Hell and Oklahoma

Maria and Vin are just starting toward the house as the rest of us converge on Andrea and Madeline.

"If you don't mind the morning chill, I would recommend pulling up a piece of ground and waiting until Ryan finishes rolling up the breakfast burritos," Andrea says. "I have nearly wall-to-wall cousins camping in the house, and those closest to the kitchen are the most mischievous."

"Don't mind it all," Madeline told Andrea with a smile.

It could have something to do with the fact that she was wearing her lined leather biker jacket or, more likely, that she had slipped herself between Logan and his jacket.

"Ooh, that would definitely be Bill and Catherine," I say, grinning. "Though Dan and Elana would be a very close second."

She laughs. "Oh, it's Sani — that's Bill — and Catherine all right. Ryan's not moving from the kitchen, and it's a good thing Tori and I have quick reflexes. Ryan will give you all a lift into Window Rock, so go ahead and pile your bags in the back of his car." She looks at the bags we carry and nods. "They should all fit even with the rear seat raised."

"Whoo, shotgun!" Paul calls out.

I turn to look at him; he's grinning like a lunatic. "I blame your father. The fact that he's not here to defend himself is irrelevant... he would admit to being at fault. Happily, I might add."

"Yep, all his fault," Paul agrees. He tilts his head and looks sideways at Em. "I'm sorry you'll have to sit with the two ninnies, but we can talk about them as if they're not even there. It will drive Maria crazy." He straightens up and looks thoughtful. "Though Vin's likely to seek revenge with the dreaded X-Men uniforms." He sighs dramatically. "I'm not sure it's worth it."

I smile mischievously. "Would it help to know that particular revenge strategy would be delayed? We'll all be running with the Wolf Pack for this mission."

"Seriously??!" He drops his bag and hugs Maddie. "Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, Aunt Lin! I love you!"

She could not help but laugh at Paul. She completely understood.

She had raised an eyebrow at Charles and asked, "You actually go out in public in those?"

To which Leon had rolled his eyes and exasperatedly said, "Mooom!"

"I do run a fashion house you know. And while I will never understand haute couture, there has got to be something better than that."

Charles had merely chuckled. "Would you prefer we all embrace the fifteenth century as you do, Madeline?"

She could have sworn she heard Em breathe a sigh of relief at the Wolf Pack announcement as well.

"You're welcome, nephew. Now let go of me before I change my mind."

"Okay, Aunt Lin," he yipped as he skipped away.

The newlyweds arrive at that moment, looking perplexed.

"What the hell kind of uniforms are you having your people wear these days, Vincent Rene? I haven't seen Paul this insane in decades." I simply raise an eyebrow at my nephew. Son-in-law. How the hell does that work, anyway? Sheesh.

"They're not all that bad, Mom," Maria says as she watches her brother dance around the yard doing a passable imitation of Snoopy's happy dance. "Paul just hates all of them. I think he'd hate them even if he designed them himself."

"That's true! That's true!" Paul sang as he danced and skipped around the yard.

I shake my head. "I worry about that boy sometimes."

"He's not the one you need to worry about, Andi."

Her eyes slid over to her own son and new daughter-in-law. "Hopefully those two have it out of their system and can stop being distracted long enough for us to get things done."

Mom!

What?

Did you do this to Leon too?

Of course, I did. You'd think there was something wrong with me if I didn't.

We won't get any peace will we?

Not for a while, darlin'.

He sighed resignedly.

Maria quirked an eyebrow at him.

"Mom," he said simply.

"Oh."

Any further teasing was forestalled by Ryan's arrival with breakfast. He comes out of the house carrying a platter of burritos and stops short when he sees Paul. "Uh, do I need to fetch my gun? That thing might be rabid."

I chuckle. "No need. I'll crack him upside his head with my stick if he doesn't settle down."

Ryan nods. "Well, for the relatively sane among you... breakfast is served." He set the platter down across the arms of a lawn chair Andrea brought over. "Dig in! I have a couple of things to finish up, but I should be ready to leave by the time you finish eating."

"Smells wonderful, Ryan. Is there coffee to be had by any chance? I'm willing to leave some of my grounds in exchange."

"Meh. They've been doing what they've been doing for decades," I remind Maddie. "It's not the normal newlywed distractions that we have to worry about, it's the guilty oh my gods we've destroyed tradition distractions that will be the problem."

I grin and tap my staff lightly on the ground. "I'm faster than both of them, and even mine can't Shift fast enough to evade the staff."

"Ah, well, then, only half of them will be distracted… until someone remembers the story of the pot and kettle."

Mother!

I look at my daughter and smile.

"They're in cahoots," she whispers to Vin.

"Of course they are," Vin replied, not bothering to whisper.

"Coffee will be out in another couple of minutes. I had to bribe that one's cousins..." He tilts his head toward Andrea, smiling affectionately. "...to let me out of the kitchen. Once those two had coffee, the whole lot of them wanted coffee." Ryan snakes an arm around his wife's waist. "Your family is lovely, dear. But most of them are insane."

Andrea laughs. "I'd put it closer to an even split since most of Yani's descendants are fairly level-headed. It's just my brother's and Charlie's offspring who tend to be a bit playful."

Our four children are sensibly collecting the bags and putting them in Ryan's car. I suspect there is some telepathic grumbling about being teased and things not being fair and all those other sentiments children like to express. Even when they're over a hundred and fifty years old, it would seem.

"You're lucky, you know," I tell them. "In our universe, Tommy was the only one in my generation not to have children." I look at Andrea. "Go ahead and just try to imagine Henry as a father and grandfather..." I smile as she shakes her head and pretends to shudder.

"Actually, the thing I find amazing about Henry having children is that he found someone to put up with his zaniness for more than a few days at a time," she says.

"Antonia was an amazing human being." I had that one figured out within a minute of meeting her, but Henry had been so much more insecure than he had ever been in his life.

Andi, do you think she's right for me? I mean, I kind of drive people crazy.

Are you serious, Henry? She's perfect! She's already able to put up with your craziness as well as Maddie does. If you don't marry her, I'll have to hit you over the head with my stick and deny that we're even related.

He grinned then. I knew I could count on you to tell the truth, cousin-twin!

"He had two kids... Madeline, of course, was named after my Sister here. She and Henry really hit it off the first time they met. Little Madeline was mischievous as a child, but when the Curse hit and it turned out she was the family's Precog of that generation, she settled down a bit."

With the children occupied and Andi and Andrea chatting, Madeline stayed firmly within Logan's arms. She had liked Henry and Coyote from the first. Perhaps it was his prankster nature that was so like Rene.

"Little Madeline wasn't so different from Big Madeline," Logan interjected.

Big Madeline did not argue seeing no point. The car was packed up, and she was content to listen and wait for coffee. She did have a portion of grounds out to give Ryan when he returned. Perhaps it was a cruel thing to give him these. She did not know if this variety existed in this world, or even if it did, how they would acquire any. The breakfast is excellent, and she would love to take extra on the road.

I chuckle. "Which is why she only settled down a bit. Probably wouldn't have settled at all if her Curse hadn't been Precognition." I look at my twin again, still smiling. "And then Henry named his son Jefferson." I roll my eyes and sigh.

"Oh, after all of the Williams?" Andrea asks. "They've all got Jefferson as a middle name, although no one seemed to know why William the First wound up with it."

"Papa Bill said once, probably when he was admonishing our generation to give up the silly practice of the whole William Jefferson the Number thing, that Jefferson had been his father's best friend." I shake my head. "So you'd think the middle name thing would be the reason for Henry doing what he did, right? But no. When I asked him about it, he just said Because they had an airplane and a starship."

Andrea laughs. "Well, coming from a pilot and a Trekkie that almost makes sense."

Ryan kisses her cheek and says, "Let me check on the coffee and make sure your cousins haven't decided to redecorate for you." He shakes his head and mutters as he walks off. "You'd think people in their late sixties would have more sense..."

Andrea and I both chuckle at Ryan's comment. In any other family, maybe people do go the old and wise route as they get older. Not this family, however. That sort of nonsense is reserved for the Shamans; the rest of them maintain that they will live longer if they stay youthful and playful. They might be right, too.

"True, I could see the sense in that, too. But Antonia threatened to have me smack him upside his head if he tried to give Jeff a middle name of Airplane, Starship or Davis." I grin. "By that time, he had realized just what a treasure his wife was, and they compromised on Anthony, her father's name."

"It's hard to imagine everyone with children. And Sani said Yani and Charlie had two children and Justin had three instead of one. I guess the divergence between our worlds happened quite a bit before that." Andrea smiles. "I know you have things you need to do, but it would be fascinating to trace back to pinpoint just where things changed, at least for our family." She nods to my staff. "That's beautiful. Where did you get it?"

I look at her oddly. "It was a gift from Grandmaster Chen." I hold it on both palms parallel to the ground, and she looks at it closely.

"Harmony... peace... I recognize a few of the languages."

I nod. "He had it inscribed with Harmony and Peace in every human language. He said it took his grandson a year to do the research. He didn't gift you with a staff?"

She shook her head. "What would I do with one? Perhaps the divergence happened then? While I was studying with Master Chen?"

I consider the cascading events that led from the moment Grandmaster Chen placed the staff in my hands to the moment the Pentad was formed. "You didn't go to Denver, and you didn't meet Pablo," I murmured. "But if Tita had gotten ill, you still would have recognized a supernatural cause if there had been one, right?"

"Of course! But as far as I know, Tita was never sick a day in her life. She and Papa Bill passed peacefully in their sleep early on the morning of November 26, 2030."

I nod, taking a deep breath to hold back the tears that moment always brings up. "Yes. They came to me in my dreams to say goodbye before they passed to the next life."

My twin rests a hand on my arm. "That was a hard morning, wasn't it?"

"Yes. But I had Pablo; he helped." I look at Maddie and Logan. "My Sister and Brothers helped, too. I hope you didn't have to go through that alone."

She smiles sadly. "No. I had Catalina. But it seems your spouse and lovers are considerably more long-lived than mine."

I shrug. "I think part of it was luck. And part of it was a necessity because I'm the Warrior. So if Tita never had her so-called heart attack, there wouldn't have been a Medicine Dance for her. It was the Medicine Dance that called Quetzalcoatl. So that brings me back to Chenjiagou. Was there a student named Tsui Ji who was expelled in your first year?"

Andrea thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. "No, and I think that's something I'd remember. No one wanted the shame of being expelled. And how could a Medicine Dance possibly call an Aztec deity?"

"Not being a Shaman, I participated differently in the Medicine Dances. I would add power and strength to the Medicine with my Taiji and my Power Song. Apparently, it was the Song that called the pest."

"But an Aztec spirit? Why?"

I sigh heavily. "Because my poor husband was his Chosen One. Between him and Raven, I nearly lost my mind. I haven't said so many awful things about the Spirits in all my life as I did during those three and a half months the two of them tried to make my life a living hell. Thankfully, I was able to trade Raven in on a new model... Bear might be goofy at times, but it doesn't purposefully annoy me. And then I banished the Ancestral Pest back to his dimension and locked the doors behind him. Although, I think I spent a good part of my pregnancy not speaking to any of them any more than I had to." I shrug. "I was being a huge magnet for weird at the time, and they weren't exactly helpful. Or supportive."

Raven glides to the ground as Ryan comes out of the house with a tray of coffee mugs. He's a steady man and only slightly startled when one of the small tables from the back yard floats to the front of the house and settles itself beside the lawn chair. I look at Raven, then Ryan, then my nephew... who smiles sheepishly. Uh huh. Thinking helpfulness will make me forget that he and my daughter are in for the ribbing of their lives. Nope, that's not going to work.

Raven lightly taps my foot, and I settle my staff against my shoulder as I look down with surprise — because it tapped lightly — and suspicion. It's Raven; of course I'm suspicious.

"I would like to understand why my counterpart would do such a thing," the Spirit says. "It does not seem reasonable, or helpful."

I shrug. "At first, I thought maybe Raven was trying to get me to be less serious and studious. That was Dad's theory, anyway, and sometimes it seemed to make sense. But it finally admitted it was just having a hissy fit because I was the Warrior and not a Shaman."

It's not easy for a bird to look confused, but Raven did its best. Happily, it didn't become cartoonish with googly eyes like its twin often did. "But... if you were meant to be the Warrior, would it not make sense to defer to another Spirit at your Kinaaldá?"

"Except for the fact that I never went through the actual ceremony — living on an Army base did have some disadvantages, I guess — it would make all the sense in the world. I wondered about that... did the actual ceremony matter? Eagle said it didn't, so who am I to argue?" I shrug again. "It wasn't until we gathered with Ha'atathli Ravenclaw and Ha'atathli Dehiya, and all the Spirits were there to question Raven that the reason became clear. It admitted it had not, in fact, accepted the role of my guardian at the point of my last life changing event. I guess that would have been when I took up the staff, officially began my job as Protector of Denver, and accepted for myself the role of Warrior."

Raven shakes its head. Ryan comes over and hands Andrea and me each a cup of coffee, looks at the two of us and shakes his head as well.

"I am concerned, Warrior, that those of us in this world may be different enough that we will be unable to help you in the way you would expect your guardians to help."

"And I'm concerned that the two of you are going to talk all morning, not eat breakfast, and make this show start late," Ryan says with a smile as he hands each of us a burrito. "I suppose your husband has to make sure you eat?"

I grin at him. "Only since we moved from our house next to my best friend. Before that, Bobby felt it was his mission in life to keep me fed."

Ryan chuckles. "Give your husband my condolences when you see him, then."

I just grin... and think how much Pablo would like this man as I take a bite of the burrito. Damn! Pablo would adore him... this burrito tastes as good as Momma Garcia used to make.

I look at Raven again as I finish the first bite of breakfast. "How hard would it have been for you to pass guardianship to another Spirit had Andrea's life drastically changed direction when she was twenty-three?"

The Spirit is silent long enough for another bite of the burrito and a sip of coffee.

"It would have been very difficult. I have always been fond of Andrea. It is something I would have done, although it might have taken some time to release her to the care of another." Like Raven in my world often did when it was feeling particularly friendly — and sane — this Raven leans against Andrea's leg and wraps a wing around her.

"Perhaps ten or twelve years?"

"Time means little to us, as I think you understand. But it may have seemed that long to those on the human plane, perhaps."

I nod. "It's possible Raven was getting close to that difficult moment of letting go. Mind you, I'm being very generous here and giving it the benefit of the doubt... because I don't think any of the Spirits is inherently insane. But then Quetzalcoatl showed up, and I think that's what made everything go to hell."

I take another sip of coffee. I don't know where they manage to get their coffee, but it's pretty darn good coffee.

Raven and Andrea exchange a glance. "Ryan's right about one thing," Andrea says, looking over at her husband as he chats with the rest of my family. "We could spend all day talking about the differences in our lives and another week talking about the differences in our worlds. But you have a mission, don't you?"

"I hope we can leave your world in a state where the Darkness has been pushed back far enough that those who are left to fight it will stand a chance of doing that job." I sigh. "Even in our world, we need to be vigilant. But Maddie, Logan, Pablo, Rene and I keep watch as the Wolf Pack. The kids will join us on occasion, Em more often than the others. And Vin leads the X-Men and runs the school where Gifted children learn not only their normal lessons, but how to control and use their Gifts. Many of the graduates elect to become X-Men... sadly, too many of them die protecting the people of our world." I clench my jaw a moment, before managing to relax it. "The worst was when my nephew Leon — Maddie's eldest son — when Leon's first wife was killed. We all felt his devastation, and it only added to our own. Jennifer was loved by everyone in the family, and she was still so young." I shake my head. "A long life makes grief like that inevitable, and it makes me wonder if it will ever end."

She looks puzzled. "The grief?"

"No," I say with a shake of my head. "Life. Grief does eventually fade to something manageable.

"Before I Bonded with Pablo, before I met Maddie, I was looking at a life of maybe three to four hundred years, as you likely are. After Bonding with my husband, I realized his death would mean my own, as well. We weren't sure, however if the Bond would extend his life... or give me a normal lifespan." I give her a flicker of a smile. "As it turns out, he was a hundred and fifty-eight when he died, so I think we'd have both been more than satisfied with that. But then I met Maddie."

I take another bite of the burrito. The cousins are stirring inside the house like a pack of zombies in an old horror movie. Those who slept in wagons and carts are starting to wake. A few of the younger children have peeked their heads out of tents.

"She managed to pick up the Ferals' traits of an exceptionally high healing factor and ridiculously long life from her Mate. She passed it on to me, I passed it on to my children." I look Andrea in the eyes. "I have never heard of a Feral... or cousin kin, as Tori calls herself and her kin... dying of old age. Tori's already older than I ever expected to live, and I got the impression that her sister is even older."

Andrea nods. "By at least a hundred years, yes."

"So you see why I wonder if it will ever end. There are things that could kill us." I nod toward the others in my family. "I wasn't joking last night when I told Jimmy I could absolutely kill him so he couldn't heal. But beyond flat out murder, what's going to kill any of us?" I remember yesterday... on Everness... and Logan lying on the ground healing so slowly that I truly was worried he would die. But I think that falls under the category of murder... or at least manslaughter.

"I'm sorry," my twin says. "That must be... No, I can't even think of a word to describe it. Tori implied her parents were more than double her age when they died. It's a tender topic for her as they died recently. Well, given our lifespans, ten years would be recent, and if I understood her through her sobs, they didn't die of natural causes."

I acknowledge her statement with a slight bow of my head. "I don't know that there is a word. And I'll keep that in mind... discussing parents with Tori... bad idea."

Ryan returns to our sides, crossing his arms and looking from one to the other of us. "Okay, you two absolutely cannot keep this up all morning." He attempts to look stern and fails miserably at it. "Andi, I've tried to explain to Madeline that nearly everyone brought a packet of coffee as a gift for Andrea's services yesterday. Even if I'd lost my whole month's ration of coffee to Tori — which I did not — we'd still have enough coffee to last us six months. She's very insistent."

