Shop Til Ya Drop

Madeline waited until they were well away from the children before commenting on what Andi had said about her qi.

"Well, I guess that explains how I survived until Rene found me, because of the Madness that is my Beast," she said with a shrug. "By all rights I should have died then."

I nod, pausing before fetching my staff. "The primal animal has more of a survival instinct than humans do, I think. I can hate the events that called your Beast out, and then drove it to Madness, but..." I shrug, giving Maddie a smile that holds all the joys and sorrows we've experienced together through the past fifteen decades. "...those events were the foundation that made you who you are, and ultimately brought you into my life. Excuse the mushiness, but I'm grateful to have you and Logan and Rene in my life."

I tap lightly on my zhong dan tian, near the heart chakra, and take a deep breath. "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm just going to keep telling myself that because I can almost — just barely — feel our crazy Spirit Husbands. I'm going work on shoring that up during tonight's practice, I think." I glance over at Tori with her adopted daughter and Allo. "I will refrain from getting into any discussions that will need to be repeated, although..." I shake my head, clearing confused. "...I'd like to know why people seem so certain the Big Bads don't have mutants or kin on their payroll." I chuff out a non-humorous half laugh. "Mutants and possibly kin working for the Big Bads seems like it would be such a no-brainer, although I grant it might be obvious because we've seen it." The worst, for me, had been seeing Logan completely certain Maddie had somehow betrayed him. I don't know how Stryker had pulled that off. I remember Maddie telling the story of how Rene was drugged and brainwashed. I don't know if a drug would work on an Elder, although I suppose if it were regularly administered it would be possible.

"Mushiness excused," Madeline said. "I'm glad to be here myself. And shore away because I wouldn't mind being able to feel them again myself."

I sigh. "I'm pretty sure Jimmy is in denial, and that makes sense. It doesn't make sense that Tori believes none of it's possible, given her age and everything she's see. Hell, back in the nineteenth century, the White Man convinced the People of many Nations to work against the best interests of their brothers and sisters." I shift my eyes to the Deputy and quickly back to Maddie, then shrug. "Maybe she's toeing the party line?"

I sense that Tori is wrapping up with the kids, so I'd best get my butt in gear. "I'll catch you on the flip side, Sis. We can continue this with Tori at the store."

Logan chuffed his agreement before climbing into Jimmy's rust bucket truck from the passenger side. She went around to the driver's door and pulled herself in. She watched him inspect the inside with both eyes and nose as she started up the engine. It was an old truck with a bench seat, and their packs would stay here until they returned. That meant the space between them was wide open; at least it was until he scooted into it and slipped his arm around her shoulder.

She smiled. "I'm glad you're here. I missed you."

He whuffled in her ear. You okay?

I am.

She switched back to human speech with a grin on her face. "If you keep that up though, I may make more of a wreck of this truck than it already is, and we still need it."

He chuckled and sat back a little.

She chuckled as well as she pulled out and followed Tori's car. "Fine then, why don't you tell me how it is you showed up without a shirt on, despite Sister's admonitions."

"Didn't want to take the time to put one on."

"What happened to the one you were wearing when we started up the mountain?"

"It got ripped and bloody."

"You hit the trees?"

"Not exactly."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "What do you mean by not exactly?"

"Did you see me jump after you?"

"Yes. Then I hit the portal."

"Something attacked me after you disappeared into it."

"Something?? What did it look like? And define attacked."

"Don't know. Couldn't see anything. Couldn't hear or smell anything with the wind. It cut me with something sharp, blades maybe, claws like mine, I don't know," he offered with a shrug.

"How badly?" she asked, trying not to tense up.

She knew she walked into situations without regard for the damage she took, but Logan always seemed to be extra casual about it. She never had forgotten about the day he took a dozen fifty cals in the back protecting her. She had seen his face go slack in death right before he collapsed on top of her. Her sudden grief had only been superseded by her need to breathe. Then he was suddenly back, rising and pulling her with him as the giant metal slugs were pushed from his body.

"Had to hold in my guts. The poison was worse though."

"Poison?" Her voice went up an octave.

"Nearly shut down my healing factor. Andi has theories about that."

"Andi has theories about everything," she said a bit sharply.

He leaned his forehead against her temple. "I'm not going anywhere, darlin'. I promise."

She swallowed hard and nodded. She had survived Rene's death, just barely, primarily because of Logan and his ability to ease her pain. She knew he wouldn't go far, that he would wait among the other Spirits like Rene and Pablo before him. That didn't change the fact that she would be even less inclined to stay among the corporal.

Then another thought struck like lightning. "Would you recognize the poison if you saw or smelled it again?"

He shook his head. "Don't think so. Why?"

"Cause I'd rather you didn't get hit with it again. It was on whatever cut you?"

"Had to be."

She lapsed into silence for the remainder of the drive; the odd part of her mind prodding at the thing that bothered her. He, being long accustomed to her ways, simply kept his arm around her. When she parked the truck and turned off the engine, she turned to him and took the time to truly look at his face. The crinkles at his bright eyes, that long straight nose, the beard he kept trimmed just so, those luscious full lips... his beautiful mouth stretched into a smile as he caressed her cheek.

"Not going anywhere," he repeated before leaning in to softly kiss her.

"Better not."

After another moment of staring into each other's eyes, they slid out of the truck.

As I fetch my staff and finish stashing it in Tori's car, she's just climbing into the car herself and giving my staff an appraising look. More out of habit than anything else, I buckle up after getting into the front seat myself. "You're in charge here, Chief. Lead on to the great store of shopping."

She gives me a look that's half surprise and half confusion before backing out of the parking space and then out of the parking lot. "Deputy is more than adequate, although Tori is certainly fine."

I grin, but look out at the surrounding buildings on either side of Fifth Street. I can see where parking lots probably existed but are now, in this world, for the most part xeriscaped. They were those old surface lots that were ubiquitous at one time, and still exist in a number of places even now in our world. One lot looks to have been turned into a community garden, reminding me of the good people of Commerce City in the decades before the wall was finally torn down. It makes sense here, too, given their dearth of cars.

"Long, enduring habit," I say, looking back at her as she turns right onto Lomas Boulevard. "It started as a way to tease Pablo as our friendship developed. After I took up the staff, I'd always refer to the top cop on the scene as 'Chief'." I shrug, not the least bit apologetic. "You're in uniform... it's a habit."

She just shakes her head but smiles.

Hey, Mom! Where did you live when you were little? We want to go look at your house.

Are you serious, Paul? I hope your sister or one of your cousins has smacked you. I remember a street name and landmarks. For goodness' sake, I was five when I moved to Japan! I don't even know what section of town we lived in.

