Right Here in River City

"Wakey wakey, kids... we've arrived in the big city!" Tori said cheerfully.

She could see Kinta becoming more wide-eyed as they drove through the streets of Albuquerque toward the District station house. It was probably the largest city within any of the Nations in what was still sometimes called the United States; it was certainly larger than any metropolitan area Kinta had ever seen in her young life. It had dozens of well laid out streets between the highway and the station house alone. All of them were clean and fairly well maintained and were lined with buildings that were not only inhabited but in good repair. Albuquerque was an anomaly in this day and age... at least in the United States.

Whether Seattle was really larger and more populous was a point of intense debate, as was the question of whether it was in fact within a First Nation — or in the Free Lands. The Salish Elders simply agreeably smiled when asked if that whole range of coastline was the Salish Nation or part of the Free Lands. Tori had lived among them for her first thirty-seven years, so she understood their propensity to never be argumentative; after four hundred and forty years, it still wasn't something she was used to. She suspected she might need to live as long as her parents had to understand the Salish People. Yet, on the other hand, she often wondered if she was even capable of understanding them. She clearly wasn't Salish by ancestry; Lelani was fairly certain their ancestors were originally from one of the Nakaii Nation States. But even her sister didn't know that with absolute certainty, nor could she even begin to guess which of the States their parents, or perhaps grandparents, had been born into.

There were certainly larger cities in the Free Lands, some of which might even have sections of the city still in good shape. Albuquerque was unique in that there were no areas of town that were dilapidated or particularly unsafe. She knew from her own travels that most of the Eastern cities had large sections of slums and even parts of most towns where the poorest and most desperate of people refused to live. There were some small towns in the Free Lands that were free of boarded up and broken down buildings lining their streets. But it was rare that these towns were even as big as Window Rock or Farmington... most were more the size of Ganado.

As she pulled into the parking lot at the District station, she scanned the lot for a vehicle from the Window Rock District and didn't see one. Besides the few Albuquerque District SUVs in the lot, the only other vehicle was a dilapidated old pickup. She wondered why it wasn't in the scrap heap already. She shrugged to herself. Maybe that was its next stop.

Despite her less direct route and her stop in the two cousin kin villages, she had still arrived here before Madeline and her family. That had been Jeremy's plan, as well as her hope. She parked the car in one of the many empty spaces, unlatched the seat belt then turned to look at Kinta and Allo. The young woman looked far more relaxed than Tori had expected she would when Kinta brought up the idea in the Cibola Forest village. Tori attributed that to both the release of her burden and Allo's arm around her shoulders.

"How are you doing there, kiddo? You don't seem to be terribly freaked out; are you ready to meet some of my associates, or would you like to stay in the car until Madeline and her family arrive?"

Kinta lifted her head off Allo's shoulder to look up at his face, then turned to Tori with a smile. "I think I'd like to meet your friends. Allo knows some of them, too, so..." She shrugged and separated herself from Allo. "I think it's an excellent idea to meet them."

Tori returned the smile, showing both her relief at Kinta's lack of anxiety and deep affection for the youngster. "Great! You can leave your things in the car until you're ready to head north. Come on, then!"

She got out of the car and stretched, waiting for the two younger kin to do the same. Although she might otherwise have teased them about holding hands as the three of them strolled to the front entrance of the building, Tori refrained today. Perhaps it had been sensing how protective Allo had been of Kinta as she had told her story. Perhaps it was simply that she was happy enough for the young woman that Tori felt she'd teased them enough for the time being. In either case, she simply led them into the building. Allo began pointing out various features of the architecture as Tori walked to the reception counter.

"Afternoon, Imala. Is Captain Gonzales available."

The clerk smiled, a thing of wonder that — as usual — engulfed her entire face. "Waiting for you in her office, Tori. Just go on back."

She looked back at Kinta and Allo, then chuckled. "Let them know I'll be out in a bit... assuming Allo doesn't put Kinta into a coma with his explanations of ancient architecture."

Imala laughed. "So that's your Kinta, huh? I'm glad I finally get to meet her. And Allo knows when to stop," she said. "It's right at the point when a person's eyes start glazing. Oh, and the building isn't ancient, you crazy woman. City Hall is ancient. This building's only been around since about 1995."

Tori grinned. "Potato, potahto," she said as she headed down the corridor to the District Chief's office. When she reached the last doorway, she knocked on the frame.

"Hi, Teresa. Did the boys up north call with any last minute chores for me?"

Teresa looked up at the knock, then at the ancient grandfather clock in the corner of her office. "Jeremy led me to believe you'd be here an hour ago," she said, smiling.

Tori shrugged. "Got caught up visiting with the kin down south. It'll be a while before I see them again, I'm guessing."

Teresa nodded. "I heard. Going on Walkabout again."

"You know... I tend to use that term rather loosely, but even so... I don't think what I'm off to do could rightly be called a Walkabout, even by my loose definition."

"Hey, I only report the news that comes down from on high. You know that. Fortunately, your only last minute chore will be to take your new friends shopping for gear." Teresa chuckled. "Given what the Boss Man says their shopping list looks like, it'll more than likely be a one-stop shopping trip down to the Big Store. The Force is picking up the tab for anything they can't cover."

