Issue 8: Friends and Foes

After three delightful days in Los Angeles getting to know Pablo's family, and completely falling in love with them, I return home to Denver with Pablo. Our very own man-sized tsunami and his thankfully down-to-earth most beloved David provide us with a plate of calories in the form of Bobby's famous lemon Bundt cake. Extremely delicious calories, true... but there are thousands and thousands of calories on that plate. The only people who should be best friends with Bobby are exercise fanatics and Supers, the latter apparently having a somewhat higher metabolic rate than ordinary people... lucky me.

And lucky Pablo; I suppose I can add that tiny factoid to the plus category on the tally sheet I'm keeping in my head for his trip to the ancestral pest's prison dimension. I'm pretty sure the scale is never going to balance. But every positive thing I can find resulting from his three year "vacation" makes it that much less likely that I'll tear that lousy serpent to small pieces, dance on the corpse and use it as kindling for a bonfire. The fact that the serpent is merely a manifestation human senses can understand of an other-dimensional being means I won't kill it and it's sure to come back and annoy us after that anyway. This fact does not seem to deter my primal instincts from planning and plotting its eventual demise.

Oh well... at least we're offered the plate of calories before the questions start; that doesn't always happen with Bobby. Even David is laughing at my best friend's mile a minute questions about Pablo's family and the wedding. I'm used to Bobby at his most hyper, but Pablo isn't yet.

"Um... yeah, we missed you guys, too," is all he says when Bobby's questions finally wind down.

I'm just glad I still have another day off. The four of us talk late into the evening, which is not an unusual occurrence anymore. It's only Pablo's not so subtle hints that the heterosexuals would like to engage in private displays of affection that finally gets David to take Bobby home, however.

Home... life is back to normal.

Okay, just kidding about life being back to normal because I don't think I've ever known normal. But for the viewing audience — family, friends, and coworkers — our lives appear to be back to what they think is normal.

When I read Peregrine's email — before we get completely lost in the bedroom — setting up a meeting for Wednesday night, part of me is a bit annoyed and contemplates suggesting a different night. Of course, then my rational brain kicks in and I realize every night is date night with Pablo now that we're living together. At that point, other parts of my brain and anatomy forget all about Denver's Sponsored Super and spend a good ten minutes just thinking about Pablo.


I finally get around to reading Peregrine's second sentence, which definitely confuses me. Is he suggesting Ninja and Peregrine meet in public? That would cause quite a stir and make me damn uncomfortable, so... no. Is he suggesting Ninja's secret identity and Peregrine's secret identity meet in public? Hey, way to come out of the closet, dude!

Actually, I wonder what the protocol for that sort of thing is. Do Supers with ordinary lives who work together know each other's secret identities? Being the one who keeps to the shadows, I guess I don't get all the memos. I sure as heck didn't get the Guidebook on How To Be An Effective Super. Is there such a thing? There should be.

Or should we skip the whole mess of a public meeting and meet in private... meaning out of the way, off the beaten path, isolated, somewhere tourists won't wander by? Or...?

Did he write this email at four in the morning after not sleeping for three days? Dude, you are confusing me!

Okay, buddy. Leave it up to me, and we shall do it my way. And because I'm such a nice person, it will be so much easier for you to reach the destination I have in mind. I email him back with the location and a note that it's "bring your own dinner."

The next evening, I marvel at the way ordinary life is so very extraordinary. Snuggling next to Pablo on the sofa is nice, and it hasn't reached the "this is normal" stage yet. It's wonderful, and I wouldn't mind if it always stays wonderful and new. We're watching — or half watching — the Rockies play the Dodgers. Even though the Rockies are winning, and it's the top of the ninth, with the way they've been playing this year... well, local Cub fans are comparing the Rockies to the Cubs. The Cub fans think it's a compliment... the Rockies fans don't.

"Hey, Pablo? I'm having dinner with Peregrine tomorrow night, remember? How much should I tell him about you? I need to let him know you're one of the good guys, and if he's smart he'll want to know how I happen to know that."

"Hmmm, that's a good question. Since he's the public Super here in Denver, I don't have a problem with you letting him know I exist, but I'd like to keep my identity a secret for a while longer. I think some of the Captain's suggestions for working this out are pretty good," he says with a sigh. "But I really need to digest it all. Just have Ninja tell Peregrine that I'm a newly blossomed Super starting to come into my own."

"Well, that's certainly the truth," I say with a smile. "I can't tell him how it is I happen to know you... or know of you. Not the truth, anyway. And that leaves a big hole in the story.

"I can be completely truthful and tell him I'm working with you, helping you out. We really do need to work together so we're as much of a team out there as we are here," I say as I walk my fingers up his sternum.

"So how is it that you caught my attention? Or did you come looking for me? Did I find you floating around in one of my usual haunts, freaking out because you couldn't get back to the ground?" I grin. "That one sounds really silly, yet probably believable."

"Well, you could tell him the truth. I'm your obedient love slave, and you're so incredible that you've caused me to spontaneously erupt as a Super, giving me amazing powers." He looks down at me unbuttoning his shirt, one eyebrow raised.

"You're neither obedient," I say, unfastening the second button, "nor was it my outstanding skill that caused your powers to manifest. The skills you possess that caught the attention of the Rangers are the responsibility of your ancestral pest." I lay my palm against his chest, feeling the qi flaring. "So perhaps telling the more fanciful story would be better.

"Let's see... I've already referred you to Captain Sanchez, my contact over at DPD. Oooh, I'm so naughty telling these little white fibs." I giggle.

"Your name... what should Ninja call you?" I ask as I unbutton the top button of his shirt.

I move my hand up to his neck, fingers and thumb massaging the muscles on either side and along his jaw.

"Yes, my dearest, but why did our powers and our qi flare? It was because we found perfect union together; it was a transcendental moment and I know I don't feel the same since. I'm as much a part of you as I am myself." He leans back a bit, clearly enjoying the attention. He rests his hand on my thigh, his thumb gently rubbing it.

"Now you're getting into the realm of philosophy, or maybe metaphysics," I say, lightly raking my fingers down his neck and chest to the third button. "And possibly other difficult topics to discuss when your hand is on my thigh and my hand is..." I glance at my hand then look back into his eyes, a smile on my face. " hand appears to be undressing you.

"Oh, and the whole coming of the Shadow thing... do you think I should mention that?" My fingers move toward the next button.

"The information about the Shadow is still rather vague. Perhaps you should just tell him you've been hearing rumors of dark things rising, or something like that... and to let you know if he hears about anything out of the ordinary."

"So silly newbie, helping him out — of his clothes at the moment, but that's probably TMI for Peregrine — and whispered rumors in the night. Got it."

Morning seems to come much too soon. Thanks to the jays in the tree outside — isn't it about time for them to be migrating? — and my internal alarm, I wake with plenty of time to practice my Taiji, shower and get the coffee started before Pablo rolls out of bed. In a surprising turn of events, Bobby gives us some privacy this morning, although it's probably because David spent the night with him. So I pour juice, make a couple of egg and bacon sandwiches, and have coffee ready when Pablo gets out of the shower.

"What are your plans for the day, my beloved husband? Don't you have one more mandated sick day before you can go back to work?"

Pablo sits across from me and sips his coffee before answering. "I'm thinking of going down to the station house anyway. I feel great, and I know my work didn't get done by itself while I was out." He picks up his breakfast sandwich and takes a manly bite, then closes his eyes. He has that look on his face that he always gets when his taste buds are happy.

I take a delicate librarian bite of my sandwich and smile at him; it's good to have him here with me, it's wonderful to see and feel him so healthy.

He opens his eyes in preparation for another attack on the sandwich but stops when he sees my smile. "What are you smiling about?"

I shrug as I swallow. "I'm happy. I'm in love. Did I mention that I was happy?"

Pablo chuckles. "I love you so much, Andrea. I've loved you for so long that this almost seems like a dream."

I look at him for a moment, just holding my sandwich and smiling. "Even though I knew how you felt, it just couldn't have turned out any other way. But I'm really glad the right time finally arrived... or we finally arrived at the time right." I laugh. "Oh, you know what I mean!"

He just nods. "I do. Speaking of time, how much of it do you have before you need to leave? Is there anything you need me to do? Make your lunch, maybe?"

I glance at the clock and shake my head. "Fifteen minutes and lunch is already packed up... as is dinner." I take a sip of the orange juice before biting into the sandwich again.

"Dinner? Oh, right! You're meeting with Peregrine tonight." He pauses. "Listen, Andi, I know you're resistant to the idea of Sponsorship, but at least get some information about it, okay? You can't make an informed decision without all the facts, right?" He sets his sandwich down and reaches over to rest a hand on my arm. "I wouldn't want you to rush into a decision like that, but I don't want you deciding it's not right for you... for us... without knowing as much as possible."

I look into his eyes as I finish my breakfast. I know he wants what's best for me, and he knows life is starting to get just a little more hectic than it has been since... well, ever. And he's right. I've been dismissing the idea out of hand simply because I see all the interviews Peregrine does and... and I really am not happy about the idea of being beholden to some corporate entity. Hell, I don't know that I'd be happy being beholden to a philanthropic entity, and I don't see any of them clamoring to Sponsor Supers.

Finally, I sigh and smile as I wipe my hands and mouth on my napkin. "How's this? I promise to get as much information as Peregrine's willing to give me, and I promise to keep an open mind."

He squeezes my arm and nods. "That's all I ask. If you don't think it will work for us, then I'll support you. I just don't like to see you pushing yourself so hard."

I finish my orange juice, and then chuckle. "Pablo, my love, I've been balancing Andrea's life with Ninja's work for nine years. Despite the fact that I've been busier, things have actually gotten less stressful since Peregrine came to town two years ago. And having you as a backup, as a partner, will help even more."

I get up and step over to kiss him, which is still so wonderful... and I hope it will always be wonderful.

"We'll make things work, dear. If Sponsorship is the next step I'm supposed to take, then I'll take it."

He brushes his fingers lightly over my cheek and smiles. "Your Buddhist training becomes much more apparent the more time I spend with you. You're a wise woman, Andrea Yazzie."

I kiss his fingers, and then pick up my plate, glass and napkin to clean up after myself. "It's not just the Buddhism, Pablo. The Diné believe we should live in harmony with the world around us. My world is a little less traditional than even Tommy can imagine..." I put the plate and glass in the dishwasher. I shake the crumbs from the napkin and set it on the counter so I remember to drop it in the hamper on my way back to my office to pick up my backpack. "...but seeing the energies around me gives me a big advantage. I just follow the major flows through time and space. Or maybe, as Eagle said, I'm just manipulating the worlds around me." I shrug.

My husband grins at me as he shakes his head. "I'd hate to see what would happen if you consciously began manipulating the worlds. Things get strange enough when you unintentionally rearrange things to suit yourself."

"I wouldn't even know where to begin to learn how to consciously do whatever it is I do that attracts the strange and bizarre," I say as I pick up my coffee mug. "I don't even know if it's a good idea, nor does Tommy. And if Tommy doesn't know... well, I don't think I want to be messing with it just yet." I finish my coffee while glancing at the clock.

"I'm not going to argue with you about that, love," he says as he chuckles again. "And just leave the mug here. I'll finish cleaning up. You go catch your bus."

I bend over to kiss his forehead — it's just safer that way — as I set the cup back on the table. "Don't work all day if you don't feel up to it. But if I don't see you before my meeting tonight, I'll be thinking of you. I love you, my dear Pablo."

"And I love you more than the world, dearest wife. Now go, go!" He laughs as he gives me a gentle nudge. "I'm going to make you miss your bus and be very late to work if you don't leave now. Have a good day, Andi."

I have a smile on my face as I take my lunch from the refrigerator. I continue to smile as I pick up the napkin from the counter, stop in the bedroom to drop the napkin in the hamper, and then go into the office to grab my backpack. I tuck my lunch inside as I walk to the front door, calling out over my shoulder, "Love you! I'll see you tonight!"

I smile all the way to the bus.

It's a beautiful day, and I don't expect work will be hectic. Classes for CU Denver only started on Monday; DU classes don't start for another two and a half weeks.

Of course, I haven't taken into consideration my coworkers and their obsessive natures. Oh good lord, I get considerably more than an earful of advice on planning the wedding, where to go on a honeymoon and — this is actually useful — where I should be registering. Sam suggests looking into big ticket items that neither Pablo nor I would buy on our own; the sort of things a group of people could pitch in and buy together. I don't think we even need anything, but I suppose Pablo might be able to think of something.

However, after only three hours of hearing about nothing but the wedding, it makes me want to just go over to City Hall on our lunch hour some day and be done with it. I'm mostly kidding about that; my family, Pablo's family, all our friends... they want the big deal ceremony, the party. As far as I'm concerned, we've already had the big deal ceremony. But I could go for a party.

Fortunately, I have the earliest shift today, so I have plenty of time to swing by the house, change my clothes, grab my dinner from the fridge, and get out on the road again.

It only takes twenty minutes to get down to Rock Park outside Castle Rock. It's not a record, but I'm not aiming for one this evening. I take a couple of minutes to transfer the contents of one pannier to the backpack I'd put in the other one. Then, at a pretty fast clip, I traverse the trail from the pavilion near the parking lot to the base of The Rock in hardly more time than filling my backpack had taken. This is where the tourists gather to ooh and ahh over the view before turning around and heading back to their vehicles and drive off to the next touristy spot on their agenda. Fortunately, there are no tourists today... because I'm heading off the trail to do what at least a dozen very large signs say tourists should never, ever do under penalty of prosecution. There's a good reason tourists shouldn't do what I'm about to do... it involves the very real possibility of serious injury and death. It's also a good thing I'm not a tourist.

And I'm glad I remembered to let Forsythe know that Peregrine and I are having a meeting on top of The Rock... the Douglas County Sheriff's Office helicopter won't be joining us. Not that I don't like the Douglas County Sheriffs! They're all great, even that rookie I embarrassed a few years back. But this is a private party.

There's a spot on the eastern side of The Rock that's a fairly easy climb. Hmmm... I suppose I should clarify that it's a fairly easily climb for someone with greater than average strength, quick reflexes, and an ability to see the energy flows. It's the latter that lets me see on the rock's surface which hand and toe holds are actually stable enough to use. I slip my staff through the straps I fashioned for it on the backpack and begin my climb.

It's not a long climb; the elevation of The Rock itself is probably not even a quarter of the elevation from the parking lot to its base. It's just a dangerous climb; Douglas County rarely allows even expert rock climbers out here. So if one of the cattle farmers out here notices a figure crawling up The Rock, the nice sheriffs are going to get a call. Good thing I warned Forsythe, right?

Once I reach the top, I pull off the backpack, remove my staff and just enjoy the view for a few minutes. I sling the backpack over one shoulder and rest one end of the staff on the ground while comfortably wrapping my hands around it. While the framework for the "Castle Rock Star" is really annoying, I do have to admit the star lighting extravaganza the town holds every year is kind of cool. Still. Ick.

I pull my phone out of my backpack — the personal one! — and send a text message to Pablo.

At meeting; waiting for other party. Miss you, love you!

A month ago, I wouldn't have believed I'd be sending a message like that to anyone... let alone Pablo... and certainly not while in my Ninja persona. I smile to myself as I put the phone away. I am a little early, but sometimes I like to enjoy the beauty of Mother Earth and Father Sky, watching the energy flows, all by myself. I don't expect Peregrine for another fifteen minutes unless he's an early bird.

Ha ha!

Fifteen minutes can be an eternity, or it can fly by in the blink of an eye. With my back to the setting sun, I look out over the eastern plains of Colorado, eyes closed, watching the rivers and streams and tiny rivulets of qi flow down from the mountains. The qi winds from west to east, generally; it moves swiftly in some places and sluggishly in others.

I feel it under my feet through the thin soles of my boots; I feel it caressing my skin, ruffling my hair like a breeze. It moves through my body; it's the force that keeps me healthy, it's the energy that speeds my healing. Today, now... it simply flows. I am healthy and unhurt. Today, now... the qi simply energizes.

I can see the massive concentrations of qi behind me at various points in the range of mountains. Red Rocks Park is the largest concentration to the north, with Saint Mary's Glacier another bright spot farther west. To the south is the Garden of the Gods Park, although that bright concentration seems to grow ever so slightly dimmer each time I look at it. Not by much, but it's been noticeable to my perceptions since arriving in Colorado. Perhaps it is attempting to balance the darkness of the Air Force installation under Cheyenne Mountain? Qi isn't something that answers questions... at least not questions like that... so there's no way to know.

I can see the qi so much more clearly now; I can see Mother Earth's and Father Sky's flows farther than before. This might count as half a coin's worth of weight on the scale to balance Pablo's visit to his ancestral pest's dimension. Our new bond, so much stronger than the original one we formed, enhanced my sight... the inner sight... when the halves of my personality merged. Whether that will be a benefit in the coming fight against the Shadow or even in my regular and everyday patrols around my city and its surrounding counties... Well, that will be something I will have to investigate further.

But I will add another coin or two of weight to the scale for the bond itself, the tightly woven tapestry that's become the fabric of our shared soul. Ordinarily, there is a limit to the distance at which I can feel anyone else. It varies, of course, depending on how close the other person is to my heart and how powerful they are. But it's never been more than a block or so, and considerably less for other Supers. I couldn't feel that disgustingly slimy pervert up in Boulder until he was nearly close enough to break my jaw. So theoretically, rather than being able to still feel Pablo from about a block away, I probably shouldn't be able to feel him if he is in the yard and I am in the house.

Yeah, that's not how it's working. Right now, we're not quite thirty miles apart, and it feels like he's standing right beside me. I can't say I object to it in the least. I have gotten a bit distracted by it over the past couple of days, which my coworkers have decided is new relationship dreaminess. I didn't even know that was a thing! It's especially distracting when I can feel him thinking about me. Hmmmmm. So I'd better work on not letting whatever is going on with Pablo affect me. Not too much, anyway. If it feels like he's in danger or hurt, you can bet the bank I'm going to be out the door, and probably moving way too fast.

But feeling like he's with me all the time? Loving that a lot! I suppose the novelty of it will wear off eventually, probably in a decade or two.

Suddenly, I feel a weight on my head, and I sigh.

"I don't recall inviting you."

I want to see the flying man. Does he fly like a proper bird... Raven launches itself from my head and flutters to the ground at my feet. ...or does he fly strangely like the Chosen One?

"He has a name. Feel free to use it. I'm sure he's almost as excited about being called the Chosen One as I am about being called Night Walker."

But you walk at night.

"I also walk during the day. I run at night, I fight at night, I sleep at night..."

You don't always sleep at night! Raven rolls on the ground laughing.

"Shut up! I do all the same things during the day that I do at night, so Night Walker is a stupid name."

Fortunately for my sanity, that's when the other birds sit up and take notice, so to speak, and an eagle announces Peregrine's arrival. I turn to face the west and the mountains; against the gold and red of the Colorado sunset, I can see a familiar figure silhouetted in the sky above me. Of course, until he gets down here and we can meet properly, Peregrine is only familiar from pictures and television interviews. Still, there are only two Supers in the Denver area who fly, and Pablo doesn't have a uniform or even a name yet. And I can feel his presence thirty miles away, so there's that little factoid as well.

Are you going to be a serious and sane guardian Spirit this evening, or are you going to make me wish I never met you?

Raven stands on its head with wings spread wide along the ground and giggles.