I laugh. "Well, of course, she is! She and I are the two most stubborn women in our universe. Oh, my... what is the universe going to do without our supreme stubbornness while we're gone? Oh, woe!" I grin at him. "Listen, just accept the packet of coffee. Exchange it for one of your ordinary packets if you feel you must." I raise my cup to him. "This is better than a lot of coffee I've had over the years. But trust me, Ryan, Maddie's coffee is the best you'll ever have in your life."

He stares at me with what might be a stink eye. "You know, the Chinese ideogram for trouble is said to be a picture of two women living in the same house."

"Oh, yes! And these two women are planning to cause a lot of trouble among the very bad people of your world."

Ryan sighs and rolls his eyes. "There is no winning with women. None." He looks at me. "Everyone is ready to go except you. Since my boss is going to be cranky enough because we disturbed his morning routine, do you think we could get on the road sometime soon? Say, before he has a chance to be cranky about us arriving considerably later than anticipated?"

I pat his arm. "I sure don't want to get you in trouble, Ryan." I drain my cup of coffee and set the mug down on the tray. "See? All set!"

"Might I impose to make one last inquiry of the Warrior," Raven asks.

Ryan looks at the Spirit dejectedly. "Like I could stop you," he says wearily.

"Well, no," agrees Raven. "But Cat could. Still, it is only a small inquiry."

Ryan throws his hands up in the air. "Fine! I'll make a coffee exchange with Madeline. But if you're not ready to go then, I've been assured you can run fast enough to keep up with my car," he says, smiling wickedly.

"My Sister is a big tattletale." I grin in her direction, then look at Raven. "Your question would be...?"

They'll have to be creative when it comes to acquiring things, and her children are likely to get an unexpected education. Back home, funding was never an issue as long as they had been alive. It was her early years, when she and Rene had been working together, that improvisation and less than legal means were necessary. Their own world was very different now than it had been then; this one, not so much.

She had seen quite a swatch of it in the trip overland even if there had not been that many stops. Tori was supposed to be traveling with them and hopefully Madeline's means wouldn't upset her over much. She had always tried to be aware of Pablo's sensitivities toward legalities, as well as those of his brethren in blue.

They are not completely paying attention to the conversation, but Sister and her twin are not exactly whispering. When Andi spoke of Leon and Jennifer, Madeline twitched. Logan tightened his arms, and Em looked over. For people who had been alive as long as they had, Leon's passing had been hard on her. She had known it would happen eventually, and he had had a good long life with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren to show for it. There were great times three grandchildren of his now named after his grandparents, that is, Madeline's and Rene's parents and another one named after his father and step-father.

She was thinking of those three, their cousins and siblings as Ryan came over.

"Have you finally come to your senses, Chief?" she teased.

"I offer a trade, grounds for grounds."

"Ah, a good compromise," she said as she accepted the offered pack and handed it off to Logan.

Pressing the one she had divided out into his hands, she explained, "This is a special coffee. It comes from my family's plantation. It's the one piece of my father's business that I still have back home. This variety was created and refined to perfection by my father. Enjoy it in good health."

Ryan smiled and shook his head. "I think I should be glad you aren't sticking around too long. You two might corrupt my Andrea."

"Pshaw," she waved off his concern. "We already have. Working on you next, and we've got the whole drive over to Window Rock in which to do."

"You mentioned the Aztec, and that he was acquainted with your world's version of Raven. How is it possible that he manifested on your plane? We have not been able to contact our friends in that dimension in many, many years."

"Well, I seem to have a way of calling him... possibly even in this world. I'm not sure we're going to need his help. But, on the other hand, I'm not sure we won't. In any case, before we go home, I'll see if I can give him a call so you guys can reconnect." I look at my twin. "Not that I'm sure it's the best idea in the world — this one or any other — but you've got some time to figure it out. Raven is considerably saner here. I can hope Quetzalcoatl is, too."

I note that the coffee exchange is complete, and the family is jostling for seats in the car. I grin when Maddie Gibbs slaps Vin. I impulsively give Andrea a hug. "Gotta go, and probably won't see you again. But I will say it was wonderful meeting you." Then I look at Raven. "We can chat later if you want... about the Aztec thing."

Then I trot over to the car. I do not fancy running all the way to Window Rock. Oh, not because it's an onerous run... it's actually quite nice. But then I'd miss out on all the fun of riding with my family.

"Ooh! Let's play Maddie in the Middle, Logan. In the back seat, so we can smack our kids when they get stupid." I grin specifically at Maria and Vin.

"This is going to be better than I thought," Paul whispers to Em.

Finally, FINALLY, Andi was coming over to the car and making seating arrangements as she does.

"You know me. I like it in the middle," she announced to groan from her children.

She did lean over and lightly Gibbs smack Paul. "Don't think you're exempt, youngin'."

"Okay, everyone, load up. Let's get the Pack on the move."

Logan and she went first, setting the example. Madeline patted the seat next to her and gave Andi the come-hither eye. Vin held the door for Maria, and Em snorted as she slid in.

Ryan hands the coffee to Andrea, then kisses her... the scene looks so much like every working day Pablo and I had. I snuggle closer to Maddie and lean my head on her shoulder. I was a little worried about coming here, maybe meeting a version of myself. I saw the death look you gave Jimmy when we peeked through the look-see portal. What if the version of me was terrible, too? I like her though, an awful lot.

Madeline slipped her arm around Andi's waist and tilted her head to rest on hers. I was a little worried about what I'd find before we got here, but once I passed into the Nation I knew the family would be the family. I was more concerned about what I'd do if there were no way back to you. I mentioned it to Andrea. I know I'd always have a home with the Diné but... Well, I think I'd regress a lot, and that person should not be within the People's Lands. Remind me to have Vin check the blocks Charles put in. I got hit pretty hard on both sides of the portal. Had a headache for about three days.

Paul rubs the back of his head and grins at Maddie as he climbs into the front passenger seat. "Of course not, Aunt Lin! But I think I should get a little more leeway on smack-worthy behavior, at least for a couple of hours because I'm the most excited about not wearing those uniforms."

"That's why you didn't get a full force smack, Paul."

Ryan climbs into the car as my son petitions for temporary indulgence. "I'm almost afraid to ask what that's all about," he says as he starts the car.

"Oh, Vin makes us wear the most ridiculous costumes when we're out saving our world. Like we can't just wear jeans and sensible shirts? I know I can do my thing while not wearing spandex."

"It's not spandex, Paul..." Vin starts, but then gets poked by his sister.

"It's not comfortable, either," she says.

"But it's tradition..." This time he gets jabbed by Maria.

"Tradition that lets anyone see my hip bones from twenty paces away is stupid."

"But we've always..." he tries again. This time I give him a rap on the head.

"Quit now, Vin. You won't win. No one likes the uniforms. Move on."

"But Aunt Andi..."

"No. I'm not having this discussion again. You know I don't think you need to dress in Halloween costumes to do your jobs."

Ryan laughs. "Given how much they seem to be despised, I almost wish I could see these atrocities."

Paul grins. "The current model is similar to the outfit Mom wears. Except no pockets or utility belt, just a plain dumb belt with an 'X' on it. Oh, and mostly spray painted on."

"Except for where it chafes," Em adds.

"Right, that too," agrees Paul.

The round robin about the uniforms had Madeline chuckling.

"What's worse, Ryan, is that there's a fashion house in the family and a couple of very talented designers. But no, he's got to stay with the old design... despite the repeated suggestions of myself and other members of the family. The only requirement for running with the Pack is that the clothing is dark."

The kids banter back and forth for most of the ride to Window Rock. Some days, they're a group of serious, attentive adults. Other days, like today, they're more like a gaggle of teenagers. If they weren't all confined in the car, they'd be running around like a bunch of puppies. Oh, true... Em is generally much more mature than the other three – counterbalancing my zany son, I often think. But I suspect she and Paul spent the non-sleeping parts of the night coming up with ways to both tease their siblings and amuse their parents.

Not for the first time, I feel a very tiny twinge of jealousy. I've had quite a few exceptionally good and close friends in my life, fewer as the years pass because it gets harder and harder to watch them grow old and die. Em and Paul have that kind of relationship, and they don't have that worry about one another growing old and dying on them. Well, there is the dying thing, and I can say from experience that it's no picnic knowing someone close to you has died, even when you know intellectually they're not going to stay dead. But that's what my son and niece have. And I suppose I'm a little jealous that I'll never have a friend as good as Deb or Clara or Bobby or Danielle or any of the others. Well, good friends who won't just up and die someday, anyway.

Although... come to think of it... wouldn't Bobby have driven me completely out of my mind after another twenty-five years or so? Well, no... probably not. Not unless I was living next door to him. Damn, he and David had been heartbroken when Pablo and the twins and I had moved from our little house on Fifth Avenue. But that had been the problem... it was little. Well, too little for the four of us once Maria and Paul started school. I had already seen the writing on the wall by then. Even if we gave up our home office, there'd be daily fights over the bathroom. And which one of them got to sleep in the more awesome bedroom upstairs, which was just another way of saying which one of them would be forced to take the bedroom next to Mom and Dad.

Yep, for a couple of peculiar kids who actually remember who and what they were before conception, they were disgustingly ordinary in most ways... including being appalled that their parents even held hands. And since Pablo and I had watched Em and Vin go through most of that phase with their parents, we had some fine role models for finding the best ways to embarrass our children.

I sigh. And now they were all grown up. Okay, okay... they've been all grown up for more than a century. And except for the times he's working, Paul is the quintessential Peter Pan. But Maria has finally acknowledged her feelings for Vin and vice versa. Granted, they had needed their noses rubbed in it, but the four of them are once again in harmony. It would be years, perhaps even decades, before Paul and Em stopped teasing their siblings. But the feeling of fingernails across a chalkboard that I associated with their refusal to see what was right in front of their faces has disappeared. I experience other people's emotions differently than Em does... but just because I'm not an Empath as she is doesn't mean I don't know what's what. Dang, I sure don't envy her actually having those feelings floating around in the air. It's bad enough that I see the disturbances of qi they cause.

Their bond being what it is, Andi's meandering feelings transmitted to both she and her Mate. His hand slipped from his Mate's shoulder to rest on their Sister's. Wordlessly, soundlessly, both sent their love back. These things Andi felt were not unknown to them. Both had seen too much over their many years. Even so, it did not stop the two of them from being affectionate. They had not been apart for more than a few days in over a century. While it had not even been half a day for Logan, Madeline had spent three weeks with only a very poor imitation of him.

When we arrive in Window Rock, Ryan's boss is waiting outside the station house. He doesn't look a thing like Rodrigo Sanchez, but he's got the same personality, the same air of intelligence and competence I remember that Captain Sanchez had. Hmm, eventually, despite his numerous protestations, Chief of Police Sanchez. Gosh, he fought that promotion as much as my daughter and nephew refused to see their relationship.

As we tumble out of the car in the bright sunshine of the morning, I glance at my two hellions and wonder once more about that whole bit about souls coming back around for another journey through the messy thing called life. It wouldn't really surprise me if souls chose their universe as well as their family. If there's anything to the whole reincarnation thing – and my twins insist that it's totally a real thing – Chief Jeremy Kee could well be the reincarnation of Rodrigo Sanchez.

"Benally, you know I put a lot of faith in our telepaths, but I think they got the message garbled this time. Alternate universes? What the hell are you doing out there in Ganado?"

"Not much out of the ordinary, Chief. Some relatives of Andrea's dropped by for her cousin's Kinaaldá." Ryan nods in our direction.

Kee looks us over and his gaze lands on me, even though I'm trying very hard to be inconspicuous. I even left my staff in the car! Well, for the moment. Maria and Paul have spent more time in our world's version of Window Rock than their cousins, and they're looking around as if they've never seen the place before. I can't blame them; the city was more modern when I was a child. At least... it seemed to be very modern to little five year old me. I'm kind of dreading what I'll find in Albuquerque. Of all my memories of my first five years, the clearest are of the city where I lived with Mama and Dad before they were transferred to Japan.

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were Elder Yazzie. But I know better," Kee says.

I grin at him. "I met my twin not much more than twelve hours ago, and even I know she would never dress like this. Also, I wouldn't leave my relatives alone at my house, either... especially the ones she's got out there." I chuckle. "It's nice that some things are the same in both universes, but hoo boy! I'm glad I'm the Warrior where I come from because there are even more relatives there, and the same percentage of them are nuts."

The Chief of the Tribal Police shakes his head. "Warrior? That's a story we tell the children, right along with the stories of the Hero Twins, Naayéé'neizghání and Tóbéjíshchíní, and the Holy People teaching the First People."

"Hey, how do you think I felt about it? In our world, we don't even have a storytelling about the Diné Warrior." I shrug. "I've kind of been making it up as I go along."

He looks at me for a few moments longer, in the same way Sanchez had that made you feel like he could see your soul, then Kee shrugs. "The message also said you had some questions. You might as well come on in. Your ride won't be here for another half hour." He gestures to the front entrance of the station house.

"Hey, Mom, Aunt Lin... would it be okay if Em and I took a look around? You two are the masterminds, we're just the grunts." Paul glances at Chief Kee. "If that's okay with you, too, sir."

Arrival in Window Rock was uneventful, although her niece and nephew seem to be a little surprised by the way it looks.

"Just keep your eyes open," she told them as they head off.

It was said in such a way that she expects them to be using all their senses. It isn't that she's worried about Bad Things coming out of nowhere, not here in the Nation, but you never know where you might pick up an interesting or important piece of information.

Kee waves the two of them off while I exchange a glance with Maddie and then shrug. "We can fill them in later." I look over at Maria and Vin; she has that look on her face that makes it clear she'd be happy taking a stroll around town, too. I sigh. "Oh, get out of here, all of you. We'll call you when our ride gets here."

I watch as Paul and Em turn to the right out of the parking lot and shake my head. As ordinary as the shopping center is in Window Rock, Paul has always had a fascination with it. It's just your basic outdoor mall anchored by a Lowe's — at least in our universe — with a sit-down restaurant and a couple of fast food restaurants and a gas station. But there are also a couple of touristy shops that sell trinkets and postcards and souvenirs of Window Rock. He loves going into the shops to just chat with the proprietors or clerks in Diné Bizaad, and always buys a tumbled rock or piece of agate. He's been doing this since he was five. At an average of twice a year, he's got a fairly large bucket of rocks... which he keeps in my house, by the way. Oh well, they make great objects for the telekinetics of the family to practice with.

Vin takes Maria's hand, and she grins as she leads them in the opposite direction. I smile at them because I know they're heading to my favorite place in the area... the Window Rock for which the town was named and is famous. Pablo and I had made a side trip up here on our drive out to visit my folks and grandparents in the spring after our wedding. I was definitely wearing maternity clothes by then, but I hadn't quite gotten to the Oh, my gods, I feel like a beached whale stage yet. Under other circumstances, I would have checked in with whoever was working at the Council Chambers that day and hiked up and through the rock with Pablo. Being that close to the beached whale stage, I wasn't going bother. It was nice playing ordinary tourist for a change, however.

As Maddie, Logan and I follow Chief Kee into the building — Ryan following behind us — I say to Maddie, "You know, my daughter is already corrupting your son. A powwow like this is usually right up his alley."

She threw Andi a sidelong glance. "That's cause he's usually the one running the show when it's his people. This is Pack business though, and the Alphas handle it. Besides, they are newlyweds."

The Chief points us to the briefing room, then pauses to have his secretary bring in a pot of coffee and a pitcher of water. When he enters the room, he looks at Ryan and raises his eyebrows.

Ryan smiles. "Chief, these folks are Logan... Madeline Jacobs... and Andi Yazzie." He looks at us and nods to his boss. "Chief Jeremy Kee, head of the Nation's police department. Madeline, you said you had a few questions."

"Chief," she greeted the man with a handshake.

The car ride had been long but cozy, still, she needed to stretch and get her blood moving.

Logan offered his hand as well. "Chief."

In the briefing room, I lean against the desk at the front of the room while Maddie explains who we are, and hints at what we plan to do.

After folks settled where they would, which meant Logan had settled into a comfortable standing stance and she had leaned back against him, she nodded.

"Yes, some questions, more discussion. Hoping the two of you can give me, us, some more insights to the world at large. While these two and our kids have only been here for about twelve hours, I've been dirt side about three weeks. Crash landed in upstate New York and made my way cross-country to the Nation. Saw a lot of things I didn't like in that time. We talked with Tori about it somewhat. Now I'd like to get your take on it all since... well, since I think we might be able to help a little.

"If you heard me mention the Pack earlier, what I meant was The Wolf Pack. In our world, that meant, on a regular basis, the three of us plus two others who were unable to cross to this universe. It also occasionally includes our children who are currently wandering around your town. When I was in Bernalillo, I spoke with Cindy Benally a bit and she mentioned a group that used to exist back East called the X-Men. They still do exist in our world, and for two of the kids, that's who they usually are... X-Men.

"Now that I've gone over our bona fides per se, we can talk about what's out there, and how I think we might be able to help. If you have a continental or country map we can reference, that will be helpful..."

When Kee's secretary brings in a couple of maps, and the two cops roll out the larger one on the table that takes up much of the room, I look at it first as a librarian. I don't care that I haven't haven't done that gig since before the kids were born. The old maps always fascinated me.

Whoa... copyrighted in 2010? That's a hell of an old map. It's a map of both American continents, which would be why it very nearly covers the entire four foot by ten foot table.

She waited while a map was brought in and rolled across the table then held in place with whatever made a convenient paper weight. With a kiss on his cheek, she left Logan's arms to point out her path of travel. Mainly it was for the benefit of Kee and Benally.

"This is where I entered this universe, here in Westchester. Whatever rhyme or reason put me there is something I don't know. It wasn't exactly a voluntary trip. This is where the X-Men used to be headquartered. The mansion that the school part was in is in shambles. Reminded me of the bombed out towns of Europe after World War Two. There are a few people living there. I saw three of them, and they inferred there were more. Of the three I saw... two have been long dead in our world, and the third... the third is my Mate's doppelganger.

