Los Angeles. My parents bought a small house on East Ransom Street that's still my mother's pride and joy. She works hard to keep the house and garden looking pretty.

"My parents, Juan and Maria, bought the house in 1976 right after they got married. It was a good place to grow up, even being South Central. It wasn't as bad back then as it is now. Our community kept to itself, and my parents were really happy together. I can remember them dancing together under the outdoor lights. It must have been someone's wedding or graduation or something. It was one of my first memories, seeing them dancing under the big colored lights." His eyes look off into the past as he smiles softly. His aura is mellow as I watch it swirl around him.

"You know I have three younger sisters. Being good Catholics, my parents had us fairly close together. Well, except for Blanca... she was an oops." He chuckles. "And believe me, we never let her forget it, although none of our teasing is ever meant to make her feel ashamed of it. I think it makes her feel really unique."

There's fierce love and pride on his face and in his voice as he speaks of his sisters. My dear Pablo loves deeply when he opens himself up to everything love brings.

"Elvia is my oldest sister; she's thirty-three and works as a pediatric nurse at County General. She's married to a county engineer named Charles, a nice guy. They have three children... Julio is eleven, Marcus is eight, and Maralisa is six.

"Ladonna is the middle girl; she's thirty-one and already a widow. Her husband, Anton, was a Marine... he died in Afghanistan in 2010. They have two wonderful children, Anton Junior, who's six and Melissa who's four."

He falls silent then.

"Ah, beloved..." I stretch my hand out and place it over his heart. "You have had so much loss... father, wife, son, brother-in-law. It's no wonder you tried to hide your feelings for me."

I smile and shake my head. "How were you to know I knew the whole time and was even more hesitant to admit my feelings to you?

"I can see how much joy your family brings you, and I can't wait to meet them. It couldn't have been easy being the man of the house, but I can actually feel how much you care for and adore your sisters. Why did you leave them, leave California? Surely there must have been opportunities closer to home. Not that I'm complaining!" I say. "I'm just wondering why you arranged to have our paths cross in Denver, that's all." I can't help laughing.

I can see the effect my touch has on him; his heart is beating faster and the tendrils of qi take on a more energetic quality. He catches his breath and smiles at me with tender affection, placing his hand over mine and pressing it against his chest.

"I graduated from high school and took a few weeks off to consider my options. My mom didn't have the money to send me to college. While I did okay in school, there just wasn't enough money to manage. And if anyone was going to go to college, it was going to be Rosalia; she was so much smarter than me." He smiles sadly and shrugs. "So I was looking at either the military or the police or fire academy." He runs a hand through his dark wavy hair. "The military wouldn't have given me the chance to support my family and be there for them. So I chose the police since I seriously didn't like the idea of burning to death in a fire. I thought about joining the LAPD, but I grew up with a lot of people that I might have to be arresting someday, and I didn't want that coming back on Momma or my sisters.

"There were openings in the Seattle and Denver academies, so I chose Denver. It called to us, I guess. Rosalia liked the mountains out here."

He's quiet as he looks into the past. There's still pain, yes... but more and more, his heart is remembering the love of his first wife and the wondrous awe he felt at the sight of his son. He takes a deep breath as he shakes his head, clearing away the memories.

"Did you know I almost moved out of Denver about the time I met you?" he asks, smiling again.

I raise my eyebrows, most obviously in surprise. "No, you never mentioned that." I look at him suspiciously. "You're not going to tell me a skinny English major who went around assaulting obnoxious frat boys kept you from moving, are you? Where were you planning to go?"

He chuckles. "Right about that time, I got a call from a friend down in San Diego. They needed someone for undercover work with a growing Hispanic gang problem and wanted someone from outside the community."

He runs a finger over my lips.

"I'd just met you, and my mom was having some trouble with her gallbladder. I was interested in you, thought you were pretty and intriguing. I didn't want to have to disappear undercover and not be there for my sisters."

It takes a considerable amount of willpower to refrain from pulling his finger between my lips, between my teeth. We'd go from PG to R in under five seconds. I'm sure my desire is burning in my eyes; it's certainly burning through the rest of my body.

"Oh, now you know it had very little to do with me, and almost everything to do with you being available for your family," I say with a smile. "And that's how it should have been; you barely knew me." I regard him for a moment, curiosity aroused.

"What's it like working undercover? I guess I'm wondering how accurate the portrayals are in books, movies, TV shows. Do officers working narcotics actually get hooked on drugs? I suppose if you're a decent actor, you could infiltrate a gang... that's the right word? Infiltrate? It sounds horribly dangerous. I think I like my crime fighting a little more straightforward. Well, no... I like my crime fighting a lot more straightforward."

He looks down at the blanket, gathering his thoughts. "It's one of the most terrifying assignments you can do, but it can also be one of the most productive. You have to leave yourself behind, you have to become someone else. You can't just pretend, you actually have to become the other person. Pretending gets you discovered, getting discovered could get you killed. I've done two undercover assignments. The first was a general drug case, a typical suburban drug ring. I was only under for about a month, working with the Aurora City PD."

He looks at me, his face going blank and he seems to be instinctively building a shield around himself like I do.

I wonder if that's something he's always been able to do.

"The other... Do you remember when I was gone for about three months about four years ago, and how quiet I was when I came back?"

I nod. "I worried when I hadn't heard from you for so long. And then I was terribly concerned about you when you came back, especially when you refused to talk about it."

He rolls onto his stomach and looks out across the green expanse of the park. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done, Andrea. The worst thing I've ever done," he says quietly. "I was sent undercover to crack a pedophile and child pornography ring. I had to be a middleman, to arrange children for the pictures... for other things. It took me a month to get enough evidence on all of them. We arrested forty-three people; another nine people took their own lives or were shot while resisting arrest."

His face looks like granite. "I was in therapy every day for two months after that. I... I wanted to die. I wanted to scream at what I had seen, at what I'd been forced to do. I still see faces in my dreams, I still hear their cries..."

He closes his eyes. "That was the last time I went undercover. I'll never go undercover again."

Everything he felt and continues to feel... the horror, the revulsion, the shame, the pain... hits me with a force I don't expect. I roll to my stomach as well, one hand on his arm and my other arm across his back. I need to rest my head against his shoulder, trying hard not to lose the lunch I just ate. All I can do for myself is breathe, breathe. This is as bad... no, it is far worse... than the way I feel after Ninja kills. Right now, at this moment, all I can do for Pablo is share my love, share the sense of deep understanding, through our bond.

"I'm so sorry, my beloved," I say quietly, still unwilling to raise my head for fear of vomiting. "If there is anything I can do to help you heal, please tell me."

I lift my head, knowing I look as pale as I had on those occasions I met with him too soon after Ninja had, admittedly as a last resort, killed someone. "Perhaps..." I take a deep shuddering breath. "Perhaps then you will be able to help me through the nightmare days after my alter ego is forced to kill."

I am vaguely aware, as the first one rolls down my cheek, that tears have filled my eyes.

Like the pain of losing his family, this is a pain he's kept buried deep inside. It's something cops have to learn, I suppose if they're going to continue doing their jobs. I guess that's why there's such a high level of alcoholism among police officers.

The waves of pain roll off him, through me, and back to him again as he tries to get control of himself. I'm doing my best to keep the pain from bouncing back to him; he's just taking deep breaths.

"I... I'll be there for you, Andrea. I'll help you any way I can," he says as his tears fall to land with mine on the blanket. He moves over and takes me into his arms and just holds me. We both desperately need the comfort of touch, of our blended qi, of our Oneness.

To the few passersby along this path, we probably look like a couple on the verge of a breakup... or perhaps a couple who just received some devastating news. In any case, we're the people other people tend to avoid... weepers.

We simply hold one another, unashamed of the tears. Another deep wound in Pablo's soul has been lanced... though the healing will take time, of course. In his pain, I can see the path I have been walking in trying to deal with the horror of knowing a part of me has killed living beings. Like a surgeon removing a gangrenous limb, that part of me simply does what is necessary without finding joy in the work. Yet each death has left a black stain on my soul and in my heart. Perhaps... perhaps I, too, can begin healing.

"I know you will, Pablo," I whisper. "You hold my heart, you complete my soul."

I move my head enough to kiss his cheek. "Let's go home, love."

He nods and wipes my eyes and then his own with a napkin, before getting to his feet to help me fold the blanket and repack the picnic basket.

A family walks toward us, the young boy laughing as he tries to get his kite up into the air. Pablo smiles at them, and a sudden gust of wind fills the kite, causing it to soar.

At the same moment, I feel a surge of energy come from Pablo.

The synchronicity of Pablo's smile, the surge of energy I feel from him, and the kite lifting in a perfectly timed gust of wind cause me to look sidelong at him. We walk hand in hand down the paths, retracing our steps. The playground is quieter now. The children are either laughing as they swing as high as they can on the swings or industriously quiet as they construct castles and bizarre vehicles... one young future sculptor is attempting to recreate one of the versions of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek. I smile at that. Leave children to their own devices, and in their play they create works of genius.

"Pablo? The boy with the kite... what were you thinking when you saw him and smiled?"

"Hmmm? What, love?" He turns, smiling, from watching the children at play. "Oh, the kid with the kite! He just looked so happy wanting to fly that kite. I was hoping he caught a good breeze to get the kite going. Ah, Andrea... the look in a kid's eyes when their kite soars..." He smiles with such warmth and tenderness, such utter joy as he gazes toward the sky that I know he was once one of those kids flying kites.

"I..." I have no idea where to start with my suspicions! Ah well, diving right in works for her...

"I have a feeling you gave him that breeze he needed."

Pablo stops dead in his tracks, turning to look at me. "What?" He cocks his head to the side and has a look of utter confusion on his face.

I want to tug his hand, pull him toward the car. I just want to get home! That's the place to deal with this, and the healing of his open wound. But it's probably the wrong tactic in this situation, or any situation really, to show your husband just how much stronger you are than he is. Nope. Definitely a terrible idea.

Instead, I sigh and look at him, keeping my fingers twined with his. I wait until the passing bicyclist is out of earshot before speaking.

"You wanted the boy to be happy, with some wind for his kite...

"I felt a surge of energy from you...

"A gust of wind lifted the kite and held it." I close my eyes and shake my head. "Without the energy I felt, I would have believed it to be a coincidence. But it's not." I open my eyes again and look into his.

"You said you see the wind energies differently. And this... whatever it is that you did." I squeeze his hand. "I need to see what you see. I need to know what you did. And we need to be at home for that." I'm feeling just a tad bit of anxiety. "Papa said married couples share everything... heart, soul, energy, dreams, lives, and home. I don't think it's possible to share a genetic mutation with a spouse.

"Until recently, I didn't think it was possible to share qi as fully as we have either.

"So either I'm somehow sharing so much of myself with you that you're picking up some odd new abilities..."

I take a deep breath and sigh it out in a huff of breath.

"Or in addition to waking up your guardian, I prodded some latent abilities to the surface as well. I suppose we could ask that guardian of yours, but again... that means going home.

"Now.

"Please."

He stands there looking more and more surprised and concerned as I speak. "You're afraid." His voice is full of disbelief and concern. "You're afraid something is wrong. Come on, let's get home then. Whatever this is that's happening, we need to find out as much as we can." He smiles tenderly. "You're right. This isn't the place for experimentation." Pablo squeezes my hand, and this time he tugs lightly. "I'm going to be okay, love."

We start walking back toward the car.

"Not so much afraid as worried," I admit, holding his hand and continuing to the car. "You don't even realize you're doing anything, so you've got no control. That could be dangerous." I smile at his assurance that he'll be okay. "I'm still going to worry about you. At least until we understand what's happening here." I'm quite for a few steps. "Okay, actually, I'm just going to worry about you no matter what... just as you're going to worry about me no matter what." I smile as I shrug. Some things are just obvious and immutable. He's a cop, I do my own crime-fighting thing.

I know he's trying to keep his expression and his mood light; he's trying not to betray the tremor of fear running through him, but he must know I can feel it anyway. This is one of the few drawbacks to a connection as close as ours: it's virtually impossible to hide worries and fears. It doesn't allow for many secrets.

As with the drive to the park, the drive home is uneventful. I giggle when Pablo begins to pull into a parking spot on the street before remembering he has driveway rights, and he chuckles to himself as he pulls into the driveway. It takes less time to put things away than it did to assemble the basketful of picnic items, and soon enough the basket itself is returned to the shelf in the breezeway turned utility room.

Finally, we stand in the kitchen, arms around one another... my head rests against Pablo's chest, his cheek rests on top of my head. The world seems a better place when we're together like this. The warm, gentle flow of qi between us is reassuring — to both of us, I suspect. It's a reminder that, no matter what, we can handle anything... together.

"So... you wanted to show me the wind?"

"Ah... I don't know how? The only wind I can do right now would be from the beans we ate last night," he says, trying to give me a smile.

I reach up and slap him lightly... though not too lightly... on the back of the head.

"Did you not want to put on a potentially NC-17 or even X-rated show in City Park? And is there not sky and wind in my fairly private, though admittedly small, back yard?"

I look up at him. "I know you're scared, Pablo. And you know I'm worried. Would you rather just try calling Quetzalcoatl instead?" I ask softly.

"I... I don't know if I'm ready to talk to him yet. I know I should, but I don't know what he'd say." He rests his forehead against mine. "Now, what's this about your back yard?"

I give him a smile; it's not much of one, but it's about all I can manage at the moment.

"You wanted to show me what the wind looks like to you, remember? It doesn't seem to look the same to you as it does to me." I raise my head enough to lightly brush my lips over his. "It would probably be easier to see wind if we're outside, right?" I remark. My lips are so close to his that it would be difficult to slip a piece of paper between them.

He shivers slightly at the touch of my lips on his, and his breathing and heart rates are increasing just a bit. He nods.

"Yeah... it... right, that makes sense. Come on." He moves his fingers to entwine with mine, and we go out the back door into the yard.

My yard is small, though of average size for this neighborhood. Where it is not bounded by the house and garage, there is an eight-foot privacy fence. Oh, and the tree in which the blue jays live and torment me each morning; the tree threatens to push over the fence along the alley.

But there's green grass and the good solid support of Mother Earth. Father Sky can be seen beyond the tree, the garage, the house. I had kicked off my shoes before coming outside, and stand feeling the energy of Earth through the soles of my feet. Not far below ground is the water table with the energy of Water always flowing. The Air, especially beside the tree, seems to vibrate. And the Fire of the Sun channels the energy of the universe to those of us on Earth.

I should mention that I have the most fascinating conversations with the Wiccan couple down the street.

I hold Pablo's hands in mine and step close, looking up into the eternal depths of his eyes. "Kiss me, beloved... show me your world."

He looks down into my eyes and then leans close to kiss me. Powerful currents flow between us, acting almost like a declaration of our Bond as well as expanding our individual consciousness into a greater One. Tongues deep in each other's mouth, arms tight around one another, Pablo opens his eyes and looks up at the sky.

I see the sky break apart into waveforms of energy, each one is vibrant and rich. It's like liquid threads of power, flowing together and flowing apart. I feel a deep ancient flow of energy again, tinged so differently from my usual view...

It's so easy to slip into Oneness with Pablo, so easy to forget we are two individuals, so easy to become one entity of energy and fire. Through the filter of his world, the patterns of energy ebb and flow in new and heavier patterns... yet... yet... it is still the energy of the universe. I sense Quetzalcoatl, and others like him, float and weave along the periphery... at the edge of where my senses can see and feel, hear and taste. We dance through that beauty to the melody and harmony of the stars themselves, although it is a different tune that I usually hear. No matter.

What matters is the dance... and so we Dance.

And then it's gone; Pablo is simply looking into the sky. Between one heartbeat and the next, his ancient vision dissolves, to be replaced with the heartbeat of the world as I have known it since the Curse claimed me, though our union makes it more powerfully alive than it ever was.

We break from the kiss, and I see Pablo looking at the sky, still. And over his shoulder...

I take a slow, even breath.

"You've sent the jays away, and that tree is their home."

I will share it with them!

"Hanging upside down from a branch like a bat will not encourage them to return."

Raven lets its wings droop over its head toward the ground, nearly brushing it with the tips of its wings.

From over his other shoulder, Quetzalcoatl appears... grinning.

"No, no... Raven looks like a Picasso painting when it grins. You, on the other hand, look like something that's taken too many hallucinogenics."

You have enabled my Chosen One to truly see... I am pleased.

I press my face against Pablo's chest. These two are going to put me in a mental institution.

"I wonder if they'll let us share a room at the funny farm," I mutter, wrapping my arms tighter around my husband.

"I wouldn't go to one without you," he says supportively. "I take it our friends are back?" He doesn't bother to look; he merely strokes my back gently, calming and soothing me with his love.

"You saw it; it's so weird. I don't see it particularly often, just a glimpse every now and then." He voice holds both wonder and a touch of fear.

"It truly is beautiful, Pablo. I don't think you have any cause for fear," I say, looking into his eyes. "It is a different way of seeing the beauty than I usually do. Thank you for sharing that with me."

My eyes cut over for a moment to the Serpent whose head peeks over his shoulder, before looking back at Pablo. "Your guardian seems to be delighted with this new development, at any rate." I can't help rolling my eyes.

I look back at the Serpent. "I think now would be an excellent time to explain just what the heck is going on. And I mean all of it. I'd hate to see some innocent bystander get hurt because we're just feeling our way around... whatever this is."

Raven has started swinging back and forth on the branch... back and forth, back and forth.

I sigh.

"You're in the wrong Poe story, dummy."

It stops the swinging, not gradually as one might expect, but immediately.

Nevermore?

I just shake my head and look back at Quetzalcoatl. "So? What's going on?"