Great. Insane and ridiculous; this should be interesting.

I open my eyes and look at Denver's Sponsored Super as he lands on The Rock.

"Peregrine... It's nice to finally meet you."

He's tall, well over six feet, and muscular. I don't often meet guys taller than about six two or so; I'd guess he's about six five. He has a pleasantly handsome face with chiseled features, although there's a slight distortion to those features making it impossible to be a hundred percent certain about his appearance. He's wearing a purple skin tight suit that edges slightly toward the maroon, and a full cape that gives the impression of wings when he's in flight. Patches of several companies line the upper arms of his uniform; I assume these are his Sponsors.

"Ninja, it's good to finally meet you, as well. You can call me Peregrine if you wish, or Perry for short." He extends his hand in greeting.

I shake his hand, trying very hard to ignore Raven, who is peering up under Peregrine's cape. Perry?

He's not a proper bird! He has this flappy thing instead of wings!

I look at the cape.

It's a cape, you ninny.

"Gosh, I'd have thought after The Incredibles came out, capes would be a thing of the past. Doesn't it get in the way?"

You must tell the Chosen... er, I mean, Pablo... that he must not wear a flappy thing when he flies. I would be embarrassed before all the Spirits to be seen with him!

It's called a CAPE and that would be an excellent reason for him to wear one if it would keep you and his ancestral pest away.

Raven flops to the ground, lying across one of Peregrine's feet, and whines.

I miss my buddy!

Peregrine not only understands my reference to an animated movie from about eight years back, but he laughs. Ah, for this he definitely gets a few points in my tally book!

"I haven't found it to be a problem, and its design allows for the use of a bird's name. It also has breakaway attachments to the costume itself so I wouldn't have the problem of being sucked into a plane engine." He grins, and his odd distorting mechanism doesn't do much to disguise the fact that he has a nice smile. "Not that anyone in their right mind would get that close to an airplane. If too much force is applied to the cape, it will just break off."

He shrugs and pulls off a small backpack that was hidden by the cape. "Would you like to sit and eat?"

I slip my backpack off my shoulder, rest my staff in the crook of my elbow as I bring it parallel to the ground and drop gracefully into a half lotus. I set the staff on the ground in front of me and swing the backpack into my lap before Raven gets the bright idea to sit there.

"That sounds like an excellent idea. It's been longer than usual since lunch time."

I take out a bottle of water, the plastic container full of the tuna salad Pablo made last night, and a fork. Not trusting my guardian Spirit, I zip the bag up again and set it beside me.

"You said in your email that Sergeant Davis had a report of another Super. Do you have any more details on that?"

I open the bottle of water and take a sip.

"No, not really. She only reported that a flying man had been seen and that there had been a brilliant flash of light up in the area around Lookout Mountain. I thought it was very odd."

"Brilliant flash of light..." I murmur, making it sound as though such a thing is vaguely familiar. Oh. Right. THAT. Heh... well, I wonder what kind of story I can come up with for that.

He sits cross-legged several feet away and sets his backpack in his lap as well. He opens it and pulls out a container of warm beef stroganoff, several rolls, and another contain that holds what looks like two slices of carrot cake.

"I thought you might like to share a dessert. My wife made it."

I can feel my eyes open wide as I grin. "Homemade carrot cake? Does she use golden raisins and put bits of crushed pineapple in it?"

Yeah, yeah... I've been hearing from Bobby for nearly five years now that golden raisins might, under certain very special and controlled circumstances, be acceptable in a carrot cake. Pineapple, on the other hand, is a mortal sin that Martha Stewart would simply never forgive. Martha Stewart can bite me. Or she can try, at least. My Tita and my Mama put pineapple in their carrot cakes, and so pineapple is perfectly acceptable — Nay! Even required! — in carrot cake.

"It's cool that you've got a family. That day Abe couldn't reach you and I had to leave work early to fight off that Goblin creep? I made up a story about one of your kids flushing your phone down the toilet. Doesn't matter whether or not you have kids." I grin. "The storytelling is the important thing. And except for the fact that the Goblin King was a total pervert..." I shudder. "...the day was pretty good. It was a slow day at work, I got to ride up the Turnpike at suicidal speeds and banter with Abe... yeah. That was all good. The other story I made up was that you'd all come down with the flu that was going around, but the phone in the toilet is the most interesting one.

"So what really happened?" I ask, smiling before I eat a forkful of tuna salad.

"We had a family medical emergency. I couldn't leave town then in case I was needed with the family. Thanks for covering for me that day, by the way. I heard you dealt with the problem quite well, though. They sound like nasty little buggers. It was just one Goblin that multiplied itself?"

"No problem and hope the medical emergency resolved favorably.

"Yeah, the damn thing multiplied like a pop-up virus. Apparently, the original is rather more substantial than the copies and was never informed by its mother — assuming it has a mother — that punching women in the face is considered bad form." I shrug. "That kinda pissed me off. Anyway, I gathered it up and sent it off with Masterson... the Army guy? You've met him, right? He's pretty decent for a military type."

I pause to eat a bit more and drink some water.

"Yes, I know the Colonel. He's a good man. True, he's a bit harsh at times, but then that's something you'd expect from a military man, isn't it? He won't quit when he's after one of the bad guys, that's for sure."

I nod. I'd gotten the same impression of him. "I can respect the man. Some of the others they've sent up... well, they haven't been as dedicated — or so it seemed to me — or they didn't know the first thing about other than normal bad guys. Masterson? He knows what's what. A good person to have on the job.

"I'm going to be bold — it's my idiom — and ask you how you like the Sponsored life? I don't think I'm cut out for it, but some days I start thinking that it might be nice to not have to work the day job to pay the mortgage."

Perry eats more of his dinner but chuckles as he considers my question. Oh, excellent! I think he just got another of my movie references!

"It's good," he says finally. "It allows me to spend more time patrolling and caring for the citizens of Denver. And the pay is substantial."

I finish off the bottle of water, tuck the empty in my pack and pull out another full one. I look north, toward Denver. As night is falling, the lights of the city become brighter. "I don't know what it is about Denver and the Front Range, but the first time I came here, I knew it was home." I shake my head and smile wryly.

"I can't see myself lurking in a dark alley in Five Points waiting to bust a major drug ring with patches all up and down my sleeves. I also can't imagine a company wanting to Sponsor someone who has a potty mouth and says what's on her mind. I'm not sure the pay is substantial enough to entice me to deal with the press. For that duty alone, I will be eternally grateful to you for coming to Denver."

I sigh a bit ruefully. "I'd protect the people of the six counties in the Denver metroplex for free... and I did for a little while before making my connection with DPD and working out the insurance and a stipend. There are too many bad people — most of them ordinary, normal bad people — and not enough law enforcement to watch all the dark places."

I look at Raven, swinging from the frame of the star... though it would appear I'm simply looking at the star itself.

"Someone once called me the Night Walker, which kind of bugged me because I work day and night. But I guess there's some sense to it. I can look into the darkest of places and see the path through it to the other side.

"Oh, and speaking of darkness..."

I look back at Peregrine.

"I've been hearing rumors, pretty vague ones at that, about some really big, bad... something heading our way. And by 'our', I'm getting the impression it's not just Denver, although I think we might be the nexus. It could be the whole US, could be the whole continent, could be the whole world. That's the trouble with vague rumors, right? You haven't heard anything like that, have you?"

He's just sitting back and listening to me talk. I know I do tend to run a lot of ideas together. He seems to be evaluating me, which I find amusing. But it does make sense. I mean, this is the first time we're meeting, so it's good to get a handle on how each of us works and thinks, find out what our respective goals are. I just have a different way of going about that evaluation. All I need to do is look at his aura. With my increased perception and with him sitting less than six feet from me, it's not hard to see that he's very definitely one of the good guys and very serious about what he does. He might be just a tiny bit idealistic. That's not a bad thing unless it distracts him from doing the job, and it doesn't seem as though it has at any point in the past two years. I suspect it might also come in handy — that idealism — when dealing with the press.

I'm too much of a realist, I guess.

Perry's nodding in all the right places, though, to show he's paying attention.

"Strange? Well, I have been hearing odd things in the chatter lately about the theft of energy production equipment. There's been quite a bit of it stolen, and even more targeted."

"Huh. That's what the goblin critter was after, too." I put the empty plastic container and fork back in the backpack, and then raise my knees, resting my forearms on them.

"Okay, I'm just thinking out loud here, and since we don't have a whole lot of information, I could be way off base.

"We've got a lot of energy production equipment being stolen. And there's at least a hint that this big bad nasty is extra-dimensional.

"Now, I've been known to open — or participate in the opening of — portals, rather small portals at that, to other dimensions. It takes an incredible amount of energy."

I take another drink of water. Raven, having given up on swinging from the star framework, is now trying to peck holes in Peregrine's cape.

What the hell is wrong with you?

Raven stops what it's doing and waddles over to lean against my leg, looking up at me with pathetically sad eyes that should make me feel sorry for it. That is if it and the ancestral pest had not spent so much time and effort working my nerves the past few weeks.

I miss my buddy! it whines.

And because you miss the annoying snake, you have to take it out on me? Go visit him.

Raven slides to the ground, covers its head with a wing and pretends to cry.

I can't! He lives in a bad place, and I can't go there.

Oh, a bad place it is, Most Annoying of Guardians! That it most certainly is. Are you in excruciating pain?

It peeks out from under the wing with one eye. No.

You wouldn't happen to be in a coma would you?

Both eyes now appear from under the wing. Obviously not.

Then you have no reason to complain, you have no reason to annoy the hell out of me, and you have no reason to be such a big baby and a wobbly old drama queen. Grow up.

Raven rolls over and pretends to weep again.

I put the cap back on the water bottle and dangle it from one hand as I continue my thought process with Peregrine.

"If this big bad thing is really big and if it's coming from another dimension, that's going to have to be one hell of a big portal. And that's going to take massive amounts of energy to get it open... and nearly as much energy every bloody minute to keep it open." I chew on my lip as I consider the possibilities.

"If what I've heard even represents a fractional potential of the evil coming out of that portal, I don't think closing it going to be something on its to-do list."

And the ancestral pest said I was supposed to be at the front of that fight? I'm supposed to stand in front of an enormous open portal to hell... just me and Pablo? Energy, wind and light... the ancestral pest seemed to think that was the combo to keeping big bad where it belongs and to closing the portal. Well, that and whatever bond Pablo and I created. That bond seems to be important too.

Gosh, I have the most interesting life, don't I?

"Well, looks like preventing the theft of more energy production equipment is a top priority, even if my theory is a little off... or a lot off. Unfortunately, I have a feeling I'm not too far off."

Peregrine's features grow more serious and grimmer as I speak, and by the time I finish, he's rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

"I don't like the sound of this... not one bit. Perhaps I should talk to this criminal you turned over to Colonel Masterson. I have the connections to get access." He looks at me with curiosity. "Would you be interested in coming along?"

Do I want to go along? Oh, hell no! Do I want that disgusting thing leering at me again? No. No, no, and yet again... no. But then I sigh.

"I'm not really the detective type... I wouldn't even begin to know what to ask the creepy little slime. But I do know energy." I shrug. "If you think it would be useful, sure... I'll tag along."

I pause... head tilting to the side. An idea is beginning to form.

"This distortion thing you've got going on..." I wave a hand in the general direction of his face. "Tell me about it."

"It's a light refracting sort of thing. I'm not exactly sure how it works either. A friend of mine made it for me; he's a bit of a physics genius. It allows me not to have to wear a full mask."

He shrugs apologetically. Well, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't understand it either, but it does a good job.

"If you'd rather not come along for the talk with him, that's fine. I'll contact you via scrambled phone so we can talk later." He pauses and grins again. "Oh, right... I almost forgot." He reaches into his backpack and pulls out a very modern looking cell phone. "I had another one of these made. These are scrambled so only our phones work with each other, and they can't be tracked via the cell signals. This way, we can just call when we might need backup or someone to cover."

"Oh, cool!" I say, taking the phone. Oh sure, it's one more thing to carry around... but new gadgets are fun! And a scrambled phone! "Wow, it makes me feel like a spy in a James Bond movie. Thanks, this is a good idea."

He chuckles at my joy of new gadgets while I check out the key features of the phone. Then I tuck it in one of the inner pockets of my vest.

"So... do you think this friend of yours could make one of those masks for me? I've been getting... ah, polite suggestions that wandering around with my gorgeous face hanging out might not be such a good idea. The Newbie, I suspect, could benefit from something like that, too."

He nods. "I'll see if my friend can make more. He'll need to fit them to both of you." He pauses, looking at me. "Will that be a problem?"

"Hmm." Well, it makes sense, right? You want something like that to fit properly. So you need to go to the tailor, so to speak.

"I suppose it depends on who your friend is. I'm more inclined to trust your friend than the Newbie is, but that's to be expected I guess. You vouch for him; I can read auras. That's good enough for me. The Newbie?" I just shrug. "All I can do is ask him about it, right?"

"Oh, and that was him up at Lookout Mountain." Well, yes, yes... I was there, too. But the best stories leave out all the non-essential details, don't they? Or they make up new nonsensical details if my cousins and brother are to be believed.

"My friend is a professor of particle physics — a physics geek, as I said. But I don't want to say anything else until I check with him and makes sure he's okay with it. I'll give you a call as soon as I clear it with him."

"That sounds fair. I'll wait for your call."

He smiles again at my reference to our Newbie.

"So can you tell me about this 'newbie'? He just spawned, huh?"

"Apparently, yes. I ran into him on patrol a few nights back over in Cheesman Park. I still think it was hysterically funny... straight guy in Cheesman after dark? He, on the other hand, still doesn't see the humor."

I only outlined Pablo's story in my head, keeping as much of the truth as possible without revealing an identity. Oh, he's just some poor hapless guy trying to figure out what the hell is going on... that sort of thing. Now to add a lot of that storytelling my family seems to think I ought to be doing... details that bear no resemblance to the truth.

"I don't know the whole story, of course, but he did recently come into his powers. He said he thought Lookout Mountain might be a good place to figure out what he can do, and maybe practice a bit." I shake my head. "That wouldn't have been my first choice, but I guess he didn't quite know what he could do."

I chuckle. "He did say that the light freaked him out in a big way.

"Anyway, I was patrolling the other night when I noticed some weird energy patterns up in a tree. They were way too big to be a cat, and cats don't give off that freaked out vibe, you know? Trees are even easier to climb than rocks, so I shimmied on up. He'd been practicing the flying routine when he realized he was at ground zero for the gay boys' cruising, kind of lost his cool and wound up stuck in a tree like a cat. And, just for informational purposes, ninety-nine out of a hundred times, cats aren't actually stuck in the tree and want no part of being rescued.

"So I talked him down, we chatted while I finished my patrol, and I told him I'd work with him if he wanted. I mentioned he might want to contact you about the flying bit, but... well, you can probably guess how that went down. Newbie... Sponsored Super... yeah, there was some severe intimidation going on. But I saw him last night, and he seems to be doing well enough in that regard. Probably just needs to practice, is my guess.

"He said something about being able to control air currents... I suggested he take THAT bit slow and easy. The last things we need around here are cyclones and springtime winds in the summer. And then there's his thing with light. I'm really glad we were out in the middle of nowhere when he demonstrated that one."

I take another long drink of water.

"Like me, he's got a day job and is pretty freaked out about how these newly manifesting powers are going to affect his work. But I think I gave him enough reassurance that he's not going to have to up and move to Topeka or something. I mean, I've never had to use my powers on the day job... if he's got the air and light thing under control, why should it be a problem, right?"

I sigh before finishing off the water, tucking the empty bottle in the backpack, and then pulling out yet another. I grin as I open it.

"You know how the ubiquitous 'they' say you should drink eight glasses of water a day? Lucky me — with the qi constantly flowing a hell of a lot more forcefully than it does in other folks, I need more like two dozen.

"Anyway, I can kind of relate to Newbie's situation... even though I went through the whole freaking out about my powers and learning to use them when I was a teen instead of an adult. I figure I'll help him get situated with all the right paperwork, show him the ropes, introduce him to Sanchez at DPD and the Sheriffs if he's interested in doing what we do. When he's ready, of course. Oh, and arrange a meet up when he gets over being intimidated by the fact that you're Sponsored."

I shake my head, ruefully smiling.

"The poor guy's going to see a side of Denver he's probably never seen before. He might just decide Topeka sounds like a nice place."

I shrug again.

"I do get the impression he's the sort to stand up and fight for what's right, though. It's just a matter of waiting for him to get used to the idea of being a Super."

Perry nods at a number of points during my story.

"It can be quite intimidating when you first get your powers. I remember when I was first learning how to fly I lost control and fell about sixty feet. I broke both legs and had to be laid up with dual casts. That's when I learned pinpoint control... I was able to fly myself to the bathroom and not have to use that embarrassing bedpan!" He chuckles at the memory.

"Ow, your story makes me even more grateful for my accelerated healing. Of course, that's not all a bed of roses; it comes with its downside. You know how healing wounds tend to itch some? Well, the faster I heal the worse the itching. The last time I had my nose broken, I swear the sixty seconds of intense itching was worse than the initial pain of the shattering." I shudder and rub my nose just from the memory. And thank you again, Curse, for making memories so much more vivid than they really need to be.

"How old is he? It's really unusual for a grown person to manifest the Virus. Usually, it's teens and those in their early to mid-twenties that get hit with it."

Then I furrow my brows, considering. To be honest, Pablo and I haven't even talked about the physiological reason his powers manifested. The metaphysical explanation seems fairly straightforward, which is odd because it's usually the physiology that makes the most sense.

"I'm wondering if it might be a genetic mutation, which is where my powers come from. But the genetic mutations usually manifest at puberty or, very rarely, at birth." I pause a moment. "Well, I've heard of the genetic component triggering later under extreme stress, but that's even more rare than a manifestation at birth."

I shake my head. "He's mid-thirties, maybe. He ought to see one of the docs we use — well, the rest of you Supers, really... I haven't needed to see a doctor since my powers began to manifest — to see if it's the Virus or genetic... when he's ready, of course. It's really weird timing, though, for either." I shrug.

"There aren't many more explanations. He didn't mention a visit from ET. Would someone not attuned to seeing the Spirits, as I am, even notice an extra-dimensional being?" The answer to that, of course, is a flat-out no. It took our Bonding for Pablo to be able to see his ancestral pest... and my guardian Spirit.

Who, at that moment, drops from the star framework to the ground with a thud that can neither be heard nor felt, but I can certainly imagine it. It lies there, playing dead, and begins singing My Buddy again. I'm getting powerfully tired of that song.

"And given the behaviors and personality of the extra-dimensional beings that my People refer to as my guardian Spirit, I often wish I was not as attuned to seeing them as I am," I say with a sigh.

"You can see extra-dimensional beings? That's fascinating! Do you see many of them, or is it just this one guardian of your?" He seems truly interested in the topic. Well, I am probably one of only a handful of people on the planet who can see beings from other dimensions in their energy state. And I'm so much better at it than anyone else — no over-inflated ego there, just the plain truth. I guess it would be an interesting topic to other people.

"Fascinating? Well, yes. I suppose at first it was." I take another long drink of water.

"Among my People, it isn't particularly unusual for us to see our own guardian Spirit, especially during our Dances. Some, the ones we call Ha'atathli — and others would call the medicine man or shaman — are often able to see the guardian Spirits of others, though, again, usually during ceremonies. Oddly, there's something about my ability to see qi — the energy or life force that connects everything — that allows me to see as the Ha'atathli do, and to see that way whenever I want."