"The roads in that area have seen better days. I suppose if you bomb the crap out of your tax base, though, that'll happen. I didn't see any sign of it being maintained, and if it were me hiding out beneath the old school, I'd leave it like that too. Nothing says inhabited like a self-maintained road. Six eighty-four was in considerably better shape and had truck traffic though not much at that time of night. I hitched a ride down to White Plains. The truck stop the rig stopped at was busy enough and the area was in good shape. That's when Jimmy rolled up, Jimmy being Logan's double.

"From there we headed northwest up two eighty-seven and crossed into Jersey. Stayed with that until it split off and followed the two eighty-seven south. The whole area still looked fairly civilized though less modern than what we're accustomed to. Took the two eighty-seven until it hit the seventy-eight. Cut through Maryland and the Virginias and down through Tennessee to get to Eye Forty and come all the way out here.

"A lot of that was open land. Lots of ghost towns or just folk not willing to show their faces. Considering the state of many areas, I can't say as I blame them. The larger cities, Jimmy would avoid. We literally took the Eight Forty around Nashville. Being that the people in Westchester told me about the registration, I guess I understand. For me, personally, it isn't a concern as I wouldn't come up as a mutant on any screening, but the rest of my family would.

"Stopped halfway between Little Rock and Oklahoma City, just before Fort Smith I guess, at what used to be a state park. There's a rest stop there. Didn't look like the state park had seen human care or use in ages except for the campgrounds that abutted the rest stop. There's a place just past that, no idea what the town name might be even if there is one, but there is a bar..."

She looked at her Sister first then her Mate. Yeah, that was something she would need to warn him about but later.

"We might be able to find some help there. Little dive of a redneck place, but the moonshine is excellent and cheap."

Logan chuffed with laughter. She did know her alcohol.

"All in all, things were rolling without blood being shed..." That bit of information was mostly for her family and Ryan as Chief Kee had not had the pleasure. "...until we got to the outskirts of Oklahoma City. We headed north to go around and got caught up by some events there. Vehicles were moving pretty slow, and there was a huge mob of people, a lynch mob. That's where the children joined us."

Maddie outlines her trip for Ryan and Kee; her glance to me and Logan says a lot more than the cops would pick up. Oh, this is going to be an interesting story. I'd already heard about her rescue of Tomas and Mesa. I just clench my jaw this time.

"Ryan, does the Chief have the info on the little ones?"

"No, ma'am."

"Right. Chief, we picked up a pair of Feral siblings there, a boy and girl, ten and eight years old respectively. They were the mob's target. They are here in Diné lands now being looked after by our extended family. Once we got out of there, we did not stop until we hit the border. That mob was being... not controlled precisely but guided. I didn't actually have time to stop and check it out, to see what was behind it, but it did have a certain orchestrated flavor to it.

"In any case, what came up in our discussion with the deputy last night and amongst ourselves, we know there's a Darkness trying to get into this land. It's something we've face before where we come from, and we, all of us, cannot see and know what's going on here without trying to help. And we want to be sure that we aren't doing more harm than good in the process. Road to hell and good intentions and all that.

"We think, if you and yours are willing, that we could possibly set up some kind of an underground railroad to the Nation or Nations to get those most at risk to safety. I'm fairly confident in saying that the Diné would not have a problem with offering the refuge, but I was hoping there might be a way to get the other Peoples to assist as well. I know they already do as do we, but this would be a pipeline of those seeking sanctuary. We don't need to be overburdening any one nation.

"Tori, having walked all the lands here, I think can give us some guidance. There are other details that haven't been worked out yet and may not be until we are out there and seeing and finding what there is to see and find.

"Now what I'd like to hear from you is your take on the world out there, beyond the borders of the Peoples. Also, if you have any knowledge of the lands beyond North America. Are there still ham radio operators or other low-frequency communications that we could use to communicate or will we need to rely on telepaths? And if it is the latter, I need to get our resident telepath to talk to yours so they know one another."

The two men exchange a glance, and Chief Kee rubs the back of his neck while looking at the map.

"Well, there are worse paths through the Free Lands, but not many. If your local contact..." He looks up at Maddie. "...and by local, I mean your ride out here... was better versed in what's happening out there, he'd have brought you out on Eye Seventy. Better roads, generally, and the only real problem spot is Kansas City, and the southern bypass brings you through Osage lands. But done is done, and you rescued a couple of youngsters, so I'd say it was worth it."

He sighed heavily. "Let's get the communications issue out of the way first. That's probably the easiest. Yes, there are still quite a few ham radio operators in what you probably know as Canada and the United States." He tapped those land masses on the map.

"The Nakaii People have claimed everything that was once Mexico, all the way down through Central America to the border between Panama and Colombia. They also claim and protect most of the islands in the Caribbean Sea, as well as slices of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. They have actual functioning radio stations, as do some of the Nations of South America. We have one here in Window Rock, the Sioux have one up in Bismark. Everything that's played on our station and the Sioux station is very innocuous because the US and Europe bore the brunt of the war against the mutants." Kee shakes his head again. "Nothing comes from Europe over the airwaves; we get messages via the ham radio operators from everywhere else.

"That said, if you want secure communication, telepaths are the only way to communicate. If you don't mind the mutant hunters hearing what you have to say, then you use the radio. Mexican stations, some of the Asian stations, most of the African stations broadcast what they call Hanoi Hannah programming." His lips quirk in a smile. "Had to look that one up for myself. Can't say whether it has any effect on the mutant hunters one way or the other, but it's got to be painfully obvious to them that most of the world is against them.

"So you'll want to have your telepath meet with as many as I can round up before Deputy Todacheene gets here. I've already got Nadine calling in any who are local."

He taps a few places on the South American continent... three in Brazil, one in Paraguay, one in Bolivia.

"There are spots in South America that are truly free lands... not claimed by any of the First People but are surrounded by them. There are a few areas in North America with similar protections. Phoenix is the largest city, but a number of smaller cities and towns in the northeast — upstate New York and New England — that are similarly surrounded. Most of the harshest lands close to the Arctic Circle are free lands, too, but there aren't many willing to live up there."

The Chief stares at the map again. "We've all been taking in as many refugees as we can. Different Nations have different requirements, of course. But we do manage to find a place for everyone who wants a safe harbor.

"Now beyond the Americas..." He unrolls the second, considerably smaller map of the world. "Well, all the research stations in Antarctica were abandoned by 2025. The Russians managed to keep Vostok Station until about 2015, I think it was. Japan's Dome Fuji Station closed next, probably later the same year or early in 2016. Amundsen-Scott managed to stay open until 2018 with some help from the Australians. They closed their Mawson Station in 2025." He covered Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea and the smaller islands in the area with his hand.

"The First People of these lands are in complete control, but it's difficult to get to them. Indonesia and Malaysia are contested at the moment. However, everything else from Pakistan east and then north through Tibet, all the Chinese provinces, Mongolia, then out through Korea and Japan, and — surprising to a hell of a lot of people, apparently — Russia and Kazakhstan are all safe zones. It's a lot easier getting people over there if they don't mind a long, arduous journey. The First Nations of Canada have taken in quite a number of people. And while the Salish of Washington and British Columbia say they don't technically claim their ancestral lands, mutant hunters who go in never come out again. There's a ferry across the Bering Strait in the summer; most of the rest of the year, it's frozen over. As I said... it's an arduous trip. I would strenuously try to talk anyone with children to not even attempt it.

"Africa... well, most of what used to be South Africa is about as bad as Oklahoma City or Chicago or Los Angeles. But except for the northern coast of Morocco near Gibraltar, the rest of Africa is fairly safe. Parts of it are even habitable again. Moving over to the States of the Middle East — the Saudi Arabian peninsula, Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey. They're all relatively safe, except for the perennial infighting that goes on over there." Kee shakes his head and has a puzzled look on his face. "Never did understand that. They're all cousins." He shrugs and points to a spot on the map near Iran.

"I'm not sure what they're calling themselves this week, but this area that used to be Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is the primary breeding ground in Eurasia for mutant hunters. Hell, for all anyone knows they could be calling themselves by those names again.

"Then there's Europe." He sighs. "It's a lot like the US, really. Norway, Sweden, and Finland are safe. The Eastern European countries — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland down through Slovakia and Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, and then east to the Russian border — are a mess. Our contacts in those areas are constantly on the move. Most of the rest of Europe is also a mix, but slightly less volatile."

Then he rolled his eyes. "Great Britain. The entire island of Ireland, as well as Scotland, will accept all refugees from England, and technically Wales since England swallowed them up when Ireland reunited as a single country in 2020. Nobody knows what bee got into their bonnets over there, but it's about as bad as the New York City and northern New Jersey area.

"Iceland... Greenland... being islands and generally unpleasant — that's the story they tell, anyway — are fairly safe, too."

The Chief crossed his arms and leaned against the wall behind him. "That pretty much covers everything. If you're heading back into Oklahoma... well, Tori knows the people, and which lands are held by any of the First Nations. There are still more Nations represented there than any other part of the country. Mostly it's the Nations with smaller populations, except for the Caddo. They've got a Confederacy similar to what the Iroquois tribes had before the White Men showed up here."

He shakes his head but smiles. "Christ, given how old that woman is, I'd almost expect her to know every family in every Nation on the continent. She claims she doesn't, but she does keep in touch with her cousin kin." He frowns. "Did she hear your story about the kids? They're bound to be at least children of someone she knows or who knew their folks."

Me? I'm just trying not to gape at the man.

"So... in addition to being the Chief of Police, you're a world historian? Well, crap... more like a politician if you know that much about everything that's going on."

Both he and Ryan burst out laughing.

"What? What did I say?"

"He is a politician... of sorts," Ryan says, still chuckling. "Chief of the Diné Tribal Council, and the representative to the International Tribal Council."

"Oh." Uncle Leon never knew that much about world events when he was on the Tribal Council. On the other hand, we lived in a far more peaceful world... even with the Shadow threatening to come calling on our world.

"Worse paths, you say? I'd be interested in knowing what those are. That's where we will be the most effective. Just so you know, Chief, I've worked occupied territory. Long before I was an upstanding citizen of the world, war was my business as it was my father's business."

Vin?

Mom?

Don't wander too far. Going to have other telepaths you need to handshake with.

Should I come back now?

Not yet. I'll let you know.

All right.

"I'm familiar with Hanoi Hannah. As for the radio operators, what languages are spoken? Besides Diné Bizaad and English, Logan and I both speak French and Spanish. He speaks Japanese and Cantonese as well, and I have Dutch and a couple of dialects of Malay including Indonesian."

She tightened up at the news about Europe. She had come to love it since setting up her home there in Paris in 2005 and taking over Marie's business. Even after opening the office in New York and having another home there, she still spent a lot of time in Europe, more so after Jenny's death and Leon's subsequent relocation there. All his family was there, all of his descendants. She had to remind herself that this world was not theirs, and Leon and his progeny likely never existed here. A part of her hoped they didn't as she knew Rene would have been a target being a mutant... No, that was no a road she needed to go down.

"Oh, don't forget I speak Mandarin and have a basic understanding of Taiwanese, in addition to being fluent in English, Diné Bizaad, and Japanese. I can manage Spanish fairly well, too." Then I roll my eyes. "My children, the little snots, speak French much better than I ever will, and Paul speaks fluent Klingon, which is probably a dead language if it ever even existed here. Constructed languages are tricky like that, I suppose." I look at Maddie. "I blame Bobby and David for the Klingon, by the way."

Kee and Ryan shake their heads. "Never heard of it," Ryan says. "If it's something that was popular during his childhood, I suppose Andrea might have heard about it. Or Tori."

"Most of the programming is in English, Spanish, Arabic or French," Kee said. "There are often pockets in other areas that might use more localized languages, but if you hear any programming out in the Free Lands, it's almost certainly going to be English or Spanish. Especially if you're taking the same route back that you took on your way out here."

"This has nothing to do with what our plans are, but do know about Suriname or Dutch Guinea as it was once called?"

Had her father resettled there after leaving Indonesia? Had he reunited with her mother? Had she even existed in this world? Did it really matter? No, it didn't, but they were still family just like the Diné people were. She didn't really know them, couldn't, but... Focus, Messijer. Focus, she told herself.

"First, about paths worse than the one you took...?" Kee shrugs. "Chicago is worse than Oklahoma City, although there have been plenty of debates on whether that's related to the larger population base or the mob families that run the town up there. The same thing holds true in Los Angeles." Chief Kee shakes his head. "As Tori would likely tell you, most of us believe that if there is a mastermind behind all of this — or even a group of people — that person or group is based in Oklahoma. Partially that's because it's a location most people wouldn't expect. But about twenty years back there was definitely a... well, a piece of shit who was systematically capturing and kidnapping mutants to experiment on them. Tori cleaned out a cell in eastern New Mexico, rescued a handful of kids, but no one has ever able to get to the ringleader in Oklahoma City."

"That was about when she transferred out to Ganado, wasn't it?" Ryan asks.

Kee nods. "Yeah, said she needed to get away from the border for a while. I'm pretty sure her folks were trying to get to this Sanderson guy when they were killed." He falls silent then, clearly still affected by their deaths.

"Her sister actually came up from Zacatecas," Ryan says softly. "Just showed up at the station house one day. The two of them spoke in that language of theirs, then stood there with their foreheads pressed together and hands on each other's shoulders for what seemed like an hour." Ryan looks at each of us. "I don't know if it's a trait of the cousin kin or just something about Tori and Lelani, but all of us in the building could feel their devastation even without knowing what had happened. And then Tori looked up at me..." He shook his head. "Her eyes were dry but I've never seen such anguish in all my life... and I sit with Andrea and hold her every time one of her family members dies. The worst is when the youngsters die going through the Curse, and even her pain at that time can't hold a candle to what I saw in Tori's eyes that day. Then she said, I'm going to walk the mountains... I'll be back when I get back. I didn't see her for three weeks. Haven't seen Lelani since."

"I'd known Tori for twenty years by then... thirty years now," Kee says, "and I still don't know what to say to her except that I wish it never happened."

I look at the Chief; more importantly, I look at his aura. "You're her friend. You don't need to say anything. Just... be her friend." I smile sadly. "I think the Ha'atathli and I would say the same thing here. We're not as old as Tori, our parents weren't as old as hers when they died, but having friends... real friends... makes even the most suck worthy events a little more tolerable." I look at Maddie and Logan. "Sometimes a lot more tolerable."

Kee smiles. "Well, she does seem to find my yearly invitation to transfer to a more populated area fairly amusing."

"Just don't offer her a station in a less populated area than Ganado," Ryan says with a grin. "That offer she might accept."

"Still, for folks like her parents — any of the cousin kin — to die, it had to have been pretty bad."

Again, I look at my Sister. "Pretty bad things can happen to any of us, even to people we love." I turn my gaze back to the Chief. "You find a way to cope when that happens. Sometimes... well, sometimes a person's way of coping isn't good for the people still around them. Seems like Tori's found a way that works for her, the people of Ganado and the Diné Nation, in general."

Madeline just shrugged at the mention of the organized crime. It was not a world with which she was unfamiliar. It was the situation in the eastern part of the state that had her raising her eyebrows and looking to her sister. Dear gods, Stryker can't still be alive here can he? And if he or they are based in OK City, then that's where we go.

"This Sanderson have a first name?"

It was as innocuous of a question as it could be, but the tone behind it was something else that had the flavor of hell's fury.

I shake my head imperceptibly. Stryker was older than me, and you said he was a Normal. I don't see how it's possible for him to still be alive. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean others haven't picked up where he left off.

Ryan furrows his brows. "You know... I'm not sure Tori ever mentioned it. Unless his name was — is, who knows? — Asshole or Bastard."

Kee frowned for a moment. "Tom, I think. It was probably her folks that mentioned it at some during their visit. Tori sure as hell didn't want to talk about it when she got back with those kids."

He looks at me for a moment or two, then nods. "Let's get back to the business at hand, then." He looks down at the map for a moment, then taps a spot on the northeast South American continent, and looks up at Maddie. "Suriname... I've heard it's gorgeous, but it's not likely I'll ever get there. South America... Central America and what used to be called Mexico, for that matter... those are some of the safest places on the planet." He straightened up to once again lean against the wall.

"Suriname is gorgeous."

Mutant hunters...

The term made her growl. She couldn't help that. She knew full well that they were Stryker's legacy and gift to this world. Those he had turned against their own kind through his nefarious means.

"Do you know if the mutant hunters are all Normals or are there mutants among them? And idea how they identify the mutants they go after besides neighbors snitching on each other?"

"And since you are on the International Council, you can talk to them about what we plan to do. Even if I already had all the details planned out and set, I wouldn't share them. Working in cells is the best way to do this so that no one person knows everything so that no one can hang everyone out to dry. Anyone can be broken."

It was something she had said to Andi and Sanchez many years ago when they were discussing the liability he and Pablo could be. Trust me when I say anyone can be made to talk.

"Tori has heard more of the story than you have. I'd rather not repeat it again. My Sister's anger burns hot where mine burns cold."

"Oh, all the mutant hunters are non-mutants, that's for sure. They wouldn't trust a mutant with a black heart or lack of a soul any more than they'd trust any of you. You might not be a mutant, Madeline, but you're guilty by association. As for how they find them..." Kee shakes his head. "We don't know, not really. There are certainly the neighbors snitching on neighbors networks; that bullshit's been going on for centuries. But there are rumors that they have some kind of machine that can find mutants. However, no one in any of the Nations can detect anything... anything that feels like a search... so that's all it is. Just a rumor."

I bite my lip and just focus on the Chief. What he described sounds way, WAY too much like Cerebro for my comfort. Would this world's Charles allow that to be stolen? Dear Gods, Buddhas and Spirits, I hope not!