Pablo turns to stand beside me, his arm around my waist, holding me close.

My Chosen One is sharing in my dominion of the Wind and the Light. These are the things that I represented to his people, along with the priesthood and the jaguar. He sees those things through my eyes, not through yours, and they will be his to influence. It is the right of his bloodline. He must practice, just as you did.

"That's great, wonderful even. Although I suspect he's seeing these things through his own eyes. However, you're kind of freaking him out." I sigh and shake my head. "I spent six years devoting my life to nothing but practicing, understanding my powers, learning to harness the energies.

"Six years, Quetzalcoatl. That might be less time than the blink of an eye to you, but to us mere mortals, it's a fair chunk of time. And I had no distractions, no responsibilities outside the practice.

"So... no, Pablo can't practice as I did. He has a job he needs to do here; he has responsibilities to family and friends. But if he needs to be ready for the coming Shadow you spoke of, he needs a crash course in learning to influence the wind and the light, little buddy. And that's your department, not mine."

Nevermore?

I roll my eyes. "Oh, shut up, Raven."

Quetzalcoatl files over to flitter in the air in front of us. He looks me right in the eyes.

"Do not call me 'Little Buddy,' she who is Andrea. If you must call me something, you may address me as Q or Coatl."

I meet the Serpent's gaze. "I think we can come to an understanding about names."

"To do as you ask, I will need to take my Chosen One away to my Domain." The Serpent's voice is solemn.

And I don't trust him.

"What's the price?" Pablo asks quietly.

Quetzalcoatl's eyes dart from one to the other of us. "Time does not work the same in that place. While but a single day will pass here, several years will pass for you, my Chosen One."

I let the rest of Quetzalcoatl's words, Pablo's question, and the Serpent's answer wash over me; as they sink in, the pain begins.

Years of being apart... that is the pain Pablo faces.

The pain of years spent apart condensed into a single day... that is the pain I face.

I turn out of Pablo's embrace and walk to the tree, my back to both of them. I've been stabbed before and that hurt a whole lot less than the pain I feel now. One hand on the tree trunk and the other on my thigh, I bend over... just trying to breathe, just trying not to cry, and just trying not to throw up.

Damn it.

I don't have the normal thoughts that normal women would have... Will he remember me? Will he still care about me? Our bond is so complete that it would be like asking if one side of a coin can forget the other side exists.

Just the thought of being torn apart like that makes me nauseous.

But... he has to go. How else can he learn everything he needs to learn?

And I must stay, for that's a world where I don't belong.

Raven has been standing in front of me, and I'm only aware now that tears have been dripping onto its head.

"Sorry," I whisper.

It meeps and wraps its wings around my legs.

I've survived worse things than this, haven't I?

...

...

Haven't I?

My pain is echoing through our link to Pablo; his pain flows to me. It's like a destructive feedback loop. His face is grim as he sticks his hands in the back pockets of his jeans and takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He seems to let the full impact of Quetzalcoatl's words sink in.

Raven looks up at me. I can almost hear Pablo's thoughts. Years apart from me, just when we've finally found one another; years of the same agony we'd endured for a mere two days. It's almost more than a person could contemplate.

But there is Quetzalcoatl's talk of the coming Shadow, and how he would be needed at my side in the Dark days that are coming.

"When... how soon would I need to leave?" His voice is filled with pain, and I can feel his eyes on me as he ignores the demigod of his ancestors.

In my mind's eye, I see his red eyes, his firm jaw.

Our pain continues to echo back and forth; the more unbearable it becomes, the more tightly Raven clings to my legs. When I begin quietly sobbing, the Spirit begins crooning some soft melody... although I'm certain I've never heard it before, it's hauntingly familiar.

Now? Soon? Time is fluid.

"No. Not now. Monday morning. I need twenty-four hours with my wife before I go. Go away and leave us alone. Now. Both of you."

I feel Quetzalcoatl turn his glowing green eyes in my direction; I felt him vanish.

The sound of Pablo's words reach me, but not the meaning. Raven looks up at me, serious and concerned.

Should I go?

"NOOOOO!" I cry, collapsing against the tree and falling to the ground. "Don't leave me alone, don't leave me alone!!" My words are meant for both of them, I think. I might have scraped my arm badly in the fall, but I don't actually know... with so many tears, the dampness I feel on my arm could just be those. Perhaps.

Raven waddles around my legs and leans against my back, looking at Pablo, then brushes a wingtip across my head.

I want to tell Pablo he should go now, the pain is already so awful... how can I heal this, and then have to suffer through it all again on Monday? But I can't speak. I can't... do... anything. I feel as if I'm being torn apart, each cell in my body crushed and screaming in agony.

I won't go then.

It hurts. It hurts so much.

This is what it will feel like when he dies, too, isn't it?

Raven brushes its wingtip across my head again.

I'm sorry, Little One... but... yes.

"You'll let me die then, won't you, please?" I whisper to my guardian Spirit.

It is not up to me, Andrea. But I will intercede with the Great Spirit on your behalf.

"Thank you..." I can't... I can't feel like this for very long... and live.

Pablo rushes to my side and puts an arm around me, his hand touching mine. He sends his love and his concern trilling through our Bond, but along with it I can feel his dread and the torturous pain in his soul.

"Love... Andrea... I'll never leave you alone." He holds me, whispering softly, trying to hold back his own tears. He is trying so hard to be strong for both of us.

I want to say that the moment Pablo's arm wraps around me, all is right with the world. That would be a lie, of course.

I feel his love flow through me, but it is like dousing a raging inferno with a teaspoon of water. The pain is overwhelming, and his pain still continues to feed mine. I am aware of him... oh, dear gods, how acutely aware! But I can barely move, can hardly think.

"You will," I manage to croak. "You must."

Raven is still hovering nearby, looking at me and looking at Pablo, obviously concerned.

"Years..."

He nods silently. I can tell that the prospect of spending years away from me terrifies him. But not being at my side to help when the Darkness comes terrifies him even more.

"I know you're scared, love. So am I. If there was some way around this..." He just rests his forehead against my shoulder.

"Scared?" I can hardly speak above a faint whisper.

Oh, if only it were fear that has me so paralyzed! I try to shake my head, and only manage to move my head enough to lean it against him.

"No. Never... hurt... so..."

Fire... I am the fire.

"...much. Not... even..."

How can I make it stop?

And then I realize that I can't make it stop. I realize for all my strength, for all my skill, for all my arrogance at thinking I am somehow more capable of protecting my city and my people, I am more vulnerable than the vast majority of them.

This part of me, right here, the part paralyzed by the pain that wracks my body and soul at the mere thought of being without Pablo... this part was right to run from the inevitable. This part of me was right to deny his feelings for me, and my feelings for him.

This eternal bond we've made will make us stronger, but it will — eventually — be what kills me. I don't want that eventually to be today... or tomorrow... or Monday.

"Help me inside."

I can't even stand; there's no way I can get to our bed.

"Then go. Now. Not Monday."

Years... he will be gone for years. And in years, people change. He will change. He will be different. I wish...

My tears continue to fall.

Yes, if I'm scared, that's the one thing that frightens me.

That he will return, and he will be a stranger.

I feel his shock at my words, it's like lemon juice on an open wound; it only intensifies the pain I feel.

He lifts me into his strong arms and carries me across the yard into our home. He carefully carries me to the couch and gently sets me down. I can feel his veins filling with ice.

I can feel what he perceives as a betrayal of our love.

I try to speak, but don't have the strength. I want to explain.

But his pain heaped upon my pain that has been poured over his pain, drowns me with the agony of the immensity of pain; it prevents any words from forming.

"Okay."

That's all he says before turning and heading for the door.

"I love you, Andrea. I will always love you."

The door closing behind him sounds like the rumbling closing of a tomb's door.

He left.

Without a goodbye...

Without a kiss...

Without even the tiniest hint of kindness, and certainly without the love he just spoke of.

I curl around the deep, wrenching pain, hardly able to breathe.

"I want to die. I want to die. Oh, please... I just want to die... please, please let me die."

Raven perches itself on the back of the sofa. No, Little One... now is not your time. But I will be with you.

I only know agonizing pain that grows... and grows... and grows... until I am sure I will never be whole or healed again. It is so much more dreadful than when the Curse took me... exponentially worse.

Pablo...

My last thought, before the unrelenting and ever-increasing pain pulls me into the oblivion of unconsciousness, is of Pablo... of the moment when we became One... the moment we were married.

I don't expect to wake again, and I only hope to meet him again in the afterlife.

I love you more than life itself, my beloved husband... my only wish is that we had had more time.

I sense the fluttering of wings, perhaps only the memory of such a thing. Perhaps I am remembering the gentle nips of a beak on my cheek. There might be a memory of a memory of a hauntingly familiar tune being crooned softly.

Beep, beep...

There is a sound that I hear, or I remember I hear... a door closing with finality and sounding like the rap of a judge's gavel. Have I been judged? If I have been judged, surely I have been found wanting.

Beep, beep...

There is a scent, something I remember so clearly, so vividly. It brings with it other memories.

Beep, beep...

The pain that I have endured now for an eternity seems to be fading. There are memories that hurt, but there are memories of...

Beep, beep...

...memories of a love I once had. Remembering that love, that lost love, hurts so much. It was a perfect love, and it had lasted for such a short, short time.

Beep, beep...

That scent... it's of that man, so gentle and noble, who always stood by my side, who trusted me with his life. I loved him once. I miss him.

Beep, beep...

And I hear his voice, too, calling my name. Andrea.

I'm not sure what I expected the afterlife to be like... but this isn't it.

After an eternity of pain, the nightmares had been brought to life: Every misstep I took in life, I am taking again. Every foe I battled must be fought again. Every living being I killed stands before me, mocking me.

And the last day of life: Losing my love, my heart, my soul, my life, my husband, my Pablo. That last hour plays over and over and over until I want to die all over again.

But you can't die if you're already dead, can you?

Perhaps I found my way to the Catholics' hell... or purgatory? It would certainly prove that the Great Spirit has a sense of humor, albeit a twisted one.

Lately, there have been sounds weaving through the nightmares, strange and monotonous and annoyingly repetitive. Is this some sort of punishment? I wonder... a passing thought that floats by, and then is gone again... how long this will go on.

I wonder not just about the noise, but the nightmares and... and... Pablo. I must have done something so terribly, to heinously wrong, to spend eternity — will it be eternity? — being reminded over and over of how precious he was. I remember my last thoughts were of him.

This is not an afterlife my people ever spoke of. Similar to the Buddhists, life should go on as normal... simply in another universe. And it's nothing like the Buddhists with their reincarnation, either. I don't understand, but if I have all of eternity to subsist in this place, perhaps understanding will come.

But now there is a new torment added. I can not only see my beloved Pablo, but I can smell him... the maleness of him, and a hint of his cologne. And his heartbeat, so sure and so strong... I can hear it. And I taste his lips as they meet mine.

I don't know what to believe. I know he left me. I know the pain of that separation tore my soul and my life from my body. Oh, my beloved... had I only known death waited anyway, I would have given you that last day of happiness. I'm so sorry.

And then...

I hear his voice. Is it possible? Could he truly be here?

NO! No, oh gods, no... no no no no! That would mean he, too, has died. If it were possible to weep in this place, I would never stop.

But his voice brought a change to the surroundings. The nightmare vistas are replaced by the rocky beauty of the New Mexico desert, and I am clothed in what I know is the dress my mother... my grandmother... my aunts and cousins... his mother... his sisters... were making for me to wear on our wedding day. I see all the love they put into it. I am glad it is not possible to weep in this place, for again... I would never stop.

I turn around to look at him, just the briefest glance before bowing my head. I am not worthy to look at that embodiment of perfect love.

Instead, I kneel before him as my Masters taught... a supplicant, unworthy, but grateful for the boon. I dare not look at anything but the ground before his feet.

My dying wish was to see you again in the afterlife. I am honored and blessed that you sought me out, undeserving as I am of such honor and blessing. I humbly beg your forgiveness, Pablo. My love for you is eternal, as is my shame for hurting you.

You were always the better person. Can you forgive me for my selfish cruelty?

I dare not look at him, for I would surely find a way to make it possible to weep forever in this place.

Pablo's spirit shines in this place, his curly brown hair tousled by the wind that seems to play around him.

"Andrea... my God... it's you. Wake up, love. I've been missing you for so long. I'm back, oh God, I'm back." He starts to cry, his chest heaving.

His words... they make no sense.

How could I be anyone other than who I have always been? But one does not wake from death, and I don't sleep here in this place.

I still cannot dare look up at him. How can I? He shines with the beauty and goodness of the Spirits themselves.

How long have I been here? How long was he still in the world of the living that he missed...

He missed me?

Does that mean he gives me even a small measure of forgiveness?

Perhaps the rest of eternity can be more peaceful, knowing that.

I feel his strong arms lift me to my feet, and he embraces me. His brightness surrounds me, and I remember all we had shared in life.

His love, his forgiveness, and the memory of the love we shared for such a short amount of time in life... it makes me wish I could weep, although I would be weeping for all eternity.

"I'm home, darling. Come back to me. Please. I can't live without you in my life anymore." He cries pitifully, and his warm lips touch mine.

I am right here, my beloved. We have all of eternity now. Don't be sad. I love you so much, Pablo! I always will.

"Wake up, love! Oh God, please wake up! I love you so much. I need you. Andrea."

I don't understand.

I am right here, Pablo. I waited for you; I hoped you would find me... though I know I did not deserve a reunion with you in the afterlife.

Why are you still lying here asleep when your Pablo is holding you?

Soft feathers brush against my cheek, followed by the sharp pain of a beak pecking my cheek.

And now Raven is here, harassing me. Pecking at me!

Must you torment me in death as you did in life??! GO AWAY!!

Pablo can see a single tear forming at the corner of one eye.

"Why won't she wake up? Oh God... Bobby, what happened?" My beloved Pablo is speaking to Bobby? Why does he sound so distressed? I don't understand.

"I don't know. I stopped by yesterday with some banana walnut muffins that I made, thinking you guys might enjoy them to replenish you between your bouts of randy heterosexual shagging. And I found her unconscious on the floor next to the couch. I couldn't wake her up, Pablo, so I called 911. They've been doing tests." Yes, that's Bobby. And he sounds as if he's trying not to cry. But what is he talking about?

"Can... can you guys leave the room, please? I need to be alone with her for a minute."

Raven is continuing to torment me. I do not need its dramatic and overly theatrical sighs.

Too much noise!

And people who should not be here.

And Pablo...

...he's gone again. I'm left alone in the darkness of my nightmares.

No, not quite alone, for now I have the ever-annoying Raven to keep me company.

You can't die when you're already dead, but I think I would prefer the complete lack of existence the Atheists support than this. This is hell.

PABLO!! PABLO, COME BACK!!

More tears leak from the eyes of the unconscious Andrea.

Pablo? Please? Don't leave me... please don't leave me alone here. Not again. Please. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Please come back.

There is silence again. The others, the ones who should not be here, they're gone again. But I can almost sense Pablo's presence. The smell of him lingers in the darkness.

Pablo?

Pablo waits until Bobby and David leave, asking them to be sure to give him some privacy with Andrea. He closes the door behind them and takes off his shirt. His upper body is scarred again; the original scars Andrea had healed have been joined by a road map of dozens, perhaps hundreds, more. He pushes up her hospital gown to expose her stomach and lies beside her. He pulls her close, flesh touching flesh.

"I love you with all that I am. Return to me, Andrea," he whispers, almost as a prayer. Then he kisses her deeply and pours himself into her. A brightly glowing funnel of power swirls into her meridians, filling her to overflowing as his lights dim. He closes his eyes and sighs.

Be with me, Soul Mate. Awaken because I have returned to you after three long years of the deepest agony, and my life has no meaning without you.

Suddenly the darkness is gone again, the ever-present pain I have felt for this eternity subsiding... evaporating... and gone. And my beloved Pablo once again stands before me.

The stillness and peace are so welcome. This is what I expected of the afterlife.

Pablo? I don't understand. How can you speak of life, of waking, when death claimed me long ago... and now has claimed you, as well? We are One again and have all of eternity. That is all that matters, my husband.

It is rather strange though that I feel physical sensations so much more acutely than I have since I died. No matter. Pablo is with me, and I am at peace. Finally.

I speak of life because you are not dead, beloved. You fell into a coma when I was taken away to Q's dimension. You've been unconscious for over a day. But I've returned now as I promised. Please wake up, Andi. I've missed you so much. I just want to see your eyes again.

A day?

I'm not dead? But I felt my soul tearing apart. I felt my heart shredding as though I'd been shot. I know... I know that's a wound I can't heal fast enough to survive... a small tear, certainly, but not shredding. How could I possibly be alive?

If I did not feel such peace, if I did not know with such certainty that this is Pablo with me, I would suspect yet another nightmarish trick.

But Pablo won't lie to me. Although it feels like my eyes are already open, I concentrate on opening them. It's difficult to know if I'm having any success until I see the Pablo before me no longer shining with the radiance of the Spirits, looking weary, looking worried.

"Pablo..." I manage to whisper.

"I'm here, Andi!" he cries out, covering my face with kisses as his tears fall on my hair, my neck, my face.

He is so full of emotion he can't say anything; he simply holds me close, he cries, he kisses me.

I never thought I would... I don't understand, I just don't understand.

But perhaps, just this once, I don't need to understand.

Because the pain is gone, and Pablo is home.

Or... not.

"Where are we?" My voice is hardly even a whisper and sounds like something being scraped over sandpaper.

He pulls back just a little so he can focus on my face, and he smiles. I can see more lines on his face, more gray in his hair at the temples, and a pain in his eyes that cuts to the bone.