Tori's eyebrows raised in surprise. "That's mighty generous!"

"Not as much as you might think. I got the impression they have some collectors' items among their belongings that are trivial bits of flotsam wherever they're from."

"Hmmm. Boss Man didn't tell you anything else about them?"

Teresa harrumphed. "Right. This might be the biggest District station, but we're still the boonies, Tori. Need to know, and all that rot." She peered over her reading glasses at Tori. "Why? Do you know what he's not telling me?"

"Let's just say that 'need to know' is a good way to put it. They're from a place that doesn't have as many problems as we have outside our front door, and they're willing to help try to clean up the yard a bit. As you might imagine, there are a whole lot of reasons why less is more, in this case."

The Chief studied Tori for a moment before nodding slowly. "Yes. But that doesn't mean I have to like it."

"Nope. But there you are. And I wasn't looking to head out East any time soon, either... but here I am."

It was Teresa's turn to look surprised. "Kee broadly hinted they were a band of warriors — a hint given a lot of weight by the suggestion to take them shopping at the Big Store. How'd you get the Tribal Council to give their stamp of approval on your departure from the Nation?"

"I don't have their approval."

"Tori! What the hell are you doing?"

"Just following orders from a higher authority than the Tribal Council," the Deputy replied with a shrug.

"What authority is...? No. You're shitting me. You got a Shaman to overrule them?"

Tori shook her head. "Nope. Hawk said go... so I'm going." She sighed at the stunned look on Teresa's face. "Oh, come on, Ter. You know that technically I'm a free agent. I follow the rules because I love the Diné and feel like maybe I've found a home here. It's been a long time since I've really felt like a place was home, so I was mostly okay with following the rules even though they chafed. Sometimes, they chafed a lot. But Hawk has been my guardian Spirit since I lived among the Salish... since so long before any of these troubles started that only Ha'atathli Yazzie has memories of when things weren't so bad. So when Hawk says go..." Tori shrugged.

Teresa took off her glasses and set them on her desk as she shook her head. "These people must be pretty phenomenal warriors to risk it, that's all I'm saying."

Tori laughed. "I don't think any of them has a guardian Spirit on the approved list."

The other woman narrowed her eyes and stared at Tori. "They're not Diné, then."

"Well... yes and no." Tori shrugged. "In this case... in this specific circumstance... I'd say, technically... no. Except yes."

Teresa rested her forehead on open palms as she planted her elbows on the desk. "Okay, okay... I get it. Less is more, and I have too much information not to be driven crazy, and not enough information to make any sense out of what you're talking about. I swear, sometimes you think your job is to drive me nuts."

"Just sometimes, Ter?" Tori chuckled.

The other woman looked up and rolled her eyes. "Did you see that hunk of junk out there?"

Tori looked at Teresa suspiciously. "Yes."

Teresa grinned. "It's a present for you. The keys are tucked in the visor."

"Great. If it came from where I think it came from, I'm glad it's a loaner and we're returning it to its rightful owner, may he have every possible joy with it."

"Good grief, you make it sound like a curse!"

Tori just grinned. "Maybe. Come on out and let Allo pass along his messages and introduce you to Kinta while I check out the truck."

Teresa just shook her head as she got up, came around her desk and followed Tori out to the lobby area. Imala was chatting with Allo; Kinta didn't appear to be as shy as she expected from the stories Tori had told of her over the years. The Chief just rolled her eyes at Tori after the older woman introduced them and made a flippant comment about playing auto mechanic. It didn't take any special skills beyond a cop's instinct to see how much the young woman meant to her friend, however.

"Well, Allo, it's probably a good thing you've got some company on this trip then. I've got an actual bundle of papers that need to get out to Shiprock."

"So if Kinta hadn't been traveling along with me, you would have made me rent a burro to carry it?" the young man asked suspiciously.

Teresa laughed. "Good heavens, no! I know better than that. It would have fit in your pack somehow. Now you'll have someone to complain to the entire way about how crazy Captain Gonzalez is," she said winking.

Kinta giggled. "I don't think so, Captain, ma'am," she said. "I've never met anyone in my short life who complained less than Allo."

Allo grinned. "Well, that's only because you've only seen me when I'm coming through Cibola Village... and I only stay a few days. I'm sure I'll be able to think of something to complain about while we're traveling.

As Kinta looked at him with a clearly disbelieving expression and said, "Uh huh... right," Tori sighed to herself as she headed back into the parking lot. Her young friend, truly a daughter of her heart, would be just fine with Allo... Tori didn't need her sister's suspected precognitive skills to have that one figured out.

Both Madeline and Logan knew the second they hit town. They woke but did not bother to open their eyes, merely snuggling in closer together. It was not that they needed sleep, but had learned to enjoy their down time before going into work. It had taken Logan time to adjust once it had become just the two of them at home. There was no more need for him to stay behind and presumably keep an eye on the kids. That had not been until they had reached college age since they had lived close enough to the school to be home nearly every night. Leon had come too but not as frequently. He had been living at the school already for at least five years.