I take a moment to gaze at the mountains and the qi I can see shining so brightly there. "Some people attribute all this to something like religious faith, and I wouldn't deny there might be some truth to that. But there have always been people who can... well see things that other people don't. Before the whole obsession with mutant abilities began, folks like me probably would have been chucked into a psych ward if we said anything about what we could see."

I pause a moment, tapping the water bottle against my shins as I look back at the other Super.

"Someone... it might have been the Ha'atathli's senior apprentice..." Right, I'm going to mention that it's my cousin? Puh-lease. "...thought maybe I only see the Spirits not of our People because they allow me to see them." I shrug. "I'm not really sure there's a way to test that theory, even empirically, as I don't have much of a data set to work with.

"My guardian Spirit, however..." I glance over at Raven again — who is now pretending to sob hysterically — before dropping my forehead to my knees. " guardian Spirit seems to want nothing more than to drive me stark staring mad. It — apparently — made friends with another extra-dimensional being from a different dimension. The other one returned to its own dimension..." I lift my head and glare in Raven's direction. "...and this one seems to think it's somehow my fault that the other one left."

I sigh and shake my head, take another drink of water, then shrug again while looking back at Peregrine.

"They often don't even have a physical existence in their own dimensions. And from the few other dimensions I've gotten a glimpse of, they're very difference from our environment. Given that, I'm not sure there's a way to fully understand any of the beings from other dimensions. While I can be completely confounded by one being blaming me for the choice another being made to return to its own dimension, perhaps in its dimension things work differently. Simply because my senses perceive their actions and attitudes as incomprehensible, it doesn't stand to reason their actions and attitudes aren't consistent with their own moralities." I shrug. "I probably belong in academia. And I think this whole topic probably requires an entirely new branch of philosophy."

Raven gets up then and waddles over to me, glares back at me and pecks my foot. Hard!

I swing my water bottle at it, but even with my heightened reflexes and increased speed I miss as Raven somersaults backward, laughing.

"Listen, dumbass, that pest seemed to have an awfully damn good reason for bugging out from my point of view. So quit acting like a demented cross between Coyote and Gazelle!"

Raven sways back and forth, drunkenly if you ask me, gave me a raspberry and then grins.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "As I said, I suppose it was fascinating at first to see them. Now?" I open my eyes at look at Peregrine.

"It's a fracking pain in my ass... especially when it seemed to be in league with all my friends, as my other identity, of course, to get me a boyfriend. I can't begin to tell you how annoying and frustrating it is to be on a semi date with someone and be able to see a big black bird with its annoying serpent friend. It's positively maddening to see the serpent wrapped around the bird's neck, and the two of them swaying drunkenly back and forth singing Chapel of Love. How the heck do you explain something like THAT to someone? You can't, really."

I regard the other Super for a moment. "How did you tell your wife about your super powers? And please, please don't tell me she doesn't know and thinks you're an accountant by day!"

He chuckles and shakes his head. "No, she knows all about it... has from the moment I manifested the Virus. We started dating in college." He pauses, almost as if trying to reach a decision, and then finally nods to himself.

Peregrine reaches up behind his head and undoes something; he pulls off his mask, deactivating his blur field. He extends his hand to me again.

"The name is Michael Varano, and it's a pleasure to meet you, Ninja."

I'm a little surprised, I guess. Well, no... I'm very definitely surprised. But what do I know about protocol among Supers, right? I didn't get the handbook.

Raven starts waddling toward Michael aka Peregrine with that beady, about to peck something look in its eye. I glare at it. "Back off, bucko. What the fuck do you think you're doing?!" It stops so quickly that it falls back on its big birdy butt, with a totally surprised look on its face. I grin at it, maybe a little, possibly extremely, wickedly. My look is so very, very Ninja.

"Sane and serious, or go home." It gets up and waddles backward, almost to the edge of The Rock, and sits down. "Thank you."

I turn back to Michael aka Peregrine, take his hand and smile... an Andrea smile.

"Andrea Yazzie, and I'm pleased to meet you, Michael. I apologize for Raven's poor behavior, even if you can't see it." I settle into a cross-legged position and take another sip of water.

"You'll understand, I think, that I can't say much more about Newbie. He is still pretty skittish about the situation in which he's found himself. But he's definitely one of the good guys. Once he gets more comfortable with the situation, I'll introduce the two of you."

It's nearly full dark now, and the Denver skyline is — as always — breathtaking. The lines of qi running through Mother Earth are more pronounced and take on various colors at night; the sparks of qi the dance through Father Sky are less easily seen. Even Castle Rock is a pretty town at night... not that it isn't during the day.

I regard Michael for a moment more... being able to see at night well as the owl does have quite a few advantages.

"You're lucky she's known all along," I say with a wistful smile. "My family's known about me, of course. I was only thirteen, and my folks and brother were with me. And they let the rest of the extended family know what was going on. But..." I shrug. "Well, let's just say it's made dating somewhat difficult. And that makes fending off well-meaning friends nigh unto impossible. Good lord, the stories I could tell!" I say, laughing.

"I can imagine. Well, no... I probably can't," he says with a grin. "But to have had to go through that when you so young!" There is real sorrow in his eyes, and his aura is tinted with it. "It must have made for a painful and lonely time."

I consider for a moment and then shake my head. "Yes and no. Yeah, it was definitely one of the most painful things I've ever suffered. But my parents were there for me, although I know I scared my little brother to tears. I think the only time Mama ever left my side was to go to the bathroom," I say with a faint smile. "And then my dad was there to take her place.

"The lonely part didn't come until later; when I went to China to study, to learn to control the qi. The trip was pretty frightening, but once I got to the village, everyone was just as nice as could be. I think once I settled in, I realized they were standing in for my family. They certainly treated me like family! I missed my folks and my brother, though." I shrug. "I managed. An awful lot of good came out of it, so I know I'd do it all over again. And by the traditions of my People, I was an adult, even though I was only thirteen. I made the decision to leave my family, although I suspect if I'd decided otherwise, my calm and easygoing father would have had harsh words for me."

I look over at Raven, and it ducks its head under its wing. Crazy flying things.

"I met up with one of my teacher's former students recently; he'd gone to the dark side and I had to give him a good smack down. Masterson picked him up from the locals." I look back at Michael with a crooked grin. "I had to trash a Safeway produce department to get a portal opened to a nasty enough place to suck the bad out of that boy. That still left him pretty mean and plenty pissed off, and even if our Master never conferred the rank on him, his martial skills equal mine. Plus he had a couple of swords and all I had was a broom handle." I nod toward the staff in front of me. "I didn't know I was going to need that, so I had to make do, you know? Anyway, by that time I was just about as ticked off as I get, so instead of playing the let's see who's the better martial artist game, I just blasted him with qi." At least I have the good grace to look a little embarrassed. "The, ah, paramedics were more than a little bit shocked with my expression of displeasure than I hadn't killed him." I sigh. "Sadly, sometimes that's the right thing to do. I can't say I'm totally okay with it, even when it's necessary... but...

"A couple of years ago I had to take out an Eater that was trying to get at a couple of teenagers in Five Points."

I finished the water in the bottle and put it in the backpack.

"Choosing between him and those kids? Easy. Choosing between him and me? Easy. Frying him with enough power to turn him into a crispy critter? Easy. Dealing with the fact that I'd killed a living being, albeit a pretty damn nasty one? I spent three days doing my Taiji, crying and not sleeping."

Again, I pause to consider.

"I finally did tell a friend recently about what I do; a good solid level-headed person I've trusted for years. I think next time... things won't be as bad."

He listens intently to my story. I know what my reactions have been to the things Pablo has been able to share about his experience in Quetzalcoatl's prison dimension. And having watched Pablo's reactions when I tell my stories of the past, I can see similar patterns in Michael's qi. He's an empathetic person, and I think it helps him understand others when he knows what they've been through. Maybe it's odd and maybe it's not, but all three of us seem to have the same sort of energy fluctuations when listening to other people's... well, some might say horror stories.

His eyes light up a little, however, at the mention of my stay with Master Chen. Perhaps China is something that interests him? Most people are mildly interested in my stories of China; I get the impression that Michael's interest is a little more than just mild.

When I share the experience I had with the Eater, his expression becomes much more solemn, and it reflects the pain I feel when I kill. He nods slowly.

"It's the hardest part of this job. I try never to take a life, but it does happen; when it happens, it tears you up inside regardless of how big a bastard the guy was. I think that's one of the things that makes us the good guys, and keeps us the good guys. I'm lucky, though... I have my wife to lean on and talk to when it happens. You really need that in your life, Andrea. If you don't, you can call me... we'll get together for coffee and you can tell me about it. We should be there for each other." He smiles. "After all, we have an entire city to protect and there are only the two of us. Well... three of us now, I guess."

"Well, two and a half of us, at least," I say with a smile. "And you're right. If taking a life were easy, we'd be walking the dark path instead of the light."

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Raven hopping closer.

"My friend... the one I told about what I do? My friend is a cop. So... I'll probably be okay here on out... well, as okay as you can get with this kind of thing."

And the personality integration... I'm really hoping that helps, too.

"I finally do have someone to talk it out with now, at least. Cops, soldiers... they're probably the only folks who'd really, down in their guts, truly understand what we do anyway."

I feel Raven lean against me and look down at it. Well, not as much down as usual... when I'm sitting down, Raven's head is about level with my shoulders.



My eyebrows go up. For...?

For helping you in the way I thought you should be helped and not the way you need to be helped. Tiger, sometimes cousin Crow... these are the guardians of Warriors. I am not. Sorry for pecking your new friend's flappy thing, too.


You should tell him about the Cho... um, I mean Pablo. He should know.

I rub my temples because I really feel like this thing is going to give me a headache. I'm fairly certain my accelerated healing, and the qi flowing the way it does through my body, would make that unlikely. Instead of getting a headache, I'll be driven insane.

"Raven apologizes for trying peck a hole in your cape," I say to Michael.

And I am not saying any more than I already have. Pablo made it very clear what was acceptable to say, what was absolutely not to be said, and where I was able to embellish to my heart's desire. You should go have a talk with your cousin Crow.

"Oh?" Michael picks up the edges of his cloak, looking for a hole but not finding one. "Well, no harm, no foul. Please ask him not to put holes in it, though, as my dear wife made this for me, and I'd hate to make more work for her because it needs patching."

I chuckle. "The Spirits — those of the Diné, and most of the First Nation People — are genderless. And this one doesn't have as much of an effect on things in our dimension as it thinks it does. Well, it does manage to get in a good peck or two when I'm not watching. But I think that's just a combination of it being my guardian Spirit and my connection to the energy flows of the universe.

"Its little friend from the other dimension, on the other hand, does have a gender. And I refuse to acknowledge that gender when I'm feeling particularly spiteful about it — which is most of the time — or when it's done something else to piss me off."

You shouldn't be so mean to my buddy.

I look at Raven again. "I shouldn't? Well, then maybe your buddy shouldn't be such a royal pain in the ass. I might be a little nicer." At this point, however, the chances of that happening are slim to none. I turn back to Michael with an apologetic smile.

"Sorry. For some reason, I managed to roll up a crazy guardian Spirit. Even the Ha'atathli doesn't understand it."

He grins. "No problem, but remind me to stay on your good side." He chuckles before asking, "So... have you ever considered being Sponsored? Is that what your earlier question was about?"

I shrug. "Sure, I've considered it. I just can't see me sporting patches, though. However, I did make a promise to get as much information as you're willing to share and to consider the options fairly, and not dismiss the idea out of hand as I have in the past." I smile wryly and shrug.

"I can't imagine a Sponsor who'd take a chance on someone who says what she thinks whether it's 'proper' to or not. Someone who, given the choice, would rather run a busload of folks who make Jesus cry out of town during Gay Pride Week than find out who's spraying graffiti on the governor's limo. And I really do like my day job." I shrug again. "You've got that nice clean-cut American boy next door look going on; even with the mask on, you look like the captain of the football team and homecoming king all rolled into one.

"Me? I'm a Native American, one of this country's millions of minority citizens, the ones who are most often relegated to second-class citizen status. I'm proud of who I am — maybe a little too proud, but not so proud that I can't admit to it being one of my character faults. But I think it's important to remember — at least it is for me — that my ancestors were here before Leif Ericson, Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Gaspar de Corte Real, or Juan Ponce de Leon ever set foot on this continent.

"I'll fight the people with power who've gone bad, like Tsui Ji. I'll fight weird creatures with nasty powers like that Goblin. I'll stand on the front line whenever this hinted-at Darkness arrives. You can count on that. I'll work with law enforcement to make the people of the Denver and the surrounding counties safer. But I'll be looking out for all the people, not just the ones the Denver Tourist Commission wants on their posters."

I smile; it's half sad and half defiant, but one hundred percent me... all of me.

"You know of a Sponsor who's interested in the Super for the underdogs? For the kids who are being bullied, the homeless, the queers, the hookers, the nerds, the drug addicts, the Unfortunates?"

He grows thoughtful and rubs his chin. "Possibly, Andrea... possibly. I have connections with some organizations that might be willing to Sponsor you. Do you want me to check?"

I... left speechless and not sure what to think.

I feel Raven nudging my shoulder, but I can't seem to break off my study of my fellow Super. Just as I felt only a few short months ago that I didn't deserve the same happiness that the Normals enjoy, I'm feeling... not really distrust, no.

Raven is now doing back flips behind Michael. Good gods! Didn't I ask it to behave? I thought I had.

Why does that old Groucho Marx line keep running through my head? Well, besides the fact that I've watched WAY too many movies with Bobby?

"I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member..." I mutter under my breath. Then I shake my head, clearing away my introspection.

Only to see Raven jumping up and down on Michael's head, grinning insanely. I cover my face with my hands and groan.

"Oh, by all the Gods, Buddhas and Spirits that ever were and still exist today!




I wait a moment and then peek out through my fingers to see Raven has jumped down to the ground and is rubbing its head against Michael's shoulder. At the moment, Raven's behavior is rather similar to a cat happy to see its human... entirely too similar.

I drop my hands into my lap and sigh.

"I have been advised by my guardian Spirit that I should allow you to check on any such organizations that might be willing to Sponsor me."

I look at Raven again.

"Now will you stop doing that?"

It grins. Then it giggles. Do not get me started on the likelihood of giggling birds! Then it shakes its head and continues to rub against Michael's shoulder.

"Fine. You and I are going to have a little chat with the journeyman Ha'atathli. Or to save us some time and travel, we can visit the lovely Hopi Medicine Man here in Denver. I know how much you like him." Which is to say, Raven does not like Lewis Humatewa at all. Apparently the Shaman of the Peaceful People is so laid back that nothing has bothered the man in over twenty-five years. Well, at least according to stories I've heard at the Spring Pow-Wows.

I just need to ignore that crazy flying thing. Or take some peacefulness lessons from the Hopi elder.

"I'm going to have to give the whole Sponsorship idea more thought than I've given it, of course," I say to Michael. "And talk it over with my family, and the Ha'atathli. It would certainly solve a few problems, but... well, it might create others."

The biggest problem would be the man-sized tsunami that lives next door to me.

"Give it to me straight... what are the pros and cons of being Sponsored? Since I've never given Sponsorship any serious thought, I don't even know what the expectations are on the Sponsor's side. Sure, different Sponsors... different expectations. But if I ever got that brochure, I probably tossed it in a recycling bin without even reading it. So a basic overview would be good."

Michael has been watching me as I deal with Raven, and actually handling the crazy woman act a lot better than most people do.

"A basic overview, huh? Well, there are several advantages, money being the first. I get paid extremely well, plus my Sponsors cover my liability insurance, health, dental, eye and life insurance for me and all my dependents. In terms of equipment, supplies, clothing and public rations, they've got me covered. I have legal counsel available if I need it, as well as tax and estate planning services. Oh, and access to new identities for the whole family if I ever need it.

"But it's not for everyone. While they don't tell me how to do my job, per se, I do need to do special assignments for my Sponsor. It's mostly high-end protection in dangerous situations or locations. Protection of their assets gets priority, but it's also a civil service for them to have a Super on the payroll, and I protect the general populous. Knowing that you've been available to call on in the past allowed me to concentrate on some preventative work for major incursions. For example, when the Doom Patrol tried to take out the Federal Mint about five months ago I was able to concentrate on that job because I knew you had things well in hand."

I nod. "Well, the benefits sound good. I love my day job, yet the demands on my time as a Protector are increasing dramatically. I've never actually given much thought to lawyers, to be honest. It seems like every time someone files a complaint against me, they get laughed out of the DA's office." I shrug. "Don't ask me... I don't get it. But something about the whole thing amuses them down there."

But then I shake my head. "The thought of even having the need for a new identity is really disturbing. How could I possibly be anyone other than Andrea Yazzie?"

Even Raven is looking at him like he's more than a little crazy... which, for an insane flying thing, that's saying a lot. That doesn't stop it from continuing to rub its head against Michael's shoulder.

"I suppose... well, no, I would hope that anyone willing to Sponsor me wouldn't dole out assignments that conflict with my value system. Or ask me to go off on some assignment on, oh... say, my wedding day, or my brother's for that matter."

He shakes his head. "No, I don't believe so. The primary group I'm thinking about contacting is Utopia. I know their local representative, and they're opening a new office here in Denver. You're familiar with the group, I assume?"

I waggle a hand back and forth. "I've heard of them. From what I gather, they're similar to what the HRC — Human Rights Campaign — was for the LGBT community back in the eighties. Maybe they're a little pushy and loud, but from what I can tell, their collective hearts are in the right place. For the most part.

"Not being much of a joiner, I haven't done any in-depth research on many groups, but because I have a connection to the LGBT community, Utopia resonated. Still, I don't know anything more than what's publicly known. Mostly, I just keep track of who's who... which groups are the good guys, which ones are the bad guys, which ones seem confused beyond redemption." I smile as I pull another bottle of water out of my pack and crack it open. "The People value privacy; I was raised in the Far East where privacy is almost a survival skill. The way I've been working these past nine years or so — keeping to the shadows, avoiding the public eye — is almost second nature to me."

I take another long drink of water.

"A year or two before you came to Denver, there was a reporter who just... gods, he was as close to a stalker as I've ever seen. He worked for Westword, still does, as far as I know. If you've ever picked up the paper, you know how their feature articles are formatted. There are a few paragraphs of facts, and then pages of exposition. Apparently, a friend of a friend of a cousin of a neighbor or something mentioned there was a Super working in Denver. Up to that point, only law enforcement folks had known about me. Hell, for the most part, even today the only non-law enforcement folks who know me are the folks who like to be called my informants." I smile. "They're the hookers up and down Colfax, Old Mama and a few of the residents in Five Points, Charlie — the owner of Charlie's and Ms C's — and maybe a dozen other people." Then I chuckle. "They like to think they're informants, especially the hookers, and they often have some valuable information about crime rings before they become noticeable to the police. I don't disabuse them of the notion, even though ninety percent of what they have to say is old news. They want to help, and with the budget cuts DPD has been dealing with every little bit helps, you know? But they think it's cool to be informants.