"I suppose it's good mutants aren't hunting their own kind as far as anyone knows…"

She paused and looked at Logan. He nodded and added, "As far as anyone knows… but no one knew what was going on at Alkalai either."

"The description of how they are found," she continued with a shake of her head. "I… we know of something in our world that is capable of doing just that but it does require a telepath to use…"

Now she returned her attention to Andi. "And the technology has been stolen before, once before, and was duplicated by a... a common enemy. His replicated version was destroyed and the only one in existence in the hands of those who can be trusted with it. Considering what I saw in Westchester, I wouldn't rule it out."

Maybe that's why this Charles won't chat me up. He knows Cerebro has been compromised.

"I am so not okay with the idea of that technology being anywhere it doesn't belong. But you're right," I say grudgingly. "Just from my brief encounter with Jimmy, I'm only a little surprised the lot of them have managed to keep themselves alive."

And if Cerebro has been compromised, we are so screwed. While Charles never could get through the barriers I built after he and I started tinkering with the idea that it was possible to use the qi as a shield, I was only successful in hiding from him about sixty or sixty-five percent of the time when he used Cerebro. On the other hand, even Vin can't find me if I don't want to be found, so there's that. But I only ever tried to include Pablo inside the shield... I've never tried to wrap a bubble that big around a group.

"And I've always hated the idea that mutants fought mutants. That was one of the most dumbass things about that whole time period, and there were a lot of dumbass things about those days." Oh boy. Things just get better all the time, don't they?

Sure, but our Charles and Eric are long dead too. So who knows. And if he is, we get to kill him again. Maybe we can even do it the slow and painful way this time.

"Exactly how common is Sanderson out there? Is it like Yazzie," she paused and looked to Ryan, "or Benally? Are we going to find a whole town of them?"

Compromised or someone else built another. In any case, it's something we will need to be aware of. Vin should have enough experience with Cerebro to know the feel of it. He's also a stronger telepath than Charles was.

"You know not all of them had a choice in the matter."

Well, I sure as hell wouldn't mind killing that asshole again... even though I've had a hundred and fifty some years to calm down.

Kee chuckled. "No... Sanderson is nowhere near as common as Yazzie or Benally is within the Diné Nation. I'd say it's ordinary enough not to sound foreign, but you probably won't find a whole town of them unless it's a town of just one family."

That's actually reassuring... Vin being a stronger telepath than Charles, I mean. That makes me think the only reason Charles could find me thirty-five to forty percent of the time is that he knew exactly who he was looking for.

I look at Maddie, remembering the first moment I had met Rene... remembering the horror stories... remembering the sight of Logan piercing her heart in Stryker's lair. "I know," I say quietly. "And that makes me hate it all the more."

Tar and feathers sound good for this time around, maybe blood and circuses, too...

Sometimes she dreamed of the clone they had first found and the evidence that more were planned.

That would be true. He could always find me because of our link. With Vin, it's a similar thing, but I am his mother.

"And I'll pass the word along to the International Council," Kee continues. "We have a similar policy for our intelligence people. We have enough students of history on the various Councils that we understand the importance of limiting information. I don't know how much active involvement the Spirits have in the non-ceremonial aspects of your lives, but a number of the Spirits work with us — all the First People — when we're in the Free Lands. While your assertion that anyone can be broken would generally be true, our Spirits would intervene before that could happen."

Kee doesn't say anything more, but the tension in his jaws speaks volumes. I raise an eyebrow, wondering what he meant by that.

Ryan looks at the Chief, who nods after a moment. Ryan turns to us and takes a deep breath. "Normally, the only people who do reconnaissance are men and women whose guardians are the Spirits thought of as those who protect the warriors. Obviously, different Nations have different relationships with the Spirits, so while the Diné would not think of Alligator as an appropriate guardian for a warrior, for example, the Choctaw or Muscogee might. The point, of course, is that we strongly suggest that anyone who leaves the Nations be a warrior... that is, guarded by a Spirit their People recognize as a warrior's guardian.

"In the event one of our warriors is captured..." Ryan lowers his eyes and seems to stare right through the maps and the table for long moments. "In that case, the warrior's guardian Spirit will guide the warrior's soul to the next world before any information that could damage any of the People can be divulged." He looks up again. "Too many of us have lost family members or friends this way," he says, smiling wanly. "Yet there are brave warriors in every Nation who continue to volunteer to fight the Darkness in any way they can."

"Our Spirits are very active in what we do. However, that probably has something to do with the fact that two of them are deceased husbands. Cat does whatever the hell Cat wants…"

That part is said with a look at Ryan, knowing he will absolutely understand.

I stare at Ryan in... shock? Perhaps just in surprise. Then I shake my head. "No. The Spirits of our universe don't do that. But... well, I suppose there isn't any need for it. It's an interesting discussion to have with them when we get home, though. Not that we have any intention of getting caught..." I look at Maddie again and roll my eyes at the memory of her just walking up to Stryker's front door, so to speak. "Well, not unintentionally anyway. But out of curiosity, which Spirits are the guardians of the warriors?"

Ryan glances at me and Maddie at my comment, and I can almost see him talking himself out of asking about that story. "There are only eight of the Diné pantheon... Beaver, Crab, Dog, Gorilla, Hummingbird, Lion, Panther and Snail."

She rolled her eyes back at Andi. "It worked didn't it?"

I raise an eyebrow. Again. "All the protectors... which is sort of funny in a way, because the only two Spirits among the seven of us who are protectors are Rene and Pablo. You know, the ones who have no counterpart here in your universe?"

"But... didn't you say you're the Warrior?" Ryan asks, partly confused and partly surprised.

"Right... but remember that my guardian Spirit was a crazy version of Raven. By the time I traded Raven in for Bear... Cobra, Fox, and Opossum had already attached themselves to me for reasons of their own. I guess they didn't think the Warrior needed a protector as much as I needed... I don't know... counselors? Advisors?" I shrug, then look at Logan, the beginning of a mischievous twinkle in my eyes. "Maybe Cat will watch over you, too."

"WHAT?!" both police officers exclaim simultaneously.

I look at them, oh so confused. "Now what did I say? Am I going to wind up freaking everyone out every time I say something innocuous? Because I need to psych myself up for that. It's not like I'm going to stop talking." When my Sister snickers at that comment, I roll my eyes again.

"He... you said..." Ryan blinks and starts over. "Logan doesn't have a guardian Spirit?"

I groan and rub my temples. "Oh, man... the differences in this world! It's the subtle ones that are going to bite us in the ass, guys." I sigh and look at Ryan. "Okay, in our world, folks like Logan and Em are called Elders or Ferals. I understand that's a slightly derogatory term here..."

"More than slightly," Kee notes.

I nod. "Okay, point taken. But the Spirits named Logan and Em Elders because their ancestors were on this continent — in our universe — before any of the First People was here. No, it doesn't make sense, but I'm just telling you what the Spirits told us. And because Logan's ancestors were here before the Spirits arrived with the First People, the Elders are somehow outside the whole guardian Spirit network. They — the Spirits — didn't think the Elders needed guardian Spirits. Em has one because she was a bit offended that her brother picked up a new guardian Spirit at puberty and she didn't." I pause to rub my chin. "It's possible I might have told the lot of them that they were idiots."

Kee and Ryan gasp, and then just stare at me.

"Oh, stop it! You know, my parents used to give me that look, too. And the Spirits were idiots. What teenager doesn't need a little extra help? That's the roughest part of a person's life. I'm very proud of my niece for standing up for herself and demanding the same consideration as everyone else in the family. Now, this one..." I hook my finger in Logan's direction. "...could have a guardian Spirit from the pantheon in addition to Rene if he wanted one. The Spirits in our universe are apparently a little loopy because according to them, he has to actually request one. Like Em did. Perhaps with fewer histrionics. Or not... whatever works.

"Oh, and there are a whole lot fewer Elders in our universe than in yours. As in, the only ones I've ever met in our world are the two in our family." I've heard of one other... from Maddie... but Logan's brother is a bit of a sore spot for him, so there's no need to mention him. Besides... that just makes three Ferals or cousin kin or Elders in our universe. I've met that many in this universe, and heard that there are a lot more, and living openly with the rest of the people. If that seems weird to me, I can't even begin to imagine how weird it is for Logan and Em.

"Yeah, well don't be surprised if one decides to attach itself to you," Ryan mumbles in Logan's general direction. "That's all I'm saying."

I shake my head. This place is truly peculiar. I sincerely hope we don't get into a situation where I need to tell one of the Spirits off. I'm not sure how this universe's versions of them would react. I wave a hand at Kee as I rub my neck with the other. "Supplies? Bad parts of the nearby Free Lands?"

"And this is why I don't get involved with Shamans," Kee whispers to Ryan.

Madeline chuckled at the reaction of the two cops at Andi's casual talk of the Spirits. It reminded her of the reaction of the family to her seeing Coyote.

"Was there anything else you needed to know?" the Chief asked Maddie.

"Yes, there is one other set of things. We have our own gear, so we're set on weapons, but I have a concern about ammo. We have automatic pistols and rifles and a couple of compound bows. The arrows, theoretically, can be reclaimed after being fired but not the bullets. I wonder if you might have enough to spare some for us, assuming, of course, the rounds are compatible. Ideally, we'll never get into a situation where we'll need to fire the guns or bows, but I'd rather be prepared, have and not need as opposed to the other way around. Also, might you have a couple of camp kits of field gear with MREs, canteens and the like? We can live off the land, but with it being winter, pickings are likely to be lean. The one day I was out in a forested area, there wasn't much in the way of large game."

She seemed to be done but then held up a finger and smirked a bit. "Being law enforcement, you wouldn't happen to be aware of the closest worst part of the Free Lands are, would you? I need to do some... shopping."

"Ammunition and supplies are probably going to be more readily available down in Albuquerque. You could probably find some camping gear at the Big Store here in town, or maybe in Gallup, but again... your best bet will be Albuquerque."

The two men exchange another look; this time Kee rolls his eyes, and Ryan laughs. "I will deny knowledge of anything you say, Benally."

"Figured that much, Chief; though the really funny part is that you know this stuff even better than I do."

"La la la la la la," Kee replies.

"Right, more readily available in Albuquerque. The problem is, we have no funds… yet. And I'd rather not acquire them in my preferred method while still within the Nation's borders."

"Hmmm, lack of funds could be a problem," the Chief says. "On the other hand..." He sighs with an obvious resignation. "You'll apparently have a Deputy of the Tribal Police Force with you. If you don't get carried away, Tori can requisition supplies for the TPF. Just tell her I'm taking it out of her paycheck."

Ryan chuckles. "She's not going to care, you know."

"Oh, I know. She'll either think it's a great joke or she'll curse my name for two hundred years."

"Yeah, I haven't had a chance to rebuild my stash, and we spent most of it on the kids," she explained. "I have a few bucks but not enough to cover what need."

I guess if Tori can expense supplies, that will make things a lot easier. Though... I pat my pockets and pull out the contents of one of them. I drop several coins and a couple of wadded up bills on the table. "If any of this is any good, we might not have to strain your budget too badly."

Ryan looks at the coins first. "I've never seen any of these," he says, pushing the dimes and quarter aside. He taps the dollar coin. "These are pretty rare, but people still use them on occasion." Then he unwads the bills and just stares at them. "Whoa..."

"What? Is that a bad hey, look at this counterfeit money 'whoa' or a good 'whoa'?"

He looks up at me. "If you could find a collector, these are worth a lot of money!"

"Huh? It's just a couple of ten dollar bills. It wouldn't even get me a good lunch at the coffee shop in Ganado."

"There's a coffee shop in Ganado?"

I sigh. "Yes. Kitty corner from the gas station. But aside from your enthrallment of the money, I won't get arrested if I spend it?"

"You'll get some pretty funny looks. We put Martin Luther King, Jr. on the ten dollar bill back in 2110."

I shrug. "Tens are like ones used to be when I was a kid. You need quite a few of them to buy anything. Mostly I have fifties and hundreds in my wallet."

Ryan nods, continuing to glance at the ten dollar bill in his hand and then at me. "If you've got Grant on the fifty and Franklin on the one hundred, you'll be fine. Tens and twenties — Tecumseh, by the way — are the most popular bills, though."

I grin, and probably look like a bloody fool doing it. "When did Tecumseh replace Jackson on the twenties? We're still stuck with Asshole Andrew."

The two of them exchange a look, then shrug. "Ask Tori? Andrea would know, too, I suppose. It's not something you sit around the dinner table and chat about," Ryan says.

"If I had to guess," Kee adds, "just ballpark number? Maybe 2030? 2040? Unlike the ten dollar bills will Hamilton, a twenty with Jackson is going to get spit on then ripped to tiny pieces. Even those White Folks finally realized that he was, as you called him, Asshole Andrew."

"Well, I have what I have. And I don't really know how much I have because my Sister is a really bad influence on me. But I should have enough that Tori won't have to deplete the department's budget on our supplies." I grin. "Or she can deplete your budget and we can get more stuff." I scoop the coins off the table and tuck them back in my pocket. Ryan starts to hand the bills back to me; I shake my head. "No, keep them. Find a collector and replenish whatever money we take out of your budget."

"Andi, you can't possibly buy that much stuff!"

I snort. "Don't count on it. We like good stuff. But if there really is more money there than we'll spend, donate the rest to Andrea's favorite charity. Or use it to help refugees. It's just paper to me, Ryan. I don't need it. Somebody in this universe must."

"I've got more in my billfold," Logan said. "Singles to large bills. Madeline doesn't usually carry cash."

She shrugged. She only carried cash when she knew she was going to be 'in-country'. She had not known she was going to end up here. She had made some cash on the trip across, but that had mostly gone to food for the kids. She knew quite well how expensive ammo and whatnot could be.

"Well, actually, Chief, yes, we can. It isn't ever a concern back home as we have a pipeline into the latest gear and gadgetry... and, um, funding is never an issue there. I'd be hard-pressed to remember a time when it was. That's my superpower — the ability to purchase anything I might want."

He shakes his head. "Getting back to the question of less than reputable areas to shop..."

Chief Kee begins his "la la la la la la" chant again.

Ryan grins and looks at Maddie. "...the worst hellhole near our eastern border is a charming little place called Las Vegas, about fifteen miles up I-25 from the border station. It isn't anything like the city of the same name in Nevada; according to Tori, it never was, although at one time it apparently did have some pretensions to the same grandeur. These days, about all it has going for it is its dubious claim to fame as having the most drinking establishments per capita this side of the Mississippi. You mentioned a little redneck place you found on your way out here... think of a whole town like that... with a current population of about eight thousand. We'd dearly love to dig up the whole town and dump it in Texas where it belongs... sadly, New Mexico looks to be stuck with it."

At the description of this pseudo Las Vegas, she begins to grin. "Sounds like my kind of a hellhole."

"Las Vegas? No way!" I shake my head. "I'd go past the town every time I took the southern route to visit my folks in Flagstaff... hell, anytime I'd come down I-25 to visit anyone in the family. It's a quaint little tourist town in our universe... has been since before I was born."

"Well, welcome to our world, Andi. If you're heading back into Oklahoma, you can come right down US-84... you run into I-40 again at the Zuni border station."

I look at Maddie and frown pitifully. "I haz a sad."

Kee and Ryan look at me like I'm nuts.

She speared her Sister with a look. "Why? Cause you know you're going to get stuck babysitting the kids and keeping them from foolishness while Logan and I go scare up some necessities?"

I stare at Maddie. "You two have always had all the fun. I don't need to be stuck babysitting... the nice LEO can keep them entertained. She might even be able to smack their heads harder than I can." I nod decisively. "I'm really tired of always being sweet little Andi, the innocent librarian.

"Andi, that won't be Madeline Jacobs out there, but Mad Messijer, and you know how she gets. Besides, girlfriend's reputation might have, hopefully, preceded her."

I sigh at Maddie's version of logic. It's not like I've never seen Mad Messijer in action. Okay, just those few times in Colorado before we formed the Pentad. And then when I got sucked into her memories that time Leon got a little carried away with one of his Gifts. And by 'carried away' I mean he very stupidly used that particular Gift on his mother, which was oh so bad. But...

"You know, girlfriend's reputation could have preceded her so girlfriend could show up with a boyfriend and a girlfriend. It's not like Ninja doesn't have a smart mouth, you know. Or doesn't know how to play games. Harumph."

"I didn't actually mean that kind of reputation, Sister. I meant the kind that usually makes the upstanding law enforcing types, like these two, a tad bit nervous or cause them to encourage girlfriend to leave town as soon as possible, like yesterday if not last week. The scumbag ones just try to get something over on her, and that never turns out well... for them. But, a girlfriend might work as long as you behave yourself and don't get all righteous and indignant."

"Well, duh," I say, grinning at Maddie. "When you start talking about Mad Messijer, what's pretty much the first thing that comes to mind. Why in the world would I get righteous and indignant?" My smile is more than a little mischievous. "Warrior's not going anywhere... just girlfriend. And maybe Ninja, who only rings up the Warrior to call down the wrath of Mother and Father when her people are being threatened."

"Because sometimes you just can't help yourself. And you know I'm going to find the most wretched hive of scum and villainy that exists there as easily as if I lived there since I'm talented that way."

I pause, blink, and look between Sister and Brother... tap into the qi at my very core and search memories.

"Okay, I've been differentiating between Warrior and Ninja longer than I thought. Not relevant, just interesting."

"I'm just going to pretend I have no idea what's going on here," Ryan says softly to his boss.

"I don't have to pretend," Kee replies, barely above a whisper.

I turn and look at them, smiling at them with the nice Andi smile and shake my head. "You know we can all hear you, right?"

She rolled her eyes at Andi did that pay attention and talk to yourself thing she did so much of.

"Whatever you say," she commented then in an aside to the policemen, "Don't worry about it. She's always like that. We've become accustomed to it."

"Oh... bah!"

"And you know, Sister, you've met a few more as I think Feral might be a more broadly applied term in our world. Ynona, her brother, the cubs, Hank McCoy. Most of the ones in our world can't pass like Logan and Em can and so stay out of sight."