When the nest was empty was when the Wolf Pack truly started up. La Loup Noir no longer operated all alone. Somehow she had managed to convince the Wolverine to work with her. Those with long memories knew of him and that brought her up a measure in their eyes. Those who did not know faced them as a team and learned to fear if not respect them. Then they started spending much time in Denver, and it came to be known that Ninja and Peacekeeper also had, at least partially, joined the Pack. Em was the first of the next generation to join, finding herself more suited to the work of the Pack than the X-Men. Paul followed shortly after that. As the Pack grew, so did the sources of requests for help, those no longer being relegated to the US and Western Europe. Though officially X-Men, Vin and Maria were considered part of the Pack as well. And now, here they all were in a different universe facing an evil that they had managed to keep at bay in their own.

The kids had been acting like they were on vacation, and Madeline couldn't blame them. They knew as well as she did that once they left the Nations' lands, play time would be over for all of them. Arrival in Albuquerque was no different. They tumbled out of the car, acting like the teenagers they had not been in many decades. Madeline and Logan weren't much better with quiet touches and smiles of innuendo.

She'd just finished a thorough inspection of the truck — including a lengthy inspection under the hood — when the Window Rock District SUV pulled into the parking lot, and the four younger people spilled out... laughing, chatting... Maddie's cousin kin daughter and Andi's son still teasing their respective siblings. Tori crossed her arms and leaned against the truck, watching the interactions. She only suspected the four of them would calm down once they left the Diné Nation; on the other hand, they had an easy camaraderie that spoke of decades working together. She nodded to Annamaria as the Deputy got out of the car.

"You sure you know what you're doing, Walking Eagle? These four are clearly insane," Annamaria said in a way that said she had enjoyed every minute of their insanity. "And Coyote's apparently joining the adults."

Andi laughed as she got out of the car and stretched, looking so much like Ha'atathli Yazzie that Tori had to consciously remind herself that the Warrior Yazzie was not the same woman she'd come to know fairly well over the past twenty years. "Coyote will be less of a worry for anyone than my Sister." The Shaman's doppelganger looked affectionately at the other woman. "If there's trouble to be found, Maddie'll find it. And she's never needed Coyote's help to make her own, either."

Logan had his arms wrapped around Madeline from behind and his face buried in her hair when Andi made her pronouncement about Coyote and his Mate. He looked up and grinned.

"Actually, I think she knows its home address."

She rolled her eyes and made a huff of indignation. "You two have been spending entirely too much time with my Husband, as charming as he is."

She pointed at the beat up pickup behind Tori with her chin. "So, Tori, will it stay together long enough to us to find some more appropriate transport?"

Hawk glided to a landing on the truck beside Tori.

Most of my siblings will be joining the Warrior and her family on your journey.

"Hey, I was going to mention that!" Andi said. "Eventually."

Andi looked at Madeline, too, and grinned... although she placed a hand over her heart, almost as if she was reminding herself it was there. "How is it possible to spend too much time with Rene? You just admitted he's oh so charming."

"Too damn charming sometimes if you ask me," Madeline groused and harrumphed, her grumpiness given the lie by her smile.

Logan chuckled but bent and kissed her temple and chuffed, We miss him too.

I know, she replied in the same manner.

Tori's gaze traveled from Annamaria to the youngest four of the group, to Andi and Logan and Madeline, to her guardian Spirit... and then back around the circle, her smile growing wider until she was grinning when her eyes met the other Deputy's again.

"Now, Annamarie," she said with a hint of laughter in her voice, "I'm simply going on Walkabout with these folks. They're just going to make sure it's not one of my solitary and introspective Walkabouts."

Annamarie laughed as she grabbed the thick folder of files, then patted Tori's shoulder as she passed in front of her on her way to the station house door. "It will take someone of your age and fortitude to handle this bunch, my friend. Good luck." She chuckled as she walked off.

Tori just shook her head at her fellow Deputy's retreating figure and continued to grin... that is until Madeline asked her question.

She rolled her eyes and shook her head in disgust as she glared at the truck, then turned to Madeline.

"I can understand letting most of the body rot, especially if that idiot lives somewhere that's supposed to a no-man's land. But letting the rust get to the undercarriage while keeping the engine in tip-top shape? That's just plain stupid. But yeah... if we're mindful of the precarious suspension system, it'll get us far enough to ditch it where Jimmy can find it."

"I didn't get the impression intelligence was Jimmy's strong suit," Andi said, rubbing her side where she had been impaled the night before.

Tori snorted. "Who knows? He's so self-centered and filled with such a sense of entitlement that it's hard to tell if he's willfully ignorant or truly mentally challenged. Dear Spirits, his attitude on the drive down was just plain wretched. I don't know how you managed not to kill him, Madeline. Three weeks of that?"

She leaned back against the truck, resting her elbows on the raised side of the bed. "Between the sullen silence, the attitude that the world owes him some sort of favor, and then the lecture I got on how terrible it was out in the Free Lands, it was all I could do to not pull the squad car over and have it out with him." She sighed. "But my job was to get him out of the Diné lands, not kick his sorry ass to the border."