"Anyway, this reporter came sauntering up while I was talking to a group of working girls and boys one night. I've never seen people skitter away as fast as they did; like roaches when you turn the light on. It kind of pissed me off, because they had some good information for a change on one of the drug rings that had just started operating in the area at the time. I have no idea how he found me, but there he was. He started asking all sorts of questions... and a whole lot of them were awfully damn personal. Put me right off the whole Fourth Estate... all of them. You know how important first impressions can be.

"I was probably more than a little rude... I tend to get pretty aggressive when threatened, and that boy was seriously threatening my privacy. He wasn't quite what I'd call polite, either. So it wasn't the best opportunity for letting the public know anything about Supers, and what the rumored Super was doing for the community of Denver.

"I've gotta say you've been doing a great job being the face of Supers here in the Denver area," I say with a crooked smile.

"Anyway, the boy made some threats, and I'm pretty proud of myself for not pummeling him into the ground. He was talking about hiring a PI to follow me around, finding out everything about me, publishing it in Westword... things like that. I'm smart enough to know that I'd probably have to move back to the Navajo Nation to ever have anything resembling privacy again. As I said earlier, I love Denver... I wasn't going to let some kid who thought he was doing his job run me out of the city I called home."

I drink about half the bottle of water, and then sigh.

"So I told him I'd answer any reasonable questions he had under a single condition. He had to walk through Commerce City with me."

I pause, remembering that night. I still had two halves of the coin arguing with one another back then. Andrea was more forceful than usual trying to talk Ninja out of hurting the stupid kid... and he was a kid. Yeah, old enough to have graduated from college, not all that much younger than I was at the time, but with a dearth of knowledge about how the real world works.

"He met me at the main gates. I've heard the stories about when Commerce City wasn't the walled-in enclave it is now, but since the Unfortunates started becoming more prevalent..." I shrug. "Anyway, there I was waiting for him, standing next to my bike. I knew how many of my people were beyond the gates and exactly who they were. Well, it's easy because it's the same group who watch the gate every night. For the kid, though, I pretended not to notice."

Then I smile, looking off to the north... past Denver... where I know the darker community lives without the fancy lights and buildings, where the tourists never have to see them.

"We walked through the gates... they haven't closed them for twenty something years, I guess... and it looked like a ghost town. True, even most of the Unfortunates sleep at night. But it wasn't that, not really. It was just that it felt like, as he later told me because I don't see it that way, it was just plain dead. No evidence of life anywhere. Their trees, gardens, parks... I don't know if you've been up there, but that's all on the far side of the city, although there is that nice park in the middle. But there were no animals, no people, nothing else in sight. There were no streetlights and no lights on in any windows that close to the gate. There never are any streetlights on, and there's a no light zone near the front gate. But I could... not exactly feel, not exactly see... but I knew there were dozens of folks in the shadows around us. And they followed us as we walked.

"The kid was starting to freak out about the quiet. I guess he's a city boy and has never spent the night up in the mountains or out in the country. Though to be fair, even up in the mountains or out in the desert you can still hear the night animals. About the time we passed what used to be the Post Office, the folks started showing themselves... letting him get a peek at them. When we got to Center Park, folks started coming up to say hello.

"To me.

"In their own ways.

"For a lot of them, it was just touch on the hand, the shoulder. Some spoke plain and clear, others couldn't be understood at all except for the meaning, the feeling behind the words that he couldn't understand. Jocko..."

I shake my head and look back at Michael, but with a real grin on my face.

"Jocko seems to think he needs to greet me by punching me in the shoulder or running me over or wrestling me down or finding some way to get me off my feet. I guess he'd seen the shoulder punching thing as a gesture of greeting at some point. And when I got right back up the first time he punched me, I suppose I gained a lot of points with him. Unfortunately, that's one of his standard methods of greeting me now.

"So this seven and a half foot tall... well, I guess I'd have to call him an ogre. From most of the fantasy drawings I've seen, that's sure what he looks like. Anyway, Jocko comes up to me, punches me and laughs. Of course, that guy packs one hell of a punch, so I'm doing a back somersault as my shoulder's healing. He winds up breaking something nearly every time. But when I finally stand up, I'm grinning like a fool and the reporter looks like he's about to pee on himself.

"Most of the night folks had come down to the park by then, and if you're not used it them... well, they're not exactly a pretty sight. But they're good people just the same. At that point, it was just a normal visit out there for me. I was just chatting with them, seeing if there were any problems they needed me to take care of, seeing if there was anything I could procure for them. Mostly, folks were coming up to thank me for handling past problems. I had gotten some medicines some of them had needed when that really bad respiratory virus was going around that year. Sometimes, I'll arrange to get them extra food if their community farm gets hit by bad weather. Whatever they need, I'll do what I can to get it for them. They're a grateful bunch, those folk. I like them, I like helping them out... and not just because almost no one else will."

I pause and smile softly. "A heartfelt thank you goes a long way sometimes.

"Anyway, we were there for about an hour, hour and a half... and then I walked the kid back to his car.

"I told him to go ahead and ask his questions. And he did. They were all about the people of Commerce City. Oh, a few questions were about what I did for them and why, but it was mostly all about them. Then he said, 'If I out you, you can't help these people anymore, can you?' 'Nope,' was all I said. Then he nodded, thanked me for the education, got in his car and drove off.

"Few weeks later, there was an amazing piece in Westword about the plight of the Unfortunates — not the usual fluff piece, but something with real substance. He got some grief about that piece, but he opened some eyes and more people — not a lot, true — but more people are willing to help them out now. I have a few more resources to tap when my people need a little something extra.

"About a month after the article came out, I tracked him down. I'm pretty sure I scared him half to death when I snuck up on him as he was coming out of one of those LoDo clubs. I wanted to let him know that the people of Commerce City considered him one of their heroes and that he was just as welcome there, at any time, as I was. I haven't seen any more big stories about the Unfortunates in Westword, but I wouldn't be surprised if Mark Rosenberg were writing for Utopia's little paper."

Michael listens intently to the story, understanding coming over his face as he nods here and there at various points.

"Yes, I've had an interview with young Mr. Rosenberg, but he isn't with Westword anymore. He just started a job over at the Post a couple of weeks ago. I put a good word in for the kid. I read that article when I first moved here." He pauses and grins. "After Detective Forsythe was kind enough to inform me there was another Super in the area, I read the article through again. Simply based on the few things the Detective mentioned about you, it was interesting how I could almost see your hand in the creation of that article. That was good work."

"Really? Well, I'm glad he's getting a chance to work for the legitimate press," I say. "He's a good writer; he deserves it. It was nice of you to help him out."

I take another sip of water.

"Actually, he's probably too good for the Post. But the things I've seen that he's written over the past four years make me think he doesn't want to leave Denver any more than I do."

Michael nods and smiles. "I can't speak to his employer's worthiness of him, but he does seem to be as much a fan of the area as most of us transplants are." He pauses then. "Perhaps you'll take me to Commerce City with you sometime. If you're tied up and they need some sort of help, I'd like to be able to help them. How about it?"

I shrug. "We had a very bad first meeting, but... well, I could see from his aura that his heart was in the right place. His brain just needed a little education. And sure, I'd be happy to introduce you to the folks up in Commerce City. I was planning on heading up there Friday afternoon; if you're available then, I can meet you up there."

"Friday afternoon? Sure, I can make it if it isn't too early. I have a concert at my daughter's preschool at two." His smile is both shy and proud at the same time. "She's playing the part of a lamb in a production of Mary Had a Little Lamb. My wife's spent the last few days making her costume."

I smile broadly. A preschooler! It's hard to think of an age group that's more fun... and, of course, that makes me think of Pablo's little niece, Melissa, again.

"Unfortunately, one of the folks I'm meeting with has a hard time with changes to his schedule. But I'll chat with Hank — that's the mayor up there — and see what might be a good time that won't interfere with your family life. Children seem to grow up so fast. So unless there's another truly nasty something in town that day — and I'm really hoping there isn't — you shouldn't miss out on watching any more of that growing up than you have to. And it would seem your wife is quite the seamstress."

I chuckle.

"With a preschooler, at least my story of the phone in the toilet was completely plausible." I nod definitively. "Did you say something earlier about carrot cake?"

"I did. It's homemade with golden raisins and walnuts, and cream cheese frosting." He opens the container, scoops out one piece of cake onto the lid, and hands me the container with the second piece.

I nibble a corner of the cake and grin. "Okay, this is nearly as good as my Tita's carrot cake. So your wife is an outstanding seamstress, a wonderful baker... you're married to a protégé of Martha Stewart, right?"

He chuckles. "Well, I don't know if I'd go that far. She just enjoys cooking and baking and sewing." Michael frowns slightly, and then sighs. "She actually gets grief because of it, from other mothers who have chosen to have careers outside the home. I don't really understand it, but I know it bothers her."

I nod. "Actually, I think I sort of get it, what with being female and all. And I've met people like your wife's acquaintances. Sometimes it's a matter of a misinformed woman believing a mom who stays home with her children is a traitor to the glorious flag of feminism. And that's sad because being a parent is a job, and a hard one, too, if what my friends and relatives say holds any truth. Or maybe they're just jealous that they don't have the option to stay home with their children... or they feel like they made the wrong choice.

"I'm not a mom, so I'm no expert on these things. But I think your wife should just remember that she's doing what she loves and what she wants to do." I shrug and give him a crooked smile. "As I told someone just the other day, it seems like I need to be an amateur social worker on my other job. It looks like it might be spilling over into this one."

Michael looks at me intently for a moment. "Don't you think what you do for the people of Commerce City could be classified as many things... social worker among them? I'll tell my wife what you said, though," he adds with a smile. "I think she'd like you.

"So do you wish to have children someday, Andrea? Is there anyone special in your life?"

I pause before answering his questions.

Pause might actually be the wrong word. Temporarily step out of sync with the rest of the world, scream, and return to reality might be more appropriate. At least, that's how it feels in the space of time it takes to blink twice. It's not Michael's fault. I'm just awfully damn tired of people wanting to know if I have a significant other or trying to make sure I get one before — insert ominous organ music here — It's Too Late. And Too Late can be anything from oh you poor dear, you're getting so old to you need someone you can share your innermost secrets with to girl, you have GOT to be getting regular sex!

It makes me a little punchy. Good thing I don't use knives, or I'd be stabby like The Bloggess. What? Super Heroes read blogs, too, you know!

And children...

I sigh. I have to remember it's not Michael that's annoying me, but it's my own reaction to the constant questioning.

"I do have a special someone, actually," I say. And, of course, how can I not smile when thinking about Pablo? "And I don't wish for things, Michael. Wishing is nothing more than strenuous fantasizing. Do I want children?"

When I thought it wasn't possible to have children, I was able to completely avoid the whole question of whether or not I wanted to have children. It was a moot point, wasn't it? And now?

Now, I don't really know. I know Pablo does. I can feel that memory of the first time he held Juan in his arms.

"Truthfully, I don't know. I like children, I enjoy being around them and marvel at the way they just soak up information about the world around them. They see wonder where adults have forgotten it even exists. Children are amazing human beings."

I eat another bite of cake.

"But doing the kind of job I do... not my day job, this one... I don't know if that's really compatible with motherhood."

"I didn't mean to touch on a sore issue, Andrea. I'm sorry."

I shake my head. "Really, it's okay. Well, today it is, at any rate. It really is something I need to think about a whole lot more. The topic isn't quite as sore as it was even a month ago. And how could you know, right?"

He nods solemnly. "For what it's worth, there's no greater joy than being a parent, despite the many headaches and heartaches that go along with the job. But, of course, it's a decision you — or you and this special someone who makes you smile — should make without being pressured by others."

I smile and shrug. "You're a smart guy, you know that? Your wife is one lucky woman.

"So besides flying, what do you do? Are you stronger than a locomotive? Are you able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Are you faster than a speeding bullet?"

He chuckles at my reference to the old Superman show and shakes his head. "No, I'm hardly a Superman. Aside from flying, I'm durable, have wicked talons that extend from my hands, and have exceptional vision... it all kind of goes with the name. What about you, Andrea? What can the Ninja do, aside from look amazing in black?" He grins.

I raise an eyebrow, not quite sure how to take his comment... completely ignoring it seems like a good option.

"Ninja — just Ninja, not the Ninja — has increased strength, enhanced senses, incredible reflexes, and accelerated healing. All the senses, so people who bathe in perfume or fail to bathe at all risk their lives when they're around me," I say with a chuckle. "Enhanced sight, hearing, taste and touch are part of the package, too." I point at the now-empty container that held the carrot cake. "I know your wife uses less cinnamon in her recipe than my mother does, and she uses maybe a teaspoonful more sugar in the frosting than my Tita. I hear heartbeats of people ten paces away. From that, I can get a pretty fair indication about whether or not someone is telling the truth or lying. Someone once said I was a human lie detector, and that's not too far off the mark." It does make me a little uncomfortable at times, but I've learned to adjust to the fact that people lie a lot.

"There are all the qi-related things like channeling the energy, sensing other people's auras, and using the energy as weapon. And then I have some rudimentary skills for communicating with and controlling animals.

"Andrea, on the other hand, is a Chen Shi Taijiquan Master and an Aikido Kudan. If they used belt colors to indicate rank like other martial arts do, that translates to highest level black belt in both arts."

I shake my head. "When folks find out the State of Colorado considers my hands and feet deadly weapons, that I essentially have a permit to carry a weapon both openly and concealed..." I chuckle. "You might imagine that some folks would find that a bit intimidating. I actually had to use the Taiji once in college. THAT was a miserable experience."

I touch the staff in front of me.

"I'm also a Taiji Master of the short and long staff, although my staff is a bit longer than the usual short staff. I practice down in Washington Park sometimes when the weather is nice. Always get an audience. Children are especially entranced, mostly by the Taiji forms. I also have training in the Chinese short sword, called a jian, and the Chinese broadsword, which is known as a dao." I grin Ninja's grin at him. "Although I'm a bit out of practice, I'm fairly good with the jian. However, I will admit to being less than stellar with the dao."

I smile more sedately and shrug. "Because Andrea is so sweet and professional and unassuming and Ninja is a potty-mouthed smart ass, I've managed to get away with no one twigging to the fact that they're one and the same. It helps that there's virtually no intersection between their worlds. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that very few people know about Ninja."

Pausing a moment to consider, I nod. "Only three people in Denver know Andrea is Ninja is Andrea... you're the third."

Michael nods solemnly. "I appreciate your trust. About a dozen people know that I'm Peregrine, mostly in upper levels of the Police Department, the mayor and several people in my Sponsor's organization."

I shake my head. "Again, my privacy instincts are kind of freaking out about that. The mayor? Dear gods." I chuckle as I rest my head in a palm. "Captain Sanchez of Homicide knows, and while I trust the man with my life, it still makes me nervous. And, of course, my special person knows."

"I've heard some really good things about Sanchez from those higher in the food chain, so to speak. Did you know he's turned down promotions seven years running?"

I lift my head and raise an eyebrow. "I didn't, but I can't say I'm surprised about it, either. The man is really good at what he does. And the people he grooms are outstanding. Of course, that explains why there have been several detectives promoted over him to head other departments." I nod. Yep, Rodrigo Sanchez is definitely someone I'm happy to have on my side. And someday I might even get used to the idea that he knows that Andrea is Ninja is Andrea.

Michael looks down forlornly at the now empty cake container and sighs. "That always seems to go so fast." He looks up at me with a twinkle in his eyes. "Of course, I have more at home, and let me tell you... this is one time I'm grateful the Virus upped my metabolism to something crazy. Eating six full meals a day is a real chore sometimes, but getting to eat all the desserts I want?" He chuckles. "Oh well, I guess I should be getting back home. I always like to be home to tuck the little one in if it's at all possible. Can I drop you off anywhere?"

I grin at his boyish delight in desserts but shake my head. "My bike is down at the parking lot, and rock climbing at night is good practice for me." Standing as easily and gracefully as I sat earlier, I slide my staff through the straps on my pack and then shoulder the pack.

"Thanks for the offer, though," I say. "I'll give Sponsorship some serious thought, and I'll let you know when Newbie is ready to meet the world, so to speak."

"It was a pleasure meeting you tonight, Andrea. Are you sure I can't at least drop your pack off at your bike? It would give you a break from carting it down."

I grin at him. "You're quite the gentleman, Michael Varano, and I thank you with the greatest of appreciation. It has very definitely been a delight to have met you tonight. But every opportunity I have for training exercises outside the norm I seize with enthusiasm." I nod in the direction of the mountains.

"The terrain out in Jefferson County is dicey in some spots. There have been times I've needed to spend four or five days out there tracking down the mountain lions and coyotes and bears that can't read the signs that tell them to stay away from the mean old humans." I laugh. "I've usually got a pack heavier than this. Good heavens, I know women whose purses are heavier than this!"

He chuckles. "What can I say? I was raised by a Southern lady, so I offer to help by instinct." He shrugs and smiles, extending his hand once more. "Take care, Andrea. I look forward to an opportunity to work together."

I shake his hand one last time. "Stay safe, Michael. I'll give you a call after Friday when I've worked out the logistics of having you meet the folks up in Commerce City. And give my compliments to your wife for her delicious carrot cake."

As Peregrine flies off, Raven is performing a number of truly unnatural gymnastic activities.

"What is WRONG with you??!?"

All is well! The Warrior arises!

"You're a fracking lunatic. And I suspect I feel better not knowing what the hell you're talking about than I will when I finally do figure out what you're talking about."

You spend too much time doing things you don't need to do! You are the Warrior! You should be the Warrior!

"And you should shut up and mind your own damn business. You've admitted you're not cut out to be the guardian of a warrior. Raven is the guardian of the teacher, the mystic, maybe the spiritual leader. Well, what I do every day is close enough to teaching that I know it's what I'm supposed to be doing. Your sudden obsession with me being the Warrior is really bizarre, and that's comparing this obsession with all the other bizarre things you've done.

"And you've actually told me I should be the Shaman. So excuse me if I don't trust you even a little."

I walk to the edge of The Rock, looking out over the eastern plains of Colorado. The qi of Mother Earth is exquisitely beautiful. Sometimes I wish I could paint what I see; I wish I could share this beauty with others.

And then Raven is there, hanging upside down in front of my face, blocking my view.

You are the Warrior! You need to be the Warrior. The coming Darkness cannot be stopped by a shuffler of books.

I blink, utterly shocked.

"Shuffler of books??!? You obnoxious, sanctimonious, moronic twit! Should the world happen to survive the coming Darkness you and Pablo's ancestral pest are all hyped up about, then the world is going to need..." I swear I hiss at the stupid bird. I'm not a hisser, usually, but I will make an exception in this case. "...librarians and teachers and storytellers and all the other people who put the world back together when it falls apart.

"Now get the hell out of my way. I want to go home."

Raven rights itself and looks utterly confused.

But... but...

"Out. Of. My. Way."


I can feel the qi starting flow up from Mother Earth — which is fine, I'm going to need her guidance to get down the face of The Rock anyway. It's the look in my eyes that obviously convinces Raven that I am serious.

It disappears with an almost audible pop.

I close my eyes and feel the qi flowing through me; I feel the ribbons of qi that are woven across the face of The Rock. As I begin my climb down, I feel my qi become intertwined with the ribbons and rivulets flowing in The Rock. I'm grateful that it's full dark because if anyone notices me now, there will be a rescue team and paramedics at the base of The Rock before I can make it even half way down. Surprisingly... well, perhaps not... the climb down is even easier than the climb to the summit had been. I feel as though I'm descending along a rope ladder, despite my rational brain trying to insist my fingers and toes are searching for crevices and tiny outcroppings.