"University Hospital. Bobby said he found you unconscious Sunday afternoon. They've been running tests, trying to figure out what's going on." A look of concern passes over his features. "I need to run interference, love. They have your blood." He speaks softly as he sits up, looking at me with a deep and abiding love in his eyes.

That's when I see all the scars covering his torso, so many of them. Some are older than others, but there are so many covering his beautiful flesh.

"You're..." I reach out and touch the scar, one that I had healed once, long ago. I feel a tear escape. "You have changed," I whisper, regret and sadness and perhaps even fear coloring my voice.

It takes a moment to register his comment, his concern. "So? There shouldn't be anything wrong with my blood. Should there?" My voice is stronger now. That's good. I think that's good.

"There are telltale markers in the blood, usually. That's why so many Supers use known doctors that keep everything strictly confidential. I need to go see about this. I need to protect you." His words say one thing, but he can't seem to force himself to leave my side. His eyes seem to be devouring every inch of me, making me a little uncomfortable... something he should remember. His hands keep reaching out to touch me — my shoulder, my hand, my cheek, my hair — to reassure himself that I'm real, I suppose. And his tears fall down his craggy cheeks, dripping onto his scarred chest.

I frown and shake my head. Perhaps head shaking should wait. "No, the doctors in Japan said the only way to detect... detect the Curse would be genetic testing, some fairly specialized testing if I understand it right. I... they wouldn't have lied to my parents." Why would they? And my parents said they had gone to one of the special doctors there. So...

So many words strung together... I feel exhausted. But... then I don't.

"Obviously I'm not familiar with the blood tests doctors would order for an unexplained coma..."

I was in a coma, and not dead? I guess that's a relief, but it makes me wonder how I'll know when I am dead.

I feel a sharp peck on the back of my neck. "Ow," I say, reaching back to rub the spot, "Stop it, Raven."

I will be sure to let you know.

"But I don't think genetic testing would be part of them, do you?"

I am so intensely frightened, and so very worried about him. About us. I sit up and take his hands.

"Pablo, I want to go home. Can we go home now? Please?"

He has more scars now than before. I don't want to be here. I can't be here any longer. I need to be home... with my husband. I need to know what happened to him.

I'm crying, too, but that means I'm truly alive, so...

"Where are my clothes?"

He looks at me. "Are you sure, love? I haven't actually had the time to learn all about your ability. I know the Virus can be detected in the blood. So yours is more like a genetic mutation or something from radiation?

"I don't care. I need to be with you. It's been so long." He gets up and walks over to the tiny hospital closet, and pulls out the plastic bag containing my clothes. "The doctor will want to see you, at least, before you just leave. I'll go get him." Again, his actions belie his words, for he just stands there, his eyes on me. They hold a hint of desperation.

Tears fall more abundantly now at his words. I take the bag of clothes and just hold it. "You have forgotten," I whisper. "I fear what else you have forgotten."

I shake my head and try to get my tears under control as I wipe my face with the minimal sleeve of the hospital gown.

"It doesn't matter," I mutter to myself, knowing it to be a lie. "I will just have to tell the tales again."

I unstick the heart monitor leads from my chest, causing the machine to screech worse than Raven. Glaring at the machine, I find the power switch and flip it off. The IV will be trickier. Oh, not removing it... that's done in a second. No, it's hiding the fact that the back of my hand should show some sign of it having been there, but the puncture heals even as I watch. I rummage in the drawer of the table beside the bed and find, with great luck, an adhesive bandage, which I apply with considerable haste. The screeching of the monitor and its subsequent silence will no doubt bring a platoon of medical personnel... if television shows have any basis in reality.

Well, a platoon of nurses and doctors notwithstanding, I still need to get dressed and get out of here. I pull my clothes out of the bag and drop them on the bed, then slide off the bed... feeling surprisingly steady for having been dead. Or in a coma. Or whatever. I start to remove the hospital gown, then pause, looking at Pablo.

"I just called the entire medical staff with that stunt," I say, nodding to the heart monitor. "I'm going to change into my clothes. I don't care about them seeing me changing, but I do care about... you behaving like a gentleman." I walk around to the other side of the bed. "Less temptation for you, beloved. Just stay over there. You can ravish me when we get home, okay?"

I smile, although it's hesitant and a little sad. Then I take off the gown and start getting dressed... in the same clothes I had worn to our picnic a lifetime ago... panties, tank top, denim shorts. Shoes? No, there wouldn't be any shoes. I was barefoot when we went out to the yard.

"I... I'm not the same, love. I'm scarred, so scarred. I'm sorry, Andrea. I'm so sorry." He watches every small movement I make, my face, the way I walk, everything.

It would seem my precaution was prudent; he begins to almost growl, sounding remarkably and entirely too much like one of the mountain cats when they're upset. His eyes have begun glowing an ambient green as the scars on his chest and stomach flush red.

Outside the door, I can hear Bobby trying to keep people out, trying to give us the privacy Pablo had requested.

"Get out of the way! Security!!" Yep, that had to have been some self-important medical type.

Oh, shit. You can talk to your man later, Andrea.

"Put your shirt on," I say, probably too harshly for her liking, but this situation is about to go to hell in a hand basket. I point a finger at him as I move back around the bed. "Settle yourself down, too. And if you touch me, I will hurt you. And that will make your little Andi extremely upset."

He looks at me and apparently realizes what had happened, so he nods and begins buttoning up his shirt to hide away the scars.

I walk past him — ready to backhand him across the room if he doesn't follow my instructions — and open the door, but I don't move from the doorway as I survey the gaggle of people outside the room. After all, they don't need to be seeing Mr. Green-eyed Loonie at the moment.

Out in the hallway, the friend called Bobby is puffed up like a little terrier, standing up to the doctor and nurses with the other friend David standing behind him, adding an intimidation factor. I approve. When push comes to shove, she does not have weak friends.

Oh, look! And there are several security people heading down the hall toward us. She probably wouldn't care much for a party at this point.

The first task is to deal with the medical people. I look at the one who appears to be in charge.

"I'm going home now. I assume you have papers you'll want me to sign. Fetch them.

"Please." Yes, she would say 'please'.

He just looks at me. "Miss Yazzie, you've been unconscious for over twenty-four hours. We need to run additional tests to see if you have a serious problem."

I try not to do more than just raise an eyebrow at him because the second task is dealing with her friends.

The little terrier turns at the sounds of my voice, relief written large on his face.

"I'm fine. Thank you for watching for... me. Did you come with Pablo, or separately?"

Hoo boy, she is fuming pissed at me right now. Whatever. Ask me if I care. That boyfriend of hers is a little unhinged right now, and we need to get the hell out of Dodge.

"Thank God, Andi! I'm so glad you're awake. No, no... David and I came over yesterday. Pablo just walked in a little while ago.

I nod to the friends. "Why don't you guys head home then? Pablo can bring me home. We'll... see you later?" Later probably being some time that isn't today, but who knows?

Then I smile at the doctor. She really doesn't like my smile, but she doesn't have much choice at the moment.

"No, you don't need to run more tests... you just want to run more tests.

"But I don't want any more tests. If memory serves and TV shows don't lie, you'll want me to sign a form stating I am leaving against medical advice."

My eyes glance over the other medical personnel and latch onto one of the nurses, the youngest... the newest...

"Would you fetch me the form to sign, please?" I ask her. Then I turn back to the doctor.

"I do not want to be here. I want to be in my own home. If I drop dead from whatever landed me here in the first place, I promise not to blame you."

Of course not... I'll blame the idiot in the room behind me. God damn the two of them, anyway! Her I almost understand, but what in the name of everything possessed him to gad about like that?! And here I thought the man had some sense. Disappointment seems to be my lot in life.

I seriously hate it when I get called out, and there's no one or nothing I can beat the crap out of. Just pisses me right off. Maybe that fucking snake of his will show up, and I can rip it to pieces. Or maybe fry it.

And what the HELL am I wearing??! Or not wearing, rather.

The doctor adds a few more protests — he's probably required to blather on for some specified amount of time in situations like this — but the nurse has already gone off to get the paperwork for me to sign.

He comes out of the room behind me, no longer looking like a Green-eyed Loonie.

"She'll be well looked after, Doctor, and I promise to bring her back at the first sign of trouble. Now, surely you have other patients to see." Well, he might have gone off his rocker a bit while he was gone, but his acting career hasn't taken a hit.

The doctor looks from one to the other of us, and then sighs. Ah, I know a defeated man when I see one. Not as good as beating the shit out of someone, but apparently I can't have everything I want.

"Fine. Go see your family doctor this week," he says and turns away, leaving the nursing staff to handle the discharge minutia.

I refrain from laughing at the doctor. Family doctor, indeed! What a joke.

The friends have gone off as I suggested, thankfully. For a moment, just a moment, he and I are alone.

"I'm going to back off now and let your Andi back out," I say quietly, looking him in the eye. "One... behave yourself. Two... you and I are going to have a little chat. Later. You understand me, Chief?"

He looks me in the eyes and does not back down one bit. Good; I'll give him points for that.

"I think that's a good idea." That's all he says, and then he just quietly waits for his Andi to come back.

I'm sure he notes the instant we switch places because I can't hide the fear in my eyes. All I can do is lower my eyes to the clipboard the nurse hands me, and sign the necessary papers. She hands me my copies, and I quietly thank her.

I'm left standing in the corridor with my husband, a man I no longer know.

"We should go home," I say, folding and unfolding and otherwise fiddling with the papers, in an effort to keep from looking at him.

He's breathing slowly, twitching slightly as he looks around at all the people, and finally holds out his hand for mine. "Home," he says with such quiet reverence that it's heartbreaking.

I just nod, and then look at his hand for a moment before taking it hesitantly and with more than a little trepidation. I use every bit of my training and self-control to keep my qi settled, to keep his from overwhelming me.

He has changed. His energy has changed.

We don't quite... fit... anymore.

As we walk down the corridor, I concentrate on my breathing. In the elevator, I drop his hand to wipe the sweat from my forehead and run my fingers through my hair. Walking out of the hospital, to the car, I use the act of walking as a meditation in an effort to keep from crying. And I manage it, just barely, because the tears don't start until I get into his car, until after he closes the door, as he is walking around the car to get in on the driver's side. I buckle the seat belt and fold my hands in my lap... clench them, really... and close my eyes. That doesn't stop the tears from falling, but it does keep me from having to look at him.

Or anything, really.

He moves painfully as he gets into the car and just looks at it for a moment before fitting the key into the ignition and starting the car. Pablo pulls out of the hospital lot and drives us to our house, looking around at everything with wide eyes.

"It all looks so... so right." He shakes his head as he pulls into the driveway.

"Honey, please don't be scared," he says quietly.

He sits there looking at me, wanting to hold me so badly I can feel his desire scraping along my nerves. He'd suffered through torments I can't even begin to imagine — torments of mind and body — and now I wouldn't even look at him. That's unkind of me, isn't it?

I finally do look at him for... minutes maybe, I don't know... tears continuing to roll down my cheeks. My lips are pressed tightly together because anything I say... anything... I know it will be wrong. I have a flash of longing so strong that I open my mouth to speak... but then simply shake my head.

I long for something that no longer exists, someone who no longer exists.

I'm such a fool.

I wipe my face on the hem of my shirt and get out of the car, silent, feeling so ghost-like. Maybe I did die, and this is the other universe where I've gone to live. It's so like the one I came from, except without my Pablo, the one I fell in love with so very slowly over the course of the past ten years. I get out of the car, go into the house.

I just get out of the car and leave, going into the house without a word. Pablo watches me go; I know qi well enough to know he can't believe I am the woman who said she'd loved him with all her heart and that she would stand by him always.

I don't think I am. And if I am that woman, then he is probably not the man I said those things to.

Bless Bobby for cleaning up whatever mess had been made when the paramedics came to fetch me. I just stand in the middle of the living room feeling...

...feeling...

... feeling lost, alone, broken.

Crushed.

And the pain... it's starting to come back.

I've exchanged a perfect love for... for what? Help to save the world?

I don't care about the world. I want Pablo back. My Pablo... not this stranger.

He feels a terrible pain in his heart. To finally be this close after so long and yet to be shut out, left in the cold.

Pablo sits in the car and cries.

I don't know how long I stand there before I realize he hasn't followed me into the house. I haven't felt so unsure of myself since... since... since before moving to China.

Do I try to heal myself... or do the "right" thing, and show kindness to a stranger?

Well, when I look at it that way, I guess I don't honestly have a choice. I am Navajo. Hospitality is part of our genetics.

I go back outside; I can hear him crying the moment I open the door, and I don't... I don't understand. But I walk over to the car, stand beside his open window, and hesitate.

"Please come into the house," I say softly. "I... I can't say how sorry I am. I am..." No, no... I can't start crying again. I can't. "...I'm a fool for letting you go, and if I had to do it over again, I would never have let you leave."

He wipes at his eyes and turns to look at me, eyes red and anguished. "O... Okay." He takes the keys from the ignition and gets out of the car, then follows along beside me to the house, his eyes looking at it as if he'd been away for years.

"It's just like I remembered," he murmurs.

I do feel some sort of connection to this man but...

I close the door behind us and turn to look at him. His aura is nearly unrecognizable.

He stands for a moment looking around the interior of the house, looking at every detail, every line. Until I begin speaking.

"We have a very large problem.

Then he turns to listen.

"From your point of view, you went away for years. You came back. You expected... well, I don't know what you expected. But it's obvious that whatever you expected isn't here.

"From my point of view, you went away, and I died. I truly thought I was in the afterlife, some version of it anyway.

"But you've come back... different. Very different. You look like my husband; you have his memories, most of them, anyway. But you..." I wipe the tears away with the back of my hand. "I can feel something of what we had, but our bond..."

I let out a sob that sounds so horrifyingly painful to my own ears; I have to wonder if it's even possible to heal what has been broken. I take several shuddering breaths, trying to stop crying enough to get the words out.

"...our, our... our union... our..."

Oh gods, I can't even say it. I drop to the floor on my knees, clutching my midsection, rocking back and forth... sobbing as if my heart has been shattered all over again. I remember when he walked out the door, and I wanted to die then.

I wish I could die now.

"...our... our... m-m-marriage... is... is b-b-b-broken."

I stop rocking to look up at him, although I can't see clearly through the tears.

"I d-d-don't c-c-care if this m-m-makes y-y-you a b-b-better p-partner f-for HER!"

I try to breathe, I try... but I'd rather just die.

"I c-c-an't f-f-feel you any... anymore... here." I slam a clenched fist against my chest over my heart. "SSSHE d-d-doesn't n-n-need y-y-you as m-m-much as I n-n-need m-my husband!"

I begin rocking back and forth again, sobbing. "I sh-sh-should... sh-shouldn't... have... l-let you... g-g-g-go.

"I'm s-s-sorry, I'm s-sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."

Yes, he listens to my words, sees the anguish in my eyes, hears the wretched sounds of my sobs. He comes over and kneels a few feet from me, looking at me with a love that literally burns in his eyes.

But there's anger there, too.

I lean forward, resting my head on the floor, and continue my litany of apologies that will never be enough.

I just want to die.

"Broken?" His voice is shaking. "What I expected?

"I expected to come home to a wife who loves me, a wife that cared for me enough to accept me!" His fists clench against his thighs and a wind flutters through the house. "One day. You went through it for one day.

"I suffered through it for three long years... the agonizing pain of being separated from you, from my soul mate for three long years. Do you have any idea of the agony I went through? I died and Q brought me back. And I died again, and he brought me back again... over and over and over because I love you so much, my soul is so connected to you that being apart...

"You were in the afterlife? I was in HELL!" He is squeezing his fists so hard they've started to bleed.

"The only thing that kept me going, that kept me sane, was your love and the fact that I knew in the end I'd come back to you. In the cold starless nights when I fought off predators with my bare hands and then later my powers, you kept me safe and warm. Every line of your face, every gesture of your hands, the way your eyes looked when we made love, the warmth of your body against mine as you slept... all that kept me sane."

He closes his eyes now, his whole body trembling. "Our marriage isn't broken. It's scarred. Just like my body and my mind and my soul, it's scarred. But there's one thing that isn't scarred, one thing that hasn't dimmed..."

Pablo reaches over and lifts my chin, so I have to look him in the eyes.

"I love you, Andrea. That has been true since the first moment I saw you, and it will be true until the sun explodes in the sky. The most important lesson I learned from dying over and over and over is that love is eternal."

I can do nothing but look at him. I try... I try so hard... to feel him. But all I feel is the touch of his hand on my chin, and the waves of anger that pour over me.

"I did not suffer for a day, Pablo," I whisper. "Every horror you faced echoed back to me and I felt in a single day everything you felt over three years, condensed, intensified.

"Why do you think I was in a coma? Even SHE had no way to shield me from that.

"Over and over and over, for an eternity I can't count, I made again every mistake I've ever made.

"Over and over and over, for eons, I fought again every creature from hell, every petty criminal, every Eater, everyone and everything I have ever fought.

"And over and over and over, every being she has ever killed came and stood before me laughing and mocking me and tearing away another part of my soul."

I think I've cried myself out now. I have no more tears. I'm not sure I even have any emotions anymore.

"You wanted to come home to your wife. I wanted my husband back.

"I am more her now than I ever was; I am not the Andrea you left. You have changed so much that you are not the Pablo that left me."

I look at him, look into his eyes. I feel her look out through mine; I see something frightening and alien in his.

"I remember our love. Deep in my heart I feel everything I ever felt for the man I married. I search for that man in you, but I can't reach past the alien. I try, but there is a barrier there.

"You have become the embodiment of your god."

I would bow my head, but his hand holds my chin up; I simply close my eyes.