She paused, then looked thoughtfully into the distance for a moment. "But you know... I did get him to shut up and settle down when I snapped at him. I don't need children lecturing me about what's outside the Nations of the First People, I told him. I walked the lands, and my parents died out there. So grow the hell up, and stop talking out of your asshole."

Tori refocused on the three elder members of the warrior band and smiled. "I don't think he took kindly to being called a child."

They listened as she talked about the truck then how much of a pain in the ass her Mate's alternate had been.

"As hard as it is to kill kin, it would have taken too much time. But I did find a way to offset the annoyance by pushing some very sensitive buttons," she told her with an evil smile.

"Any idea where the differences where?" Logan asked.

"He had the adamantium at one point, so that happened, but he still believed Kayla's betrayal was her own doing, so… there somewhere. And I don't think he camped outside the scumbag's base for fifteen years waging a one-man war of attrition either. But who knows where'd you be now if things had been different between us or if the healing factor hadn't passed to me. Too many ifs and possibilities. I leave that insanity to my Sister and my Son."

He nodded at that and wondered what this world's version of his Mate had been like.

Andi snorted. "With that many variables, I'd need a computer to analyze it. But without your twin in the picture, Maddie, Jimmy found someone else." She rolled her eyes and continued, her voice dripping with contempt. "The lot of them out there in Westchester — Eric, Chuck and the mysterious girlfriend — are a bunch of sissies, and Jimmy is a pale imitation of an Elder..." Noting the odd looks from Raven and the rest of her guardian Spirits, she sighed. "Right, you call yourselves cousin kin here. It's as if he can't remember who he is, or maybe what he is."

She looked at Madeline and Tori, then shrugged. "I'm just saying his qi doesn't look like what I've come to expect along some of the meridians of an Elder. The how and why of it? No idea; I'd need to spend more time with him not being impaled, and I don't think he likes me any more than I like him." Andi barked out a laugh devoid of humor. "Hell, Maddie... your qi is closer to Tori's than Jimmy's is." She did smile at her Sister then. "I figured the similarities to Logan and Em were because you're Mate and Mother... but maybe not."

Madeline tilted her head in inquiry much like Logan did. "Has it looked like that always? Even when we first met? I was Mother then but not Mate."

Andi nodded slowly. "Pretty much," she said. "I had noticed an interesting difference in Logan's aura that first day I met you and your family at Joe and Amanda's. And I could see a resonance of it in your qi the next day when you mirrored me in my Dance to open the portal for Rene. It intensified after you and Logan became Mates... almost as if you'd had that particular channel all along, and had just learned how to use it then." She looked at Tori for a moment, intently enough that Tori raised an eyebrow, then at their children... Paul and Em were teasing Maria and Vin, who were starting to relax enough to accept the teasing with a little more grace and a little less embarrassment.

"Yeah, it looks like it was always a predisposition you had... and it probably would have remained dormant your entire life if you hadn't met Logan." Andi shrugged. "We mere mortals long ago had an animal nature that enabled us to survive as a species. I'd say we just civilized it out of our genetic makeup by the time Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha." She paused and frowned, looking closely at Madeline again. "Actually... I take that back. I don't think it was meeting Logan and having Em that reestablished that pathway. It happened a few decades before that."

Andi didn't say anything else, which certainly piqued Tori's interest. But the way the three adults seemed almost to snap into a single unit, as if shoring up some type of a defensive wall of Madeline's that they sensed was weak, told her it was something so basic to their relationship as to almost be an initial and essential brick in the pueblo of their family unit.

Tori waited patiently while the Warrior spoke with Madeline, although something she said sparked... a feeling? A remembering? She wasn't quite sure exactly what it was, but it had something to do with Jimmy and his behavior. Hadn't she been musing about that on her drive? Hadn't something she'd said to Kinta cause the youngster to mention that he had seemed to have forgotten how to be cousin kin?

"I think..." She paused, remembering the painfully annoying drive down to the border station. "I think you've hit the nail on the head there, Andi. I'm not sure he knows how to be one of us anymore. It sort of snapped a few things in place when Kinta talked about how all of us — no matter who we are, where we're from — have an innate sense that we're all related, that we're all family."

"You could be on to something there, Tori. I've seen it happen, and not just with Mutants. The oppressed people try so hard to be accepted or at the least not noticed, that they take on the traits of their oppressors. It's usually more pronounced among those who can Pass. It's like Stockholm Syndrome. It can be reversed, but usually only with a lot of therapy, which is a real shame because this world could use someone like Logan on a more permanent basis. And I'm not leaving mine behind when we go."

Tori nodded at Madeline's explanation. "I can see that, sure. And obviously I've seen plenty of people over the centuries lose their identities in their... well, misplaced vigor, I suppose, to assimilate into the dominant culture." She sighed. "I've just never seen it in a kin, and nearly all of us could Pass in the greater world if we chose. Heck, even Kinta managed to fool her captors for months — albeit with the help of a couple of older kin brothers — and she was only ten years old." She shook her head in bemusement. "Twenty years later, and I still can't puzzle out what her mother was thinking in bringing the child into the Free Lands with her."