When I reach the bottom, I pause a moment in a crouch with palms and soles of my feet on the ground. "Thank you, Mother." It is a whispered prayer I've been saying more and more often lately.

The path back to the parking lot is no more difficult to traverse in full dark, and I soon have everything stowed back in the proper places on the bike. I briefly consider stopping at the Sheriff's Office to check in with Forsythe, but... no. No, I want to be home... with Pablo.

Traffic is light nearly all the way up to Alameda; it's relaxing and refreshing to ride up I-25 at speeds exceeding a hundred miles an hour. I know I set off a couple of alarms once I crossed back into Denver County, but I also know I don't have to worry about them either.

It's a little after ten when I finally come in the house with my backpack over one shoulder, my staff in that hand, and my other hand already trying to unweave the braids in my hair.

The seasons have definitely changed. The days are slightly cooler and definitely shorter; there is a distinct chill in the air now at night. There is already snow in the higher elevations. With Halloween less than a week away, the holiday spirit is beginning to slide its way across the Front Range. I've heard tales of days long past when the day after Thanksgiving was dedicated to decorating for Christmas. Until the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was finished, no one decorated store windows. There were no displays along the streets. Advertising and sales had nothing to do with Christmas, and songs on the radio were the regular things you'd hear all during the year. I can't imagine the Christmas madness beginning after Halloween, let alone after Thanksgiving. I don't think it's my imagination that every year there's Christmas creep, that merchandise and decorations show up in stores a little bit earlier every year.

While most people seem just a little more pleasant and a little more cheerful around the holidays, there are those who fear Halloween and there are others who have little to be thankful for at Thanksgiving. And as for Christmas? Well, the Christ may have come for all mankind, but there are those who feel all mankind does not include the freaks, the gays, the minorities, the non-Christians, or anyone else who isn't exactly like them.

Incidents are already increasing. This year seems to be worse than any I can remember, and my memory is long.

Pablo and I are continuing to learn how to make our lives as easy and uncomplicated as our love. We've been friends for so long that some things are obvious. There are other things that simply need easy decisions — you take out the garbage, I'll put the groceries away, you do the dishes, I'll do the laundry. And, of course, there are the peculiar things that we never realized were an issue until we began living together. I'll squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom if you put the toilet seat down every time. And let's just make the bed together.

All of that pales in comparison to the complications of living as husband and wife, as police detective and librarian, in addition to our other duties as Protectors of Denver. As crimes increase and students become more agitated as the terms wind down, as those who need protection need even more of our time, it's tricky making the time to be a couple. It's a balancing act worthy of the finest gymnast, but I think we're doing as well as we possibly can. It's certainly not easy. When I mentioned that to Mama, she just laughed. "If it were easy, Andrea, it wouldn't be love, it wouldn't be worth your time." Have I mentioned that my Mama is a wise woman?

Peregrine, too, has been busy with his Sponsors, his family, with helping protect the people of Denver. Pablo is close to being comfortable enough to meet him, so perhaps that can happen sometime in the near future; I'm hoping before the wedding, at least. Perry suggested waiting until after the holidays, given how busy we are now, and given that crime and hatred never slow down at this time of year. But while the logic is sound, Pablo might be needed to cover for either me or Peregrine between now and the New Year.

To be honest, I rather like Michael and wouldn't mind inviting him to our wedding... well, the reception. The ceremony itself is a family-only affair.

My schedule and Peregrine's have been in conflict since we met back in August; we still have not made it up to Commerce City, although Hank and the Council are looking forward to meeting him.

Pablo has been working on the abilities he learned as a guest of his ancestral pest and seems to have mastered them. Well, at least as well as they can be mastered without greater threats than Eaters and gangs of Jesus Fan Club members. But aren't those the greatest threats we wish would ever threaten our people?

No, the past two months have not been easy. It's definitely not my imagination that things are getting worse.

At least Pablo and I have settled into a comfortable routine, albeit one that doesn't always allow us the time together that we'd like.

In the category of Good News, Mama reports to us each week on the progress she's making on the wedding plans. We have managed to secure the Coliseum for December 27. Mama was so far beyond her usual cheerful self at the thought of having a proper Hogan for the ceremony that Daddy's background laughter was louder and longer than usual. I'm glad we managed to make Mama so happy.

As our gift to the Garcia family who is giving up their son to the Ts'ah Yisk'idnii, the Sage Brush Hill Clan, we will be having a formal reception and dinner at the Brown Palace. This also soothes my heart regarding all our friends who would find the traditional Navajo reception part of the ceremony somewhat perplexing. We will have the ceremony in the morning at the Coliseum and the dinner reception at the Brown Palace in the late afternoon.

Everyone seems pleased with this arrangement... especially my best friend who is becoming best friends with the chefs at the Brown Palace!

In other good news, Peregrine's friend has fashioned the distortion masks for both of us, although it had been more than a small struggle to get Pablo to agree to trust the man. I still hate wearing it, even though it's as light as spider silk and I can barely tell I have it on... I just feel like most of the people I deal with trust me more when I'm not wearing it. But I have been putting it on recently when visiting my usual haunts... pulling it out of a pocket after I arrive, explaining its purpose.

Everyone has been supportive of the idea that there might come a day when it will keep my job as Ninja from crashing down on my other life... the life I have as whoever they want to think I am when I'm not Ninja. Old Mama down in Five Points couldn't stop laughing. Jocko in Commerce City was so entranced by it, I had to put it on and take it off for half an hour before he nodded and agreed it was good. Tonight is the last venue for demonstrating it... Charlie's. Even though I'll be patrolling most of the more densely populated areas, the fact that Charlie's is on my agenda could be what's causing Pablo to be flustered tonight. But really? Who the hell knows? He's been on edge for weeks. We both have.

In the not so good news department, my nightly patrol radius has to cover the entire metroplex lately rather than picking a county and checking in on them once or twice a week. Peregrine's been almost too busy to give his usual interviews. His Sponsors have called him out of town three times in the past two months, and it's getting harder to cover for one another. When we spoke the other day, although he ostensibly called to cancel yet another planned meeting in Commerce City, he mentioned his frustration at missing important events at his daughter's preschool. Yes, to most people, that might not seem like a big deal. But in his other life as Michael, it's a very big deal to Peregrine.

I'm pretty sure it's a bad idea for all three of Denver's Supers to be so frustrated and overwhelmed at the same time. For a city the size of Denver to even have three Supers is unusual. Even taking into consideration the size of the entire metroplex from Boulder down to Castle Rock, from Golden out to Aurora, we're not nearly the size of Chicago... and Chicago only has one Super. Well, okay... Chicago only has one Super that is publically known. I hope for Chicago's sake that there are a half dozen or more Supers like me and Pablo that are taking up the slack for Emerald Shark.

Pablo has been agonizing over a name, over a costume...

"Pablo, I have told you at least twice every day for the past two months that I'm perfectly fine with you patrolling with me! It doesn't matter to me what you wear. Stop dithering and make up your mind."

I pull on my boots as I sit on the edge of the bed and begin braiding my hair.

The holidays are never the best time for some people, never the best time for those of us who serve and protect, but this year the incidents started earlier and seem to be ramping up faster. Perry and I really do need Pablo's help.

So far, we've been lucky that Boulder County is generally so laid back that the City Police and County Sheriff Department have been able to handle all the problems that have been cropping up. Most of the problems have been on the CU campus anyway, or just off-campus.

And in the other not so great news, I still can't decide if Sponsorship is for me or not. While I think my values and Utopia's might be a good fit, I suppose I'm doing my own equivocating on the subject. They've said they'd even be willing to let me continue being the "hidden Super of Denver"... their words, not mine... but I can't help feeling a little suspicious about it. If you're Sponsoring a Super, wouldn't you want it known that you're Sponsoring a Super and which Super it is that you're Sponsoring? Pablo hasn't been especially useful helping me figure this out; in fact it led to our first fight. That, more than anything, makes me worry that Sponsorship is a mistake. Yet... if I continue working at the library and Pablo pulls as much overtime as he's been getting and people just keep getting worse and worse... Well, I may never get to see my husband except in passing.

I finish braiding my hair and sigh.

"I'm sorry, love. I didn't mean to snap at you. You know we need to learn to work together for this coming Shadow..." Right, that reminds me of another bit of good news, and these days I'll take all the good news I can get. Neither Raven nor the ancestral pest has been around lately. I can certainly use the break from the stress they cause. "...and just because I've always worked alone doesn't have to mean I always have to work alone." I smile, then stand up and walk over to him where he's staring at his clothes in the closet. I wrap my arms around him from behind, resting my head against his back.

"After all, I don't live alone anymore either."

I continue to hold him. I suspect we're about to have a conversation we've had more than once already.

"And for your first time out, how about just your black cargo pants, turtleneck, boots and leather jacket? We can figure out your final look once you decide on your name." I hug him; our closeness, our bond, makes it easy for him to tell I'm smiling. "Though I'm going to say it yet again, I think 'Eagle' is perfect. What could be better than being named for one of the most elite warrior groups of your ancestors? And I was only kidding about the feathers and the headdress and the loincloth. Well, mostly kidding about the loincloth. You'd look so sexy! Rawr!"

Then I laugh. "But we'd wind up having amazing sex instead of patrolling the metro area, so no loincloth."

I pause, not wanting to let go of him... we really haven't seen each other, held one another, nearly enough lately. I haven't laughed enough lately, either.

"Come with me tonight," I say softly. "Start with basic black, add touches of color as you see fit. Peregrine's wife did offer to make something for you; she said she'd enjoy it. I told you she's a Martha Stewart wannabe. Bobby would either love her or hate her... I don't think he's much of a needle and thread kind of guy... but we should make sure we keep the two of them apart just in case."

But finally I reluctantly release him, step lightly around him and place a hand gently, lightly on his cheek.

"Come, love. The night is falling, and there are people who will mistakenly think it's acceptable to hurt others in our town."

I can see the same look on his face that I've seen so often over the past two months. It's not the clothes that are causing him to worry. It's his internal conflict. He's an office of the law. After all this time as a police officer and detective, going out on patrol with me feels like vigilantism to him. Captain Sanchez cleared it, making it an acceptable and DPD sanctioned activity. My dear husband can't ignore that feeling in his gut, though.

Despite his trust of me for these last nine years, he believes — or perhaps merely suspects — that he is about to step over a line he shouldn't cross. Nothing I've said has convinced him yet that my ways do not need to be his ways for us to work together.

"No, love, I told you the other night, although I think you were already drifting off to sleep. I've been advised not to use Eagle as my name because of the government agency that uses that title. It is a good one, though. I've been thinking about doing something more official. I sketched out something... can I show it to you?" He looks into my eyes and I see nothing but love there.

"Of course you can show me, Pablo," I reply with a smile. I could spend the night just staring into those eyes.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of paper, unfolding it before handing it to me.

When he pulls out the paper and hands it to me, I do look at it carefully. It's... well, a crude sketch, yes... but the idea is perfectly Pablo.



I look up at him, very seriously... except for the bit of a twinkle in my eyes, and the bubbling of something a little more than happiness through my qi.

"Are you sure about the spandex? You might be too sexy for spandex." I break into a broad grin. "It has the same problem as the loincloth, dear."

I hand the paper back to him. "Other than that, I think it's absolutely perfect."

He smiles bright, happiness showing in his eyes. Oh yes, I could get lost forever in those eyes.

"It isn't spandex, dear. It's a ballistic polymer that DPD has access to from the government. I like the design because it allows me to help the department openly while protecting my true identity. And the name I picked reflects my true calling. What do you think of Peacekeeper?"

"Peacekeeper is totally you." I wrap my arms around him again. "And your ballistic polymer is still sexy as hell," I say with a chuckle. "Of course, looking like that..." I sigh, and just hold him quietly for a minute.

"Even though DPD doesn't officially Sponsor you any more than they Sponsor me, with that uniform... a DPD badge without a number... Captain Sanchez's approval to work with me..."

Again, I stand in silence. It's the perfect outfit for him, yet it implies... well, not quite Sponsorship from DPD, but certainly recognition. Still, it bring to mind the whole damn subject for me again. I take a deep breath, smile, step back and place a hand on his chest.

"It truly is perfect for you.

"And somehow I don't think you've had time to get it made yet. You really should meet Peregrine, his wife would be happy to assemble it for you," I say with a wink.

"Would you rather stay home tonight... or simply come along as an observer? Even come along as yourself. I know Old Mama's wanted to meet my DPD contact who managed to get patrol officers down in Five Points who care about the neighborhood. The working girls and boys... Charlie... the other bar owners... they'd be happy to know a cop that could be trusted."

I move my hand up to his shoulder; feel the qi gentle swirling between us.

"It's up to you, love. But I do need to be on the road soon since I'm checking in with Forsythe tonight."

"Afraid you won't be able to keep your hands off me in the field in my ballistic armor?" My husband chuckles softly as he leans into my touch. He sighs as our love and qi swirl together so intimately and perfectly. Oh, we have not had nearly enough time together!

"I'm not sure we want Detective Garcia being so directly linked to Ninja, and then have Peacekeeper — obviously a police Super — working with her. Two plus two might well equal four in someone's eyes." He sighs again as he steps back slightly; I echo the sigh.

I nod then. "I think there are probably more people working Colfax than in the entire Capitol Building that are capable of doing simple math.

"I haven't seen enough of you lately, Pablo," I say honestly. "Kidding aside, if that situation doesn't ease up some..." I smile softly and shrug. " could be more than a little distracting, no matter what you wear."

"I know, love. I feel the same way, believe me. I think I'll go with basic black tonight, as you suggested. I'll keep out of sight for the most part. Oh..." He has a mischievous twinkle in those beautiful brown eyes of his. "That reminds me, dear... I've been working on a little something, a surprise for you. Would you like to see?"

"All black, stick to the background, wear the mask Perry's friend made you.

"And another surprise? I'm such a lucky woman!" I chuckle. "Yes, love... of course I'd like to see what you've been working on."

He smiles softly, his eye twinkling with merriment. "I'm glad I'm such a distraction, but this should help. Well, it will help you not be distracted. I've been experimenting with my light powers after you explained how the masks worked and thought of an application that will be useful in our work, and in my own work."

He holds his arms out to the side and grins.

"Now you see me..."

Pablo vanishes from sight, but I can hear his voice from where he'd been standing.

"And now you don't!"

I laugh. "Well, I don't see you, but I still see the qi flows, so I know you're there... I know it's you." I reach out and unerringly place a hand on his shoulder. "This is very cool. And it's not nearly as distracting as your sexy self, although your qi is awfully pretty." I giggle. "How are you doing it? Bending light away from you?

"Oh, and come back. I don't want to kiss the Invisible Man," I say with a smile.

He snaps back into view in the blink of an eye and smiles at me. "I'm glad I have sexy qi." He holds his arms out to me. "And yes, I'm making the light move around me or something like that. I'm really not sure of the physics; I just know I can do it. It's kind of instinctive."

I laugh. "You're sexy. Your qi is pretty." I wrap my arms around him; one last hug before going to work. Gosh, that sounds so normal.

"I'm going to check in with Forsythe first, then Old Mama in Five Points, head up to Commerce City if there's enough time, and get to Charlie's a bit before midnight. That's usually when the idiots start showing up, although with Halloween next week, idiots might decide to show up earlier."

I take a step back, smiling as I shake my head. "After all these years, I've finally gotten the boys to just let the bouncers hold the fools in a headlock until I get there. Doesn't hurt the fools and no one gets threatened with a lawsuit except me when I have to crack them over the head. It's a big win all the way around since District Attorney Morrissey gets a good laugh when the skinheads try to press charges."

He looks at me more seriously. "I'd really like you to have your outfit redone with the ballistic polymer, Andrea."

I give him a look that isn't quite a stink eye, but could get to that level of annoyance very quickly. "Pablo, when I first started doing this job, I made a very conscious decision to choose clothing that didn't show off all my assets, as it were. Granted, a lot of that had to do with my still well-ingrained modesty, but what I wear is both comfortable and practical."

He kisses my forehead... a peace offering. "I know. I just worry about you, despite your ability to heal so quickly. I'm allowed to worry, you know. It's definitely one of the provisions in the Husband Manual." He nods with self-satisfaction, and I can't help but smile at him.

"I love you, Pablo Garcia. But just remember that stubbornness is one of the provisions in the Wife Manual." I giggle. "Come on, love. Let's go to work."

We begin the patrol with Pablo staying in the background, simply observing and watching how I interact with the various people I meet during the course of a night on patrol. Although he's had an opportunity to work with Ninja — just once, in Flagstaff — he is seeing yet a different side of both his wife and the Warrior. Here, Ninja is not intent on beating the crap out of a miscreant. Tonight, it becomes clear that Andrea has always been a part of Ninja, as much as both sides of my then-fractured personality tried to deny it. I check in first with Forsythe to make sure all is well in Douglas County. It's not the quick check in one might expect from the Warrior; Ninja and Forsythe banter back and forth like old friends. Forsythe takes her cue from me and pretends I don't have a shadow, although I know she'll ask me about him the next time I'm down here. But by that time, Pablo should have his uniform and I can make official introductions.

Fortunately, Douglas County has been quiet; it's generally the least likely of the counties to have any problems, and most of those problems center on the Outlet Mall outside Castle Rock. And even those problems are nearly always minor enough that the Sheriff's Office and Castle Rock PD can handle them. I visit Forsythe regularly anyway; I want her to know she can always call me.

Pablo is learning how to be Peacekeeper, how to fit into this slightly different world. It's different than the life of a patrol officer; it's not quite the world of a police detective. It's almost like being on an undercover assignment, except it's not a twenty-four seven gig and the goal is to keep the peace rather than root out a crime ring.

We head back north, up to Five Points. Pablo had mentioned that he was looking forward to meeting Old Mama, given all the tales I'd told once he officially knew about my Ninja identity.

The gentrification of Five Points is still a pipe dream in the minds of the mayor, the men and women on the City Council, and those in the tourism trade. Hell, even those in the upper echelons of law enforcement should know better. The reality here is not the pristine and perfect homes of Cherry Creek, it is not the wealth and power of Hilltop nor is it the grace and elegance of Park Hill.

Five Points is poverty and garbage-strewn alleyways; it is homelessness and illness; it is hunger... of the body, of the mind, of the soul.

Five Points is where many of the girls and boys who work Colfax Avenue live. It is where many Unfortunates who just barely or don't quite pass as Normal live. It is where families with many mouths to feed and adults with minimum wages jobs live.

Five Points is where drug dealers ply their trade because they think the cops don't care. They think the people of the neighborhood don't care. They think that there is no one who cares.

They are idiots.

They never learn.

Last week the street lights were replaced; this week, half of them are broken again. I'd like to meet whoever is knocking them out with rocks... he or she ought to be playing for the Rockies.

As usual, I've left my bike at the DMV facility at the edge of the neighborhood. I like to walk the streets, glide through the alleys and take the measure of the people and the dynamic of the neighborhood. Walking has a lot of benefits.

It's considerably easier to sneak up on wrongdoers, something I find delightfully amusing. There's something so joyful about discovering a fool or two trying to practice their breaking and entering skills... patiently watching them, and then see them jump nearly out of their skin — and perhaps peeing themselves — when I oh so innocently ask, "Hi, guys... whatcha doin'?" I probably shouldn't take so much pleasure in frightening wicked people like that. But I've also heard people say that one should find happiness in whatever job they do.