"Oh, right. Your folks in Paris are just plain nice. I get over there so rarely that I think we're all surprised when we meet. Me because, duh... I should remember. And them because they can't believe I'm still alive. And I guess we do define Feral differently. Cousin kin seems to have much narrower definition that would include Ynona and her family, but not Hank. And I sure wish Hank wasn't so damn shy." I sigh. "He won't even come visit me in Ganado. And he doesn't believe me when I tell him he's sexy." I roll my eyes. "Men."

"And I think you scare Hank," she added with a chuckle.

Then I blinked at her. "What? How do I scare Hank? I'm nice to Hank! I only mentioned the gold lame ONCE! And I was just teasing him about Bobby. And who kept Bobby from squealing like a crazy person with a dress up doll when he saw Hank at the wedding? Huh? Well, okay, mostly that was David, but I helped."

"He's just not used to the female attention, goof. Hasn't had that much of it since... since before I knew him."

But then I look back at Maddie, truly sad... no joking, no kidding, no goofing around. "I just want to talk to Hank about... you know... stuff. Cuz he's a brainiac. And you can take the girl out of the library, but you can't take the librarian out of the girl." I sigh. "Would it help if I wore a knit hat and baggy clothes... or maybe I could get Fox to help me look like a... a table or something." I sigh again, more eloquently this time. "I'm not trying to give him female attention. I'm trying to give him a person with brain attention."

I cross my arms and pout. Well, maybe the pout is a bit of overacting. Still... I am sad. I like Hank. He knows how to think. Fooey.

"Have you tried video chatting him? You know he doesn't get around much anymore, and the government still insists on a security detail for him since he used to be VP. He probably just doesn't want all those people traipsing across the Nation's land or trampling your vegetation."

"When do you think your 'paths will be here, Chief?"

Chief Kee shook his head. "Things must be a lot more interesting in your world, and I'll leave that kind of interesting to you." He looked out the door. "Nadine?"

She either signed to him or mouthed the words to him because I didn't hear a thing. Not even that sense that I'm deliberately trying not to eavesdrop when I'm around telepaths.

"About ten or fifteen minutes... although the closer ones are likely to be here in seven or eight, seeing as they're overachievers."

"Really, Chief, wouldn't you prefer our kind of interesting than that mess that's going on out there? I admit it's excellent that the Nation has all their land back, but there's a lot of shit going on out there, a lot of people hurt and dead."

About ten minutes, Vincent, so get your snogging out while you can.

Moooom!

"I've let Vin know to be back here in ten."

The Chief looks at me, then Maddie. "This..." he says, pointing at me, "this kind of interesting I do not need. I already have this kind of interesting at home... my youngest daughter just turned twelve. So, no. Not this."

I throw my hands up in the air. "Oh, fine! We'll give you world-changing — hopefully for the better — interesting and no more superhero being sad because another superhero is way too shy for his own good kind of interesting."

Kee nods. "Sure... that kind of interesting I could live with."

"I know you're listening, O Great Spirit. As Picard would say, make it so. Please. And thank you."

She let out a chuff of laughter. "Chief, we both have sets of twins and have spent many years at a school for Gifted kids, not the kind that are merely super smart, but those with powers. This… this is nothing."

"Picard? Aren't we technically in Kirk's era?" she teased her sister.

"Technically, we're not in anyone's era. Wait... no, aren't we in Archer's era?" I shake my head. "It doesn't matter. Picard's catch phrase was 'make it so'."

As good as it feels to be in the Dinébah, I think I'm starting to get a little anxious to get out of here. Ryan's presence doesn't unnerve me as much as Jeremy's does. Of course, he exists in our universe... and of course he's Chief of Police, living in Window Rock, and I've certainly worked with his counterpart in our universe often enough. But having discovered so many of our own family members missing from this world, I guess I expected that all families would be like that. Or maybe that all families would at least be the same as they are in our universe.

In our universe, Jeremy Kee doesn't have any children.

Like I said to Maddie earlier, it's the subtle things – the little things – that are going to bite our asses. Well, they're going to bite mine, anyway.

"In a wretched hive of scum and villainy, would girlfriend get to smack somebody upside the head? Because I'm starting to feel a little anxious. And the last time I actually felt anxiety was when my two angelic despots were torturing me long before they were born."

"Oh, it's possible. There are some full contact sports available. And you can handle anxious a little while longer. Three weeks, remember.

"Uh huh. Three weeks for you is bad, but you have more experience dealing with it than I do. You're a scary kind of predictable." I shrug. "Me? Less practice, never know which weird thought will take flight. But cracking heads is really soothing."

"Cracking heads and other parts is very soothing, and I won't say I didn't engage in some of that."

"And you know what?" I narrow my eyes at her. "I think it's Hank's protection detail that gets freaked out by coming to the Nation. He's got too many Normals – all of whom are latent telepaths, by the way – on that team. They try to be all cool about hanging out around the Mutants, but they get twitchier than I was the month before the kids were born when the neighborhood kids come to get a peek at Hank.

"Not that most of it isn't his fault, of course."

I really would like to see Hank more often. Video chatting? Ugh. Anything over a couple of minutes, and I start feeling like whoever I'm talking to is a robot. After being able to sense a person's qi even on an unconscious level for so long, not sensing it makes me really uncomfortable. It's just too weird. Funny how that doesn't happen with family members, though. Well, no... not really. I'm connected to family, so I guess my subconscious just fills in the blanks.

"Secret Service has always been twitchy, and, quite frankly, not very impressive. I understand why they couldn't catch Kurt. Porters are difficult to catch when they want to be. They are in the business of not being trusting, and it would never occur to them that within the Nation is the safest place he could be."

I just shake my head sadly and shrug at Maddie's assessment of the Secret Service. She's certainly right about them. They're the worst bunch of nervous nellies I've ever met. Maybe one out of twenty-five doesn't have an aura of paranoia... the sort of paranoia that just reeks as if anyone and everyone were out to kill their charge. What the hell is wrong with them? Even someone who couldn't see their damn auras or feel the buzzsaw of their emotions could tell they were constantly on edge. Sure, their job is to protect whomever it is they're protecting, and a person needs to be alert to their environment to sense if there's a threat nearby. But dear gods, did they have to assign paranoid Normals to guard a Mutant?

I suppose that's yet another reason Hank stays holed up out in his own little world. At least the Secret Service folks skulking around his home and office and labs are relatively unobtrusive; once he leaves their comfort zone, though... they're as annoying as a little yappy dog.

I'm not going to bother worrying about it. Hank is Hank, and he's one of my favorite people who isn't actually family. And if coming out to Arizona to visit is that much of a hassle, if venturing out into Hank's world of too many paranoid people is too nerve-jangling... Well, we'll have to make do with email, I suppose. Or maybe I could...

What had the Captain's twin called it? Modulating her shields? Right. I could try that.

Was Maddie kidding about him being unnerved by female attention? After all the years we've known each other, he ought to know I'm as safe as a little sister. Not that I don't think he's utterly adorable, but seriously? I'm scary? Oh, well, sure... when I'm in Ninja mode people should be scared of me. But I've never gone full out Ninja around Hank. The first time we met, I was sweet as sugar because he and Charles were taking care of my kids from Commerce City. Even the second time I met him — the next day — I was on the calmer side of the Ninja spectrum. Well, yeah, still a little ticked off about what that that fucker Stryker had done to those kids, but I wasn't actually cracking skulls. And I was trying really hard to stay calm with the kids around.

Yeah, sounds like I'm going to have to force myself to actually suffer through the sling and arrows of paranoid Secret Service people to go pay Hank a visit.

Nadine tapped on the door frame. "Chief? Pat's here already. He called his cousins to come in, too. So there will be a few more than originally expected."

Kee nodded. "The more lines of communication, the better. Of course, this building's going to get very full, very fast with everyone coming in," he said, chuckling. He turned to us, definitely ignoring the crazy. "In days of yore, I'd suggest gathering in the garage, but one of my many times over predecessors turned that into storeroom more than a century ago."

She looked over at the announcement of the already arrived paths.

"We can have this chat outside if you think it'll be that crowded. Vincent's skilled enough to make it go fairly quickly."

"Maddie's right, Chief. Vin's got skills on him. It could actually work out a lot like a receiving line – the worst part of a non-traditional Diné wedding, by the way. Plunk Vin down in the lobby, everyone can file through and head back outside through the back door." I grin at the thought. "And if all the telepaths want to party until our ride gets here, they can congregate in the parking lot."

Kee raises an eyebrow in what I suspect is disbelief. His secretary is far less skeptical. "That would really work best, sir. There will probably only be a dozen, maybe fifteen people coming by, but if we can keep the chaos to a minimum, I'd appreciate it."

I wonder if this Nadine has the same nature and temperament as her counterpart in our world. If so, she's a no-nonsense organizational wizard who's a fairly high-level empath. Oh, not quite as talented as my niece, but more talented than most I've met. Although she knows all these folks, a large crowd isn't going to make her happy.

"Tell you what... I'll let Vin do his thing and haul my daughter off into a corner out of the way. I have a few words I need to stay to the ninny, but I have a feeling things will go a lot faster and smoother if I don't drag her too far away from her husband." I shake my head. Those two... I still think I ought to crack them upside their heads. They couldn't have worked this out ten or even just five years ago? No, they had to wait until the middle of a crisis. Okay, granted, by the time we knew there was a crisis there wasn't sufficient time for them to get their shit together and get themselves settled down. But if their oh my gods we're so happy happy happy newlywed auras get distracting once we leave the Nation, I'm going to have to wrap them in a qi bubble. And crack their heads.

Yeah, I am a little on edge. Maybe going to a seedy bar with Maddie and Logan will be just the thing I need. I'll have to leave my staff behind – can't imagine anyone walks around with one in the normal course of a day or evening. But as Bobby and David and even Pablo liked to say, my Kung Fu hands and feet are deadly weapons. And sometimes it's refreshing to send a potential assailant flying across the room with the judicious use of a little Aikido.

Nadine smiles and nods, and I follow her out into the lobby.

"Hey, kids... Nadine here is going to introduce Vin receiving line fashion to all the delightful telepaths coming by to meet him. Nadine, this – obviously – is Vincent Xavier," I nod to my nephew son-in-law, "and this is Maria Yazzie-Garcia." I look at my daughter. "Maria and I are just going to take ourselves off to the side of the room here and have a little chat."

Andi arranged things, and that was fine with Madeline. Once they got out beyond the borders, the hard stuff would be on her and Logan. It was a mess out there. She had not been exaggerating when she had compared it to occupied territory. Logan may not remember most of the wars and battles and what not he was in, but his instincts were still dead on.

And… and she still needed to figure out how to tell him about Victor being alive here. She totally understood the animosity between this world's versions of her Mate and his brother. She was also pretty sure she and their world's Victor would have had issues since he was working for the scumbag at the time. That was when she realized how much Jimmy had gotten under her skin. According to the files, it was Victor who had been in the lead when Stryker took Rene, and she just remembered that. She shook her head and muttered darkly to herself. Well, it was a long time ago.

Logan slid up beside her as they followed the others out to the lobby. "What's wrong?"

"Later."

He eyed her.

"I promise."

He nodded and gave a little chuff. I'll remember that.

She answered in kind. Yes, I know.

Vin was shaking Nadine's hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Nadine. Please call me Vin."

Mooooom!

Can it, chica. You're not going to be far enough away from him that either of you will start going into withdrawal.

But, Mom...

I sit down in one of the chairs in the lobby and gesture for her to sit on the other one. She hesitates long enough that I find myself getting annoyed.

Maria Sandra, stop acting like a teenager! Let Vincent do his job, with you close enough to keep him steady. It's about time you two figured out what has been in front of your faces for decades, but this isn't exactly the best time for you to get flighty, dear.

I'm not getting flighty, Mom! But she does sit down.

I give her The Look. Of course not. Just keep telling yourself that. Listen, I did some pretty crazy things when I finally admitted to myself that I was in love with your father. The Pentad wasn't even formed when I let a neo-Nazi into the house and let him shoot me. The Pentad was barely formed when your cousin Leon pushed Aunt Lin with his powers, and my instinct to protect her nearly killed us all in a plane crash.

I know...

Do not even say you know because you were there. You and your brother nearly drove me insane with your eight months of shenanigans. Couldn't you have behaved yourselves? You're the eldest... you couldn't exert just a little pressure on your brother to behave?

Actually, he was supposed to be the oldest. We were wrestling...

Yeah... I know.

Sorry. But we kind of lost track of time. And I never get to be the oldest! It's always either Paul or Vin. I wanted a turn. Even Em got a turn this time.

He was in his Dean mode, the one he used when meeting parents of potential students. He was charming, affable and a touch self-effacing to put them at ease, and it was completely instinctive. He never even thought about it.

"Nice to meet you as well, Vin," Nadine replied. "The first of our telepaths is here already... oh, and a couple others have just arrived. Just a moment."

Nadine went to the front door and leaned out. "Hey folks, we're going to have you come in single file and meet Vin. Just pass the word along. Come in, Pat."

She returned with a tall man in tow. "Pat, this is Vincent Xavier. Vin, this is Pat Roanhorse."

"Yá'át'ééh," Vin greeted. "The fastest way to do this is by physically and mentally shaking hands... so to speak. Also, if you could just pass on the information so I can get the rhythms of how all of you mind speak with one another."

Pat grinned. "Yá'át'ééh. We can do that."

"Okay," he looked to the side to his mother. "Did you want to listen in?"

She smiled and nodded and walked over. Good thinking, Vin. I will listen in.

"Pat, this is Madeline," he introduced. "She'll be an observer. She has a knack for when knowing things are off, so if something happens to any of you while we're out there, we can let the others know."

"What if something happens to you?" Pat wanted to know.

"I'll get over it, but whoever is responsible won't," he answered with confidence. "Shall we begin?"

"Sure."

Pat offered his hand, and Vin grasped it. Their minds met a partial millisecond later. Pat was obviously looking for Madeline in the contact as well.

You won't be able to sense her here. She's not a telepath like us, but she is sensitive to our gift. She is also well protected.

How interesting. How did you do that?

I didn't. One of her friends did many years ago. I simply reinforced his work.

I would be interested in knowing how to accomplish this. Perhaps it could protect some of our people.

If we have time when we finish with what needs doing, I will be happy to discuss it with you. I don't know what kind of time will be available while we are in the field.

In the field?

Beyond the Nation's borders.

Ah. I will tell the others what you have told me. It was a pleasure to meet you, Vincent Xavier.

You as well, Pat Roanhorse.

If there's such a thing as a mental pout, my daughter is doing it right now. I sigh inaudibly.

You two and your insane idea that remembering pre-birth was a good idea! Dear Gods, Buddhas and Spirits, what kind of insanity was that?

Would it help if I said it was Paul's idea?

No. Not in the least. Do you know how many times your teachers at the Logan School called me because you two had 'flights of fancy' again?

Um... a lot?

Um, yes, a lot. At least once a month until you went to New York and studied at Uncle Charles' school. I'm not sure he quite understood it either, but at least he accepted it. But my point here is that I was still working solo when I was acting crazy goofy in love with your dad. And don't start with the 'ew' nonsense, you're old enough to be over that. Your father worked with Peregrine most of the time until the two of you were born. I didn't learn how to be a team member until I started working with the Black Wolf in the Wolf Pack. By that time, I'd settled down from the newlywed phase. You and Vin haven't worked with the Pack as much as Em and Paul have, but you have worked with us. We know what to expect from you. You and Vin need to focus once we leave the Nation, Maria. We need to know we can count on you... that you'll be where we expect you to be and doing the things we expect you to be doing.

She's quiet for several long minutes, staring her hands folded in her lap. Vin looks over at her a couple of times when he has a break from meeting Jeremy Kee's telepaths. Finally, she looks back up at me.

I feel like I'm twelve again, Mom. Not the thing with Vin... that actually is one thing that's making sense. Finally. And yes, I guess we were kind of stupid to keep denying our feelings. But I feel like the dunce of the class again. It's like everybody's just a little smarter than me, and I have to run to keep up. I kind of feel like an idiot.

I reach over and squeeze her shoulder, and smile ruefully. Sweetheart, even after a hundred and fifty years I still feel like the new kid on the block when working with Maddie and Logan. Working with the Wolf Pack is a hell of a lot easier and more balanced with your Dad and Uncle Rene with us. So this is going to be rough on me, too. It's hard for your aunt and uncle, as well... so we all need to focus, to be part of the team and do our jobs so we can go home.

She nodded. I'm a little worried about Paul. He's... Maria shrugs.

I nod. I can see his aura, darling. And Em's, too.

But I'm not sure you actually get it, Mom. Vin's the smartest of all of us. But when it comes to understanding the Before, Paul has always been so much smarter than any of us. Probably smarter than the three of us put together. He knew he was leaving the choice to find a lifetime lover up to chance, which — for him — was pretty reckless. I don't know about Em... she hadn't decided for sure before they left to start life again. But... well, it's not like her to leave that up to chance. Other things... sure. And the last time she decided to be single her whole life, she didn't like it at all. But...

I shake my head at her and roll my eyes. Listen, if you want to play matchmaker when we get home, I'm not going to stop you. I'm not going to pick up the pieces when Em slices you to tiny bits either. Yes, your brother and your cousin are questioning their lives because you and Vin chose an extremely inopportune time to get married. But your brother and your cousin are also extremely balanced together. I've never seen two auras that fit together like theirs do. They're like two puzzle pieces.

You think maybe the two of them...?

I look at her in a way that more than implies that I suspect she's lost her mind.

You don't pay much attention to qi, do you? They're no more going to go off and get married than Uncle Bobby and I would have... and gods know I loved the man. So... no. There are an awful lot of Precogs in the family, but I suspect the only one whose arm you have a chance of twisting is Jodi's. And only because she's not confident enough yet to tell you to go to hell.