"Chief Kee said you could take us to a place to find a bit more in the way of supplies. Why don't we get that over with and then get this show on the road?"

Then she nodded to Madeline. "Sure thing. We should probably bring two vehicles if you're going to need as much gear as Captain Gonzalez said Jeremy hinted you'd be needing. If the youngsters want to stay behind, Allo would probably welcome the company as he shows Kinta around... and she did mention she'd like to meet all of you." She glanced back at the building, then back at Maddie. "On the trip up here, I learned an awful lot more about her history and what she went through before I rescued her and a few other kids twenty years ago. Some of it might be relevant, especially relating to the incident you had rescuing Tomas and Mesa. I can tell you about it while we shop, though." She pushed herself off the side of the truck and grinned. "I'll let them know I'm taking you shopping while you sort out who's going... and who gets to drive the Hunk o' Junk."

Deputy Walking Eagle headed back into the station house with considerably more speed than Deputy Todacheene had exhibited. She exited again somewhere between five and ten minutes later, grinning broadly.

"So what's the verdict? Allo is happy to have a large tour group, and Kinta is nervously excited."

When Tori returned, they had an answer ready.

"Kids will be happy to take the tour," Madeline announced. "And I'm driving the jalopy since I'm already accustomed to its quirks, which aren't anywhere near as many as its owner has."

"Shotgun," Logan claimed.

Em and Paul both snickered.

When she returned from chatting with Allo and Kinta, she felt unexpectedly pleased that the younger generation had chosen — or been told, it didn't actually matter — to stay behind. They all might be over a century older than her two young people, but they still acted like the younglings Allo and Kinta were. And Kinta was pretty excited to meet them.

She grinned at the younger four but particularly at the young kin and her cousin. "Like your siblings here, Allo and Kinta are at the beginning of their relationship... the difference being, of course, that they're still quite young — Kinta's barely thirty — and..." She looked at Vin and Maria, not quite refraining from snickering. "...haven't been denying what's right in front of their faces for most of their lives."

Maria sighed, almost theatrically. "Great. Everyone's going to get in on this Let's tease Maria and Vin act, huh?" Despite her words, she smiled and accepted the teasing as the gentle warning it was about the feelings of Tori's friends.

"Kids?"

"We know, Mom," Em said. "Keep our eyes and ears open."

"And stay out of trouble," Vin added.

"Well, guess that makes you stuck with me, Andi," Tori said, smiling at Madeline and Logan, and more broadly at the children's reactions to Logan's calling shotgun.

"Not a problem," she said. "Let me just fetch my staff." She walked over to Annamaria's car to get her staff just as the young couple came out of the building.

Allo was still playing the architectural enthusiast for Kinta, and she gave him the rapt attention of someone who'd never lived around buildings of this type. Tori introduced them all around, then watched with a fond smile as they pulled their packs from her car and leaned them against Annamaria's. Because she had fewer belongings than Allo did, despite his life of traveling light, they wound up putting the sheaf of papers in Kinta's pack. Those with the sharpest hearing could hear Kinta's light laugh, and her teasing comment. "Ah, I see how it is, Allo. You wanted me to come along with you to help you carry all your messages!"

The young man paused, looked at her thoughtfully, and nodded seriously... well, unless one could see the merry twinkle in his eyes. "Yes, I think we should go with that story. It's far more practical than simply wanting to enjoy your company for half a year."

She giggled as she took his hand, then walked back to Tori.

"Thank you, Shimá," she said simply, hugging her friend.

Tori smiled and kissed the young woman's forehead. "You're welcome. Now go make some new friends, you little scamp." She looked at Allo and tilted her head toward the group of youngsters watching Madeline and Logan get in the truck. "We'll likely be a good hour or so. Enjoy yourselves, okay?"

She had heard Madeline's comment to the quartet about keeping their eyes open. She wasn't sure there'd be anything relevant to their mission in this universe in Albuquerque. But perhaps Allo could help them learn about the differences between their two worlds as he showed Kinta around the near southwest part of the city. Since the closest she came to being a warrior was being a small town cop, she admitted to herself that she didn't know what might be relevant.

"I got the impression Andi's been to Albuquerque before, but I'm not sure her kids have... and if they have, it's probably been a good long while. Maybe even before you were born," she said winking at him. "You and Kinta will probably be through town again, although perhaps not for another couple of seasons or more; I doubt the others will. They might like to see a little bit of the town."

Allo chuckled as he wrapped an arm around Kinta's waist. "I understand about being a good host. Go on, Tori... we'll be fine. See you when you get back."

She nodded, then headed for the car as Andi was stashing her staff in the back, then climbing into the front seat. Hmm. Interesting idea, that staff... but Tori wasn't sure how receptive the folks at the Big Store were going to be to someone walking in with a weapon. She'd have to ask Andi about that.

Allo took Kinta's hand and walked toward the group of visitors, who had moved off to the side to make room for the truck and squad car to back out of their parking spaces. "You're ready for this?" he asked her.