"I regret so much. The nightmares I relived when I believed I was dead showed me everything, in excruciating detail, I have ever done that I regret.

"Letting you go to his..." I very nearly hiss the word, and it is full of bile and hatred. "...world is what I regret most of all."

"Andrea," he says softly, so very softly, leaning in to gently kiss my forehead. "I love you. Do you love me?"

"I..."

I take a deep breath, let it out slowly. My eyes are closed; I see images of Pablo flash across the darkness of my eyelids... almost like a slideshow.

"I love my husband with all my heart, with all my soul, with every cell in my body," I say softly. "I love my husband more than life itself."

I guess I do have a few tears left... I feel them sliding down my cheeks and dropping onto my legs.

I sit quietly, trying to feel that bond we created... I feel the echoes of it. I remember it. But I can't feel it filling my soul, my heart. I stretch out one hand, palm forward, not to touch him... just to brush a hand across his aura, to feel the taste of his qi. It is entirely different now, so different from what is was before he left. For a warrior, it seems to be a formidable barrier. I don't think one of Ninja's qi blasts would do much to it.

And I think that's the problem. At least... I hope that's the problem.

"You have changed. The man I love, the man I would give up everything for, including my life... he may still be inside there." I drop both hands to my lap. "But you have a barrier around you now... something a little like the shield she uses to spare me some of the pain she causes my heart when she finds it necessary to kill. It makes you a suitable partner for her."

I finally open my eyes and look at him.

"But it is keeping me out. And if you are keeping me out — even unknowingly — you are not my husband."

I look into those eyes, the eyes that I found so beautiful the first night I met him.

"Let me in," I whisper, so softly my words are barely audible. "I can't live without my husband."

"I can't live without my wife," he replies, pain lacing his voice.

He reaches over and gently takes my hands in his. His hands feel rough and dry compared to what they had been, his nails are worn down.

"I had to build a shell to survive, Andrea. And it might take me some time to adjust, to become myself again. But I can't do that, not without you. I need you more than the air I breathe."

"How to we repair what's been broken, Pablo?" I ask, desperately needing an answer. I know I don't have one. I hold his hands; I feel his hands, and all I feel are his hands... where once I could feel our qi swirling together.

"Can you... can you still feel me, Pablo? Can you at least reach beyond that shell of yours?"

"Yes, my love, but it's weak compared to before. I think it's going to take time. We need to heal, both of us. We need to be together. I know for me, it... it's going to be hard. I had to do things to survive, to live." He spoke quietly, and I can feel something there, almost as if what he had done to survive was something he considered nearly criminal... or at the very least, morally suspect.

"Maybe a purging... a visit to a smoke house or sweat lodge or whatever they're called. Your people have a ceremony for that, don't they?" He closes his eyes, a look of concentration on his face. The qi almost seems give the impression it might move; I know he is thinking only of me and his love for me.

"We have... we have our rituals. But they are..." I know it is better to say nothing now. How can I say that they are our rituals and not meant for outsiders? But perhaps...

"My father recommended that I take you to see Ha'atathli Ravenclaw. To learn our ways." Ah, look how formal I've become, speaking of 'my father' instead of 'Dad'. "It would mean going to New Mexico."

Perhaps I should ask Tommy about the Enemy Way Ceremony for Pablo. It would be appropriate, wouldn't it? He is a warrior who has returned from war... in a land more foreign than anyone could imagine.

I hurt so much. I want to... I want to be One with him again. I fear the certainty of what will happen if we can't heal. She will take over more and more, and I will lose myself. She cares, even deeply, about justice and protecting people, but I'm not sure she loves.

"Although I worry about my job, I will do whatever it takes for us to become One again."

"I can talk to them, Andrea. You have plenty of saved time off since you never get sick, and you did just have some sort of medical episode that landed you in the hospital. It's only sensible that you take a few days off." He pulls me to my feet and moves backward with me toward the couch.

"Andi, will you hold me? I would sell my soul right now for you to hold me."

I nod. Even before... when we were just friends... here had been times when he'd had terrible weeks, and I would hold him. That's how it feels now. I just need to remember that Pablo is my friend.

We sit down, and I wrap my arms around him... my friend, Pablo. For a long time, at least it seems like a long time, we just sit together as we used to do, before...

"You will have to tell me about it, now or later," I say, running my hand down his back. "Though perhaps later would be better."

He curls into me, holding onto me so tightly. He trembles as he sits within my embrace, his body twitching.

As he trembles, I simply hold him tightly.

"I..." He closes his eyes and turns his face, burying it against my neck and my soft, fragrant hair.

I feel uncomfortable about that intimacy. But Pablo is my friend.

"I..." he tries to begin again, but then just shakes his head.

When he cannot speak, I simply say, "Shhhh... it's okay."

Pablo is quiet for a time, just breathing in and breathing out, letting me surround him and fill him. He is trying desperately to remember a time when he wasn't in danger, and could allow himself to be open and vulnerable.

Slowly, I can feel tendrils of qi trickling just the faintest bit, caressing me like a feather-light wind.

And when I feel the smallest touch of his qi...

...I am absolutely still, not even daring to breathe, for fear this tiny treasure will be snatched away from me. It is like a drop of water to one dying of thirst. I want more; I want everything we once had!

I know you're in there somewhere, my beloved. I am here, I will wait for you. I just beg you to hurry back to me, for I need you so much. I love you, Pablo. I love you.

Pablo rests his head on my breast, his arms around me, and he listens to the beating of my heart. Its calm, steady rhythm is lulling him with peace that he hasn't known since the day he walked out that door; that day I told him to leave.

Slowly, his muscles start to relax, his breathing slows until finally I can feel him asleep in my arms. Silent tears dampen my shirt, and only the occasional whisper or near-silent whimpers remind me that he's still here.

I spent so much time facing nightmare after nightmare, so much time regretting things I've done in this life, thinking I was dead. It was an eternity, although everyone claims it was just over a day. I have to wonder if his experiences reverberated across the dimensions, torturing me just as they tortured him. The only difference is that I already have Ninja to protect me, while he was becoming that which will protect him. And now... now that's all I can feel and see. I can barely sense my Pablo buried deep inside... it's so much like I was, sometimes still am, when Ninja is doing what she does.

When she's threatened, Ninja doesn't let go easily. Perhaps this new facet of my beloved is the same? Am I threatening? She is, certainly. But... am I?

I feel him drift into sleep, hear his small cries. I feel a burning hatred start to grow for that Serpent creature of his, and I know I can't let that happen. Ninja already does not care for the Serpent. She liked Pablo well enough before, but does not like what he has become. How are they going to work together if she can't get along with him? She is going to insist, I know, on speaking to him... and she's right. They need to find a way to work together, or this whole hideous business will have been pointless. And she won't listen to my advice... she'll drag him out to Washington Park some night, and the two of them will spend the night beating the crap out of each other.

I wish I had not let him go. I should have known better than to trust a snake. It told only the truth it wanted to tell when Pablo had asked what the price would be to go with it. It failed to mention that it would torture my beloved for three years. It failed to mention the likelihood of our bond being broken. Well, the damn snake has its Chosen One. Was all that talk of me... or perhaps it meant Ninja... being the perfect mate for its Chosen One just a pile of steaming manure? I do have to wonder about that. I know that Pablo truly is the only one my heart will ever hold. But the Chosen One is not my Pablo.

That stupid snake didn't share all the information necessary, and that could be our undoing. Gods, how I hate that thing!

"I do love you, Pablo," I whisper softly as he sleeps. "Please come back. I need you."

Eventually, I doze off, too... still holding him, longing for him to return to me.

And dreams come.

Creatures roam in the darkness; he is never able to sleep for more than a handful of minutes before starting awake at some noise, a cry in the night as predator ate its prey.

Dreams of rending flesh, unbelievable pain.

Dreams of unbearable loneliness as the fire burns through him, the fire of loss. Being apart from her burns his soul like a lake of fire, body contorting in agony.

Crying in the night, a faint burning hope and love, both cradled in his breast.

Andrea...

"ANDREA!" he howls at the moon. "ANDREA! ANDREA!" he screams until his voice breaks.

Crying in the night, a faint burning hope and love, both cradled in her breast.

And dreams come.

Dreams of a different life where power is not contained in beauty, but within something feared and reviled.

Dreams of a life where Eaters are not fought, but feared.

Dreams of waking to find her beloved had never returned.

Dreams of never waking... of forever being caught in the nightmare of pain.

Dreams of hearing him call her name, over and over and over and over... and not being able to go to him.

Dreams of hearing him call her name...

He's screaming my name in the twilight of the house, his body covered in sweat.

I start awake as he screams, holding him tightly, more tightly than I would have before.

"Pablo!"

My arms and legs wrap around him, holding him against me; I won't let him leave me again. Not ever.

"Wake up, Pablo!"

His eyes spring open, wild and lost for a moment. He almost strikes out at me until he recognizes who I am with my arms around him, not some bloodthirsty beast attacking him.

"Andrea... Oh God, baby, I could have..." He slumps against me, his damp forehead and wet hair against my shoulder, his body stinking of fear and adrenaline.

I sigh as I hold him.

"Yes. You could have called Ninja.

"And then the two of you would have had it out right here in our living room, probably destroying a good portion of our furniture."

I loosen my grip.

"Making me quite cross at both of you."

I unwrap my legs from around his.

"Come, let's get you in the shower. You smell dreadful."

"I wouldn't want to damage a thing in this house. I memorized every detail, every knickknack so I could relive it," he says, looking up at me and then laughs at my last comment.

"You really know how to make a man feel welcome." He gets to his feet, then helps me to stand.

"Are my clothes still... Of course, they are, yes. It's only been a day."

"Two days, but yes. I.." I stop, eyes wide. "Pablo..." I place a palm over his heart, not caring the slightest bit about the condition of his shirt.

"When you laughed..." I manage a smile, small but so hopeful. "I could feel you again!"

I swallow hard, then shake my head. "Not so much now, but... but I know my beloved is buried in here."

"I think it's going to take time, love. I... I need rest, healing, your love, our life together." His eyes study my face. "I'll only survive with you by my side. And for that, I'd better shower or there's no way you'll want to be close to me." He gives me a little grin, and again I feel a tendril of qi.

I smile, as much at his silly comment as the feathery touch of qi brushing against me.

"Would you..." I bite my lower lip. I would not have had to ask two days ago, and now... "Would you rather have privacy?"

"No!" he cries out, then covers his mouth and looks embarrassed. "No. Please, love, I need you. Please don't leave me alone." Both his voice and his eyes plead with me.

I take his hands and hold them against me, over my heart.

"I won't leave you alone, I won't. I just... just didn't know if you were worried about... about the..." I close my eyes, swallow hard. I have a feeling I'm going to start picking up some of her bad habits, particularly her potty mouth. But I really hate that fucking snake. "...the scars."

I take a deep breath and open my eyes, searching his face for a moment before nodding slightly. "Come, love. Let's get you clean."

I lead him into the bathroom and turn on the water in the shower. Then I undress him... not as I had in the past, not seductively at all... but simply with kindness and efficiency. I can't stop the tears from falling as I see more scars than any person should ever have.

He trembles violently as I undress him, revealing all the jagged scars crisscrossing his body... bite marks, claw marks, even human teeth marks.

"I would wear myself to unconsciousness to take these from you," I say, touching his chest. "But... I can't. Not yet. But soon, I hope."

"It's okay, love. I've had some of them for three years. A little more time doesn't matter."

I pull him into the shower and stand with him in the hot water. "Shall I wash your back first?"

He stands still until I have him naked, his body quivering now at my nearness, my scent. Pablo groans as I lead him into the shower. He cries out softly in pleasure as he steps into the hot water and lets it cascade over him.

"I dreamed of a hot shower..." he says, turning so the water pounds on his back.

Then he sees me naked in the spray of water. He stops breathing and just stands there looking at me.

"My God, you're every bit as beautiful as I remember," he breathed, hardly audible. "I thought... over time, I thought I remembered you how I wanted you to be, but you're so beautiful, Andrea."

He wraps his arms around his ribs and almost doubles over.

"Pablo! What's wrong??!" Oh, gods... what did that devil do to him? I reach out to steady him. "Please... talk to me."

He looks up in torment as I touch him, then wraps his arms around me. He pulls me against him and kisses me as he starts to sob, tears running down his face, his whole body trembling.

I accept his kiss but worry too much to enjoy it. I reach my hands up and place them on each side of his face... gently, but firmly.

"Pablo, you're shaking so hard I'm afraid for you. Do you understand me? Get clean, then I will take you to bed." Not put you to bed... it's more than a little obvious what he needs. "Clean first, please. Only a few more minutes..."

He nods, unable to trust himself enough to speak as he lets his hands drop and he takes a step back. He grips his hands together to control himself.

"Okay, love. I... it's just that..."

I nod as I wet the washcloth, then pour a bit of shower gel in the middle.

"I know."

I wash his back and arms, shoulders and chest.

"Three years."

He stands still and lets me wash him. It feels like rubbing the washcloth over an old fashioned washboard, his torso is covered with so many ridges and scars.

Legs... and I am not going to get intimate in the shower. Not now, not with him in this condition. I hand him the washcloth.

"You finish; I'll wash my hair."

I wash my hair as quickly as possible, skipping the conditioner this time, and trusting that he can manage the last bit of washing himself.

Stepping out of the shower, I grab a towel and dry his back then hand the towel to him, pulling another off the rack to dry myself off.

I can feel his eyes on me the whole time; it's a little creepy, to be honest. I'm getting odd echoes of thoughts or feelings... to him, I'm a fever dream come to life; his body and his soul ache for my touch, to feel me breathing beside him in the night. I feel like he's a predator, though, sizing me up, and I'm having a hard time keeping Ninja locked away. She absolutely needs to stay away.

Though my hair is still rather damp, and there are probably body parts on both of us that the towels missed, I drop both towels in the hamper and lead him into the bedroom.

"I know I'm not what you deserve, but I'll try," he says softly.

I reach up and put a hand behind his head, pulling him down so I can kiss him. I try... for the moment... to keep it soft and slow and sensual; my other hand rests on his waist.

When I kiss him, I feel something break; we both do. He sobs into my mouth, and I feel the pulse of his soul — tainted and tired — but I know it's my husband. Somewhere, under all that scar tissue, pain and fear is the warm and loving man I fell in love with.

It's like a damn breaking — yes, a small dam on a mountain creek — but the spring melts send water down raging rivers as well as tiny creeks that dry up again by Memorial Day. I feel my beloved Pablo... so hurt, so beaten, so fearful, so changed that it becomes close to impossible to control Ninja. She wants to find the thing that hurt Pablo, the man I love more than life itself, and kill it... and not kindly, either. Though I doubt it will do any good to destroy the physical manifestation of that Aztec demigod, in this one instance... just this once... I can find no reason for her not to find it and kill it.

Except... except that I need my husband so much more desperately than either of us needs or wants vengeance.

His cry has broken only one of many dams and a small one at that. But it is enough to reignite the fire; the flame is a weak and fragile thing yet, but it is enough that my kiss becomes more demanding, adding kindling to the fire.

I will walk through hell to have him back. And by all the gods that ever were or will be, by the Spirits of my People, by Changing Woman Herself I swear I will have him back! He is MINE and no arrogant ancient serpent will take him from me!

I feel a fire of righteous retribution filling my soul, and I push Pablo back... toward the bed. Ninja and I are closer to being united than we have ever been. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but the fire building in my heart and soul and running through my meridians makes it a point I can't care about right now.

My hands are moving over his body now, relearning the curves and learning these new scars.

I break off the kiss and look him in the eyes, knowing my eyes glow brightly with the building qi.

"You are MINE," I hiss, "for all eternity... since time began and until it ends.

"And I will fight to the death to have you back."

Not only do I feel Ninja close, so dangerously close, to the surface... and yet restraining herself, simply giving me all her strength, not trying to take control...

...but I feel Raven, or the essence of my guardian anyway, also filling me with strength.

I step back slightly and run the finger pads of a clawed hand down his chest... abdomen... and stop.

"You are mine. I am yours. We are One. Do you remember that? Find your way back to me, husband. I am here to light your way."

I step close to him again, touching skin to skin... kissing, nipping, licking his neck, finding an earlobe and sucking it into my mouth... letting it out slowly between my teeth.

"Show me how much you missed me, Husband."

My lover's eyes are glowing, and I can feel his desperate need as I torment his earlobe. His hands reach out to touch me, hesitantly at first. They tremble as flesh touches flesh, as the pads of his fingertips move across my soft skin, down the muscles of my back. I feel those hands cupping my bottom, and he lifts me up and presses me against him.

"I went to Hell itself and have come back to you, and I will tear down the gates of Heaven to keep you."

His manhood is throbbing, aching for me, trapped between us as we kiss. He growls into my mouth.

Every man has an animal inside; it's the primal beast of his core, covered and tempered by thousands of years of civilization. In Pablo, so much of that civilization has been peeled away by the experiences Quetzalcoatl contrived for him to endure.

Though it's much more difficult to find, our bond is still there. Now, all I feel from Pablo is that need... basic, primal, and overpowering. His need echoes through me and my need for him is so powerful that it edges on painful.

He pushes me down on the bed and leans over me. His lips travel over my flesh, tasting and kissing and nipping at me. He growls and groans.

When he pushes me down on the bed, I wrap my powerfully strong legs around him and grasp his wrists.

"Don't play with me, damn you! Just fuck me."

I don't even have the presence of mind to tell Ninja to watch her mouth... although, although... that wasn't her.

I pull him toward me, not only wanting him inside me, but wanting my mouth and teeth and tongue and lips on him... all over him.

Men are not the only ones who have been civilized. Women are animals, too, if we ever dare admit it to ourselves.