Maria smiles at me. She won't, but all the other Precogs will come after me with wooden spoons. I know better than to ask them questions that aren't vital to the peace and tranquility of the Nation.

I chuckle. That only took you... what? Seventy years to figure out?

My daughter shrugs. Told you I'm a little slow.

Pat filed away but spoke to his counterparts as he did so. Vin listened in with Madeline riding shotgun in his mind, noting the flavor of their mind speech patterns. The next telepath came in without prompting, and the exchange was even quicker than it had been with Pat. The other two who had arrived filed through just as quickly with no one speaking a word, merely offering handshakes and head nods. There was a brief pause as the rest lined up and made their way through. It honestly took them more time to walk from the front door to the back than it did for Vin to make the connections.

As for Madeline, all those years communicating with Rene then Charles and, of course, both her sons had given her many years of practice. The bond among the Pentad had given her a small measure of the ability herself. Vincent had been absolutely right. She could tell when people she knew were compromised and with the strength of Vin's Gift and her skills, she would know if it had happened to any of these.

"That's everyone, right, Nadine?" he asked.

"Yes, Vin, it is," Nadine says, tapping her pencil on her steno pad as she looks at her list. "That's twelve of the fourteen. The last two will be coming in with Deputy Todacheene. Amelia sends her apologies and would have liked to meet you, but a midwife's job is as unpredictable as a cop's." She smiled at him. "Your mother and Aunt are right. You do have mad skills. It took a couple of them quite a while to learn the nuances of each other."

He simply shrugged. "I've probably had a lot more practice than they have, but thank you. Could I get some water?"

"Oh, sure. I'll be right back."

As she walked away, he looked at his mother.

Did you get what you need?

Absolutely. You have obviously gotten better at that. And speaking of those blocks and shields, I do need you to take a look at them. I got hit pretty hard on both sides of that portal.

Want me to do it now?

Be a good idea, while we're waiting for your sister and cousin to return.

Did you want to sit down?

I'm good. Go ahead.

Here goes…

She felt him poking around in her mind, looking at the work Charles had done during his last few years. Charles had opted to build the shields themselves slowly in order to make sure she knew the feel of them. It had taken a few days for the after effects of the blasts to wear off, and she thought the shields might have been weakened, but she hadn't been sure. The one time she had been nearly in a proper state of mind to check them herself, he had shown up uninvited. Things had gone seriously downhill quickly, and she had had to resort to some very old tactics to keep herself from letting the Mad one take over. Oh, but it had been tempting.

Vin interrupted her musings. All done, mom. I did some reinforcing on the shields, but the blocks are all solid. I'm sorry about the last three weeks.

I've been through worse but thank you, sweetheart. Shall we rejoin the others?

Sure, mom.

He gave her a hug.

"So sweet to see a grown man that still hugs his mother," Nadine commented as she offered the water.

Vin's eyes crinkled with his smile as he accepted the water.

"I was only bad about it in my teenage years," he offered conspiratorially.

Madeline laughed. "Actually that was your sister. We've taken up enough of your time, Nadine. Thank you for all your help."

"My pleasure. Good luck and may the Spirits watch over you on your journey."

Nadine went back to her work while Madeline and Vincent wandered back over toward Andi and Maria and Logan joined them.

Maria looks at me and grins. "Are you through torturing me, Mommy Dearest?"

"I blame Bobby for that, too! Get out of here, you brat," I say, returning her grin.

Maria practically ejects herself from the chair when Vin heads toward her. "I was half watching you work, Dean Xavier, while Mommy Dearest was yelling at me about wire hangers." She wraps an arm around his waist. "You're very suave."

He slipped his arm around Maria's shoulders and shrugged. "No. I just like people. They've got a good group here. There's another two to go."

He bent to kiss her once more.

"If I had a time machine, I'd go back and beat Bobby senseless for letting her watch that movie so many times," I mutter as I get up to stand near Maddie and Logan. "Also, I think she's trying to make me hurl on purpose."

Madeline raised an eyebrow at Andi. "Yeah, like you and Pablo were never, ever like that."

Logan asked in her ear. "Were we?"

"We were never that subtle," she answered with a chuckle.

I arch an eyebrow right back at Maddie. "Pablo and I were utterly adorable in every way. Well, except most of the time when we were working. The difference is that we didn't spend twenty years pretending we were just friends with benefits."

"Only ten by your own admission and you two were considerably younger than those two there are," she chuckled. "Not that that's going to get them off the hook, of course."

"Oh, no, no," I say, shaking my head. "Pablo and I were very different. We were friends without the benefits. And what we never could have created the Bond we had until he let go of his pain over losing Rosalia and Juan. So." I shrug. "I can't help it that it took him ten... nope, it was eleven years to tell me about them. And until then, I hadn't been in the habit of checking on my friends' auras to assess their health." I look at Vin and Maria. "I don't think Pablo and I could have formed a marriage bond had things progressed any other way than the way they did," I say softly.

"Those two? They have no excuse."

"And I would not have one with my Mate if it had not been for your intervention, Sister," Madeline said just as softly to Andi.

I look over as the door opens, knowing it's my son and niece even as I hope it's our ride and the last two telepaths. Their auras still look... well, listen, sometimes there's just not a way to describe these things. But they look as peculiar as they have for a century, and yet... there's more of the peacefulness showing through, less of the worry and fear. It's not a huge shift, I'll grant that. But it's at least noticeable. I catch Paul's eyes.

You and Em had a chat, I see.

We did. Are you going to tease me about it for months?

Nope. Whatever you did, it helped... both of you. Keep doing it.

He looks at me suspiciously, and I honestly can't blame him. The only one in this family more likely to play little mind games — harmless, teasing ones — with anyone is Rene. And he's painfully not here.

I'm serious, Paul. Your auras look a lot better than they did earlier. I don't want to get into a discussion of your Before nonsense, but it's always been clear you're one of the steadying factors in Em's life.

Um. Okay. I guess. I bought you a rock.

I roll my eyes. I'm thoroughly stunned. Utterly and completely, even. I may just pass out right here from the shock, in fact.

Sarcasm does not become you, dearest mother of mine. And it's not a gift I bought for Ninja.

Em barley cast her brother and new sister in law a glance, instead looking straight to their parents. She gave the barest shake of her head. Nothing to report. It was as expected.

I grin at my son. Would you rather I have a hissy fit about yet another rock to add to the collection in my shed? I'm not sure there's a point in it anymore. You're not going to ever stop bringing me rocks. I'll have to accept that. However, when they start taking over the shed in a couple or three hundred years, I'm going to start spreading them along the perimeter of the house as decoration. Some people plant flowers, I'll just have... rocks.

I love you, Mamacita, but you're crazy.

Comes with the territory, sweetheart.

He shakes his head and edges over to his sister and cousin brother-in-law. There really ought to be a word for that sort of thing.

He looks at Em and grins. "Now seems like a good time." Turning to his sister, he says, "Hey, Maria... Vin. I got you a present."

My daughter rolls her eyes, too. "A rock? A matched pair of rocks?" She smiles at him. "You really shouldn't have, Paul."

He chuckles. "No, silly. Only Mom gets rocks. You get useful things." He unzips his jacket and pulls out a marriage basket.

I can see even from here that the quality is as fine as Aunt Sonia's best baskets. I link my arm through Maddie's as a lump forms in my throat. He holds it with reverence, with respect for both the artist who created it and the couple to whom he's presenting it. Who knows if Maria and Paul will decide to have a formal ceremony? And if they do, whether it will be traditional Diné or not? But they should have a marriage basket in any case.

"From my heart to yours," he says to both of them. "I wish you joy, I wish you peace. Your trials and sorrows will be halved, your victories and joys will be doubled." He places the basket in his sister's hands.

Maria looks at the basket for a moment, then at her brother. Tears fill her eyes, and I can see how hard she's trying to keep them from falling. I think my eyes might be a little moister than usual, too.

"Thank you, Paul. I... Just thank you."

He leans over and kisses her cheek before linking his arm with Em's again. "I love you. Both of you. All of you," he adds, nudging Em lightly with his shoulder. "You got the shortened version, and I'm sure Uncle Rene will do a much better job on the long lecture if you decide to have a proper ceremony." He grins. "It doesn't mean we're not going to tease you still, however.

Through it all, Vin could not help but grin. He reached out and chucked Paul's shoulder. "Love you too, man. Thank you."

They watched as Paul presented the basket to Maria and Vin. She shared a glance with her Mate. Their basket sat in a place of honor in the cabin. That was the place that had become their home. They had added on and expanded it a little bit for when the immediate family was all there. The bunker was still out back with considerably better security than it used to have. And they had frequent visitors from the mountains, especially when Em was there. It was better that the cats came to their property than traipsing about through other populated areas. There was no danger of them being shot at the Jacobs' cabin.

Leon's descendants had taken over the homes in Paris, the one she had purchased when they first moved there, and the one that Alois had left to them. At least one in every generation seemed to spend part of the year at the Suriname plantation. That was how Evelyn had met Maya. Their daughter, another Madeline Jacobs, ended up living there full time eventually adding another Beatrix, Johan and Logan to the family. They were in their fifties now. Logan Rene and Gema and their three girls, Joolia, Sumi, and Arwyn, lived there still.

"We should go back to Suriname for a visit when we get back," she whispered to Logan.

He smiled at her and nodded. She tried not to play favorites with the children, but there was something about that particular branch of the family that tugged at her heart more than the others.

"By the way, this world's version of Grandmother Kanuho, our Clan Sister, wishes you many years of happiness with your husband."

Maria smiles at her brother. "Trust you to learn the clan affiliations of everyone you meet."

Paul shrugs, almost as if it's no big deal. And maybe after all these years it isn't. Of all the people in the family who haven't been Tita Kai or me — nieces, nephews, and cousins down to the current generation — Paul's been the most interested in remembering our stories.

"Well, it's what you're supposed to do, you know. And I had a bit of an advantage knowing her from our universe, but the weird thing is that the weaver is her granddaughter... from our clan. In our universe, it's her grandson's wife... from the Tsé Deeshgizhnii, the Rock Gap clan... who's the weaver." He shrugs. "I dunno... it just seemed a coincidence like that meant you needed to have your wedding basket today."

The door opens again, and a stout, medium height, and definitely annoyed woman in a Tribal Police uniform walks through the door. Nadine takes one look at her and calls across to the briefing room, "Chief? Deputy Todacheene is here."

Chief Kee pokes his head out of the room, then leans his forehead — not exactly gently — against the door frame. "What did they do?"

"What didn't they do? That's what your question oughta be, Chief Bossman, sir." She looked at Nadine and then the Chief. "Whose damn fool idea was it to include those two madmen in anything but a circus?"

Nadine glances at Kee, quite visibly blocking the strong emotions from both Kee and Todacheene, before simply saying, "Their cousin's."

The Deputy's face transforms from angry to shocked in an instant. "Patrick? Have you called a doctor to make sure he's not brain damaged?"

"He thought they'd..."

Nadine is interrupted by two young men trying to jostle their way through the door, making it look almost like a Marx Brothers' skit. The Deputy glares at them the entire time, and when they're both through the door they smile brightly at Nadine. They bear a striking resemblance to a certain cousin-twin of mine... the younger looks like Henry did in his mid-twenties, the elder looks like my cousin did in his early thirties.

"Heya, Nadine," says the elder. "We're here for the party!"

Coyote strolls in behind the brothers and sits between them, looking back over its shoulder at Deputy Todacheene.

"Oh, go away, you mangy mutt," she says under her breath.

That just makes Coyote grin at her in a doggy way, with its tongue lolling out of its mouth.

For some reason, it doesn't surprise me that she can see the Spirit. Cops and shamans just seem to go together. Heck, even I married a cop... and if I hadn't been destined to be the Warrior in my world, I'd have been a Shaman like Andrea is.

"You two degenerates are going to give me a headache," Nadine says, shaking her head, but gestures toward Vin. "This is Vincent Xavier... I'm sure your cousin mentioned him." She looks at Vin with sympathy. "Vin, these hooligans are Travis and Harley Riggs."

With the hand that isn't attached to the arm linked through Maddie's, I make at least some effort to hide my smile. Dear gods, how many people in my family have been lucky enough to have Coyote as a guardian Spirit? I'd have to think back all the way to Henry, but every one of them has been a complete loon and tried to drive me crazy. I look at Coyote.

I thought you didn't guard siblings. Or even more than one person per family in each generation.

Coyote looks at me and laughs. Not every clan has a Clan Mother as prudent and forceful as Ts'ah Yiskidnii. The Clan Mothers of Tsin Sikaadnii are not nearly as clever as you and the Ha'atathli, Warrior.

The incoming deputy and her trailing comedy routine broke the sweet tableau.

Oh my, a pair of Henrys! Madeline did not even try to hide her grin.

"Travis, Harley, nice to meet you," Vin said and meant it unconditionally.

He had developed the same liking for Henry that his mother had though for different reasons. He held out both hands in greeting and went through the same process he had with the other telepaths but both of them at the same time.

Even Em giggled softly.

Hello, again, friend Coyote.

He dipped his head in greeting.

I watch Vin work with the Riggs brothers. Their comedy act drops for just a moment; although the smiles never quite leave their faces, they are still, respectful and quiet while Vin learns their mental signatures, and they learn his.

Coyote has come over to greet the rest of us, demanding a scritch from first Em and Paul, and then Maddie and Logan, and finally me... all in a sweet family pup way. The Spirit sits beside me... looking at Fox first, blinking, then settling itself against my other leg.

The Deputy is leaning against the reception area counter with her arms crossed. She watches both the proceedings with Vin and the two lunatics she chauffeured in, and Coyote as it makes its rounds among us and finally settles against my leg between me and Maddie.

I should come with you. The statement is simple, straightforward, and matter of fact. I know Coyote is also speaking to Maddie; the Spirits' voices resonate in my head differently when they do that.

Really? Not that I object, of course... you're a delight to have around. But we're essentially going to war here.

Great Spirit said my counterpart in your world helped you in the past.

That's true. Our world's Coyote was just as important to the Commerce City mission as my cousin was... though Henry was most helpful before and after the actual fighting. He didn't particularly like the killing and death and bloody parts. I glance at Maddie and shrug one shoulder barely a millimeter, before looking at Coyote again. I have no objections. If you believe you can help, I'm not going to try to talk you out of it. I have a feeling we can use all the help we can get.

Coyote looks at me and Maddie, then nods. The Spirit doesn't even give Maddie a chance to weigh in with a vote, which is both a little surprising and more than just a little funny. After all, this is the Wolf Pack, and Maddie is the Black Wolf. Not that Maddie would disagree; she's always had a fondness for both Coyote and my cousins, nieces and nephews who are guarded and guided by the Spirit... especially Henry, of course.

Good. I have spent generations helping my charges cause minor mischief that's all in good fun. It has been far too long since I've had the opportunity to create chaos. I miss it.

I raise an eyebrow. I'm surprised you haven't just gone forth and caused your chaos, O Coyote.

It looks up at me and gives the sense of rolling its eyes. I need to be attached to one of you meaty creatures, O Silly Warrior. And none of my charges have been of the sort to leave the Nations without the blessings of their Elders. Not that I blame them; they have not truly been the sorts to leave behind the safety the Nations provide. Can you imagine those two out in the lands of evil? No. Most of my charges have been good people who simply enjoy life to its fullest and endeavor to help others do the same. And the Elders of these past few generations are now far more cautious than they've ever been. Only those whose guardians are ones they deem to be guardians of a warrior are allowed to leave the Nations with their blessings. I have not been deemed a guardian of warriors.

I don't think I imagine Coyote's offended sniff. If Coyote had arms, they'd be crossed, and its nose would be in the air.

Well, I can see their point. If they're thinking in terms of the traditional warrior who confronts the enemy face to face in battle, then no... that's not your strength. But there are other ways to wage war. There are those to infiltrate the enemy's ranks and cause dissension from within. Granted, that might not be the easiest task to pull off if those in the Free Lands are distrustful of the People of the First Nations. But there is also the one who slips through shadows and the night, much as I did when I first took up the staff. There are those who cause chaos and harm to the enemy, rather than preventing it as I did. If we have success in our mission, I think some of your charges might find ways to erode further the human organizations that allow the Darkness to exist to such a great extent on this plane.

Coyote looks at me, almost surprised. You are indeed the Warrior Chief! You will speak to the Elders of this when this mission succeeds?

I almost burst out laughing, but contain my reaction to just a smile. Coyote, dear friend... most of what I just told you is not my idea. I learned much from listening to my Sister. And I may be Warrior, but Maddie is a warrior in her own right and leader of this group. In our world, she goes by the name of Black Wolf when we go into battle; we are her Wolf Pack.

Coyote blinks then looks at Maddie. My most sincere apology, O Black Wolf. It is highly unusual for a Warrior Chief to stand behind another.

Ahem. I don't stand behind Maddie, Furry One. I stand beside my Sister.

The Spirit shakes its head. Again, apologies. Your ways are unusual, something never seen here. I will adapt.

The big pup that Coyote is has Madeline grinning even more. Both she and Logan are more than willing to give him the scratching he seeks. His statement changes the grin to a smile as the possibilities start to run through the part of her brain that has been constantly considering their mission. The continuing conversation feeds more into that. The ammo and what not they are likely to pick up from the armory here is good for defensive purposes, but there are other things that will come in handy. She was pretty sure she knew where to get those.

She glanced down to Coyote. Apology accepted, friend.

Fox peeks around my legs to look at Coyote. None of these people are like anyone we have met in so many of their large times units that I believe it is difficult even for us to recall those who were similar. The Black Wolf's Mate does not even walk with a guardian Spirit.

Coyote looks back at Fox. You lie! Except we are incapable of lying to one another. Still... you jest in a manner more suited to me!

Fox seems to shrug, then settles against my leg again.

Fox doesn't jest, friend Coyote. Logan's guardian Spirit is our Brother, Maddie's husband Rene, who was not able to pass through the portal.