Ow. Yes. Maria just poked me. But Allo says he might be able to tell what neighborhood it is from a street name and landmarks.

I sigh, and I note Tori's watching me from the corner of her eye. Interesting. I'm not nearly the telepath my nephew is, but I like to think I've almost entirely eliminated my tells when talking telepathically. Well... Tori is an Elder. Er, cousin kin. "My son seems to think looking at the house I grew up in would be fun."

Okay, but I have no idea what the street number was. We lived on Gila Road, and there was a huge park nearby with a big lake. Well, there might have been more than one lake. I'm positive about the street name because... hey, who doesn't know about Gila monsters, right? And Little Danny liked to tease me that the Gila monsters lived on my street. How many years has it been since Little Danny Shifted, and never came back? How is it possible that I still miss him?

Oh, right. My Curse. If my Curse had a motto, it would be Helping You Remember Everything in Exquisite Emotional Detail, Even Things That Happened to Other People! You're so welcome! If my Curse were a person, it would be an asshole. This is not the first time I've had the thought, either.

Tori laughs. "He doesn't understand how big Albuquerque is? Isn't it as big in your world?"

"Oh, it is. It might even be bigger since we still have lots of cars and motorcycles... and it's outside the Nation. But I guess your friend Allo might be able to narrow in on the neighborhood with the landmarks I gave Paul."

OW! Well, you'll be happy to know Em smacked me. Apparently, you lived far away from here. Well, maybe not all that far, but without a car, it would take a while to get there. We're just going to wander around here. And yes, we'll keep our eyes open and stay out of trouble.

I know how hard that will be for you, son. I mentally chuckle.

Tori and I chat as Lomas Northwest becomes Lomas Northeast. She turns right on San Mateo and drives about three-quarters of a mile and turns into what obviously was once one of the large discount merchants back in the day. If their world is anything like our world, the shape of the building says Wal-Mart rather than Target or K-Mart. The parking lot has one other motorized vehicle... a minivan with a red cross stenciled on the side. There are plenty of horse-drawn carts and wagons, however. Tori parks near the medical vehicle. I get out of the car and fetch my staff, and then lean it against my shoulder as I cross my arms and stare at the building while Maddie and Logan get out of the truck.

"It looks like a Wal-Mart," I say with disdain to Maddie, sneering for good measure.

She shuddered at the mention of Wal-Mart. She had only ever been in one and had not enjoyed the experience.

Tori looks at me, definitely puzzled by my animosity.

"I didn't live here before it became the Big Store, but sure... I think Elder Yazzie still does call it Wal-Mart. Why do you sound like you want to kill the company?"

I look at her, a little confused myself. "Wal-Mart was a huge corporation that treated its employees like crap. In the realm of corporate ethics, Wally's World completely lacked anything that could even loosely be described as ethics."

"Oh." She glances at me and Maddie. "Does it help to know our version of Wal-Mart was pretty much the exact opposite of that? That they had a policy of being a good neighbor? And a reputation as one of the best employers in the country? That they tried to keep as many stores open and people employed when the Troubles began? That when they did wind up closing stores, they gave the buildings to the communities within the First Nations... and rarely managed to sell them in the Free Lands? Rather than allow the corrupt elements in the corporation take control, in 2127 the CEO and the CFO concocted a ridiculous plan to liquidate their holdings quietly. And then they sent a small stipend to every living employee they could find. There wasn't much left of the company by then, and hundreds of thousands of their employees and former employees were mysteriously missing. But it seems like our version of Wal-Mart probably went above and beyond in terms of corporate ethics."

I listen with... yeah, okay, disbelief as Tori describes a company that never existed in our world. "I think once the shock wears off, it's going to make me dislike our version of Wal-Mart even more."

"I should probably add that CEO Tim Corrigan and CFO Staci Sonnengard were... executed for their ethics," Tori says quietly.

Tori's last quiet statement did catch her attention. "Then the Powers That Be here are really going to hate me, us."

She looked up at the big building once again and shrugged. "Let's get this done."

Tori looks at me for a second, then nods to Maddie. "I can probably guarantee they're going to hate the entire group... individually and collectively."

"If the bad guys don't hate us, then we aren't doing our jobs," Madeline said confidently.

Tori opens the rear hatch of her car, empties the contents of a crate into another, folds down a pair of wheels on the ends of two sides and snaps them in place. Then she sets the now-wheeled crate on the ground and yanks on the side between the wheels. A handle telescopes up until it, too, snaps into place.

"You're probably going to need that for any small items you pick up," she says as she closes the hatch again.

We follow Tori to the doors. Long gone are the large sliding glass doors that open automatically when triggered by the sensors. They were replaced enough years — possibly decades — ago that the current doors look as though they've always been exactly the way they are. There are six of them, normal sized for the outer doors of a business, made of tempered glass in a frame of... well, whatever the heck outer doors are framed with. Steel? Aluminum? Tritanium would be cool, but I'm pretty sure it's not that. Three doors are discreetly marked "In" and the other three similarly marked "Out."

The shape of the building is the only thing that's even remotely like Wal-Mart. Inside, the space is typically large, but it has the feel of being cavernous. Maybe it's the dimmer lighting. Maybe it's the fact that it's not arranged in the sort of configuration I've ever seen in a store. The signs denoting sections of the store that would ordinarily hang from the ceiling are attached to poles that appear to be the remnants of old driveway basketball hoops. Well, that's assuming signs existed in a store like this. My experiences with Wal-Mart were few, but they were highly chaotic. Anyway, those driveway hoop sets are moveable... but barely.

And looking at the signs across the expanse of the store, the departments — or maybe just sections — are logically grouped in the same vicinity. There's a whole section of items to be used outside in one far corner of the store, and the section of items to be used inside is beside it. There's a section for personal items — clothing, hygiene products, fabrics and threads and anything else needed for sewing. The section closest to the front is the area for food. It's surprising how much sense that makes, given that food would usually be the last thing a person would pick up or even the only thing they'd pick up. Most items are on low shelves or in bins set on saw horses; it isn't difficult to see across the entire expanse of the store. Nothing is hidden. Even the receiving area is mostly open to view; only the doors themselves are separated away to keep the outside weather from coming inside. It does look like it's possible to push the barriers aside — again, that wouldn't be an easy task — when they might want some of the outside weather inside.

The cashiers are working at a long counter against the front wall; people are queued up patiently waiting their turn for the next available cashier. No one has the unsettled qi I've come to associate with people doing a major shopping trip. Even the children are happier and calmer than I've ever seen in a large store. I suppose it helps that almost everyone seems to know everyone else. Despite the size, this place has the feel of a small town general store.

"Wow. This so is not Wal-Mart!"