I have no problem with that.

My urgent need calls to him, although he is clearly surprised by my forceful language; it's so unlike anything he's heard from me before. The scent of my arousal surrounds him as he moves up to me and positions himself at my wet entrance, thrusting deeply inside with an arched back. He throws his head back and cries out, almost howling as he plunges deep, deep inside me.

Pablo is a man possessed, thrusting madly into me and covering my mouth with his as we kiss hungrily.

I had felt his desperate need before, but until he enters me I don't realize how great my own need is. My cry echoes his as my body strains to regain that feeling of being One. More than desperate, my quest is agonizing as if I'm reaching for something just beyond my grasp.

For him, it has been three years... for me, it has been an eternity... we have been apart far, far too long.

As our tongues play together, my hands move to his back; running lightly from shoulders to ass... kneading muscles... clawing frantically. I moan and cry into his mouth...

...desperate, needing, searching searching searching, calling out to him with my soul, dying dying dying when I don't get an answer.

He cries out, tears streaming down his face as he makes love with me. I can touch him, his soul, his qi enough to know he feels the difference, too, in our connection. He feels the loss of our perfect union, a loss caused by what had happened to both of us while he was gone. But he senses those threads binding us just as I do. My Pablo, my husband, would know that healing those threads will return us to the beauty of our marriage.

"I love you so much!" He cries out in desperation, needing release so badly that he can't hold onto the civilized veneer. He might well have broken a less resilient woman's hips, that's how hard and fast he thrusts himself into me before finally exploding deep, deep inside me.

And with his orgasm, another part of his shell cracks. His qi flows over me as his seed pours into me. The qi feels damaged and hurt, but it's here... and it hungers to connect with my qi even more fiercely than his body yearns for mine.

I barely hear him as I feel his explosion, pain adding to the pleasure in a way I had never known, never before would have admitted was possible.

But it is the touch, the waves of his qi that send me not only over the edge of physical pleasure to cry out inarticulately, but to fully open myself to him, giving him my qi to strengthen him and taking his to nurture and heal.

My beloved!

I've found him... and now we must heal.

Oh, how insignificant that prospect seems now that we are no longer lost!

"I love you, I love you..." I whisper over and over as I hold him tightly to me. "I will never let you leave me again."

Pablo continues to thrust into me, and he weeps over me as I hold him tight to my breast and speak loving words to him.

Though the taint of his qi, I can see how much it hurts him to open up again, to trust again. But I also see how pouring my own qi over him soothes and calms that pain, soothes the injuries that had nearly ripped apart what little humanity he had left after the first year in Quetzalcoatl's realm.

He buries his face in the crook of my neck and sobs, both in pain and in the joy of feeling my love filling him once more, the ecstasy of our souls touching once more. A brisk wind swirls around us, bringing with it the scent of green living things and morning sunlight.

Slowly he calms, his shudders stop. He sniffles, and moves to wipe at his face and nose with an arm, clearly embarrassed.

"I'm so sorry..."

I know we are both crying; so much pain and so much joy. It's so difficult to hold it all in.

The pain I can give to her, She Who Laughs At Pain... And Death... And Fear. I guess we both agree that Night Walker is an incredibly stupid name, not that I personally think this one is any better.

The joy... oh, that I let wash over the both of us and if we drown in it... I don't care.

I feel the wind and smell the outdoors; so strange... yet... comforting, I think. I hold my beloved and kiss him softly... shoulder and neck... as he cries.

"Why are you sorry, Pablo? You've come home."

"I'm sorry for crying all over you, for leaving you alone and in pain, for being so rough with you. I changed there, Andrea. I'm not even sure who I am anymore."

I roll us over so we are on our sides, facing one another... though sadly, he slips out of me. A tremor of regret runs through me as I realize we're face to face as we had been on that fateful day so long ago, when we shared a picnic in the park.

"You've cried before, I've cried before... and we'll both do it again. What does that matter? And were you all that rough? Perhaps... but you could not have been if I hadn't allowed it, if I hadn't welcomed it." I smile. "It was interesting, I'll say that."

Then I have to pause, take a deep breath.

"You had to leave, or so that lying snake of yours said. The whole point was for you to learn to use your powers, or so it said. To do that... you must change." I shrug with one shoulder. "But I feel you now and know you are my husband. You are Pablo Garcia, the other half of my soul. Beyond that? We can find out together, beloved. I'll not let anything tear us apart. Wither thou goest, so too shall I go." I let Ninja smile out at him — that smile that seems to just dare anyone to stop her — though the next words were from both of us. "...whether I belong or not, whether I am welcome or not. We are stronger together.

"Pain? You were in pain, and I was in pain. When I was in the coma, when I thought I had died, I remember regretting sending you away that day. I remember thinking that I should have let you stay until Monday since I was going to die anyway. But I was already in so much pain just thinking about you being gone that I wasn't sure I would survive until Monday even with you by my side. Would things have been different for either of us had you stayed another day and a half?"

I reach out and gently brush my fingertips over his cheek.

"I don't know, my love. Knowing that you would leave, that I would feel your pain as well as my own, may have sent me into a coma anyway. And then you wouldn't have left, and you needed to leave. But I am so, so very sorry for not explaining why you needed to go right away. Can you forgive me?"

He nods slowly. "I can now. I didn't then. I was angry, so angry at you for the first six months. I was angry that you wouldn't let me have that last perfect day with you, but at the time I didn't know how badly you would suffer. I thought you would be okay with me away... wherever it was.

"I love you, my beloved, and I forgive you even though there's nothing to forgive. I understand now." He runs his fingers through my dark hair, causing him to shiver. "It's going to be a long night, my love," he says, smiling softly. "I have a lot of desires built up."

My breath catches as he runs his fingers through my hair, and I close my eyes as I sigh. "Oh gods, love... it seems an eternity since anyone touched me with kindness and gentleness. Until the end... until I felt your presence... when I wasn't devastatingly alone, everyone seemed to want to beat me, rape me or kill me... or any combination of them."

I open my eyes, which are glowing with desire and run my tongue over my lips. "And what is your wish now, my love?"

"I want to make love to you under the stars." He slowly runs his hand over the swell of my breast, gently teasing the nipple. "I want to feel the wind on us, I want to defy the darkness with the love I feel for you."

Oh gods, how long has it been since he touched me?! The calendar says one thing; my mind says something else entirely. It seems so long that his touch is new; so long that it seems to be the first time again.

"I'm sure... the neighbors would..." I moan; the sensations running through my body are intoxicating. "...would enjoy... the show... Mage of the Winds."

I brush my hand across his chest, his abdomen.

"There will be no darkness, love... we can turn night into day. We have done it before, and we will do it again."

I lean forward and kiss him... softly at first, and then urgently. After time returns, I move back slightly to look into his eyes, breathing heavily.

"I won't be satisfied until I have undone every scar your deceitful serpent caused to be inflicted on you."

Strangely, and for once when it comes to matters of the heart, Ninja is in complete agreement with me. I'll think about that oddity later, though.

His eyes seem to glow softly in the dimness of our bedroom. "And I won't be happy until I've erased all the pain from both of us, until we simply have bliss." He lowers his hungry mouth to my breast, sucking my hard nipple and flicking it with his tongue.

"Oh, gods, Pablo!" I can hardly breathe, and then I am breathing too fast. Pleasure, fire, burning desire... I roll onto my back; I want to comb my fingers through his hair, feel its texture, and hold him to my breast. I feel my skin — from head to toe — tingling, buzzing with sensations of delight. And where his mouth teases and taunts me, it is a pleasure verging on the impossible; it is almost painful.

I feel tears slowly falling from my eyes. The nightmares no longer play in a continuous loop behind my lids. They are still there, but now they come and go.

"You are... making... a good start... beloved."

My fingers play in his hair and move down to his neck... shoulders... back... arm... touching, touching... massaging muscles... smoothing away scars... trailing qi across everything I touch, like miniature stars... bright and pure.

"So... no outside?" He looks up into my eyes with love and mischief in his.

"Outside? Outside... if... yes, but... not in my yard." My breathing, I think, is more controlled. I look at him and smile. "Can you wait twenty minutes? I know a deserted cabin up near Golden. There are trees, stars, and far below... the lights of our city." I grin... no, Ninja grins. "Probably the only wild animals that are of any concern this time of the year are the mountain lions... and they've learned not to come near me... her... us."

He laughs and stands, then bends down to lift me in his arms. "It won't take us twenty minutes, love of my heart," he whispers as he carries me to the bedroom window. "Open it."

I look at him for a moment, one arm around his neck... the other hand caressing his cheek. Then I smile. Perfect trust. I push the window and screen up, and link my fingers together over his shoulder.

"Unless you learned teleportation, I am going to have to hope Peregrine isn't patrolling at the moment," I say, chuckling.

The winds gather around us, and Pablo carries me through the window and jumps into the air. We fall a few inches before the winds catch us, and then we are flying off into the night. He holds me tightly in his muscular arms, and we rise higher into the moonlit sky, speeding toward the mountains.

I squeak in surprise since screaming would have alerted the entire neighborhood. Okay, I revise my trust level! I trust him not to drop me. What the hell, even if he does, it probably won't kill me. Sure, sure... it will hurt. But I'll get over.

I keen a bit... yeah, okay, he's probably not going as fast as I do when I ride my bike on I-25 at night, but I'm totally not in control here either.

Great. A revelation! I don't like not being in control when my life is at stake. Why is it I'm coming to this realization only now? I think I should have figured that out years ago. No wait... I work alone. Okay, so maybe not.

"Point me in the right direction, love," he says with a grin — how can you grin at a time like this?! — on his face. I can tell the wicked, wicked man has been waiting to show me this little trick of his.

I close my eyes tightly and bury my face in his neck. Point? POINT????!?!? No, I think not. My arms have a death grip on him, and they're not moving anywhere until my feet are firmly replanted on terra firma.

"No me gusta esto! Tu es loco!" Ha! Yes, been practicing my Spanish, thank you very much! And then I quietly whimper.

"Head to Lookout Mountain."

And continue to whimper. Ninja offers to punch him in the head.

I consider it.

The least he could have done was grab a blanket.

"Lookout Mountain it is, then. Don't worry, Andrea, I won't drop you." His arms are wrapped tightly and securely around me. He angles his flight toward Golden. It seems like only a moment later that he circling the area around the Visitors Center.

"Where's this cabin, love? Or would you prefer I just find a clearing where we can make love?"

"Oh, just land. Ground. Want. Mine. Now."

I am resolutely not looking at anything but the inside of my eyelids until I am close enough to Mother Earth to feel her. And I'm not yet.

"Cabin is about a mile back from the Visitors Center; don't need to go there. Just find a nice clearing."

He lands us gently, warm wind surrounding us as he holds me in his arms. He leans down to kiss me. "I'm sorry, love. I thought you'd like flying."

I nod. "Uh huh. Who knew, right?"

I can't tell if I'm shaking because I'm cold or I'm — apparently — terrified of not being in control or because Ninja just wants to get out and punch Pablo in the head. I'm going to rule out cold; my qi flows on autopilot to adjust for temperature changes, so I'm always comfortable.

"Maybe... um... it would be less... ah... stressful during the day? Sunny day? I, ah, can't feel much energy up there, and... ah, well... yeah. And way, way, way, way, WAY too fast. Oh, yes. Very much not liking having no control. Very bad. Upsets Andi. Makes Ninja... um... punchy. But I, ah, told her no."

"Are you cold?" he asks, noting my shaking. "Hold still a moment, love." He closes his eyes, and the clearing begins to warm up as he holds me, gently caressing me. "Is that better, Andi? I'm using ultraviolet light to warm us. I can't do it for terribly long, but it should make us more comfortable.

"And thank you for telling Ninja no hitting. It's hardly the kind of attention I want from you."

Has his smile always been that rakish, or is this something new?

"Well, no, I don't think so, but I don't know. I'm usually not cold because all that qi and regulating body temperature and stuff, but maybe I am. I mean, I've never been in a coma before either, so..."

Oh, great. I'm babbling.

"But maybe I'm just shaking from being terrified. Um, that hasn't happened in a long time. Being terrified, I mean, but that could have been an after effect of the coma, too, because... wow... no, don't ever want to do that again. The terrified part, I mean. I figured it out that for every hour that passed for you about two minutes passed for me. So when terrible things were happening to you..." I run a hand over some of the scars on his chest. "...it was being condensed thirty times and happening to me. The mental and emotional trauma anyway; if the physical stuff were happening to me, you wouldn't have so many scars. I don't think so, anyway."

I shake my head, just... looking at the road map of agony etched in his skin. I look up at him, try to relax. Try to smile.

"Oh, she and I seem to be... well, getting along better since..." I frown, my eyebrows draw together. "...since the coma, I think. Or maybe when we both realized we wanted to rip your Serpent so-called friend into tiny pieces we got friendlier. Anyway..."

I shrug and smile at him. "...she knows she's going to get a chance to pound on you, so she's willing to wait."

I frown again. "I'm sorry. I'm babbling, and you wanted to be all romantic, and here I am talking about, well, I don't know, you and Ninja and me feeling out of whack. I'll let you work out your working relationship and don't even ask me to get in the middle of it. If you two want to be partners, I'm sure that will be great. If she decides she'd rather have a sidekick... well, you can argue with her about it, I'm not going to."

I snap my jaws shut with an audible clack.

"Sorry."

I drop cross-legged to the ground, pulling him down with me, and then stretch out on my stomach. I can feel the earth's energy soothing me, calming me. I have so many questions for Pablo, but I think they can wait now. I am feeling much more grounded. My head rests on my cross arms, and I look at him from behind a curtain of hair that's fallen across my face.

"It would be awfully nice if you'd rub my back."

He chuckles softly, cracking his knuckles. "Of course, dear, I'd be happy to. Just relax and let me do my work." He gently brushes my hair out of the way. His hands begin moving over my back, working the muscles along my spine with loving attention, leaning down to occasionally run his lips over my skin, as well.

"Pablo?"

Being safely and comfortably on the ground again, and feeling Mother Earth's love and energy filling me... feeling Pablo's hands... and lips... moving across my back very definitely relaxes me. Feel his qi again... oh, how glorious!

"Besides flying and calling the winds and warming the air, what else have you learned?"

There are other thoughts, related thoughts... but that's really the only one I can manage to articulate. And the way Pablo's hands are moving over my body, given another few minutes even that thought would have become impossible to articulate.

"I can use the winds as a concussive force; I can make an area dark or blindingly bright. I'm much better at hand to hand fighting now, I had to learn that or I never would have survived. And I learned how to cope with pain, obviously." He spoke quietly and matter-of-factly. I think that's what tore my heart again... the matter-of-factness with which he spoke of coping with the pain.

I roll over and look at my husband. Tears are beginning to well up in my eyes again.

"Was it worth it?" I reach up and touch his scars again. "From over here... what I see, how you've behaved, how your qi feels... it doesn't look like it. From over here, to us, it just looks like Quetzalcoatl is a sick, sadistic bastard."

...to us...

That's another thing this little escapade did... it's broken the wall I've had between Andi and Ninja. I'm not sure that's a good thing for either of us.

And I'm not sure I can repair that wall.

"I hope so, Andi. I have a feel the Light will be crucial in what's coming up. Maybe that's why he put me in such a dark place. I wasn't in any real danger — of dying, anyway. He brought me back each time. But the pain..."

Pablo closes his eyes and sighs.

"But then you went through a world of pain in your own training. You told me about the large number of bones you've broken over and over. I just don't heal as fast as you do, that's all. And he left me my scars to remind me I was human as I fought to survive."

"The worst pain was the Curse. Most of my bones have been broken in fights, a few through stupidity, but none in training. I have to say, it's surprising just how many people think it's okay to punch a lady in the face," I say, a ghost of a smile playing across my lips. Then I close my eyes, as well. "No, I shouldn't say the worst pain I've felt was the Curse. It was you being gone, your pain echoing back to me so... so horrifyingly concentrated, so seemingly constant. No doubt why I ended up in a coma, and probably why we think he's a pretentious receptacle of fecal matter. That's even less civilized than striking a lady."

I open my eyes, and they burn with anger... although a smile begins to spread across my face. "I suppose demigods don't have the same moral standards, though, do they?" I run my hands over his scars again. "You don't need these anymore to remind you that you're human."

He looks down into my eyes and caresses my cheek. "Have I told you how beautiful you are since I've been back," he asks tenderly.

"I believe you've mentioned it, beloved. But a woman never gets tired of her husband telling her she's beautiful." I look into his eyes, mine now blazing with desire. "I, however, have certainly failed to mention how deliciously handsome you are... although you might have noticed I find your very self to be an aphrodisiac.

"The heavens are full of stars, beloved... make love with me."

He looks at me as he's memorizing my face all over again, then lays down beside me, gather me into his arms. He begins kissing me, softly and tenderly.

Now that his initial need has been met, Pablo takes his time to reacquaint himself with me, with my body. His hands gently roam over my curves, with his lips, tongue and teeth following. His mouth pauses on my breast as his hand continues across the flat plane of my stomach and down my thigh. My beloved husband is hardening against my side already.

I remember our time before... before he left, before the nightmares and the torture and the pain and the abject loneliness. But it's been so long, so very, very long that it's more of a dream than a memory. As he kisses me, touches me, I feel the qi flowing again between us, although it is slow and no longer one qi signature shared by two beings. Our hearts are healing, bit by bit. Our souls yearn to re-blend... to remake that which was shattered whole again. His qi is still — I'm not quite sure 'tainted' is accurate — but it feels... off, wrong, strange.

And yet, that doesn't matter. His realm may be wind and light.

My realm is energy and power.