Coyote looks at Logan, true sadness on its face. That is not right, Mate of the Black Wolf. You, too, are of the Diné. One of us should be at your side.

When he finally brings Logan into the conversation, the man simply offers a shrug.

Cat? Madeline asks.

The spirit makes its presence known by settling on her shoulder.

Yes?

Would you and Coyote be willing to share the guardianship of my Mate and I as we journey in your world?

Both of us for both of you?

Yes. I think the four of us can have much fun together.

Cat leans forward from its perch to study her face.

By your tone, I do not believe you mean the kind of fun most of the People do when they use that word. I believe you mean…

Coyote interrupts with a large, toothy grin. Chaos among the enemy!

As I said, fun, she confirmed.

The two Spirits looked at one another, and then to those who would be their charges. They nodded together.

We agree. It would be most… fun.

That's settled then.

Yes, they could certainly cause chaos among the enemy and cause some disruption in their organizations. And as word spread, others would be emboldened. Yes, yes, yes, they may just very well have the beginnings of a revolution here. Too bad her Mate's doppelganger was such a loser. If he had his shit together, he could have been helpful, too.

I grin at the banter between Cat and Coyote, already trying to envision the sort of mischief... and chaos... the four of them could cause. Maddie's type of fun... well, sure... it's fun. It's not the Ninja sort of fun, though, that I enjoy. Ah yes... point me at a somewhat less than stellar member of the enemy's cadre, and the verbal whiplash will make me nearly dance for joy. Of course, sneaking up on people and scaring them into pissing themselves is fun, too... though my poor sensitive nose always insists I leave the scene immediately.

Oh, and then there's the ever amusing opportunity to confound some big burly guy when lil ol' me sends him flying across the room... or road... or clearing.

Granted, my methods don't create chaos on a grand scale like Maddie's would. But I do so prefer the personal touch...

Vin finished with the brothers and sent them on their way. With his arm once again around his bride, he turned toward the rest of their gathered family. "That's everyone."

"I believe Albuquerque is our next stop. You our ride, Deputy?"

The woman nodded. "I am."

"I'll apologize in advance for the insanity you're about to put up with. The family is having fun at the newlyweds' expense."

There was a long suffering sigh from Vin and a chuckle from Em. Even Logan let out a chuff of a laugh.

"You two are lucky Rene isn't here… or Ell-Jay for that matter. Just wait until I tell the girls. You'll be able to hear their squeals around the world, Oom Vin."

She let that thought sink in before returning her attention to the LEO. "Whenever you are ready, Deputy. We just need to collect our gear from Ryan's car."

The Deputy nods and gestures toward the door. "You go ahead and get your gear moved. My SUV is parked right next to Captain Benally's; it's open. Just need to check in with the Boss Man, and I'll be right behind you." Then she finally smiles. "Your brand of insanity can't possibly be worse than the Riggs brothers. They're infamous in two counties."

"That's only because each of us can only live in one county at a time," Harley calls out from the back door.

"Nah, brother... we could build houses across county lines," Travis says.

"Heeeyyy! I like that idea! Let's go find a map!"

Fortunately, at that point the door closes on them and their conversation. Deputy Todacheene looks at Coyote, shakes her head, and turns to check in with Kee in the briefing room.

I look at Nadine. "The zoning commission would never allow that, would it?"

"For those two? Never. That probably wouldn't stop them, unfortunately." She rolls her eyes.

I give her a sympathetic look before turning to our younger generation. "Okay, kiddos... let's get a move on, eh?" I say, shooing them toward the door.

That was a sweet thing to do, Paul, I say as we're heading out to the parking lot. Thanks. Now... where's my rock?

My son chuckles as he pretends to race Em to Ryan's vehicle. Mind if I hang onto it until we get home?

I twine my fingers in Maddie's again as we start down the stairs. Not in the least. Any particular reason? I think it's a fine idea to let the kids do all the work... well, mostly because packing cars was never my forte. Motorcycle panniers? Totally covered! But car packing was always Pablo's job when the kids were small... and he taught them well.

It's a Tiger Eye.

Oh, gads, those years of traveling everywhere by car! As much as I missed Maria and Paul when they left to study at Charles' school, I was never so happy to be able to go anywhere I wanted on my bike again. I almost sigh. It would be nice to have my bike... but Maddie's right about sticking together.

You haven't gotten superstitious in your old age, have you? I tease.

Nah. But if there's anything to it being a good luck charm, I need it more than you do. You can call on any of the Spirits... I've just got my buddy Elk.

Not all the Spirits, particularly the two who actually do provide good luck, but I take your meaning.

He looks up from his job of packing and meets my eyes. I'm sorry, Mom. I...

'Sokay, sweetie. We'll manage without your Dad and Uncle being here with us. I can still feel them in my heart... so that's got to count for something.

He just looks at me for a moment, then continues with his task. You're spooky scary, Mom.

So glad you finally noticed.

The children are out the door moments after Andi herds them in that direction. The newlyweds barely left each other's sides. Madeline squeezed Andi's hand as she linked her other hand with Logan's. She was going to enjoy the down time while they had it.

Ryan comes out as the kids are finishing the packing, and there's a round of farewells as we wait for our driver.

"Well, if you guys managed to corrupt me on the drive over, I'm sure it was in a good way," he says with a wink.

Before he heads to his car for the drive home, I let go of Maddie's hand and pull him aside for one piece of... well, not advice really, because it's something I can see he already knows. Maybe just an acknowledgment that he's gotten it right?

"Don't worry about the tomorrows, Ryan. Don't worry about how Andrea's going to deal with you leaving when it's time for your final walk." I smile at him. I sort of know what I'm talking about; his return smile says that he knows that. "Give her all you've got today. Every day is today."

He hugs me, and I sense his surprise that hugging the Warrior – even when I'm not working – is not the same as hugging the Ha'atathli. "Thanks, Andi. That kind of hit me yesterday when your portal was opening up on this side. It took me fifteen years to get there; I guess I'm kind of slow."

I chuckle. "It took me eleven years to let myself love Pablo enough to let him past the defenses I wrapped around my heart; it took him that long to trust me with his heart. You're not much slower than we were. And it took those two over there twenty years. You're considerably younger and quicker than they are."

"Good luck with whatever you're doing out there," he says as I walk to Deputy Todacheene's SUV. "Oh, and if you could make sure I get my Deputy back, I'd really appreciate it."

I turn back to him, to his smile — as endearing as Pablo's, and completely different — and shrug. "That will be up to your Deputy, I think, Chief. Who knows what crazy ideas she'll come up with on her Walkabout?"

Deputy Todacheene comes out of the building as Ryan gets into his car. "Saddle up, folks. It's going to take somewhere between three and three point five hours to get to the District Station in Albuquerque." She smiles brightly. "Get comfy. And I know you're all of the Nation, but Todacheene can be a mouthful for anyone. Just call me Annamaria."

Surprisingly, Em has called shotgun before Paul could manage it — and the look on his face is priceless since Em rarely plays that game. And this means I can reach the heads of both my children should they need smacking on the trip to Albuquerque. Maddie and Logan have easy access to Vin's head.

The lively bantering among the two sets of twins begins almost before Annamaria can get her car out of the parking lot. She tries to hide her smile, but after a few miles, looks in the rearview mirror at the adults.

With the car packed and the kids jostling for position and Andi talking to Ryan, Logan opened the door for Madeline then went around to the other side. She climbed in, scooted over to the middle then leaned over to open the door for him. He kissed her as he joined her on the bench seat. For once there were no groans.

Vin and Maria were too much into each other, and Em and Paul were too busy teasing them. Once the door was closed Logan settled in to the seat, and Madeline tucked herself in under his arm. Once Andi was beside her and had her shoes off, Madeline pulled her in close too. Yes, she was going to take advantage of every second.

"Yes, they're always like this when they're happy," I say with a grin before she can even ask... because people always ask. "And yes, there's a good chance they'll keep it up all the way down to Albuquerque."

As the Deputy suggested, I get comfortable. After a few more miles of listening to the four children chatter, tease, laugh, and generally act like they're on a vacation — a mindset that will switch off the instant the Wolf Pack becomes active — I ask Maddie, "Do you have an idea about the logistics of getting us to Las Vegas then down to Eye Forty with our booty, while getting Tori and the hooligans from Albuquerque out to meet us?" I look at her and chuckle. "See? I didn't ask about a plan. Logistics are different from plans, and I've decided that I'm your quartermaster. And Tori and the Hooligans sounds like a fun name for a band."

"Only in very general terms. Jimmy's truck can get us up to Vegas. Once there, we acquire funds and transport and head back down, pick up the rest of the Pack and go Hunting."

"Mmmm." It looks like a spider web of qi in my mind... well, almost. I just let the webs grow as I enjoy being comfortable with my Sister and Brother.

I'm glad the kids are spending their time focused on themselves and entertaining Annamaria while they're at it. Now that the shock of being here has mostly worn off, while sitting here curled up with Maddie and Logan... okay, mostly Maddie, but it's enough for the moment to rest a hand on Logan's arm or feel his on mine. The point is that I have finally relaxed in this world to the point where the shield around my own heart has softened.

Madeline pillowed her head back against Logan's shoulder and kept her arms about Andi. She had had a full night's sleep but still took the opportunity to rest. Once they were out there, they would be moving hard and fast. Now was the time to enjoy the peace while they had it.

"I'm going to close my eyes and let my mind wander," she told her seatmates.

Logan chuckled, and she grinned up at him.

"Well, I hadn't planned it going in that direction, thanks so much."

He quirked his eyebrows. You don't really expect me to believe that do you? he asked just before kissing her.

She let out a pleasant sigh. Love Wolverine.

Love Madeline.

Logan and Maddie's ritual always soothes me, and brings peace and warmth to my heart. What I'd said earlier to Paul about being able to feel Pablo and Rene? It's a faint touch, even fainter than my sense of Maddie was on Everness after Logan healed, but it's there. And now that I can feel it, I can let that web grow on its own, as well.

Content with his Mate, he laid his cheek on her head as she relaxed back down and closed her eyes. Her thoughts did briefly touch on the path his laugh had teased her about before ambling over to ideas about the task ahead. The first part was to acquire funds and transportation. She was fairly confident about getting money for their operation. She knew there was more than one "River City," and this Vegas place sounded just like one. Transport large enough for them all could be a challenge. Multiple smaller vehicles would likely be simpler, but she did not want more than two.

The fingers of one hand came up to idly toy with a lock of Andi's hair. That continued until her thoughts settled into a rhythm and the movement of the car lulled her into sleep. Logan did not take long to fall into a similar state.

"It looks like a right triangle," I murmur to Maddie, eyes closed... our heads resting together. "The ninety-degree angle is our rendezvous point, the upper point is Las Vegas, the left or west point is Albuquerque." Well, it's not quite that neat, but it's close enough to visual at the moment.

I chuckle more at Maddie and Logan's interaction than her initial comment, which is a little surprising all things considered. But I guess I'm moving into working mode, too, even though Maddie's fingers in my hair lull me into a half doze.

Unfortunately, even when half dozing, my mind continues to work, work, work.

I suppose there are a number of ways to get people and vehicles from one point, split them up with one group making a side trip to that top angle, and reunite them at the final destination. It's like those riddles we used to do in grade school. Wow, that was literally a hundred and seventy-five years ago. When was the last time I thought about the American School at Camp Zama? Maybe a hundred and fifty years ago? No... more recently than that... perhaps. Anyway, they were those crazy riddles about trying to ferry a bunch of people across a river for instance. But only so many people could be in the boat at once, with the added complication that unrelated people couldn't be in the boat together. Or men couldn't outnumber the women. Or some type of goofy stuff like that.

Nope, the brain doesn't want to think. It's amazing how a little trauma can get the brain to wander away from actual thinking and spin in peculiar circles of thoughts. Then it gets stuck while the senses remember just how good Maddie smells. Spiral back around to thoughts of things that are irrelevant, like having waffles for breakfast. And then start tip-toeing around the heart looking for our two beloved and very absent Pentad members.

Except... they're here. But not here. I promised Pablo I'd hold him in my heart, and I am holding him. I can feel him, I can feel Rene, and it's a feeling that's growing stronger. Not strong enough that we can feel their presence — the physicality they possess even when they're in Spirit form. But their love? I do feel that.

Maybe Paul's right about me being spooky scary. I had just been kidding when I'd said I was glad he finally noticed; I'd been focusing on the scary part. Out of the mouths of babes and all that, but I think in this instance I've got an equal measure of spooky and scary, if not a predominance of spooky. It's more than the connection that I have with Pablo and Rene as part of the Pentad because if it was just that... well, Maddie and Logan would feel it, too. No, I'm becoming more and more certain it has something to do with my qi power. Hadn't Mother wanted to give me the full power of the entire planet before we left? Oh, yes... Oh, she sure had! And hadn't I channeled the power of a ley line through my entire body to connect with Mother and Father here... just this morning? Oh, yeah... had I ever!

Crazy, instinctive acts like that have a consequence. In this case, I think the consequence is being able to pierce — in even a small, but significant way — the far thicker veil between universes than is the veil between dimensions.

I can still feel them. My arms and hands tighten around Maddie and Logan for a moment as if willing them to feel what I can feel. But I'm not an Empath; maybe Em could do it, but I can't. Still. It's something. It's not much, I know... but they're at least with us, in my heart. I have a feeling it would be extraordinarily bad if anyone else could specifically do what I do. But even this world's version of me can't, so...

It's more a mental shrug than a physical thing. I'm too comfortable to move even the smallest portion of an inch it would take to actually shrug a shoulder.

Hmmmm... a smaller triangle would have the Diné border station at the ninety degree angle, Las Vegas still at the top point, but the rendezvous spot at the right or east point.

I wonder if it makes a difference? I suppose it would depend on how late we plan on staying in Las Vegas and where we want to camp out for the night. It probably would be rude to bring stolen vehicles into either the Diné or Zuni Nations. But if the owner isn't going to look for it until he or she sobers up, then it shouldn't matter at all. Hmmmm, though we do need to leave Jimmy's truck somewhere safe... and I can't imagine this world is so different from ours that the worse dives might just stay open all night.

It would be something to ask Tori about when we get to Albuquerque, but in our world there's a pseudo town at the intersection of Eye Forty and US 84. Oh, granted, it's hardly more than a truck stop... but it's one of the better truck stops. The "town" of Moon Ranch, is really just a trailer park... but they do have their own zip code and the trailer park "office" doubles as their post office. I don't know that more than forty people live there in our world; it's just the employees of the truck stop and their families. Any kids who live there get bussed into Santa Rosa for school.

Still, if it ever existed, it could be a place to spend the night. And if it's inside the Zuni Nation then stashing an appropriated vehicle under the US 84 overpass in the dark would be safe enough. If the map Chief Kee had was accurate and the town is in the same place here, then stashing an appropriated vehicle under the US 84 overpass in the dark would be safe enough. There are a whole lot of qualifiers in that statement. But I would bet on the Chief's map being accurate. A truck stop and trailer park existing in the same place is the biggest variable. Ah well... one must have hope.

We'd want to get moving before full light so Jimmy's truck wouldn't be seen by anyone coming to look... but we'd want to do that anyway. And if Maddie's going to nick a vehicle from around a bar, the highway wouldn't be the first place they'd come looking. If Las Vegas has turned into the seedy sort of place some of the mountain towns had become back in the day in our world, they'd be looking suspiciously at their scumbag neighbors first.

Which kind of makes me giggle. I'm probably going to have to blame Coyote for that.

Vin had his arms around Maria and touched his forehead to hers. He was not speaking, simply being with her.

Em glanced back at her parents and smiled. The warmth and love and contentment that exuded from both of them washed over her in a pleasant wave. She cherished the feeling so much that even the disgustingly cute couple sitting in front of them could not disturb her calm. She shifted to rest her back the door and her feet up on the seat. Paul leaned forward and wrapped an arm around her; she rested a hand on his other arm. A happy trill that resembled the purr of a large cat sounded from her, and she settled into a meditative sleep of her own.

Paul simply watched silently. Mostly, he watched with his eyes. Getting a sense of the differences in the Nation could help lessen the shock once they left those safe confines. Occasionally, he would sit with his eyes closed and watch the flow of qi in the car. He didn't have the skill his mother did, but it was still reassuring to see the peacefulness. What he didn't realize, of course, was that his skill was probably as high as his mother's had been before forming her marriage bond with his father.

Maria and Vin are just... being. Spirits know Pablo and I did that often enough. Come to think of it, we still do. There's nothing quite like simply being in the presence, being fully present, with the one — or in the case of the Pentad, the ones — you love. I still miss having Pablo and Rene here; I miss them so much. But if I just concentrate on the thread of connection in my heart... well, it's not optimal, but I'll manage. Maddie and Logan have the same two holes in their hearts. We'll manage. A Triad is also a strong and stable unit, and even though we're not the original Triad, our hearts mesh well together and we'll be able to compensate for our missing Husbands and Brothers. For a while, anyway. Long enough to get done what needs to be done here... that's my number one request to Great Spirit.

Paul has leaned forward and draped his arms half around Em, their heads together almost as if they were sharing secrets. But they're doing the same thing — in a different way, of course — Maria and Vin are doing. They're just being together. I swear they're both purring. I'm trying to remember if I've ever heard my son sound quite that content, and I'm not sure I have. He and Em must have had quite the interesting conversation on their walk.

As the parents and then the grown children settled down, the car grew quiet except for soft breathing and purr-like rumbling. They all stayed like that until Annamaria announced they were approaching the outskirts of Albuquerque.

I feel both the physical and emotional release when Maddie and then Logan drop into sleep, and I relax even further myself. Sleep doesn't beckon, but then I don't need as much sleep as most. That's one of the oddities of my powers that became more pronounced over the years. Practicing my Taiji had always been as refreshing as sleeping for three or four times the length of a practice. But when I began channeling Mother's energy, I needed less and less and less sleep. Sometimes, that's fine. But I like sleeping. Dreams happen then, and dreams are nice... well, when I remember them. Sure, the No Time place I go during practice has the same physiological effect... but... dreams are nice!