There are a number of dollies with handles inside the door. But most people seem to have their own personal sized shopping carts — something I haven't seen since... gosh, maybe since I was in grad school. Most students who didn't have a car had one. Some of these look like they were from Tita's generation. It no longer amazes me that so many of the People in the Nation — in our world — have tried to escape the "disposable" culture and have gone back to buying items that will last, and then reusing and re-purposing them for generations. In our world, it's done as a choice. Here? No, I don't think these folks had that choice. Of course, now Tori's rolling crate makes a lot more sense.

Inside the store though, Madeline smiled. "Reminds me of the open air markets where I grew up. I like it. Let's start with the outdoors and work our way out from there. We need to stock up for the seven of us since you're probably set already, Tori. Full camp kits all around, hiker packs, et cetera..."

"Huh. You know, now that you mention it, Maddie... it does have the feeling of an open-air market. There used to be a nice one out near Flagstaff." I roll my eyes, remembering the flea market outside Denver that had the audacity to call itself an open air market. Ugh. It was like a giant garage sale, not a real market.

Logan acquired one of the flatbeds, and the quartet headed to the back of the store loading the cart as they went. Tori shared some of the things she had learned on the drive down along with her own observations. Madeline listened with that detached look that meant she was filing and sorting the information as she received it. Logan left her to the detail work and with Andi's help loaded up the cart.

I can feel my jaws tightening as Tori relays Kinta's story, the information she'd garnered from her parents, and her own thoughts on the matter. It's far better to have sore jaws than to let my eyes start flaring, I suppose.

As they finished the last of it, Madeline leaned on one of the stacks of goods and looked over to her Sister and Mate. "I don't know about you two, but it sure as hell sounds like they've got a Stryker problem here. And that kind of problem needs to be excised."

"Yeah, it sure does sound that way. This problem's not going to be as easy to excise as the last one, unfortunately. It's more firmly embedded."

Of course, that just means we might have to do a little more reconnaissance than the last time, do a little more planning... oh, who am I kidding? There won't be much more in the way of planning. Maddie walks into these situations with her eyes wide open and then generally makes things up as she goes along. I'm more used to it now than I had been at the beginning of working as part of the Wolf Pack. Pablo never did get used to it... well, not while he was alive, anyway. He seems a lot more relaxed now that he's a Spirit. I guess that's a good thing.

Madeline chewed on her lip a bit, thinking, then looked at the Deputy.

"Tori, the Chief and Ryan have both said absolutely that there is no way the Big Bads have mutants or kin working for them, but... it just doesn't track. It is, in fact, the only possible way I can think of that those things happened. And we, Logan and I especially, have personal experience in knowing that the help isn't always voluntary."

Tori gives a good impression of someone who's thoughtfully considering Maddie's question, but her qi looks a little bit like my eyes do when I'm furious. Isn't that interesting?

"Ryan and Jer are completely sincere in their belief that the Great Foe would kill mutants or kin before working with them," she says far more calmly than I'd expect. "But I don't blame them for not seeing past the edges of the Nations. There was a time when that was true... but it was a period of time just after the Troubles began, and it barely lasted a decade. Those who hated anyone not... normal... truly did go to a lot of trouble hunting down and killing anyone not like them." She shakes her head, and it almost seems like four centuries of distrust and sadness spill out.

"The Great Foe has gone to a lot of trouble during the intervening generations to convince the world that its hatred of different is just as pure and true today as it was in the early twenty-first century. That it's still as committed to the idea that mutants and kin should be eliminated. But I can see the memories in Andrea's eyes whenever Ryan asserts that none of us would or could work with the Great Foe. She remembers when our people — meaning not just kin, but mutants — did just that.

"And I came into this world even before the Blackcoats came to tell us their stories. I've seen as much or more of the deceit and cruelty that's the hallmark of the Great Foe as anyone in this world. Likely more than you've seen in your combined lives, Madeline," she says, nodding to all three of us.

Madeline shrugged. "Perhaps, but isn't something I'm unfamiliar with. However, it was long ago. Before Leon even."

Then Tori pauses, half a smile twitching at one corner of her mouth. "It's a wonder I'm not a cynical old woman hiding in a cave somewhere." She shrugs then. "When the cynicism starts building up, I go on Walkabout... and when I get weary of the world of so-called normal people, I return to one of the Nations.

"Andrea doesn't believe the propaganda, I don't believe it, my parents didn't believe it... but even they could never find proof." She sighs. "Without proof, Andrea and I would sound like paranoid alarmists. Believe me, when I shared my thoughts with Jeremy, that's exactly what he called me. Until now, there hasn't been anything either of us could do. Even now, there really isn't anything the Ha'atathli can do except keep a closer than the usual watch on the Diné border wards." She snorted. "She's got a nature too kind to be the Warrior, Andi, but with the attention she pays to the wards? Well, if Jimmy doesn't heed my advice and stay away from them, he will find himself bouncing off them and getting thrown a few dozen feet through the air." And then she sighs almost wistfully. "I almost hope he tries to cross back into the Diné Nation. He couldn't possibly be that stupid, though, could he?"

Tori is quiet for a few moments, then shakes her head. "None of the men in Mosquero that day were mutants. My parents and I... David, Daniel, and Kinta... we were the only kin. But to have a... a place like that a hundred miles or less from four different Nations but more than three hundred miles away from Oklahoma City? The place that's rumored to be the seat of the Great Foe's power? I can't believe any way other than you do.

"And as hard as I try to come up with another explanation, mutants or kin or both working for the Great Foe is the only way to explain how Kinta's father and his sister were kidnapped, and his brother murdered."

She looks around, taking in the sight of ordinary people doing ordinary things. She probably knows as well as I do that a number of them are mutants, several are kin, and yet they're all so ordinary.

"I hate the truth of it," she says, watching a family picking out a selection of winter squash together. "I'm not going to deny the truth of it to you, but I'm never going to stop hating it." Her gaze almost seems to move inward and her qi flares with pain. Damn it... well, it's a good thing I've gotten used to shielding so fast. "It's too close to the truth of sons of the First People working for the BIA against the interests of their brothers and sisters," she says barely above a whisper, then shakes her head again... coming back to the here and now.

"My sister may not have discovered the Nation of the First People into which our parents were born, but they and our grandparents were born into one of the Nations," she explains. "Lelani thinks she's narrowed it down to one of the Nakaii Nation States." She shrugs. "I took it as an affront to the integrity of the First People when I learned of those working for the BIA. Despite my age, I was still naive; now I understand that most of them had little choice in the matter. And just as I did when I understood that truth, I would feel more compassion for kin or mutants who are forced against their will to work for the Great Foe." Her dark eyes show anger as deep as any of us have felt about the injustices in our world... and now those that exist in this one. "As I did for Eugene, the last resident of Mosquero, I would end their slavery."