She nodded and smiled at him. "What's that thing Mama Anna likes to say? No time like the present? So... yep."

They joined the others; Kinta noted they were each a contradiction within themselves: relaxed and joyous, yet almost hyper-vigilant.

"Hey, Mom lived here when she was really little," Paul said to no one in particular and all of them at the same time. "I wonder if we could find the house where she grew up."

His sister looked at him as though he was crazy. "Really, Paul? We don't even know where she lived, and you think we can just happen upon her house?" Maria shook her head and looked up at Vin. "If I didn't know he spent more time in this part of the country than I do, I'd say the desert air has gotten into his brain and started rotting it."

Paul rolled his eyes. "You know all we have to do is ask her." He paused a moment with a faraway look in his eyes, then sighed. "Okay, I guess that's not a great idea unless Albuquerque is smaller than it looks. All she remembered was the street name and a few landmarks."

Allo shrugged. "Well, that might be enough for me to find it. It sounds like I spend more time here than anyone else."

A moment later, Paul groaned. "She's so unhelpful! Gila Road... she remembers that because of Gila monsters and apparently her friend Danny — she's still sad about him, by the way — told her that's where the monsters lived. And there was a huge park nearby with lakes in it."

Allo chuckled. "Probably Arroyo del Oso Park. It's about eight miles away, give or take a few tenths. Tori said that they would be gone for about an hour... but even if we ran full-out to look at the neighborhood, we'd just have to run back again."

Maria reached over and poked her brother on the arm. "Lunatic. Even if Mom and Aunt Lin and Uncle Logan spend two hours inspecting every item in the store, it seems kind of silly to go look at a neighborhood when Mom doesn't even remember her address." She grinned just a bit wickedly at him. "I could Shift to an eagle and carry you over there, however. Maybe drop you in a lake?"

"You're so sweet, Sis. That's a kind and generous offer, but I'm going to have to decline." Paul took a step back from his sister. "I remember who taught you Shifting. I think Billy did drop me in a lake. Or a pool. Or something."

"Oh, good grief, Paul!" Maria said, exasperated. "We were three, he picked you up with his hands and tossed you in the shallow end of Uncle Michael's pool!" She rolled her eyes at him for good measure.

Em twisted and used her free hand to smack Paul on the back of the head. "Cut it out. You aren't Billy, who, by the way, is still my favorite."

Paul grinned at Em. "I never said I was Billy or even like Billy because he was absolutely a one of a kind sort of guy. I'm just saying he's the one who taught Maria. And he had a wicked sense of humor, and when she Shifts she remembers that. So she can't really be trusted not to drop her little brother in a lake.

"And Billy was everyone's favorite." He chuckled. "Except sometimes Mom said Tommy was her favorite, too." With one arm around her shoulders, he hugged her and then rested his head against hers. "We miss him the most, that's for sure."

Kinta was looking between the two siblings, amused but also very perplexed.

"You... you're a Shapeshifter?" Kinta asked Maria.

The woman nodded. "And a Healer."

"Ack! Don't let her do her healing thing around you!" Paul said, closing his eyes tightly and gripping Em's hand tightly. "It's SOOO oogie." He even shuddered. His cousins and his sister knew he was putting on a show — despite his aversion to actually watching Maria Heal someone, his reaction was clearly over the top for Allo and Kinta's benefit.

Kinta looked between the siblings again, then between Vin and Em... who seemed positively normal next to their younger cousins. Then she looked at Allo with a smile. "Are there people as goofy as Paul on your messenger route?"

Allo laughed. "Yep... pretty much anyone whose guardian Spirit is Coyote.

Vin smiled at the Coyote statement. "Mom pretty much adores anyone Coyote attaches to, and I'm pretty sure the feeling is mutual."

Maria shook her head, rolling her eyes at Paul. "Excuse me, oh son of my father... you're four or five inches taller than I am and less than thirty minutes younger. You're not my little brother. Doofus."

But she smiled along with Vin. "Yeah, Aunt Lin has such an affinity for folks who are guarded and guided by Coyote that I'm a little surprised Coyote in our world hasn't offered its services."

"Oh, that's not really surprising, Sis. Aunt Lin has Uncle Rene, who is almost as mischievous as Coyote. Coyote probably doesn't think Aunt Lin needs its help."

Kinta's eyes still showed that she was somewhat surprised — it was certainly odd to hear people talk about the Spirits as though they were friends and neighbors — but she smiled at the interactions between the cousins. She wasn't sure if they were always like this, or if they were trying to put her at ease... but she was definitely feeling very comfortable with them. She looked up at Allo.

"Why don't you show us the interesting things in this area of the city? As much as I find the history of the building fascinating," she said with a grin, "there must be more to Albuquerque than architectural wonders."

Allo grinned right back at her. "Indeed, my fair lady, there are a multitude of wonders to be seen here." He laughed when she lightly slapped his arm. "Hey, I can't help it if our new friends bring out the silly in me. But sure... in addition to loving architecture, I'm a big fan of history. That's one of the bonuses of being a messenger... I get to chat with Elders and hear their stories from when they were young. One of these days, I'm going to have the honor of speaking to Elder Yazzie on my way through Ganado."