It's refreshing to walk through the neighborhood just after dark, when people are still out and about, and receive a smile here... a nod there... and always, always hugs from the little ones. It took time, well over a year in fact, for the people of Five Points to accept me as one of their own... to be comfortable with the fact that they really do have a Protector. There isn't likely anything I'll be able to do once the moguls decide to truly focus their attention on this area and — in their minds — clean it up. But I can roust the criminal element.

That's a two-edged sword, of course. Yes, the people I chose to protect are safer, for a time. However, the criminals scatter, making it more difficult for Pablo's brethren to track them down, arrest them, and turn them over to the District Attorney's tender mercies. One more for the plus column: now that Pablo knows what I do and how I manage to do it, letting DPD know where the rats have scattered will be a less labyrinthine task.

And walking the neighborhood lets word of my arrival spread to the people who have questions they believe I can answer. It filters out to the people who have concerns they want me to address. It whispers to the people who have problems they hope I can resolve. And, of course, my walk lets the word of my arrival reach Old Mama's ears.

I never know how many people are going to be gathered in front of her tiny home waiting to present their questions, concerns, and problems. When the weather calls for it, people gather inside. Half the time I wonder if Old Mama's house is the neighborhood's social center.

She's the matriarch of Five Points. She settles minor disputes between neighbors before they can grow into feuds. She works with the neighborhood churches and charitable organizations of Denver to provide those in need with the goods and services that will help them the most. She works very hard at that one. She has her own army of social service people to call on for the small things, and for the not quite so small things. But for the larger problems, or the problems of a criminal nature, she seems relieved to have Ninja to call upon. Half the time, I think I'm just another lieutenant in her army. Doesn't bother me any... I exterminate the rats — well, chase them out of her neighborhood — and have certain connections with DPD that she does not.

Well, once she gets to trust Pablo — Peacekeeper — I'll just be the neighborhood pest control service.

I actually find that amusing.

This evening, as I stroll through the shadows, I see two people waiting for me, standing with Old Mama in front of her house.

"Evenin', Mama... Sara... Jethon," I say, as I approach the perimeter of her property. "How are you folks doing?"

Mama waves to the two younger people as she takes a seat on her front steps, and Jethon nods to Sara.

"Well... you know that house two up from me and across the street?"

I nod. "Sure... the crack house." I have to clean out that vipers' nest every month or two. "They're at it again?"

She sighs and nods. "Figured I'd just tell ya instead a callin' the cops. Though would be nice if the cops could take care of it this time. Rodney ain't gonna be home for a while."

Rodney is her brother. He's not exactly bright, and he spends a good deal of time in prison — a year or two at a time — for doing dumb shit people with slightly more intelligence wouldn't do. And when he isn't in prison, he stays with her... and can be counted on to be doing something to violate his parole... hence Sara's reluctance to involve the police.

"I'll make mention of it, Sara. Maybe they can get the problem cleaned up once and for all." I can hope, anyway. "Jethon?"

He looks down at the ground for a minute, embarrassed, before looking up and speaking.

"It's Missy... well, just that I ain't heard from her in months." He looks down at the ground again. "You, um, you seen her up there? She doin' okay?"

Missy is his daughter, an Unfortunate that can't pass for Normal no matter how hard she might try. The State of Colorado decided three years back that she'd be better off up in Commerce City. She was only thirteen then. Nobody was happy with that decision... well, except for the damn fools in whatever department of the State that makes those decisions.

I step closer to him and put a hand on his shoulder, and that makes him look up. I smile at him. "She's doing well, Jethon. She's been busy with her studies, and you know the phone lines out there got cut two months ago."

He shakes his head. "Hadn't heard that. That explains things, though. She's... she's not bein' hurt or nothin' out there, is she?"

Ah, a father's love... and protectiveness.

"She has a protector, Jethon. She is treated with respect, I promise you. No one will hurt your little girl." 'Little' isn't actually the right word to use for Missy. She has the same deformity as Jocko, her protector. "She's doing good work, too... helping others learn how to read. I'll let her know you worry about her, okay? Maybe remind her she could write her Mama and Papa a nice note now and again?"

He finally manages a smile and nods. "Thanks, Ninja. She's a good girl. Probably didn't want to bother you about delivering letters."

"I'd bet you're exactly right about that, Jethon," I say with a smile. "I suppose I'd better remind her I don't mind even a little bit."

Sara and Jethon walk back up the block, heading to their respective homes, and I watch them for a moment before Old Mama speaks.

"Word on the street says Ninja has a shadow. Never thought I'd live to see the day, girl! You always such a loner." She tsks and shakes her head, but smiles fondly.

"Someone has to watch out for the ones like me, just finding their powers. Too much light shines on the fancy bird..." She likes to call Peregrine all sorts of fanciful names, mostly because Denver had peregrines in town for decades before he arrived. It's just that those peregrines are actually peregrine falcons, and they keep the pigeon population down to almost nothing. "...and those who are learning don't need the light shining in their eyes and distracting them."

"And here I was hoping you were finally going to stop being such a loner!"

I laugh.

"It may turn out that way, Mama... who knows? Or it may turn out that we're both loners. Only time will tell."

I chuckle and turn back toward Pablo, noting that he is wearing the mask Peregrine's friend made... and he's also playing with that light bending thing again. I motion him over.

"Now, Mama, he doesn't have his fancy uniform yet, so you'll have to excuse him for being a copycat and dressing like me." I grin. "This is Peacekeeper."

I look at Pablo again and roll my eyes at his antics. While mostly visible, he makes his lower legs invisible and then visible... and then does it again... and once more. The eye rolling is mostly to get him settled down since his qi is a little frantic at the moment. I'd guess he hasn't practiced this invisibility thing as much as some of his other skills and is having a hard time controlling it. Fortunately, it appears to work in sections rather than layers; that is, his legs might disappear, but I don't think just his pants or skin and and muscles would disappear leaving him half naked or looking like a skeleton. Though he might walk around for a while looking like the headless horseman. I try very hard not to giggle.

"P, this is Mama. She knows just about everything that goes on in this part of town."

"Just about, Miss Ninja?" she says, eyebrows arched and pretending to be offended.

"Your pardon, Mama," I say with a smile. "You know everything that goes on in this part of town."

She smiles serenely and inclines her head slightly.

"That's the truth!" She looks at Pablo being Peacekeeper dressed like Ninja. "I'm pleased to meet you, Peacekeeper. If Ninja's vouching for you, you're quite welcome to my little corner of Denver."

Peacekeeper nods to the portly woman. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mama. Ninja's told me how you care for the people here. You're a true asset to the community, and I look forward to working with you as well."

Old Mama raises her eyebrows at me and smiles. "He's quite the fancy talker, isn't he? Best watch yourself with that one, child. He'll be turning your head and you won't be such a loner for sure." She chuckles to herself.

I just snort. "If you think this one is a fancy talker, you should listen to the Bird some time. Besides, it will take a lot more than just fancy talk to turn my head, Mama."

Try a decade of trust built up slowly and carefully; joys and sorrows shared; a friendship as solid as the Earth herself. My head had already been turned; all I had needed to do was open my eyes.

Old Mama waves a hand at me. "Mama ain't talking to no Bird that stole his name from the proper birds living here first."

I smile as I sigh. "Now, Mama, I've told you he didn't mean any harm in it, and he sure didn't mean to offend anyone. He can fly and he's got talons like the little falcons; he thought he was honoring the history of his new city with the name Peregrine."

The old woman just shakes her head. "Maybe so, Miss Ninja... maybe so. I still don't think it's right." She frowns and her manner becomes much more serious.

"I need to speak of some whispers I've been hearing. Would you like a cup of tea?"

I nod. "Tea would be lovely." I lend her a hand so she can stand more easily from where she'd been sitting on her stoop. "Whispers seem to be floating more swiftly and plentifully these days."

"Don't they always, child, don't they always?" She heads into her small kitchen; it's a well-kept, tidy and comfortable place with lace curtains on the windows looking out into her tiny back yard where she plants her herb garden each spring. The garden is dormant for the winter, but she's brought a few plants inside. Mint, sage, and thyme are in colorful pots on a shelf above the kitchen table.

Old Mama has a comfortable and welcoming home; so welcoming, in fact, that she generally has a transient or two staying with her at any given time.

She sets about heating up a kettle of water on her old gas stove and pulls two mugs from a cabinet, pausing a moment to look at Peacekeeper.

"Would you like a cup of tea there, Mister Fancy Man Peacekeeper?" The twinkle in her eyes is hard to miss, and her aura flashes with ripples of humor. Even the most serious of conversations can't prevent the old woman from teasing anyone and everyone in the vicinity.

I suspect that's one of the reasons I like this elderly woman so much.

Pablo smiles, although it's difficult to see behind the mask. "Thank you, yes. It's chilly out tonight." Having spent three days with his family, I quickly picked up on the lesson taught by Momma Garcia relevant to our meeting tonight. You always accept the hospitality of others, or you risk insulting them. Obviously, that's not the best way to start a working relationship.

Mama occupies herself with making the tea. It's her ritual... tea first, conversation second. She takes the container of honey from the cabinet, knowing I like tea strong and sweet.

"Tell me, child... have you been having any bad dreams?" She looks back at me from the stove. It's an odd question, made odder by the fact that she's interrupting her own ritual.

I look at her with puzzlement and shake my head. "No, Mama," I reply. "I've had pleasant dreams, boring dreams, strange dreams... though no stranger than usual." I shrug. "But I've certainly not had any bad dreams."

The old woman's broad face is nearly consumed with her frown, and her eyes are troubled as she pours the tea and puts the mugs on the small kitchen table. She settles herself into an old wooden chair that creaks under the burden of her weight before she speaks again.

"My people, they've been talking. Sleep has been disturbed by restless dreams of darkness and death. Not just a few people or I wouldn't have bothered you with such since everyone has a nightmare now and again. Things are getting unsettled for many folks."

She pauses to sip her tea.

I pick up the mug of tea and lean against the counter as is my habit. Her words first cause a raised eyebrow. An entire community affected by nightmares? That's... creepy. And it doesn't sound right, either.

"How many people are we talking about here, Mama?"

She looks at me with worry in her eyes. "All those who share a kinship with you, Miss Ninja. And folks like Jethon, who have some family like you." Old Mama pauses again and carefully sets her mug on the table. "There's more. There have been disappearances."

So mutants, those related to mutants, are having these dreams. I'm sure there's some kind of significance to that. I'll need to puzzle it out later. This other thing though...

"Disappearances?" I ask, my voice betraying concern and no small amount of confusion. "What do you mean?"

"I've heard in the last day or so about three different people who have gone missing. They're not in their usual places, and can't be found in unusual places that their people have looked." She simply wraps her large hands around her mug while waiting for my inevitable questions.

"Since it's not unusual for any of the Unfortunates to move from place to place when they feel they've overstayed their welcome, I assume these missing people have been part of the community for a considerable amount of time to make their disappearance seem so odd."

I pause to sip some tea.

"Tell me of them, if you would, Mama. Have they anything in common? I will make a point to go out to Commerce City tomorrow to ask about them there." I shake my head. "But three going missing nearly at once does seem suspicious."

Something about this seems to fit with something... something that I know is in my memory somewhere.

Knowing more might help me connect the dots and fetch the right memory.

"All three are the more activist of their kind. I'm sure you know of them. Fat Sally, the lady that runs the soup kitchen over in Commerce City, she didn't show up yesterday and her people can't find her.

"Ben Grimm, he's the head of Commerce Pride, never made it from his office to his home. His family is dreadful worried; he never misses calling his mama every evening. She's living in a home somewhere out of state.

"And then there's Dick Walters, that nice older man who runs the halfway house over on 5th Avenue."

Old Mama shakes her head while staring into her mug of tea. "All three disappeared in the last few days. It's a bad sign, Miss Ninja. I can feel it in my old bones."

I raise an eyebrow. This is a rather intriguing and distressing development.

"You wouldn't happen to know if any, or even all, of them are members of Utopia, would you?"

I know Sally, of course. Everyone in the Unfortunate community of Denver knows Sally. She's one of the sweetest and kindest women up in Commerce City, always wanting to do more and more and more to help people.

Sure, people do get a little freaked out by the fact that she's got four arms. But part of the reason she's called 'Fat Sally' is that she tries really hard to hide the lower set of arms inside her clothing. It makes her look... well, fat. I can't imagine any sort of decent person wanting to hurt her. I'm not sure I'd call her an activist, though. She's more the sort to help quietly and steadily, but persistently. I guess I can't really imagine her as a member of Utopia.

I've met Ben a few times. From what I've heard about the history of the LGBT community, Ben is not quite as militant as some of the early leaders who took on the task of advocating for LGBT equality. But he's not anywhere near as quiet and out of sight as the Powers That Be would like him to be. And if he's not a member of Utopia, I'd be surprised.

And Dick is always running into trouble down at his halfway house. If it's not the ignorant employees of the companies down in the industrial area along Lipan, it's the neighborhood coalition on the other side of Kalamath. Despite being semi-supported by the UCC Ministries across the street, some of the less tolerant of the Christ's followers think it's perfectly fine to break out windows and spray paint graffiti on the two tiny houses on 5th Avenue. I know he's mentioned the group in the past; I just don't know if he's simply an admirer or a member.

"Oh, Ben is a bit radical for their tastes, but I understand he's done some writing for their paper. I'm fairly certain Dick is a member, but he's not near as healthy as I am, so he don't do too much. And I think there was some nice person from Utopia who asked Sally about it, but you know her. She don't really like joining groups." She holds up a hand and smiles slightly. "And before you go asking, child... yes, I do know a few other people who belong to the group."

I chuckle. "Mama, you know everything that goes on in this neighborhood. Of course, you'd know any other members!"

Ben is too radical for them? Ah. Ben has a rather abrasive personality at times. I suspect Old Mama would rather say that he's too radical rather than saying that he's too much of an asshole. But I can certainly see him writing up articles for their newsletter as easily as I could see Mark Rosenberg writing for them.

I sip my tea and frown. "You might whisper to them that they ought to be careful."

"Now, Miss Ninja, don't you think that's the first thing I did when I heard?" She gave me that I can't believe you just said that look of hers. She's a hell of a lot smarter than anyone gives her credit for, and even I get tripped up by her innocent old lady act every now and then. Tonight is one of those nights.

I tilt my head to her, acknowledging the admonishment.

"I was just wondering if that was the connection. I watch Law & Order... there's always a connection or a pattern." I sigh. "The problem is that usually only Bobby Goren can see it. Unfortunately, my brain's wired in a more conventional way."

I look over at Pablo the Peacekeeper.

"An Unfortunate who's a bit of an agitator... it makes sense for someone like that to disappear.

"A Normal who runs a halfway house for anyone — Normal or Unfortunate — in need... it almost makes sense for someone like that to disappear.

"But a genuinely nice person who goes out of her way to help people and has never left Commerce City even once in all the time I've been doing what I do... I'm not seeing the sense in her disappearance.

"Any thoughts on the matter... P?"

Heh. I'm so used to calling him — or any cop on the scene — Chief, I nearly slip up there... because that's the designation for the top cop on the scene. And using that analogy, the top cop here would be me. At least until Pablo gets fully kitted out. Newbie or not, cop trumps the Super that likes to stick to the shadows.

His indistinct face looks toward me and he nods. "Sure, there's a pattern. All three of these people — in their own way — advocate for the less fortunate of society. If they've been taken, the logical culprit would be someone who doesn't like that kind of activity. So who do you know that dislikes Unfortunates?"

I shake my head, first because it's not exactly helpful and second...

"I think that's the wrong question... it should be who do I know who hates Unfortunates because mere dislike isn't going to give anyone the impetus to make three people disappear."

I set the mug down on the counter beside me and cross my arms.

"There are Eaters... But Ben isn't exactly easy prey, and I've never known them to go after a Normal.

"There are the usual suspects in any hate crime... except even they're not dumb enough to go near Commerce City. Well, not since that time five years ago that a bunch of them headed up there... Jocko, Hank and Miranda had them wrapped in a half dozen rolls of duct tape by the time I got up there."

I give him a half smile; those were the days I couldn't go home and share some of the more delightfully bizarre parts of my job with anyone.

"There are probably other people who would hate Ben enough to make him disappear. There are a dozen community groups that want Dick and his halfway house out of Denver. None of those groups overlap.

"But Sally stays up in Commerce City, and nobody — seriously... NOBODY — dislikes Sally. If she had the desire and the charisma Mama has, she'd be mayor up there instead of Hank."

I sigh and spread my arms out, shrugging before picking up the mug of tea again and drinking a bit more.

"So I'm looking at things from the wrong angle, or looking at it from either too close or too far away."

Pablo considers the problem for a moment, moving a hand toward his chin — a reflexive action he tends to do when he's thinking — before remembering the mask on his face. He simply crosses his arms instead.

"Then perhaps you're right. Let's look at it from another angle. If they aren't the end goal, what effect would likely be caused by their disappearance?" He looks first at Old Mama, then at me.

"Worst case?" I ask, holding the mug in both hands, already feeling the tea cooling. I could warm it with my qi, but Old Mama's teas are just as good cold.

"Worry becomes fear, fear becomes panic. Panic leads to more fights between Unfortunates and Normals. Somebody... maybe a lot of somebodies... will get hurt. Violence will escalate to the point DPD and the Sheriff's Offices will be hard pressed to keep the peace. You, Peregrine and I will be busier than ever. Mama has a lot of influence here; the folks in Commerce City trust me enough to stay put, try to stay calm if I ask."

I shake my head.

"But in all the other enclaves and neighborhoods in the metroplex?

"The eventual end game would be chaos."

Pablo's head comes up as I speak, and he looks at me. His voice is calm and even. His qi is not.

"Ninja, if several prominent people of the Unfortunate community and dispossessed of society go missing, who is likely going to be called? The police?"

He knows the answer to that question as well as I do. I almost laugh, and would have if this weren't so serious. I look at him, expression impassive and distant, though I know my qi tells a very different story through our bond.

"If anyone gets called — and that's a very big 'if' — I do.

"And I know what your next question is. If anyone gets called, why would it be me?

"It's because I'm the only one who gives a shit. Excuse my language, Mama," I say, looking at the elderly woman. She just waves a hand at me. There are times — apparently — when expletives are acceptable.

Then my gaze moves slowly back to Pablo. I study him a moment, remembering... well, too many things.

"You think someone is calling me out," I say, making it very much more of a statement than a question.

He nods. "There's always a motive. The most common ones are sex, love, greed, envy... and hate. You represent the Unfortunates even more than those taken. You're their Protector. Taking you out — calling you out and defeating you — would be a powerful symbol for a hate group." I feel the tendrils of fear and dread crawling through his belly.

I look at him for a moment and then drink the remainder of my tea. Looking into the empty mug, I sigh.

"I think you're a little off base," I say, still staring into the empty mug. "Not too far, but enough that I'm finding it hard to buy." I look up, shake my head and set the mug in the sink.

"I'm the Protector of every person in the metroplex that the system ignores... and every person who is too far down on the list to get protection from law enforcement because there just aren't enough cops... worse than that, there aren't enough good cops."

I can see his aura, I can feel his fear, and I don't really have an answer for him that will address that fear... well, not one I can give him here and how.