It is not without sympathy that she and her Mate listen to this woman talk through what is a difficult thing. It is hard to imagine being betrayed by one of your own, especially when ties are closer than familial ones. They had both felt the price and cost of betrayal, coerced and otherwise.

"Ending their slavery is sometimes the only mercy we can offer," Madeline admitted. "It was so with my husband."

Logan's arm slipped around her shoulders. Though the guilt was no longer an issue, the pain remained even after all these years. He looked down at her. "And sometimes you sacrifice yourself to bring them back."

"It's not so great a sacrifice when you come back from the dead."

"Even so, you would have not done any differently."

She offered him a warm smile.

"If we can find out how the control is effected, we can perhaps counter it. We have come across different methods for both. For many, I fear the final mercy is the only option that will be available."

I, too, reach out to Maddie... a pair of Sisters holding hands. Even something as simple as two hands clasped together means so much to both of us. I have heard both Maddie's and Rene's recollections of that day, and my Curse does not allow me to forget their heart-wrenching pain. Neither the painful memories nor the actual pain of broken hearts each of them felt that day.

Unlike Tori... unlike Maddie and Logan... most of my experience has been with the aftermath of this kind of slavery. By the time I returned to the States, got my education, and raised my family, my deeper involvement in the Nation's politics came at a time when there was plenty of divisiveness, true. But the days of outright betrayal had been put behind most Nations. It has only been in our vigilance in watching for a reemergence of programs like Stryker's... and even separatist movements like Eric's... that I've come to be as acquainted with the types of slavery Maddie and Logan have seen, that Tori has witnessed for over four centuries.

Tori nods at Maddie's words; it's as if she's experienced far too often the reality of those words.

"From what I observed in Mosquero, from what Kinta said, twenty years ago those who worked for the Great Foe had the objective of neutralizing the kin and our ability to heal. I don't know if it would be easier or an order of magnitude more difficult to enslave us." She shrugs. "Given that the majority of kin stay within the borders of the Nations— these days, anyway — I can well imagine the focus would be on finding ways to control us."

I can feel my brows draw together as my mind makes some of those bizarre connections it sometimes makes. "You know... that makes perfect sense. And it reinforces my half-baked idea that whoever attacked Logan and tried to grab you, Maddie, wasn't from this universe. Billie would probably... okay, possibly... be able to explain the physics and math of what happened to the both of you. But if the vast majority of kin are beyond the Big Bads' reach, doing random snatch-n-grabs to have just a few kin working for them makes more sense than trying to eliminate all of them." I pause, puzzling through the maze of ideas. "It makes much more sense if the majority of kin are staying behind wards as non-combatants in this war. The population of kin is far larger in this universe, and you can be formidable warriors. Keeping the kin off balance, wary, unwilling to stray beyond the borders of the First Nations is a good tactic. Kidnapping some and enslaving them then becomes the next logical step. So that's where Big Bad would be focusing his — their? — efforts, right? Not on the extremely specific poison that attacked Logan."

I shake my head. "I'm only extrapolating from my experiences in Denver. Then and there, mutants were forced into the ghettos. It feels like here and now, they're being forced into the First Nations... despite the Nations welcoming them, and despite the Nations being better places than Commerce City."

Tori seems to consider that for a moment; I can see the pain flickering across her face. I have a feeling I'm probably voicing something she's thought about, possibly something she and her parents talked about. It's no wonder Maddie felt the need to stay and do something. I've been in this world for less than a day, and I already hate what's going on.

"The ghettos were..." She shakes her head and takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I had already returned to the Diné lands from my Walkabout when the Troubles started in the aughts of the twenty-first century, but my parents told me horror stories of what they had seen in their travels. Lelani made the mistake of getting close to the one between Los Angeles and San Diego before the Nakaii pushed far enough north to bring San Diego into their Nation. My sister has seen even more than I have, and she has a strong stomach. But her heart is as compassionate as mine. The sight of the ghetto literally turned her stomach. So, yes... while the Nations may not be the cities and town in which some of us once lived, even the poorest of the Nations is a far better place than the ghettos ever were." She pauses, looking across the expanse of the Big Store. "There hadn't been any way for us to save everyone in the ghettos before they were destroyed along with all their inhabitants. There were many of us working against the Great Foe then... the mutants who were called superheroes by some, others once known as X-Men, and kin who wanted to help. Now? I've stayed inside the Diné Nation for most of these years helping the kin who come here as refugees. However, I did spend about forty-five years at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one on Walkabout. My sister ventures out into the Free Lands along the west coast, rightly avoiding Los Angeles. Until you showed up with Jimmy, Madeline, I hadn't heard of any kin still outside the Nations to the east either. I certainly hadn't come across any in my travels forty years ago.

"I think Andi might be right... Self-preservation and the message from the Nations that a safe haven could be found among them have sent kin and mutant alike into hiding." She shakes her head again. "I can't explain Jimmy's circumstance, except to guess that he's not exceptionally bright... or, as you said, is suffering from a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. If there are still kin outside the Nations..."

I raise an eyebrow. "If there are any kin besides Jimmy out there, can they be trusted?"

Tori shrugs. "There have always been those, like my parents, who are... too independent, maybe? Maybe stubborn... possibly both," she says with a sad smile. "Certainly 'independent' and 'stubborn' would describe my parents. But as for their trustworthiness? I'd be more inclined to trust a stubborn and independent and likely rather ornery kin in the Free Lands than someone like Jimmy. Would I trust him or her to have my back? Maybe not. But I might well trust them at my side."

"Well, then I guess the question is," I say to Tori, "how do we find them?"

She sighs. "I don't have the network of contacts in the Free Lands that my parents had, although I do have friends in most of the Nations. Traveling through Texas and Oklahoma? Most people I know will be in the Caddo Nation... from the southern village where Kinta's uncle lives."

"Jimmy and the cubs weren't the only ones I came across on the road West," she told Tori. "I'd be willing to bet there may even be a couple up in the place we're planning on heading to.

"Whether they could be trusted or even helpful, well, I guess that remains to be seen. In any case, let's make our purchases and get this show on the road. Time isn't stopping to wait for us."

Vincent, head back. We'll be moving out shortly.

Copy that, mom.

Tori nodded. "It's the same for everyone, whether they are kin or mutant or human. In the Free Lands, trust is a rare commodity." Her dark eyes revealed her inner pain. "It's also a commodity that's most dangerous and malignant when corrupted."

A cashier finished up with her previous customer, and it was their turn to check out. She was a good cop... she could shut off the personal side of her life and be the professional Tribal Police Officer in less time that it took to blink her eyes.