Kinta paused a moment, then said, "You know... I'd like to go to Ganado. Tori said Alisha is still there and asks about me. And it's almost as if she knew I'd be coming by to see her."

Allo nodded. He wasn't sure how much of Kinta's story she wanted to share again. So he was simply going to make the assumption that it was private, and shouldn't be shared until Kinta herself shared it.

"Well, it would be after stopping in Santa Fe and Shiprock, but sure... we can make a stop in Ganado. If I... I mean, we... don't need to head to Tuba City or Flagstaff, we can head right down to Ganado. Otherwise, we can head north from Chambers since I almost always have to stop in Window Rock." He looked at the expression on her face and laughed. "And you have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"

She shrugged. "I remember Santa Fe as being so big that the only thing that kept my animal quiet was sticking close to Tori and her folks. And that even Chinle was too big, so I kept running off to find Tori in Ganado. I sort of remember the trip down to Cibola; we drove through some towns that weren't as big as Santa Fe but definitely bigger than Chinle, but Tori didn't stop in them." Then she smiled brightly. "I'm going on Walkabout with you to learn about all those places that just make my eyes glaze over now."

He hugged her and leaned his head against hers, almost a mirror image of Paul and Em. "You're one clever woman, Kinta."

She flushed slightly at the compliment but seemed pleased by it. She looked almost shyly at Vin. "Tori said you're a telepath, and that maybe — if you wouldn't mind too much — you could somehow let me..." Her eyes flickered to Allo for a second before returning to Vin. "...us know how Tori's doing. I... well, she's awfully special to me, and, well, I know I'm going to worry about her even though she said not to."

Em's head tilted, and she looked at the young couple as she felt a spike of protectiveness from the young man. She turned her attention to Kinta, not intrusively, just curiously.

Vin nodded knowingly. He understood about worry. It was what had encouraged him, his sister and their cousins to break the laws of physics trying to get to their parents after mom had vanished. It was also what had brought them to this universe.

"Do either of you have any telepathic ability? It isn't absolutely necessary, but it does make things a bit easier at a distance. If not I just need to get a sense of your thoughts."

His thoughts, Vin, Em told him.

A brief nod from her brother that he understood.

"Either one of you," he added though he offered his hand in a greeting like manner to Allo. "Touch makes it simpler and faster."

What are you getting, Em?

Not sure, but it reminds me of mom when we were little.

Em had been well into her fifties before she had been brave enough to touch the memories of their mother having nightmares and inspect the feelings around them. That had led to a year-long wandering through the most remote and least populated areas of the planet. It took her nearly the whole time to separate what had been her responsive feelings from what she had picked up from Madeline. That in turn had led her to remembering the flight from Albuquerque to Paris when they were ten.

The thing she had needed to know now determined, she had returned straightaway to Xavier's school to find her mother. It was midday, and Madeline was walking the grounds. Not quite walking perimeter, but close. Em found her easily and ran to hug her.

"I'm sorry, mom."

A touch bewildered, Madeline returned the embrace. "About what, honey?"

"For what happened to you when you were young."

"Ah." She hugged her grown daughter tighter. "Don't be, Em. If it hadn't happened, neither of us would be here today."

Kinta shook her head, but Allo nodded. "Just a little, though," he said. "I think my head works more on empathy." He smiled, content with whatever gifts he had been given by Great Spirit.

The younger woman looked at him, surprised. "I didn't know that." Oddly, she sounded almost happy to have learned something new about him.

"You know Mama Cora's a pretty good telepath. Before you moved to Cibola, when I was still traveling with my uncle? She'd sort of keep a watch out for us and let us know whether or not we needed to make a stop at the village. Uncle was a stronger telepath, but I could still tell when she was nudging us away or urging us up the path to the village." He grinned. "Of course, she stopped bothering after you moved there since I'd show up just to visit no matter what she said."

Kinta giggled. "I keep forgetting that about Mama Cora, probably because my head's a brick. Well, that's what she said, anyway. But I'm glad you ignored her."

Allo instinctively broke is contact with Kinta before taking Vin's hand.

Paul, while not an Empath, could see the qi of his sister and cousins as well as his mother could. He could almost see the slight focus Em gave to Kinta and saw a familiar swirl of qi that he associated with Em's memories of her mom. He hugged her a little tighter for a moment.

I don't know why bad things happen to good people, Em. But as the Klingons would say, what doesn't kill them makes them stronger. Your mom is strong and fierce, and the Klingons would be as proud to adopt her as the Diné were. I have a feeling the same will hold true of the youngling here, too. Now that she's out of her cocoon, she can grow strong and fierce.

Em smacked Paul in the back of the head again.

"Stop it with the Trekkie shit already," she said though she let him know she did appreciate the thought.

Paul just rubbed the back of his head in a way that gave the impression it was something he was accustomed to doing on a regular basis. "Hey, it's not my fault I think in Trek! I blame Uncle Bobby and Henry. They warped me."