"It's not just the Unfortunates, Peacekeeper. It's the people of this neighborhood who, until recently, didn't have police protection because the beat cops didn't care. Thankfully, I have friends in DPD who worked a miracle and assigned people here who do care. It's the homeless people who are too poor to have a proper home, too proud to accept the offerings of the too few missions and shelters. It's the LGBT people who are still hated by the Christ's special people as much as the Unfortunates are."

I turn to Mama because I know this is where she disagrees with me.

"I know the good people of the churches here in Five Points don't hold to that kind of thinking, Mama," I say to her with a smile. "I can't say that I know of a single church from here to Boulder that preaches hate. But you know as well as I do that there are people from outside our city who follow the devil and demons in the name of your God."

Old Mama rolls her eyes and sighs heavily. "Child, you know I find that near to impossible to believe. I can see you believe it, but I just can't cotton to that sort of blasphemy."

I crouch down on the floor beside her and take one of her hands in mine.

"I would rather you keep your disbelief than see it for yourself. Good people like you, and the ministers of the dozen churches down here, and the people who attend those churches? All of you who live with your God in your heart and do good deeds in His name far outnumber the evil ones who use His name to do the work of the Great Adversary. Know that to be true. And yet, evil does exist, Mama, you know this as well as I. The snake has always been in the garden. And I don't cotton to those folks talking out of both sides of their mouth. Those folks just dispense a minimum amount of good will with one hand and then dispatch an army of followers to harass and harm with the other."

I give her hand one more pat and then stand again, looking at Pablo as I take up my staff.

"Sun Tsu said 'If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.' The enemy is hated. The enemy is intolerance. The enemy wears many faces, but my enemy always has hatred burning in his heart and intolerance clouding her mind.

"And I am justice."

I hold my staff, with its myriad carvings, parallel to the floor and resting on both palms.

"I am harmony."

Then I rest the staff at the midpoint on a single finger.

"I am balance."

Finally, I set the end of the staff back on the floor, holding it lightly with one hand as I place the other hand over my heart.

"I am compassion.

"Knowing that, I do my best and don't fear the outcome of any battle because I fight for good and light."

I nod to him. "So yes... in one sense, I do represent the Unfortunates, as their Protector. But as I said, you're a little off base because I also represent every other minority and every group of despised people in the metroplex.

"I've been a thorn in the sides of a lot of hate groups, Peacekeeper."

I sigh.

"And speaking of hate groups, we need to get up to Colfax Avenue before my friends the skinheads do."

I look again at Mama.

"I know you have my number. Call me if you hear anything else." I wave a hand at her as I smile. "No, no... you don't need to see us out. I'll be back later in the week in any case."

I nod to Pablo.

"Shall we?"

Out on the street again, I am Ninja. I'm watching not just the people, but the qi flows... reaching out to the various animals, mostly the feral cats, to see what they see, to learn the things they remember. Unfortunately, they never remember much unless it has a large impact on their own lives, but I always check... just in case something memorable for them is useful for me. There isn't anything tonight, though.

Pablo is still worried, but it's not something we can talk about... at least not here and not now. Tonight, he's here to be seen and to be noticed in my company. Prowling the neighborhood with me gives those who do notice him the information that he has my tacit approval to be here. That we both met with Old Mama shows that he has her blessing as well. And it's his chance to become better acquainted with the neighborhood.

As we stroll back to the DMV facility, we happen upon a few more of the neighborhood's denizens. Although it's getting late and arriving at Charlie's much past midnight usually means trouble has already started if there's going to be trouble, I smile and take as much time as necessary to set their minds at ease. I listen to their concerns and I am simply a good neighbor.

It's nearly midnight when we reach my bike. I slide my staff into its holster, straddle the bike and start it up.

"Listen, I think we need to talk before heading over to Charlie's. Meet me in the parking lot for the golf course?"

I want to reach out, touch him... hold him... reassure him. But we're working tonight, so for the moment I just send a few tendrils of qi... love, caring, reassurance.

"I'm worried..." I know he wants to say Andrea because using the other name just doesn't seem to match up with the level of fear that's boiling inside him.

I nod. "I'm not going to pretend I'm not. But this isn't the place to talk." I tilt my head toward the sky, my eyes never leaving his. "Go on. It won't take me more than a couple of minutes to get up 26th to City Park."

He hesitates a moment, then says, "Put your ears back in; I don't see quite as well as you do in the dark. If people are disappearing, I won't have you be one of them."

"Oh, as if!" But I nod again and put the earbud over one ear and make sure the miniature radio in my pocket is turned on. "We good?"

Helmet? Sorry, that's for librarians... well, and me when I have to go out during the day.

He nods and takes to the air. I take a deep breath, trying to ignore the fear that's trying to grow in my heart as it responds to Pablo's fear. I pull out of the parking lot through the back entrance on Clarkson Street. What was that? There's no way to get in or out of the parking lot from Clarkson? Well, what's this perfectly good sidewalk for, then?

I ride the half block on Clarkson to 26th Avenue; from there it's not even half a mile to the City Park Golf Course. All told, it takes less than two and a half minutes to reach the parking lot. Pablo is hovering overhead; I check to make sure no one else is in the vicinity. Aside from people sleeping in the homes on York Street and 26th Avenue, and a worried man walking an energetic dog near Ferril Lake, there's no one around. I ride my bike around to the golf course side of the clubhouse — yes, yes... I know that's not what sidewalks are for — so there's less of a chance we'll be seen by anyone out on the streets. There's not much traffic over here at this time of night, but I'd rather not take chances tonight.

Especially not tonight, having heard what Old Mama had to say and having heard Pablo's theories.

I drop the kickstand on the bike and wait for Pablo to land. I smile as he walks across the green closest to the clubhouse. "I don't think they like mere mortals — that is, one of the non-golf playing elite — walking on their super unnaturally green bits," I say as I gesture to the clubhouse steps.

"Probably not," he agrees, but then shrugs. "I'm not sure I care at the moment."

I sit on the second step where my feet can rest comfortably on the ground and I don't need to feel hunched over. I pat the step beside me, and Pablo joins me.

After a few minutes of silence, I finally say, "I'd ask you how confident you were about your theory, but I can feel how close you are to throwing up." I turn my head to look at him. "I kind of hate it a whole lot that I think you're right."

"Right as in a little off base, or right as in right on the money?" He speaks softly and looks out across the darkness of the golf course.

I hesitate. I'm fine with massaging the truth, rearranging reality, to spare people's feelings or to protect them from more of the big bad world than they really need to know. But I can't do that to Pablo. He's my husband, he's a cop, and now he's a Super.

"Pretty much right on the money," I say barely above a whisper. "There might be some of that other storytelling I spun for Mama, but the Unfortunates — all mutants, really, and that includes the Supers — are at the core of this. I don't mean these three people who've disappeared. I mean the Shadow. These disappearances are the first volley. I think the dreams people in Five Points are having... well, dreams have meanings in a lot of cultures, including mine. So yeah, I think you're right that someone or maybe some group is calling me out. It's still just the first pitch of the game, though."

He finally turns and looks at me, his eyes shadowed. I can see anger warring with fear.

"I'm not sure we're ready for this, Andi."

I reach over and take one of his hands, and hold it in mine. "Your damn ancestral pest said I was to stand at the front of our forces and that you'd stand beside me. I have to believe we won't be alone when the time comes. I have to believe we'll be ready when the time comes.

"If our world is going to survive, if our world is meant to survive..." I take another deep breath but manage a ghost of a smile. "Everything happens as it should happen, exactly when it should happen. Trust that, Pablo. Trust me. Trust yourself."

He shifts to place his free hand over mine. "I trust this," he says as our qi swirls and spirals and threatens to light up the night. "Our love, our bond... that's what I'll trust. I trust you to know what we should do, and when we should do it. I've learned that doubting myself on the job is a sure ticket to frustration, so I'll trust that my abilities will support you when the time comes."

He closes his eyes and sighs as he squeezes my hand. "I'm not going to lie to you, Andi... I'm afraid. I haven't been this afraid since getting back from Q's prison dimension, and I was never more afraid in my life than when I was there." He shakes his head and swallows hard. "Fear is a weakness we can't afford."

I pull one hand free and rest it gently on the side of his face. "No, Pablo. That's a lie. Fear is not a weakness. Letting fear control you? That's a weakness, yes. But fear itself doesn't make you weak. It makes you aware.

"My love, do you think I go out every night to face gods only know what without the slightest bit of fear?"

He opens his eyes and looks at me with real confusion. "Ninja is fearless."

I laugh. "Oh, Pablo, I love you! Ninja is a potty mouth smart ass; that's what masks the fear, that's how I control it. When I faced that replicating Goblin in Boulder... when I fought with Tsui... oh, gods, especially when I fought with Tsui! I was so afraid for you that I nearly fell apart. I'm grateful for that smart ass part of me. She made me get back up and face the Flagstaff police, she made me stand over Tsui until the paramedics got there, she made sure I didn't fall apart at the seams when I gave my report to Captain Holbrook.

"Having an integrated personality makes it easier to control the fear, but that doesn't mean I'm not afraid."

Pablo moves a hand to cover the one caressing his cheek, and he looks at me with what almost appears to be a well of wonder in his eyes.

"In all the time I've known you, I've only seen you afraid once. Once... in eleven years.

"Do you remember the first time Denise and I came to visit you after that incident at the frat house?"

I smile. "How could I forget? And yes, I was panicked and scared. I hadn't acclimated to being an American; I didn't know the rules, so I had no coping mechanism for controlling the fear."

"You learned quickly," he says softly as he brings my hand to his lips and lightly kisses my fingers.

I smile at his tenderness but shake my head at his words. "Not really. It was another two years before I was truly afraid; by then the Warrior had begun to rise, had already been telling me I'd been idle too long. By the time I faced the fear of knowing how close you were to killing yourself, I knew how to control it. Getting you to fight me was almost entirely for your benefit... almost."

I hold our hands between us. "I spent an eternity in fear when I was in that coma. Sometimes I'd think that was all there was to my existence... fear washing over me. But then the despair would follow, and I'd drown in that for centuries at a time. There was no way for me to cope with so much fear, so much despair. I gave up hope."

I look at our hands, our intertwined fingers. "This is how we cope, Pablo. This is real, our love is real, our bond is real." I look into his eyes; his fear is a powerful thing. "I have already spent eternity without you, and I know it will not, it cannot ever happen again. When we march into the battle your ancestral pest foretold, I won't need the Warrior's potty mouth smart assery... I'll have this." I hold his hands just a tiny bit tighter. "Until then, I will use the Warrior's familiar methods of coping with my fear."

He looks at me for a long time, just searching my eyes, as if he's trying to read my soul. I wrap him in qi, and eventually I see the fear begin to fade into the background. The determination of a veteran police detective takes its place. Finally, he nods.

"Okay. You're right. We've got this, we'll work this out and figure out what's going on."

I grin at him with Ninja's wicked grin. "Ah, now there's the partner I need in this mess! Come on, Chief!" I release his hands and stand up, then reach a hand out to help him up... not that he needs help, of course. "You ready to go protect the pretty gay boys from the mean old skinheads?"

He laughs as he takes my hand. "Yes, Miss Ninja. I just can't wait to see you in action. Hopefully, I won't wind up ass over teakettle and unconscious this time!"

"Smart ass. And I love you."

I get back on my bike, then check the earbud and radio because I know it will make Pablo feel better. "It won't take me more than five minutes to get to Charlie's. Meet me out back in the parking lot off Emerson, okay?"

I grin at Pablo and then ride my bike at a leisurely thirty miles an hour around the building to the parking lot. When I exit the parking lot onto York, I push my speed up to eighty or maybe eighty-five. Gosh, it's too bad I need to push it even higher to make it through the light at Colfax. We certainly wouldn't want the nice Super to run a red light, would we? I snicker to myself. I do have the good sense to slow down to thirty again for the turn onto 13th Avenue. As I fly past Vine Street, my stomach reminds me it's been far too long since I've been to Liks. Gosh, it's probably been a whole two weeks.

I giggle a little as I breeze past Gilpin Street and the entrance — well, one of many entrances — to Cheesman Park. That story I told Perry was a good one. When I later told Pablo about it, he groaned. "I will never live that down, will I?" Again, I chuckle to myself. It's probably an easy mistake to make... if you're a newly spawned Super... and it's nighttime... and you're not really sure which way is up. Well, no... you'd have to be either completely clueless or so new to town that you don't know about Cheesman after dark.

I slow again for the turn onto Emerson and glide into the parking lot two blocks up.

I park the bike in the no parking area that serves as their secondary patio in warmer weather. Then I gather my staff and wait until I can feel Pablo's presence before removing the earbud and tucking it in the pocket with the radio.

Turning, I give him an appraising look and then shake my head as I grin at him again. "You thought I liked your proposed costume? Some of these guys are going to be worse than David, I promise. But as a consolation, maybe we'll head over to Ms C's afterward and you can see me getting uncomfortable with all the attention I get there."

"I think I like that idea," he says, returning the grin. "I can't remember the last time I saw you blush."

I Gibbs slap him and just say two words. "Lookout Mountain."

I open the back door and a six foot six bodybuilder turns to glare... until he registers who it is.

"Ninja girl! How are ya, darlin'?"

"Ready to kick up my heels and dance up a storm, Donny... if I wasn't working," I say with a smile.

"Dang, you say that every time."

"Ayep. It's my thing." I nod toward the main area of the bar. "Any trouble tonight?"

"Nah, just a couple of straight boys who got lost. They started freaking out a little, but Teddy got 'em calmed down and sent 'em over to Rave." That's when he notices Pablo.

"Girl! You brought me a present!"

I laugh. "No. I most definitely did not. Donny, this is Peacekeeper, a new Super in town. P, this is Donny, one the bouncers here."

The big man grins. "Good to meet you anyway, man. Hey, lemme go get Charlie for ya, okay?"

I chuckle and lean against the wall as he walks off.

"A little ADD at times," I say, looking at Pablo, "but he can stop a fight before it starts. And when the crazies show up he can keep the patrons from getting stupid. Manages to get rid of the crazies about half the time... the other half of the time, he sits on them and waits for me to show up."

That's when Charlie comes out of the door at the end of the short entryway. Looking every bit the stereotypical cowboy, I can't help but noticing yet again that he bears a striking resemblance to a young John Wayne. He's wearing a faded work shirt under a leather vest, worn jeans and boots we call shit-kickers out here, bandana around his neck and a ten-gallon hat on his head. A person could almost imagine an Old West Sheriff's badge on the vest, a six-shooter in a holster at his waist and a rifle in his hand. Well, if you've watched as many westerns as I have, that is. Damn that Bobby! He is a terrible influence on me!

Charlie even tips his hat at me as he smiles.

"Miss Ninja."

"Howdy, Charlie," I respond with a grin. "Just swingin' by to make sure there ain't no varmints for me to take off your hands."

He laughs and drops the cowboy act. "Darlin', you crack me up every time you come in here swaggering like a US Marshall looking for a jail cell full of outlaws, what with you looking so Native American and all."

Now it's my turn to laugh. "Just call it my twisted version of Cowboys and Indians. Actually, I've been showing the new guy..." I hook my thumb in Pablo's direction. "...around town and figured it was a good time to drop by and introduce..."

Just then, a high-pitched shriek cuts through the air, and I'm moving toward the sound as Charlie flattens himself against the wall of the narrow entryway to give me room. We've played this game before, too.

Stepping into the main bar area, the dance floor is in front of me, although the majority of it is to the right. The main entrance is in the left front corner, the bar against the left back wall. Between the door and the dance floor, between the bar and the front windows are tall tables where patrons can stand, some regular tables and two booths against the far left wall. The DJ has his setup in the far right front corner; it takes up as little space from the dance floor as possible. The place is fairly crowded... normal for a Friday night. Well, I guess by now it's probably Saturday morning.

In the doorway are two skinheads.

I sigh.

Both Donny and Teddy are big guys and pretty intimidating. These two, however, have auras that are damaged by drugs and are not the least bit intimidated.

I step out onto the dance floor and tap it twice with one end of my staff, the sound echoing in the sudden silence.

"Okay, boys and girls, we all know what happens now, don't we?"

The regulars sure do and are already moving toward the back door behind me, pushing tables and chairs against the windows, booths and bar as they do so... while urging newcomers along with them. They move quickly, but without the slightest hint of panic.

"Hope you can keep from bustin' up my bar, darlin'," Charlie says from behind me, where he's hitting the silent alarm to alert Pablo's brethren. He never leaves his bar if there are still customers or employees inside in these situations.

"Haven't yet, Charlie... don't plan to start now."

I look at Pablo.

"You're not official yet... not quite. So only jump in if you're sure I'm in trouble." I give him a faint smile and a slight nod. "You'll know." I give him a wink. "Not being seen might be helpful, too."

I step to the edge of the dance floor and sigh.

"Donny... Teddy... let me take care of the unwanted guests, why don't you?"

"Aww, Ninja, we haven't cracked a head in months," complains Teddy.

"Yeah, sorry about that guys, but our guests have some really nasty drugs in their systems. Can't tell what from here... and I'd hate to see one of you break a finger or something."

The unwanted guests, meanwhile, are cursing up a storm and using words I'm sure would appall their mothers. They have the advantage of a drug rage and are nearly strong enough, in this state, to push past two of the biggest and strongest Normals I know. Then one of them reaches for a pocket, and I tap the floor again — harder this time.

"Out. Now!" I order them. Donny had seen the moving hand, too, and was already pulling Teddy out of the path of the switchblade that one of the hopped up morons pulls out.

Again, I sigh.

The sudden departure of the two burly bouncers seems to startle the guests, and the sight of little ol' me standing there waiting for them seems to confuse them. A lot.

"Hey. Where'd all the fags go?" one of the pair — possibly the least brilliant, but that is yet to be established — asks.

"Where have all the gay men gone?" I sing to them. "That's a mighty fine question, gentlemen," I say. "They've all skedaddled it would seem. I don't suppose you'd care to do the same? Skedaddle on home, sleep off whatever designer drug you've poured into your systems, and wake up tomorrow kinder and gentler human beings?"

"Ernie promised us we could kick some faggot ass in this place," the other one — no, this one is certainly the least brilliant of the pair — says. He's still a bit dazed by the lack of... anyone.

Well, anyone but little ol' me. I'm hoping Pablo has gone invisible again behind me... well, more to the left, really. I can feel his presence; I know he's there.

"Ah, well... sadly, Ernie was mistaken. As you can see, the only derriere in the room is mine, and I'm sure your mamas raised you better than to try beating up on nice young ladies."

The first one, More Lucid, says, "But there were fags here. I saw them. If you was a nice girl, you wouldn't be here."

Wow, the holes in that logic statement are big enough to drive a truck through.

"But I really am very nice; you can ask any of my friends. They'll tell you what an upstanding citizen I am, what a helpful person I am. You're just not thinking clearly at the moment. I think if you just went home, got a good night's sleep, a decent meal..." And a hell of a lot of really intensive therapy. "'ll feel so much better."

"But Ernie promised..." the second, Switchblade, whines.

"I know," I say placating him. "It looks like Ernie was mistaken. Perhaps you got the address wrong? The day wrong?" I shrug. "I don't know Ernie, but if I did, I'd probably ask him if he was trying to play a little practical joke on me. Of course, that's just me... I'm really so nice, it would never cross my mind that Ernie was trying to set me up, or anything really terrible like that."