While my lover explores my body, I become more and more aroused. That arousal brings focus and clarity to our bodies; I see him as a pure being of energy. Tendrils reach out from him to me, from me to him, and twine together. I discover a benefit to making love outdoors... I can feel the vast energies of the Earth below me, dancing on my skin.

I accept his energy and give him mine, but I pull the Earth — just the smallest bit, here in this small space atop one of the many overlooks of our city — into the circle. Mother Earth takes whatever impurities pass through my body and supports me with Her clean, powerful qi. The downside, if one could call it that, is that every touch of Pablo's hands and lips and tongue and teeth sends powerful waves of near-orgasmic pleasure and delight crashing through my body.

I can't stop the moaning I seem to be doing, nor do I want to. I only want my lover to be healed and whole... me to be healed and whole... us to be healed and whole. How deliciously ironic it is that healing should come from such overwhelmingly intense and sensual feelings.

I feel the power growing, too. While it's the same power I use for my qi blasts, tonight it feels diffuse, although no less potent. Energy dances in the air like fireflies and moves through the ground like fish through water. I feel...

I feel...

I feel...

"Pablo..." I breathe, seeing beauty everywhere.

"I need you..."

He looks up from where he is exploring my knees, comparing his memories of them to their reality; he nips and sucks gently on my flesh.

"All is well?" He pauses in his play, hearing something in my voice beyond simple desire.

I smile as his words flutter across the clearing on the breeze, like tiny butterflies made of light.

"All is beyond well, beloved... all is joy." Soon... soon I am hoping all will be rapture.

He moves up my body, pausing here and there to run his tongue along a hip bone and ribs. To gently tease a nipple with his teeth. To press lips against the river of blood beneath the skin of my neck. Pablo kisses me passionately as he lays his warm body atop mine, one knee and an elbow to the side to keep some weight off me as we kiss. It's not necessary, but a thoughtful gesture nonetheless.

The sight of me and scent of my arousal fills him, just as the sight and scent of him send showers of electricity flooding through me.

Our kiss is a sensory delight, with lips touching... then tongues; tastes and textures more alive than I have ever known. Our tongues dance slowly, yet deeply. Mother chortles; leaves and grass giggle.

I can feel and hear my heart beating a steady staccato rhythm. I can see Pablo wreathed in glory, and my heart melts... reforms... reaches out to touch his, cradle it in love, in acceptance, in peace, in joy.

I reach down to guide him into me, then put my hands on his hips. I want this to be slow, so extraordinarily slow; I want to feel the agony of anticipation, just this once at least.

I want this to be like the first time ever, because — in a way — it is.

He slowly pushes inside me, filling me; he cries out softly as I wrap my legs around him, and the life force flows through us, enhancing every sensation. Pablo looks into my eyes, his own glowing softly in the night, and whimpers. "My God, love! It feels so much better than I remembered. This is making love to you... not sex." His voice is barely a whisper.

I smile; I want to laugh with joy. "Yes, my beloved husband," I breathe.

With my legs wrapped around his and my hands controlling his rhythm, I look into his eyes and into his soul. And my own soul cries out to be reunited, to return to the perfect Oneness that we shared. I reach one hand up to pull his head down, my lips brushing softly against his.

"It gets better," I sigh against his lips before searching out his tongue with mine.

The kiss closes the circuit.

My power, the command of the qi, the ability to channel qi in ways qi does not normally flow... it is building and condensing around my dan tians. Rather than the usual explosive blast from my palms or soles, I begin the power-enhanced qi flowing up the meridians along my back as Pablo slides slowly into me...

...down the front of our bodies as he slowly pulls out...

...up our backs as he slides in...

...keeping the rhythm slow and steady, in and out... up and around.

The agony of moving so slowly is rewarded as I see only the purest, cleanest qi surrounding us. Only then do I unwrap my legs to spread my hips wide with my feet planted firmly on the ground. Both my hands move to his firm ass, massaging it. I run my tongue along his lips, cheek, and find an earlobe that I suck into my mouth before whispering, "Take me; make me yours for all time. I will take you; you will be mine for all time. Let nothing ever separate us again.

"We..."

I raise my hips to meet his next thrust, taking him deep, deep inside me... both body and soul.

My teeth tease at the tender flesh of his neck, with tongue following.

"Are..."

My breathing is ragged; all of the near-orgasms are about to collide. As his next thrust drives deeply into me, I come in an explosion of light, of qi, of power suffusing my body with strength I never knew I had. I cry out; sounds of ecstasy and one articulate word...

"ONE!"

I hear Mother sigh; I feel a wind unnatural at this time of year. I feel my lover, my life, my husband, my heart, my friend, my partner, my Pablo, the completion of my soul. He is with me, he is within me, he surrounds me, and I surround him.

We are one.

A pause... a hitch... a gasp...

WE are one.

I smile, and perhaps it is more a smile normally seen on Ninja's face, as I look up at this beautiful man.

"You... are..."

I laugh as tears of joy fall from my eyes, a deep-throated groan building as another orgasm builds.

You are the most wonderful person I have ever met, beloved.

Pablo rides out my first massive orgasm, crying out as my muscles contract around him. He turns his head and bites his arm — hard — to keep control.

Blood. Blood magic.

As we begin building toward another plateau, as I speak in his mind, he leans down to kiss me. The blood on his mouth seals the magic, and the world explodes.

A supernova of energy and light twirl into a double helix; a blast of wind expands outward as if a bomb as gone off. Pablo thrusts deeper than ever; his back arches so far he is almost a bow as he explodes inside me.

"ANDREA!!"

I smell the blood first, feel the pain in my arm, his arm... feel exquisite joy, feel us both teetering on the edge... see the world from two vantage points, feel the coming explosion, taste the blood.

For a moment, everything that we are shatters and becomes the universe itself as we float on waves of energy and fly on gusts of wind. For a moment, we are heaven and earth, we are the mountains and the trees and the rivers.

We are One; we are All.

I hear our name, part of our name, I see it dancing and bouncing off the mountaintops, I feel the shape of it as it forms in my mouth, feel the power of it as it tears from my throat. We answer with the rest of our name, to chase to play to capture to feel the woven perfection of unity.

Pablo!!

Mother laughs, Father smiles; the stars rain down on us, or perhaps we simply have risen through them to dart among them and join the celestial chorus.

Slowly, slowly we return to the bodies that temporarily contain the power that we are. I am cradled by Mother, Pablo floats above me... or weighs heavy on me... it is all the same. We are wrapped around one another, bodies pressed close together, hearts beating as one, souls... one soul... rejoicing, minds looking in wonder at the other's complexity.

I love you...

The words are not given any voice, but that of our minds. Who conceived the thought first is irrelevant as the thought spirals, weaves, dances between us, filling every cell.

We are love.

It takes forever and several minutes to realize I am Andrea, he is Pablo... and I find we lie on our sides, looking into eyes familiar and glorious, seeing ourselves looking back out.

I sense another nearby, and almost start to laugh when The Other starts in recognition.

Aie! Mind Jabber!

I raise myself up on an elbow to look over Pablo's shoulder, to see amber eyes glinting through the trees.

Aie! Naughty Cat! I see you again.

The words echo in mind and voice, both with a touch of fondness.

Mighty Cat! This one is Mighty Cat! Mighty Cat comes to tell Mind Jabber Protector Head Talker that Two-Leg Walkers have seen your Power. They come, they come.

I lift my head to hear and smell the wind. What she says is true, though we have some time.

Protector gives thanks and wishes blessings of strong kits for Naughty Mighty Cat.

I bend down to softly kiss Pablo's cheek.

"I hope you recuperate quickly, beloved. Our show attracted some attention; we probably have ten or fifteen minutes before the Rangers show up." I chuckle. "I'm glad I have friends up here; I probably wouldn't have noticed until it was almost too late. You are such a distraction."

I look into his eyes and smile.

He lays beside me, panting with exertion, a fine sheen of sweat covering his body. It's clear that his mind is still reeling from what just happened, and the look in his eyes tells me he's still not sure who he is. I wait as he blinks several times.

"Yeah, I think so. That was just..."

He swallows and looks around. Several trees have been knocked over by the force of the winds, but we are comfortably warm from the heat still pulsating from his body.

"Yes, I'm okay, love. Come on, we should get going. Two naked people in the woods just might get the Rangers' attention."

He starts to gather the winds again — and now I can see what he's doing — his mind reaching out to redirect the waves of energy to swirl around us. Pablo wraps his arms and legs around me, and we being lifting into the air.

"Hold on tight."

"You know... this isn't the most comfortable way to travel," I say, resting my head on his shoulder.

Part of my mind is trying to remind me that we're soaring through the air — HELLO! FLYING THROUGH THE AIR AT UNNATURAL SPEEDS! — without the benefit of being enclosed in a metal and/or fiberglass container, but I have apparently ceased to be terribly concerned about it. I smile.

We are One.

Why should it bother me?

I nuzzle his neck. "Mmmm... you smell good."

"Maybe next time, you should climb on my back. That might make you feel a... oh... damn, that feels good." He veers off course a little, and we spin around in a corkscrew for a few seconds before he regains control.

I giggle. "Sorry."

Behave, girl!

"Actually, now that I no longer seem to be completely freaked out about this, I can appreciate that the way we flew out was really nice."

I giggle again.

"But that might be too distracting, too. On your back..." I consider it for about two seconds and then laugh.

"I'm sorry, love... but unless we're flying into battle, I'm just going to be a terrible distraction."

I sigh with happiness and satisfaction and rest my head back on his shoulder. "So it's probably a good thing that riding my bike like a bat out of hell into battle is my trademark thing."

"Well, hopefully, we won't be going into battle with both of us naked and horny. If we are, we're clearly doing something wrong." He chuckles as he gently lands us in our back yard. We just stand there for a moment, arms around one another.

"I am so not going into battle naked! And you're right... if I'm horny, I'm not focused; if I'm not focused... well, nothing good can come from that."

I enjoy the feeling of his arms around me and the Earth energy tickling the soles of my feet and winding up my legs... like a vine around my bones.

"That was intense. We've never experienced anything like that before. At least, I don't remember anything that... ah... out of body. Do you know what happened, Andi?"

"Mmmm... intense, and so amazingly beautiful." I look up at his face, still glowing so softly with qi. "No, you haven't forgotten anything. And I have some thoughts. Do you want to sit out here or go inside?"

I smile as I run my hands up his smooth back... quirk an eyebrow up and look at his chest... then smile with a wicked satisfaction.

"See? You don't need all those messy scars when you have me to remind you that you're human."

He looks down in surprise to see that all the scars on his chest were gone, as were the ones on his back, his legs, his arms... everywhere. His skin looks like that of a newborn baby, smooth and sleek. He'd lost a solid thirty pounds while he was away, and his muscles are ripped and toned. I lick my lips.

"No, I guess I don't, do I?" he says with a bemused smile. "It's nice out here, but I think I want to lie in bed with my wife. I've missed that."

"Indoors it will be then."

I give him an appraising look from head to toe, and smile with a shake of my head. "Your tale of a rogue Super removing your gunshot scars and your stabbing scar probably would have been believed. Mostly. But this? I'd love to hear what kind of story you come up with for this!" I laugh. "Despite a little more gray in your hair, you look ten years younger than you did on Friday, love. Goodness, and I thought you had been sexy before you left!" I give him a seductive smile before turning and walking to the garden pots.

I tilt the planter by the back steps over a bit and pull the spare key from underneath. Despite having pockets in my leathers and vest with Velcro closures, I can't always be certain a key won't go missing in a fight. Hasn't happened, but it's always good to be prepared for any eventuality.

Of course, I never expected the eventuality would be returning home naked as a jay bird. I can truthfully say that life with Pablo is not dull. I set the planter back down, then wipe the dirt off the key.

Some people... well, they'll insist that hiding a spare key under a flower pot is just downright stupid. And maybe it is... if you have a small flower pot. Mine? It's a nice hefty fifteen gallon terra cotta planter; the darn thing is close to a hundred pounds empty. Of course I had to have the delivery folks set it by the stairs; it would never do to have Bobby and David see delicate Andi lifting it! And it's not empty... oh heck no! At the moment, I'm trying to grow some tomato plants... squirrels apparently enjoy green tomatoes. Who knew? I did get ONE ripe one last week. Well, the point is that the planter is full of soil and a few plants and weighs over two hundred pounds. Those same people who insist hiding a spare key under a flower is stupid will also agree that hiding a spare key under a fifteen gallon flower pot is just as stupid, because no one would ever be able to get their key if they needed it.

He walks with me to the flower pot and watches with a smile as I retrieve the key. I think I can say with a fair amount of confidence that I know my husband, and I know he's smiling for a couple of reasons. One, his sweet delicate librarian is moving around a couple of hundred pounds of terra cotta and earth. I suspect that feat will never get old for him, and it's probably pretty remarkable to watch.

The second reason, of course, is that I'm doing this in the nude and bending over to get the key. Twice! That's something that would put a smile on any man's face. Well, any heterosexual man's face, anyway.

And that would be why I hide my spare key under my flower pot. A delicate librarian certainly isn't going to be able to move that pot.

I unlock the back door and return the key to its hiding place... then take Pablo's hand. The last time we entered the house — was that only a few hours ago? — it was separately and as near-strangers. This is so much better. As we walk into the house, I have a thought... one that will likely mean I'll need to work in the morning. Blast it!

Closing and locking the back door, I sigh.

"I have a feeling I'm going to get a call from Davis out in Jeffco in the morning. At least I hope Jeffco waits until morning." I turn back to him and take his hand again, bringing it to my lips. "I haven't seen my husband in forever, and he hasn't seen me in years. But sadly, someone knocked down some trees, and there was a mountain lion where she didn't belong — again! That cat is so naughty, but she's quite sweet, too, to warn us about the Rangers — and the Rangers must have spotted something or they wouldn't have been on their way." I chuckle. "I'm sure that will be an interesting conversation."

I head toward the bedroom, his hand in mine.

"But that's hours away, and you wanted to hear my metaphysical theories, right?"

"Yes, I do want to hear your thoughts, but if you're going to continue displaying your weight lifting abilities, actual words probably won't get spoken for some time." He smiles his sweet crooked grin and winks, and then turns us in the direction of the bedroom.

"Maybe you should tell me these ideas while we soak in the tub."

I look at him and just shake my head. "Pablo, dear... given our recent experiences, I suspect any lengthy conversations we have for the foreseeable future will be in public... or interrupted by frequent interludes of passionate lovemaking." I smile and squeeze his hand, then let go so I can get the tub filling with water. Big tub, it will take a bit.

I return to the bedroom and sit down on the bed, patting the space beside me.

"While we wait for the tub to fill, maybe you could tell me which parts of 'what happened' have you bemused."

He comes over and sits down on the comforter beside me, several pieces of grass falling off him to land on the floor beside his feet. Those feet absolutely need a decent scrubbing!

"I don't know if bemused is the word I'd use. What happened back there, when we became one... it was more profound than the first time we really did become one. I felt in touch with... I guess everything would be the best way to describe it. I was totally lost in you, in us.

"Well..." I take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, before just letting it out. "Wow, so many things were different this time. You, me, the location... I'm trying to think if there was anything in common between the two experiences." I shake my head.

"Yes... the fact that I love you," he says quietly. "I guess that's all that's really necessary."

I smile and rest my head on his shoulder. "Okay, yes. That part stayed the same. The love is eternal."

I listen to the sound of the water in the tub as I close my eyes... not yet. Not quite.

"Well... let's start with you. You were gone for three years in a horrible place, where you learned how to use your powers. Which reminds me, welcome to the ghetto, and don't forget to register yourself. Unregistered Supers are..."

Well, isn't that what I spend a portion of my time doing? Protecting those with powers who'd prefer to remain under the government's radar? It's not an easy job. They have minor powers that would barely get them noticed, yet if they are noticed... Well, most of them choose to wander; imagine that... nomads in America! Some choose Commerce City or one of the other enclaves for Unfortunates. There's a lawyer... Well, she's going to thumb her nose at the wrong judge someday. And then that judge is going to wonder how she got such glorious turquoise hair... or magenta... or lime green... or whatever color she picks for the day. I check in with her every month or so to remind her to stick with an acceptable palette of colors when she goes to work, and especially when she goes to court.

"...are not treated well, though I'd do whatever I could to protect you. Talk to your Captain, love. He's a good man, and he'll be able to keep things under wraps. He's done well by me all these years, and actually seems to be able to make a clear demarcation between Andrea Yazzie and Ninja. He treats Andi like... like a daughter, or so it seems. He provides Ninja with whatever she needs to keep Denver safer."

I twine the fingers of one hand with his.

"You came back from horror expecting to find solace, and you found only more pain, for which I am truly sorry... although I don't see how it possibly could have been any different. But you changed drastically in three years, and the world you left shifted slightly in the two days you were gone."

Another listen to the water level... close enough!

"Come," I say as I stand. "Hot water, soaking... I'm guessing soap might be a higher priority than the water jets." I look at the clump of grass on the floor. "I'm glad Mrs. K gave me the whole week off. I think I'll be finding various bits of the outdoors inside for days."

We pad into the master bathroom, where I turn off the water, and we settle into the big tub; I sit between his legs and lean back against his torso. I look up at him with a grin. "Just soaking, relaxing, getting clean. At least until you hear all my thoughts on the topic of what happened... or you may never hear them all, my love."

He settles into the tub, sighing as the hot water covers him and smiles more broadly when I lean back against him. He wraps his arms around me, cuddling me close.

"I've been thinking about this, Andi. Maybe I should go public, or do what Peregrine does. My powers aren't nearly as quiet and stealthy as yours." He rests his chin on my shoulder. "What do you think?"

I am quiet for a good long while, considering his idea.