"Uncle Bobby couldn't have warped you much, nut case. He refused to accept any iteration of Star Trek that didn't include George Takei even existed." Maria snickered. "Remember how Uncle David used to tell the story of how he only signed up for Facebook so he could stalk the guy? Dang, remember Facebook?"

Maria, too, took a small step away from Vin while he established a connection with Allo and found herself that much closer to Kinta.

Vin grasped Allo's hand and spoke to him only. This is what my mind voice sounds like so you know it's me. I'll be in touch with the Diné telepaths, though, so if you need to get a message to us, talk to one of them if you can. I wouldn't suggest trying to call out to me once we're outside the Nation's borders.

"Em and I would run the game paths down in Cibola sometimes," Maria said. "It was so beautiful and wild, especially once we got away from the places tourists were allowed to go. It must have been nice to grow up there."

Kinta nodded. "It's probably the most beautiful place I've ever seen. Well, I haven't seen all that many places, and I did live in Oklahoma until I was nine or ten..." She trailed off, gently prodding the memories of her years living in the Caddo Nation. Those memories weren't as painful as the ones she had of the Free Lands, but still...

"I'm sorry, Kinta," Maria said, her voice tinged with pain. "I didn't mean to bring up painful memories."

Kinta looked at the other woman with surprise. "There's no need to apologize, Maria. It's not your fault. And... well, I have to learn to face down my memories, right? I mean, if I don't, who knows what kind of crazy I'll be." She smiled softly at Allo. "It's not fair to Allo. Well, I guess it's not fair to anyone, even me... but I don't want to be a crazy person on Walkabout. I want to... hmm... I want to learn all the things I haven't learned while hiding away for the past twenty years, even though that's exactly what I needed to do."

Maria had to force herself not to gape at Kinta. She blinked at said, "Are you sure you're only thirty? You sound more mature than my brother..."

"Hey, I resemble that remark!"

"...and even more mature than I am sometimes."

Kinta giggled at Paul and nodded to Maria. "Oh, I'm sure. I think I kind of grew up too fast, and most of the people around me for the past twenty years have been adults, and well... Elephant is my guardian Spirit, and Elephant is very, very wise." She shrugged. "I sort of forgot how to be a child, but I don't think I've forgotten how to view the world with child-like wonder. At least, I hope not."

The emotion from Kinta once again drew Em's attention. She listened to the conversation, felt the emotions that ebbed with it.

Allo's thoughts were overlaid with a mental chuckle, as though the very notion of trying to call out to Vin was the essence of hilarity. I will recognize you. I can hear, so to speak, better than I can call. I must almost be touching Cora to speak to her.

"Walkabout's a good time for it, and it helps to have someone you trust by your side," Em told her with a nod toward Allo. "This crazy one here goes with me sometimes," she said, poking Paul again, which merely caused him to grin. "Eventually, you may find you need to walk alone for a time, but I don't think that's going to be for quite a while."

Kinta smiled at Em. It was almost as though each additional bit of validation of the rightness of Walkabout relaxed her that much more. "Well, Elephant has promised that I will never walk alone... not truly... but yes..." She leaned slightly against Allo as he stepped back to her side and took her hand. "Someday, I may want to walk alone for a time. I know that's not something I want to do now, or soon..." She looked up at Allo. "You won't be offended, will you, if someday I want to walk alone for a while?"

He studied her face for a moment, trying to figure out if she quite understood what she'd just said. She was making the assumption that they would still be traveling together when the time came for her to walk solo for a time. Then he reached up with his free hand to tousle her hair.

"Kinta, you're so silly! You should know by now that whatever is best for you is never going to offend me." He looked skyward and said, "Oh, Great Spirit, thank you for blessing me with the goofiest best friend I could ever have!"

Kinta laughed. "Well, you're not a terribly serious person, Allo... so it would be very uncomfortable traveling together for several seasons if I were, don't you think?"

"I can't argue with your logic, my friend. Now..." He looked around at the other four. "...how would you like a tour of this part of town? It's pretty special... the largest library in the Western Nations is just a few blocks away, there's a theater, an old church that the laity still keeps in good shape ever though there hasn't been a priest in these parts in generations. One of the high schools is nearby... okay, that might not be as interesting as it sounded in my head." He grinned. "There's a gorgeous park not too far away with trees that are two and three hundred years old."

He looked at Kinta again. "Okay, trees might not impress you, Monkey Girl, but you've never seen an expanse of grass like this, I promise you!"

"Library?" Paul asked, perking up. "We like libraries! Mom was a librarian before we kind of ruined that gig for her."

"Monkey Girl?" Kinta said, surprised. "Wow, you haven't called me that in about fifteen years!"

Maria looked at Em. "Would you smack him again, please? He knows budget cuts were the reason for Mom losing her job." She also sighed and rolled her eyes.

"Well, you haven't gone swinging through the trees like a monkey in about fifteen years. Not when I'm around, anyway."

"No, no! Please don't hit me again, Em! I'll behave!"

Kinta grinned. "I still do. When you're not around. It's fun."

© Kelly Naylor and ividia kt