"Ernie tried setting us up?!" More Lucid, but obviously not very bright, exclaims.

"That bastard!" adds Switchblade.

"Well, now, gentlemen, that was only a guess," I say. "Maybe Ernie was just funnin' with you. He's one of your buddies, isn't he?"

They look at one another and then nod in unison.

"Well, there you go! Just a little fun, a little joke. That Ernie!" I shake my head, grinning. "He's such a kidder!"

"You know Ernie?" asks More Lucid, sounding surprised. Me? I'm surprised he even asks the question, given that I mentioned less than thirty seconds ago that I don't know Ernie. But now that he has, I can have some fun.

"I might. I know a bunch of guys named Ernie. You tell me what he looks like, and I'll tell you if I know him," I say enthusiastically.

"Yeah, okay," says Switchblade, and proceeds to describe a weasely little creep from the Springs that sounds awfully familiar from previous encounters during Pride Month.

"Hmm... that could be one of a couple of guys," I say as if pondering the dilemma. "Where does this guy live?"

To my astonishment, More Lucid... and very definitely dumb as a rock... gives me Ernie's address, right down to the apartment number, which is down in Colorado Springs, of course.

"Yes! Ernie Silverman! That's the guy! Sure I know him!"

"He told us his name was Atkinson," Switchblade says, looking confused.

"Really?" Now I sound surprised. "He told me Silverman. Dang. He must have a whole bunch of names. Oh! You know, I'll bet he changed his name when he got out of prison." I'd bet a month's salary Ernie's never seen the inside of a prison.

"Yeaaaaah," More Lucid says, and they both nod and laugh. "That Ernie!"

"So... what you say you guys hit the road, huh?"

They look at each other, blink a few times, and then shrug.

"Okay. Hey, should we tell him hi from ya?" asks More Lucid.

"Aw, you guys are great! You'd do that for me? Tell him Ninja says hi, then."

"Dang, that's a funny name for a girl," Switchblade remarks.

I shrug. "What can I say? My Mama's a funny person."

They both shrug, turn and head out the door.

Right into a semi-circle of eight of Denver's finest.

I grin and call out, "Charlie... y'all can come back in now!"

I watch the cops through the open door, shaking my head. The fact that there are eight of them out there — with my pal Wright front and center — means either DPD has added a couple of squad cars to the night patrol...

...or the entire cadre of Patrol officers for the whole City is out front.

The first means that DPD is starting to wise up, at least a little. The second means it's an extremely quiet night in Denver.

Exactly. I'm glad to see that DPD is starting to wise up, too.

"Every once in a while... not very often, but every now and again... there will be a few like our brilliant guests out there," I say for Pablo's benefit. "If I can keep them off balance — keep them from starting the fight — until DPD arrives, we almost always get a resolution that doesn't involve any injury to any of the parties involved. And messing with their minds is even more fun than cracking their heads."

I turn to look at Pablo, who is just returning to visibility.

"And thanks to those two knuckleheads, we can get the State Police to pay a visit to our good friend Ernie."

Pablo and I help Charlie and the two bouncers move the tables back into position. Then we glide through the crowd that's returning to their night of dancing and drinking... always, or so it seems at Charlie's... with an emphasis on the dancing.

"Nice work, Marshall," Charlie says, back in his Old West Sheriff mode. "You mosey on into town anytime you like!"

"You know I will, Charlie. Might just stick around a while tonight." I grin as I lean against the wall beside the bar. "I love watchin' the boys do those line dances."

"Can I get the two of you something to drink?" Charlie asks as he slides back behind the bar.

"Just my usual, Charlie, thanks." I glance at Pablo and nod to Charlie. "One for my shadow, too."

"Those were some good negotiating skill, Ninja," Pablo says quietly. "I should get you the manual from the department. While the circumstances aren't always the same, the techniques are similar." Although I'm watching the crowd, I hear him chuckle. "You can always learn something from looking at how other people do similar work."

I grin. "Are you saying you learned something tonight, Newbie?" I chuckle, then shake my head. "To tell you the truth, I doubt the manual would help... not much anyway. I just watch the qi. These guys? Good gods, what a hot mess! Imagine Picasso in his cubism phase and Escher getting together, painting something all twisty and warped, and then tossing it all in a blender. That's about what they looked like to me.

"So at the outset, there was a fifty-fifty chance I'd either send them into a rage just by looking at them or confuse the hell out of them. The first is not ever what I want to do because drug-fueled lunatics are a handful even for me. The second, on the other hand, is not only fun for me, but I often get them to give up information and it gives the beat cops a chance to get here. Donny and Teddy were just about to tip the scales to rage, so I got them out."

I grin as I turn my head to look at him.

"And then I got to have some fun."

I shrug.

"I know there are probably all sorts of tips and tricks in the manual, but for me it really comes down to reading the auras. Start with talking, gauge how things are going... if talking doesn't seem to be working, I'll have a fight on my hands." I shrug again. "I probably just summarized the whole book, didn't I?" I chuckle. "I have a feeling you and Peregrine wouldn't have the same success rate as I do at talking guys like those out of a fight.

"They're coming to a gay bar spoiling for a fight, right? So either one of you in your outfits will just piss them off even more. You know how it goes. Guys... wearing spandex or whatever the heck it is you're making your suit from... obviously gay. Never mind that neither of you is, that's what's going to be going through the heads of people like that.

"Now me, on the other hand... I'm a puzzlement. I look completely out of place here."

I look around at the patrons, most of whom have already put the incident with More Lucid and Switchblade out of their minds and have gone back to their conversations, their drinks, their snacks. Many of them are just waiting for the dancing to resume. There are five or six men at the DJ stand putting in their requests. Everyone here is so different in so many ways, but the western motif is so prevalent, it almost seems to be a uniform.

And why not? This is Denver, after all. If Denver were a person, I'd say it was awfully darn proud of its cowboy identity. That always makes me smile. I accept the bottle of root beer from Charlie with another thank you, and take a sip.

Mike is back in his DJ corner, setting up for the next dance. "Now... as I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted..." his rich bass voice flows from the speakers. "...we'll be doin' a little two-steppin', then back to the line dances. Let's see if we can get our sweet little Ninja to join us tonight. What do you say, folks?"

There is some general whooping, hollering and hand clapping, which dies down after a minute or so. All the while, I just lean against the wall, smiling, watching Mike across the room. He's grinning broadly, white teeth a sharp contrast to his dark skin.

When it's quiet enough to be heard, I say to him, "Now, Mike darlin', you know I don't dance while I'm workin'. Besides..." I tap my staff on the floor and wink at him. "'d need to clear the dance floor or somebody's gonna get hurt from my style of dancin'."

He laughs as the music starts for the first song. "Someday, darlin'... someday."

I smile and shake my head, take another deep drink, then turn to Charlie, who's standing at the end of the bar.

"When was the last time you had two or more groups of crazies drop by in one night, Charlie?"

He thinks for a minute, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Must have been some time back in the nineties, maybe even late eighties. A good twenty years ago, at least." He smiles. "You thinkin' about moseyin' along?"

I push myself away from the wall.

"Yep. Thought I might check in with the ladies." I chuckle and roll my eyes. "Though they are definitely more persistent in their efforts to get me on the dance floor than Mike here."

Charlie laughs. "Now, really, Ninja... what do you expect? You're every lesbian's dream date!"

I hear Pablo attempt to stifle a snicker. "I'm pretty sure I didn't sign up to be a sex symbol, you know," I say with an arched eyebrow... and a smile. "And you, flyboy," I say to Pablo, "are going to have the same problem when you get your uniform... so no snickering."

I shake my head while grinning. "Charlie, give me a call if you have any problems." I wave to Teddy at the front door and Mike at the DJ... well, calling it a booth would be over-generous... the DJ dais. I finish off the small bottle of root beer, and then tilt my head toward the back door as I look at Pablo.

At the back door, I say goodnight to Donny as well. "Good job tonight, Donny. Give Teddy my thanks as well. You guys moved perfectly." I chuckle. "You've been practicing that move, haven't you?"

Donny just looks up toward the ceiling, unable to completely hide his smile. "Oh, maybe just a little."

I pat him on his broad back. "Keep it up. It confused those two enough that my banter was enough to hold 'em. Won't work as well on the ones who aren't drug-crazed, but I think it will get them off-guard enough that I can make a quick smackdown and continue my winning streak of not hurting Charlie's bar. Catch you next time, big guy."

The night air is crisp and a bit chilly, but the sky is clear and the stars are bright. I take a deep breath, eyes closed, as I stand beside my bike, a smile on my face. There's always a lot of good energy at Charlie's. If I'm not watchful, Mike will get me out on the dance floor one of these nights.

I open my eyes and look at Pablo, smile widening slightly.

"Call it a night and head home... or make one more stop?"

He's about to reply when he suddenly stops, cupping his ear.

"Shit..." he says softly, barely loud enough for me to hear. I don't need to know anything beyond that tone in his voice and the slow rage building in his qi to know neither option is on the agenda now. Peacekeeper... no, Detective Garcia turns to me as he drops his hand.

"I just a heard a report on the police band; body found crucified on the East 47th Avenue bridge over the river." He shakes his head. "It's Fat Sally from the sounds of it."

It takes a second, maybe two, for his words to register, but then I turn away from him and pull that shield of qi tight around me. In the past, I used it to protect myself from... well, the consequences of my own actions. Now, I need to use it to contain everything his words bring up. The boiling rage, the compulsion for retribution, the pain of loss... I need to protect not only myself now, but I to keep those things from seeping through our bond. A clear head is needed, not an emotional response.

"We're moving outside my area of expertise now," I say without turning around. "I'm a protector and a warrior. I'm not an investigator."

I pause just long enough for a cleansing breath, then put my staff in its holster, get on my bike and start it up before looking at him again. Gone is the easygoing playfulness I've kept with me most of the evening. Right now, only the Warrior is here.

"That's DPD's turf over there." My voice is level, but there's more icy calm than fiery rage in my tone. "For a homicide like this, the top cop is either going to come out himself or send his best man." Despite the mask he wears, I know exactly where his eyes are, and look right at them. "No offense, Peacekeeper, but tonight is not the night for you to meet Denver's finest. Hell, I've never actually met Sanchez..." Well, not as Ninja, not officially. "...and have only worked with Garcia once." And that once was in Flagstaff.

This isn't anything he doesn't know. But just in case there are ears nearby I can't just tell him to go home and meet me at the scene as Detective Garcia, since I need his expertise as Garcia, not Peacekeeper. I don't sense anyone else in the area. But I've got myself tucked in so tight right now that I suspect the only reason I can sense the signature of Pablo's aura is because it's so familiar and we have such a strong bond.

"Sally is one of mine. She wasn't yours yet."

I pull the earbud out of my pocket and hook it over my ear.

"I just heard a report on the police band about a homicide on the bridge up by DelCol Supply. I'm going to go check it out; shouldn't take me much more than five minutes to get over there. Why don't you call it a night, and we'll talk over the weekend?"

And that's exactly the story the cops at the scene will get. Since I'm already out and about... and it's climbing up toward one in the morning, I'll get there before any of the detectives can get there anyway. I'm hoping like hell it isn't Sally, but if it is...

As I said, she's one of mine. If that's her up there, she deserves my presence.

I nod to Pablo.

"Go on home."

And then I take off, down the short distance of the alley, out onto Emerson, an immediate right on Colfax, then a left a few blocks over at Downing. There's a bit of late Friday night traffic, but not anything heavy enough to slow me down as I fly up Downing, going dangerously fast. Well, dangerously fast for someone without my reflexes. That's another reason why it's better for Pablo to go home first. He really doesn't need his nerves frayed by watching me jiggling through the Cole neighborhood over to Brighton Boulevard or under I-70 to get to 47th Street going eighty to ninety miles an hour.

But yeah, at that speed, I arrive at the scene in just about five minutes. I've been listening to the police band as I ride and know both Homicide and the Coroner have already been called. I pull up beside the DPD squad car.

I take in the scene.

There's a body bound to the guard rail, arms secured to the top rail with what looks like — from here — duct tape.

And a second pair of arms, wrists secured to the second rail with... string? Wire?

I hold my shield tight, tight around my heart.

Two patrol officers are standing off to the side looking decidedly green. Maybe it's the halogen lights from I-70... although I doubt it.

I turn off the bike, pocketing the key as I dismount and grab my staff.

The cops don't seem to notice me, although my bike isn't that quiet. I'll be fair; I-70 has a lot of night time trucker traffic.

I tap my staff on the pavement in the shave and a haircut two bits pattern to catch their attention before walking across the bridge to them. The way they look, they need the warning or they're likely to freak out and go for their guns.

Reynolds turns to look at me as I tap out my hello, his hand going toward the hilt of his Glock for a moment; then he recognizes me. It doesn't take someone with my ability to read qi to know the guy is seriously upset.

"Officers," I say simply, once I'm in conversing distance. "I heard," I continue as I touch a finger to the earbud. "Homicide, Coroner on the way. Anything I can do for you two?"

We've crossed paths a number of times in my patrols, working with residents of the northernmost Denver neighborhoods. They're decent cops... honest, but not exceptional. They're the steady sort who will still be patrolling their communities until retirement. They're both thirty-somethings; Reynolds is the pale, thin Irishman with light red hair, Medina the clean cut Hispanic boy next door. Right now, neither one of them looks very steady.

"Ninja... hi. We were hoping you'd show up. The... she's over there. They did..." He stops and turns, breathing deeply to keep from throwing up.

I understand Reynolds' reaction. Even from this far away, the smell of blood... for me, it's overwhelming. And I haven't even seen the damage done to cause so much blood. I'm fairly certain I don't want to see it, either.

A hand lightly placed on Reynolds' arm settles him a bit.

"Hang in there, Reynolds." I look over at his partner who's leaning against the railing a bit farther down. He's got the heel of one hand pressed against his forehead and is rubbing the back of his neck with the other. "How are you doing over there, Medina?"

It takes him a minute to answer.

"Pretty bad. That's the worst damn thing I've seen in my life, Ninja."

He looks at me.

"Homicide better be sending their best and not just whoever's next in rotation." His eyes are haunted, his posture both angry and fearful. "No one deserves that. That's somebody's daughter over there," he says, voice full of anguish.

I nod. His own daughter, only about three now, has made him look at the world in a whole new light. He's taken a closer look at all the ugliness since she was born and he hasn't liked a lot of what he's seen. He hates that the ugliness exists, hates that he can't eradicate it, hates that even Peregrine and I can't make it all go away. He especially hates that his little girl Anya is going to have to see it all someday.

"When I heard, I asked for the best."

I take a breath... it's hard breathing through my mouth when my jaws want to clamp down hard to hold back my own anger.

"I'll make a positive ID," I say, urging Reynolds to join his partner, "then we'll talk."

Reynolds nods and slowly walks the dozen or so paces to where Medina is still leaning against the railing.

The Spirits know I do not want to do this. But if I don't, who will? I could never ask one of the Commerce City residents to do this. The smell of the blood is hideously strong as I get closer to Sally. And yes, it is Sally... one of the kindest people to walk the Earth of Colorado. I can't even begin to imagine who could possibly be so full of hate to extinguish the light of such a beautiful soul.

Until I see the swastika carved on her chest... the perversion of a sacred symbol for so many people, including mine.

I stand perfectly still, both hands on my staff now, head bowed so my forehead touches the wood. Although I have shielded my heart as well as I can, I still feel tears begin to form behind my closed lids. I stand still for so long, I eventually hear Reynolds clear his throat and speak.

"Ninja? Are you okay?"

Damn. Worrying the Normals. Bad Ninja. Except... except...

Fuck it. Being a Super doesn't mean I'm not human. Contrary to what some people think.

"Ya know, guys... not really," I say, hoping I'm at least keeping the tears from my voice. "Sally Banner was not only someone's daughter, but she was a friend to every person in Commerce City.

"She was MY friend."

I pause to swallow, but I just can't move yet.

"This is a little too personal."

Only a few minutes later, I hear the two vehicles approaching from the opposite end of the bridge, which makes sense; it's a faster route to come up I-25 and along Washington Street. One vehicle has a sound almost as familiar as that of my bike. Pablo. I assume the heavier sounding vehicle is the Coroner. I hear Reynolds' and Medina's footsteps as they come closer; not too close, though. They don't want to get any closer to Sally than they absolutely need to, and I think I'm still worrying them with my vigil. They stand three or four paces behind me, almost as if they're... they're protecting me.

It's not until I hear Pablo's footsteps that I look up, look at him. Fortunately, from this angle, he's the only one who can see the tears in my eyes. Tough kick-ass Super Heroes aren't supposed to cry, right?

Cognizant of the others nearby, Pablo simply nods before speaking, though I can feel his worry and remnants of fear.

"Ninja, what have you got for me?"

I take a deep breath... BIG MISTAKE! But the smell of blood gives me the excuse to get my arm across my face for a moment, using my sleeve to wipe away the trace of tears before the Coroner arrives.

"Positive identification, Sally Anne Banner of Commerce City," I say softly, lowering my arm. "No known next of kin, but I'll take care of notifying the people who care about her."

I stop as I feel one of my phones vibrating with a text message. What the hell? It's the one all my contacts use, so a text at just after one in the morning is not a good thing.

"Excuse me a minute, Detective," I say as I pull the phone out of my pocket and read the message. It's from Sergeant Davis in Jefferson County.

Sorry so late. 3 prox detectors pinged; looks like cats again. Also report of lights in old Jacobs place.

I sigh.

"Damn cats," I murmur, even as I'm texting Davis back an answer.

At crime scene; will head to Jeffco ASAP. NRN

I tuck the phone back in my pocket.

"Circled swastika carved into her chest," I say tightly to Pablo. "Only the Aryans and neo-Nazis use that; you'll classify this as a hate crime, won't you, Detective?"

I know he will. I know Sanchez will insist on it. But a request from outside the police department never hurts.

"You know I will," he says. Pausing to glance at Sally for a few seconds, his expression becomes harder, angrier... not a look I've seen on his face in a long, long time. "This looks like the work of the Aryan Knighthood, an ultra-extreme offshoot of the Aryan Brotherhood. Thought we ran them out of town a decade or more ago."

I meet his eyes, my own hard and angry. "This is the call out. We need to stop them..." I don't have anything else I can say. There's certainly nothing I can say without choking up. I note the Coroner's people waiting for Pablo to finish; he has work to do and so do I.

"If you need anything else from me, you know how to reach me," I say, patting the pocket containing the phone. "Jeffco has more wildlife problems than all the other metro counties combined."

I hesitate, wanting desperately, so very desperately, to hold him and be held... but that will have to wait until later. All I can do is reach out tendrils of qi toward him. Love... caring... need, so much need.

"Keep me posted, Chief, will you?"

His quirky half smile flashes for a brief moment. In the privacy of our own home, we may wind up talking of little else.


I nod and turn, seeing Reynolds and Medina waiting patiently. They need to give their reports to the detective in charge. I manage a smile for them.

"Garcia's the best. Sally's in good hands now."

I walk back to my bike and return my staff to the holster. Gods, I hurt. I wish... I wish I could go home, curl up with my husband. But we both have work to do. I get on my bike and start it up, and with one last glance at Pablo — who is already doing his job — I take off in the direction I'd come.

Instead of heading home, though, I get on I-70 and head for the Lookout Mountain Nature Center.

© Kelly Naylor and Ken Seggebruch