"Well, I'll be honest and say my first instinct was to wonder if you'd gone stark raving mad.

"But..." I take a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

"Pablo Garcia, Super Cop would focus too much attention on everyone around you. I don't just mean the sort of attention that terrified both of us before you ever mentioned you loved me." I smile up at him. "The press would swarm the neighborhood, and while Bobby would adore the attention... I don't think any of our other neighbors would. And I can't stand up against that kind of scrutiny. All it would take is one photo of me riding out of the garage on my bike from one lurking photographer, and inside a week the tabloid headlines would be screaming "Super Cop Living with Another Super, The Ninja." Obviously they'd get that part wrong. Ninja. Just Ninja. Not THE Ninja." I roll my eyes.

"Peregrine is sponsored, and I guess that wouldn't be the worst thing. He manages to keep his private life private, although he is required to give interviews. But I guess as a detective, you're probably already at least somewhat familiar with dealing with the press. I think you'd wind up having to give up working for DPD, however, unless they sponsored you. Would they do that?

"I... I don't know, Pablo. But I... I'll support whatever decision you make as long as it doesn't put my identity in danger."

Pablo leans back in the tub and stares off into the distance in his mind, his arms still firmly circling me.

"I'm not sure what I'll do, but I agree with you that I need to talk with Captain Sanchez. I can trust him to keep my secret. I'd like to hear what he thinks from a department standpoint." He runs a hand through his hair.

"I know the main purpose of these powers is to help fight against whatever this coming Shadow is, but I'm a police officer. I don't know if I can have these powers and not use them to help the people I'm sworn to protect. I know you can understand that."

I lean against him, eyes closed. "I do understand, Pablo," I say quietly. "All we know is there's some... some sort of majorly bad thing coming. We don't know when. For all we know, it could be years from now. Or it could be next week. That snake of yours doesn't seem to have the most reliable grasp on the concept of time. And to stand by and watch people suffer, get hurt, die when there's a way to help..." I smile softly and hug his arms closer to me.

"Neither of us can do that. We just aren't wired that way.

"Talk to your Captain. Get his input. Don't worry, love... we'll figure out the right thing to do."

I sigh. "Of course, you haven't had the opportunity to experience the full force of nature known as Bobby Tompkins. You were here... what? A week or so before you left? Can you begin to even imagine how over-the-top crazy he'll get if he discovers a Super lives next door? Oh gods," I groan, "the only thing that would save me is that I can honestly say I didn't know you were a Super when I accepted your marriage proposal, and you moved in."

I open my eyes and look up at him again. "But you would protect your delicate Andrea from her uber-nosey best friend and neighbor, wouldn't you? You're such a fantastic fiancé." I giggle.

"Yes, love, I'd absolutely protect you from the man-sized tsunami that is Bobby." He chuckles softly and nuzzle the side of my neck and shoulder for a moment as I continue my narrative.

"Okay, back to the original topic. The second part of the equation is me." I settle back in his embrace, but don't speak for a minute or two.

"While you spent three years in a truly awful place, we were still somehow connected and, as I said, everything that happened to you also happened to me, only thirty times more concentrated. I have a fairly high tolerance for pain, but on top of the pain I felt because you were gone, that... that was too much. It makes perfect sense that I passed out and fell into a coma... not that I can tell Bobby and David or the doctors that.

"Time utterly lost all meaning. I was fighting all of the... the awful things I've ever fought over and over and over. Sometimes I'd win those fights; most times I didn't. I was confused the first couple of times I seemed to die and come back to fight again. After that, I assumed I was in some sort of afterlife — something like the Catholics' — where I was being punished for... well, whatever I've done wrong in this life.

"You know how hard it is for me to deal with having to kill someone. I spend hours and hours every day crying and practicing my Taiji. I'm getting better at dealing with it — I'm only a wreck for a few days now, instead of a week or more — but it's still hard. So to be back in the emotional space where it would take more than a week for me to recover, and then have every living being I've killed berate me and tell me over and over how horrible I am and how I deserve so much worse than the hell I was in..."

I am silent again, trying not to cry.

"I absolutely believed I was in the afterlife," I say softly, "in a place where I was already dead, and I wanted nothing more than to die. I think that thought was my most frequent companion... I want to die. Even Raven had abandoned me. And then you came to me in that nightmare world, and I knew you had died, too. I felt such despair that you'd died, but such relief when your presence changed the landscape. I felt at peace and thought that perhaps... just perhaps if you could forgive me for hurting you so badly... we could spend eternity together."

I swallow hard and close my eyes again, this time to keep the tears from falling.

"You shone with such radiance, and all I could see was your beauty. I was dressed in my wedding dress; I remember kneeling at your feet begging for your mercy. I remember Raven... pecking at me for some reason. And then... and then that must have been when you woke me.

"I was confused, I was terrified. I didn't know if it was real, or just another nightmare. Somehow, I gathered the strength and wits to get out of the hospital, but on the way home... once we got home... I didn't quite know who I was or who you were. Well, no... that's not quite right. I think it would be more accurate to say that I didn't know who we were in relation to each other. I couldn't feel you as I had before you left.

"Something about being where you were corrupted your qi, and something about where I was corrupted our bond. Oh gods, Pablo..." I swallow again as a tear trickled down my cheek. "It hurt so much, but there you were... still you, still the man I would marry in front of friends and family, and you were hurting just as much as I was. I had to do something, anything to make that pain go away for both of us."

I reach a hand up and behind me to touch his face so gently, and I was able to breathe... breathe deeply... calm myself. "I think we had made a fairly good start before you flew us off."

He listens silently as I describe what I'd gone through; I can almost feel his throat tightening, I can hear his chest pounding, and before long I felt his tears fall on my skin. "My sweet love," he murmurs, "if I could have kept all that pain to myself, I would have. I'm so sorry."

Soft, gentle winds stir my hair as he holds me; for several minutes, his pain and sorrow are too strong to allow him to speak. "We… we've been through too much… too much pain and fear. We need time for us to remember who we were, and who we are now. I think we're stronger for having gone through it, but for now… for now, we need peace, healing, love."

He cradles me against his chest and gently rocks me in his arms, singing softly.

I don't understand the words of his song, not all of them anyway, but the way he holds me, the emotion in his voice...

It doesn't matter that I don't understand the words because I understand the meaning. But siempre... that word I know.

Always.

We have healed, mostly. And love is eternal. Oh, but how I long for some peace! This is peaceful, though... being held, being... well, just being. I look up at him, then reach up to pull his head down for a soft and tender kiss.

"Dear, dear Pablo... had I not shared in your pain, what would have happened to you? Had our bond truly been broken, what would have happened to us?

"Your serpent did not give a full disclosure of the price to be paid when you asked. If he had, would you have left? If he had, I would never have let you go. And maybe he knew that. And maybe we needed this experience to find the strength we'll need to face the coming Shadow." I shrug.

"I still think he's a lousy little shit, and there's a pretty good chance I'm not going to be particularly happy to see him again anytime soon." I sigh and rest my head against his chest.

"The third variable, then, is location." As if the separate hells the two of us went through weren't enough to thoroughly change the dynamic of our bond, making love outdoors...

"You'll keep in mind, won't you dear, that it was your idea?" I chuckle softly.

"First off, you kind of freaked me out a little with this flying ability of yours. It was all frightfully sudden, and you flew darned fast, and I felt so out of control that my skin was crawling. But once you had us on the ground again, I could feel all the energy of the Earth so strongly that... well, it gave me entirely too many ideas, not all of which were related to ensuring we had a most pleasurable experience."

I look up, grinning. "I absolutely had that in mind as well, of course.

"You know how our qi dances and swirls around together? Well, I could feel that your qi was... I don't want to say 'tainted,' it wasn't anything like Tita's, but maybe it was just so full of pain that it was... exhausted? Discolored? I always have a hard time putting the nuances of qi into words. But it wasn't quite right. And we no longer had a blended energy, either. I remembered how we managed to bond so strongly the first time, but I wasn't sure it would be enough this time. We both had too much pain.

"And I was determined to get rid of every single scar that serpent left with you because it made me so angry that he did that. Yes, I know... it might have been important there to have them, to keep collecting them, so you could look at yourself and know you were human; perhaps that's so. But returning you to our world with them? Did he think you would forget here that you were human?" I shake my head and sigh.

"No matter.

"What we did up on Lookout Mountain would, I think, be called magic by my Wiccan friends. Sex, when it is accompanied by love, is a holy rite. After what we did up there, I don't have any doubt about that. And it's powerful magic, too. Plus..."

I hesitate, for a few seconds... no more.

"I have never used the full extent of my Power for anything other than battle, to send an extremely concentrated blast of qi through the lao gong points in my hands and yong quan points in my feet. But I called my Power to surround us with the energy of the very Earth Herself. Oh, Pablo! How I wish you could have seen as I did! Everything was so... so beautiful that I almost forgot to breathe. You were shining bright and silvery... the trees, the grass, the stars, the birds, the wildlife... all so achingly beautiful. And I could hear Mother Earth chuckling; the grass, the leaves on the trees were giggling. Nature itself was happy, delighting in the magic we were making.

"I used my Power to give the impurities of your qi to Earth; I used my Power to erase the scars you returned with... you don't need them.

"The magic and my Power created... again, this is where words just don't convey the true essence of what happened. But the result was not only a re-blending of our qi, not only a near-complete healing of our hearts, not only a reconnection of our souls...

"I don't know how it felt to you... obviously different from the first time we bonded... but I could have sworn that time stopped and you and I were ONE. I... I knew I was me, and I knew I was you... and I felt for an instant that I was you was everything."

I sit quietly, replaying the whole thing in my mind. I try to think of a way to explain our experience; something that would make some kind of sense. I wonder if it's possible.

"I know exactly what you mean, love. I felt everything you did. I felt the Earth and the Sky. I was you, and you were me, and we were One." He takes the opportunity to kiss me softly.

I smile and run my fingers lightly down the side of his face. "Before you left, we had a bond that was strong that likely nothing on earth could ever break. But the bond we have now is so strong, so complete, we are so undeniably ONE that there is nothing on earth or in heaven or in hell that can tear us apart. Do you remember what I had said earlier? 'Wither thou goest, so too shall I go.'

"It doesn't matter where we wind up, Pablo, we will be together. Your serpent wants to send you off to another dimension again? Fine... I'll be there with you, whether I belong there or not because I belong at your side. And I don't think it's a thing we can decide, that we can decide will be one way or the other. Where you go, I will go. Where I go, you will go."

I smile again, almost a grin. "I don't mean the everyday things before you say anything goofy, dear husband. I just mean... when it comes to the weird metaphysical stuff, we're in this together."

Pablo sits quietly for a moment, absently stroking my arm. "Andrea... I... I think it was the blood."

I consider the sequence of events; I had been having a hard enough time keeping track of whom I was to worry about what was happening when, but...

I nod slowly. "I think you're right. That seems to be the last coherent memory I have before the universe exploded and we became the universe. Is blood magic something you often did in the other dimension?"

I feel trickles of... what? Worry? Maybe a touch of fear. Shared qi, blended qi... apparently it emulates empathy. That's certainly going to make for a very intriguing relationship, although possibly a relationship that is far more emotionally honest than most people have. I'm just glad for Pablo's sake — if this is a two-way street — that I don't suffer from PMS.

"A number of your scars were human bite marks. That's why I wonder. I..." I shift in the tub so I could face him, sitting on his legs rather than between them. "Pablo, I know you went through hell. And you don't have to tell me about it. But, well, you've seen what happens when you hold in memories, especially painful ones. I have to admit more curiosity about the blood magic than I might ordinarily have because not only it highly likely was the... the last catalyst for our reunion, but I have a feeling that's what... mmmm... changed me, too."

He's very quiet, very still, looking down and refusing to meet my eyes.

"No, not all of them were mine. Some of them are. When I needed to stay awake, I would bite my arms. But the others..." He shudders. "Some things there drank blood, both human and not human."

I am very still, and very quiet, just as he was. I caress his face with my strong fingers, and then lift his chin so I can look into his eyes.

"This darkness on your soul — our soul — will be removed, I swear it."

There's an anger building in me that's both familiar and strange. The serpent was right when he said he was not like the Spirit guardians of my People. But from his behavior, attitude and treatment of Pablo, his insistence that he was more like the Spirits than a god was disingenuous at best.

"I know the serpent has said from the beginning that you are his Chosen One. Just what — exactly — does that mean? It doesn't seem you have the same sort of relationship with him that I have with Raven, or that any of my People have with the Spirits.

"Do you trust him?"

"Trust him? No, of course not... not about everything. He's a serpent and keeps his own counsel and is admittedly deceptive. But that he's against these Shadows? Yes... of that, I have no doubt. Many of the things that hunted me were Shadow tainted, creatures from long ago that he took and hid away from mankind in his dimension. There were men and women there who'd been tainted. They were the ones that bit me."

So many questions, and likely so few answers.

And the water is getting cold.

"Do you need soap and washcloth, love, or has the soaking dislodged all the grass and dirt?" I ask with a smile. I check my own elbows and feet, which are clean... the feet a bit on the wrinkly side.

"I think there are a couple of other things worth talking about tonight, but there's no reason not to do that curled up in bed."

I stand and look down at him... my heart beating wildly and amazed yet again at how I feel about him.

Pablo looks up at me as I stand; there is so much love and desire in his eyes that they shine.

"My God, Aphrodite rising in my own tub," he murmurs with amazement.

I step out of the tub, laughing softly with delight.

"Oh, you don't really want to compare me to Aphrodite, do you, Pablo?" I start drying myself. "She was such a floozy! Fidelity didn't seem to be a trait the ancient Greeks found particularly appealing."

Despite my teasing, that love and desire are reflected in my own eyes. "We're never going to finish any conversation without a break for lovemaking, are we?"

He smiles up at me, his eyes following my curves, memorizing every nuanced inch of my skin.

"Unlikely... we are in our honeymoon phase, after all." He stands as well, letting the water stream off him, holding out a hand for the towel next to me.

I chuckle as I hand him the other towel. "You have a point, but I'm going to have to start making lists of half-finished conversations since you have a tendency to make me forget who I am. Trying to remember that I still have questions or remember to tell you something that might be important is entirely out of the question."

I smile, manage with greater will power than I usually possess to keep from running my hands over his incredibly toned and sleek body, then drop the towel in the hamper on my way back into the bedroom... looking back over my shoulder at him. I still do need to tell him about something that probably is important, but that might have to wait.

I might even remember tomorrow that I need to do laundry, too.

I fold down the quilt and sheet, and make myself comfortable... on my side of the bed. I'm not sure I'm quite used to sharing my bed yet, having never done it before. Even when I was going out with Jared, we spent more time at his apartment than mine. But I do like it, the sharing. I guess it just took finding the right person.

He towels himself off and deposits the towel in the hamper, calling out to me, "You'll have to show me your washing machine later so I can get some of our stuff washed. We're going to run out of towels." He pads out of the bathroom and joins me in the bed, slipping between the sheets and turning on his side to look at me.

"You wanted to tell me something?" he asks, very conspicuously and with sheer determination keeping his hands to himself. I almost giggle again.

"I think so," I say, getting distracted again in running my fingers over his smooth skin... shoulder, upper arm. There had been so, SO many scars. And now there are none.

We did that.

I was surprised by the removal of his three scars he'd gotten as a police officer, but this?

This simply amazes me.

I look into his eyes... beautiful, dark, deep, endless. And haunted. It breaks my heart, it makes me angry. Isn't easing his pain more important than... than anything else?

"You need to let go of what happened, Pablo, or... I... I don't really know, it's just a feeling I have, but I don't think you can fight the Shadow with darkness still inside you. You can't pretend it never happened, you can't hold onto it and try to forget about it, you can't wallow in it.

"I'm probably not the best person to be giving advice on dealing with memories of having done terrible things, I guess, given how long it takes to recover... although... although..."

I grip my lower lip between my teeth and roll onto my back, staring at the ceiling a moment before sighing.

"There has always been a clear demarcation between who Andrea Yazzie is and who Ninja is. I did that on purpose; I wanted... I wanted to feel normal for a change. And if I put Ninja in a box while I was Andrea, then I could at least pretend that I was normal. I could keep my life as student, librarian, daughter, sister, cousin, friend separate from my life as Protector. Good idea, bad idea... I don't know. But it seemed to work pretty well."

I turn my head to look at Pablo.

"When you left, when I was stuck in hell, the wall between who Andrea is and who Ninja is got pretty beat up. There were lots of cracks and chinks in the mortar. I knew it was going to take some work to put that wall back together, but I thought it was probably a reasonable idea. After all, it's been working well for years, right?"

I close my eyes and sigh, then start to smile as I shake my head. When I open my eyes again... gods, he's so beautiful... I give him a look I remember Mama giving me and Justin when we were small, when we had done something naughty. It's a look that holds love, and a little exasperation and even some humor.

"Well, that wall that I was going to have to patch up was totally obliterated up there on Lookout Mountain. And I'm pretty darn sure it was the blood magic that did it."

He looks at me as I speak, letting his hand travel up and down my arm. But he stops then, when I speak of the blood magic.

"No! I did that to you, beloved?" I hear both pain and regret in his voice. "I'm so sorry, Andrea. The blood magic, well, it's part of my heritage I guess, but something I won't use. It's the dark part of my heritage... human sacrifice, blood offerings. And now it's damaged you?" He's becoming distraught.

I look at him with surprise. "Damaged? What...? No!" I roll over onto my side again, and prop myself up on an elbow. "Love, what I did — while it was useful, and worked well, and gave me some semblance of 'normal' — would have turned into a problem in the long run. Or even the short run, because I'm not sure how well you and Ninja could have worked together.