Except when they're not, of course, and between one blink of my eyes and the next I have to wonder if I'm in one of those not so very nice dreams.

Raven is standing on my knees.

Um. Hi. Was there something Andrea forgot to mention before we left Ganado?

No. I came of my own accord. Raven tilts its head in a very birdlike manner, something that's so unlike the Raven from our universe that it's a bit disconcerting. I wished to apologize on behalf of my counterpart in your world for its behavior.

For a minute, all I can do is stare at the Spirit. That's... that's really thoughtful of you, but I don't think it works like that. I mean, thanks and all, and it would be swell if that did make me feel better... but it doesn't. Not really.

Raven nods, and then just dips its head to give the impression of sadness. No tears, no histrionics, no falling to the floor pretending to be dead; just... sadness. I feared as much. I am not the one who caused you distress so I cannot make amends for that distress.

Yeah, something like that. Plus the fact that Raven in my universe is still batshit crazy and is now concentrating its efforts on convincing my husband that it isn't crazy... well, that's what I have to go home to.

Perhaps your absence in your own world will affect my counterpart in a positive way.

I could hope so, but I've wandered through dimensions in my own world that the Spirits couldn't access, so I'm not really all that optimistic. I guess the only difference is the way my absence... Maddie's and Logan's, too... is affecting Pablo and Rene. Cat was considerably more agitated than my guardian Spirits when Maddie disappeared, and probably isn't any happier about us being gone than Pablo and Rene are.

Ah, yes. Cat. I don't think I'm imagining a bit of fondness in Raven's tone. Of course, the fact that Ryan's guardian is Cat, might have something to do with it... but there's a depth of feeling there that goes beyond just a few decades. Cat is more protective than most. It sounds as though my sibling is quite similar to its counterpart in your world.

From what I've seen of Cat here... yes, I'd agree. With one notable exception, perhaps. In my world, Cat regularly threatens to tear your counterpart into component pieces and dine on them.

Oh. Well, that's certainly... Raven doesn't quite seem to have the words to express its feelings on the matter.

Disturbing?

I was considering unfortunate, but disturbing works quite well also. I find it most distressing that you were tormented by one who should have been counseling you and assisting you in your life. It's even more alarming that the siblings have become so fractious.

Well... I'm not sure we mere mortals didn't have a hand in that, to be perfectly honest. And by 'mere mortals', I mean the two members of the Pentad that are missing from our little adventure in this world.

I do not understand. How is it possible for humans to affect the interactions among the Spirits?

It becomes pretty simple when a human is accepted into the Spirit realm and becomes one of you.

Raven's eyes grow wide. Thankfully, only what would be normal for the eyes of an actual bird, not the cartoonish and ridiculous size Raven in our universe often liked to do: eyes literally as big as saucers. This happened? How?

Oh, this happened. I sigh. You can see the Bonds between the three of us?

Raven nods.

Can you see that there are two who are missing?

It is obvious, yes. I see that the connections are still there, but only one with... ah. I understand. Only you can still feel those connections.

Right. And just barely. Now, imagine for a moment what would happen if ordinary people with Bonds like that were to die, to begin their journey to the next world.

Simple. The one who begins the journey first would bring the other along with them.

Exactly. But when the other, the second, is not able to leave the realm of the living, what would happen then?

Raven considers that for... well, for a Spirit it's a long time. Long minutes pass as the desert of New Mexico flows by outside the vehicle and I wait patiently. Finally, it says, I do not know. We have never seen such a thing among the People. The Shamans would likely be the only ones to experience such a thing. Perhaps this is why they never form such Bonds?

Perhaps. Here is what happened when it occurred the first time — well, to my knowledge it was the first time: Madeline's husband died, but she was firmly rooted here. Her children, these two with us, had already been conceived. You see that one is, as they are called in your universe, cousin kin. The theory at the time was that the children's will to survive caused them to keep their mother alive, to pass their healing factor to her. She has the life expectancy now of any cousin kin. But Rene was already beginning his journey to the next world. Their bond should have meant Madeline would follow.

Again, Raven nods. Yes. This is how it should have been.

Except his step-children were not allowing Madeline to follow. So you have Rene on one hand taking his final walk, and you have Madeline on the other hand unable to join him. How would you expect that to affect Rene?

Raven shakes itself, looking so much like an ordinary bird shaking off water that I actually feel myself relaxing in its presence. When Spirits behave in a way that is normal to human perceptions — even highly enhanced perceptions such as I have — it's much less stressful. Perhaps the husband, this Rene, would not have been able to die? Perhaps he would have lived the remainder of your Sister's life in a... is coma the right word?

Yes, that's the right word. And actually, that's what happened to me when Pablo left our realm to live with Quetzalcoatl for three years. I spent a day and a half in a coma, believing myself to be dead. But that isn't what happened to Rene. His body was damaged in such a way that he could not have been healed. He truly died, Raven. He began his last walk, regretfully yes. But he had to leave the realm of the living, leaving his wife and son behind.

Then I do not see how it is possible for this Bond to have survived, Warrior. I apologize, but this is outside the sphere of our knowledge.

Hey, don't worry. Even in our universe, it's a difficult concept to grasp... and it's a thing that actually exists, that the Spirits can see and experience. I can only guess what happened based on what I saw ten or eleven years later, but it would seem the Bond between Rene and Madeline stretched like a rubber band... you know what those are?

Raven nods. I remember those.

Well, their Bond seems to have been stretched to its limit, and then it snapped Rene back — probably rather forcefully — toward Madeline. He couldn't return to the world of the living. He could only exist in a realm close to the realm of the living. I think he instinctively reached for a place he'd been taken by the Great Foe of our time, a dimension where the Great Foe brought mutants to brainwash them. Time passed very differently there, of course. Rene was able — at times — to almost reach out to Madeline. She said she often felt his presence, believing it to be just her memories and wishful thinking. And each time she died, they were reunited for the brief moments it took her to heal, to return to the world of the living. At the time, I don't think Madeline understood she really was with Rene; she thought it was only a dream. I believe Rene's understanding was closer to what really was happening, but neither of them had the knowledge, the training to understand or interpret what was happening to them.

Raven tilts its head, considering the events that had occurred in our universe, contemplating their ramifications. This must have been very painful for both of them.

You have no idea. I pause then, looking out the window. I recall that first night I'd met Rene... recall the second night, our third conversation... recall the retelling of our conversations with Leon's help. Dear Spirits, how I miss that boy! Because I have many abilities of the Shaman, I was about to speak to Rene through a portal your counterpart insisted I open one night. Rene was trying to warn Madeline of the Darkness that was coming. Quetzalcoatl had already warned me, warned my Husband, so I knew what Rene spoke of. We spoke of other things as well, and by our third conversation I could see how badly it was affecting him, being able to glimpse Madeline only on rare occasions, or when she died. I petitioned the Spirits of my universe to help him.

When I look back at Raven, it regards me... oddly. Certainly in a way my own guardian never had. I think Raven regards me with... respect. That you would have the compassion of Deer and think to help this man, a stranger, says you are more the twin of your counterpart here than some might guess.

I smile at Raven. I had the smallest taste of being separated from my Husband when he was taken to Quetzalcoatl's realm. I could not imagine how horrible it would be to live for centuries like that. And so I would not want a good and decent person like Rene to suffer that either. Deer came to speak with Rene, to ensure that my perceptions of him were true. I welcomed that conversation, for I know I'm all too human with an all too human heart. I look for the good in people rather than expect to see the worst in them. Even to this day, my Sister chides me for being too trusting, despite over a century of working with her as a warrior.

Raven bobs its head in laughter. I see why my counterpart would expect you to be a Shaman. You have the traits and skills to make you a great one, yet even I see that there is more to you. You possess the fierce protectiveness of so many of my siblings, far beyond that of what a Shaman normally possesses. Despite your Shamanic abilities, these other traits point you to being the Warrior instead. I still fail to see how my counterpart did not understand this.

I roll my eyes. Your counterpart saw only what your counterpart wanted to see. In matters that were Shamanic, Raven was helpful. When preparing for battle as the Warrior, it was less of a help and more of a hindrance. And because it struck up a friendship with the Aztec... well, I never believed the Aztec was a friend to me or my people. It... sorry, he... was concerned only for his Chosen One. Once the threat of the Shadow had been eliminated from our world, I was no longer of use to him. He then actively tried to take my Husband from me and have him start a new Aztec Empire with the Chosen One of his Twin.

Raven stares at me for a moment, then snaps its beak. That could only end in disaster! It is true that we have not been able to contact our Aztec kin for so much time that even we take note of it. But I still find the Aztec of your world as incomprehensible as I find my counterpart.

I shrug with the shoulder not comfortably tucked against Maddie. I took care of the problem. But I was trying to explain how humans could affect your siblings, at least in my universe.

Ah, yes. I apologize for the interruption.

No need to apologize. I think it helps all of you if you understand just how different our worlds are while still being so similar. Deer spoke with Rene and saw that his heart was that of a good man and a true warrior. When Madeline came to Denver, the place that was my home then, the place that once had been her home when Rene was alive, when their son was very small, I told her of Rene. I told her of his presence in a realm nearby... and of the Spirits' willingness to accept him into their realm so that he could watch over her as a true guardian. It was that act of compassion that began our friendship that has grown to what you see now.

What I see between you is not something I can recall seeing before. Your connection to her beyond this family you call Pentad is quite unusual. But to return to the matter of my siblings' counterparts in your world, I can see that one with human understanding might lend qualities to the Spirits' realm that did not exist before. But the cause of the divisiveness is still eluding me.

I sigh softly. It took many years for me to make sense of it, as well. In fact, it wasn't until my Husband died and joined Rene in the Spirit realm that I truly began to understand. You see, for me it has been thirty years since Pablo died. But even as life passed from his body, even in my grief, I could still sense him, much as I sense any of the Spirits... even when you don't manifest on this plane.

That is truly a Shaman's gift, Warrior, Raven says with a touch of humor.

Oh, I'm well aware, Raven. Your counterpoint often pointed it out to me. Once Pablo had learned to manifest in physical form as you do, however, he spent far more time in the human realm than the Spirit realm... much more than Rene ever did.

But even Eagle, the strongest of us with the closest ties to Great Spirit, cannot spend all of a single human day in your realm without the need to return to our own realm, Raven remarked with a still puzzled tone.

Yes, and so it was for Pablo, too. He would return to the Spirits' realm... when I was practicing my Taiji or deeply sleeping. It's at those times that my mind and heart and soul are able to... perhaps... travel farther... would be the right way to put it. He said it felt almost as if I was guarding him while he was in the Spirit realm. Eagle clucked over it often, saying that a Spirit had no need of a guardian Spirit. Pablo would retort each time that I was not a guardian Spirit, but his own personal guardian Warrior.

I smile, remembering some of those conversations that I'd witnessed. Sometimes I think Pablo just said that to tease Eagle; other times he was completely serious.

Raven blinks several times. Quite peculiar. But I have never been human so I would not know how our realm would appear to one who once was. It is intriguing. Why would he feel the need for protection among us, though? While all the siblings have different traits, many of which are in opposition to others', we are still siblings and live in harmony even when the Gifts we lend those we guard and guide would not seem to allow for such a thing.

It has to do with time. We perceive it, you... well, it's considerably more difficult for you. 'All time is now' is a sentiment I have heard on so many occasions from the Spirits, and even Great Spirit, that I've lost count.

Raven nearly jumps then, so startled it is. Hold, please. You have spoken with Great Spirit?

Again, I sigh softly. Why does everyone from the Shamans to the Spirits themselves all seem to freak out when I mention that? It doesn't seem like such a crazy idea to me... but... okay, I'll admit it doesn't seem that crazy because I've done it, and I'm certainly not crazy. Yeah, right, Andi. Nice try. There are days you're nutty as a fruitcake.

Yes. I've spoken with Great Spirit. All of us have. She personally blessed the Pentad.

Raven hesitates a moment, then walks up my leg so it can look closely into my eyes. I have to admit that it makes me extremely nervous considering the number of the times I was pecked by my universe's Raven... or had my hair plucked out.

This one thing would explain my counterpart's behavior, Warrior. Only the most powerful of the Shamans have even spoken to Great Spirit.

I look at Raven, clearly puzzled. But there are stories, legends among the other People — mostly the Lakota and Apache and Comanche — that tell of warrior chiefs who have spoken with Great Spirit. Even your counterpart admitted I ought to wear the war bonnet of the Warrior Chief when we battled the Great Foe.

Ah, but all the greatest of the warrior chiefs have also been assisted by a brother, a wife, sometimes a sister who was a Shaman. And although the stories say the warrior chief spoke to Great Spirit, it is more likely their Shaman did the speaking and merely relayed the message.

Huh. Well... I guess that makes sense. In some of those stories, yes... a brother or wife is usually mentioned as an advisor to the chief. I blink several times and refocus on Raven, who is still uncomfortably close to my hair. Time... we were talking about time, and how that explains, perhaps, the behavior of all the Spirits in my world.

Yes, of course, Raven says, settling back a bit farther from my face.

If I am compassionate and believe the Raven of my world might feel some remorse for its poor behavior, and couple that with the notion that 'all time is now' for the Spirits, then Raven will always and ever be in a place of attempting to make up for the unkind and hurtful things it did to me and to Pablo more than a hundred and fifty years ago. That can grate on a person's nerves, especially after they've become a Spirit. Because Pablo's annoyance is a palpable thing in the Spirit realm — at least, my current set of guardians claim it to be so, and it has been verified by Rene and Cat as well — is it much of a stretch for the imagination to think Cat, of all the guardian Spirits of the Pentad, would be most offended by that?

Raven slowly shakes its head. No. I might imagine Bear cuffing my counterpart a time or two...

Yep, that happened.

Or Fox attempting to talk reasonably with my counterpart...

Uh huh. That happened, too.

Cat would be protective and loyal to those it guards and guides, but what is not often shared about Cat is that such protectiveness and loyalty often extends to other members of the household... those you call the Pentad. If Raven of your world continues to behave poorly to any of your Sister's family — even the two who have become Spirits themselves — then Cat might well have cause for threatening extreme measures.

I had figured out Cat's highly protective nature early on. It had certainly been before our wedding. I'm not sure what caused me to come to that conclusion. It was such a slow thing that a day came when I could see that it was obvious. Ah, but back to the present conversation, eh?

So you see the dilemma. Cat, while not explicitly doing so, does what it can to protect my Husband from Raven's constant attempts to convince Pablo that it's rational, sane and apologetic. But because Raven is caught in the 'all time is now' loop, and Pablo still perceives the passage of time, Raven's attempts are having the exact opposite effect it's trying to achieve. When Pablo becomes especially vexed, Cat threatens Raven. It's a vicious cycle that I don't see ending until all five of us can manage to take the final walk. That could be a very, very long time. My Husband is an extremely patient man... he's put up with me for over a hundred and sixty years, he's put up with his children's eccentricities and normal childhood dramas, and he's even put up with Raven's near constant nonsense for thirty years... but he can't put up with your counterpart's insanity forever.

I am sorry, Warrior, that my counterpart is so disruptive to your life. If you would not find it unseemly of me, I will think on this and perhaps be able to offer a small suggestion or two that you might use when you return.

Not unseemly at all, and I'll take help anywhere I can get it. You're uniquely suited to understanding what might work, especially anything that might get your counterpart to break out of its 'all time is now and now I must apologize again' loop of crazy.

Raven nods. I would also like to say that many, indeed most, of the Spirits, not just those who guide and guard your family, have offered their assistance in your efforts to rid this realm of the Darkness. We can see that such Darkness could, with the passage of enough time, encroach on our own realm.

Well, there's nothing wrong with a little self-interest. And the help is very much appreciated. I thank them for their consideration.

Then Raven ducks its head, seems to be... embarrassed? Really? Damn, if anything was going to convince me I was in a different world — assuming I hadn't already been convinced a hundred times over — it would be the sight of an embarrassed Raven. That is so not something I have ever seen or ever expect to see!

I would be honored if you allow me to join Bear, Fox, Cobra and Opossum in guarding you.

I blink. Several times. The thought briefly crosses my mind that I'm either dreaming or hallucinating. But dreams have a difference quality to them. I'm not ruling out the hallucination, though.

Um. Sure. I'm fine with it... as long as Andrea doesn't need you, of course.

Raven looks up, appearing as happy as it's possible for a bird to look. That means there's no unnatural grinning or wing clapping or jumping up and down like a yo-yo. Oh, no. She thought it was a fine idea when I spoke to her of it. I will go let her know you have agreed.

As Annamaria announces our arrival in Albuquerque, Raven disappears. The children stir, Maddie and Logan are instantly awake even if they don't look it. I need to take a moment to process what the hell just happened.

Although we are technically driving through the city of Albuquerque, we're still on the Interstate. How many times have I driven this route with Pablo and the kids... ridden it on my bikes to and from visiting family in Flagstaff? Some of Yani and Daniel's great something grandchildren still live in Gallup... well, in our universe anyway. They'd be part of the family that doesn't exist here because Little Kai was this universe's only child of my cousin. Oddly, given everything I've learned about this world, the road is in good repair. Although that's probably because I'm comparing it to Eye Forty in our world, which is one of those roads no one can decide responsibility about. It's kind of crappy in some places. What I can see of the city off the highway looks a lot cleaner... and not appreciably smaller than it is in our universe. That makes it feel... well, really strange.

I sigh. "Well, either I've gone completely insane..."

"I vote for that!" says my smart ass son, who's still leaning over the front seat and therefore too far away to Gibbs slap. His sister, however, does stir herself from Vin's embrace just enough to smack him. Paul simply chuckles.

"...or I regained a guardian Spirit and most of the pantheon is happy to help us in our cleanup efforts. Like, really happy.

© Kelly Naylor and ividia kt