"Why, Tori Walking Eagle!" the elderly cashier exclaimed. "As I live and breathe! I thought you'd never come back from that podunk town. Please tell me you're transferring to Albuquerque."

Tori laughed and demonstrated that she could be every bit as charming as Elder Yazzie and her extended family. "Ah, Helena, I wish I could tell you that in truth. But I'm afraid I'm due for another Walkabout."

"What?! Didn't you just get back from one not so long ago?" Although Helena was somewhere in the vicinity of nine decades old, she did look quite a bit younger and was vigilant as she started tallying the items on the flatbed dollies.

"Forty years ago! That's a fairly long time." Tori winked at Maddie as she leaned on the counter and pretended to survey the list Helena was making.

"For the likes of you, it's hardly any time at all," the Grandmother said. "And are you checking my work here, missy?" She paused to study the heavily laden dollies. "By the Blessed Mary, it looks like you're outfitting an army!"

"I'm simply admiring your perfect penmanship, my dear. And a very small army, yes. Send the bill directly to Chief Kee in Window Rock."

Helena hesitated, a look of surprise very clearly etched on her features. She studied the police officer intently for a few minutes.

"You're not really going on Walkabout."

Tori nodded quickly. "I am... truly. I just happen to have run into some friends, and we thought perhaps — if an opportunity arose — we might find a bit of good to do while we're walking about."

The old woman then turned her attention to the three members of the Wolf Pack, eyes narrowed.

"Harrumph. They don't look old enough to know what's what."

Andi giggled, and Tori just smiled.

"Young lady, are you laughing at me?"

"No, ma'am," Andi said, shaking her head. "That would certainly be rude. It was just funny... what you said."

Helena glared at Tori, looking for all the world to be a woman highly offended.

"And you call these people friends?"

Tori nodded and grinned.

"Andi, how old would you guess Grandmother Helena to be?"

Giving Tori a puzzled look that included a single arched eyebrow, the woman who seemed to be the youngest among them paused before really looking at the cashier. For Maddie and Logan, it would have been a common expression as she examined the quality of qi that surrounded the woman. After a few seconds, she said, "Maybe somewhere between sixty-five and seventy. Why?" she added suspiciously.

"Ha!" exclaimed the old woman, shaking a finger at Andi. "I'll be ninety-two next month! Just shows how much you know!"

Andi opened her mouth to say something else, but Tori shook her head. "If you didn't know how old I really was, how old would you guess?"

"Just guessing, or..." She waggled a hand in Tori's general direction. "You know... doing my thing?"

Tori chuckled. "Either way... or both."

Andi rolled her eyes. "Fine. At a wild guess, I'd put you at my apparent age, maybe a few years older. Otherwise..." She shrugged. "Possibly a decade or two older than Logan, but still under three hundred."

The cashier's eyes grew wide. "They're kin?" she asked Tori softly.

"Just Logan," the Deputy replied. "Your turn. How old do you think my two friends are," she asked, pointing to Andi and Maddie. "I'll even help you. They're sisters, and Maddie's a little older than Andi."

That evoked another giggle from the younger sister, and Tori just gave her a look.

"Sorry." Andi neither sounded nor looked sorry.

Helena harrumphed again. "Well, the youngster there hasn't had time to grow much sense," she said looking at Andi, then down at the receipt she was writing up. "Are you sure they're sisters, Tori? They don't look it." She wrote out a few more lines as Tori simply smiled, and Andi exchanged a glance with Maddie. The cashier didn't see it, although when she looked up again, Andi had moved closer to Maddie and slipped an arm around her Sister's waist.

She set the pencil down and put her hands on her hips as she stared at the two women.

"Well, fine then. With a look like that," she said to Andi, "if you're not sisters, you're long lost best friends who've spent the past decade on opposite ends of the Nation." She looked at Tori. "You do play some of the oddest games, young lady."

"I like to keep life interesting, Helena. Not much goes on in that little podunk town, after all."

The elderly woman snorted. "I'm sure you make your own trouble when you're bored enough."

Tori laughed. "Oh, I suppose you'd have been right at some point. I gave that sort of thing up when your Mama was a little girl."

Shaking her head, Helena crossed her arms and nodded to the Wolf Pack. "I'd guess the youngun's thirty, and I'm only going that high because I can't see you leaving the Nation with children. Maybe thirty-five for the sister?" She took a good look at Maddie. "Well, she's got the look of someone who might know what's what, but can't say she looks even near the age of my granddaughter."

"There, now. That wasn't so hard, now was it, dear?" She picked up the receipt and glanced at it, then at the items they were purchasing. "Hmm, I think you missed the two cases of jerky. I know they're buried under there somewhere." She handed the receipt back to the cashier.

"Andi, go ahead and tell Grandmother how old you are."

"Seriously? She's not going to faint or anything if I tell the truth, is she?" Andi was smiling mischievously at Tori... almost as if she knew better than to even ask.

"Andi," Tori said sweetly, "do you want to find out if I can kick your ass?"

Both sisters laughed at that, and even the one Tori had called Logan smiled.

"No, sir, Deputy, sir. I wouldn't want to put you to the trouble." She winked at Tori. "Or have to hurt you." She grinned at the cashier. "I turned one hundred and eighty-five on my last birthday. Maddie's..." Andi looked at her Sister, hugging her a little closer. "...well, old enough to be my mother, I guess, but not quite as old as Mama was. Closer to Aunt Alicia's age."

"Oh, you stop your silly nonsense! I'd eat a hat if believed that, except that it would be a waste of a good hat!" Helena seemed rather indignant.

Tori reached over the counter to pat the old woman's shoulder. "But she's telling the truth. The two of them are related to Elder Yazzie up in Ganado."

Helena looked at Tori with near shock. "That the woman who's been around since before the Troubles?"

Tori just nodded.

"I hear she's nearly as old as you are, Tori."

The Deputy raised an eyebrow at Helena. "I'm certainly not going to tell her that. She's considerably younger... closer in age to Andi and Maddie, in fact."

That elicited another snicker from Andi.

Tori looked at her blandly.

"Sorry, Deputy Walking Eagle. I'll behave."

This, of course, caused both Maddie and Logan to wordlessly — though not necessarily soundlessly — express their own doubts of THAT ever happening.

"Hey! I can be serious!" Andi protested.

Maddie's expression practically called Andi a liar.

"Well, when I'm working I can be. When I need to be." She sighed. "Fine. I'm a smart ass. After all this time, you expect anything less?"

The cashier had written the last item on the receipt, and looked at Tori as she carefully removed the carbon paper from between the two layers and set it aside. Holding the bottom sheet out to Tori, she said, "I wonder about you sometimes, young lady. Do you want to keep this, or shall I send it along with the bill to Window Rock."