"If you had not needed these powers of yours, if you would never be called on to fight at Ninja's side, I don't think problems would have developed for a long time. But eventually... well, even the way I was a week ago, David would have had me in therapy to reintegrate what he would have viewed as two personalities. And... and I don't think he'd be far off. The more time that passed, I think the more divergent the two personalities would have become.

"And Pablo..." I reach out to cup his cheek, smiling tenderly. "Ninja didn't know love; without love, you can't have compassion. She lived strictly from the place of justice. But even justice needs to be tempered with compassion at times.

"You didn't damage me, my precious husband... you healed me. We are truly partners whether in our ordinary lives as husband and wife or in our not so ordinary lives keeping our people, our city safe. And while my heritage is considerably less bloodthirsty than yours, I can understand yours. It's because I am whole that I understand because that level of violence is something that Ninja does understand."

I lean forward to kiss him softly, and then snuggle close to him.

Relief washes over his face as I reassure him that he hadn't hurt me, that he'd healed what was a growing divide in my personality. He returns my kiss and wraps his arms around me, drawing our bodies together. The qi dances between us, around us, through us as we embrace.

"Don't deny your heritage; it had darkness for a reason. You are the master of wind and light, are you not? Because your people did things in the past, there is no need for you do to them in the present. My people certainly don't hold to all the old traditions, although there are some who always will. If the blood magic is a tool that can be used when we face the Shadow, then it should be used. If, instead, it's too dark, too likely to cause harm, then no... don't use it."

I look into his eyes, breath catching again, and smile. "It most certainly did not cause harm with its use tonight, husband."

"It's dark, Andi; it was used on me there." He shudders as he shakes his head. "I don't want to talk about that tonight. Not in the dark, and not on my first real night back. I just want you. I need you."

I stroke his brow, run my fingers through his hair. "Then we won't speak of it tonight. We'll only talk about light, and beauty and goodness...

"Assuming we manage any talking at all," I say with a giggle. "Though, sometimes, it is nice just to cuddle and talk." For some reason, I just can't stop being absolutely fascinated with how exquisitely handsome Pablo is. "I am here, and I am yours."

"I love you, Andrea, but tonight — when I fall asleep — it would be best if Ninja were here. I'm not sure how I'll be," he says quiet, shame on his face. "Our union healed my body of its scars. I don't know how badly my mind is still scarred."

I look at him oddly as if he said something quite peculiar. "I thought you understood what I meant earlier, when I said the wall between Andrea and Ninja was obliterated, love.

"Andrea is Ninja is Andrea."

"No, I understand, love. I mean be Ninja alert. I can't remember how many times I had to come out of sleep fighting for my life. I don't want to hurt you, even if you do heal up fast. Just until I adjust. I'm hoping, however, that our reunion healed those scars, too," he says, rolling into my arms and nuzzling his lips into the hollow of my neck.

"Beware what you ask for, Pablo... I am just as likely to hurt you as you are to hurt me, and you do not heal quickly. And we still haven't figured out how I can heal you without nearly passing out myself. Or while having sensational sex," I say with a sly grin, "which isn't always practical."

I can see the haunted look in his eyes. I know his scars aren't healed. So I had already been planning to sleep lightly.

"Perhaps not always practical, but always fun," he says into the hollow of my neck. "Tomorrow morning, I'm going to see the Captain. I need some time off to recover. I'd like to go to New Mexico, Andi. I think it would do me some good."

"Yes... mmmm, you're trying to distract me," I say, with a sigh. "We could go to Ganado and see Tommy and John Ravenclaw, or I could... Pablo! I can't think clearly! ... could talk to the Hopi Shaman and ask about you using their local sweat lodge up near Nederland."

His hands are slowly caressing my sides, feeling each rib under my skin and tracing it with his fingertips.

"No, no... not the local guy. Tommy. I want family members around for this." His lips dance feather light across my upper chest to my collarbone, which he begins tracing with his tongue.

My breathing is unquestionably getting ragged, and as for trying to talk?

"'Kay..."

I'll need to remember to call Tommy in the morning. Assuming I can remember anything at all. I slide my fingers slide across his skin and comb through his hair. My normally hypersensitive senses seem to be even more acute than usual. Hearing his heart, feeling each tiny hair on his arm, and dear gods the way he smells! Sunlight and man and wind...

We spend another glorious eternity making love before finally falling asleep in the early hours of the morning, wrapping in each other's arms.

At some point in the darkness, Pablo begins to sweat and twitch, his muscles clenching as he groans.

"NO!! Get away!" he screams, flinging a fist out that smashes into my nose and shattering it before I can move, and he rolls out of bed faster than I've ever known him to move before. His lips curl back from his teeth s a gale force wind surrounds us. He eyes are blank and lifeless, still asleep.

I had only an instant's warning before that fist hits me square in the face. Nevertheless, I'm rolling from the side of the bed with a forearm under my nose trying to keep the blood from ruining my sheets before I even realize I'm moving.

"GODS FUCKING DAMN IT!"

I could feel the bones and cartilage reknitting, tissue repairing itself as I stared at the crazy man on the other side of the bed.

Great. You just had to hit me in the face, didn't you? Do you how much it fracking ITCHES to heal this fast? No, of course, you don't. Well, I'll be sure to remind you later when you're sane. At the moment, my eyes are tearing from trying to hold back the sneeze the itching is trying to cause. Bad idea, that. I learned long ago that you let the healing finish before any sneezing happens.

Of course, by then the urge to sneeze is over.

Through the tears, I can see Pablo is still sleeping. Damn, darlin', that's one hell of a way to sleepwalk. Oh baby, if that wind of yours ruins my bedroom, I'm not going to be tiniest bit happy.

After about a minute or so, the worst of the pain has died down to a manageable level. Although there is still healing to be done, and I can't breathe particularly well through my nose yet, I can at least function.

"Ah... hey, Pablo? Nobody's here except you and me, and I'm going to give you a pass on this one. So... no danger, love. The bedroom is a safe place."

Well, it was until a couple of minutes ago, anyway. Slowly, the wind begins to die down, and while I can see Pablo isn't actually awake yet, there's a touch of intelligence there. His hands are running automatically over his body, apparently checking for bleeding wounds or missing flesh or weapons sticking into him, I suppose.

"Andrea?" he murmurs, only half awake.

I slowly start to move around to the end of the bed. Breathing is easier; that's good. "I'm here, Pablo. You had a nightmare. I'm going to come around the bed and sit beside you. Are you going to be okay with that?"

The winds are still strong enough to whip my long hair around and send a chill down my spine — and not from the cold either. It's all from the sheer creepiness of what's going on — but at least Pablo seems to be waking up. His hands stop their almost continuous check of his body. At least the wind has dried the sweat from his body and hair.

"Andrea... did I...?" He turns to look at me; I can see the dark circles under his eyes.

I don't know how well he can see in the dark. I can easily see there is blood on my arm, my chest; if past experience is any indication, there's blood all over my face, too.

"You had a nightmare, love. That's all. Got a little riled up. Still are, if that's what the wind means." I stop just outside arms' reach. "Are you going to be okay if I come closer? Or should I just stay over here for another couple of minutes?"

There might actually be enough ambient light coming through the window from the street lamp up the alley for him to see the darkness of the blood. But from the way he's reacting, from the vibration of the qi between us, I'd guess he can smell it. I suppose he'd have grown used to the smell of human blood, particularly his own.

"I'm sorry, love. Awake now." He curls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around his knees.

"Okay. Hang tight." I leap up and run to the bathroom, switch on the hot water and grab one of the old washcloths from the drawer. This certainly isn't the first time I've had to clean up blood. I wipe off as much as of the blood as I can... most of the blood is on my face, then the arm, and just a bit on my chest. There might be some on the floor, but that can wait until later. I think I saved the sheets.

I don't bother drying anything; I want to get back to Pablo as fast as I can. I'd have gone right to him, but I don't think all that blood would have been a smart idea. I sit behind him, one leg on either side of him, my knees hugging his ribs. I wrap my arms around him and rest my head against his back.

"There, now. All is well. It was just a nightmare.

"I take it you thought something was after you. Do you want to talk about it, or do you just want me to hold you, love?"

He relaxes in the warmth of my arms and legs and long silky hair against his back. "It was the spiders. At least, that's what I called the things that had eight legs but were the size of a Fiat. I could hear them skittering in the night when I would lay down in the trees, trying to keep above at least some of the predators that hunted at ground level. I was huddling in the cold, and praying to get just a few hours of sleep." He closes his eyes, and I can almost smell and hear the scents and sounds that are echoing in his mind. He shudders.

I lightly kiss his back, his shoulders, his neck.

"You're safe here. Anything with more than two legs stays outside where it properly belongs. It was just a nightmare, beloved." I hold him tightly, feeling the shudders run through him; they cause a spark of anger in me at what was done to him. "Until your soul is healed, there will be the possibility of nightmares. If it would make your subconscious feel better, I'll stay awake while you sleep. I'll guard you; you'll be safe."

"No. But perhaps we should sleep apart for now, at least out of arms' reach." He sighs. "I don't want to repeat what just happened. If you couldn't heal so quickly..."

He leaves that unsaid, but I know what he means. He could have killed me. I don't think he has the strength to break a skull, but some of the facial bones are far too easy to break. At just the wrong angle, one of them could potentially be driven into my brain. Pretty sure I don't heal from that.

"I feel like one of the vets with PTSD you read about and feel sorry for."

I sigh. "Pablo, you do have PTSD, but I refuse to let you throw a pity party for yourself. I'll help you heal, though. I promise you that."

I sigh again and lean my forehead against his back. I find myself struggling for a moment to keep from saying the first thing that had come into my mind. Except... except there isn't anything else to say on the matter, and there might be gentler ways to say it, but gentle isn't the way to go right now. I hate having to admit that, but the cold, harsh truth needs to be laid out.

"Pablo, if I couldn't heal so quickly, I wouldn't be the person I am.

"If I weren't the person I am, you would not only have not gone to another dimension to suffer through enough torment to cause PTSD, but you wouldn't be here, right now, in my bedroom.

"If I weren't the person I am, you never would have been in my bedroom, period."

Our lives and our experiences are cumulative. I am who I am because my parents feared for their daughter's life... and later their son's life. They left the familiarity of New Mexico and wrangled a transfer to Japan, where I received training that allowed me to survive the onset of the Curse. Would I have survived without that training? Perhaps, but I think I would have been damaged, so frightfully damaged by it in body, mind, and soul. Everything that has happened in my life since Little Danny flew off and never returned has made me who I am. Every event has led to this moment when I sit on my bedroom floor comforting the man I love more than I ever thought was possible.

"You are my husband. You will sleep in our bed beside me."

I move around to sit where I can see his face. With fingers under his chin, I lift his head, caressing him lightly with my thumb.

"Look at me. Hear my words. Understand them."

I shiver as I feel a millennium's worth of power in the traditional words. Hear my words. Understand them. These are the words spoken at every gathering of the People when serious thoughts — controversial, alien, but often peace-making — were to be presented. These traditional words are still spoken today at every Tribal Council meeting.

"We are One. I will not abandon you, I will not let you suffer alone. I will do what I feel is necessary to protect myself until you are whole again... and that does not include leaving your side.

"We are One. You are not alone... and never will be again."

I can see the fear and shame in his eyes. I don't know how to convince him this wasn't his fault. There probably isn't a way for me to convince him... he has to come to that knowledge himself, I suppose.

"Have you heard my words?" I ask softly. "Have my words been understood?"

He looks deep into my eyes, into my soul, and sees the strength of purpose there, sees the overwhelming love I have for him. He nods.

"Yes, Andrea, I hear you. I just wish I didn't have to put you through this. I should be protecting you, not being a danger to you." He sighs and leans forward to rest his forehead against mine.

"All I know is that if you hadn't come into my life, Andi, I would have continued to live out a lonely and miserable life. You gave me comfort and helped me finally let go of the pain from my wife's and my child's deaths. You gave me your love and let me find in my heart the ability to love again. I will stand beside you forever and face anything as long as you are with me.

"I'll get through this, Andi, and we'll be married at Christmas, and we'll live a long and happy life together with healthy, beautiful children." He smiles softly. "Hear my words. Understand them," he says as he gently traces my lips with a fingertip.

I smile... how could I not?

"I hear and understand you, husband," I reply. For a moment, there is only peaceful stillness. We will both do whatever it takes to make that future a reality.

However, there is a sadly old-fashioned notion of which my beloved husband must be disabused. I softly rap him on the head with my knuckles.

"It is not your job to protect me, my dear husband who is obviously still not used to having a wife who is a Super. I can protect myself. Your job is to be at my side, to watch my back as I watch yours. If you start worrying about protecting me when the shit hits the fan, we all lose." I lean forward and kiss the tip of his nose. "I don't expect you to get over your cultural bias overnight, though."

I grin and my eyes twinkle with mischief.

"Would it help if we find some lovely remote location where we can spar? Before the wall was torn down, Ninja was looking forward to knocking you around a bit." I laugh. "Now, I just think it would be a smart idea to know what the other is capable of. You've never actually seen me in battle, that debacle with Tsui Ji notwithstanding. There is plenty of open desert space out near Ganado. Although... being the land of my People, and sacred ground as well, it might give me an unfair advantage."

"It will always be my duty to protect you, just as you feel you need to protect me if you're honest with yourself, Andi. I'm not saying that you can't protect yourself. I know you can, much better than I can. But if you go down, I'll be there to protect you and guard you. I have your back."

I consider his comment, honestly as he suggested, then nod. "Fair enough. I think we're saying the same thing, and I'm okay with that."

I blink, a sudden — seemingly random, though highly relevant — thought passing through my mind.

"How fast can you fly?"

He looks at me oddly when I ask that question. "I don't really know. I had no way to tell how fast I was flying when I was there. Maybe we can borrow one of those guns they use in baseball, and you can measure my speed."

But then, oh my... I know my look is wickedly playful. "I can think of a way that's more fun than that, although we don't have to test it out tonight if you don't feel up to it. Any night with some decent weather would be acceptable.

"I'll get on my bike, and you pace me down I-25. I'll have to find the second mic that came with my helmet, but you can let me know if I start going faster than you can... I'll let you know when I hit my top speed, and you see if you can go faster. We'll either get a definite number or we'll know you can fly faster than my bike."

I grin broadly.

"Doesn't that sound like fun?!!"

"Hmmm... that sounds like a workable idea. I can probably tune into your helmet's mic frequency with one of my police walkies."

"Oh, absolutely! I monitor the police bands while I'm out." I look at him and shrug semi-apologetically. "Even the ones you think are private. Sorry. But... it's turned out to be useful more than once.

He shakes his head and smiles ruefully. "I find I'm not surprised. We could test your theory on the way out to see Tommy, right?"

"Well, I was sort of hoping to know about the flying thing before we went. If you can keep up, then that's great, and the trip won't take all that long. But if your top speed isn't much faster than, say taking your car... then we might as well both go in your car."

Thinking out loud about the tactics of traveling when one of the participants in the equation actually flies... without being in an airplane... makes me realize my life is not the least bit normal. I've been trying to pretend it is, but... nope. I'm actually okay with not being 'normal', though, I think.

"Do you know if you have a range or a time limit before you start getting too tired to fly? That would factor into our plans, too." I chuckle and lean my head against his shoulder. "This is a really weird conversation, you know."

"It is a bit of an odd conversation, yes. But then, we're a bit of an odd couple," he says, turning his head to kiss my neck. "I can fly for a long time because I'm using the winds to fly. They're just answering my call... at least outside. In here, it's different. And my use of light is more tiring than flying to manipulating the winds."

"And everyone thinks we're such a lovely, normal couple," I say with mock sadness, before giggling that turns into a tiny moan when he kisses my neck.

"You are such a distraction!" I sigh with contentment. "An incredible, glorious distraction..."

I try to focus, at least for another couple of minutes, on travel arrangements.

"Well... if you don't... you're not making this easy, you know... tire... from flying, even... if you're not as fast, you... Pablo let me finish a sentence! You can go over... the mountains where the... roads don't go. I will..." I let out another quiet moan. "...will assume daytime is better... for both of us."

"We should try to leave tomorrow, right after we talk with the Captain," he whispers along my neck.

Then he stops and pulls back to look at my face. "Andrea? Do you want to come with me when I talk to him?"

"Are you..." I look at him, all my playfulness gone for the moment. "You're that worried about night time that you think we should go tomorrow?" I nod as I take a deep breath. "If you are, then you are... and we should go. And..." I tilt my head, considering. "If you want me to go with you, if you think it would be helpful..." I roll my eyes. "If our activities on Lookout Mountain don't prompt a call from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office...

"Yes, I'd go with you."

He seems to melt with relief. "I need some sleep before I see him. I'm exhausted. All I want to do is go to sleep and hold you. Tomorrow... we'll see him tomorrow; we can deal with everything then."

"Then come back to bed, love," I say, hugging him before standing and taking his hand, then leading him back to bed. I am happy to rest my head on his shoulder as he wraps himself around me.

"Now, when we go see Captain Sanchez tomorrow, do you want your pretty fiancée to go with you... or your new partner?" I smile in the darkness. "One costume takes longer to put on than the other."

"My fiancée. You'll stand out less and face it... Sanchez will know anyway." He buries his nose in my hair and sighs softly. "I love you, Andrea."

"I love you with all my heart and soul, beloved. Sleep now."

I nestle comfortably against him, listening as his breathing slows, heart rate slows... I can almost feel the moment when he finally stops resisting sleep and slips into what I hope will be dreamless slumber.

But I stay awake the remaining hours of the night, guarding him and his dreams.

© Kelly Naylor and Ken Seggebruch