Tori waved it away. "No, no... Jeremy will enjoy it so much more than I will." She did take the woman's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I'm not sure how long I'll be gone, but I'd be pleased if you'd manage to stick around until I got back."

The old woman actually blushed. "Well, I supposed I've got another ten or twenty good years in me. Just don't be gone too long." She glanced back at the others — Andi, in particular — and shook her head. "Try not to let them get you killed, Tori."

The Deputy laughed. "Don't worry. Every single member of their team is more serious than Andi..."

"Oh, not necessarily," Andi interrupted. "My son inherited my sense of humor..." She noted the look on the Deputy's face. "Right. Zipping the lips now, Chief."

Tori rolled her eyes before looking back at Helena. "As I was saying, I'm pretty sure these three are individually more dangerous than I am. The lot of them together are going to be an interesting sight to see."

"Well, not one I need to see!" Helena waved them off. "Shoo! Get out of here."

Logan gave a parting "ma'am" nod to the older cashier as he turned the flatbed and pushed it forward.

They were outside and loading up the vehicles before Andi asked, "Okay, what the hell was that all about?"

Tori chuckled.

"If you were going to take off to parts unknown for an indefinite amount of time, how would you let people know you were going to be gone and where you were going."

"I'd send..." Andi blinked. "Oh. No email."

"Right. Around here, we use the gossip mill. And Helena is the hub of the gossip mill, at least in the southern half of the Nation."

Vin had managed to herd the others back toward them, not that Maria was as challenging as Paul in that regards. Heck, even Em hadn't been, but she was anxious to get done what needed doing and get back to their world. It was not that Vin had not allowed himself to think about the time passing back home, even if it was slower, he simply had other things on his mind, like being a newlywed.

Madeline had a method of packing and organizing gear developed over years. She had never been the quartermaster on any of their expeditions or missions, but she did have a certain method to her madness. In the intervening decades since they had all become a team, the others had learned it as well since it didn't do any good to argue with her about it. Rene had strongly suggested it wouldn't do any good to try.

Most of the gear was in the back of Jimmy's old beater covered with a tied down a tarp. A few items went in the front seat and the rest went into the back of Tori's vehicle.

"Tori, I assume there is a place between here and there to pick up used clothes?" Madeline asked.

An idea for vehicle acquisition had been percolating in the back of her mind.

"Hmm."

Tori looked at Madeline for a moment, glanced at the six youngsters, then tilted her head slightly away from them. She walked toward the street side of the lot, figuring it would be smarter than taking over Teresa's office. She assumed that Madeline, at the least, would follow.

"You've got the look of a woman with a crazy plan," she said to the elder of the sisters after looking up and down the street almost like a tourist... or someone memorizing a neighborhood she might not see for decades, "and one you're not keen on sharing with your cubs."

Andi snorted. "Maddie doesn't make plans. But she does have crazy ideas," she added with a proud smile. "The kids don't really do crazy as well as we do."

The Deputy shook her head. "Great Spirit, what are you getting me into this time?" she muttered, before sighing.

"On I-40, there's what used to be a town about ten or fifteen miles inside the Nation. You remember the old Goodwill or Salvation Army thrift shops? The whole town turned into a series of shops where refugees can get the bare necessities of what they need before settling somewhere semi-permanently. Most folks who get to the I-40 border station are lucky to have a full set of clothing. They'll take spare pocket change if you feel like you need to pay for things, but most people don't... because they can't.

"It's a joint venture with the Zuni, so there isn't anything similar on the Zuni side before their border station. And out in the Free Lands?" She shrugged. "Depends on how far you want to stray off I-40. Santa Clara's about twenty miles beyond the Zuni border station. But it's always been pretty small and I doubt they'll have the shopping facilities you'll need. At least I'll be leaving my uniform behind and won't have to pretend that I can't condone the methods you'd need to use to pick up your used clothing there." She raised her eyebrows and just barely smiled.

"On the other hand, you could head out I-25, which gives you two, maybe three more shopping districts with the same policies about payments before reaching the border. And if things haven't changed much since the last time I went out, you can find just about anything you need — and a hell of a lot you don't want — out in Las Vegas."

Andi sighed dramatically. "Yeah, so we heard."

Tori looked at her, first with a surprised look, and then almost mischievously. "Really? You're not going to tell me it's a quaint tourist town in your world, are you?"

Andi glared at her, and Tori laughed. "It tried that option probably around the time your grandparents were kids. Lasted less than a decade. It's a shit hole; just can't help itself."

Andi looked at Maddie and crossed her arms, clearly annoyed. "You are so not going to stop me from having fun with you guys! Though I'm pretty sure I'm going to discover that sweet Mrs. Hutchinson runs a bordello."

"Or two," Tori adds with a nod.

"You're not helping," Andi said, glaring at the Deputy, which only caused Tori to laugh again.

"Just when I've convinced myself you're as different from Elder Yazzie as two relatives can be, you say or do something that makes me check to see if you're wearing shoes. Hózhó, Warrior. It's been a long time since someone's been able to throw me for a loop more than once. It's not a bad thing, Andi."

I look at her, at her qi, and see the only truth. I know that once we cross the border, none of us is going to have much reason for laughing and probably even less opportunity for it. I guess I have unconsciously been playing Pablo's role in all this... the long-suffering class clown. Sadly, the insight itself means the torch gets passed to our kids for the duration. Maria as the long-suffering one, Paul as the class clown. Not that I can see how that's going to work once we leave what even I've come to think of as home. Pablo could — well, still can — find humor almost anywhere. But Vin's influence on my daughter — now that they're finally admitting to being married — could very well make her forget all about being the long-suffering one. On the other hand, I've seen Paul when he's working. He's as much a smart ass as his mother, while being as focused as his aunt when he's in the field. Well, I've always said Paul takes after me and Maria takes after her Dad. But now? Now I am simply Ninja, and not carrying my Husband's role as well.

Tori's eyebrow goes up at I uncross my arms and hook my thumbs in the belt loops of my jeans. Not that I blame her; I even unnerve the kids sometimes when I flip the switch to full out Ninja mode.

"Interesting trick," she mutters.

I just shrug. "Instinct, really." But I tilt my head and regard my Sister for a moment. "You've got an SUV-sized hole in your not-plan unless Tori's going to borrow her squad car until we make other arrangements."

Madeline made a snort of derision and rolled her eyes at Andi. "Not even an SUV would hold all of us. Heck, needed two Humvees just to transport the family when the kids were still actually kids. I had something less grandiose in mind, more post-apocalyptic. But it all depends on what's out there. Seen a couple of trucks that put a whole new spin on chop shop."

Yes, the wheels are turning in her head with only ever the loosest of plans and threads of thoughts. Sure, she knows what would be ideal, but the chances of finding ideal even in their world were pretty slim. Building ideal was another thing entirely, but then resources here weren't what they were back home. Not even close. Even so, she was comfortably leaning back against Logan's broad chest.

"Of course, an SUV wouldn't hold all of us. We'd need an RV for that. Or a Greyhound bus. I was only talking about logistics and the triangle of where we are... where we're heading... and where we need to go shopping."

I roll my eyes right back her, but I grin too. I'm sure we won't have a lot of time to spare for levity. I might as well get my lunacy out before we leave the Nation.

"Aw, now Maddie, I can't help it if I like logistics! Masterson used to tell me there were three important people in every unit... the person who knew the strategy, the person who knew the tactics, and the person who knew the logistics. Big picture, fine grain picture, and the fool who could figure out how to get all the things from one place to another on time." I chuckle. Masterson and I sure did get off to an inauspicious start, but he turned out to be a damn good friend.

"He accused me more than once of being that kind of damn fool. Took me a couple of years and meeting his logistics guy to realize it was a compliment."

Tori looks between the two of us, an expression of amusement fluttering across her features.

"I'm going to pretend I have no idea what's going on here, but it's my guess you're going to want to visit this quaint tourist town. Technically, I shouldn't take the department's vehicle outside the Nation, but it's not like I've never..." She clears her throat. "...borrowed one before. Option one, and this one will freak out fewer of my colleagues, is to head east on Forty to the Zuni border station. You can leave Jimmy's truck there for him; the younger members of the team can wait until we get back with other transportation."

She raises a hand to forestall the comment she can already see I'm formulating.

"No, ma'am, I'm not going to play tourist with you. I'd give you a lift up Eighty Four, drop you where it intersects I-25, then leave you to your own devices while I return the department's vehicle at the I-25 border station. I figure it will take less time for me to do that than it will for the three of you to have your fun. You'll just need to pick up a hitchhiker on your way back south," she says with a smile.

"The other option is to head out of the Nation via the I-25 border station. More shopping opportunities, but my brethren will be less delighted to see me off, even knowing I won't be gone long. You don't seem keen on having the youngsters intimately acquainted with your plan. They'll have more than a few suspicions when I send them south on Eighty-Four in the rattletrap, you folks north up Twenty Five on foot, and then head back in to return the department's SUV."

She glances back at Jimmy's truck, then grins at Maddie. "I have my doubts about that piece of junk surviving the extra fifty or sixty miles. It makes me wonder how Jimmy's going to make it home."

I snort. "Given how much he annoyed both you and my Sister, I can't imagine you care very deeply."

She looks as if she might actually be warring with herself, but finally shakes her head. "I can't say I wouldn't find it amusing to see him getting knocked on his ass by the boundary wards if he tried crossing back into the Nation. But even he doesn't deserve the kinds of things he might find in the Free Lands. No one does."

I shrug. She's got a point, up to a point. Besides, I'd rather clean Jimmy's clock myself. He hurt someone I love... that makes it personal.

She watches me for a minute or so, and I just look back at her.

"You know, you're a tough read, Warrior Yazzie." Tori flashes a smile at me and adds to the earlier discussion, "Or one group could head north while the other heads east, meeting up at the Zuni border station. It adds a wrinkle or two, but nothing insurmountable."

Nodding to Maddie, she says, "I'll leave it to you to decide, of course. I might have a few years on you, but it doesn't take a genius to know you have considerably more experience than I do."

"Oh, probably of few, Tori. War and strife were my bread and better for a number of years. And I won't be making any decisions until I see what's what. Too many variables and unknowns."

"I could sing your theme song, Maddie," I offer, grinning. Then I sigh. "Aw, but it's not as much fun without Pablo, even though Paul's got the better voice. And I'd really rather know about these wards."

Tori's expression is one big question mark, and I avoid looking at Maddie. It doesn't matter if the idea of singing Leader of the Pack out here in the parking lot will amuse her or exasperate her — more likely the later, but you never know. In either case, I'll just start laughing. I look at Tori instead.

"Oh, just an old song that kind of sums up Maddie's job while we're working." I don't bother trying to hide the sentimental smile the grows as the qi of the connection between her and Kinta brightens.

"Go on, go hug your daughter," I say softly.

She looks at me, almost shocked.

"I can see it, Tori. Go, go, you silly woman. Besides, there's something from the old days I wanted to mention to Maddie and Logan. Not a secret, really; just not helpful to people who can't see what I can see, and haven't experienced it first hand. And you can tell me about the wards later."

It wasn't until the end and Tori walked away, that she tilted her head at Andi.

"What craziness is wandering around in your brain pan, Sister?"

I shake my head, returning to something more serious.

"I don't know that it's craziness wandering around inside my head, as much as... well, memories.

"Do you remember Ben Grimm? He was one of my people who'd been kidnapped from Commerce City a couple of days before you and your family came back to Denver." I manage to hold onto all the memories associated with that particular couple of months; can it really have been that long ago that we dealt with... well, all of that? I sigh.

"He and Dick Walters were being held by the Aryan Knighthood in that warehouse up near Westminster. You and Logan unnerved the hell out of the local 'rip up the streets' folks, but damn, didn't Dennison just take it all in stride? Crap, that was a shitty day. Why the hell is my memory so damn good?" I sigh again. "Right. Damn Curse... the gift that keeps on giving.

"Also, just so you know, I'm really trying not to wander too far down memory lane... but the interconnected bits of relevancy dictate I wander like a drunken sot."

And for some reason, that analogy just tickles my funny bone. Guess I'm shaking my sillies out — there was some song by that name when I was a kid, wasn't there? — before we go on high alert.

"Anyway, Rene told me when we found them that Ben was infected with... what did we call it back then? Those bits of Shadow that infected people? Oh. Shadowkin. Right.

"So, that always charming Husband of yours told me the kindest thing to do would be to kill Ben right then and there. You and Logan were busy playing with the skinheads, so you didn't see how furious I was with Rene. Couldn't feel it either back, and that was probably a good thing. I would have wound up being a mite distracting."

I pause, remembering, nodding to myself. Damn, I had been good and pissed.

"Cat hadn't even latched onto you yet, so I was thinking something along the lines of, why the fuck should I believe this guy? And that was already knowing Rene's story.

"That traitorously insane Aztec demi-god said he'd care for Ben — fucking liar — until I could get out to Ganado and work with Tommy to pull that crap out of him like we had pulled it out of Pablo. How long did it take me to get around to telling that story... of Pablo's hitchhiker? Okay, never mind, not relevant.

"Only... the thing with Ben didn't work out that way for a whole lot of reasons though I did get the Shadowkin out of him once he was well enough."

I glance over at my children, doing their best to charm Tori's adopted daughter and the young man who obviously very much loved her. Even Em flashed an occasional smile. Tori had the look of someone who'd finally found some peace after a long, long time.

"You know, I probably would have needed more help from the Spirits if I hadn't been pregnant. Probably better that it worked out the way it did since I believe I was still in a huge snit and not speaking to most of them." I shrug and look back at Maddie. "The first point in all this rambling is that Rene was wrong. Being infected with the Shadowkin isn't necessarily a death sentence.

"The second point is that Stryker literally made a deal with a devil. Not all of those folks we killed in his lair were fanatics; some of them had been possessed by that stuff, too, and were not exactly volunteering for the duty. Sure, it was probably the best time for me to be able to see the Shadowkin easily, at least before we formed the Pentad, and the absolutely worst. It was a lot harder to see then, but I could see... something. That was probably the worst Halloween I've ever had to work."

My jaw tightens and my eyes narrow as I regard my Sister and Elder Brother.

"My third point is that there's a damn good chance we'll find a lot of that stuff in this world. I'm not sure you guys ever saw more of it after, hmm... after we went into Tezcatlipoca's world to rescue Pablo. Or the evidence of it, rather. By the time either you or Pablo could actually see it, there wasn't much of it left in our world."

I stop... and consider that. No. It's not strictly true. There always has been, there always will be pieces of the Great Evil in our own reality. It's just that we did enough damage that it would have only been isolated incidents of a concentration not large enough to note. Large enough that would trigger my... what? Primal urge to rid the world of that shit? Maybe.

No, all that would be left beyond then would have been only what people would chalk up to the ordinary rotten behavior of people. Hell, most of it was concentrated in politicians. That seemed perfectly normal... to everyone. Including me.

"Well, not much that could actually be seen, anyway.

"Although Tsui Ji didn't have anything to do with Stryker, he did cause Tita's... I guess you'd call it 'infection' a few months earlier. It took the whole family Dancing and me doing my thing to support them to clear her — and the sweet woman we saved later — of the poison. It was a milder version of the hitchhiker Pablo brought back, and the Shadowkin that infected Ben and most of the Aryan Knighthood.

"The three of us mowed through Stryker's men — okay, fine! It was mostly the two of you not letting the youngster having any fun. But we still mowed through them, as the kids of the day used to say, like they weren't ain't no thang. There was a bit of dying that went on, but not by me.

"Again, this was before we formed the Pentad, I will remind you.

"Here's where the story of Pablo's hitchhiker is relevant. Because it took two Shaman and the Warrior to get that thing out of Pablo. Yes, yes... before the Pentad, because it was before the debacle of Halloween.

"You weren't there when I worked on Ben." I look at them again. "Neither was Rene. I think you were getting the twins settled with Charles and getting your offices set up in New York.

"But Maddie... Pablo remembers. Well, no... he actually tries really hard to forget. But Peacekeeper and Peregrine were both going up to Commerce City with me so the folks up there could get to know them, get to trust them, be able to work with them while I was on maternity leave."

I take a deep breath and sigh... even today, I have a hard time believing I did what I did.

"Pablo and I figure it would take more than a little work to get Ben free of the stuff. He thought we'd need to call Tommy in; I just thought it would take time and effort." I shake my head. "Nope. I don't know if it was Maria's healing gift or Paul's affinity for working with qi, or both of them together with my own talents. But damn it if I didn't just lay a hand on Ben's chest and that... that disgusting stuff practically flew out of his mouth. A little too close to projectile vomiting for my comfort.

"Mamu — Spirits bless that woman, and gods how I miss her! — just grabbed it with her bare hands and stuffed it into the energy sack I'd constructed.

"There were isolated incidents, a couple of times Masterson talked me into going out of town with him and his team, where I ran into it again. The same thing happened. Masterson was the only one at the time who could handle the mini-portal, but whatever those kids gave me... I retained it. Projectile vomiting of Shadowkin ensued."

My eyes aren't glowing, but now they're Warrior hard and Warrior intense.

"There's going to be a lot of that here, in this universe, too. Great Spirit is Great Spirit and spans all things. The Great Evil does, too."

I nod toward my twins again.

"I can smell it half a mile away. I hate it every single time those two start talking about things they remember from before they were born. But because they are who they are... because they chose to do what they did... they're going to recognize it, too."

I look over at Tori again. "What she did for Eugene was a blessing to him. And what controlled him was manmade and not Shadow-made so I couldn't have saved him even if I'd been there. But I have a feeling what worked on Eugene won't work on mutants or Elders... kin. If that's the case, there are lives I can save." I look away from the happy scene on the other side of the parking lot. "You know me... I won't kill someone if I can save them."

I grin at Maddie, a wicked and predatory Ninja grin.

"Having once been host to the Shadowkin gives one an immunity to it. You should have seen that thing shriek when it saw Pablo after I snatched it out of Ben. Anyone involuntarily infected by that shit, anyone I can save, has the potential to make a hell of a difference in this world... if they've been infected against their will. Ben was... well, he was always a pain in the ass. Not too many people actually liked him, but he was one of ours. We had his back.

"But after he healed up, he turned his... ah, annoying personality outward rather than sharing it with his community. He fought like hell to get those ghettos closed down." I sigh and smile sadly. "He used call himself Moses sometimes, saying he was getting his people to the promised land but he wasn't going to get there himself. Maybe he had a little precog ability or maybe he was simply pragmatic, but he died two years before they started dismantling the walls of the ghettos." Gods, I seem to be missing so many people! Damn it, Andi... pull yourself together.

I look at my Sister and Brother, focused and serious. "The three of us have all looked into that depth of pure evil. We know the results of its presence. But I'm the only one who can actually see it, detect its presence. Well, maybe the Spirits can, too. And my kids can sense it, to a certain extent.

"But I'm the only one who can get rid of it."

I shake my head. There was a time when I thought I was heading to a padded room. Damn kids. But I've had a lot of time to appreciate Maddie's particular brand of crazy.

"You're not the only crazy one in this group, Sister dear. I'm not going to walk up to Big Bad's front door and just waltz on in. But you can be damn sure I'm going to have as many people as I can find vomiting into miniature portals that Paul's going to open. Get me close enough to it, and I'll see it. Put me and Paul close enough to touch it, and we'll send it back to hell where it belongs.

"I hate that shit.

"And it really likes mutants. Way too much."

I snort.

"Craziness, indeed.

"If it's crazy to do a number on these assholes, to want to leave this world a better place — and it is, trust me — well, we're all nucking futz.

"But I'll tell ya... crazy is the best chance of getting this world back on track. Because status quo sure the hell ain't working."

© Kelly Naylor and ividia kt